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The Elder-Tree Mother
Once there was a little boy who went out and
got his feet wet and caught cold. Nobody could understand how it had
happened, because the weather was very dry.
His mother undressed him, put him to bed, and
had the tea urn brought in to make him a good cup of elder tea, for
that keeps one warm.
At the same time there came in the door the
funny old man who lived all alone on the top floor of the house. He
had no wife or children of his own, but he was very fond of all
children, and knew so many wonderful stories and tales that it was
fun to listen to him.
"Now drink your tea," said the little boy's
mother, "and then perhaps there'll be a story for you."
"Yes," nodded the old man kindly, "if I could
only think of a new one! But tell me, how did the young man get his
feet wet?" he asked.
"Yes, where did he?" said the mother. "Nobody
can imagine how."
"Will you tell me a fairy tale?" the little
"Yes, but I must know something first. Can you
tell me as nearly as possible how deep the gutter is in the little
street where you go to school?"
"Just halfway up to my top boots," answered
the little boy. "That is," he added, "if I stand in the deep hole."
"That's how we got our feet wet," said the old
man. "Now, I certainly ought to tell you a story, but I don't know
"You can make one up right away," the little
boy said. "Mother says that everything you look at can be turned
into a story, and that you can make a tale of everything you touch."
"Yes, but those stories and tales aren't worth
anything. No, the real ones come all by themselves. They come
knocking at my forehead and say, 'Here I am!' "
"Will there be a knock soon?" the little boy
asked. His mother laughed as she put the elder tea in the pot and
poured hot water over it.
"Tell me a story! Tell me a story!"
"I would if a story would come of itself. But
that kind of thing is very particular. It only comes when it feels
like it. Wait!" he said suddenly. "There is one! Look! There's one
in the teapot now!"
And the little boy looked toward the teapot.
He saw the lid slowly raise itself and fresh white elder flowers
come forth from it. They shot long branches even out of the spout
and spread them abroad in all directions, and they grew bigger and
bigger until there was the most glorious elderbush - really a big
tree! The branches even stretched to the little boy's bed and thrust
the curtains aside - how fragrant its blossoms were! And right in
the middle of the tree there sat a sweet-looking old woman in a very
strange dress. It was green, as green as the leaves of the elder
tree, and it was trimmed with big white elder blossoms; at first one
couldn't tell if this dress was cloth or the living green and
flowers of the tree.
"What is this woman's name?" asked the little
"Well, the Romans and the Greeks," said the
old man, "used to call her a 'Dryad,' but we don't understand that
word. Out in New Town, where the sailors live, they have a better
name for her. There she is called 'Elder Tree Mother,' and you must
pay attention to her; listen to her, and look at that glorious elder
"A great blooming tree just exactly like that
stands in New Town. It grows in the corner of a poor little yard;
and under that tree two old people sat one afternoon in the bright
sunshine. It was an old sailor and his very old wife; they had
great-grandchildren and were soon going to celebrate their golden
wedding anniversary, but they weren't quite sure of the date. The
Elder Tree Mother sat in the tree and looked pleased, just as she
does here. 'I know perfectly well when the golden wedding day is,'
she said, but they didn't hear it - they were talking of olden
" 'Yes, do you remember,' said the old sailor,
'when we were very little, how we ran about and played together? It
was in this very same yard where we are now, and we put little twigs
in the earth and made a garden.'
" 'Yes,' replied the old woman. 'That I
remember well; one of those twigs was an elder, and when we watered
them it took root and shot out other green twigs, and now it has
become this great tree under which we old people are sitting.'
" 'That's right,' said he. 'And there used to
be a tub of water over in the corner, where I sailed the little boat
I had made myself. How it could sail! But pretty soon I had to sail
in a different way myself.'
" 'Yes, but first we went to school and
learned something,' said she, 'and then we were confirmed. Remember
how we both cried? But in the afternoon we went together to the
Round Tower, and looked out at the wide world over Copenhagen and
across the water. And then we went to Frederiksborg, where the King
and Queen were sailing on the canal in their beautiful boat!'
" 'But I had to sail in a different way
myself,' said the old man. 'And for many years, far away on long
" 'I often cried over you,' she said. 'I
thought you were dead and gone, and lying down in the deep ocean,
with the waves rocking you. Many a night I got up to see if the
weathercock was turning. Yes, it turned all right, but still you
" 'I remember so clearly how the rain poured
down one day. The garbage man came to the place where I worked. I
took the dustbin down to him and stood in the doorway. What dreadful
weather it was! And while I was standing there, the postman came up
and gave me a letter - a letter from you! My, how that letter had
traveled about! I tore it open quickly and read it, and I was so
happy that I laughed and cried at the same time. You had written me
that you were in the warm countries where the coffee beans grow.
What a wonderful country that must be! You wrote me all about it,
and I read it there by the dustbin with the rain streaming down.
Then somebody came and clasped me around the waist!'
" 'And you gave him a good smack on the ear,'
he said. 'One that could be heard!'
" 'Yes, but I didn't know it was you! You had
come just as quickly as your letter. And you were so handsome - but
you still are, of course! I remember you had a long yellow silk
handkerchief in your pocket, and a shiny hat on your head. You
looked so well! But what awful weather it was and how the street
" 'Then we were married, remember?' said he.
'And then out first little boy came, and then Marie, and Niels, and
Peter, and Hans Christian?'
" 'Yes, indeed,' she nodded. 'And how they've
grown up to be useful people. Everyone likes them.'
" 'And their children have had little ones in
their turn,' said the old sailor. 'Yes, they are our
great-grandchildren; they're fine children. If I'm not mistaken, it
was at this very time of the year that we were married.'
" 'Yes. This is the very day of your golden
wedding anniversary!' said the Elder Tree Mother, stretching her
head down between the two old people. They thought it was the
neighbor woman nodding to them, and they looked at each other and
took hold of each other's hands.
"Then the children and the grandchildren came;
they knew very well that this was the old people's golden wedding
day - they had already brought their congratulations that morning.
But the old people had forgotten that, although they remembered
everything that had happened years and years ago.
"And the elder tree smelled so fragrant, and
the setting sun shone right in the faces of the old people so that
their cheeks looked quite red and young; and the littlest of the
grandchildren danced around them, and cried out happily that there
was to be a grand feast that evening with hot potatoes! And the
Elder Mother nodded in the tree and called out 'Hurrah!' with all
"But that wasn't a fairy tale," said the
little boy, who had been listening to the story.
"Yes, it was, if you could understand it,"
said the old man. "But let's ask the Elder Mother about it."
"No," the Elder Mother said, "that wasn't a
story. But now the story is coming. For the strangest fairy tales
come from real life; otherwise my beautiful elderbush couldn't have
sprouted out of the teapot."
Then she took the little boy out of his bed
and laid him against her breast, and the blossoming elder branches
wound close around them so that it was as if they were sitting in a
thick arbor, and this arbor flew with them through the air! How very
wonderful it was! Elder Mother all at once changed into a pretty
young girl, but the dress was still green with the white blossoms
trimming it, such as the Elder Tree Mother had worn. In her bosom
she had a real elder blossom, and a wreath of the flowers was about
her yellow, curly hair. Her eyes were so large and so blue, and, oh,
she was so beautiful to look at! She and the little boy were of the
same age now, and they kissed each other and were happy together.
Hand in hand they went out of the arbor, and
now they were standing in the beautiful flower garden at home. Near
the green lawn the walking stick of the little boy's father was tied
to a post, and for the little children there was magical life in
that stick. When they seated themselves upon it, the polished head
turned into the head of a noble neighing horse with a long, black
flowing mane. Four slender, strong legs shot out; the animal was
strong and spirited; and they galloped around the grass plot!
"Now we'll ride for miles!" said the boy.
"We'll ride to that nobleman's estate, where we went last year!"
So they rode round and round the grass plot,
and the little girl, who you must remember was the Elder Mother,
kept crying, "Now we're in the country! See the farmhouse, with the
big baking oven standing out of the wall like an enormous egg beside
the road! The elder tree is spreading its branches over the house,
and the cock is walking around, scratching for his hens. Look at him
strut! Now we're near the church; it's high up on the hill, among
the great oak trees. See how one of them is half dead! Now we're at
the forge; the fire is burning, and the half-clad men are beating
with the hammers. Look at the sparks flying all around! We're off!
We're off to the nobleman's beautiful estate!"
They were only riding around and around the
grass plot, yet the little boy seemed to see everything that the
little maiden mentioned as she sat behind him on the magic stick.
Then they played on the sidewalk, and marked out a little garden in
the earth; and she took the elder flower out of her hair and planted
it, and it grew just like the ones that the old people had planted
in New Town, when they were little, as I have already told you. They
walked hand in hand, the same way the old people did in their
childhood, but they didn't go to the Round Tower or the
Frederiksborg Garden. No, the little girl took the little boy around
the waist, and they flew through the country of Denmark.
And it was spring and it became summer, and it
was autumn and it became winter, and there were thousands of
pictures in the boy's mind and heart, as the little girl sang to
him, "You will never forget this."
And throughout their whole journey the elder
tree smelled sweet and fragrant. He noticed the roses and fresh
beech trees, but the elder tree smelled the sweetest, for its
flowers hung over the little girl's heart, and he often leaned his
head against them as they flew onward.
"How beautiful it is here in the spring!" said
the little girl.
Then they were standing in the new-leaved
beech wood, where the fragrant green woodruff lay spread at their
feet, and the pale pink anemones looked glorious against the vivid
"Oh, if it could only always be spring in the
fragrant beech woods of Denmark!"
"How beautiful it is here in the summer!" she
Then they were passing by knightly castles of
olden times, where the red walls and pointed gables were mirrored in
the canals, and where swans swam about and peered down the shady old
avenues. In the fields the corn waved, as if it were a sea; in the
ditches were yellow and red flowers, and wild hops and blooming
convolvulus were growing in the hedges. In the evening the moon rose
round and full, and the haystacks in the meadows smelled fragrant.
"One can never forget it. How beautiful it is
here in the autumn!" said the little girl.
And the sky seemed twice as high and twice as
blue as ever before, and the forest was brilliant with gorgeous
tints of red and yellow and green. The hunting dog raced across the
meadows; long lines of wild ducks flew shrieking above the ancient
grave mounds, on which the bramble twined over the old stones. The
ocean was a dark blue, dotted with white-sailed ships. In the barns
old women and girls and children picked hops into a large tub, while
the young people sang ballads, and the older ones told fairy tales
of elves and goblins. It could not be finer anywhere.
"How beautiful it is here in the winter!" said
the little girl.
Then all the trees were covered with
hoarfrost, until they looked like trees of white coral. The snow
crackled crisply underfoot, as if you were always walking in new
boots, and one shooting star after another fell from the sky. In the
room the Christmas tree was lighted, and there were presents and
happiness. In the farmer's cottage the violin sounded and games were
played for apple dumplings, and even the poorest child cried, "It's
beautiful in winter!"
Yes, it was beautiful, and the little girl
showed the boy everything.
The blossoming elder tree always smelled
fragrant, and the red flag with the white cross always waved, the
same flag under which the old seaman in New Town had sailed away.
And the boy became a young man, and he too had
to sail far away to warmer countries, where the coffee grows. But
when they departed, the little girl took and elder blossom from her
breast and gave it to him as a keepsake. He laid it away in his
hymnal, and whenever he took out the book in foreign countries it
always came open by itself at the spot where lay the flower of
memory. And the more he looked at the flower the fresher and sweeter
it became, so that he seemed to be breathing the air of the Danish
forests, and he could plainly see the little girl looking up at him
with her clear blue eyes from between the petals of the flower, and
could hear her whispering, "How beautiful it is here in spring,
summer, autumn, and winter!" And hundreds of pictures drifted
through his thoughts.
Many years passed by, and now he was an old
man, sitting with his old wife under a blossoming tree; they were
holding hands, just as Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother out
in New Town had done before. And like them they talked of olden
times and of their golden wedding anniversary.
Now the little maiden with the blue eyes and
the elder blossoms in her hair sat up in the tree and nodded to them
both and said, "Today is your golden wedding anniversary!" Then from
her hair she took two flowers, and kissed them so that they gleamed,
first like silver, and then like gold. And when she laid them on the
heads of the old couple, each became a golden crown. There they both
sat, a king and a queen, under the fragrant tree that looked just
exactly like an elder bush, and he told his old wife the story of
the Elder Tree Mother, just as it had been told to him when he was a
little boy. They both thought that much of the story resembled their
own, and that part they liked best.
"Yes, that's the way it is," said the little
girl in the tree. "Some people call me Elder Tree Mother, and some
call me the Dryad, but my real name is Memory. It is I who sit up in
the tree that grows on and on, and I can remember and I can tell
stories. Let me see if you still have your flower."
Then the old man opened his hymnal, and there
lay the elder blossom, as fresh as if it had just been placed there.
Then Memory nodded, and the two old people with the golden crowns
sat in the red twilight, and they closed their eyes gently and - and
- and that was the end of the story....
The little boy was lying in his bed and he
didn't know whether he had been dreaming or had heard a story. The
teapot was standing beside him on the table, but there was no
elderbush growing out of it now, and the old man was just going out
of the door, which he did.
"That was so beautiful!" said the little boy.
"Mother, I have been in the warm countries!"
"Yes, I believe you have," said his mother.
"If one drinks two full cups of hot elder tea, one usually gets into
the warm countries!" Then she tucked the bedclothes carefully around
him so that he wouldn't take cold. "You've had a nice nap while I
was arguing with him as to whether that was a story or a fairy
"And where is the Elder Tree Mother?" asked
"She's in the teapot," said the mother. "And
there she can remain!"