A Tale of the Tontlawald

Long, long ago in a country filled with many lakes lay a vast stretch of marsh called the Tontlawald. No one dared to venture there. It was known to be filled with ghosts who would walk the marshes, drowning anyone who ventured too close. A single village was situated nearby, and the people who looked upon the Tontlawald at night saw strange lights dancing in the marsh mists.

In that village lived a young couple notorious for their terrible tempers. They were desperately poor, and in frustration they made life miserable for each other. This couple had a daughter named Elsa who they treated very poorly. They would beat her when they were mad with each other, and the poor girl lived in terror of their moods.

Elsa left the house whenever she could, performing chores for neighbor families in exchange for scraps of food. She was small for her age, with large sad eyes and sallow skin. While all the village knew of her plight, no one intervened on her behalf.

In the middle of one cold night, Elsa woke to the sound of her parents shouting at each other. Scared that they would turn on her, she carefully slipped out of their house. She wandered in the village in the darkness afraid to go home. Up and down the dirt streets on her little bare feet she walked until she came to the edge of the Tontlawald.

“I am tired of this life,” she said to herself. “I do not care if the ghosts eat me, I will no longer stay here.” With that, she stepped onto the Toltlawald and began walking away from the village. She had ventured just a few feet when a small black dog with a silver bell on its neck ran up to her. It jumped merrily, barked, and then ran off into the grasses. Elsa chased after the dog, following the sound of its silver bell.

She followed the dog until the lights of the village were gone far behind her. Suddenly she stepped into the path of a young girl her age, dressed in red.

“Oh,” the strange girl said, “you have found my dog. Thank you!”
“You are welcome,” said Elsa. “My name is Elsa. Why are you here? This place is full of ghosts and is not safe!”
“I live here, but if you think it is not safe, why are you here?” asked the girl.
“I do not care if I am safe,” Elsa replied. “My life is terrible, so I decided to wander into the Tontlawald to disappear in the marsh.”

The girl looked Elsa up and down, noting her bare feet and bruises. “Don’t despair,” she replied. “My name is Kisika. Come home with me to see my mother, she will know how to help you.”

Kisika took Elsa’s hand, and led her through the Tontlawald. The walked for some time, and as the girls traveled the marsh was replaced by a forest of tall thin birch and alder trees. They soon came to a beautiful stone house, surrounded by tall trees and a garden.

“This is my mother’s house,” said Kisika. “Do come in, she will be glad to see you!”

As they stepped in, a tall warm woman greeted them. “Kisika,” she murmured, “who is with you?”
“Mother, this is Elsa,” the girl replied. “I found her in the Tontlawald.”

The woman looked at Elsa with dark sad eyes, and stroked her cheeks gently. “Elsa, why are you here?” she asked.

Elsa looked back into her eyes, and fat tears ran down her face. “My parent’s do not care about me,” Elsa cried. “All they do is hit me and yell at me. I am always hungry and cold. Everyone in the village knows, but no one will help me.”

The mother held Elsa close while she cried, and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Do not be afraid Elsa,” she whispered. “My name is Murueit, and you shall be my child until you are strong enough to be on your own. Until then you will be another daughter to me, and you and Kisika will be dear sisters.”

While Elsa calmed down the mother bathed Elsa, bandaged the girl’s cuts, and gave her new clothes and a beautiful belt to wear. Elsa sat in her new mother’s lap for many hours, listening to the sound of the woman’s heartbeat and the crackle of the fire.

As the sun was setting that day Kisika rushed up and shook Elsa awake. “Elsa, come play with me! Let’s go to the sea!”
“The sea?” asked Elsa. “What is that?”
“Come sister, I will show you.”

Kisika pulled a box off a shelf and rushed Elsa outside. Kisika lifted the lid off the box. Inside was a glass bottle of water, a strip of seaweed, two fish scales, and a mussel shell. Kisika drew a circle in the earth and laid these objects inside. She then opened the bottle and let two drops of water fall to the ground. As the water sank into the earth the garden fell away and the girls found themselves on a rocky shoreline. Elsa stared in wonder at the expanse of the sea sparkling in the moonlight. Kisika placed the items back into the box, and the two girls ran off to play.

The girls spent many hours running about the rocks of the shore, dipping their feet in the water, and watching the birds hunt for small fish to eat. Eventually Kisika took her sister’s hand again and the two of them returned to the small box. Kisika made a circle around them with small stones, and laid the items inside again. She then dripped the water from the bottle, and the girls found themselves back in their mother’s garden.

The girls went into the house and entered a large hall, where twenty-four elegant women were sitting at a long table. In the middle of the table was piles of clay. At the head of the table sat Murueit, the lady of the house. Kisika took Elsa’s hand, and led her up to sit next to their mother. The women whispered quietly among themselves in a language Elsa could not understand.

Suddenly the mother stood, and took Elsa’s hand. “Look at this girl” she said, pointing to Elsa. “She is now my daughter. We need to make a copy of her or the village shall come looking for her.”

The women looked Elsa up and down, and set to work the clay into a doll the size of Elsa. One of the women drilled a hole in the doll’s breast, just where her heart would be. Another picked up a piece of bread from the table, and pushed it through the hole. A third rushed outside, and returned with a small green snake writhing in her hands. She then pushed the snake inside the hole at the doll’s heart. A fourth patched the hole with a small ball of clay.

“Now,” said Murueit, “all that is left is a small drop of the girl’s blood.” The mother pulled out a tiny golden pin, and gently pricked Elsa’s hand. She walked over to the doll, and carefully pushed the pin into the doll’s clay heart. “Now go to bed girls,” said the mother, “we will finish the doll while you two sleep.”

Kisika took Elsa’s hand and led her to their soft warm bed. The two girls curled up next to each other and soon fell asleep. Elsa slept sounder than she had in her entire life, and had beautiful dreams.

Elsa woke the next morning and ventured back into the hall that the women had worked in through the night. They were still there, and sitting on the table was a doll painted to look exactly like Elsa, dressed in her old clothes. Elsa was frightened as the doll looked like her in all respects. “Do not be afraid,” said Murueit. “This doll will be sent to your parents in your village, so it will be beaten instead of you. It is not alive, and cannot feel pain, but will act like you so they do not know you are gone.”

That night the doll was dropped off at the home of Elsa’s parents. The doll knocked at the door, and the couple dragged the doll inside. They beat the doll soundly, believing it was Elsa, and sent it to bed.

One day while the husband was out the woman became so enraged that she picked up a pan and bashed the doll’s head in, believing it was her daughter. The clay shattered, and the small snake jumped out and landed on the woman’s face. It bit her lip and slithered off into the grass. The woman’s throat and face swelled, her heart stopped, and she fell down a dead and swollen corpse.

The doll then disappeared into dust, leaving nothing but the scrap of bread on the floor. The husband came home and saw his wife’s corpse on the floor and chuckled to himself. Hungry, he picked up the bread and ate it. As he swallowed it he choked, and fell dead on the floor. Their neighbors found the two swollen corpses lying in the house and buried them. They assumed that Elsa had ran away and never thought of her again.

Meanwhile, Elsa grew safe and happy in her new home. The years passed like the wind and she grew into a lovely woman. Murueit and Kisika taught Elsa the language of the birds, writing, and how to read the stars. But as Elsa aged, Kisika remained the same child she was on the first day they met on the Tontlawald. They were still dear sisters but a distance grew between them. Elsa began to dream of a life outside of their home, while Kisika was content to play with her dolls and the other toys of a child.

The mother saw the sadness and restlessness growing in Elsa’s eyes, and pulled her aside one day. “Dear daughter, what worries you?” she asked. “I am growing older,” Elsa replied. “I was a small child when I came here, but now am a grown woman. But you and Kisika have never aged a day. Why is this?”

The mother replied, “You are a human, while your sister and I are creatures quite different. We do age and grow old, but it is so slowly compared to your lives you cannot see it. If you wish to have a family of your own, you will need to return to your people.”

“I love you and Kisika dearly,” she replied. “But I need to leave this home and start a new life.”

“If that is what you wish, we will help you do so,” whispered her mother.

The next morning, Elsa was ready to leave the home of her childhood. Kisika and Murueit kissed her sweetly and embraced her. Her mother placed a small gold ring on Elsa’s finger, and a silver necklace around her neck. Murueit then drew a circle around Elsa, whispering soft words Elsa could not understand. When the circle was completed, Elsa turned into an eagle. Kisika and Murueit waved their goodbyes as Elsa flew away into the sky.

Elsa flew for days, rejoicing in her new freedom until she flew over a great dark forest. She suddenly felt a terrible, sharp pain, and saw that an arrow had pierced her wing. She carefully came to land, and as her claws touched the earth she turned back into a woman. Groaning in pain, she sat on the ground at the base of a tree.

She soon heard the sound of hooves, and a young man came riding up to her on a horse. Seeing that she was bleeding he went to her aid. “Lady,” he asked. “How did you come to be injured? For the last year as I slept, I dreamt of finding a woman just like you in this wood. I have passed by every day in the hope of finding you.”

“I am Elsa,” she replied. “I was flying above the forest as an eagle, when someone shot me down.” He was frightened at her words, believing her to be a witch or a ghost who had enchanted him. Nevertheless he bandaged her wounds, and carried her to his father’s home.

Elsa stayed as a guest in that house, and she and the young man soon fell in love, and were married. Soon after, Elsa gave birth to their first child. As the baby gave its first cries, the family heard a dog barking outside. The father opened the door to investigate, and a small black dog with a silver bell about its neck sat at the doorway. It barked in greeting, walked in, and curled by the fire to sleep.

To read a full text version of this story from the early 1900s, visit this site:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/641/641-h/641-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

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