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Impossible tasks set, lavish rewards promised, dire consequences for failure. Why even try?

Impossible tasks set, lavish rewards promised, dire consequences for failure. Why even try?

Simplia’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She was trapped. Sagacia had tied the apron with double knots.

“I don’t know how to cook Hoppin John,” she whined. “What if I do it wrong?”

“We bring in the New Year with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or grilled cheese, like we had for Christmas dinner after I burned the turkey,” said Sagacia. “Nobody endured lasting trauma as a result of that mishap… And now we have a new holiday story…”

“Talk to the turkey about trauma,” Simplia interrupted.

“The turkey’s trauma was a fait accompli before we even laid eyes on it. So you burn the black-eyed peas. Or mess them up somehow. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Yeah okay.”

Simplia started sorting the dried peas.

Just then Murzik pranced into the kitchen, announcing his presence with a proud throaty meow.

“Drop it, Murzik!” Sagacia ordered.

She knew that growl. It meant the cat had brought a trophy into the house — something furry or feathery. Something usually still very much alive.

Obediently, the cat laid his prize at Sagacia’s feet. Lying on its belly, gasping, was a brown mouse wearing the uniform of a U. S. Postal Service employee. He carried a small leather satchel. Gently, Sagacia scooped up the mouse, determined that, while it was badly shaken, it was not physically maimed, and took it to the sink for a drink of water.

As soon as he had drunk his water and caught his breath, the mouse said, “I’m reporting that cat, lady. Here’s some mail for Vasilisa.” He extracted a tiny envelope from his mail bag. “Now, would you please have the decency to carry me back to the road.”

Sagacia took the minuscule missive and handed it to Simplia. Then she started out the door, carrying the mouse very, very carefully and apologizing profusely.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to put off an unpleasant task, Simplia opened the envelope to find a letter written on the thinnest onionskin she had ever handled. She read:

“Dear Vasilisa —

As an insomniac, I try to be creative about ways to lull myself to sleep. Last week, I spent several wee hours of the morning replaying all the fairy tales of my childhood that involve tasks, mysteries, ordeals or feats of bravery that the flower of the kingdom’s youth are invited to attempt with the promise of half the kingdom and a princess bride as a reward for succeeding. BUT, woe betide any man who makes an attempt and fails. He usually loses his head. Sometimes just his ears. Sometimes he’s just beaten to a bloody pulp and sent crawling home.


I know fairy tales are metaphorical and symbolic and deeper than what appears on the surface, but for the life of me, I can’t understand what “wisdom” lies beneath this motif. I’m curious to know if it’s unique to fairy tales from Europe — the part of the world that gave us Calvinism — or if it also occurs in the wonder tales of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australasia, and the first nations of the Americas.

Any insight you — or your friends — have to share on this matter will … okay, it probably won’t help me get to sleep. But it will help with the tossing and turning.

I am yours sincerely,

Bleary in Bloomington

When Sagacia returned from escorting the U. S. Postal Service mouse back to the safety of the bar ditch she found Simplia zipping up her jacket over the gingham apron she couldn’t untie.

“I’m off to the Fairy Tale Lobby,” she said, waving the letter at her friend. “Come with me. On the way home we can stop at the Piggly Wiggly and get a can of black-eyed peas.”