My cousin Mel and I are sitting in the backyard, one sunny day. I want to be inside on my laptop, but Mel is 'sick and tired of this stuffy house' and insisted I accompany her outside.
"Jonathan," she says, turning to me, "You've heard that red hair is a mutated gene, right?"
I blush under my freckles. People always pick on me for my curly, carrot-orange mop. "Yeah."
"There's a story behind that – the story of the first redhead. Did I ever tell you it?" Mel asks, knowing perfectly well that she hasn't. Most likely it didn't even exist until a few minutes ago.
"No, you didn't." I reply, humouring Mel. It's always a good idea to humour her - if I didn't, I wouldn't get to hear all her stories.
"Well!" Mel stretches her long legs out on the grass. "It all happened long, long ago, of course. Back when the gods walked the earth and there were all sorts of magical creatures. Leprechauns, for example.
Back then, everyone was much more beautiful and there were no redheads. It happened in Ireland, naturally.
Anyways, there was a beautiful princess in Ireland. I mean really, really beautiful. Guys came from all over to propose to her – rich men, handsome men, powerful men. She wouldn't have any of them, though, didn't even give them a chance. She was awful proud and she was waiting for the 'perfect' man.
One evening, this princess was sitting all alone in her garden. She had this huge, beautiful garden, with everything you could ever want in it. She sat by her pool, gazing at her reflection. It was a beautiful one, like I said, the prettiest thing in the whole garden.
'Hello, princess.' said a voice behind her. The princess would have jumped in shock, but that isn't very princessly, you see, so she just sat very still for a moment then turned around.
Behind her was the perfect man. He was tall, and incredibly handsome; dressed richly head to toe. He had lovely dark hair and black eyes. The princess was instantly infatuated."
"Is this going to be a love story, Mel?" I groan. "You know I hate love stories."
"Shut up, Jon. Don't interrupt me." my cousin barked. She cleared her throat and gave me a dark look.
"Anyways, the princess thought he was all that – especially when he bowed and introduced himself as the king of Kazalonia. She had never heard of it before, of course, but was all the more impressed by his foreign mystique.
He sat with her and told her all sorts of nice things, like how beautiful she was and all the lovely things he would like to show her. However, he refused to come inside, and, bidding her goodnight, disappeared off into the garden as mysteriously as he had come.
The princess thought she was in love – but she didn't say a word, as she wanted to shock her parents by finally choosing a husband. She dreamed about him all night long and as soon as she could she went out into the garden the next day. As evening approached, he came again and they sat together and were merry all evening long. As nightfall game, he regretfully said goodnight and swore he would return the next day.
The third day he arrived just as he said he would. They had the nicest evening of all; he showered her in gifts and praise, told her fascinating stories and declared his passionate love for her.
As it started to get dark, her lover said his goodbyes again. Before he left, he announced, 'I will come to see you tomorrow. I will ride in and you must greet me and pretend not to know me, so I might be introduced to the King and Queen in a proper manner. I will ask for your hand and marry you, but on only one condition can I do this.'
He looked awfully stern and the poor smitten princess immediately cried, 'Oh, of course! Whatever you might wish!'
'I will come to your bedchamber tonight when you go to sleep tonight and we must spend the night together. In the dawn, I will slip away and return that evening to ask you to be my bride and rule my kingdom with me.'
'But,' the princess gasped, 'that would not be seemly!'
'No one shall know but us. I must insist, or else I shall leave tonight forever.'
Well, naturally the princess gave in against those odds. What else could she do?
That night she put on her prettiest nightgown and slipped into her big bed anxiously. After what seemed like eons, the sash on her window went up and a dark figure slipped in. Silently, he undressed himself and slid into bed next to her.
Now, I'm not going to say what happened between then and dawn, Jonathan, but you can probably figure it out all on your own. She fell asleep exhausted and when the princess woke up, she was all alone. She felt bright and happy though, despite her odd night, buoyed by the thought that tonight she could finally say 'yes' to a suitor.
She put her prettiest dress on and was a sight to see, indeed. She would have looked good in rags but dressed up her finest she was so beautiful she almost hurt the eyes.
The morning and afternoon dragged by and there was no happier sight to her than the sun slipping slowly towards the west. It sank lower and lower, however, with no sight of her lover. As the sun finally went down, she realized that she had been had.
She was furious – but what revenge could she have? She could not tell her parents what she had done, for fear of punishment. So she brooded and raged and grew embittered. The next hapless suitor received a rejection so harsh it took all of the king and queen's diplomacy to stop him from raging war against the kingdom.
Months went by, and the princess started feeling sick and tired all the time. Her temper grew shorter than ever, and her figure lost it's slim beauty. To her horror, she realized she was pregnant.
Her parents were not far behind her in this realization and forced her to confess her story. She did so, in tears, and they locked her into the west wing of the palace to hide her shame.
She grew and grew and one day, nine months after that night with the mysterious prince, a baby boy was born. But oh, what a baby! He had hair like fire – the reddest hair you've ever seen. No one had ever had red hair before, and they all stood around in shock.
'What is wrong with it?' the Queen whispered, horrified.
'It must be a demon child.' announced the king.
'Not quite, dear king, not quite.' came another voice, a dark, smooth, familiar voice. The princess, laying in bed exhausted, gasped and tried to sit up.
The prince stood there, gazing at them with an amused expression. "He is no demon, he is my son – my son' - his voice went up an octave – 'my son is of the Fae!'
And he disappeared in a poof of smoke and in his place was a small, giggling little fairy, with a great big red beard and a long, crooked nose. He laughed and laughed and spun around. 'I tricked you, didn't I, princess! Too proud for any man, but not too proud for a fairy!'
And with that, he disappeared.
The king later adopted the boy, claiming he was a nephew. He would have preferred to have had him killed or given away, but the princess would not allow it. She had carried him for nine months and, despite her unfortunate circumstances, had grown to love him. She never did marry, but raised her red-haired son with so much love he turned out half decent. Only half, of course. He was half-fairy and couldn't resist any good mischief.
Eventually, he gained the throne, and was neither a good nor evil king – he was not cruel, after all, just fond of practical jokes and putting people in their place. He married, and his children had red hair too – as did all of his line. With time the red genes grew weaker and weaker, as the old fairy who was his father grew older, and nowadays he must be almost gone as redheads are becoming rarer and rarer." Mel gets quiet, and gazes up at the sky. That's how I can always tell her story is over.
"So I'm the descendent of a prankster fairy?" I ask.
"Naturally. That's why you're so funny-looking." Mel laughs.