I’m a little confused about how I read this story in the first place. I know it didn’t come from my first straight-through reading of the complete works of the brothers Grimm, because I remember being really excited to find it again when I did that. And I know I didn’t find it on the internet, or any sort of adult-oriented fairy tale collection, because I remember reading it at my great-grandma’s house; there wasn’t internet there, and I hadn’t ventured beyond the children’s section of the library yet when she was alive.
So the question, here, is what kind of children’s book of fairy tales contained this bizarre piece of fever-dreamage?
As far as I remember, this was my first introduction to the word “ass.” My childhood was often plagued with accidental cussing. It wasn’t until I said things in public that I realized they had alternate meanings. Children’s historical fiction in the early 00s did not shy away from the use of “bastard,” guys.
Anyway. The story.
We start with a young hunter. He’s nice to a mysterious old woman in the woods, so you know what’s coming next.
She tells him where he can find some birds carrying a cloak. Shoot the birds. Take the cloak. Take the bird that you shot. Take out the heart. Eat it whole. Congratulations! Not only do you have a magic wishing cloak, but every morning from now on you’ll wake up to find a gold coin under your pillow.
(Weird side note: the eat bird heart, get gold coin thing shows up in other stories, too, and at some point I’ll probably do an in-depth analysis of why that is, or something, but I was already supposed to post this fifteen minutes ago, and I’ve barely started writing it, so we’ll do that some other time.)
Hunter travels. He ends up at a castle, as you do, and meets a creepy old lady, and a beautiful maiden. I know it can be hard to tell sometimes—no wonder these poor fairy tale kids end up in so much trouble—but this creepy old lady is an evil witch, not a powerful fairy in the woods.
Naturally, the hunter falls madly in love, and he and the maiden hook up. Maybe he thinks this creepy old lady is the good kind. Maybe he thinks the maiden is too cool to be in cahoots with the witch. Who knows? Anyway, he should have seen it coming. I swear, it’s like Samson and Delilah levels of stupidity up in here.
They give him something to make him throw up, and someone really needs to have a talk with the Grimm brothers about the digestive system. Either that, or magic bird hearts are like gum, and take seven years to come out the other end. Because our boy vomits up the heart, and because she’s disgusting or desperate or the greediest person in all of history, the maiden goes right ahead and eats that puke heart. No more gold for the hunter. Lots of gold for the witch and the maiden.
(Really interested in how this heart thing works, btw. I mean, you wake up every morning with a gold coin beneath your pillow, right? But this leaves so many questions unanswered. I assume if you pull an all-nighter you don’t get any gold that day. But what about naps? Could you, say, feed the heart to your pet cat to fully maximize your gold intake every time she falls asleep?)
Is this enough for the witch? Of course not. She wants the cloak too. Proving she isn't entirely sucky, our maiden asks, hey, isn't all this money enough? But the witch is all like, no, of course not, so, Delilah-like, the maiden goes to her boyfriend again.
She spends a lot of time sighing deeply.
“Honey,” he says, “what’s wrong?”
“I just really wish I could go to Garnet Mountain, where all the jewels grow,” she tells him. “But I’d have to fly to get there, and obviously that is not an option.”
“Hey babe,” he says, “I gotcha covered.”
Leaving aside the whole thing where jewels apparently grow on mountain tops, I should probably clarify that the magic wishing cloak is specifically a travel wishing cloak. So he puts on the cloak, wraps her all up, and wishes them away to the mountain.
And then, because Evil Magic, he falls asleep. Girl takes the cloak and wishes herself home. Hunter wakes up, finally sees the light, and boy is he pissed. Now, in her defense, the maiden stranded him on a mountain covered in living jewels, so, like, she gave him a fighting chance here, right? Dude could be set for life.
But does he fill up his pockets? Of course not. No, our guy just goes stomping down the mountain for a while, until he reaches that “have to fly to get there” part of the climb, and then he takes a fake nap to eavesdrop on some giants until he figures out how to get off on the Magic Cloud Express.
Some floating later, he’s back on the ground, and he’s really hungry. So he finds some cabbage. Then he gets turned into a donkey, which is why you should never eat your vegetables, kids.
He’s so hungry, he doesn’t even care that he’s a donkey now. He just keeps eating cabbage. But then he eats a different kind of cabbage, and suddenly he’s a man again. This is where he gets the Idea.
He grabs a whole bunch more cabbage, makes a fancy salad, throws on a disguise, and goes back to the castle where Delilah lives.
It’s possible he missed his calling with this whole hunter thing, because the guy makes a mean salad. Like, as long as you don’t mind becoming a donkey, forget all those Michelin stars and crap—this is the dream chef.
Everyone goes nuts for the salad. The witch, the maiden, and some random maidservant are promptly turned into donkeys.
(btw, I know the text used the word “ass” to describe the donkeys several times in the first version of this I read, but let’s all take a moment to be grateful that they didn’t translate the title as “Ass Cabbages.” Like, things could have been so much worse.)
So everyone is donkeys. Dude pays a miller to watch the donkeys for a while. Tells him to beat the witch donkey thrice a day, and feed her once, shout out to my baby brother who loves the word “thrice.” The maiden donkey gets three meals and zero beatings, because someone’s still in love with his Delilah. The servant girl gets one beating and three meals, which is like—okay. Come on, man. This girl did not hurt you. No one even mentioned her until salad time. It’s bad enough you got this innocent person turned into a donkey, now you gotta beat her too?
You deserved to get your heart and cloak stolen, man.
The witch donkey dies under this treatment, and then our hunter feels bad and gives the other two the good cabbage to turn them back. Our poor innocent servant girl immediately disappears from the narrative again, hopefully to get a better job with no witches and no salads. Beautiful maiden apologizes, tells him where his cloak is, and offers to puke the bird heart back up.
Hunter takes the cloak, lets her keep the heart, and marries her, which is, frankly, a bad idea all around. Dude already knows he can’t trust her. Also, turns out the witch was the girl’s mom, so, like, honey. Really. Why are you hooking up with the guy who had her beaten until she died? Sure, she was a wicked witch, but she was also your mom.
Whatever. If there’s one thing fairy tales are consistently awesome about, it’s the power of forgiveness. We all live happily ever after. Stay tuned for some fun with tailors next week.