"The Twelve Seasons,"
a Greek folktale retold
by Cathy Mosley
In a time long past lived a widow and her children. Good folk they were, but with their father gone they had fallen on hardship.
Truth be told they still wouldn't have been bad off, since the widow baked for her sister-in-law, but the woman was as stingy as the withered stalks in the cold.
The only way the widow managed to feed her children on the pennies her sister-in-law paid was to scrape the dough from her hands; this she would roll up and hide in her apron pocket for a weak soup. Then she would go home. She always went home smiling - no matter how tired she was, and baked up the dough for her children. It wasn't much but it kept them alive.
Now the wealthy sister-in-law was so mean that she always worried that someone might be stealing from her, and she started wondering how the baker kept her children fed. So the woman hid in the kitchen cupboard and watched the widow scrape the dough off her hands - and as fast as she could she leapt out and said, "No more will you steal!! Wash your hands!! Wash your hands from this day on or I'll give you to the sheriff!!!!!"
All the poor widow could do was wash her hands and trudge home in the winter cold.
How was she going to feed her little ones?!
How would they live?!
But she wouldn't let her children see how worried and fearful she was, and by the time she reached their cottage she had a smile on her face. She opened the door and announced, "My babes, find my basket for me! And find my blanket!!"
"Why Mama!?" they all cried.
"I've heard there are still some berries to be found, and I want to give us a treat," the widow answered, "Now gather up my things so I can be back soon."
Her children hurried to gather her old blanket for an extra shawl, and her basket, and then they all promised to lock the door.
Off went the widow; she trudged deep into the frozen forest, with no lantern to guide her way in the darkness, or to show her a hint of remaining green. Oh how heavy her heart was with despair!!
Ahead of her she suddenly caught the glimmer of light! At first she thought she had caught the glimpse of stars through the trees, but these dancing lights were too near the ground. Maybe a hunter? A traveler?
Any promise of rest or warmth drew her on - making her heedless this could also be a bandit.
But the angels smiled on her, and the widow found a large bonfire in the middle of a glade, with twelve gnarly old men gathered about it.
"Good evening," she stammered as twelve pair of old eyes looked towards her; odd eyes that glowed green in the firelight.
The nearest jumped up and said, "Dear woman, you are half frozen!! Come and share our fire!!"
"And tell us what brings you to the winter woods," the oldest of the lot said; he who had skin like birch and white hair as tangled as a bird's nest.
The widow sank gratefully down onto a log, set her basket down, and wrapped her blanket tighter about her. She was just too tired to be afraid.
One of the men handed her a mug of warm goat's milk, and another handed a plate of hot oak cakes. And all waited polity while she ate her fill.
"Thank you, " she said, and meant it with her whole heart, and secretly wished she could take such good food home to her children.
Now tell us what makes you risk the woods at night?" the elder urged again.
"With the coming of this night," she said, "I've no more food for my children, and hoped to find a frozen root...maybe some nuts....or some berries."
A murmur ran amongst the twelve strange men, and finally the youngest, garbed in sky blue, said, "We'll be happy to help you.....If you can help us settle a discussion we've been having."
"I'll try.........," the widow said.
"Good!" the young one cried, "Then tell me what's good about Spring!"
The widow smiled as she remembered. She said, "The first hint of warmth on the wind is feels good against the cheeks..........A rich mud that promises bounty in the summer.....the first hint of green......."
"And what's good about summer?" another urged; he who was garbed in green, with moss in his brown hair.
"Oh Summer!!" she said, "When the sun blesses us with his rays! When the children laugh outside in the meadows!!"
"Fall! What about Fall?" begged another. His face was lined and his russet hair wild, and his clothes were of oranges and browns, with threads of glittering gold.
"Fall is good," she said, remembering when she had helped her husband with the harvest. "There's a bite to the air that makes us welcome our hearth, and our tables are full with the bounty of the land!" She smiled, "And the trees deck themselves in their most beautiful clothes!!"
"And what of Winter?" asked the eldest in a quiet tone.
The widow looked over at him and said, "The winter is a time of grand beauty. It is a time when we sit near our kin and tell stories. It is a time of remembrance - of the year gone, and of the ancestors who have gone before."
All the twelve men nodded - then smiled in pleasure. The youngest handed her back a basket filled to the brim and covered with a linen cloth. "Don't look within," he told her, as he handed her a torch, "Until you are home with your children."
The widow promised and thanked them; then hurried home to her children.
That night they feasted from a basket that never emptied.
The widow did not have to go back to baking. Instead she set up a stall in the market and sold some of the food; quickly she prospered, since fresh fruit and vegetables were wonderful rarities in the winter.
A month passed and the sister-in-law wondered what had become of her baker, and finally her curiosity drove her to town, where she saw the widow's stall.
"How?" the wealthy woman demanded, waving her arms at the stall. "How did this come to be?!!"
The widow smiled and told her sister-in-law about the twelve spirits in the woods.
And with this news the wealthy woman hurried home. ~Oh what a fool,~ she thought, She could have wished for diamonds!! Well I'm no fool!!~ She went home and demanded one of her maid's dresses and a basket from the kitchen.
She waited for night and trudged out into the woods.
Her heavy cloak offered little protection against the winter winds, and the frozen ground was hard beneath her sensitive feet.
So she truly welcomed the sight of the spirits' fire when she entered the clearing.
She sat down before she was offered a seat and asked, "Do you have anything hot to drink or eat?"
"We do," said the youngest, and handed a mug of warm goat's milk and hot oak cakes.
The sister-in-law, so used to pheasant and wine, made a face at such peasant's food as she chewed on the oak cake.
"Why have you come?" demanded the eldest.
The wealthy woman gave the tale of a starving daughter and barely kept from demanding a basket there and then.
"We'll give you a basket if you can help us in a discussion," the eldest said.
"Of course. Of course!! What are you arguing about?" she demanded.
"No argument," said a middle spirit.
The youngest asked, "What do you think of Spring?"
"A chilly, wet season," she answered, with a shudder.
"Bugs are everywhere!! " she cried, "And the roads are dusty."
"More mud being tracked in on clean floors!!" she exclaimed, "The roads are crowded with farmers."
"And Winter?" the eldest asked slowly.
"The worst!!" the woman cried, "Everyone stuck inside, with the air sooty from the fireplaces."
"Thank you," the eldest answered, and waved for the youngest to bring a basket.
The woman was disappointed that none had asked what she wanted, but she agreed to the warning not to open the basket till she got home.
Nor did she note in her haste that none had offered a torch; so she stumbled and tumbled all the way home.
Bruised and sore she flung herself into her house and tore off the canvas covering from the basket..................
To find worms, dung, and rock within.
Dawkins, R. M.. Modern Greek Folktale. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers. 1953.