The Goose Girl at the Spring


One morning a handsome young man was walking through the forest. The sun shone brightly. The birds sang. A cool breeze caressed the leaves, and he was full of joy. He had yet to come across anyone when he spotted an old woman kneeling on the ground, cutting grass with a sickle. She had already gathered a full load in her pack, and two baskets filled with wild pears and apples stood next to it.

“My God, old woman,” he said. “how can you possibly carry all that?”

“I must carry it, young sir. Children of the rich don’t have to worry, but a peasant has to earn every meal. Do you want to help? You still have a straight back and young legs; it would be easy for you. Besides, my house is not far from here. It’s on a heath just beyond that mountain. You could make it up there in a hop, skip and a jump.”

“I’ll confess. My father is indeed a rich count… I’ll carry your burden, so you will see that farmers are not the only ones who can earn their keep.”

“If that’s your will,” she responded, “then I’m pleased. It will take an hour of your time, but that shouldn’t matter to you. You must also carry the apples and pears.” The young count began to have doubts when the woman mentioned an hour’s walk. But before he could renege, she had lifted the sack on his back and hung the two baskets on his arm.

“You see,” she said, “there’s nothing to it.”

“It’s not light,” responded the count. “It feels as if it were packed with bricks, and the apples and pears feel as though they were made of lead. I can hardly breathe.”

“Just look,” she said mockingly, “the young gentleman can’t carry an old woman’s burden. You’re good with pretty words, but when it comes to action, you want to scoot away like the wind. Why are you dallying? Get a move on! No one’s going to take the bundle off your back.”

As long as the count walked on level ground, he could stand it, but as soon as he came to the mountain and had to climb the stones rolled out from under his feet, and the load was beyond his strength. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and trickled down his back, hot and cold.

“Old woman,” he said, “I can’t go any farther. I have to rest a while.”

“Nothing doing,” she answered. “Once we’ve arrived, you can relax, but now you must keep marching. Who knows what good may come from fulfilling this chore?”

“You’re becoming shameless!” said the count. He tried to throw off the pack, but though he twisted and turned, it stuck to his back as tightly as if it grew there.

The old woman laughed. “Don’t get mad, young sir. Your face is turning even redder. Bear your burden with patience. When we get home, I’ll certainly give you a good tip for your service.”

The young man had no choice but to plod along patiently after the old woman. She seemed to become more and more nimble, leaping here and there while his load seemed to become heavier and heavier. Then she sprung up and landed on top of the pack. Even though she was as thin as a rail, she weighed more than the fattest peasant. The young man’s knees wobbled, and when he did not continue, the old woman hit his legs with a branch. He groaned continually as he climbed the mountain, and just as he was about to collapse, he finally reached the old woman’s house.

WHEN the geese spied the old woman, they stretched their wings and necks in the air, ran toward her, and cackled greetings. Another old woman followed the flock with a stick in her hand. She was big and strong and ugly as sin. “Mother,” the old goose girl said to the young man’s tormentor, “did something happen to you along the way? You were gone so long.”

“Heaven forbid, little daughter. Nothing bad happened. On the contrary, this kind gentleman carried my load for me. He even carried me on his back when I became tired. The journey passed quickly because we had so much fun with one another along the way.”

Then the old woman slid off and took the bundle from the young man’s back and the baskets from his arms. She looked at him in a friendly way, “Now sit down on the bench and rest. You’ve earned your reward, and you shall have it in due time.”

Then she said to the old goose girl, “Go into the house, my little daughter. It’s not proper for you to be alone with a young man. No need to add oil to the fire.” The old woman fondled her geese like children and then went into the house with her daughter.

The count did not know whether to laugh or cry. Even if she were thirty years younger, he thought, a woman like that would never stir my heart. He stretched himself out on a bench underneath a wild apple tree. The air was warm and mild. All around him was a green meadow covered with cowslips, wild thyme, and a thousand other flowers. There was a clear brook that glistened with the sun’s rays and rippled through the middle of meadow. The white geese waddled back and forth or paddled in the water. ‘It’s quite lovely here,’ he thought. ‘But I’m so tired that I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m going to sleep for a while. I only hope that a gust of wind doesn’t come and blow my feet out from under me. They feel as brittle as tinder wood.’

After he had slept awhile, the old woman came and shook him. “Get up.” she said. “You can’t stay here. I confess I gave you a hard time, but it didn’t cost you your life. Now you shall have your reward. Since you don’t need money or land, I shall give you something else.” She placed a little box carved from a single emerald into his hand. “Take good care of it, it will bring you luck.”

The count jumped up feeling restored. He thanked the old woman for the present and set out upon his way without turning around to look for the old woman’s daughter.

The count must have wandered three days in the wilderness before he could find his way out. Eventually he reached a large city, and since he was a stranger, he was taken to the royal castle to meet the king and queen. The count knelt down before them, took the emerald box out of his pocket, and laid it at the queen’s feet. She beckoned to him to stand up and hand her the little box. No sooner had she opened it and looked inside than she fell to the ground as if she were dead. The count was seized by the king’s servants and was about to be taken to prison when the queen opened her eyes and cried out that they should release him. She ordered everyone to go outside and declared that she wanted to speak with the count in private.

When the queen was alone with him, she began to cry bitterly and said, I once had three daughters, and the youngest was so beautiful that the entire world considered her a miracle. She was as white as snow, as pink as apple blossoms, and her hair glittered like the rays of the sun. Whenever she cried, pearls and jewels dropped from her eyes. On her fifteenth birthday the king summoned all three daughters to his throne. When the youngest entered, it was as if the sun had risen. The king said, “My daughters, I don’t know how much longer I have to live. So I shall decide today what each one of you is to receive after my death. You all love me, but whoever loves me most shall be given the best part of my realm.’ Each of them said she loved him most of all. ‘I want you to describe just how much you love me,’ said the king. ‘Then I’ll be able to tell more clearly what you mean.’ The oldest one said, ‘I love my father as much as I love the sweetest sugar.’ The second said, ‘I love my father as much as I love my prettiest dress.’ The youngest, however, kept quiet. Then her father asked, ‘And you, daughter, how much do you love me?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she insisted. ‘I can’t compare the love I feel for you with anything.’ Yet her father insisted. Finally, she said, ‘The best food has no taste without salt. Therefore, I love you father as much as I love salt.’ When the king heard this, he became enraged and said, ‘If you love me as much as you love salt, then your love shall also be rewarded with salt.’

“So he divided his kingdom between the two older daughters. However, he ordered a sack of salt bound to the back of his youngest daughter, and two servants were told to lead her out into the wild forest. We all pleaded and begged for her, but the king’s rage could not be calmed. How she cried when she was forced to leave us! The entire way was strewn with pearls that fell from her eyes. Soon after, the king regretted his severity and had the entire forest searched for the poor child, but no one could find her.

Sometimes I console myself with the hope that she is still alive and may have hidden herself in a cave or found shelter with merciful people. Now, you can imagine how I felt when I opened the emerald box, and there was a pearl just like the ones that my daughter used to shed, and you can also imagine how this sight stirred my heart. Please tell me how you came upon this pearl!”

The count told her he had received it from the old woman in the forest who had seemed uncanny to him and he believed she must be a witch. However, he had not seen a sign nor had he heard a thing about the queen’s child. Nevertheless, the king and queen decided to seek out the old woman to see if they could get news of their daughter.

The old woman sat outside in her lonely place, spinning on her spinning wheel. It had already become dark, and a log burning on the hearth gave off a little light. The geese were coming home from the meadow, and their merry cries could be heard. Soon the daughter entered, but the old woman acknowledged her only by nodding her head. The daughter sat down beside her, took her spinning wheel, and twisted the thread as nimbly as a young girl would. Thus they both sat for two hours without exchanging a word. Finally, something rustled at the window, and two fiery eyes glared inside. It was an old night owl that uttered “Tu whit-whoo…Tu whit whoo. The old woman looked up and said, “Now, my little daughter, it’s time for you to go do your work.”

The daughter stood up and went outside… over the meadow toward the valley, a long, long ways until finally she reached a spring surrounded by three old oak trees. The moon was round and large and had risen above the hill. It was so bright that one could easily have found a pin on the ground. The maiden removed the old baggy skin and dark matted hair that covered her, leaned over the spring, and began to wash. When she was finished, she dipped the old skin in the water and laid it out on the ground so it could bleach and dry in the moonlight. But how the maiden was transformed! Her golden hair flared like sunlight and spread like a cloak over her entire body. Her eyes glistened like stars, and her cheeks glowed like apple blossoms.

But the maiden was sad, and she sat down and cried, and one tear after another rolled down through her long hair onto the ground. There she would have remained for a long time if she had not heard a cracking and rustling in the branches of a nearby tree. Like a deer jolted by the sound of a hunter, she jumped up, and at the same time a cloud passed over the moon. In a moment the maiden had slipped back in to the old skin and was running in a fright back to the witches cabin.

The old woman was standing in front of the door, and the maiden wanted to tell her what had happened, but the old woman laughed in a friendly way and said, “The world is only turning daughter,” and led the maiden into the room and started a new fire. However, she did not sit down at the spinning wheel again. Rather, she fetched a broom and began to sweep and scrub. “Everything must be clean and neat,” she exclaimed.

“But Mother,” the maiden asked. “Why are you starting to work at such a late hour?”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“Not past midnight yet,” answered the maiden,” but certainly it must be past eleven.”

“Don’t you remember that you came to me three years ago today? Your time is up. We can no longer stay together.”

“Oh, Mother, do you want to throw me out? Where shall I go? I have neither home nor friends to turn to. I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, and you’ve always been satisfied with me. Don’t send me away!”

“My stay here is over,” the old woman responded. “But before I leave, the house must be clean. Therefore, I don’t want you to hinder my work. Don’t worry on your own account. You shall find a roof to shelter you, and I’m sure that you’ll be satisfied with the wages I will give you.”

“But tell me what’s going on!”

“Do not disturb my work. Not another word. Just go into your room, remove the skin from your face. Put on the silk dress that you wore when you came to me, and wait until I call you.”

The king and queen had departed with the count to seek out the old woman, but the count had become so consumed in trying to remember the way he had become separated from them, and so was forced to continue on alone. The next day it seemed to him that he was finally on the right path. He kept going until it became dark, and then climbed up a tree and intended to spend the night there. When the moon cast its light on his surroundings, he spotted a shape meandering down the mountain. He could see that it was the goose girl whom he had previously encountered at the old woman’s house, even though she was not carrying a stick in her hand.

“Oho!” he exclaimed. “Here she comes. Once I catch one of the witches, I’ll soon have the other in my hands as well.” However, as he watched her go to the spring, take off the skin, and wash herself, his astonishment grew. Then, when her golden hair swooped down her sides, he felt that she was more beautiful than anything else he had ever seen in the world. he hardly dared to breathe, but he did stick in head between the leaves as far as he could and looked straight at her. Then the branch cracked, and the maiden slipped back into the skin and disappeared from his sight.

No sooner had she disappeared than the count climbed down from the tree and rushed after her. He had not gone very far, when he saw two figures wandering across the meadow in the moonlight. It was the king and queen, who had glimpsed the light in the old woman’s house and were heading straight for it. When the count told them about what he had seen they were sure the goose girl was their lost daughter. Full of joy, they went on and soon arrived at the little house. The geese were sitting all around it with their heads tucked under their wings. Not one of them moved, as they were all fast asleep. The three travelers looked through the window and saw the old woman silently sitting and spinning. She nodded her head but did not look around.

The king and queen did not ee their daughter. For a while they looked at everything, and finally they summoned up the courage to knock softly on the window. The old woman seemed to have expected them. She stood up and called out in a friendly way, “Come in, you are welcome.”

After they had entered the room, the old woman said, “You could have spared yourself the long journey if you had not unjustly banished your lovely child three years ago. Yet, the banishment has not harmed her. She has had to tend the geese for these three years. She learned nothing evil in the process and has kept herself pure of heart. You, however, have been punished sufficiently by the anguish you’ve suffered.” Then she went to the door and called, “Come out, my little daughter.”

The door opened and the princess emerged with her golden hair and sparkling eyes. She was dressed in her silk gown, and it was as if an angel had descended from heaven into the room. She went directly to her father and mother and embraced and kissed them. They could not help weeping for joy. The young count was standing next to them, and when she noticed him, her cheeks turned red. She herself did not know why. Then the king said, “My dear child, I have given away my kingdom. What am I to give you now?”

“She doesn’t need anything,” the old woman said. “I’m giving her the tears that she shed because of you. They are the purest pearls, more beautiful than any that can be found in the ocean, and worth more than your entire kingdom. And as a reward for her work, I am going to give her my little house.”

Just as the old woman said this, she vanished in front of their eyes. The walls rattled a little, and when they looked around, they saw that the little house had been transformed into a splendid palace. A royal table had been set for them, and servants were running all about.

The story does not end here, but my grandmother, who told it to me, was losing her memory, and she forgot the rest. I believe the beautiful maiden married the count and that they remained together in that place and lived in bliss as long as it pleased God. I thought I remembered that the snow white geese kept at the little house were really girls that the old woman had taken under her care, and that they regained their human shape when the old woman vanished and also lived in bliss under the queens care.

From the Brother’s Grimm collection (abbreviated)

Lee Scher facilitates a monthly fairytale study group in Portland, OR. For more info visit: or email: For more info on Lee’s psychotherapy practice please visit:


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