Mallie and the Trow

Contributed by Marilyn McPhie

Long, long ago in the Shetland Islands, there was a woman named Mallie.  Mallie’s husband had been lost at sea, so she was a widow, but she was not alone.  She had three sons, who were all fine young men, teenagers.  And like all teenagers, they seemed to always be hungry, and as they were quite poor, it was hard for Mallie to keep enough food in the house to satisfy their hunger. 

At the start of every winter, Mallie would try to store as much food as she could to feed herself and her boys.  One winter, she had some potatoes, a small barrel of salted herrings and a box of oatmeal.  Mallie tried to make the food last, but finally it was all gone, and the winter was not nearly over.

The night that they ate the last of the salted herring and the last of the oatmeal and the last of the potatoes, Mallie told her sons that there was no food left.  “What shall we do?” they asked.

“We will do what we must do, my sons.  We will have to beg for food.”

The sons all looked at each other, and finally the eldest spoke.  “I will go to our neighbor, Mother.  She seems to always have plenty of food.  Perhaps she will take pity on us.”

The next morning, the boy set off through the snow to the neighbor’s house.  He knocked on the door, and when the woman answered, he could see past her and into her kitchen.  He could see shelves and shelves filled with all kinds of food, and seeing that, he was hopeful that she would have food to spare.

“What do you want?” said the woman, rather harshly.

“We have no food at all.  Please could you share some of your food with us?”

“How dare you come begging?” shouted the woman.  “Begone, and do not come back.”

And she gave him such a harsh look, that the boy, who was tall and very nearly a man, broke down in tears.

He went home and told his mother and brothers what had happened.

His mother comforted him.  “Some people are like that, son.  Be glad that we are different.”

They all went to bed hungry.

The next morning, there was no food for breakfast, but in the afternoon, there was a knock on the door.  When Mallie opened it, there stood an old man, dressed all in rags.

“I have been walking all day,” said the man, “and I am tired and hungry.  Could you spare some food?”

Mallie explained that they had no food, but she invited the man to come in from the cold.  “At least we can share our fire with you.”

Mallie began to think.  There were no herrings left, but perhaps there was some brine in the barrel, and there was no oatmeal, but perhaps there were some bits left in the corners and edges of the box.  So she got a brush and brushed a bit of oatmeal from the crevices of the box, mixed it with the brine, and divided it among the five of them, reserving only a tiny amount for herself.

Then she invited the ragged man to stay the night.  “We have no bed for you, but you are welcome to sleep by the fire.  We have plenty of peats, so you will be warm.”

The next morning, one of the boys went to the well, and a cup of water was all they had for breakfast.

The old man began to leave, when he turned back and asked Mallie, “Was that really the only food you had?”  

“It was,” said Mallie.  “I wish it could have been more.”

“Bless you for sharing the last of your food,” said the man.

After he left, they sighed, knowing that they still did not have any food – not even a crumb.  One of the boys said, “At least we can be warm,” and he went to get some peats.  He came back with a basketful of large peats.  Mallie picked up one of the largest and broke it in two.  When she did, something fell to the floor with a clink.  It was a gold coin.  A second peat held another coin.  To their amazement, there was a gold coin in every peat.  And they realized that the raggedy old man was in reality, a trow, and this was his thanks for their hospitality.

Now Mallie went to the market and bought all the food they wanted.  Her boys would not be hungry again.  Of course, the stingy neighbor women noticed this.  One night, she sneaked up to the house and peeked in the window.  She saw Mallie breaking peats, and she saw the gold.  Immediately, she went to the pile of peats by Mallie’s house and stole as many as she could carry.

She went home, anticipating  riches.  But when she broke the first peat in half, out scurried two mice.  Thinking that surely the next would give her the gold she expected, she broke another.  Two more mice.  She broke every peat, and soon the house was overrun with mice.  They scurried into the larder and ate every last morsel of food.

The old woman was hungry for two days, and then she made her way to Mallie’s house.  She knocked, and who should come to the door but the same boy she had turned away.  “I have no food,” she explained.  “Do you have some to share?”  

The boy exclaimed, “I will share with you as much as you shared with us when we were hungry,” and he slammed the door in the woman’s face.

Mallie heard the door slam and asked her son who was at the door.  He explained that it was their stingy neighbor, and seemed glad to have been able to turn her away, remembering how she had treated him.

“Yes,” said Mallie, “but you must also remember what I told you.  We are not like that.  Open the door, son,”

The boy opened the door, and Mallie invited the woman in.  “As long as we have food,” she said, “you need never be hungry.”

And as the boys grew to manhood, people said that there were never any men who were kinder and more generous than Mallie’s sons.