by David Gore

Once upon a time in ancient Greece there was a girl named Astra.  She was pretty and her parents were wealthy and caring, so that she had everything a girl could want -- tasty food, fine clothes, admiring friends, a loving family.  But in spite of all the good things Astra was given, she was unhappy, for she had a small mole on her left shoulder.  It was nothing anyone else ever noticed, but Astra felt it made her ugly, and she brooded over it day and night.
Astra's parents worried about her, and decided to send her to live with her aunt and uncle in the country for a while in hopes that the country air would do her good.  They first disguised her as a poor peasant girl, because there were bandits outside the city who preyed on rich travelers.  Ragged clothes replaced her finery, and dirt was smeared across her cheeks to hide their color.  Her parents arranged for her to travel with a family of peasants so she would be less conspicuous.  But at the last moment before leaving, and without her parents knowing of it, Astra slipped a favorite gold ring on her finger.
Soon the bedraggled-looking little group was on the road, with the city behind them.  As they came to the top of a hill, five large and fierce-looking men jumped out from behind some boulders to block the way.
"Halt, in the name of Procrustes!" declared one of the bandits.
"Procrustes!?"  squeaked an old peasant man.  "But we have nothing of interest to him!  We are poor peasants!"
The bandit looked them over, then seeming to agree, he nodded and said, "All right, get on with you then."
But as they passed the bandits, Astra's gold ring briefly caught a ray of sunlight and flashed in the bandit's eye.  He strode over to her, grabbed her wrist, and held up her hand.  "What is this?" he crowed.  "An expensive gold ring on a poor peasant girl?"  He then opened her hand to look at it carefully.  "What soft white hands!  A peasant girl who does no work?  Hands that stay indoors instead of being burned brown by the sun?"
The bandit briefly walked around, inspecting the hands of the other peasants.  All were tough from hard labor and brown from years of toil in the fields.  He then came back to Astra and said, "You can all leave, except this one."
The peasants looked with pity on Astra, then moved on down the dusty dirt road.  The bandits marched off in another direction, pushing Astra ahead of them.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked, her voice quavering with fear.
"Why, to see Procrustes, of course.  He will want to see if you are too long or short for his Bed!"  The outlaws laughed.
Astra thought hard.  Where had she heard of the "Bed of Procrustes"?.  Then she remembered the stories.  When the bandit Procrustes captured a victim, he demanded a ransom.  If the ransom was not quickly paid, Procrustes put the victim on a small hard bed.  Some people were too long for the bed, and Procrustes cut off their feet to make them fit.  Others were too short, and Procrustes used ropes to stretch their bodies until they fit.  To be set on the Bed of Procrustes was a terrible fate.
That night Astra lay on the dirt floor of a bandit's hut, on her side with her feet bound and her hands tied behind her.  Procrustes had sent a messenger to the city to seek out her father and demand a ransom.  Astra was not sure her father could afford to pay the ransom, and she was afraid that she might end up on the Bed of Procrustes.  She thought of her family and friends, and of all the things she had taken for granted.  The mole on her shoulder - how could she ever have wasted time worrying about such a trivial thing?  Under her, a sharp rock cut into her side, and she longed for her soft bed at home.  Astra wriggled so the rock was no longer under her hip, and she felt it with the fingers of her two tied hands.  It was indeed sharp.  Suddenly a thought struck her.  Would it be sharp enough to cut rope?
Astra began to move the rope up and down across the sharp edge of the rock.  She was so tightly tied that it was hard to move at all, but she kept at it doggedly.  After what seemed like hours, she felt the rope part, and she quickly freed her hands.  After rubbing her wrists to restore circulation, she untied the rope binding her feet.  Uncertainly, she stretched her cramped body, then got to her feet.
The hut was unguarded and the bandits asleep, so she crept slowly and silently out of the camp.  That night she stumbled through the darkness and found the road.  By noon she was home again.  Her parents hugged her tightly, happy and amazed to see her safely home.  And Astra was happy to be home.  After that, she never gave the small mole on her left shoulder more than a moment's thought.  She was happy just to be alive.

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