They continued in this wise for really a very short time, thinking, for that brief period, that no-one would dare to bother a bear and a brave boy, even in an enchanted forest. But to show that such prideful thoughts are always folly, as they came before an open field, at once they heard a great lowing and moaning, as of some subterranean beast, and the bear-countess and beaver-baroness clung together in terror. But the boy was considerably less distressed, because he recognized the sound at once- there are some benefits, it must be said, to being a turnip-farmer. He knew that it was the lowing of a heifer; but as he thought it must be a talking heifer of the enchanted wood, he made signs to his companions to be polite, and did his best to appear serious and respectful and not at all as if he were suppressing great booms of laughter.
But even as he tried, he did chuckle a little bit, for the cow arrived; and it was the silliest of cows, with pink ribbons tied around its horns and another pink bow around its neck, and long, curling eyelashes such as a great lady might have, and it picked its way daintily across the field towards them. If you have never encountered such a cow at close quarters, you have missed something very amusing, and ought to feel a little sorry for yourself, but not very much. The beaver and bear shortly realized that here was the sound of the lowing and moaning, so that they at once calmed down greatly.
“Hello, cow,” said the boy, in a voice thick with mirth, “and may I say what a fine cow you are, with your ribbons and your bow? I have seldom seen such a lovely cow in all my days, and I have met many.”
At his words the cow’s expression- which had been, for a cow, somewhat fearsome- softened at once into something that was merely imperious.
“It is very polite of you to say so, and my compliments, young man; and as you are so polite, I have no doubt you will perform a small task for a lady of station?” And the way the cow said this, it was quite clear that she really did have no doubt, but expected him straightaway to aid her, without him even relieving her sadness; and he was a bit surprised by this.
“I am very glad you find me polite,” said the boy, “and I assure you that I should be glad to aid you; only, I think it must wait a while, for I need to reach that tower upon the other side of the field, where dwells, I am certain, the cursed princess that I wish to marry.” And indeed, there was such a tower, round and short and with a homely round door, just across the field from boy and cow.
The cow looked him up and down and burst at once into uproarious laughter, which shook her whole bovine form and nearly made her fall down. “Oh! Oh, I have heard nothing so funny in a long age, for you look like a turnip-farmer, and wish to marry a princess. Oh, indeed, my sides ache.” But after some time laughing, her gaze grew serious (as his was affronted), and she spoke again. “I am afraid that nonetheless, you must aid me, or else you will never reach the other side. Look to the trees, boy, and tell me what you see there.”
The boy looked; but he only saw a few seagulls, and some jays and pewits and sparrows and starlings, such as might be found in the trees of any wood anywhere. “I see some birds, my dear cow, but nothing else,” he said, and his expression was confused and searching.
The cow nodded earnestly and sadly, and told him the rest in her most serious tones: “I was once a duchess- as you might have known, had you asked- and I was cursed by a witch for not extending the beneficial tax situation enjoyed by princesses to witches as well. And my curse is not only that I am a cow- for that is not perhaps so bad, if one is a handsome cow- but also that those birds you see are man-eaters, with beaks of iron, and will devour anyone who tries to enter the field and aid me.”
The boy heard her out, although he had been studying the birds the while and noted that they seemed entirely ordinary and certainly did not have beaks of iron. But he asked, nonetheless, what the task might be that would lift this dubious curse.
“You have but to take some of the magical grain in my saddlebag, and spread it about the field, and all will be well,” said the cow; but when the boy opened the saddlebag, he only found grains of rice, and also some alum mixed in, and he gave the cow a look impossible to describe.
“Good cow,” he began, a bit annoyed, it must be said, “I cannot do as you ask, and here is why; these are perfectly ordinary jays and gulls and sparrows, and no threat to either you or me- but if I were to feed them your magic grain, which is only rice and alum, I have heard that it would burst their tiny bellies, though I have never tested the truth of this, not being so cruel as are you.”
The cow duchess, overcome with petulance, at once tried to stamp on the boy’s foot, but the bear-countess objected strenuously in her great bear’s voice, and everyone grew at once quite calm again, and the cow spoke in a usual voice. “These are very practical objections, you impolite turnip-farming boy,” she mused, “but how would you feel if, while grazing, you occasionally came across a lump of bird-s**t upon your lips?”
The boy curled his lip and nodded in understanding, and stroked the cow’s great head soothingly until she quite forgot her anger at him. “I believe you, cow, for you are fairly honest and have not even told me once that you were a princess; and that does sound very distressing.” And of course, he was right- it was very distressing, so the cow could only nod.
“I have borne a grudge against these little birds for the one time such an incident occurred, and it has burned like a coal in my heart ever since,” said the cow, lowing piteously. The boy nodded and gave the cow a companionable pat, and spoke gaily once more:
“Come now, it is not so bad; a cow has few troubles or needs, and this is only a field after all. We shall go and see the princess- and, being of great rank, perhaps she has room in her household for a duchess-cow.”
The duchess-cow was not perhaps so sure she agreed with this proposal, but feeling mildly chastised and guilty about her long quest for vengeance on what were, after all, only little birds, she walked with them across the field, the boy singing as they went:
Beaver, bear and cow come now,
And walk to this fair tower;
A princess there does dwell, sweet cow,
As pretty as a flower!
And because he was a good boy deep down, and to show willing, the beaver and bear and cow all came in on the second go-round, which was all they had got to before they reached the tower quite suddenly- as it was not a very large field.