Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

The Juniper Tree

The traditional tale retold

Once upon a time, that very old people can still remember, there lived a man and his good and beautiful wife. They loved each other so much that the only thing they wished for was a little child. Each night before sleep they prayed for a child, but none came and nothing changed.

There was a yard in front of their house and in the centre grew a juniper tree. One winter’s day, the wife stood under the juniper tree peeling an apple, and as she was peeling it, she cut her finger and her blood wept onto the snow.

”Oh!” cried the wife, and she sighed deeply. She grew sad as she looked at the tears of blood on the snow. “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.” These words seemed to lighten her mood and she felt a glow of cheerfulness as though something might happen. Then she went inside.

After a month, the snow was gone. After two months, everything was green. After three months, the earth grew flowers. After four months, the trees in the forest thickened and their green branches stretched and touched and intertwined. The birds began to sing and their songs tumbled from the trees among the falling blossom. Soon the fifth month had come and gone, and when the wife stood beneath the juniper tree, its sweet scent flooded her heart with happiness and she fell to her knees, pierced with joy. When the sixth month had passed, the fruit was full and swollen and she was serene. In the seventh month, she picked the juniper berries and ate them so obsessively that she became sick and moody. After the eighth month had passed, she pulled her husband to her and wept.

“If I die,” she cried, “bury me under the juniper tree.”

After that, she was calm and contented until the ninth month was over. Then she had a child as red as blood and as white as snow. But when she looked at her baby for the first time, she was so ecstatic that she died.

Her husband buried her under the juniper tree and wept night and day. As time passed, he began to feel better, but there were still days when he cried. At last, he stopped, and after more suns and moons had gone, he found another wife. Together, he and his second wife had a daughter, while his child from his first wife was a little boy, who was as red as blood and as white as snow. Whenever the woman looked at her daughter, her heart bloomed with love for her. But when she looked at the boy, the same heart jerked with resentment. She knew that he would always be there to get in the way of her daughter inheriting everything. Then the devil gripped her and twisted her feelings towards the boy until she became very cruel to him. She jabbed him from here to there, slapped, slippered, clipped and cuffed him until the poor little boy was living in fear. When he came home after school, his life was hell.

One day, the woman went up to her room and her little girl came after her and asked, “Mutter, will you give me an apple?”

“Ja, meine liebling,” cooed the woman, and she chose her the most gorgeous apple from the chest which had a heavy wooden lid and a big sharp iron lock.

“Mutter,” said the little daughter, “shouldn’t Brother have one too?”

The woman was annoyed at this, but she said,”Ja, when he gets back from school.” And when she looked out of the window and saw the boy coming, the devil tightened his hold on her, and she snatched the apple from her daughter.

“No apples until Brother is here,” she said and she threw the apple into the chest and shut the lid.

The little boy came in and the devil made her be friendly to him and say, “Would you like a nice apple, mein liebling?” But she gave him a murderous look.

“Mutter,” said the boy, “how fierce you look! Yes please, I would like an apple.”

Then something made her entice him.

“Come here, come here,” she coaxed as she lifted the lid. ”Choose an apple for yourself.”

And as the boy bent over the chest, the devil possessed her, and bang! she slammed down the lid so hard that his little head flew off and rolled among the apples. The woman went cold with fear and thought, “How will I get away with this?” She flew up to her room and rushed to her dresser and yanked out a white neckerchief. She balanced the boy’s head back on his neck and tied the neckerchief around his throat to that nothing could be seen. Then she propped him in a chair in front of the door and twisted an apple into his hand.

A little while later, little Marlene came into the scullery and tugged at her mother, who was stirring, stirring, stirring a pot of boiling water in front of the fire.

“Mutter,” said Marlene, “ Brother is sitting by the door and he has turned very pale. He’s got an apple in his hand, but when I asked him to give me the apple he wouldn’t reply and now I’m frightened!”

“Go back to him,” said the woman, “and if he still won’t answer you, give him a good clout on the ear.”

Little Marlene went back to him and said, “Brother, give me the apple.”

But he said nothing. Nothing. So she fetched him a box on the ear and his head fell off. The little girl was so terrrified that she began to weep and wail. Then she ran to her mother and said, “Oh, Mutter, I’ve knocked my brother’s head off.” And she cried and cried and could not be comforted.

“Oh, Marlene,” said the woman, “what have you done! You’d better keep quiet about this. No-one must ever know. And anyway, there’s precious little we can do about it now. We’d best make a stew out of him.”

So the Mother got the little boy and chopped him into pieces. Then she tossed them into a pot and let them simmer and steam and stew. Marlene stood close by, sobbing, and her tears splashed onto the stew so it did not need any salt.

When the Father came home from work, he sat down at the table and asked, “Where is my son?”

The woman dished up a huge, steamy serving of the stew, and Marlene wept and wept and wept,

“Where’s my son?” the Father demanded again.

“Oh,” said the woman, “he’s away to the countryside to visit his mother’s great uncle. They’ll look after him well.”

“Oh, this has upset me,” said the Father. “It’s all wrong. He should have said goodbye to me.” Then he began to eat the stew, but said, “Marlene, what are you blubbing about? Your Brother will be home soon enough.” Still munching heartily, he said, “Wife, this food is delicious! Dish me up some more!” And the more he ate, the more he wanted. “More!” he said. “Give me some more! I’m not sharing a scrap of it. Somehow I feel this has got my name on it!”

As he chomped and chewed, he chucked the bones under the table until he was stuffed. But Marlene slipped to her dresser and fetched her best silk neckerchief from the bottom drawer. She tenderly gathered up all the bones from beneath the table, tied them up in her silk kerchief and carried them outside. Her tears were bitter as she placed the bones beneath the juniper tree. But as she lay them there, she felt suddenly consoled, and the tears dried on her cheeks. And now the juniper tree rustled and moved. The branches parted and joined, parted and joined, as though they were clapping their hands with joy. At the same time, smoke drifted out of the tree, and in the heart of the smoke there was a brightly burning fire. Then a wonderful bird flapped from the flames and began singing beautifully. He soared higher and higher into the air, and when he had disappeared, the juniper tree was just as it was before. But the silk neckerchief was gone. Marlene felt very light and happy. It was as though her brother was still alive, and she went gayly back into the house, sat down at the table, and ate.

Meanwhile, the bird flew away, landed on a goldsmith’s house, and began to sing:

“Meine mutter, she killed me.
Mein vater, he ate me.
My sister, Marlene,
made certain to gather
my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely,
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am!’”

The goldsmith was busy in his workshop, crafting a golden chain. He heard the bird singing on his roof and thought the sound was beautiful. He stood up to go outside and as he crossed the threshold, he lost a slipper. But he kept on walking, right into the middle of the road, with only one sock and a slipper on. He was also wearing his work apron, and in one hand he held the golden chain and in the other his tongs. The sun sparkled on the street as he walked and then he stopped to get a good look at the bird.

“Bird,” he said, “you sing so beautifully! Please sing me that song again.”

“No,” said the bird, “I don’t sing twice for nothing. Give me the golden chain and I’ll sing it for you once more.”

“It’s a deal,” said the goldsmith. “Here’s the golden chain. Now sing that lovely song again.”

The bird swooped down, scooped up the golden chain in his right claw,
stood before the goldsmith and began singing:

“Meine mutter she killed me.
Mein vater he ate me.
My sister, Marlene,
made certain to gather
my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am.”

Then the bird flapped away to a shoemaker’s house, perched on his roof and sang:

“Meine mutter she killed me.
Mein vater he ate me.
My sister, Marlene,
made certain to gather
my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am.”

When the shoemaker heard the song, he ran to the door in his singlet and squinted up at the roof, shielding his eyes from the bright sun with his hand.

“Bird,” he said, “you sing so beautifully!” Then he called into the house. “Wife! Come outside for a moment. There’s a bird up there. Look! He sings so beautifully!” Then he called his daughter and her children, and the apprentices and the maid. They all came hot-footing out into the street to squinny up at the bird, and they saw how truly beautiful he was. He had vivid bright feathers of red and green; his neck glistened like gold, and his eyes sparkled and shone in his head like stars.

“Bird,” said the shoemaker. “Please sing me that song again.”

“No,” said the bird. “I don’t sing twice for nothing. You’ll have to give me a present.”

“Wife,” said the man, “go into the shop. You’ll see a pair of red shoes on the top shelf. Fetch them here.”

His wife hurried and returned with the shoes.

“There you go!” said the man. “Now sing that lovely song again.”

The bird swooped down, scooped up the shoes in his left claw, flew back onto the roof, and sang:

“Meine mutter she killed me.
Mein vater he ate me.
My sister, Marlene,
made certain to gather
my bones altogether,
in silk wrapped so nicely
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am!’”

When the song was finished, the bird fluttered away. He clutched the gold chain in his right claw and the red shoes in his left, and he flew far away to a mill. Clickety-clack-clack-clack, clickety-clack-clack-clack, went the mill. The miller had twenty fellows working in the mill, and they were all hewing a millstone. Chick-chack, chick-chack, chick-chack, went twenty chisels. And the mill kept saying clickety-clack-clack-clack, clickety-clack-clack-clack. The bird flew down and perched on a linden tree outside the mill and sang:

“Meine mutter she killed me.”

One of the men stopped working.

“Mein vater he ate me.”

Then two more downed tools and listened.

“My sister, Marlene,
made certain to gather...”

Then four more stopped.

“...my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely...”

Now only eight chaps were chiselling.

“...under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!”

Now only five.

“...under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!’”

Now only one.

“What a beautiful bird I am!’”

Then the last chiseller chucked chiselling and listened to the final words.

“Bird,” he said, “you sing so beautifully! Let me hear it all! Sing your song to me again.”

“No,” answered the bird. “I don’t sing twice for nothing. Give me the millstone and then I’ll sing it for you again.”

“I would give it to you if I could,” said the man. “But the millstone doesn’t just belong to me.”

“If he sings the song again,” chorused his workmates, “we’ll give him the stone.”

So the bird swooped down and the twenty miller’s men grabbed beams to lift the stone. “Heave-ho! Heave-ho!” The bird pushed his neck through the hole and wore the stone like a collar. Then he flew back to the tree and sang:

“Meine mutter she killed me.
Mein vater he ate me.
my sister Marlene
made certain to gather
my bones altogether,
in silk wrapped so nicely,
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am!”

The bird finished the song and spread his wings. In his right claw, he had the chain, in his left the shoes, and around his neck the millstone. Then he flew away to his father’s house.

The father, the mother and Marlene were sitting at the table in the parlour, and the father cried, “Hurrah! I’m so happy! I feel absolutely wonderful!”

“I don’t, I don’t,” said the mother. “I feel scared, as though a huge storm was brewing.”

Marlene sat there and wept and wept and wept. Then the bird flew over and as he landed on the roof, the father said, “Oh, I’m in such a good mood! The sun is shining at its brightest and I feel just as though I were going to meet an old friend again!”

“I don’t, I don’t,” said his wife. “I’m so frightened that my teeth are rattling in my head. My blood’s in flames in my veins.”

She ripped her bodice from her breast and Marlene huddled in the corner and wept and wept. She held her handkerchief to her eyes and cried until it was sodden with her tears. The bird swooped down to the juniper tree, where he perched on a branch and began singing:

“Meine mutter she killed me.”

The mother covered her ears, squeezed shut her eyes, and tried to see and hear nothing, but there was a roaring in her head like a huge thunderstorm, and her eyes spat and flashed like lightning.

“Mein vater he ate me.”

“Oh, Mutter,” said the father, “listen to how beautifully that bird sings. The sun’s so warm and it smells of cinammon.”

“My sister, Marlene,
made certain...”

Marlene put her head on her knees and wept and wept, but the man said, “I’m going outside. I have to see this bird close up.”

“Don’t go!” gasped the wife. “I feel as though the whole house is shaking and ready to burst into flames!”

But the man went outside and looked at the bird.

“...to gather
my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely,
under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am! “

The bird finished his song and dropped the golden chain so that it fell neatly around the man’s neck and fitted him perfectly. The man went inside and said, “Look how wonderful that bird is! He gave me this gorgeous golden chain and he’s just as gorgeous himself!”

But the woman was petrified and collapsed to the floor. Her cap fell from her head and the bird sang again:

“Meine mutter, she killed me.”

“Aah! I wish I was a thousand feet under the earth and not have to hear this song!”

“Mein vater, he ate me.”

Then the woman fell to the floor again as if she was dead.

“My sister, Marlene, made certain...”

“Oh!” said Marlene. “I want to go outside as well and see if the bird will give me something too!” So she went out.

“...to gather
my bones all together,
in silk wrapped so nicely...”

Then the bird threw her the shoes.

“...under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
Under the juniper tree.
Tweet-tweet!
What a beautiful bird I am!”

Marlene felt light and happy. She slipped her feet into the new red shoes and skipped back into the house.

“Hurrah!” she said “The bird is so wonderful! He gave me these red shoes as a present! When I went outside I felt so sad, but now I feel full of joy!”

“I don’t, I don’t,” gasped the wife. She leapt to her feet and her hair flared and crackled like the red flames of hell. “I feel as if the end of the world is coming! I must get outside!”

So she rushed out of the door and crash! the bird threw the millstone down on her head and she was crushed to death. The father and Marlene heard the terrible noise and ran outside. Black smoke and red flames were dancing on the spot, and when it was finished the little brother stood there alive. He took hold of his father’s hand and Marlene’s hand and the three of them were overjoyed. They went into the house, sat down at the table, and started to eat.

FROM BEASTS AND BEAUTIES (DUFFY/SUPPLE/STILL; FABER 2004, ISBN 0-571-22669-8)

© copyright Carol Ann Duffy