Vignette No.10 – Cat’s Cradle

Cat’s Cradle

There’s a story my grandmother likes to tell about our family, about a dying cat and a little girl and a goddess. And it’s a good story. When I was small I made her tell it to me so many times I could recite it myself from memory by the time I was five. But it was just a story. The only one who believed it was her. A few years ago I lost my temper with her, told her point blank it was all nonsense, a lie, an excuse. She just shook her head and said I’d understand someday. Now I am twenty two and someday has arrived. The evidence is huddled on my doormat, sopping wet and mewling.

We don’t find the cats. They find us. They know who we are.

I really thought it wouldn’t affect me. I’ve never displayed any signs of the family obsession, like cooing over pet-shop windows and wearing cat-themed nightwear. Even Nanna, when confronted, admitted it sometimes skips a generation, this ‘blessing’ in our blood. We don’t all have houses overflowing with furry emperors on four legs. One uncle on my father’s side actually took to breeding dogs, but we don’t talk about him.

I’m an atheist, for pity’s sake. I don’t believe in goddesses, least of all the miracle-performing, one-night-only, leave-town-in-a-puff-of-light sort. Coincidences do happen, don’t they? Just because my dad has four cats and my aunts have two each and my grandmother has seven, all of whom arrived out of the blue outside the right house or workplace or, on one memorable occasion, a neighbour’s stormwater drain – like there were neon signs invisible to non-felines leading them to cross our paths, as cats of fortune are reputed to do – what of it? It’s a small world. This must happen to other people.

Please tell me it happens to other people.

There are three kittens. They are tiny scraps of fur with absurd little tails, staggering about blindly, not a full month old and helpless as it is possible to be. I don’t know where they’ve come from or what happened to the mama cat who should still be here, protecting them from big dangerous humans like me. But she isn’t here. And I am.

I don’t want pets. I definitely don’t want kittens this age, dependent and expensive and undesexed, no doubt riddled with fleas and worms. I stand here on the doorstep, clutching my dressing gown closed, and peer out into the night. It’s raining. Outside the overhang of my front door is the dark wet world, slashed briefly by the lights of a speeding car and the heart-jolting shriek of tyres on a slick wet road. The kittens begin to cry again. All of a sudden I know that if anyone tried to hurt them I’d go for the ankles and drown the bastard in mud. It isn’t the fault of these kittens that a pair of idiots didn’t desex their cats. It isn’t my fault either, but this is the real world and it is not fair.

I scoop the kittens into my dressing gown pockets and bring them inside.

I settle them on an old jumper in the laundry sink, for now, and dry them off carefully with the lowest setting of my hairdryer. Later, after a mad dash to the only vet open between here and the coast, I feed them warmed formula milk through a medicine dropper. Only then do I call my grandmother.

“You see,” she says, a bit smug. “I told you so.”

“Why us?” I ask despairingly, leaning over the sink. “What did we do?”

“The right thing,” she says simply. “The cats know.”

Blessing of the cat goddess or six generations of coincidental guardianship over the world’s felines? I look at the kittens, who came from the cold and rain to find me.

“Nonsense,” I mutter, and stroke a tiny downy ear.

© Faith Mudge 2012

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.8 – The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood

Roses and thorns. Blessings and curses. Princesses in towers, princes with swords. So many fairy tale motifs are woven into this story. It’s one we all think we know so well, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that if I were you. This retelling comes from 1999’s Puffin Book Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales and let me put it this way, happy ever after isn’t so simple as the picture books say.

A royal couple, long childless, are unexpectedly blessed with a daughter and throw a triumphantly dazzling celebration for her christening. All the fairies of the kingdom are invited, providing the infant princess with no less than seven godmothers, all of whom can offer a christening gift somewhat more impressive than baby clothes. But oh dear. There is an eighth fairy, an elderly relative whom everybody has overlooked, perhaps understandably given she’s locked herself up in a tower for the past half century. The king tries to be conciliatory, quickly offering her a place at his banquet table, but she is in no mood to be appeased. When the other fairies present their gifts to the little princess – bestowing her with every virtue from beauty and physical grace to a heavenly temperament and innate dance skills – the overlooked latecomer drops a bombshell of pure melodramatic malice. The princess shall prick her finger on a spindle, she declares, and die of it.

All is not lost, however. The youngest of the seven official godmothers, having suspected foul play, kept her blessing in reserve and now uses it to negate the worst of the curse. The princess will indeed prick her finger on a spindle, there’s no preventing that now, but instead of dying she will fall into a deep sleep from which she shall be awakened by a prince. There’s only one problem. It will take a hundred years for him to get there. Don’t ask me why, it’s probably the only equivalent of death that is magically manageable, but the princess’s devastated parents aren’t hugely comforted by this news. The king uses rather more tangible means to thwart the curse, by banning all use of a spindle within his lands. How clothes continue to be made is a mystery. Perhaps they import.

Anyway, fifteen or sixteen years later, the princess is still very much alive and awake, and her parents have relaxed enough to leave her alone for the day. The girl entertains herself by running about the castle, exploring, and comes across a tower where another elderly hermit will seal her doom. This old lady has never heard of the king’s edict (has she been living under a ROCK?) and is spinning away industriously. No sooner has the fascinated princess reached out to touch the spindle than she pricks her finger and falls into a stupor. The horrified spinner calls for help. Everything is tried to waken the princess, but of course nothing works. The curse has claimed her.

The youngest fairy godmother is off in someone else’s kingdom just then, where she was hopefully providing the resident monarch with full contact details for all her relations, but luckily a dwarf with seven-league boots is available to inform her of events and she uses her dragon-drawn chariot to return with all speed to her goddaughter’s side. For the first time, it occurs to the fairy that maybe the princess might be a teensy bit upset to wake a hundred years from now to find out everybody she knows is long dead. So she bespells the entire household into an identical sleep – apart from the poor girl’s parents, who presumably still have their kingdom to rule. They leave the castle, which the fairy then enshrouds with a protective tangle of trees and briars to prevent its being disturbed over the long years of its enchantment.

With the princess gone, the royal bloodline dies out. Another family claim the kingdom; the decades pass and the story of the hidden castle fades into legend. Then one day a curious young prince sees the distant towers and hears the story of a beautiful princess, doomed to sleep for a hundred years until a king’s son comes to free her. The prince takes immediately to the challenge, determined to be that royal rescuer. It seems the magic agrees. No sooner does he approach the castle than the impassable forest of thorns draws away to either side, leaving a clear path for him – and him alone – to tread towards the castle. He finds bodies sprawled everywhere and is at first horrified, mistaking them for corpses and the castle for a tomb. When he realises they are only sleeping, however, he finds the courage to explore further, and finds his way to a beautiful chamber where the loveliest girl he has ever seen lies lost in sleep. It is the princess from the old legend.

If she is enchanted, so is the prince the second he lays eyes on her. Falling to his knees beside her bed, his very presence is enough to break the spell. The princess opens her eyes. Her first words are a gentle remonstration about his timing, which is kind of understandable given it has been, you know, one hundred years. The prince, interpreting this as a symbol of predestined love, pretty much proposes on the spot. The newly woken cooks get to work preparing a magnificent supper; the princess dresses in a gown that’s a few generations out of style but looks stunning because it’s on her. The royal couple are married directly after dinner. I suppose after waiting a hundred years, the princess didn’t need much time to make up her mind.

So far, so familiar, right? This is the point where most versions draw the curtains of happy ever after, but that doesn’t factor in the in-laws. Because instead of introducing his new wife to his parents, the prince sells them some ridiculous story about getting lost in the forest and staying the night with a charcoal burner. His mother isn’t deceived for a minute, but for two years he manages to keep his secret, disguising his constant absence as nothing more than daily hunting trips. During that time the princess gives birth to a daughter, Dawn, and a son, Day. All without her husband admitting she actually exists. He does, as it turns out, have good reason for the deception. The princess’s mother-in-law is quite literally an ogress, or at least in possession of ogreish blood, and is rumoured to be untrustworthy where small children are concerned. Not that anything can be proven, but clearly it’s enough for even her son to have his doubts.

When the king dies, however, and the prince takes the throne, the truth must come out. His wife and children are brought into his palace with due pomp and ceremony and everything seems to be going smoothly. Then war is declared. The young king leaves for battle, appointing his mother regent while he is away. That being the same woman he hid his wife and kids from for two years. Yeah, fantastic idea, your Majesty.

The queen-mother wastes no time. She sends her son’s young family off to a remote country mansion and joins them shortly afterwards, calmly announcing to her steward that she fancies eating her granddaughter Dawn. Frightened of his ogress mistress, the steward fully intends to carry out the deed, but when the four-year-old princess comes bouncing out to beg him for sweets – totally ignoring the enormous knife in his hand – he can’t go through with it. He kills a young lamb instead and hides the little girl with his wife. It’s not long before the ogre queen is hungry again, however, and demands her grandson for supper. This time the steward already has a plan. He whisks the little boy away like he did Dawn and serves up a young goat instead. I could make a macabre joke about kids here, but it’s all too disgusting, particularly given how poor Sleeping Beauty must feel about all this. Her children are disappearing and she hasn’t a clue why, because her stupid husband hasn’t told her what his mother really is.

Her grief, though, isn’t long to last. Now the insatiable ogress has devoured her grandchildren she intends to eat up her daughter-in-law. The steward is at a loss. At twenty years old, the queen is a fully grown woman with distinctive white skin, the sort you get only by a century’s beauty sleep. What animal could be passed off as princess? He takes his big knife and tries to get angry enough to kill an innocent young woman, but when she tells him she’s so full of grief for her lost children she would rather die than continue to live without them, the steward cracks. He hides the queen with Dawn and Day and bends all his skills as a cook over preparing a deer in her place. The ogress is convinced. Finally satisfied, she decides to tell her son that his wife and children were killed by wolves in the forest. There is perhaps a touch of malicious tit-for-tat in that particular lie. The hidden princess and her children have disappeared for good.

Or so she thinks. One day while prowling about the mansion, sniffing longingly for more raw meat, she overhears the children arguing with their mother and realises she has been tricked. Livid with rage, she fills a vat with poisonous snakes and brings out her son’s young family, the unfortunate steward and his wife, and even the mansion’s serving girl, intending the throw them all in the vat to die an agonising death. What she doesn’t expect is for her son to ride into the courtyard at the last minute, hero-style, and demand to know what’s going on. Quite mad with rage, the ogress throws herself into the vat and is eaten by snakes. The king has a moment of token regret – she was his mother, after all – but is soon comforted by his wife and children, who are after all ALIVE.

It’s not a pretty story, but I have a soft spot for it all the same – a well-known fairy tale having a secret sequel is pretty cool, even if the prince comes out of it as a total idiot and the princess as a girl with serious trauma to process. I like the little details too: the prince noticing his wife’s outdated fashion sense, the fairy godmother’s chariot being drawn by dragons. I’ve read several retellings of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but none of them tackled the full story. And what on earth happened to the kind dwarf with the seven-league boots?

Review No.25 – Garden Spells

Garden Spells – Sarah Addison Allen

Hodder & Stoughton, 2007

All Claire Waverley wants is for things to stay the same. When her wild younger sister Sydney escaped their small town ten years ago, Claire remained, living in their late grandmother’s house where generations of Waverleys have lived before her, working in its legendary gardens and dealing subtle magics through her catering company. She is treated with wary respect by the locals, but never real friendship, and that is the way she likes it. Her inquisitive new neighbour Tyler is the first threat to her hard-won stability and is soon followed by the unexpected return of Sydney, fleeing a dangerously destructive relationship with her young daughter Bay. Things are about to change, whether Claire wants it or not. The question is, will even the legacy of the Waverleys be enough to keep her family safe?

It has always seemed appropriate to me to find magic in a garden and I have a particular soft spot for the mythology of herbs, so it’s hardly surprising I enjoyed this book. Admittedly, reading about the social hierarchy of a small town in the American south felt stranger at times than reading about an alien planet. Australians don’t really do class. The setting was well chosen, however, for a story about the complications of family ties. Garden Spells is strong, sincere and well-told, with relatably flawed characters and a troublemaking apple tree. If you like Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter or Tanya Huff’s The Enchantment Emporium – or for that matter, edible flowers – this book is definitely worth a read.

Review No.24 – The Shape-Changer’s Wife

The Shape-Changer’s Wife – Sharon Shinn
Ace Books, 1995

The Shape-Changer’s Wife was Sharon Shinn’s first novel and highly acclaimed, which regular readers of this blog may recognise as a potential kiss of death with me. I’ve read many of Shinn’s later works and liked them, including Heart of Gold, Troubled Waters, and the Twelve Houses series, but had never come across this one, though I’d heard about it. Finally getting hold of a copy meant a slightly complicated interlibrary loan – many thanks to the librarian in question if she’s reading this, because it was so worth it.

Knowledge is Aubrey’s addiction. Young, charming and immensely talented, he has never encountered a spell he cannot master and despite the obscure warnings of his old tutor is determined to learn the art of shape-changer Glyrenden. Even the strangeness of the wizard’s house and its occupants fail to deter him. In Glyrenden’s remote wife Lilith, however, he discovers there may be mysteries even the greatest of spells cannot resolve.

I started reading this book in a quiet green nook of the Queensland State Library, under a tree so sprawling it needs to be held up with metal struts. It turned out to be a strangely appropriate choice. The Shape-Changer’s Wife is without question my favourite of Shinn’s books; it is beautifully and poignantly written, with every character an enigma to be slowly revealed. Nothing they do feels in any way contorted to fit the services of the plot. As for Lilith, she is quite honestly one of my favourite characters in any book, ever. Thank you, libraries of the world, for buying books like this and passing them into the hands of people like me.

A Swan in Storybrooke

I was watching Once Upon A Time from the first episode screened in Australia, back in May, and if you weren’t then this post will be somewhat mystifying. In addition, it is almost 100% spoilers, so if you’re planning on watching the series, do not read this first. I was in two minds about watching it myself. On the one hand, you may have noticed I love fairy tales. Seeing glass coffins and spinning wheels in things is enough to get me interested. On the other hand, I am seriously particular about what people do with fairy tales, and let’s just say I don’t imagine Snow White with an American accent. But I watched it. And I kept watching it, right up until the finale, when I went “what?” and started a mental countdown to next season. Even though the ending got muffed by a promo for a different show. (Please note, Channel 7, I would like to see the credits for a show when it’s over instead of assuming we’ve segued into another ad break.) Because OUAT turned out to be excellent and even a few peeves about what classifies as a fairy tale couldn’t stop me getting drawn into the world of Storybrooke. I could do this review episode by episode, but the series was really more about character arcs and that is what I have decided to talk about. If I have missed anybody out it is either because they are a very minor character, or I forgot them. Feel free to complain to me about it. In fact, I would love to hear what your thoughts about the series. Just don’t give me any spoilers for next season!

Emma Swan: Let’s start off with the character who is arguably the main protagonist of the series, the reluctant saviour of Storybrooke. Emma is no princess in a tower. Created as the antithesis of fairy tale tradition, this orphan of circumstance grew up into a hard-nosed bail bondswoman who carries around a gun and a bad attitude. She has only just got home from a disastrous evening out – which ended in her arresting her date – when a young boy arrives on her doorstep, calmly announcing himself as the son she gave away ten years ago. He comes, he tells her, from a small town called Storybrooke, where everybody is a fairy tale character cursed to forget who they really are. Emma doesn’t believe a word of it, but when she drives him back there she finds herself dragged into his life and a strangeness that becomes increasingly hard for her to deny.

Created as the antithesis of fairy tale tradition, Emma personifies what our world is about and not necessarily in a good way. She is not always easy to like, especially at the start – was she nice to anyone except Henry? – but her relationships with her son and Mary Margaret are the humanising influences she needed and by the end of the season she has grown into the hero she was always meant to be. Though I would argue that the tough edge that made her so abrasive was also what Emma needed to take on Regina. It’s Emma’s advice that gives Ashley/Cinderella the impetus to change her life; it’s Emma’s determination that reunites Hansel and Gretel with their father. She has a quality not common to fairy tale characters, which is common sense, and while it blinds her to what’s really going on in Storybrooke, it is also what makes her good at helping people. I don’t know how she’ll cope in a world where there’s magic. She’ll have to bin a lot of her preconceptions, but I think she’s got the strength to adjust. Come to think of it, she’d make quite a good knight. I hope her father teaches her how to handle a sword.

Henry: Right from the moment he is introduced it is clear this is a boy with determination. Convinced his adoptive mother Regina is the evil queen from his book of fairy tales, and that only Emma can stop her, Henry refuses to be daunted by the constant scepticism that surrounds him. Finally realising it is impossible to get through Emma’s doubts with words alone, he even tastes Regina’s poisoned apple, setting off a chain of events that will bring about the end of the curse on Storybrooke.

It would have been so easy to make Henry’s character annoyingly twee. He could have been the symbol of United Parental Guilt instead of a real person, or just a cardboard cutout of a child over whom everyone could happily fret. But he is not those things. Henry is an intelligent, imaginative boy who acts older than his age but has the vulnerability that comes with being so different from everyone else he knows. For all his claims that Regina is evil, she certainly doesn’t seem to have given him a deprived or abusive upbringing; in fact, he’s got her all worked out, quietly rebelling against her rules at every opportunity with virtually no personal consequences, or at least not long-lasting ones. He’s quite popular in the town – even Mr Gold seems to like him, insofar as Mr Gold likes anyone – and he’s an easy character to like for viewers too, despite his flaws. I do wish he’d shown more emotional complexity dealing with his adoptive mother, but I think we’ll be seeing that in season two.

Regina/Evil Queen: As mayor of Storybrooke, Regina represents how insidious the ugly side of bureaucracy can be by doing terrible things for very reasonable reasons that put her firmly in the legal right. Clashing with Emma right from the start, Regina’s hostility only increases as it becomes clear that Henry wants to leave her for his birth mother. She will do whatever it takes to stay in control – but her desperation to do just that is what pulls it all undone.

Can I first just say, it’s nice to see a female villain like this. Not as the sidekick or the temptress guest star, but the main antagonist who is there in almost every episode. In the fairy tale world she is a widowed young queen with homicidal vengeance issues, while in Storybrooke she’s a single mother and a very cunning politician; in both she is a gorgeous woman who rarely uses her looks to get what she wants, preferring brute force and bribery. I am so over female villains who are prepared to shred their dignity every time they want something. There are depths to Regina’s personality that have not yet been fully explored – her seemingly genuine affection for her adopted son and her father (though the latter does become collateral in her grand plan for vengeance), and her troubled relationship with her power-crazed social climber mother. I’m interested to see what vengeance Regina arranged for her…Maybe in season two. One thing’s for sure, curse or no curse, Regina won’t be giving up easily. Which is why, despite everything, I kind of like her.

Mary Margaret/Snow White: In the fairy tale world, Snow White was a fighter. She stood up for the people she cared about and married the man she loved, but that wasn’t enough to keep her world safe and she was forced to send her baby daughter away to escape the curse. In Storybrooke, as Henry’s teacher Mary Margaret, she is isolated and unsure of herself – nonetheless, she defies Regina’s blacklisting to befriend Emma. Her life changes when she falls in love with David, her amnesiac Prince Charming, but without the memories of their old life they make mistake after mistake and almost lose each other forever.

I was never drawn to the Disney version of Snow White. The way she talked annoyed me. This Snow White is…not like that. I will admit to a sort of sinking feeling in the episode where she is introduced as a thief – a thief in love with a royal, no one’s thought of doing that before – but it all made sense later. It takes her a while to hook up with the dwarves and in the meantime, she’s an orphan doing her best to survive. Robbing her stepmother’s carriages is actually a pretty good way of doing that. The Snow White of the fairy tale world is quite tough, in a kind-hearted way, but it was her Storybrooke self I really liked. Mary Margaret is an enchanting person. A primary school teacher who makes birdhouses, a volunteer at the local hospital, a woman who’s happy to throw open her doors to anyone from homeless stranger Emma to rebellious Ruby, there is no level on which she is not lovely. She converted me from initial ambivalence to wholehearted support. Roll on season two, let’s take back the kingdom!

David/Prince ‘Charming’ James: Cut down by Regina’s guards just as the curse took hold, Charming has been in a coma ever since. It is Mary Margaret’s voice that finally makes him wake and he instinctively recognises her, even though he can’t explain why. But then Regina produces his Storybrooke wife Katheryn and suddenly things are much more complicated. Without the conviction of his past to guide him, ‘David’ ends up betraying both the women he cares about. He is leaving Storybrooke behind for good when the curse breaks and his memories bring him back to Snow.

Making ‘Charming’ an affectionate nickname from Snow was truly inspired. Making him a farmer boy who miraculously develops killer battle skills after being press-ganged into replacing his dead royal brother is…strange. And not very convincing. I didn’t like his character in Storybrooke – I mean, believing even for a minute that Mary ‘I rescue stranded birds’ Margaret could kill Katheryn? – but as a prince he was sweet and stubborn and rather loveable, a perfect match for Snow. Their reunion in the finale was a beautiful moment. I wonder how they’ll react to seeing Emma now they know she’s really their daughter? Mary Margaret already has a bond there, but as far as Emma is concerned, David is just the man that caused trouble in her friend’s life. It may be tricky to adjust.

Sheriff Graham/Huntsman: Storybrooke’s sheriff is firmly under Regina’s thumb, unable to break the hold she had over him in the fairy tale world, where she punished his protection of Snow White by wrenching out his heart and putting it in a box. Everything he feels is muted and though he isn’t sure why, he knows something is wrong with him. When he kisses Emma he begins to remember who he really is, but that’s what will eventually lead to his murder. Regina does not appreciate being crossed.

Strangely enough, when the sheriff was introduced in the first episode I automatically assumed he was Regina’s boyfriend. Later I realised he had only been called in to help look for Henry, and then some time after that my first assumption proved completely correct. I have to say, for a heartless, unfeeling man, he seemed awfully nice and very tolerant of Emma’s bad attitude. His sudden death was a shock and I was not entirely convinced for a while that he was permanently gone, but it would seem he really is dead, so my other assumption – that he was present to be Emma’s love interest and one corner in a rather predictable love triangle – got prematurely quashed. That said, he may appear in next season as part of the flashbacks. He defied the queen to help Snow once. Who’s to say he won’t do that again?

Ashley/Cinderella: Cinderella made a deal with a devil and in another world with another name, she is being forced to pay. Faced with the prospect of losing her unborn child, she hears Emma’s brusque advice like a clarion call and takes off in an escape plan that almost gets her killed. Emma intervenes once again to let her keep the baby and the magic of the contract is satisfied, reuniting ‘Ashley’ with her lost prince.

Seeing Cinderella knock out Rumpelstiltskin in his own shop was kind of cool. He did blow up her fairy godmother. Her double-crossing of him edges into moral grey, however – after everything he did for her, it was a little disturbing to see how willing she was to lock him up and let him rot. She agreed to his terms after all, did she not blame herself at all for her predicament? It will be interesting to see whether he continues to hold a grudge about that. Her husband is another prince who had his moral fibre surgically removed in the crossing to our world, abandoning her with a baby on the way. Despite this they were the only couple to get back together and stay together in cursed Storybrooke, so I don’t know where their story will go in season two. I wonder if Rumpelstiltskin still wants that baby…

Mr Gold/Rumpelstiltskin: Talking of whom! In the fairy tale world, Rumpelstiltskin’s name is no secret. Everyone fears what he can do, but neither can they resist the allure of what he offers. Even locked up behind enchanted bars, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He created the curse that brought everyone to Storybrooke – he is also the one who predicted Emma’s ability to break it. So whose side is he really on?

I was worried when they first introduced the character of Rumpelstiltskin. I thought the screenwriters might turn him into a secondary villain, someone black and white and boring, or have him transform into generic redemption through true love. That didn’t happen. If anything Rumpelstiltskin is Once Upon a Time’s anti-hero, an unpredictable trickster who always has his own agenda and cannot be pinned to any side for long. It wasn’t long before I was counting on him more than Emma to resist Regina’s plans and save people from themselves in Storybrooke. At least twice he gave David good advice that would have saved that forgetful prince much misery, not that David was actually listening. In fact, how many times did he, as Rumpelstiltskin and as Mr Gold, help Snow and Charming for token rewards? And then they go and lock him up? Talk about ingratitude. Why does everyone in the fairy tale world expect to get something for nothing?

That said, they do have quite good reasons to distrust him. As Rumpelstiltskin, in particular, he is a little bit crazy – even as the saner Mr Gold, he’s capable of putting Belle’s father in hospital and trying to kick a group of nuns out of town. It is his backstory that makes his doing things like that understandable. A broken man given limitless power, he’s not likely to relinquish it, even for the people he loves most. This complicates his relationship with Belle, but when he keeps the cup she broke as a memento, it’s somehow one of the most romantic gestures I’ve ever seen. And as for the look on his face during the finale when he turned around to find Belle returned from the dead, standing in his shop…Robert Carlyle is a remarkable actor. I hope he is given as much to work with in season two. Hopefully even more.

Belle: Becoming Rumpelstiltskin’s caretaker to save her town from destruction, Belle sees him at first as the monster from all the stories, but as she gets to know him for herself she sees a different side, someone it is possible to like, even love. Released from her bargain, she comes back to try and free him from his own curse, only to be violently rebuffed. She disappears completely and is believed dead. In Storybrooke, however, she proves very much alive, hidden away in a secret wing of the hospital. Jefferson sets her free and sends her to Mr Gold, who suddenly has a very good reason to want Regina dead…

Belle didn’t get much air time during this season, being locked up or dead for most of the time, and what we did see of her character was naturally enough shaped by her association with Rumpelstiltskin. What I saw, though, I liked. Okay, she’s not the Disney bookworm of whom I have such fond memories, but she’s brave and determined and really nice in a practical sort of way. Also, something about her seems to bring out the best in slightly crazy people. I like how her relationship with Rumpelstiltskin isn’t really about them changing each other, just learning to understand one another’s point of view – she appreciates his sense of humour and eccentric generosity (even if turning her ex into a rose is…weird, not that she knows about that), while with her he remembers what it’s like to talk to someone who doesn’t hate him on sight, and what’s more, doesn’t actually want anything out of him. I would very much like to know how she ended up in the dwarf tunnels when she was supposed to be dead. Maybe she ended up seeing the world after all, like she planned? I hope we discover more of her story in season two, and that her relationship with Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t veer too far back into the tragic. They deserve a happy ending now!

Ruby/Red Riding Hood: Waiting tables in her grandmother’s diner, Ruby’s Storybrooke existence is the mirror of her life from the fairy tale world, when she lived with crossbow-wielding Granny in a cottage in the woods. She didn’t understand her grandmother’s rules until it was too late and the wolf she had feared all her life turned out to be very close to home…

I was curious as to how they would handle this particular story and having Red as one and the same as the wolf was a brilliant idea. Her abrupt personality change in the second half of the season from the restless, flirtatious wild child to a nervous girl in need of a confidence boost was strange and I didn’t feel her return to working with her domineering grandmother was in keeping with who she really is, but perhaps her potential will be further explored in season two. Sad about Peter, though. There are several characters capable of coming back from the dead in this series, but he’s not one of them.

Katheryn/Princess Abigail: The daughter of King Midas isn’t easily impressed, but a prince who can kill dragons is a useful sort of husband and her marriage to Charming is arranged. When he runs away to marry Snow instead, however, she offers him her help. What a pity neither of them remember that in Storybrooke, where Princess Abigail is Katheryn, a woman just trying to make her marriage to an amnesiac coma patient work. When that falls apart, Regina cuts her losses and hires Mr Gold to make Katheryn ‘disappear’ so that Mary Margaret can be blamed for murder. Fortunately for Katheryn, Mr Gold deliberately misinterprets his brief and she proves Mary Margaret’s innocence by reappearing in Storybrooke completely alive. She doesn’t try to win back David – in fact, she has finally realised she doesn’t love him either.

Introduced as the roadblock between Mary Margaret and David’s getting together, Katheryn turned out to be a really nice woman, even if she mistook Regina for a trustworthy person and slapped Mary Margaret across the face. She was believable. I hope she finds her happiness now that her memory has been restored; she deserves that.

Sidney Glass/The Mirror: A genie freed from his enslavement at the wish of a friendly king, he made the mistake of falling in love with Regina and ended up imprisoned inside a world of mirrors instead. In Storybrooke he is still her faithful servant as the muckraking journalist Sidney Glass, willing to do anything it takes in order to win her approval – even being framed for murder.

What a wonderful melding of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Snow White’! It’s a hopelessly one-sided love story and I wonder what the Mirror will do now that Regina has repeatedly proved she’s incapable of loving him, or even being nice to him. Will he stay her loyal ally, or turn against her? I’ll be interested to see.

Grumpy/Leroy: Entering the world to an unexpected shower of magic dust, he starts off as Dreamy, a dwarf who breaks all the rules by falling in love with a fairy. When they are separated, he is so broken hearted that his name changes to match his new personality, and he becomes Grumpy. Even so, he has a generous heart underneath the bad mood and the scruffy beard. He meets Snow White in King George’s dungeon and brings her home to live with his family. When she takes on Regina, Grumpy is by her side. You really don’t want to get on the wrong side of his pick.

The dwarves are a bit…tall. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that, though, and the love story between Grumpy and ditzy fairy Nova is sweet in a very sad sort of a way. Now that she knows she’s not a nun, though, there is at least a chance for them. Also, I loved Stealthy. That was such a fun idea!

Archie/Jiminy Cricket: Torn between professional responsibility and a mortal fear of Regina, Archie’s psychology sessions with Henry are not exactly impartial. It’s really Henry who helps him rather than the other way around, forcing Archie’s conscience to resurface in defiance of Regina’s threats.

Let me just say this, quite loudly: Pinnochio is not a fairy tale. I have been driving people mad from the season opener saying this every time Jiminy Cricket turned up, because it drove me mad. That said, turning Mr Conscience into a child psychologist was pure genius. The backstory was a little peculiar, but it’s as good an explanation as any for a talking cricket. I don’t know where is left to take his character in season two – if August survives, there could be an interesting dynamic there.

August/Pinnochio: Starting out as the enigmatic writer new in town, August briefly masquerades as Rumpelstiltskin’s long-lost son before revealing himself as Emma’s failed guardian, little Pinnochio, who was sent with her into our world and ran away when both children were placed into a bleak foster home. His childhood betrayal comes back to haunt him as he begins to turn back into wood, and his only hope of survival is to make Emma break the curse. She is just a little too late to save him. Or is she?

The elusiveness of August’s identity is kind of appropriate, given that Pinnochio is the poster boy for liars everywhere. I can’t say I warmed to him easily – indeed, I’m not sure that we were intended to – but his transformation back into wood in the season finale was a tragic moment that was never resolved. Does he survive? I hope so. I think he will.

Jefferson/Mad Hatter: Very few people ever get away from Regina and Jefferson is no exception – tricked into helping her one last time, he is rewarded for his assistance by being abandoned to the terrifying Queen of Hearts, who forces him to replicate his magical hat over and over again, knowing he will never escape. Even in Storybrooke, Jefferson is trapped, one of the few in the town who knows who he really is. When Emma and Regina both fail him, he takes matters into his own hands by rescuing Belle and sending her to Mr Gold with a message guaranteed to make him very, very angry…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not a fairy tale either! And Jefferson is bizarre. For a second there, when he had Mary Margaret taped up in his big creepy house and was sharpening his scissors, it felt we’d stepped sideways into a gothic slasher. I’m very glad it didn’t go too far that way. I didn’t feel he was given enough space to develop as a character in this season and hope he is given more to work with in season two. Including an explanation for that hat of his, which is admittedly quite impressive.

Maleficent: The shapechanging sorceress is brought over to Storybrooke as a dragon and imprisoned in an underground lair as a particularly nasty gesture on Regina’s part. What Regina didn’t realise is that Rumpelstiltskin knew she wouldn’t be able to resist doing this and had Prince Charming leave a certain elixir in Maleficent’s possession – more precisely, inside the belly of the beast itself. The only problem is how to get it back.

Why did they have to kill the dragon? She was excellent! I would love to see her take over a story of her own and I’m sure we will see that in season two. Her rivalry with Regina made for an interesting dynamic that I will miss. Is it at all possible she survived too…?

I have no idea what will happen in season two of Once Upon A Time. The curse has been broken, the magic unleashed – who knows what might happen now? There’s a kingdom to win back. An evil queen to fight. Lost parents to locate…and a whole world of new fairy tales just waiting for their turn to be transformed. Personally, I’m hoping for Puss in Boots. Fingers crossed.


Fairy Tale Tuesday No.7 – A Cinderella Triptych

Some fairy tales attract retellings the same way spinning wheels attract blood. Storytellers in every medium simply cannot resist them. Look at ‘Cinderella’. The story has been retold over and over with astonishing frequency. There are novelisations (e.g. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, shall I go on?), a plethora of short stories, films (Disney’s blue ballroom-gowned princess of the dressmaking mice, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After). In the new TV series Once Upon a Time she gets magically transported to another world along with the entire population of the land where fairy tales come true. She gets Rumpelstiltskin back for blowing up her fairy godmother by capsicum spraying him in his own shop, but she still finds her Prince Charming in the end, and a very special pair of shoes.

So what is it about ‘Cinderella’ that keeps drawing everyone back? What is it that fascinates us so about the girl in the glass slippers?

I think maybe it is because at heart, we understand this story. We’ve lived it. Everyone has been lonely in their lives – lost, abandoned, underappreciated – someone kicked us out of the way and took over what we thought was ours, someone pushed us into the ashes and forgot we were there. Even the luckiest person in the world must have longed for a fairy godmother to conjure some stardust into their life at one time or another. It’s a human thing. Every country in the world has a Cinderella. She’s everywhere from China to Germany, Russia to Jamaica. There are even male Cinderellas, complete with wicked stepbrothers and eligible princesses – though oddly enough, not usually fairy godmothers.

That’s why for this post I’m doing something a little different. Instead of reviewing just one fairy tale, I’m reviewing three – a triptych of variations on a very familiar story that can made new again at the wave of a wand. Or a pen.

Version 1: Sarah Winyan

This Jamaican fairy tale is in my 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses, which is falling to bits from being read too many times. It opens with a sad little girl sitting under a tree while two birds gossip together over her head. Her name is Sarah Winyan and everything for miles belongs to her, but her parents are dead and all she has is a vindictive stepmother who keeps in rags and misery. Sarah Winyan sings of her troubles on her way home and is unfortunately overheard by the stepmother, who goes kind of crazy. She summons up a devil in the shape of a huge shaggy dog and calls it Tiger. If he tears Sarah Winyan to pieces, the stepmother promises, she will give him gold, and what’s more, she’ll come to dance with him on the Lord of Hell’s mountain. The devil’s pretty clever though. He knows he’s dealing with a tricky customer, so he makes her sign a contract agreeing to his terms. When their deal is struck, he sets off into the dark woods after Sarah Winyan.

The little girl is trying to gather wood. She looks up and sees a pair of burning eyes in the night behind her. Terrified, she scrabbles her way up a tree to hide – not very successfully. As the devil looks up at the ragged little thing, however, he takes pity on her. By the terms of his contract, the little girl now belongs to him, which means he can decide not to kill her if he wants. So instead of tearing her apart he leads her safely away into the woods – though he hates her singing too and makes her stop.

Meanwhile the stepmother is busy with her spell book. She conjures a coffin and the image of Sarah Winyan inside it, then arranges a funeral for the girl she’s sure is now dead at Tiger’s claws. While she’s hamming it up with the weeping and wailing, though, a pair of foresters called Aldred and Oti are picking apart her story. They’ve only just heard Sarah Winyan singing in the woods, so how can the little girl be dead? They go back in search of her and hear her whispered song like the words of a ghost. But she’s alive all right, crying beside a fire in the depths of the wood while Tiger sleeps on her lap. When she sees the brothers she eases her way out and Oti seizes his opportunity, shooting Tiger with a silver bullet. The devil leaps from his shattered body and roars off to the fake funeral, where he snatches up the stepmother and whisks her off to Hell. Sarah Winyan is reinstated in her grand house with Aldred and Oti as her friends and protectors. The story closes on her happy new song as Lady Winyan. If there’s a prince in this girl’s future, he’s coming to her, not the other way around.

Version 2: Vasilissa Most Lovely

This Russian fairy tale comes from the same collection and is probably my favourite Cinderella story, for Baba Yaga and her horsemen if nothing else. A merchant’s wife falls ill and gives her daughter a very special doll with the promise that if she is ever in trouble, all she must do is feed the doll and it will give her aid. With that the mother dies and her predictions of trouble come true, because the father shows predictably poor judgement and marries an extremely unpleasant type with two daughters of her own. The three gang up on little Vasilissa, but since her father is away so much on business he doesn’t seem to notice. Luckily for Vasilissa, she has her doll, and it’s everything her mother promised. When she’s sad, it comforts her; when she’s overworked, it does her tasks for her.

And so Vasilissa grows up, a beautiful young woman surrounded by suitors, while her stepsisters get ignored. Their mother is furious. “We do not marry the youngest before her elder sisters!” she screams, and sets to plotting how she can get rid of the girl. One night when her husband is away, the stepmother sets the three young women to work knitting, lace-making and spinning by the light of a single candle. When it goes out, they are left in total darkness. The stepsisters insist they must finish their work and Vasilissa is sent off to borrow a light from a neighbour. But the only neighbour awake at this hour of the night is Baba Yaga the witch who is more likely to eat anyone daring to disturb her evening than lend them a candle.

Vasilissa doesn’t know what to do. She’s shut out in the dark and won’t be allowed back inside until she returns with a light. So she feeds her doll a bit of biscuit and abracadabra, it lights up like a lamp! For some reason, probably because she wants to keep her doll a secret, Vasilissa uses the light not to get back into the house but instead to find a path through the forest to the witch’s house. In between the trees comes riding a horseman all in white, followed soon after by a rider all in red. Neither stops to help Vasilissa. In fact, she has to walk for so long that it is almost nightfall again by the time she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut and frankly all she wants to do then is turn around and walk away again. The place is surrounded by a fence of human skulls and as Vasilissa stands there, shivering, a horseman all in black comes riding past. As though his passage is a signal, the skulls blaze with sudden light.

Then Baba Yaga herself, riding a mortar and pestle down through the sky, returns home and sniffs Vasilissa out from the trees. The girl is terrified, of course, but comes forward with curtsey and asks for a light. She’s come all this way, after all, and it’s not like she can back out now she’s actually here. The witch is amused. She decides to put Vasilissa to work and if she’s satisfied with the results, she may give the girl a light. Or she might eat her. Who knows? Not the best job offer ever, but Vasilissa serves up a dinner that isn’t herself and listens politely while the witch lists her a set of impossible tasks. No sooner is the witch asleep than Vasilissa is pleading with her doll for help. Its advice is to sleep and see what happens. Vasilissa has little choice but to obey.

And it’s good advice, too, because when she looks around her in the morning the tasks are already done. All that’s left to do is make dinner that evening when Baba Yaga gets home. The witch is surprised and pleased with her new employee’s success, but she’s not ready to give up that light yet. Another day passes – another set of tasks are completed by the doll. On the third night of Vasilissa’s stay Baba Yaga’s mood turns conversational and Vasilissa dares inquire after the identity of the three horsemen she has seen riding through the forest outside each day and night. The white horseman is Dawn; the red is Sun; and the third is Night. All three are Baba Yaga’s faithful servants, which is a really scary idea when you think about it. The witch has a question of her own. She knows she has asked the impossible and yet Vasilissa has succeeded. How? Vasilissa explains it is the blessing of her mother and the witch is disgusted. She won’t eat anything blessed. Ew! She doesn’t forget their bargain, however. Vasilissa is given a skull lamp and is sent home.

The girl’s been missing for days and what started out as a ploy to get her eaten has become a curse, for no light will last in the stepmother’s house. Even a skull lamp is better than nothing and they bring it inside. That’s a decision they will soon regret. The skull leaps from the table and chases the stepmother and her daughters upstairs, downstairs, all over the house and out into the dark forest. They are never seen again. Baba Yaga does not, after all, appreciate being disturbed. The merchant comes home to find his daughter alone with her doll. He learns his lesson, taking her with him next time he departs, and in the course of their travels she meets the young Tsar, who falls in love with her. From a sad little girl with nothing on her side but a doll, she becomes Empress of all Russia. And maybe, just maybe, one day she’ll have a daughter of her own, who will carry a very special doll everywhere, just in case she meets a witch someday. You can never be too careful.

Version 3: Ashputtel

This is the German version, taken from the Dean & Son Ltd. volume Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A rich man’s wife dies and less than a year later he remarries, bringing home a stepmother for his young daughter and two pretty stepsisters. Yes, they’re described as being ‘fair in face’, but don’t be fooled. In behaviour at least, they’re as ugly as it gets. The little girl is turned into a drudge in her own house while her father does…nothing. At. All. Unlike Vasilissa’s dad, he’s not even a merchant, so it’s not like his neglect can be explained away on absence. He just doesn’t care enough to intervene.

Pretending everything’s okay, he sets off to the fair one day and promises to bring a present home for each girl. The eldest asks for fine clothes, the second asks for pearls and diamonds, and the youngest – by now so dirty and downtrodden she is known only Ashputtel – asks for the first sprig to brush against his hat on his way home. Me, I’d have asked for a one way carriage ride out of there, but Ashputtel is a sentimental little thing and she gets what she asks for. Planting the sprig on her mother’s grave, she waters it every day with her tears until it becomes a fully grown tree where a bird comes to build its nest and watch over her.

Now the king of this particular country gets it into his head to hold a three day long feast, at the end of which his son will choose a bride. Ashputtel’s stepsisters are terribly excited by their invitation and insist on her help to get ready. When she begs her stepmother to let her accompany them, however, she is told to sort peas out of the ashes, which is a mean and slightly noncommittal way of saying Not A Chance. But Ashputtel has a secret weapon. Is it a fairy godmother? No, actually, it is a whole host of birds who fly in through the kitchen window to do the task for her. Denied her excuse, the stepmother backpedals abruptly and says Ashputtel can’t go anyway.

Is that going to stop her? Certainly not! Ashputtel has no mice, but the bird from her tree manages to rustle up a gown of gold and silver, along with a pair of spangled silk slippers. She looks so beautiful that even her sisters don’t recognise her. The king’s son dances with her all night, but instead of letting him see her home she slips off and returns to the cold ashes undetected. The next night, and the night after that, she returns to the palace to dance the night away with the increasingly smitten prince. She won’t tell him who she is and when he tries to follow her, she gives him the slip outside her father’s house, leaving only a slipper behind. The prince announces he will marry whichever lady the shoe fits. Ashputtel’s sisters actually do have beautiful feet, but they can’t make the shoes fit. That’s not enough for this stepmother, however. She takes a knife and cuts off a bit of her eldest girl’s foot to make it small enough. Because, you know, who needs to walk when there’s a crown up for grabs?

It doesn’t work. The prince is fooled, no one said royals had to be smart, but as he is departing he passes under Ashputtel’s tree and a little bird warns him of the deception. Nothing daunted, the stepmother tries it again with her second daughter, and is again foiled by Ashputtel’s bird. The prince decides that surprise, surprise, the stepmother can’t be trusted, and asks Ashputtel’s father instead whether there are any other girls in the house. The answer is “Only a little dirty Ashputtel…the child of my first wife; I am sure she cannot be the bride”. Oh, you think so? The prince has her called in and of course the shoe, which by now must be soaked in blood and totally disgusting, fits first try. Without her having to cut anything off. The prince finally recognises her and whirls her onto his horse. Passing under her tree, the bird confirms the matter once and for all and alights on Ashputtel’s shoulder to join her in her new life as the prince’s bride.

There is a version of this in which the stepsisters lose not only parts of their feet, but also – at the beak of Ashputtel’s bird – both eyes. I do not like this version. I believe it was Charles Perrault who first replaced the bird with a fairy godmother and the spangled silk by glass; it was also Perrault who decided Cinderella should forgive her stepsisters instead of taking bloody revenge in the good old Grimm tradition. Some people resent the ‘sanitisation’, but I think that’s sort of missing the point. This is a fairytale that adapts to fit its listener, whenever and wherever it is told. Once there were killer doves. Then there were dressmaking mice. Now there’s a Cinderella who’s taking on Rumpelstiltskin with capsicum spray. There’s room enough for them all in the Cinderella family, room enough for the Vasilissas and Sarah Winyans and so many more. You haven’t seen the last of the girl from the ashes.

In fact, I don’t think you ever will.

Vignette No.9 – Coffee and Roses

Coffee and Roses

They ended up at the Ebony Rose, their favourite haunt for those days when the clouds took menacing shapes and the Living End’s Black Cat drifted through car windows to cross their path. A bus ride from the city centre – which they could just afford, given some inevitable trickery with the tickets – up a couple of steps into a quiet alcove off the street, and they were elbowing open a door inset with a black rose in a red stained glass circle. It was like stepping into an old friend’s apartment where the door was always unlocked and there was excellent coffee.

Everything was familiar. The long bare brick end wall, papered in author launch promotional slips and comic book posters; aisles of second hand books in second hand bookcases, all crammed together in a paper maze you had to navigate by sense of smell to find the café half of the ‘bookshop-café’ advertised on the sign outside; the scatter of tables and patchwork upholstered chairs once you got there, all under a small chandelier that looked like a protruding edge of black iron beam that had sprouted leaves and glowing red glass flowers in the ceiling overhead.

The air smelled of coffee and fruit toast, paper, and dust.

The girls were flat broke. They grabbed their favourite spot anyway, the one right under the chandelier that was always empty. The guy at the counter looked right through them. He was new. But Lily, who’d been working at the Rose since it opened five years ago and knew her regulars like she knew her bookshelves, grinned and held up a finger. Minutes later she came over with their usuals – sweet espresso and a latte with a cream dragon floating in the froth. There were even blueberry friands, all on the house.

“Ooh,” said Vixen, pulling one apart with her sharp nails. “Sapphire cakes.”

“Sweet,” said Mew. She smiled at Lily. “What are you going to tell him?”

Lily glanced over at the guy behind the counter. He was looking at their table with a puzzled frown, like his eyes and his brain were having an argument about what he was really seeing. Shaking his head, he turned away, busying himself with the coffee machine.

“I love that look,” Vixen sighed. “So cute.”

“I think I’ll let him work it out,” Lily said. “I had to.”

She collected the dirty cups off a nearby table and pushed through the doors behind the counter into the kitchen. Mew added more sugar to her espresso and leaned her chair onto its back legs to get a look at what the pretty girl in the blue scarf was typing at the next table. This wasn’t Paris and you weren’t going to see the new Hemingway with his white wine and oysters, but there were often one or two local authors, scribbling distractedly in a notepad or banging away at a laptop in between shots of caffeine. Artists, too. The Rose was the kind of place where you could order a coffee and sit for hours at a time undisturbed. The kind of place where the book people came.

Special people. Like Vixen. Like Mew.

A couple of times someone with the Sight had dropped in and seen the girls at their table, sprinkling each other with the complimentary sugar and sniggering at pilfered romance paperbacks. The girls fit in here, though, with their ragbag chic and plenty of hair to cover the giveaway ears, so more often than not the Seer would just frown a little and go back to whatever they were doing without another thought.

And yes, the whole midnight cleaner routine was getting a bit old. So were Lily’s jokes about brownies and shoes. Still, on the whole, free coffee and the occasional new manga was pretty good payment for a few fortune charms and an enchanted mop.

It sure as hell beat playing Tinkerbell in amateur theatre. Again.

© Faith Mudge, 2012

An Update From My Side of the Universe

Who am I? What am I doing? Existential angst aside, it has occurred to me that almost everything I post on this blog is a review or vignette, so here is a little context about the person who writes them. If you couldn’t care less, feel free to skip to the next post. It’s a vignette. There is complementary coffee.

So what have I been doing? Reading, of course, and writing, in different stories roughly divided along the line between wizards and androids. I am editing my second novel and consequentially tearing my hair out by the roots. Also, having inhaled both seasons of the inexpressibly excellent Stargate Universe on DVD, finishing up just yesterday, I’ve turned to  YouTube tributes in order to numb the heartbreak. Seriously, how could something so good be cut short just when the possibilities were so open? I see gene replicas, transferred consciousness, controlled time travel, another whole galaxy of aliens. Bring it back, people! It’s not too late! On a more positive note, there will be another season of my other favourite TV show of the year, Once Upon A Time. I will be posting up my thoughts on season one very soon and crossing my fingers that season two arrives in Australia pronto. The latest season of Doctor Who has and I am looking forward to finding out what the connection is between dinosaurs and spaceships. No one is allowed to tell me ANYTHING about this until after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

I have been reading other people’s blogs – not so many as I would like, because my brain tends to shut down after being online too long, but if you like my vignettes see a master magician at work with Erin Morgernstern’s flax golden tales here. It was seeing her use the format that made me think of writing that way myself and it is endless fun. I am also following Tansy Rayner Roberts’ posts about comic book superheroines. I know virtually nil about comic books so it’s quite fascinating hearing someone who loves them talk about the complexities of such long-running characters.

There is some personal panic about politics, but you don’t want to know about that. I don’t want to know about it. I want to pretend I can’t hear or see what’s going on until someone puts a ballot paper in my hand.

That’s enough about me for the next couple of months, I think. Unless they bring back Stargate Universe, of course, in which case you will hear fangirl screams from space. In the meantime, here is a vignette. Enjoy the coffee.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.6 – The Wild Swans

Hans Christian Andersen was not a cheery person. ‘The Wild Swans’ is among the more optimistic stories he wrote and certainly my favourite. This version comes from Peter Haddock Ltd.’s Andersen’s Fairy Tales and may remind you of two different Grimm brothers’ tales on the same theme called The Twelve Brothers and The Seven Ravens. Fairy tales are like that – they all belong to the same world of roses and apples, ravens and swans, and for some unfortunate youngest daughters, losing multiple brothers to avian transformation is an occupational hazard.

Far, far away, ‘in the land to which the swallows fly in our winter-time’ (perhaps a little self-referential allusion to ‘Thumbelina’?) there is a king with eleven sons and one daughter who are pretty much perfect in every way, but like many widowed royals he is stupid enough to fall for a wicked Queen who commences an immediate vendetta against his children. She turns the boys into wild white swans and sends the little girl, Elise, into the country to be brought up by peasants. Their father’s reaction appears to be more or less ‘meh’. When Elise is fifteen, however, she is brought home as pious and beautiful as ever. Andersen waxes lyrical on her virtues for so long that it’s sort of understandable when the Queen instantly loathes her.

The king, however, has finally remembered he has a daughter and wants to see her, so instead of turning the girl into a swan like her brothers the Queen applies that popular beauty treatment…toads. Apparently while kissing frogs turns them into princes, kissing toads and hiding them in somebody’s bath will turn that person ugly and evil. Only not Elise! She’s perfect, remember? No sooner has she set foot in the bath than the toads spontaneously transform into poppies. That’s because she’s so pure of heart. The Queen realises she’ll have to do her own dirty work, quite literally, since she coats her helpless stepdaughter in walnut juice and tangles up her hair. The king, instead of maybe blaming the fact the girl’s been raised in total poverty for goodness knows how long, decides this grubby peasant can’t possibly be his daughter.

Elise doesn’t know what to do. She desperately misses her brothers but has no idea what might have happened to them, or how she can find them. Driven out into the world to fend for herself, she ends up in a great forest where she sees her reflection in still water and realises what’s happened to her. It is a bit disturbing that the brown tint of her skin is perceived as so hideous the king can’t even recognise her (not that he necessarily would anyway, this is no father of the year we’re talking about here) and that she can only restore herself to her true beauty by washing herself white again. It may be just a reflection of the Queen’s skills as a twisted make-up artist, but it is a noticeable prejudice nonetheless.

Anyway, there’s Elise, clean now but alone in the woods. All she can do is pray, and luckily for her it would seem that someone upstairs is listening. She is led to a tree heavy with wild apples, offered pretty visions of angels and cherubs to send her off to sleep, and in the morning meets with a friendly old lady who has spotted eleven white swans wearing golden crowns swimming down the brook. (Incidentally, the Queen didn’t think letting the boys keep their crowns was a giveaway at all?) Following the brook down to the sea, Elise finds eleven white feathers there on the beach, but no swans, so she settles herself to watch the sea and wait. At sunset the swans return. Elise hides to watch them and witnesses their transformation back into her brothers.

The brothers are overjoyed. They swap evil stepmother stories and brainstorm about what to do next. They decide to take their sister across the sea with them when they depart and weave her a mat from rushes which they can carry between them as they fly. When stormclouds mass, however, and the sun begins to set without any sign of land, it looks like their devotion to Elise may be the death of them all. At the last minute they alight on a rock barely large enough for them all to stand in safety. They sing a psalm for courage and set off again at sunrise. Elise witnesses floating castles up among the clouds, churches and fleets of ships. This night, though, there is solid land waiting within reach. Her brothers find a beautiful cavern in which she takes shelter for the night. She prays again and God delegates to the beautiful fairy Morgana, who lives in one of those cloud palaces and has a startling resemblance to the informative elderly lady from the forest. Surprise!

Morgana is a useful sort of person to know. She has all the answers. In order to save her brothers, Elise will have to weave each swan a shirt of stinging nettles with her delicate hands, and if she speaks so much as a syllable before her work is done her words will fall like a dagger into her brothers’ hearts. No pressure, then. Elise wakes, thanks God and sets straight to work. Returning at sunset, her brothers first blame their sister’s inexplicable behaviour on a new curse, but when they see what she is doing they realise she is trying to save them. The youngest brother weeps with gratitude and when his tears touch her blistered skin, they wash away her pain.

If you think she’ll be allowed to simply get on with things, though, you are in for a disappointment. Who should turn up but another king! He’s out hunting, spots Elyse and falls instantly in love. She cries, she wrings her hands, she couldn’t possibly be clearer without screaming at him to go away – which she can’t – but he says (and I QUOTE) “You shall thank me for this some day!” and carries her off to his palace. He dresses her up in beautiful clothes, shows off his art collection and talented musicians, but she still won’t stop crying, and she won’t talk. Finally the king gets the point and gives her back her nettles. Taking advantage of her moment of gratitude, the king orders an impromptu wedding. The Archbishop isn’t impressed. He tries to turn the king against Elise, but the king is not the listening sort and marries the girl anyway.

Elise warms to the king’s grandiose gestures now that she can work too. Every night she steals away to make the nettle shirts and when she runs out of thread, goes to the churchyard to find more nettles. Even when she comes across a group of naked witches devouring dead bodies she won’t be daunted and gets her nettles anyway. By this point she has toughened up considerably from the frightened girl who let herself be thrown out of her father’s court. Unfortunately, her midnight gathering has been witnessed by the Archbishop, who is thrilled to have some nasty gossip to feed into the king’s ear. God is not pleased; sculptures of saints in church shake their heads while the story is told, but the Archbishop interprets this as a gesture of support for his version instead. When Elise next goes to the churchyard to gather nettles, her husband and the Archbishop both follow. Assuming she is going to join the witches – I mean, she’s only his wife, why give her the benefit of the doubt? – the king refers her to the people and the people condemn her to be burnt.

But Elise has her nettles. Ignoring the taunts and abuse thrown her way, she works at the shirts until they are almost complete. On the night before her execution her brothers arrive at the castle gates, pleading to see the king, but his guards won’t wake him and the moment the sun rises the young men are once more swans who cannot speak even to save their beloved sister. Elise is dragged to the pyre and even then she is weaving, desperate to finish her work in time. The crowd see this as clinching evidence of her guilt and are gathering around to destroy the shirts when the swans swoop in to protect her. Perhaps they can’t set the king straight, but they will try to defend their sister as best they can.

In an abrupt mood swing, some of the crowd decide this means she must be innocent after all, but the executioner is unmoved. Elise takes her last chance to save her brothers. Throwing each shirt over a swan-brother’s head, even the one not quite finished, she restores them to their human shapes and finally declares her innocence. Understandably enough, she then faints. Backed up as she now is by eleven strong young men and a pyre of wood that has miraculously turned into a hedge of roses, the charges are dismissed. The king takes back his wife, the church bells ring and there’s a swarm of happy birds to complete the scene. Let’s hope they weren’t expecting her to make nettle shirts for everyone…

I’m not fond of that ending. If I’d been Elise, the very least I would expect from the king is a bit of grovelling for assuming I was, you know, a corpse-eating cannibalistic monster, but all he has to do is give her a pretty flower and everything is forgiven. The brothers, though, I love. They are loyal and loving and while she’s trying to save them, they are doing their best to save her. The evil Queen doesn’t get any further mention in the story after her plot to bring down Elise succeeds, but I think she’d better watch out. Eleven angry princes just ditched the feathers and they might be wanting their kingdom back.

Vignette No.8 – Deserter


The prison was the oldest in the world and no one had ever, ever escaped.

It was carved from a dead volcano, a ragged outcrop of rock jutting from the middle of a desert where the wind was harsh enough to scour the earth raw and crack it wide open like a bleeding red back. The only light came from irregular pockmarks in the stone walls, too high up to reach, too small to put a hand through even without the lacework of steel webbing across the crack; with it, even the most emaciated finger could not force its way free.

Inside the cells, the ceilings were very high and the walls very close together. It was either suffocatingly hot, during the day, or intensely cold, after nightfall. In the permanent twilight of the prison, the temperature was the only way of telling what time of day it was. Some prisoners perfected their guesses to a fine art and could tell the time to within an hour’s accuracy. It didn’t help them much.

And everywhere, wherever you went, from the titanium portcullis inwards, were guards in desert red uniforms and black visored helmets, armed with sleek black guns like muzzled dogs hungry to bite. They never removed their helmets. They never spoke. Their hands made signs and the prisoners obeyed, or were bitten. Perhaps the guards were proud of their prison; perhaps they felt as trapped here in the desert as any of those they guarded. Perhaps they really were as soulless as they seemed and felt nothing at all. It was impossible to tell.

The prisoners called them daemons.

They brought him in still drugged from the flight across the desert and chained him in a cell deep underground, where even the temperature could tell him nothing, always constant, always cold. And it was dark. The rocks were phosphorescent with a faint greenish glow – enough to let him see the corpse colour it gave his skin. Enough to make the chains that bound his wrists shine a sickly silver.

Outside, the sun burned down on the bloody desert. The daemons prowled their rocky keep. The portcullis stabbed the ground with steely teeth.

Which made it all the more embarrassing when he crept out as a cockroach.

© Faith Mudge, 2012