As I’ve been working on my memoir and making better acquaintance with Slovak literature, I’ve also discovered Slovak fairy tales. There are analogs to the British/French/German fairy tale tradition that Americans are more familiar with—a Rumpelstiltskin-type story, a Tom Thumb, a Cinderella (but also a Cinderel or “Ashboy”). There are definitely distinctives, too, like making Jesus or even the Heavenly Father a character in the tale, and above all the abiding passion for the tátoš or fairy horse. What has delighted me most, though, is this story, “Twelve Brothers and a Thirteenth Sister.” It was a favorite of nineteenth-century Slovak feminists, who appreciated the very unusual plot device of a girl rescuing a whole bunch of helpless, bewitched, and hedged-in boys. Eat your heart out, Sleeping Beauty!
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Twelve Brothers and a Thirteenth Sister
collected and edited by Pavol Dobšinský in Prostonárodné slovenské povesti (Prvý zväzok)
translated by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
A king had twelve sons: handsome ones who grew like spruce firs, and each so like the other that everyone at first glance took each one for his brother. And truly, there was not much to distinguish one from the other, because year after year one after another was born into the world. The parents liked them all very much, but for all that the mother liked best to look at the youngest, and sorrow was never to be seen on her face whenever she looked at this, her youngest child. And the more this one and the others grew up, the greater the joy their parents took in them.
But so it was that at some point the queen began to be sad, and her face no longer cleared even when she saw her youngest son. Her sons asked her often enough, what’s so sad? Were they maybe not good enough for her? She never answered a one of them as to this. One time the king was chatting about something with the queen in the garden, and after this tale she was sadder than ever.
Afterwards the youngest son came up to her.
“Mama, tell me just once, why have you been so sad since that one time?”
“Oh, my dear son,” his mother said to him, “if I tell you, it’ll be bad; if I don’t tell you, well, it’ll be even worse.”
“Then wouldn’t you rather tell me what it is?”
“Oh, to be sure I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, God knows I’d rather not have to tell you! But it can’t be otherwise. You see, my son,” she told him further, “you are twelve brothers, and you don’t have and haven’t had any sister; and that was our good luck and yours, until now. Because your father had to vow at some point that he would only let his sons live as long as no daughter was born to him; so that his sons would never know that at one time they had a sister, and his daughter would never know that at one time she had brothers. And now I feel in hope, and everything looks to me, as though I will not have a son but a daughter. If I give birth to a daughter, then you all must perish. Your father has never let on about this, but in advance he will send you to our other castle. There he will have you killed in the night if a sister is born to you. But I do not want you to be destroyed. So look, don’t say anything to anyone, not even to your brothers, as long as you are at home! Because you could lose both my life and yours. Only when Father sends you to the other castle, obey him and go there! There you will tell your brothers what’s going on. And when you are already there, then every night look here toward our castle from the peak of that castle! If you see thirteen candles lit at night in our castle, then to you a thirteenth brother has been born, and you will have nothing to fear! But if you see only one candle, then run away! That will be the sign that a sister has been born to you, and your father has already sent to have you killed. Find there what will be necessary for you on your way, and so all of you together escape into the world!”
Then she cried for a long time over this, her best-loved son, and he could only console his mother with the thought that maybe this would all turn out well still, even if they were forced to flee from their father. They would at least give the world a try, and whenever their father died they would return.
After a certain number of days the father had all twelve sons summoned to his side and spoke to them thus:
“My sons, your mother is a little sick; you see how she has been troubled for some time. She needs peace, and here among you, there being so many of you, there’s never quiet in the house. Go to that other castle of ours yonder. There you can have fun and amuse yourselves with good will while your mother recovers. Then I’ll have you called back again.”
The sons obeyed, took along their armor, said goodbye to their parents, and went off to the other castle. But there the youngest brother told them what was really going on and what they had to do. Well, until midnight each night and after midnight each night, one pair and then another kept watch at the peak of the castle: what would happen at their father’s castle? The first two days there was nothing, but on the third night, exactly at twelve, one light began to burn in their father’s castle. They waited for awhile, in case a second one lit up, but none did. Soon they got up, took their armor and money, mounted their horses, and escaped.
Straightaway they conveyed themselves to another country, but each time they got to a new place they always flew further so their father wouldn’t catch up with them somehow. On the long journey they gradually spent all their money and finally sold their horses and their kingly garments and their armor. Threadbare, ragged, and ravenous, they came at length to some enormous mountains. Here they resolved that as soon as they passed through these mountains they would immediately go into the service of a king, for they thought that their father wouldn’t find them there.
But somehow it took a long time to get through the mountains. Three days they went, and three nights, and still always they sank only into denser thickets. There were neither paths nor trails. They only dragged themselves along between the ruts carved out by the wild beasts. At last, when they drew to a halt and could not press on further because of the walking and the hunger, they came to a meadow. In the middle of this meadow an old, desolate castle stood by itself. Before it and behind it, nothing but forests and mountains! They waited a long time for someone to show himself from this castle, so they would know what in all of creation might live in it; but as nothing, absolutely nothing, not a single crow on the roof cawed, by evening they dared to go in.
In the castle everything stood ajar, but everything was also desolate; nowhere a living soul! In the midst of the castle was a great hall, and in it a long oak table, and it was set for twelve persons, and at each plate was a little bit of dried bread. Some of the brothers wanted to grab it and eat at once, as they were barely standing on their legs anymore because of hunger; except the youngest reminded them that they shouldn’t touch anything strange, that they should really find out first who in the castle had set it there, and then they should ask for it. They opened more doors in the grand hall. Here there was a small chamber and in it a straw bed and next to it a chair, and on the wall poor garments and armor: everything as if it had been prepared for the oldest brother. Behind the first chamber was a second, behind the second a third, and so up to the thirteenth, and each one opened a door and in each chamber were a bed, a chair, armor, and garments; only the thirteenth door was locked. Except they saw through the keyhole that above the door hung a golden stool, by the wall was a golden bed, and on the walls were golden garments for a woman.
Having gone as far as there was to go, they thought they’d found here whoever it was living in the castle; but it was not possible to open the door or break their way through. They knocked, they called asking anybody to respond to them; however, there was no answer nor did the smallest thing move in that chamber. Well, they resolved then and there to occupy the desolate castle, and immediately they divided the chambers among themselves: the oldest took the first and so on, and the youngest occupied the twelfth.
After that they returned to the great hall unwilling to overlook even a piece of bread. By now at each place a scoop of soup had been poured over the bread. Immediately each took his seat, and what they found they ate up with appetite. After the soup, a piece of meat appeared for them on the table, and after that a little thick porridge. And they wondered where all this was coming from when in the whole castle there was no kitchen and nobody that could be found, but they didn’t think about it very much after such hunger. All that mattered was that now their stomachs didn’t growl so much. They ate up everything as fast as if it was burning them. After supper they gradually lay down to sleep and drifted off, come what may by day or by night.
On the second day the sun was already high when they got up. They got dressed in their new garments, arranged their armor, and all of them went into the great hall to meet. Here on the oak table they found again twelve little pieces of dry bread and fresh water. They ate them up fearlessly and immediately each began to show off, praise, and test out his weapon. In this way they amused themselves in the castle for several days, always still waiting to see if someone would show himself to them. But in the castle and around it everything remained desolate. Truly, they thought to themselves, here was the best place to remain hidden from their father, and as long as they had weapons nothing was lacking them. That thick porridge, on which they lived from then on, didn’t actually please them all that much, for as kings’ sons they were accustomed to roast meat, but they thought there was enough venison in the area they would just shoot some roasts for themselves. They went on a hunt. Immediately on the first day they were lucky, and at supper each of them brought into the great hall some kind of game: this one a bird, this one a rabbit, and this one a deer. They were satisfied with the thought of how good it would taste to prepare the roasts for themselves the next day in place of the porridge and groats. But in the morning in the great hall there was no sign of the game they’d shot, nor at dinner did anything come to the table except thick porridge again and dry bread. So it went, day after day, week after week. Always during the night the game they’d shot would disappear, and no roast ever came to the table. This annoyed some of them to the point that they thought if they, the sons of a king, were going to starve in this way, it would be better for them to go elsewhere—and so they wanted to go away. Only the youngest wouldn’t let them do it, saying they should wait there at least a few years until their father had forgotten about them and stopped looking for them. So they lived there for twelve whole years, always on just a little poor thick porridge. Except someone baked up a little bird or rabbit on the hunt they ate a little better. But they constantly complained about their sister and threatened her with bad things, such as that they would kill her if she ever fell into their power, since they had to endure such poverty on her account, despite their innocence.
Meanwhile, at home, their sister grew up and blossomed into a beauty. The parents had forgotten all about their sons by now, so dear to them was this girl and so well did she know how to entertain the whole castle with her prattling and warbling. Father and mother only grew in joy whenever they looked upon the girl. That she was someone who had once had brothers nobody in the castle was allowed even to hint at in the slightest. But this prattler, as she grew in understanding, never stopped trying to find out whether she really had no brothers, and saying how desolate it was to her to be an only child, not having one single brother or sister to take delight in. They wanted so much to stamp this out of her head, but she wouldn’t go along with it. Especially her mother she bugged her every day and wouldn’t stop asking her:
“But, Mama, just tell me one time, did I really never have any brothers, and will I never have any like every other child does?”
“Oh, my little girl, don’t ask me about it so much, you know already that you are the only one with us in the whole family.”
“But have I always been this way?”
“You have, you haven’t; what is it to you, you won’t like the answer either way!”
“But look, Mama, I’ll like it, just tell me this once!”
And so on it went, until at last the mother told her everything about her twelve brothers, what they were like, what they did, how they were sent out into the world and how their father had searched for them everywhere.
“Well, and is it really true, my dear Mama, that no one has been able to find where they went off to?” the girl asked.
“Truly no one, my little girl!”
“Oh, well, then I’m going to look for them, and God grant me this great deed!”
“Great indeed, for enough soldiers have gone looking for them, and yet there’s not been so much as a rumor of them. Would you really go? And you being just a little girl!”
“Yes, but truly, I am worthy enough. I will just go from village to village, from house to house, and everywhere I will ask: did you ever see such and such twelve brothers tramping about? And if I say that I am their sister and that I want to search them out, well, the good people who saw them will surely tell me. For could they really have dropped to the ground with nobody ever to see them?”
And thus the girl would have expounded to her mother at great length, how she would seek for her brothers, if the king himself had not come and asked what she was prattling about again.
And the girl told him right to his face that she was going out into the world to search for her brothers.
The king threatened, begged, opposed, and delayed the thing as much as he could from day to day, and the queen cried a lot and retorted that the girl should be satisfied with what she had, and how the queen would never have another daughter; but this girl would not be deterred or dissuaded and would go after her brothers and nothing else. At last the parents let her go and supplied her with money and many servants to go into the world.
She went from village to village, from country to country—but nowhere was there either a rumor or a trace of her brothers. Slowly the money disappeared and the servants, one after another, left her, because nobody wanted to suffer such poverty and want with her. As lonesome as a thumb she traveled toward the mountains where her brothers were living.
On the third day, as she traveled over those mountains, she came to the old castle. She went straight inside to see if she could scout out her brothers there. These were just then hunting, and so in the whole castle not a living soul could be found. Only in the great hall was the table set for twelve persons with a piece of dry bread on each plate. She snatched a piece from the edge and ate it. Then she went through all of those twelve chambers all the way to the thirteenth. It opened right up for her, she went inside, and in fear, as she could already hear a rumble behind her, she cowered beneath the golden chair under the door.
The twelve brothers came home from their hunting trip just then. They didn’t notice anything until the youngest sat down to his dinner and there was no bread for him!
“Somebody,” he said, “stole my bread. Give it back to me!”
“Eh, who would steal your bread?” said the oldest to him. “Hush and eat what you have.”
“Yeah, but there’s nothing here; look at the empty space on my plate. If you didn’t steal it from me, well then, you must have eaten it,” he accused.
“Who would want to take your bread for himself? Don’t hassle us!” the brothers said to him, shrugging.
“All right, then! For I know,” said the one brother, “that you never get enough; you’re always complaining that you’ll starve to death. And I only have as much as you do; and now you’ve taken away even that.”
Words were exchanged until such an argument arose between them over this fragment of dry bread that they were at each other’s throats. They made such a ruckus that their sister heard, all the way in the thirteenth chamber, what kinds of things they were saying to each other. It was hard for her to realize that she was the cause of it all; if it hadn’t been for her, they would have lived at home till now in royal fashion and never suffered such misery. At last, when they had accused and fought each other in this way, all eleven of them swore to the twelfth on their conscience that they had not taken his bread.
“So,” said the oldest, “some stranger must be here who took the bread. Let’s go and search for him. And when we find him, we’ll kill him straightaway for causing such disputes among us and for robbing us of that piece of bread.”
At once they all jumped up. They mined every corner of the castle but found nothing since they couldn’t get into the thirteenth chamber. At length the search ceased to interest them and each went to his own chamber to sleep.
As the youngest brother was getting undressed, he heard in the thirteenth room next door the sound of breathing. Immediately he thought to himself that he had found the robber, because until then nothing had been heard in that chamber, not so much as a fly. He laid his ear to the keyhole and heard the breathing even better; he pushed against the door and this time it opened to him. Here he found a beautiful girl, very similar in the face to himself. Immediately on the basis of this similarity he judged that this must be his sister. So he spoke to her quietly and asked her, who are you, what’s going on?
At once she related everything to him: that she was their sister, and how much she’d had to suffer while she was looking for them, but that she’d been afraid to make herself known when she heard how they were fighting and how they would hurt her—and that she’d had to eat that piece of bread because she was nearly dead.
“Well, don’t worry, my sister, about anything,” her brother said to her after all that.
“You just stay here until we come and call for you; I’ll see to it that our brothers don’t do anything to you. Tomorrow I’ll have a little fun with them on our hunting trip. While the soup is coming to the table, you break off a piece of everyone’s bread and eat some of the soup! Then we’ll see what they say to that.”
The next evening, when the brothers returned from hunting, a piece was broken off of everyone’s bread and some of their soup had been eaten.
“Aha!” said the oldest one now, “there must be someone here; see, each one of us has bread and soup missing. Let’s not eat but let’s go and find him! We have to get that guy and kill him.”
“But what,” said the youngest one to him, “if it was someone from our family, or our sister?”
“Yeah! We sure wouldn’t let her go. She is the cause of all of our misery. Let’s look for her and destroy her, if it is her,” the brothers cried out.
The youngest reasoned with them all he could: would they really be so cruel as to kill their sister if she was here?—but they didn’t heed him. They only took off through the castle with swords unsheathed, and truly, whoever found her first, let him deal with her. Their wretched sister suffered in the thirteenth chamber and just waited until they dealt with her; but the enraged brothers didn’t even think to come to the thirteenth chamber since they had never gone in there.
After a long useless search they lay down to sleep, and in the morning they all went hunting again. When they returned in the evening, a piece of the food of each of them was missing, and their beds were rumpled.
“Now we’ve really got to find and kill whoever it is that is doing this to us; for it is not to be endured,” they all threatened over supper.
The youngest again said nicely to them:
“But,” he said, “what if our sister had spent a year of hunger and thirst looking for us and now was coming to call us home because our father will no longer do anything to us?”
“Eh, in that case we’d let her go,” said the brothers.
“Then come on, she’s here!” said the youngest.
With that he led them to the thirteenth chamber and here they all welcomed their sister and asked for her forgiveness that they’d wanted to threaten her despite her innocence; and they could not thank her enough for coming to free them.
They spent only one more night there, and in the morning they took from their sister’s chamber the gold and went on their way, and from their own they took the armor, and so they went out from the castle without a second glance. Just then the thirteenth year that they had lived there was completed in which their sister had sought for them.
As they went out of the courtyard, a voice sounded over them from the corner:
“Go on,” it said, “and don’t pay me back for all the years I’ve looked after you here.”
They looked around—and there behind them stood an old man, gray as a pigeon. Immediately they all went up to him and asked him how they might repay him.
“My children!” said the old man, “I’ll tell you how you can repay me; but first listen to who I am and why you were here. I am, as you might see, your father’s own brother; I raised him and was always good to him. But he expelled me from my country. I worked then as a poor man with my own two hands while I gathered the food with which I fed you all for thirteen years. Then I enchanted my country into these desolate mountains, and I cursed your father so that that he would never be happy in his descendants until you suffered hunger and want for his sins, just as I have had to suffer for all this time. You have endured all of it, and now you can reign happily. As many chambers as there are in this castle, exactly so many castles you will find in my country; to each of you I will give one. But there is just one more thing you must do. The youngest of you must chop off my head.”
For a long time they did not want to agree to this; but finally the old man ordered them to do it and the youngest beheaded him.
Just as his head fell, he spilled on the dust, and the desolate castle fell along with him; but in place of it stood all around them the disenchanted country with thirteen castles. The twelve brothers took possession of their twelve and the thirteenth sister took possession of the thirteenth, in which their parents immediately found themselves too.
And so they rejoiced to be all together again and reigned long and powerfully.