The One-handed Girl
: The Lilac Fairy Book
An old couple once lived in a hut under a grove of palm trees,
and they had one son and one daughter. They were all very happy
together for many years, and then the father became very ill, and
felt he was going to die. He called his children to the place
where he lay on the floor--for no one had any beds in that
country-- and said to his son, 'I have no herds of cattle to
leave you--only the few things there are in the
house--for I am a
poor man, as you know. But choose: will you have my blessing or
'Your property, certainly,' answered the son, and his father
'And you?' asked the old man of the girl, who stood by her
'I will have blessing,' she answered, and her father gave her
That night he died, and his wife and son and daughter mourned for
him seven days, and gave him a burial according to the custom of
his people. But hardly was the time of mourning over, than the
mother was attacked by a disease which was common in that
'I am going away from you,' she said to her children, in a faint
voice; 'but first, my son, choose which you will have: blessing
'Property, certainly,' answered the son.
'And you, my daughter?'
'I will have blessing,' said the girl; and her mother gave her
much blessing, and that night she died.
When the days of mourning were ended, the brother bade his sister
put outside the hut all that belonged to his father and his
mother. So the girl put them out, and he took them away, save
only a small pot and a vessel in which she could clean her corn.
But she had no corn to clean.
She sat at home, sad and hungry, when a neighbour knocked at the
'My pot has cracked in the fire, lend me yours to cook my supper
in, and I will give you a handful of corn in return.'
And the girl was glad, and that night she was able to have supper
herself, and next day another woman borrowed her pot, and then
another and another, for never were known so many accidents as
befell the village pots at that time. She soon grew quite fat
with all the corn she earned with the help of her pot, and then
one evening she picked up a pumpkin seed in a corner, and planted
it near her well, and it sprang up, and gave her many pumpkins.
At last it happened that a youth from her village passed through
the place where the girl's brother was, and the two met and
'What news is there of my sister?' asked the young man, with whom
things had gone badly, for he was idle.
'She is fat and well-liking,' replied the youth, 'for the women
borrow her mortar to clean their corn, and borrow her pot to cook
it in, and for al this they give her more food than she can eat.'
And he went his way.
Now the brother was filled with envy at the words of the man, and
he set out at once, and before dawn he had reached the hut, and
saw the pot and the mortar were standing outside. He slung them
over his shoulders and departed, pleased with his own cleverness;
but when his sister awoke and sought for the pot to cook her corn
for breakfast, she could find it nowhere. At length she said to
'Well, some thief must have stolen them while I slept. I will go
and see if any of my pumpkins are ripe.' And indeed they were,
and so many that the tree was almost broken by the weight of
them. So she ate what she wanted and took the others to the
village, and gave them in exchange for corn, and the women said
that no pumpkins were as sweet as these, and that she was to
bring every day all that she had. In this way she earned more
than she needed for herself, and soon was able to get another
mortar and cooking pot in exchange for her corn. Then she thought
she was quite rich.
Unluckily someone else thought so too, and this was her brother's
wife, who had heard all about the pumpkin tree, and sent her
slave with a handful of grain to buy her a pumpkin. At first the
girl told him that so few were left that she could not spare any;
but when she found that he belonged to her brother, she changed
her mind, and went out to the tree and gathered the largest and
the ripest that was there.
'Take this one,' she said to the slave, 'and carry it back to
your mistress, but tell her to keep the corn, as the pumpkin is a
The brother's wife was overjoyed at the sight of the fruit, and
when she tasted it, she declared it was the nicest she had ever
eaten. Indeed, all night she thought of nothing else, and early
in the morning she called another slave (for she was a rich
woman) and bade him go and ask for another pumpkin. But the girl,
who had just been out to look at her tree, told him that they
were all eaten, so he went back empty-handed to his mistress.
In the evening her husband returned from hunting a long way off,
and found his wife in tears.
'What is the matter?' asked he.
'I sent a slave with some grain to your sister to buy some
pumpkins, but she would not sell me any, and told me there were
none, though I know she lets other people buy them.'
'Well, never mind now--go to sleep,' said he, 'and to-morrow I
will go and pull up the pumpkin tree, and that will punish her
for treating you so badly.'
So before sunrise he got up and set out for his sister's house,
and found her cleaning some corn.
'Why did you refuse to sell my wife a pumpkin yesterday when she
wanted one?' he asked.
'The old ones are finished, and the new ones are not yet come,'
answered the girl. 'When her slave arrived two days ago, there
were only four left; but I gave him one, and would take no corn
'I do not believe you; you have sold them all to other people. I
shall go and cut down the pumpkin,' cried her brother in a rage.
'If you cut down the pumpkin you shall cut off my hand with it,'
exclaimed the girl, running up to her tree and catching hold of
it. But her brother followed, and with one blow cut off the
pumpkin and her hand too.
Then he went into the house and took away everything he could
find, and sold the house to a friend of his who had long wished
to have it, and his sister had no home to go to.
Meanwhile she had bathed her arm carefully, and bound on it some
healing leaves that grew near by, and wrapped a cloth round the
leaves, and went to hide in the forest, that her brother might
not find her again.
For seven days she wandered about, eating only the fruit that
hung from the trees above her, and every night she climbed up and
tucked herself safely among the creepers which bound together the
big branches, so that neither lions nor tigers nor panthers might
get at her.
When she woke up on the seventh morning she saw from her perch
smoke coming up from a little town on the edge of the forest. The
sight of the huts made her feel more lonely and helpless than
before. She longed desperately for a draught of milk from a
gourd, for there were no streams in that part, and she was very
thirsty, but how was she to earn anything with only one hand? And
at this thought her courage failed, and she began to cry
It happened that the king's son had come out from the town very
early to shoot birds, and when the sun grew hot he left tired.
'I will lie here and rest under this tree,' he said to his
attendants. 'You can go and shoot instead, and I will just have
this slave to stay with me!' Away they went, and the young man
fell asleep, and slept long. Suddenly he was awakened by
something wet and salt falling on his face.
'What is that? Is it raining?' he said to his slave. 'Go and
'No, master, it is not raining,' answered the slave.
'Then climb up the tree and see what it is,' and the slave
climbed up, and came back and told his master that a beautiful
girl was sitting up there, and that it must have been her tears
which had fallen on the face of the king's son.
'Why was she crying?' inquired the prince.
'I cannot tell--I did not dare to ask her; but perhaps she would
tell you.' And the master, greatly wondering, climbed up the
'What is the matter with you?' said he gently, and, as she only
sobbed louder, he continued:
'Are you a woman, or a spirit of the woods?'
'I am a woman,' she answered slowly, wiping her eyes with a leaf
of the creeper that hung about her.
'Then why do you cry?' he persisted.
'I have many things to cry for,' she replied, 'more than you
could ever guess.'
'Come home with me,' said the prince; 'it is not very far. Come
home to my father and mother. I am a king's son.'
'Then why are you here?' she said, opening her eyes and staring
'Once every month I and my friends shoot birds in the forest,' he
answered, 'but I was tired and bade them leave me to rest. And
you--what are you doing up in this tree?'
At that she began to cry again, and told the king's son all that
had befallen her since the death of her mother.
'I cannot come down with you, for I do not like anyone to see
me,' she ended with a sob.
'Oh! I will manage all that,' said the king's son, and swinging
himself to a lower branch, he bade his slave go quickly into the
town, and bring back with him four strong men and a curtained
litter. When the man was gone, the girl climbed down, and hid
herself on the ground in some bushes. Very soon the slave
returned with the litter, which was placed on the ground close to
the bushes where the girl lay.
'Now go, all of you, and call my attendants, for I do not wish to
say here any longer,' he said to the men, and as soon as they
were out of sight he bade the girl get into the litter, and
fasten the curtains tightly. Then he got in on the other side,
and waited till his attendants came up.
'What is the matter, O son of a king?' asked they, breathless
'I think I am ill; I am cold,' he said, and signing to the
bearers, he drew the curtains, and was carried through the forest
right inside his own house.
'Tell my father and mother that I have a fever, and want some
gruel,' said he, 'and bid them send it quickly.'
So the slave hastened to the king's palace and gave his message,
which troubled both the king and the queen greatly. A pot of hot
gruel was instantly prepared, and carried over to the sick man,
and as soon as the council which was sitting was over, the king
and his ministers went to pay him a visit, bearing a message from
the queen that she would follow a little later.
Now the prince had pretended to be ill in order to soften his
parent's hearts, and the next day he declared he felt better,
and, getting into his litter, was carried to the palace in state,
drums being beaten all along the road.
He dismounted at the foot of the steps and walked up, a great
parasol being held over his head by a slave. Then he entered the
cool, dark room where his father and mother were sitting, and
said to them:
'I saw a girl yesterday in the forest whom I wish to marry, and,
unknown to my attendants, I brought her back to my house in a
litter. Give me your consent, I beg, for no other woman pleases
me as well, even though she has but one hand!'
Of course the king and queen would have preferred a daughter-in-
law with two hands, and one who could have brought riches with
her, but they could not bear to say 'No' to their son, so they
told him it should be as he chose, and that the wedding feast
should be prepared immediately.
The girl could scarcely believe her good fortune, and, in
gratitude for all the kindness shown her, was so useful and
pleasant to her husband's parents that they soon loved her.
By and bye a baby was born to her, and soon after that the prince
was sent on a journey by his father to visit some of the distant
towns of the kingdom, and to set right things that had gone
No sooner had he started than the girl's brother, who had wasted
all the riches his wife had brought him in recklessness and
folly, and was now very poor, chanced to come into the town, and
as he passed he heard a man say, 'Do you know that the king's son
has married a woman who has lost one of her hands?' On hearing
these words the brother stopped and asked, 'Where did he find
such a woman?'
'In the forest,' answered the man, and the cruel brother guessed
at once it must be his sister.
A great rage took possession of his soul as he thought of the
girl whom he had tried to ruin being after all so much better off
than himself, and he vowed that he would work her ill. Therefore
that very afternoon he made his way to the palace and asked to
see the king.
When he was admitted to his presence, he knelt down and touched
the ground with his forehead, and the king bade him stand up and
tell wherefore he had come.
'By the kindness of your heart have you been deceived, O king,'
said he. 'Your son has married a girl who has lost a hand. Do you
know why she had lost it? She was a witch, and has wedded three
husbands, and each husband she has put to death with her arts.
Then the people of the town cut off her hand, and turned her into
the forest. And what I say is true, for her town is my town
The king listened, and his face grew dark. Unluckily he had a
hasty temper, and did not stop to reason, and, instead of sending
to the town, and discovering people who knew his daughter-in-law
and could have told him how hard she had worked and how poor she
had been, he believed all the brother's lying words, and made the
queen believe them too. Together they took counsel what they
should do, and in the end they decided that they also would put
her out of the town. But this did not content the brother.
'Kill her,' he said. 'It is no more than she deserves for daring
to marry the king's son. Then she can do no more hurt to anyone.'
'We cannot kill her,' answered they; 'if we did, our son would
assuredly kill us. Let us do as the others did, and put her out
of the town. And with this the envious brother was forced to be
The poor girl loved her husband very much, but just then the baby
was more to her than all else in the world, and as long as she
had him with her, she did not very much mind anything. So, taking
her son on her arm, and hanging a little earthen pot for cooking
round her neck, she left her house with its great peacock fans
and slaves and seats of ivory, and plunged into the forest.
For a while she walked, not knowing whither she went, then by and
bye she grew tired, and sat under a tree to rest and to hush her
baby to sleep. Suddenly she raised her eyes, and saw a snake
wriggling from under the bushes towards her.
'I am a dead woman,' she said to herself, and stayed quite still,
for indeed she was too frightened to move. In another minute the
snake had reached her side, and to her surprise he spoke.
'Open your earthen pot, and let me go in. Save me from sun, and I
will save you from rain,' and she opened the pot, and when the
snake had slipped in, she put on the cover. Soon she beheld
another snake coming after the other one, and when it had reached
her it stopped and said, 'Did you see a small grey snake pass
this way just now?'
'Yes,' she answered, 'it was going very quickly.'
'Ah, I must hurry and catch it up,' replied the second snake, and
it hastened on.
When it was out of sight, a voice from the pot said:
'Uncover me,' and she lifted the lid, and the little grey snake
slid rapidly to the ground.
'I am safe now,' he said. 'But tell me, where are you going?'
'I cannot tell you, for I do not know,' she answered. 'I am just
wandering in the wood.'
'Follow me, and let us go home together,' said the snake, and the
girl followed his through the forest and along the green paths,
till they came to a great lake, where they stopped to rest.
'The sun is hot,' said the snake, 'and you have walked far. Take
your baby and bathe in that cool place where the boughs of the
tree stretch far over the water.'
'Yes, I will,' answered she, and they went in. The baby splashed
and crowed with delight, and then he gave a spring and fell right
in, down, down, down, and his mother could not find him, though
she searched all among the reeds.
Full of terror, she made her way back to the bank, and called to
the snake, 'My baby is gone!--he is drowned, and never shall I
see him again.'
'Go in once more,' said the snake, 'and feel everywhere, even
among the trees that have their roots in the water, lest perhaps
he may be held fast there.'
Swiftly she went back and felt everywhere with her whole hand,
even putting her fingers into the tiniest crannies, where a crab
could hardly have taken shelter.
'No, he is not here,' she cried. 'How am I to live without him?'
But the snake took no notice, and only answered, 'Put in your
other arm too.'
'What is the use of that?' she asked, 'when it has no hand to
feel with?' but all the same she did as she was bid, and in an
instant the wounded arm touched something round and soft, lying
between two stones in a clump of reeds.
'My baby, my baby!' she shouted, and lifted him up, merry and
laughing, and not a bit hurt or frightened.
'Have you found him this time?' asked the snake.
'Yes, oh, yes!' she answered, 'and, why--why--I have got my hand
back again!' and from sheer joy she burst into tears.
The snake let her weep for a little while, and then he said--
'Now we will journey on to my family, and we will all repay you
for the kindness you showed to me.'
'You have done more than enough in giving me back my hand,'
replied the girl; but the snake only smiled.
'Be quick, lest the sun should set,' he answered, and began to
wriggle along so fast that the girl could hardly follow him.
By and bye they arrived at the house in a tree where the snake
lived, when he was not travelling with his father and mother. And
he told them all his adventures, and how he had escaped from his
enemy. The father and mother snake could not do enough to show
their gratitude. They made their guest lie down on a hammock
woven of the strong creepers which hung from bough to bough, till
she was quite rested after her wanderings, while they watched the
baby and gave him milk to drink from the cocoa-nuts which they
persuaded their friends the monkeys to crack for them. They even
managed to carry small fruit tied up in their tails for the
baby's mother, who felt at last that she was safe and at peace.
Not that she forgot her husband, for she often thought of him and
longed to show him her son, and in the night she would sometimes
lie awake and wonder where he was.
In this manner many weeks passed by.
And what was the prince doing?
Well, he had fallen very ill when he was on the furthest border
of the kingdom, and he was nursed by some kind people who did not
know who he was, so that the king and queen heard nothing about
him. When he was better he made his way home again, and into his
father's palace, where he found a strange man standing behind the
throne with the peacock's feathers. This was his wife's brother,
whom the king had taken into high favour, though, of course, the
prince was quite ignorant of what had happened.
For a moment the king and queen stared at their son, as if he had
been unknown to them; he had grown so thin and weak during his
illness that his shoulders were bowed like those of an old man.
'Have you forgotten me so soon?' he asked.
At the sound of his voice they gave a cry and ran towards him,
and poured out questions as to what had happened, and why he
looked like that. But the prince did not answer any of them.
'How is my wife?' he said. There was a pause.
Then the queen replied:
'She is dead.'
'Dead!' he repeated, stepping a little backwards. 'And my child?'
'He is dead too.'
The young man stood silent. Then he said, 'Show me their graves.'
At these words the king, who had been feeling rather
uncomfortable, took heart again, for had he not prepared two
beautiful tombs for his son to see, so that he might never, never
guess what had been done to his wife? All these months the king
and queen had been telling each other how good and merciful they
had been not to take her brother's advice and to put her to
death. But now, this somehow did not seem so certain.
Then the king led the way to the courtyard just behind the
palace, and through the gate into a beautiful garden where stood
two splendid tombs in a green space under the trees. The prince
advanced alone, and, resting his head against the stone, he burst
into tears. His father and mother stood silently behind with a
curious pang in their souls which they did not quite understand.
Could it be that they were ashamed of themselves?
But after a while the prince turned round, and walking past them
in to the palace he bade the slaves bring him mourning. For seven
days no one saw him, but at the end of them he went out hunting,
and helped his father rule his people. Only no one dared to speak
to him of his wife and son.
At last one morning, after the girl had been lying awake all
night thinking of her husband, she said to her friend the snake:
'You have all shown me much kindness, but now I am well again,
and want to go home and hear some news of my husband, and if he
still mourns for me!' Now the heart of the snake was sad at her
words, but he only said:
'Yes, thus it must be; go and bid farewell to my father and
mother, but if they offer you a present, see that you take
nothing but my father's ring and my mother's casket.'
So she went to the parent snakes, who wept bitterly at the
thought of losing her, and offered her gold and jewels as much as
she could carry in remembrance of them. But the girl shook her
head and pushed the shining heap away from her.
'I shall never forget you, never,' she said in a broken voice,
'but the only tokens I will accept from you are that little ring
and this old casket.'
The two snakes looked at each other in dismay. The ring and the
casket were the only things they did not want her to have. Then
after a short pause they spoke.
'Why do you want the ring and casket so much? Who has told you of
'Oh, nobody; it is just my fancy,' answered she. But the old
snakes shook their heads and replied:
'Not so; it is our son who told you, and, as he said, so it must
be. If you need food, or clothes, or a house, tell the ring and
it will find them for you. And if you are unhappy or in danger,
tell the casket and it will set things right.' Then they both
gave her their blessing, and she picked up her baby and went her
She walked for a long time, till at length she came near the town
where her husband and his father dwelt. Here she stopped under a
grove of palm trees, and told the ring that she wanted a house.
'It is ready, mistress,' whispered a queer little voice which
made her jump, and, looking behind her, she saw a lovely palace
made of the finest woods, and a row of slaves with tall fans
bowing before the door. Glad indeed was she to enter, for she was
very tired, and, after eating a good supper of fruit and milk
which she found in one of the rooms, she flung herself down on a
pile of cushions and went to sleep with her baby beside her.
Here she stayed quietly, and every day the baby grew taller and
stronger, and very soon he could run about and even talk. Of
course the neighbours had a great deal to say about the house
which had been built so quickly--so very quickly--on the
outskirts of the town, and invented all kinds of stories about
the rich lady who lived in it. And by and bye, when the king
returned with his son from the wars, some of these tales reached
'It is really very odd about that house under the palms,' he said
to the queen; 'I must find out something of the lady whom no one
ever sees. I daresay it is not a lady at all, but a gang of
conspirators who want to get possession of my throne. To-morrow I
shall take my son and my chief ministers and insist on getting
Soon after sunrise next day the prince's wife was standing on a
little hill behind the house, when she saw a cloud of dust coming
through the town. A moment afterwards she heard faintly the roll
of the drums that announced the king's presence, and saw a crowd
of people approaching the grove of palms. Her heart beat fast.
Could her husband be among them? In any case they must not
discover her there; so just bidding the ring prepare some food
for them, she ran inside, and bound a veil of golden gauze round
her head and face. Then, taking the child's hand, she went to the
door and waited.
In a few minutes the whole procession came up, and she stepped
forward and begged them to come in and rest.
'Willingly,' answered the king; 'go first, and we will follow
They followed her into a long dark room, in which was a table
covered with gold cups and baskets filled with dates and cocoa-
nuts and all kinds of ripe yellow fruits, and the king and the
prince sat upon cushions and were served by slaves, while the
ministers, among whom she recognised her own brother, stood
'Ah, I owe all my misery to him,' she said to herself. 'From the
first he has hated me,' but outwardly she showed nothing. And
when the king asked her what news there was in the town she only
'You have ridden far; eat first, and drink, for you must be
hungry and thirsty, and then I will tell you my news.'
'You speak sense,' answered the king, and silence prevailed for
some time longer. Then he said:
'Now, lady, I have finished, and am refreshed, therefore tell me,
I pray you, who you are, and whence you come? But, first, be
She bowed her head and sat down on a big scarlet cushion, drawing
her little boy, who was asleep in a corner, on to her knee, and
began to tell the story of her life. As her brother listened, he
would fain have left the house and hidden himself in the forest,
but it was his duty to wave the fan of peacock's feathers over
the king's head to keep off the flies, and he knew he would be
seized by the royal guards if he tried to desert his post. He
must stay where he was, there was no help for it, and luckily for
him the king was too much interested in the tale to notice that
the fan had ceased moving, and that flies were dancing right on
the top of his thick curly hair.
The story went on, but the story-teller never once looked at the
prince, even through her veil, though he on his side never moved
his eyes from her. When she reached the part where she had sat
weeping in the tree, the king's son could restrain himself no
'It is my wife,' he cried, springing to where she sat with the
sleeping child in her lap. 'They have lied to me, and you are not
dead after all, nor the boy either.! But what has happened? Why
did they lie to me? and why did you leave my house where you were
safe?' And he turned and looked fiercely at his father.
'Let me finish my tale first, and then you will know,' answered
she, throwing back her veil, and she told how her brother had
come to the palace and accused her of being a witch, and had
tried to persuade the king to slay her. 'But he would not do
that,' she continued softly, 'and after all, if I had stayed on
in your house, I should never have met the snake, nor have got my
hand back again. So let us forget all about it, and be happy once
more, for see! our son is growing quite a big boy.'
'And what shall be done to your brother?' asked the king, who was
glad to think that someone had acted in this matter worse than
'Put him out of the town,' answered she.
From 'Swaheli Tales,' by E. Steere.