Chapter 23 : The Old Woman
Helped as she was by the kind farmer, Saeng reached the old capital of Ma’uw that night. The old palace, now a university, was mostly unchanged from its ancient state, whereas the rest of the city had grown with the ages. An old wall surrounded the area outside the university, and this in turn was surrounded by a moat, a relic of times long ago when cities were so small.
Saeng had visited this city once before, as part of her education, but at that time she and her sisters were kept from sight and met almost no one as they toured the university. Seeing the city now, as an ordinary traveler might, Saeng was surprised at the activity even after the sun set, and she was delighted by the lights that bloomed over the streets and rivers to keep the activity going. Seeing Ma’uw this way, being jostled by the crowd, Saeng wondered if even Chang would be so different were she to see it not as a princess, were it to see her not as a princess.
The driver had shared his lunch with her, now her stomach reminded her she needed to do some things on her own, starting with finding dinner. Where should she go? How much should she pay? Was the food clean? What tasted good? Saeng in her wisdom realized she was not so wise when it came to doing ordinary things. Disposed to treat others as she would wish to be treated, Saeng decided that if she was cheated, it could not harm her, and karma would come round to punish those with wicked thoughts. Oh, but she didn’t wish them harm! What if she, in her ignorance, compelled someone to take advantage of her naivety? Did she wish them to be blamed for it?
Saeng sighed into the cat’s fur. “I cannot believe ill of others. It is too hard.”
“Are you all right, child?” someone asked. Lifting her head, Saeng observed an old woman with a walking stick who was standing very close and looking very concerned.
“I am so well, grandmother, I feel I am taking good feelings from others!” Saeng exclaimed. “But, I do not know what food is best for me to eat, nor what prices are here in Ma’uw, and at the moment this is a pressing matter.” Her stomach made a funny noise and she smiled sheepishly.
Before she could say a word otherwise, the old woman was taking her around, pointing out foodstuffs and crafts and doodads and speaking of prices and taxes and deals and how this merchant knew that one — and the princess found herself with a feast procured, she was assured, at a very good price.
“I’m better yet, even before I eat!” the princess declared. “Grandmother, please join me in my dinner.”
“You must be hungry indeed, or else your cat has an appetite, for we have food for six!”
“Oh.” The princess looked again at their shopping and supposed she must be right. She’d only ever eaten what she wished! This was her first shopping — what a strange world.
“You must come to my house and meet my family,” said the old woman, “and then you must spend the night with us.”
“But how kind! I couldn’t!”
“It is dark and the night is late, why, I wouldn’t let my own granddaughter wander the city alone!”
“If all people were as good as you, no one need worry.”
“If only, child!”
So the princess followed the old woman home, and met her family, and they feasted on their shopping, and the old woman’s daughter served baked apples and bananas for dessert, and Saeng slept in a small soft bed in a cozy little room.
In the morning, the family fed her breakfast, and the old woman’s grandson presented the princess with a silver bracelet made by his father.
“Oh me! I cannot accept such a generous gift,” said the princess, surprised by this unsought generosity.
“You have graced our house, princess,” said the old woman, “we would give you luck for your journey.”
“My secret is not much of a secret,” the princess observed.
“Not when you brush out your silvery hair in front of the fireplace, my dear,” said the old woman, and Saeng laughed for she had completely forgotten her unusual hair in the presence of this warm family, though she suspected the old woman had known her identity from the start.
Wearing the flowery silvery on her right arm, and clutching the still-sleeping cat with her left, Saeng bid farewell. The family would find a gift under the pillow she had slept on. It was not money, for she could not dishonor their genuine kindness, nor was it jewelry, which would be the same; instead, she left them a small weaving, made by the four princesses of Bengal, and set in the middle a spiral of glass engraved with the royal crest. It was her mother of course who thought of this, reminding her daughter that she would be relying on others for much of her journey. “Money will make your way easy, strangers will make it possible.”