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Voices in Fairy Tales

by Michelle Tocher

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Boy Who Offends a Customer

Themes: Departure | Disgust | Dread

When I was twelve, I would sit with my mother in her market stall where we sold herbs, vegetables, and baskets of fruit. I would cry, “This way, gentlemen! See these lovely cabbages and these fresh herbs! Early apples, ladies! Early pears and apricots, and all cheap. Come, buy, buy!” After people shopped, they would often pay me with a pretty flower, a slice of cake, or even a coin.

One day, an old woman came walking through the marketplace. She looked very torn and ragged, and had a small sharp face, all wrinkled, with red eyes, and a thin hooked nose which nearly met her chin. She leaned on a tall stick and limped and shuffled and stumbled along as if at any moment she would fall on her nose.

She stopped at our stall and asked my mother if she was Hannah the herb seller. My mother said yes, and could she serve her, and the old woman said, “Let me look at your herbs. I wonder if you’ve got what I want.” She thrust her hideous brown hands into the herb basket, and began turning over all the neatly packed herbs with her skinny fingers, often holding them up to her nose and sniffing them.

My mother and I were disgusted at seeing our wares treated like this, but mother dared not speak. When the old hag had turned over the whole basket she muttered, “Bad stuff, bad stuff; much better fifty years ago—all bad.”

I couldn’t hold back my anger. “You are a very rude old woman!” I cried.  “First you mess all our nice herbs about with your horrid brown fingers and sniff at them with your long nose till no one else will care to buy them, and then you say it’s all bad stuff, though the duke’s cook himself buys all his herbs from us.”

She gave me a sharp look, laughed unpleasantly, and said: “So you don’t like my long nose, sonny? Well, you shall have one yourself, right down to your chin.”

She shuffled towards the hamper of cabbages, took up one after another, squeezed them hard, and threw them back, muttering again, “Bad stuff, bad stuff.”

I couldn’t take anymore of this. “Don’t waggle your head in that horrid way. Your neck is as thin as a cabbage-stalk, and it might easily break, and if your head were to fall into the basket, who would buy anything?”

The old woman laughed. “Don’t you like thin necks? Then you sha’n’t have one. I’ll give you a head stuck close your shoulders so that it won’t fall off.”

“Don’t talk such nonsense to the child,” said my mother. “If you wish to buy, please make haste. You are keeping other customers away.”

The woman gave her an angry look and bought six cabbages. Then she said, “Let your boy carry them home for me and I’ll pay him for his trouble.”

I started to cry. I was truly afraid that she would pay me for my trouble, in a way I had never been paid before!

Boy Who Offends a Customer, The Long-Nosed Dwarf, Violet Fairy Book. Illustration by H.J. Ford.