An Estonian tale, this version is taken from the 1938 anthology Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards by Frances Jenkins Olcott.
In ancient days there was a beautiful wood called the Wood of Tontla. No one dared venture into it. The boldest men, who chanced to be near it, told how under the thick trees strange, human-shaped creatures swarmed like ants in an ant hill.
It happened one night that a peasant going home from a feast, wandered into the forest. He saw strange things! Around a bright fire countless swarms of children and old women were gathered. Some sat on the ground, others danced on the green sward. One old woman had a broad shovel in her hand, with which from time to time she scattered the glowing ashes over the grass. Then the children with a shout would mount into air and like night-owls flap about in the rising smoke. Then they would come back to earth again. Other strange sights he saw, but because the peasant’s head was swimming, the village folk did not quite believe his tale.
Now not far from the Wood of Tontla, once lived a widower who had married a brawling, quarrelling woman. The seven-year-old little girl left by the first wife, was a bright, sweet creature. The wicked woman used to cuff and beat her from morning till night and give her worse food than she fed the dogs. As for the Father, he was too afraid of the wicked woman to help his child.
For two years Elsa stood this terrible life, and shed many tears.
It chanced one Sunday that she went with other village children to pick strawberries. Lagging along as children do, they reached the edge of the Wood of Tontla without knowing it. There grew many strawberries. The whole grass was quite red with them. The children ate the sweet berries, and filled their baskets with as many as they could. Then suddenly one of the boys recognized the dreadful place, and cried out:
“Run! Run! We are in the Tontla Wood!”
Those words were more terrible than thunder and lightning! All the children ran as though the Tontla monsters were at their heels.
Elsa, who had gone on a bit farther than the others, heard the cry of the boy, but she did not stop picking berries.
“The Tontla creatures,” thought she, “cannot be worse than that hateful woman at home.”
Just then a tiny black dog, with a silver bell hanging from his neck, came running up and barked at her.
At his barking a tiny Maiden in beautiful silken garments, sprang from among the trees, and told the dog to be quiet.
“How nice,” said she to Elsa, “that you did not run away with the other children. Stay with me and be my playmate. We will play such pretty games, and go berry-picking every day. Mother will not refuse me this, when I ask her. Come, let us go to her now!”
Then the pretty child seized Elsa by the hand, and led her deeper and deeper into the wood. The tiny black dog barked for joy, and jumping on Elsa licked her hands.
O wonder of wonders! What marvels and magnificence met Elsa’s eyes! She thought that she was in Heaven. A splendid Garden filled with fruit trees and berry bushes lay before her. On the boughs of the trees sat birds brighter than the most brilliant butterflies, many of them adorned with gold and silver. And the birds were quite tame, letting the children hold them in their hands.
In the midst of the Garden stood a Mansion built of rock crystal and precious stones, so that its walls and roof shone like the sun. A Lady in magnificent garments sat on a bench before the door.
“Whom do you bring as a guest?” she asked the little girl.
The little daughter answered, “I found her in the wood, and brought her here to be my playmate. Will you permit her to remain?”
The Lady smiled but said never a word. She examined Elsa with a sharp look from top to toe. Then she called Elsa nearer, and stroked her cheeks, and asked her kindly who she was, and if her parents were living, and whether she would like to stay.
Elsa kissed the Lady’s hand and fell down before her, embraced her knees, and replied through her tears:
“My Mother has been resting for a long time beneath the grass.
Mother was carried away,
And all love went with her!
“My Father cannot help me, and the wicked woman at home beats me without mercy every day. So pray, golden Lady, let me stay here! Let me tend your flocks, or do any other work. I will do anything, and obey you. But do not send me home, or the wicked woman will beat me half to death, because I did not go back with the village children.”
The Lady smiled and said, “I will think about it.”
Then she arose and went into the house. The little girl said to Elsa:
“Mother is friendly. I saw by her looks that she will grant my request. Wait hear a minute.”
And the little girl followed the Lady, then soon came back with a toy box in her hand.
“Have you ever been rowing on a sea?” she asked Elsa.
“Rowing on the sea! What is that?” said Elsa. “I have never heard of such a thing.”
“O, you’ll soon know!” said the little girl, and she took the cover off the box.
Inside lay a leaf of ladysmock, a mussel-shell, and two fishbones. On the leaf hung a few drops of water. The little girl spilled the drops on the grass. Immediately the Garden, the grass, and everything that stood there vanished. So far as the eye could reach, was only water, that stretched till it seemed to strike the horizon. Only under the children’s feet was a tiny dry spot.
Now the little girl set the mussel-shell on the water, and took the fishbones in her hand. The mussel-shell swelled and changed into a pretty boat, big enough for a dozen children. The two children stepped into the boat. Elsa sat down timidly, but the little girl laughed, and the bones she held in her hand became oars. The waves rocked the children, like a cradle, and one by one little skiffs came sailing up. In each sat beings who sang and were joyful. Elsa could not understand what they said, but they kept repeating one word Kiisiki. Elsa asked what it meant and the little girl said:
“That is my name.”
How long they rowed about I do not know, then they heard:
“Children, come home! It is nearly evening!”
Kiisiki took the little box from her pocket, in which the leaf lay. She dipped the leaf in the water till a few drops hung on it. Immediately they found themselves near the magnificent Mansion in the Garden. The water was gone, and all was firm and dry. The mussel-shell and the fishbones were back in box.
The children went into the Mansion.