Once upon a time there were Three Bears who lived together in a house of their own, in a wood…
One day, after they had made the porridge for their breakfast, and poured it into their porridge-pots,
they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling…
And while they were walking, a little Girl named Goldilocks came to the house.
~ Joseph Jacobs, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
I came to the cottage unwitting and seeking no more than shelter.
The day began like any other. Katniss made for the heart of the woods with her bow, knife, and game satchel and I went to the lakeshore with Mother’s largest rush-basket, but no sooner was I muddied to the knees from stirring up two days’ portion of my sister’s namesake from the lake bottom when a bitter wind struck, and a frigid rain hard at its heels. My harvest was scarcely begun and I wished not to make the trek home till I had finished, especially while my resilient sister remained in the woods. Katniss would hunt and gather in the cruelest of weather to bring food to our table, and while she never expected the same stamina of me, I knew she would worry if she returned to the lake to find me gone.
I meant only to seek a broad tree beneath which I might shelter till the worst of the storm had passed, but when I turned my steps toward the woods I saw before me a cottage that had surely not stood there an hour before, let alone a day or two previous. This wild place became market and garden for my family in the days of my huntress grandmother Ashpet and I myself gathered daily from it in my turn, harvesting from both lake and woodland shadows since I stood no taller than my father’s knee, and never before had I seen a human dwelling in these parts, nor heard of any such.
I peered through the blinding rain at what could only be the wishful construct of a shivering body coupled with a desperate imagination and squeezed my eyes shut again and again to clear them of such impossible fancies, but the cottage seemed only to grow more solid and radiant and welcoming with each blink. From its round windows streamed rich yellow light and from its chimneys pale smoke, and this was enticement enough for me. A mere quarter-hour beside one of those fires would be sufficient to warm my toes and lift the damp from my cloak, I thought, and perhaps the cottager’s sympathy would extend to a fortifying mug of wild onion broth with a little acorn bun or even a draught of hot berry-wine before they sent me on my way.
None came in answer to my knock, and as the rain beat against my back in barbed pellets of ice I forsook propriety and reached hopefully for the latch. To my surprise, it lifted without effort. The door gave at once beneath my touch, almost as though I were expected, and opened inward to reveal a very heaven of domesticity; all broad oak timbers and rounded stone, warm and bright as gold, where the very air tasted of honey and woodsmoke and freshly baked bread.
I crossed the threshold without hesitation and drew the door fast behind me.
Straight ahead was a hearth as wide as a man is tall, with a log fire roaring merrily within, and set around it were three broad chairs, deeply cushioned, with gaily patterned rugs beneath. In the next room stood a sturdy trestle table with three chairs set about and beeswax candles lit for the absent diners, and just beyond I glimpsed a kitchen.
I had eaten breakfast some hours before and I made for the kitchen with a swiftness that would have mortified me in other circumstances – though, to my credit, I called out as I went, supposing that the cottager or his wife might have stepped outside for a moment, perhaps to collect more logs for the fire, and wishing not to startle them when they returned. But the kitchen was as empty of folk as the two front rooms and, moreover, its counter held baked wonders of the sort I had seen only in the village, on those rare and precious festival days when Katniss and I took our wares to the market for trading and we gazed for hours on end at the mouthwatering creations in the baker’s window.
At one end of the counter sat a round little cake, dense and dark and glazed with tiny sugar figures of rabbits and deer and doves, so fine they might have been painted in frost upon a windowpane. Alongside this was a loaf of bread studded with nuts and dried fruits – proper merchant’s bread it was; yeasty and golden-crusted and still warm from the oven – and finally a pie, deep as a stewpot, with neat slits in its crust which sent up heady steam-clouds of roast chicken and apples, of spices and butter and a rich savory gravy.
I tried the bread first, supposing such a transgression might be most easily forgiven, and while the luxurious white crumb was piping hot and bursting with bits of honeyed almonds and dried plums which teased my tongue with their succulent sweetness, I knew at once that this would not sate the shivering hunger that had overtaken me in the storm. I turned next to the little cake, imagining one slim stolen sliver might be excusable, especially if I neither indulged in nor damaged the finely iced woodland creatures, and though the moist flavors of treacle and ginger and costly orange peel – a confection I knew only from fairy tales and the tiny, heavenly Lady Day cake that Katniss and I shared last year as an early birthday treat – burst upon my tongue like a jubilant cry, this too could not satisfy the stubborn howl in my belly.
I turned at last to the deep-crusted pie, meaning only to chip off a mite of crust and content myself without breaking the crisp golden seal over the pie’s surface, but the stolen morsel melted on my tongue like butter upon a hot skillet, so tender it was, and rich as merchant shortbread – and alas, a drop of gravy had come along with the crust-morsel, and I tasted roast chicken and potatoes and hot spiced apples within and was done for.
I set to the pie with a cook-spoon and had devoured quite half of it before I knew what I was about.
My appetite shamed me, but I was certain the cottager should forgive the theft, for he was clearly a man of some fortune, to furnish so large a residence in so comfortable a fashion, and surely he would understand that cruel weather might drive even the most well-brought-up belly to desperation. Now comfortably full, I took myself back to the frontmost room and went to sit by the fire, to dry my cloak and warm my lake-chilled toes. The rain had soaked my braid through and I unplaited its length as I settled into the largest fireside chair, but wet hair wants combing and fingers will simply not serve for such a task.
Leaving my wet cloak and boots and the rush-basket of katniss roots spread round the hearth to dry, I found my way to a bedroom at the rear of the cottage; a room quite enormous to my eyes, for it held a fireplace nearly as large as the one before which I had just warmed myself and three narrow beds lined opposite, each heaped high with feather pillows and deep quilted coverlets. On the right side of each bed stood a little night-stand holding a cup, candle, and comb, and betwixt the teeth of each comb I found curling fair hairs. The first were the color of honeycomb, the second tawny as a deerskin, and the third the white-gold of apple flesh, the likes of which could surely only be found on the head of an angel.
I used the angel’s comb to smooth the tangles from my wet hair and swiftly found myself overcome by the urge to sleep, though it was scarcely past luncheon-time. Well, I reasoned, in for a penny, in for a pound. Wind and sleet still lashed the roof in angry gusts, and the cottager had not yet returned. Like as not, he would wait out the storm wherever he was and return home once it had cleared, and surely he would not begrudge a similar soul’s desire to remain where she was likewise sheltered. I would set everything to rights when I woke, I resolved, and be well on my way home before the cottager returned.
I turned back the covers of the angel’s bed – for surely, I thought, he would be more forgiving of such a trespass than his fellows – and sank into its feathery depths with an eager moan. The downy coverlets enveloped my form like warm summer clouds and all about me hung the odors of musk and yeast-bread and spices; an unmistakable welcome, I supposed in drowsy contentment, just as the merry fires upon each hearth, as the latch and the door giving beneath my hand. This cottage had seemed to manifest in answer to my need; perhaps it had been created for that very purpose, for its every comfort was tailored to my desires.
Adrift in such foolishly pleasant maunderings, I buried my face in a pillow fat with goose down and cooed and sighed myself to sleep almost at once, with many greedy swishes of my bare feet against the bedclothes.
I woke, seemingly only a languid quarter-hour later, to a great commotion at the cottage door – the cottager, I imagined, or perhaps his good wife, returning laden after the storm – and I slipped quickly from the bed, thinking to greet and aid them as I explained my presence. Beyond the windows was a clear and rosy dusk and I cursed myself for my idleness, which would require apology here and copious measures of the same when I found my sister, who would no doubt be chilled to the bone and out of her mind with worry from seeking me these past hours.
I began silent work on both responses as I went, for I am somewhat gifted with words and can appease my sister, even in her crossest state, with surprising little effort, thanks to her indulgent affection toward me, and I was hopeful that the returning cottager would be comparably receptive and easily mollified. But no sooner had I reached the threshold of the dining room than I spied the new arrivals and clapped both hands over my mouth in silent horror.
Standing about the hearth, grunting and whuffling and nodding to one another, were three great bears, their coats and forepaws crusted with ice. The first and smallest of them had fur as white and thick as fresh snow, like the bears which populate the wild northern tales, and the second, somewhat taller and rangier of build, had fur the tawny russet-brown of an owlet’s feathers. And the third – the largest of their company; twice my size and clearly corded with muscle beneath his heavy coat – bore fur which might have been spun from all the gold in Creation: from dandelion petals and buttercups and the primroses for which I was named, from sunbeams and honeycomb and the warbler’s yellow breast. His broad head dipped over my forsaken cloak and boots and basket where they lay at the fireside, and his great shoulders quivered as he prodded each in turn with his blunt snout.
Oh foolish Prim! I thought. You have lain yourself down in a bears’ den and will shortly be dined upon where you dared to dine uninvited. For I knew, of a certain, I would be an easy mouthful for any one of these beasts.
In what would surely be my last moments, I silently offered up my fiercest prayers and contemplated whether I should attempt to hide myself in another room and delay my death long enough for a thorough confession or if it might be better to go boldly, albeit trembling, to my fate, as a virgin martyr. And then the three bears gave a collective shudder and each shrugged his mighty shoulders in turn, and their bearskins dropped like cloaks to the floor.