The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes  by Padraic Colum



W hen she woke up it was evening; the crickets were singing in the ashes on the hearth, the rush-candle was lighted, and the Woman of a Thousand Years was sitting on the other side of the fire supping her whey.

She heard a clatter before the door, and then a strange creature came in. The look of him made Maid-alone afeard, but the Woman of a Thousand Years said, "Take no heed of him; he is the Gruagach that we call 'Trouble-the-House.' "

He had horse's legs, but for all that he was not as tall as a horse would be if it stood up. He had the ears of a horse too, but he had the face of a poor-spirited man. He sidled to the dresser, and he took down a brass plate and the tin covers, and he began to polish them with a napkin that was hanging on the line. He sidled to the fire then and sat before it, his horse's legs folded under him like a tailor's. He wore a long coat that was made of plaited rushes, and he had hairy arm, and big hands that he clasped behind his neck when he sat down.

No one spoke to him and he spoke to no one, and in a while he got up and took the pail and went out. When he was gone the Woman of a Thousand Years said, "If you can catch him while he is doing some stint of work, and lay your command on him, he will carry you through the Three Woods. But you will have to come upon him and speak to him while he is doing some task."

Trouble-the-House brought back a pail full of water and then went out of the door. Maid-alone heard the clatter of his hoofs outside, and the Woman of a Thousand Years told her he had gone off to sleep in the middle of a field of furze-bushes. "Catch him to-morrow while he's doing some task," she said, "and he will carry you to the place you would go."

Then the Woman of a Thousand Years took off her Cloak of crow-feathers, and she wrapped herself in a quilt of small birds' feathers and gave another quilt to Maid-alone, and they spread out the rushes and the moss, and they laid down and went to sleep.

Maid-alone dreamt of her step-mother's goats, and of the Giant and his beasts, and then she wakened. When she went to sleep again she was happy that she was in a quiet house with only the stir of the crickets to trouble her rest.

The Woman of a Thousand Years rose first, and she went out to wash her face in the dew of the morning. When she came back her eyes were bright and her step was quick. "Maid-alone," said she, "I have thought of what is to befall you. You must make no delay but go to the King's Castle. Find Trouble-the-House and lay the command on him that he is to take you there through the Three Woods."

Maid-alone, without waiting to eat her crust, went out to look for Trouble-the-House. He was in the field of furze-bushes where he had slept the night. His coat of plaited rushes was off, and he was brushing off his hide the thorns and prickles of the furze. Maid-alone went strait to him, but he rose up and went clattering away.

She went back to the house of the Woman of a Thousand Years and ate her crust and drank her bowl of elder-berry wine. Again she went to find Trouble-the-House, and she came upon him as he was grinding oats at the quern-stone. When he saw her on her way he rose and betook himself to the field of the furze-bushes. For the rest of the day he did no work, and every time Maid-alone came on him he was lying on his back, idling his time.

This is what the Woman of a Thousand Years told her to do: she was to sit by the fire with the Crow-feather Cloak about her so that Trouble-the-House would think that only the woman was there. And when he was fixing the fire she was to catch hold of his rush-plaited coat and lay her command on her to carry her through the Three Woods and to the King's Castle.

So Maid-alone put on the Cloak of crow-feathers and the Woman of a Thousand Years put on her brown habit and sat with her back to the brown wall; in the little light made by the rush-candle she wasn't to be seen at all.

Then Trouble-the-House came clattering to the door. He went to the dresser and took down the brass plate and the tin covers and he polished them with the napkin that was hanging on the line. He threw side-looks at the fire, and when he saw that it was burning low he came to it, and squatting down before it put kindlings in. Maid-alone laid her hands on his coat of plaited rushes and she said: "You must carry me through the Three Woods and to the King's Castle this very night."

"I'll carry you, I'll carry you since so you'll have it," said the Glashan, and he rose up and went out.

"Go to him now," said the Woman of a Thousand Years. "You'll find him where he's taking a drink of water at the well. Through the Three Woods you will go: the Wood of Bronze, the Wood of Silver, and the Wood of Gold. Pluck a twig in each wood no matter what the Gruagach says to you, and make him carry whatever the twig turns into. When you come to the King's Castle go into it by the least grand way, wearing the Crow-feather Cloak that I now bestow on you.

The rush-candle went out, and Maid-alone saw no more of the Woman of a Thousand Years. She went out of the door, and to the well, and she saw the Gruagach there taking a drink of water. She bade him take her to the King's Castle, through the Three Woods, and to make good speed. He stooped down and she got upon his back.

They went on and on until they came to the Wood of Bronze. The moon was clear in the sky and it showed the glitter of the leaves and the twigs and the branches. One wakeful blackbird was flying and crying through that wood as Maid-alone and the Gruagach went on.

Then remembering what the Woman of a Thousand Years had told her to do, Maid-alone put up her hand and broke off a glittering twig with its glittering leaves. The Gruagach pinched her hands saying: "Beaten I'll be coming back through is wood for the thing you have done, girl. Break off no more twigs or I'll leave you on the ground."

But the twig she had broken off turned into a glittering dress, with a glittering veil and a pair of glittering shoes, and Maid-alone forgot the pinches that the Gruagach gave her, such delight was hers.

They came to a second wood. Still the moon was clear in the sky and the leaves and twigs shone white and bright. A wakeful cuckoo was crying in the wood, and as they went on Maid-alone broke off a silver twig with silver leaves.

It turned into a silver dress with a silver veil and a pair of silver shoes. Maid-alone left it on the Gruagach's shoulders with the dress of glittering bronze. But Trouble-the-House, when he knew what she had done, shook her until she was dizzy. "Beaten I'll be when I come back through this wood for the thing you have done," said he. "Break off no more twigs, break off no more twigs, or I'll leave you down to go your way by yourself." Maid-alone forgot the shaking he gave her, such delight was hers at the sight of the silver dress beside the bronze one.

They came into the third wood. The moon was still clear in the sky, and it showed leaves soft as candle flames and twigs that were rods of brightness. A nightingale sang in that wood, and its song was like the moonlight on the leaves.

Maid-alone was afeard that the Gruagach would leave her alone in that wood if she broke off a twig with leaves, and for a long time she would not put up her hand to break one off. But she might not leave that wood without taking a golden twig with its golden leaves. Then, as they were coming out of the thick of the wood she reached up and broke off a shining twig with its shining leaves.

The Gruagach slapped her with his great hands. "Beaten I'll be in every wood I go through for what you have done, Girl."

But Maid-alone did not heed the beating he gave her. For the twig and the leaves turned into a shining dress, with a shining veil and a pair of shining shoes. This dress, too, she put across the Gruagach's shoulders, and the two went on.

After they came out of the Three Woods, they went across seven ridges, but Maid-alone did not heed the distance they traveled, for her mind was on the three fine dresses that were before her, the gleaming, and glittering, and shining dresses. They came to a white river and they heard cocks crowing, more cocks that ever Maid-alone heard crow together before. And looking hard in the direction that the cocks were crowing she saw the roofs of the King's Castle.

The Gruagach put her down on the ground and he left her dresses beside her. Then he loosened his coat of plaited rushes, took it off, and putting it across his shoulder started running back along the way they had come. Maid-alone was left standing beside a great tree.