The Mistletoe by Carl Ewald

1

Just outside the fence of the keeper's garden stood a crab-apple-tree, with crooked branches and apples sour as vinegar.

She had once stood in the middle of a thorn-thicket. But the thorns had died and rotted away; and now the apple-tree stood quite alone in a little green glade.

She was old and ugly and small. She could only just peep over the hazel-hedge into the garden, at the orange-pippin-tree and the russet-apple-tree, who stood and gleamed in the autumn sun with their great red-and-yellow fruit and looked far more important than the crab-apple-tree.

Every morning, the keeper's dog came jogging round the fence to take a mouthful of fresh air and a little exercise. He had lost all his teeth and could see only with one eye. He always stopped for a bit when he came to the crab-apple-tree and rubbed himself against her:

"It's the fleas," said the dog.

"Pray don't mind me in the least," replied the apple-tree. "We have known each other since the days when you were a puppy and the keeper used to thrash you with his whip when you wouldn't obey. I am always delighted to do an old friend a service. By the way, you have plenty of apple-trees nearer at hand ... in there, I mean, in the garden. Why don't you rub yourself against them?"

"Heaven forbid!" the dog. "All honour to the real apple-trees; they are right enough in their way; but you are so beautifully gnarled."

"I am the real apple-tree," said the tree, in an offended tone. "Those in there are only monsters, whom men have deformed for their own use. They grow where the keeper put them and let him pluck them when he pleases; I am wild and free and my own mistress."

The dog rubbed himself and shook his wise old head:

"You ought really to have entered men's service too, old friend," he said. "It's good and snug there. And what else is to become of old fogeys like you and me? Of course, we have to do what is required of us; but then we get what we want in return."

"Perhaps it's there you got your fleas?" asked the apple-tree, sarcastically. "For you certainly have all you want of them!"

But the dog had already jogged back into the garden and did not hear.

2

Soon after, a blackbird came flying and perched on one of the tree's thickest branches. He flapped his wings and then rubbed his beak against the branch.

"You're welcome," said the apple-tree.

She knew that the blackbird always did like that, after he had been eating, and she was a courteous tree, when no one offended her.

"Thank you," said the blackbird and went on rubbing his beak.

"You're working awfully hard to-day," said the tree.

"There's a stone on the side of my beak," said the blackbird. "It's there as if it were glued fast; and I can't get it off, however much I rub."

"What have you had to eat?"

"I had some beautiful white berries," said the blackbird. "I never tasted anything so good; and I am a judge of berries, as you know. It was somewhere ever so far away; and now I've been flying for a day and a half with this silly stone. Every moment, I've been trying to get it off.... Ah, there it goes, thank goodness! Now it's on you, you old Crab-Apple-Tree. You'll see, you will never get rid of it."

"Just let it be," said the apple-tree, gaily, "and don't bother about me. It'll take to its legs, right enough, when it begins to rain and blow."

The blackbird flew away and the crab-apple-tree stood sunk in her own old thoughts, with the stone on her branch. In the evening, it came on to rain violently and the stone slipped slowly down the wet branch, until it reached the underside.

"Now it will drop," thought the apple-tree.

But the stone did not drop. At night, a terrible storm broke loose and all the trees creaked and swayed to and fro. Inside the keeper's garden, the orange-pippins and the russets fell to the ground by the bushel. But the stone stuck where it was.

"Well, that's odd!" thought the crab-apple-tree.

And, when the dog came jogging along in the morning, the tree told him of the queer thing:

"What sort of a chap can it be?" she asked.

"I expect it's a flea," said the dog and rubbed himself. "One can never get rid of them. Does it hop all over you? And bite you?"

"Certainly not," replied the apple-tree. "Last night, it slipped down quite gently to the underside of the branch; and, for that matter, it does me no harm."

"Then it's not a flea," said the dog.

3

Autumn came and all the good apples in the garden were gathered and stored in the loft. There was no one who cared about the crab-apple-tree. Her apples remained on the branches till they fell to the ground, where they lay and rotted. But the tree was well-pleased with the state of things. She knew that little crab-apple-trees would sprout from them and that was why she had put them forth.

Then winter came, with frost and snow. The old dog lay all day under the stove in the parlour. The crab-apple-tree stood outside in the snow, with the queer stone under her branch.

When spring returned, the dog, one day, came jogging round the fence.

THE OLD DOG STOOD ON HIS HIND-LEGS AND BLINKED WITH HIS
BLIND EYES THE OLD DOG STOOD ON HIS HIND-LEGS AND BLINKED WITH HIS BLIND EYES

It took longer than last year and he was now almost quite blind in the other eye as well. But he found his way to the apple-tree and rubbed himself, so that she saw that he still had those fleas.

"All going as usual, Dog?"

"Yes, Apple-Tree.... Same with you?"

"Well, I'll tell you," said the tree. "I daresay you remember that stone the blackbird brought me? Well, look here, some time ago, I felt a most curious pricking and itching and aching just where it was."

"Then it must be a flea," said the dog.

"Now listen," said the tree. "It was a most unpleasant sensation. And then my branch swelled up at the place where the stone was...."

"It's a flea, it's a flea!" cried the dog. "There's no doubt about it. Just rub yourself up against me, old Apple-Tree! It's only fair that I should make you a return for your kindness."

"What does a flea look like?" asked the apple-tree.

"We-ell," said the dog and rubbed himself. "They're that sort of chaps, you know, that one really never has time to see them."

"Has a flea green leaves?"

"Not that I know of," said the dog.

"Come and look up here," said the tree. "There ... on my lowest branch ... just above your head ... is that a flea?"

The old dog stood on his hind-legs and blinked with his blind eyes:

"I can't see so far," he said. "But I have never been able to see the fleas on my own tail, so that doesn't mean anything."

Then he slunk away.

But, a little later, a thin voice came from the apple-tree's branch and said:

"I am not a flea. I am the mistletoe."

"Well, I'm no wiser," said the apple-tree.

"I'm a plant like yourself," said the voice. "I shall turn into a bush ... with roots and branches and flowers and leaves and all the rest of it."

"Then why don't you grow in the ground like us?" asked the crab-apple-tree.

"That happens not to be my nature," said the mistletoe.

"Then you have a nasty nature," said the apple-tree and shook herself furiously, so that her white blossoms trembled. "For I understand this much, that I shall have to feed you, you sluggard!"

"Yes, please, if you will be so good," said the mistletoe. "I have my roots fixed in you already; and I am growing day by day. Later on, I shall put forth little green blossoms. They're not much to look at; but then the berries will come, beautiful, juicy white berries: the blackbird is quite mad on them."

"The blackbird is a very fine bird," said the apple-tree; "but, if he wants to dine off me, he can eat my own apples."

"You mustn't think that I have berries for the blackbird's sake," said the mistletoe. "Inside the berry there is a stone; and in the stone my seed lies. And the stone is so sticky that it hangs tight on to the blackbird's beak, until he manages to rub it off on some good old apple-tree or other, who will be a foster-mother to my children, as you have been to me."

"You're a nice family, upon my word!" said the apple-tree. "Aren't you ashamed to live upon other people's labour? And can't you cast your seed on the ground, as every one else does, and leave it to look after itself?"

"No," said the mistletoe, "I can't. But it's no use my explaining that to you. There is something mysterious and refined about me that raises me above the common trees. Men and women understand it. They have surrounded me with beautiful and curious legends and ballads. Just think, over in England they simply can't keep Christmas without hanging a bunch of me from the ceiling. Then, when they dance and come under the bunch, they are allowed to kiss each other."

"Pooh!" said the crab-apple-tree. "That's nothing to talk about. Why, there isn't an engaged couple in the whole parish but has sat in my shade and kissed."

"You miss the point of it, old friend," said the mistletoe. "Engaged couples can kiss wherever they please. But those who dance under the mistletoe may kiss each other even if they are not engaged."

"You horrid, immoral foreigner!" said the apple-tree. "But one can't expect anything else from the sort of life you lead. Well, it's to be hoped that you'll freeze to bits in the winter."

"Indeed, I shall do no such thing," replied the mistletoe. "When your leaves are withered and fallen and you stand strutting with your bare branches in the snow, mine will be just as fresh and green as now. I am evergreen you must know: green in winter and green in spring."

The crab-apple-tree was so exasperated that she was quite unable to reply. But, when the dog came next day, she told him all about it.

"Then he is a flea, after all," said the old dog. "In a fashion. You must manage to rub him off you: that's the only thing that helps a bit."

"I am not a dog to run and rub myself," said the apple-tree. "But, all the same, it's hard for a respectable tree to have to put up with this sort of thing in her old age."

"Take it calmly now!" said the mistletoe. "Who knows but that you'll end by being glad to have me?"

4

The next summer, an old professor, with a pair of spectacles on his nose and a great botanizing-case on his back, came roaming through the wood.

He sat down under the crab-apple-tree to eat his lunch, but fell a-thinking in the middle of it, leant his head back against the trunk and looked up into the leaves.

Suddenly he jumped up, dropped his sandwich and stared hard at the mistletoe. He took off his spectacles, wiped them on the skirt of his coat, put them back on his nose and went on staring.

Then he ran in and fetched the old keeper:

"Keeper, do you see that tree?" he said. "That's the most remarkable tree in the whole wood."

"That one there?" said the keeper. "Why, it's only an old crab-apple-tree, professor. You should see a couple of apple-trees I have in my garden."

"I don't care a fig for them," said the professor. "I would give all the apple-trees in the world for this one tree. There's a mistletoe growing on her, you must know, and the mistletoe is the rarest plant in Denmark. You must put a fence round the tree at once, so that no one can hurt her. For, if she dies, then the mistletoe dies too."

And a fence was put round the old apple-tree. The professor wrote about her in the newspapers; and every one who came to the neighbourhood had to go and look at the mistletoe.

"Well?" said the mistletoe.

"My dear little foster-child," said the crab-apple-tree, "if there's anything you require, do, for goodness' sake, say so!"

When the keeper's old dog came out and wanted to rub himself, he remained standing in amazement and looked at the fence with his one, half-blind eye.

"You can go back to the garden and rub yourself against the real apple-trees!" said the crab-apple-tree, haughtily. "I stand here with a mistletoe and must be treated with the utmost care. If I die, the mistletoe dies: do you understand? I have been written about in the papers. I am the most important tree in the wood!"

"Yes ... you're all that!" said the dog and jogged home again