ND SHE PRESSED the thorn-bush to her breast, so firmly, that it might be thoroughly warmed, and the thorns went right into her flesh, and her blood flowed in large drops, but the thornbush shot forth fresh green leaves, and there came flowers on it in the cold winter night, the heart of the afflicted mother was so warm; and the thorn-bush told her the way she should go.
She then came to a large lake, where there was neither ship nor boat. The lake was not frozen sufficiently to bear her; neither was it open, nor low enough that she could wade through it; and across it she must go if she would find her child! Then she lay down to drink up the lake, and that was an impossibility for a human being, but the afflicted mother thought that a miracle might happen nevertheless.
"Oh, what would I not give to come to my child!" said the weeping mother; and she wept still more, and her eyes sunk down in the depths of the waters, and became two precious pearls; but the water bore her up, as if she sat in a swing, and she flew in the rocking waves to the shore on the opposite side, where there stood a mile-broad, strange house, one knew not if it were a mountain with forests and caverns, or if it were built up; but the poor mother could not see it; she had wept her eyes out.
"Where shall I find Death, who took away my little child?" said she.
"He has not come here yet!" said the old grave woman, who was appointed to look after Death's great greenhouse! "How have you been able to find the way hither? And who has helped you?"
"OUR LORD has helped me," said she. "He is merciful, and you will also be so! Where shall I find my little child?"
"Nay, I know not," said the woman, "and you cannot see! Many flowers and trees have withered this night; Death will soon come and plant them over again! You certainly know that every person has his or her life's tree or flower, just as everyone happens to be settled; they look like other plants, but they have pulsations of the heart. Children's hearts can also beat; go after yours, perhaps you may know your child's; but what will you give me if I tell you what you shall do more?"
"I have nothing to give," said the afflicted mother, "but I will go to the world's end for you!"
"Nay, I have nothing to do there!" said the woman. "But you can give me your long black hair; you know yourself that it is fine, and that I like! You shall have my white hair instead, and that's always something!"
"Do you demand nothing else?" said she. "That I will gladly give you!" And she gave her her fine black hair, and got the old woman's snow-white hair instead.
So they went into Death's great greenhouse, where flowers and trees grew strangely into one another. There stood fine hyacinths under glass bells, and there stood strong-stemmed peonies; there grew water plants, some so fresh, others half sick, the water-snakes lay down on them, and black crabs pinched their stalks. There stood beautiful palm-trees, oaks, and plantains; there stood parsley and flowering thyme: every tree and every flower had its name; each of them was a human life, the human frame still lived--one in China, and another in Greenland--round about in the world. There were large trees in small pots, so that they stood so stunted in growth, and ready to burst the pots; in other places, there was a little dull flower in rich mould, with moss round about it, and it was so petted and nursed. But the distressed mother bent down over all the smallest plants, and heard within them how the human heart beat; and amongst millions she knew her child's.
"There it is!" cried she, and stretched her hands out over a little blue crocus, that hung quite sickly on one side.
"Don't touch the flower!" said the old woman. "But place yourself here, and when Death comes--I expect him every moment--do not let him pluck the flower up, but threaten him that you will do the same with the others. Then he will be afraid! He is responsible for them to OUR LORD, and no one dares to pluck them up before HE gives leave."
All at once an icy cold rushed through the great hall, and the blind mother could feel that it was Death that came.
"How hast thou been able to find thy way hither?" he asked. "How couldst thou come quicker than I?"
"I am a mother," said she.
And Death stretched out his long hand towards the fine little flower, but she held her hands fast around his, so tight, and yet afraid that she should touch one of the leaves. Then Death blew on her hands, and she felt that it was colder than the cold wind, and her hands fell down powerless.
"Thou canst not do anything against me!" said Death.
"But OUR LORD can!" said she.