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.

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Notes:

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 #55: The Forgetful Prince And The Regretful Bride

A prince chose a peasant to be his wife, for she was the most beautiful woman in the land, and he desired her very much.

At the wedding, an old woman approached them at the altar and placed a curse upon them.

“The first year of this marriage the prince will forget and the second the bride will forget. Only then shall you know the truth of your love and the truth of each other. And whether there is regret or not is up to you.”

The prince laughed at the old woman’s superstitious ways and had his guards throw her out of the castle and into the woods. But the bride worried in her heart that the old lady’s words were true. Yet still agreed to the marriage, for she was newly in love, and she believed that love would never change, that the truth of love is there for all to see. That the truth of love is pure.

So for the first year of their marriage she did everything she could to make their love as perfect as possible, for if her husband was fated to forget it at least their happiness could live on in her memories. And afterwards, forever afterwards, she could share with him the great tales of their romance and their joy, and in this way give back to him the time they had lost. She believed that, through her telling, and the strength of her heart, their love could be regained, become stronger and deeper, sweeter and more sincere.

In this way the first year went by, in love and happiness, and with no small amount of joy. On the night before the first anniversary of their wedding, they lay together in bed, and between them lay their daughter, born earlier that day. They named her Anniversary Eve, and held her close all night. And as they slept they dreamt of the years to come.

***

The prince awoke the next morning to the realisation he was a father now, and over the coming days discovered he had new responsibilities and obligations which could not be avoided nor delegated away. In the tired days that followed sleepless nights, he often wondered where the reckless days of his youth had gone.

Even his wife’s love for him had changed. Where once there was an eagerness within her when they met, now there was little more than an acceptance, indeed an expectation, of his presence. He had moved from the foreground to the periphery, and the clear focus of her love was now not him but Eve.

His wife was older, too, he noticed. Less radiant, less joyous, less carefree, less, less, less. And every night the child would keep him awake and every day he would find himself feeling slightly unhappier than the day before.

He remembered one day the words of the woman at their wedding, and knew suddenly they were true. For it felt like only yesterday that his romance was in full bloom, when he and his bride-to-be were together endlessly, devoted to nothing but each other, lost in love, and lost together. Now, when his wife talked of those days, he found he did not recognise her memories, nor himself in them.

A great anger grew him in when she spoke of their past. Where now was his freedom to do as he wished, to go where he may, to be alone when he wanted, together when they needed.

So his bitterness grew. And if he was rude to his wife, what would it matter, for did not the old crone say that his wife would remember nothing of it? And if he felt pity for himself, what could his wife expect, for while he had lost the good years of his life, she had taken them as her own.

The second year of their life together passed with increasing rancour. They did not celebrate the anniversary of their wedding, nor even the birthday of their daughter. And if truth be told, they did not even remember they had forgotten.

***

She woke suddenly to the sound of her husband berating her. His unkind words escalated throughout the day, and that night sleep came to her as a relief. But the next day was the same, and the next day, and the next, and she wondered how it had ever come to this. The only joy in her days was the time she spent with Eve, who had grown so fast she felt a sensation akin to vertigo when she held her, so huge did the child seem now compared to the tiny newborn she still imagined her to be.

She thought one day of the old woman’s words, and a moment’s clearness came over her, and she saw, for the first time, as plain as can be, the truth of her and her husband’s love, and the truth of each other, and the differences in their hearts. And she did indeed feel regret.

***

She took Eve in her arms and together they left the castle and went out into the woods and were not seen again. Where it was they went from there the prince never did know, and together his bride and his daughter lived happily ever after.

The prince, alone, did not.

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Notes:

1. Written in May, 2016

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The Tree

The tree was rotten, dying. Sometime in the autumn beetles had nested beneath the bark, and from there an infection had spread that poisoned the sap. It was only with the onset of the spring, when the leaves sprouted brown, and fell dead to the ground in the first wind, that we had any indication of a problem. Of course, by then, it was too late.

The same was true of our marriage, and I left soon after Easter.

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Notes:

1. Written on May 1st, 2019

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