This is my translation of “Marienkind”, a remarkable fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The original can be seen here. I took minor liberties with the translation in the service of readability.
Before a great forest lived a woodcutter with his wife. They had but one child, a girl of three years. They were so poor that they had no more daily bread, and did not know what they could give their child to eat.
One morning, the woodcarver, full of cares, went to the forest to work. As he cut wood there appeared a tall and beautiful woman before him. She had a crown of shining stars on her head, and she said to him “I am the Virgin Mary, mother of the Christ Child. You are poor and needy. Bring me your child, and I will take her with me to be her mother and to care for her.”
The woodcutter obeyed. He took his child and gave her over to the Virgin Mary, who took the child with her up to Heaven. There all was well for the child; she ate sweet bread and drank sweet milk, and her clothes were of gold, and the angels were her playmates.
Now one day when she was fourteen years old, the Virgin Mary called to her and said “Beloved child, I am planning a great journey. Here, take the keys to the thirteen doors of the Kingdom of Heaven into your keeping. Twelve of them you may unlock and see the wonders therein, but the thirteenth, to which this little key belongs, this is forbidden. Beware that you do not unlock it, lest you find sorrow.” The maiden promised to be obedient.
Once the Virgin Mary was on her way, the child beheld the chambers of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each day she unlocked one door, until she had opened the twelve. Behind each door she saw an Apostle, and was enveloped by a glorious light, and she rejoiced in the splendor and holiness, and the angels who were her constant companions rejoiced with her too.
Now the forbidden door alone remained, and she felt a great yearning to know what should be hidden behind it. She said to the angels “Of course I do not want to open it, nor will I go within, but I will unlock it, so that we peer through the crack.”
“No,” said the angels, “that is no good. The Virgin Mary has forbidden it, and it can bring you only unhappiness.”
Then she fell silent, but the yearning in her heart did not fall silent, but gnawed and chewed and left her no peace. And when the angels had all gone up, she said “Now I am alone and can look in, for no one shall know what I do.” She straightaway sought the key, and when she had it in her hand, she stuck it in the lock and turned it within.
Thus the door sprang open, and there she saw the Holy Trinity set in fire and glory. She lingered a brief moment and considered with amazement, and set her finger toward the radiant light, and her finger then became all golden. Immediately she felt a tremendous dread, violently slammed the door and and ran away. But her fear would not yield and her heart pounded on and on, and would not be still. And the gold remained on her finger and would not come off, wash and rub as she would.
Not long after, the Virgin Mary came back from her journey. She called the maiden to her and demanded back from her the Keys of Heaven. When the lot had been given, she looked the young woman in the eye and said “Did you open the thirteenth door as well?”
“No,” she answered, and laid her hand on her heart and felt how it pounded and pounded, and noted well that it betrayed her transgression. Then the Virgin asked again “Are you certain you have not done this?”
“No,” the maiden said a second time.
Then the Virgin caught sight of her finger, that by contact with the heavenly fire had been made golden, and saw that she had sinned. She said a third time “Have you not done this?”
“No,” said the maiden a third time.
Then the Virgin said “You have not obeyed me and have lied as well, you are no longer worthy to be in Heaven.” The maiden sank into a deep sleep, and when she awoke, she lay below upon the earth in the midst of a wilderness. She wanted to call out, but she could bring forth no sound. She sprang up and wanted to run away, but whither she went dense brambles turned her back.
In the waste land in which she was ensnared stood a tall, old tree, that must serve as her dwelling place. When night came she crawled inside and slept within, and when it stormed and rained she found protection inside. But this was a miserable life, and when she thought upon how lovely it was in Heaven, and how the angels had played with her then, she would cry bitterly. Roots and wild berries were her only food, and she sought those as she could. In autumn she collected fallen nuts and leaves and put them in a hole. In winter the nuts were her food, and if it snowed, she crept like a poor little animal in the leaves so she wouldn’t freeze. Soon her clothes were in tatters and fell in pieces from her body. As soon as the sun shone warmly once more, she went out and sat before the tree, and her hair bedecked her on all sides like a mantle. Thus she sat one year after another, and felt the pain and misery of the world.
One day, when the trees stood fresh and green once more, the king of the land chased into the woods following a deer, and because it fled into the underbrush of the wild places, he rose from the horse and tore the bushes asunder, and cut himself a path with his sword. When he finally penetrated the thicket, he saw a wondrously beautiful maiden sitting beneath the tree, bedecked with her golden hair to the toes of her feet. He stood still and stared in amazement. Then he spoke to her, saying “Who are you? Why do you sit here in the waste land?” But she gave no answer, for she could not open her mouth.
The king said again “Will you go with me to my castle?” and she nodded her head a little. The king took her by the arm, set her on his horse and rode with her home, and when he came to the kingly castle, he put her in beautiful clothes and gave her everything in abundance. And if still she could not speak, yet she was beautiful and gracious and won his heart in love, and it was not long before he married her.
When about a year had passed, the queen brought a son into the world. And there in the night where she slept alone, the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke, “Will you confess and speak the truth, that you opened the forbidden door, that I should open your mouth and you again should speak? If you persist in sin and stubbornly deny it, I will take your newborn child with me.” The queen gave answer, but was obdurate and said “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” And the Virgin took the child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when the child had disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen was an ogress and had devoured her own child. She heard all this and could say nothing against it, but the king would not believe it, for he loved her.
After a year the queen bore another son. In the night the Virgin Mary came again and said “Will you confess that you opened the forbidden door? Then I will return your child to you and set your tongue loose. But if you persist and remain in sin, I will take your newborn with me too.” Then the queen said “No, I did not open the forbidden door,” and the Virgin Mary took her child in her arms away into Heaven. The next morning, when it was learned the child had also disappeared, the people cried out loudly that the queen had devoured it, and the King’s councilors demanded that she should be examined. But the king would not believe it, for he loved her, and ordered the councilors on pain of life or life imprisonment to never speak of it again.
In the next year the queen bore a lovely daughter. The Virgin Mary came to her on the third night and said “Follow me.” She took her by the hand and led her to Heaven, and showed her then her oldest child, who laughed and played with the globe of the world. When the queen was joyous at the sight, the Virgin Mary asked “Is your heart not yet softened? When you confess that you opened the forbidden door, I will return your son to you.” But the queen answered a third time “No, I did not open the forbidden door.” Then the Virgin set her down once more to sink to the Earth, and took the third child.
The next morning when the rumor spread, all the people cried out “The queen is an ogre, she must be sentenced!” and the king could no longer reject his councilors. A trial was held, and because she could say nothing to defend herself, she was sentenced to die at the stake. The wood was gathered together, and when she was tied to the stake and the fire began to burn around her, the hard ice of pride melted and her heart was moved by remorse. She thought “If I could only confess before my death that I opened the door….” And so her voice returned, and she cried out loudly “Yes, Mary, I did it!”
And just then the heavens began to rain and erased the fires, and a light broke forth above her. Mary came down, with both little sons by her side, and the newborn daughter in her arms. She said kindly “When your sin it is confessed, it is forgiven,” and gave her the three children, and loosened her tongue, and gave her happiness for all her life.