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 #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 #13: God, The Devil, And The Man Upon The Road

There walked a man upon the road, carrying with him a basket of bread and fruit. God and the Devil saw him, and together they had a wager to see which one of them could convince the man to give away his evening meal.

So God came to the man, and the man looked at God but saw only a poor girl wearing rags and covered in dirt. God said to the man, “May I eat of your bread and fruit, for I have none of my own?”

And the man said back to God, “Why do you not have any of your own?”

God said, “I have given away all that I have and all that I have made, and now have nothing left of my own.”

To which the man replied, “Then I shall give you nothing. You cannot expect others to compensate you for your lack of planning and foresight. I have earned this fruit with the hardship of my labours. So why should I give up that which I have worked so hard for to reward you and the frivolous nature of your ways?”

And the man went on his way and left God behind.

The man came then upon the Devil, and the man looked at the Devil and there saw before him a lord in all his finery. The Devil said to the man, “May I eat of your bread and fruit, for I have none of my own?”

And the man said back to the devil, “Why do you not have any of your own?”

The Devil said, “My men and I have been working all day harvesting our crops from far and wide across the land. I have had it sent ahead to the place that I call home, and a great feast awaits me there, in the great halls of my abode. But alas it is further from here than I imagined and I shall not reach home tonight.”

To which the man replied, “Then I shall give you this food of mine. Your hard work deserves reward, and no-one can fully legislate for bad luck and bad timing.”

And the man gave the Devil his basket of bread and fruit and went on his way, and the Devil went with him.

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Notes:

1. Written May 2014

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