I stand across the street from the bookshop, reading the now familiar words painted on the plate-glass window, “Serious Books, New and Used, Melissa Serious, Proprietor.” In my pocket is a note from Ms. Serious delivered to me by Thalia, who spends her entire book allowance at Melissa’s. When the traffic ebbs, I cross over.
“Ah, I knew Thalia would not fail me.” Melissa raises her eyes from her book and smiles at me.
“Well, you are one of her favorite people. Of course she’d give me the message.”
“And what are you reading to her these days?”
“Three Feathers—last night.”
“Three Feathers? It’s been a long time since I read Grimm cover to cover. I don’t recall that one.”
I happily relate it to her.
In Three Feathers, a king contemplates which one of his three sons should inherit his kingdom. He proposes that whichever of the three can bring him the finest carpet will succeed him. He casts three feathers into the air. The eldest son follows his feather to the west, the middle brother follows his to the east. The feather intended for the youngest brother, Simpleton, immediately settles to the ground, followed by heartless derision from his brothers.
Sitting on the rock upon which the feather has fallen, intending to have a good cry, he discovers under it a trapdoor and steps leading downward. In an underground chamber he finds a large toad surrounded by little toads. When Simpleton tells the toads of his plight, he is given a beautiful carpet.
Meantime, his brothers take the easy way out and bring back the first carpet they can find. When they see Simpleton’s carpet, they protest that their youngest brother cannot possibly be king and demand another contest.
The king obliges and sets them the task to find the most beautiful ring. He casts the three feathers that float and fall as they did before. Simpleton returns to the underground chamber where the toads lives. The brothers go no farther than they possibly need to, returning with old wagon rings. The contest ends like the first.
Again, the elder two brothers protest and the king now calls for them to go out and return with the most beautiful woman. The three feathers are cast.
This time the large toad gives Simpleton a hollowed-out turnip to which are harnessed six mice. Simpleton picks out one of the little toads and puts it into the hollow turnip. In an instant the tiny conveyance transforms into a carriage pulled by six horses and carrying a beautiful woman.
The brothers, having learned nothing, return with pretty peasant girls.
Again, there really is no contest, but still the brothers protest, issuing a challenge that the kingdom should go to the brother whose woman can jump through the hoop hanging from the hall ceiling. The elder two think Simpleton’s woman is far too delicate for the task. Instead, the peasant girls injure themselves in the attempt, and the enchanted woman springs through with grace. The protests come to an end.
I see Melissa’s green eyes smoldering and wonder what terrible thing I’ve said.
“I don’t like,” she intones with emphasis, “women having to jump through hoops at the male’s pleasure.”
“Oh, I’m sure they didn’t have circus animals doing such tricks then.” I am not really sure.
“It’s worse than that. A friend of mine, a dog-show enthusiast, told me that in medieval times kings would have the dogs of peasants jump through small hoops. If the dog was too large, it meant the dog could be used for hunting, or in the king’s mind poaching, and he had the beast maimed.”
“Oh.” I am embarrassed. I didn’t see that implication.