The Girl that trod on the Loaf of Bread
You’ve presumably heard of the girl that trod on the loaf of bread so as not to dirty her shoes, and how badly things went for her. It’s been both written and printed.
She was a poor child, proud and haughty, she had a bad disposition, as people call it. When she was very young, she took delight it catching flies, pulling off their wings and turning them into earthbound insects. She got hold of a cockchafers and a dung beetle, impaled each of them on a needle, then placed a green leaf or a small piece of paper in front of their feet, and the poor held on to it, twisted and turned it, so as to escape from the needle.
‘Now the cockchafer’s reading!’ little Inger said, ‘just see how it turns the page!’
As she grew up she got worse rather than better, but she was pretty and that was her misfortune, for otherwise she would have been cuffed more often than was the case.
‘A drastic remedy’s needed for that head!’ her own mother said. ‘As a child you have often trodden on my apron, and I fear that when you are older you will often end up treading on my heart!’
Which she also did.
Now she was sent out into the country to do service for fine folk, they treated her as if she might have been their own child, and she was dressed as such, she was good-looking and her haughtiness increased.
She had been with them for about a year, when they said to her: ‘You really ought to pay your parents a visit, little Inger!’
She set out too, but only so as to show them how fine she had become; but when she came the road leading into the village and saw girls and young lad chatting away by the village pond and her mother of all people sitting on a stone resting with a bundle of firewood that she had gathered in the wood, Inger turned back, she was ashamed that she, who was so finely dressed, should have as a mother such a person in rags that collected sticks for firewood. She didn’t regret turning back, she was simply vexed.
And another six months passed.
‘You really ought to pay your old parents a visit, little Inger!’ her mistress said. ‘Here is a large loaf of white bread for you, you can take it with you to them; they will be happy to see you!’
And Inger donned her finest clothes and her new shoes, and she lifted her skirts and walked so carefully, so as to keep her feet nice and clean, and no one could reproach her for that! but when she came to where the path crossed boggy ground and there was water and mud for a good part of the way, she threw down the loaf of bread into the mire so as to tread on it and cross over dry-shod, but as she stood there with one foot on the bread and lifted the other, the loaf sank deeper and deeper with her, she disappeared completely and all that could be seen was a black, bubbling fen.
That is the story.
Where did she end up? Down with the bog crone who brews. The bog crone is an aunt of the elf girls, who was well-known enough, songs have been written about them and they have been portrayed in pictures, but all that people know about the bog crone is that when the meadows steam in summer, it is the bog crone who is brewing. It was down to her brewery that Inger sank, and one cannot put up with that for long. A cesspool is a light, magnificent chamber compared to the bog crone’s brewery! every vat has such a stench that humans cannot help but faint, and then the vats stand jammed up against each other, and if they is a small opening somewhere between them where one might perhaps squeeze through, one cannot do so even so for all the slimy toads and fat grass snakes that tangle and twine here; it was down to this that little Inger sank; all the revolting, writhing mesh was so icy-cold that a shudder passed right through all her limbs – indeed, she went stiffer and stiffer. She was still attached to the loaf of bread, and it dragged her, like an amber button can drag a piece of straw.
The bog crone was at home, that day the brewery was being visited by the devil and his great grandmother, and she is an old, highly poisonous hag who is never idle; she never sets out without having her needlework with her, and she had it here too! She was sewing itchy insoles to put in people’s shoes, so that they couldn’t rest for a moment; she was embroidering lies and crocheting rash words that had fallen to the ground, to the harm and ruin of everything. Oh yes, she could sew, embroider and crochet could old great grandmother.
She saw Inger, held her glasses up to her eyes and looked at her once again: ‘This is a girl of aptitude!’ she said, ‘I ask for her as a memory of my visit here! she can become a fitting statue for my great-grandchild’s antechamber!’
This request was granted. So it was that Inger came to hell. People do not always go straight there, but can come in via a detour – if they have aptitude.
It was an antechamber that went on for ever; it made one feel giddy to look forwards and giddy to look backwards; and here there stood a languishing host, waiting for the door of mercy to be opened up; their wait could be a long one! large, fat, waddling spiders wove thousand-year-old webs over their feet and this web constricted like foot-screws and held like copper fetters; and in addition there was eternal unrest in every single soul, a tormenting unrest. The miser stood there and had forgotten the key to his money box, and it was sitting in the lock, of that he was sure. Well, it would take vast amounts of time to reel off all the various agonies and torments that were experienced here. Inger felt it was horrible to stand there as a statue; she was as if fastened to the bread from below.
‘This is what one gets, just for wanting keep one’s feet clean!’ she said to herself. ‘Just look at how they gape at me!’ indeed, they were all gazing at her; their evil desires shone in their eyes and spoke without any sound coming from their lips, they were terrible to see.
‘It must be a pleasure to have me to look at!’ little Inger thought, ‘I have a pretty face and good clothes!’ and now she turned her turns, her neck was to stiff to do so. Oh no, how soiled she had become in the bog crone’s brewery, she hadn’t thought about that. It was as if her clothes had been inundated in one great dollop of slime; a grass snake had hung itself in her hair and flapped down the back of her neck, and from every fold of her dress a toad peeked out that barked like a wheezing pug. It was most unpleasant. ‘But the others don’t here also look horrible!’ she consoled herself with.
Worst of all for her, however, was the terrible hunger she felt; couldn’t she perhaps bend down and break off a piece of the bread she was standing on? No, her back had grown stiff, her arms and hands were stiff, her entire body was like that of a stone statue, she was only able to turn the eyes in her head, turn them right round so they looked backwards, and that was a truly ugly sight. And then there came flies that crawled over her eyes, back and forth, she blinked but the flies didn’t fly away, because they couldn’t. Their wings had been pulled off them, they had become earthbound insects; it was a torment and then there was the hunger, yes, finally she felt as if her intestines were devouring themselves and she was empty inside, so dreadfully empty.
‘If this goes on much more, I won’t be able to stand it!’ she said, but she had to hold on and it continued on and on as well.
A burning tear fell onto her head, rolled down her face and chest right down to the bread, another tear fell, many fell. Who was crying for little Inger? Didn’t she have a mother, up there on the earth? Tears of sorrow that a mother cries for its child always reach it, but they do not release it, only make the pain greater. And now this intolerable hunger and not being able to reach the bread she had trodden on! she finally had a feeling that everything inside her must have eaten itself up, she was like a thin, hollow reed that sucked every sound into it; she could hear clearly everything that had to do with her up on earth. Her mother was indeed crying profoundly and sorrowfully, but she also said: ‘Pride goes before a fall! that was your misfortune, Inger! You have grieved your mother!’
Her mother and everyone up there knew about the sin she had committed, that she had trodden on the loaf of bread, had sunk down and disappeared; the cowherd had told them, he had seen it himself from the hillside.
‘How you have grieved your mother, Inger!’ her mother said; ‘yes, I thought you would!’
‘If only I had never been born!’ Inger thought on hearing this, ‘it would have been much better for me. It is of no help now that my mother’s snivelling!’
He heard her own fine family, those good-natured people who had been like parents to her, say: ‘She was a sinful child!’ they said, ‘she did not respect Our Lord’s gifts to her but trod them underfoot, the door of mercy she will find difficult to open up!’
‘They should have disciplined me better!’ Inger thought, ‘cured me of my whims, if I had any.’
She head how a whole song had been put out about her, ‘the haughty girl that trod on the loaf to keep her shoes clean’ and it was being sung throughout the land.
‘That one should have to hear so much about that! and suffer so much for it!’ Inger thought, ‘the others should in all fairness also be punished for their faults! then they would really be a lot to punish! oh, how I am tormented!’
And her mind grew even harder than her shell.
‘Down here one doesn’t get better in their company! and I don’t want to get better! just look at how they gape!’!’
And her mind was angry and evil towards all of humanity.
‘Now they’ve got something to talk about up there! – ah, how I am tormented
And she heard that her story was told to the children, and infants referred to her as the ungodly Inger, - ‘she was so disgusting!’ they said, ‘so repulsive, she deserved to be really tormented!’
The children always spoke harshly about her.
Though one day, when resentment and hunger were gnawing away at her empty shell and she heard her name be mentioned and her story told to an innocent child, a little girl, she noticed that the infant burst into tears at the story of the haughty, finery-addicted Inger.
‘But will she never come up to the earth again?’ the little girl asked. And the answer was this:
‘She will never come up to the earth again!’
‘But what if she begs for forgiveness and promises never to do it again?’
‘But she is unwilling to beg for forgiveness!’ they said.
‘I wish so much for her to do that!’ the little girl said, and was quite inconsolable! ‘I’ll give her my toy cupboard if she’s allowed up! It’s so terrible for poor Inger!’
And these words reached down to Inger’s heart, it was as if they made her feel good; it was the first time that anyone said ‘poor Inger!’ and didn’t add anything at all about her faults; a small innocent child cried and prayed for her, she self so strange at this, she would have liked to cry too, but she couldn’t, and that too was a torment.
As the year passed up there, nothing changed below, she heard sounds from up there less frequently, people spoke about her less; then one day she heard a sigh: ‘Inger! how you have grieved me! I said you would!’ It was her mother who died.
She occasionally heard her name mentioned by the fine old family and these were the mildest words that the mistress of the house said: ‘I wonder if I will ever see you again, Inger! One never knows where one will end up!’
But Inger was well aware that her good-natured mistress would never end up where she was.
And more time passed, a long and bitter time.
Then Inger heard her name mentioned again and saw above here what looked like two stars gleaming; it was two gentle eyes that closed on earth. So many years had passed since the little girl wept inconsolably about ‘poor Inger’ that the child had become an old woman who Our Lord now wished to call to himself, and precisely at the moment when the thoughts from the sum of her whole like lifted themselves up, she also remembered how as a little girl she could not help but weep when hearing the story about Inger; that time and that impression were so vivid for the old woman at the hour of her death that she exclaimed aloud: ‘Oh, Lord God, is it not so that I too like Inger have often trodden on your gift of mercy and not given it a thought, that I too have gone around with pride in my mind but you in your mercy have not allowed me to sink but held me up! do not let go of me in my final hour!’
And the old woman’s eyes closed and the eyes of the soul were opened to that which is hidden, and since Inger was so vividly in her final thoughts, she saw her, saw how deep down she had been taken, and at that sight the devout woman burst into tears, in the kingdom of heaven she stood as a child and wept for poor Inger! her tears and prayers sounded like an echo down in the hollow, empty shell that encircled the imprisoned, tormented soul which was overwhelmed by the never thought love from above: an angel of God was crying for her! how could this be vouchsafed her! the tormented soul seemed to gather together in her thoughts every earthly deed it had committed, and it shook in tears such as Inger had never been able to weep; sorrow at herself filled her, it seemed to her that the gate of mercy would never be able to be opened for her, and as in her broken-heartedness she recognised this, a ray of light shone down into the abyss, it shone with a force greater than the sun’s ray that melts the snowman that the boys were building in the yard, and then, far more swiftly that the snowflake that falls on the child’s warm lips melts into a drop of water, Inger’s petrified figure evaporated, a little bird shot up like zigzagging lightning towards the human world, but showed fear and reserve for everything around it, it was ashamed of itself and of all living creatures and hastily sought shelter in a dark hole it found in the crumbling wall; here it sat and cowered, its whole body shuddering, unable to utter a sound, it had none; it sat there for a long while until it was calmly able to take in all the splendour outside! yes, what splendour: the air was so fresh and mild, the moon shone so brightly. Trees and bushes gave off their scent; and then it was so pleasant where it sat, its coat of feathers was so clean and fine. Oh, how everything had been created in love and splendour. All the thoughts that moved within the bird’s breast wanted to sing out, but the bird was unable to, it would have liked to have sung as cuckoos and nightingales do in the spring. Our Lord, who even hears the worm’s soundless song of praise, sensed here the song of praise that raised itself in chords of thought, like the psalm sounded in David’s breast before it gained words and melody.
For days and weeks these soundless songs swelled, they must surely break out at the first wingbeat in a good deed – and such a deed had to be practised!
Now came the holy feast of Christmastide. The farmer set up a pole close to the wall and bound an unthreshed truss of oats to it, so that the birds of the air could also have a happy Christmas and a gratifying meal at the time of Our Saviour.
And the sun rose on Christmas morning and shone on the sheaf of oats and all the chirruping birds flew around the pole of food, and then from the wall a ‘peep, peep!’ could be heard, the swelling thought became sound, the faint cheeping was a whole anthem of joy, the thought of a good deed had been awakened and the bird flew out of its hiding place; in the kingdom of heaven they knew well what sort of a bird this was!
The winter held everything in its grip, all expanses of water were deeply frozen, the birds and woodland animals were badly short of food. The little bird flew along the highway, and there in the tracks left by the sledges it sought and found here and there a grain of corn, at the resting places it found a couple of breadcrumbs, of these it only ate one, but called out to all the other starving sparrows that here food was to be found. It flew to the towns, scouted around, and wherever a loving had had strewn bread at the window for the birds it would only eat one crumb, but give everything to the others.
In the course of the winter the bird had gathered and given away so many breadcrumbs that together they weighed as much as the entire loaf of bread that Inger had trodden on so as not to dirty her shoes, and when the last breadcrumb had been found and given away, the bird’s grey winger turned white and spread out.
‘There’s a tern flying out across the lake!’ the children said when they saw the white bird; now it dived down into the lake, now it soared up into the clear sunshine, it gleamed, it was impossible to see what became of it, people said that it flew straight into the sun.