The Juniper Tree

Thousands of years ago there lived a good and beautiful woman, the wife of a rich man. They longed for a child. In the garden of their home there stood a cypress, the juniper tree. One day in deep mid-winter the woman stood beneath the juniper tree pealing an apple, and her heart was sad. The knife cut her finger, and a few drops of blood fell on the snow. She gazed at it and said, “I wish I had a child as white as snow and as red as blood.” As she spoke these words, she felt moved within her and said to herself, “Something will come of this.”

She watched the seasons change, beneath the Juniper tree, the coming of buds and fragrant blossoms and the young fruit and then the rich heavy fruit, as the life grew inside her. But when she saw the fruit hanging heavy on the tree a change came over her. She grabbed the fruit greedily and crammed it into her mouth. She sickened. Her child was born, and the sight of him was a moment of exquisite joy, for he was as white as snow and as red as blood as she had wished. Then she died.

The father wept a while then took another wife who gave birth to a daughter. The mother loved her daughter deeply and wanted to endow her with many gifts, but her husband’s son she hated. She pinched him. She slapped him. And when he reached out for her, she shooed him away and made him stand in shame in the kitchen corner.

One day the daughter came in and said, “Mother, give me an apple.” The mother opened a solid oak chest with a heavy iron lid where the apples were kept, took one out and gave it to her. “And one for my brother too.” At this the mother was vexed. She snatched the apple from her daughter’s hand and put it back in the chest, saying, “Then you can wait until your brother gets home.”

Some time later the boy came in, and the mother said sweetly, “My son, come and help yourself to a nice, juicy apple from the chest”, and lifted the lid. The boy moved over to the chest warily. He looked from the smile on her lips to the juicy apples to the look of hate in her eyes. “Yes, I would like an apple, but how grisly you look.” He leant into the chest to reach an apple and – thwack – she brought down the lid and knocked his block off. His head rolled down among the apples.

“How can I shift the blame?” she thought. Then she sat him in a chair by the door, balanced the head on the neck and tied it on with a white kerchief, and put an apple in his hand. Later the daughter came to her mother and said, “My brother is sitting by the door with an apple, but when I asked him for the apple he wouldn’t reply.” “Well,” said the mother, “go and ask him again, and if he still doesn’t reply, slap him across the face.” She went to her brother and asked for the apple, and when he didn’t reply she slapped him across the face as her mother had told her. To her horror and dismay, the head bounced off and landed at her feet, the little eyes looking up at her.

Screaming and crying she rushed to her mother, who was stirring a pot over the kitchen fire, “O mother, O mother, I’ve knocked his block off.” “What a dreadful and wicked thing to do,” said the mother. “But it’ll be our secret. We’ll cook him up into a stew.”

When the father came home, the mother said his son had gone to visit his mother’s great uncle and he’d be gone for weeks. Then she served him the stew, while the daughter wept and wept and wept. “Mm,” said the father, “I’ve never tasted such a delicious stew. Give me more, more, I’m going to eat it all up.”

He gnawed the bones and threw them on the floor, and while the daughter wept and wept she gathered them all up in her silk kerchief. Then still weeping bitterly she took them and laid them at the foot of the juniper tree. Suddenly the roots of the tree shook and the branches parted and smoke and steam and flames billowed out, and there came forth the most beautiful bird with a glorious lilting song. It flew high into the air and was gone. And the kerchief and the bones were gone.

One day the bird alighted on the roof of the goldsmith’s house and sang his glorious song :

My mother killed me,

My father ate me,

My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief

And laid them beneath the juniper tree.

Keewitt, keewitt.

What a fine bird am I.

The goldsmith heard the song as he sat in his workshop making a golden chain, and was entranced. Stepping over the threshold he called to the bird, “What a wonderful singer, what a glorious song, give it to me again.” “Only if you will give me the golden chain you are holding.” “Willingly, willingly,” said the goldsmith. The bird flew down and took the golden chain in his claw, and hovering before the goldsmith, he sang his song again.

Then the bird flew to the shoemaker’s house, alighted on the roof and sang his glorious song.

My mother killed me,

My father ate me,

My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief

And laid them beneath the juniper tree.

Keewitt, keewitt.

What a fine bird am I.

The shoemaker heard the song as he sat in his workshop making a pair of fine shoes, and was captivated. He ran out of doors and called to the bird, “What a wonderful singer, what a glorious song, give it to me again.” And he called his wife and daughters and sons and grandmothers and grandfathers and uncles and aunts and apprentices and hired men to hear as well. “Only if you will give me the pair of fine shoes you are holding.” “Willingly, willingly,” said the shoemaker. The bird flew down and took the shoes in his other claw, and flying up to the roof he sang his song again to an admiring audience.

My mother killed me,

My father ate me,

My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief

And laid them beneath the juniper tree.

Keewitt, keewitt.

What a fine bird am I.

Then the bird flew to the mill, where the miller and twenty men were heaving a millstone. He settled in a nearby lime tree and sang his song. The miller and all his men were enchanted and beseeched the bird to sing the song again. “Only when you have placed the millstone around my neck” he said. With a heave ho and a heave ho and a heave ho the miller and his twenty men hoisted up the millstone and put it around the bird’s neck. The bird flew back into the tree and sang his glorious song again.

My mother killed me,

My father ate me,

My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief

And laid them beneath the juniper tree.

Keewitt, keewitt.

What a fine bird am I.

And so he lived his life as a bird, with the golden chain in one claw, the fine shoes in the other and the millstone around his neck, being admired by all as a fine bird with a glorious song. One day he returned to the house where he was born. His father and mother and sister were sitting at the table. He alighted on the juniper tree and began to sing his song.

“I suddenly feel so happy,” said the father, “so light-hearted.” “I don’t,” said the mother with rising panic, “There is thunder in my ears, my eyes burn and flash like lightening.” The sister just wept and wept.

My mother killed me,

“I’m so happy, the sun shines so bright, I feel I’m to be reunited with one I once loved.” “I don’t. My teeth are chattering with cold. There is fire in my veins.” She tore open her bodice. The sister soaked the lap of her apron with her tears.

My father ate me,

“There’s a beautiful bird out there, with a glorious song, and the air is warm and smells of cinnamon. I’m going out to see the bird close to.” “Don’t go, don’t go, the whole house is quaking and going up in flames.” And the sister went on weeping.

My sister gathered my bones in a silken kerchief

As the father stepped outside, the bird dropped the gold chain around his neck, a perfect fit. Going inside, he said, “See what a fine bird he is and he gave me this golden chain.” But his wife had thrown herself flat on her back with her legs in the air and was screaming and panting in terror, “If only I were a thousand feet under the ground and couldn’t hear this song. I feel like the world is coming to an end.”

And laid them beneath the juniper tree.

The sister leapt up, “I shall go out too and see if the bird has something for me.” The bird threw down the fine shoes. They landed near her feet. She stepped into them and they were a perfect fit and made her dance back into the house with joy in her heart.

Keewitt, keewitt.

The woman grabbed the table and dragged herself to her feet, her cloths ripped and her hair standing on end like tongues of flame. She staggered out of the house.

What a fine bird am I.

The bird dropped the millstone, and – thwack – it knocked her block off and squashed it flat. The ground shuddered and split open and steam and smoke and flames shot out. When they heard the noise the father and sister rushed out of the door and as the smoke cleared, where the millstone had fallen, beneath the juniper tree, there stood the boy, restored to his true likeness. He took his sister and his father by the hand, and they were all very happy and returned to the house.

This is my telling of a Grimms’ fairy tale.

© David England, 2003