Astrid Hulderbarn by Jeremiah Tan

Astrid Hulderbarn

There was once a woodcutter who spent his days felling trees and hewing them into firewood. One day, there appeared before him a maiden both tall and fair to look upon, with her golden hair that fell free and unbound down to her waist. So lovely was she that the woodcutter, having smote the last blow to a tree, forgot to lower his axe. And the tree, though just having been felled, forgot to fall so that both tree and axe hung suspended in the air for a long moment.

The maiden tarried with the woodcutter. Once she left, the long moment passed and both axe and tree fell to the ground in embarrassment with a resounding crash that made the woodcutter jump in surprise. Thereafter, she frequently returned to hold conversation with him. The maiden claimed to be from a village to the North and Northwest and invited him to return with her to her house.

And so he did. The maiden took the woodcutter by the hand and led him into the deep forest, following paths that twisted and coiled like a dragon’s back until he was well and truly muddled. Then he gave a cry of alarm and leaped backwards for there, emerging from under the maiden’s long dress was a cow’s tail. He knew then that the maiden was a hulder and that he was at her mercy.

The hulder revealed to him that her mother, a troll hag, had sent her to ensnare a young man and bring him home; for in her old age, the latter had developed a craving for human flesh. However, she had grown fond of the woodcutter and was now loth to see him go to pot. Then the woodcutter entreated her to abandon her venture and to live with him instead. He was so persistent and persuasive that she relented.

The two of them returned to the woodcutter’s village and married in a Christian church. The hulder’s tail fell off and she became his beloved wife. Indeed, he loved her so very much and often that a son was soon born to them. And he loved her even more and a daughter soon followed. But his wife asked him to love her a little less, for she wanted some respite from the pains of her labours. He hastily complied, for if any man took a hulder for a bride and then mistreated her, she would revert to being a hideous troll.

The boy was unremarkable, and so they named him Karl Olsson, after his father. But when his sister was born the midwife fled in terror, for the infant had a little calf’s tail just like her mother before her. So she was named Astrid Hulderbarn (“The Hulder’s Child’). And since a hulder’s tail may not be cut off without her coming to great harm, the baby’s was not touched.

Some years later, the woodcutter had just stepped out of his house when he came face to face with an extremely ugly woman who towered over him. Her feet were huge and horny, and she wore old, dirty rags. Her face was a mass of wrinkles and warts and a nauseating stench clung to her. Then he shrieked and cried out: “O wife! What have I done to you that you should have changed so?”

The creature snapped in disdain: “Miserable Wretch! I am not thy wife! But I have come to see my daughter – whom thou stole away from me years ago – and her family also.” She removed her head and tucked it comfortably under one arm, glaring venomously at him all the while. The woodcutter was exceedingly afraid, for this was his mother-in-law and she was a great and terrible troll. But his wife emerged and welcomed her mother warmly, even though she was chided sorely for marrying and losing her tail instead of bringing him back for the pot.

The old hulder’s mouth watered when she saw her grandson, the drool running between her yellow, uneven teeth and down her chin. But her eyes lit up when she saw that Astrid was herself a hulder, even if Karl was all too deliciously human. Then she spat at the woodcutter: “Worthless Toad, since thou hast taken my daughter from me, it is only fair that I take thine from thee. Kind calls to kind – a troll’s place is not with a lout such as thyself. Her brother might as well come with her to visit, lest she become homesick on the first night.”

The woodcutter’s heart sank, but his wife laughed, saying, “As you wish. But see – the hour is late and the children are tired. They can leave with you in the morning.” To this the old hulder agreed. But at sunrise, the woodcutter’s wife bored a hole in the handle of his axe with her needle and hid their children there. Then she told her mother they had gone out to play. The old hulder searched all over the house but did not find them anywhere.

The children were only brought out after it was too late to travel and once again it was agreed that the old hulder would take them the next morning. But just before dawn, the woodcutter’s wife bored a hole in the heel of his right boot and hid their children there; then she told her mother that they had gone to visit friends in the village. The old hulder searched the whole house again (and this time she thought to snatch the axe from the woodcutter’s grasp) but she could not find the children.

On the third day, the children’s mother hid them both in the spine of the family Bible and the old hulder finally departed empty handed, cursing and swearing: “The pox take thee, thou Sniveling Worm! And my useless daughter also!” She vanished back into the deep forest, never to return. And so it was that Astrid and her brother were saved from the clutches of their grandmother.




Jeremiah Tan was born and bred in Malaysia. He is currently based in Vilnius, Lithuania where he manages projects during the day and dreams of other worlds during the night.


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Detail of a painting by John Bauer