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Tales of Flanders - Vertellingen uit Vlaanderen

Flemish tales translated into English. These tales have been told to children for centuries in Belgium. Here is the second part of a selection.

A good many of these folk tales are somewhat like tales of other nations also.

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The Rich Woman and the Poor Woman

On a cold winter night, long ago, Mars took a walk along with his favourite bird on earth. Towards nightfall he let the bird knocked at a rich peasant's door. The farmer's wife was busy making pancakes in her cosy kitchen. Her little chubby baby was watching her as she poured the batter into the frying-pan. She spied the stranger through the window, and said to herself, "This fellow is attracted by the good smell, but I do not waste my pancakes on strangers." She sent Mars and his woodpecker away, wishing them God-speed.

Mars and his favourite bird soon arrived at a little cabin where a poor widow lived with her six children. The woodpecker knocked with great energy at the door again, and on hearing Mars asking to spend the night there, she opened the door and bade the both of them come in. "Night is falling," she said. "It is bitterly cold, stay with us. You will have my bedroom. I will doze in a chair near the fire." The guest with the bird on his shoulder gratefully accepted her offer, and after having supped, they retired to bed.

Before leaving the next day, Mars thanked the good woman and said to her, "Listen, little mother: as you welcomed me in your house, I give you a wish; ask anything you like and you shall have it."

The good woman thought at once of an unfinished roll of cloth that her dead husband was weaving shortly before his death, and answered, "Well, in such a case, kindly grant that the work which I begin the first thing in the morning may go on all day."

"It shall be as you wish," said Mars and bade her good-bye. Her six children walked with him to the outskirts of the village. There the children bade Mars and his bird God-speed.

Very early the next day the busy little woman began to measure the piece of cloth her husband had left her. It was about twelve yards long. As she measured - and measured - she found that when she had measured a certain length of cloth the pattern, texture, and designs changed. She then cut it off carefully and rolled it up. In such a way the day passed. After some hours she had rolls of cloth of many shades, designs, and materials. They filled the whole cabin to the rafters. There was scarcely room to move. Her children were huddled together in one spot and stared with open mouths as she went on measuring. The neighbours came to say good day, but the cloth blocked the door, so it was with the greatest difficulty that they could squeeze their heads through the crack. Others were craning their necks on tiptoe to gaze amazed through the window, which was half hidden in cloth. By midnight she had enought cloth to supply ten villages.

The wonderful news soon spread far and wide. When it reached the ears of the mean, rich peasant woman who had turned the stranger so roughly from her door, she was disgusted with herself and did not sleep a wink that night. She thought up many plans to benefit from that stranger, but could do nothing but to wait till he might return. "Maybe he will be around next year," she said; "a year soon passes."

One Christmas Eve she was again making pancakes, looking up from time to time to see if the other appeared. And there he came through the gate! Before he had time to knock, she opened the door, welcomed him in, and gave him a seat near the fire. "This time you must stay the night with us," she said; "it is too cold and too dark to go farther."

"Thank you," said the stranger, "but I only wanted to ask the way."

"No, no," said the peasant, "you must certainly stay, you cannot be better cared for. Draw up to the table and eat some pancakes; it will do you good. Tomorrow you can go as early as you like."

There was nothing more to be said. A chair was drawn up to the table and the guest had to eat and drink. At bedtime they showed him into the best bedroom.

The next day the stranger thanked the woman and her husband, and said goodbye. He had already reached the gate when he said, "Woman, in return for the hospitality I grant that the first work you undertake tomorrow will last all day." Then he went on his way.

The woman was overjoyed. "Tomorrow we shall be very rich," she said to her husband. "I'll do better than my neighbour; I shall count money all day and not waste a minute. I shall get up at midnight, for before daybreak I must make some bags to pour our fortune into."

All that night she never closed her eyes; on the stroke of midnight she sprang from her bed, and seizing the scissors she began to cut out the bags. But she felt she had to cut and cut until all the stuff was in fragments. Still she had to go on cutting. She seized linen, shirts, sheets, tablecloths, napkins, handkerchiefs; even the window curtains did not escape.

Then it was the turn of the wardrobe. Throwing it open, she took out her husband's wedding suit. "Look!" she said, as she cut off his coat-tails, "these will make two more bags. Here are strings for the bags," she added, snipping off her best bonnet-strings.

She went on cutting without a pause. By night she had cut up everything except the clothes she was wearing. Her husband looked on at this terrible scene, howling with rage, while his wife sighed and cried with vexation. There was nothing left; her husband only managed to save the shirt he was wearing by running up the stairs as midnight struck.

The news of this disaster spread like wild-fire far and wide, but no one pitied the woman.

The Enchanted Apple-Tree

Once on a time there lived an old woman. Her name was Misery. Her one and only possession was an apple-tree, but when the apples were ripe, the village urchins came and stole them off the tree.

This went on year after year, when one day an old man, with a long white beard, knocked at Misery's door. "Woman," he asked, "give me a crust of bread."

"You too are a poor miserable creature," said Misery, for although she had nothing herself, she was full of compassion for others. "Here is half a loaf, take it; it is all I have. Eat it in peace, and may it refresh you."

"As you have been so kind," said the old fellow, "I will grant you a wish."

"Oh!" sighed the old woman, "I have only one desire. It is that anyone who touches my apple-tree may stick to it until I set them free. How my apples are stolen from me is past all bearing."

"Your wish is granted," said the old fellow, and he went away.

Two days later Misery went to look at her tree. Then she found hanging and sticking to the branches a crowd of children, servants, mothers who had come to rescue their children, fathers who had tried to save their wives, two parrots who had escaped from their cage, a cock, a goose, an owl, and other birds, not to mention a goat. When she saw this extraordinary sight, she burst out laughing, and rubbed her hands with delight. She let them all remain hanging on the tree some time before she released them.

The thieves learnt their lesson, and never stole her apples again.

Some time passed by, when one day someone again knocked at old Misery's door.

"Come in," she cried.

"Guess who I am," said a voice. "I am old Father Death himself. Listen, little mother," he continued. "I think that you and your old dog have lived long enough; I have come to fetch you both."

"You are so powerful," said Misery. "I don't oppose your will, but before I pack up, grant me one favour. On the tree over there are the most delicious apples you have ever tasted. Don't you think it would be a pity to leave them, without gathering one?"

"Yes, I might take one," said Death. His mouth was watering as he walked towards the tree. He climbed up to the topmost branches to gather a large rosy apple, but directly he touched it, he remained glued to the tree by his long bony hand. Nothing could tear him off, in spite of his struggles.

"There you are, hanging high and dry," said Misery.

As a result of Death hanging on the tree, no one died. If persons fell into the water they were not drowned; if a cart ran over them they did not even notice it; they did not die.

After Death had hung winter and summer for ten long years on the tree through all weathers, the old woman had pity on him, and allowed him to come down on condition that she should live as long as she liked.

Father Death agreed to this, and that is why men live longer than the sparrows, and why Misery is always to be found in the world, and may remain for a long time too. [Retold]

Hop-o'-my-Thumb

Hop-o'-my-Thumb was a tiny little fellow about as tall as your thumb. He and his mother lived in a little hut made of dried leaves. The little fellow was very fond of pancakes, and one day he begged his mother to make a dozen.

She answered, " Hop-o'-my-Thumb, my son, I have no butter, wood or milk, and we are too poor to buy such things."

Hop-o'-my-Thumb was very sad and sat down on a stool by the fire while his mother went to fetch water from the stream. Suddenly he heard someone call him, and looking up he saw a little lady standing at his elbow. At first he was too much astonished to speak, but after a few seconds he blurted out, "Who are you, little lady?"

She answered,

"Hop-o'-my-Thumb, I am your fairy godmother, and because you are sad and your mother is so poor, I grant you the strength to do anything you may wish for this day." So saying, she vanished.

At first Hop-o'-my-Thumb thought he had been dreaming, and in order to determine whether his fairy godmother had really paid him a visit, he decided to put her words to the test. He seized his cap and ran to the miller's.

"Miller," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb, "my mother would so like to make pancakes, but we have no flour. Won't you give us a little?"

"Well, Hop-o'-my-Thumb," said the miller, "if you can carry this flour-bin away you can have it."

"Do you mean that I can have whatever I can carry?" asked Hop-o'-my-Thumb.

The miller nodded his assent, and Hop-o'-my-Thumb crawled under the mill and carried it home, and everything in it.

Afterwards he went to the butter merchant and said, "Boss, my mother would like to make pancakes, but she has not a scrap of butter."

"Oh, all right, Hop-o'-my-Thumb," said the boss, "if you can carry this keg it is yours."

"Thank you," answered Hop-o'-my-Thumb. In a second he was under the keg and walked away with it. It looked as if it had got two legs of a sudden.

Soon he went to a wealthy farmer who had been lopping his trees the day before.

"Farmer," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb, "can I have a little bundle of wood? Mother wants to make pancakes."

"Oh, it is you, little Hop-o'-my-Thumb," said the farmer. "You can have the whole stack if you can carry it, or as much as you can carry."

"I shall be grateful," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb. Sliding under the stack he carried it home.

Now they only lacked milk. Hop-o'-my-Thumb went to the milkman, and when he asked for some, the milkman said he would give him a whole can full of milk if he could carry it.

"Thank you very much," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb and carried the milk-can home.

When the pancakes had been fried, mother and son enjoyed themselves to the full.

[Abridged]

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