Swiss Fairy Tales




During millions of centuries a battle on, between the frost giants and the flower fairies. Occasionally, for a few tens of thousands of years at a time, the ice rivers and the snow avalanches would roll down the mountain sides and smother, or crush all the pretty blossoms. Rocks and stones in the glaciers would squeeze the leaves, and tear out the roots, so that nothing could grow. Then the whole land would become a cemetery of ice, or a graveyard covered with snow, for all the plants of every kind were frozen stone hard and were dead beyond hope.

Nothing could be seen but jagged rocks and sharp peaks rising up out of the desolation. No bird, beast, insect, or fish could live in such a world, for there was nothing for them to eat, or to grow with. Though there was plenty of water, there were no fish. Cows could not graze, or goats, or deer find any grass or moss, and dogs would die at once, for lack of meat.

But the sun in the sky was always the friend of the flower fairies, and he kept on, fighting Jack Frost, and the glacier giants, melting the ice and snow and making rivers that carried off the cold water to the sea.

So by and bye, after a few millions of years had passed by, the fairies, who never die of old age, got together in a meeting. After talking the matter over, they resolved to have a flower that could fight the frost giants, by laughing in their faces, and keep on growing, no matter how hard the winds blew, or how deep the snow was, or how often the avalanches fell, or glaciers formed. Besides being able to live, and find its own food, by rooting itself deep in the crevices of the rocks, such a flower ought to be sweet, and taste good to the cows.

In this way pastures would be coaxed to cover the meadows of the high Alps with their green glory, well spangled with blooms. Then men could get milk and make butter and cheese. The fairies liked good boys and girls, and were always glad to help their fathers and mothers, and they also loved meadows, with plenty of flowers and grass, for their moonlight dances. They never enjoyed this, their favorite amusement, so much as when, in the spring, the fields or the heights were both fragrant and beautiful.

But how could a pretty plant, such as they wanted, get clothes enough to keep from shivering all winter? How could a flower be made hardy to laugh at Jack Frost, when he came to bite her?

The fairies young and old, all thought it over, but no one could tell how to begin or proceed. The young ones thought much of gloves and muffs, tippets and leggings, hoods and ear muffs, thick stockings and fleecy lined gloves. Yet how could these be made to fit a plant?

It was natural for them to think in this way, for all their things to wear were on the outside, both for grown ups and those fairies that were more like big boys and girls. On the other hand, the fairy mothers were all the time thinking about the baby’s life, and not only how to cover the young thing, but also to have it warmly wrapped up, when it was still very little. They brought to mind examples of papooses well bundled in furs for cradles and hung on the branches. Some told of Esquimaux babies, all swaddled in furs, that are given a lump of whale blubber, instead of candy, and skewered on a stick, so that it will not swallow the tidbit, all at once, and choke. Others told of Italian bambinos, wrapped up tight, and Japanese akambos, held pick-a-pack style, on their big sisters, but none of these seemed to give the right idea of what was wanted.

At last, one old grandmother fairy made a sign that she wished to speak, and all listened while she talked.

“You fairies had better stop thinking about human beings, for not one of them could live where we want this flower to grow. It is too cold, and the frost giants already own the country. Better look to the animals to show us how. Now I have heard of a two-legged creature, that yet is not a man nor a woman; and another one, with four legs that carries its babies, even a whole family, of four or five, in a pouch in front of its body, until the little ones can take care of themselves. In this way, they are kept free from danger, until they grow up and can provide for themselves.”

“Oh do tell us about these wonderful creatures,” cried all the young fairies at once; and, though the old folks were silent, they were just as eager to hear.

“Well, the four-legged creature is the opossum, and lives in America. The mother carries a whole family of her cubs in a chatelaine pocket, which she wears in the front of her dress. She can even climb up a tree with her family.

“Who can believe that?” whispered one fairy to another. “And the other?” she asked, hardly believing such a thing was possible.

“Let me tell you, then, about the kangaroo, that lives in Australia. She has a wallet, or travelling bag where, or in which, she stows away her little folks, and there they are as cozy as if they were riding in a wagon. Yet, all the time, they can look out and see what is going on in the world. In this way, both the young opossums and the kangaroos are kept warm, and are fed until they are grown. No wolves, or bears, or foxes can catch and run away with them.”

“Can a kangaroo climb a tree?” asked a fairy, whose fancy had been greatly taken with the idea of a whole family being up a tree at once, and free from the wolves.

The old fairy felt insulted, or thought the questioner was trifling, and made no answer. So there was quiet for the space of three minutes.

“Well then,” asked still another fairy, “can you furnish us with a vegetable kangaroo?” This was asked in a tone of contempt, as if she believed it were not possible to protect anything from Jack Frost and the giants, even though the sun helped with all his might.

“Well, not exactly the Australian jumper, or the American tree-climber; but, if we can persuade the sun to help us, we may get a plant to become more mother-like, and keep her babies at home, until they are weaned and warmly clothed. Then, when they grow up, they will be able to find food, and set up housekeeping for themselves.”

So it came to pass that the sun and earth, and the fairies, all agreeing together, they invited a plant, named the Poa, to come in their country to live and raise children, that could stand the cold.

As fast as the glaciers or ice rivers melted, the fairies coaxed the Poa family to multiply and come up higher. This the plants always did, increasing in numbers like a great army. They climbed higher and higher, until they formed acres upon acres of meadow land, for the cows and goats, that enjoyed the delicious taste of the ripened grass. When the glaciers had retreated and melted away, the Poa covered the land. Then the cows multiplied. They were fat and sleek, because of rich food, and men won wealth by making butter and cheese. The young fairies watched how the Poa grew and cast its seeds, and they called it the kangaroo plant.

And this was the reason why it was named, by the fairies, the Kangaroo Plant. Watching its opportunity, the Poa Alpina started every springtime, from the lower meadows, to go up on the mountain tops nearer the stars, in time becoming victorious, like an army. Instead of dropping its ripe seeds to the ground, or having them blown far by the winds, or letting them leap out, like popcorn, or lending them the wings, which dandelions have, or trusting to birds, or sailors, or men who sell seeds to farmers, the Poa had a new way of its own. The mother stalk held her babies, that is the seeds, as long and as close to her, as an opossum keeps her cubs or a kangaroo her kittens.

Instead of first weaning them and then letting them go away to play or ramble abroad, out of her sight, she kept them all with her until they were full grown, that is, until they had both leaves and roots; for these are the legs and arms of a plant, whether it be a Johnnie Jump Up, or Sweet William, or Ragged Robin, or Dusty Miller, or Lady’s Slipper, or Four o’Clocks, or what not. So, before Jack Frost could bite them hard, or the giants crush them, or a snow storm bury them, or an avalanche roll over and flatten them out, or a cow eat them up, they hid themselves in all the crannies, cracks, and crevices of the rocks and down deep too. Wherever any sand, or dust, or moss, or moisture was, there you would find a whole family of the young folks of the Poa family settled down, all growing up and able to take care of themselves.

Now like a great army they are, indeed. They laugh at winter’s cold, or icy wind, or driving sleet, and even at that scorching south wind, the Föhn, that blows for over two weeks in the spring time, and again, for a fortnight in the autumn. By and bye, in a little while, according to the fairy clock, that is, in a million years or so, the Kangaroo Poa had spread all over Switzerland. Twenty thousand cows were made happy, for they loved to browse on the Poa pastures, and liked nothing better. Now, nearly two million of Swiss cows enjoy the summer feast, while their bells tinkle on the hillsides.

When the calves were too big for their mother’s milk, and the lady cow got tired of being a restaurant for her booby calf, she pushed it away, and said, in cow language, “go and eat Poa.” Sometimes the calf did not like to give up its baby habits, learned in the nursery. Then, it behaved like the naughty boy, who said “I’m hungry and bread I won’t have. I want cake.”

Then the mother cow tried another plan. She would give notice to the cowherd, in her own language, that she had done her part, and wanted him to attend to her naughty, and bad tempered, or sulky calf. Then the man would put a leather strap with sharp nails on it, over the calf’s muzzle, so that, when calfy wanted refreshment, it would be like sticking pins into its mother. Then the cow would push the calf away and make it learn to eat Poa.

But once having taken a bite, the calf never again wanted to eat anything else. It tasted as good as candy to a little girl. So Switzerland became one of the greatest countries in the world for butter and cheese. The fairies rejoiced, too, for the Poa, with its pretty blossom, made the meadows, which were their dancing hall, more beautiful, and for them, it was like waltzing on a cloth of gold.

And to this day, the Alpine Poa is as wonderful, among plants and grasses, as the opossum and kangaroo are among quadrupeds.

The fairies, that had succeeded in so clothing the edelweiss, that lives among the rocks, that it was able to resist the frost and cold, were now very happy over their second venture. Like a brave and vigilant sentinel, the new flower kept guard. The Poa was clothed, so as to delight the cattle, while the edelweiss was dressed for beauty, and to please mortals. Thus, both man and beast were blessed.

And it is, even yet, the flowers that, with vigilance and valor, guard Switzerland against the assaults of the ice giants and the frost army. These would make the Land of the Edelweiss like the regions of the North Pole, if it were not for the flowers and the grass. That is the reason why the Swiss people are not like Esquimaux. Their beautiful country holds the chamois, and the ibex, and the birds, instead of walruses and polar bears; and the people have bread, and honey, and cream, instead of seal meat and blubber.