Tale #5: Lonely Isobel

In the days before even my mother was a girl, there lived a lord of these lands who was so protective of his daughter, Isobel, that he kept her locked in a room at the very top of the tallest tower in his castle, and he forbade everyone from seeing her. And so she grew up all alone.

One day, a travelling prince came to town and a huge ball was held in his honour at the lord’s castle. Noblemen and gentlewomen from across the shire came dressed for the occasion, and from her window Isobel marvelled at the extravagant beauty of the gowns the ladies wore.

“I wish, just once, that I could wear a dress of such beauty,” Isobel said, looking down in despair at the drab rags that her father insisted she wore.

Unbeknownst to Isobel, it was her 18th birthday that very night, and a passing fairy heard her plea.

“Lonely Isobel,” the fairy said as she appeared out of the thin night air. “Here is your dress.”

And in an instant Isobel was dressed in a gown more opulent than any she had seen below. Pale blue silks were adorned with exotic white furs, and all was overlain with sparkling gems of every form and colour.

“It’s beautiful,” Isobel said, and for a while she danced joyfully around the room in giddy excitement. But eventually she returned to the window and looked down at the still arriving guests.

“I wish I could go to the ball to dance with them all,” Isobel said. “Rather than be here all alone on my own.”

“Of course,” said the fairy. And as quick as that, Isobel found herself at the heart of the ball.

Even there, amongst the richest and most refined people of the land, Isobel stood out. Her radiant jewels shone brighter than the stars. The elegance of her dress made the other guests look as if their gowns were ill-fitted rags borrowed from their servants. And her joy… O, her joy!

The great prince could not fail to notice her, and soon he asked her to dance. Isobel agreed, and for the rest of the evening they could not be parted. She was the centre of all attention, and it was to her like a dream. People talked to her, listened to her, complimented her, laughed with her and danced with her. She had never before realised how silent her room was, and how still. How complete her isolation had been.

Nor how constricted she had been. She swirled around the hugeness of the hall, dancing in every corner, sweeping her dress round every pillar, sashaying past every doorway, lingering only at the windows to see each new view across the courtyards and the gardens.

And to see her tower anew, from the outside. To see it how others saw it, if they saw it at all.

The next day, the prince and all his guests left. In the dull morning light her outfit was transformed – the jewels now looked like lumps of milky quartz; the furs resembled clumps of wool; and the dress itself looked enormous and absurd as she walked awkwardly on her heels across the cobbles of the market square. The looks she received now were not of admiration but of prurient disdain.

“I wish I was back home,” Isobel said, and she found herself returned to her home, back in her rags, locked in her room at the top of her father’s tallest tower. But she could not be returned to her earlier state of solitude, unhappy as it was, for it was only now, having experienced friendship and company no matter how briefly, that Isobel would forever be cursed with true and unending loneliness.

And she finally grasped the fullness of her father’s cruelty.

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1. Originally written in October 2013, but heavily rewritten since.
2. A Cinderella variant (obviously)
3. The title comes from the Bjork song Isobel, which I always remember as saying “Lonely Isobel / Married to myself” rather than what it actually says

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Tale #4: To Follow A Cat

A priest was eating lunch one day in the seminary cloisters when a cat sauntered past his bench and made its way across the empty square without a care in the world. Curious as to where cats go when they travel around on their own, he decided to follow it on its perambulations. He hurried from his bench as it exited the churchyard and pursued it out into the town.

It was dusk before the priest returned. He went to bed without saying a word, and soon the priest went mad and died.

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Notes:

1. Written on July 15th, 2015
2. The phrase “soon the priest went mad and died” is taken from Japanese folk tale “The Emperor’s Finger”, translated by Royall Tyler, and found in the book “Japanese Tales”, which he edited and translated.
3. I’m pretty much convinced that every story ever written could be improved by using “Soon [the protagonist] went mad and died” as its final line.

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Tale #3: The Cat Wife

A nobleman had three sons, but had yet to choose an heir. When a cat began to attack the people of the town, he said to his children, “Whosoever saves our town from this beast of the woods shall inherit my castle and all of my lands”, and each in turn set out to defeat the creature.

The eldest son, a soldier, picked up his sword and marched out into the forest where the cat was presumed to live. He quickly became lost and as the day headed towards night he sat down and, although only intending to rest for a short while, fell asleep against the trunk of an old oak tree.

When he awoke it was completely dark, and he could feel the weight of something heavy on his chest. He tried to move but the cat – for that was what it was – pushed its claws into his skin, opened its eyes (which were just in front of his own) and said, “What is that you hold in your hand? Is it for me?”

The eldest son said, “Yes, it is for you. If you let me up I will give you a good close look of it.”

The cat leapt from his chest and sat down in front of him, and the soldier stood up, raised his sword, and swung it as hard and as fast as he could at where the cat now sat. But the cat’s eyes saw so well in the dark that she dodged easily out of the way of the blade and then leapt forward and sliced the man’s head clean off his shoulders with a single swipe of her claws.

The next day the nobleman woke to find the head of his eldest son left on their front doorstep. So now the middle son, a farmer, strode out into the woods to try his luck against the cat, and he carried with him a bag of the finest meat from his farm.

He quickly became lost as he searched through the unfamiliar woods, and as the day headed towards night he sat down to quickly rest his weary legs. Yet he ended up falling into a deep sleep, and when he awoke the moon was high in the night sky above him and bathed in its light he could see the cat asleep on his own chest.

When he tried to move, the cat awoke and said, “What is that you have in your bag? Is it for me?”

And the farmer said, “Yes, it is for you. If you let me up I’ll open up my bag and give you a good look at what’s inside.”

The cat leapt from his chest and sat down in front of him, and the farmer stood up and opened his sack, and took from within the meat he had brought with him and threw it onto the ground. The cat sniffed at it, and satisfied that it was not poisoned, began greedily to eat, and while she was distracted the farmer held out the sack and approached the cat as quietly as he could. But before he could lower the sack over her head, she heard the heavy beat of his heart as he approached and leapt out of his way. And then, with a single swipe of her claws, sliced his head clean from his shoulders just as she had his brother’s.

The next morning, the nobleman awoke to find the head of his second son left on their back doorstep. The youngest son, who was considered useless by his father for he had no job nor a wife, was still in bed when his father burst into his room. His father dragged him from his room and insisted that now he must make his way to the forest and avenge the deaths of his brothers.

To this the young son said, “I do not want to, father. This cat has never harmed me. And anyway, surely now you’ve sent my brothers to their deaths, I’m your only son and your only heir.”

In response to this insolence the nobleman beat his son so fiercely that the boy agreed tearfully to go to the forest, even if only to escape his father’s wrath, and he set out before lunch. In the woods, the young man did not become lost, for he cared not where he was, and gave no thought to returning home.

He came soon to a stream, where he stripped naked and bathed his battered body in the babbling brook. When he returned to the riverbank, he found the cat sat on top of his blood-soaked clothes, busily tearing the cloth of his shirt to ribbons with her long and deadly claws.

She looked up at him while her claws continued their game and said, “Your first brother brought me a sword, and with it tried to kill me. Your second brother brought me a sack of food, and with it tried to capture me. What have you brought me, and what will you try to do to me with it?”

The youngest son said, “I have brought you nothing, for I came here only to escape my father. I cannot give you my clothes, for you have already destroyed them. I cannot give you money, for I have no job and therefore nothing to spend. I cannot give you food, for I forgot to bring any even for myself. All I have left are my hands and my heart, which for all my trying I have never been able to give away, for no-one has ever wanted to employ me, and nor have any ever wanted to love me.”

“Then give me your hands,” said the cat. “To stroke me whenever I desire. And give me your heart, to love me forever and without regret, and in return I shall become your wife, and cease my attacks upon on the town.”

So they returned to his home and were married that very afternoon. For saving the town, the young man and his cat wife inherited the nobleman’s castle and all of his lands, and lived there benevolently until the end of their days. As for where the noblemen went, none would say.

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Notes:

1. The earliest version of this I can find is from August 2013.
2. Illustrated again by Holly English
3. I like cats

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Tale #2: Wun, Mun and Undun

There was an old lady who gave birth to twins. Knowing that she would not live long enough to see them grow up, she did what she could to help them succeed without her.

The first child she called Wun. She cut out Wun’s eyes and replaced them with her own, so that Wun would not have to see anything for the very first time, but would instead recognise everything that life put in his way.

The second child she called Mun. She cut off Mun’s ears and replaced them with her own, so that Mun would not hear anything that he could not understand, for her ears had already heard everything that had ever been said.

Then, unexpectedly, she gave birth to a third child. Before she could give any gifts to her daughter, or even a name, the old lady died, and the child was left to fend for herself.

The two brothers called their sister Undun, and they tried to raise her as best they could, for despite their young age they were already as wise as their dear dead mother. But Undun knew nothing, and although they tried to impress upon her their wisdom she would not learn what they wished, and they often found her ignorance exasperating.

One day, while out foraging for food in the forest, the three of them came across a lake as clear and as deep as the sky. Wun, upon seeing the stillness of the lake, and Mun, on hearing the sound of a stone dropped into its waters, knew how deep the lake must be, and how dangerous.

But Undun, having no fear and unaware of the danger, ran straight into the lake. Wun and Mun rolled their eyes in despair and disgust at Undun’s recklessness, but she laughed and laughed and laughed, for she found the act of swimming in the sun-warmed waters immensely pleasurable, and could not understand at all why her brothers would not join her.

Later that afternoon, the three of them were walking once more through the forest when they came upon a wandering minstrel, who was playing a merry song of his own devising. Wun, on seeing the minstrel’s face, and Mun, on hearing the seditious lyrics in his song, knew he was a disreputable sort, and they both hurried past as quickly as they could.

But Undun, having never seen other men before except for her two brothers, nor having heard any music save the birds’ sweet songs, just danced and danced and danced, for she found the music incredibly joyous and the man’s singing unendingly delightful, and could not understand why her brothers would not join her.

Eventually, the minstrel went on his way, and Undun followed after her two brothers, who had gone on ahead even deeper into the forest, and she found them there deep in conversation with a man upon a horse. Wun, who could see the finery of his clothes, and Mun, who could hear the refined tone of his voice, knew that the man must be a prince of great import, and if not a prince than perhaps even a king.

But Undun, ignorant of the distinctions and importances of class, was unimpressed by his status, and when he, after praising her beauty as the greatest he had ever seen, asked for her hand in marriage, Undun run away in fear, wondering why he wanted to mutilate her and take a piece of her as his own.

The prince (for he was not yet a king) was outraged by this behaviour, and despite Wun and Mun’s apologies, his fury would not subside. The prince ordered them to help his men search the forest for her, and although they looked in every place they thought she could be, they could not find her. After many days of fruitless searching, the prince, heartbroken and disgusted, ordered the execution of Wun and Mun, and that very night they hanged. The prince and his men returned to the kingdom from whence they had came, and were never seen again within the walls of the woods.

Undun, who did not know the sorts of places she should be, had spent the days playing in bears’ caves, sleeping in crows’ nests, and talking happily to strangers. There in the forest she lived until the very end of its days, when the trees withered away and all the world had changed, by which time she knew more about the joys of life than any other who had lived.

But that still was not enough for Undun, and where she went from there I could not say. Yet I know that she was happy, and happier still with every passing day.

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Notes:

1. Written in February 2014, and never much changed since

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Tale #1: The Unhappy Bride

A young woman was betrothed against her will to the son of a wealthy farmer. No matter what she said, nor how unhappy she became, nothing would change the minds of her family or his, and the marriage quickly came to pass.

On her wedding night, after her husband had fallen asleep, she rose from bed, went outside, and wept bitterly beneath the moon.

A crow looked down at her from a nearby tree and said, “Why are you, who are still in your wedding dress, so unhappy?”

“I did not wish to be married, and I do not love my husband, and I have been betrayed by those who should love me, and so now I am all alone.”

The crow flew down from the tree and stood beside the bride.

“I can help you,” the crow said. “First, take off your dress.”

The young woman did as she was told, removing her wedding dress and dropping it to the ground.

“Now, let me cut off your hair.”

The woman nodded her agreement, and the crow hopped onto her shoulders, and with a quick bite of its beak cut the hair clean from her head.

“Now, let me give you my feathers.”

The crow pulled a feather from its wing, and plunged it deep into the woman’s arm. The crow then pulled a feather from its other wing, and plunged that deep into the woman’s other arm. And in this fashion the crow continued until it was completely bald and the woman was clothed in a thick black coat of feathers.

“Now, take my beak.”

The woman pulled the beak from the crow’s face and placed it carefully over her own mouth.

“Finally, fly away.”

And the woman flew away into the night.

The crow watched the unhappy bride leave, and then dressed itself in the woman’s dress, and placed her hair like a crown upon its head, and went inside her new house and climbed into bed with her husband.

The years passed, and the husband passed away, and after he was buried, the woman sat outside in her mourning dress and wept bitterly beneath the moon. A crow looked down at her from a nearby tree and said, “Why are you, who were never even truly married to this man, so unhappy?”

“I saw myself in this dress and remembered being a crow.”

The crow flew down from the tree and stood beside the widow.

“I can help you,” the crow said. “First, take off your dress.”

The young woman did as she was told, removing her mourning dress and dropping it to the ground.

“Now, let me cut off your hair.”

The woman nodded her agreement, and the crow hopped onto her shoulders, and with a quick bite of its beak cut the hair clean from her head.

“Now, let me give you back your feathers.”

The crow pulled a feather from its wing, and plunged it deep into the woman’s arm. The crow then pulled a feather from its other wing, and plunged that deep into the woman’s other arm. And in this fashion the crow continued until it was completely bald and the woman was clothed in a thick black coat of feathers.

“Now, take your beak.”

The woman pulled the beak from the crow’s face and placed it carefully over her own mouth.

“And finally, crow, fly away to your old freedom, and let me return now to mine.”

The crow, no longer a woman, flew away into the night. The woman, no longer a crow, pulled on her mourning dress, placed her hair like a crown upon her head, and went inside her old house and climbed into her old bed and slept soundly until morning.

And when she woke she rose anew.

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Notes:

1. Originally written in October 2013, although it’s been revised a few times since then
2. Illustrated by Holly English, who very kindly drew pictures for a few of these stories when I was putting a small anthology together in 2015 (for which this was the title story)
3. I like crows

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