in the Window
Eve my parents and sisters went down the mountain to Midnight Mass in the village
below, leaving me to look after Grandmother, who was so old that she had lost
her sight. Day and night, dark and light -- they were all the same to her. Outside
the wind rattled the roof and windows, wailing so loudly that it drowned out the
distant church bells. As I sat turning the pages of the illustrated Bible, Grandmother
rambled on, telling me superstitious old tales.
banging you hear on the roof, child," she said in her querulous voice.
just the wind, Grandmother."
she insisted. "Thats the Wild Hunter riding past. Dont you hear the
howling of his hounds?"
the night dragged on, the weather grew as turbulent as my grandmothers tales.
Just before midnight, a blast of wind slammed open the parlor window. Before I
could close it, the icy wind rushed into the room and blew out the lamp.
lights gone out!" I cried, grabbing my grandmothers hand. This time,
of the two of us, it was Grandmother who remained solid and sensible.
no use shrieking, my dear. Go and latch that window so it stops its banging. Then
take the lamp into the kitchen and light it with an ember from the hearth."
shutting the window, I took the lamp and felt my way through the darkness. When
I knelt at the hearth, I discovered that the cold wind rattling down the chimney
had put out the fire, as well. Running my fingers through the lifeless ashes,
I wondered what I would do. The rest of the family wouldnt be back until
well after midnight. How my mother would scold me for letting the fire go out.
Then I saw something in the kitchen window -- a dazzling glimmer that held me
steady and hopeful.
I called excitedly. "The fires gone out, but I see a light in the neighbors
window. Ill carry the lantern to their house and ask them to light it for
"Be careful not
to lose your way in the snow," she called back. "The drifts are so deep on the
mountainside, you could fall into a ravine. Keep your eyes on the light in the
my boots and putting on my cloak, I picked up the lantern and stepped outside.
In this wind, with the snowflakes filling the darkness like stars, it was hard
to dismiss Grandmothers tales. I was a little child again who believed everything
the old woman told me. Just keep your eyes fixed on that light, I told
myself, and youll be safe. Floundering with each step through the
deep snow, I choked on the wind that whipped my cloak around me, yet I pressed
on, drawn steadily forward by the light. After what seemed to be only a short
time, I reached the house, yet as I entered the courtyard, overgrown with ivy
now shrouded in snow, it did not seem like the neighbors house, at
all. Light came streaming from a narrow passageway, which I entered, a little
hesitantly at first. As I went further in, the light grew brighter. I walked down
a flight of uneven stone steps, which led into a dazzlingly lit cellar with a
high vaulted ceiling. It was so warm here, I had to open my cloak before stepping
I wondered how I had seen the light if it was coming from this underground place.
The grandeur of the room soon swept such thoughts away. I gazed at the marble
floors, the tapestries of apple trees and rose gardens, and the mirrors framed
in silver and gold. More radiant than any of these was the great hearth, and even
more wondrous than the hearth was the lady who sat beside it, the most beautiful
woman I had ever seen. It hurt to look at her, hurt even to breathe. If I found
myself speechless, the lady, it seemed, was beyond speech, as well. She did not
utter a word, but smiled and held out her hand. Every pale finger bore a jewel
that flashed in the hearth flames. The smoke curling upward from the fire smelled
sweeter than all the flowers of summer.
stood frozen with my unlit lamp. As if reading my thoughts, the lady nodded and,
taking a small shovel that rested near the hearth, scooped out burning coals from
the depths of the fire. With her free hand, she took the bottom hem of my apron
and, before my unbelieving eyes, let the fiery coals fall off the shovel on to
the homespun cloth. The lady gave me a look of utter kindness and goodwill, as
if to tell me not to be afraid.
I jerked away and screamed. "Youll burn me!" The glittering coals fell to
instant, the lovely room vanished. I shivered on the deserted mountainside amid
the ruins of an old castle, a mile or more away from my neighbors farm.
Gritting my teeth against the cold, I bolted down the mountain. Years later I
would wonder how I ever found my way home in the darkness, but at last I came
upon our house with its lit up windows. When I threw myself at the door, my mother
opened it, took my hand, and drew me into the warmth and light.
cant believe that grandmother of yours sent you out alone in the dark,"
said my mother.
sisters gathered round, questions poised on their lips. Mother told them to leave
me in peace. After helping me out of my snow-crusted clothes, she handed me my
nightgown and tucked me into bed. "Your father went to the neighbors to
get fire to light the hearth. You shouldnt have gone out there alone."
I tried to tell Mother what had happened, that it had been my idea, not Grandmothers,
and that I had seen a shimmering lady who shoveled coals into my apron, Mother
just stroked my hair and told me to sleep.
my mother had left the room, Grandmother, who had listened to the whole exchange,
sat at the foot of my bed and whispered, "Oh child, if you had taken those coals
she tried to give you. They were really pieces of gold. That was Lady Holle, on
my oath. Sometimes she is silent. Sometimes she speaks. Oh my child, she chose
you, but you were fearful. You would have been rich, but now its gone, all
gone. Another chance like that wont come again for another hundred years."
morning after I saw the vision of the beautiful lady, I awoke to find blood on
my nightgown. My mother told me that I was now a woman, though, in truth, I felt
more like a bewildered child than ever. All I could think of were the ladys
burning coals in my apron. Had I not let them fall to the floor, what would have
happened? The only one who understood my confusion was Grandmother, but she was
growing more clouded by the day.
following year, my mother died and then my father, too, for he could not live
without her. Hardly another six months had passed before my grandmother passed
on, as well. Without parents, my three older sisters and I fell into poverty,
and had to sell our house and land. My sisters secured their futures by marrying.
One sister bound her fate to a farmer, one gave herself to a harness maker, and
the third to a blacksmith. I saw them change from girls into harried wives and
mothers, bent by the weight of the water they hauled and the babies that thickened
their bellies. But I did not marry. Being such a backward girl, I did not look
at men, and they did not look at me.
since the night that lady shoveled glowing coals into my apron, I had been haunted.
Touched, as they say. Regardless whether what I had witnessed was real or imaginary,
I could never be the same afterward, could never be an ordinary or uncomplicated
girl. Some people thought I was simple and others thought I was mad. Each of my
sisters invited me to join their households, but I knew what they really wanted
was an unpaid servant. Instead I walked over the mountain pass to the next valley
where no one knew my name, let alone my story, and hired myself out as a maid.
If I were going to toil at the stove and the spinning wheel, it wouldnt
be for my sisters charity and a pallet in some drafty alcove. No, I wanted
to serve a well-to-do mistress who would treat me kindly and speak to me with
lady I chose was a wealthy millers wife and the most beautiful woman I had
seen since my vision of the lady with the coals. She carried herself like a noblewoman.
Her husband, the miller was so in awe that he deferred to her. Unbeknownst to
him, she was a witch, a thing she kept secret, for not so long ago, they had burned
witches in that valley. She took me into her confidence because she could tell
I had been touched by Lady Holle, the one she served. She told me that Holle was
queen of the secret people who lived beneath the earth and who, my mistress claimed,
had taught her all her magic. Whats more, my mistress made me her apprentice,
sending me out to the meadows and woods to gather the herbs she needed for her
spells. Yet despite all her charms and incantations, and in spite of her seven
years of wedlock, my mistress could not conceive a child. Many hours she spent
locked in her chamber and gazing into her magic mirror. Sometimes I was bold enough
to try to coax her to reveal what she had seen in the glass.
can see into the future," I said, smiling and leaning close. "Well, I would know
my future, too."
she told me things such as how the flax would grow and if the next year would
be good for wheat. And sometimes she told me which village wife would go astray
with which man. But then a time came when she took to frowning and sighing. "I
cant say whats wrong. Usually the glass is so clear when I gaze, but
lately it just keeps misting over, and I see nothing."
I was intimate with my mistress, I hardly even noticed my master, the miller.
The role he played in my life seemed small. He was forever preoccupied with the
mill, his apprentices, and the fields beyond, which he owned and rented out to
the peasant farmers who, in turn, came with their sacks of grain to be ground
in our mill. Even when the miller sat in the kitchen, his face was bent over the
beer I brewed or the soup I cooked. His face was a distant blur and, though I
served him his meals every day, I could not name the color of his eyes. But my
mistress face I knew better than my own. Even as an old woman, I would remember
the way she smiled as she showed me the most flattering way to wear my shawl and
braid my hair. Perhaps because she had no children, she took me under her wing
and treated me more like a dear friend than a common servant.
Christmas Eve came, I found her in a playful mood. "Would you truly know your
future?" she inquired, glancing at me impishly out of the corner of her eye as
I laced her into her red velvet dress with the golden braid. "Christmas Eve is
the best night for telling fortunes."
I lowered my eyes, not returning her smile, and remembered that Christmas Eve
so long ago. If I had not been such a frightened child, how different my life
would have been. If my grandmothers stories could be believed, I would not
be a servant now but the mistress -- had I possessed the courage to take that
ladys burning coals. But such thoughts were disloyal, and I chased them
out of my head.
my mistress, I said, "I think Ill go to bed early."
she laughed as I fastened her carnelian necklace around her white throat. "Youve
been pestering me for nearly a year. Well, now I will tell you exactly what you
must do to see into your future. Listen closely, my dear."
spite of myself, I inclined my head toward her as she bent to tie her shoes of
fine green leather. "When my husband and I go to Midnight Mass, you will be alone
in the house."
shivered. "Mistress, if its all the same to you, Id much rather go
to church with you . . ."
to yourself!" She sounded vastly amused. "When did you suddenly get to be so pious?
When were gone, stoke up the kitchen fire so its good and warm. Then
take off all your clothes . . ."
I could feel my face go hot and red.
so modest? You will be all alone in the house and not a soul shall see you. When
youre naked, take the broom, and, walking backwards, sweep the kitchen from
the window to the door, then look over your left shoulder. When I come home from
church," she said, rising from her chair and kissing my forehead, "you must tell
me what you saw."
quite understanding what my mistress expected me to see, I handed her cloak to
her and saw her to the door. When I could no longer hear the harness bells on
the horses pulling my master and mistress sleigh, I retreated to my room.
If she asked me whether I had performed her fortune telling experiment, I would
invent something, tell her I had looked over my left shoulder and seen her favorite
cat licking its paw or that I had seen a vision of an apron full of burning coals
turning into golden coins. Then my face went feverish, and I remembered that I
had never lied to her. Somehow I sensed that she would know if I lied.
I padded through the empty house to the kitchen, stoked up the fire, and shed
every piece of clothing. Taking the broom and walking backwards, I began to sweep.
This would only take a few minutes. Then I could go to bed early, for tomorrow
I had a huge feast to prepare for the millers apprentices. Yawning, I swept
backwards until I had reached the kitchen door. Sleepily, I glanced over my left
shoulder, and then quaked with shame at what I saw. There in the shadowy alcove,
at the table where I rolled dough and kneaded bread, sat my master with his mug
of beer. This time, instead of gazing into his beer, he stared straight at me
with eyes that were both famished and mournful. With a shriek, I grabbed my bundle
of clothes, ran to my room, and bolted the door.
my mistress returned from midnight mass and knocked on my door, her face glowed
from the ride through the winter night. One perfect snowflake still clung like
a star in her flame-colored hair. She smiled at me as fondly as she always did,
touched my face, and whispered excitedly, "So dear, what did you see?"
dare you?" In my humiliation and outrage, I struck at her, my hand grazing the
side of her cheek.
eyes clouded with tears as she staggered backwards, crying my name. But I drowned
her out with my accusations, not caring if her husband heard. "That was some dirty
trick you played on me. In the morning, Im packing my bags and going to
my sisters." In truth, I did not know which sister I would go to, but I
knew I would be gone.
mistress, meanwhile, sank to her knees and wept until her shoulders heaved. "Why
do you hate me? What did I do?" she asked, so guilelessly that it seemed an even
deeper betrayal. If she wanted me to spell it out for her, I was more than willing
made me sweep your kitchen naked while your husband was lurking in the alcove
and gawking at me over his beer."
face went so pale that for a moment I thought she would faint. I sank to my knees
and touched the place where I had hit her. Still crying, she covered my hand with
her own. Her skin was so cold to my touch, as if she were stone and no longer
"It was my
husband you saw?" she asked in a tone of such fear that I knew with a sickening
flood of remorse that I had wronged her.
I said, crying now myself.
husband was beside me in church the entire time," she said. "Right now hes
in the stable unharnessing the horses." She took a deep breath. "The man you saw
when you looked over your left shoulder was the man you will marry. You know what
that means, dont you?" She ran her ringed hand over my hair and laughed
softly while the tears fell from her face. "That means that I, very soon, will
At that, I
pulled her into my room, bolted the door, and spent the rest of the night trying
to comfort her, swearing that what she said would never come to pass. But it did.
Before spring could melt the snow, a fever spread through the valley, taking many
children and old people. It also took my mistress.
her grave, I wept bitterly. Beside me, her husband wept with such shuddering grief
that I half-feared he would follow her into the grave. It seemed he was broken,
just as I was broken, that he would now sicken and die, just as my father had
died after my mothers death. He could not go on without her, just as I could
not bear to go without the mistress who had been my love. And because we were
both so utterly destroyed in our loss and so lonely and hurt, it came to pass
exactly as she said it would. The following spring we were married. On her grave
I made an oath never to forget her. He vowed to name our firstborn daughter after
Just the other
day, my neighbor told me this story. He loved to tell wild stories, especially
when he was drinking, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. And he was
a little scatter-brained, too. You know the way old people are. But when my wife
heard the story, she nodded and said shed heard a similar story. She said
its a local legend and that, mixed in with all the fanciful improbabilities,
there might even be a tiny grain of truth.
in our part of the world, long ago, before TV and the Internet, people had all
kinds of crazy superstitions about the days between Christmas and the Feast of
the Epiphany. Even today we like to dress up for the holidays. Especially the
ladies like to do fancy things to their hair and wear their best clothes. But
theres also this superstition -- God only knows where it comes from -- that
its bad luck to do your laundry during the twelve days of Christmas. Even
to this day, the old people swear that hanging your clothes outside to dry --
and sometimes we do get unseasonably warm weather thats good for drying
clothes outdoors -- is an invitation to disaster. Whatevers hanging outside,
they say, belongs to the Wild Hunter and hell sweep down on the storm winds
to snatch away both the article of clothing and the person to whom it belongs.
Hey, Im not saying I believe any of this. But heres the story the
old guy told me.
said that way back when, back when his great-great-great-great grandfather was
young, there was this beautiful young woman, a millers wife. She started
out as a lowly servant girl, then married her boss after his first wife died.
Despite her unglamorous pedigree, she strong-willed and proud. She didnt
let her husband or anyone tell her what to do. People said she got her fine airs
on account of being a witch. Her powers had been granted to her by the elves who
lived under the earth. Everything she needed to get done -- sewing, mending, darning
socks, what have you -- the elves did for her at night. She would leave the torn
shirt or the sock with the hole in it on the kitchen table, place a few coins
beside it, and then in the morning, she would find it mended.
year at Christmas, she got the most wonderful gifts from the elves, who gave presents
in the holiday season just like people did. One year they gave her a magic wand,
so small and unobtrusive that she could carry it around in her apron pocket. To
keep her cows in one place, all she had to do was trace an invisible circle in
the grass. And one year she got a magic scythe that cut hay by itself. But the
third gift the elves gave her was the most precious. After five married years
without children, she finally got pregnant. Her neighbors liked to joke that she
needed all the help she could get for that. Her husbands previous wife hadnt
been able to have any children either, so the infertility must have been his.
At any rate, she had everything she could have wanted in life.
dreams-come-true and gifts that come too easy can make a person uppity. The millers
wife wouldnt follow any rules but her own, and she certainly wasnt
going to obey any silly superstitions about not doing her laundry during the twelve
days of Christmas. When her servant girl refused to do the laundry, she gave the
job to an addled old woman who couldnt tell the difference between December
and June. So the old woman washed table linens, bed linens, and what have you.
But she also washed one of her mistress dresses. The mistress herself hung
the wash outside to dry. It was one of those unusually bright winter days with
the warm Fön wind coming over the mountains -- an ideal wind for drying
laundry. When her husband saw her hanging her dress up on the line with all the
other things, he went white in the face and begged her to at least take her dress
inside, but she only laughed at him.
late afternoon, the wind grew stronger and stronger, rippling her dress until
the young woman, sitting alone inside the house, felt as though an invisible hand
was stroking the length of her body. Then her servant girl burst into her room
and told her in a strangled voice that there was a man at the door. A tremor passed
over the young mistress as she went to confront her uninvited guest. Dressed in
green hunting clothes, he appeared to be as young and handsome as anything, and
yet his hair and beard were white as frost. Before she could even ask what he
wanted, he held out his hand to her and inquired, "Will you ride away with me?"
young woman was speechless. Her servant girl cowered in the kitchen, and the old
woman who had washed the laundry ran moaning down the hall. But once the young
woman realized who the stranger was and what he had come for, she knew what to
do. Pulling her shoulders back and proudly lifting her head, she drew her wand
from her pocket and threw it on the threshold so that it rested between her and
the strange man. The wand was fashioned of magic wood, and no one could step across
"Go on your
way," she told the visitor, and then, confident in her safety, she half-turned
to go back to her room when he stepped on the wand. Under his boot sole, it burned,
and then dwindled to ash.
stopping to think, she ran for her magic scythe. Pushing past the man and out
the door, she hacked her dress down from the clothesline. But as soon as she had
freed the dress, the wind blew it straight into her open doorway where it landed
at the strangers feet. That was when she cried out. Even her servants knew
she was afraid.
you ride away with me?" Again the man came toward her and held out his hand.
she snapped. "Everything I want is here. I have the house and the mill and the
fields beyond. I have a husband and servants."
of this made any impression on the stranger who reached for her, about to seize
her around the waist and lift her up on his horse.
She backed away from him and held out her arms to protect herself. "Im pregnant."
She said this as her last defense, for she knew that the Lady the Wild Hunter
served was the protectress of all mothers.
she had spoken these words, the stranger nodded, as if to release her forever
from his claims, but before he drew his hand away, he gently touched her breast.
That was when she felt the stirring inside her, as if a fire had been kindled
there, a hearth of fragrant coal. The unspeakable longing seized her even as he
mounted his gray horse and rode away without looking back.
young man with the white hair and beard was all anyone in the household could
talk about for days afterward. Of course, the young woman acted as proud as ever.
When New Years came, she even dared to wash again, and she hung her best
dress and the nightgown she had made for her unborn child outside in the wind.
It seemed she hoped he would return for her, that he would offer her his hand
and ask her to ride away with him, and this time she would give him her consent.
But the saying goes that the Wild Hunter visits a woman once and only once.
my old neighbor told me. "He. . ." Then the old man paused for a moment
to name the Hunters many names. He waved his hand to point at the wind tossed
birch trees outside the tavern window. "He only chooses women who are fearless.
If they cower or hesitate, he leaves them behind, and never comes again."
Apple Trees in Lady Holles Garden
Wild Hunter did come back for her many years later, albeit in another guise that
she did not recognize at first.
came to pass that the apple trees in Lady Holles heavenly garden no longer
bore fruit. But far below on the earth, there lived an old woman, a millers
widow, who had an orchard of the loveliest apple trees that had ever been. Every
spring the trees burst into clouds of blossoms that drove the bees half-mad. Every
autumn the branches sank to the ground from the weight of all the ripe apples.
The beautiful Lady Holle spoke to the Wild Hunter, whose name was also Death.
"Ride down to earth and bring me the old woman. She has lived to see her great-grandchildren.
Surely she has lived on earth long enough. Now its time she came home to
So Death rode
his gray horse down to the Earth and knocked on the old womans door. When
she opened, she saw an old man with a youths golden hair. She also noticed
that he carried a scythe that looked similar to the magic scythe she had once
possessed. The old woman was not at all pleased that he had come to call.
woman," said Death. "You have lived on this earth for many years now, more than
most, and my good mistress, the beautiful Lady Holle, wants you to come home to
her. The apple trees in her garden no longer bear fruit, but your orchard here
on Earth is like a garden of paradise. That is why she has chosen you to tend
the trees in her garden."
old woman, who hadnt the least desire to leave behind her earthly existence,
leaned forward, betraying no fear. "I just have one request. Lets play cards
first. Theres nothing I like better than a good game. Shall we make a bet?
If you win, I shall go with you. But if I win, you must go away and leave me in
it wouldnt be too difficult to beat an old woman at cards, Death agreed.
What he didnt know was that she played every Saturday night at the village
tavern. She knew all the tricks. After shuffling and dealing, she won the game
in a matter of minutes. Deaths forehead rumpled in dismay.
a cunning player you are," he said. "Could we play just one more game?" This time
he shuffled and dealt the cards, but the old woman won again.
said Death, a tone of desperation creeping into his voice, "just one more time?"
right," the old woman said squarely. "But you know the rules. You cant play
more than three times to win a bet. The third game is the last."
they played the third time. Again the old woman won. "Now, go on your way," she
told him sternly. "Whats it to me if your ladys apple trees no longer
bear fruit? Im quite happy with my garden here on Earth, and Id thank
you to leave me alone."
Death returned to Holles garden and cringed in embarrassment as his mistress
berated him. "You came back without the old woman? Whats wrong with you?
What old woman can escape Death? And what about my apple trees?" Lady Holle shook
her head. "I will no longer have you living with me in my garden until you bring
the old woman home."
Death was momentarily stumped, he was also patient. He waited until the following
December, for during the Twelve Nights, everyone had to open their door to whomever
knocked. Then he mounted his gray horse, rode down to earth, and rapped on the
old womans door. When she opened, she glowered at him so fiercely that he
winced. But what could she do? During the Twelve Nights, she was obliged to receive
every guest, even Death.
the Twelve Nights," said Death, "everyone is allowed to make one wish. My wish
is this: I want to take you with me to the gates of my Ladys garden and
I want you to take one look inside that garden. I promise you, if you dont
want to stay there, Ill bring you back here."
know very well," said the old woman, "that I cant refuse a wish made during
the Twelve Nights. But you must swear an oath to me, and we both know that an
oath sworn during the Twelve Nights is twelve times as binding as any other oath."
swore that he would bring her straight back to her home on Earth if she didnt
want to stay in Holles garden. Reluctantly the old woman clambered up behind
him on his saddle, and off they galloped to the garden of paradise. When they
arrived, Death opened the gates just a crack and whispered, "Look inside."
old woman poked her head in the gate and saw, seated on the grass in the middle
of that garden the same beautiful woman she had seen so many years ago as a young
girl in the ruined castle on the snowy mountainside. For a moment, she forgot
to breathe. Around the lady sat a circle of lovely young women whose radiant youth
seemed such a mockery to her old age that she had to look away. That was when
she noticed the apple trees. They were dying. Those trees were no more than dwindling
skeletons with a few brown leaves clinging to the twigs.
do you like the garden?" Death asked her gently. "How do you like my Lady?"
like her very much," the old woman murmured. "But look at those girls sitting
with her on the grass. And now look at me," she said forcefully. "Look at how
old and worn out I am. What would your beautiful lady want with such an old woman?"
spoke tenderly. "Didnt you know that if you go into the garden and let my
lady take your hand that you will grow young again? On my oath, she will give
you back your youth."
pretty speeches you make!" the old woman snorted. "If your Lady can make me young
again, why didnt you tell me that in the first place instead of making me
play cards with you?"
Death could reply, she decided to see for herself if what he said could be true.
Sliding down from the saddle, she walked through the gate and over the grass,
studded with wildflowers, even though it was midwinter and the snow lay thick
on the Earth below. It saddened her immeasurably to see those dying apple trees.
But when she looked at the lady, she felt oddly light, as if she had drunk a cup
of elderberry wine.
lady rose to greet her and held out her hands. Her face was even more dazzling
when she smiled. "I have been waiting for you for so long," she said, "and now
you have finally come home to me."
could it be that such a vision of a lady would be overjoyed to see her, the old
woman pondered. One of the attending young women handed the lady a golden dish
of burning coals that smelled sweeter than all the flowers in the garden.
the lady whispered. "This time dont be afraid."
time, Im not afraid," said the old woman, holding out her apron to receive
the coals which the lady poured on to the cloth. Pressing the glowing warmth to
her belly, the old woman closed her eyes and listened to the blackbirds sing.
When she opened her eyes again, Holles smooth hands touched her face and
smoothed back her hair.
made me wait so many years."
Death nor the young women in the garden could rightly say which one of the two
had spoken those words -- Holle or the old woman. But then there was no old woman.
In her place, a young girl wept with joy to see that her apron was filled with
pieces of gold. The lady folded her in her arms. And from that day onward, the
girl tended the apple trees in Holles garden. In spring, the blossoms were
so lush that the branches seemed to float among the clouds, and in autumn, the
apples were so heavy and ripe that the boughs sank down to touch the Earth below.