The Poor Boy.
Once upon a time something happened. If it hadn't happened, it wouldn't be told.
There was once a poor widow, so poor that even the flies would not stay in her house, and this widow had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was such a brave fellow that he would have torn the snakes' tongues out of their mouths, and the girl was so beautiful that the emperor's sons and handsome princes of every land were waiting impatiently for her to grow up, that they might go and court her. But when the girl had reached her sixteenth year, the same thing befell her that happens to all beautiful maidens—a dragon came, stole her, and carried her far away to the shore of another country. From that day the widow loved her son hundreds and thousands of times better than before, because he was now her only child and the sole joy she had in the world. She watched him like the apple of her eye and would not let him go a single step away from her. But much as she loved him she was cheerless and sad, for, dear me! a boy is only a boy, but a girl is a girl, especially when she is beautiful.
The boy, seeing his mother so melancholy, tried to grow stronger and stronger, and counted the days before he should be large enough to go out into the world and seek his sister, little Rosy Cheeks, along untrodden paths filled with thorns. When he had reached his eighteenth year he made himself a pair of calf-skin sandals with steel soles, went to his mother, and said:—
"Mother, I have neither rest nor peace here so long as I see you so sick and sorrowful from constantly thinking of my sister; I have determined to go out into the wide world and not return till I can bring news of her. I don't know whether I shall find her, but at least I hope so, and that hope I leave with you for your consolation."
When the widow heard these words she was forced to struggle with her feelings ere she answered: "Well, my son, my child! Do what you can not help doing; when you return I shall see you again, and if you don't come back I shall not weep for you, because the journey you have in view is a long one; therefore if you are absent a long time there will always be the hope of your return."
After saying this she mixed three loaves for him with her own milk, one of meal, the second of bran, and the third of ashes from the hearth. The lad put the loaves into his knapsack, bade his mother farewell, and went out into the world like a poor boy to whom all roads are equally long, all bridges equally wide, and who does not know what direction to take. At the gate he stood still, cast one glance to the east, one to the west, one to the north, and one to the south, then took a handful of dust from under the threshold of the door, scattered it on the wind, and turned his steps in the direction that it was carried by the breeze.
The Poor Boy walked and walked, further and further, through many a rich country, till he came to a moor on which no grass grew and no water flowed. Here he stopped and pulled out his three loaves. He began with the one made of meal, because it was the handsomest, and as he ate it his strength increased and his thirst was quenched. Again the Poor Boy walked on, journeying across the wide moor a whole long summer day until nightfall, when he reached a vast forest as extensive as the heath he had passed, but which was dense, gloomy, and forsaken even by the winds. When he entered the wood, he saw by the trunk of a tree an old woman with a bent figure and a wrinkled face. The Poor Boy, who for so long a time had seen no human countenance and heard no human speech, was greatly delighted and said merrily:—
"Good luck, mother! But how do you happen to come here, and what are you doing in this wilderness of a forest?"
"Your words are kind!" replied the old woman sighing. "Alas, age has brought me down to this; I wanted to walk a little distance and can go no further because my feet will no longer carry me."
When the Poor Boy heard this he pitied the old woman, went up to her, and asked whence she came, where she was going, and on what business she was bent. The luckless fellow did not know that this person was no other than the Wood Witch, who waits on the edge of forests and meets those who wander in these desolate regions, in order to delude them with fair words and then lead them to destruction. When he saw her so feeble, the boy remembered his three loaves, and, as if he were going home the very next day, thought he would share his provisions with her that she might get a little strength.
"I thank you," replied the Wood Witch, who had other designs upon him in her mind; "but see, I have no teeth to chew your dry bread. If you want to do any thing to help me, take me on your back and carry me, I live close by."
"But just taste it," said the boy, who in his kindness of heart wanted to do her some good. "It is only hunger that has made you so weak, and if this doesn't help you I'll carry you as you wish."
When the Wood Witch saw the loaf made of meal she gazed at it with delight; there was something about it—I don't know what—that made even the Wood Witch long for a morsel. And as she bit into it her heart grew softer. After she had eaten three mouthfuls she felt as if she were a human being, like the rest of us, with her heart in the right place and a gentle temper.
"Learn, my son," she said to him, "that I am the Wood Witch, and know very well who you are, whence you come, and where you are going. It is a great task you have before you, for your sister is in the other world, which inhabitants of this earth can reach only in one way."
"And what is that?" asked the Poor Boy impatiently.
The Wood Witch looked doubtfully at him.