Tale #76: Of Wolves And Women

I heard the following tale from both my aunts when I was a child, a year or so apart.

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to think of your aunts this way, but I always did, when I was young – one of them was from within the family (my mother’s sister), the other from without (my dad’s brother’s wife). That one of them was a real aunt, the other merely playing one.

Nowadays, I’m not sure what to think.

Anyway, they both told this story slightly differently – different setting, different details, different phrases, different folksy claims of authenticity – but beyond that, they were the same tale, in all the ways that mattered.

The same body clothed in different clothes.

The story went like this.

A long time ago in a land far away (or, in the other telling, in the town where I grew up), there lived a princess (or a girl, just like you or me) in a castle (or a house). She had no brothers (nor any sisters) and her parents were too busy with the affairs of state (or, quite simply, too dead) to pay her any mind. So the girl/princess would wander the halls of her castle (or the streets of her town) all on her own, searching, always, for something, some sign, some proof that she was loved (or had been loved).

One day a woman came to see the princess at court (or, more simply, knocked on her front door) and said, “I’m your aunt, and I love you as if you were my one and only child.” And the woman stayed with her for the rest of the year, accompanying her on her walks, reading her stories before bed, helping her get dressed in the morning, and always, always, treating the lonely girl with love and tenderness and the utmost care.

On the princess’s 8th birthday (or the girl’s 9th), the aunt said, “I must return to the land where I live. Come with me, little girl, and leave this sadness (and loneliness) behind. Be free of your neglect, and stay by my side.”

And it was here that the tales diverged.

The tales ended very differently, and these were differences that were genuine rather than merely cosmetic. Not different hats so much as entirely different faces. A wolf revealed beneath the mirrored kindnesses of my aunts’ smiles.

In the first, the princess goes with her aunt. But when she arrives in the distant land her aunt called home, the aunt’s demeanour changed. “Obey me, now-child-of-mine, and do as I say. Serve me as a servant and a slave, from dawn until dusk, else I’ll eat you up for my dinner and that will be that.”

So the girl lived in fear, for the rest of her days. And no-one came to save her, for none knew where she had gone.

The moral of this tale as I perceived it then, whether or not that was what was intended: quit your whining, accept your place, for there’s a world out there worse than whatever you hate about home.

The second telling, the one I preferred, the orphan girl again goes with her aunt. She leaves behind her empty house, her lonely town, and walks with her aunt across the country.

Each time the girl feels discomfort, her aunt moves to help. The sun shines too brightly, so she gives the girl her wide-brimmed hat. At night it is too cold, so she gives the girl her coat. To stop the girl being pricked by thorns as they make their way through the woods, she gives the girl her gloves. When the girl loses her shoes in the mud of the brook, she gives the girl her boots.

Finally, the girl can walk no more and collapses to the ground. The aunt removes her clothes, takes off her mask, gets down on all fours, and leans over the girl, her jaw wide, her teeth sharp, her tongue as red as blood. And in her lupine voice, she says, “I’m not your aunt, I never was. I came to you because you were alone and unprotected.”

The mouth gets closer, opens wider. The girl waits for the snap of the jaw, the rasp of the tongue, the bite of the teeth, the pain that will surely come as she’s gobbled up and eaten whole.

But instead, the wolf says, ”I will carry you the rest of the way, my child.”

And with a deft flick of her head she flips the girl into the air and onto her back, and together they travel over the hills, into the woods, far, far away, living happily together ever after.

It was a fairy tale, after all.

The moral of this one: there is kindness in strangers, there is love out there if you will let yourself look.

After I heard this second telling, I wondered which of my aunts was the woman, which the wolf. Always, from then on, I’d be looking, checking, staring, hoping to see some slip of the mask, whether real or metaphorical, to catch the truth of the smile, see a glimpse of the real teeth beneath the false.

To see if their kindness masked cruelty, or if it hid an even deeper kindness, hid love without want, without need, without end.



1. Written in June 2018
2. There was a documentary about Angela Carter on BBC Two with the same title as this
3. Which was first shown in August 2018
4. My use of the same title is purely coincidental
5. But nicely serendipitous


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Tale #23: Old tales are made new in the telling

I first heard this story from my aunt, when I was about fourteen or so.

We were making jam in the garden out of old plums, my aunt, my sister and me, all of us stood around the kitchen table we’d dragged out there for the afternoon, our hands stained yellow and brown, the knives slippery in our fists.

“When I was little,” she said, as if it had actually happened to her, as if it was actually true, “when I was little, not much older than you two, we lived in Mundon still, your mum and me, at your grandparents’ old house, that you probably don’t remember,” she said to my sister, “and that you definitely won’t,” she said to me, “in the months between your grandparents dying and us all having to leave. But I worked here in Maldon.

“I had to walk through the woods to get to work,” she said.

“There aren’t any woods,” I said, “not near here.”

“There were then,” she said. “They were here, here and all the way down the road, before the towns began to sprawl towards each other, and everything was thinned out a bit and made plain.

“I walked through the woods because it was quicker than the road, and it was nicer, too. And safer, I thought, away from the trucks on the road that threatened to knock you into the bushes, leaving you caught there in the branches like an old carrier bag tattered into wisps in the wind.

“What’s that? Yes, of course we had carrier bags then.”

(The way I’m telling it, and the way I remember it, was that it was me making these interjections, but it was almost certainly my sister, for she always understood that stories are a collaborative thing, dialogues rather than monologues, while I was content just to listen, to learn.)

“The path was always overgrown, in the summer, in the spring,” my aunt almost sung. “We hung a sickle on a hook by the stile at the edge of the woods, and you’d take it with you when you walked your way along the way, and you would hack away at the brambles and the branches that got in your way, and you’d leave it at the other end of the path when you’d gone all the way through, so that someone else could use it when they went back the other way.

“I don’t know if I was the only one who walked the path or the only one that had the good grace to keep the path, but the sickle was always there waiting for me, in the morning, in the evening, in the lateness of the night if I’d been out. But I was a big girl even then. Especially then,” she laughed. “All that lifting at the warehouse did wonderful things for your arms. I wielded that sickle like a bloody scythe.

“A stream ran through the woods, winding back and forth across the path so that I had to cross three bridges. And on my way home one day I met the devil on every one.

“At the first bridge he looked at me and said, ‘Let me have a kiss, and only then will I let you pass.’ And so I gave the devil a kiss and I crossed the river and continued on my way.

“At the second one he was there again. ‘Let me…’ Well,” my aunt laughed, “‘Let us,’ he said, ‘let’s fuck, and then and only then will I let you continue on your way.’ So I stood against the tree and let the devil have his way. And a very good way it was, I’ll have you know. A very good way indeed,” my aunt laughed.

And my sister blushed and so I expect did I.

“At the third bridge,” my aunt said, “there he stood again. He waited until I was near and then he said ‘We’ve kissed, you and I, and we’ve loved, so now all that’s left is for us to marry.’ ‘And then you’ll let me continue on my way?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Of course.’

“And I know I was young, and I know I was stupid, but really, I thought. Really. What did he take me for? So I told the devil to give me his hand, and he held it out for me to hold.

“I swung that sickle down so hard it went clean through his palm and pinned him to the bridge.”

My aunt held up a plum between her fingers and sliced it apart with her knife. She picked the stone out with the tip of her blade, then threw the halved plum into the pot.

“And,” she said, “I went on my way.”



1. Written in July, 2014


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