The Cruel Stepmother

: Canadian Fairy Tales

Once long ago, when the Blackfeet Indians dwelt on the Canadian

prairies, a poor Indian and his two children, a boy and a girl, were

living near the bank of a great river. The children's mother had long

been dead and they had long been left to the care of their father.

Their father did not think it was right that they should grow up

without a woman's kindness, and he decided at last to take another

wife. So he went far
away to a distant village and there he married a

queer woman of another tribe. Soon times grew hard in the North

Country, and it was very difficult to get food. The family lived for

many days on roots and berries, and often they were very hungry

because there was no meat. Now it happened that the woman the man had

married was a very wicked witch-woman, who was capable of doing many

evil deeds. She had no love for her stepchildren, and she treated them

very cruelly. She blamed them for the lack of food in the house, and

beating them soundly, she said, "You gluttonous brats; you always eat

too much. It is little wonder that we cannot keep the house supplied

with food." The man saw his wife's cruelty to the children, but

although it made him sad, and at times angry, he did not interfere,

for he thought the woman should rule her home.

One night in the early spring, as the man slept, his first wife

appeared to him in a dream, and said, "Hang a large spider web across

the trail in the forest where the animals pass and you will get plenty

of food. But be good to my children. Their cruel stepmother is

planning to kill them." And she told him where to look for the magical

spider web. The next day the man found the large spider web, and he

went far away into the forest and hung it from the trees over the

trail where the animals passed. That evening when he went back to the

web he found many animals entangled in its meshes, for it had magical

power. He killed the animals and brought them home, and that night

they had a good fat supper of roast deer meat. Day after day the

magical spider web gave him great numbers of rabbits and deer, as the

vision of his dead wife had told him in the night, and from that time

on the family did not want for food.

But the man's success in hunting only angered his witch-wife. She had

now no cause for complaint against the little children, and she could

no longer scold them and say that because of them there was no food in

the house. Her hatred for them grew stronger each day, and at last

she decided to kill them and to kill their father as soon as she

could. Their father was going away on the morrow in search of wood to

make arrows for his bows, and she thought she would have a good chance

to kill them while he was gone. Then she would kill their father when

he returned. So she laid her plans. But that night the vision of his

first wife came again to the man as he slept, and it said, "Your

present wife is a witch-woman. She plans to kill the children

to-morrow when you are away, and when you come home she will kill you,

too. You must kill her while there is yet time. Remember my little


When the man awoke in the morning he was much alarmed because of the

story told him by the vision of the night. He no longer trusted his

witch-wife and he decided to get rid of her. But he feared she would

attack the children before he could prevent it. So when the witch-wife

went out to get water from the stream to make breakfast, he gave each

of the children a stick, a white stone, and a bunch of soft moss, and

he said, "You must run away from here and stay away until I can find

you, for you are in great danger. You will find these three things I

give you of great use. Throw them behind you if any evil thing pursues

you, and they will keep you from harm." The children in great fear at

once ran away into the forest. Then the man hung his magical spider

web over the door of the house, and sat quietly inside waiting for

his wife to come back. In a little while she came home, carrying a

pail of water, but she did not see the web with its fine strands

hanging across the door, and when she walked into it she was at once

entangled in its meshes. She struggled hard to get free, but her head

was inside the door while her body was outside, and the web held her

fast around the neck. Then the man said, "I know now that you are a

cruel witch-woman. You will beat my children no more." With his

stone-axe he struck her a mighty blow which completely severed her

head from her body. Then he ran from the house as fast as he could and

went towards his children, who were watching him not far away.

But the man was not yet done with the cruel witch-woman. As he ran

from the house her headless body, freed from the spider web, ran after

him, while her severed head, with eyes staring and hair flying,

followed the children, sometimes bumping along the ground and

sometimes rising through the air. The father thought it would be well

to go in a different direction from the children, and he went west,

while they went east. The children were very frightened when they saw

the horrible head behind them, slowly gaining upon them. Then they

remembered their father's magic gifts. When the head was close upon

them, they threw their sticks on the ground at their backs and at once

a dense forest sprang up between them and their pursuer. The children

said, "Now we will rest here for a while, for we are nearly out of

breath. The wicked head cannot get through that dense forest." And

they sat on the grass and rested.

Soon, however, the pursuing head emerged from the thick trees. The

children got up and ran as hard as they could, but close behind them

came the severed head, rolling its eyes and gnashing its teeth in a

great frenzy, and uttering terrible yells. It was very near to them,

when the children again remembered their father's gifts. They threw

the white stones behind them, and at once a high mountain of white

rock rose between them and their enemy. They sat on the ground and

rested, and said, "Oh dear, oh dear, what shall we do? We have only

one means of safety left, these little bits of moss." The wicked head

hurled itself against the mountain, but it could not get through. A

big buffalo bull was feeding on the grass near it, and the head called

to him to break a road through the mountain. The bull rushed at the

mountain with all his force, but the mountain was so hard that it

broke his head and he fell down dead. Some moles were playing in the

soft earth near by, and the head called to them to make a passage

through the hill. So the moles searched and found a soft earthy place

in the midst of the rock and soon they tunnelled a hole to the other

side of the mountain, through which the head was able to pass. When

the children saw their pursuer coming out of the moles' tunnel they

cried loudly and ran away as fast as they could. At last, after a very

long chase, the head was almost upon them, and they decided to use

their last means of protection. They threw the wet moss behind them,

and at once a long black swamp appeared where the moss had fallen,

between them and their wicked follower. The head was going at such a

great speed, bumping over the ground, that it could not stop. It

rolled into the swamp and disappeared into the soft mud and was never

seen again.

The children then went home to wait for their father. It was a long

journey, for they had run far. But their father never came. Months and

months they waited, but he did not come, and they grew up to be great

magicians and very powerful among their tribe. At last, by their magic

power, they learned what had happened to their father. Their

stepmother's body continued to follow him as he ran towards the west.

It followed him for many days. Then by his magic power, which the

vision of his dead wife had brought to him, he changed himself into

the Sun, and went to live with his wife in the sky-country. But the

old witch-woman also had magic power, and she changed herself into the

Moon and followed him to the land of the stars. And there she still

pursues him. And while he keeps ahead of her and she cannot catch him,

night follows day in all the world. But if she overtakes him she will

kill him, and day will disappear and night shall reign for evermore

upon the earth. And the Blackfeet of the plains pray that he will

always keep in front in the race with his former witch-wife, so that

there may be always Night and Day in succession in all the land.