The Three Princesses in the Desert

By Doug Muder

Once there was a beautiful city that fought a long war against another city. Its soldiers tried very hard, but eventually they were defeated. The enemy soldiers came into the beautiful city. They took many valuable objects, made slaves out of many of the people, and went back to their own city, which was in the middle of a desert.

Among the slaves who were taken back to the desert city were the three daughters of the king. In their father’s palace, they had always had servants to do anything they wanted, but now they were the servants in someone else’s palace. They were put to work in the palace kitchens, lifting and carrying things that were hot or heavy, and cleaning out things that were dirty and disgusting. The hardest work of all fell to the youngest daughter, because her older sisters were very bossy and gave her some of their work to do in addition to her own work.

One night the oldest daughter, who actually did the least work of the three, decided that she just could not take this any more. “We’re going to escape tonight and go home,” she told her sisters.

The second-oldest sister was happy to think about going home and being treated like a princess again, but she was also afraid. “If we try to cross the desert, we’ll die of thirst,” she said.

“I don’t care,” said the oldest daughter. “I’d rather die in the desert than go back to work in that kitchen. I’m a princess, and I should be treated like a princess.”

“We should take water with us,” said the youngest daughter.

Her older sisters frowned at her, because she was the youngest and shouldn’t be telling them what to do. But they knew she was right, so the oldest sister said, “Go get it.”

So the youngest daughter sneaked down into the kitchen and found three waterskins–a big one, a medium-sized one, and a small one. She couldn’t carry them all at once, so she took the small one and the medium-sized one back to her sisters first, and then came back for the big one.

The big one was so big that she could just barely carry it, but she tried hard and was just about to get out of the kitchen with it when the cook stopped her. “Where are you going with all that water?” he asked.

“I want to grow flowers outside my window,” the young girl said, “so I’m taking this water to make the ground wet.”

“That’s an awful lot of water for a few flowers,” the cook said suspiciously.

“I want to grow really big flowers,” the girl said. The cook decided she was just a silly little girl, so he laughed and let her take the water.

When it got dark the sisters sneaked out of the city and into the desert. The oldest sister carried the little waterskin, the middle sister the medium-sized one, and the youngest sister just barely carried the big waterskin.

The next day it got really hot in the desert. The oldest sister quickly drank all of the water in the little waterskin. Then she said to the second sister, “This stupid little waterskin is empty already. Give me some of your water.”

Between the two of them, they had soon drunk all the water in the medium-sized waterskin as well. So they said to their youngest sister “Don’t keep all that water for yourself. Give us some too.”

By the next day, all the water was gone and they still weren’t home. The older sisters had walked off without the empty waterskins, but the youngest had picked them up, because they weren’t very heavy now that they were empty, and they’d be useful if the sisters ever found any water out here in the desert. They walked all that day without any water, and they got very thirsty.

The next day, they still weren’t home and they still hadn’t found any water. The middle sister flopped on the ground and cried. “It’s hopeless. We’re never going to get home and we’re never going to find water. We’re going to die out here.”

The oldest sister flopped next to her and said, “It’s not fair. I’m a princess, so I should have whatever I want. I shouldn’t be thirsty or tired or hungry. People should carry me wherever I want to go, and they should bring me food and water whenever I want it.”

The youngest sister sat down next to them and said, “It is going to be hard to get out of this desert by ourselves. Maybe we should ask the gods for help.”

Her sisters frowned, and the oldest one said, “Don’t tell us what to do. You’re just a little girl.” But after a little while she said, “I’m going to pray to Zeus. He’s the king of the gods, so he’s royalty, just like us. He should want to help us.” Then she looked up into the sky and said, “Zeus, I’m a princess and I’m thirsty, so I want water right now.”

They all looked up at the sky, but nothing happened. It was clear and blue and looked like it wouldn’t rain for a long, long time.

Then the second sister said, “I’m going to pray to Hera. Hera, you’re the queen of the gods. And when I get home, my father is going to marry me off to a king’s son.”

“Is not,” said the oldest.

“Is too,” the middle sister said. “So then I’ll be a queen someday, just like you. So if you give me some water now and make sure I get home, when I’m a queen I’ll have my city build you a big temple.”

“You won’t either,” said the oldest. “You’ll forget. You never do what you say you’ll do.”

“I will so do it,” said the middle sister. But she didn’t sound very sure of herself.

They all looked around to see if Hera had sent any water, but they didn’t find any. Then the youngest sister went a little ways away and talked very quietly so that her sisters wouldn’t hear. “Hermes,” she said. “I know you’re a god and I’m just a little girl. But I know you like to help people find things. I’m looking for some water now because my sisters and I are really thirsty. Would you show us where some water is?”

Just as she finished speaking, a goat ran past. “Look at that goat,” she said to her sisters. And they said, “So?”

“Well, if it lives out here, it must know where water is. We should follow it.”

“Don’t tell us what to do,” said the sisters. But they all got up and began to follow the goat. The goat went up one side of a hill and down the other. The older sisters moaned and groaned, but they knew this was their only chance to survive, so they kept going. On the other side of the hill was a cave. The goat went inside and disappeared in the shadows.

“I should go in first,” said the oldest sister. “You two wait out here.” She was trying to sound brave, but really she thought that there might only be a little bit of water in the cave, and if that was the case, she wanted it all for herself.

Inside the cave it was cool and felt good. And once she was inside, it wasn’t even as dark as it should have been. She couldn’t see any goat, but there was a man in a yellow robe holding a mirror.

“Welcome, welcome,” the man said. “Would you like to look into my mirror?”

“I don’t care about your mirror,” the oldest sister said. “I’m a princess and I’m thirsty. Tell me where some water is, or my father the king will be very angry at you.”

“That would be most unfortunate, for it is unwise to offend the powerful,” the man said. “There is a spring of water down that corridor.”

The oldest sister turned and ran in the direction the man pointed, and she really did hear water splashing. But then the floor gave way under her feet, and she fell into a deep pit. “Get me out of here!” she yelled. But no one came.

When the oldest sister didn’t come out of the cave, the second sister said, “I’ll bet she has found water and is drinking it all herself. It’s hot out here and it’s shady in there. I’m going in. You stay out here.”

The second sister went into the cave and saw the same man, who again said, “Welcome, welcome. Would like to look into my mirror?”

“I’m thirsty and I want to find the water before my sister drinks it all,” the second sister said.

“Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that,” said the man. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to look into my mirror?”

“I don’t care about your mirror. I want water,” she said.

“Then you should go down that corridor,” said the man.

The second sister went down the corridor, and immediately she heard the water splashing. But she also heard her older sister yelling, “Get me out of here.” She went carefully down the corridor until she saw the pit that her sister was in.

“You should be more careful,” she told her sister. “I’m going to go find the water.” She carefully walked around the pit and continued on toward the sound of splashing, feeling very pleased with herself for avoiding the pit her sister had fallen into.

She hadn’t gone far before she met a man in a red robe, holding a small piece of string. “Would you like to see what my string can do?” he asked.

“I don’t care about your string,” she said. “I want water.”

“Then you should go down that corridor,” said the man.

The second sister went down the corridor that the man pointed to, and as soon as she was in it, the sound of the water was much louder. She ran toward the sound, but then the floor caved in under her feet, and she fell into deep pit. “Get me out of here!” she yelled. But no one came.

By now it was almost dark outside, and the youngest sister decided she had better find out what was keeping the older two. She went into the cave and didn’t see either the goat or her sisters. But instead she saw a man in a yellow robe holding a mirror. “Would you like to look into my mirror?” he asked.

“Do you know why it isn’t dark in here?” she asked the man. “It’s almost night outside.”

“It never gets dark in this cave,” he said, “because this is a magic cave.”

The little girl thought about that, and then she said, “I would very much like to look into your mirror, but I’m tired and dirty, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t look very good. Do you have some water I could wash with before I look into your mirror?”

“If you look into the mirror,” said the man, “you may be surprised by what you see.”

The little girl looked into the mirror, and she was indeed surprised. She saw herself in her father’s palace, looking clean and well-fed. She was wearing a beautiful gown and many jewels. “This is a magic mirror,” she said. The man in the yellow robe nodded. “I’m a little girl who is alone and far from home,” she said. “I think I need a magic mirror very much. I have little to trade with, but I could offer you my friendship and this small waterskin.”

“You are most generous,” said the man. He gave her the mirror and took the small waterskin. And then he vanished.

The little girl looked into the mirror and saw that down the corridor there was a fountain of water. She went down the corridor, and soon heard her oldest sister yelling, “Get me out of here!”

“I don’t have any way to help you right now,” she told her sister, “but I’ll see what I can find.”

She went on and came to the man in the red robe. “Would you like to see what my string can do?” he asked.

“I would very much like to see what your string can do,” she said.

The man held one end of the string and cast the other. The string got longer and thicker until it became a long rope. Then the man pulled it back, and it turned into a short piece of string again.

“This is a magic string,” said the little girl, and the man nodded. “I’m a little girl who until very recently was a slave. My sister is in a pit, and we are far from home. I think I need a magic string very much. I have little to trade with, but I could offer you my friendship and this medium-sized waterskin.”

“You are most generous,” said the man in the red robe. He gave her the string, took the waterskin, and vanished.

The little girl went back to the pit that her oldest sister was in. She held one end of the magic string and cast the other into the pit. It turned into a long thick rope, and she was able to pull her older sister out.

“You sure took long enough getting me out of there,” she said. “I’m going to go get the water.”

Before long they had come to the second pit, where the second sister was. “Get me out of here!” she yelled, but her older sister said. “It serves you right. You wouldn’t help me get out of my pit, and I’m not going to help you get out of this one.” Then she ran on in the direction of the water.

But the little girl used her magic string to get the second sister out of the second pit, and they both went off looking for the water. Before long they caught up to the oldest sister, who was sitting on one side of a deep canyon. On the other side was a fountain of water.

“It was all a trick,” said the oldest sister. “That man lied about this being the way to the water. We can’t get across, so we’ll just sit here and die of thirst.”

“It’s not fair,” said the second sister.

But the little girl looked into her magic mirror, and she saw herself throwing the string across the canyon. The string went all the way across, and then turned into a wooden bridge. She saw all three sisters cross the bridge, but when they got to the other side the bridge wouldn’t change back into a string. “I guess I’d rather have a bridge than a string,” she said. So she cast the string across the canyon, and it turned into a bridge just as the mirror had predicted.

The sisters ran across the bridge toward the fountain. But a man in a white robe stood in their way. “This is my water,” he said. “Why should I let you drink it?”

“I’m a princess,” said the oldest sister. “So do what I say and bring me some water.”

The man said nothing and did not move.

“I’m really thirsty,” said the second sister, “and if you won’t give me any water I’ll cry and you won’t like it.”

“I don’t doubt that,” said the man. But he didn’t move.

Then the little girl walked up close to him and said, “I know who you are.”

“Who am I?” asked the man in white.

“You were the man in red,” said the little girl. And as soon as she said it, he changed into the man in red. “And you were the man in yellow,” she said. And again he changed. “And you were the goat,” she said. And he turned into the goat.

Then the goat said, “So what? What will you give me for my water?”

“And you are the god Hermes,” the girl said. “You already have much more than I could ever give you.”

The goat stepped aside, and the girls ran to drink from the fountain. When they had all drunk as much as they wanted, the little girl filled the big waterskin. The goat came and knelt down, and she put it on his back. She looked into the mirror, saw which way to go, and started walking. The goat followed, and her sisters yelled, “Hey, wait for us.”

The little girl turned this way and that way, going whichever way the mirror said. And sometime the next day they came out of a cave not far from their father’s palace. The little girl went out into the light, but the goat blocked the way of the sisters. “If you ever try to take your sister’s mirror,” it warned, “you will find yourselves somewhere far worse than those pits.” Then it trotted back into the cave and was gone.

The king and queen were overjoyed to have their princesses back, and they gave the girls everything they wanted. After a year had gone by, they married the oldest daughter to the son of the king of a very rich and powerful city. The next year, they married the second daughter to the son of the king of a less rich and less powerful city–where she never did in fact build a temple to Hera. And the year after that, they married the youngest daughter to a prince from a poor, small city.

But the third prince was a wise young man, and he knew a good wife when he saw one. After his father the king died, he and the young princess ruled their kingdom together. They were both wise and clever, and made very good decisions. And whenever even they didn’t know what to do, the princess (who was now a queen) would look into her magic mirror for advice. And if she didn’t know what the image in the mirror meant, she asked her friend, the god Hermes, for help.

With such wisdom guiding it, the kingdom couldn’t help but do well. And before long, it was the richest and most powerful kingdom in the whole world.