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Well, this happened a long time ago in Scotland, but if you listen closely you will probably still hear the children singing of the little man named Aiken Drum. He came one night out of the blue. It was dusk, just when the milking was done and before the children had gone to bed. People were standing outside on their doorsteps talking about the fine springtime weather when suddenly they heard the strangest humming sound coming from down by the river.
The sound came nearer and nearer. Everyone stopped talking and looked down the long road. They stared and rubbed their eyes when they glimpsed this bewildering sight. The most frightful creature anyone had ever seen was walking right into their village.
He was a wee man, covered from head to toe with hair, and wore only a little kilt woven of green rushes. His hair hung forward, nearly covering his face. His beard was so long it almost touched the ground — and it was blue! His little legs were twisted and his arms were long enough to touch the ground. He was humming, sure enough, and as he came closer, people heard the words he sang. “Hae ye any work for Aiken Drum?”
Well, you can imagine how afraid everyone was. The children screamed and hid their faces in their mother’s skirts. Little boys threw down their pails of milk. Dogs sneaked behind their masters. Women shrieked. Grown men laughed and hooted, but they were shaking, too.
But Old Granny Duncan, the kindest and wisest woman in that little village, stepped right off her porch and said to everyone: “Hold on! He may be a ghost or a demon, or he may be a harmless Brownie. There’s one way to find out.” She marched right into the middle of that road and held the holy Bible out in front of the strange little man. He simply went on walking past, singing out his song, begging for work.
“He’s a Brownie,” Granny Duncan said, “and if we treat him well, he’ll treat us just as well.”
So everyone gathered round the little man, and they could see when he was close that his hairy face was kind and gentle.
The Brownie looked around, and then said: “I come from a nameless land, and it’s a different place than this. There we learn to serve. So I’ve come to see if there is any work here to be done. There’s but one thing ye must promise. I want no wages or thanks. All I ask for is a corner of a barn to sleep in and a little wee drink at bedtime, and if no one meddles with me, I’ll do any kind of work you need done.”
No one knew quite what to say, for no one had ever heard of someone offering services for nothing. But Old Granny Duncan spoke again. “You heard the man!” Well, that settled things. The miller offered Aiken Drum, for that was his name, a corner of his barn to sleep in, and Granny Duncan promised to bring him a wee drink every night. Then everyone said goodnight.
By the end of that week, people were singing a different tune about old Aiken Drum. Whatever he was, wherever he had come from, he was a wonderful worker. He did much of his work at night when everyone else was asleep. Wherever there was a sickly child in need of nursing, or a flock of sheep to be gathered on a stormy night, or a bundle to be carried home, Aiken Drum always learned of it and appeared just in time.
Pretty soon people came from all over the countryside to catch a glimpse of Aiken Drum, but a Brownie will never be seen if you’re looking for him.
The little children adored Aiken Drum, and he loved them. Whenever they could, they met him in the fields, and there the older folks could hear the sound of sweet singing.
Everything might have been well if one young woman hadn’t thought she knew better than everyone else. She decided Aiken Drum must be paid, and one night she took a pair of her husband’s worn-out breeches and put them down in the barn beside Aiken Drum’s drink. Well, the long and short of it was this: Aiken Drum was gone in the morning, and no one ever saw him again.
Now some say he disappeared because his new finery made him too proud for work. Some say he had been rewarded and so was free of a curse. Some say it was just that he asked people to promise, and when they broke their promise, he went away. Granny Duncan said that they should have kept their promise to him, but when they broke it, they broke his heart.
Still, in that little Scottish village some say they can hear him singing down by the mill when they pass. The children still sing about him. Everyone knows there are Brownies in the world, and fairy kingdoms, and if anyone says there are none, the villagers laugh and tell the tale of Aiken Drum.
by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson
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