White Birch

by Laurence Housman

Once upon a time there lived in a wood a brother and sister who had been forgotten by all the world. But this thing did not greatly grieve their hearts, because they themselves were all the world to each other: meeting or parting, they never forgot that. Nobody remained to tell them who they were; but she was "Little Sister," and he was "Fair Brother," and those were the only names they ever went by.

In their little wattled hut they would have been perfectly happy but for one thing which now and then they remembered and grieved over. Fair Brother was lame—not a foot could he put to the ground, nor take one step into the outside world. But he lay quiet on his bed of leaves, while Little Sister went out and in, bringing him food and drink, and the scent of flowers, and tales of the joy of earth and of the songs of birds.

One day she brought him a litter of withered birch-leaves to soften his bed and make it warmer for the approaching season of cold; and all the winter he lay on it, and sighed. Little Sister had never seen him so sad before.

In the spring, when the songs of the pairing birds began, his sorrow only grew greater. "Let me go out, let me go out," he cried; "only a little way into the bright world before I die!" She kissed his feet, and took him up in her arms and carried him. But she could only go a very little way with her burden; presently she had to return and lay him down again on his bed of leaves.

"Have I seen all the bright world?" he asked. "Is it such a little place?"

To hide her sorrow from him, Little Sister ran out into the woods, and as she went, wondering how to comfort his grief, she could not help weeping.

All at once at the foot of a tree she saw the figure of a woman seated. It was strange, for she had never before seen anybody else in the wood but themselves. The woman said to her, "Why is it that you weep so?"

"The heart of Fair Brother is breaking," replied Little Sister. "It is because of that that I am weeping."

"Why is his heart breaking?" inquired the other. "I do not know," answered Little Sister. "Ever since last autumn fell it has been so. Always, before, he has been happy; he has no reason not to be, only he is lame."

She had come close to the seated figure; and looking, she saw a woman with a very white skin, in a robe and hood of deep grey. Grey eyes looked back at her with just a soft touch in them of the green that comes with the young leaves of spring.

"You are beautiful," said Little Sister, drawing in her breath. "Yes, I am beautiful," answered the other. "Why is Fair Brother lame? Has he no feet?"

"Oh, beautiful feet!" said Little Sister. "But they are like still water; they cannot run."

"If you want him to run," said the other, "I can tell you what to do. What will you give me in exchange?"

"Whatever you like to ask," answered Little Sister; "but I am poor."

"You have beautiful hair," said the woman; "will you let that go?"

Little Sister stooped down her head, and let the other cut off' her hair. The wind went out of it with a sigh as it fell into the grey woman's lap. She hid it away under her robe, and said, "Listen, Little Sister, and I will tell you! To-night is the new moon. If you can hold your tongue till the moon is full, the feet of Fair Brother shall run like a stream from the hills, dancing from rock to rock."

"Only tell me what I must do!" said Little Sister.

"You see this birch-tree, with its silver skin?" said the woman. "Cut off two strips of it and weave them into shoes for Fair Brother. And when they are finished by the full moon, if you have not spoken, you have but to put them upon Fair Brother's feet, and they will outrun yours."

So Little Sister, as the other had told her, cut off two strips from the bark of the birch-tree, and ran home as fast as she could to tell her brother of the happiness which, with only a little waiting, was in store for them. But as she came near home, over the low roof she saw the new moon hanging like a white feather in the air; and, closing her lips, she went in and kissed Fair Brother silently.

He said, "Little Sister, loose out your hair over me, and let me feel the sweet airs; and tell me how the earth sounds, for my heart is sick with sorrow and longing." She took his hand and laid it upon her heart that he might feel its happy beating, but said no word. Then she sat down at his feet and began to work at the shoes. All the birch-bark she cut into long strips fit for weaving, doing everything as the grey woman had told her.

Fair Brother fretted at her silence, and cried, calling her cruel; but she only kissed his feet, and went on working the faster. And the white birch shoes grew under her hands; and every night she watched and saw the moon growing round.

Fair Brother said, "Little Sister, what have you done with your hair in which you used to fetch home the wind? And why do you never go and bring me flowers or sing me the song of the birds?" And Little Sister looked up and nodded, but never answered or moved from her task, for her fingers were slow, and the moon was quick in its growing.

One night Fair Brother was lying asleep, and his head was filled with dreams of the outer world into which he longed to go. The full moon looked in through the open door, and Little Sister laughed in her heart as she slipped the birch shoes on to his feet. "Now run, dear feet," she whispered; "but do not outrun mine."

Up in his sleep leapt Fair Brother, for the dream of the white birch had hold of him. A lady with a dark hood and grey eyes full of the laughter of leaves beckoned him. Out he ran into the moonlight, and Little Sister laughed as she ran with him.

In a little while she called, "Do not outrun me, Fair Brother!" But he seemed not to hear her, for not a bit did he slacken the speed of his running.

Presently she cried again, "Rest with me a while, Fair Brother! Do not outrun me!" But Fair Brother's feet were fleet after their long idleness, and they only ran the faster. "Ah, ah!" she cried, all out of breath. "Come back to me when you have done running, Fair Brother." And as he disappeared among the trees, she cried after him, "How will you know the way, since you were never here before? Do not get lost in the wood, Fair Brother!"

She lay on the ground and listened, and could hear the white birch shoes carrying him away till all sound of them died.

When, next morning, he had not returned, she searched all day through the wood, calling his name.

"Where are you, Fair Brother? Where have you lost yourself?" she cried, but no voice answered her.

For a while she comforted her heart, saying, "He has not run all these years—no wonder he is still running. When he is tired he will return."

But days and weeks went by, and Fair Brother never came back to her. Every day she wandered searching for him, or sat at the door of the little wattled hut and cried.

One day she cried so much that the ground became quite wet with her tears. That night was the night of the full moon, but weary with grief she lay down and slept soundly, though outside the woods were bright.

In the middle of the night she started up, for she thought she heard somebody go by; and, surely, feet were running away in the distance. And when she looked out, there across the doorway was the print of the birch shoes on the ground she had made wet with her tears.

"Alas, alas!" cried Little Sister. "What have I done that he comes to the very door of our home and passes by, though the moon shines in and shows it him?"

After that she searched everywhere through the forest to discover the print of the birch shoes upon the ground. Here and there after rain she thought she could see traces, but never was she able to track them far.

Once more came the night of the full moon, and once more in the middle of the night Little Sister started up and heard feet running away in the distance. She called, but no answer came back to her.

So on the third full moon she waited, sitting in the door of the hut, and would not sleep.

"If he has been twice," she said to herself, "he will come again, and I shall see him. Ah, Fair Brother, Fair Brother, I have given you feet; why have you so used me?"

Presently she heard a sound of footsteps, and there came Fair Brother running towards her. She saw his face pale and ghostlike, yet he never looked at her, but ran past and on without stopping.

"Fair Brother, Fair Brother, wait for me; do not outrun me!" cried Little Sister; and was up in haste to be after him.

He ran fast, and would not stop; but she ran fast too, for her love would not let him go. Once she nearly had him by the hair, and once she caught him by the cloak; but in her hand it shredded and crumbled like a dry leaf; and still, though there was no breath left in her, she ran on.

And now she began to wonder, for Fair Brother was running the way that she knew well—towards the tree from which she had cut the two strips of bark. Her feet were failing her; she knew that she could run no more. Just as they came together in sight of the birch-tree Little Sister stumbled and fell.

She saw Fair Brother run on and strike with his hands and feet against the tree, and cry, "Oh, White Birch, White Birch, lift the latch up, or she will catch me!" And at once the tree opened its rind, and Fair Brother ran in.

"So," said Little Sister, "you are there, are you, Brother? I know, then, what I have done to you."

She went and laid her ear to the tree, and inside she could hear Fair Brother sobbing and crying. It sounded to her as if White Birch were beating him.

"Well, well, Fair Brother, she shall not beat you for long!" said Little Sister.

She went home and waited till the next full moon had come. Then, as soon as it was dark, she went along through the wood until she came to the place, and there she crept close to the white birch-tree and waited.

Presently she heard Fair Brother's voice come faintly out of the heart of the tree: "White Birch, it is the full moon and the hour in which Little Sister gave life to my feet. For one hour give me leave to go, that I may run home and look at her while she sleeps. I will not stop or speak, and I promise you that I will return."

Then she heard the voice of White Birch answer grudgingly: "It is her hour and I cannot hold you, therefore you may go. Only when you come again I will beat you."

Then the tree opened a little way, and Fair Brother ran out. He ran so quickly in his eager haste that Little Sister had not time to catch him, and she did not dare to call aloud. "I must make sure," she said to herself, "before he comes back. To-night White Birch will have to let him go."

So she gathered as many dry pieces of wood as she could find, and made them into a pile near at hand; and setting them alight, she soon had a brisk fire burning.

Before long she heard the sound of feet in the brushwood, and there came Fair Brother, running as hard as he could go, with the breath sobbing in and out of his body.

Little Sister sprang out to meet him, but as soon as he saw her he beat with his hands and feet against the tree, crying, "White Birch, White Birch, lift the latch up, or she will catch me!"

But before the tree could open Little Sister had caught hold of the birch shoes, and pulled them off his feet, and running towards the fire she thrust them into the red heart of the embers.

The white birch shivered from head to foot, and broke into lamentable shrieks. The witch thrust her head out of the tree, crying, "Don't, don't! You are burning my skin! Oh, cruel! how you are burning me!"

"I have not burned you enough yet," cried Little Sister; and raking the burning sticks and faggots over the ground, she heaped them round the foot of the white birch-tree, whipping the flames to make them leap high.

The witch drew in her head, but inside she could be heard screaming. As the flames licked the white bark she cried, "Oh, my skin! You are burning my skin. My beautiful white skin will be covered with nothing but blisters. Do you know that you are ruining my complexion?"

But Little Sister said, "If I make you ugly you will not be able to show your face again to deceive the innocent, and to ruin hearts that were happy."

So she piled on sticks and faggots till the outside of the birch-tree was all black and scarred and covered with blisters, marks of which have remained to this day. And inside, the witch could be heard dancing time to the music of the flames, and crying because of her ruined complexion.

Then Little Sister stooped and took up Fair Brother in her arms. "You cannot walk now," she whispered, "I have taken away your feet; so I will carry you."

He was so starved and thin that he was not very heavy, and all the long way home Little Sister carried him in her arms. How happy they were, looking in each other's eyes by the clear light of the moon! "Can you ever be happy again in the old way?" asked Little Sister. "Shall you not want to run?"

"No," answered Fair Brother; "I shall never wish to run again. And as for the rest"—he stroked her head softly—"why, I can feel that your hair is growing—it is ever so long, and I can see the wind lifting it. White Birch has no hair of her own, but she has some that she wears, just the same colour as yours."