Far away and long ago, Ada slept on her bed of straw, until the moon and the sun traded places for yet another day. In the morning, she awakened to a sharp pain in her back.
“Get up,” barked Ada’s mother from where she poked the surviving embers of the hearth fire. The hearth was nothing more than a pit in the earthen floor.
Ada rolled onto her side and watched her mother fan the embers with her smoke-stained apron. Her father’s bed was empty and Ada knew that he had gone to the fields with her brothers, all except the youngest who was still a baby.
“For the last time—get up.”
Ada fished around in the straw for whatever had caused the pain in her back. There was something there that felt cool in Ada’s hot hand, something hard and smooth.
“If I have to haul you out of bed, you’ll wish you were in the fields with your brothers.”
Ada couldn’t help it. Beneath the straw, she cupped the hard, smooth thing in her hand, and took its weight: about as much as an iron kettle, she figured. Then Ada brushed enough straw aside to be able to see the top of it. There, gleaming like a small sun, was a golden egg.
There was a golden egg in Ada’s bed. It was not in her mother’s bed. It was not in the great bed shared by her brothers. It was not in the baby’s cradle. The golden egg was in Ada’s bed, and although she had never kept anything to herself before in her life, she buried the egg deep in the straw, telling no one about it.
That day, and the next, Ada kept the golden egg out of sight.
When two more moons had come and gone, Ada shed her first blood, a secret she shared with her mother who showed more kindness to Ada that day than she had for years. Ada was so moved by her mother’s gentleness that she nearly told her about the golden egg. Just in time, Ada closed her mouth and sat quietly while her mother fetched a secret basket.
“I kept your old gowns for this,” said Ada’s mother. “Cleaned them and tore them up. Kept them here for this time.”
Ada took the basket from her mother and saw that it was filled with gray rags.
“Put one between your legs,” offered Ada’s mother, turning as crimson as the ruby pools on the floor at her daughter’s feet. “When it’s soaked through, use another one and wash the old. You do this every time your moon comes.” Then Ada’s mother turned back to the hearth, and the gentleness was gone.
Ada did as she was told. She did not complain about the twisting knots of pain in her belly. And when she felt like crying, she thought about the golden egg in its nest of straw instead.
For seven days and nights, Ada used the gray rags until her bleeding stopped. Then she washed them and put them in the basket. It was her basket now, and Ada could do with it what she wanted, or so she believed.
One day, when Ada’s mother had fallen asleep nursing the baby, Ada felt that she had to go outside and breathe air that was not laden with ash, but she could not bear to leave without the golden egg. So Ada silently took the egg, put it in her basket underneath the gray rags, and went outside.
“What’s in the basket?” asked the widow, a frightening old woman who led her misshapen son by a rope.
“An egg,” said Ada, without thinking.
The widow scratched at a sore on her chin and winked at her unmarried son. “Lovely little Ada, not so little now. Your black hair and white skin make me happy. Your red lips make my son happy. Why don’t we take your egg and my turnips, and make a meal of it? What say you?”
Ada ran along the path and over a footbridge, but the widow let go of the rope and allowed her son to run after the girl.
Ada stopped running when she got to the middle of the bridge. The widow’s son was on one side, and her father and brothers were on the other, returning home from the fields. Ada was stuck in the middle.
“At oo me,” gibbered the widow’s son from his side of the bridge.
Ada held tight to her basket, and felt the reassuring weight of the golden egg.
“What are you doing out here alone?” cried Ada’s father as he stamped onto the other end of the bridge. “And what’s that idiot doing with you?” He jabbed his finger in the direction of the widow’s son, who sneered and slobbered in return.
“I’m not with him,” said Ada.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going for a walk.”
“No daughter of mine walks alone,” he said. Then Ada’s father grabbed her roughly by the arm and she stumbled. The basket swung on her arm and the golden egg splashed into the creek below like a shooting star plummeting to earth.
“What the devil?” cried Ada’s father. He ordered his sons to search for the object, and marched his only daughter homeward, shoving the widow’s son aside when he refused to move for them.
“What’s this?” cried Ada’s mother as she tried to straighten her aching limbs before Ada’s father thundered through the open doorway, still holding Ada by the arm.
“Am I not low enough that you must let that girl bring me lower?”
Ada ducked as if her father’s words were blows.
Ada’s mother steered her daughter to the other side of the hearth. Ada’s arm was bleeding a little. Her mother spat on the wound and bound it, even as Ada’s father rampaged through the cottage like a rutting stag.
“I saw her with the village idiot. Why did you let her out of your sight?”
“I didn’t let her out of my sight,” said Ada’s mother. “She went out without my say so.”
Just then, Ada’s brothers burst into the cottage, shouting about the golden egg they had fished from the creek.
“It’s mine,” said Ada before she knew herself.
“Give it to me,” said Ada’s father. He held the golden egg aloft and gazed, stupefied, by its heft in his hand, and its glimmer in the light of the hearth fire.
“For shame you took your moon rags to the village,” said Ada’s mother as Ada’s father continued to stare at the egg. Ada knew she had lost her mother’s good will, too.
When Ada’s father was done examining the golden egg, he demanded to know where she had found it, and Ada told her story.
That night Ada went to bed with the red stripes of fury down her back. Her mother did not speak to her, and her father hid the golden egg in his own bed.
When the moon was high, Ada took her basket, carefully removed the golden egg from her father’s bed, and went away, slipping into the woods as soon as she could.
On her first day alone, Ada listened carefully for the sound of her father and brothers giving chase, but no one came.
On her second day alone, Ada trotted with a surer foot, pausing now and then to pick berries or to drink from a spring. But as the days passed, Ada grew hungrier and colder, the reassuring chirrups of friendly birds faded, and the nights became longer and heavier to bear.
With the pale sun and the cold moon her only companions, and the stars her only guides, Ada went deeper and deeper into the woods, until the memory of her mother’s meager hearth no longer warmed her, and the memory of her father’s heavy hand no longer frightened her. Ada carried on, until hunger and cold felled her at last.
The King and his men were hunting deep in the woods when one of them spied something odd.
“It’s nothing but a pile of rags,” said the King, turning his horse in a different direction.
“It’s a girl,” cried one of the King’s men, riding forward. “And she’s dead.”
Soon three of the King’s men huddled around Ada. One of them said, “Her heart is beating.” Another one said, “She’s breathing.” A third one shouted, “She has a golden egg.”
The King came a little closer. “Do we know her?”
No one did.
One of the King’s men carried Ada back to court where a lady’s maid nursed her to full vigor. And when Ada knew where she was and what had happened to her, she asked for her golden egg.
“The King has it,” said the lady’s maid. “He has asked that you see him as soon as you’re able.”
Then Ada was brought before the King who did not hide his surprise at seeing the ragged maiden from the wood in a clean gown, with hair as black as night, skin as white as frost, and lips as red as blood.
“Please,” said Ada, “may I have my golden egg?”
The King laughed, as did his courtiers. Everyone did, except Ada.
Then the King’s advisor, a man who wore a fur trimmed black robe, stepped forward and said, “Who are you, and where did you get the golden egg?”
Ada replied, “I am no one. I found the egg one day in my bed of straw.”
“How did it get in your bed?” asked the King, not unkindly.
“I don’t know,” said Ada.
Then the King’s courtiers laughed until their tears watered the floor.
“What do you want?” said the King to Ada.
“I want my golden egg.”
The King’s advisor thrust his face into Ada’s. He said, “Don’t be so forward with the King. You must have stolen the golden egg. That’s the only way a poor maid could have gotten hold of such a treasure.”
“No,” said Ada. “I found it in my bed. It hurt my back.”
The King smiled, but his advisor told Ada that she must pay for her food and lodging at the palace by giving the golden egg to the King.
“I have another idea,” said the King to Ada, when he saw how sad she was. “Work in the palace kitchen for seven days, and then you will have paid off your debt to me. Then come to me, and I will return your golden egg.”
“Sire,” said the King’s advisor, but the King waved him away and dismissed all of the courtiers, except Ada.
When Ada and the King were alone, he said, “You’re a brave and beautiful girl. If you weren’t a peasant, I might ask you to marry me. I don’t recall ever feeling this way about anyone.”
“I don’t wish to marry,” said Ada.
“What do you wish for then?” asked the King.
“Only for food, warmth, and to live without fear,” said Ada. Then she went away to the palace kitchen to work.
Seven days later, the King sent for Ada. The King’s advisor was at his side. When he saw her, the King marveled at the deep night of Ada’s hair, at the cool frost of her skin, and at the heat of her red lips. He said, “In these seven days had you food, warmth, and nothing to fear?”
Ada replied that she had.
“Do you still want the golden egg, even though you will go with it into the world alone?”
Ada replied that she did.
“Very well,” sighed the King. Then he returned the golden egg to Ada and commanded his advisor to escort her from the palace.
The King’s advisor escorted Ada to an underground chamber where he chained her to the wall and took the golden egg from her. But the egg shrank in his hands, until it was no more than a golden pebble. He studied the pebble. He sniffed it. He rolled it around on his tongue. Then the King’s advisor declared that Ada was a witch and ordered the dungeon master to feed her nothing but bread and water, and to inform him of any sign of magic from her.
“Let her keep the golden pebble,” he said. “It will remind her why she is to remain chained for the rest of her life.”
And with that, a key was turned in a lock, and Ada was alone in a tiny, windowless cell.
Ada lived for days on bread and water, with only the dungeon master for company. Although his heart was calcified due to years lived underground, the dungeon master felt sorry for the lovely girl and doubted that she was a witch. One day, he said, “I don’t know why such a good King would put someone like you in the dungeon. How did you make him so angry?”
Ada told the dungeon master that the King had given her permission to set out on her own. “His advisor didn’t bring me here on the King’s orders, but by his own reckoning.”
“I’m going to set things right!” declared the dungeon master.
“Be careful,” said Ada, but the dungeon master was gone.
The next day, a new dungeon master unlocked Ada’s cell and offered her water without any bread. “I’ve got orders to starve you until you admit that you’re a thieving witch,” he growled. Ada begged him to give her a crust, to no avail.
More moons came and went, and Ada gave up hope of ever seeing the sky again. Though her hands were shaking, Ada groped in the dark until she felt the cool roundness of the golden pebble that had once been her golden egg. “I’ve guarded you since the day you appeared in my bed of straw,” sighed Ada, “but now I must ask you to forgive me. I’m terribly hungry.” Then Ada swallowed the golden pebble. She felt warmth in her belly afterward, as if a small fire had been lit there. She thought of her mother squatting by the hearth, and Ada cried for the first time since she had been locked up.
Without knowing how many days and nights passed, Ada waited in her cell, chained to the wall, listening to the moans of other prisoners and the silences between. She did not grow weary; neither did she weaken. There was strength in her body and strength in her mind. As the days passed, Ada grew even stronger.
One day, the door to Ada’s cell swung open and someone shone a light on her face. Ada recognized the outline of the King.
“You see,” said the dungeon master, “she’s a witch. Only a witch could survive on mere water for so long.”
“You fool,” bellowed the King. “Who told you to lock up this girl?”
“It was your advisor, Sire,” said Ada.
“He will be punished beyond anything he can endure,” said the King. Then he helped Ada to her feet. “But you seem able to endure anything.”
When Ada stepped into the light, the King and the dungeon master saw a girl with hair blacker than night, skin whiter than frost, lips redder than blood, and eyes more clear than a starlit sky.
The King fell to his knees, begging Ada’s forgiveness. “I will give you anything you desire,” he said, “and that will not be enough.”
“I will go my own way now,” said Ada, solemnly, “which is all I asked from you in the first place.”
The King took Ada’s hand. “Where is your golden egg?” he said.
“It’s where no one will ever find it,” Ada replied, and when the King looked puzzled, she laughed. “Even though you are a King, you don’t need to know everything.”
Then the King took both of Ada’s hands in his own and asked her to marry him. Ada’s eyes were clear and she saw that the King was good. She said, “I will marry you if you will do one thing for me.”
“I will do anything,” said the King.
“Go into the woods,” said Ada. “Go without crown or royal robes. Follow the path to the village of my birth. When you arrive, beg for your bread at every door. When you’ve done that, go to my father’s cottage and ask him for my hand in marriage. Then return here and tell me what he said.”
“And what then?” asked the King.
“I will marry you.”
The King did what Ada asked of him. He went into the woods without crown or royal robes. He followed the path to her village, begged for his bread at every door, and was turned away by all. Then he came to the cottage of Ada’s birth where her mother, father, and brothers yet lived. There, he begged Ada’s father for her hand in marriage.
Ada’s mother cried out, “She’s alive?”
“She is,” said the King.
“I shouldn’t allow a beggar like you to marry my daughter,” said Ada’s father. “She’ll be poor all her life.”
“She doesn’t mind,” said the King. “She only wants food, warmth, and to live without fear.”
“I don’t think you can give her any of those,” said Ada’s father. “You look as if you haven’t eaten in days.”
Ada’s mother ushered the King inside the cottage and gave him a bowl of soup. Then she reminded Ada’s father of the golden egg. “If Ada still has her treasure, she will be all right,” she said.
“Ada still has it,” said the King between mouthfuls of soup. “She told me it’s where no one will ever find it.”
Ada’s father watched the King carefully. Then he said, “Tell Ada that I’m entitled to the golden egg in exchange for her hand in marriage. But seeing that she is marrying a beggar, and will have a difficult life, I will forfeit the price. You may marry my daughter.” He hesitated, and then added, “And tell Ada that I’m sorry for what I did to her.”
The King thanked Ada’s mother and father, and promised Ada’s mother, when she asked, to bring Ada back to the village one last time.
The King returned to the palace half-starved. Ada nursed him back to health, and when he was well enough, they were married. The King had Ada fitted with a crown and royal robes. Then he filled a carriage full of gold and took Ada back to the village of her birth.
“What did my father say to you?” asked Ada, when they had traveled many miles, and were nearly at the door of her old cottage.
“He said I may marry you without price.”
“Is that all?”
“He also said that he’s sorry for what he did to you, and that you will need the golden egg more than he, since you are to marry a beggar.”
Then Ada and the King laughed until the carriage pulled up to the door of the cottage.
“The golden egg belongs to me and no one else may have it,” said Ada when her father, mother, and brothers appeared. “But you may have my forgiveness instead, which is worth far more.”
Then Ada’s father, mother, and brothers got down on their knees before the King and Queen, and thanked them for their forgiveness.
Soon after, Ada and the King gave gifts to all the villagers, that they might have some gold of their own, and learn to use it wisely in the manner of Ada, the girl with the golden egg.
Copyright © 2017 by Cathrin Hagey. The story may not be reproduced without the author’s written and expressed permission.
Illustration by Cattallina/iStockphoto