Tale #50: The Stolen Child (a tale told in tales)

The First Tale: The Lonely Prince

There lived a prince alone in his castle. A war had killed his father the king, and he had no-one who loved him enough to help him stop his grief from becoming fury.

And so in retaliation, the prince ordered his enemy’s lands be destroyed, their castles razed, their fields burnt and salted, their king’s treasures stolen, his wives butchered, his daughter kidnapped, all so the king of that land was left with nothing but grief. And once that king himself died there was nothing left at all, for all trace of his people’s civilisation had been burnt to ash in the prince’s retribution, and all memory of their culture was lost in their graves.

Only the king’s daughter survived. The prince locked the stolen child in his deepest dungeon and left her there until he could forgive her father enough to let her go. Yet in time, it was not forgiveness he found in his heart but forgetfulness. And he turned his thoughts to other things, and left her in the dark alone.

The prince grew up, and on his 21st birthday he was made king. He chose for himself a bride, and she became his queen. He loved her with all his heart, with all the love he would have given his father had he known him more, and his mother too, had he known her at all.

When his queen died giving birth to their son, he was heartbroken. When, in the subsequent days, his son, too, died, he was distraught, and now his grief was so great he locked himself in his castle and would not come out. All alone he grew old, in silence and in solitude.

His kingdom was ruled in his absence by his old advisors. Without the king’s word, they could not authorise war, and instead were forced to maintain peace and good relations with all the countries they knew. So while the king grew old in solitude and sadness, his kingdom flourished, and the people proclaimed him as the greatest monarch in their history.

And in their prosperity they forgot his war, forgot not only his crimes, but the crimes of their country.

The Second Tale: The Girl Who Learned

The king kept the child in a cage and kept the cage covered with a heavy ashen blanket, and he locked it up in a windowless room deep beneath the castle and left it there forever.

Years later, when the king had forgotten all about his captive, and left the administration of his kingdom to the hands of others, the room and its contents were discovered by a clerk busy documenting the treasures and riches of the realm.

From there gossip and rumour spread far enough and quick enough that people would, if they had the societal standing, or at least the funds to compensate for their lack of it, make a request to the king’s treasurers to be allowed to see the child.

It must be said, however, that such requests grew less frequent with every passing year. Captives, no matter how exotic, no matter how rare, all lose their allure after awhile, no matter the extravagance of their tricks. Especially when they resolutely refuse to perform for their guests.

***

The child in the cage had been found in the forest, they said, left behind by the fair folk there at the passing of the midsummer sun.

Or, they said, the child had been a gift from the gods.

The child was a traveller, the child was a spy, a thief, a lie. The child was a warning. A warrior. A weapon.

The child was an offering. The child was a beast.

But the child in the cage was none of these things.

The child was a child.

And the story everyone had forgotten was that she had been stolen from her family in a land far away, in a war long forgotten, and brought back here as a prize for a king, a symbol of his victory, a reminder of his revenge.

But the king was afraid of her, or perhaps, ashamed, and so he locked her away and hoped to forget her and the war she reminded him of.

And for many years forget her he did. Until it was too late. Until she would never let him forget her again.

***

Alone in the dark she held no form except her own.

But in the light of others…

***

Occasionally, the covering on her cage would be lifted and, in the flickering light of the lamps in their hands, the disembodied faces of noblemen would peer in and catch a glimpse of a loved one, a lost one, a lusted after one.

And then she would recoil away from the light and become lost in shadow once more.

“She’s a shy one, alright,” the gaoler would say, by way of explanation.

It was not shyness, of course, but fear. A fear that matched their own.

After a while, the paying guests would demand another view, and the gaoler would rattle the cage with his cane, but these attempts would never coax her back to the light. Then the group would leave, muttering frustration and annoyance as they left, make claims that this was just a ruse, a cynical attempt to part them of their coin. And in their anger they would forget the faces they had seen, explain them away as a trick of the light, a trick of the mind.

She would be left alone in the dark once more.

***

No prison, no matter the precautions, can ever truly be secure. A worm, perhaps, will be brought in on muddy boots. A moth, occasionally, will follow the lamp in but fail to follow it out. Wigs carry fleas. Food, maggots.

And all of these creatures with minds of their own.

***

The worm crawled across the floor and under the edges of the blanket and through the bars of the cage and it looked at the stolen child and said, “I’m lost.”

And the girl said, “So am I.”

Then the worm said, “I don’t want to die. Not in here.”

And the girl said to him, “Nor do I.”

The girl didn’t know she was a worm now. The worm didn’t know that she was not.

***

The worm died and the girl learned sorrow.

***

From the flea she learned how to find the warmth of others. From the moth she learned how to follow the light. And from herself, in the days and months after her new friends’ deaths, she learned she was lonely.

***

The maggot crawled out of the rotten bread and looked at her.

“I’m hungry,” the maggot said.

“So am I,” said the stolen child, and together they began to feed. And, as they hollowed out the loaf, together they grew fat.

When the bread was gone, they lay down together, bloated and content. And thus sated, they grew old together and prepared for death.

Instead of dying, the maggot changed. And the girl learn that she had been changing all her life.

***

Her friend the fly died in the end, of course. Everything dies. Transformation only postpones the inevitable.

Even death, itself, is a transformation. Of course.

***

In the lonely dark again she slowly lost her form. But now she had a self.

And in the darkness she wept.

And in the darkness she planned.

And in the darkness she waited as long as it was necessary to wait.

***

And finally, one day, her chance came.

***

The blanket was lifted from the cage and the lamp held up close to the bars. The faces peered in, and for a second each saw a face peer back. A face each of them recognised, but when they later conferred none could agree on the exact identity of who it was they had seen.

The face in the cage withdrew, recoiled from the light and returned to the shadows. But not now in fear, for she had learned, day by day, a purpose.

The usual attempts to coax her back into the light failed, as they always did. Interest waned, as it always did. The blanket was lowered, the room vacated, the door locked and the stairs ascended.

If any felt a flea on their skin, they thought nothing of it. If anyone noticed a fly land upon their sleeves, they shooed it away without a second thought. If, in the flickering shadows, it seemed that the same person stood to their left as to their right, well, that must simply have been a trick of the light, or a trick of the mind. And they thought nothing more of it.

And if, as they made their way down the dark corridors away from the stolen child’s cell, there was one more moth fluttering around the flame of the gaoler’s lamp, well, who can say that they’ve ever counted moths, paid any attention to their numbers whatsoever.

As they made their way out through the secret doors into the courtyards of the king’s keep, not one of them saw a worm slip free from the grooves of one of the gaoler’s boots and bury itself in the fresh and fertile earth of the king’s gardens.

***

A teacher came into the garden with a small group of children. The teacher sat beneath a tree, and while the children picked apples from the branches just above their heads, she took a book from her bag and began to read her class a story.

The stolen child sat with them and ate an apple of her own and listened to the teacher read, and that was where she learned about stories and the powers they possessed.

She imagined her life as a story. Thought about how it had it had begun, and where, perhaps, it should end.

***

In the streets she learned about the people of the kingdom.

In the court she learned about the king.

In the library she learned about the history of kingdom. She learned about its wars, and where, perhaps, she came from.

***

From the peacocks in the king’s garden she learned the arts of allurement.

From the spiders in the bushes she learned the potency of traps.

***

At one end of the garden there was a small graveyard. The peacocks did not go there, but the ravens did, and the rooks and the crows. And so, each day, did the king.

***

From the crows she learned right from wrong.

From the rooks she learned about justice.

And from the ravens, she learned about revenge.

The Third Tale: The King In The Graveyard

There lived a king alone in his graveyard. He wandered between the graves of all those he had loved, and wept as he did so, for he loved them still. And he cared not at all for anybody that still lived, and had not so much as a smile for them.

As a king, his grief was allowed to blossom and bloom and grow endlessly huge inside him, for there was nobody within his kingdom of sufficient standing to comfort or console him, and no-one brave or kind enough to help him. So he lived on, locked away within his graveyard and within himself until he was so old and so joyless he had forgotten any other way of being.

Not even the crows kept him company, for they would hop from the gravestones when he came near and take cover in the trees and upon the tops of the walls.

One day, he caught a glimpse of a woman walking in his graveyard. He tried to approach her, but when he did she would disappear from view behind a tomb, or turn from the path and step behind a tree. Whenever he reached where it seemed she should be, he found nothing there but startled crows.

But there, ahead! Another glimpse of her. And on and on, this game of hide and seek, of glimpse and follow, deeper and deeper into his private domain.

Eventually, he tired of the hunt and ordered his guards to search the graveyard and capture the intruder. But no trace of her could be found.

This happened many times, and soon people began to wonder if the king’s grief had finally turned to madness. Not even the lonely king was so oblivious that he could fail to see the pity in his courtiers’ eyes, and so he kept quiet about the woman he still saw, day after day, in the labyrinth of his graveyard.

Now he would not call the guards when he tired of the hunt, but redouble his efforts, running from gravestone to gravestone, from tomb to tomb, hoping to get close enough to her so that he could see her face, reach out and hold her hand, speak out and ask her name.

But always as he approached she would flit away, disappear into nothing, and he would be all alone once more in his barren garden of crows and thorns.

Only in his dreams would he catch her. When she turned to face him it was his wife’s face that she wore, his wife’s smile that played across her dark red lips. And his wife’s voice that said…

But before she spoke he would wake from his reverie, lost somewhere unknown in the dense tangles of his graveyard, more alone now than ever before.

The Fourth Tale: The Woman Who Was Whatever She Wanted

A king found a woman sleeping among the flowers in his private garden. She looked just like his beloved wife, who had died many years before. And so the king let her sleep, and he watched her while she did.

When she awoke, many hours later, the king was still watching, and he said to her, “Who are you, who is sleeping in my garden?”

And she said, “I am who I want to be.”

The king said then, “Why are you here, in my private garden?”

“I am where I need to be,” she said.

Finally the king said, “And why are dressed as you are, as if for a wedding?”

And she said, “I am dressed for what I plan to happen.”

And that very night they were married.

The Fifth Tale: The Queen Who Taught

It was only in their bridal chambers that the queen was finally alone with the king. No guards watching from the shadows, no advisors taking notes of the king’s absentminded thoughts. No servants helping him get dressed, or bringing him his food. No guards waiting nervously to open a door for him as he approached, or close it once he had passed.

She thought back to the years of her captivity, and wondered at the differences in their solitudes.

“You look so much like her,” the king said, thinking of his old wife.

Then the king motioned to their bed, and said to his new wife, “I have much to teach you.”

And she said, “I have much to learn.”

***

She asked him about his family. She asked him about himself. She asked him about his country.

And finally, she asked him about hers.

***

“There are tales people tell,” she said. “Of a captive in the castle, from a long-dead kingdom by the sea.”

He looked at her in confusion. At first her words meant nothing to him. But slowly memories rose up within him.

Memories of a country he had never seen, of strange artefacts brought to him as gifts, and stranger people come to plead with him for mercy. Memories of the fury of a boy he no longer recognised as himself.

But of the stolen child he had no memories at all. If there had been a captive in the castle, he said, she had long been forgotten.

“It was all so long ago,” he said. “I was but a child.”

“So was I,” she said. And she taught him all she knew.

***

She coiled herself around his heart like the snakes had taught her, winding herself so tightly round his chest that the king could not call out to his guards for help. Every time he tried she tightened her grip, and soon he fell unconscious in her embrace.

She became an eagle as huge as any legend. In her talons she held him, and through the castle window she flew, away, away, into the sky. Up and up they flew, until the castle below was little bigger than a single letter in the great vast text of the land below.

The king awoke and she showed him the extent of his lands, and for a day and a night she flew, over farms and forests and pastures, over towns and markets and cities, and all the while the king begged for her to free him, but she would not. “You brought me to your kingdom,” she said. “So I shall take you to mine.”

Finally, as the next day’s sun rose above a great desert, she said, “This is where the kingdoms of my childhood stood.”

She dropped him down into the sand. She became a camel, and dragged the king behind her, and for a night and a day they walked and saw no sign of life among the dunes.

They came to a cliff by the edge of the sea, and she threw the king over the side and then dived down behind him, an eagle for a second, then a falcon, a gull, a gannet, and she hit the water before the king. And as the water touched her wings she became a fish, an eel, a shark, a dolphin.

Then she was a whale, bigger than any that had ever lived and as big as any that ever would. She opened her mouth and swallowed the king whole.

In the years that followed, in an ocean bigger than all the kingdoms of man combined, she taught him what it was like to live in a cage.

The Final Tale: The Women In The Woods, The Swallows In The Sky

The old kingdoms and the old tales have faded from the world. And the magic, too, many say. But there are still wild places in the world, if you know where to look. And in them more than we can ever know.

One day you’ll be out walking. You’ll catch a glimpse of a woman walking in the woods, nd by her side her daughter, too.

When they see you approach, they will turn and walk unhurriedly away. And as you follow, they’ll take a turn from the path, step behind a tree, and though you hurry to catch up, by the time you’ve moved to look they’ll have disappeared from view.

You’ll see two rabbits running away across the field, tails bobbing in the twilight. Or two swallows taking to the sky, flying away on oh so delicate wings. Or you’ll see two otters swimming down the river, under the bridge and away. Away from sight and away from you and away from the world they need no part of.

You’ll never the these women again. Yet you’ll never forget.

And, O, the tales they could tell.

__________

Notes

1. Written between July 2016 and August 2018

__________

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from the archives of Essex Terror: Tales From Dimension Essex #1: The Terrifying Transformations Of Tephany Pellow

[Notes: This is a reprint of a transcription of a radio play that was based upon an overheard conversation recounting an urban myth about unreliable narrators, from February 2014]

***

In 2013 , the first (and so far only) episode of Tales From Dimension Essex aired across the county. Performed live and entirely improvised, The Terrifying Transformations Of Tephany Pellow was veteran playwright Ted Vaaak’s first new work in some time. Unfortunately, due to a rights’ dispute with BBC Radio Essex, the play was transmitted unannounced on a largely inaudible frequency.

Although fog across the estuaries bent the radiowaves back into receivable wavelengths in a number of Essex’s coastal towns, huts and scientific research outposts, it was still only heard by an estimated seven people, none of whom had the presence of mind to record it. However, one of those seven listeners was Jennifer Mudchute, a compulsive stenographer from Tollesbury, and her notes have proved invaluable in allowing us to create a transcript of this work of monumental art.

Tales From Dimension Essex #1: The Terrifying Transformations Of Tephany Pellow

Cast

The Narrator – an introducer of tales
Radio Announcer – a filler of silence
Doctor George Slime – a professional of medicine
Alan Pellow – a man of Essex
Tephany Pellow – a woman transformed
Martha Slime – a wife of a man

Location – This entire play takes place within the confines of the house and home of Doctor George Slime, a noted physician who lives in Essex.

Narrator: Everyone always says that marriage changes everything, but for poor Alan Pellow it changes even more than most. What follows here is a shocking, some may even say sickening, story that could only ever be a… TALE FROM DIMENSION ESSEX!

Title Sequence: The Tales From Dimension Essex Theme Tune plays

Narrator: Tales From Dimension Essex, Episode 4635 – The Terrifying Transformations Of Tephany Pellow, by Ted Vaak.

There is a moment of silence, followed by the sound of footsteps across a creaky wooden floor. Then the noise of a radio being switched on and tuned through static, until some light music plays for ten seconds, before fading out beneath the sound of the radio announcer’s voice.

Radio Announcer: Welcome to BBC Radio Essex, home of uninterrupted hypnotherapeutical music from 6pm to 6am, every single day of the week. As our slogan says “The working day may be stressful, but the evenings never should be!” That was The Sleep Orchestra with The Sensational Sound Of Snoring, and this right now is Toby Vok with his brand new track, The Infinite Undulating Note.

The Infinite Undulating Note begins to play. Throughout the rest of the radioplay it continues on in the background – except where expressly noted – getting more and more dissonant and horrifying as the play progresses, until the transcendent finale in which it transforms into the most beautiful sound a human being could ever possibly hear.

Doctor George Slime (talking to himself): Ah, Friday evenings! Is there any finer time. Work is over, dear Martha is upstairs washing her hair, and now a good two hours to relax, with nothing to distract me. What a marvellous feeling it is to be alone. No patients coughing across the desk at me. No Martha scolding me for my unfeeling remarks. Just me, my books and my whisky. Ah, to be alive like this, even if only for a few hours a week!

The noise of a bottle being opened, whisky being poured, the self satisfaction of a big strong gulp. And then a doorbell rings, and then rings some more.

Doctor George Slime: Drat and bother and drat once more! Who could that be, on a Friday for goodness sake? Oh well, I’ll just leave it to Martha. It’s bound to be for her.

The doorbell rings again, and then again, and then again and again, more and more urgently each time.

Doctor George Slime: Where’s Martha? God, that woman can never hear anything above the sound of her blasted hairdryer! I suppose I’ll just have to damn well answer it myself then.

Doctor George Slime places his glass back down on the table, rises from his comfortable leather chair and walks across the wooden floorboards of his study, down the hall (the sound of the radio fading away behind him as he walks away from it) and then opens the door. As he opens the door the doorbell rings furiously several more times.

Doctor George Slime: Yes! Yes! This had better be important. All this racket is giving me a headache!

Alan Pellow: Doctor Slime, it’s me, Alan Pellow, from across the road. Let me in. I need your help right now!

Doctor George Slime: Alan, it’s Friday evening. I’ve been drinking. I can’t help you. I could lose my licence.

Alan Pellow: I don’t care about that! It’s about my wife! LET ME IN!

Doctor George Slime: Okay, okay. Come in, then, come in. And shut the door behind you, will you?

The door slams shut and we hear them walk back down the hall and into George’s study, the radio rising back to its previous volume in the background. Toby is still playing his undulating note, which is by now slightly more unsettling than before.

Alan Pellow: Doc, look at this!

Alan Pellow clatters an animal cage down onto Doctor George Slime’s mahogany desk. There is the sudden sound of deranged gibbonesque howling.

Doctor George Slime: Good God, Alan! I’m a doctor not a vet! I thought you were worried about your wife? Did this… thing attack her?

Alan Pellow: No, Doc. You don’t understand.

Doctor George Slime: What is it, anyway? It looks like a baboon, but its face… It looks almost…

Alan Pellow: Sir, this isn’t a baboon, and it didn’t attack my wife. It IS my wife!

There is a demented shrieking from the ape, and the energetic rattling of bars.

Doctor George Slime: Tephany? But… wasn’t it only last week the two of you were married?

Alan Pellow: Yes. But ever since we got back from our honeymoon on Monday things changed. Doc, I don’t know what to do!

Doctor George Slime: Ah, sit down, son, sit down. Here, have a drink. You need to calm down as best you can and tell me everything that’s happened. And call me George.

Doctor George Slime pours a drink of whisky for Alan Pellow.

Alan Pellow: Thanks, Do- George. Everything about the wedding was wonderful. So wonderful it felt like a dream. And then our honeymoon – a weekend in Walton On The Naze – it was beyond imagination. Tephany – she was so beautiful. So perfect. The perfect wife in every way you could want. But then, once we got back home, she changed. At first she just wanted to talk, but then… George, she started wanting things. Demanding things. I didn’t know what to do.

Doctor George Slime: What sort of things?

The undulating note of Toby’s get’s increasingly fraught and disconcerting throughout the following outbursts from Alan Pellow.

Alan Pellow: Oh you know. Little things at first. “Alan, Alan,” [He puts on a french accent for the quoted parts] – she’s French – “Alan, I think I should get a job” and “Alan, I’m going to borrow the car for a bit.” What does a woman need with a job? Where would she be going in the car? I ignored her at first, sort of laughed along with her as if I knew it was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. Then yesterday she said “I ordered a shed off the internet today for the garden.” A shed? For her “tools”. It’s madness. What sort of tools, I asked? She started talking about gardening, how nice it was going to be once we’d returfed the lawn and planted some flowers in the borders. Well, I just said “NO!” I admit I said it louder than I meant to, but the look on her face… It was as if I had slapped her. “You knew I was going to concrete the garden,” I said to her. So that I can park my van and the BMW out there side by side. She knew. She knew. It’s what I’ve always said. What I’ve always wanted. She knew this. I’d told her. We wouldn’t have to pay the council for that bloody permit anymore. She knew the money we would have saved. And it was the principle, more than the money. We already pay our council tax. Why should we have to pay another hundred and fifty quid to bloody park our van on the street?

Doctor George Slime: Then what happened?

Alan Pellow: She started shouting at me. About how awful I was, how I didn’t even see her as a woman anymore. It was absurd. I told her that I only see her as a woman. That’s what she is. I thought that would calm her down but it didn’t. Then she started screaming in French, like her fury couldn’t even be contained in our bloody language. Reverting to something more primal. And then that degenerated too, into something guttural that sounded more like growling than words. Probably German. Or Dutch. And then her posture began to change, her back bending oddly, her head thrusting forward. She went down on all fours and began howling and howling and then suddenly she just lunged at me and it took me by such surprise she knocked me to the floor. She started biting at my neck, snapping away, all demented. It was terrifying. I held her away from me as best I could but I could not get her off and we struggled away on the floor for a while, grappling and rolling around on the new carpet we just got fitted in the lounge. Her blouse ripped a bit in the tussle and I noticed how hairy she’d become. And then I glanced at her hands and by now they were paws. I knew I had to do something before her slowly forming claws were sharp enough to rip me to shreds, and so with one final push of strength I staggered to my feet and pushed her back into the hall. She made another lunge for me and I tripped her so she fell into the cage we leave the dog in overnight so he won’t ruin all the furniture. I quickly locked her in and then I collapsed in exhaustion to the floor.

Doctor George Slime: But she doesn’t have claws now…?

Alan Pellow: No. When I awoke she had transformed again, or further maybe, from that initial dog beast into this monstrous ape. She was busy ripping the last remnants of her clothes into shreds when I came round. Clothes I had bought her, I’ll have you know, at great goddamn expense. That was when I decided I needed help and came rushing over to your door.

Doctor George Slime: And I’m very glad you did. It is fascinating. Look how she watches us intently from behind her bars. As if there is still intelligence left somehow. I wonder what triggered these changes? Did she get bitten while you were on holiday? By a creature? By a local, even?

Alan Pellow: I don’t think so. I’m sure I would have noticed.

Doctor George Slime: Then I’m flummoxed. It’s as baffling as it is interesting.

Alan Pellow: Can you not change her back? Even how she was before is better than this.

Tephany begins screaming again in her baboonish way.

Alan Pellow: At least sedate her, so that I don’t have to listen to her babbling screams any more.

Doctor George Slime: Sedation may help, but it would be but a temporary solution. To cure her permanently, we must operate… ON HER BRAIN!

Alan Pellow: Her brain?

Doctor George Slime: Her brain! By lobotomising both the Megalithic Lobe and Verin’s Region we should inhibit the production of the transformic and enfuriation hormones, the excess production of which in combination with her unsettling sense of self as an autonomous being beyond your control must have triggered this episode.

Alan Pellow: If this is the only solution then you must do it. Not just for her but for me and for the good of our community. Can you imagine if I have to take this baboon with me to my parents at Christmas? To my work’s New Year’s do? It would be mortifying.

By now Toby’s note is so terrifying the dread is congealing around the listener in ways beyond adequate explanation in words.

Doctor George Slime: Then let me get into my medical robes and we can begin.

There is a knock at the study door.

Alan Pellow (hissed): Who’s that?

Doctor George Slime: Oh don’t worry, it’s just my wife Martha, I expect. She must have heard us talking.

Doctor George Slime walks across the room to the door, and slowly opens it with a creak.

Doctor George Slime: What is it Marth-aaaaaaaargh!

There is a terrifying startled cawing of a huge crow, and the sound of gigantic flapping of wings.

Alan Pellow: Is that… that gigantic crow… Is that your wife?

Doctor George Slime: It is. Look, she’s still wearing her shower cap. And her slippers. Get back, Alan. Let me deal with her. If I can just get to the fire and retrieve the pokeeeeeeeeeeeerrAARRRRRRGGGGGGGGH ARRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHH ARRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Doctor George Slime’s screams are joined by the terrifying screeching caw of the enraged ultracrow.

Alan Pellow: Oh no, poor George. Pecked to death by your own wife. It’s just not right!

We can hear the ripping of flesh as the crow strips the meat from her husband’s bones.

Alan Pellow (to himself): I must get out of here. But I can’t leave Tephany behond. Oh god no Tephany! Do not change again.

Tephany’s baboon shrieks change to a higher and higher ever escalating pitch.

Alan Pellow: Is she becoming a… an octopus? Tephany no… no! Don’t open that cage Tephany. You’re in there for your own good.

We hear the clicking of a lock, and the creaking open of the cage’s door.

Alan Pellow: Tephany, no please don’t, you’re choking me… with… your… tentacles… Tephany… I…

We hear the slump of Alan Pellow’s body to the floor. There follows a moment of silence (except for Toby’s music on the radio) and then there is the slithering of feet and the shuffling of tentacles as Marsha and Tephany cross the floor of the study, open the door, and shuffle fadingly away until the front door opens and then slams close and they are gone. There follows thirty seconds of Toby’s note, now reaching a transcendent climax of pure beauty.

Radio Announcer (over the top of the music): We are sorry to interrupt this broadcast but we’re getting reports, urgent reports, from across the county, from everywhere that men’s wives are… transforming… attacking their husbands. Relentlessly and without mercy. It seems that they… they want to be free. Outside I can see flocks of wives in the sky – and, is that, is that an octopus on one of their backs? I have never seen anything like this before. It is beautiful. So beautiful. The sky is alive. More and more are joining them every minute. They are singing… such singing.. I wish you could hear them sing. I wish you could hear them. It is… I’m crying. I’m crying. There is so much happiness. So much joy. Just sheer untroubled joy. I wish you could hear them. I wish I could join them… I wish…[sobs and then silence]

Toby plays on.

THE END

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Tale #35: The Lonely Man’s Tale

I was, O Lord, deep in thought in the garden of my house one afternoon when I was awakened from my slumber by a calling from above.

A cat sat in the cherry tree and it said down to me, “You look all alone. Would you give me some dinner in exchange for an afternoon of my company?”

And of course I said yes and the cat leapt down from the tree and settled on my lap. And she purred as I stroked her and the afternoon passed in contentment for the both of us.

As the sun began to set the cat leapt from my lap and went through the back door and into my house. Inside, I found in my kitchen not the cat but an anteater. It was a huge beast, and with its long snout it snuffled through my cupboards and opened up my jars of sugars and sweets, and with its long tongue it licked out the food within until the jars were spotless and clean.

Once it had finished eating the anteater turned to me and said, “You look all alone. Would you give me somewhere to sleep for the night in exchange for an evening of my company?”

And of course I said yes and the anteater sat at the kitchen table and together we played cards for the rest of the evening. And time passed pleasantly for the both of us.

As the clock chimed midnight, the anteater played her last hand and said goodnight and got down off the chair and went into my bedroom.

Inside my room, I found not an anteater but a woman lying in my bed. And she looked up at me and said, “You look all alone. What would you give for a night of my company?”

I said, “All that I own,” and she pulled back the covers and invited me in.

The next day, O Lord, I was alone again. And I was deep in thought in the park of our town when I was awakened from my slumber by a calling from above.

A crow sat in the peach tree and said to me, “I watched you all day, and I watched you all night. If you would give up everything you have for a dream of a woman, what would you give to truly end your loneliness once and for all?”

And I said to the bird, “I may have given her all that I own, but not all that I have, for I still have my heart. And to truly end my loneliness, it would not be enough to give it away. It would have to be taken.”

The crow listened to what I said. She hopped down from her perch and opened my shirt with a swish of her wings and with her beak she cut open my chest and tore away a tiny sliver of flesh from the corner of my heart. Then she took wing and flew high up into the sky.

And, O My Lord, I followed.

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Notes:

1. Written May 27th, 2016

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Tale #33: The Offered Daughter And The Promised Sons

A lord came to town and said to the mayor, “Whosoever makes my daughter happy for a year and a day shall have her hand in marriage and inherit a great wealth.”

The mayor, who was poorer than he believed was his right, said, “I am the father of many sons. I promise you that at least one will make her happy, if you are kind enough to allow them the chance.”

The lord assented, and the very next day the mayor held a ball in the lord’s honour. Arriving in a great carriage, the lord and his daughter alighted to gasps of astonishment from the gathering crowd, for she was more beautiful than any woman that had ever been seen before, or would ever be again.

The mayor’s eldest son, who the mayor loved with all his heart, said to his father, “Let me be the one to please her.” His father agreed, and the eldest son took the lord’s daughter by the hand and introduced himself.

He was a very charming man, and as they danced throughout the evening a smile of joy played across her lips. And the mayor’s son smiled too, for he thought even then of his success, and the great rewards it would bring.

Over the coming days and months, they went everywhere together. Her beauty seemed to grow greater by the day, and he revelled in the attention he gained at having such a woman upon his arm.

Yet every night, when he took her to his room and undressed her by his bed, her appearance changed and when she stood naked before him her slender body looked to him like that of a haggard and wizened old crone. He could not bring himself to touch her, nor share his bed with her, and he made her sleep alone.

And this strange behaviour continued for a year, beauty by day yet beastly by night.

When the lord returned to town and met with the mayor, the mayor said, “Our children have now been happily together for a year and a day. Will you grant my son your daughter’s hand in marriage, and with it pass on the great wealth you promised us?”

“They have been together for a year it is true, but not happily, and it is happiness you promised your son would bring,” the lord said. “You son may take great pleasure in wearing her in public like a jewelled ring on his finger, yet cannot bear to be with her in the privacy of his own bed.”

The mayor was shaken by this, and frightened of losing out on the great wealth this arrangement could bring, said, “I am sorry my eldest son was unable to bring your daughter the happiness she deserves, but I promise you my second son will be able to grant her joy, and will be only too pleased to devote his attentions to her needs.”

The next day, the mayor’s second son invited the lord’s daughter to his house for a meal, and together they ate a great feast. And later together they went to his bedroom, and he undressed her by the fire, and she looked as beautiful as any woman he had ever seen or would see again, and he gave himself to her pleasure.

So every night together they ate a great feast, and every night he undressed her by the fire. And every night in the firelight he took her to his bed and together they made love.

Yet, every morning when he awoke, the first thing he noticed was how different she was in the cold light of day. Her beauty would fade, her figure looked portlier, her face more plump, and she appeared to him like a tired old maid. He was embarrassed for them to be seen with her, and they rarely went outside together.

And this strange behaviour continued for a year, beautiful by night but beastly by day.

When the lord returned to town once more and met with the mayor, the mayor said, “Our children now have been happily together for a year and a day. Will you grant my son her hand in marriage, and with it pass on the great wealth you promised us?”

“They have been together for a year it is true, but not happily, and it is happiness you promised your son would bring,” the lord said. “You son may take great pleasure with her in the privacy of his own bed, yet he cannot bring himself to be seen with her in public.”

The mayor was shaken by this, and feared now he had lost out on the lord’s fortune for good. “I am sorry my second son was unable to bring your daughter the happiness she deserves. I only have one more son, an idle stepson who is forever sullen and unhappy. I am not sure he will bring joy to anyone, and so perhaps your daughter should look elsewhere for a suitor.”

The lord said, “You promised me your sons could bring my daughter happiness. If you have lied to me, I shall be greatly displeased.”

So the mayor sent his stepson to meet the lord’s daughter. She was now neither beautiful nor ugly, but as plain as you or I. The mayor’s stepson spoke to her as if to a friend, and she also to him. And when that night the lord’s daughter undressed in front of the fire, she was still as plain as you or I, and so was the stepson. They held each other in their arms and smiled and kissed and so much more.

The next morning they talked with each other as if to friends, and in this way a whole year passed, and a day, and then from there, together, the rest of their lives.

And the great wealth was the wealth of true love.

The mayor was most displeased.

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Notes:

1. Written November 2016
2. Structurally the same as The Cat Wife

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Tale #1: The Unhappy Bride

A young woman was betrothed against her will to the son of a wealthy farmer. No matter what she said, nor how unhappy she became, nothing would change the minds of her family or his, and the marriage quickly came to pass.

On her wedding night, after her husband had fallen asleep, she rose from bed, went outside, and wept bitterly beneath the moon.

A crow looked down at her from a nearby tree and said, “Why are you, who are still in your wedding dress, so unhappy?”

“I did not wish to be married, and I do not love my husband, and I have been betrayed by those who should love me, and so now I am all alone.”

The crow flew down from the tree and stood beside the bride.

“I can help you,” the crow said. “First, take off your dress.”

The young woman did as she was told, removing her wedding dress and dropping it to the ground.

“Now, let me cut off your hair.”

The woman nodded her agreement, and the crow hopped onto her shoulders, and with a quick bite of its beak cut the hair clean from her head.

“Now, let me give you my feathers.”

The crow pulled a feather from its wing, and plunged it deep into the woman’s arm. The crow then pulled a feather from its other wing, and plunged that deep into the woman’s other arm. And in this fashion the crow continued until it was completely bald and the woman was clothed in a thick black coat of feathers.

“Now, take my beak.”

The woman pulled the beak from the crow’s face and placed it carefully over her own mouth.

“Finally, fly away.”

And the woman flew away into the night.

The crow watched the unhappy bride leave, and then dressed itself in the woman’s dress, and placed her hair like a crown upon its head, and went inside her new house and climbed into bed with her husband.

The years passed, and the husband passed away, and after he was buried, the woman sat outside in her mourning dress and wept bitterly beneath the moon. A crow looked down at her from a nearby tree and said, “Why are you, who were never even truly married to this man, so unhappy?”

“I saw myself in this dress and remembered being a crow.”

The crow flew down from the tree and stood beside the widow.

“I can help you,” the crow said. “First, take off your dress.”

The young woman did as she was told, removing her mourning dress and dropping it to the ground.

“Now, let me cut off your hair.”

The woman nodded her agreement, and the crow hopped onto her shoulders, and with a quick bite of its beak cut the hair clean from her head.

“Now, let me give you back your feathers.”

The crow pulled a feather from its wing, and plunged it deep into the woman’s arm. The crow then pulled a feather from its other wing, and plunged that deep into the woman’s other arm. And in this fashion the crow continued until it was completely bald and the woman was clothed in a thick black coat of feathers.

“Now, take your beak.”

The woman pulled the beak from the crow’s face and placed it carefully over her own mouth.

“And finally, crow, fly away to your old freedom, and let me return now to mine.”

The crow, no longer a woman, flew away into the night. The woman, no longer a crow, pulled on her mourning dress, placed her hair like a crown upon her head, and went inside her old house and climbed into her old bed and slept soundly until morning.

And when she woke she rose anew.

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Notes:

1. Originally written in October 2013, although it’s been revised a few times since then
2. Illustrated by Holly English, who very kindly drew pictures for a few of these stories when I was putting a small anthology together in 2015 (for which this was the title story)
3. I like crows

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