THE FOUR KINGFISHERS


Once upon a time there were four brothers, each more handsome than the last. Their father was so proud of their beauty that he proclaimed not one of them would ever work a day in their lives and gifted each a wealth of gold on which to live. Despite their good fortune, the brothers were kind-hearted and virtuous and adored their little sister above all else.

The family grew up happy, harmonious and healthy until one day, on the sister's twelfth birthday, a fair-skinned maiden with chestnut hair asked for the first brother's hand. The first brother was immediately enamoured with her but his little sister cowered from the maiden, claiming that her skin was cracked like dry clay, so he sent the maiden on her way.

On the sister's thirteenth birthday another maiden, this one with a lilting voice, asked for the second brother's hand. The second brother declared his intention to wed the maiden by morning but his little sister begged him to reconsider for her ears bled every time the maiden spoke to her. The second brother despaired at losing his betrothed but he indulged his sister and ended his engagement.

On the sister's fourteenth birthday, the third brother encountered a golden-haired maiden with pearl-pink nails while at market. The two courted in secret and soon declared their intention to be wed but on the day of the ceremony, the sister fled the bridal chamber and afterwards declared that the bride had harpy-like talons. Needless to say, the third brother sent the maiden away.

On the sister's fifteenth birthday, her final brother was presented with a bouquet of wildflowers by a youthful, raven-haired maiden. Desirous of his sister's approval, the final brother brought the maiden to supper that same night and introduced her to his sister. Between one heartbeat and the next, all colour bled from his sister's face and she seemed to age a decade in seconds. Alarmed, the final brother ushered the maiden out of the house and shut the door in her face.

This final slighting was too much for the maiden, who had disguised herself each year in the hopes of ensnaring one of the handsome, wealthy brothers in matrimony. She cursed the brothers and transformed them into goldfinches, for she was a powerful witch and she wanted to punish them.

Seeing her brothers altered in such a way caused the sister undue distress and she begged the witch to show mercy.

"Lifting a curse requires sacrifice," the witch told her. "One sacrifice for each of your brothers."

The sister cried, "I will sacrifice anything you ask."

"When I appeared to your first brother, you told him that my skin was cracked like clay. Give me your skin and I will return your first brother to his human shape." The sister peeled off her skin using a butcher knife and handed it to the witch neatly folded.

"When I appeared to your second brother, my voice made your ears bleed. Give me your voice and I will return your second brother to his human shape." The sister reached down her throat, pulled free a delicate, gossamer ball and gave it to the witch.

"When I appeared to your third brother, you told him that my nails were harpy-like talons. Give me your nails and I will return your third brother to his human shape." The sister picked off her nails one by one and presented them to the witch like rose petals.

"When I appeared to your fourth brother, my youth fed off yours. Give me your youth and I will return your fourth brother to his human shape." The sister, exhausted and unrecognisable by this point, offered the witch her final sacrifice and collapsed to the floor.

The witch dressed herself in each of the sister's gifts. The skin was tight, the voice clawed at her throat, the nails were jagged on her hands and the youth sat like oil on her smooth face but the witch was satisfied.

She returned the brothers to their human shapes and at once, they ran to their poor sister and cradled her in their arms.

"Witch!" The first brother shouted, "our sister is innocent. We rejected you, not she. We are the guilty ones."

"Curse us once more," the second brother demanded, "do whatever you wish, if only it'll save her!"

"I would rather die as a kingfisher and a good brother than live as a human and a bad brother," the third brother said.

"And you?" the witch demanded of the fourth brother.

In answer, the fourth brother knelt on the ground and bared his throat to the witch. "I offer myself to you, if you will only save my sister."

The witch screeched, undone by their sacrifices. She hastily stripped off each of the sister's gifts and tossed them to the brothers as if contact with them burnt her hands. When the last gleam of the sister's youth separated from her skin, the witch fled into the night and was never seen again, although an old crone with cracked skin and talons was said to have met with an unfortunate end in the next village over.

As for the four brothers and their little sister, they lived happily enough. In good time, each brother married and started his own family but their bond with their sister remained strong until the day they died.