My love affair with medieval literature is bound up in a fascination with fairy tales. Odd that a concept so seemingly common is in need of a definition, but it is. A working definition is that of a folk tale set in a non-specific past when magic still happened. A near-perfect example comes from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:
“Now in the olden days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
I speak of many hundred years ago;
But now no man can see the elves, you know.”
As Tolkien notes in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are a triumph of the sub-creative urge, a chance for the writer and reader alike to explore, and, in exploring, shape, a narrative at once at home in any age, and yet removed from every age; a story whose matter is pure story (however trope-laden) and not confined to the pragmatic limitations of any time and place. It gives us free reign to delve whole-heartedly into events that we would roll our eyes at if mired in timeliness, because they happen in a space where such things are, by definition, not only possible but absolutely normal. The Professor sums up this appeal beautifully (seriously, his wording actually makes my chest hurt; I’m that much of a nerd):
“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and beautiful at whatever cost of peril.”
As children in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we’ve all likely grown up with disneyfied versions of old stories in which happily-ever-after is the moral and the raison d’etre. The fairytale I grew into when I got old enough to unabashedly appreciate “genre” fiction is something darker, harsher, and older. It allows us to imagine the very worst (example in point: Griselda in all her permutations) in terms that are distant enough and yet concrete– matter-of-fact– enough to suspend our disbelief and revulsion, and lurk in the psychological and philosophical underbelly of such gross suffering, rather than in its sometimes gory and perverse expression. Honestly, real, gritty folk and fairy tales never fail to bring to my mind good old Johnny Nice Painter:
They can take us from the lushest landscapes to the most discomfiting occurrences without batting an eye.
All this pontification is an attempt to explain why, as a sudden and secret project, have been writing what I call “dysfunctional fairytales.” They are, at their heart, no more or less upsetting than much of the subject matter in, say, Grimm’s collections; but because of my modern authorship, they are necessarily informed by more modern language and ideation than their traditional counterparts: They reflect my ruminations on what it means to be on the outside or in the littoral space of society for a whole wealth of reasons. And because the fairytale usually centers around the seeking and proving of oneself, it is an ideal medium to crawl inside characters as they negotiate this littoral area, with all the beauty and pain that entails. And so, without rambling on any longer, here is my first effort. I’ll continue to post more of them on a regular basis until I feel the project is done. I hope you enjoy them.
The Miner’s Daughters
There were three miner’s daughters who, coming of age, set off to seek their fortunes. They parted ways, and one went to the East, one went to the West, and one went to the North. Three long years later, by the circular paths of the earth’s face, they met at last in a place that had no direction and was, and would always be, the same.
“Oh sister,” said the two younger sisters to the eldest, who had journeyed East: “Tell us what you have seen in your long journeys.”
“I saw a man,” said she.
“What kind of man?” asked the sisters.
“A man who gave me joy and death,” said she.
“I ate three seeds from his golden table, and he placed a golden ring on my finger. The next day I hungered more and he gave me three more seeds, but the fullness of my belly did not sate the hunger of my flesh, so he crawled beneath my skin and planted the seeds there each day.
“One day, though, the seeds were gone, for the tree was in winter and its boughs barren, and I lay barren. The sun fell beneath the earth and I hid myself in shame, though I knew not why. The He came in the dark to my bed and held my flesh, but His touch was cold and numb. He cried out in the voice of his soul, but my soul was silent.
“Each year the sun awoke and birthed the tree, and the tree gave fruit, and the fruit gave up its seeds, and all was well. Others came to the golden table to feast, and we laughed and sang; but one day I looked from one to the next and saw they had no faces. It frightened me so that I looked toward the Man, but his face, too, went dark, and He had no mouth nor nose nor eyes. His hands gripped the seeds and He thrust them, one by one, beneath his fingernails, never stopping, never slowing down. Afraid, I swept the trappings from the table so that its shining surface could reflect me, but when it was clear I could not look, lest I become as they were. So I looked away, because there was nothing I could bear to see.
“Then my ears pricked and I heard that all around me, there was no more merry-making, but a great, heavy silence as blank as their hideous blank faces. And I did not speak because I feared to hear the silence in my throat. So I covered my ears, because there was nothing I could bear to hear.
“When dark fell again they came, all of them, to where I lay starving, and they prodded me and pressed me til my skin cracked and bled. I could not tell anymore who was the Man who placed the ring on my finger and had once cried out to me in the night. When the sun finally came for the third and last time, my fingers were bitten to nubbins and my teeth had fallen or been pried free. the bed and table were crushed and abandoned, and the tree was black and dead.
“I could not stay with no way to live there, but I did not know where to go, so I bound my ravaged feet and set off East again as I began when the world was young. Through long and desperate journey I came here to you.”
And indeed what she said was true, for her mouth gaped toothless and her hands groped fingerless, and her bones showed white through the cracks in her skin.
Then the other two sisters asked the middle sister, who had journeyed West, “Oh sister, oh sister, tell us what you have seen in your long journeys.”
“I saw a woman and child, so alike as to be known apart only by their size,” said she
“What kind of woman? What kind of child?” They asked.
“A woman who lay prostrate in a thin, hard bed, and her breath came hissing only rarely. I asked what ailed her, but she did not answer, for life was leaving her, and I was too later for such questions. Her eyes were shut slack. I stepped toward her and pulled back the dark lids with my fingers. For a moment the stars in them gazed back at me and seemed to cry out, but I knew not what they said. Then all at once the stars went out, and the round eyes went grey and still, and I let the lids drift shut. No more breaths were heard.
“It was then I saw the child curled in the corner like a bud in Spring’s late frost. When I saw him, he ran to me, reaching only to my knee. No one else was there, so I gathered him to my chest and bound him there, and leaving the cold grey woman, I walked on. Each night the child slept with his head upon my knee, and I could not sleep for fear of his loneliness. And each night before the blush of foredawn, he sat straight up, eyed round with terror, tiny body drowned in frigid sweat. ‘She died,’ he would whimper, ‘My mommy died.’ And only that would he ever say, and I said only, ‘Yes.’
“One night my sorrow and exhaustion entangled me, and I slept, one hour, only one. When I woke his heavy head had left my lap, and though no footprints followed, he was gone.
“I came the rest of the way alone. But I have never slept since, for each time I close my eyes, the steel cold eyes of the lifeless woman hang before me, and the child’s cries echo in my ears.”
And indeed, what she said was true, for her cheeks were gaunt, her arms were bone, and her eyes had sunk dark and unreachable from sleeplessness.
At last the older sisters said to the younger, who had journeyed North, “Oh sister, what did you see on your long journeys?”
She was silent for a time, until they thought her speech was lost. But finally she spoke and said, “I saw nothing at all.”
“What does this mean?” they pressed her. “Did you not walk the paths of the round earth to come here?”
“I have walked every path of the round earth,” she whispered, “and there was only dark, before me, behind me, above and below me. I came here blinded, and felt the door by touch alone.”
And indeed they saw that what she said was true, for her eyes looked straight past the faces of her sisters and the bare room’s walls, into the dark beyond.