A wealthy merchant had cause to visit a neighboring town but before he left he asked his three daughters if they wished for him to bring anything home. The oldest daughter asked for a dress, the middle daughter asked for shoes, and the youngest, who was the merchant’s favorite, asked for a single red rose.
“A rose in winter!” the oldest daughter laughed.
“Who does she think she is?” said the middle daughter.
The merchant promised his youngest daughter he would do his best and left to tend to his business. In short order he was able to find a dress and a pair of shoes for his older daughters, but finding a rose in winter eluded the merchant. The keeper of the inn where the merchant was staying overheard the merchant discussing the matter with another and recommended a craftsman in town who specialized in flowers made of silk. The merchant was so thrilled he rushed straight to the craftsman’s shop.
The shop was bursting with bouquets of the most beautiful flowers in every shade and color imaginable. The innkeeper had not exaggerated the craftsman’s art, for the flowers had been installed on the ends of twigs and stems that made their appearance near-perfect, and the air was thick with the perfume of every bud as if in a meadow in spring. At first the merchant didn’t even see the craftsman at his bench behind an explosion of gardenias piled high before him.
“Excuse the mess,” the craftsman said. “I’m just finishing up an order for a wedding. How may I help you?”
“My youngest daughter has charged me with finding her a red rose in winter,” the merchant said. “You can appreciate the impossibility of this task.”
The craftsman smiled and nodded. Then, without another word, he removed a ribbon of red silk and brushed one of the edges with a small glue brush. Then he removed a thorny rose branch from a bin behind him and began winding and binding the ribbon around the edge of the rose branch. In a matter of moments before the merchant’s eye he had produced a single, perfect red rose bud. The merchant looked at it with an amazement that begged the craftsman to speak.
“I have soaked and dried the stem in rosewater so that when it is placed in a vase with water is will not only smell like a rose but will cause the bud to open to its fullest bloom.”
As if to prove himself the craftsman took a silk tulip from his stock and placed it in a glass of water. Slowly the flower opened up and the gentle smell of tulips seemed to burst forth and fill the shop.
“Miraculous!” said the merchant. “What will such a thing as this rose cost me?”
“Well…” the craftsman considered. “I am looking for a wife. You bring this rose home and your daughter would be willing to meet with me I would consider that payment enough. If she will not meet me than we can arrange a fair amount the next time you come to town.”
The merchant was pleased with this offer, for not only would he return home with a rose for his daughter but he stood to gain a brilliant (and by all accounts handsome) craftsman as a son-in-law. At home his two older daughters loved their gifts but when the youngest daughter saw the rose she scoffed.
“You didn’t bring a paper dress or toy shoes home for my sisters, but you mock me with a ball of ribbon on a stick?”
The merchant begged her to wait until her could show her the majesty of the craftsman art. He placed the rose in a vase and, as promised, the bud sprang open and the air filled with the gentle caress of roses. The older girls were impressed but the younger daughter smirked.
“A clever parlor trick, but it isn’t any closer to being the rose I asked for. I trust you didn’t spend too much on this.”
The merchant explained the terms of his agreement with the craftsman and this time all three girls laughed.
“Oh father!” said the oldest.
“You honestly don’t think us so desperate that we would need to have our marriages arranged, do you?” said the middle daughter.
“Seriously,” said the youngest, “You would trade my happiness for this? Find this craftsman the next time you are in that town and pay him whatever he demands. There would be no price to high for this lesson.”
It was many months before the merchant returned, but when he did the following summer he found the neighboring town festooned with flowers and decorations all made of the finest silk. The merchant recognized instantly the decorations as the handiwork of the craftsman he sought.
“What is the occasion?” the merchant asked the innkeeper from his previous visit.
“The prince is getting married today.”
Satisfied with this explanation the merchant went in search of the craftsman to pay both for the rose of his last visit but in compliment for his latest accomplishment in decorating the village. At the craftsman’s quarters he found footmen of the palace exiting with armfuls of bouquets intended for the wedding banquet.
“Excuse me, but can you point me in the direction of the craftsman,” said the merchant. “I have a debt to settle with him.”
“Out of the question,” said one of the footman, “As the prince is busy getting ready for his wedding ceremony.”
The merchant was naturally confused so he returned to the innkeeper for confirmation.
“Indeed! The prince lived among us as a simple craftsman for years without betraying his true station. And today he marries the daughter of a merchant who graciously conceded to meet him in payment for a silk lotus flower he created…”
The merchant fell into an instant funk as he realized his daughter had spurned a prince. He stayed in town for the wedding and in the receiving line he found the craftsman prince recognized him immediately.
“Thank you for attending my wedding, though I suspect by the dour look on your face you have come to settle our accounts.”
“It is unfortunate that my daughter could not appreciate all you had to offer. What will this insult to your highness cost me?”
“It is too joyous an occasion for me to feel insulted. Return home and tell your daughters of all you have learned and we shall consider the matter settled.”
Which he did. And when the merchant’s daughters heard it all they wept for days on end, especially the younger daughter who never married and was buried holding a single rose that had been spun from silk.
And the rose still smelled as sweet as the day it was created.
“The Winter Rose” is adapted from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes, part of a very long project to adapt and revise all the tales collected therein.
The original of “The Winter Rose” is the Grimm version of the story better known as “La Belle et la Bête” often credited to Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont though hers was an adaptation of a much longer version by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. So I’m just part of a grand tradition of revising and reinterpreting tales!
Actually, it always bothered me that Belle made such a seemingly absurd demand that put her father at such risk. In the Grimm version the father dies before Belle can save him from destitution and death, and she returns to her prince and lives happily ever after. No, no prince for you, Belle, not this time.