The Quern at the Bottom of the Sea

by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen

Once upon a time in the old, old days there were two brothers, one of whom was rich and the other poor. When Christmas Eve came the poor brother had not a morsel in the house, neither of meat nor bread; and so he went to his rich brother, and asked for a trifle for Christmas, in heaven's name. It was not the first time the brother had helped him, but he was always very close-fisted, and was not particularly glad to see him this time.

"If you'll do what I tell you, you shall have a whole ham," he said. The poor brother promised he would, and was very grateful into the bargain.

"There it is, and now go to the devil!" said the rich brother, and threw the ham across to him.

"Well, what I have promised I must keep," said the other one. He took the ham, and set out. He walked and walked the whole day, and as it was getting dark he came to a place where the lights were shining brightly. "This is most likely the place," thought the man with the ham.

In the woodshed stood an old man with a long white beard, cutting firewood for Christmas.

"Good evening," said he with the ham.

"Good evening to you," said the man. "Where are you going so late?"

"I am going to the devil—that is to say, if I am on the right way," answered the poor man.

"Yes, you are quite right; this is his place," said the old man. "When you get in they will all want to buy your ham, for ham is scarce food here; but you must not sell it unless you get the hand-quern, which stands just behind the door. When you come out again I'll teach you how to use it. You will find it useful in many ways."

The man with the ham thanked him for all the information and knocked at the door.

When he got in it happened just as the old man had said. All the imps, both big and small, flocked around him like ants in a field, and the one outbid the other for the ham.

"Well," said the man, "my good woman and I were to have it for Christmas Eve, but since you want it so badly I will let you have it. But if I am going to part with it, I want that hand-quern which stands behind the door."

The devil did not like to part with it, and higgled and haggled with the man, but he stuck to what he had said, and in the end the devil had to part with the quern.

When the man came out he asked the old woodcutter how he was to use the quern, and when he had learned this, he thanked the old man and set out homeward, as quickly as he could; but after all he did not get home till the clock struck twelve on Christmas Eve.

"Where in all the world have you been?" said his wife. "Here have I been sitting, hour after hour, waiting and watching for you, and have not had as much as two chips to lay under the porridge pot."

"Well, I couldn't get back before," said the man. "I have had a good many things to look after, and I've had a long way to walk as well; but now I'll show you something," said he, and he put the quern on the table. He asked it first to grind candles, then a cloth, and then food and beer, and everything else that was good for Christmas cheer; and as he spoke the quern brought them forth. The woman crossed herself time after time and wanted to know where her husband had got the quern from; but this he would not tell her.

"It does not matter where I got it from; you see the quern is good and the mill stream is not likely to freeze," said the man. So he ground food and drink and all good things during Christmas; and the third day he invited his friends, as he wanted to give them a feast. When the rich brother saw all that was in the house, he became both angry and furious, for he begrudged his brother everything.

"On Christmas Eve he was so needy that he came to me and asked for a trifle in heaven's name; and now he gives a feast, as if he were both a count and a king," said the brother. "Where did you get all your riches from?" he said to his brother.

"From just behind the door," he answered, for he did not care to tell his brother much about it. But later in the evening, when he had drunk a little freely, he could no longer resist, but brought out the quern.

"There you see that which has brought me all my riches," he said, and so he let the quern grind first one thing and then another.

When the brother saw this he was determined to have the quern at all cost, and at last it was settled he should have it, but three hundred dollars was to be the price of it. The brother was, however, to keep it till the harvest began; "for if I keep it so long I can grind out food for many years to come," he thought.

During that time you may be sure the quern did not rust, and when the harvest began the rich brother got it; but the other had taken great care not to show him how to use it.

It was evening when the rich brother got the quern home, and in the morning he asked his wife to go out and help the haymakers; he would get the breakfast ready for himself, he said.

When it was near breakfast time he put the quern on the breakfast table.

"Grind herrings and broth, and do it quickly and well," said the man, and the quern began to bring forth herrings and broth, and first filled all the dishes and tubs, and afterward began flooding the whole kitchen.

The man fiddled and fumbled and tried to stop the quern, but however much he twisted and fingered it, the quern went on grinding, and in a little while the broth reached so high that the man was very near drowning. He then pulled open the parlor door, but it was not very long before the quern had filled the parlor also, and it was just in the very nick of time that the man put his hand down into the broth and got hold of the latch, and when he had got the door open, he was soon out of the parlor, you may be sure. He rushed out, and the herrings and the broth came pouring out after him, like a stream, down the fields and meadows.

The wife, who was out haymaking, now thought it took too long a time to get the breakfast ready.

"If my husband doesn't call us soon we must go home whether or no: I don't suppose he knows much about making broth, so I must go and help him," said the wife to the haymakers.

They began walking homeward, but when they had got a bit up the hill they met the stream of broth with the herrings tossing about in it and the man himself running in front of it all.

"I wish all of you had a hundred stomachs each!" shouted the man; "but take care you don't get drowned." And he rushed past them as if the Evil One were at his heels, down to where his brother lived. He asked him for heaven's sake to take back the quern, and that at once; "if it goes on grinding another hour the whole parish will perish in broth and herrings," he said. But the brother would not take it back on any account before his brother had paid him three hundred dollars more, and this he had to do. The poor brother now had plenty of money, and before long he bought a farm much grander than the one on which his rich brother lived, and with the quern he ground so much gold that he covered the farmstead with gold plates, and, as it lay close to the shore, it glittered and shone far out at sea. All those who sailed past wanted to call and visit the rich man in the golden house, and everybody wanted to see the wonderful quern, for its fame had spread far and wide, and there was no one who had not heard it spoken of.

After a long while there came a skipper who wanted to see the quern; he asked if it could grind salt. Yes, that it could, said he who owned it; and when the skipper heard this he wanted the quern by hook or crook, cost what it might, for if he had it he thought he need not sail far away across dangerous seas for cargoes of salt.

At first the man did not want to part with it, but the skipper both begged and prayed, and at last he sold it and got many, many thousand dollars for it.

As soon as the skipper had got the quern on his back, he did not stop long, for he was afraid the man would change his mind, and as for asking how to use it he had no time to do that; he made for his ship as quickly as he could, and when he had got out to sea a bit he had the quern brought up on deck.

"Grind salt, and that both quickly and well," said the skipper, and the quern began to grind out salt so that it spurted to all sides.

When the skipper had got the ship filled he wanted to stop the quern, but however much he tried and whatever he did the quern went on grinding, and the mound of salt grew higher and higher, and at last the ship sank.

There at the bottom of the sea stands the quern grinding till this very day, and that is the reason why the sea is salt.