Fairy Tales of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part One

Water of Life Louis Rhead king Louis Rhead

Christmas Pudding

Onto my kitchen table I gather currants, sultanas, raisins, orange peels, breadcrumbs and shredded suet. Thalia peeks in at the door, dressed in her nightgown.

“There you are,” she scolds. “I looked for you in the study.”

“Goodness,” I say, “what time is it?”

Thalia scowls. “Bedtime!”

“Oh, I am so sorry, but I must get this done. It needs to set overnight.”

“What is it?” The scowl turns to a frown.

The Christmas pudding.”

“Oh!” sparkle returns to her eyes. “You bake. I’ll read.”

She plops herself on a chair at the table, props Teddy up against the flour canister, and opens up her battered copy of Grimm in her lap.

“Delightful,” I say and reach for the demerara sugar. “What will I hear?”

She considers the table of contents for a minute. “Ah! The Water of Life.”

The three sons of a king, in distress over the impending death of their father, are approached by an old man, who tells them of the Water of Life, which can cure their father. The eldest convinces the king to let him go search for the Water of Life, hoping that will make him his father’s favorite.

However, on his travels he is rude to and dismissive of a dwarf who inquired where the prince was going. With the dwarf’s curse, the prince gets no farther. The second brother takes the identical path with the same result.

I blanch the almonds with boiling water and let them soak to remove the skins.

The third brother talks respectfully to the dwarf and tells him of his search for the Water of Life. The dwarf gives him specific instructions, an iron wand, and two loaves of bread.

The iron wand the prince uses to knock on the gate of an enchanted castle three times. When the doors spring open, he feeds the loaves of bread to the two guardian lions, which let him pass unmolested. Before coming to the fountain of the Water of Life, he enters a magnificent hall with statue-like enchanted princes sitting around. He takes the rings off their fingers, and picks up another loaf of bread and a sword from the floor.

“Where did I put the breadcrumbs,” I mumble. Thalia glances up, but for only a second.

In the next room is a beautiful woman, who treats him as her savior and instructs him to return in a year when they will be married and he will become the new king of the enchanted castle. Unfortunately, in the next room is a bed upon which he lies down and falls asleep.

He is aroused when a bell chimes a quarter to twelve. The dwarf told him he needed to get the water and escape before midnight. He dashes to the fountain, gets the water, and rushes for the gate as the clock strikes twelve. The gate closes so suddenly it clips off a bit of his heel.

I sift the flour, salt, and spices together.

On his return trip, he gets his two brothers released, and saves three kingdoms from starvation and war (the loaf of bread being an unending source of food, and the sword being unconquerable). While traveling on a ship, the two elder brothers switch the Water of Life with sea water. When the younger brother gives it to his father, the elder brothers accuse him of trying to poison their father, and they give the king the Water of Life.

Believing his elder sons, the king arranges for a huntsman to kill his youngest. The huntsman warns the prince, they exchange clothes, and the younger brother escapes.

I add the beaten eggs, lemon juice, and half a pint of stout to the flour mixture.

Soon after, three wagonloads of gold are sent to the father of the youngest son in thanks for saving their kingdoms. The king sees that his youngest son is not evil as the elder sons proposed, finds out from the huntsman that he is not dead, and pardons the prince.

“My, this is a long story,” I say.

“Shush, we’re coming to my favorite part.”

Meanwhile, the princess of the enchanted castle has a golden road built for the castle’s entrance and tells her guards not to allow any man into the castle who does not ride down its center. The eldest son, a little before a year had passed, schemed to present himself as the princess’s suitor, thinking his younger brother was dead, and comes to the golden road. Deciding it’s a shame to mar gold by walking upon it, he treads to the side of the road and is not allowed to enter. The second brother has the same thoughts and fails.

The youngest brother appears after the full year is over, thinking of his true love, and doesn’t even notice the golden road. The marriage takes place and the princess tells him of his pardon. He and his father are reconciled, and the elder brothers flee, never to be seen again.

Thalia snaps the book closed. “And that’s the end of that story.” She collars Teddy, a bit whiter with flour dust, and swishes her way to the door, the hem of her nightgown picking up bits of kitchen debris.

“Thank you!” I call after her. I begin the long process of stirring.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Two

Water of Life Rackham Arthur Rackham

A Walk

My mother always used a simple crockery bowl for the Christmas pudding. I know others use a fancy mould but a bowl does well for me. It only needs a lip around the rim to keep the string from slipping off.

I am covering the bowl and its pudding contents with the pleated parchment and foil wrap when Duckworth enters the kitchen.

“You’re cooking,” he states. “I thought we were to walk this morning.”

“Baking,” I correct. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you knock.”

“Thalia let me in. She’s a little lady, I tell you.”

I smile. “This won’t take long. When I am done, it needs to simmer for eight hours.”

I finish the string handle, lift it into the pot of boiling water, cover, and turn down the heat.

“There. Let’s go,” I say.

As we stroll down my street, Duckworth asks, “And what did you read to Thalia last night?”

“I was busy with the figgy pudding. She read to me!”

“Delightful.”

“That’s what I said. She read The Water of Life.” As usual, I give him the summary.

“Well, well, well, plenty of ‘threes’ in this one,” Duckworth observes. “You know, I think it would be better if each of the three brothers represented something.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” Duckworth speculates, “what if the elder brother represented ‘greed,’ the second brother ‘sloth,’ and the youngest ‘honesty?’ Why does the fairy tale make the elder brothers mirror images of each other?”

I waver. “It’s traditional.”

Duckworth gives me a sideways glance.

“OK,” I concede, “that is not an answer.” I reflect a bit. “The fairy tale, despite its love of three, only deals with good and evil; not good, could be better, and evil.  The fairy tale condenses the elder brothers into evil-heartedness and the younger brother is all about good-heartedness.”

We turn the corner at the far end of my street and enter a park. Even though the trees are bare, it is delightful.

“Now,” Duckworth picks up the thread of our conversation, “you mentioned that the dwarf gave our protagonist an iron wand.” He waves an illustrative hand in the air. “You’ve taught me that iron is a talisman against evil; good enough. Then there are the two loaves of bread to sate the lions. Although lions are carnivores, I will let that pass. But in one of the halls of the enchanted castle, he takes the rings off of the fingers of the enchanted—obviously sleeping—princes. What of that? Have you forgotten to tell me part of the story?”
“No, the fairy tale has forgotten to tell us the consequence of his taking the rings. He also, in the same chamber, picks up a sword and another magical loaf of bread. The sword and bread he uses to help others. In that spirit, I don’t think he stole the rings. He took the rings for a greater purpose. Did he release the princes from their enchantment by taking away their status? Did he accumulate power he would need later? Did this represent something earlier listeners understood and did not need to be explained?”

Duckworth nodded and we say together, “The fairy tale does not say.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2019 Water of Life – Part Three

Water of Life Philip Grot Philipp Grot Johann

To Travel

We pass by some of the deer that inhabit this park.

“Let me continue to nitpick,” says Duckworth.

“You always do,” I say.

“Does that annoy you?”
“I look forward to it.”

“Good.” Duckworth applies himself to his argument. “When the three brothers start off, each of them encounter the dwarf. On the return trip the youngest brother again meets the dwarf, presumably at the same spot, and collects his wayward brothers, but now there is a sea voyage between them and home that was not there before. How do we account for that?”

“Oh, you are such a stickler for detail. As you know, the fairy tale has no respect for logic and order. The sea voyage is not needed on the adventure out to the enchanted castle. It is needed on the return trip to give the elder brothers a chance to betray our hero.”

“What? They could betray him anywhere.” I hear the protest in his voice.

“True, but there is no better place to ‘change the rules’ than at sea. When you are on land, you are in a country filled with roads, villages, and towns, some with their own jurisdiction. At sea, there is a skill involved in knowing where you are; there are no road signs. The water itself does not stay in one spot; it’s a current. When you stand on firm ground the law of the land applies. At sea, the law washes away.”

“We even have different names for the same thing whether it’s on land or at sea. On land, when men rise up against their masters, they call it a revolt. At sea, they call it a mutiny.”

We pass by the park’s fountain as Duckworth remarks, “You bring to my mind Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two remarkably different stories, one on land and one at sea, both by the same poet. He must have sensed what you are talking about.”

“I think of Jonah and the whale. Jonah’s shipmates made up their own rules and judgments,” I say.

“But here, what about the golden road thing?” Duckworth changes the subject.

“Yes, what about that! That makes the story for Thalia and me. As in all fairy tales, it has its familiar motifs, the three brothers, the sympathetic huntsman, the magical devices, and magical helper. And while the golden road is a test—and tests are familiar motifs too—I don’t know of another golden road in these tales. As for being a test, it is not one of strength or cleverness, but of temperament. The elder brothers notice the gold (earthly wealth); the younger thinks only of the princess (spiritual reward). For Thalia and me, the golden road makes this story special.”

We find a park bench and settle ourselves down.

“I have one more critique,” Duckworth says while pulling a small paper bag of bread cubes from his coat pocket for the gathering pigeons. “Why did the princess need to build a golden road to determine who was the true suitor? Would she not recognize him?”

“Good point,” I say. “The fairy tales are mysteriously ‘face blind.’ There are even tales where the ugly sister tries to supplant the pretty sister and no one quite notices. There is often a sign, stigmata, or act that needs to happen for the true hero or heroine to be recognized.”

We watch the pigeons greedily chasing after bread pieces.

“By the way,” Duckworth squints at me, “aren’t you starting the Christmas pudding a little early?”

“Oh no, not at all. It improves by setting a few days.”

“And then?”

“And then I steam it up again for two more hours.”

“And then?”

“And then I invert it onto a plate. It should fall right out of the bowl.”

“And then?”

“And then I pour on the brandy and light it. There is no more beautiful a flame.”

“And then?”

“And then I lather on the hard sauce and serve, of course.”

“Good. I was just checking that you are doing it right. Will you save me a piece?”

“I will make a point of it.”

Your thoughts.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part One

Selkies Arthur Rackham Arthur Rackham

Good Meal

I uncork and pour a glass of white wine to go with the Chicken Marbella I serve to a distracted Melissa.

“Do you mind,” I ask, “if I be a tad romantic and light a candle?”

Melissa comes out of her self-absorption and smiles. “Please do.”

“Now,” I say, when things are settled and we pick up our forks, “what is this story that has so disturbed you?”

Melissa takes a bite before she says, “I stayed up too late last night reading Irish Tales of the Fairy and the Ghost Worlds by Jeremiah Curtin, and I came upon Tom Moore and the Seal Woman.”

Tom Moore, a goodly fellow, lived with his parents until they died and he found himself in need of a wife.

One day, while working along the seaside, he spotted a remarkable woman sleeping on a rock. He called to the woman, waking and warning her against the coming tide. She only laughed at him. He kept an eye on her and when the tide looked threatening, he tried to rescue her. She only slipped off into the sea.

After a sleepless night, obsessed by her beauty, he returned to the shore and there she sat upon her rock. Boldly, he snatched her hood. She demanded it back, but he refused, saying, “God sent you to me.”

That very day, after she made breakfast, Tom had them married. She was as good a wife as anyone could want, bearing him five children, three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was in the loft of the cottage, throwing down bags and bunches of things, looking for some bolts he needed for a repair, forgetting that among the debris was the hood he took from his wife. She saw and snatched it back. From the sea came the bellowing of a seal. She knew it was her brother calling to her.

At the same time some of the village fishermen had killed three seals. Tom’s wife threw herself upon the bodies, crying murder. For her sake the bodies were buried, but during the night some of the fishermen tried to dig them back up, only to find the carcasses had disappeared.

The next day, while Tom was away working, she cleaned the house, washed her children, and kissed them, then put on her hood, returning to the sea.

For generations after that the progeny of her children all had the same peculiar webbing between their fingers and toes, although it diminished over time.

“That’s a delightful story,” I say. “However, we both know there are a hundred variations on it. The mermaid wife, abducted by a mortal, who bears his children, then escapes back to the sea, is pretty universal. What is it about this story that strikes you differently?”

“One,” Melissa takes another bite of the Marbella, “she’s not a mermaid. She‘s a seal. Two, it’s Jeremiah Curtin’s introduction to the tale that caught me.

“He talks about the MacCodrum clan, known as ‘The Race of the Seals,’ who once made their home in the Hebrides, and claimed to be descended from a seal woman. They all had the webbing of the fingers and toes. “

“OK,” I say, “and . . . ?”

Melissa holds up her hand, spreading out her fingers. Low, between them is a very fine webbing of skin I have never noticed before.

“My great, great, grandmother was a MacCodrum, but I didn’t know about the webbing until I read Curtin’s book. I need to talk again with your nixie.”

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Two

Selkie Arthur Rackham 2Arthur Rackham

Of Water

I dragged out the popcorn maker even before we finished our meal.

Earlier this morning I woke up feeling unsettled. I put it to Thalia and her mother being away to Brighton for summer vacation, but by noon I knew it was Melissa projecting her anxiety. I hustled down to the bookshop to find it actually busy for once.

Melissa’s eyes widened when she saw me. “I was going to call . . .”

“You did call. I see you have customers. Supper at my place?”

“Yes. Thank you. I close the shop at six.”

I proceeded to market to buy chicken, dates, capers, kale, and some wine.

But now, we pour the popcorn into a bag and head for the Magic Forest. I feel a bit in a rush. We need to finish our business before sunset. After dusk in the Magic Forest? Well, I’ve made that mistake.

I believe the nixie always knows when I am coming. Melissa and I peer over the rim of the high bank that surrounds the nixie pond, where she already floats below us, her pale-greenish body part of the rippling water.

“Melissa,” her reedy voice intones, “you come with my smiling, human friend for a reason, but with a face that is dour.”

“I bring questions and popcorn,” says Melissa, as she starts to throw the nixie a stream of kernels as is our tradition. Deftly, the creature catches each one in her mouth.

“Who are the seal people?” Melissa asks.

“Peoples,” corrects the nixie between catches. “They are, some of them, fallen angels like myself. Others are of the elven race taken to the ocean. Still more are mariners drowned at sea, or condemned souls.

“In Scotland they are called the selkies. In Ireland, the merrow. I think all seals have a bit of human or fallen angel in them. One can tell by the eyes.”

“By the eyes,” Melissa echoes, then says, “What is the seal peoples’ nature?”

“They are changelings.” The nixie’s eyes narrow. “Not as stable as the rest of the fay. They have a foot in both the mundane and the fairy worlds. They cannot, for their very existence, decide which world they prefer.

“Though spending most of their time in the sea, still the land calls to them. At certain times of the moon, or of the year, or even cycles of the years—depending on the tribe—they must shed their seal skins, take their human form, and dance upon the earth.

“Then is their most vulnerable time, especially for the seal women. Mortal men, who wander around more than mortal women, chance upon the seal peoples’ dance. If one of these gadabouts grabs a seal woman’s skin, she belongs to him.

“That is not to say there are not liaisons between mortal women and seal men, but that comes about in a different fashion. The seal men, I will say, tend to be terribly handsome.”

For a while, Melissa and the nixie play the game of throwing and catching popcorn before Melissa asks, “Am I descended from the seal people?”

She holds up her hand with outstretched fingers. “I have the webbing and am related to the MacC . . .”

To my horror, the nixie nimbly skitters up the steep bank toward Melissa until they sit nose to nose. The nixie places her greenish hand under Melissa’s chin, with a searching stare into her eyes.

“Yes,” the nixie replies, then slips back down the bank into the pond, but not before nicking the bag of popcorn. She floats on her back, the bag on her stomach as she gorges herself, giggling.

Melissa has the look of someone struck by lightning.

 

Fairy Tale  of the Month: July 2019 Tom Moore and the Seal Woman – Part Three

selkie T W Wood TW Wood

Little Wonder

“It’s little wonder that I entered your fairy world so easily.”

Melissa takes the glass of white wine I pour for her. We didn’t have time to finish the bottle during supper.

“The veil is thin,” I say. “Anyone can pass through it. I did. But you, you actually have credentials.”

Melissa laughs. “I am not sure ‘credentials’ is the right word. ‘Blood’ may be closer.”

We sit in my study, the bay windows open to invite in the evening breeze. The last vestige of sunlight fades over the distant outline of the Magic Forest.

“You know,” I say, “you can’t imagine my terror when the nixie actually touched you. I thought the steep bank to be a barrier between our world and hers. I should have known, being in the Magic Forest, we were in her world with no safe space.

Melissa waves that off. “Her touch did not frighten me. Her eyes, looking into the house of my soul, still haunt me. All my secrets and deeply-held fears that I thought lay at the center of my being were cobwebs in the rooms she passed through looking for my unnatural origins.”

“The nixie said she thought every seal had a bit of human or fallen angel in them. Do we, humans, all have a bit of the fay in us?”

“I am going to say ‘no.’” Melissa looks at her empty wine glass. “I am sure there are those humans of ‘pure blood’ that have never been tainted by the fairy world. But they lack imagination. Their sight does not go beyond the corporeal world, to the realm where toads talk and money means nothing.”

I pour us more wine. “I propose a toast to us mutts, and thumb our noses at pure bloods.”

We clink our glasses.

“What of,” I ask, “you, me, and many others, being between two worlds, the worlds of the mundane and the fairy?”

“That is manifest in our dreams. We, humans, all dream. We have to. What we dream reflects who we are. I dream of the sea. Now I know why. I am doomed to be as unstable as the shifting sands.”

“Cannot,” I ask, “our dreams that draw us into the fairy world serve to find our path forward?”

“It is not that simple.” Melissa empties her glass. “In our dreams, the fairy world only gives us evasive hints, which is more than they are required to do. They are being generous to us mortals. It is ours to reason out the hints they give us.

“But then,” Melissa regards her, again, empty glass, “do the fairies know what is best for us, or even care? Do I give them too much credit? Should I allow the fay to be my guide?”

“You sound,” I say, “like the changeling our nixie described, not content to stay in the sea and must dance on the land.”

“Or,” says Melissa, “have danced upon the land too long and crave the sea. The fairy tales mirror our desires. They tell us that peasants can rise to royalty. A simpleton is smarter than his elder brothers. For every young girl there is a prince seeking her.”

Melissa’s eyes drift off toward the ceiling. “But beyond that, the fairy tales whisper secrets into our ears during dreaming, which are hard to remember upon waking. Fairy tales come from a dimension a little beyond our understanding.”

I pour the last of the wine into our glasses.

“Oh, by the way,” she says, “the Chicken Marbella was excellent.”

I am so glad she noticed.

Your thoughts?