THE WICKED STEPMOTHER
These tales were originally translated to the English language by A. G. Seklemian and Z. C. Boyajian
Once upon a time, in Armenia, there was a noted hunter, who was a widower. He had a son by a former wife. He married another wife, but soon was taken mortally sick. On his deathbed he said to his wife:
“Wife, I am dying, and I know that when my son grows up he will follow my profession. Take care and do not let him go to the Black Mountains to hunt.”
After the death of the hunter, the son growing up, began to follow his father’s profession, and became a hunter. One day his stepmother said:
“Son, your father, when dying, said that after you grew up, if you followed his profession, you should not go to the Black Mountains to hunt.”
But the boy, paying no attention to what his father had advised him, one day took his bow and arrow, mounted his horse and hastened to the Black Mountains to hunt. As soon as he reached them, lo, a giant made his appearance on the back of his horse of lightning, and exclaimed:
“How now! Have you never heard my name, that you have dared to come and hunt on my ground?” And he threw three terrible maces at the boy, who very cleverly avoided them, hiding himself under the belly of his horse.
Now it was his turn; he drew his bow and arrow, took aim and shot the giant, who was nailed to the ground. He at once mounted the giant’s horse of lightning, which galloping, soon brought him to a magnificent palace, gilded all over with gold and decorated with precious jewels. Lo, a maiden as beautiful as the sun appeared in the window, saying:
“Human being, the snake upon its belly and the bird with its wing could not come here; how could you venture to come?”
“Your love brought me hither, fair creature,” answered the boy, who had already fallen in love with the charming maiden.
“But the giant will come and tear you into pieces,” said the maiden, who also had fallen in love with the boy.
“I have killed him, and there lies his carcass,” answered the boy.
The door of the palace was opened, and the boy was received by the maiden, who told him that she was the daughter of a Prince, and that the giant had stolen her and kept her in that palace, where she had forty beautiful handmaids serving her.
“And as you have killed the giant,” she added, “I, who am a virgin, shall be your wife, and all these maidens will serve us.” And they accepted one another as husband and wife.
Opening the treasures of the giant, they found innumerable jewels, gold, silver, and all kinds of wealth. The boy thought such a beautiful palace, with so many treasures worthy of a prince, and the most beautiful wife in the world, things that he could hardly have dreamed of, and he decided to live there, going to hunt every day as usual.
One day, however, he came home sighing, “Ah! Alas! Alas!”
“How now, what is the matter?” said the beautiful bride. “Am I and my forty handmaids not enough to please you? Why did you sigh?”
“You are sweet, my love,” said the boy, “but my mother also is sweet. You have your place in my heart, but my mother also has her place. I remembered her, therefore I sighed.”
“Well,” said the young bride, “take a horseload of gold to your mother, let her live in abundance and be happy.”
“No,” said the boy, “let me go and bring her here.”
“Very well, go, then,” said the young bride.
The boy went to his stepmother and telling her all that he had done, brought her to the palace of the Black Mountains. There she was the mother-in-law of the fair bride, and therefore the superior of the whole palace. Both the bride and the maidens had to submit to her.
The boy used to go out hunting. The stepmother, being well versed in witchcraft and medicine, went secretly, and administered some remedy to the corpse of the giant, so that he was soon healed. Falling in love with the giant, she took him to the palace and hid him in the cellar, where she secretly paid him daily visits, as she was afraid of her stepson. Wishing, however, to have none to oppose her, the witch one day said to the giant:
“Giant, you must advise me of a way by which I may send my son on an errand, and from which he may never come back.”
Upon the advice of the giant, she entered her room and putting under her bed pieces of very thin and dry Oriental bread, lay down upon the bed and feigned sickness. In the evening the boy returned from hunting, and hearing that his stepmother was ill, hastened to her side, and asked:
“What is the matter, mother?”
“O, son,” exclaimed the witch, with a sickly voice, “I am very sick. I shall die,” and as she turned from one side to the other the dry bread began to crackle.
“Hark!” exclaimed the witch, “how my bones are crackling!”
“What is the remedy, mother, what can I do for you?” asked the boy.
“O, my son,” said the witch, “there is only one remedy for my sickness, and that is the Melon of Life. I shall never be healed, if I do not eat one of that fruit which you could bring to me.”
“All right, mother,” said the boy, “I will bring to you the Melon of Life.”
He at once started upon the expedition, and after a long journey was guest in the house of an old woman who asked him where he was going. When she heard of the errand, she said to the boy:
“Son, you are deceived; the expedition is a fatal one—do not go.”
But as the boy insisted, the old woman said:
“Well, then, let me advise you. On your way you will soon come to a mansion, which is the abode of forty giants, who in the daytime go out hunting. But you will find their lady there kneading dough. If you are agile enough to run and suck the nipples of the open breast of that giantess without being seen by her, you are safe; if not, she will make one mouthful of you and devour you.”
The boy went and found as foretold by the old woman. He was clever enough to suck the nipples of the giantess without being seen by her.
“A plague on her who advised you!” exclaimed the angry giantess, “else I would make a good morsel of you. But now having sucked of my breast, you are like one of my own sons. Let me hide you in a box, lest the forty giants should come in the evening and finding you here, devour you.”
And she shut the boy in a box. In the evening the forty giants came, and smelling a human being, said:
“O mother, all the year long we hunt beasts and fowls which we bring home to eat together, and now we smell a human being, whom no doubt you have devoured to-day. Have you not preserved for us at least a few bones which we might chew?”
“It is you,” answered the lady, “that are coming from mountains and plains where no doubt you have found human beings, and the smell comes out of your own mouths. I have eaten no human being.”
“Yes, mother, you have,” exclaimed the giants.
“How if my nephew, the son of my human sister, has come to pay me a visit!” answered the giantess.
“O mother,” exclaimed the giants, “show us our human cousin; we will not hurt him, but talk with him.”
The giantess took the boy out of the box and brought him to the giants, who were very much pleased to see a human being so small, but so beautiful and manly. Holding him up like a toy, the giants handed him to one another to gratify their curiosity by looking at him.
“Mother, what has our cousin come for?” inquired the giants.
“He has come,” answered the giantess, “to pick a Melon of Life, and carry it to his mother who is sick. You must go and get the Melon of Life for him.”
“Not we,” exclaimed the forty giants, “it is above our ability.”
The youngest of the forty brothers, however, who was lame, said to the boy:
“Cousin, I will go with you and get the Melon of Life for you. You must only take with you a jug, a comb, and a razor.”
On the following day the boy took what was necessary and followed the lame giant, who soon brought him to the garden of the Melon of Life, which was guarded by fifty giants. The guards being asleep, the boy and his companion entered the garden without being perceived, and picking the Melon began to run. But they were just crossing the hedges, when the lame leg of the giant was caught by the fence, and in his haste to release it he shook the hedges which crackled like thunder and, lo, all the fifty giants awoke crying:
“Thieves! human beings! a good prey for us!” and began to pursue the boy and his lame companion.
“Throw the jug behind you, cousin,” exclaimed the lame giant.
The boy did so, and lo, plains and mountains behind them were covered by an immense sea that the fifty giants had to cross in order to reach them. By this means they gained quite a distance till the fifty crossed the sea.
“Now, cousin, throw the comb behind you,” exclaimed the lame giant.
The boy did so, and lo, an extensive jungle between them and the fifty giants. They gained another great distance before the giants finished crossing the jungle.
“Throw the razor now, cousin,” exclaimed the lame giant.
The boy did so, and lo, all the country between them and the fifty giants was covered with pieces of glass, sharp as razors. Before the fifty could cross the distance the thirty-nine giants came to the rescue of the two and took them, safely to their borders.
The boy took leave of his adopted aunt and cousins, find taking the Melon of Life with him, returned home. On his way, however, he was again the guest of the old woman, who seeing him come safely, asked if he had succeeded in bringing the precious fruit.
“Yes, I have brought it, auntie,” answered the boy, and told her his tale.
In the middle of the night, when the boy was sound asleep, the old woman took the Melon of Life out of the boy’s saddlebag and put a common melon in its place. In the morning the boy brought the melon to his stepmother, who eating it exclaimed:
“O, happy! I am healed.”
The boy again went hunting, and the witch said to the giant:
“Look here, giant; this enterprise did not prove fatal to my stepson. Advise me of another more dangerous journey on which I may send him, and from which he shall surely not return.”
Upon the advice of the giant she once more placed some thin and dry loaves of bread under her bed and lay down feigning sickness. In the evening when the boy came she said in a weak voice:
“O, son, I am dying, you will not see me any more.”
“Why, mother,” exclaimed the boy, “what is the matter? What can I do for you?”
“The only remedy for my sickness,” answered the witch, “is the milk of the Fairy Lioness. If you bring it for me I shall live; if not, I must die.”
The boy started, and again was the guest of the old woman, who asked where he was going.
“I am going this time to bring a skinful of the milk of the Fairy Lioness for my mother,” answered the boy.
The old lady again importuned him not to go, but as he insisted she said:
“Well, as you are resolved to go, let me advise you. On the other side of yonder mountain is the den of the Fairy Lioness, which is at this moment very much troubled by a pustule on her paw, and you will find her at the entrance of her den, holding her pustulous paw above her head and roaring. Now, you must approach her cleverly without being noticed by her, and taking aim with your bow and arrow, shoot into the pustule, which, being wounded, will at first cause her great pain and make her roar. But soon the pain being past, she will feel comfortable and give you whatever you demand of her.”
The boy went, and found the Fairy Lioness, as foretold by the old lady, standing at the entrance of her cave, and roaring on account of her pain. The boy at once taking aim, shot and wounded the pustule. The pain of the Lioness increasing she exclaimed:
“Oh! who was it that shot this arrow? I would I could find him and devour him. Oh! Oh! Oh!”
But soon, the matter of the wound coming out, she felt comfortable, and said:
“Who was it that shot this arrow? By Heaven, I would give him whatever he demanded.”
The boy at once jumping out from his concealment stood before the Lioness, who seeing him exclaimed:
“Was it you, young hero, that healed me of my pain which was troubling me so long?”
“Yes, it was I,” answered the boy.
“Demand of me whatever you please,” said the Lioness, “I am ready to give to such a hero as you anything that you may ask.”
“Give me,” said the boy, “some milk of your own udders, which is the only remedy to heal my sick mother.”
“In yonder cave,” said the Lioness, “there are two orphan cubs; go kill them, and flaying them, bring the skins to me.”
The boy did so and brought her the two whole skins. The Lioness milked her udders into them until they were filled.
“Here,” said the Lioness, “take these and go, and be careful not to harm my little cubs on your way.”
The boy took the two cubs’ skins full of milk and thanking the Lioness, departed. On his way, however, he slily stole two beautiful cubs and began to run. But the mother Lioness smelling her young ones, pursued the boy, and overtaking him, exclaimed:
“How now, human being! is this the way you reward kindness done to you? Why did you steal my two cubs?”
“I humbly beg your pardon,” answered the boy. “I was so much pleased with your kindness that I wanted to have a permanent keepsake from you, and what better thing could I carry with me than a brace of your cubs, which I will nourish on princely diet and keep as faithful friends.”
The Lioness, being much pleased with this answer, gave him leave to carry the cubs. He soon came to his hostess, who asked if he brought the Fairy Lioness’s milk.
“Yes, auntie, I have brought it,” answered the boy, presenting the two skins full of milk.
During the night, however, when the boy was sound asleep, the old woman poured out the Lioness’s milk from the skins into a cask and filled them with common goat’s milk. On the following day, the boy, loading the skins on the back of his horse, took the cubs and went home. The stepmother, drinking the milk, exclaimed:
“O good! I am healed.”
The boy again went hunting as usual. The witch said to the giant:
“Giant, did I not tell you to advise me and name a task from which my stepson would never return? Why are you devising only light tasks, which he can so easily accomplish? Now you must either advise me as to the most dangerous expedition in which he will surely lose his life, or I will betray you to him and he will cut you into pieces.”
“What can I do?” replied the giant, “your son is the bravest hero that ever lived; no mortal can vanquish him. He will return from any expedition, no matter how dangerous it may be. Let him go this time and bring you a jug full of the Water of Life.”
The witch again feigned sickness, and when the boy came to see her she said:
“O my son, I am dying, my bones are breaking,” and the crackling of the dry bread under the bed was heard when she turned from one side to the other.
“What shall I do for you, mother?” asked the boy sadly.
“The only remedy for me this time,” answered the witch, “is the Water of Life, and you must go and bring to me a jug full, else I shall die.”
The boy at once mounted his horse and taking with him the two cubs, which by that time had grown up to be a pair of fine young lions, he went to his hostess and explained the object of his expedition.
“O son,” exclaimed the good woman, “I see plainly that you are employed for some wicked purpose; there must be a detestable plot against your life. This is the most dangerous expedition that ever human being has undertaken, and no one has ever returned from the task you have started upon. Be advised, go back; your mother is surely false.”
“Not I,” said the boy, “I will certainly go.”
The old woman said, “As soon as you place your jug in the fountain to receive the water, which oozes out only in the thickness of a hair, a heavy sleep will fall upon you, and you will remain there benumbed for seven days and nights. First, scorpions will assail you; then serpents; then beasts of prey, and at last all kinds of genii. You will surely be devoured by them.”
“Let come what may, I will go,” said the boy, and taking the two lions with him, he started for the fountain of the Water of Life.
He came to the fountain and found the water oozing out in a tiny stream. As soon as he placed his jug under it, a sound sleep overpowered his senses and he remained there benumbed for seven days and seven nights. Soon innumerable large scorpions began to attack the sleeping hero. But the lions destroyed all of them. Then thousands of terrible serpents made their appearance and assailed the boy, hissing and striking with their forked tongues. The lions, after a bloody fight, destroyed them also. Soon a whole army of voracious beasts surrounded the fountain in search of the boy. The lions, after a sanguinary strife, succeeded in destroying them also.
At the end of the seven days and nights, the boy awoke, and to his great horror saw that he was surrounded by a high wall that the lions had built of the carcasses of the beasts and serpents they had killed. The two faithful guardians were now sitting on either side of their master and were watching his every motion. The boy, seeing them stained with blood from head to foot, understood how much he owed to them in the preservation of his life. He then washed them clean with the Water of Life and taking the jug, which by that time was filled, he returned to his hostess.
“Did you bring the Water of Life?” asked the old lady.
“Yes, auntie, I did,” answered the boy, presenting her the jug full of water.
“It was not you that succeeded,” returned the old woman, “but Heaven and your faithful lions that preserved your life.”
During the night, as the boy was sleeping, the old woman poured the Water of Life into another vase, and filled the jug with common water, which the boy in the morning took to his stepmother, who drinking it said:
“O, happy! I am healed.”
The following day the boy again went hunting. The witch said to the giant:
“Can you not devise some means to destroy my stepson? By Heaven, I will destroy you this time if you do not tell me how to destroy him.”
“Your stepson is brave,” answered the giant, “he is a unique hero, and no one can kill him but yourself.”
“How! how!” exclaimed the witch with great joy, “tell me and I will do it.”
“Do you not remember the three red hairs among his black hairs on his head? As soon as they are picked, your son dies.”
On the following day the witch said to the boy:
“Come, son, lay your head in my lap and take a nap.”
The boy did so and soon slept. The witch immediately took hold of the three red hairs and picked them out. A spasm or two, and the hero died.
“Now, giant,” said the witch, “take that sword and chop this corpse into small pieces.”
“Not I,” answered the giant, “my hand will not be lifted to chop such a hero.”
“You coward!” exclaimed the witch, and taking the sword she chopped the corpse into small pieces, put these into a sack, and threw them over the garden wall. One of the little fingers, however, fell into the garden.
The lions learned that their master was killed, and that his chopped body had been put into the bag. They immediately took hold of the bag and carried it to the old woman, the hostess of the hero. Opening the bag, she took out the body, and putting every part in its proper place made a whole; only the little finger was missing. She explained to the lions what was missing, and they at once went, and smelling their master’s finger in the garden, found it and brought it to the old woman, who put it in its proper place. Now she brought the milk of the
Fairy Lioness, which she had secretly preserved, and poured it over the body. Immediately all the broken bones, muscles and sinews came together, and all the members being united, the body became as sound and delicate as that of a newborn babe. Then she brought the Melon of Life, and put it before his nostrils. As soon as the boy smelt it, he sneezed seven times. Then she poured the Water of Life down his throat. At once the boy opened his eyes, and jumped up, saying:
“O, what a sound sleep was this that overpowered my senses!”
“Sleep!” exclaimed the kind woman. “Yes, a sleep out of which you would never have awaked had not Providence preserved you.” And she told him what had happened.
“Now, my good hostess,” said the boy, “you have done me a very great kindness—a kindness that I can never reward. May Heaven reward you!”
He brought her from his treasures a horseload of gold and a horseload of silver, saying:
“These are for you; spend as much as you like and pray for me as long as you live.”
The boy came to his palace and found that his beautiful bride was imprisoned in a dark cellar, where she was left to starve, while the witch, his stepmother, was in an excess of merriment with the giant and half a dozen younglings around her. They were all amazed to see the hero enter, and the giant was about to make his exit through a secret door in the wall when the boy seized hold of him, saying:
“How now, coward, are you running? Stop and solve this puzzle for me; whose are these ugly younglings that are infecting the very air of my palace?”
“They are my children out of yonder woman, your mother,” answered the giant.
“Mother! I have no mother,” exclaimed the boy. “You increase so soon, do you? Now we are going to have great merriment. Go and bring me from yonder mountain, wood enough to build a large pile.”
The giant obeyed, and soon a large pile of wood was built in the courtyard of the palace. The boy struck a flint and lighted the wood. Soon the whole pile was on fire, burning like a furnace.
“Now, giant,” said the boy, “take hold of these bastards, and throw them into the fire, one by one.”
The giant obeyed, and all the younglings were burned on the pile.
“Bring now yonder witch, and throw her into the fire,” ordered the boy. She also shared the fate of the bastard children.
“Now, shall I throw you also?” asked the boy of the giant.
“Hero,” exclaimed the giant, “I honor you, I will obey you.”
“Well, then,” said the boy, “I will not kill you. Come, pass under my sword and swear obedience to me.”
The giant kissed the sword, and passing under it became the bondman of the boy.
The boy then released his beautiful wife from the dark prison. They celebrated anew their nuptials for forty days and forty nights, and enjoyed a happy life thereafter.
Thus they attained their wishes. May Heaven grant that you may attain your wishes!
Three apples fell from heaven—one for me, one for the story-teller, and one for him who entertained the company.