Once upon a time, there was a poor woman who had three daughters, three sons, and barely enough to keep body and soul together. When she was delivered of a seventh child, she despaired of their lot, and she went and sat down at the crossroads with the babe.
After some time, an old woman came along, leaning on her staff as she went. She heard the baby crying, and saw the mother’s tears, and she said, “I am old, and all I have in this world is an apprentice who will soon leave me to make her own way. But I am also a powerful witch, and if you give me your child to raise, it will go well with you.”
And so the mother gave her seventh child to the witch, and went home, where she found that her hovel had become a large cottage, and her children’s rags were now fine clothes, and her larder was stocked with all manner of good things, and at the foot of her bed was a chest of silver coins. She wept for the baby she’d given up, but she did not weep long, for she was sure that the witch would keep it far better than she could have. She did not think to herself, “What if the witch lied?”, for after all, even if the baby was bound for the witch’s cauldron, it would be a quicker and kinder fate than starving slowly as they’d all have surely done come winter.
But the witch had not lied, and she took the baby home to keep as her own, just as she had promised. The child was five when the witch’s apprentice left to make her own way, and the witch was well pleased with her apprentice’s replacement.
“You shall be the last apprentice I train,” she said. “For I am old even now, and it will take me another decade yet to teach you everything I was taught before I went out to find my path.”
“If I am to be last, shall I also be greatest?” the child asked.
“That depends entirely on you,” the witch said. “You hold that power within you, but iron does not become a sword without sweat and skill and time.”
The child took this to heart and attended to the witch’s lessons, and after the ten years was up, the witch sat in her rocking chair before her hearth and called her apprentice to her.
“My last hour is upon me,” she said. “I know this, for Grandfather Death has told me so. You have done all that I asked, and been like my own flesh and blood, and I have brought you up as my own. I have one last gift for you.”
She gave her apprentice a gold ring with two stones set in the band.
“If you place this ring upon your finger with the diamond showing, you shall walk abroad as a girl. If the ruby is outermost, you shall be a boy. You may change as often as you like, but you must never take it off, for if you do you shall lose it, and be trapped as only one thing forever, which would be a great pity.”
With that, the witch died. Her apprentice wept a great deal, and made the house her funeral pyre, for a witch’s house left untenanted never fails to become a source of great mischief.
The apprentice went forth to make her own way in the world, as all the witch’s apprentices before her had done, and it pleased her to keep the diamond showing until she came across a lush meadow, where she stopped to rest. In the meadow was a stream, and in the stream were three fish who had become trapped in an old net lost to the water and left to drift. They could not free themselves, and the apprentice took pity on them. They were fat and fine and vital, and but for this unhappy accident they’d have lived long lives. She opened the net for them and afterward dragged it onto the bank so that it could cause no more trouble. The fish swam and dove and played in the water, overjoyed, and they promised to repay her kindness, if ever they were able.
After that, it pleased the apprentice to turn the ring so that the ruby was showing, and he traveled until he saw a fine buck, which he shot for his supper. While he was dressing the deer, a vixen came slinking through the brush, and cried out to the apprentice that she and her kits must surely starve if he did not share his kill with her.
“I have more meat than I can eat before it spoils,” he said, “and it would be a great pity for others to go hungry while I have too much. Take as much as you like, and be welcome to it.”
The vixen and her kits ate until they were as full and happy as they had been lean and miserable, and then they licked their chops and promised to repay his kindness, if ever they were able.
The apprentice kept going, sometimes turning the diamond out and sometimes the ruby, until at last she came to a beautiful city. It was the grandest port on all the coast, and the heart of a well-ordered kingdom, and the apprentice thought that she might ply her trade there. She took a little shop which had been without an occupant for a great while, and so got it cheaply, and set about making it her own. As she was cleaning and putting everything to rights, a spider who’d spun her web near the fireplace saw what she was about, and said, “Please, leave this last corner be! My children are almost ready to venture forth, but if you ruin my house we shall all surely perish.”
The apprentice let the spider be and left the web alone, for it was nothing to her and everything to the spider, and it seemed a great pity to harm them. The spider and her children promised to repay the kindness they’d been shown, if ever they were able.
All was well for a time, and the apprentice, who was now more rightly called a witch, made a living modestly. Those who sought help got it, and those who did harm found themselves brought to account, and the witch had no cause to be ashamed of either. It is not the way of the world to remain as it is, however, and just as the witch changed from man to woman and back again, the kingdom changed as well.
The princess had taken sick, and was wasting away, and the king and queen had lost sight of everything in their desire to see her hale and hearty again. The government fell into disarray, and more people needed the witch’s help than ever before, and more needed to be checked as well. The witch had been taught to look to the root of a problem instead of simply pruning back the branches, and so he went to the palace and offered his assistance.
“Our only child has fallen ill,” they said, “and the finest physicians and wisemen and seers in the kingdom have not been able to tell us why. If you can only cure her, we will give you anything you ask.”
The witch spent week after week with the princess, looking for the source of a curse or an ailment, but found nothing. He was sorely grieved at this, as he had never yet failed to help someone who asked, even if it was only to say, “Grandfather Death cannot be denied. Say your goodbyes and make your peace,” and so relieve the fear of unknowing. He was sorely grieved, too, because the princess was kind and good, and he had come to love her as dearly as her handmaidens and her companions and the court advisors did. The witch was not a witch because he gave up when things became difficult, though, and he persevered.
After a full month, a spider dropped onto his shoulder and said, “I am one of the spiderlings you spared when you first came to this city. You seek to cure the princess, but she is not sick. She wastes away because every night, spirits send her companions into a deep sleep and snatch her away to be their servant, and she is worked to the bone.”
Hearing this, the witch knew what must be done. He thanked the spider, and then made a plan to lay in wait and bar the princess’s way. It would have worked well enough, except that one of the maids fell asleep over her embroidery, spilling her basket on the floor, and the witch stepped on a needle in his haste to stop the princess. Thus hobbled, he tried to follow her when the spirits led her away, but quickly fell behind. Soon he was hopelessly adrift in the woods. He could have wept from frustration, but then a fox came and sat down at his feet.
“I am one of the kits you fed, when my whole family was starving. The princess you seek is in a house at the center of this forest. It was once a witch’s dwelling, but she is long dead and it has become a den for wickedness and malice.”
Hearing this, the witch knew what must be done. She thanked the fox, and then waited until the next morning, when the princess had been taken home again. She put the house to the torch. After the house burned to its foundations, the witch set about uprooting the garden and covering the well and sweeping clean the path the princess had followed so many times. For three days she waited, to see if what she’d done had worked. When nothing more came to the ruins of the house, and the witch was sure she’d made an end of it, she went back to the city.
The princess was recovering, and the witch returned to the palace to see her. The king and queen asked what he wanted for his reward, and he asked their leave to answer in a week’s time.
To the princess, he said, “I’ve grown to care for you. Would you give me leave to court you?”
“I’ve grown to care for you as well, but I can give my heart to no man,” she told him.
The witch turned the ring so that the diamond was outermost and asked again, and the princess was much pleased and gave her assent.
So the witch courted the princess as a woman, and the princess grew to love her. When the witch was a man, they were as brother and sister, and when the witch was a woman, they were as pleased with one another as two lovers ever were. When the week was done, the witch went to the king and queen and said, “I love your daughter. I ask your leave to marry her, if she will have me.”
The king and queen gave their blessing, and the princess remained as happy with the witch as she had been, and so in a year’s time they were wed.
Another year passed, and then another. The couple’s love deepened and strengthened, and the king and queen were very happy for their daughter but could not understand why the witch gave her no children, as he had been powerful enough to save her and perform all manner of other wonderful deeds.
Eventually the queen went to a wisewoman and asked how her daughter might become a mother in turn.
“When next you see your son-in-law, you must take the ring from his finger, break it upon a stone, and cast it all into the sea,” the wisewoman told her. “After you have done that, we shall see.”
And so the next time the queen was alone with her son-in-law, she asked to see the ring on his finger.
Now, the witch had always been mindful of the instructions which had come with his gift, but even the most watchful and wise of us sometimes slip. He suspected nothing from his mother-in-law, as she had always been kind and only acted out of love for her daughter. The witch had been fortunate in life and seen little of the unthinking cruelty that was born of love and not hate, and he did not hesitate. No sooner had the witch held the ring up than the queen snatched it from his hand, dashed it against a stone, and flung it all into the sea, just as she’d been told. The witch was heartbroken, and confessed to his wife that he could no longer change his form.
“My heart is as the moon, changing shape as nature demands, but my flesh will not follow without the ring.”
“I love you for your soul,” the princess said, “and that has always been constant. I would have you by my side always, and call you my husband, if you will stay with me. But passion is another thing entirely, I fear. Is there nothing we can do, no charm that can be worked to give you back what’s been lost?”
But the witch knew of nothing, for he was still young yet and had not seen the length and breadth of the world as the old witch had done, when she’d made the ring for her apprentice. He went to the shore, and sat on a rock, and turned the problem over in his mind. And he would have changed his shape, if he’d been able, and the pain of it was so great that she wept bitter tears until they fell into the sea and mingled with the water there. After a little while, three fish appeared before her.
“We are the fish you freed, when we were trapped in the net,” they said. “We’ve come to free you in turn.”
One fish spit out the ruby, the second the diamond, and the third the gold band. The witch thanked them and refashioned her ring so that it was good as new. She turned the band so that the diamond was outermost and reunited with her wife, who was overjoyed to find her spouse restored.
“I fear your mother will not be satisfied,” the witch told her. “Will you come away with me?”
“As you once followed me to the depths of the chartless forest to save my life, I will follow you wherever we may be free,” the princess said.
And that is where you may find them, if they are living still.
Author’s Note: There are dozens of fairy tales out there where the protagonists change themselves, or are changed, into any number of improbable things. Lakes with knives in them, rose bushes with their lovers as blossoms on their stems, giant snakes with seven skins to shed before you get to the human again—the list is practically endless! Why not a witch who shifts between genders as they see fit?
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Other works of short fiction can be found in Metaphorosis, Persistent Visions, and PseudoPod.
See more: @northonthegulf