About two hundred years ago Finland had suffered greatly. There had been war; cities were burned, the harvest destroyed and thousands of people had died; some had perished by the sword, others from hunger, many from dreadful diseases. There was nothing left but tears and want, ashes and ruins.
Then it happened that many families became separated; some were captured and carried away by the enemy, others fled to the forests and desert places or far away to Sweden. A wife knew nothing about her husband, a brother nothing about his sister, and a father and mother did not know whether their children were living or dead. Some fugitives came back and when they found their dear ones, there was such joy that it seemed as if there had been no war, no sorrow. Then the huts were raised from the ashes, the fields again turned yellow with golden harvest. A new life began for the country.
During the time of the war a brother and sister were carried far away to a foreign land. Here they found friendly people who took care of them. Year after year passed and the children grew and suffered no want. But even in their comfort and ease they could not forget their father, mother and native country.
When the news came that there was peace in Finland, and that those who wished might return, the children felt more and more grieved to stay in a foreign land, and they begged permission to return home. The strangers who had taken care of them laughed and said, “Foolish children, you don’t realize that your country lies hundreds of miles away from here.”
But the children replied, “That does not matter, we can walk home.”
The people then said, “Here you have a home, clothes and food and friends who love you; what more do you desire?”
“More than anything else we want to go home,” answered the children.
“But there is nothing but poverty and want in your home. There you would have to sleep on miserable moss beds and suffer from cold and hunger. Probably your parents, sisters, brothers and friends are dead long ago, and if you look for them you will find only tracks of wolves in the snow-drifts on the lonely field where your cottage used to stand.”
“Yes,” said the children, “but we must go home.”
“But you have been away from your home for many years, you were only six and seven years old when you were carried away. You have forgotten the road you came on. You can’t even remember how your parents look.”
“Yes,” said the children, “but we must go home.”
“Who is going to show you the way?”
“God will help us,” answered the boy, “and besides, I remember that a large birch tree stands in front of my father’s cottage, and many lovely birds sing there every morning.”
“And I remember that a beautiful star shines through the branches of the birch at night,” said the little girl.
“Foolish children,” said the people in the foreign land, “you must never think about this again; it will only bring you sorrow.”
But still the children always thought about going home, not because they were disobedient, but because it was impossible for them to forget their country, impossible to cease longing for father and mother.
One moonlight night the boy could not sleep for the thoughts of home and parents. He asked his sister if she were asleep.
“No, I can’t sleep. I am thinking of our home.”
“And so am I,” said the boy, “come let us pack our clothes and flee. There seems to be a voice in my heart that says, ‘Go home, go home,’ it is the voice of God I know, so we are doing nothing wrong.”
“Yes, let us go,” said the sister. And quietly they went away.
It was a lovely night, the moon shone brightly and lit up the paths. “But dear brother, I am afraid we never shall find our home,” said the little girl after they had walked a while.
The brother answered, “Let us always go toward the northwest, and we shall surely reach Finland, and when we are there, the birch and the star shall be our sign. If we see the star shining through the leaves of the birch, we shall know that we are at home.”
“But don’t you think wild beasts may devour us or robbers carry us away?” cried she.
“Remember, sister dear, the hymn which our mother taught us long ago—’Though you suffer in a foreign land, God will lead you by the hand.'”
“Yes,” said the little girl, “God will send his angels to protect us in the foreign land.”
And they went bravely on. The boy cut a stout stick from a young oak tree in order to protect his sister and himself, but no evil befell them.
One day they came to a cross road where they did not know which way to go. Then they saw two little birds that were singing in a tree by the road on the left-hand side. “Come,” said the brother, “this road is the right one. I know it from the song of the birds. Perhaps these little birds are sent by God to help us along.”
The children went on, and the birds flew from branch to branch, but not faster than the little ones could follow them. The children ate nuts and berries in the woods, drank water from the clear brooks, and slept at night on soft beds of moss. They seemed to be cared for in a most wonderful way. They always had enough to eat, and they always found a place where they could spend the night. They could not tell why, but whenever they saw the little birds, they said, “See, there are God’s angels, who are helping us.” And so they walked on.
But at last the little girl grew very tired from wandering about so long, and said to her brother, “When shall we begin to look for our birch?”
And he answered, “Not until we hear people speak the language which our father and mother spoke.”
Again they walked towards the north and west. Summer was gone, the days in the forests began to grow cold and again the little sister asked about the birch, but her brother begged her to be patient.
The country through which they now wandered gradually began to change. The land which they had left and through which they had walked for weeks and months was a level land, now they had come into a country with mountains, rivers and lakes. The little sister asked, “Tell me brother how shall we get over the steep mountains?”
Her brother answered, “I shall carry you,” and he carried her.
Again the little girl asked, “How shall we cross the rapid rivers and the great lakes?”
The boy answered, “We shall row across,” and he rowed across the rivers and lakes; for wherever they came, they found boats, which seemed to be there just for their sakes. Sometimes the brother swam with his little sister across the rivers and they floated easily on the waves. At their side flew the two little birds. One evening when they were very tired, the children came upon the ruins of burned down buildings. Close by stood a large new farm house. Outside the kitchen door stood a girl peeling vegetables. “Will you give us something to eat?” asked the boy.
“Yes, come,” answered the child, “mother is in the kitchen, she will give you supper, if you are hungry.”
Then the brother threw his arms about his sister’s neck. “Do you hear, sister? This girl speaks the language that our father and mother spoke. Now we may begin to look for the birch and the star.” The children then went into the kitchen where they were received with much friendliness, and were asked where they came from. They answered, “We come from a foreign land and are looking for our home. We have no other mark than this—a large birch tree grows in the yard in front of the house. In the morning birds sing in its branches, and in the evening a large star shines through its leaves.”
“Poor children,” said the people, full of pity, “thousands of birches grow in this country, thousands of birds sing in the tree tops, and thousands of stars shine in the sky. How will you find your birch and your star?”
The boy and girl answered, “God will help us. His angels have led us to our own country. Now we are almost at home.”
“Finland is great,” said the people, shaking their heads.
“But God is greater!” answered the boy. And they thanked the good people for their kindness and went on their way.
It was fortunate for the children that they did not need to sleep in the woods any longer, but could go from farm to farm. Though there were wide plains between the human dwellings and great poverty everywhere, the children were given food and shelter; all felt sorry for them.
But their birch and star they did not find. From farm to farm they looked; there were so many birches and so many stars, but not the right ones.
“Finland is so large, and we are so small,” sighed the little girl, “I don’t think we will ever find our home.”
The boy said, “Do you believe in God?”
“Yes, you know I do,” she answered.
“Remember then,” continued the brother, “that greater miracles have been performed. When the three wise men journeyed to Bethlehem, a star went before them to show them the way. God will show us the way too.”
“Yes, he will,” answered the little girl. She always agreed with her brother. And bravely they trudged on.
One evening at the end of the month of May, they came to a lonely farm. This was in the second year of their wanderings. As they approached the house, they saw a large birch tree which stood in front of it. The light green leaves looked lovely in the bright summer evening and through the leaves shone the bright evening star. “That’s our birch!” cried the boy.
“That is our star,” whispered the little girl.
Each clasped the neck of the other and praised the good Lord with joyful hearts. “Here is the barn where father’s horses stood,” began the boy.
“I am sure this is the well where mother raised water for the cattle,” answered the girl.
“Here are two small crosses under the birch. I wonder what that means,” said the boy.
“I am afraid to go in,” said the girl. “What if Father and Mother are not living, or think if they don’t know us. You go in first, brother.”
In the sitting-room sat an old man and his wife—well, they were really not old, but suffering and sorrow had aged them before their time. The man said to his wife, “Now spring has come again, birds are singing, flowers are peeping up everywhere, but there is no new hope of joy in our hearts. We have lost all our children, two are resting under the birch, and far sadder—two are in the land of the enemy, and we shall never see them on earth. It is hard to be alone when one grows old.”
The wife answered, “I have not given up hope. God is mighty, he led the people of Israel out of their imprisonment. If he so wills he has the power to give us back our children.”
“Oh, what a blessing that would be,” answered the man.
While he was still talking, the door opened. In stepped a boy and a girl who asked for something to eat. “Come nearer children,” said the man, “stay with us tonight.” And to each other the old people said, “Our children would have been just their ages if we had been allowed to keep them, and they would have been just as beautiful,” thought the parents, and they wept.
Then the children could keep still no longer, but embraced their father and mother, crying, “We are your children whom God in a wonderful way has led back from the foreign land.”
The parents pressed the children to their hearts and all praised God, who on this lovely spring evening had brought the warmth of joy to them.
And now the children had to tell everything that had happened to them, and though there was much sorrow and many dark days to tell of, now the sorrow was changed to joy. The father felt of the arms of his son and rejoiced to find him so manly and strong. The mother kissed the rosy cheeks of her daughter and said, “I knew something beautiful would happen to-day, because two little strange birds sang so sweetly in the top of the birch this morning.”
“We know those birds,” said the little girl. “They are angels disguised which have flown before us all the way to lead us home. They sang because they were glad that we had found our home.”
“Come, let us go and see the birch,” said the boy. “Look, sister, here lie our little brother and sister.”
“Yes,” said the mother, “but they are now angels with God.”
“I know, I know,” cried the little girl, “the angels in bird form who have flown before us all the way and who sang of our coming, are our brother and sister. It was they who always seemed to say to us ‘Go home to Father and Mother.’ It was they who cared for us, so that we did not starve or freeze to death. It was they who sent us boats so that we were not drowned in the rapid rivers. It was also they who said to us, ‘That is the right birch, this is the right star.’ God sent them to keep us safe.”
“See,” said the boy, “the star is shining more brightly than ever through the leaves. It is bidding us welcome. Now we have found our home—now our wanderings are ended.”