Editor’s note: The rhythm and sweet symmetry of this lovely story, and its classic structure, makes it a pleasure to read. Enjoy!
Once there was a farmer’s wife named Hildreth who was pregnant with her first child. She and her husband, Gerald, were very pleased, and when her time to give birth arrived, she labored for many hours until her husband began to fear for her life. At last the farmer hurried into the forest in search of the wise woman who had birthed babies for many years.
Now Gerald was afraid of the wise woman, as many were, but love for his wife pressed him on. At last he found her cottage and rapped on the door. “Please, my wife’s labor goes poorly,” he said. “I will pay whatever you ask.”
The wise woman saw that he was in earnest, so she agreed to go with him. But first, she told him to pluck three things from her garden: a thorn, a petal, and a vine.
So he did, though the thorns made him bleed and the flowers made him sneeze and the vines did not want to come loose. When at last they both arrived at the farm, his wife had fainted from the pain. The wise woman examined Hildreth as slowly and calmly as if she were a ripe vegetable. “Not one baby,” she said, grinning. “Your wife carries three within her womb.”
The poor farmer was struck dumb at that, thinking his wife and all his children had perished before he had even met them; but with a muttered ministration, Hildreth woke, and with the wise woman’s care first one baby was born, and then the second, and finally, with a monumental effort, the third child arrived: daughters three.
They were very small and did not cry at first. “Quick,” the wise woman said, “put this thorn to your firstborn’s finger.” Gerald did so, and the child cried out as a drop of red blood sprung from her finger.
“Quick,” the wise woman said, “put the petal on your second born’s tongue.” Gerald did so, and the child swallowed it and let out a good wail.
“Quick,” the wise woman said, “wrap this vine around your youngest’s leg.” Gerald did so, and the child whimpered, but never cried. But Hildreth put her to nurse first, and so, by suckling all her children, granted them what only she could, and all the terrors of birth fell away into the realm of the past.
“What would you have for payment?” Asked Gerald. He was grateful and more than a little stunned.
“You must only let your children be what they will be,” answered the wise woman. “That is payment enough.”
The three children grew up, the pride and joy of their parents. Aline, the oldest, became a woman whose strength evoked admiration and awe in all the nearby farms and villages. Alessa, the second, sang as she worked, composing songs that lightened their days. Annika, the youngest, was neither strong nor clever, but she had a kind heart, and she worked as best she could.
One by one they left home. Aline built her own mill by hand, then rescued a woodcutter from a fallen tree and married him. Alessa moved to the city and joined the minstrel’s guild. And Annika, when her parents asked her what life she might seek, said only, “I am happy here with you.”
What could they do? She was not very helpful on the farm, though she tried her best. She had no voice for song, though Alessa had tried to teach her. Perhaps, they thought, a kind businessman might love her and give her a suitable life.
So her parents took her to visit her sister in the city in the hopes that she might introduce her to someone, and indeed she did. One of her poet friends spun sonnets in praise of Annika’s kindness and beauty until she fell in love with him. They were married, and remained in the city.
It was a poor livelihood, being married to a poet. She did not mind the poor conditions, for they were well matched in temperament and love, but Annika missed the country dreadfully. And she was no more suited for city occupations than she was for farming.
Then one day her husband said, “I fear my poor mother is dying. I must go to her in the country. Will you come with me?”
“Of course I will,” she said. Though she grieved for her husband, she was secretly pleased to go home.
They rode out of the city and past her sister’s mill. They rode past her parent’s farm. They rode into the woods and stopped at an old cottage in an overgrown garden. And there, in bed, lay the poet’s mother, who was of course none other than the wise woman who had delivered Annika and her sisters long ago.
The couple was saddened to see her so weak. But the wise woman smiled at them.
“Quick,” she said, “put a thorn to my thumb.” They were reluctant at first, but she assured them it would help. As a drop of blood fell from her thumb, her pain ebbed away.
“Quick,” she said, “put a petal on my tongue.” Annika did so, and the wise woman spoke the wisdom of midwifery and healing, all manner of remedies and balms.
“Quick,” she said, and her voice was fading, “wrap my leg in a vine, to ease my passing.” They did so, and a smile spread across her wrinkled face. “Thank you, my children,” she said. “Now I bless you both.” And so she died. The poet and his wife wept for her and buried her in the garden.
They stayed on in the cottage. The poet wrote in the peace and quiet of the woods, and Annika, who remembered all that the wise woman had said, spent her days making poultices, easing fevers, and delivering babies. And though they are poor, to this day the young wise woman and her poet husband are very happy.
Stephanie Ascough is the author of A Land of Light and Shadow, an MG fantasy, and is working on too many projects at once. When she isn’t parenting or feigning housework, she can be found exploring fairy tales and folklore, reading, or playing guitar or mandolin.
Image by Annie Spratt