Gateway to the Classics: The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes by Padraic Colum
The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes by  Padraic Colum



B ecause she used to herd Goats in the high places and the rocky places, she went by the name of Girl-go-with-the-Goats. But that was not the name that she herself called herself. She called herself Maid-alone.

Her feet were scratched with briars and bruised with stones. She was dressed in rags threaded together. And neither the red of pleasure nor the red of health had ever come into her face. She lived with her step-mother, Dame Dale, and her two step-sisters, Berry-bright and Buttercup. Now one day as Berry-bright was dizening herself with a necklace of beads and Buttercup was looking at herself in a plate of brass, and old woman came up to the house. Her dress was the queerest that anyone ever saw, a Cloak of crow-feathers and nothing else.

"My, my, my," said the old woman as she came into the house. "My, my, my, what became of the big tree that used to grow fornenst your little house?"

"The big tree!" said Berry-bright, "I have heard my mother speak of that big tree. But she never saw it herself. They say that the gypsies once lighted their fires around that big tree, and that the leaves withered and the branches and the root, and the tree died away. But my mother never remembers to have seen it."

"My, my, my," said the old woman. "It must be a long time since I was round this way, and where is the well that used to be on my right-hand side as I came into the house?"

"I used to hear my grandmother speak of that well, "said Buttercup. "But it was dried up before her time."

"My, my, my," said the old woman. "It's a long time since I was round this way. But now that I'm here, maidens dear, put the griddle on the fire and knead and bake a cake for me."

"There's no fire on the hearthstone as you see," said Berry-bright, "and we are not going to put down a fire for you now."

"Nor can we knead a cake and put it on the griddle for you," said Buttercup.


"We have just washed our hands in new milk," said Berry-bright.

"As we wash them everyday," said Buttercup.

"So that our hands will be as white as blossoms," said Berry-bright.

"In three months from this the King's son is to choose out a maiden to wed."

"And there are no maidens fairer than we two," said Buttercup, " and one or the other of us the King's son is sure to marry."

"And so we have to keep our hands white and fair," said Berry-bright. "We couldn't think of putting down a fire now that we have washed them in new milk."

"And to put a griddle on!" said Buttercup. "That would be to hold them over the fire and make the skin of our hands split."

"And to knead a cake!" said Berry-bright. "That would be to roughen our hands. The end of it is, old woman, we can't do anything for you."

"My, my, my," said the old woman. "Then I will get nothing to stay my hunger."

"If you had come before we washed our hands with new milk," said Buttercup, "we should have done what you'd ask."

Then they went on doing what they had been doing before, one looking at herself in a plate of brass and the other dizening herself with a necklace of beads. And the old woman in the Cloak of crow-feathers was standing there looking at them when Girl-go-with-the-Goats came in.

"Did you milk the goats?" said Berry-bright.

"I did," said Girl-go-with-the-Goats.

"I hope you've ground the corn at the quern to-day," said Berry-bright, "for our mother, Dame Dale, will be coming home hungry from the market."

"I have ground the corn at the quern," said Girl-go-with-the-Goats.

She went outside and came back with a bundle of sticks. She took down a measure of flour that she had ground at the quern and kneaded a cake. She lit a fire and put the griddle on it. She baked the cake, cut it into four quarters, and gave it to the old woman.

"Help me over the stepping-stones, Brown Girl," said the old woman to her then.

"I will," said Girl-go-with-the-Goats. She went out of doors with the old woman in the Crow-feather Cloak.

"How that girl shows her ungentility," said Buttercup. "It is easy knowing the stock she came from by the way she makes up with every beggar and stroller."

"A beggar she herself would be," said Buttercup, "if our mother and ourselves did not give her bread and bed."

"She saw her own kind no doubt in Crow-feather-Cloak," said Berry-bright. "But call her now, sister, and bring her back, so that she'll have time to cook supper for our mother who must be on her way home by this."

"Really, sister," said Buttercup, "you might go to the door yourself."

"You will have that plate of brass worn out looking at yourself," said Berry-bright.

So Berry-bright and Buttercup spoke to each other; and neither went to the door to call Girl-go-with-the-Goats, who by this time was as far as the stepping-stones with the Old Woman in the Crow-feather Cloak.

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