This Spanish fairy tale is taken from the 1978 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses and begins with the very familiar theme of the desperate childless couple whose generosity to a beggar one dark and stormy night is rewarded by truly weird advice. Provided with a good meal and a place by the fire, the next morning the beggar recounts what he insists is a prophetic dream that will grant their deepest wish. Not entirely convinced but willing to give pretty much anything a try, the husband obediently fetches out a jar of honey and sets off through forest and up mountain until he comes to the cave from his guest’s dream. Within he sees a woman lying asleep, her long hair of three colours – black, red and gold – and crawling with bees. Following the beggar’s advice, the husband opens the honey, and the bees rise in a swarm to follow it out of the cave.
The sleeping woman stirs. For a long time she simply stares at her visitor in silence, but not in any great surprise. Quite the contrary, in fact. “I know why you have come,” she says, at last. “And since you have brought honey for my bees, I will help you.” She gives him two fruits. If his wife eats the apple, she will bear a son; if she eats the pear, she will have a girl. As a final gift, the woman gives three strands of her hair to be twisted into a chain and given for good luck to the couple’s eldest child. Then she goes straight back to sleep, and the man returns home, full of hope, to his wife.
Well, fruit isn’t exactly what she was hoping for. She’s heard a lot of bunkum about ways to conceive, and doesn’t see why this time will be any different. But it’s a long time since she’s tasted a pear, so she eats that and puts the apple away on a shelf. Nine months later, she gives birth to a girl – beautiful golden-haired little Catalina. Not long afterwards, she remembers the apple, and it gives her a son, Johan. All their dreams have now come true. Even in fairy tales, though, happiness doesn’t always last forever and on Catalina’s fourteenth birthday, while she is playing with her brother on the beach, pirates come sailing into the bay. Johan, hidden behind a rock, manages to escape, but Catalina is snatched up and taken far away to be sold at a slave market.
Surrounded by a crowd of cruel and greedy men, she is noticed by one particular merchant – a rich man whose own daughter has just died. Catalina reminds him so much of the dead girl that he outbids all his rivals and brings her home to dote on as if she was his own child. Given beautiful clothes and money of her own, all Catalina really wants is to go back to her real parents and her little brother. Nor is she the only one in the merchant’s house to be homesick. There are two other girls working there of the same age as herself – one a black-haired African, the other a red-haired Greek. They become close friends to Catalina, and one day the African girl comes to her asking for help to get back home. She is sure that if Catalina, the master’s favourite, asks for this, it will be done.
Well, Catalina tries. But the merchant, though kind to the girls under his care, is sure he knows better than they do. “If I let her wander off into the wicked world,” he protests, “she will most likely come to grief.” So he gives her a ring instead, and expects her to be happy. The girl falls into a deep depression from which no coaxing can rouse her and her friends fear for her life. Then one night, Catalina dreams. A woman with hair of black, red and gold and wearing a dress all covered in bees speaks to her, showing her what to do. In the morning she obeys that advice, untwisting the black hair from the chain she wears around her neck. When it falls to the ground, a girl springs up, identical to her friend the African slave.
Catalina acts fast. She gives the simulacrum the ring and goes to her friend with money, helping her to escape the house before the merchant can realise what is happening. He is a well-intentioned man, but not an observant one. He never notices that the real girl is gone and the happy slave who serves him now is not what she seems. Then the Greek girl comes to Catalina with the same request, begging for her freedom, and once again the merchant refuses to listen, offering a pretty necklace to appease her. The girl doesn’t want a necklace. She wants her brothers and sisters and her home. This time, though, Catalina knows how to help her. She throws down the red hair from her chain and a second simulacrum appears, identical to the Greek girl, who can now run away like her friend before her.
Which leaves poor Catalina to listen to the merchant’s happy self-congratulation. “What did I tell you? My young slaves have consoled themselves. Now they are both as happy as the day is long.” And the days are long, empty of former friendship, full of painful memories. She could escape now, if she wanted – but she feels her debt of gratitude to the merchant, who may be stupid, but had always treated her kindly. Years go by, and Catalina grows up. One day, as she is sitting on her balcony watching the ships come and go in the harbour, a young knight rides past beneath her. Catalina sighs after his easy freedom and he hears her, looks up, sees her sad and lovely face and calls out a greeting. He asks her name, and she calls herself Far-From-Home, but when it is his turn to introduce himself, the name is oh so very familiar. It is her brother Johan, who no longer recognises his sister after so long, but remarks wistfully on her golden hair. He knew a girl with hair like that…Seeing her sadness, he offers to help her run away.
Catalina doesn’t know what to do. If she leaves, she breaks her master’s heart; if she doesn’t, she may never see her family again. When he comes the next day for her answer, she has chosen duty, telling him she must remain. Even so, she can’t hide her grief completely, and even her sensitivity challenged master notices her red eyes. He interprets this as a cold and coddles her appropriately with an early bedtime and lots of warm drinks, but nothing can comfort her. On the day named for Johan’s departure, she goes to her balcony to watch him sail from her life…and as she waves to him, the last strand falls from her neck to the ground. A golden-haired simulacrum springs up as if it has come straight out of a mirror and asks for its instructions. “Oh, stay here, stay here with my master the merchant, love him and make him happy!” Catalina cries out, and not stopping for anything, she runs like mad for the harbour.
The ship is already gone. But Johan, seeing her appear on the quay, forces the captain to turn around and collect her. He is delighted to see that his sad friend has decided to free herself and, quite carried away with the moment, asks her to marry him. Ah…awkward. Catalina explains that she loves him, she will always love him, but she can never marry him. She is the long-lost sister with the fondly remembered golden hair, and at last she’s going home. So happiness returns to the house of her parents as the family reunites, but that’s not quite the end of the story. One day, we are told, Catalina marries a duke, and has three little girls of her own – one with black hair, one with gold, and one with hair red as the rising sun.
This story feels a bit like a Gothic romance. Kidnapped by pirates! Adopted into wealth and misery! The terrible choice between love and duty! Only it isn’t the traditional love story, it’s the love of family that brings Catalina home – and her handsome knight is more a clarion call than a rescuer. She manages the rescuing quite well herself, in fact. It is also one of the few fairy tales I can name off the top of my head that feature people of other ethnicities from the protagonist in a positive way. I love it for all these things, and also for the sleepy sorceress who lives in a cave full of bees, quite happy to be helpful, but all things considered would rather be left to her nap.