A Woodcutter and his Wife were so poor they could barely keep themselves fed, much less take care of their young son. At wit’s end they considered their options.
“We could send him on an impossible task and while he’s gone we could move to a new home,” said the Woodcutter. “Though that would require us to find a new home.”
“I’ve heard there is a witch in the forest that eats children who would be grateful if we could lead our son to him,” said his Wife. “Though that seems cruel.”
“What about the grotto?” said the Woodcutter.
“Yes, yes!” said his Wife. “The Virgin Mary’s grotto!”
It wasn’t much of a grotto to speak of, mostly a hollow in a dead tree that had once been struck by lightning. The story was that once, long ago, a child was sent to the woods and met the Virgin Mary who took the child to live in heaven. It was said that God had marked the tree by striking it with lightning so that lost and destitute children could seek it out for protection. So the Woodcutter and his wife sent their son on the path to the grotto and told him he would soon be in heaven.
When the Boy reached the grotto he called out for the Virgin Mary but she didn’t come. After several days of waiting the weather grew colder and the Boy made a protective bed of fallen leaves inside the tree. Winds and rain and eventually snow came and began to bury the Boy. Then out of a frozen mist a gold shimmery light grew and the Virgin Mary appeared.
“Again?” she said. “What is it with these people and the stories they feed their children?” She removed the Boy from the tree and took him to heaven.
In heaven the Boy awoke and warmed and felt more alive than before. He was never in want of food or clothes and thrived just as his parents hoped he would. There were thousands of other children there to keep him company and more came every day. He rarely saw the Virgin Mary but one day she came up to the Boy and held out a ring of keys. Her voice was sad and flat, as if she had grown weary of reading a script over and over.
“Your turn. These are the keys to the kingdom of heaven. No doubt you know the rules. You may open any door except the small door at the end of the great hall, the one opened by this tiny key here. Should you open it you will be expelled from heaven and punished.” She put up her hand to prevent the Boy from making a vow. “Please, don’t promise me anything. It only depresses me.”
Now the caretaker with the keys to heaven the Boy began doing as all children before him had done, he began opening the doors of heaven. Behind each was a new marvel, treats to eat and toys to play with and things at which to marvel. Finally all the doors had been opened except the small door at the end of the great hall. Every child of heaven knew that the small door held the greatest treasure of all, the Holy Trinity, all on a throne of glory. Every child in heaven knew they were to never open the door and cast their eyes upon the glory within. And every child invariably opened the door anyway.
When the Boy opened the door he found the room empty, no throne of gold, no majestic light, no Holy Trinity.
“You really think I would keep the Holy Trinity locked in a closet?” the Virgin Mary said, appearing behind the disheartened Boy. “I suppose you know what happens next?”
“You strike me mute and send me back to earth, and there I will find a princess who will marry me and bear my children,” said the Boy. “Then you will come and take the children away one by one until the people of our kingdom insist I am an Ogre and be burned at the stake, at which point I will beg forgiveness and you come to return my children and give me back my voice.”
“Yes, yes,” said the Virgin Mary. “Now crawl into my arms and shut yours eyes.
And the Boy closed his eyes and fell into a deep, deep sleep. Soon the world of heaven faded and everything grew silent and he was dead.
In the spring after the snow thawed a Hermit came upon the grotto and found the dead Boy nestled into the tree just as when the snows came.
“Again?” said the Hermit. “What is it with these people and the stories they feed their children?” The Hermit carefully removed the lifeless child from the tree and carried him to a clearing nearby where he buried the Boy next to the hundreds he had buried before.
Freely adapted from “The Virgin Mary and the Child” translated by Jack Zipes in The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm. This is story number 254, and I have to say, it always strikes me as odd when characters found in the bible make their way into Grimm tales. I realize it comes from a clash between the old storytelling and the new, the transition from folk tales to faith, but there is a discordant incongruity that itches my brain.
In the original story the child does see the Holy Trinity and is punished by being struck mute and sent back to earth. Marrying into royalty and having children and repenting at the stake is all there but it strikes me as equally hollow as a deathbed confession and absolution. I also imagined that if these stories were in circulation, how many parents “sent their children to heaven” as a solution to their problems. What a nice fiction to tell yourselves as you abandon your children to the wilderness!