In a time before you were born, in a land you’ve never traveled to, there lived a young man. In many ways he was both like and unlike other young men: he was handsome and strong; he was kind and thoughtful; he was a bit messy and sometimes quite lazy. And he could spin straw into gold. He lived a simple life on the outskirts of a small village in a small cabin. His parents were returned to dust and although he was alone in the world he was content.
He was also very private because he knew that spinning straw into gold was an unusual thing to be able to do and in his bones crept a kind of fear that sometimes would wake him lonely at night and he would shudder to think upon this strange ability. He did spin, but only a handful of straw here, a handful of straw there, and he lived comfortably because of this straw-spun gold.
He had a name. All things have a name, of course, but he guarded his with a dark and fierce protectiveness. No one living knew his name. He knew that names held power - the sound of one's name in one mouth could ring like truth, the sound of one's name in another mouth could toll lies. I will tell it to you, quietly quickly, his name was Rumpelstiltskin.
One evening it so happened that he found himself in the same tavern, drinking from the same freshly-tapped keg of honey mead as a wealthy landowner and a miller. The wealthy landowner was bemoaning the lack of suitable women to become his bride and the miller was bemoaning the lack of suitable men willing to marry his daughter. The young man listened with one ear to the landowner and with the other ear he listened to the miller. He was not alone in his listening, but he was alone in his silence. Man after man took a turn shouting out the good and the bad of marriage, suggesting the traits a man should search out in a marriage and laughing over the truth of what a man usually found himself yoked to at the end of it all.
“I’ve got a girl cousin – she’ll rise afore you and settle after you and all the time between wait upon you.”
“I’ve got a sister – they tell me she can churn the butter unlike any other.”
“I’ve got a mother – she’s been so lonely these past four years, she’ll make you forget right quick that you ever considered a younger lass.”
"I know a woman who can sing to the hens and they'll lay double!"
"Find you a woman with a magic pitcher of ale that never needs refilling!"
After many pints, with the moon rising high and the owls calling to one another through the moon-lit treetops, the landowner and the miller found themselves at the same table.
The miller was not a stupid man but he could be rash when drunk and he suddenly grasped the landowner’s arm and announced that his daughter could spin straw into gold and she would make the perfect bride. After a brief moment spent looking at the calloused hand of the miller upon his velvet sleeve, he agreed, such a girl would indeed make the perfect bride.
The young man perked both his ears at this. All his life he had thought he was the only one so gifted and so afflicted. Another who could spin straw into gold? And she lived right there in the village?
He listened with a trip-hammering heart as the wealthy landowner and the miller planned the future for a girl who lay sleeping on her feather bed streets away, unaware of the grinding machinations of her father and her future husband.
The landowner would have her. The miller’s shoulders sagged in relief then tensed in cautious hope. His daughter, you know, could not actually spin straw into gold but the rich mead had rendered this fact somewhat unimportant at the time of telling it. The landowner felt it would only be fair for him to see the results of this astonishing talent before employing the village minister. The miller agreed, swallowing hard, and a time upon the morrow was set to test the prospective bride.
The young man memorized the details. He had not drunk as much of the mead as the other two and his head was clear. And he slipped out of the tavern into the finite night and walked home. His mind was whirring faster than the treadle of his wheel, his blood rushing through his veins, his heart both strangely light and heavy at the same time. He would travel to where the girl had been summoned, he would see with his own eye how spinning straw into gold could change one’s life.
The next evening, he snuck himself into a cavernous barn on the estate of the landowner. It was dark and smelled of animals. He moved through it until he came to a barred door, behind which he heard the soft sounds of grief and despair. Silently, he entered. The girl was lying collapsed on the stone floor.
He squatted low beside her. “Hush, hush, now. Why are you crying?”
“Why am I crying? Why do you think I’m crying?” She pulled herself to her knees and opened her arms wide, indicating the bales of straw piled around her, the spinning wheel, the empty bobbins. “I might as well be asked to mine the salt from my tears. Spin straw into gold?”
Suddenly he understood. He saw the ruse and something fell away from him, a rock dropped into a pond, irretrievable; ripples forming as it went. He nodded, watching her, deciding.
“Shhhh then. I’ll do it. I’ll spin it into gold. But you must give me something in return.” He said this looking at her lips, the bend of her neck, the curve of her hips.
“What? Give you what? This ring? It’s all I have of value.” She slipped the jeweled band off, reached for his hand and pushed it onto his finger.
He sat at the wheel and he began to spin, watching her watch him until the spinning wheel coaxed her to sleep and she curled onto the floor amongst the bundles and bales and strands of bobbined gold.
Exhausted, the morning sun rising, he stood in the shadows of the barn. He saw the greed in the wealthy landowner’s eyes. He heard the greed in the landowner’s voice. So he returned again that night. She was sitting on the stool, plaiting a small handful of straw.
She smiled when she saw him. And she indicated the doubled amount of straw surrounding her.
“What can I give you, mysterious stranger? To spin this for me? A kiss?”
“Yes,” he said and moved in closer.
Later he watched her sleeping, her lips kiss-swollen, and he spun long into the night.
The next morning, as before, he espied the landowner’s greed. He wondered at the impossible depths of the man’s pockets, could they hold so much gold?
That night he returned and was not surprised to see bales stacked to the rafters of the room. She stood in the middle of it all, a bit lost, but not unsure. She moved into his arms and he lay down with her, in the promise of the straw.
“Tell me, tell me who you are,” she pleaded. “Tell me your name.”
“Why?” he asked, old habits and fears hardened like scar tissue.
“So that I can call you if I need you.”
He whispered his name into her ear.
Only later did she ask, “What can I give you to spin this straw into gold?”
He knew then that she would not call him for who he was but for what he was. So he answered, “Your firstborn child.”
He spun the straw.
Nine months gone and he came to her. The child in her arms, a wedding ring on her finger. He saw her and saw that her memories of him were like chaff, stubble in the field of her life. But she recognized him.
She clutched the babe to her breast. “Please don’t take my baby, please.”
“I don’t want the child without its mother.”
“Leave me to this life.”
He felt his heart threshed. “What will you give me if I do?” he whispered.
“Your name. I will give you back your name.”
She spoke it aloud. And in her voice his name sounded forgotten, abandoned. He caught it out of the air between them, cradling it in both his hands, brought his palms up to his mouth, poured the name in between his own lips and teeth. Then he bent close to the child, whispered into its ear, turned to the window, and was gone over the ledge.
His name was never heard again.