Once upon a time there lived a lonely old couple on a farm. They had a mare and a milk cow sweet-as-can-be, but they did not have any children.
The old woman wished she had a child, for she had love and nurturing in her heart. Though her knees were a bit knobby and her back a bit stooped, she made a point of going out every day to water the vegetable garden.
The old man, too, would have enjoyed the company of a child, for he felt a great sadness that he had brought forth no sons to take on his name and remember him. He also could have used the strong back of a youth, as he, himself, was a bit fragile in his old age, and could not replicate the plowing that he had done in his younger days.
One day, as the old woman was watering the garden rows, and the old man was shaping them, a stone flipped over in the dirt, and out from under it crawled a hunched up woman, whose skin was mottled grey and green, and hair was like a smatter of lichen.
The farmer’s wife dropped her watering can in shock.
“Good morning,” the stone woman said. She held a mottled hand over her eyes to keep the sun away.
“Have you been living under that stone?” said the old farmer.
“I’ve found it quite comfortable,” said the stone woman.
The old farmwife snatched her watering can from the ground, trembling. “This is our farm,” she said. “How long have you been living here? You’ve never even introduced yourself—let alone offered to help with the farm work.”
The stone woman looked around at the tilled rows as though seeing them for the first time. She touched a finger to her lips. “I do suppose I have been fairly rude,” she said. “But perhaps I can repay you.”
The farmer implored his wife. “Dear, how can we say it’s trouble at all to have someone living under a rock in the garden?”
But his wife was stern: “For all we know, she’s been keeping the plants from growing. We had a terrible harvest last season.”
“No, no, she’s right,” the stone woman said to the farmer. “I have been staying on your land without permission. I’m sure I have something here for you, in exchange.” The stone woman reached into the shredded lengths of her lichenous cloak, and from within, she held out a small leather bag to the farmer’s wife. “These are precious seeds,” she said. “I have held onto them for a long time, but I am willing to share them with you. Plant them and tend them well, and the harvest will make you richer than even your wildest dreams. All I ask in return is that one day, when the fruits are many, you allow me a portion of your crop.”
The old couple took the seeds, and the stone woman went on her way, leaving them to ponder what she had said in excitement. Would the seeds grow flowers made of gold? Or perhaps emerald vines with ruby roses? They could only guess at the nature of her precious seeds, so they hastened to plant them and see what fruit they would bear.
Sunrises came and sunrises went, and the couple tended their garden, watching the seeds turn to sprouts and grow great, verdant leaves. The plants bore resemblance to goblets, with short, thick stems that supported wide vessels of leaves. Each plant—for three had grown—bore a different scent: One like cinnamon, another like pine, and the third like hyacinth. The old man and woman became so eager for them to bloom that they often found themselves singing as they tended the garden—something they hadn’t done since their passionate youth, when they’d fallen in love.
One day, when the old couple arose, the three precious seed plants had bloomed, with flowers just as varied as their scents: The tallest looked like marigold, the middle looked like clusters of yarrow, and the smallest had pure white bell flowers, like those of lily of the valley.
“I suppose they won’t be jewel-flowers,” said the farmer.
His old wife gave him a playful slap. “You old fool, you know the fruit comes after the flowers.”
And so they waited. Nearly a season had passed since the stone woman had gifted them the seeds. But compared to the excitement of their crop, the stone woman was barely a thought in the back of their minds.
Then, one day, as the sun was beginning to rise, the old couple pulled on their boots and headed out toward the garden. The old man had his hoe and the old woman had her water—they were prepared to work.
But something small and fragile cried out from the garden, and any thought of work was stripped from their minds.
The old woman ran to the plants, for that was from where the sound had come. When she saw what lay in the hollows of the greens, she stopped as though she’d been shot through the heart with an arrow.
“What is it?” her husband exclaimed, huffing and puffing as he came up to meet her.
“Look,” she said. She pointed weakly at the plants, where nestled among the greens lay three tiny babes.
The old man and woman had never been so happy as they were during that time. Needless to say, their cow got very well acquainted with the milk-bucket—it seemed they couldn’t milk her enough to feed the three hungry children. The infants were lovely—quiet with content and so full of obvious love for the old couple—when one called the old woman “ma” it just about broke her heart.
They grew quickly, and it seemed that within a season they were already running around, playing with each other and eagerly helping along with the farm when they could. The three—two girls and a boy—were named Marigold, Lily, and Yarrow, respectively. They were obviously magical children, though the old couple didn’t know to what extent, but they could see it in their spurts of growth and sharpness of mind.
It was impossible not to love the children. By the end of the year, Marigold could play the harp just as lovely as the old woman could. Yarrow had a way with animals, almost as though he could whisper to them in their own tongue. And Lily, though the smallest, was so decidedly beautiful that when she danced through the fields, wildflowers bloomed.
They were all so precious, and the old couple loved them just so much—they had completely forgotten about the stone woman’s promise to return.
It was nearly three years after they had first found her in their garden. The sun shone like a halo through muggy fog that clung low over the valley. Marigold was playing a tune on the harp, and Lily clapped along, dancing. Yarrow had somehow entranced some field mice to join her step.
The whole scene was so vibrantly magical that the old couple could only stand and watch with smiles on their faces.
From up the road, a small figure made her way toward the music. Her skin was mottled grey and green, and her hair was a smattering of lichen. She took her time, being an old stone woman with a stooped back, but soon the old couple noticed her coming up the way. A cold panic seized their hearts, as though they had each fallen below the ice of a frozen lake, and their fear was so strong that the children noticed. Marigold stopped playing the harp, and Lily stopped mid-step to turn and see what was the matter. Even Yarrow’s mice ran away, disappearing into the grass of the surrounding fields.
The old farmwoman took Lily and Marigold into her arms—she would not let the stone woman take them from her.
The old farmer, too, stepped between Yarrow and the stone woman—he would not let her take his only son, who would one day take on his name and remember him.
“I see you remember our bargain,” said the stone woman, picking a piece of lichen from her wrist. “I hope you won’t make this difficult—I have places to be.”
“Please,” the farmwoman said, holding Lily and Marigold to her breast. “Please don’t take them. We’ll give you anything.”
“I want for nothing else except my share of the crop. You have three children—give me one.”
“How can you make us choose?” the old farmer said. “That’s impossible.”
“If you were smarter, perhaps you wouldn’t have gotten so attached to all three,” said the stone woman.
The farmwoman looked between Lily and Marigold, whose fair heads rested on her breast. Their eyes strained with fear and looked to her for reassurance. Could she truly give away Marigold, who was so talented and lovely, or Lily, who was so sweet and joyful? She floundered, worrying what her daughters would go through at the hands of the stone woman.
“I will do the children no harm,” the stone woman said, as though hearing her thoughts. “I am no different from you. You once wanted a child. Remember that desperation. I, too, feel it.”
The old farmer made no move, his expression stubborn and resolute, but the old farmwoman’s eyes softened. She, more than anyone, understood the ache of barrenness when all she wanted was a child.
“I love you both very much,” she said to her daughters, giving them a squeeze, “but I love you equally. I cannot send one of you away and keep the other in good conscience. It must be your choice, not mine.”
At these words, Marigold went silent and thin-lipped, and Lily began to cry pitifully.
“Don’t let her take Lily,” Marigold said. “I’ll go.”
“But then you’ll be alone!” Lily said.
The farmwoman hugged them both tighter.
“I’ll try to visit, if I can,” said Marigold.
But all the time, the stone woman was not watching the women, but the men. The old farmer had made no move to give up Yarrow, who he still hid behind his back. He had not offered a word of sacrifice—not even the bluff of one.
“Why not Yarrow?” the stone woman asked.
The farmwoman and her daughters went silent.
The old farmer turned white in the face. “He’s my only son,” he said. “The only chance I have to pass on my name and be remembered.”
“I feel no sympathy for your narcissism,” the stone woman said, shaking her lichenous head. “Do you only think of the boy as an extension of yourself? He is his own being—not some delay of your mortality.”
The old farmer’s face grew red around the ears. He didn’t notice that Yarrow had stepped away from his back. “I’m a farmer—I need a son,” said the old man. “The fields must be plowed.”
“So buy an ox,” said the stone woman. “The boy isn’t chattel. He’s got his own brain. Have you asked him what he wants?”
“You’re not taking him,” the old farmer said. “He’s mine.”
“Father,” Yarrow said. His voice was tense. “I want to go. I don’t want to be imprisoned by the harvests of a farm. I want to travel the world.”
“What? No. You can’t—”
The farmwoman and her daughters stood frozen as the old farmer grabbed Yarrow by the arm, trying to stop him.
“Let me go,” Yarrow said, shaking him off. “Perhaps I’ll see you again one day. Goodbye.”
He and the stone woman walked toward the closest field, whose edges grew up into forests. In a moment, they were gone, disappeared into the wood. But the old farmer ran after them, shouting after Yarrow, and he, too, disappeared into the trees.
Shaken and weary, the old farmwoman and her daughters strode back to the house, where all three of them climbed into the old couple’s bed and fell fast asleep. During the night, the old farmwoman lit a candle for her husband and put it close to the window, but he did not return.
Many years passed, in which the sisters Marigold and Lily had grown up and had children themselves. Though their old farm-mother had long since died, they always remembered her, for she loved them enough to let them choose.