Tale #36: The Old Woman’s Tale

I tell you this tale not because I expect you to believe it but because it is true.

I was born in this house and, God-willing, I shall die in this house. And when I die I hope you shall bury me here under the kitchen table so the devil won’t get me.

I am an old woman now but of course I was not always so. When I was young girl I was beautiful, no matter what you might think to look at me now. Nor no matter how often I was told back then I wasn’t, either. For the proof of your beauty lies in your belly, the old mothers round here used to say, and no sooner had I left the woods and gone to town for the first time my belly began to swell and before I knew it I was as pregnant as could be.

When it came time to give birth I hauled myself into the kitchen and laid myself down on the table there, because my bed was full of my sisters and I did not want to wake them.

And as I was lying there the devil walked in through the front door. He placed his hands on my belly and a chill went through me and when my baby was born it was as cold and dead as a plucked pigeon. And the devil was nowhere to be seen, because he had already taken what he wanted.

I buried that child under the front door step to keep the devil from coming back in and then I went back to bed with my sisters and slept all through the day.

Now in good time I went to town again, and soon enough for sure my belly was bearing the fruits of my beauty once more. And when it came time to give birth I hauled myself into the kitchen and laid myself down on the table again, for my bed was still full of my sisters and I did not wish to wake them.

And as I was lying there the devil came to the front door, but he couldn’t come in. I thought then he was gone but soon enough I heard him up on the roof, and down the chimney he came and he walked over to me with not a touch of soot on him, and he pressed his bony hands against my belly and a chill went through me. When those twins were finally born they were as cold and dead as plucked hens, and the devil was nowhere to be seen, because he had already taken what he wanted.

I buried those children under the fireplace to keep the devil from coming back in, and then I went back to bed with my sisters and slept all through the week.

Now, by and by, I got pregnant a third time. And once again when the day came I sneaked out of my bed so as not to wake my sisters and climbed up onto the kitchen table and laid myself down upon it.

I saw the devil at the front door, but he couldn’t come in. And then I heard the devil on the roof, but he could not come down the chimney. And then I saw the devil at the kitchen window, and he smiled at me. Smiled that smile of his I always saw in the city, the smile that made you know that he was going to get what he wanted come what may, and there was nothing you nor your hope could do about.

He was just about to climb through the window when I felt my children stir inside of me, and all of a sudden out from between my legs burst three hawks, their feathers as white as snow and their wings as loud as the wind, and not a single speck of blood upon them. And they flew round and round the room for what seemed like a lifetime and I looked at them in wonder and I looked at them with love.

And just as the devil was about to get in through the window the first one flew at the devil and scratched at his face and pecked out his eyes. The devil stumbled back, and he swept his arms around in a blind rage, and one of his hands touched the hawk and the hawk fell down dead upon the windowsill. And the devil in his pain and his frustration shrank back from the window and howled away into the woods and into the night, and I never saw him again in all my life.

The other two birds still flew around the kitchen table, and one swooped down and pulled the hair from my head and flew out the front door with it hanging from its claws like rat’s tails. And the other settled down beside me and plucked the teeth from my mouth, one by one, before flying up the chimney with them all held in its beak like a row of tiny white berries.

And I never saw them again, either, not in all my life.

I buried the dead bird beneath the window and I went back to bed with my sisters and they hugged me tight and I slept all through the year.

My sisters grew up and I grew old and in all the times my sisters gave birth (and there were many times, because my sisters were much more beautiful than I, as their bellies proudly showed) not once did we see the devil at the door, and not once did we hear the devil on the roof, and not once did the devil climb in through the window.

And not once did my sisters give birth to birds, nor ever did they have to.

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Notes:

1. Written August 2016

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Tale #30: The King’s Daughter And The King’s Son

There lived a King, and with his first wife he had a son. This son grew up to be a huge and monstrous beast. Everyone who saw him shuddered in horror at the look of him and cowered and hid in fear until he was gone. The King feared and hated him, too, and so he locked in him a maze and never let him out.

The longer his son remained locked away, the more exaggerated the claims of his ferocity and deformity grew,. And the further the rumours spread.

On lived the King, and with his second wife he had a daughter. This daughter grew up to be a kind and beautiful angel. Everyone who saw her quivered in delight at the look of her and called out proclamations of their love until she was gone. The King loved and coveted her, too, and so he locked her in his castle and never let her out.

The longer his daughter remained locked away, the more exaggerated the claims of her beauty and kindness grew. And the further the rumours spread.

One day, the King announced that whoever entered the labyrinth and slew his son would win his daughter’s hand in marriage and make of her their queen. For if none could slay his son, he would have weakened the kingdoms he considered his rivals. And if one could slay his son, his daughter would strengthen the ties between his kingdom and those that would be its friend.

Ten princes sailed forth from all the lands of the earth, and they came to the King’s island and accepted his challenge. For everyone had heard how fearsome the beast of the labyrinth was, and so they wished to show their courage. And everyone had heard how beautiful the angel of the castle was, and so they wished to win her love.

The first prince entered the maze. In the dark he felt his way, along passages of untold length for a time of unknown duration, and eventually he found his way to the centre, where beneath a burning brazier lay the King’s son. The prince stood over him and raised his sword, and the beast held up his hands in friendship and said, “Please, I mean you no harm.” But his voice was weak from all those years alone, and the prince swung down his sword and sliced a finger clean from the beast’s hand.

The King’s son howled in pain, and in his fear and desperation to get away he leapt to his feet and charged at the prince. He knocked him to the ground and under his heavy feet trampled the man dead.

Ten times this happened, and all ten fingers the King’s son lost, and all ten princes the King’s son killed. And ten times he cried at what he had done, for he wished to hurt no-one. And ten times he cried at what had been done to him, for he wished too for no-one to hurt him.

When none of the princes returned from the labyrinth, the King made plans for a great party to be hosted in the city. He announced that no-one had been able to do as he asked, for their Kingdoms were not as great as his own.

And he told his people that tomorrow he would enter the labyrinth. He would kill his son. He would take his daughter as his wife and make of her his Queen.

The King had his dressmakers create the most beautiful wedding gown for his daughter, and he dressed her in it, and said to her, “You are indeed more beautiful than any angel.” And he took her down to the entrance of the labyrinth and made her wait there for his return.

She had cried all week, while the princes had tried to kill her brother, and she had cried all night, when her father told of his new plans. And she had cried all day, when her father had dressed her in this dress and paraded her before his subjects as his Queen-to-be.

But now she vowed she would cry no more.

She unpicked a thread from her dress and tied it to the gate and made her way into the labyrinth. In the dark she felt her way, along passages of untold length for a time of unknown duration, and eventually, just as the last of her wedding dress unravelled, she found her way to the centre, where beneath the dying embers in the brazier lay her brother.

In the darkness he could not see who approached. He was too weak now to speak, and, his broken hands held up in front of him in fear, he waited in silence for the killing blow to come. His sister leaned down low, and took his poor hands in hers. And she kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “Oh, my brother, oh my poor brother, everything will be okay.”

To see him there before her, despite her vow, she could not stop herself crying. And at her kindness he wept too, and their tears fell down together and washed the blood from his body and he was made whole again.

With the last coal from the brazier, they set alight the thread of her dress, and they followed the flickering flame all the way to the entrance and the bright light of day.

The King’s daughter and the King’s son fled the castle of their father, and they fled his kingdom too and sailed out together across the sea. And all the while in the labyrinth the King was lost in the twists and torments of his own making, and he was never seen again.

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Notes:

1. Written in May 2016
2. First published in the kindle anthology Waiting for a Kiss: A Princess Fairy Tale Anthology, in April 2017
3. The second story in a row I had published where the title was a mangled version of a band’s name (in this case, of King’s Daughters And Sons)
4. Also this is a re-telling of the story of ariadne, theseus and the minotaur, obviously. It was inspired by a print of ariadne playing cat’s cradle with the minotaur that I have on one of the shelves in my room, by Minkee, which is the first thing I see most mornings

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Tale #27: The Three Sorrowful Sisters

In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, and with her lived three daughters. And she raised them as her own.

These sisters loved each other very much, which was just as well, for they had no-one else. They were forbidden from leaving the house, for, as their mother told them every night before she put them to bed, there was a beast outside that roamed the peaks and which fed on the flesh of women.

And so the sisters sat together by the window every day and looked out over the hills below and the lands beyond and told each other stories about what the world outside was like, and the people who lived there, and the strange and wondrous lives they lived.

On the day of the eldest sister’s 18th birthday, there came a knock at the door, and their mother opened it up and in stepped a man, tall and handsome, or so their mother said, with hair as black as his suit and skin as white as his teeth. He told the sisters he was a Lord, and that he was looking for a wife. And as the sisters were the most beautiful women in the lands, one of them would have to do.

The eldest sister said it should be her, for it was her birthday, and indeed had she not always dreamed of this day, told variants of it to her siblings as she gazed out through the windows, waiting, patiently, for a prince to arrive and sweep her away to happiness and to love, whatever it was that happiness could be. Whatever it was love might entail.

And so she stepped outside with the man, and he took her into his carriage and closed the door behind her and together they went to his castle high up in the mountains, higher even than the hut in which she had lived all her life, so high not even the birds flew above, so high the clouds passed below.

She was allowed to roam freely around the castle, but was forbidden from leaving, for her husband told her that in the mountains there lived a beast which fed on the flesh of women, and it roamed where it pleased and could not be caught, and as such it was not safe for her beyond the castle’s walls.

And so she sat on her own by the windows of the castle, a different window each day, and always alone, for her husband was rarely there, and when he was he kept himself to his private rooms and his secret chambers, preparing, he said, but for what he never explained. From the windows she could see nothing but rock and clouds below and the pale sky forever unchanging above. So she told herself stories about the house that she had left, and her sisters that lived there, and the stories they were telling each other, stories which were always, somehow, about her and the life she now lived.

In time she came to be pregnant and for a while this brought her happiness, yet as the day approached she grew sadder again and sadder still. For what would life be like for a child in this empty castle, this mausoleum above the clouds. Her husband she saw so rarely she began to think he had been a dream, or a ghost.

She gave birth alone, and through the night she lay there in her bed, blood-soaked and bloodstained and as cold as wet rags, her tiny daughter screaming in her arms. In the shadows in the corners of her room from time to time she caught glimpses of her husband’s face, but when she turned to look, turned to speak, turned to show to him his newborn child, each time these apparitions turned out to be the moon at the window, or reflections of herself in the dressing table mirror, pale portraits upon the wall, memories, echoes, hopes, fears.

When she woke in the morning she was alone. Utterly, hopelessly alone. She walked the halls of the castle, ran along the corridors, screaming and shouting out her daughter’s name into the emptiness, the dusty stillness. The name only she knew, that only she would ever know. There was no reply.

In her despair she opened the front gate and started out down the mountain path. There were many paths but they were all the same.

The beast came up ahead of her and knocked her down and ate first her heart and second her flesh and lastly whatever was left until there was nothing of her but bones. And the beast piled them up and made its domain ever higher.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice, and with her lived two daughters. And she raised them as her own.

They were forbidden from leaving the house, for outside, their mother said, roamed a beast that preyed upon women, that ate them up until they were gone.

And so they sat in their room, and held each other quietly, and whispered stories of their older sister to each other, and dreamt, each night, that she was safe.

On the day of the middle sister’s 18th birthday there came a man to the door. He knocked on the door and stepped inside and said he was a Lord who had recently been widowed, and that now that his mourning was over he would have himself a wife. And the second sister said let it be her, so that it would not have to be any other. For she loved her younger sister with all her heart, and hoped this would protect her from whatever fate had befallen their elder sibling.

And so the middle sister climbed into the Lord’s carriage and went with him to his castle in the clouds. He said to her that she was forbidden to leave the castle, for there was a beast that fed on the flesh of women who were foolish enough to roam the hillsides. And she believed him, for where else could her sister be.

In time, she gave birth, just like her sister had. And she too, just like her sister, stepped outside the castle’s walls the next morning in search of her newly-stolen daughter.

And she too was eaten, from the heart out, piece by piece, mouthful by carefully chewed mouthful, by the beast.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice and her heart as hard as stone, and with her lived a daughter. And she raised her as her own.

The girl was forbidden from leaving the house. Forbidden too, from talking about her sisters. But she remembered them each night, listened to their stories in her dreams, and each morning she woke with tears in her eyes.

She told no stories herself. And she told them to no-one.

On the day of her 18th birthday there came a man to the house and he took her away and did to her what it was his intention to do.

And at the end, like all the others, she fled the castle in search of her child, and came face to face with the beast on the path. And there was no way past.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice, her heart as hard of stone, and her lips as red as a late summer rose. A man came to the door, and brought with him three little girls, sisters in their way. She thanked him for his work and took the children crying from his arms.

And she raised them as her own.

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Notes:

1. Written on June 29th, 2016
2. The title is a sort-of reference to The Three Incestuous Sisters, by Audrey Niffenegger, which I liked a lot when I read it
3. Although this story has nothing to do with that story at all, beyond having a similar title, and containing some sisters

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Tale #26: The Seven Sisters

In a place far from here, in a house so close to the sea you could hear the roaring and the crashing of it louder than thunder and longer than life, there lived a lonely woman. And she had lived there alone for many years, and for longer than she liked.

One night there was a knocking at the door, and there stood waiting outside seven sisters, all of them identical except for the colour of their hair. One sister had black hair, and one had white; one’s hair was silver and one’s gold; one had hair as brown as a mouse and one had hair as ginger as a fox. And the last sister had hair as red as blood, and lips as dark as night.

And it was this sister who asked if they may come in, for it was cold outside, she said, and wet, and the wind was howling through the trees like wolves at hunt.

The woman who lived in the house said yes, and invited the sisters into her house, and one by one she took them through to her kitchen and seated them at her table. She asked them if they would like some food for supper, and a drink for warmth, and a chat, if they wished, for friendship and for joy. And the sisters were so hungry they ate all she had, and they were so cold they drank all she had. But they ate in silence.

After they had licked clean their plates and drunk their bottles of wine dry, the sisters were overcome with tiredness, and the red-haired sister asked the woman if, perhaps, they could stay the night, for it had been a long time since they had slept, and it was getting rather late.

The woman said yes, come with me, and I’ll show you to your rooms. And they went to the first room, which had been her grandparents’ room. The white haired sister and the grey haired sister undressed themselves, climbed into bed, and held each other in their arms. They kissed each other goodnight, and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my grandparents”, thought the woman, and wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her grandparents, and she locked the door behind her.

And they went to the second room, which had been her parents’ room. The black haired sister and the gold haired sister undressed themselves and climbed into bed and held each other in their arms and kissed each other goodnight and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my parents,” thought the woman, and she wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her parents, and she locked the door behind her.

And they went to the third room, which had been her daughters’ room. The brown haired sister and the ginger haired sister undressed themselves, climbed into bed, held each other in their arms, kissed each other goodnight, and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my daughters,” thought the woman. And she wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her daughters, and she locked the door behind her.

Finally, they went to the fourth room, which was her own room, and the red haired sister undressed them both and they climbed into bed together. The woman thought, “You look just like my wife.” And she wiped the tears from the red-haired woman’s eyes and kissed her deep dark lips goodnight.

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Notes:

1. Written in May 2016

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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.”

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Notes:

1. Written in July, 2014

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