The Wood Maiden: The Story of Betushka and the Golden Birch Leaves

Intermediate
12 min read
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    Betushka was a little girl. Her mother was a poor widow with nothing but a tumble-down cottage and two little nanny-goats. But poor as they were Betushka was always cheerful. From spring till autumn she pastured the goats in the birch wood. Every morning when she left home her mother gave her a little basket with a slice of bread and a spindle.

    “See that you bring home a full spindle,” her mother always said.

    Betushka had no distaff, so she wound the flax around her head. Then she took the little basket and went romping and singing behind the goats to the birch wood. When they got there she sat down under a tree and pulled the fibers of the flax from her head with her left hand, and with her right hand let down the spindle so that it went humming along the ground. All the while she sang until the woods echoed and the little goats nibbled away at the leaves and grass.

    When the sun showed midday, she put the spindle aside, called the goats and gave them a mouthful of bread so that they wouldn’t stray, and ran off into the woods to hunt berries or any other wild fruit that was in season. Then when she had finished her bread and fruit, she jumped up, folded her arms, and danced and sang.

    The sun smiled at her through the green of the trees and the little goats, resting on the grass, thought: “What a merry little shepherdess we have!”

    After her dance she went back to her spinning and worked industriously. In the evening when she got home her mother never had to scold her because the spindle was empty.

    One day at noon just after she had eaten and, as usual, was going to dance, there suddenly stood before her a most beautiful maiden. She was dressed in white gauze that was fine as a spider’s web. Long golden hair fell down to her waist and on her head she wore a wreath of woodland flowers.

    Betushka was speechless with surprise and alarm.

    The maiden smiled at her and said in a sweet voice:

    “Betushka, do you like to dance?”

    Her manner was so gracious that Betushka no longer felt afraid, and answered:

    “Oh, I could dance all day long!”

    “Come, then, let us dance together,” said the maiden. “I’ll teach you.”

    With that she tucked up her skirt, put her arm about Betushka’s waist, and they began to dance. At once such enchanting music sounded over their heads that Betushka’s heart went one-two with the dancing. The musicians sat on the branches of the birch trees. They were clad in little frock coats, black and gray and many-colored. It was a carefully chosen orchestra that had gathered at the bidding of the beautiful maiden: larks, nightingales, finches, linnets, thrushes, blackbirds, and showy mocking-birds.

    Betushka’s cheeks burned, her eyes shone. She forgot her spinning, she forgot her goats. All she could do was gaze at her partner who was moving with such grace and lightness that the grass didn’t seem to bend under her slender feet.

    They danced from noon till sundown and yet Betushka wasn’t the least bit tired. Then they stopped dancing, the music ceased, and the maiden disappeared as suddenly as she had come.

    Betushka looked around. The sun was sinking behind the wood. She put her hands to the unspun flax on her head and remembered the spindle that was lying unfilled on the grass. She took down the flax and laid it with the spindle in the little basket. Then she called the goats and started home.

    She reproached herself bitterly that she had allowed the beautiful maiden to beguile her and she told herself that another time she would not listen to her. She was so quiet that the little goats, missing her merry song, looked around to see whether it was really their own little shepherdess who was following them. Her mother, too, wondered why she didn’t sing and questioned her.

    “Are you sick, Betushka?”

    “No, dear mother, I’m not sick, but I’ve been singing too much and my throat is dry.”

    She knew that her mother did not reel the yarn at once, so she hid the spindle and the unspun flax, hoping to make up tomorrow what she had not done today. She did not tell her mother one word about the beautiful maiden.

    The next day she felt cheerful again and as she drove the goats to pasture she sang merrily. At the birch wood she sat down to her spinning, singing all the while, for with a song on the lips work falls from the hands more easily.

    Noonday came. Betushka gave a bit of bread to each of the goats and ran off to the woods for her berries. Then she ate her luncheon.

    “Ah, my little goats,” she sighed, as she brushed up the crumbs for the birds, “I mustn’t dance today.”

    “Why mustn’t you dance today?” a sweet voice asked, and there stood the beautiful maiden as though she had fallen from the clouds.

    Betushka was worse frightened than before and she closed her eyes tight. When the maiden repeated her question, Betushka answered timidly:

    “Forgive me, beautiful lady, for not dancing with you. If I dance with you I cannot spin my stint and then my mother will scold me. Today before the sun sets I must make up for what I lost yesterday.”

    “Come, child, and dance,” the maiden said. “Before the sun sets we’ll find some way of getting that spinning done!”

    She tucked up her skirt, put her arm about Betushka, the musicians in the treetops struck up, and off they whirled. The maiden danced more beautifully than ever. Betushka couldn’t take her eyes from her. She forgot her goats, she forgot her spinning. All she wanted to do was to dance on forever.

    At sundown the maiden paused and the music stopped. Then Betushka, clasping her hands to her head, where the unspun flax was twined, burst into tears. The beautiful maiden took the flax from her head, wound it round the stem of a slender birch, grasped the spindle, and began to spin. The spindle hummed along the ground and filled in no time. Before the sun sank behind the woods all the flax was spun, even that which was left over from the day before. The maiden handed Betushka the full spindle and said:

    “Remember my words:

    “Reel and grumble not!
    Reel and grumble not!”

    When she said this, she vanished as if the earth had swallowed her.

    Betushka was very happy now and she thought to herself on her way home: “Since she is so good and kind, I’ll dance with her again if she asks me. Oh, how I hope she does!”

    She sang her merry little song as usual and the goats trotted cheerfully along.

    She found her mother vexed with her, for she had wanted to reel yesterday’s yarn and had discovered that the spindle was not full.

    “What were you doing yesterday,” she scolded, “that you didn’t spin your stint?”

    Betushka hung her head. “Forgive me, mother. I danced too long.” Then she showed her mother today’s spindle and said: “See, today I more than made up for yesterday.”

    Her mother said no more but went to milk the goats and Betushka put away the spindle. She wanted to tell her mother her adventure, but she thought to herself: “No, I’ll wait. If the beautiful lady comes again, I’ll ask her who she is and then I’ll tell mother.” So she said nothing.

    On the third morning she drove the goats as usual to the birch wood. The goats went to pasture and Betushka, sitting down under a tree, began to spin and sing. When the sun pointed to noon, she laid her spindle on the grass, gave the goats a mouthful of bread, gathered some strawberries, ate her luncheon, and then, giving the crumbs to the birds, she said cheerily:

    “Today, my little goats, I will dance for you!”

    She jumped up, folded her arms, and was about to see whether she could move as gracefully as the beautiful maiden, when the maiden herself stood before her.

    “Let us dance together,” she said. She smiled at Betushka, put her arm about her, and as the music above their heads began to play, they whirled round and round with flying feet. Again Betushka forgot the spindle and the goats. Again she saw nothing but the beautiful maiden whose body was lithe as a willow shoot. Again she heard nothing but the enchanting music to which her feet danced of themselves.

    They danced from noon till sundown. Then the maiden paused and the music ceased. Betushka looked around. The sun was already set behind the woods. She clasped her hands to her head and looking down at the unfilled spindle she burst into tears.

    “Oh, what will my mother say?” she cried.

    “Give me your little basket,” the maiden said, “and I will put something in it that will more than make up for today’s stint.”

    Betushka handed her the basket and the maiden took it and vanished. In a moment she was back. She returned the basket and said:

    “Look not inside until you’re home!
    Look not inside until you’re home!”

    As she said these words she was gone as if a wind had blown her away.

    Betushka wanted awfully to peep inside but she was afraid to. The basket was so light that she wondered whether there was anything at all in it. Was the lovely lady only fooling her? Halfway home she peeped in to see.

    Imagine her feelings when she found the basket was full of birch leaves! Then indeed did Betushka burst into tears and reproach herself for being so simple. In her vexation she threw out a handful of leaves and was going to empty the basket when she thought to herself:

    “No, I’ll keep what’s left as litter for the goats.”

    She was almost afraid to go home. She was so quiet that again the little goats wondered what ailed their shepherdess.

    Her mother was waiting for her in great excitement.

    “For heaven’s sake, Betushka, what kind of a spool did you bring home yesterday?”

    “Why?” Betushka faltered.

    “When you went away this morning I started to reel that yarn. I reeled and reeled and the spool remained full. One skein, two skeins, three skeins, and still the spool was full. ‘What evil spirit has spun that?’ I cried out impatiently, and instantly the yarn disappeared from the spindle as if blown away. Tell me, what does it mean?”

    So Betushka confessed and told her mother all she knew about the beautiful maiden.

    “Oh,” cried her mother in amazement, “that was a wood maiden! At noon and midnight the wood maidens dance. It is well you are not a little boy or she might have danced you to death! But they are often kind to little girls and sometimes make them rich presents. Why didn’t you tell me? If I hadn’t grumbled, I could have had yarn enough to fill the house!”

    Betushka thought of the little basket and wondered if there might be something under the leaves. She took out the spindle and unspun flax and looked in once more.

    “Mother!” she cried. “Come here and see!”

    Her mother looked and clapped her hands. The birch leaves were all turned to gold!

    Betushka reproached herself bitterly: “She told me not to look inside until I got home, but I didn’t obey.”

    “It’s lucky you didn’t empty the whole basket,” her mother said.

    The next morning she herself went to look for the handful of leaves that Betushka had thrown away. She found them still lying in the road but they were only birch leaves.

    But the riches which Betushka brought home were enough. Her mother bought a farm with fields and cattle. Betushka had pretty clothes and no longer had to pasture goats.

    But no matter what she did, no matter how cheerful and happy she was, still nothing ever again gave her quite so much pleasure as the dance with the wood maiden. She often went to the birch wood in the hope of seeing the maiden again. But she never did.

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