The Marsh King’s Daughter
The storks tell many, many stories to their young ones, all about the bogs and marshes. In general each story is suited to the age and sense of the little storks. While the youngest ones are satisfied with, “Kribble-krabble, plurry-murry,” and think it a very fine story, the older ones demand something with more sense to it, or at least something about the family.
Of the two oldest stories which have been handed down among the storks, we all know the one about Moses, who was put by his mother on the banks of the Nile, where a King’s daughter found him. How well she brought him up, how he became a great man, and how no one knows where he lies buried, are things that we all have heard.
The other tale is not widely known, perhaps because it is almost a family story. This tale has been handed down from one mother stork to another for a thousand years, and each succeding story teller has told it better and better, and now we shall tell it best of all.
The first pair of storks who told this tale and who themselves played a part in it, had their summer home on the roof of the Viking’s wooden castle up by the Wild Marsh in Vendsyssel. If we must be precise about our knowledge, this is in the country of Hjorring, high up near Skagen in Jutland. There is still a big marsh there, which we can read about in the official reports of that district. It is said that the place once lay under the sea, but the land has risen somewhat, and is now a wilderness extending for many a mile. One is surrounded on all sides by marshy meadows, quagmires, and peat bogs, overgrown by cloud berries and stunted trees. Dank mists almost always hang over the place, and about seventy years ago wolves still made their homes there. Well may it be called the Wild Marsh. Think how desolate it was, and how much swamp and water there must have been among all those marshes and ponds a thousand years ago! Yet in most matters it must have looked then as it looks now. The reeds grew just as high, and had the same long leaves and feathery tips of a purplish-brown tint that they have now. Birch trees grew there with the same white bark and the same airily dangling leaves. As for the living creatures, the flies have not changed the cut of their gauzy apparel, and the favorite colors of the storks were white trimmed with black, and long red stockings.
However, people dressed very differently from the fashion of today. But if any of them-thrall or huntsman, it mattered not-set foot in the quagmire, they fared the same a thousand years ago as they would fare today. In they would fall, and down they would sink to him whom they call the Marsh King, who rules below throughout the entire marsh land. They also call him King ot the quicksands, but we like the name Marsh King better, and that was what the storks called him. Little or nothing is known about his rule, but perhaps that is just as well.
Near the marsh and close to the Liim Fiord, lay wooden castle of the Vikings, three stories high from its watertight stone cellars to the tower on its roof. The storks had built their nest on this roof, and there the mother stork sat hatching her eggs. She was certain they would be hatched.
One evening the father stork stayed out rather late, and when he got home he looked ruffled and flurried.
“I have something simply dreadful to tell you,” he said to the mother stork.
“Then you had better keep it to yourself,” she told him. “Remember, I am hatching eggs! If you frighten me it might have a very bad effect on them.”
“But I must tell you,” he insisted. “The daughter of our Egyptian host has come here. She has ventured to take this long journey, and-she’s lost!”
“She who comes of fairy stock? Speak up. You know that I must not be kept in suspense while I’m on my eggs.”
“It’s this way, Mother. Just as you told me, she must have believed the doctor’s advice. She believed that the swamp flowers up here would cure her sick father, and she has flown here in the guise of a swan, together with two other Princesses who put on swan plumage and fly north every year, to take the baths that keep them young. She has come, and she is lost.”
“You make your story too long-winded,” the mother stork protested. “My eggs are apt to catch cold. I can’t bear such suspense at a time like this.”
“I have been keeping my eyes open,” said the father stork, “and this evening I went among the reeds where the quagmire will barely support me. There I saw three swans flying my way. There was something about their flight that warned me, ‘See here! These are not real swans. These creatures are merely disguised in swan feathers!’ You know as well as I do, Mother, that one feels instinctly whether a thing is true or false.”
“To be sure, I do,” said she. “But tell me about the Princess. I am tired of hearing about swan feathers.”
“Well,” the father stork said, “as you know, in the middle of the marsh there is a sort of pool. You can catch a glimpse of it from here if you will rise up a trifle. There, between the reeds and the green scum of the pool, a large alder stump juts up. On it the three swans alighted, flapped their wings and looked about them. One of them threw off her swan plumage and immediately I could see that she was the Princess from our home in Egypt. There she sat with no other cloak than her own long hair. I heard her ask the others to take good care of her swan feathers, while she dived down in the water to pluck the swamp flower which she fancied she saw there. They nodded, and held their heads high as they picked up her empty plumage.
” ‘What are they going to do with it?’ I wondered, and she must have wondered too. Our answer came soon enough, for they flew up in the air with her feather garment.
” ‘Dive away,’ they cried. ‘Never more shall you fly about as a swan. Never more shall you see the land of Egypt. You may have your swamp forever.’ They tore her swan guise into a hundred pieces, so that feathers whirled around like a flurry of snow. Then away they flew, those two deceitful Princesses.”
“Why, that’s dreadful,” the mother stork said. “I can’t bear to listen. Tell me what happened next.”
“The Princess sobbed and lamented. Her tears sprinkled down on the alder stump, and the stump moved, for it was the Marsh King himself, who lives under the quagmire. I saw the stump turn, and this was no longer a tree stump that stretched out its two muddy, branch-like arms toward the poor girl. She was so frightened that she jumped out on the green scum which cannot bear my weight, much less hers. She was instantly swallowed up, and it was the alder stump, which plunged in after her, that dragged her down. Big black bubbles rose, and these were the last traces of them. She is now buried in the Wild Marsh and never will she get back home to Egypt with the flowers she came to find. Mother, you could not have endured the sights I saw.”
“You ought not to tell me such a tale at a time like this. Our eggs may be the worse for it. The Princess can look out for herself. Someone will surely help her. Now if it had been I, or you, or any of our family, it would have been all over with us.”
“I shall look out for her, every day,” said the father stork, and he did so.
A long time went by, but one day he saw a green stalk shooting up from the bottom of the pool. When it came to the surface it grew a leaf, which got broader and broader, and then a bud appeared. As the stork was flying by one morning, the bud opened in the strong sunbeams, and in the center of it lay a beautiful child, a baby girl who looked as fresh as if she had just come from her bath. So closely did the baby resemble the Princess from Egypt that the stork thought it was she, who had become a child again. But when he considered the matter he decided that this child who lay in the cup of a water lily must be the daughter of the Princess and the Marsh King.
“She cannot remain there,” the stork said to himself, “yet my nest is already overcrowded. But I have an idea. The Viking’s wife hasn’t any children, although she is always wishing for a little one. I’m often held responsible for bringing children, and this time I shall really bring one. I shall fly with this baby to the Viking’s wife. What joy there will be.”
The stork picked up the little girl, flew with her to the log castle, pecked a hole with his beak in the piece of bladder that served as a window pane, and laid the baby in the arms of the Viking woman. Then he flew home to his wife, and told her all about it. The baby storks listened attentively, for they were old enough now to be curious.
“Just think! The Princess is not dead,” he told them. “She sent her little one up to me, and I have found a good home for it.”
“I told you, to start with, that it would come out all right,” said the mother stork. “Turn your thoughts now to your own children. It is almost time for us to start on our long journey. I am beginning to tingle under my wings. The cuckoo and the nightingale have flown already, and I heard the quail saying that we shall soon have a favorable wind. Our young ones will do us credit on the flight, or I don’t know my own children.”
How pleased the Viking’s wife was when she awoke in the morning and found the lovely child in her arms. She kissed it and caressed it, but it screamed frightfully and thrashed about with its little arms and legs. There was no pleasing it until at last it cried itself to sleep, and as it lay there it was one of the loveliest little creatures that anyone ever saw. The Viking’s wife was so overjoyed that she felt light-headed as well as light-hearted. She turned quite hopeful about everything, and felt sure that her husband and all his men might return as unexpectedly as the little one had come to her. So she set herself and her entire household to work, in order to have everything in readiness. The long, colored tapestry on which she and her handmaidens had embroidered figures of their gods-Odin, Thor, and Freya, as they were called-were hung in place. The thralls were set to scouring and polishing the old shields that decorated the walls; cushions were laid on the benches; and dry logs were stacked on the fireplace in the middle of the hall, so that the pile might be lighted at a moment’s notice. The Viking’s wife worked so hard that she was tired out, and slept soundly when evening came.
Along toward morning she awoke, and was greatly alarmed to find no trace of her little child. She sprang up, lighted a splinter of pine wood, and searched the room. To her astonishment, she found at the foot of her bed not the beautiful child, but a big, ugly frog. She was so appalled that she took up a heavy stick to kill the creature, but it looked at her with such strange, sad eyes that she could not strike. As she renewed her search, the frog gave a faint, pitiful croak. She sprang from the bed to the window, and threw open the shutter. The light of the rising sun streamed in and fell upon that big frog on the bed. It seemed as if the creature’s wide mouth contracted into small, red lips. The frog legs unbent as the most exquisitely shaped limbs, and it was her lovely little child that lay there, and not that ugly frog.
“What’s all this?” she exclaimed. “Have I had a nightmare? This is my pretty little elf lying here.” She kissed it and pressed it affectionately to her heart, but it struggled and tried to bite, like the kitten of a wild cat.
Neither that day nor the next did her Viking husband come home. Though he was on his way, the winds were against him. They were blowing southward to speed the storks. A fair wind for one is a foul wind for another.
In the course of a few days and nights, it became plain to the Viking’s wife how things were with the little child. It was under the influence of some terrible spell of sorcery. By day it was as lovely as a fairy child, but it had a wicked temper. At night, on the contrary, it was an ugly frog, quiet and pathetic, with sorrowful eyes. Here were two natures that changed about both inwardly and outwardly. This was because the little girl whom the stork had brought had by day her mother’s appearance, together with her father’s temper. But at night she showed her kinship with him in her outward form, while her mother’s mind and heart inwardly became hers. Who would be able to release her from this powerful spell of sorcery that lay upon her? The Viking’s wife felt most anxious and distressed about it, yet her heart went out to the poor little thing.
She knew that when her husband came home she would not dare tell him of this strange state of affairs, for he would certainly follow the custom of those times and expose the poor child on the highroad, to let anyone take it who would. The Viking’s good-natured wife had not the heart to do this, so she determined that he should only see the child in the daytime.
At daybreak one morning, the wings of storks were heard beating over the roof. During the night more than a hundred pairs of storks had rested there, and now they flew up to make their way to the south.
“Every man ready,” was their watchword. “Let the wives and children make ready too.”
“How light we feel!” clacked the little storks. “We tingle and itch right down to our toes, as if we were full of live frogs. How fine it feels to be traveling to far-off lands.”
“Keep close in one flock,” cried their father and mother. “Don’t clack your beaks so much, it’s bad for your chest.”
And away they went.
At that very instant the blast of a horn rang over the heath, to give notice that the Viking had landed with all of his men. They came home with rich booty from the Gaelic coast, where, as in Britain, the terrified people sang:
“Deliver us from the wild Northmen.”
What a lively bustle now struck this Viking’s castle near the Wild Marsh! A cask of mead was rolled out into the hall, the pile of wood was lighted, and horses were slaughtered. What a feast they were going to have! Priests sprinkled the horses’ warm blood over the thralls as a blood offering. The fires crackled, the smoke rolled up to the roof, and soot dropped down from the beams, but they were used to that. Guests were invited, and were given handsome presents. Old grudges and double-dealings were forgotten. They all drank deep, and threw the gnawed bones in each other’s faces, but that was a sign of good humor. The skald, a sort of minstrel but at the same time a fighting man who had been with them and knew what he sang about, trolled them a song, in which he told of all their valiant deeds in battle, and all their wonderful adventures. After each verse came the same refrain:
“Fortunes perish, friends die, one dies oneself,
But a glorious name never dies!”
Then they all banged their shields, and rattled on the table with their knives or the knuckle-bones, making a terrific noise.
The Viking’s wife sat on the bench that ran across this public banquet hall. She wore a silken dress with gold bracelets and big amber beads. She was in her finest attire, and the skald included her in his song. He spoke of the golden treasure which she had brought her rich husband. This husband of hers rejoiced in the lovely child whom he had seen only by day, in all its charming beauty. The savage temper that went with her daytime beauty rather pleased him, and he said that she might grow up to be a stalwart soldier maid, able to hold her own-the sort who would not flinch if a skilled hand, in fun, took a sharp sword and cut off her eyebrows for practice.
The mead cask was emptied, a full one was rolled in, and it too was drunk dry. These were folk who could hold a great deal. They were familiar with the old proverb to the effect that, “The cattle know when to quit their pasture, but a fool never knows the measure of his stomach.”
Yes, they all knew it quite well, but people often know the right thing and do the wrong thing. They also knew that, “One wears out his welcome when he sits too long in another man’s house,” but they stayed on, for all that. Meat and mead are such good things, and they were a jovial crew. That night the thralls slept on the warm ashes, dipped their fingers into the fat drippings, and licked them. Oh yes, those were glorious days.
The Vikings ventured forth on one more raid that year, though the storms of autumn were beginning to blow. The Viking and his men went to the coast of Britain-“just across the water,” he said-and his wife stayed at home with her little girl. It soon came about that the foster mother cared more for the poor frog with its sad eyes and pathetic croaking, than for the little beauty who scratched and bit everyone who came near her.
The raw, dank mist of fall invaded the woods and thickets. “Gnaw-worms,” they called it, for it gnawed the leaves from the trees. “Pluck-feathers,” as they called the snow, fell in flurry upon flurry, for winter was closing in. Sparrows took over the stork nest and gossiped about the absent owners, as tenants will. The two storks and all their young ones- where were they now?
The storks were now in the land of Egypt, where the sun shone as warm as it does upon us on a fine summer day. Tamarind and acacia trees bloomed in profusion, and the glittering crescent of Mohammed topped the domes of all the mosques. On the slender minarets many a pair of storks rested after their long journey. Whole flocks of them nested together on the columns of ancient temples and the ruined arches of forgotten cities. The date palm lifted its high screen of branches, like a parasol in the sun. The gray-white pyramids were sharply outlined against the clear air of the desert, where the ostrich knew he could use his legs and the lion crouched to gaze with big solemn eyes at the marble sphinx half buried in the sand. The waters of the Nile had receded, and the delta was alive with frogs. The storks considered this the finest sight in all the land, and the young storks found it hard to believe their own eyes. Yes, everything was wonderful.
“See! it is always like this in our southern home,” their mother told them. And their little bellies tingled at the spectacle.
“Do we see any more?” they asked. “Shall we travel on into the country?”
“There is nothing else worth seeing,” their mother said. “Beyond this fertile delta lie the deep forests, where the trees are so interwoven by thorny creepers that only the elephant can trample a path through them with his huge, heavy feet. The snakes there are too big for us to eat, and the lizards too nimble for us to catch. And, if you go out in the desert, the slightest breeze will blow your eyes full of sand, while a storm would bury you under the dunes. No, it is best here, where there are plenty of frogs and locusts. Here I stop, and here you stay.”
So they stayed. In nests atop the slender minarets the old storks rested, yet kept quite busy smoothing their feathers and sharpening their bills against their red stockings. From time to time they would stretch their necks, bow very solemnly, and hold up their heads with such high foreheads, fine feathers, and wise brown eyes. The young maiden storks strolled solemnly through the wet reeds, making eyes at the other young storks, and scraping acquaintances. At every third step they would gulp down a frog, or pause to dangle a small snake in their bills. They were under the impression that this became them immensely and, besides, it tasted so good.
The young bachelor storks picked many a squabble, buffeted each other with their wings, and even stabbed at each other with their sharp bills till blood was shed. Yes, and then this young stork would get engaged, and that young stork would get engaged. Maidens and bachelors would pair off, for that was their only object in life. They built nests of their own and squabbled anew, for in the hot countries everyone is hot-headed. But it was very pleasant there, particularly so for the old storks, who thought that their children could do no wrong. The sun shone every day, there was plenty to eat, and they had nothing to do but enjoy themselves.
However, in the splendid palace of their Egyptian host, as they called him, there was no enjoyment. This wealthy and powerful lord lay on his couch, as stiff and stark as a mummy. In the great hall, which was as colorful as the inside of a tulip, he was surrounded by his kinsmen and servants. Though he was not quite dead, he could hardly be said to be alive. The healing flower from the northern marshes, which she who had loved him best had gone to seek, would never reach him. His lovely young daughter, who had flown over land and sea in the guise of a swan, would never come home from the far North.
“She is dead and gone,” the two other swan Princesses reported, when they returned. They concocted the following yarn, which they told:
“We three were flying together through the air, when a huntsman shot an arrow at us, and it struck our companion, our young friend. Like a dying swan, she sang her farewell song as she slowly dropped down to a lake in the forest. There on the shore we buried her, under a drooping birch tree. But we avenged her. We bound coals of fire to the wings of a swallow that nested under the thatched eaves of the huntsman’s cottage. The roof blazed up, the cottage burst into flames, and the huntsman was burned to death. The flames were reflected across the lake, under the drooping birch tree where she lies, earth of this earth. Never, alas! shall she return to the land of Egypt.”
They both wept. But when the father stork heard their tale he rattled his bill, and said, “All lies and invention! I should dearly love to drive my bill right through their breasts.”
“And most likely break it,” said the mother stork. “A nice sight you’d be then. Think first of yourself, and then of your family. Never mind about outsiders.”
“Nevertheless, I shall perch on the open cupola tomorrow, when all the wise and learned folk come to confer about the sick man. Perhaps they will hit upon something nearer the truth.”
The wise men assembled, and talked loud and long, but neither could the stork make sense out of what they had to say, nor did any good come of it to the sick man or to his daughter in the Wild Marsh. Yet we may as well hear what they had to say, for we have to listen to a lot in this world.
Perhaps it will be well to hear what had gone on before down there in Egypt. Then we shall know the whole story, or at least as much of it as the father stork knew.
“Love brings life. The greatest love brings the greatest life. Only through love may life be brought back to him.” This doctrine the learned men had stated before, and they now said they had stated it wisely and well.
“It is a beautiful thought,” the father stork quickly agreed.
“I don’t quite understand it,” said the mother stork. “That’s its fault though, not mine. But no matter. I have other things to think about.”
The learned men talked on about all the different kinds of love: the love of sweethearts, the love between parents and their children, plants’ love of the light, and the love that makes seeds grow when the sun’s rays kiss the earth. Their talk was so elaborate and learned that the father stork found it impossible to follow, much less repeat. However, their discussion made him quite thoughtful. All the next day he stood on one leg, with his eyes half closed, and thought, and thought. So much learning lay heavy upon him.
But one thing he understood clearly. Both the people of high degree and the humble folk had said from the bottom of their hearts that for this man to be sick, without hope of recovery, was a disaster to thousands, yes, to the whole nation, and that it would bring joy and happiness to everyone if he recovered.
“But where does the flower grow that can heal him?” they asked. For the answer they looked to their scholarly manuscripts, to the twinkling stars, to the wind, and to the weather. They searched through all the bypaths of knowledge, but all their wisdom and knowledge resolved down to the doctrine: “Love brings life-it can bring back a father’s life,” and although they said rather more than they understood, they accepted it, and wrote it down as a prescription. “Love brings life.” Well and good, but how was this precept to be applied? That was their stumbling block.
However, they had at last agreed that help must come from the Princess, who loved her father with all her heart. And they had devised a way in which she could help him. It was more than a year ago that they had sent the Princess into the desert, just when the new moon was setting, to visit the marble sphinx. At the base of the sphinx she had to scrape away the sand from a doorway, and follow a long passage which led to the middle of a great pyramid where one of the mightiest kings of old lay wrapped as a mummy in the midst of his glory and treasure. There she leaned over the corpse to have it revealed to her where she might find life and health for her father. When she had done all this, she had a dream in which she learned that in the Danes’ land there was a deep marsh-the very spot was described to her. Here, beneath the water, she would feel a lotus flower touch her breast, and when that flower was brought home to her father it would cure him. So, in the guise of a swan she had flown from the land of Egypt to the Wild Marsh.
All this was known to the father and mother stork, and now we too are better informed. Furthermore, we know that the Marsh King dragged her down, and that those at home thought her dead and gone. Only the wisest among them said, as the stork mother had put it, “She can look out for herself.” They waited to see what would come to pass, for they knew nothing better they could do.
“I believe I shall make off with those swan feathers of the faithless Princesses,” said the father stork. “Then they will fly no more to do mischief in the Wild Marsh. I’ll hide the two sets of feathers up North, until we find a use for them.”
“Where would you keep them?” the mother stork asked.
“In our nest by the Wild Marsh,” he said. “I and our sons will take turns carrying them when we go back. If they prove too much of a burden, there are many places along the way where we can hide them until our next flight. One set of swan feathers would be enough for the Princess, but two will be better. In that northern land it’s well to have plenty of wraps.”
“You will get no thanks for it,” she told him, “but please yourself. You are the master, and except at hatching time, I have nothing to say.”
Meanwhile, in the Viking’s castle near the Wild Marsh, toward which the storks came flying, now that it was spring, the little girl had been given a name. She was called Helga, but this name was too mild for the violent temper that this lovely girl possessed. Month by month her temper grew worse. As the years went by and the storks traveled to and fro, to the banks of the Nile in the fall, and back to the Wild Marsh in the springtime, the child grew to be a big girl. Before anyone would have thought it, she was a lovely young lady of sixteen. The shell was fair to see but the kernel was rough and harsh-harsher than most, even in that wild and cruel age.
She took delight in splashing her hands about in the blood of horses slaughtered as an offering to the gods. In savage sport, she would bite off the head of the black cock that the priest was about to sacrifice, and in dead earnest she said to her foster father:
“If your foe were to come with ropes, and pull down the roof over your head, I would not wake you if I could. I would not even hear the house fall, for my ears still tingle from that time you boxed them, years ago-yes, you! I’ll never forget it.”
But the Viking did not believe she was serious. Like everyone else, he was beguiled by her beauty, and he did not know the change that came over Helga’s body and soul.
She would ride an unsaddled horse at full gallop, as though she were part of her steed, nor would she dismount even though he fought with his teeth against the other wild horses. And many a time she would dive off the cliff into the sea, with all of her clothes on, and swim out to meet the Viking as his boat neared home. To string her bow, she cut off the longest lock of her beautiful hair, and plaited it into a string. “Self-made is well made,” said she.
The Viking’s wife had a strong and determined will, in keeping with the age, but with her daughter she was weak and fearful, for she knew that an evil spell lay on that dreadful child.
Out of sheer malice, as it seemed, when Helga saw her foster mother stand on the balcony or come into the courtyard, she would sit on the edge of the well, throw up her hands, and let herself tumble into that deep, narrow hole. Frog-like, she would dive in and clamber out. Like a wet cat, she would run to the main hall, dripping such a stream of water that the green leaves strewn on the floor were floating in it.
However, there was one thing that held Helga in check-and that was evening. As she came on, she grew quiet and thoughtful. She would obey, and accept advice. Some inner force seemed to make her more like her real mother. When the sun went down and the usual change took place in her appearance and character, she sat quiet and sad, shriveled up in the shape of a frog. Now that she had grown so much larger than a frog, the change was still more hideous. She looked like a miserable dwarf, with the head and webbed fingers of a frog. There was something so very pitiful in her eyes, and she had no voice. All she could utter was a hollow croak, like a child who sobs in her dreams. The Viking’s wife would take this creature on her lap. Forgetting the ugly form as she looked into those sad eyes, she would often say.
“I almost wish that you would never change from being my poor dumb-stricken frog child. For you are more frightful when I see you cloaked in beauty.”
Then she would write out runes against illness and witchcraft, and throw them over the wretched girl, but it was little good they did.
“One can hardly believe that she was once so tiny that she lay in the cup of a water lily,” said the father stork. “She has grown up, and is the living image of her Egyptian mother, whom we’ll never see again. She did not look out for herself as well as you and those wise men predicted she would. Year in, year out, I’ve flown to and fro across the Wild Marsh, but never a sign have I seen of her. Yes, I may as well tell you that year after year, when I flew on ahead to make our nest ready and put things in order, I spent whole nights flying over the pool as if I were an owl or a bat, but to no avail. Nor have we found a use for the two sets of swan feathers, which I and our sons took so much trouble to bring all the way from the banks of the Nile. It took us three trips to get them here. For years now they have lain at the bottom of our nest. If perchance a fire broke out and this wooden castle burned down, they would be gone.”
“And our good nest would be gone too,” the mother stork reminded him. “But you care less for that than you do for your swan feathers and your swamp Princess. Sometime you ought to go down in the mire with her and stay there for good. You are a poor father to your children, just as I’ve been telling you ever since I hatched our first brood. All I hope is that neither we nor our young ones get an arrow shot under our wings by that wild Viking brat. She doesn’t know what she is doing. I wish she would realize that this has been our home much longer than it has been hers. We have always been punctilious about paying our rent every year with a feather, an egg, and a young one, according to custom. But do you think that, when she is around, I dare venture down into the yard, as I used to, and as I still do in Egypt, where I am everyone’s crony and they let me peer into every pot and kettle? No, I sit up here vexing myself about her-the wench!-and about you too. You should have left her in the water lily, and that would have been the end of her.”
“You aren’t as hard-hearted as you sound,” said the father stork. “I know you better than you know yourself.” Up he hopped, twice he beat with his wings, and stretching his legs behind him off he flew, sailing away without moving his wings until he had gone some distance. Then he took a powerful stroke. The sunlight gleamed on his white feathers. His neck and head were stretched forward. There were speed and swing in his flight.
“After all, he’s the handsomest fellow of all,” said the mother stork, “but you won’t catch me telling him so.”
Early that fall the Viking came home with his booty and captives. Among the prisoners was a young Christian priest, one of those who preached against the northern gods. Of late there had been much talk in hall and bower about the new faith that was spreading up from the south, and for which St. Ansgarius had won converts as far north as Hedeby on the Slie. Even young Helga had heard of this faith in the White Christ, who so loved mankind that he had given His life to save them. But as far as she was concerned, as the saying goes, such talk had come in one ear and gone out the other. Love was a meaningless word to her except during those hours when, behind closed doors, she sat shriveled up as a frog. But the Viking’s wife had heard the talk, and she felt strangely moved by the stories that were told about the Son of the one true God.
Back from their raid, the Vikings told about glorious temples of costly hewn stone, raised in honor of Him whose message is one of love. They had brought home with them two massive vessels, artistically wrought in gold, and from these came the scent of strange spices. They were censers, which the Christian priests swung before altars where blood never flowed, but instead the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of Him who had given Himself for generations yet unborn.
Bound hand and foot with strips of bark, the young priest was cast into the deep cellars of the Viking’s castle. The Viking’s wife said that he was as beautiful as the god Balder, and she was sorry for him, but young Helga proposed to have a cord drawn through his feet and tied to the tails of wild oxen.
“Then,” she exclaimed, “I would loose the dogs on him. Ho, for the chase through mud and mire! That would be fun to see, and it would be even more fun to chase him.”
But this was not the death that the Viking had in mind for this enemy and mocker of the high gods. Instead, he planned to sacrifice the priest on the blood stone in their grove. It would be the first human sacrifice that had ever been offered there.
Young Helga begged her father to let her sprinkle the blood of the victim upon the idols and over the people. When one of the many large, ferocious dogs that hung about the house came within reach while she was sharpening her gleaming knife, she buried the blade in his side, “Just to test its edge,” she said.
The Viking’s wife looked in distress at this savage, ill-natured girl, and when night came and the beauty of body and soul changed places in the daughter, the mother spoke of the deep sorrow that lay in her heart. The ugly frog with the body of a monster gazed up at her with its sad brown eyes. It seemed to listen, and to understand her as a human being would.
“Never once, even to my husband, have I let fall a word of the two-edged misery you have brought upon me,” said the Viking’s wife. “My heart is filled with more sorrow for you than I would have thought it could hold, so great is a mother’s love. But love never entered into your feelings. Your heart is like a lump of mud, dank and cold. From whence came you into my house?”
The miserable form trembled strangely, as if these words had touched some hidden connection between its soul and it hideous body. Great tears came into those eyes.
“Your time of disaster will come,” said the Viking’s wife, “and it will be a disastrous time for me too. Better would it have been to have exposed you beside the highway when you were young, and to have let the cold of the night lull you into the sleep of death.” The Viking’s wife wept bitter tears. In anger and distress, she passed between the curtains of hides that hung from a beam and divided the chamber.
The shriveled-up frog crouched in a corner. The dead quiet was broken at intervals by her half-stifled sighs. It was as if in pain a new life had been born in her heart. She took a step forward, listened, stepped forward again, and took hold of the heavy bar of the door with her awkward hands. Softly she unbarred the door. Silently she lifted the latch. She picked up the lamp that flickered in the hall outside, and it seemed that some great purpose had given her strength. She drew back the iron bolt from the well-secured cellar door, and stole down to the prisoner. He was sleeping as she touched him with her cold, clammy hand. When he awoke and saw the hideous monster beside him, he shuddered as if he had seen an evil specter. She drew her knife, severed his bonds, and beckoned for him to follow her.
He uttered holy names and made the sign of the cross. As the creature remained unchanged, he said, in the words of the Bible:
” ‘Blessed is he that considereth the poor. The Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.’ Who are you, that in guise of an animal are so gentle and merciful?”
The frog beckoned for him to follow her. She led him behind sheltering curtains and down a long passage to the stable, where she pointed to a horse. When he mounted it, she jumped up in front ot him, clinging fast to the horse’s mane. The prisoner understood her, and speedily they rode out on the open heath by a path he could never have found.
He ignored her ugly shape, for he knew that the grace and kindness of God could take strange forms. When he prayed and sang hymns, she trembled. Was it the power of song and prayer that affected her, or was she shivering at the chill approach of dawn? What had come over her? She rose up, trying to stop the horse so that she could dismount, but the Christian priest held her with all his might, and chanted a psalm in the hope that it might have power to break the spell which held her in the shape of a hideous frog.
The horse dashed on, more wildly than ever. The skies turned red, and the first ray of the sun broke through the clouds. In that first flash of sunlight she changed. She became the lovely maiden with the cruel, fiendish temper. The priest was alarmed to find himself holding a fair maid in his arms. He checked the horse, and sprang off it, thinking he faced some new trick of the devil. Young Helga sprang down too, and the child’s smock that she wore was so short that it came only to her knee. From the belt of it she snatched her sharp knife, and attacked the startled priest.
“Let me get at you,” she screamed. “Let me get at you, and plunge my knife in your heart. You are as pale as straw, you beardless slave!”
She closed with him, and fiercely they struggled together, but an unseen power seemed to strengthen the Christian priest. He held her fast, and the old oak tree under which they stood helped him, for it entangled her feet in its projecting roots. With clear water from a near-by spring, the priest sprinkled her neck and face, commanding the unclean spirit to leave her, and blessing her with the sign of the cross in Christian fashion. But the waters of baptism have no power unless faith wells from within.
Even so, against the evil that struggled within her, he had opposed a power more mighty than his own human strength. Her arms dropped to her sides, as she gazed in pale-faced astonishment at this man whom she took for a mighty magician, skilled in sorcery and in the secret arts. Those were magic runes he had repeated, and mystic signs he had traced in the air. She would not have flinched had he shaken a keen knife or a sharp ax in her face, but she flinched now as he made the sign of the cross over her head and heart. She sat like a tame bird, with her head drooped upon her breast.
Gently he spoke to her of the great kindness she had shown him during the night, when she had come in the guise of a hideous frog to sever his bonds, and to lead him out into light and life again. He said she was bound by stronger bonds than those which had bound him, but that he would lead her out of darkness to eternal life. He would take her to the holy Ansgarius at Hedeby, and there in the Christian city the spell that had power over her would be broken. But he would not let her sit before him on the horse, even though she wished it. He dared not.
“You must sit behind me on the horse, not in front of me,” he said, “for your enchanted beauty has a power that comes of evil, and I fear it. Yet, with the help of the Lord, I shall win through to victory.”
He knelt and prayed devoutly and sincerely. It seemed as if the quiet wood became a church, consecrated by his prayers. The birds began to sing as if they belonged to the new congregation. The wild mint smelt sweet, as if to replace incense and ambergris, and the young priest recited these words from the Bible:
“To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death; to guide our feet into the ways of peace.”
While he spoke of the life everlasting, the horse that had carried them in wild career stood quietly by, and pulled at the tall bramble bushes until the ripe juicy berries fell into Helga’s hand, offering themselves for her refreshment.
Patiently, she let herself be lifted on horseback, and sat there like one in a trance, neither quite awake nor quite asleep. The priest tied two green branches in the shape of a cross, and held it high as they rode through the woods. The shrubs grew thicker and thicker, until at last they rode along in a pathless wilderness.
Bushes of the wild sloe blocked their way so that they had to ride around these thickets. The springs flowed no longer into little streams but into standing ponds, and they had to ride around these too. But the cool breezes of the forest refreshed and strengthened them, and there was no less strength in the words of faith and Christian love that the young priest found to say, because of his great desire to lead this poor lost soul back to light and life.
They say that raindrops will wear a hollow in the hardest stone, and that the waves of the sea will in time wear the roughest stones smooth and round. Thus did the dew of mercy, which fell on Helga, soften that which was hard, and smooth that which was rough in her nature. Not that any change could yet be seen, or that she knew she was changing, any more than the seed in the ground is aware that the rain and the warm sun will cause it to grow and burst into flower.
When a mother’s song unconsciously impresses itself on her child’s memory he babbles the words after her without understanding, but in time they assume order in his mind and become meaningful to him. Even so, God’s healing Word began to impress itself on Helga’s heart.
They rode out of the wilderness, crossed a heath, and rode on through another pathless forest. There, toward evening, they met with a robber band.
“Where did you kidnap this beautiful wench?” the robbers shouted. They stopped the horse and dragged the two riders from its back.
The priest was surrounded, and he was unarmed except for the knife he had taken from Helga, but with this he now tried to defend her. As one of the robbers swung his ax, the priest sprang aside to avoid the blow, which fell instead on the neck of the horse. Blood spurted forth, and the animal fell to the ground. Startled out of the deep trance in which she had ridden all day, Helga sprang forward and threw herself over the dying horse. The priest stood by to shield and defend her, but one of the robbers raised his iron hammer and brought it down on the priest’s head so hard that he bashed it in. Brains and blood spattered about as the priest fell down dead.
The robbers seized little Helga by her white arms, but it was sundown, and as the sun’s last beam vanished she turned back into a frog. The greenish white mouth took up half her face, her arms turned spindly and slimy, and her hands turned into broad, webbed fans. In terror and amazement, the robbers let go of this hideous creature. Frog-like she hopped as high as her head, and bounded into the thicket. The robbers felt sure this was one of Loki’s evil tricks, or some such secret black magic, so they fled from the place in terror.
The full moon rose. It shone in all its splendor as poor frog-shaped Helga crept out of the thicket and crouched beside the slain priest and the slaughtered horse. She stared at them with eyes that seemed to weep, and she gave a sob like the sound of a child about to burst into tears. She threw herself on first one and then the other. She fetched them water in her large hands, which could hold a great deal because of the webbed skin, and poured it over them, but dead they were and dead they would remain. At last, she realized this. Wild animals would come soon and devour their bodies. But no, that must not be!
She dug into the ground as well as she could, trying to make for them a grave as deep as possible. But she had nothing to dig with except the branch of her tree and her own two hands. The webs between her fingers were torn by her labors until they bled, and she made so little headway that she saw the task was beyond her. Then she brought clear water to wash the dead man’s face, which she covered with fresh green leaves. She brought large branches to cover him, and scattered dry leaves between them. Then she brought the heaviest stones she could carry, piled them over the body, and filled in the cracks with moss. Now she thought the mound would be strong and safe, but the difficult task had taken her all night long. The sun came up, and there stood young Helga in all her beauty, with blood on her hands and for the first time maidenly tears on her flushed cheeks.
During this transformation, it seemed as if two natures were contending within her. She trembled, and looked about her as if she had just awakened from a nightmare. She took hold of the slender branch of a tree for support. Presently she climbed like a cat to the topmost branches of this tree, and clung there. Like a frightened squirrel, she stayed there the whole day through, in the deep solitude of the forest where all is dead still, as they say.
Dead still! Why, butterflies fluttered all about in play or strife. At the ant hills near-by, hundreds of busy little workmen hurried in and out. The air was filled with countless dancing gnats, swarms of buzzing flies, ladybugs, dragonflies with golden wings, and other winged creatures. Earthworms crawled up from the moist earth, and moles came out. Oh, except for all these, the people might be right when they call the forest “dead still.”
No one paid any attention to little Helga except the jays that flew screeching to the tree top where she perched. Bold and curious, they hopped about her in the branches, but there was a look in her eyes that soon put them to flight. They could not make her out, any more than she could understand herself. When evening came on, the setting sun gave warning that it was time for her to change, and it aroused her to activity again. She had no sooner climbed down than the last beam of the sun faded out, and once more she sat there, a shriveled frog with the torn webbed skin covering her hands.
But now her eyes shone with a new beauty that in her lovely form they had not possessed. They were gentle, tender, maidenly eyes. And though they looked out through the mask of a frog, they reflected the deep feelings of a human heart. They brimmed over with tears-precious drops that lightened her heart.
Beside the grave mound lay the cross of green boughs that had been tied together with bark string, the last work of him who lay buried there. Helga picked it up, and the thought came to her to plant it between the stones that covered the man and the horse. Memory of the priest brought fresh tears to her eyes, and with a full heart she made cross marks in the earth around the grave, as a fence that would guard it well. When with both hands she made the sign of the cross, the webbed membrane fell from her fingers like a torn glove. She washed her hands at the forest spring, and gazed in amazement at their delicate whiteness. Again, in the air she made the holy sign between herself and the dead man. Her lips trembled, her tongue moved and the name she had heard the priest mention so often during their ride through the woods rose to her lips. She uttered the name of the Savior.
The frog’s skin fell from her. Once more she was a lovely maiden. But her head hung heavy. She was much in need of rest, and she fell asleep.
However, she did not sleep for long. She awoke at midnight and saw before her the dead horse, prancing and full of life. A shining light came from his eyes and from the wound in his neck. Beside him stood the martyred Christian priest, “more beautiful than Balder,” the Viking woman had truly said, for he stood in a flash of flame.
There was such an air of gravity and of righteous justice in the penetrating glance of his great, kind eyes, that she felt as if he were looking into every corner of her heart. Little Helga trembled under his gaze, and her memories stirred within her as though this were Judgement Day. Every kindness that had been done her, and each loving word spoken to her, were fresh in her mind. Now she understood how it had been love that sustained her through those days of trial, during which all creatures made of dust and spirit, soul and clay, must wrestle and strive. She realized that she had only obeyed the impulse of her inclinations. She had not saved herself. Everything had been given to her, and Providence had guided her. Now, in humility and shame, she bent before Him who could read every thought in her heart, and at that moment she felt the pure light of the Holy Spirit enter her soul.
“Daughter of the marsh,” the priest said, “out of the earth and the marsh you came, and from this earth you shall rise again. The light in you that is not of the sun but of God, shall return to its source, remembering the body in which it has lain. No soul shall be lost. Things temporal are full of emptiness, but things eternal are the source of life. I come from the land of the dead. Some day, you too shall pass through the deep valley to the shining mountain tops, where compassion and perfection dwell. I cannot lead you to receive Christian baptism at Hedeby, for you must first break the watery veil that covers the deep marsh, and bring out of its depths the living source of your birth and your being. You must perform a blessed act before you may be blessed.”
He lifted her on the horse, and put in her hand a golden censer, like the ones she had seen in the Viking’s castle. From it rose a sweet incense, and the wound in the martyr’s forehead shone like a diadem. He took the cross from the grave, and raised it high as they rose swiftly through the air, over the rustling woods and over the mounds where the heroes of old are buried, each astride his dead war horse. These mighty warriors rose and rode up to the top of the mounds. Golden crowns shone on their foreheads in the moonlight, and their cloaks billowed behind them in the night wind. The dragon on guard over his treasure also lifted his head and watched them pass. Goblins peered up from their hills and hollows, where they swarmed to and fro with red, blue, and green lights as numerous as the sparks of burning paper.
Away over the forest and heath, river and swamp, they hastened until they circled over the Wild Marsh. The priest held aloft the cross, which shone like gold. From his lips fell holy prayers. Little Helga joined in the hymns that he sang, as a child follows its mother’s song. She swung the censer, and it gave forth a churchly incense so miraculously fragrant that the reeds and sedges burst into bloom, every seed in the depths sent forth stalks, and all things flourished that had a spark of life within them. Water lilies spread over the surface of the pool like a carpet patterned with flowers, and on this carpet a young and beautiful woman lay asleep. Helga thought this was her own reflection, mirrored in the unruffled water. But what she saw was her mother, the Princess from the land of the Nile, who had become the Marsh King’s wife.
The martyred priest commanded that the sleeper be lifted up on horseback. Under this new burden the horse sank down as though his body were an empty, wind-blown shroud. But the sign of the cross lent strength to the spectral horse, and he carried all three riders back to solid earth.
Then crowed the cock in the Viking’s castle, and the spectral figures became a part of the mist that drove before the wind. But the Egyptian Princess and her daughter were left there, face to face.
“Is this myself I see, reflected in the deep waters?” cried the mother.
“Is this myself I see, mirrored on the bright surface?” the daughter exclaimed. As they approached one another and met in a heart-to-heart embrace, the mother’s heart beat faster, and it was the mother who understood.
“My child! my heart’s own flower, my lotus from beneath the waters.” She threw her arms about the child and wept. For little Helga, these tears were a fresh baptism of life and love.
“I flew hither in the guise of a swan,” Helga’s mother told her. “Here I stripped off that plumage and fell into the quagmire. The deep morass closed over me like a wall, and I felt a strong current-a strange power- drag me deeper and deeper. I felt sleep weigh down my eyelids. I slumbered and dreamed. I dreamed that I stood again in the Egyptian pyramid, yet the swaying alder stump that had frightened me so on the surface of the morass stood ever before me. As I watched the check marks in its bark, they took on bright colors and turned into hieroglyphics. I was looking at the casket of a mummy. It burst open, and from it stepped that monarch of a thousand years ago. His mummy was pitch black, a shining, slimy black, like the wood snail or like the mud of the swamp. Whether it was the Marsh King or that mummy of the pyramid, I know not. He threw his arms around me, and I felt that I would die. When I came back to consciousness, I felt something warm over my heart, and there nestled a little bird, twittering and fluttering its wings. From my heart it flew into the heavy darkness overhead, but a long, green strand still bound it to me. I heard and understood its plaintive song, ‘To freedom, to the sunlight, to our Father!’ Then I remembered my own father, in the sunflooded land of my birth, my life, and my love. I loosed the strand and let the little bird fly home to my father. From that moment, I have known no other dreams. I have slept, long and deep, until this hour when wondrous sounds and incense woke me and set me free.”
What had become of that green strand between the mother’s heart and the heart and the bird’s wing? Where did it flutter now? What had become of it? Only the stork had ever seen it. That strand was the green stalk, and the bow at the end of it was the bright flower that had cradled the child, who was grown in beauty and now rested once more on her mother’s heart.
As they stood there in each other’s arms, the stork circled over their heads. Away he flew to his nest for the two sets of swan feathers that he had stored there for so many years. He dropped these sets of feathers upon the mother and daughter, and, once the plumage had covered them, they rose from the ground as two white swans.
“Let’s have a chat,” said the father stork, “for now we can understand one another, even though different birds have different beaks. It’s the luckiest thing in the world that I found you tonight. Tomorrow we shall be on our way, Mother, the young ones, and I, all flying south. Yes, you well may stare. I am your old friend from the banks of the Nile, and Mother is too. Her heart is softer than her beak. She always did say the Princess could look out for herself, but I and our sons brought these sets of swan feathers up here. Why, how happy this makes me, and how lucky it is that I am still here. At daybreak we shall set out, with a great company of storks. We shall fly in the vanguard, and if you follow us closely you can’t miss your way. The young ones and I will keep an eye on you too.”
“And the lotus flower which I was to fetch,” said the Egyptian Princess, “now flies beside me in the guise of a swan. I bring with me the flower that touched my heart, and the riddle has been solved. Home we go!”
But Helga said she could not leave the land of the Danes until she had once more seen her good foster mother, the Viking’s wife. Helga vividly recalled every fond moment spent with her, every kind word, and even every tear she had caused the foster mother to shed. At that moment she almost felt that she loved her foster mother best of all.
“Yes, we must go to the Viking’s castle,” said the father stork. “Mother and the young ones are waiting for me there. How their eyes will pop and their beaks will rattle! Mother is no great one for talking. She’s a bit curt and dry, but she means very well. Now I must make a great to-do so that they will know we are coming.”
So the father stork rattled his beak as he and the swans flew home to the Viking’s castle.
Everyone there lay sound asleep. The Viking’s wife had gone to bed late that night because she was so worried about Helga, who had been missing ever since the Christian priest disappeared three days ago. She must have helped him escape, for it was her horse that was gone from the stable. But what power could have brought this about? The Viking’s wife thought of all the miracles she had heard were performed by the White Christ and by those who had the faith to follow Him. Her troubled thoughts gave way to dreams. She dreamed that she lay there, on her bed, still awake, still lost in thought while darkness reigned outside. A storm blew up. To the east and to the west she heard the high seas roll-waves of the North Sea and waves of the Kattegat. The great snake, which in the depth of the ocean coils around the earth, was in convulsions of terror. It was the twilight of the gods, Ragnarok, as the heathens called Judgment Day, when all would perish, even their highest gods. The war horn sounded, and over the rainbow bridge the gods rode, clad in steel, to fight their last great fight. The winged Valkyries charged on before them, and dead heroes marched behind. The whole firmament blazed with the Northern Lights, yet darkness conquered in the end. It was an awful hour.
Beside the terror-stricken dreamer, little Helga seemed to crouch on the floor, in the ugly frog’s shape. She shuddered, and crept close to her foster mother, who took the creature up in her lap and, hideous though it was, lovingly caressed it. The air resounded with the clashing of swords and clubs, and the rattle of arrows like a hailstorm upon the roof. The hour had come when heaven and earth would perish, the stars would fall, and everything be swallowed up by Surtur’s sea of fire. Yet she knew there would be a new heaven and a new earth. The grain would grow in waving fields where the sea now rolled over the golden sands.
Then the god whose name could not yet be spoken would reign at last, and to him would come Balder, so mild and loving, raised up from the kingdom of the dead. He came, and the Viking’s wife saw him clearly. She knew his face, which was that of the captive Christian priest. “The White Christ,” she cried aloud, and as she spoke that name she kissed the ugly brow of her frog child. Off fell the frog skin, and it was Helga who stood before her in radiant beauty, gentle as she had never been before, and with beaming eyes. She kissed her foster mother’s hands, and blessed her for all the loving kindness that had been lavished upon her in those days of bitter trials and sorrow. She thanked the Viking’s wife for the thoughts she had nurtured in her, and for calling upon the name which she repeated-the White Christ. And little Helga arose in the shape of a white, mighty swan. With the rushing sound of a flock of birds of passage taking flight, she spread her powerful wings.
The Viking’s wife awakened to hear this very same noise overhead. She knew it was about time for the storks to fly south, and that they must be what she heard. She wanted to see them once more, and bid them good luck for their journey, so she got up and went out on her balcony. There, on the roofs of all the outbuildings she saw stork upon stork, and all round the castle bands of storks whirled in widening circles above the high trees. Directly in front of her, beside the well where Helga had so often sat and frightened her with wild behavior, two white swans were sitting. They looked up at her with such expressive eyes that it recalled her dream, which still seemed to her almost real. She thought of Helga in the guise of a swan. She thought of the Christian priest, and suddenly her heart felt glad. The swans waved their wings and bowed their necks to her as if in greeting. The Viking’s wife held out her arms as if she understood, and thinking of many things, she smiled at them through her tears.
Then, with a great clattering of beaks and flapping of wings, the storks all started south.
“We won’t wait for those swans,” said the mother stork. “If they want to go with us they had better come now. We can’t dilly-dally here until the plovers start. It is nicer to travel as we do in a family group, instead of like the finches and partridges, among whom the males and females fly in separate flocks. I call that downright scandalous. And what kind of strokes do those swans call those that they are making?”
“Oh, everyone has his own way of flying,” the father stork said. “Swans fly in a slantwise line, cranes in a triangle, and the plovers in snake-like curves.”
“Don’t talk about snakes while we are flying up here,” said the mother stork. “It will put greedy thoughts in the young ones’ heads at a time when they can’t be appeased.”
“Are those the high mountains of which I have heard?” Helga asked as she flew along in the swan plumage.
“There are thunder clouds, billowing below us,” her mother told her.
“And what are the white clouds that rise to such heights?” Helga asked.
“Those heights that you see are the mountains that are always capped with snow,” her mother said, as they flew over the Alps, out over the blue Mediterranean.
“African sands! Egyptian strands!” In the upper air through which her swan wings soared, the daughter of the Nile rejoiced when she spied once more the yellow wave-washed coast of her native country. The storks spied it too, and they quickened their flight.
“I can sniff the Nile mud and the juicy frogs,” the mother stork cried. “What an appetizing feeling! Yes, there you shall have fine eating and things to see-marabou storks, ibises, and cranes. They are all cousins of ours, but not nearly so handsome as we. They are vain creatures, especially the ibises. The Egyptians stuff them with spices and make mummies of them, and this has quite turned their heads. As for me, I would rather be stuffed with live frogs, and so would you, and so you shall be. Better to have your mouth well stuffed when you are alive than have such a to-do made over you when you are dead. That’s the only way I feel about it, and I am always right.”
“The storks have come back,” said the people in the magnificent home on the banks of the Nile where, on a leopard skin spread over soft cushions in the lofty hall, the master lay between life and death, waiting and hoping for the lotus flower from the deep marshes in the far north. His kinsmen and servants were standing beside his couch, when into the room flew two magnificent white swans who had come with the storks. They doffed their glistening swan feathers, and there stood two lovely women who resembled each other as closely as two drops of water. They bent over the pale, feeble old man, and threw back their long hair. When little Helga leaned above her grandfather, the color returned to his cheeks, light to his eyes, and life to his stiffened limbs. Hale and hearty, the old man rose. His daughter and granddaughter threw their arms around him, as if they were joyously greeting him on the morning after a long and trying dream.
Great was the rejoicing in that house, and in the stork’s nest too, though the storks rejoiced chiefly because of the good food and the abundance of frogs. While the learned men sketchily scribbled down the story of the two Princesses, and of the healing flowerr that had brought such a blessing to that household and throughout all the land, in their own way the parent storks told the story to their children, but not until all of them were full, or they would have had better things to do than listen to stories.
“Now you will become a somebody at last,” the mother stork whispered. “It’s the least we can expect.”
“Oh, what would I become?” said the father stork. “What have I done? Nothing much.”
“You have done more than all the others put together. Except for you and our young ones, the two Princesses would never have seen Egypt again, nor would the old man have been healed. You will assuredly become a somebody. At the very least, they will give you the title of doctor, and our young ones will inherit it, and their little ones after them. Why, at least to my eyes, you already have the look of an Egyptian doctor.”
The wise and learned men propounded the basic principle, as they called it, on which the whole matter rested. “Love brings life,” was their doctrine, and this they explained in different ways. “The warm sunbeam was the Egyptian Princess. She descended unto the Marsh King, and from their meeting the flower arose.”
“I can’t quite repeat the exact words,” said the father stork, who had been listening on the roof, and wanted to tell his family all about it. “What they said was so incomprehensibly wise that they were given titles and presents too. Even the chief cook was rewarded, no doubt for his soup.”
“And what was your reward?” the mother stork wanted to know. “It was not right for them to pass over the most important one in the whole affair, which is just what you are. The learned men did nought but wag their tongues. However, I have no doubt that your turn will come.”
Late that night, when the happy household lay peacefully asleep, there was one person left awake. This was not the father stork, who, like a drowsy sentry, stood in his nest on one leg. No, this wide-awake person was little Helga. She leaned over the rail of her balcony and looked up through the clear air at the great shining stars. They were larger and more lustrous than she had ever seen them in the North, but they were the same stars. She thought of the Viking’s wife near the Wild Marsh, of her gentle eyes, and of the tears which she had shed over her poor frog child, who now was standing in the splendor of the clear starlight and the wonderful spring air by the waters of the Nile. She thought of the love that filled the heathen woman’s heart, the love she had shown that wretched creature who was hateful in her human form and dreadful to see or touch in her animal shape. She looked at the shining stars and was reminded of the glory that had gleamed on the brow of the martyred priest when he flew with her over moor and forest. She recalled the tone of his voice. She recalled those words he had said, when they rode together and she sat like an evil spirit-those words that had to do with that high source of the greatest love that encompasses all mankind throughout all the generations.
Yes, what had she not received, won, gained! Night and day Helga was absorbed in contemplating her happiness. She regarded it like a child who turns so quickly from the giver to all those wonderful gifts. Her happy thoughts ran on, to the even greater happiness that could lie ahead, and would lie ahead. On and on she thought, until she so lost herself in dreams of future bliss that she forgot the giver of all good things. It was the wanton pride of her youth that led her on into the pitfall. Her eyes were bright with pride when a sudden noise in the yard below recalled her straying thoughts. She saw two large ostriches rushing about in narrow circles, and never before had she seen this animal, this huge, fat and awkward bird. The wings looked as if they had been roughly handled. When she asked why this was, for the first time she heard the legend that Egyptians tell about the ostrich.
Once, they said, the ostriches were a race of glorious and beautiful birds with wings both wide and strong. One evening the other large birds of the forest said to the ostrich, “Brother, shall we fly to the river tomorrow, God willing, and quench or thirst?”
“Yes,” the ostrich answered, “so I will.” At dawn, away they flew. First they flew aloft toward the sun, which is the eye of God. Higher and higher the ostrich flew, far ahead of all the other birds. In his pride he flew straight toward the light, vaunting his own strength and paying no heed to Him from whom strength comes. “God willing,” he did not say.
Then, suddenly the avenging angel drew aside the veil from the flaming seas of the sun, and in an instant the wings of that proud bird was burned away, and he wretchedly tumbled to earth. Never since that day has the ostrich or any of his family been able to rise in the air. He can only flee timidly along the ground, and run about in circles. He is a warning to us that in all human thoughts and deeds we should say, “God willing.”
Helga bowed her head in thoughts. As the ostrich rushed about, she observed how timorous he was and what vain pride he took in the size of the shadow he cast on the white, sunlit wall.
She devoted herself to more serious thoughts. A happy life had been given her, but what was to come of it? Great things, “God willing.”
When, in the early spring, the storks made ready to fly north again, Helga took the golden bracelet from her arm and scratched her name upon it. She beckoned to the father stork, slipped the golden band around his neck, and told him to take it to the Viking’s wife, as a sign that her adopted daughter was alive, and happy, and had not forgotten her.
“it’s a heavy thing to carry,” the father stork thought, as he wore it around his neck. “But gold and honor are not to be tossed away on the highroad. The people up there will indeed be saying that the stork brings luck.”
“You lay gold and I lay eggs,” the mother stork told him. “although you lay only once, while I lay every year. Neither of us gets any thanks for it, which is most discouraging.”
“One knows when he’s done his duty,” the father stork said.
“But you can’t hang such knowledge up for all to admire,” she said. “Neither will it bring you a favorable wind nor a full meal.” Then away they flew.
The little nightingale who sang in the tamarind tree would also be flying north soon. Helga had often heard him singing up near the Wild Marsh. She decided to use him as a messenger, for she had learned the language of the birds when she flew in the guise of a swan, and as she had often talked with the storks and swallows she knew the little nightingale would understand her. She begged him to fly to the beech forest in Jutland, where she had built the tomb of stone and branches. She begged him to tell all the little birds there to guard the grave, and to sing there often. The nightingale flew away-and time went flying by.
That fall, the eagle that perched on the pyramid saw a magnificent caravan of camels, richly laden and accompanied by armed men. These men were splendidly robed, and were mounted on prancing Arab horses as white as shining silver, with quivering pink nostrils and big flowing manes that swept down to their slender legs. A royal Prince of Arabia, handsome as a Prince should be, came as an honored guest to the palace where the storks’ nest now stood empty. The nest-owners had been away in the far North, but they would soon return. They did return, on the very evening when the festive celebration was at its height.
It was the wedding that was being celebrated, and the bride was lovely Helga, jeweled and robed in silk. The bridegroom was the young Arabian Prince. They sat at the head of the table, between Helga’s mother and grandfather. But Helga was not watching the bridegroom’s handsome bronzed face, round which his black beard curled. Nor was she looking into the dark, fiery eyes that he fixed upon her. She was staring out at a bright, glistening star that shone down from the sky.
Then there was a rush of wings through the air, and the storks came back. Tired though they were, and badly as they needed rest after their journey, the two old parent storks flew straight to the veranda railing. They knew of the marriage feast, and at the frontier they had already heard news that Helga had commanded their pictures to be painted on the walls, for truly they were a part of her life story.
“That certainly was very nice and thoughtful,” said the father stork.
“It was little enough,” the mother stork told him. “She could hardly do less.”
When Helga saw them, she rose from the table and went out on the veranda to stroke their backs. The old storks bowed their heads, while the youngest of their children looked on and appreciated the honor bestowed on them.
Helga looked up at the bright star, which grew yet more brilliant and clear. Between her and the star hovered a form even purer than the air, and therefore visible through it. As it floated down quite near her, she saw that it was the martyred priest. He too came to her wedding feast-came from the Kingdom of Heaven.
“The splendor and happiness up there,” he said, “surpass all that is known on earth.”
More humbly and fervently than she had ever yet prayed, Helga asked that for one brief moment she might be allowed to go there and cast a single glance into the bright Kingdom of Heaven. Then he raised her up in splendor and glory, through a stream of melody and thoughts. The sound and the brightness were not only around her but within her soul as well. They lay beyond all words.
“We must go back, or you will be missed,” the martyred priest said to her.
“Only one more glance,” she begged. “Only one brief moment more.”
“We must go back to the earth, for all your guests are leaving.”
“Only one more look! The last!”
Then Helga stood again on the veranda, but all the torches had been extinguished, and the banquet hall was dark. The storks were gone. No guests were to be seen, and no bridegroom. All had vanished in those three brief moments.
A great fear fell upon her. She wandered through the huge, empty hall into the next room, where foreign soldiers lay asleep. She opened the side door that led into her own bedroom. When she thought she had entered it, she found herself in the garden, but it wasn’t the garden she knew. Red gleamed the sky, for it was the break of day. Only three moments in heaven, and a long time had passed on the earth.
She saw the storks, and called to them in their own language. The father stork turned his head, listened and came down to her.
“You speak our language,” he admitted. “What is your wish, strange woman, and why do you come here?”
“But it is I-Helga. Do you not know me? Only three moments ago we were talking together over there on the veranda.”
“You are mistaken,” the stork said, “You must have dreamed it.”
“No, no!” she said, and reminded him of the Viking’s castle, of the Wild Marsh, and of the journey hither.
Then the father stork blinked his eyes. “Why, that is a very old story that my great-great-grandmother told me,” he said. “Truly, there once was a Princess in Egypt who came from the land of the Danes. But she disappeared on the night of her wedding, hundreds of years ago, and never was seen again. You may read about it yourself, there on the monument in the garden. Swans and storks are carved upon it, and at the top is your own figure, sculptured in white marble.”
And this was true. Little Helga saw it, understood it, and dropped upon her knees.
The sun shone brightly in all its splendor. As in the old days when at the first touch of sunlight the frog’s skin fell away to reveal a beautiful maiden, so now, in that baptism by the sun a form of heavenly beauty, clearer and purer than the air itself, rose as a bright beam to join the Father. The body crumbled to dust, and only a wilted lotus flower lay where she had knelt.
“Well,” said the father stork. “That’s a new ending to the story. I hadn’t expected it, but I liked it quite well.”
“How will the young ones like it?” the mother stork wondered.
“Ah,” said the father stork, “that certainly is the most important thing, after all.”
Original Danish title: “Dynd-Kongens Datter” translated by Jean Hersholt.