Gerda did not know anything about Kay. What could happen to him? Some boys told her that his sledge followed a very large sledge, which drove out of the town gate. But nobody knew where it went, and Gerda cried for a long time. She thought that he was drowned in the river which ran near the school. But she was not sure.
One day in spring she decided to go down to the river and ask it for Kay. It was an early morning when she kissed her old grandmother who was still asleep, put on her red shoes and went alone out of the town gates toward the river.
‘Is it true that you took my little friend away from me?’ she asked the river. ‘I’ll give you my red shoes if you give him back to me.’ Then she took off her new red shoes which she liked very much and threw them into the river, but they fell near the bank. Gerda thought that she threw the shoes not far enough. So she crept into a boat that lay on the water and threw the shoes again from the farther end of the boat. The boat was not tied and it began to drift away from the bank faster and faster. Little Gerda got very much afraid and began to cry but only birds could hear her, and they could not carry her to the land. These birds were flying by the shore and singing, ‘Here we are! Here we are!’
Gerda sat still with only her stockings on her feet. The red shoes floated after her, but she could not get them. The banks of the river were very nice. There were beautiful flowers on them, old trees and fields in which cows and sheep were grazing but no people were seen. ‘Perhaps the river will carry me to little Kay,’ thought Gerda. So she lifted her head and looked at the beautiful green banks.
* * *
And so the boat sailed on and on for many hours. At last Gerda came up to a large garden in which stood a small red house with strange red and blue windows. Outside its door stood two wooden soldiers. Gerda called out to them because she thought they were alive but of course they didn’t answer. Then Gerda called louder and out of the house came a very old woman. She wore a large hat with painted roses on it to shade her from the sun.
‘Oh, you poor little child,’ said the old woman, and then she walked into the water, drew the boat up to the land with a stick and helped Gerda to come out. The girl was happy to feel herself on dry ground though she was afraid of the strange old woman. ‘Come and tell me who you are,’ said the old woman, ‘and how you came here.’
Gerda told her everything and when she finished, the old woman asked her not to be unhappy but to taste cherries from her garden and look at the flowers. She took Gerda by the hand and led her into the little house. On the table stood red cherries and Gerda could eat as many as she wished. Then the old woman combed the girl’s hair with a golden comb and said, ‘Stay with me and see how happily we shall live together.’ And while she was combing little Gerda’s hair, the girl thought less and less about Kay, because the old woman was a witch but not an evil witch. She used magic only a little because she wanted to keep Gerda with her.
Then she took Gerda into the flower-garden. How beautiful it was! No picture-book could have more beautiful colors. Gerda felt happy, and she played till the sun went down behind the tall cherry-trees. The next day and for many days after that the girl played with the flowers in the warm sunshine. But she saw no roses there because the witch touched all the roses with her magic stick, and they disappeared under the earth. The old woman was afraid that the roses could remind Gerda of the roses at her home and of little Kay, and she will run away.