Myth Monday: The Ghost Mother (Danish Fairy Tale)
Myth Monday: The Ghost Mother (Danish Fairy Tale)
Okay, so this isn’t maybe the happiest of fairy tales, but it happens to be one of my favorites. I couldn’t remember all of the exact details, so I changed a few things, but the story is the same—a tale of a mother’s undying love for her children.
Once upon a time not very long ago lived a Danish earl and his beautiful young wife. The pair loved each other and were parents to three beautiful children. Sadly, the young mother’s health was poor, and not long after giving birth to her last baby, she developed childbed fever and died. Before she passed away, she took her husbands hands into her own rapidly chilled ones and begged him to look after their children, to love and care for them and protect them from wickedness … and promised that if he didn’t, she would come back to set things right.
The earl was devastated by the loss of his wife, and the children were brokenhearted without their loving mother. After a while the earl found his loneliness unbearable and was saddened to see his children without a mother, so he resolved to remarry. In time he met another young woman—charming, fantastically rich, from a powerful family and even more lovely than his first wife—and he fell helplessly in love. So helplessly, in fact, that he swiftly married her and became so entranced that he forgot about his children.
The new wife, however, did not forget about the earl’s young children. She couldn’t forget about them because she hated them so much it nearly drove her to madness. She couldn’t stand that she was supposed to be caring for the whelps of another woman. She thought the children were dirty and repulsive, their high voices like cat’s claws on her ears, constantly underfoot, constantly wherever she was. She hated when her new husband would stop paying attention to her to tend to his children, so she worked as hard as she could to make the earl so obsessed with her that he had no time or interest in his family. As the earl became more neglectful, the stepmother became crueler, taking away the children’s clothes and giving them rags to wear, feeding them pigsty scraps, beating them, taking away their beds and making them sleep together on a pile of moldy straw in the stables, sharing a ratty blanket. The stepmother effectively drove them out of their own home, and if the earl noticed, he was too enamored of his new wife to care.
The children cried themselves to sleep every night, fearing the day their stepmother would end their lives, wondering why their father had abandoned them like this. Huddled together on their bed of straw, the children hugged each other, wept, and prayed, and whispered to each other memories of their mother, their real mother, the one who had loved them more than she had loved her own life. Remembering her was the only joy they had left in this world.
One cold, wet night, as an angry storm rumbled in the distance, a stable boy made his way back to the hayloft where he slept at night. Carrying his lit candle, the young man paused outside the old stall where the earl’s children slept, as he did every night since they had been banished there by their wicked stepmother. He pitied them, but didn’t dare to say anything to the earl; the new wife’s wrath was legendary, and the earl was always too eager to do whatever she demanded, just to keep her happy. The stable boy didn’t want to lose his job—or his life—by complaining about the children’s mistreatment, though it always filled him with guilt.
As he stopped outside the stall, the stable boy raised his candle higher to shine light on the sleeping children … but what he saw froze his heart in horror, making him nearly drop the lit candle on the straw-covered floor. Terrified, he stared at the black form as it hunched down beside the three sleeping children, running its long fingers gently through their hair as it moved to each one. It bent down, the matted curtain of its dark hair tumbling down, brushing each child’s face as the thing pressed its gray lips to their foreheads before sitting up, reaching over, and pulling a heavy white quilt over them. The thing shivered, its shoulders hitching, and a sound like a sob ground out of it.
Before the stable boy could work his dry mouth, the figure stood up, moving smoothly, seeming to uncoil itself like a cobra. It stood erect, slowly turning its gray, tear-streaked face to him, and the boy reeled back, choking on a scream.
It was the earl’s dead wife!
The boy staggered, blinked once, and instantly the ghost was gone, leaving the violently shaking stable hand there with the three sleeping children, each tucked under the quilt, a small smile on their faces.
As the boy fought to regain his senses, the earl and his new wife were asleep in their ornate bed in their finest room. Unlike the children, the couple were warm and dry and comfortable—until something woke them up. They didn’t hear anything, nothing nudged them, but they both woke up instantly at the same time, strangely worried.
The fire continued to burn brightly in the hearth, but the room was frigidly cold, so much so that the earl and the stepmother could see their own breath. As they sat groggily up, they both became aware of an odor wafting around them, faint at first, growing increasingly and rapidly stronger. A smell of earth, of something strangely sweet and musty at the same time …
Instantly, cold dread seized the couple, and in unison they both looked to the foot of their bed, finding the curtains there had been pulled back. A figure stood there, silhouetted against the fire behind it. Its head hung low, long, snarled hair hanging down either side of its shadowed face like a tangled net. Its shoulders were heaving, as if it were barely able to contain its rage.
Alarmed and angry, the earl shouted, “How dare you come into our rooms while we sleep! Who do you think you are? Tell me what you’re doing here!”
A wet, rasping noise filled the room—the sound of the thing taking a breath. Its hands, held rigid at its sides, curled its twig-like fingers up as it slowly lifted its head. Two dull spots of light, like fading stars, stared at the couple, the gaze deep and cold and unrelenting.
The thing sucked in another hoarse breath. “I told you what would happen if you didn’t care for my babies.”
The earl froze, his eyes growing huge, the blood racing away from his face. He knew that voice …
With a rattling snarl, the ghost of the earl’s dead wife lifted her leg and stepped up onto the mattress of what had once been their bed, stalking towards the couple. Terrified, the stepmother screamed, scrambling back as much as she could until she slammed into the headboard, unable to escape. All the earl could do was shake his head in horrified denial as the rotting corpse of his first wife strode towards them, leaving a trail of clotting blood and rotting flesh on his blankets as she approached.
Unfurling a skeletal finger, the ghost lifted her arm and pointed at her faithless husband and his cruel bride, the skin hanging from her arm in strips. Her bloodied, lidless eyes bulged out around the pit in the center of her face where her nose had been, once perched above a mouth whose lips had decayed away, unveiling sneering, yellowed teeth.
“I warned you!” the ghost screamed. “I warned you that if you did not care and protect my children, then I would come back and avenge them. You did not keep your end of the promise, so now I am fulfilling mine!”
Hysterical with fear, the earl finally shrieked in terror and spun away, throwing himself into the arms of his wildly sobbing new wife, both of them begging for mercy, vowing to make up for all the evil they had done to the ghost’s children, swearing to it, begging her to leave …
And just like that, the ghost vanished. The room warmed, the smell of decomposition faded away, the rotting flesh and bloodstains disappeared. The earl and his second wife huddled there, clinging to each other, both too fearful to risk a look, to see if the vengeful spirit had actually departed. As soon as they could summon the courage, the pair leapt out of bed and raced down to the stables, scooping up the sleeping children and rushing them back to their rooms.
From that moment on, the earl never neglected his children again, and their stepmother showered them with love and devotion for the rest of their lives. They never saw the spirit of the children’s mother again … though whenever the earl grew distracted, or the stepmother became the least bit harsh, a cold breath would flitter across the backs of their necks, and invisible, clawed fingers dug into their bodies to remind them that the children’s true mother was always nearby to protect them, that even the depths of the grave could not keep her from the ones she loved.