This fairy tale is English, taken from the 1986 Magnet edition of A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders. It makes me think of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, asking Dorothy ‘Are you a good witch or a bad witch?’. Were the question posed to the titular character in this story, the answer would surely be ‘I am a pissed-off witch’.
The story starts when the breadwinner of a small household falls sick and it falls to his daughters to keep the family from ruin. One sister is fully occupied with bemoaning their bad luck; the other sister packs her things and goes to look for a job. Unfortunately it’s a bad time to get employment as a servant and as she is turned from door after door, she goes further and further from home until she comes to a…shall we say eccentric part of the countryside.
As she passes a place where there is a hot oven, the loaves inside call out to her, “Little girl, little girl, take us out, take us out! We have been baking for seven years, and no one has come to take us out.” Possessing an admirable degree of chill, the girl takes out the bread and continues on her way. Next thing she knows, there’s a cow calling out for her help, declaring that it has not been milked in seven years. The girl stops, milks the cow, drinks a little milk and leaves the rest in pails in a field. On she goes until another cry for help reaches her ear, this time from an apple tree loaded down with ripe fruit. It has apparently been waiting seven years for its harvest to be picked. The girl calmly shakes down the fruit and walks on.
This is precisely the sort of country where you would expect to find a witch in residence, and what’s more, she’s hiring. Though the work is hard, it’s not Baba Yaga impossible – the witch wants someone to do all her housework, and her only stipulation is that the girl must never, ever look up the chimney. “Or you will repent it,” the witch assures her.
There’s only one problem with this job. The witch doesn’t want to pay her servant, because then the girl will leave and the witch will have to scrub her own floors. The girl puts up with the delays for some time, but one day while the witch is out of the house and the girl is cleaning the hearth stones, she absent-mindedly glances up the chimney. Immediately, a jingling bag of coins falls to the ground. Naturally, the girl looks again, and soon discovers that every time she looks up that chimney, it gives her money. Before long, she has more bags of gold than she can possibly carry. She loads herself up and books it out the door.
All of sudden she hears the witch shrieking behind her. Panicked, the girl runs to the apple tree that she helped and cries out:
“Apple tree, apple tree, hide me
So the old witch can’t find me
If she does, she’ll pick my bones
And bury me under the marble stones.”
The apple tree conceals her among its branches and lies its leaves off when the witch asks whether her thieving servant came that way. The way she phrases her question (opening with ‘Tree of mine, tree of mine, have you seen a girl’) implies that the peculiar creatures around these parts are also in her service, and their respectful replies (‘no, mother; not for seven years’) support that, but they don’t seem to like her all that much. When the girl scrambles out of the apple tree and takes refuge with the cow, it lies to the witch as well, and the baker responsible for the talking bread does that same thing. The oven goes further. When the witch looks into its depths, the door slams shut on her, and she is stuck inside while the girl runs safely away.
Enter sister number two. When the first girl returns home with armfuls of gold it is the end of all the family’s financial worries, but that’s not quite enough riches for the second daughter of the household and she sets off to find the witch’s house for herself. There’s a second fortune there for the claiming – after all, how hard could it possibly be to look up a chimney? This girl encounters the loaves of bread, the cow and the tree, but though they call to her, she has no interest in stopping to help any of them. She can barely keep a civil tongue with the witch, secretly giggling to herself over the old woman’s gullibility. The first time the witch leaves her alone in the house, the second sister grabs as many bags of gold as she can and takes off. But the witch quickly realises that she has been robbed and when the girl asks the apple tree to hide her, the tree’s response can be boiled down to ‘Karma’. The witch catches up, beats the would-be thief and sends her home without a penny.
Very much in the manner of Ruth Manning-Sanders retellings, the witch is not portrayed as good or bad so much as simply there. If you mess with her, you take your chances; the story will not take your side.