A little village at the edge of the forest. A lovely little white house with shutters painted blue. A couple of newlyweds had just moved in. The young woman was pregnant.
On this beautiful May day, the baby was born. The mother and father named the baby Marie.
A year went by.
The next spring, at the end of May, the baby Marie, now almost a year old, was sitting in the yard on a blanket next to her mother. Gusts of wind blew hard. A very green nettle leaf came loose from its stem and settled on the blanket.
Marie crawled over on all fours and took the leaf in her hand. She looked at it and squeezed it tight. Then she put it in her mouth.
Her mother turned to her daughter at just that moment. She took the nettle from her to avoid an injury. She let out a little cry.
You, gentle reader, know that the stings from nettles hurt.
Still, Marie, who had played with the leaf and crumpled it in her hand, had not cried or seemed to have been hurt. "Strange," her mother thought.
That evening, she had stopped thinking about it, almost forgetting the incident altogether.
A year later, when she was nearly two, little Marie was playing ball on the grass in the beautiful May sunshine. The red ball suddenly rolled towards the hedge at the far end of the yard. It got stuck in the middle of a pretty big thicket of nettles.
The little girl, dressed only in her shorts, went into the nettles in her bare feet. With a quick gesture, she pushed the prickly plants to the side, bent down, and picked up her ball.
Her mother, who'd seen the whole thing, hurried into the garden. Marie had just come out of the nettles. She hadn't felt a thing and wasn't in any pain. Astonished, her mother put on her gloves and cut a sprig of nettles. As if playing, she gently thwacked the nettle on her daughter's belly, back, arms, and legs. Little Marie laughed out loud.
Her mother understood then that her daughter was not like other children. Marie was immune to stinging nettles.
Several years went by and Marie was now nearly seven years old. Everyone in the village called her Nettle Marie, Nettie for short. She'd done a lot of little favours for everyone everywhere. She was asked to remove nettles from gardens and fields. She grabbed them in both hands and pulled them out of the ground. Our friend, by doing it this way, managed to get rid of the plants, roots and all.
She was happy to do these odd jobs. After school, she often went to one person or another's house.
"Nettie, some nettles are growing in my garden. Could you be a dear and pull them out?" asked one old lady. Our friend got rid of them and, for her efforts, she got a few candies.
"Nettie, I get stung along my hedge," said another elderly woman from the village. "You want me to pull out those nettles?"
The girl happily went and did it.
"Please let me give you some tarts as a gesture of my gratitude."
Then our friend would pass by the farm.
"Nettie, in the corner, near the embankment, there are about fifty nettles growing. Could you pull them up? We get stung when we go by there to take the cows to pasture."
She cleared the path in a few minutes.
"Here's a little something, so you can buy yourself a treat at the store."
The girl was beloved by everyone in the village. She was very happy.
Another year went by.
Our friend was nearly eight years old. She discovered another advantage of not being stung by the nettles. She brushed her long hair and did it into two lovely brown braids. Of course, all the kids in the village had fun trying to pull them. All the girls who wore braids knew it too well.
When Nettie was chased by some boys, she'd run and hide out in the middle of the big thicket of nettles by the church. None of the boys would dare bother her there. It would have hurt their legs and arms too much.
As it was, one day in May, she settled herself in the middle of the nettle thicket. She was lying among the tall nettle stalks, reading happily in peace.
She saw three slugs make their way towards her. Nettie didn't like slugs. She found their gluey slime pretty off-putting.
Our friend wanted to get up but she couldn't budge an inch. She felt paralyzed. She tried, in vain, to move her fingers, to wiggle her toes. Impossible. There was no way to sit up or escape. Crying for help was no good either. When she tried, she couldn't make a peep.
The three slugs crawled onto her T-shirt. Nettie was horrified. The slugs stopped under her chin. One of them, the one in the middle, seemed a little bigger than the others and seemed to have a crown on its head. The one on the left seemed a little less ugly than the others. The one on the right had a mean look to it. This one spoke first.
"Listen closely, little girl! We slugs eat nettles. When you uproot them all over the place, you deprive us of our food and we risk starving to death. So, from now on, I forbid you from picking nettles. Otherwise, a great misfortune will befall you."
The slug that looked friendly added:
"Be nice! It's our food. Will you at least try?"
Our friend was going to say yes when the big slug in the middle started to talk.
"I am the queen. You heard us right. You're not going to uproot even one more nettle, from today onwards, or you'll have to watch out for yourself."
"Promise," whispered the girl.
"Beware," added the slug queen. "If you don't keep your promise, something terrible will happen to you."
The three ugly beasts left. Our friend was finally able to get up. She took her book and ran home. She arrived home all pale and still shaking with fear.
From that day on, Nettie didn't weed any nettles for anyone.
Another year went by.
Now Nettle was almost nine years old. That May, she was playing in her yard under the sun.
At the neighbour's, a baby of nearly a year was crawling on all fours in the grass. Our friend often went to play with him. She was very fond of him. He was very funny.
Suddenly, the little boy pricked himself very hard with the nettles that were growing along the hedge at the far end of the yard. His mother asked our friend if she would mind, just this once, to pull them out.
"Those terrible plants always grow back when I cut them. But you, when you pick them, you pull them out by the roots.
The girl, who was crazy about this little tyke, agreed to do it. So he wouldn't get stung any more. She cleared all the nettles from their yard and threw them in the garbage.
That evening, in her room, in her bed, with the window open, our friend thought she saw something move on the windowsill. In the moonlight, she recognized the three slugs.
She wanted to get up out of bed but it was too late. Once again, she was paralyzed. She couldn't move. Even crying out to her mother or father was not possible. Not a sound would come out of her throat.
The three slugs climbed her pyjama shirt and stopped by her chin. The mean slug talked first.
"We are going to punish you. A great misfortune will now befall you."
The kind one turned towards the queen and spoke.
"Maybe we can forgive her. After all, she only picked a few nettles, for the sake of a baby. It was only one time now that she'd disobeyed us. Let's give her a last chance ..."
"Be quiet," said the slug queen. "Listen, Nettie, I don't mind not saying anything this time around, but I swear it is the last time. If you pick one more nettle, we will punish you. You've been warned. Understand?"
"Yes," promised the girl. "I'll listen to you. I won't touch any more nettles."
And the three slugs left. Nettie went back to sleep.
Another year went by. Tomorrow Marie would be ten, on the second Sunday in May.
On that day, at church, the parish priest explained that boys from the village had found the missing statue of the Virgin Mary that had once stood near the altar.
The priest added, "Our church was very proud of its statue of the Virgin Mary, sculpted out of wood. It was ancient. There were miracles thanks to this statue. We said she healed the sick. At the time of the revolution, over two hundred years ago, some peasants brought it into the forest so it didn't get burned. They hid it so well that no one found it after the revolution."
The parishioners listened in rapt silence.
"But, yesterday, three boys from the village were exploring a crevasse in a valley. The statue was inside. This afternoon, we will go all together to get the statue and come back to put it back here in its place in the church."
It was a beautiful that day and all the villagers went into the forest, from the very young to the very old. They carried the littlest ones in their arms. They pushed the oldest ones in carts.
Approaching the statue, it was halfway buried in the ground and overgrown with nettles. The roots burrowed into the wood. It risked being damaged if they used knives.
Everyone turned to Nettie. The girl was afraid of the slugs and hadn't uprooted any nettles for a year now. She agreed only because everyone insisted she make an exception for the Virgin Mary.
She went down into the rocky crevice. One by one, she removed all the nettles and the roots that had gone through the wood of the statue. It was careful, delicate work but the statue didn't suffer a scratch, nor lose the least bit of shine.
An hour later, it was completely rid of the roots and quite unharmed. Everyone returned to the church in a parade and then they organized a big celebration in the village.
That very night, Nettie lay in her bed, twisting and turning but unable to sleep. She was agitated. Tomorrow would be her tenth birthday.
Suddenly, she spotted the slugs. But this time, she didn't see three. They arrived in dozens, hundreds, thousands.
She tried to get up in bed. But, each time, she was completely unable to move or scream. She watched the queen approach. Menacing. The kind one was quiet. The mean one spoke.
"We have come to punish you."
The thousands of slugs slithered up and into the bed of our friend. She turned her head in all directions, disgusted. But she still couldn't get up or away. They crawled under our friend's sheets and carried her, as though they were a living conveyor belt, out of the house, through her yard, then across the fields to the corner of the forest.
They went into a gigantic thicket of stinging nettles. The stems were tall and the leaves were huge, sharp, threatening, and red.
"There," the queen proclaimed. "Here, in the Red Palace, you are my prisoner and I will leave you here to starve to death. This is your punishment."
The slugs left.
Marie calmed herself. The nettles were nothing at all. She could uproot them. She headed over to the wall of plants and, with each hand, she grabbed a handful of leaves and stems. She had to get out of this prison. She cried out. These red nettles stung her. It was painful!
She tried to clear the stems from the left, then from the right so she could wiggle through. But the nettle wall was so tightly woven she only got stung.
She was trapped in a prison of red nettles, barefoot, and dressed in her blue pyjamas. She wondered what would become of her. She wanted to cry. The slugs had just left her there to starve to death.
Just then, she remembered that the statue was supposed to grant miracles.
"Statue of the Virgin Mary, I helped you the other day. Without leaving a scratch, I removed all the stinging nettles that were growing all over you. Maybe you would like to do a little miracle for me? Could you maybe come and find me or help me get away?"
Raising her eyes, she saw a soft light, almost a luminous mist. She could make out the statue of the Virgin Mary.
"Come Marie," whispered the apparition. "Follow me."
Our friend got up. She approached the wall of nettles.
"Don't be afraid. You won't feel a thing. Walk in my footsteps. I heard your prayer."
Nettie walked through the wall of nettles without feeling a thing. As she made her way through the woods, the luminous mist containing the vision of the statue of the Virgin moved before her. She walked through the fields and meadows and reached home. As she was climbing in the window of her room, the statue of the Virgin added:
"Marie, from now on you will no longer have the gift of being immune to the sting of nettles. Tomorrow, when you get up, you will be a little girl like all the others. You will no longer be able to touch nettles without feeling a burning sensation."
"That's okay with me," smiled the girl. "Thank you. Thanks for rescuing me ..."
She got back into bed and fell asleep.
The next day her mother woke her up.
"Marie, Marie, get up! It's a big day today. It's your birthday!"
"Oh, yes, mother," said the girl.
She ran into the living room and kissed her parents.
"Happy tenth birthday," her father said. You're a big girl now. I don't want to call you Nettie anymore. Just Marie. It's your name.
Our friend ran to the far end of the yard. She went up to a little sprig of green nettle growing amidst the rose bushes. She reached out her finger and touched it. It pricked her.
Marie had become a girl like all the others. No one ever called her Nettie again.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton