The Story of the Tortoise and Lady Mary.
THE blessed Mary, great and glorious as she is--she must not take it amiss--was one day too lazy to go out on behalf of her son to distribute his gifts among the children of the village. So when she left the house with the loaves of bread, some cake, and other gifts which she was to distribute, under her arm, she met the tortoise.
"Good morning," said the one. "Welcome, daughter," said the other. St. Mary said, "Prithee, auntie, just give this bread as alms for souls to the boys of the village."
"That is not much, my daughter, I will willingly do it," and taking the bread under her arms, there she went crawling along until she came to the boys.
The tortoise had scarcely left her, when St. Mary bethought herself that it might have been better if she herself had given the alms away, and not sent them through a stranger. So without more ado she followed the way the tortoise had gone, and came to the school.
What did she see there? Auntie tortoise performed her deed as she had promised, and going from boy to boy gave everyone a bit. But when at last she came to the youngest, who was her own child, she took out the cake and gave it to him. "I should like to know," said St. Mary, "how it happened that the last piece to be given away was a cake?"
"Well, daughter, or rather mother, I had kept the cake for the most beautiful child, and I could not find anyone more beautiful than mine." St. Mary, who had heard many things, when she heard this, could not help laughing aloud.
When she stopped laughing she was rather sorry, for why should she have laughed so loud? She said, "Verily, there is nothing more beautiful in the eyes of a mother than her own child."
Her beautiful face grew sad, and in order that her laughter should not bewitch the little tortoise--as if struck by the evil eye for being praised as beautiful--she spat out upon the ground, and out of the spittle there grew the silkworm. St. Mary blessed it and said, "Thou shalt live upon green leaves, and thou shalt draw out fine silk threads" (like the thread of the spittle). It is therefore forbidden to say anything evil of the silkworm, or to touch it whilst it is spinning the cocoon, for no sooner is an evil word spoken or the worm touched, than it stops drawing the silk.
The variant from the Balkans is as follows:
When Jesus went up to Golgotha, the Virgin Mother followed, crying. There she saw in the procession also a tortoise, and she could not help laughing. She then reproached herself, and said, "O evil mouth, thou art only good for worms." There and then she spat on the ground in disgust, and worms came out of the spittle. But having come from a holy mouth the worms which grew out of the spittle became the silkworms, which have remained so to this very day.
A peculiar variant in which, however, the second part--the origin of the silkworm--is omitted, is found among the Kutzovlachs of Macedonia as "The Story of St. Mary and the Tortoise."
Once upon a time the Virgin Mary sat sadly at the door of the school, waiting for her son, who was learning within, to come out so that she might give him a piece of cake which she had brought with her. Whilst she was sitting there she said to herself, "I will wait and see whether all the creatures recognise my son to be the most beautiful child in the world."
A tortoise just then came along. In order to put her to the test, St. Mary said to her, "Would you like to give this cake to the most beautiful child here in this school?"
"Willingly," replied the tortoise, and taking the cake she went into the school room. It so happened then that her own child was also among the pupils. She went straight up to it, and without a moment's hesitation gave it the cake destined for the most beautiful child in the school. When St. Mary saw what the tortoise had done, instead of being angry she laughed heartily, and said to her:
"Thou hast acted as every mother would act, for to a mother no one could be more beautiful than her own child. And because thou hast driven away my sadness, the finest and softest grass shall henceforth be thy food, and when thou diest thy bones shall not rot away."
And so it has remained to this very day, and the shell of the tortoise remains sound.