Her name is not known in our history. We only know her as Peaches because she sold peaches at a roadside stand. It was here the great duke found her. According to legend she was extraordinarily beautiful and this is why he so greatly desired her, but in truth, she was not extraordinary, at least not in beauty. She was fair and plump. Her eyes a bit too wide set and her mouth a bit too small. There were at least three other girls in town with better teeth and brighter eyes. But these girls were not left alone on the roadside selling peaches as the duke cantered past each day. And so he desired her, probably not for her great beauty but because she was there and demure and shy as a common girl, a common girl who sold peaches her family grew at the road stand and used the money to buy radishes and parsley and bread, would naturally be. Quite possibly he only desired her because he knew that he could have her and nothing would be done. He was a duke and she was as juicy as the peaches she sold, and who can resist a ripe peach?

So there is no surprise that one bright day he got off of his stallion, pulled her behind her cart of peaches, and had his thrusting and grunting way with her. When he had finished and jumped back on his stallion, he flipped a few coins on the ground for the pleasure, raised his hat to her, and trotted off.

She was undone. She felt sore and damp and there was such a hurting in her chest from tears that were now stuck there and fear that had dried inside of her instead of on her cheeks. She looked at the coins and they worried her. When she came back home with her unsold peaches and her father took accounting of the money and the peaches sold he would ask her, where did these coins come from, and she would have no answer because the truth would make her father angry with her.

And so, she counted out the money and counted out the peaches it would buy. She carried those peaches in her apron, held like a cradle with five fuzzy little heads. She dug a hole for each little peach all in a row by the road and into each hole she dropped a fruit.

That night her father counted the money and the peaches and all matched and was well and she sighed in relief that no one noticed the lump of tears that was now on her chest or the salty fear that was on her skin.

The next day she went to the roadside to sell her wares and the duke had his stallion saddled to go for a ride. As he passed her on the road he tipped his hat to her for the pleasure and rode on. But there was something odd. Five little saplings, tall and thin, were by the side of the road, all in a row. They weren’t there yesterday, but they were there today, and everyone knows that saplings don’t just appear, they grow. But perhaps he just hadn’t noticed them before.

She dropped a curtsey as he rode past and dropped her eyes to the ground, unable to look at him. She kept her eyes closed until she couldn’t hear the sound of his horse’s hooves anymore and then she opened her eyes and saw five little saplings standing where yesterday she had buried the peaches. She saw them and understood, and so she got a bucket and went to the river and she watered and tended the trees, pulling grass and giving them room to grow.

The sun set and the sun rose and once again she went to the roadside with her fruits and once again the duke cantered past, but he did not tip his hat to the girl. He didn’t even see her or her cart because the five little saplings were now five bright young trees with leaves so green they made his eyes hurt, and hard green fruits that hung, not ready to be picked yet, but promising later days that would be full of delicious flesh to bite and juice to suck. But for the duke the promise of later fruit was not an attraction. He was afraid of the young trees and their hard fruit and his horse slowed as he passed the trees, keeping quiet as if they were riding through a graveyard, trying not to wake the ghosts. She saw his fright and understood and again she tended the trees and gave them water.

The next day it all happened again, the peaches, the roadside stand, the stallion and the saddle. But this time he did not ride past her nor did he tip his hat. Instead he stopped and stared at five full grown peach trees with ripened fruit hanging off of each branch, each peach large and a perfect shade of sunset gold. And though the leaves were green, the same as any other tree, and the bark was brown, the same as any other tree, and the fruit was tempting, same as any other tree, the duke was afraid of the trees and could not ride past them. He could not bring himself to spur his stallion forward, but turned him and galloped off, back to his castle, where he jumped out of the saddle before the horse had stopped and called for his man.

Cut the trees down! he ordered. His man bowed and said he would gather some men to go out in the morning. But the morning wasn’t soon enough for the duke. The trees must be chopped down now. The duke’s man bowed again and set off to collect men and axes.

When the men reached the trees the sun was setting behind them and cast the men in a deep green light. It was beautiful and the men wondered why the duke would want these trees cut down. It seemed a shame to do it, seeing them filled with fruit and greenery. But one did not defy the duke and so they lifted their axes and brought them down into those trees. But it seemed a shame to let such perfect fruit go to waste.

And so the men left their axes to pick the ripe peaches, but not one of them took a bite. Instead they took off their shirts and laid the peaches carefully bundled in the cloth, far from where the trees would come down, as if trying to keep each small load of peaches as safe and warm as a child. Only when each peach from the trees was safe and sound did they pick up their axes and begin to heave. As each tree shuddered under the blows the men cried tears they could not understand, some ashamed and hiding the grief and others openly weeping as one by one, each tree came down. The men stood by and wept and wailed as if each had killed his own children.

Then, something extraordinary happened. Out of each stump sprang a fat little child with cheeks as pink as peaches and tummies fat and round. They giggled and clapped and raced around the weeping men singing:

Oh our father is the duke,
as anyone can see
Our mother she sells peaches
that grow off of a tree.
Our father met our mother
and though he did not know her name,
He led her behind the peaches cart
and plucked her all the same.
Now we are bright new peaches
But our father, for his shame,
Tried to chop us into firewood,
And take away our claim.
But we are smart young peaches
We hid among the roots
And now the duke our father
Must taste of his own fruits.

Then the children ran off before anyone could catch them, though in truth, not one of them tried, they were so astounded.

The men heard this rhyme and understood and each vowed that he would leave the kingdom before he ever again bowed to the duke. They left the trees as they had fallen, whole and green, unwilling to take part in dismemberment of those perfect trees. They picked up their bundles, and walked away towards home and the villagers instead came along and chopped the trees into sticks to burn in their stoves.

The men gave the peaches away, to mothers and daughters and sisters and lovers. To their wives and the wives of friends. They left none for themselves, but to a man gave away all the peaches. Only one ever had a bite, when his wife, smiling and with juice running down her chin held it out for him to share, and with that taste he saw her dreams and wishes and hopes and desires, the essence of her and thought, “Why, she’s just like me?” It was a surprise, and one he never forgot. Years later their love would be legend, as a tale of romance and requitement, of long standing joy and respect, and of adventure as they crossed many hardships to be together after the wars came. They are their own story.

But even the men who did not taste the peaches were forever changed. You would know their names if I told you, because they are famous and their successes are often told. One travelled with the Princess Henrietta when she led the raid and slew the monsters in the caverns. She knighted him for his bravery and boldness in battle and gave him her dagger, which has been passed down to the first born of his descendants for these hundreds of years and now resides with his great-great-great-great-great grandson, who will soon give it to his firstborn, a daughter. Another is the poet who wrote of buttercups and water lilies and whose poems of love and loss you recite to yourself whenever your heart is broken. A third became a judge known for being fair. In his time, no witches were burned. A fourth became a doctor, who was known to be as safe and adept as a midwife at birthing babies.

The women who ate the peaches, you know of them too. Princess Henrietta was one. Juliana the Just was another. Maxine the builder whose bridges still stand, and of course, Pauline the painter whose frescoes are the pride of the nation. Others did not become famous or renowned, but all led cheerful and lucky lives into their old age, matriarchs, whose families who truly mourned them when they died. They were the peach girls, and their smallest deeds are still felt in each and every breath in this city.

But at that time this was still a town, surrounded by farm land and orchards. The men went their ways and told no one of the children and the rhyme.

That evening the duke sat down to dinner, racks of lamb and roasted potatoes and raspberry tart for dessert. He lifted his spoon over the first course, a leek and cream soup that was the specialty of the cook, dipped it into his bowl, brought it to his mouth, and then gagged. He spit and out came a bite of rotten peach with a white worm ducking out of the light and back into its hole. He raged and demanded to know what the meaning of it was. But no one knew. The cook begged his sir’s pardon, but he had put no peaches into the evening dinner. None at all.

The duke, not very mollified, but hungry enough to go on with his dinner, cut himself a piece of lamb, brown and red with blood puddling beneath the meat. He brought a bite to his mouth, smelling the char and the spices. Then he gagged on rotten peach. This time he did not call for the cook, nor yell at the staff. He knew it was that temptress who sold fruit at the side of the road. The one who had seduced him, lowering her head and curtseying day after day as he passed. She looked demure to all, but he knew better, she was a sorceress and a seductress and she had reeled him in to curse him.

The duke threw his napkin down and left the table, with servants and family members trailing behind him in shock and fear for what he might do if they caught his glance now, in an angry mood. He called for his man again but his man did not come. He had left with the workers at the trees, and though he had too much pride to remove his shirt as the men had, he still carried peaches in his pockets and never saw the duke again. The duke had to find someone else to give orders to, but this was easily done. He gave orders to find the girl and arrest her for being a temptress and a witch.

What of Peaches, the girl who sold fruit and planted the trees? Where was she in all of this? What was she thinking and how was she healing after having been used and discarded? No one knows. Like her name, there is no record of her thoughts or doings or if she ate peas and drank punch. Her story is forgotten, if anyone ever knew it in the first place. No one asked or wondered. She has served her purpose and now the only concern is how justice gets served and for that this girl with no name need hardly be there at all. We shall assume that she washed herself as soon as she could, tried to not wake anyone up as she cried at night, and kept silent. If she thought or did anything more than curtsey as the duke rode by on those days, we do not know it. She has her purpose in the story, just as she had her purpose for the duke. So we’ll leave her to her silence and punch and peas, not knowing that the duke had called for her arrest, the judge has been routed from his dinner table and the constable is coming with chains and iron.

The constable was neither a cruel man, nor a smart man, nor a dishonest man. The judge was also neither cruel, nor smart, nor dishonest. They were simply men, as many men in this world, working away at what they must work at and doing what they could for their families, their friends, and themselves. Within reason. There may be some sliding of rules here and there, but no true breaches of duty or crimes committed. They were, for the most part, good men. It was as good men they walked up to the door and knocked. It was as good men that they explained the charges of seduction and sorcery to her father, and it was as good men that they kept her father from beating her too much in his rage. They led the now bloody girl away from the door of her family and they couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for this young thing, hurt and frightened and crying beside them. Did she seduce the duke? Did she bewitch him and then curse him? If someone as great as the Duke said so, then it must be so, even if she did look like a harmless little thing. But perhaps not. They were fair men and responsible to their duties. They would interrogate and test her to be certain.

The girl broke easily, with barely a touch of the tools and the fire. She confessed to every misdeed and a few more misdeeds no one had known of until then, and the constable and the judge were amazed that such wickedness could have sprung up from their own town. They were good men. They hated the wicked and to protect their own homes, their families, their friends, the judgement was passed and the girl would burn.

The good people of the town were horrified at the evil that had been among them. Every girl who had been her friend now denied ever liking her and every boy who had ever admired her now believed himself the victim of a spell. Even the words of the men who had cut down the trees and the women who had eaten the peaches were not enough to save her and only created scorn and slander and hatred for themselves. One woman woke to find her chickens beheaded on her stoop and one man was pelted with eggs by children, because no one likes those who defend the evil. Those voices must be stopped.

The day of the burning came and all the town came to see the temptress get her justice. Her mother wept, but her father glared at her with all the hatred in his eyes, because he had to, because the rest of his family was now vulnerable and he must be strong and hate his daughter in order to protect them, his wife and the other children. He glared, and if the hatred was only in his eyes and not rooted in his heart, who, if they knew, would blame him? Except the duke. Except the town. Because anyone who did not hate evil must also be evil. So her father hated his daughter and no more ill came to the family. Her sisters married well and her brothers grew old tending the peach trees, though stories still cling to the family like ragged flesh left on a peach pit of the temptress in their lineage.

All were in the town square, gathered around the wood pile and the stake. The duke was there, gaunt and haggard. To survive he had learned to eat rotten fruit, to chew through sickly sweet and maggots and worms and to swallow, though each meal made him ill. In the castle the cook was fired and everyone now ate gruel since there was no need for fine dinners that the duke could not taste.

The constable led the shaking and dirty girl to the stake. He had to carry her the last of the way. Pronouncements were made and she was asked if she had any last words. And though all she could do was whimper, in her mind she recalled the words she had said when she had planted the peaches, “These are the fruits of my labor, may all the little peaches see, that I can still be happy and they cannot trample me.” It seemed a silly thing for her to think of then, when she was not happy and quite trampled, but then it was a silly thing when she had said then, when she was neither happy nor untrampled. It was her one way of defiance, even if only she knew of it.

There was a suitable pause for the girl to speak, but she only sobbed, and so the constable lowered his torch to the wood. First there was smoke as the wood heated, and then there was the crackle of newly born flame among the pyre.

Then something odd happened. A stick lit on fire. It had been one of the sticks from the peach trees, cut down and dismembered by the men and the villagers. Out of the new flame jumped a child, and then another, and another, and another, and another. Five little children with cheeks as pink as peaches and tummies fat and round. They danced and clapped and sang:

Oh our father is the duke,
as anyone can see
Our mother she sells peaches
that grow off of a tree.
Our father met our mother
and though he did not know her name,
He led her behind the peaches cart
and plucked her just the same.
Now take up harp and timbrel,
Now take up flute and lute,
and hear how our father
Tasted his own fruits.
Oh, they were soft and sour
Oh, they were sick and sweet
Now he sits in his tower
and cannot eat his meat.
Our mother she was taken
and given all the blame,
Tortured and forgotten
and put to fire and flame.
But we are smart young peaches
and we know our mother’s name
We stole her from the burning pyre
and gave the town her shame.

The children ran off giggling and skipping. Some of the town’s children ran after them as did some of the adults, but none were able to catch them and no one knew where they went. It was a large crowd, as burnings tend to attract, and some of the people saw the children, some only caught glimpses, some heard the song and others smelt the burning of the peach wood. Some saw and heard nothing at all, distracted by gossip and intense discussions of their neighbor’s noisy goose and the virtues of their new cart. They looked up at the reaction of the crowd and someone near them told them what had happened. They were sorry and angry they missed the excitement, and when they told their children and grandchildren of that day, they always said they’d seen it all.

Slowly, one by one, the townsfolk stopped looking after the running children and turned back to the pyre, expecting at any second now for the screaming to start and the smell of meat and hair. But there was only the crackle and pop of sap and only the smell of ash and wood. The stake was empty and, but for that stabbing into the sky, the fire could have been any simple bonfire, such as the ones they built for spring and fall and midsummer.

The girl was gone. Some saw this as proof of her sorcery and were angry. Others were disappointed at the lack of spectacle. Some, including her father who had smelled the burning of the peach wood, were relieved. (We do not know what her mother felt.) And a few, a very few, knew that the gift given was not just the rescue of the girl, but the rescue of the town. These villagers collected the ashes of the pyre to keep in special places, on mantles and curio shelves. These people and their families were known to be humble and kind, even to those others would condemn. They found the good in all who meet them, and told the stories that have been passed down, imperfect as they are.

But what happened to the girl? How did she get away? Did she find a happy place to heal where no one was trampled or plucked or forgotten? Did she come back to town and serve retribution on the Duke and the townsfolk for what they had done? Did she ever have a purpose beyond being the victim in this story?

Of course she did. But no one thought to ask until it was too late and she was gone. It took a decade or more before someone even thought of it. The ones who tell the stories like to dream she had a happy life—sometimes with the animals and creature of the woods, sometimes living with the fairies and enjoying their revels. Sometimes they dream she found another town, one better than their own. Some people have a shrine to her and say she is a goddess of women and fruit, and perhaps this one is the most true of all. Others try to forget the story exists, or are cynical and tired of hearing it. Many don’t believe it really happened.

You may be disappointed in this story because all the wrongs are not righted and all the heroes do not win. The Duke was never punished by the people nor did Peaches return triumphant and vindicated for all to see. But this is not a story of fairness or rightness or justice. Some peaches are dry and some are juicy, according to their own will, even as we pluck them and complain that one is dry and delight that one is juicy.

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