Every shtetl has a storyteller and the one for Vaysechvoos was Simeon. If the tales he wove would be tapestries, they would be made with the yarn of a well-combed imagination and fit to hang in the palace of the Czar.
But words cannot hang from walls and Simeon had better things to do with his stories anyway, as the good people of Vaysechvoos well knew. Shendl and her brother Eli were among a dozen children who sat stiller than still as they listened to the old man tell yet another tale of a faraway land. And this is what they heard:
A long time ago, my children, in a land where only goyim lived, there was a big beautiful palace. A palace is a house one thousand times bigger than any house in our shtetl. It’s a place where a czar and his wife, which they call a czarina, live with all their servants to wait on them.
In this particular palace, there lived a princess who was loved by all the people of the land. Her name was Princess Livoneh, because her hair shone all around her like a thousand moonbeams. Indeed, none of the other goyim could boast of locks anywhere near as beautiful as Livoneh’s. The queen never cut the Princess’s beautiful tresses, so they were as long as the Princess was tall. Livoneh’s beauty was beyond compare; yet unlike all the other shiksas in the kingdom who were vain and thoughtless, Princess Livoneh had a heart as lovely as her outward appearance. You see there are some goyim who are not stupid or cruel.
Well, it came time for Princess Livoneh to marry, and don’t you know, kinderlach, princes came from all over the world to ask the king for her hand. It was known that King Hatzelem, Livoneh’s father, was wealthier than most prosperous kings and he would provide a handsome dowry of titles, lands, serfs, gems and gold which would serve to tell the whole world how much he loved Livoneh. But it was not the dowry alone that attracted all the young princes, for word of Princess Livoneh’s beauty and goodness had reached just as far as word of her father’s wealth. Of course by the time one heard of a beautiful princess she was usually married and with children. But word spread so rapidly, that Livoneh was only sixteen before painted copies of her portrait had traveled as far as a ship could sail or a horse could gallop.
More than one hundred eligible nobles came with precious gifts for the Princess’ seventeenth birthday. One after another, each noble approached the king, as the Princess stood by, and said, Your humble servant, Prince so-and-so of the kingdom of such-and-such humbly asks the Princess Livoneh to accept this small gift as a token of his boundless love.”
On and on this went until the Princess Livoneh was so faint from seeing so many gifts and flowery tongued suitors, that in her mind they melted into one. And none touched her heart. Then when she thought she couldn’t bring herself to focus her mind on another young man, a different one came forward and said, “I am Prince Alexander and as long as you live you will never meet a prince who does love you with greater love than I.” As they looked at one another, something peculiar happened, and each thought they heard birds twitter and bells peal a new and wondrous song…and all the world was in a moment of ecstatic harmony with the mutual gaze of true love.
“Mother, Father!” the princess cried, “This is the one!”
And so the King and Queen had a big party to announce the engagement. Such an affair, with a buffet like you’ve never seen plus singing, and dancing and schnapps…oh such schnapps they had! Only the best for the royal couple, that’s what the king commanded. Alexander and Livoneh didn’t know if they were dizzy in love or just a little shikker.
Well, the king took his son-in-law-to-be aside and told him in a friendly, fatherly sort of way that he wouldn’t want to be in Prince Alexander’s boots if the young man, God forbid, ever mistreated the King’s beloved daughter. And of course, the Prince had every intention of making the Princess the happiest woman on earth.
Princess Livoneh and Prince Alexander seemed to grow more in love as each day passed. But on the day of the wedding, the Prince’s mother, a woman skilled in the dark powers, appeared in the great hall where the ceremony was about to commence.
“May the plague of darkness seize you!” she shrieked and then she mumbled an incantation with names so filthy that if they were ever put to paper, they would catch fire immediately.
This evil woman was filled with the kind of rage that only demons feel. You see, the bad queen had already chosen a wife for her son: Princess Redhead, the daughter of a sorcerer who had promised Prince Alexander’s mother a rare book of dark arts and spells as his daughter’s dowry. Now she would not receive what her heart and soul lusted for, the power that could only come from the depths of Baal.
Her curse condemned the young couple to live out the rest of their lives at opposite ends of the earth. And with a wave of her hand, the bad queen caused the Prince and the Princess to disappear in a puff of smoke.
It happened just as the wicked woman had commanded. The almost married couple were locked up in separate towers at opposite ends of the earth. Enchanted birds flew through the bars of the tower windows each day, carrying food. Once inside, they took the form of human servants. In this way the Prince and Princess would not die of starvation or utter loneliness.
Princess Livoneh cried so bitterly each day, that her servant Petruscha, could hardly bear it. “Dear Princess,” she said one day, “if the wicked queen finds out I told you, it could mean my life. Still, it hurts me to see you so miserable. There is a way for you and the Prince to be reunited. It is a painful way, but nevertheless, the only way. If you would see Alexander again, you must make a cord that will reach to the other end of the earth. If you will tie a single strand of your hair to another with a single knot and continue to do so until the delicate cord is just long enough to reach him, as a bird I will fly the other end of it to Alexander’s tower. The moment he touches it, you will be reunited.”
Then the Princess wept with joy instead of sorrow, threw her arms around Petruscha and thanked her a thousand times. After the thousandth thank you, she set to work on her task.
Hours passed, and days and weeks, and then the poor Princess lost track of time. She was practically delirious as her head ached and throbbed from the constant plucking of hair, her fingers trembled with the delicate work of knot tying and her eyes burned from the ceaseless concentration on her task. She barely stopped to eat the food Petruscha brought her and each time she fell asleep she dreamed of Alexander and awoke with a start to continue pulling one hair at a time.
The Princess wound the cord into a ball as she worked, and finally the ball was so big, there was barely any room left for her in the tower. That day, when Petruscha came, she could not even fly between the bars of the window.
“I think the time has come,” she said, flapping her wings to remain airborne outside the window. “Give me the free end of the cord.”
The Princess obediently dropped the end of the delicate cord outside the window. As Petruscha flew away with it, Livoneh watched the huge ball whirling itself smaller and smaller as it unraveled. Each moment the ball became smaller until it was only the size of Livoneh’s fist. She could not take her eyes off the ball as it jerked and spun. She wondered how close Petruscha had come to Alexander’s tower. Would the cord be long enough? And if it wasn’t, would she get a second chance? Could she bear it?
Smaller and smaller the ball became, until it unraveled altogether and was no longer a ball, but a slim thread that was sliding across the floor toward the window! Princess Livoneh knew that if that thread vanished through the window it would mean she had failed…that the cord wasn’t long enough…that she would never see Prince Alexander again. Just as she was about to burst into tears, a strange tugging sensation overcame her. She became dizzy and fainted but then instantly awoke. She was lying in a forest, Prince Alexander beside her. He too, was rubbing his eyes as though awaking from a dream. She gave a joyful shout, and he a startled one. Then he looked at her and said, “Who are you, baldy-head?”
“Why Alexander, how could you? I’m your own Livoneh,” she exclaimed.
“Don’t make me laugh, funny face,” said Alexander. “My Livoneh is the fairest princess in the world with hair that can light up the night.”
“But Alexander, I am Livoneh,” the Princess insisted, and she told him of the task she had completed so that they could be reunited.
“Well, you do look a bit like her, I suppose,” the Prince admitted. “And it was awfully nice of you to get me out of that horrible tower. But you must admit, you are nothing like the woman I asked to be my wife. You are tired and bald and squinty-eyed. If I hurry, perhaps I can get home in time to marry Princess Redhead. I’m sure you understand. You know, me being a Prince, how would it look if I married a meeskeit.”
And off he went.
There was a snap and a gentle thud as an apple dropped to the ground in Vaysechvoos, and in an instant the children were returned from the marvelous land of make believe. There was a momentary scramble for the apple, but only momentary since Nahum, the tanner’s son, had the longest arms. The children turned once again to Simeon the Storyteller.
“Then what happened, Simeon?” one demanded. Another piped up, “How does the story end? How do they get back together?” And Shendl insisted, “Surely he must love the Princess Livoneh after all she did!”
But Simeon just shook his head. “The very sacrifice that freed Alexander from the tower made Livoneh an object of contempt in his eyes.”
Eli broke in, “But Livoneh’s Papa loved her, even without her beautiful hair.”
“Did the King still love her?” Shendl demanded.
“Oh yes,” Simeon replied. “King Hatzelem was a good papa. He knew that what she had done made her even more beautiful than all those lovely tresses.”
“And what became of Prince Alexander? Did he really marry the red-haired princess? Did the King come after him with a strap?” Eli’s eyes brightened at the thought of the thrashing the hapless Prince would receive from King Hatzelem.
“Oh, I bet he got half way to Redhead’s house and realized what a schlemiel he’d been. Then he raced back and begged Livoneh’s forgiveness. And they lived happily ever after.” Shendl smiled triumphantly. “Right Simeon?”
Simeon pinched her cheek gently. “Shayna punim,” he smiled. “That’s a nice ending. A very nice ending. Every story should have such an ending.”
The children went back to their homes, each making up their own ending to the story. And as Simeon the storyteller of Vaysechvoos was left alone, he began rocking back and forth, softly quoting a few verses of the prophet Isaiah to himself: “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely our griefs he himself bore and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted….”
He shook his head and looked sadly to heaven. “Master of the Universe, be merciful.”