There was once a peasant man whose wife prayed fervently for many years before bearing him twin sons. The first son was beautiful. The father held him high and named him Wilhelm, after himself. But the second son was covered in quills like a hedgehog, quills so sharp they tore his mother’s flesh as he entered the world. She cradled her little man-beast in her arms and called him, “Hans, my hedgehog,” as the red life drained from her body.
The father lived alone with his two sons on a small farm where he kept a vegetable garden, a dozen hens for eggs, half as many pigs for meat, a goat for milk, and a large cock rooster for warding off intruders.
As the boys grew, Wilhelm came to despise his brother Hans because he blamed him for their mother’s death. Their father, knowing a boy born so different would never have a place among the world of men, pitied Hans and gave him whatever he asked. From the time he could carry a bucket, Wilhelm worked about the farm, feeding, watering, washing, and milking. But Hans passed the summers wandering in the woods and the winters reading books beside the iron stove, which only served to multiply Wilhelm’s bitterness.
On the boys’ eighth birthday, the father asked Hans, “What would you have of me?”
“A set of bagpipes,” Hans replied.
So, the father had Wilhelm slaughter the goat and from its skin fashioned a set of bagpipes for his son. The farm no longer had fresh cream, but it had the sweetest music in the kingdom. Whenever Hans would play his bagpipes, the hens would lay, the pigs would grow fat, and the forest creatures would come to sit at his feet. But his brother Wilhelm would stop up his ears with mud as he gathered the eggs and chopped the firewood.
On the boys’ eleventh birthday, the father asked Hans, “What would you have of me?”
“Take the cock rooster to the smith’s,” Hans replied, “and have it shod for me to ride.”
So, the father took the door off the stove for iron and packed a basket with cured ham for payment and led the rooster to the smith. From then on, Hans would often ride his cock rooster into the forest for days at a time. Seeing the rooster returning over the horizon, Wilhelm would curse the bird and its rider as he scattered seed or weeded the garden.
On the day the boys became men, Hans said to his father, “Give me my inheritance.”
So, the father divided his possessions and gave to Hans six hens and three pigs. Then, Hans mounted his rooster with his pigs and poultry following the sweet melody of his bagpipes, and rode deep into the forest where he made for himself a new home.
Seven years later, a man who had been wandering three days in the forest happened across a queer, quilled creature sitting in a tree and playing his bagpipes over two dozen hens and half as many pigs.
“Hedgehog,” the man called up to Hans, “cease your piddling and show me the way back to my castle, for I am king over this land.”
“What dominion has a man over a forest,” asked Hans, lowering his bagpipes and bristling his quills, “when he can’t even find his way out of one?”
“I am a governor of peoples, a commander of armies,” boasted the king, “not some wild beast or lowly shepherd, whichever you may be. But show me safely to my home and your reward shall be whatever you desire, be it title, wealth, or pleasure.”
“What reward does the world of men hold for me?” said Hans. “All of my desires are met here in this forest. All save one.”
“A wife. Have you a daughter, king of men?”
“I do,” replied the man. “Her beauty is a treasure coveted far and wide. But show me the way back to her and within a fortnight I will send her here to be your wife. I swear it.”
Hans came down from his tree and led the king safely to the forest’s edge.
When the king’s castle was in view, Hans said to him, “Within the fortnight.” Then he went his way.
Three weeks later, a messenger arrived, but he was not from the king. The man brought word from Hans’ father: My son, a famine has struck the land. Our hens no longer lay and our pigs waste away. Send us your bagpipes that we might play over our livestock and see them flourish once more.
Hans ordered the messenger to turn around and bend over, then he filled the man’s arse with quills and sent him hobbling away.
Then, Hans mounted his rooster and rode to the lost king’s castle to claim his bride, where he found the gate shut and barred. He announced his arrival and was answered with arrows, shot by men in armor from atop the high walls. Hans retreated to the edge of his forest. When night fell, his rooster flew him over the wall and to the top of the highest tower, where he found the princess’ room and entered through her open window.
The girl woke and, upon seeing a strange man with quills standing over her, began to scream. Hans told her he was the husband to whom she had been promised in exchange for helping her father escape the forest, but since the untruthful king had never spoken of their agreement, the princess screamed all the louder and beat Hans with her gilded chamberpot until it broke. Then, Hans enchanted the princess by playing his bagpipes. As long as he played, she would follow him anywhere he led. When he mounted his rooster and flew into the night, she walked after him, straight out of the tower window.
When the king found his daughter’s broken body in the courtyard the following morning, he knew the debt for his treachery had been collected.
Not long after, a second messenger arrived from Hans’ father: My son, all of our livestock has perished, down to the very last chicken. We beg you to send us hens and pigs, lest we be forced to live as swine.
Hans ordered the messenger to pluck a tailfeather from his rooster. The moment the messenger did so, the great bird turned on him and began to peck and scratch him until he ran away naked and bleeding.
Seven more years passed, in which Hans continued to prosper and his father continued to send messengers asking for help, each of whom Hans abused and sent back empty handed.
Then one day there came another king who, like the first, had been wandering in the forest for three days. He found Hans at work building a high fence around his pens bustling with livestock and vines heavy with grapes.
“Master Hedgehog,” said the man, bowing low. “Pardon my intrusion, but do you know the way back to the castle, for I am the king of this land and I must return to help my subjects survive this great famine.”
“What dominion has a man over a forest?” asked Hans, raising his hammer and bristling his quills.
“None,” answered the man. “‘King’ is but the title I inherited from my late brother after he, in a tempest of grief, leapt to his own death like his daughter before him.”
“Then, he has received his due reward,” said Hans.
“That he was a wicked ruler,” replied the new king, “I will not contest. But of what crime was my niece, the princess, guilty? I cannot judge her father’s final action, as I would have done likewise had I lost my own daughter in such a tragic manner.”
“You also have a daughter?”
“Rachel,” replied the king. “Whom I love more than life.”
“Swear to me you’ll send her here within the fortnight to be my wife and I will lead you back to her. Otherwise, you are welcome to die here.”
“Then, die here I shall,” declared the king. “For my Rachel is far too precious to promise to any man whom she has not chosen, nor has yet to prove his worth.”
Since the king appeared unshakable, Hans returned to building his fence. But he soon stopped when he noticed the king had begun to work alongside him. Hans was tempted to quill him, but thought, Why not get some free labor out of this fool before he dies?
And labor he did, all day without a word. That night, Hans’ waited for the king to demand his wages, but he asked for neither a morsel to fill his belly nor a place to rest his head. Rather, he slept alone in the cold darkness beyond the fence.
The following day, the king worked in silence from dawn to dusk and again he slept outside the fence, asking nothing for his efforts. The third day was the same, only Hans fed him a little broth with mushrooms lest he lose the strength to work. When they finally finished the fence, the king collapsed from exhaustion.
“When I die,” he said to Hans, who could see his time was near at hand, “send word to my beloved Rachel, that she might not forever wonder what became of me.”
“Why?” Hans asked the dying king. “Why hasten your own end by serving me?”
“It is my duty to serve and protect all of my subjects,” explained the servant-king.
“But I honor no king,” challenged Hans.
“Should your livestock curse you, would you cease to tend them?”
“Look at all I have built here,” said Hans. “Am I some dumb beast that I must rely on gifts from the hands of men?”
“You have done well for yourself. It is my duty, nonetheless.”
That night in his tree, Hans was restless. He came down, set the king upon his rooster, and delivered him safely to the gate of his castle.
A fortnight later, Hans heard a familiar voice calling his name from beyond his fence. He climbed a tree and peered over the gate to see his brother Wilhelm standing there.
“Welcome me in, Brother,” said Wilhelm. “For I come on behalf of our father, who has always loved you.”
Hans came down and opened the gate but did not allow his brother to enter.
“Why have you come?” he asked.
“While your grapes and pigs grow fat,” said Wilhelm, “your father and I are so hungry we can count each other’s bones, for the famine has lasted seven years now without respite.”
“If you are so destitute,” said Hans, “then why have you wasted money sending messengers to my forest to harass me?”
“Through all these years, our father has not taken a watchful eye off the horizon. Moreover, he always hoped that you and I would be reconciled someday. True, he spent his last penny on fruitless attempts to bring you home. But I instructed his messengers to ask only for your aid and never your return. I did not want you home because I hated you.”
“What reason do you have to hate me, Brother?”
“When you came to our home, your quills killed our mother so quickly she never held me. When you left, your cruelty killed our father so slowly I must cradle him each night and feed him broth from the bones of rats which never satisfies his hunger.”
“If my presence is a stench in your nostrils,” said Hans, “why come to me now?”
“To ask a mercy,” said Wilhelm, “for I have no other hope of saving our father.”
“Treat me as your hired servant. Allow me to work for food and each Sabbath I will carry my earnings back to our father.”
“There are a hundred farmers throughout the kingdom who hire servants. Go to them.”
“The famine has left none of them with wages enough to pay.”
At that moment, Hans noticed Wilhelm looking longingly at the pods the pigs were eating. Realizing the depth of his brother’s despair, Hans stepped aside and said, “I have no need of servants, but you may stay here as one of my swine.”
Wilhelm rushed in, fell to his knees between two pigs, and began to fill his belly. As Hans watched the brother who had spurned him from birth defiling himself, his quills bristled. When poor Wilhelm looked up at him with filth covering his face, Hans broke off a quill in each hand and rammed them deep into his brother’s eyes.
Hans starved his pigs for three days before feeding them his brother’s corpse, which they completely devoured. But first, he stripped his brother’s clothing and pulled out all his teeth. He used the leather from the sandals to make a small leather satchel, and placed the teeth inside it to wear around his neck from that day forth.
Then, Hans mounted his rooster and rode to the king’s castle once more; this time driving an army of pigs and poultry before him, prepared to kill or curse any who would deny him a princess for his bride. However, when he was still a long way off, a young woman came running out of the castle to meet him. She was Rachel, the good king’s daughter, and her countenance so disarmed Hans that he called off his troops and dismounted.
“Hans, my lord!” she called upon reaching him.
“How do you know me?” asked Hans, his quills relaxing.
Then, Rachel told her story.
“My father told me of a man like a hedgehog whom he met when lost in the forest and how you requested my hand in marriage, but out of his deep love for me he refused, although it meant he would never see me again. He told me also how in the end you had compassion and carried him home with no promise of reward. When I found him at the gates, he was so near to death I trusted no one but myself to care for him. He passed many restless nights arguing with himself in feverish fits. He concealed the source of his torment, but I listened at his bedside until I understood. He was convinced that he must send me to you after all, for he owed you his very life and had found you to be both decent and able to provide. Yet, he feared I would be unwilling to marry you, a strange man and a stranger. Knowing it would break his heart to force me, I told him I would gladly pledge myself to any man or monster who had rescued my beloved father from the grave. I admit, my consent was intended for my father’s happiness and indeed he has passed each night since in peaceful sleep. But a princess must keep her word, so I shall go with you into the forest, only grant me this one kindness: let me stay by my father’s side until he is well again.”
Struck by the princess’ loyalty and noble character, Hans asked her plainly, “Are you not afraid of me?”
“Only that your quills might deny us a tender embrace,” she answered. “But if you are as decent as my father claims, then I am hopeful I can learn to love you, for love has surely summited higher peaks than this.”
When the recovering king learned of Hans’ arrival, he commanded his servants to clothe their guest with the finest robe, to place a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and to kill the fattened calf and prepare a feast with music and dancing. But all these gifts Hans rejected. He asked instead for a written contract that he and Rachel should wed the day her father could stand on his own. The king signed the agreement and Hans returned to his forest.
At her father’s behest, the princess began to visit him there so that she might become familiar with her future home and husband. She was in awe of all Hans had built, the faithfulness of his abundant livestock, the beauty of his flourishing gardens, and most of all the peace she felt whenever he sat in the trees and played his bagpipes.
But the more Rachel’s affection grew for Hans, the more she feared his quills would prevent any tenderness between them. Every time she returned to the castle, she would weep through the night over his misfortune.
On one such night, a fairy arose out of a pool of her tears and revealed to her the secret to unlocking her husband’s human form. She must remove every last one of his quills and burn them in a fire, the ashes of which she was to smear over his entire body. Finally, after he had slept, she was to wash him and rub him from head to toe with a special salve which the fairy had given her. Only then, would Hans appear as a natural man and never sprout another quill as long as he lived.
The day came when the king could stand again. Hans and Rachel were married in a secret ceremony. That night, in the wedding chamber, Hans pierced his new bride and her blood flowed over her fair skin.
“Were it possible,” said Rachel, “would you shed these thorns for my sake?”
“This is the skin my mother gave me, and I have worn it since birth,” said Hans.
Then, she told him of the fairy and her remedy, but this only angered Hans.
“Seventy-seven times seven quills cover my back,” he said. “Each one causes me great pain to lose and even greater pain to regrow, which it always does.”
Rachel said no more, but wounded and afraid, she drugged his wine. When he’d fallen into a deep sleep, she clipped off all of his quills and threw them into the fire, the ashes of which she smeared over his entire body. However, when she woke early the next morning to wash him, each of his 539 quills had grown back, their tips now blackened by the soot.
So Rachel consented to bleed for her husband’s sake.
That afternoon, she kissed her father farewell and rode away on Hans’ rooster to live with him in the forest. Here, they wanted for nothing and the harvest of their affections multiplied with each season. Rachel had two sons whom she raised to be strong, generous, and noble. Hans was pleased with his family, always taking great care not to harm his wife or their sweet babes who had not inherited his spiny hide. His wife never offended him except for three times, when she asked why he wore the satchel round his neck. Each time Hans’ only response was to go off alone and play his bagpipes. Rachel thought these melodies were the saddest her husband ever played.
One evening, after they had been married seven years, Rachel discovered Hans had left his satchel on the bank while bathing. Unable to contain her curiosity, she asked her eldest son to bring it to her. The full set of teeth she found inside alarmed her and she went to Hans, demanding an explanation. Their years together had softened Hans toward his wife, so at last he told her about the father he had abandoned and the brother he had killed, along with the first princess, her own cousin.
“Hans-my-hedgehog,” his wife said to him. “Why have you hidden this from me? Had I known the true weight of the burden round your neck, I would have helped you bear it.”
“I was afraid you would think me, the father of your children, a monster. Now that you know, only say the word and I will ride away never to return.”
But Rachel only said how completely she forgave him. At which, Hans began to weep. As she comforted her crying man-beast, a quill stuck in Rachel’s flesh. She had grown so accustomed to these pricks that she hardly noticed. As she pulled away, the quill came loose and Hans cried out in pain. Then, several more quills fell to the ground. The more quills fell, the more he cried, and the more he cried, the more quills fell, until not one tear remained in his eye, nor one quill upon his back. Together, husband and wife built a fire and burned the quills. Once the embers had cooled, she covered his skin with the ashes. They slept and, in the morning, she washed him and rubbed him with the fairy’s salve, and he was clean.
That very day, Hans took his family to the small farm where his father had raised him and his brother. From his bed where he lay looking out the window, Hans’ father saw them coming, but did not go out to them for he was weak and half blind with age.
“It is I, your son,” said Hans, kneeling beside his father, “and your two grandsons.”
Hans had undergone such a transformation that had his father’s sight been whole, he still would not have recognized this new man.
“I once had a son named Wilhelm,” said the father, “but I sent him into the forest to rescue his brother and he never returned.”
“No, Father. It is I, Hans.”
“I once had a son named Hans,” he said, touching Hans’ smooth arms and shoulders, “but he was covered in quills. He went to live in the forest and never returned.”
So Hans played the bagpipes his father had made him. The man instantly recognized the melody and knew only one person could ever play so sweetly.
“Hans, my boy,” he said.
Then, Hans sent his sons outside with their mother and he recounted to his father all that had passed in the twenty-one years since he’d asked for his inheritance, including how he had murdered his own brother and fed him to the pigs. Then, Hans removed the satchel from his neck and placed it in his father’s hand.
“You are wicked and no longer worthy to be called my son,” said the father, clutching his first born’s teeth.
“What would you have of me?” asked Hans.
“Bring me my knife.”
Hans fetched his father’s knife and returned to his bedside. Kneeling, the son bared his neck, and the father raised his knife to strike. But he hesitated, for just then he heard the laughter of his two young grandsons and their mother playing in the garden. With a loud cry, the father threw the knife aside, embraced his son, and kissed him.
“My sons were lost,” said the father, in tears, “but one is found. Two were dead, now one is alive. I have been given also this day a daughter and two grandsons. How could I, on the same day I have gained so much, deprive them of their husband and father?”
Again, Hans asked him, “What would you have of me?”
“Stay with me,” answered his father. “For as many days as I have left.”
So Hans and his family stayed on his father’s farm and cared for him. They lived there in happiness until Rachel’s father died, making Hans the new king. They all moved into the castle and Hans ruled the kingdom for many years with a fair hand and a gracious heart. The land prospered once more, and his two sons grew into good men and merciful rulers.