(A Celtic Tale)
Once upon a time, a king had a pear tree and every day the pear tree bore 24 pears. That is, until one spring morning, when the king discovered there were only 23. He called to his eldest son to guard the tree that night. But at 2 a.m., beautiful music began to play. The eldest son fell fast asleep.
Sure enough, in the morning there were 23 pears.
The king called for his second son, but the same thing happened.
The third son said, “Father, I promise I won’t let you down,” and he filled his ears with wax. When the music began, he heard nothing and stayed awake. At 3 a.m., a white swan landed and began to pick the pears.
The prince raised his bow, but just as his arrow was ready to fly, the swan turned into a beautiful maiden and cried, “Don’t shoot me! I’m under a spell. I shall take you to the witch who sent me to steal your pears.”
“Take me to her,” the prince said, for he had fallen in love with the maiden at first sight.
But when the maiden landed on the ground, she turned back into a swan and said, “Climb on my back and I’ll fly you there.”
And that’s what the prince did.
As they flew, the swan said, “What do you see, prince?”
“Blue sky and dark earth.”
They flew on. Again the swan asked, “Now what do you see?”
“Blue sky above and dark earth below.”
She flew on. The third time she asked, “What do you see now?”
This time the prince saw a glass hill with a house at the very top that shone like a blazing fire.
“That is the house of the witch,” the swan said. “When she asks why you have come, tell her to give you the one who draws the water and builds the fire.”
When they reached the house on the glass hill, the prince climbed off the swan and she flew away.
He knocked on the door, and the witch answered and asked what he wanted. The prince said, “The one who draws water and builds the fire.”
“Very well,” said the witch, “but first you must clean my stables. If by dusk tomorrow you have failed, you will die.”
The prince followed the witch to the stables, where he found 100 cattle in a barn that had never been cleaned.
He set to work, and at noon the Swan Maiden appeared.
“Rest in my lap,” she said.
He lay down, and she combed his hair with a golden comb until he was asleep. When he woke she was gone, and the stable was pristine.
Soon the witch appeared, and he pretended to be finishing his task.
The witch glared and hissed, “You did not do this work yourself!”
“That may be true and it may not be,” the prince said, “but now you must give me the one who builds the fire and draws the water.”
“Not yet,” the witch said. “First, you must bring me three eagle’s eggs without breaking a shell. They are in the nest at the top of that fir tree.” She pointed to a fir tree at the top of the hill.
The prince started off for the tree, but when he reached the bottom, he discovered it was 100 feet high and smooth as glass. He tried for hours to climb, but at noon the Swan Maiden appeared and let down her long hair. Then she began to sing, and the wind began to blow, and it swept her hair up to the top of the tree where it caught in the branches. “Climb my hair!” she said.
The prince climbed to the top of the tree, gathered the three eggs and climbed down, and the Swan Maiden whispered a secret and flew away.
At sunset, the witch appeared. The prince showed her the eggs and said, “Now give me the one who draws the water and builds the fire.”
The witch smiled sweetly for the first time and said, “Come to my house and let me reward you for your work with a fine supper, and I shall give you what you wish.”
The prince followed her home, and the witch hurried into the kitchen.
Before long the Swan Maiden knocked softly on the door and the prince answered.
“Come with me,” she said, and they sneaked into another room, where the Swan Maiden made a soft sticky figure of honey and meal. The maiden dressed the figure in her own clothes and set it in the corner.
Then she turned into a swan again, the prince climbed on her back, and away they flew.
When the old witch came to find the prince — she had been preparing to kill him — she found that he was gone and she raged.
When she saw the figure in the corner, she cried, “Where is the prince?” But the figure was silent, and so the witch raised her hand to slap the girl. Her hand got stuck fast. She shrieked, and struck the figure with her other hand, and that also got stuck.
There the witch remained for the rest of her days.
Meanwhile, as the swan and the prince flew, she said, “Open one of the eggs.” When he did, he found inside a tiny palace of gold. When he set it on the earth, it grew and grew.
“Break a second egg,” she said, and out of this one came a herd of sheep.
That morning, the king looked out of his bedroom window and saw a splendid castle of gold where once had stood only empty fields. When he rode over to get a closer look, his own son answered the door and told him the tale.
The prince and the Swan Maiden married in a grand wedding, and they always shared their bounty with the prince’s brothers. And everyone lived happily ever after.