This retelling of The Tontlawald from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

A young girl is accepted into fairy land in order to escape her abusive home. As an adult, she is told she must return to her own world...

There are places in this world that are very mysterious. Sometimes unexplained things happen at these places. Or a place may be mysterious simply because it feels strange and different from a normal place. A normal place is like, let's say, your home, where everything looks exactly like what it feels. But places that are mysterious, what you see seems to be a curtain draped over something else, and though sometimes what is behind the curtain peeks out, or someone gets a peek in at it, what is behind the curtain remains rather like a dream because it can't be proven, it can't be pinned down and made into fact. There are places like this that are frightening and people stay away from them. There are also places like this that are mysterious in a good way and people are drawn to them. Then there are places like this that frighten some and yet beckon to others to come and try to find what is really there.

In the middle of a country all covered with lakes (doesn't that sound nice) there was a vast expanse of moorland called the Tontlawald. From time to time, a few bold people had been drawn by curiosity to the borders of this moor, but no one had ever dared set foot in the Tontlawald which was a very mysterious place. Those who had ventured so far as to peer in on the Tontlawald from its borders all returned with the same stories. They claimed that in the mists of the moor they'd caught a glimpse of a ruined house in a grove of thick trees, and round about it were a crowd of beings resembling men which swarmed over the grass like bees. The men, they said, were as dirty and ragged as gypsies, and there were also to be seen a number of old, old women who had faces wrinkled up like old apples, and little half-naked children running about.

One night, a peasant was returning home from a feast and by accident wandered closer to the Tontlawald than anyone else had before. The next day, in the village, people gathered around to hear him tell of his close call. He said he saw there a huge fire, and around it were gathered a countless number of women and children. Some were seated on the ground, while others danced strange dances on the grass which was smooth and soft as silk. An old crone was positioned very near the fire. She had a broad iron ladle in her hand, and every so often she would stretch out the iron ladle to stir the fire with it, but the moment she touched the glowing ashes the children all rushed away, shrieking like night owls, and it was a long while before they would venture to steal back, which was very mysterious. Once or twice he had also seen a little old man with a long beard creeping out of the forest, carrying a sack bigger than himself. The women and children ran by him, weeping, trying to drag the sack from off his back, but he only shook them off and went on his way. Very mysterious indeed.

Then the peasant said, "But the thing that I saw, that frightened me more than anything else, was a magnificent black cat stealing across the moor, which was large as a foal."

Some people shook with wonder and fear, for they had heard legends about this panther living where no panther should be. Others didn't believe all the wonders told by the peasant, and, certainly, knowing how some people make things up, or get frightened by the dark and see shapes in shadows that aren't really there, it was difficult to make out what was true and what was false about his story. After all, hadn't the peasant been drunk? Maybe the liquor only made him think he was seeing all these things when instead he was hallucinating, which is to see something which isn't there, or perhaps he had fallen asleep and had dreamt it all.

Still, the fact remained that strange things did happen in the Tontlawald. No one could deny that. The King to whom this part of the country belonged, more than once gave orders to cut down the haunted wood, but there was no one who had the courage to obey his commands. Finally, there came along one man who, bolder than the rest, said that if no one else would help him then he would cut down the wood single-handedly, if that was what the King wanted. He went to the Tontlawald, raised his axe, and struck it into a tree, but his first blow was followed by a stream of blood and shrieks, as if of a human being in pain. The woodcutter, terrified, fled as fast as his legs would carry him, and after that there wasn't an order or a threat that would drive anyone to the enchanted moor.

Now, in the large village that was only a few miles from the Tontlawald, there lived a peasant and a peasant-woman with their daughter who the other children called Wing because she had once taken care of a bird with a broken wing. There is nothing remarkable about this, but you will soon see why my story has turned to them. The peasant-woman died, and after a year the man decided to marry again. His second wife, who was much younger than he was, turned the whole household upside down, and the two ended up quarrelling and fighting all the time. This second wife felt like the house still belonged to the peasant's first wife, who had furnished it and decorated it, and you can't blame the young woman for wanting to change things so that the place was more her own home, which it now was. But this wasn't the only problem.

The daughter of the first wife, the girl whose name I said was Wing, was hated by her stepmother even though she was a good girl who caused no problems except for the type that all children sometimes do. The stepmother beat the poor girl from morning till night, and her father did nothing to stop it or take up for her. Indeed, with his young wife always complaining to him about the little girl, he came to be always angry and irritated by Wing as well. The child was nothing more than another source of misery as his wife was endlessly infuriated by her, and so when his wife would badger him he would turn around and whip the little girl just like a person who is kicked around turns and kicks a small pet dog because the dog is available for kicking.

For two years, the little girl suffered all this abuse, when one day she went out with the other village children to pick strawberries. The children wandered on, looking for better and better patches of wild strawberries, till at last they reached the edge of the Tontlawald where the finest strawberries grew in such plenty that they made the grass red with their color. The children happily flung themselves down on the ground, and, after eating as many as they wanted, began to fill their baskets with strawberries to take home, when suddenly one of the older boys realized where they were and yelled, "Run, run as fast you can! We're in the Tontlawald!" Terrified, the children all sprang to their feet and rushed away, some even leaving behind their baskets.

That is, all the children fled except for this particular little girl who had such a bad life at home. Wing had strayed even farther than the rest into the Tontlawald, where she had found a bed of the finest, plumpest strawberries right under the trees. Like the others, she had heard the boy's cry, but couldn't make up her mind to leave the strawberries which tasted so good. "After all, what does it matter?" she thought to herself. "The dwellers in the Tontlawald can't be any worse than my stepmother or father. When I leave here, what do I have to go home to but another beating? I think I'd rather stay out for as long as I can."

Even as the little girl was thinking this, she heard a little bell, and looking up she saw a little black dog with a silver bell around its neck come barking toward her, followed by a girl about her age who was wearing a white silk dress.

"Hush," the girl in the silk dress commanded her dog to be quiet. Then, turning to Wing she said, "I'm so glad you didn't run away with all the other children. Will you stay here with me and be my friend? If you do, we'll play the most delightful games together, and if you want every day we'll go and gather strawberries. Nobody will dare to beat you if I tell them not. Come, let's go tell my mother that you want to come and stay with us"; and, taking the peasant girl's hand, the little girl in the white silk dress led her deeper into the wood, the little black dog jumping up and down beside them and barking with pleasure.

As they walked along, what wonders and splendors unfolded themselves before Wing's astonished eyes! With everything she had heard about the Tontlawald, she thought that surely she would meet with strange, devilish animals, ogres and fearful ghosts. Instead, she thought she really must have somehow died without even knowing it and gone to Heaven. Trees and bushes loaded with fruit stood all around. Gaily-colored birds sat in their branches and sang the prettiest songs. And the birds weren't at all shy either, but would jump on your hand, if you reached toward them, and sit still while you petted their gold and silver feathers. Butterflies fluttered here and there. Bees buzzed about from flowers to their hives and you could reach your hand right into the hive and pull out some honey and they would act as if you were more than welcome and wouldn't sting you.

The girl in the white silk dress led Wing to a house at the very center of the garden. The house shone with glass, crystals, agates, opals and all kinds of precious stones. In the doorway sat a woman wearing the kind of rich garments the peasant girl thought were reserved for queens, so that she wondered if this woman was herself the queen of heaven. The woman turned to the girl in the silk dress and asked her, "Daughter, what sort of guest are you bringing me?"

The daughter answered, "I found her alone in the wood, and brought her back with me for a companion. Will you let her stay?"

The mother laughed, but looked Wing sharply up and down. After a moment she told Wing to come near, and stroked her cheeks and spoke kindly to her, asking if she would really like to stay with them, but also suggesting wouldn't her parents be soon worried and come searching for her. Wing buried her face in the woman's lap, and sobbed out, "My mother is dead. My father is still alive, but I am nothing to him, and he and my stepmother beat me all day long. As far as they're concerned, I can do nothing right. Please, let me, I pray you, stay here with you. I'll do any work you tell me; I'll obey your every word. Only do not, I plead with you, send me home. My stepmother will half kill me for not having come back with the other children."

The woman was silent for a little while, then answered, "Well, we will see what we can do," and, rising, she went into the house.

Then the daughter said to Wing, "Don't be afraid about anything. My mother will be your friend. I can tell by the way she looked that she'll grant your request." The girl, telling Wing to wait, then went into the house. Wing, meanwhile, was tossed about between hope and fear, uncertain what was to happen and scared that she would be sent home after all when she so longed to remain with the kind woman.

At last, the little girl came out of the house with a curious box in her hand, and crossed over the grass to Wing. She said, "My mother says we may play together today, as she wants to make up her mind what to do about you. But I hope you will stay here always. Have you ever been on the sea?"

Wing, who had never seen the sea, replied, "The sea? What is the sea? I've never heard of such a thing."

"That's silly that no one has even told you about the sea, but I'll soon show it to you," the girl answered, and taking the lid off the box she revealed inside it lay a scrap of a cloak, a mussel shell, and two glittering fish scales. Two drops of water shone on the cloak, and these the girl shook from the cloak onto the ground. In an instant, the garden, the lawn, and everything else had vanished, as if the earth had opened and swallowed them up, and as far as the eye could see there was nothing but water which stretched so far into the horizon that it seemed at last to touch heaven itself. Only, under the girls was a tiny dry spot upon which they stood. Then, the girl in the silk dress placed the mussel shell on the water, and took the fish scales in her hand. The mussel shell grew bigger and bigger, until it was a pretty little boat into which the girls climbed, and the girl in the silk dress used the fish scales for a rudder. The waves rocked the girls softly, as if they were resting in a cradle, and they floated on until they met other boats filled with men who were singing and making merry.

"We should sing a song," the girl in the silk dress said. She laughed when Wing said she didn't know any songs, and so sang one by herself. Wing couldn't understand her song, or any of the men's songs, but one word, she noticed, was repeated over and over again, and that was "Kisika."

Wing asked the girl in the silk dress, "What does Kisika mean?"

"Why, that's my name," the girl in the silk dress replied.

Wing heard a voice cry out from somewhere across the water, "Children, it's time for you to come home!"

So, Kisika took the little box out of her pocket, and taking the piece of cloth from it she dipped the cloth in the water, and immediately they were standing close to the splendid house in the middle of the garden. The trees, the lawn, and the grass was as it had been before. There was no water anywhere. Kisika put the mussel shell and the fish scales back into the box, and led Wing into the house.

The house looked small on the outside, but inside it was quite large. Kisika and Wing entered a large hall where four and twenty richly dressed women were sitting at a table. At the head of the table sat the lady of the house, Kisika's mother, in a golden chair. Kisika's mother beckoned Wing to sit down and passed her some fruit. Wing took the fruit that was offered and began to eat, realizing how hungry she was. The women talked softly while she ate, but their speech was strange to her, and she understood nothing of what was being said. Then, the hostess whispered something to a maid behind her chair, and the maid left the hall. When she returned she brought with her a little old man who had a beard longer than himself. He bowed low to the lady.

The lady of the house said, pointing to Wing, "Do you see this girl? I wish to adopt her for my daughter. Make me a copy of her, which we can send back to her native village in her place."

The old man looked Wing all up and down, as if he was taking her measure, bowed again to the lady, and left the hall. After dinner the lady said kindly to Wing, "Kisika has begged me to let you stay with her, and you said you would like to live with us. I can tell you're a good, obedient child, so I've consented. You are welcome to stay." Wing, crying, ran to the woman and knelt at her feet in gratitude for her refuge, but the woman raised her from the ground and patted her on the head, saying, "There, there. I'll take care of you and see that you want for nothing till you are grown up and can look after yourself."

Not long after, the old man came back with a mold full of clay and a little covered basket. He took a handful of clay and made a doll. When it was finished, he bored a hole in the doll's breast and put a bit of bread inside. Then, drawing a snake out of the basket, he had the snake enter the hollow body.

The old man said to Kisika's mother, "All I need now is a drop of the maiden's blood."

When she heard this, Wing grew white with horror, for she thought if she must give a drop of her blood then she must be selling her soul for evil purposes.

"Don't be afraid," the rich lady comforted her, noticing Wing's fright. "How can you remain here with us if you don't trust us? We don't want your blood for any other purpose than to give you freedom and happiness." Then, she took a tiny golden needle, pricked Wing in the arm, and gave the needle to the old man, who stuck it into the heart of the doll. When this was done, he placed the doll in the basket, promising that the next day they would all see what a beautiful piece of work he had finished.

The next morning, when Wing awoke in her bed which had silk sheets the color of moss, she saw a beautiful dress lying over the back of a chair, ready for her to put on, and a beautiful little pair of embroidered shoes which especially pleased her as her stepmother had forced her to go barefoot.

When Wing had dressed, and a maid had combed her long hair, she was taken into the Great Hall of the house, and don't you know that she started back when she saw, seated at the table, herself as she had looked only the previous day, dressed in the rough clothing she had worn the day before. It was the doll the old man had made that Wing was seeing, which looked every bit her doppelganger. All through the night, while Wing slept, the doll had grown, until when the sun rose that morning the doll had attained her full size, and no one could have told one girl from the other.

"Don't be frightened," Kisika's mother said. "This clay figure can do you no harm. It is for your father and stepmother, that they may beat it instead of you. Let them flog it as hard as they will, it can never feel any pain. And if your father and stepmother do not change their ways your double will be able at last to give them the punishment they deserve."

Wing's double was sent to town in her place, and from that moment on Wing's life was that of the ordinary, happy child, who has been rocked to sleep in her babyhood in a lovely golden cradle, which is to say that her life was that of a child who had been tenderly loved and cared for from the day of its birth. She had no cares or troubles of any sort, so every day her tasks seemed to become easier, and the years that had gone before she came to the Tontlawald seemed more and more like a distant, bad dream. But, the happier she grew, the deeper was her wonder at everything around her, and the more firmly she was persuaded that some great unknown power must be at the bottom of it all.

In the courtyard of the house, there stood, about twenty steps from the house, a great, granite block. When breakfast, supper or dinner was to be served in the Great Hall, the old man with the long beard would go out to the granite block, draw out a small silver staff which he kept hidden somewhere on his person, and strike the stone with it tree times so that the sound could be heard a long way off. At the third blow, out would spring a large golden cock, and stand upon the stone. Whenever the cock crowed and flapped his wings, the rock opened and out of it would appear a table with tablecloth, chairs to go around it, and dishes laid out on the wonderful table for dining. When the cock crowed a second time the table would be filled with all kinds of good food on great platters and wine and other marvelous things to drink in splendid goblets. When everybody had their fill, the cock would crow a third time, and the food, drink, chairs, dishes, goblets and table would disappear again into the stone. There was, however, one dish on the table from which no one ever ate, which was the thirteenth one, and it would not go inside the rock but rest upon it. Then, a huge black cat would run up and stand on the rock beside the cock and the dish. Finally, the old man with the long beard would approach the rock, pick up the dish in one hand, tuck the cat under his arm, the cock would hop on his shoulder, and all four would vanish into the rock.

This wonderful stone contained not only food, but clothes and everything you could possibly want in a house.

Another odd thing was that a language was often spoken at meals which was very strange to Wing, but with the help of Kisika and Kisika's mother she began slowly to understand it, though it was years before she was able to speak it herself.

Wing wondered for a long time about this thirteenth dish at which no one ate. One day she asked Kisika about this thirteenth dish which was at the table at every meal and was sent daily away untouched. That evening, Kisika's mother called Wing to her and said to her, "Wing, I hear you are curious as to meaning of the thirteenth dish, and that you worry yourself with useless wondering when you could have asked me the reason we never eat from it. That thirteenth dish, dear child, is the dish of hidden blessings, and we cannot taste of it without bringing our happy life here to an end. The world from which you come would be a great deal better if men, in their greed, didn't seek to snatch everything for themselves, instead of leaving something as a thank offering to the giver of blessings."

The years passed like the wind for Wing, and she grew into a lovely woman, with a knowledge of many things that she would never have learned in her native village. Kisika, however, remained the same young girl that she had been on the day of her first meeting with Wing. Each morning they both were schooled, but Kisika, never growing any older, preferred childish games to anything else. If the humor seized her, she would fling aside her tasks, take her treasure box, and go off to play. At such times, she would say to Wing, "What a pity it is that you've grown so big you can't play with me anymore."

Nine years slipped away in this manner. Then one day Kisika's mother called Wing into the Great Hall. When Wing went in, she saw Kisika's mother was looking very serious, and remembering the days when she was abused by her father and stepmother Wing was afraid, for it is very difficult when one has been abused like that to not to expect to be whipped for any little thing, even no reason that you can think of. Wing had not been afraid like this in a long time.

Kisika's mother said, "Dear child, we must part."

"Why are you sending me away? What have I done that would make you want to abandon me?" Wing pleaded.

"After all this time together, I would hope you know that I would do whatever I could to make you happy," the lady said. "If I say you must leave, it is because you are now a woman, and I have no right to keep you here. You must return to the world of men where joy awaits you."

Wing cried, "It would have been better if you had left me with my father and stepmother, then first to have brought me to heaven, and then cast me back out into the world."

"Ah, Wing," the lady said, "you are a mortal, who will have to die one day, and you can't stay here any longer. All of us, with whom you have lived the past nine years, though we have the bodies of men and women, we are not human, though it isn't easy for you to understand how this is. Some day, you are to find a husband who has been made expressly for you, and will live happily with him till death separates you. I promise that it is hard for me to part with you, but it has to be, and you must make up your mind to it."

Then, the lady combed Wing's hair with a golden comb, and sent her to bed, but poor Wing scarcely slept. Life seemed to stretch before her like a dark starless night.

It is a well-known fact that a bad woman seldom becomes better as she grows older, and Wing's stepmother was no exception to the rule; but as the double that had taken Wing's place in her former home could feel no pain, the blows that had been showered on her night and day those nine years made no difference.

Finally, as Wing lay trying to go to sleep, the stepmother had given Wing's double a frightful beating, and then threatened to kill her outright. Mad with rage, she seized the figure by the throat with both hands, when out came a black snake from the double's mouth and stung the stepmother's tongue, and the stepmother fell dead without a sound. When the husband came home, he found his wife lying dead on the ground, all alone in the house. His screams brought the neighbors, but they were unable to tell him what had happened. It was true, they said, that they had heard a great noise, but as that was a matter of daily occurrence they hadn't thought much of it. Then a doctor, who had been called, laid the body of the wife out on her bed, and everyone left. The husband, who'd had nothing to dine on that evening, took a slice of bread that he saw resting on the table and ate it. In the morning, he too was found dead, for the bread that he had found on the table had come from the body of Wing's double, the old man with the beard having placed it there when he had made the doll; for one day the rage which the father inflicted on his daughter would be returned to him, if he didn't change his ways, as if it was a meal he had been eating all these long years, and which had finally poisoned him to death.

When Wing got up in the morning, she had no idea that her father and stepmother lay dead in the town, and that her double had vanished.

Kisika's mother placed a gold seal ring on Wing's finger, and hung around her neck a little golden box strung on ribbon. She called the old man, and, forcing back her tears, kissed Wing farewell. Before Wing could speak to say goodbye and thank the woman for her loving care, the old man had touched Wing's forehead softly three times with his silver staff. In an instant, Wing knew that she was turning into a bird. Wings sprang from beneath her arms. Her feet were the feet of eagles, with long claws. Her nose curved itself into a sharp beak, and feathers covered her body. As if she had hatched suddenly, from a long dormant egg, Wing felt herself fill with the life of the bird and its longing to fly. Up she soared into the air, as high as the clouds.

For several days, Wing flew steadily south, resting from time to time when she grew tired. So it happened that one day she was flying over a dense forest when she heard down below the fierce barking of hunting dogs. Suddenly, a sharp pain quivered through her body, and Wing fell to the ground, pierced by an arrow.

When Wing recovered her senses, she found herself lying under a bush in her human form. What had befallen her, and how she got there, lay behind her like a dream.

As she was wondering what she should do next, the son of the king whose forest this was came riding by. Seeing Wing, he sprang from his horse and ran to her, the expression on his face that of one who is not meeting a stranger but returning to his love. Breathless, he took Wing's hand. He asked, "Who are you?" but Wing scarcely knew what to say in response to his excitement.

The Prince then explained. He said, "You don't know what happy chance it is that has brought me here this morning. Every night, for half a year, have I dreamed, dear lady, that I should one day find you in this wood. And although I have passed through it hundreds of times in vain, I have never given up hope. Today I was going in search of a large eagle that I had shot, and instead of the eagle I have found you--you, the woman of my dreams!"

Not that day, but very soon after, the Prince and Wing were married, for they had fallen in love with each other. On the day of their wedding, fifty carts laden with beautiful things arrived, sent by the lady of the Tontlawald as a gift to Wing and her new husband.

When she was old, Wing told this story.

And now I have told it to you, so that when you hear of mysterious places you might think of the tale of the Tontlawald, and if you hear stories of the stone of abundance you might remember the importance of honoring the dish of hidden blessings lest the stone of abundance disappear.

Retelling by J. Kearns from Ehstnische Marchen's tale in Andrew Lang's "The Violet Fairy Book".

Copyright 1999 j m Kearns

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