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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Tale #6: The Farmer’s Daughters

A farmer and his wife had a daughter, and they both loved her with all of their heart. They called her Red Rose, and they lavished her with love. Two years later they had another daughter, but this time the farmer’s wife died giving birth to her. The farmer called this daughter Black Death, and cursed her with his every breath.

The two sisters grew up reflecting the uneven treatment they received from their father. Red Rose, who was given nothing but praise, was fair of face, with long red hair and a confident and friendly nature. Black Death, however, was scolded and beaten daily and treated with naught but contempt and malevolence, and she grew up to be awkward and fearful and shy, with lank black hair and a sickly pallor to her skin.

One day, just after Black Death had turned 16, the farmer travelled to the city on business, and he took with him the farm’s full compliment of cows to sell at the market. He considered his daughters finally old enough to safely leave on their own, and anyway he was glad to be away from Black Death for a while. She still raised in him a furious hatred and despair that he could not control and which had not dimmed over the years but had instead grown stronger with every passing day.

Without the constant attacks from her father, Black Death, who called herself Raven, gradually became less withdrawn. Red Rose, who was usually forbidden by her father from helping her sister, shared with Raven the daily chores around the house and her work in the fields. Raven, who was forbidden by her father from playing with her sister, joined Red Rose in her games in the garden, and in the evening they swam together in the river that ran near their house.

By the end of the fifth day, Raven had begun to laugh and smile, and she said to her sister, “I wish this week could last forever. It has been to me as if a dream. But alas by Sunday our father will be home, and he shall wake us the next morning and all this shall be gone. It will be as if nothing has changed nor ever did. A dream fading away like all the others come the break of day.”

Rose, who loved her sister, said, “Let us run away together, far away, and never mention our father again.”

But Raven said, “He would never let us go. You due to love, and me due to hate. And when he came eventually to find us he would forgive you, and blame everything on me, and my punishment would be even more severe than that under which I suffer now.” And so they did not go.

On Sunday, the sisters were working in the fields when they heard a screaming by the river. They rushed there to discover a woman had been knocked into the water by her two cows, and was now being drowned beneath them as they clambered into the water to drink.

Raven, whose arms were strong from years of toil and could pull as strongly as an ox, grabbed the cords around the cows’ necks and hauled them up the river bank and back into the fields. Rose, who spent many of her days swimming in the river and was as agile as a fish, dived into the water and pulled the lady to safety.

“You have saved my life,” the woman said to the sisters. “Tell me anything you want, and I shall repay you as best I can.”

Red Rose said, “I have received nothing but kindness and riches my whole life, regardless of what I have deserved. Yet none have brought me happiness, for the only thing I want is for my sister to know joy, and be free of her life of torment.”

And Raven said, “My sister suggested we should run away together, for it is our father who torments me and has prevented me from ever knowing joy. But if we leave he will search us out until we are found, so he can punish me and reclaim my sister. For in love and in hate he considers us his own.

“But this week our father has been away, and today it is that he returns. So all I ask is that you come with us to meet our father, and tell him the kindness we have done you, in the hope that it will help convince him to let us leave. Then your debt to us will be repaid.

“For if he does agree to let us go and to leave us be, for as long as we live, both me and my sister can know true joy.”

And the woman said, “It will be done,” and she went with them to the road through the woods, and there they waited for the farmer’s return. When the old woman saw him approaching, she told the sisters to hide in the undergrowth with the two cows, and to remain quiet until all had been agreed.

“I will give him a chance to show his kindness,” she said to herself, and then to him she said, “Sir, your daughters saved me this afternoon from drowning, and I owe to them my life. In repayment for their deeds I wish to take them with me to my castle, where they can live like queens, for I will treat them with a kindness and generosity unknown in this part of the world. They shall want for nothing, and be happier than any who have come before or since.”

“No,” said the farmer. “I will not let you take them from me. They are my daughters and mine alone to keep.”

The woman said, “If their happiness is not enough, I offer you all my money and the great vast expanse of my lands, for I rule a great world. You shall be a king there without equal, and your daughters and I can stay here and toil as farmers upon the land.”

“My older daughter, whom I love, is all I have left to remind me of my wife, and as such is more precious to me than even the greatest treasure. Every time I look upon her face I see the beauty of her mother, and briefly I am happy again. No money nor power in the world would be enough to let me give her up,” said the farmer. “As for my other daughter, whom I detest, glad would I to be rid of her. But what she took from me can never be returned. To honour the memory of my wife, whose life she stole, her punishment must go on. And not for anything can I set justice aside and let her go free.”

“Then I shall return to you your daughters,” she said. “And you can go on your way.”

The old woman brought forth from the undergrowth her two cows. “Here is Red Rose,” she said, pointing to the cow with red-brown fur. “Here is Black Death,” said she, pointing to a cow of black and white. “Take them with you, and forever be gone from my sight.”

At this she rose up, and took on the appearance of a great witch, and in horror the farmer took the cows, believing them to be his daughters transformed by a great and terrible power, and he hurried away with them to his home and did not look back. Then the old woman took Red Rose and Raven to her realm, which was as vast as she had said, and vaster still, and there she treated them as if they were her daughters, and as if they were her friends.

“Oh Red Rose, look at what has been done to you,” said the farmer when he got home, and sadly stroked the red cow’s back. “Oh Black Death, look what you have done to her,” he said, and struck the black and white cow harshly with his hand.

The cows, although docile in temperament, were old and strong, and also stubborn and immovable, and they remained unmoved by both his kindness and his spite. In this way he lived out his days, his love and his hate stripped of power, and eventually he died. And on that morning the cows walked out beyond his fields and disappeared into the mists at the river’s edge.

As for the sisters, it is said they were never parted for as long as they lived, and nor were they ever unhappy again, in this or any other of their lives.

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Notes:

1. The first draft of this was written between June and November 2012, but this version is from May 2015

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The Hole

There was a hole in the tree at the end of our nan’s garden. We used to love shoving our arms into it, me and my sister, pretending we were Flash Gordon, pretending we might get bitten and die.

No matter how old we got, no matter how long our arms grew, we never could reach the end of it. We stuck the garden hose into it once, lowered it down slowly into the depths as if we were dropping a bucket down into a well, or a bathysphere into the sea. And even when we’d unspooled it all we still could have gone deeper.

My sister said it must be coiling around in there like a snake, or like the tape inside a cassette, tightly wound round some tree-ish spindle deep down there in the dark.

All I could imagine it as was guts. But then at the time all I could imagine at any time was guts, stomachs slashed open, intestines bulging out from the gaping wound like a colony of bloated worms, all this the consequence of some surreptitiously watched forbidden video, rented out on our behalf from the shop by a friend’s older brother or an unconcerned uncle.

And every day since, these visions of mutilation and evisceration. I’d sit in the bathtub and stare at my ever largening belly, horrified and fascinated about was was within, what was straining to get out.

We turned the hose on, in the end, while it was in the hole, and counted out the seconds until it overflowed, so that we could work out an approximate volume of the expanse within the tree. But it never overflowed. The hollow was obviously infinite, a void unexplainable by science. (My sister had more prosaic explanations).

Our nan asked us what we were doing out there, when we’d gone back inside in the afternoon for a glass of watery orange squash and a biscuit, most likely a rich tea but, if we were lucky, perhaps one of those with the cow on them, whatever they were called.

“We were putting our arms in the hole in the tree,” said my sister, rather guilelessly.

“You shouldn’t put things in holes, dear,” said our nan. “You might not get them out again.”

And she chuckled to herself as if it was funny, both what she’d said and what we were doing. But after that she never let us play in the garden much again, or at least not on our own.

That summer extended on forever and we forgot about the hole. Moved on to other mysteries. Then there was school, again, eventually, autumn, winter, christmas, snow.

In the half term we stayed there, and we got snowed in. It was quite exciting. The roofs of cars protruding out from the drifts like polyps. Icicles growing down from the gutter so far when you looked out of the window it felt like you were behind bars.

I woke up one night, a gap in the curtains letting the moonlight through. The house was silent. Outside the snow glowed as if lit from below.

I heard the screams of foxes, far away, nearer, near. Then out into the garden one ran, each footstep an echo of its passage through the snow.

My nan burst out from beneath the picnic bench, galloping across the snow on all fours towards her prey. A silent leap, up, up, down onto the back of the transfixed fox. Then an explosion of noise and movement and screaming.

My nan rose from the snow, up on to her hind legs, the dead animal hanging from her mouth, blood dripping from the holes where her teeth were submerged in the poor thing’s belly, splashes of red on the white of her nightgown, and more behind her in the hollow in the snow where her footstepped path and the fox’s converged.

She walked across to the tree, bent down towards the hole, and pushed herself into it, fox first, then face, her shoulders dislocating behind her as the rest of her slithered inside.

Silence, then, and stillness, for a moment. Then clouds obscured the moon. Snow fell in darkness. Sleep eventually took me back to bed. And in the morning no trace of footsteps in the snow, no stains of blood on the ground, nor on the tree. Even in my mind, the memory was softened out by the possibility of it being a dream.

For breakfast there was toast and jam, thick and red and spread too strong. Everyone eating it, except for me and my nan. No one believed me about the hole and what I’d seen go in it, and later when we went outside to look it was frozen full of ice, so thick and clear you couldn’t see it, you had to touch it to know it was there, to know it existed in more than just your mind.

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Notes:

1. Written on July 3rd, 2018

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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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