The Witch of Dovre

The witch of Dovre walks on Löfven’s shores. People have seen her there, little and bent, in a leather skirt and a belt of silver plates. Why has she come out of the wolf-holes to a human world? What does the old creature of the mountains want in the green of the valley?

She comes begging. She is mean, greedy for gifts, although she is so rich. In the clefts of the mountain she hides heavy bars of white silver; and in the rich meadows far away on the heights feed her great flocks of black cattle with golden horns. Still she wanders about in birch-bark shoes and greasy leather skirt soiled with the dirt of a hundred years. She smokes moss in her pipe and begs of the poorest. Shame on one who is never grateful, never gets enough!

She is old. When did the rosy glory of youth dwell in that broad face with its brown greasy skin, in the flat nose and the small eyes, which gleam in the surrounding dirt like coals of fire in gray ashes? When did she sit as a young girl on the mountainside and answer with her horn the shepherd-boy’s love-songs? She has lived several hundred years. The oldest do not remember the time when she did not wander through the land. Their fathers had seen her old when they were young. Nor is she yet dead. I who write, myself have seen her.

She is powerful. She does not bend for anyone. She can summon the hail, she can guide the lightning. She can lead the herds astray and set wolves on the sheep. Little good can she do, but much evil. It is best to be on good terms with her! If she should beg for your only goat and a whole pound of wool, give it to her; if you don’t the horse will fall, or the cottage will burn, or the cow will sicken, or the child will die.

A welcome guest she never is. But it is best to meet her with smiling lips! Who knows for whose sake the bearer of disaster is roaming through the valley? She does not come only to fill her beggar’s-pouch. Evil omens go with her; the army worm shows itself, foxes and owls howl and hoot in the twilight, red and black serpents, which spit venom, crawl out of the wood up to the very threshold.

Charms can she chant, philters can she brew. She knows all herbs. Everybody trembles with fear when they see her; but the strong daughter of the wilderness goes calmly on her way among them, protected by their dread. The exploits of her race are not forgotten, nor are her own. As the cat trusts in its claws, so does she trust in her wisdom and in the strength of her divinely inspired prophecies. No king is more sure of his might than she of the kingdom of fear in which she rules.

The witch of Dovre has wandered through many villages. Now she has come to Borg, and does not fear to wander up to the castle. She seldom goes to the kitchen door. Right up the terrace steps she comes. She plants her broad birch-bark shoes on the flower-bordered gravel-walks as calmly as if she were tramping up mountain paths.

Countess Märta has just come out on the steps to admire the beauty of the June day. Below her two maids have stopped on their way to the storehouse. They have come from the smokehouse, where the bacon is being smoked, and are carrying newly cured hams on a pole between them. “Will our gracious Countess feel and smell?” say the maids. “Are the hams smoked enough?”

Countess Märta, mistress at Borg at that time, leans over the railing and looks at the hams, but in the same instant the old Finn woman lays her hand on one of them.

The daughter of the mountains is not accustomed to beg and pray! Is it not by her grace that flowers thrive and people live? Frost and storm and floods are all in her power to send. Therefore she does not need to pray and beg. She lays her hand on what she wants, and it is hers.

Countess Märta, however, knows nothing of the old woman’s power.

“Away with you, beggar-woman!” she says.

“Give me the ham,” says the witch.

“She is mad,” cries the countess. And she orders the maids to go to the storehouse with their burden.

The eyes of the old woman flame with rage and greed.

“Give me the brown ham,” she repeats, “or it will go ill with you.”

“I would rather give it to the magpies than to such as you.”

Then the old woman is shaken by a storm of rage. She stretches towards heaven her runic-staff and waves it wildly. Her lips utter strange words. Her hair stands on end, her eyes shine, her face is distorted.

“You shall be eaten by magpies yourself,” she screams at last.

Then she goes, mumbling curses, brandishing her stick. She turns towards home. Farther towards the south does she not go. She has accomplished her errand, for which she had travelled down from the mountains.

Countess Märta remains standing on the steps and laughs at her extravagant anger; but on her lips the laugh will soon die away, for there they come. She cannot believe her eyes. She thinks that she is dreaming, but there they come, the magpies who are going to eat her.

From the park and the garden they swoop down on her, magpies by scores, with claws ready to seize and bills stretched out to strike. They come with wild screams. Black and white wings gleam before her eyes. She sees as in delirium behind this swarm the magpies of the whole neighborhood approaching; the whole heaven is full of black and white wings. In the bright morning sun the metallic colors of the feathers glisten. In smaller and smaller circles the monsters fly about the countess, aiming with beaks and claws at her face and hands. She has to escape into the hall and shut the door. She leans against it, panting with terror, while the screaming magpies circle about outside.

From that time on she is shut in from the sweetness and green of the summer and from the joy of life. For her were only closed rooms and drawn curtains; for her, despair; for her, terror; for her, confusion, bordering on madness.

Mad this story too may seem, but it must also be true. Hundreds will recognize it and bear witness that such is the old tale.

The birds settled down on the railing and the roof. They sat as if they only waited till the countess should show herself, to throw themselves upon her. They took up their abode in the park and there they remained. It was impossible to drive them away. It was only worse if they shot them. For one that fell, ten came flying. Sometimes great flocks flew away to get food, but faithful sentries always remained behind. And if Countess Märta showed herself, if she looked out of a window or only drew aside the curtain for an instant, if she tried to go out on the steps⁠—they came directly. The whole terrible swarm whirled up to the house on thundering wings, and the countess fled into her inner room.

She lived in the bedroom beyond the red drawing-room. I have often heard the room described, as it was during that time of terror, when Borg was besieged by magpies. Heavy quilts before the doors and windows, thick carpets on the floor, softly treading, whispering people.

In the countess’s heart dwelt wild terror. Her hair turned gray. Her face became wrinkled. She grew old in a month. She could not steel her heart to doubt of hateful magic. She started up from her dreams with wild cries that the magpies were eating her. She wept for days over this fate, which she could not escape. Shunning people, afraid that the swarm of birds should follow on the heels of anyone coming in, she sat mostly silent with her hands before her face, rocking backwards and forwards in her chair, low-spirited and depressed in the close air, sometimes starting up with cries of lamentation.

No one’s life could be more bitter. Can anyone help pitying her?

I have not much more to tell of her now, and what I have said has not been good. It is as if my conscience smote me. She was good-hearted and cheerful when she was young, and many merry stories about her have gladdened my heart, although there has been no space to tell them here.

But it is so, although that poor wayfarer did not know it, that the soul is ever hungry. On frivolity and play it cannot live. If it gets no other food, it will like a wild beast first tear others to pieces and then itself.

That is the meaning of the story.