Author's Note: Standard rule- all characters in this story save for the fairy belong to the Jim Henson Company, not me. Also, I always thought it was unfair that viewers never really got to see what happened to Hans' parents, so this is my "what if" answer. Enjoy and please comment.
Farmer So Foolish
Gone. Completely gone.
Such were the words that echoed through the farmer's head as the church bells rang out their mournful melody and the villagers slowly left, a few crying softly. The farmer stepped aside, watching as the simple village undertaker began to shovel dirt onto the grave. His wife's grave. After years of heartbreak and pain, she had finally succumbed.
And who, or what, had been responsible for the heartaches and daily tears?
"Not me," the farmer stubbornly told himself, though he knew that wasn't entirely true. "I loved her so much! And she loved me best of all!" he continued, doing his best to believe these lies. After all, he knew when his wife had laid in their bed, at death's door, it had not been his name she had called out, and it had not been for him that she had wept a final time. Hans, she had sobbed, using her last bits of strength to reach out her arms for an embrace that would never come. Hans.
Hans. That stupid, accursed freak of a…a… The farmer could not even bring himself to consider the creature his son, his boy. It just wasn't possible. Not after the years of loud whispers, the taunts and jeers from the children of the village. Granted, he had felt a bit of shame when the creature had asked to leave, but that soon passed once the villagers discovered Hans's departure. Men who had previously shunned him began inviting him to the tavern for a drink, as they had done before Hans's birth. When he walked through the streets, women nodded hellos that they had never quite managed in the past when Hans had accompanied him. And, best of all, the children no longer shrieked and yelled out that awful name they had created for him. "Father Freak!" they would yell, dancing around and pointing while laughing with mock respect. "Look everyone, it's Father Freak!" How he had fumed at that, how he had silently raged! And the worst of the matter was that his wife never sympathized. Instead, she would murmur, "Dear, they are just children, they cannot possibly understand," or "But dear, don't you love Hans? Then it shouldn't matter!"
It had been hopeless, the farmer remembered as he began his long walk back to his cottage. She had never understood how there were things much more important than that beast she had worshiped and prayed for. She'd even clothed him and insisted Hans sit at the table, as they were "a family," she often said. Well, at least he had been able to stop that nonsense.
"From now on, you'll eat in the yard like the other beasts!" the farmer had shouted from the doorway of the cottage at a cowering Hans, waving a crop around as a warning to the hedgehog. His wife had wept and grasped at his arm, begging for mercy, but he had brusquely shoved her off, returning to his seat and finishing the meal in peace. He had been so enraged that it had been easy to block out the sobs of his wife and the whimpers and cries of the creature outside and focus on what was important: his health and happiness. A man was king of his house, the farmer believed, and he had been determined to fulfill that belief. And after that incident, it had worked- neither his wife nor Hans had dared to challenge his authority. He was the complete master of his domain.
As the farmer continued along the road, lost in his memories, both real and untrue from the lies he told himself, the afternoon slowly faded into sunset. He was almost to his cottage when a feeble voice cried out, "Help me!"
"What?" the farmer glanced up and stopped, looking around in confusion.
In response, the voice cried out again. "Help me, please, won't somebody help me?"
The farmer turned around for a bit but could see no one. "Here now, what is this nonsense?" he asked, his temper rising a bit. "If you truly need help, show yourself!"
"Help me, help me!" the voice begged, sounding more desperate than before.
The farmer finally looked down. There, a few feet away from the small bridge over the creek that separated his land from the main road, was an old woman bundled in rags and hunched over. She appeared quite frail- so frail, in fact, that the farmer wondered if she would fall over were he to pull away the gnarled walking stick she was clutching so tightly. "And what's wrong with you?" he called down to her, somewhat calmed by her appearance but still annoyed over the whole matter.
"I, I need help getting back to the main road," she said pitifully, gazing back at the farmer. "I can't make it by myself…"
"Oh, very well," the farmer grumbled, stumbling down the hill of bumps and holes until he reached the old woman. A closer look revealed that she was in terrible condition-if he sneezed, the farmer wondered, would she break into a thousand pieces? It certainly seemed possible, given her appearance. "Take my arm, old woman…"
At last, after several missteps, much grumbling from the farmer, and meek apologies from the old woman, they reached the road.
"Here, now, off with you!" the farmer dismissed her, turning to go.
"But master, it's dark now! The roads are dangerous, especially for an old lady like me!" the old woman whimpered, still clutching his arm. "Please, mightn't I stay in your cottage for the night? I can pay you…"
"Pay me? With what? You're an old beggar woman, you've got nothing! Now be off, leave me be!" And with that, the farmer turned and started to stalk off, until he heard the sound of soft chuckling.
"And how do you know I have nothing, being an old beggar? If I am a beggar, surely I have alms…" the old woman cackled, pulling a gold coin out from her rags. The farmer stared at the coin, hypnotized. "Now, mightn't I stay?"
"Of course, come along with you," the farmer snapped, hurrying to the cottage. "But only for the night, I'm respectable and can't be seen housing beggars!"
The meal that passed between the farmer and the old woman was a strange one. The farmer had done his best regarding the cooking and had made a crude stew for the two of them. He did not say a word to the old woman the entire time the stew was cooking over the fire, though she made several attempts at conversation. Finally, once the stew was ready, the farmer had roughly ladled out spoonfuls into some bowls and pushed one towards the old woman, who was sitting at the table in what had been Hans's former seat.
No, the farmer told himself. It had never been Hans's seat. He had been weak when he had let the creature sit in the house with him. Giving the beast such fanciful ideas as acting civilized had been a terrible mistake on his part, and an even worse one on his wife's. God bless her, he had loved her dearly, but she had been so daft!
"Lost your wife, did you?" the old woman cackled between mouthfuls, looking around.
"Yes, I buried her today," the farmer grumbled, noisily clattering his spoon against his bowl to drown her out.
"Sadness, sadness," the old woman continued, shaking her head and chuckling to herself. "Got any children? Do they live in the village, perhaps?"
At this, the farmer's temper resurfaced, and he jumped up from the table in a rage. "No! In God's name, woman, don't you ever know when to keep quiet! Who are you, to ask such questions? I owe you nothing, yet I have given you my food, my fire, my roof, and I helped you when I should have left you by the creek to drown! Out! Out!"
The old woman calmly gazed at the farmer, who by now was quite red-faced from his anger and was clutching the old crop, panting and waiting for her to flee. "Who am I?" she quietly echoed him, standing up. "Who am I?"
The farmer lunged towards her, crop aimed at her back. "Out, in the name of God! Out of my house, go to the wilderness, cursed old woman! Out!" And the crop flew across the old woman's shoulders, and she fell to the floor in a heap. The farmer stood over her, ready to kick her as she laid still, her only movement the heaving of her back and the only sound her muffled sobs. He raised his crop again, ready to strike, when he noticed something different. The old woman's sobs had grown louder, and louder, until they were not sobs at all- instead, it sounded more like laughter. And the laughter sounded very full and rich and was long, not right for an old woman at all. The old woman was also no longer shaking from sobs, but from the laughter itself. Such only made the farmer even angrier.
"Laugh, will you? Laugh over this!" the farmer challenged, crop flying forward, when a hand emerged from the old woman's rags, a young strong hand, and snatched the crop away from him. The farmer fell backward and tried to crawl away in terror as the old woman stood, still laughing in that strong, healthy voice, but she was taller now, it seemed.
"Holy God, save me!" the farmer pleaded to heaven, never taking his eyes off the woman, who now appeared to have a glow of some sort surrounding her. "Have mercy…"
"Mercy?" the laughter abruptly stopped and the rich, regal voice asked. "Mercy?"
The old woman turned, and the farmer nearly fainted from sheer fright. In place of the old woman, there stood a tall, beautiful woman, in a dress of shimmering light and a circlet of stars upon her head. She still wore the miserable rags of before, but they fell around her shoulders as a crude cape. Her eyes were violet and green, and her hair was as blonde and white as snow mixed with gold. She eyed the farmer, who was trembling on his knees.
"My lady, Your Highness, good madam, I….I…" the farmer stammered, throwing his hands up in front of her, begging.
"You ask for mercy," the woman echoed, a note of amusement in her voice. "You ask for mercy, when you could not give your own son any."
"Hans…" the farmer whispered. "How do you know-"
"Don't ask such foolish questions unless you want an equally ridiculous answer," the woman responded, her voice completely cold. "Tell me, farmer, what do you know of the old beliefs?"
The farmer glanced down, his mind racing through all the memories of the tales he'd heard through hours of beer and ale, through evenings of fireside stories and songs at the tavern. "You…" he began, his voice almost a squeak. "you are a fairy…"
"The Seelie, to be exact," the fairy woman corrected, grinning tightly. "and I-we-have watched you all these years, good farmer. Watched your mockery of your wedding vows, you could not give your wife, God rest her, what she truly wanted so we had to interfere. And yes, your son was a hedgehog for a reason-we knew your wife would be happy with any sort of being, but we were curious as to what you would think. Could you understand the meaning of love, as she did? Love something so much you could see past its appearance?"
The farmer began to weep. "Forgive me, I didn't know-"
"It isn't me you should ask for forgiveness, it is your wife and son," the fairy admonished him. "Would you like to see how well your son is doing?" She walked over to the fireplace, where the stew pot still hung, and picked up the steaming kettle, placing it on the table.
"No, no," the farmer begged, covering his face with his hands. But he found himself standing and walking over to the table.
"Look into the stew," the fairy ordered, and the farmer obeyed. At first he could see nothing but water, and then a closer gaze revealed wondrous images: a hedgehog entertaining a king with music; a lovely princess, her father, her mother, and the court mournfully celebrating a wedding, with the hedgehog as bridegroom; three nights of enchantment and pain between the hedgehog and his princess wife; the hedgehog's disappearance and the princess's endless quest to find him; her hair turning white; and finally the princess embracing her husband with him turning into a handsome man, leading to a joyful return and second wedding at her father's castle.
All the while, the farmer watched in wonder, horror, and sorrow. Shame filled him once more as he watched his son --he found he could call Hans that now-- happy with his beautiful bride and her parents, the king and queen, and tears spilled down his cheeks as he realized what he had lost.
"Now, why these tears? Aren't you happy with your life?" the fairy mockingly asked as the visions vanished. "Didn't I see you fall on your knees and thank God the day after your son left?"
"I did, I did," the farmer replied in a broken voice, vainly gulping back heartbroken sobs. "But if I had known-"
"If you had been like your wife, farmer, more accepting, more loving, you might have seen this face to face, or you might have not. It seems like the right decision was made in the end, since Hans is free and content-perhaps even a prince now." The fairy smiled a cruel smile.
"But, but I…" the farmer stammered, glancing back into the stew pot.
"But nothing," the fairy's face hardened. "Your son may be happy now, but that does not excuse the years of misery you put him and your poor wife through. Thank God that she is dead, and just as free as Hans is from you. You, farmer, are cursed, because you could not see past your son's appearance. You may have the acceptance of the village, but it will never give you the kind of happiness your son would have. Live your life, farmer, but suffer this curse: you will never be content in anything again, and you will always be doomed to see, until the day you die, your son's life in visions and dreams and know you will never share in his joy." The fairy began to laugh once more, and it was a laugh that the farmer knew would haunt him the rest of his life. The laugh was filled with cruelty, sorrow, and a savage joy of sorts, and echoed throughout the little cottage, even as the fairy faded from sight.
And so, for the rest of his days, it was as the fairy had said: the farmer did his best to gain some happiness, but nothing could fulfill the gaping hole in his heart. He would wake in the middle of the night, his pillow stained with tears due to the dreams he had: dreams of Hans being crowned prince, dreams of Hans happy with his wife, dreams of Hans embracing his newborn son. And the farmer pleaded and begged to the open air, to the fairies he was sure were listening, to spare him, grant him mercy, but they never did. Thus, the farmer was given a new name by the village children: Farmer Foolish, because even a child knows eventually one must change and see past the outside ugliness to the beauty within. So the farmer lived out his life in complete misery, a lesson to all around him and a curse to those who did not believe.