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The Wonderful Birch

from The Red Fairy Book





ONCE upon a time there were a man and a woman, who had an
only daughter. Now it happened that one of their sheep went
astray, and they set out to look for it, and searched and searched,
each in n different part of the wood. Then the good wife met a
witch, who said to her:

`If you spit, you miserable creature, if you spit into the sheath
of my knife, or if you run between my legs, I shall change you into
a black sheep.'

The woman neither spat, nor did she run between her legs, but
yet the witch changed her into a sheep. Then she made herself
look exactly like the woman, and called out to the good man:

`Ho, old man, halloa! I have found the sheep already!'

The man thought the witch was really his wife, and he did
not know that his wife was the sheep; so he went home with her,
glad at heart because his sheep was found. When they were safe
at home the witch said to the man:

`Look here, old man, we must really kill that sheep lest it run
away to the wood again.'

The man, who was a peaceable quiet sort of fellow, made no
objections, but simply said:

`Good, let us do so.'

The daughter, however, had overheard their talk, and she ran
to the flock and lamented aloud:

`Oh, dear little mother, they are going to slaughter you!'

`Well, then, if they do slaughter me,' was the black sheep's
answer, `eat you neither the meat nor the broth that is made of
me, but gather all my bones, and bury them by the edge of the
field.'

Shortly after this they took the black sheep from the flock and
slaughtered it. The witch made pease-soup of it, and set it before
the daughter. But the girl remembered her mother's warning.
She did not touch the soup, but she carried the bones to the edge
of the field and buried them there; and there sprang up on the
spot a birch tree--a very lovely birch tree.

Some time had passed away--who can tell how long they might
have been living there?--when the witch, to whom a child had been
born in the meantime, began to take an ill-will to the man's
daughter, and to torment her in all sorts of ways.

Now it happened that a great festival was to be held at the
palace, and the King had commanded that all the people should be
invited, and that this proclamation should be made:


`Come, people all!
Poor and wretched, one and all!
Blind and crippled though ye be,
Mount your steeds or come by sea.'


And so they drove into the King's feast all the outcasts, and the
maimed, and the halt, and the blind. In the good man's house, too,
preparations were made to go to the palace. The witch said to the man:

`Go you on in front, old man, with our youngest; I will give
the elder girl work to keep her from being dull in our absence.'

So the man took the child and set out. But the witch kindled
a fire on the hearth, threw a potful of barleycorns among the
cinders, and said to the girl:

`If you have not picked the barley out of the ashes, and put it
all back in the pot before nightfall, I shall eat you up!'

Then she hastened after the others, and the poor girl stayed at
home and wept. She tried to be sure to pick up the grains of
barley, but she soon saw how useless her labour was; and so she
went in her sore trouble to the birch tree on her mother's grave,
and cried and cried, because her mother lay dead beneath the sod
and could help her no longer. In the midst of her grief she
suddenly heard her mother's voice speak from the grave, and say to
her:

`Why do you weep, little daughter?'

`The witch has scattered barleycorns on the hearth, and bid
me pick them out of the ashes,' said the girl; `that is why I weep,
dear little mother.'

`Do not weep,' said her mother consolingly. `Break off one of
my branches, and strike the hearth with it crosswise, and all will
be put right.'
The girl did so. She struck the hearth with the birchen branch,
and lo! the barleycorns flew into the pot, and the hearth was clean.
Then she went back to the birch tree and laid the branch upon the
grave. Then her mother bade her bathe on one side of the stem,
dry herself on another, and dress on the third. When the girl had
done all that, she had grown so lovely that no one on earth could rival
her. Splendid clothing was given to her, and a horse, with hair
partly of gold, partly of silver, and partly of something more precious
still. The girl sprang into the saddle, and rode as swift as an arrow
to the palace. As she turned into the courtyard of the castle the
King's son came out to meet her, tied her steed to a pillar, and led
her in. He never left her side as they passed through the castle
rooms; and all the people gazed at her, and wondered who the
lovely maiden was, and from what castle she came; but no one
knew her--no one knew anything about her. At the banquet the
Prince invited her to sit next him in the place of honour; but the
witch's daughter gnawed the bones under the table. The Prince
did not see her, and thinking it was a dog, he gave her such a push
with his foot that her arm was broken. Are you not sorry for the
witch's daughter? It was not her fault that her mother was a witch.

Towards evening the good man's daughter thought it was time
to go home; but as she went, her ring caught on the latch of the
door, for the King's son had had it smeared with tar. She did not
take time to pull it off, but, hastily unfastening her horse from the
pillar, she rode away beyond the castle walls as swift as an arrow.
Arrived at home, she took off her clothes by the birch tree, left her
horse standing there, and hastened to her place behind the stove.
In a short time the man and the woman came home again too, and
the witch said to the girl:

`Ah! you poor thing, there you are to be sure! You don't
know what fine times we have had at the palace! The King's son
carried my daughter about, but the poor thing fell and broke her
arm.'

The girl knew well how matters really stood, but she pretended
to know nothing about it, and sat dumb behind the stove.

The next day they were invited again to the King's banquet.

`Hey! old man,' said the witch, `get on your clothes as quick
as you can; we are bidden to the feast. Take you the child; I will
give the other one work, lest she weary.'

She kindled the fire, threw a potful of hemp seed among the
ashes, and said to the girl:

`If you do not get this sorted, and all the seed back into the pot,
I shall kill you!'

The girl wept bitterly; then she went to the birch tree, washed
herself on one side of it and dried herself on the other; and this
time still finer clothes were given to her, and a very beautiful
steed. She broke off a branch of the birch tree, struck the hearth
with it, so that the seeds flew into the pot, and then hastened to the
castle.

Again the King's son came out to meet her, tied her horse to a
pillar, and led her into the banqueting hall. At the feast the girl sat
next him in the place of honour, as she had done the day before.
But the witch's daughter gnawed bones under the table, and the
Prince gave her a push by mistake, which broke her leg--he had
never noticed her crawling about among the people's feet. She
was VERY unlucky!

The good man's daughter hastened home again betimes, but the
King's son had smeared the door-posts with tar, and the girl's
golden circlet stuck to it. She had not time to look for it, but
sprang to the saddle and rode like an arrow to the birch tree.
There she left her horse and her fine clothes, and said to her
mother:

`I have lost my circlet at the castle; the door-post was tarred,
and it stuck fast.'

`And even had you lost two of them,' answered her mother, `I
would give you finer ones.'

Then the girl hastened home, and when her father came home
from the feast with the witch, she was in her usual place behind
the stove. Then the witch said to her:

`You poor thing! what is there to see here compared with what
WE have seen at the palace? The King's son carried my daughter
from one room to another; he let her fall, 'tis true, and my child's
foot was broken.'

The man's daughter held her peace all the time, and busied
herself about the hearth.

The night passed, and when the day began to dawn, the witch
awakened her husband, crying:

`Hi! get up, old man! We are bidden to the royal banquet.'

So the old man got up. Then the witch gave him the child,
saying:

`Take you the little one; I will give the other girl work to do,
else she will weary at home alone.'

She did as usual. This time it was a dish of milk she poured
upon the ashes, saying:

`If you do not get all the milk into the dish again before I come
home, you will suffer for it.'

How frightened the girl was this time! She ran to the birch
tree, and by its magic power her task was accomplished; and then
she rode away to the palace as before. When she got to the courtyard
she found the Prince waiting for her. He led her into the
hall, where she was highly honoured; but the witch's daughter
sucked the bones under the table, and crouching at the people's feet
she got an eye knocked out, poor thing! Now no one knew any
more than before about the good man's daughter, no one knew
whence she came; but the Prince had had the threshold smeared
with tar, and as she fled her gold slippers stuck to it. She reached
the birch tree, and laying aside her finery, she said:

`Alas I dear little mother, I have lost my gold slippers!'

`Let them be,' was her mother's reply; `if you need them I
shall give you finer ones.'

Scarcely was she in her usual place behind the stove when her
father came home with the witch. Immediately the witch began
to mock her, saying:

`Ah! you poor thing, there is nothing for you to see here, and
WE--ah: what great things we have seen at the palace! My little
girl was carried about again, but had the ill-luck to fall and get her
eye knocked out. You stupid thing, you, what do you know about
anything?'

`Yes, indeed, what can I know?' replied the girl; `I had
enough to do to get the hearth clean.'

Now the Prince had kept all the things the girl had lost, and he
soon set about finding the owner of them. For this purpose a great
banquet was given on the fourth day, and all the people were
invited to the palace. The witch got ready to go too. She tied a
wooden beetle on where her child's foot should have been, a log of
wood instead of an arm, and stuck a bit of dirt in the empty socket
for an eye, and took the child with her to the castle. When all the
people were gathered together, the King's son stepped in among
the crowd and cried:

`The maiden whose finger this ring slips over, whose head this
golden hoop encircles, and whose foot this shoe fits, shall be my
bride.'

What a great trying on there was now among them all! The
things would fit no one, however.

`The cinder wench is not here,' said the Prince at last; `go and
fetch her, and let her try on the things.'

So the girl was fetched, and the Prince was just going to hand
the ornaments to her, when the witch held him back, saying:

`Don't give them to her; she soils everything with cinders;
give them to my daughter rather.'

Well, then the Prince gave the witch's daughter the ring, and
the woman filed and pared away at her daughter's finger till the
ring fitted. It was the same with the circlet and the shoes of gold.
The witch would not allow them to be handed to the cinder wench;
she worked at her own daughter's head and feet till she got the
things forced on. What was to be done now? The Prince had to
take the witch's daughter for his bride whether he would or no; he
sneaked away to her father's house with her, however, for he was
ashamed to hold the wedding festivities at the palace with so strange
a bride. Some days passed, and at last he had to take his bride
home to the palace, and he got ready to do so. Just as they were
taking leave, the kitchen wench sprang down from her place by the
stove, on the pretext of fetching something from the cowhouse, and
in going by she whispered in the Prince's ear as he stood in the
yard:

`Alas! dear Prince, do not rob me of my silver and my gold.'

Thereupon the King's son recognised the cinder wench; so he
took both the girls with him, and set out. After they had gone some
little way they came to the bank of a river, and the Prince threw
the witch's daughter across to serve as a bridge, and so got over
with the cinder wench. There lay the witch's daughter then, like a
bridge over the river, and could not stir, though her heart was
consumed with grief. No help was near, so she cried at last in her
anguish:

`May there grow a golden hemlock out of my body! perhaps
my mother will know me by that token.'

Scarcely had she spoken when a golden hemlock sprang up from
her, and stood upon the bridge.

Now, as soon as the Prince had got rid of the witch's daughter
he greeted the cinder wench as his bride, and they wandered together
to the birch tree which grew upon the mother's grave. There they
received all sorts of treasures and riches, three sacks full of gold,
and as much silver, and a splendid steed, which bore them home to
the palace. There they lived a long time together, and the young
wife bore a son to the Prince. Immediately word was brought to
the witch that her daughter had borne a son--for they all believed
the young King's wife to be the witch's daughter.

`So, so,' said the witch to herself; `I had better away with my
gift for the infant, then.'

And so saying she set out. Thus it happened that she came to
the bank of the river, and there she saw the beautiful golden
hemlock growing in the middle of the bridge, and when she began to
cut it down to take to her grandchild, she heard a voice moaning:

`Alas! dear mother, do not cut me so!'

`Are you here?' demanded the witch.

`Indeed I am, dear little mother,' answered the daughter
`They threw me across the river to make a bridge of me.'

In a moment the witch had the bridge shivered to atoms, and
then she hastened away to the palace. Stepping up to the young
Queen's bed, she began to try her magic arts upon her, saying:

`Spit, you wretch, on the blade of my knife; bewitch my knife's
blade for me, and I shall change you into a reindeer of the forest.'

`Are you there again to bring trouble upon me?' said the young
woman.

She neither spat nor did anything else, but still the witch
changed her into a reindeer, and smuggled her own daughter into
her place as the Prince's wife. But now the child grew restless
and cried, because it missed its mother's care. They took it to the
court, and tried to pacify it in every conceivable way, but its crying
never ceased.

`What makes the child so restless?' asked the Prince, and he
went to a wise widow woman to ask her advice.

`Ay, ay, your own wife is not at home,' said the widow woman;
`she is living like a reindeer in the wood; you have the witch's
daughter for a wife now, and the witch herself for a mother-in-
law.'

`Is there any way of getting my own wife back from the wood
again?' asked the Prince.

`Give me the child,' answered the widow woman. `I'll take it
with me to-morrow when I go to drive the cows to the wood. I'll
make a rustling among the birch leaves and a trembling among
the aspens--perhaps the boy will grow quiet when he hears it.'

`Yes, take the child away, take it to the wood with you to quiet
it,' said the Prince, and led the widow woman into the castle.

`How now? you are going to send the child away to the wood?'
said the witch in a suspicious tone, and tried to interfere.

But the King's son stood firm by what he had commanded, and
said:

`Carry the child about the wood; perhaps that will pacify it.'

So the widow woman took the child to the wood. She came to
the edge of a marsh, and seeing a herd of reindeer there, she began
all at once to sing--

`Little Bright-eyes, little Redskin,
Come nurse the child you bore!
That bloodthirsty monster,
That man-eater grim,
Shall nurse him, shall tend him no more.
They may threaten and force as they will,
He turns from her, shrinks from her still,'

and immediately the reindeer drew near, and nursed and tended
the child the whole day long; but at nightfall it had to follow the
herd, and said to the widow woman:

`Bring me the child to-morrow, and again the following day;
after that I must wander with the herd far away to other lands.'

The following morning the widow woman went back to the
castle to fetch the child. The witch interfered, of course, but the
Prince said:

`Take it, and carry it about in the open air; the boy is quieter
at night, to be sure, when he has been in the wood all day.'

So the widow took the child in her arms, and carried it to the
marsh in the forest. There she sang as on the preceding day--

`Little Bright-eyes, little Redskin,
Come nurse the child you bore!
That bloodthirsty monster,
That man-eater grim,
Shall nurse him, shall tend him no more.
They may threaten and force as they will,
He turns from her, shrinks from her still,'

and immediately the reindeer left the herd and came to the child,
and tended it as on the day before. And so it was that the child
throve, till not a finer boy was to be seen anywhere. But the
King's son had been pondering over all these things, and he said to
the widow woman:

`Is there no way of changing the reindeer into a human being
again?'

`I don't rightly know,' was her answer. `Come to the wood with
me, however; when the woman puts off her reindeer skin I shall
comb her head for her; whilst I am doing so you must burn the skin.'

Thereupon they both went to the wood with the child; scarcely
were they there when the reindeer appeared and nursed the child
as before. Then the widow woman said to the reindeer:

`Since you are going far away to-morrow, and I shall not see
you again, let me comb your head for the last time, as a
remembrance of you.'

Good; the young woman stript off the reindeer skin, and let
the widow woman do as she wished. In the meantime the King's
son threw the reindeer skin into the fire unobserved.

`What smells of singeing here?' asked the young woman, and
looking round she saw her own husband. `Woe is me! you have
burnt my skin. Why did you do that?'

`To give you back your human form again.'

`Alack-a-day! I have nothing to cover me now, poor creature
that I am!' cried the young woman, and transformed herself first
into a distaff, then into a wooden beetle, then into a spindle, and
into all imaginable shapes. But all these shapes the King's son
went on destroying till she stood before him in human form again.

Alas! wherefore take me home with you again,' cried the young
woman, `since the witch is sure to eat me up?'

`She will not eat you up,' answered her husband; and they
started for home with the child.

But when the witch wife saw them she ran away with her
daughter, and if she has not stopped she is running still, though at
a great age. And the Prince, and his wife, and the baby lived
happy ever afterwards.[9]

[9] From the Russo-Karelian.





Next: Jack And The Beanstalk

Previous: The Norka



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