The Wonderful Birch – Part 1

Included in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book which was published in 1890 is the a variant of the Cinderella story. The Wonderful Birch tells the tale of a girl that is abused by her witch stepmother after her real mother was turned into a sheep and slaughtered. The mother reincarnates into a birch tree and helps her daughter with her troubles.

The Wonderful Birch – Part 1

The Wonderful BirchOnce 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 a 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.’

Part 2 of the Wonderful Birch will be published in The Local next week (19 September 2016).


 

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