The Twelve Wild Ducks
Illustrated By: Jesse Einhorn-Johnson
Once upon a time there was a Queen who had twelve sons but, alas! no daughter to call her own.
One day when the queen was out driving in the woods, she came upon the prettiest little lassie she ever did see. The Queen stopped her horses, lifted the child up in her arms, and kissed her on both cheeks. All the while she thought to herself, "I do so love my sons, but oh! how I wish I had a little girl of my own!"
Just then an old witch of the trolls came up to her. She seemed every bit a good witch, gentle and kind.
"A daughter you shall have," said this witch, "and she shall be the dearest and sweetest child in twelve kingdoms, if you will only give me whatever comes to meet you at the bridge when you return home."
Now the Queen had a little snow-white dog of which she was very fond. It always ran to greet her when she had been away. She thought it must be the dog the old dame wanted. Since the old woman seemed gentle and kind, she would surely care well for the dog. So the Queen said, "Yes, you may have what comes to meet me on the bridge if that is what will bring me a daughter." With that she hurried home as fast as she could.
But who should come to meet her on the bridge, not her snow-white dog at all, but her twelve sons! Before the mother could cry out to them to stop, the witch of the trolls, who turned out to be a wicked witch after all, threw a spell upon them all and turned them into twelve ducks! The ducks flapped their wings, flew away, and away they stayed.
The Queen mourned her lost sons for a long time. She found comfort in nothing at all until at long last, she had a daughter of her own. The little princess was the dearest and sweetest child one ever set eyes on.
She grew up tall and fair, but she was often quiet and her eyes were sad. No one could understand what it was that ailed her.
The Queen was also troubled, as you may believe, for she had many strange fears when she thought about the loss of her twelve sons. One day she said to her daughter, "Why are you so sad, my daughter? Is there anything you want? If so, only say the word, and you shall have it!"
"Oh, it seems so dull and lonely here," said the daughter. "Everyone else has brothers and sisters, but I am all alone. I have no one. "
"Sit down, my love," said the Queen.
"It's time you knew the truth..."
"...I had twelve sons before you. Stout, brave lads they all were, but I lost them before you came." And she told her daughter the whole story.
After the Princess learned how her brothers had been lost, she could not rest nor sleep nor eat, for she seized on the notion that it was all her fault. She decided she must go in search of her lost brothers, and at once. She expressed to the Queen that she felt she must find them and somehow free them of their terrible curse.
The Queen wept and begged her not to go, for the thought of losing her last child was almost too much for her to bear. Yet, in spite of all the Queen could say or do, the lass felt she could not could not remain comfortably at home while her brothers still suffered under enchantment, and all because of her! So she ventured from her comfortable life in the palace.
The princess walked on and on, so far you would never have thought her small feet could have had the strength to carry her so far. For three years she traveled.
Finally, one day, when she was walking through deep woods, she grew tired and fell asleep on a mossy tuft.
She dreamed that she was walking deeper and deeper into the woods and then came to a little wooden hut, and within the hut she found her brothers. Just then she awoke. Straight before her she noticed a worn path in the green moss that she hadn't seen before. This path went deeper into the woods, and so she followed it. Astonished, she discovered at the end of the path a little hut exactly like the one she had seen in her dream.
Now when she went inside this hut, there was no one at home, but there were twelve beds, and twelve chairs, and twelve spoons -- in short, a dozen of everything. When she saw that, her heart leaped, for she could guess at once that it was her brothers who lived there. She began to build up the fire.
Soon she heard something flapping and whirling in the air, and she slipped behind the door. Twelve ducks approached the doorway of the little house, but as soon as they crossed the threshold they become young men, each one dressed as a prince.
"Oh, how nice and warm it is here!" said the youngest prince. "Who would have been so kind as to build the fire?"
"Yes, who?" they all echoed, and they searched until they found the lassie behind the door.
She threw her arms around their necks and said, "I'm your little sister! I've traveled for three years seeking you."
And so they rejoiced, sister and brothers.
"Still, you are under this enchantment!" said the younger sister. "If only there was something I could do to set you free!"
All the brothers looked at one another. They sighed and sadly shook their heads.
"There is a way, but it's too hard," said the eldest prince.
"Oh, do tell me, please!" said the Princess. "There is nothing else I'd rather do. Whatever it takes!"
She begged and pleaded until finally the eldest brother said...
"Very well then, if you must know the way..."
"...then this is it - You must pick thistledown, and then card it, spin it, and weave it into cloth. From the cloth you must make twelve shirts, one for each of us. But the entire time while you work on that, you must neither talk, nor laugh, nor weep. If you can do this, we will be set free!"
"Where will I ever get enough thistledown for so many shirts?" asked the sister.
"Well, that's the hardest part of all," said the youngest brother with a sigh. "You must go to the witches' moor at midnight and gather it there." Big tears stood in his eyes. "And you must go alone. All alone."
The sister said nothing, and nodded her head. When midnight came and the moon was high in the sky, she kissed her brothers goodbye and went to the great, wide moor where the witches lived. A great crop of thistles stood there, all nodding in the breeze, while the thistledown atop the plant floated and glistened through the moonbeams.
The Princess began to pluck the thistledown and gather it in her bag. Soon she became aware of a host of wicked faces staring at her through the thistles. What was even more frightening, long skinny arms stretching out toward her. Her heart stood still and she grew icy cold, but never a sound did she utter. She just kept plucking and gathering, faster and faster, until her bag was full. When she got home at break of day, she set to work carding and spinning yarn from the soft down to make her cloth.
So she went on for a long, long time, picking thistledown on the witches' moor, trying not to notice the wicked faces and the long, skinny arms, then taking it back to the hut, carding and spinning and making more cloth. All the while she was careful never to talk, nor to laugh, nor to weep.
In the evening her brothers came home, flapping and whirring like wild ducks, yet becoming young men as they passed through the threshold. In the morning, the moment her brothers stepped outside the house, off they flew again and became wild ducks for the whole day.
One night when the Princess was picking thistledown at the moor, the young King who ruled that land was out hunting. He had become separated from his companions and had lost his way. Now, as he came riding across the moor, he saw her. He stopped his horse and stared at her, wondering who the young lady could be who walked alone on the moor, picking thistledown in the dead of night.
He asked her for her name. Getting no answer, he was still more astonished. But he was so charmed by her graceful movements and her dedication to the task at hand, that at last nothing would do but to ask to take her home to his castle. So he motioned to the horse. The princess wrung her hands and made signs to him and pointed to the bags in which her work was. And so the prince stayed with her while she worked, helping her as he could, until all her bags were stuffed full. The Princess saw that the King was as gentle and kind to her as a mother, and helpful, too. By the time the sun was rising, the King motioned to the horse, signaling to ask if she'd like to come back to the castle with him. She agreed gladly, and he helped her onto the horse. The King took the bags full of thistledown and gently tied them securely behind the horse, and so she rode the horse, with him beside her.
As soon as they reached the palace, an old woman staggered forward to meet them. She was the King's guardian, and the moment she set eyes upon the charming young maiden, she was filled with jealousy and anger. Noticing that the maiden said nothing, the old woman ushered the King aside. She whispered, "Can't you see that this thing whom you have brought home to marry is in fact a witch? Why, look at her! She can neither talk nor laugh nor weep!"
But the King did not care a straw whether the sweet young woman he intended to marry spoke or not. He knew, somehow, that she was just the woman he had been looking for. When she looked at him, he was sure that she felt the same way, too. It wasn't long before a grand wedding was held, the King married the Princess, and they lived in great joy and glory.
The Princess did not forget to go on working on her shirts, and all this time she neither talked nor laughed nor wept. Though she was making very good progress, she found that she still had not enough cloth to finish all twelve shirts, and she needed to go back to the witches' moor one last time.
That night, while all the palace slept, she quietly slipped out to pick her thistledown. Now the old woman who was the King's guardian saw her leave, and she knew well where the young Queen was going, for I must tell you that she was the same wicked witch who had changed the twelve Princes into wild ducks in the first place!
The witch hurried to the King's chamber. She shook him awake and said, "Come with me! I'll prove to you that your new bride is a witch! She can't help but return to the witches' moor at midnight, where no doubt she'll join her wicked company." The King would not listen to her at first, but when he saw that the Queen's bed was empty, he got up and went with the old woman.
Upon the edge of the moor they stopped.
In the clear moonlight they could see the Queen stooping amongst the horrid hags and trolls. The King turned away sadly and said not a word, for he loved his quiet Queen very much.
The wicked old woman began to whisper and tell everyone at court about the Queen's nightly visit to the witches' moor. Finally the King's advisors clamored, "We will not have a Queen who is a witch! Everyone knows the penalty for witchcraft! The people demand of you that she be burned alive!"
The King was beside himself. As King, he knew the laws of the land had to be upheld. But there was no end to his sadness, for now he despaired that he could not save his Queen. A pile of wood was gathered in the court square. When the pile was all ablaze, and the men were about to put the Queen on it, she made signs to them to take twelve boards and lay them around the pile. On these twelve boards she placed the shirts for her brothers, all completed except the one for the youngest, which still needed its left sleeve. She had not had time to finish it. As soon as she set the shirts on the boards, the people heard a flapping and whirring in the air, and down swooped twelve wild ducks from over the forest. Each one snapped up his shirt in his bill and flew off with it.
"See now!" shrieked the old woman. "Didn't I tell you? Such goings-on can only be the result of withcraft! Make haste and burn her immediately before the pile burns low!"
"Well, now," said the King, "we've plenty of wood, so I believe I'll wait a bit. It is true that these goings-on are strange, but I have a mind to see what the end of this will be."
As he spoke, up rode twelve young men, each one dressed as a prince and as handsome a lad as you'd wish to see -- but the youngest prince had a wild duck's wing instead of his left arm.
"What goes on here?" asked the eldest Prince.
"My Queen is to be burned," said the King, "because she is a witch, or so the people say, and I can't save her."
"Sister," said the youngest prince, turning to the Queen, "speak now. You have freed us and saved us. Now you may speak to save yourself."
Then the young Queen spoke and told the whole story. The King and all the people listened with wonder and joy. Only the wicked old woman stood trembling with fear. When the Queen had finished her story, the King ordered that the fire be quenched at once, and he took his wife in his arms. He proclaimed that the old witch was banished from the land forever.
The King brought his wife and her twelve older brothers home to the castle.
A messenger was quickly dispatched to deliver the good news to the Queen's faraway mother that her twelve sons were fully restored and that her daughter, too, was alive and well. Joy and gladness washed over the whole kingdom because the wicked witch was gone, and because the lovely Queen had set free her twelve brothers.
"The Twelve Wild Ducks" is based on a story of the same name from East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon by Peter Christen Asbjornsen, retold by Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen (Harper & Row Publishers, New York: 1946).
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.