Very well then. Here was a king who wished to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, and with that in mind he left his kingdom and took to the road. He looked everywhere and tried all the different countries. But although he was shown the prettiest young women, he was quick to see their faults and kept putting off a decision. At last, tired of the traveling and the disappointments, he decided to go home and forget the whole matter.
After he had been back awhile, it happened that a peddler arrived in the kingdom selling picture postcards and all kinds of portraits. Down the street he came, wheeling his cart with the little portraits arranged under an open umbrella. And who but the king should be on hand to hear his cry:
“Get your portraits! Portraits here! Pretty faces ready to go, some not so pretty, and some so-so. Portraits! Get your portraits!”
The king called the man over, took a look at the portraits, and saw one that pleased him. The longer he looked at it, the more he liked it. Unable to take his eyes off it, he asked who the young woman was and where she lived.
“Sacred and Royal Majesty,” said the peddler, “she whom you admire in the mistress Lucía, who lives in the town of La Cañada. I must tell you, she’s an orphan, whose brother Juan watches over her closely. In fact he lets her come out on her balcony only one day a year. I myself have never seen her, but those who have spend the entire year waiting for the day to come round again.”
Hearing this, and already smitten by the portrait, the king suffered an attack of lovesickness and had to retire to his chambers, where he immediately dispatched messengers to find the young man named Juan and to ask him for the hand of his sister Lucía.
When Juan had been brought to the palace and had heard the king’s proposal, he said he had never felt to honored. He would be pleased to allow the marriage. But first he would have to have a private audience with the king. The king drew him aside.
“Majesty,” whispered the young man, “I must tell you this not because she’s my sister, but because it’s the honest truth. Beyond mere beauty she has three charms, and no one knows about then but me, and now you: when she brushed her hair, pearls fall to the ground; when she washes her hands, flowers drop from her fingers; and whenever she cries, it rains.”
The king, who had never heard such marvels, was now more impatient than before, if that is possible. He ordered a coach to be outfitted and sent Juan with an escort to bring back Lucía at once, while he himself made arrangements for the wedding.
And now we will leave this king and turn to the mistress Lucía, shut up in her house and worrying her head over why in the world her brother had been summoned to the palace. She was torturing herself with first one idea and then another when Juan arrived and gave her the news that the king had decided to marry her.
Lucía, who was an obedient girl, made no objection to her brother’s plans and even began packing her things. But she did have one requirement: she must be allowed to bring her pet parakeet and her pet mockingbird. And for the occasion she prettied up each of the two cages with a bonnet of ribbons. While she busied herself with this work, one of her servant girls said to her, “Mistress Lucía, you should bring me with you to clean the cages.”
“Why not? Go ask your mother for permission.”
The girl returned with her mother and said, “I can go if my mother comes too. And she’ll do your laundry, just as always.”
“Very well, I’ll ask Juan, and if he says yes, you can both come.”
Juan thought, “What could be better?” This way his sister would not be homesick. Besides, there was a brush fire just at that moment and the neighbors needed Juan to help put it out. So he had no choice but to entrust Lucía to the maidservant and her mother. No doubt she would be perfectly safe. And of course he didn’t want to keep the king waiting.
Up went the birdcages onto the luggage rack of the carriage. The two servants settled themselves comfortably. And Juan said good-bye to his sister, giving her many good counsels along with his blessing. Her carriage now ready, Lucía fluttered her handkerchief, saying: Good-bye, dear Juan, who mothered and fathered me. Good-bye, dear chapel, where I said my prayers. Good-bye dear pebbles, that I used to play with. Good-bye, dear brook, where I used to bathe.
“Hush,” said Juan, “You’re making me weak.” With that the carriage rolled off, Lucía, started to cry, and the heavens, need it be said, opened up and poured.
Well, they hadn’t gone far when they came to a deep woods were berries were growing. The old servant woman called out, “Look here! What should it be but strawberries! Mistress Lucía, why don’t we stop and pick these for the king, so we don’t come empty-handed.”
“Very well,” said Lucía. She ordered the coachman to stop, and as the three of them were jumping down, the parakeet caught Lucía’s eye and said, “Mama Lucía, being me too.” And Lucía, who could never say no to anyone, took the cage off the road and tied it behind her back.
They had just begun picking the strawberries when the woman said, “Mistress Lucía, look! They’re plumper over that way,” and she ran farther into the forest. “Oh, darling! Look! They’re fresher over that way, and more fragrant!” But in her heart she had a deeper plan. As soon as they were far enough from the carriage to be out of sight, the old servant woman took hold of Lucía, wrenched her arms, and slapped her all over. She pulled off Lucía’s outfit and put it on her own daughter. Leaving Lucía with the parakeet and the daughter’s clothes, the two servants ran back to the carriage and shouted to the coachman, “To the palace and hurry!”
When they arrived the king was waiting with his entire court. At a glance he could tell that his bride-to-be was no rarity. She didn’t even look like the portrait. He’d been tricked. But what are mere appearances? He consoled himself with the thought of the young woman’s three charms. Anyway, since the king’s word is good for keeps, as people say, he had no choice but to go ahead with the wedding.
As the nuptials drew to a close, the king ordered his guards to throw open the doors to a balcony that overlooked the main square. All the king’s subjects were to gather at once to witness a spectacle never before seen in the world. The queen would display her three charms.
The square filled up in no time. The king and his court arranged themselves on the balcony. But can you imagine? When the moment arrived for the maidservant to brush her hair, what fell out but lice? She washed her hands, and nothing came off but grime. And when she started to cry, the clouds flew away and hid behind the hills.
The king was humiliated. He lashed out at the queen. When she told him she had no idea what he was talking about, he began to suspect Don Juan of treachery. He summoned him to the palace for questioning.
At this the alert-minded queen pleaded a migraine and dotted her temples with paper discs soaked in oil of alacrán.
No one was to disturb her, and all for the purpose of avoiding Juan, who would naturally recognize her.
On arriving at the palace, Juan had to be told that his sister could not see him, and when the king charged him with the crime of fraud he had no defense. After the king had pronounced him guilty, the ministers in council sentenced him to death.
The trial was held on the balcony, and the execution and burial took place in the commons just below. The mockingbird, whose cage happened to hang on the balcony, saw it all.
And now we must leave the palace and turn to Lucía. The poor dear, she’d been left alone in the woods without the slightest idea where to go. What’s more, it was getting dark, and the father she walked the deeper the forest. Worn out, she sank under a pine tree, ready to spend the night as best she could, when the parakeet said, Dear mama Lucía, Step it, stretch it!
And this gave her a second wind. Suddenly there in front of her was the edge of the woods and in the distance a light. Dear mama Lucía, Step it, stretch it!
And before she knew it she’d arrived at the hut of a woodcutter and his family. Such beauty the poor little family had never seen. The terrified father cried out, “In God’s name, speak! Are you of this life or the next?”
“Flesh and blood, but lost in the woods,” came the simple reply, and moved by pity the took her in. The next morning she combed a few pearls from her hair and gave them to the woodcutter’s wife to sell in town, wherever that might be. Believe it or not, the nearest town was the king’s royal seat, and when the wife returned from her errand she brought the news that the king was in need of a seamstress.
Following the wife’s directions and with the parakeet’s cage strapped to her back, Lucía set off her town. No sooner had she arrived at the palace than a button popped off the king’s shirt. He demanded a seamstress at once.
Lucía presented herself and was led to the king’s balcony. Does it have to be said? The king was entranced. But the first one to speak was the mockingbird: Mistress Lucía, O Mistress Lucía, Your brother Don Juan was done in, And his grave lies in the commons.
Such news! Lucía burst into tears, and the sky answered with a sudden shower.
Yet another interruption. It was the chocolate hour. In came the king’s page with chocolate and muffins on a sterling salver. The king invited Lucía to join him, and when she insisted on first washing her hands, he ordered a basin and a towel of genuine linen with a pictorial border. No sooner had she dipped her hands in the water than the basin was filled with flowers.
The king now knew: this was none other than Lucía. “Tell him,” said the parakeet. “Tell what happened,” And she told her story, strawberries and all, whereupon the king gave orders for the old servant woman and her daughter to be hanged by the neck from the uppermost branches of the tallest tree on the highest hill.
As for Mistress Lucía, she was wed to the king in a ceremony followed by feasting. As soon as it was over, the doors to the balcony were thrown open and word went out that the queen would exhibit her three charms. The people gathered, this time however with rocks in their hands to stone the queen in case they were cheated again. But it was not to be.
Lucía combed her hair with an ivory comb, and so many pearls tumbled forth that the people, forgetting the stones they had brought, scrambled to snap up the pearls.
A silver basin with a plunger and fountain came forth on a tray. When Lucía washed her hands so many flowers spilled over the rail of the balcony that women caught them with their aprons and men with their hats.
So nothing was left but to see it rain. In a time of such happiness who could cry? But all at once the mockingbird sang its song: Mistress Lucía, O Mistress Lucía, Your brother Don Juan was done in, And his grave lies in the commons.
At the first word Lucía began to weep. The heavens opened, and immediately the people ran for cover. They ran and couldn’t stop.
And here we will leave them wearing out the soles of their shoes. —Mexico / Bárbara (surname not given)
Copyright © 2001 by edited by John Bierhorst. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.