A Legend of the Northland


Away, away in the Northland

Where the hours of the day are few

And the nights are so long in winter

That they cannot sleep them through


Where they harness the swift reindeer

To the sledges, when it snows

And the children look like bear’s cubs

In their funny, furry clothes


They tell me a curious story -

I don't believe ‘tis true

And yet you might learn a lesson

If I tell the tale to you


Once, when the good Saint Peter

Lived in the world below

And walked about it, preaching

Just as he did, you know


He came to the door of a cottage

In traveling ‘round the earth

Where a little woman was making cakes

And baking them on the hearth


And being faint with fasting

For the day was almost done

He asked her, from her store of cakes

To give him a single one


So she made a very little cake

But as it baking lay

She looked at it, and thought it seemed

Too large to give away


Therefore she kneaded another

And still a smaller one

But it looked, when she turned it over

As large as the first had done


She took a tiny scrap of dough

And rolled it and rolled it flat

She baked as thin as a wafer

But she couldn't part with that


For she said, "My cakes that seem too small

When I eat of them myself

Are yet too large to give away"

So she put them on the shelf


Now good Saint Peter grew angry

For he was hungry and faint

And surely such a woman

Was enough to provoke a saint


He said, "You are far too selfish

To dwell in human form

To have both food and shelter

And fire to keep you warm


“Now, you shall build as the birds do

And shall get your scanty food

By boring, and boring, and boring

All day in the hard, dry wood"


So up she went through the chimney

Never speaking a word

And out of the top flew a woodpecker

For she was changed to a bird


She had a scarlet cap on her head

And that was left the same

And all the rest of her clothes were burned

Black as a coal in the flame


And every country schoolboy

Has seen her in the wood

She lives in the trees till this very day

Boring and boring for food


And this is the lesson she teaches:

Live not for yourself alone

Lest the needs you will not pity

Shall one day be your own


Give plenty of what is given to you

And listen to pity's call

Don't think the little you give is great

And the much you get is small


Now, my little boy, remember that

And try to be kind and good

When you see the woodpecker’s sooty dress

And see her scarlet hood


You mayn’t be changed to a bird though you live

As selfishly as you can

But you will be changed to a smaller thing

A mean and selfish man


-Phoebe Cary