A Strange Request

Betsy trudged down the dirt path. In the past year, her family had died and she’d lost her job. Now all she owned could fit in her backpack and she couldn’t even afford to pay bus fare. Well, it just meant she was probably due a bit of good luck soon.

The path wandered through the woods. The trees were tall and the light was dim. Betsy rounded a turn and saw someone slumped over at the base of an old, dead tree.   As she walked closer, the person slowly stood. It was an old woman.

The woman’s cheeks were lumpy and her eyes were sunken in. Her hair was white and wispy and stuck out all over. She was holding a blue gingham apron tightly in her hands.

“Young lady,” she said.   “You look strong and kind. Could you help me? I’ll reward you well.”
“What do you need?” Betsy asked.

“This tree is hollow,” the old woman said. “If you climb up and lower yourself down, you’ll see three rooms.   In one there is a dog with eyes as big as salt shakers. He sits on a chest of copper coins. In the next there is a dog with eyes as big as bicycle tires. He sits on a chest of silver coins. In the last, there is a dog with eyes as big as a lighthouse.   He sits on a chest of gold coins.”

“Eyes that big seem rather implausible,” Betsy said.

“And yet they are,” the old woman said. “The dogs won’t hurt you if you show them my apron. If you put it on the ground, you can lift them onto it so that you can open the chests. Take what you want.”

“And what do you need?” Betsy asked again.

“My tinderbox. It was my grandmother’s.”

“What’s a tinderbox?” Betsy asked.

“It’s a little metal box with flint and wood and such inside. It’s used to start fires,” The old woman said.

“So how am I supposed to lower myself down into the tree?”
“I have a rope.” The old woman picked up a cloth bag that had been leaning against the tree. She pulled out a rope that must have filled the small bag. The bag didn’t look any less full. “I can hold the end for you while you climb down.”

Betsy shook her head. “I’ll tie it to one of those thick looking branches. That way I won’t have to worry about your arms getting tired.   I’ll leave my pack here and put your apron in my pocket.”

The old woman handed over the apron and Betsy climbed up the tree and secured the rope to a branch. She carefully climbed down the inside of the tree, holding the rope tightly.

There was a stone room underneath the tree, lit by hundreds of lamps. A little round metal box stood against the wall in a pile of dead leaves, as though it had been dropped through the hollow tree and left there. Betsy picked it up and walked down the hallway. There were three doors, all with keys sticking out of the locks.

Betsy checked the first. There was a big-eyed dog sitting on a chest. She checked the next. This dog on a chest had unbelievably big eyes. She checked the last room. She almost closed the door again. How was it possible for a dog to have eyes that big?

She cautiously waved the apron and laid it at its feet. She shuffled the scary dog onto the apron and opened the chest.   It was indeed filled with gold.   Finally some good luck.

So, how much was she willing to pay herself for helping an old woman for less than an hour? It seemed mean to rob her blind just because the old woman was desperate. Betsy grabbed a handful of coins and felt a little guilty as she put them in her pocket.

She shifted the dog back and picked up the apron and the box. She tied the apron around the box and tied it to her belt loop. Then, she climbed back out of the tree. The old woman was waiting at the bottom of the tree, hands clasped together.

“Did you get my tinderbox?” she asked.

“Yes. I grabbed some gold too,” Betsy said. “Would you like some?”   She started to climb down the tree.

“No thank you, dear,” the old woman said. “Just the box.” Betsy untied the apron and handed it back to the old woman with the tinderbox. The moment the old woman had it back in her hands, she began to change.

She somehow melted into a young woman Betsy’s age, with black curly hair and dark brown eyes. The apron and box melted together into a tall wooden staff. “Finally!” the young woman said. “Thank you. What’s your name? I think we’ve completely forgotten introductions.”

“I’m Betsy. What happened to you?”

“I’m Griselda, but call me Rizzie. I had a great job working as a member of the palace staff. It gave me access to their library and I learned a lot.   When I was ready to move on, I decided to try out one of my new spells. I baked a bunch of live blackbirds in a pie. When the king touched it with the knife, they burst out singing.”

“Wow! So what happened?”

“The royal mage charmed one of the birds to find the culprit. It came and bit my nose. Then he locked my magic and set up that awful task. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along,” Rizzie said.

“And the dogs? And chests and such?”

“Just one really.” She whistled and a normal looking dog appeared next to her. It wagged its tail. “The money was all the money I had in the bank.” She waved her staff and muttered something.   “It should be in my bag now, except what you took. And the staff really was my Grandmother’s. Thank you again.”

“So, where are you going next?” Betsy asked.

“I’m not sure,” Rizzie said.

“I hear there’s a kingdom nearby where the crazy king locked up his daughter because a seer said she’d marry a commoner,” Betsy said.

“Well, that’s stupid. Why not just hold a ball and choose who you invite? He’s just asking for a crazy risk-taker to run away with her,” Rizzie said.

“Care to see if we could go straighten things out?” Betsy asked.

“Sounds like fun,” Rizzie said. “But stop me if I want to play a trick on the king. That didn’t work so well the last time.”