Bella and the Prince of Spices

 

Once upon a time, there was a slender young girl named Bella. She was very poor, and all she had to eat was a daily portion of watery, tasteless gruel. Day after day, she would sit at the table with her bowl before her, dreaming of nothing so much as a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the taste of her meal.

"Oh, for a bit of sweetness," she sighed. "If I only had a pinch of sugar, how happy I would be." She said this to herself every day, not remembering to be thankful for the gruel's nourishment, only resenting its blandness.

One day, there came a knock at her door: rap, rap, rap! Scurrying to answer it, she found a smiling, whiskered man there, clad in a beggar's rags.

"Yes?" Bella asked politely.

The man stepped into her small room with a grin and a bow. "I am the Prince of Spices! I have come in answer to your prayers!"

The Prince of Spices? Bella had never heard of such a thing! He certainly didn't look like a prince, and she said so.

"Ah, but appearances may deceive!" he winked. "Your Ladyship's wish?" And with that he reached into the folds of his rags, and produced a little paper packet filled with a brownish powder. "Where is your porridge?" he asked. She pointed to the table, and the Prince of Spices opened the packet, drew out just a pinch of the powder, and stirred it into the gruel.

"There!" he cried triumphantly. "Taste and see!"

So Bella took up her spoon, and lifted it to her lips. The Prince of Spices had not deceived her! Her formerly bland meal was now transformed. A smile broke upon her face, rosy spots of color appeared on her gray cheeks, and her feet trembled with a new sensation: a wish to dance. The Prince of Spices took her hand, and they danced a merry jig about her meager room, which somehow seemed a bit larger.

After a few whirling, breathless moments, the Prince of Spices released her hand, and gave her the little paper packet. "Here; this is for you," he smiled. "If you use just a bit of it each day, there is enough to last you for many days. In fact," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper, "I am not entirely certain that it will ever run out." Then he kissed the little girl on her rosy cheek, and said, "I will come again when it's all gone." And he turned and disappeared through her door.

Bella was confused for a moment, but then remembered the little paper pouch she held in her hand. Sweetness for many days! She was a happy, happy girl.

Time passed. Each day Bella took just a pinch of the sugar from her packet and stirred it into her porridge, and each day the blandness of her meal was transformed into a delightful something that she could truly enjoy, at least for a little while. But a curious thing was happening, too. There came a day when Bella found that the sweetener didn't seem to make her gruel quite as sweet as it had before. For several days she noted this strange new event, and the realization filled her with dread. Whether the sugar was losing its sweetness, or her own palate was changing, she did not stop to consider. Her only thought was for the blandness, the tedium, of her daily meal returning to torment her with its faint memory of pleasure, and how to hold onto the quickly-vanishing sweetness.

Nearly desperate, she opened her packet to examine its contents. As her strange visitor had said, it was still almost full; in fact, she couldn't tell that she had used even a bit. Acting on a sudden impulse, Bella poured half of what remained into her bowl. She trembled, fearing that she had done something terrible, but nothing sinister happened, so she tentatively dipped her spoon into the pasty mass and drew it to her lips. Ah! This was what she had been longing for. Sweetness, glorious sweetness, the sweetness she had missed. She was ecstatic.

She only felt vaguely uncomfortable that she had disobeyed the instructions the Prince of Spices had given her, but she quieted that dim voice of warning by applying herself with even more zeal to her eating.

The next day Bella poured out the rest of her packet, and sorrowfully consumed what she feared would be the last of her pleasurable meals. Morning came, and she peered sadly into the little pouch, hoping that there might be a little sweetness left, but of course it was empty. So she sniffed back a tear or two, and as bravely as she could tried to face the prospect of her bleak old gruel, with nothing to sweeten it. But the sadness of her situation seemed to her like a great gray cloud enveloping her, suffocating her, and she burst into tears.

While she was thus sobbing, there came the sound of shuffling feet to her door, and the tap of a stick against its sill. Quickly wiping her eyes, she called out, "Come in."

A small silver-haired man entered, leaning upon a staff, his beard long and tangled. Smoke from his pipe curled about his head like a wreath.

"Who are you?" Bella asked uncertainly.

"I am the Prince of Spices," he replied, and Bella had to admit there was something familiar about his voice.

"But you don't look the same," she said tentatively.

"Oh, I am the same, my love," he assured her. "It is you who have changed."

"Have you come to bring me more sugar?" she asked, hope trembling in her voice.

"Oh, no, my darling. I have many more spices than just sweet. I have spices for tart, and spices for tang. I have spices for bitter as well as sweet. There is so much more for you to experience than just sugar! I have mugwort and cumin--basil and dill. I have hyssop and juniper and ramson. I have--"

"More sweetness, please," Bella interrupted.

The old man fixed her with his gaze. "There is much you must taste before you leave this house," he said. "There is salt and senna, sesame and skullcap--"

Bella repeated, "I would like more sweetness, please."

The old man frowned, murmuring almost to himself, "Of course you would. How could it be other?" He thumped his staff on the wooden floor of Bella's room, which seemed to have grown quite small. Indeed, the Prince of Spices seemed to fill the whole room, though Bella could not see him clearly. "Are you quite certain?" he asked.

"Yes," Bella replied somewhat sullenly, forgetting to add please.

"As you wish," he said, and once more became cheerful and small. He reached into his cloak and pulled out a packet similar to the girl's empty one. "This contains the same stuff you have grown accustomed to, though you may not find it as sweet as at first."

She grabbed the small paper pouch greedily, saying, "Thank you," but feeling no real gratitude that amounted to anything.

He kissed her flushed cheek tenderly and said, "We will meet again," and then he was gone.

Over the next few days, Bella tried to be satisfied with her old sweetness, but was soon using two pinches instead of one, and sometimes three or four. The little packet of brownish sugar was quickly exhausted of all its contents.

For three long days Bella had nothing to eat except her old runny, tasteless gruel. She cursed herself for her carelessness, for her gluttony, for her impetuosity. Sometimes she wept softly, but mostly she just moped. She longed for the days when she was satisfied with just a pinch of sugar. She even began to long for the earlier days, before she knew what sweetness truly tasted like, when sugar had been only a rumor, an imagination--or at least she thought she did.

Then one day she heard the brisk click of heels upon the pavement outside her room. She threw open the door without waiting for a knock, and found, standing there, a handsome middle-aged man in crisp military dress, with moustaches neatly trimmed.

"Are you--are you the Prince of Spices?" she asked doubtfully.

"Ah, my sweetheart--you have recognized me!" he beamed, and she smiled a feeble smile in return. "I am sorry you have had to suffer these past few days, but they were necessary for you. They have been long days for me, too--but look how you've grown!"

And indeed Bella seemed to have grown. She was taller and rounder, and her cheeks seemed to have lost some of their childlike pudginess.

The Prince of Spices continued, "You are ready now, I think, to taste some of the other adventures I have for your tongue."

Bella was not at all certain of this, but she said meekly, "Yes, sir--if you will help me."

"Oh, sweet child, you have nothing to fear! Just eat what I set before you, and you will find that it is good! It is all good! Taste and see!"

And with that, the Prince retrieved a small clear vial of some ground-up green seeds from a satchel he carried at his side, and sprinkled a bit over her gruel.

Bella took her spoon in her hand, and tried a small mouthful. It was bitter, so bitter that she nearly spat it out, but she feared offending her friend, so she smiled bravely and swallowed, feeling it burn as it passed down her throat. After the bitterness had left her mouth, though, there remained on her tongue a sweetness that surpassed any of the sweetness of her former pleasure. And she found to her delight that she could see the Prince of Spices more clearly. His eyes were the same eyes as the beggar who had first come to her door--the same eyes as the wizened old man with the staff. And pouring from those eyes that beheld her like liquid light was what could only be, could unmistakenly be, love.

"There, now. That wasn't too bad, was it?" He produced another small vial, this one containing a darkish substance as crimson as blood, and added a dash to her porridge. "This will temper the bitterness somewhat, but not the sweetness that remains." He pressed the two vials into her hand, and kissed her.

"You don't have to leave now, do you?" she asked.

"It seems that way for now, my fairest one," the Prince replied. "But whenever you have eaten of this blend, you will always remember the way that I have looked at you. I promise." And he kissed her again, and was gone.

Through the next span of days, Bella ate what the Prince had left her, and her tired old gruel was always transformed into something magical. That isn't to say that she always ate it without hesitation, or that sometimes she didn't secretly wish for a pinch of the old sugar instead, but after eating--no matter how bitter--she always remembered the love in her Prince's eyes.

In no time at all, it seemed, the bitter herbs were gone. Bella waited expectantly for the Prince of Spices to reappear. And so he did.

This time he came in the guise of a farmer, with dried mud on his boots and two days' worth of stubble on his chin. But there was no doubt about his eyes.

"You've come!" she cried, trying in vain to conceal her joy.

"My darling!" he replied, gazing at her with what seemed like amazement. "Look at you now!"

And Bella was changed. No longer a little girl, but a young lady of great beauty, in the full flower of womanhood.

"Have you come to take me from this place?" she asked, with a note of pleading in her voice.

"Not now," he laughed, and the merriness of his laughter banished whatever sorrow she might have felt at his reply. "I heard you were out of spices."

Suddenly somber, she whispered, "Then you've come to bring more bitterness."

"Oh, no," he said soothingly. "I do not always come bearing pain. Just sometimes." And he poured out upon her porridge a smooth, milky substance, and said, "Taste and see."

So Bella tasted and swallowed, and was immediately filled with a warm, contented sensation, so thoroughly enveloping her that, before she knew it, she was fast asleep. When she awoke, she was alone, though she imagined she could still feel the press of the Prince's lips against her cheek. Upon her table was a little packet with words written upon it: Use this until I return.

Over the course of the next days, months, and years, the Prince of Spices visited her often. At times he appeared as an old man, at times as a little boy. Sometimes he brought her sweetness and delight, sometimes bitter gall that nearly made her retch to swallow it. But no matter how bitter her portion, it always carried with it at least a hint of sweetness.

One day, when she had almost, but not quite, finished a packet of particular bitterness, she heard a knock. She walked slowly to the door, her knees aching, for somehow through the years she had become quite old.

There at her door was the Prince of Spices, full of vitality and strength, his beard a splendid golden brown, his eyes a flame of purest love. He carried no staff or pouch; his arms were free to enfold her in the tenderest of embraces.

"My darling, my love, my fairest one," he whispered in her ear. "Look how you've grown!"

She rested silently in his arms, wondering how the glorious Prince of Spices could ever love such a faltering old crone as she.

"How I've longed for this day," he said, and kissed her wrinkled cheek.

"Have you come," she asked haltingly, "to bring more bitterness?"

"No, my dear," he said gladly. "Today I shall take you to dine at my house."

Nodding, she took his hand and stepped through the door. And all of the years of waiting, of waiting, of bitterness, of sweetness, melted away and became nothing.

"Is it very far?" she asked, but suddenly her legs felt young and strong, and she knew that she could walk that far, no matter how far it was.

"We are here," said the Prince.

"Oh, my," Bella gasped, as a banquet table appeared before them, lavishly filled with every manner of delicacy, from aromatic soups to succulent main dishes to irresistible desserts. "I had no idea it was this beautiful!"

"My love," said the Price of Spices, "you have not even begun to imagine."

*****

Printed copies of this story are available for free by emailing the author.

 

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