In this Grimm fairy tale, a miller falls on hard times, his resources dwindling until all he has left is the mill and the apple tree that grows behind it. With a wife and daughter to support, he takes to cutting wood in the forest nearby, and one day while he’s working a stranger appears at his side. “There’s no reason you have to torture yourself by cutting wood,” the old man wheedles. “I’ll make you rich if you promise to give me what’s behind your mill.”
What’s an apple tree to untold riches? The miller agrees on the spot. In writing. This is not a clever man we are dealing with here. Promising to return in three years time to collect his side of the bargain, the stranger departs, and the miller goes home to tell his wife of their good fortune. Turns out, she already knows. “Tell me, miller, how did all this wealth suddenly get into our house?” All the chests and boxes of in the mill have been magically filled and she is rightfully suspicious about it. When the miller explains, her fear turns to dread. It wasn’t an old man, it was the devil – and it’s not the apple tree he has claimed, either. It is their daughter, who was sweeping behind the mill when the contract was signed.
So it’s a terrible mistake, but an understandable one. When the devil shows up to collect three years later, the girl washes herself scrupulously clean and takes refuge inside a chalk circle that he cannot cross. When they say cleanliness is next to godliness, they really mean it. Furiously, the devil orders that water be kept from her so that she cannot wash, but her tears bathe her hands and still he can’t touch her. Her father, however, can. “Chop off her hands,” the devil tells him. “If you don’t do it, you’re mine, and I’ll come and get you myself!”
And he does it. Not only does he mutilate his own daughter to save himself, he does it knowing full well she’s to be taken by the actual devil as a direct consequence. But her tears fall so fast that the stumps, too, are washed clean, and the devil loses all claim to her. Her father tries to atone for what he’s done by promising her wealth and security, paid for with the blood money, but she refuses to stay and sets off into the world alone.
I approve of the sentiment, not the execution; she is more or less helpless and after a long day walking nowhere she finds herself hungry, exhausted and miserable outside a royal orchard. The fruit is torturously close, on the other side of a moat. Luckily for her, all that piety and suffering has paid off – when she falls to her knees praying, an angel shows up and parts the waters so that she can cross to the fruit trees. Could have shown up a little earlier, angel! Just saying!
The miller’s daughter eats a pear direct from the branch and hides in the bushes to sleep, unaware she has been observed by a gardener and mistaken for a spirit. When this tale is brought to the ear of the king, he decides to see the mysterious thief for himself and brings along a priest for a night’s stakeout in the orchard. Sure enough, the girl returns and the priest rises from hiding to question her. “I’m not a spirit,” she explains, “but a poor creature forsaken by everyone except God.” “You may be forsaken by the whole world,” exclaims the lovestruck king, “but I shall not forsake you.”
Aww. You’re a king, sweetie, the stats are against you, but it’s a nice thought.
So he takes her home to the palace and marries her. He even has a pair of silver hands crafted to replace the ones chopped off by her cowardly father. After a year of marriage, however, war breaks out. Placing her under the care of his mother, he rides away.
Not long afterwards, the girl gives birth to their first child. The king’s mother writes to tell him he has a son, but the devil’s not done messing up the girl’s life yet; he intercepts the message, so that by the time it reaches the king it tells him the young queen has given birth to a changeling. The king is of course upset, but his answering instructions are that the queen and her child should be cared for and protected. He really did mean that thing about not forsaking her! That isn’t at all the reaction the devil wanted, so he switches messages again. The reply the king’s mother receives commands her to kill his wife and child.
To her credit, she doesn’t believe that for a minute and sends more messages to her son in the hope of different orders. Instead, she is told to not only kill them, but keep the girl’s tongue and eyes as proof. Accepting that her son has turned into a murderous lunatic, the old queen acts to protect her daughter-in-law and grandchild as best she can, putting away the tongue and eyes of a doe instead and sending the young queen out into the world with her boy strapped to her back.
The devil has his forgery scheme, but the queen has an angel on side, who reappears in her life in this hour of need and leads her to a free lodging house run by a second angel and part-time wet-nurse who is delighted to look after both queen and child for as long as necessary. Good thing too. Over the course of seven years, probably as the result of prolonged celestial contact, the girl’s hands grow back like fingernails or something. As exiles go, this is pretty nice.
The king, on the other hand, comes back from almost a decade at war expecting to see his wife and child and is instead met with the righteous rage of his disillusioned mother. When she sees that he is really distraught, though, she tells him that the young queen is still alive. Probably. “I shall go as far as the sky is blue, without eating or drinking, until I find my dear wife and child,” the king declares. “That is, unless they have been killed or died of hunger in the meantime.”
Oh dear, I really don’t think you’ve thought this through?
Well, his search takes SEVEN MORE YEARS, and he doesn’t eat or drink at all during this time, but apparently the will of God is enough to keep him alive, though not enough to give him directions. Eventually he stumbles across the cottage where the queen, her son and the lodging-house angel of mercy have been living for the past fourteen years. The young prince is half-grown and known by the name of Sorrowful. When she thinks the king is asleep, the queen takes Sorrowful to see him and tries to explain their relationship. During the boy’s questioning, the king wakes. He cannot be sure at first that the woman in front of him is really his wife – the thing with the hands is a tad peculiar, after all – but hey, he’s survived on guilt alone for seven years, so whatever. They all go home to live with his mother, the king and queen marry again, and presumably somebody gets that poor kid some counselling.
Well, that makes a change. For once, the king is not only not responsible for the disasters that befall his family, he actively seeks to remedy them. This is a macabrely funny story with a memorable cast of characters; an angel who runs a lodging-house in the middle of nowhere, the devil so desperate for something to do that he resorts to petty forgery, and the excellent mother in law who has both feet squarely on the side of justice. I read this story expecting to be outraged, but it actually gives the female characters a better fate than many others I could name.