Told by Katherine Pyle.
A little brother and sister were playing one day on the edge of a well that belonged to a water-sprite. The little girl held her brother’s hand, and leaned far over to look down into it.
“It seems to me that down below there I can see green meadows and flocks of sheep moving over them,” she said.
“It is only a reflection of the clouds,” said the little boy. “But be careful. I’m afraid you will fall in.”
Even as he spoke the little girl slipped and fell into the well, and as she had hold of her brother’s hand she pulled him in after her.
The two children went down—down—down—through the waters, and when they came to the bottom they found themselves in a country of green meadows and trees and streams, and before them stood a shining castle with domes and towers.
This castle belonged to the water-sprite who owned the well.
The little brother and sister went up to the castle and knocked at the door, and at once the water-sprite opened it to them.
“Come in, come in,” she said. “I saw you playing on the edge of the well, and it was I who made you fall in. I am lonely here, so you shall stay with me and be my helpers, and whatever I ask you to do, you must do.”
The water-sprite would have been beautiful if only she had not been so green. Her face was green and her hair was green, and her eyes were green. Only her teeth were white.
The sprite led the children into the kitchen and there she gave the little girl a bucket that had no bottom. “Go,” she said, “and fetch me some water to boil the dumplings for supper. And you,” she said to the little boy, “must cut me some wood,” and she gave him an ax that had no edge. It was as blunt as a hammer.
The little sister went out to the spring that the water-sprite showed her, and tried to bring up some water, but as fast as she dipped it up it ran out again, for the bucket had no bottom.
The brother began to chop at a tree nearby. He chopped and he chopped and he chopped, but he could scarcely make a dent, the ax was so dull.
When the children came back to the castle without either wood or water, the sprite was very angry with them. “I can easily see that you are both very silly,” she said. “But sit down; sit down at the table. Even if you are silly I suppose you must eat.”
The children sat down at the table, and the water-sprite set before them a dish of dumplings, but as the dumplings had not been cooked and were only dough the children could not eat them. They slipped them into their pockets, and then, when the sprite was not looking, they gave the dumplings to the water-cat that rubbed about their chairs.
After that the children went to bed and slept.
The next day it was the same thing over again. The water-sprite gave them tasks that they could not possibly do, and gave them only dough to eat, so the children made up their minds to run away. They waited, however, until afternoon, when the water-sprite went up to the top of the well to look around her.
When they were about to set out, the water-cat said to them, “You will do well to run away. You would not be happy here. But do not think my master will allow you to escape if she can help it. When she comes home and finds you gone, she will at once set out and chase you. She can go much faster than you, and she will certainly catch you unless you take with you her comb, her brush, and her mirror. These are magic things. Each time you see that she is about to catch you, throw one or other of these things over your shoulder. By this means, and by this means only, can you hope to escape.”
The children thanked the little cat, and did as it had advised them. They took the water-sprite’s brush and comb and mirror, and carried them off with them, and ran as fast as they could along the road that led to the upper world.
Soon after they had left, the water-sprite came home. When she found them gone she only stopped long enough to scold the cat, and then she put on her shoes of swiftness and started after them.
Soon the children looked behind them and saw her coming. She came so fast with her shoes of swiftness, that it seemed as though they could not possibly escape her.
However, the children remembered what the water-cat had told them. They threw the comb behind them, and at once it spread and grew into a wall of spikes, really stiff and high. It took the water-sprite a long time to climb over this wall, and the children were well on their way before they heard her behind them again.
Then the little girl threw the brush over her shoulder. At once the brush became a great thick forest, through which the water-sprite could hardly find her way.
But she got through it at last, and then it did not take her long to be at their heels again.
“And now we have only one more thing left,” said the brother, and he threw the mirror behind him.
At once the mirror became a hill of glass so steep and smooth that no one could possibly climb it. The sprite tried to run up it, but no sooner had she gone a step or so than she slipped back again. At last, with a shriek of rage, she turned and fled back to her castle, and that was the last of her.
The children continued on their way, and the road led them straight to the upper world and the door of their home. After that they were always careful to keep away from the edge of the water-sprite’s well.