Czech Folk Tales/The Waternick
Once upon a time there were two children, a boy and a girl. They only had a mother, who was a widow. One day their mother sent them to get some wood for the fire. Off they went. The girl was just learning to knit, so she put a ball of wool in her pocket. They went on as far as they knew the way. Then suddenly they began to wonder whether they could find their way home.
The girl said: "I will bind the end of the thread to a tree, and so we shall be able to find our way back."
So they went on till the thread had all run out. Then they turned back, but they found that wild creatures had broken the thread. What were they to do? They wandered on till night fell, and then they saw that they would have to spend the night in the forest. They came to a pond, and they found that they could not go any farther. So they walked round the pond till the Waternick got hold of them. He took them with him, and there they were.
When he got home with them, his wife was waiting for him. Round the stove there were some shelves for vessels that they used for catching poor souls in. The Waternick and his wife were delighted with the children; they decided that they would employ them as servants, so Mrs. Waternick took charge of them. The children spent some years in this way and learned about everything under the water.
One day the Waternick went away to catch some human souls, and he gave orders to Mrs. Waternick not to leave the children alone. But the old hag fell asleep and the children walked some distance from the hut, till they thought she would scold them, and so they returned home. But they meant to go farther the next day, if only the old hag went to sleep again. As soon as they were sure that she was asleep they ran out of the hut and went as far as they could.
The old hag woke up and cried out: "Where are you, children?"
She jumped to her feet and ran after them. They were within a few steps of getting safe away, when, alas! she overtook them. She took them back and forced them to work, and they had to stay at home besides.
When the Waternick came home, she told him all about it, and the Waternick said: "Never mind. I'll set them to work, and they won't have time to think about making their way home."
So in the morning he took them to the forest and gave them a wooden hatchet and a wooden saw and bade them, fell the trees.
"When they are all cut down, you shall go back again."
So the Waternick left them, and the children began the work at once. They took the saw and tried to cut down a tree. But the saw soon broke and they were done for. So they took the hatchet, and the hatchet split in two after one stroke. They began to cry.
"Things look bad for us." they said.
Since they saw that they could not help themselves, they stayed where they were, and presently they fell asleep. I don't know how long they had been sleeping. But it was already time to go back.
The Waternick came and asked: "Have you finished?"
They said that the hatchet and saw were only made of wood, and that both were broken. He took them home.
Next day the Waternick went about his work, while Mrs. Waternick was busy outside the hut. The children looked at the cups on the shelves. The cups were tilted up. So the girl lifted one of them. And she heard the words: "God speed you!" She lifted another, and the same greeting came again. So she kept on lifting the cups till she had lifted all of them. Human souls had been imprisoned under those cups. Now the hag came into the room and she saw that all the cups had been lifted. She began to curse, and she said that the children would certainly get a good thrashing when the old man came home.
The children often felt lonely; they thought of their mother and wondered if she were still alive, and what they could do to get away. So they decided that the next day, when the hag was sleeping, they would try how far they could get.
"If only we could get as far as home, it would be all right then."
In the morning the girl had to comb Mrs. Waternick's hair and dress her in her smart dress. When she had finished, Mrs. Waternick had a sleep. Now the children took to their heels; they were as quick as ravens, trying to get away before Mrs. Waternick should wake. Being swift on foot, they reached the shore. They leapt out and ran straight on again. Of course they heard the hag screeching behind them, but they were on dry land, so they thought: "We needn't care for anything now."
The hag soon stopped her pursuit. The children were tired, so they lay down under a tree in the forest and fell asleep. As they were sleeping, somebody woke them up. It was the forester. They told him that they were afraid of falling into the Waternick's hands again. But the forester told them not to be afraid, and asked how they came there. The children told him everything just as it had happened.
Now, the forester remembered that he had heard of a widow who had lost her children. So he thought that these must be the children. He said nothing, but he told his wife to get them some food, and asked the children to sit down and eat. The children thought the food was very nice, so he asked them what they were accustomed to eat. They said they were accustomed to eat flowers. So they ate plenty.
The forester decided to do all he could to get the children home. At last it was discovered where their mother lived, and so the children came back to her, and they lived with her until they died.