A Czech Tale
As Retold by Cristy West
Every day, from spring until fall, young Bethushka took her flock of sheep to graze near a grove of birches. In her pocket was a spindle for spinning flax into thread. But she much preferred to roam and explore in the woods. Sometimes she went down to see what new wildflowers had bloomed in the meadow. And occasionally she would make up a little dance, just for the fun of it, and twirled about under the trees.
One spring day a beautiful woman suddenly appeared before her. She had long blond hair and was dressed in a silky white dress and she wore a wreath of flowers on her head.
“I see you like to dance!” said the woman.
“Oh yes,” said Bethuska, “I could dance the whole day! But my mother had given me this flax to spin.”
“Tomorrow is another day,” said the lady, “Come, dance with me! I will teach you some steps!”
So Bethushka lept up and joined the lady. Laughing and singing, they danced through the trees and out into the field. So light were their steps that the grass was neither trampled nor bent. Near evening the lady vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.
Bethushka gathered her flock and headed homeward. When her mother asked about her spinning, she pretended to have misplaced the spool. She said nothing about the lady in white.
The next day Bethuska went back to the same place, this time determined to do her spinning. Again the lady appeared. “Will you dance?”
“I cannot. I must do my spinning. Or else my mother will be angry with me.”
“If you will dance with me, I’ll help you to spin.”
So once again, Bethuska joined the lady and together they danced through the day. Near sunset, the beautiful lady smiled, waved her arms and lo!, like magic, the spool was filled with fine linen thread. That evening Bethuska’s mother was pleased to see the thread. But still Bethuska said nothing about about the dancing.
The third day the Lady in White was waiting for Bethushka near the woods. They danced as never before – pirouetting and curtseying, skipping and swooping, whirling and laughing, skimming over the ground as lightly as the wind. When the day was over, the Lady in White spun the flax again.
“You are a fine dancer, Bethushka! I have enjoyed myself!” – and she handed Bethusha a pouch with a mysterious pattern embroidered on the outside. “Take good care of this,” said the lady. Bethushka peeked inside and saw that it was filled with dried yellow birch leaves.
When Bethuska arrived home, she gave her mother the new spool of thread. This time her mother looked at it more carefully.
“Where did you get this from? Surely you did not spin it yourself?”
So Betushka told the whole story of meeting up with the beautiful lady dressed in the long white dress.
“Why, Bethushka – that was the Wild Lady of the Birch Grove! It’s very good luck to meet up with her!”
“She taught me some wonderful dances!” exclaimed Bethushka “And look- she gave me this pretty little pouch filled up with old birch leaves!” But when Bethushka emptied out the pouch for her mother, her mouth fell open in astonishment. The birch leaves were made of solid gold.
This tale lends itself well to an outdoor telling, especially if there are birch trees nearby. Before starting, I like to focus listeners attention on their surroundings and then weave these details into the story. Or, if told indoors, I invite my audience to imagine the setting and then build on their suggestions.
I have a special fondness for birches since, as a young girl, I had a tree house in the branches of one – two old shutters propped somewhat precariously across some lower limbs. I spent many blissful hours suspended in the shimmering leaves and let down a bucket on a rope for sandwiches to be hauled up to my happy perch. Certainly I have no trouble in identifying with young Bethushka who would rather dance and play than do her spinning!
Apart from my own personal associations, birches have long been considered sacred in many cultures throughout the world. Native American people used birch bark for canoes and the covering of their wigwams and as well, fashioned cooking and storage implements from the hard wood. Birch also played an important role in shamanic rituals in Nordic countries of Europe, with birch poles commonly forming the central supporting pole (or “world tree”) in huts where initiations took place and as well, with birch branches being used to slap the skin for increased circulation. Birch was also the first letter, “beth,” of the pre-Celtic Druid “Ogham Alphabet” in which every letter had an association to a tree. In that iconography, birch symbolizes new beginnings, purification and protection during times of difficulty.
The mysterious white clad woman in this story seems to be a kind of woodland goddess, suggesting the same kind of deep reverence for nature that characterized pre-Christian and pre-industrial societies. In other folktales written as somber morality tales – for instance the “The Red Shoes” – young girls are punished for dancing. But in this case, Bethushka receives a very different message.
Sometimes when working in small groups I stop the story mid-way, at the point where Bethushka says her mother will be angry if she doesn’t get her work done. I then invite listeners to invent their own versions of an ending. How will Bethushka negotiate this conflict facing her? Will the Lady in White turn out to be an evil or dangerous figure? It is interesting to see the various responses which emerge! After I tell the story to its end, we discuss the outcome and compare the invented endings. Those who imagined dire consequences for Bethuska learn to see that giving into expressive impulses does not have to turn out badly and can lead to rich rewards. The story also fosters an attitude of appreciation for the natural world.
As in so many other folktales, the “gold” seems symbolic of an inner transformation that has taken place. In joining in the dance with the Lady in White, Bethushka’s consciousness is opened to a passionate new mythic dimension. Like the white-barked birch tree itself, the Lady in White offers lessons for those who are willing to listen.
My retelling is based on “The Wild Woman of the Birch Wood” in Anne Pellowski’s Hidden Stories in Plants (1990, Macmillan) and “The Wood Fairy” in Virginia Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Czechoslovakia (Little Brown, 1959).
About the Contributor
Cristy West PhD is a storyteller, writer, and creative arts therapist living in Washington, D.C. She is the editor and program coordinator for the Spirit of Trees website.