“None of the stories Mama tells us is real.”
Marra crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “‘Are’ real, Jeppa. Learn how to speak like a civilized human being.”
Jeppa frowned at her older sister.
Wenda, the eldest, smiled at them both. “It’s more important to be a decent human being than a civilized one.” It was one of Mama’s sayings.
And if it wasn’t for Mama walking into the room at that moment, Jeppa knew that she and her sisters would have started throwing pillows at each other. She’d had a good grip on hers just in case, though she didn’t want to throw it. It was a warm pillow and a chill night. Cold air seeped in from any crack or seam it could find.
Mama had gone to get the matches so they could light the candles that were arrayed on the windowsill. It was story night. And it was Jeppa’s turn to choose. As Mama settled down on the ground in their makeshift camp, joining the girls in their storytelling circle, Jeppa prepared herself.
Mama was always telling them stories about strong princesses and little lost girls who were brave and got themselves out of trouble. But Jeppa didn’t want to hear about girls and princesses or even boys and babies. She wanted a grown-up story. But not too grown-up.
Mama lifted the teapot from the tray in the middle of their circle. She glanced up and the candlelight made her eyes sparkle. She raised her eyebrows as she poured out some tea, but she didn’t say anything. Sometimes the girls couldn’t decide what story they wanted and Mama gave them until the count of ten to yell something out.
“I want to hear a story about a knight and his adventures, fighting evil creatures and saving villages, something like that. Do you have a story about knights, Mama?”
They would always ask. And of course, Mama always had a story. At first, Jeppa couldn’t believe how many stories Mama could remember. Then one day, Marra, always impatient, told Jeppa that Mama didn’t always have a story remembered, so she sometimes made them up. Marra could be mean sometimes and Jeppa could tell that her older sister wanted her to be disappointed. But Jeppa wasn’t disappointed. On the contrary, she was even more impressed.
“Have you ever heard of the Knight of Spoons?” Mama asked right away.
Jeppa shook her head. Marra clutched her pillow to her chest. And Wenda took a deep breath and settled back. Mama always answered their question with a question of her own. She always asked if they had heard the story about such and such. And they would say they hadn’t.
And then it would begin.
“You were named after her,” Mama started.
Jeppa held her breath for a moment. Wenda was named after Mama. Marra was named for their father’s mother. But Jeppa had never before heard the story of her name.
Jeppa was from a well-to-do noble family and wanted nothing more than to be a traveling bard who sang songs and told stories. She didn’t want to be a proper young lady and get married to some foppish lord (or even some not-so-foppish lord). But she also didn’t want to be an old spinster who sat at home and did embroidery. She didn’t want to be like her bloodthirsty cousin sister who was trying for knighthood. She didn’t want to be like her own elder sister who wanted to take over the family metal-works business. And she didn’t want to be like her younger brother who had so many choices that he seemed to always end up making none.
She was in the middle of her siblings and in the middle of her cousins, and she hoped that being in the middle would make her invisible enough to slip away into her own destiny, but not too invisible that her family didn’t rejoice and celebrate whenever she would make a triumphant return back home.
But Jeppa was wise. She was a watcher. She watched everyone else and then she made decisions. She watched her warrior cousin and decided that if she were to travel through rough lands, she would need to know how to protect herself with more than just clever songs and stories. So she trained as a warrior, though it was hard and all she liked to do was lie beside the river and read stories and histories and news parchments from around the country. And she trained in a bit of business and a bit of social custom.
She wasn’t a particularly good warrior. She hadn’t the patience for the tedium of sorting through the family business’s account. And though she loved to be among people and be the center of attention if she was telling a story or a jest, she was not one to stand about in gowns and be admired from afar. She was not particularly beautiful anyway, though everyone told her that her eyes sparkled. Jeppa was sometimes bothered about all the things that she was not. But most of the time, Jeppa did not mind that she was not this, that, or the other thing. Her great fear (other than the usual pain and death, which all people fear) was that she would not be a good storyteller. So even though she was not one to succumb to the whims of superstition and the pageantry of tradition, Jeppa decided that she needed to make a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage that all serious bards and troubadours and raconteurs must make at some point in their lives. A pilgrimage to the Oracle Mount to receive the gift of story from the spirit of the country’s greatest storyteller. And his spirit was said to be contained in a spoon.
The spoon was created by a mage who took the quintessence of creativity from the legendary bard, raconteur, and wit known as Glyfarien, at the moment of his death, and transferred it into a silver spoon. Glyfarien was said to have the proverbial silver tongue (some say the mage made the spoon from the bard’s tongue, which is a more likely story, though such a thought is unsavory to most).
The Silver Spoon abided at the top of Oracle Mount, where there also resided two oracles. If an aspiring storyteller were to make the pilgrimage to the Mount, and if he or she were found worthy, then an acolyte would take the spoon, dip it into a cup of water, transforming the water into some nectar of story or mead of song or some such ethereal potion, and the worthy one would drink. And thereafter he or she would sing the sweetest songs, recite the most profound poetry, and tell the most engaging stories. Some accounts even ascribe the powers of long-lasting youth and long life to the spoon-enchanted tonic.
So Jeppa started on her journey. She had traveled often with her family, but never alone. And never without the protection of her family’s fortunes. For the rules of pilgrimage allowed her only enough resources to obtain humble meals of grain and simple clothing. And one instrument. She chose her voice, for Jeppa had a lovely voice, rich and melodious, deep enough to float in but not to drown in, sweet enough to sooth but not to overwhelm, strong enough to engage and hold, but not too tightly.
The rules also required that she walk. She could not ride in carriage or horse or even donkey. The journey from Jeppa’s home would take a full turn of the moon. Jeppa started off slowly, humming a tune and pacing herself. Before she was three days into her journey, her feet were callused and aching, her eyes full of drowse, and her mind full of doubt. She thought it would be better to return home and get some more schooling. But she continued on, hoping to gather a story or two at an inn before she turned around.
At one such inn, as she sat down for a hot meal after telling a tale and singing a song or two to earn her dinner, she was joined by a man whom she at first mistook for a vagabond. She was ready to scoot away when she glanced at the man’s hand and saw a tattoo of celestial symbols that represented the Order of the Oracles. The man was an acolyte.
He asked for her name, though he did not give his. And it would have been impolite for her to ask. The acolyte first complimented her on her story and song, then told her that he recognized a pilgrim and was tasked with aiding them in their quests. He reached into his robes and pulled out a roll of black cloth. He unrolled the cloth and within were three spoons. One was made of bronze. One of wood. One of glass.
“One of these spoons,” the acolyte said, “is the Silver Spoon.”
Jeppa started. “Glyfarien’s Tongue.”
But it couldn’t be. None of the spoons was silver.
The acolyte explained that the Silver Spoon was disguised as one of the three he presented to her. And all three were enchanted in other ways. One would turn anything stirred with it salty, but sometimes bitter or sour. Another would change size and shape, but might do so at most inconvenient times. And the last would repeat back any sounds that it heard, so a singer could practice or sing harmony with herself. And a storyteller whose voice was gone could still tell a story with the singing spoon.
If she could discover which spoon was which and then master all three spoons by the time she reached the Oracle Mount, then she would be judged worthy and allowed a sip of a drink that had been stirred by the Silver Spoon. Then she would have the gift of beautiful song and never-ending stories.
Jeppa was intrigued. She accepted the acolyte’s challenge. She thought the challenge sounded easy enough, though she knew that there was probably some trickery involved. She decided she would do her best. She might fail. And if she did, there was no reason she couldn’t still sing songs, tell stories, and toss out the occasional jest as she helped her elder sister with their business. But if she succeeded…
As Jeppa packed away the three spoons, she dreamt of coming home to her family with gifts and riches, and accolades. She dreamt of bringing her mother as her guest to grand balls. Of introducing her father to dukes and princes and singing subversive songs that declared her father was a better man than they. She envisioned saving the sick and ailing from their pain with the beauty of her song.
And then as she tripped upon a twig, she laughed at herself for being a fool and having such extravagant dreams on what should have been a humble pilgrimage.
It did not take Jeppa long to determine which spoon was which. The wooden spoon was the one that changed the flavor of things. She was able to make her water taste alternately salty and bitter and sour, though never sweet. So she named that spoon the Salting Spoon. She spoke poetry and sang to the other two spoons and found that the glass spoon was the one that sang back to her. This one she named the Singing Spoon. And that left the bronze spoon, which she named the Sprouting Spoon after she was walking along and it grew so big so fast that it tore through the black cloth and tipped Jeppa over.
Mastering the spoons proved more difficult. At first, she practiced mastery by trying to use the spoons to ease her journey. She would use the Salting Spoon in under-salted food, or try to make the Sprouting Spoon grow enough to cover her from the rain as she trudged along. She tried to use the Singing Spoon to remember and mimic the stories of the troubadours she met along her journey. But the spoons seemed to have a streak of mischief in them. They would not obey her commands. They would salt, or sprout, or sing, it seemed, when the whim struck them. The Singing Spoon would sing at night when she was trying to sleep. And she was turned away from many an inn because of its singing. The Salting Spoon sometimes turned her food bitter instead of salted. And the Sprouting Spoon…Jeppa learned to dread any sound of tearing in her clothing, for it probably mean the spoon was growing and would drag her to the ground.
It was need that taught her the secret of the spoons. Necessity and desperation.
Jeppa walked along the river. It was the time of the melt and the water moved swiftly. Up ahead in the distance, she saw the bridge she would need to cross and she realized she was halfway through her journey and felt proud. And also nervous. For she had only half a journey left to puzzle out the spoons. She suddenly heard a crack and louds snaps. She froze, fearing it was the Sprouting Spoon. But then she saw it was something worse.
The bridge ahead had collapsed. Pieces of it were rushing downriver toward her. And so were the three people who had fallen into the river when the bridge broke.
Already, she saw several people rushing toward her on the shore. But the river was too fast. Faster than the fastest that a man or woman could run. If Jeppa had a rope and someone to hold it on the other side of the river. Or if she had a boat…
Jeppa gasped. She pulled out the bronze spoon, the Sprouting Spoon. She kept it tied to her belt now so it couldn’t tear through her clothes. If she could make it grow, the spoon could grow large enough to become a boat. And if she was on that boat, she could help to catch the three people who were being swept toward her. Their heads were still above water. Two of them had even managed to cling together. They were coming faster and faster.
Jeppa held the bowl of the spoon to her lips. “Please, I have need. Grow.” Nothing happened. “I beg of you, grow.”
The figures in the water would pass her in mere heartbeats if she didn’t make the spoon grow.
“Their stories are not yet done,” Jeppa said. She did not know who they were, but she told the spoon a story of merry folk, happy lives, families and friends who would suffer losses, if the three were lost. “You can be a happy part of their story,” she told the spoon. “Help me to save them. Grow!”
The Sprouting Spoon began to grow. Jeppa moved toward the riverbank. She meant to drop it on the banks and then push it into the river and jump on. But she lost her grip and watched as the spoon fell into the river and vanished. Then she saw it bob up. It looked like a canoe and it rushed ahead of those who had fallen. And it was still growing. The spoon and the people in the river rushed past Jeppa and she ran downriver. She watched as one man caught hold of the spoon and pulled himself into the bowl. He reached for the other two people. He grasped them and pulled them on. But they were still rushing downriver. The spoon was still growing. It lodged against something in the water, maybe against the banks themselves. The bowl of the spoon spanned the length of the river. And it had formed slots. Water rushed through the slot. The bowl was slightly tilted and so the three people who were stranded on the spoon could hang on and stay above the rushing water.
Soon, other help came. Men with ropes ventured onto the spoon, trying the ropes through the slots and guiding the fallen back to shore. When all were rescued, Jeppa approached the spoon and touched it.
“Bravely done,” she said. “The end of happy.” And the spoon shivered and she kept a hold of it as shrank within two heartbeats back into her hand.
She turned and saw that all were happy that the three lived. So happy that she was able to slip away before anyone asked her questions about her magic spoon. But she did tell the harrowing tale to the patrons of the tavern that she stayed at that evening.
She found her away across the river. And having her suspicions about the Sprouting Spoon, she told it stories and found she could command it to grow and shrink by feeding it with tales. She tried it with the other spoons, to no avail. And so knowing that the spoons were linked to a great bard, she tried some of the other means of telling tales. She spoke poetry and found the glass spoon responded. And the wooden spoon would only heed her commands if she sang for it.
The spoons would not obey if her songs and poems and stories were told for others. Only if she sang or recited for the spoons, even if she did so silently.
And so she was quite confident when she encountered her next adventure. She crossed a valley, shaded with few trees, and stumbled upon a sumptuous feast. Tents and pavilions were set up. And Jeppa strode forth to see if she could claim the pilgrim’s right to a dish of food.
What she found instead was a distraught cook who had run out of salt and was out of her mind with fear that she would be beheaded if she didn’t prepare her masters’ meals perfectly. One of the cook’s assistants tried to give Jeppa her meal and advise her not to tarry. For they served a duke and duchess renowned for their feasts and infamous for their tempers.
Jeppa came to the rescue with the Salting Spoon. Or she thought she did. She had been testing out the powers of the Singing Spoon by leaving it in the cook’s tent to hear some of the more savory curses the cook seemed to know. Jeppa retrieved the glass spoon when she went to receive her dish of food. The cook treated her with warmth, respect, and gratitude, adding confections to the plate and laughing away Jeppa’s objections that it was not appropriate for a pilgrim to eat so well.
“What about a hero?” the cook asked. “Heroes eat well, don’t they? And you, you saved my life, sweet pilgrim.”
Jeppa sat in a corner and prompted the Singing Spoon to repeat what it heard. And to her horror, the spoon spoke of murder in the voice of the cook. As it turned out, the cook sought to poison the duke and duchess. She had a conspirator among the nobility who were attending the feast. Jeppa flew from her spot and tried to reach the duke and duchess or one of their guards, but she was halted. She told one of the guards that the wine was poisoned, but the guard waved her away and assured her that if the wine were poisoned, the tasters would be the first to know. But the cook knew about the tasters, of course, and had arranged for a poison that would only work when consumed in large quantities. And the duke and duchess were known to consume large quantities of wine. Already the drinking had begun. Jeppa found her way to the wine barrels. As the duke and duchess had tasters to protect them, the wine barrels were not so well-guarded that a quick-handed tale-teller could not tamper with them. Jeppa meant to uncork them all. But she realized that if she did that, the cook would never be found out. Instead, she used her wooden spoon and stirred and made all the wine bitter.
The commotion began when some of the feasters began to notice and spit out their wine. Poisons were often bitter. The duke and duchess made their inquiries. Jeppa watched from a hidden place as the cook and her accomplice were discovered and shackled. Then she quietly left the valley.
It was with unsettled nerves that Jeppa realized the lesson she had learned. Though she knew and could control the powers of the spoons, she had not yet mastered how and when to use them. She had only gotten lucky. She might have failed and cost two people their lives. She had succeeded and two others might still lose their lives, if the duke and duchess truly did behead the criminals who had tried to kill them.
The moon was waxing near to full when Jeppa came with melancholy heart to a jolly little town that raised her spirits with familiar sounds and smells before she ever set foot within it. The baker seemed to bake the same kind of sweet and sour loaves that the bakers at home made. The horses smelled the same, as did the smelt in the blacksmith’s shop. Jeppa found a large but cozy inn owned by a couple that while much younger reminded her a bit of her mother and father. As she wondered what she had done to deserve a visage of home so close to the end of her pilgrimage, Jeppa looked around the common room of the inn and searched for any who might be in need, whether of her spoons or her stories.
None seemed in need. And for once, Jeppa did not take the stage. She chatted instead with the innkeepers, who complained, jestingly, about how they would lose their inn soon. But behind their jests, Jeppa saw sorrow and pain, and she prompted them to tell her more, at least to unburden themselves. It was a simple tale. They had fallen behind with their bills even though they were certain they had been faithful. Years past, when the inn was a ramshackle place, and they were too poor to be serviced by respectable patrons, they became beholden to one unscrupulous banker, whom they believed was somehow cheating them. They had their suspicions, but no proof. If they could find evidence of his treachery, they might be able to get out from under his thumb.
Jeppa listened and as she listened, she plotted. Here was a job for her spoons, if she could use them to craft a story that would first trap the banker and then compel him to tell the truth. She used the Singing Spoon first to spy on the banker and discover that he was indeed cheating the innkeepers. Jeppa had not doubted their honesty, but they were strangers. She discovered he was a stingy man and a man of habits. It was easy for her to set up her ruses. She used the Singing Spoon again to haunt him. She used the Salting Soon to turn the taste of his food sour, and the Sprouting Spoon to make frightening noises and ominous shapes. She found no evidence. The banker was too meticulous to leave any.
But she had him. And she haunted him until he was compelled to admit the truth. He forgave the imaginary debt the innkeepers owed him. He signed over the inn to them.
Jeppa had told them that she had some friends who could help them, which was true enough as she spoke and sang to the spoons as if they were her companions and friends. The innkeepers did not know what she had done, but they knew they had her to thank for their happy news.
And Jeppa, who always thought she would bask in the glory of accolades, felt abashed and awkward, even after she was back on the path to the Oracle Mount.
At the mountain’s foot, was a stair that wound up and around and switched back and forth until it disappeared into a laurel of clouds above. Jeppa stared not up but down at the first step and she hesitated. There were other people ascending and descending, for it was the Oracle Mount, and most came to ask the oracles their fortunes, not to gain the gift of story.
One of the figures that descended was a robed acolyte, the same one who had given Jeppa the three spoons. When he reached the bottom of the stair, he bowed to give greeting and Jeppa bowed back. He asked her to produce the three spoons. She did and held them before her.
“You are worthy, pilgrim,” the acolyte said. “For I see you have mastered the spoons.”
He told her to stack the spoons together and after she did, they melted into one and changed to silver. In the past, Jeppa might have smirked at the lesson of having had the spoon all along and smarmed at the acolyte about what they would have done if she had lost one. But it was such a wondrous sight, and she felt such righteous victory, that she laughed. And it was a beautiful spoon.
“You might be wondering what we would have done if you had lost them,” the acolyte said.
Jeppa smiled and nodded.
“Many take the Challenge of the Spoons and fail. And in that case, all the spoons melt away into nothing. And the person is allowed up to the oracles to at least get their fortune told for having come all the way. And to at least gaze upon the spoon. The real spoon is always here, you see.”
Jeppa looks down reluctantly at the spoon. The acolyte told her she merely need make some tea and stir the tea with the spoon. The tea would sweeten and the spoon would melt away. When she drank, she would have the gift of story.
Jeppa raised a brow. “What about everlasting youth?”
The acolyte smiled but did not answer.
She sighed. She missed the other spoons. She had found them most useful. She already had the gift of story from them. And any fool could see how valuable the three spoons were. She longed to have them back. But she realized that she could perhaps do without them. She thought about buying some salt and bitters at the next town, just in case. And maybe she could have some of her father’s metal-smiths craft a bowl that could be collapsed or disassembled. And without the Singing Spoon, she would need to find other ways to spy. She wondered if she could learn to read the words a person spoke by watching their faces, even as she could read a book or parchment.
As she had these thoughts, she handed the spoon back to the acolyte. “It seemed fair before,” she said. “A prize earned. If it worked at all. And part of me doubted that it would. But now, I know the Silver Spoon will work. But it seems like cheating.”
The acolyte received the spoon. He seemed unsurprised.
Jeppa bowed. “Thank you for lending me the other spoons. I believe I did some good with them.” She knew there was nothing more but to turn and leave, for she did not want to see the oracles.
“Would you like them back?” the acolyte asked.
Jeppa’s eyes widened as the acolyte told her she could keep the three spoons if she climbed atop the Oracle Mount and became initiated as the Knight of Spoons and took binding oaths and vows to only use the spoons to help others, be they strangers or loved ones.
And so she did. She took the oaths. She became the Knight of Spoons. Her adventures were many. Her deeds were renowned. Stories were told of the Knight. And most of them were told by the Knight herself. And she told them proudly (with some embellishment from her imaginings). For they did not arise from the tongue of another bard, but from her own voice.
Jeppa grinned and laughed when Mama said, “The end.”
Mama looked at Jeppa then and took up her cup of tea, stirring with a silver spoon. “So, do you think that one was real?” Mama pulled the spoon out of the cup and tapped the bowl on the rim of cup.
Jeppa followed the spoon as Mama put it down on the tray of sandwiches and cups and kettles. Jeppa looked at her mother, her storyteller mother, and her eyes widened.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.