Mother Hulda

In the land near the mouth of the Rhine, there once lived a widow who had two daughters. One was pretty and humble, and industrious; the other was ugly but vain, and lazy. Since the ugly one was her own daughter, the widow loved her by far the best, and made the pretty one do all the work and be the household drudge.

Every day, the poor pretty girl had to sit by the Hileva well, spinning until her fingers bled. Each time that her fingers made the spindle bloody, she dipped it into the well to wash it. It happened one day that when she dipped it into the well, it slipped out of her hand and fell into the water. Not knowing what else to do, since she knew her stepmother would punish her for losing the spindle, with a heavy heart the girl jumped into the well after the spindle.

For a time she knew nothing afterwords. When Heimchen awoke, she found herself lying on the earth under an Elder tree, next to a wailing river, and in the midst of a beautiful meadow filled with red roses growing all around her. The sun shining on her had dried her from her tumble through the well, and so she set off, following two dogs who barked at her and showed her the way.

As she walked, she climbed a mountain and came upon a baker's oven full of bread. The bread called out to her, "Oh, take me out, take me out, or I shall burn! I am baked enough already!"

And so Heimchen walked up and took the baker's spatula standing against the hearth to take out the round loaves, one after the other. She stacked them up carefully on a three-legged table nearby and walked on, following the dogs.

She climbed down the mountain and came upon a tree heavily weighted with red apples. The tree called out to her, "Oh, shake me, shake me, we apples are all of us ripe!"

And so Heimchen shook the tree until the apples fell down like rain, shaking until there were no more apples to fall. She stacked them up in a mound next to the tree and walked on, following the dogs.

At last she entered the Iron Wood, with holly trees and oaks hanging thick with mistletoe all around, and the dogs were quite excited, running around in circles and barking, and rushing back and forth between Heimchen and a little house in the forest. Peeping out of the house was an old hag, with great long teeth and a fiery eye, peering at Heimchen. Heimchen was so terrified that she nearly ran away, but the old woman called her back.

"What are you afraid of, my dear child? Come into my house and live with me, and if you all of the work around the house well, and keep it nice and orderly, things will go well with you. One thing you must take careful pains to do is to shake my bed thoroughly when you make it so that the feathers will fly about, and then in the world it will snow, for I am Mother Hulda." 1

Since the old woman spoke to her so kindly, Heimchen screwed up her courage and agreed to the plan, and went to her work. Everything she did, Mother Hulda carefully scrutinized, and found it all to her satisfaction, even the shaking of the bed so that the feathers flew about like snowflakes.

And so, Heimchen led a good life, and the old woman had never a cross word to say to her, but every day gave her roast boar and other wondrous meats. When she had lived for a span of nines with Mother Hulda, Heimchen began to feel sad, though she did not know what bothered her, but eventually she decided that she must be homesick. Although she was a thousand times better off with the old woman than she had been at home, she discovered that her spirit truly longed to go home again.

At last, Heimchen said to her mistress, "I am homesick, and although all is well and good here, I feel that I can not stay any longer, but must go back to my own home."

Mother Hulda smiled and answered, "It pleases me that you wish to go home, and, since you have served me faithfully, I will send you there!"

She took Heimchen by the hand and led her to a large door which was standing open. As Heimchen passed through, a heavy shower of gold fell upon her, and hung all around her, covering her from head to foot.

"All this is yours, because you have worked so hard," said Mother Hulda. "And, besides that, I give you a new name, and call you Holly Liebchen, and return to you your spindle, the very same that you dropped in my well."

The door shut behind her, and Holly was back in the world again, not far from her stepmother's house. As she entered the yard, the cock at the top of the well cried out, "Cock-a-doodle-doo! Our golden girl has come home too!"

Into the house Holly went, and since she was covered with gold, the widow welcomed her gratefully.

So Holly told the whole story of what had happened to her, and when the mother heard how her stepdaughter came to have such great riches, she started to wish that her own, ugly and idle daughter could also have the same fortune. So the widow sent the ugly daughter to sit by the Hileva well and spin.

The ugly one, being lazy, to make her spindle bloody, she thrust her hand into the thorn hedge instead of spinning, then threw the spindle into the well and jumped in after it. Like her stepsister, she found herself in the beautiful meadow surrounded by roses, and she followed the same path.

When she came upon the baker's oven full of bread, the bread called out to her, "Oh, take me out, take me out, or I shall burn! I am baked enough already!"

But the lazy-bones answered, "I do not want to black my hands," and so she left the bread in the oven and the table empty, and walked on.

Soon she came to the tree, heavily weighted with red apples. The tree called out to her, "Oh, shake me, shake me, we apples are all of us ripe!"

But the lazy-bones answered, "That is all very well, but suppose that one of you fell on my head?" So she left the apples on the tree and walked on.

When she came to the house in the woods, she was not afraid of Mother Hulda, for she knew already about her great long teeth and her fiery eye, and agreed at once to work for her.

On the first day, she worked well, and could even be said to be industrious like her sister, doing everything the old woman asked her to do, because of the gold she expected.

On the second day, she began to be idle, and did not shake Mother Hulda's bed to make the feathers fly about, or properly perform any of her chores.

On the third day, she was lazier still, so that she didn't get up in the morning, and didn't make Mother Hulda's bed at all, much less make the feathers fly about.

Mother Hulda was quite upset with her, and tired of her laziness, and gave her a stern warning that she must do her work properly. At this, the lazy girl was very happy, thinking that now she would get the shower of gold.

Disgusted, the old woman led her to the door and opened it, and as the lazy girl stood in the doorway, instead of gold a huge cauldron full of black pitch was emptied onto her, covering her from head to foot.

"This is your for your service," said Mother Hulda, and shut the door.

The ugly girl was back in the world, all covered with pitch, and as she entered the yard, the cock at the top of the well cried out, "Cock-a-doodle-doo! Our dirty girl has come home too!"

And the pitch remain stuck to her ever after that, and never, as long as the lazy girl lived, could it be gotten off.


1 In Hesse when it snows, they still say, "Mother Hulda is making her bed."

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