The Boy Who Avoided His Chores
(for Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born Feb. 24, 1786)
A certain boy hid behind his family barn, trying to escape his daily chores. He knew his father waited for him on the other side of the large building, with pails for transporting gallons of water and fresh milk, shovels for shifting heavy piles of earth and manure. The boy preferred to lie in the grass, watching for patterns in the clouds above.
One cloud had the shape of an old witch. As the cloud moved across the sky, winds sculpted this decrepit shape into the soft image of a young maiden, her arms outstretched. A slow wind further altered the cloud, cutting off the young girl’s hands.
He was startled out of his reverie by a deep voice like his father’s. “Boy, why dost thou lounge with no cares? Have you not chores to complete?” The language was more formal than his father used, and the boy realized the words came not from the other side of the barn but from the sky. He noticed a different cloud, in the shape of a devil’s face.
The boy did not answer.
The lips of the cloud-face curled in a dark smile. “Are you too frightened of me to speak?”
In response, the boy lifted a finger to cover his own mouth, and the devil cloud understood. “You are a mere youth, and have not learned fear,” the devil said. “You are merely worried our voices will call attention from your father on the other side of the barn. He will find you, and make you carry pails of water and fresh milk, and shift heavy piles of earth and filthy manure.”
The boy nodded.
“Well, have no worries. My voice meets your ears alone; your father cannot hear me. And I can make you a deal that will ensure you never again must carry out your father’s orders.”
As the boy looked up in the sky, the devil’s face did not transform in shifting winds. But the boy began to see something different, nonetheless. He began to see the face of a friend.
“All I ask,” the smiling devil continued, “is that you grant me whatever lies behind the barn. In return, I promise you will never again suffer through daily chores that bring no benefit to yourself.”
Although spiteful, the boy was not stupid. He remembered the tale of “The Maiden with No Hands.” In that story, the devil takes the shape of an old man, tempting a miller with untold riches, if he will simply give up that which stands behind his mill. Thinking the tempter refers only to an apple tree, the miller agrees — only to learn that his beloved daughter, at that moment, was sweeping the ground beneath the tree. The girl was too innocent, “her hands were clean,” so the devil demanded that her hands be chopped off before she was given to him.
The barn loomed high behind the young boy, and he couldn’t see to the other side. He whispered to escape his father’s notice, hoping the devil could hear. “Is my father on the other side of this building?”
“Yes,” the devil’s voice boomed from the cloud.
The boy knew that, unlike the miller in the story, he could win his bet with the devil. The miller loved his daughter, was agonized at the thought of severing her hands with his own axe. In contrast, the spiteful boy’s hatred for chores outweighed any slight love he held for his father. He would cut off his father’s hands at the devil’s direction, if that were indeed the last chore he ever had to perform.
“I agree,” the boy said.
And the cloud thundered. Bolts of lightning struck from the devil’s eyes, arcing over the barn. The boy crouched down, huddled against the building’s frame, covering his ears as the earth shook. Above, dark funnels spun forth from the devil’s nostrils, and a hurricane wind emerged from the evil cumulonimbus mouth. Torrential rains fell from the sky.
After what seemed like an eternity, the storm activity ceased. The devil’s face no longer appeared in the sky, but the boy could swear that he heard laughter.
He stood, and collected himself. A small pang of remorse hit him, over the sacrifice of his father. He was surprised at how dramatic the devil’s actions had been, just to take a single victim.
He turned, and the side of the barn loomed ahead of him. Standing this close, it was as if the building blocked out the entire world beyond.
A deathly quiet beckoned from the other side.