The Easter Eggs
Alas, there isn't one single chicken!
Centuries ago in a small valley tucked away deep in the mountains there lived some poor charcoal burners. It was a narrow valley surrounded by forests and boulders. The huts of these poor people were scattered throughout the valley. Each hut had a few cherry and plum trees, some farmland for summer grains, flax and hemp, a cow and some goats. These were their only riches. To earn a living some of the residents burned charcoal for the iron forge up in the mountains. However as little as they had, these people were a happy group who wished for nothing more. Tempered by their harsh lifestyle, strenuous work and strict sense of moderation they were perfectly healthy. When observers looked at these simple hut dwellers they saw what they would never find in palaces: people who lived to over one hundred years of age.
One day when the oats had already begun to ripen and the air in the mountains was very hot, a coalburner's daughter, who tended goats, ran breathlessly to her home to bring her parents news that some foreigners had come to the valley. Their clothes were strange and their speech was odd. There was a noble lady with two children and a very old man who, although he wore similarly elegant clothing, appeared to be the lady's servant. "Oh," said the girl, "these good people are hungry and thirsty and tired. I met them as I was looking for a stray goat. They were all worn out from crossing the mountain. I showed them the way to our valley. Shouldn't we give them something to eat and drink then see if we and some of our neighbors could put them up for the night?" The parents brought out some oat bread, milk and goat cheese.
The strangers rested in the shade of a bush-covered boulder where it was cool. The lady sat on a mossy rock. Her face was covered by a white veil of fine crepe. One of the children, a beautiful little girl, sat on her lap. The old servant, a gray-haired old man, was busy unpacking the heavily-laden mule they brought with them. The other child, a handsome and pleasant young boy, held some thistle out to the mule, which the animal eagerly ate.
The charcoal burner and his wife approached the strange woman respectfully and offered her some milk, bread and cheese. The lady pushed back her veil, thanked them, then gave the milk in a earthenware bowl to the child on her lap.
The little boy also came by and drank. The lady divided up the bread, then she drank some of the milk herself and ate the bread. The strange man cut off a large slice of cheese, which tasted very good to him. As the visitors ate, all the children, mothers and fathers, who occupied the huts, came out and stood in a circle around them. With wonder they curiously observed the strangers.
After the old man had eaten his fill, he asked the people if any of them would have a room the lady could use for a while. She would not burden them and they would be richly rewarded for providing her with whatever she needed. "Indeed," said the lady in a soft, pleasant voice. "Take pity on an unfortunate woman with two small children who has been driven from her homeland by dreadful circumstance." The men of the village came together and conferred as to which house would be best to put at her disposal.
Above the valley a small stream flowed from a red marbled boulder. As it ran from rock to rock its foam was white as milk. It powered a grist mill, which straddled the rocks. On the other side of the mill the miller had built a small cottage. Like all the other houses in the valley it was made of wood but it had a pleasant appearance since it was lovingly clapboarded in cherry wood and was surrounded by a small garden. The miller offered this house for the lady to live in.
"My new little cottage is over there," he said as he directed with his hand. "I'll gladly let you use it. It's brand new and nobody has ever lived in it. I built it so when I turned the mill over to my son I could live there. I just finished it yesterday and you could move right in today. It's almost as if I built it for you. I'm certain it would please you."
The good lady was delighted by this kind offer. After she rested for a while she immediately went up to it. She carried the little girl in her arms and the old man led the boy by the hand. The miller took care of the mule.
To the miller's joy the lady thought the cottage was perfect. It was already furnished with a table, some chairs and a bed. The mule had been packed with beautiful carpets and bedding. The lady moved in immediately and that night, as she and her little ones said their bedtime prayers, she thanked God for leading her to such a fine refuge after such a long flight. "Who would have believed," she said, "That I, who grew up in a palace, would consider myself so fortunate to live in this little cottage. One never knows what one has in store for her."
Early the next morning the lady and her children came out of their humble home to take a look at the countryside. They had been too tired the day before. With delight they beheld the beautiful view of the valley. No one could have painted a more beautiful scene than these colorful boulders lit by the morning light and interspersed with green shrubs on which the goats nibbled.
As soon as he saw the lady and her children the miller came out of the mill and crossed the small bridge which ran over the stream. "Indeed," he said, "There is no more beautiful view of the valley than from here! This is where the morning sun shines first. While the huts down there are still in dark shadow up here the sun is already casting golden light.
"Whereas the fog is often so dense in the valley that you can't see the hut chimneys, up here we have clear blue skies."
The lady's children loved the water wheel the most since it was constantly moving. The boy was fascinated by the wheel's clapping sound and the churning of the water, which looked like foamy, boiling milk. The girl especially enjoyed the jewel-tone colors of the waterdrops as they fell off the sunlit wheel.
The lady spent her days adjusting herself as best she could to life in this humble valley. The villagers competed to provide her with food, firewood, cooking utensils, and other small items. The girl, who had found them first, was named Martha. She became her maidservant.
"More than anything, I need eggs!" the lady said as she went over to the stove. "See if you can buy me some." "Eggs?" Martha asked in wondrament. "What for?" — "Silly girl," said the lady, "What for? For cooking, of course. Go on now, and make sure you come back quickly." — "For cooking," repeated the girl. "But then the birds wouldn't have their eggs anymore and that would be bad. Four people could easily eat several hundred finch or linnet eggs before they were full." — "What are you talking about?" said the lady. "Who said anything about wild bird eggs. I mean chicken eggs." The girl shook her head and replied, "I don't know what kind of bird that is. I've never seen one in my entire life." — "Alas," said the lady. "There isn't one single chicken."
Since chickens were first brought to us from the Orient, at that time and in that region a chicken would have been as rare a sight as a peacock. The lady learned that there was no meat in that village to use in her cooking. "I never realized," she said, "What a gift from God an egg is until now when I don't have one."
The good lady was forced to live quite austerely. The villagers frequently brought her things they thought she might enjoy. For instance, when the miller caught a trout and the coal burner captured a pair of pheasants, they immediately brought them to her. But the greatest service came to her through the old servant who had accompanied her. She still had a few pieces of gold jewelry and precious gems. She would give him one from time to time and he would go off with it and return after a few weeks, bringing back small articles she would need for the household. The villagers noticed that upon the servant's return the lady would often be sad and have red, tear-stained eyes. They would have liked to know who she was and where she had come from, but none of them had the courage to ask her. One time they asked the servant but the name was so foreign they were unable to repeat it and within a quarter hour they had forgotten it. Eventually they realized that the cheerful old man had their best interests at heart. Then they went to the children. "Now tell us," they said to the boy, "What's your mother's name? We won't tell anyone else." The boy approached them as if to tell a secret and replied in an open and honest way, "Her name is Mama." The villagers would have to give up for the time being to discover the secret.
Praise God, We now have a few chickens and eggs!
One day the old servant, whose name was Kuno, returned from his trip and carried a latticed cage on his back. Inside were a rooster and some hens. When the valley children saw the old man coming they all ran together to meet him because he always brought back something with him for them such as white bread, almonds and raisins, flutes, bells for their goats, or some other little trinkets.
The children were curious to see what was in the wooden cage, which was covered with a towel so people couldn't see what was behind the bars. They accompanied the man all the way to the lady's door. The lady and her children came out and greeted the old man cordially. "Praise God," cried the little girl as she clapped her hands. "We now have a few chickens and eggs!"
The old man set the cage down on the ground and opened the cage door. The first to come out was a splendid rooster. The children were astonished. "What a remarkable bird he is!" they shouted. They didn't know yet what the bird was called. "In our whole lives we've never seen such a beautiful bird! What a crown he wears on his head. It's redder than a corn blossom. And how his brown and yellow feathers shimmer. They're more beautiful than ripe grain in the evening sun. And look how he struts his tail like a sickle!" The hens also delighted them. Two were black with bright red combs; two were white with crowns; two were reddish brown without tail plumes. The lady scattered a handful of oat seeds among the chickens. The chickens busily pecked at the seeds. The children stood or knelt around the chickens with pleased expressions.
Once the oats were eaten, the rooster spread out his feathers and crowed. All the children laughed out loud with joy. On the way back home all the boys shouted "kikeriki!" and the girls did the same, only not as loudly. As the children arrived home they talked about the wondrous birds, which were bigger than ring-doves, even bigger than ravens, and they had such pretty colors, even prettier than forest birds. Marie, Martha's talkative little sister added, "And they have little red crowns on their heads unlike any birds in the forest." Even the parents were curious and came to see the strange birds. Their sense of awe was no less than that of the children.
After a while the hens started brooding. Martha had to feed the chickens daily. The lady showed the children of the valley their nests. The children were amazed by the number of eggs. "Fifteen eggs!" they shouted. "Wood pigeons only lay two; most other birds up to five eggs. How will the hens be able to feed so many chicks?"
As the chicks began to hatch, the lady wanted to make the children happy so she called them together. It was a holiday and the adults came along with them. The lady showed them a cracking egg. The children were overjoyed as the tiny chick busily pecked its way out of the shell. The lady helped the chick the rest of the way. Wondrament increased when they saw that the tiny bird had fine wispy yellow fuzz all over.
As soon as their little black eyes blinked they were ready to dart off, while younger chicks were coming into the world naked, blind, and helpless. "This is amazing!" the children said. "Such birds do not exist in our world."
Since the people of the valley were always so good to the foreign lady, she thought long and hard about how she could repay their kindness and supplement their humble existence. She had carefully tended her eggs and chicks and now had a goodly supply of eggs and mature hens. Early one Sunday morning she sent Martha into the valley to invite all the house mothers to an outdoor luncheon. All the women came happily dressed in their best outfits. In the small garden the old servant had set up several picnic tables with benches. The women took their places.
Martha brought out a huge basket full of eggs, which had been spotlessly cleaned and looked as white as snow. The coal burners' wives were astonished by the number of eggs. "Praise God!" said the lady. "There is now an overabundance of eggs. It's a wonderful sight to see so many in one place. Now I'm going to show you how to use them for your households."
In the corner of the garden under a boulder a fire had been set up. A large kettle full of water hung suspended over the fire. The lady cracked an egg in order to show everyone what it looked like before it went into the water. All attentively noted the beautiful, crystal-clear fluid in which the yellow yolk swam. There were as many eggs to cook as there were guests. Salt and lengthwise cut slices of white bread stood ready at the table. The lady taught them how to crack the eggs. All the women were amazed how the clear fluid had become as white as milk and the yolk had gotten firmer. They praised the excellent feast as they followed the lady's example and set the egg onto the bread. "Look at that," they said. "A plate and a meal all in one. Simple and clean, white and yellow! Quick and easy. The egg is cooked with no fuss at all. And it would make a filling and nourishing meal for sick people."
Now the lady cracked an egg into hot grease. This was yet another new experience for the coal burners' wives. "Look how the yellow is surrounded by the white," they said, "Like the large white and yellow flowers which bloom in the meadow and are called ox eyes." The eggs were placed on green spinach leaves, which stood ready on a large platter. All praised this meal too. The lady taught the women how to prepare other egg dishes, not just using the eggs alone for healthy dishes but as an added ingredient in other dishes, especially when mixed with flour.
Later a fresh green salad was brought out. Kuno carried a platter full of eggs which had been hard boiled and were now cool. As a joke the old servant let the eggs fall so they could roll on the stony ground. The women shrank back in gasps of horror. They thought the eggs would run all over, but to their amazement the lady just picked one up and peeled away the shell. The eggs were firm and could be cut into slices. There was no end to the amazement. The lady told them how she had hard-cooked the eggs, then she placed egg slices on the salad. The guests feasted on this delicious meal.
Go to pages 6-10
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks