A Story From: England
Read Time: 10 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 5 to 10yrs.
ONCE upon a time there was a king whose wife had died in childbirth, leaving behind a dear infant daughter, the Princess Anne. When the princess was nearly grown the king married again, this time to a woman who also had a daughter, and her name was Kate. The stepmother became the new queen, and her daughter became the Princess Kate.
The new queen was driven to distraction because the king’s daughter Anne was far prettier than her own daughter Kate. She could not bear the thought that her own daughter Kate would always look pale and plain beside the beautiful Anne. But bother the two young princesses it did not, and they became fast friends and loved one another like real sisters. The queen, however, was not content and she cast about for a way to spoil Anne’s beauty so her Kate would be the prettiest princess in the castle.
To that end, she sought the advice of the henwife, an old woman who lived near the palace and was known to have magical powers.
“So you say young Anne is too pretty for her own good?” cackled the henwife. “That is a simple enough problem to fix. Send her to me in the morn.”
So early the next morning, the queen found Anne and said, “Such a nice day! I do believe I’ll walk myself to the henhouse for this morning’s eggs. Anne, be a dear and join me.”
So Princess Anne took step beside her stepmother, the queen. When they arrived at the henwife’s cottage, they knocked on the door.
“How can I oblige you?” said the henwife, who knew very well why the queen had come.
Said Anne, “We’ve come for some new-laid eggs for breakfast. Have you any?”
“Well, if the girl will just step over there,” said the henwife, motioning to Anne, “and lift the lid off that pot, she’ll see what she’ll find inside.” Anne lifted the lid off the pot, and at that moment a sheep’s head jumped right on top of her own pretty head and would not come off! She pulled and pulled but try as she might, it would not budge.
The queen felt entirely satisfied and she returned home with poor Princess Anne trailing behind, her sheep’s head bowed low.
The servants at the palace were horrified at the terrible event that had befallen poor Princess Anne. And none was more horrified than the queen’s own daughter, Kate.
“Anne, Anne!” Kate moaned to her half-sister, “whatever shall we do?” She tried everything she could think of to get the sheep’s head off, but it was firmly fixed onto Anne, like her own skin. “How did this happen to you?” she cried. But whenever poor Anne tried to tell Kate, nothing but “Baa, baa!” came from her mouth.
“Well, we can’t let you be seen like this,” Kate decided. She took a fine linen cloth and wrapped it around her sister’s head. “We must go and try to get help.” Kate took her sister by the hand and they left the castle.
They went on, and they went on and on and on, till at last they came to a castle. Kate knocked at the castle door and asked for a night’s lodging for herself and her poor sick sister. The servant who answered the door said that that would be impossible, as this was the home of a king who had two sons, and the younger prince was sickening away to death, and no one could find out what ailed him, so they could not possibly entertain visitors that evening.
Kate begged the servant, saying that she of all people understood how terrible that can be because her own dear sister was also quite sick. Besides, she and her sister were so very tired and so truly needed a place to spend the night. The servant sighed, and disappeared for a while. When he returned he said that Kate and her sister could indeed spend one night at the castle, but only on one condition. The servant explained that the curious thing about the illness of the young prince was that whoever watched him at night was never seen again. Now if Kate would agree to stay up with him and nurse him all night long, then she and her sister could stay the night. What was more, the king would give her a peck of silver. Kate quickly agreed.
So Kate and her sister were led to the prince’s sickroom, where they were both sumptuously fed and made comfortable for the evening. Soon Anne’s sheep’s head was nodding and had fallen asleep by the fire.
Till midnight all went well. As the midnight bells rang, however, the sick prince got up out of bed as if in a daze, dressed himself, and slipped downstairs. Kate was surprised to see him rise and move about. She followed him outside the castle and he didn’t seem to notice her. The prince went into the stable where he saddled his horse, called his hound, and jumped into the saddle. Kate lightly leapt behind him on the horse. Away they rode and as they passed through the woods, Kate plucked nuts from the trees to have in the morning, and she filled her apron with them.
When they came to a green hill, the prince drew bridle and spoke: “Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in”. Kate whispered, “and his lady behind him.”
Immediately, a passage in the green hill opened. At the end of the passage, the prince entered a magnificent hall, brightly lit up. Many beautiful fairies surrounded the prince and led him off to dance. Meanwhile, Kate, without being noticed, watched the prince dance and dance and dance until he fell, exhausted, upon a couch. The fairies fanned him until he could rise, and dance again some more.
At the first ray of dawn, the cock crowed, and the prince hastened to get back on his horse. Kate jumped up behind him and home they rode. By the time the morning sun rose, the servants entered the prince’s room. Surprised indeed they were to discover Kate was still there! There sat the girl, sitting by the fire, cracking nuts. Kate said the prince had had a good night, and that she would gladly sit up with him again a second night, but for that she must have a peck of gold.
The second night passed in much the same way. The prince rose at midnight and rode away to the green hill and the fairy’s ball, and Kate went with him, gathering nuts as they rode through the forest. This time, she did not watch the prince as closely, for she knew what he would do — dance and dance all night long with the fairies. Instead, she watched a fairy baby play with a wand. Then, she overheard one of the fairies say, “Three strokes of that wand would make Kate’s sick sister as pretty as ever she was.” So Kate rolled nuts to the fairy baby till the baby set down the wand in order to crawl after the nuts. Then Kate quickly picked up the wand and wrapped it in her apron. At cockcrow she and the prince rode home as before.
When the castle servants came in the next morning, they again found Kate sitting at the fireside cracking nuts.
“You are still here — again!” they cried. Motioning to the Prince, asleep in his bed, they said, “Hast the Prince had another good night?”
“Yes, another good night,” said she.
As soon as the castle servants left, Kate removed the linen that covered her sister’s sheep’s head. With the fairy baby’s wand, she touched her sister’s head lightly three times. At once the nasty sheep’s head fell off, and Anne was her own pretty self again. The two princesses were both delighted. And so were the castle attendants, who noted that the sick sister had been cured, and what’s more, that she was remarkably lovely to look at besides. Plus the prince seemed no worse, and the young girl hadn’t disappeared for two nights straight. So Kate was asked to stay yet a third night with the prince. She agreed, but only if she should marry the sick prince.
All went on as on the first two nights. This time the fairy baby was playing with a basket of barley, and Kate heard one of the fairies say, “Three sips of barley soup would make the sick prince as well as ever he was.” So Kate rolled a few nuts she had gathered to the fairy baby, who left the basket of barley behind to chase after them. Then she reached into the basket and put a handful of barley into her apron.
At cockcrow they set off again, but instead of cracking her nuts as she had done before, this time Kate boiled the barley and made a pot of barley soup. Soon there arose a very savory smell.
“Oh!” said the sick prince, “I wish I had a sip of that barley soup.” So Kate gave him a spoonful of the soup, and he rose up on his elbow. By and by he cried out again, “Oh, if only I had but another sip of that soup!” So Kate gave him another spoonful, and he sat up on his bed. Then he said again, “Oh! for but a third spoonful of it!” So Kate gave him a third spoonful, and he rose hale and strong, completely cured. Then the prince dressed himself, and sat down by the fire.
When the castle servants came into the prince’s room the next morning, they were astonished to find the prince sitting beside Kate, and the two of them chatting away and happily cracking nuts by the fire. Meanwhile the prince’s brother had met Anne in the castle byways and he had fallen in love with her, as nearly everybody did. Soon it was agreed that the two of them, too, should be married. And so the two princesses married the two princes, and all of them lived happily ever after.
Based on the story "Kate Crackernuts" from English Fairy Tales, collected by Joseph Jacobs, published by G. P. Putname's Son, 1902. Retold by Elaine L. Lindy.
Copyright Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The story of "Kate Crackernuts" surfaces in all countries in the British Isles - England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
In the original plot line, Kate watches the fairy-baby play with a bird. She distracts the baby, scoops up the bird, takes it back to the palace, cooks either a pot of birdie soup or a birdie pie (depending on the version), and its delicious aroma rouses the sick prince. Contemporary youngsters are unaccustomed to the use of birds in soups and pies, so barley was substituted for the birds.