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 on 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. This story is not for you. This story is for the peaches. This story is not a fruit.