"I renounce power and riches and choose your gift," cried Res. He seized the third bowl with both hands and emptied it at one draught. It was pure, fresh, sweet, mountain milk.

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"How the Kuhreihen Began"

(A folktale on the importance of milk in Swiss culture)

In the evening, when the sun begins to go down behind the Swiss Alps, and throws a red glow on to their eternal snows, the herdsman comes out of the low doorway of his roughly built wooden hut, and, using a worn-out milk-pan as a funnel, sings the Alpine evening hymn through it. The sound travels down over the mountain slopes and pastures, and the hymn is followed by the Kuhreihen, the tune the herdsman sings, or plays on his horn, to call his cattle home.

The Kuhreihen is a lovely, long-drawn-out and infinitely sad tune; it is a yodeling which not only draws the cattle with its magic; it also speaks directly to the hearts of the human beings who hear it. The mountainsides echo its notes, and the whole district is filled with the longing of its music.

This story will tell you how the Kuhreihen began, and about the herdsman who was the first to sing it.

Many years ago, on a high mountain far above the valleys of the Bernese Oberland, a herdsman named Res was tending his cows on their summer pasture-grounds. He had brought them up to these lonely heights in the spring, the cow at the head of the herd with a wreath round her neck to distinguish her from the others.

Every morning and every evening he milked the cows, and he made butter and cheese out of the rich snow-white milk. He lived all alone on his mountain-side. When he had done his day's work he walked up to one of the fir-trees near his hut, and standing beside it sang the evening hymn to his sweetheart, who lived on the mountain slope beyond the lake.

One evening, as Res was standing outside his hut, he saw the full moon rising behind the mountains, felt the soft winds of the early summer night sweeping across the pastures, and a strange heavy melancholy and homesickness came over him. He went back into his hut, drank his evening bowl of milk in the tiny cool room where the milk was kept and climbed up the narrow ladder into the loft, where he lay down in the sweet-smelling hay which served him as a bed. In spite of his strange melancholy, he was soon fast asleep.

In the middle of the night he woke suddenly and sat up in alarm. He thought he had heard someone opening the door of the hut with a rough push, and he felt a cool draught of air. He could plainly hear the sound of quick shuffling feet on the floor of the hut, and then the crackling and snapping of wood. He had the idea that someone was meddling with his milk vessels. Without making a sound, he leant over the opening in the floor of the loft and saw to his horror three strange men dragging his copper cheese-pan to the hearth and kindling a fire with twigs. He was about to call out in anger and to ask whose business it was to come into his hut in the middle of the night. But when he saw one of the men, a gigantic and terrifying figure, lift up his twenty-hundredweight cheese-cauldron as though it had been a feather, he thought better of it and kept as quiet as a mouse.

He stared in fascination at the movements of the men. The fearsome-looking fellow, the biggest of the three, had a red face on which the veins stood out like cords, and a coarse ragged beard. He wore leather straps on his wrists and an enormous iron knuckle-duster on the middle finger of his right hand.

The second was a pale youth with golden curls hanging down to his shoulders. He was carrying the shallow wooden bowls of milk from the milk-closet and pouring them into the cheese-cauldron without spilling a drop.

The third was sitting cross-legged on the hearth-slab. He was wearing a grass-green close-fitting huntsman's tunic. He was snapping the twigs almost soundlessly, pushing them into the fire and blowing it with puffed cheeks. After a while he took a little flask of grass-green liquid out of his pocket and pour it into the milk to separate it. Then he sat down again on the hearth-slab, drew up his knees and watched the movements of the others with his flickering deep-set eyes.

The giant walked heavily to the door and out of the hut, pulled up a young fir-tree by the roots, broke off the branches a few inches away from the trunk and then began to stir the milk slowly with this skeleton of a tree, just as the cowherd stirs it with his separator. He sat on the wall of the hearth, and the red glow of the fire lit up his coarse features.

The pale youth took up the finely wrought horn and went to the door of the hut, which opened of its own accord. The soft night air and the pale bluish moonlight filled the hut. and then Res heard a wonderful melody outside in the warm May night, richer and sweeter than any music he had ever yet heard. It was a passionate song, with an irresistible call in it, and Res realized that the strange music was drawing his herd to the singer. The deep notes of the heavy cow-bells and the ringing of the silvery goat-bells mingled with the song of the pale golden-haired youth. The melody hovered over the softly lit landscape and seemed to fill the space between heaven and earth. The rocks resounded with the music, and the echo now wove itself into the boy's song, now hovered lightly above it. Res on his bed of hay felt that his heart would break with passionate longing.

When the pale golden-haired youth came back into the hut, with shining eyes and rapture in his face, the other two had finished their work. The giant fetched three wooden bowls and poured the yellowish curds--the milk with the fat removed--into the three vessels. But behold a mystery! In the first bowl the milk was a blood-red colour, in the second it was grass-green, in the third snow-white. Suddenly the sound of the cow-bells outside the hut stopped. an uncanny silence filled the room. Then the mighty herdsman lifted up his thunderous voice and called to Res: "Come down, little man, and choose a gift for yourself!"

Res was so frightened that he could hardly move. His limbs felt heavy, but he got up and climbed unsteadily down the little ladder. The three men led him up to the three bowls.

"You are to drink out of one of these bowls," said the uncouth giant, his muscles playing in the firelight. "The red one is my gift. If you choose it, I will present you with the strength and might of a giant. You will always defeat your enemy in battle--and not only that: I will also give you a hundred more cows and a hundred red-brown broad-backed bulls. by tomorrow they will be grazing on your pasture--and at the next wrestling match you will throw all your opponents. Make up your mind, young fellow!"

At that, the green-clad huntsman began to speak in a soft voice: "You would be wiser to drink out of the green bowl. I will present you with craft and cunning and shining gold. Listen to its sweet music!" And out of his huntsman's wallet he poured a little mountain of glittering gold coins at the feet of the herdsman. "Your friends will turn green with jealousy, and the loveliest girl in the valley will give herself to you, the owner of such immeasurable riches."

"My gift," said the fair youth, "is the white bowl. If you drink out of this one you will find that tomorrow you can sing and yodel and play as beautifully as you have just heard me sing and yodel and play. And I will give you my Alphorn."

"I renounce power and riches and choose your gift," cried Res. He seized the third bowl with both hands and emptied it at one draught. It was pure, fresh, sweet, mountain milk.

Hardly had he put the vessel down again on the hearth, when the music of the cow- and goat-bells sounded again out of the night. "You have chosen wisely," said the fair youth, and gave him a friendly nod. "If you had chosen either of the other two bowls you would have paid for it with your life. And I would not have been able to offer my gift to the men of the Alps again, until thrice three hundred years had gone by."

Res seized the horn. Hardly had his fingers clasped the smooth wood, when the three figures melted into thin air and he felt himself being lifted up towards the loft and laid down on his bed of hay. He fell fast asleep and slept until the sun woke him. His first thought was that the adventures of the night had been a dream. But his hands were still holding the Alphorn. He walked out of the hut and began to play. Wonderful tunes poured forth from the horn, first softly and then louder and louder. Res himself began to shout for joy, to sing and to yodel. It sounded as sweet and as enchanting as the song of the pale youth. All the herdsmen marveled at the beauty of this morning hymn, and wondered who could be singing it. The notes swelled until they filled the mountains and the valleys and the hearts of the Alpine folk--and not only on that morning. The Kuhreihen has been handed down from one generation to the next until our own day.