Swiss Fairy Tales




It may happen, in Switzerland, that mighty masses of snow and ice, sometimes as big as the capitol at Washington, and as high as Bunker Hill monument, will roll down the mountain sides without giving any notice. These crush whole forests, bury villages, tear rocks to pieces, knock off bits of the mountain sides and kill thousands of people, cows, goats and horses.

Though large enough to engulf an army, or a battleship, they are very small, when first born, up in the very high Alps.

Starting as a snow ball, they grow large, very quickly, every moment, and finally become immense. Then, they roll along over many miles, carrying destruction in their path, until they tumble over precipices, or reach low land that is level. That is the reason why they are so named, for avalanche means “to the valley.”

There are many causes of an avalanche and a little thing may start one of these terrors. The irregular melting, by the morning sun, of ice, in light or shade, the fall of an icicle, the tumbling of a stone, or a sliver of rock, or even the firing of a gun, which shakes the overhanging, or piled up snow, will begin one of these revolving globes.

Now in old times, all Swiss folk used to think that an avalanche was alive, and was having a jolly time, enjoying itself, when sliding and rolling, leaping and dashing down the mountain slopes, in its mad race, from the sky to the plain. This was its way of enjoying itself, with a short life and a merry one. It grew faster than anything else known. For, while a glacier might take a thousand years to develop, from snowflakes into miles of solid ice, like a frozen river, it required only a few minutes for an avalanche to spring from babyhood into full size, with a power exceeding that of a thousand giants.

Being, at its birth, only an inch or two in diameter, this infant son of the King of the Frost Giants, the avalanche soon became the child, which, as it grew up, so terribly fast, took after its daddy. It liked to flatten out trees, and houses, and smash things. It generally so frightened men, dogs, cats and the big animals, that dared to come near the everlasting heights of ice and snow, where the Frost Giants lived, that, in old times, no one in winter went up to the high peaks.

As a rule, nobody knows, either in summer or winter, just when the avalanches will fall, or whether they will be made of light, powdery, dry snow, or of snow that is heavy, wet, and like what the boys call “soakers.” Yet there are some old men in Switzerland, who can foretell avalanches, as our wise men try to do with the weather.

Once upon a time, the Frost Giant’s baby, of which we are going to tell, was born, and great things were expected of it, even when it was only as big as a snowflake. But, when it grew up, to be a real avalanche, it behaved very differently from all the others. It disappointed its daddy and its uncles awfully. The Frost Giants like to make all the mischief they can, while this one wanted to help men, instead of hurting them, and made a new record in the history of colossal snowballs.

It was on a summer’s day, when the Frost Giants all gathered together on a big mountain top, to celebrate the birthday of their king. On his part, he was to treat them to a sight of an unusually wonderful baby. It was to be in the form of a ball of snow, that, when it become a mighty mass, would wipe out one great forest, two big villages, with all the people and cattle in it, and then roll into the valley. There it would destroy hundreds of acres of farms and vineyards, block up the roads, multiply funerals, and waste so many millions of men’s dollars, that years would pass away before prosperity and good times would come again. The Frost King had a map of the route, which the young avalanche was to travel, and he showed it around freely. This was what the Frost Giants loved to do, for they hated flowers and butterflies, and cows and men.

When the white Frost Giants had come together, and all had arrived, in their coats of hard snow and with long beards of icicles, the Frost King invited them to gather at the edge of a precipice, under a jagged peak, that had many times been riven and splintered by lightning. Then he bade them look down over the landscape, while he pointed out the track which he expected his hopeful offspring, the newborn avalanche, was to take, from the time it started, until it had done its work in levelling forests, villages and vineyards. Then, using the big palm of his hand as a diagram, and his five fingers as pointers—just as a fortune teller finds out and assures a girl what kind of a husband she will have—he told them just what he was sure would happen. On reaching the valley, the big ball would spread itself over a square mile or two, while covering up and ruining the grain fields.

After that, it would take the sunshine and warm south wind at least two or three years to melt the mass, while thousands of people would be in mourning for their dead children and kinsfolk. Or, reduced to beggary, they would bewail the loss of all they had in this world. To hear the old Frost King, as his tongue wagged, and the icicles of his beard flopped up and down, as the chief chin-chopper of the party, you would have thought that this baby avalanche, that was to start today was the greatest and most famous ever known.

“Now watch,” said the Frost King.

It was midday in midsummer, and the heat was great, as he took up a mass of wet snow, hardly more than a dipper full, but already made soft by the sun’s rays. He squeezed the mass hard, between the palms of his hands. To the Frost Giants, it seemed scarcely bigger than a pill.

Then, striking an attitude, like a baseball pitcher, or a man playing tenpins, and about to roll the ball along down the alley, the Frost King held up before them the dark gray, sticky ball. As he fondled and patted it, as his own child, the Frost King called out, “I name thee, my son, ‘Soaker Smash-All,’ and I expect thee to break all records. Make the widest swathe of ruin, my son, ever known among men. The sun is mine enemy, and, through thee, I shall spoil his work and give him plenty of labor to restore it. Go!”

Saying this, the toss was made and the ball set rolling.

At first, for several seconds, with Soaker Smash-All, it was more like ploughing, than rolling its way through the drifts, for the slope was slight. Then, as the incline grew more steep, the tumbling became more rapid, until about a half mile from the starting point, the baby avalanche had, by its leaps and bounds grown so fast, as to be already as big as a barn. It was bouncing swiftly along, when, instead of going straight ahead, as its daddy, the Frost King, had planned and expected, it rolled against a rounded rock, that curved up and backwards, like the dashboard of a sleigh, or the roof of a pagoda.

At once, it swerved to the right and bounded high up in the air, as though some Frost Giant was playing foot ball, and was trying to hit the goal.

Then all sorts of funny things began to happen.

The Frost Giants were terribly disappointed at seeing their pet mount up in the air like a pigskin ball from the foot of a first class kicker, even before it was half grown. To behave so differently, from what its daddy had felt sure of, and told the Frost Giants it would do, seemed like disobedience. For, was not this avalanche the Frost King’s son? Instead of rolling straight down the valley, gathering force for its final plunge, at every yard, it was apparently trying to climb up to the moon.

“That youngster is altogether too smart,” whispered one old giant to another.

Just a second or two, before this baby avalanche seemed to have lost both its head and its path, to go aside and play in the deep valley below, there was a hunter, on one side of the ravine, who had climbed up the high rocks, to get a shot at a herd of chamois that were feeding quietly on the other side.

Besides the buck or daddy chamois there were four mothers, each with a pretty little kid, hardly two months old, beside her. Now it was not the season for hunting, and it was against the law, which allowed the mother chamois a quiet interval, and the kids, time to grow up; for a chamois kid needs to be educated just as a child does.

But this fellow, named Erni, was both cruel and lawless. He had brought his spy glass with him and, pulling it out, swept the distant faces of the great cliffs to find his game. Just as this promising family—a buck, with a harem of four does, and as many kids—hove in sight, his fancy was tickled. Law or no law, he would shoot. He laid down his glass, pointed the rifle and took cool aim, hoping to bring down two of the chamois at a shot. Then he pulled the trigger. With that gun, it was a case of “a fire at one end and a fool at the other.”

Alas, for human hopes! There is many a slip between muzzle and game. In his case a miss was as good as a mile, or even a league. In the cruel hunter’s brain there had been already a flitting vision of venison pot-pie and chamois steak. He even saw, in his day dream, two fine pairs of mounted horns adorning his parlor walls.

But the daddy of the chamois family had, a second before, thrown up his nose and caught a whiff of some human being near. Looking up in alarm, he saw the huge snow ball in the air above him. Giving the usual sort of whistle, as chamois sentinels do, the whole family started to run, as if racing with the wind, to get under the shelter of an overhanging rock.

Already the bullet had sped, and, despite their speed, one or two chamois might have fallen, but the movement of an avalanche had so thickened and condensed the air, that it was like firing a pellet of lead into molasses, making the ball go slowly. This was what is called “the wind of the avalanche,” which sometimes kills men and beasts.

Instead of the heart of a chamois, the rifle bullet struck the monster snowball in the centre, but it hurt the avalanche no more than a flea bite on the end of an elephant’s tail.

We cannot here tell what Erni, the enraged hunter, said.

Having lost the whole day in climbing and now, tired, hungry and vexed with disappointment, he trudged back. When he reached home, his wife kept quiet, his children had to keep away from him, and he did not say his prayers that night.

On the contrary, in the forest home of the chamois, there was much rejoicing, for they had heard the ring of the rifle and seen its flash. In fact, avalanches were very popular in chamois society, for even when one was seen coming, soon enough, the bucks and does could easily dodge them.