There was once a young man and his wife who lived together in a high, stony land where no trees grew. They dug a well, and built their home to stand against wind and rain, but there was one thing missing.
‘We need to plant a rowan tree,’ said the wife. ‘The house isn’t safe from evil till we do.’
Her husband scoffed at this.
‘Surely you don’t believe such nonsense!’ he said to his wife. But he was wrong. For the rowan has many uses, both against evil and as a cure for weakness and sorrow.
As long as the year was green, the couple was as happy as two birds in one nest. Yet as the summer turned to autumn, the wife found she was expecting a child.
‘I shall die if I don’t have a taste of the red berries from the rowan tree,’ said she. ‘Though they are as bitter as gall, yet I must eat some.’
‘How will I recognize the tree?’ asked the husband.
‘It has leaves like feathers that become gold, and white flowers that turn into red berries,’ said his wife. ‘If you find it, put a sprig in your jacket to ward off evil on your journey.’
But as he searched, her husband disregarded this advice. And while he was away, his wife had the baby, and named her Rowan.
Now there was a witch living nearby, and when she saw how the husband was going about, she hurried ahead to where the wife was still weak in bed.
‘Let me in, and I will help you,’ she said; and the wife opened the door. Then the witch smothered the poor young wife, so that she fell back like one dead. The witch threw the body of the child’s true mother out on the ash-pit and took possession of the house.
When the man returned, he had eyes only for the child and never noticed that the witch had taken his wife’s place. The child she treated cruelly, and would have starved her to death but for the care of the father, and for the name she had been given. So things went on, with the husband bewitched, and the child living on scraps, and the cold wind blowing all the time. Only the witch was content, for she could grow fat among them like a maggot in a bud.
One day, however, Rowan wandered out to the ash-pit, and where her tears fell a silver tree sprang up. It had feathery green leaves and a cloud of starry white flowers, and a thrush sang in its branches.
‘Why are you crying?’ the thrush asked.
‘I cry because my mother beats me, and because I am hungry,’ the child said.
‘That is no mother but a witch,’ said the thrush. ‘Your true mother lies under this tree, with ash in her mouth and love in her heart.’
‘How may I help her?’ the child asked, and the thrush said, ‘Water the tree every day with your tears, and talk to me as you would your mother.’
So every day from then on, the child watered the tree and talked to the thrush. In return the tree shaded her from the sun, caressing her with its leaves and showering white flowers on her face. And wherever the thrush flew, a new tree grew, with leaves that turned to gold and flowers that became red berries.
Soon the house was surrounded by a thick hedge which shut out the cold wind. The husband was glad because for the first time he could make all kinds of things he needed, from planks to handles, from spindles to cartwheels.
‘Cut down the tree, husband, and burn it,’ said the witch, but the man refused.
‘This is indeed a most wonderful tree,’ he said, and he picked a sprig of it and stuck it in his jacket. And when he had done so, he looked at the witch and asked, ‘Who are you, and where is my wife?’
Then the witch was afraid, and she ran out of the house, for she knew her spell was broken. But as she passed under the rowan tree it dropped three red berries onto her head, and she fell into a little pile of ashes which the cold wind took up and blew away. Then out of the tree stepped the child’s true mother, laughing and crying, and the child’s father remembered her, and kissed her, and their child kissed them both. So all three of them were reunited, and could live in happiness.