The Old Woman and The Fool

There was once a king and queen that lived in an stately castle on the top of a hill. They were kind and fair rulers who were never seen without a smile on their faces and nobody knew that the secret to their tranquility was that each evening, after a long hard day of ruling, they’d sit down and be entertained by their Fool. He would dance about, crack [mostly clean] jokes and play out little scenes until they were laughing and relaxed. 

Many years passed, and the monarchs came to have a daughter, who then also spent her days being entertained by the Fool. He, not having any children of his own, always tried a little harder to make her laugh and loved her as his own. He spent the rest of his days watching her grow up into a beautiful young lady, who took after her parents in her wisdom, mercy and sense of justice. However, time wove its dreaded curse and the Fool grew old until one day he passed away. The royal family mourned their Fool for he had been not only hilarious but kind and loyal. Fearing they would never find a man like him again, they went about their business but the entire kingdom could feel something had changed and although the royals were still good at their duties, it seemed a sparkle was missing from their eyes. 

Years more passed, and the young princess continued to grow. Soon her parents handed responsibilities over to her, training her to be a good ruler. Soon afterwards, they passed away and the young princess was left to rule on her own. As her days grew longer and harder, her once brilliant smile was tarnished. Her shoulders grew strong but stiff. Her eyes were still beautiful, but seemed empty. Her verdicts were intelligent but her heart was cold. And, one day, she walked out into her garden to simply get away from it all. Sitting down on a hard concrete bench, surrounded by beauty she did not see, she began to cry and one of her elderly maids, hanging washing nearby, heard her weep. The pain in her tears resonated within the old washerwoman, who remembered the friendly and bright little girl she had once known and she resolved to do something to aid her mistress. 

So, with a small bundle of belongings [for she only had a modest amount to begin with], she set off to find the girl another Fool. She met many a man on her journey. Young and old, from impossibly handsome to grotesquely ugly, she laughed many times but turned each candidate away, for she knew that a Fool could not just be funny. No, he had to be something like that man from many years ago. He had to give the girl a joy that would last long after he’d left the room. The washer woman had known the palace’s previous Fool quite well and she knew what, therefore, made a good one. 

She continued to search and met hundreds upon hundreds of people who were eager to work in the palace but never found one she was completely satisfied with. They were all missing something, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Although they’d all been funny, there was something not quite right. Was it that their jokes were stiff and rehearsed? With some, it felt like they’d simply sewn together a patchwork of old stories. Was it that they did not understand how to artfully put together a story? Listening to some, she was near retching at the content of their material. No, she knew what she was looking for and she hadn’t found it. 

After searching until her feet were covered in blisters and her eyes were worn from looking, she decided to return to the palace empty handed. As disappointed as it made her, she was no longer a young woman and didn’t want to spend her last days so distant from home. Walking back to the castle, she decided to take a different road to the one she had come on and went through some farmers fields. As she passed through a pear orchard, the tinkling sound of laughter caught her ear. Intrigued, she hustled toward it and there saw, in a clearing, two little girls being entertained by who she assumed was their older brother. His emerald eyes twinkling and his chestnut curls bobbing, he told them story after story until they were rolling in the grass, begging him to let them pause for air. Fuelled by their happiness, he continued to make jokes and sing songs until he too collapsed on the grass, exhausted. The old woman came forward, out of the bushes she’d concealed herself in. There was something about him that she had been looking for. He was it. 

So, the boy traveled with her back to the castle and, after resting for a bit and eating aa lot, she presented him to the now queen of the land. Sitting regally on her throne, she looked down at him, her face stern and her lips straight. At first seemingly nervous, he began to speak and soon lost himself in his story, running around and acting out the parts, weaving marvellous imagery and interjecting with hilarious comments. Although she at first attempted to resist, the princess found herself getting more and more engrossed his tale, until at last she was smiling unabashedly. When he finished, she clapped and laughed, and the washerwoman smiled. She had been watching the entire time, eager to see her mistress’ reaction and when she had, she was satisfied. The girl was happy. 

The Queen asked what his name was and he obliged. She told him how pleased she had been by his performance and he grinned at her, thanking her for being such a lovely audience. She finally asked him for more about himself, and he told her what was most important to him- that he had two younger sisters waiting for him at home. The Queen’s smile immediately fell from her face. 
She thanked him for his service and entertainment, reached into a purse at her side and handed him a pure gold coin. His eyes widened, for he knew it would feed his family for months. As he reached to take it, however, he paused for he had just realised what it meant- the lady was dismissing him from service. The washerwoman too, felt her heart sink. What had stopped her lady from accepting the boy? 

The Queen offered no explanation, however, and so the boy, the washerwoman and the young Queen all went to bed that night with heavy hearts.

The next day, the washerwoman went to collect the washing she knew had been building up in her absence and found the Queen hanging it out herself, already washed and clean. The lady turned around at the old woman’s approach and smiled a little. She explained she’d heard the old woman had gone to find someone to make her smile, and wanted to repay the kindness. Perturbed, the old woman asked, before she could even think to stop herself, why then, had the Queen rejected the young man? He had clearly done a good job and was a good Fool. He could laugh as well as be laughed at, his story was well told and he was well spoken- he was quite handsome to boot. The Queen’s smiled dropped again and she turned again to face the washing. As she hid her face from the old woman, she explained she couldn’t bring herself to take him from his family. Her parens hadn’t done that to their Fool, and she couldn’t do it to another. The old woman gingerly approached the young girl and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. The girl turned to face her. The old woman explained that the Fool had indeed had a family- well, only a wife. And the king and queen, in order to keep their Fool, had built him and his wife a little cottage on their land so he wouldn’t have to travel to see the one he loved. The Queen’s heart was warmed at the kindness of her parents and she asked the washerwoman how she knew such a thing. The washerwoman smiled fondly and revealed that the Fool had indeed been her husband. And, she added, now that he was gone, the cottage was much too big and spacious for her. She was quite happy for the next Fool to take her place and she was quite sure he was worthy of it. The Queen laughed and embraced the old woman. 

After that, the old woman began to gently move her things out of the house as the new Fool and his family moved in. Each night, their belongings spread out a little more, but they did not disturb the old woman from her small bedroom. The boy took the place of the Fool and from that day, the Princess ended each day with a smile. The elderly woman, quite satisfied she had done her duty to take care of the royal family the way they had taken care of her and her husband, one night fell asleep in the bed she had once shared with the man she loved, but dear reader, this is not a sad ending. For, as the Princess was made to smile by her Fool, so then was the old woman made to smile by hers. 

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