This retelling of The Child Who Came From An Egg from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

A woman in a war-torn country is promised a child by a supernatural being, but first she must tend a child born from an egg.

There was once a queen who was very sad as she and the king had no children. When the king was with her, she would feel a little better, but she would still be sad. When he was away, however, all she was able to think about was how they hadn't any children, and she would feel as though her heart would break.

We shall call this king and queen, the king and queen of A Land or else things will get confusing in a moment.

Now it happened that the king of a neighboring country (we shall call this country Another Land) did something or other, and soon a war broke out. The king of A Land got together an army and went out to do battle with Another Land.

The queen of A Land didn't like wars and was sad that one was now being fought. With her husband gone, except for her servants she was alone at the castle, and even though there was a war going on she found that she was only able to think about how she hadn't any children. Or maybe, because of the war, she thought about children even all the more, for to her the bright, shiny faces of children were the perfection of hope.

The somber silence of the castle became so oppressive to the queen that, feeling as if its walls would stifle her, she went out to wander in the garden. After walking a while she lay down on a grassy bank, under the shade of a lime tree. The queen was thinking how nice it would be if the quiet garden was instead filled with the laughter of children, when she heard a rustling sound. Looking up, the queen saw an old woman. The old woman was limping on crutches towards the stream that flowed through the grounds. At the stream, she took a long drink. When the old woman had quenched her thirst, she surprised the queen by coming straight up to her. Ordinary people didn't often approach royalty.

The old woman said, "Don't take it evil, noble lady, that I dare to speak to you, and don't you be afraid of me, for it may be that I shall bring you good luck."

The queen looked doubtfully at the old woman and answered her, "As you are old and limping on crutches and don't seem particularly rich, it doesn't appear as if you have been very lucky yourself, or to have much good fortune to spare for anyone else," the queen answered without imagining herself in the least rude. "Besides," she added, "I'm a queen, what could you do for me?"

The old woman replied, "Under rough bark lies smooth wood and sweet kernel. Now, let me see your hand, that I may read the future."

The queen held out her hand, and the old woman closely examined the lines of her palm. Then she said, "Your heart is heavy with two sorrows, one old and one new. The new sorrow is for your husband, who is fighting far away from you, but, believe me, he is well and will soon bring you joyful news. But your other sorrow is much older than this. Your happiness is spoilt because you have no children."

The queen became upset and took her hand back from the old woman. The old woman said, "Have a little patience, for there are some things I want to see more clearly. If I might, can I examine your hand again?" The old woman asked this politely, for it is rude to tell anyone their future without their consent. It's just not done.

The queen gave the old woman her hand again, but asked, "Who are you, for you seem to be able to read my heart. As far as I can tell, my heart is not in my hand. My mind is not in my hand. I wonder how you are able to read them when you look at my hand."

The old woman answered, "Never mind my name. You ought to rejoice instead that it's permitted me to show you a way to lessen your grief. You must, however, promise to do exactly what I tell you, if any good is to come of it."

The queen said, "Then, I promise to obey you to the letter. And if you help me, you shall have in return anything for which you ask."

The old woman drew something from the folds of her dress, and, undoing a number of wrappings, brought out a tiny basket made of birth-bark. She held the birch-bark basket out to the queen, saying, "In this basket you will find a bird's egg. This egg, you must be careful to keep in a warm place for three months, while it is incubating. After three months, out of the egg will come a doll. Line this basket with the softest wool and lay the doll in it. The doll does not need the kind of food you would ordinarily give a child, so let it alone to grow. By-and-by you will find it has grown to be the size of a baby. Then you will have a baby of your own, and you must put your baby by the side of the other child, and bring your husband to see his son and daughter. The boy you will raise yourself, but you must entrust the little girl to a nurse. When the time comes to have them christened, you will invite me to be godmother to the little princess. This is how you must send the invitation to me. Hidden in the basket, you will find a goose's wing; throw this out of the window, and I will be with you directly. Now, I will leave you. Be sure that you tell no one of all the things that have befallen you."

Well, I want you to know how this is simply unheard of, that a human child would have its start in the calcium shell of a bird's egg. Mammals, which are warm-blooded, give live birth to their children--that is with the exception of the platypus, which is a monotreme and of the lowest order of mammals. Mammals are vertebrates that feed their young with milk from the female mammary glands have bodies that or more or less covered with hair, and, as I said, give birth to living young rather than eggs, with the exception of the monotremes. Reptiles are cold-blooded and reproduce with eggs. Birds lay eggs, as do fish and amphibians (which can live on water or land).

How could the queen possibly believe an old woman who would dare spout such nonsense, but she listened to her and was even going to ask the old woman what she wanted in return, if the queen's wish should come true and she have a child, but the old woman was already limping away. Before the old woman had gone two steps, she had turned into a young girl, and she ran off so quickly, so lightly, that she seemed to rather fly than walk. The queen, seeing this, could scarcely believe her eyes. It is highly unusual to see an old woman transform into a young girl, and the queen would have taken it all for a dream, had it not been for the basket which she held in her hand.

The queen found that she herself felt transformed. She no longer felt like the poor, sad woman who had wandered into the garden so short a time before. She hastened to her room and not until she was there did she feel carefully in the basket for the egg. There it was, a tiny thing of soft blue with little green spots. The queen took out the egg, and slipped it into the bosom of her dress so that the egg rested against her skin and near her heart, for this was the warmest place she could think of to keep the egg.

A fortnight (which is two weeks) after the old woman had paid the queen a visit, the king returned home, having conquered his enemies. In this matter, the old woman had spoken the truth, and the queen's heart bounded with joy, for she now had fresh hopes that the rest of the prophecy might be fulfilled. She cherished the basket and the egg as her best treasures, and had a golden case made for the basket so that when the time came to lay the egg in it, it might not risk any harm.

Three months passed. Then, as the old woman had instructed, the queen lined the basket with soft wool. She took the egg from her bosom, and laid it snugly amidst the warm woolen folds of the cloth. First thing the next morning, when the queen had woken up, she looked into the basket and saw broken eggshell, and a little doll lying among the pieces. Happy and confident her hopes would be fulfilled, the queen left the doll in peace to grow, and waited, as she had been told, for a baby of her own to lay beside it. She was glad to have the birch-bark basket for the baby to grow in, for the birch tree was the tree of wisdom, health and safety, and cradles for babies were often made from it.

In the course of time, the queen gave birth to a little boy. She placed the little boy in a golden cradle that glittered with precious stones. The infant doll in the birch-bark basket had grown to be a little baby girl, and this girl she took out of the basket and placed in the cradle beside her son. Then she sent for the king. When the king saw the children in the cradle, he nearly wept for joy, and proclaimed a holiday.

When the day came for the boy and the girl to be christened, the whole court gathered to witness the event. It was time for the queen to send the invitation to the old woman, so that she might come and take her place as a godmother. When the guests had almost all arrived, the queen quietly opened a window a little, and let the goose wing fly out. Immediately, there drove up a splendid coach drawn by six horses the color of cream, and out of the coach stepped a lady who wore a dress that shone like the sun. Her face couldn't be seen, for a veil covered it, and everyone wondered who she was. When she came into the place where the queen was standing with the babies, the lady drew the veil aside. Everyone was dazzled with her beauty, and whispered, "Who is she?" The lady took the little girl in her arms, and holding it up before the assembled company, she announced that henceforward the child would be known by the name of Dotter. Everyone thought this meant daughter, but the queen knew better. Only the lady and the queen knew that the little girl had hatched from a bird egg as a doll, and Dolly was sometimes a nick-name for Dorothy or Dot. Dorothy meant, "gift of God."

As for the little baby boy, the king and queen named him William. After the feast was over and the guests were gone, the godmother laid the little girl in the cradle and said to the queen, "Whenever the baby goes to sleep, be sure you lay the birch-bark basket beside her, with its eggshell in it. As long as you do that, no evil can come to her. Guard the basket and the eggshell as the apple of your eye and treasure it, and teach the girl to do so likewise." Then, kissing the baby three times, the godmother got into her coach and went away.

The little boy and little girl throve well, and Dotter's nurse loved her as if she was the baby's real mother. Every day, the little girl seemed to grow prettier, and people said that she would soon be as beautiful as her godmother. No one knew, except the nurse, that at night, when the child slept, a strange and lovely lady would come and bend over her crib. When she told the queen about the lady, the queen said that they should keep this as a secret between themselves.

The twins were nearly two years old, and the queen became very ill. The best doctors were sent for, but it was of no use. The queen, one night, called to the nurse and gave her the birch-bark basket to keep in her protection. She told her to treat the basket and the eggshell in it as a treasure, for it had the ability to protect little Dotter from harm. The queen then said, "When Dotter is ten years old, you are to hand the birch-bark basket and the eggshell in it over to her. Make sure you warn her solemnly that her future happiness depends on the way she guards it. About my son, I have no fears. He is the heir of the kingdom, and his father will see that he grows up as a prince should."

The next morning, the queen died, and the king and the entire country mourned.

Some years went by and the king married again. It was a political marriage, not one for love, and the king had no feeling for his new wife. He had only married her for reasons of ambition, which used to be considered one of the more valid reasons to marry, and the new queen certainly understood that this was the reason for their marriage. Still, she must have hoped that the king would come to love her, and felt a great lack in her life when he did not. Perhaps this is why she hated her step-children, or it could be that she had always had a bad streak of cruelty in her. All that William and Dotter had to do was stray in her path and she would kick them out of her sight as if they were no better than some mangy, homeless dog for whom no one holds any affection and all it persuades to receive is irritation that it persists on hanging about in hope of some table scraps or a friendly pat on the head. The king was aware that his new wife disliked William and Dotter, and attempted to keep them out of the way. Dotter he placed entirely under the care of her old nurse. William reminded the king too much of his dear, departed wife, and he sent the boy away to school so that Dotter and William were from then on apart. The king, in an attempt to escape the memory of what happiness he used to have, stayed away from the palace continually, and visited the children only rarely.

On Dotter's tenth birthday her nurse handed her over the cradle, and told her the queen mother's dying words, that she had said Dotter must guard the birch-bark basket with all her strength, as her whole future happiness depended upon it. Dotter thought little about the birch-bark basket except to be a little puzzled that a basket could be so important.

Two more years passed, when one day, while the king was away, the stepmother found Dotter sitting beneath a lime tree, and, falling into one of her fits of rage, she beat Dotter very badly.

Afterwards, the girl stumbled back to her room to find her nurse. The nurse was nowhere to be seen and, through her tears, Dotter noticed the gold case in which lay the precious basket which the queen had said was so vital to her happiness. Hopeful that it might hold some immediate consolation, though she couldn't imagine what, Dotter searched the cradle in the golden case and found a handful of wool and an empty eggshell that had been cracked in half. Lifting, the wool, she found beneath it the wing of a goose. "What old rubbish," Dotter said to herself, and, turning, she threw the wing out the open window.

Immediately, there stood a beautiful lady beside the girl. "Don't be afraid," the lady said, stroking Dotter's hair. "I'm your godmother. I can see by your red eyes that you are unhappy, but if you have the strength to be brave and patient, better days will come. Your stepmother will have no power over you when you are grown up. Indeed, no one else will be able to harm you either if only you are careful never to part from your basket, or to lose the eggshells that are in it. Make a silken case for the little birch-basket, and hide it away in your dress, keeping it with you night and day. Do this and you will be safe from not only your stepmother but anyone else who would try to harm you. If you should find yourself in any difficulty, and have thought hard but can't tell what to do, take the goose's wing from the basket, throw it out the window, and in a moment I will come to help you. Now, let's go into the garden, that I may talk to you under the lime trees where no one will be able to hear us."

Dotter and her godmother sat in the garden for so long that the sun was already setting when the godmother had finished with giving Dotter all the advice she had reserved for her until Dotter was old enough to receive it. "I would be neglectful if I gave you only food for thought, and then let your stomach go hungry to bed," the godmother said. "I doubt your stepmother will have saved any supper for you, so, if you will hand me your basket, I'll prepare you something to eat." Then, taking the basket, the godmother bent over it, whispered some words, and instantly there was before them a table covered with fruits and cakes. When they had finished dining, the godmother led Dotter back to her room, and on the way she taught her the words she must say to the basket when when she was needful of anything.

Several more years passed, and Dotter had grown-up to be a lovely, young woman when a terrible war broke out. The king and his army defended the borders of the country, but were beaten back until finally they had to retire into the town surrounding the castle, and prepare for a siege. The siege lasted so long that all the town's stores of food were almost gone, and even in the palace there wasn't enough to eat. Dotter had, since the visit with her godmother, taken care to keep her basket with her, but had never spoken the secret words over it, to ask it for anything, for she was unsure if the basket was inexhaustible or if its mysterious door to bounty might close after being called upon a few times. Even now, she didn't think to ask the basket for food, as Dotter knew that the townspeople were themselves going hungry, and she would have felt guilty to have a solitary feast in her room. Not knowing what to do, Dotter took the goose wing and cast it out her open window. Directly, her godmother appeared, but Dotter burst into tears and couldn't speak for some time.

"This is the way of war," the godmother told Dotter. "I can carry you away from all this, and will, but as for the others, I must leave them to take their chance. If you prefer to remain here and suffer the same fate as your fellow townspeople, that is your option, but if I were you I'd take advantage of your privilege to leave, for you may very well find a way to serve more good by escaping than adding your number to their suffering." Then, bidding Dotter to follow her, the godmother passed through the gates of the town, and through the army outside, with Dotter behind her, and nobody stopped them or even seemed to see them.

The very next day, the town surrendered, and the king and all his courtiers were taken prisoners. Some time during the confusion, however, the king's son, who had left his studies to fight with his father, had managed to escape.

When Dotter and her godmother were clear of the enemy, Dotter took off her own rich clothes, and put on the tattered dress of a peasant. In order to disguise Dotter even better, her godmother changed her face, which, when Dotter examined her reflection, she found very disturbing, that she could no longer recognize herself. "How will those I love recognize me," Dotter asked. "If I should meet them again, how am I to make myself known to them?" But the godmother had already gone.

Dotter wandered from one place to another without finding shelter, but her basket kept her well fed until she found an opportunity to serve as a kitchen maid at a small inn. At first the work she had to do seemed very difficult, but either she was wonderfully quick in learning, or else the basket may have secretly helped her. At the end of three days she could do everything as well as if she had cleaned pots and swept rooms all her life, and while she cleaned she thought about her former life, about her stepmother who had caused her so much misery (who she had no way of knowing had died) and how war seemed hardly the ideal opportunity to extract her from her wretched life at the palace by way of thrusting her out into the world where she now lived as a servant. But somehow Dotter knew that if she asked the basket for a palace of her own, rich clothes and servants, she would be doing both herself and the basket a disservice.

One morning, Dotter was busy scouring a wooden tub when a certain man, passing through the village, noticed her. There was something in Dotter's manner that attracted him to her, and he stopped and called Dotter to come and speak with him.

"You seem very familiar. Is it possible we've met before?" the man asked her.

Dotter was at a loss, for she didn't recognize the man. Her concern was, while still a refugee, to hide the fact she was a princess--if she could even be considered a princess anymore. With her new identity, not even she was sure.

The man asked Dotter, "When this war is said and done with, may I return here and see you again? Though I think we should know each other, it seems that we don't, and I would like to make up for that lapse."

Dotter, a little flustered, but willing, agreed, and the man rode on.

The next day, Dotter was busy scouring the same wooden tub again, when a noble woman, passing through the village, noticed her. "Simple work must be agreeable with simple thoughts, else you wouldn't look so content," the noble woman said.

Dotter replied, "Seeing as how I had no work only a short while ago, a simple mind must certainly be an improvement over none at all."

The noble woman liked Dotter's response and said to her, "Would you not like to come and enter my service?"

"As you have asked me rather than ordered me, then I would, very much," Dotter replied, "but I would do my present mistress a disservice if I left her without help. She has, after all, been decent with me."

"I will settle that," the lady answered, and so she did, and the same day she and Dotter set out for the lady's house.

Six months went by, and then came the news that the king's son had collected an army and defeated the ursurper who had taken his father's place, but with this also came the news that the old king had died while in prison. Dotter wept bitterly for his loss, but in secret, as she had told her new mistress nothing about her past life. She thought once or twice about presenting herself at the palace, but she knew that with her new face she would not be recognized and unable to even get past the guards at the gate. As it was, she realized she was not so dissatisfied with her life. The better days her godmother had promised were indeed here. Maybe, after a little more time had passed, she might seek a way to return to the palace again. And besides, there was still the matter of the young man who she had met when working for the merchant's wife. He had promised to come and look for her after the war, and Dotter realized she didn't mind biding a little time, waiting to see if he might eventually return to find her, and be redirected to look for her in her present situation.

At the end of a year of mourning, the young King William sent out notice that he intended to marry, and that his intent was to choose his wife from among the maidens of his kingdom. For weeks, all the mothers and all the daughters in the land busily prepared themselves for the feast at which all eligible maidens were to make their debut. Beautiful dresses were designed, and there was much experimenting with their hair, and decisions made about shoes and jewelry and whether a diamond tiara was too presumptuous and a garnet necklace too mundane. The daughters of Dotter's mistress were as excited as the rest, and as Dotter was clever with her fingers she was occupied continually with getting ready their smart clothes. When the day for the feast had come, and Dotter had dressed the young mistresses and seen them depart with their mother, she was ready to retire to her room for some much needed rest when she heard a voice whisper to her, "Look in your basket, and you will find in it everything you need."

Dotter took the birch-bark basket out of its silk bag, said over it the secret words her godmother had taught her, and behold, there appeared a gown, shining as a star and covered with pearls. Eager to see the palace once more, if a little sad that the young man for whom she'd been waiting had never appeared, Dotter quickly dressed herself. When she went downstairs, she found a fine carriage in front of the door. She stepped in it, and swift as the wind she found herself drawing up before the great gates of her childhood home.

The feast was already at its height, and the hall was brilliant with youth and beauty, when the door was flung wide and Dotter entered. Beside her, all the other maidens looked pale and dim. None were so beautiful. None so elegant or poised. It was then that Dotter realize that in her great excitement she had left her birch-bark basket at home. What misfortune might befall her, for Dotter had been told she must never be separated from the basket. She was ready to turn and leave, to go find her basket, when she saw the young man who had asked if he could return and court her when the war was done, and she saw that he had noticed her as well. In her befuddlement at seeing the young man in the palace, dressed as richly as a king, for a moment Dotter didn't realize that it was King William.

The very reason King William had held the feast was that he hoped the peasant girl he had lost would make an appearance, for when he had sent to the inn for her, he realized he didn't know her name, and the innkeeper was at a loss to think who could possibly have worked for her that the King might want to see.

When a thick cloud suddenly filled the hall, Dotter was certain that disaster was eminent. For a moment, all was dark. Then the mist suddenly grew bright, and Dotter's godmother was standing in the hall's center.

"This," the godmother said, turning to the King, "is the girl whom you have always believed to be your sister, and who vanished during the siege. She is not your sister at all, but the daughter of the king of the neighboring country, who has been your enemy these many years. She was given to your mother to bring up, to save her from the hands of the wizard who inspired her father to war. Now, her father is dead, and she is the sole heir of his kingdom."

It would seem reasonable that the godmother should have had more to say, but she apparently thought she had said quite enough, for she vanished and was never seen again. Nor was the wonder-working basket seen again, which Dotter, when she later reflected on it, realized had disappeared with the appearance of her regal dress. King William and Queen Dotter were married, and their consolidated kingdoms at last at peace, which is presumably what the godmother had in mind all along, though she couldn't possibly have known for certain that William and Dotter would fall in love. Perhaps one of the points behind this story is that even though we are not all related, we should all consider ourselves family as we are all part of the family of humankind. But I imagine that the godmother demanded that Dotter be raised by a nurse, separately from William, because brothers and sisters rarely get along and often fight like cats and dogs.

Well, I guess Dotter was human. She did hatch, as a little doll, from an egg, just like a little bird, or some kind of reptile. And she did later change her appearance when she left behind her life at the palace, just like a snake sheds its skin. And they say birds are actually ancestors of dinosaurs and that their feathers are evolutionary descendants of scales. What do you think about that? And that way, way, way back down the evolutionary ladder, aeons upon aeons ago, way before even monkeys or even mammals, what was to become humankind came from the same stock as what we know as reptiles? And before that, all life came from the oceans, so it seems we have brothers and sisters even among the fish? What do you think of that? Maybe all life on this planet is part of our family. And some say that the genesis of life on this planet came from the stars, microbes carried on comets that fell to earth? What do you think about that? We may be brothers and sisters to the stars.

Retelling by j. m. Kearns based upon the tale as found in Lang's "The Violet Fairy Book".

Copyright 1999 j m Kearns

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