Volume 2 Issue 82| May 8, 2010 |


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The Little White Duck

There was once a prince who married a fair princess. They barely had time to gaze at one another and exchange endearing words before the prince had to abandon his new wife and go off to war.

Of course, the princess wept and implored him not to go; but war is war. And as was the custom when lords left their ladies in those times, the prince was forthright with his bride. She was not to go beyond the castle walls, nor to wander in the castle grounds, nor to gossip or harken to idle talk.

Dutifully, the princess vowed to do as she was told. And after the prince departed she awaited his longed-for return in solitude.

In the passing of time came an old woman, such a simple open soul.

'Why do you pine and grieve so?' she gently asked.

'Come, take a peep at God's clear light, walk about the gardens and breathe in the good fresh air.'

For a long time the princess resisted, yet finally gave way. 'No harm can come from walking in the gardens,' she thought to herself.

So out she went. And as she wandered through the castle grounds, a fountain of water, crystal clear, met her gaze.

'Well now,' said the old woman, 'the day is warm, the sun is high and the water cool; see how its spray glistens in the sun. Will you bathe?'

'No, no, I must not,' cried the princess. Yet next moment she was thinking to herself, 'Surely no harm will come from bathing in the water.'

So she slipped off her robe and slid into the fountain. No sooner had she done so than the old woman cackled cruelly, 'Fly, fly, Little White Duck!'

And the princess was turned into a duck flying round and round in the castle garden.

The wicked witch -- for that is what the old crone was -- now doned the royal robe, assumed the form of the princess (so that none could have told the two apart) and seated herself in the castle tower to await the prince.

Not long after, the hounds began to yelp, the bells to toll, and the royal carriage returned. The witch-princess rushed to greet her noble lord, threw her arms about his neck, kissed and flattered him. And he, unsuspecting, held her in his arms, never thinking that she was not what she appeared to be.

Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of the castle grounds, the Little White Duck laid three eggs and from them hatched three human children: two strong and handsome boys and an ugly puny girl. The mother raised them, taught them how to swim, catch goldfish, gather leaves and bark and sew themselves some winter clothes. Although she warned them not to stray too far, sometimes they disobeyed her, for they were fond of playing in the soft green grass beneath the castle windows.

One day when they were four or five years old, the nose of the witch-princess began to twitch as she caught their scent and straightaway knew them for who they were. She ground her teeth in anger; yet she called them inside to her, fed and pampered them. Then, when they had tired themselves in play, she prepared a bed for them to sleep. And as soon as they were tucked up snug and warm, she bade the servants kindle a great fire, put cauldrons of water to heat upon the flames and sharpen up some knives.

In the meantime, the two brothers fell asleep, but their sister watched and listened to all that passed. Deep in the night the witch-princess came to their door and whispered, 'Are you awake, little ones, are you awake?'

And the ugly puny sister answered,

'We cannot sleep, we sit and weep,

For knowing thee, you'll slay us three.

Purple the fire for our funeral pyre,

Sharp the knife to end our life.'

'The very same answer in a single voice!' muttered the witch. 'I'd better make sure they're all awake.'

Quietly she opened the door and, seeing both brothers sound asleep, she burst into the room and quickly smothered all three children.

Next morning, when the Little White Duck called her children to her, no one came. With deep foreboding she spread her wings and flew into the castle courtyard. And there, white as a sheet, cold as sleet, lay her three children in a row, upon the cobblestones. The poor mother threw herself upon her dead children, covering their little bodies with her wings and crying,

'Quack, quack, my little loves,

Quack, quack, my turtledoves,

I cared for you in tender years,

Washed you daily in my tears,

Kept watch throughout the long dark night

And never let you out of sight.'

From inside the castle the prince happened to hear the sad complaint of the mother duck and called to the witch-princess, 'Wife, did you ever hear the like: a duck talking in a human voice?'

But the evil witch replied, 'It's just your fancy, sire,' And, calling to the servants, she cried, 'Drive that wretched bird out of the courtyard.'

Although the men dashed this way and that, they could not catch the duck, for she flew round and round above their heads making them stumble and knock each other down. Ever again she returned to the still white forms of the little children, crying,

'Quack, quack, my little loves,

Quack, quack, my turtledoves,

I cared for you in tender years,

Washed you daily in my tears,

Kept watch throughout the long dark night

And never let you out of sight.'

And then to the astonishment of all she sang a new song.

'The witch took away your father fine,

The royal prince, dear husband mine.

She cast me in the castle spring,

And crowned herself the royal queen.'

As the prince heard these words, he knew he had been deceived. 'Hey there, servants,' he shouted from his window, 'catch that duck and bring it to me.'

Flunkeys and footmen set to trap the bird, but try as they might they just succeeded in tripping each other up again. Only when the prince himself came into the courtyard did the Little White Duck fly instantly to his hands. And as he stroked her feathered wings the duck became a lovely maiden whom he knew at once as his own dear wife.

Immediately she summoned a magpie who was sent to fetch two phials of water: the Water of Life and the Water of Speech. When the bird returned, the princess sprinkled a few drops of the Water of Life over her three children... And their cold white bodies stirred to life.

Then she sprinkled the Water of Speech over their heads ... And their numbed lips slowly moved and happy cries rose from them.

Now at last with their dear family about them the prince and princess began to live in peace and prosperity.

As for the witch, she was tied to the tail of a wild stallion and dragged away across the plain. Where at leg came off, a black poker stood; where an arm snapped free, a rake now stood; where her head fell off, a wild bramble grew. Then down swooped the crows to peck at her flesh, and up swept the winds to scatter her bones.

And not a scrap, not a trace or a speck was left of the wicked witch.

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