Red Thorn, Black Thorn. Rose Red and Sloe

The sisters felt the first blow rather than heard it. Without thinking, each put a hand to their heart. The beating within echoing the thumps throbbing across the forest. The sisters exchanged a glance. “They’re back, Rose”.

Everything had been peaceful for so long now, living as they were so far away from the madding crowds. Away from misunderstanding. Rose and Sloe ventured out only when the carnival came to town, when spirits were high and colourful, and nothing seemed quite real. As they aged, it became easier to go unnoticed, to be the hunchback herbalist with reliable potions, to be the lonely old woman from the woods.

In their youth, life had been so very different. Rose was a beautiful as any bloom, pink and blushed with red red hair. Sloe, white of face, hair so black it shone blue. They had travelled with the circus, danced for kings – and princes. Ah yes, princes. Their mother, WhiteThorn Mae, had told the girls all the old stories, all the warnings. Still, true to form, along came a Prince, and the trouble began.

Any child of the Rose family has thorns. They will catch you and the poisoned tip will grip deep into your flesh. The poisoned tip will rot inside you, spreading through your veins until one day your heart just stops. To share a kiss with a child of the Rose family is a dangerous undertaking. To steal a kiss without asking is suicide.

Stories of the Prince killers spread far and wide. Embellished, untrue, believed.

The Sisters backed into the safety of the forest and let their family, black thorn, white thorn and red, grow and protect them, but stories persisted of a fair princess held captive by the dark witch. Of an old crone of woods, whose wicked ways were responsible for all ill that befell the town.

‘Burn the Witch’ would seem like a good idea once in a generation. The old people who remembered would try and talk sense to the young, but no one ever listened. Fanciful tales from the frightened old. A forest that killed, that left deep scars should you be fortunate enough to escape? Tell that to the children, they said, and gathered their high spirits and axes, and headed to adventure.

Rose sighed, and looked at her sister’s face, clouded now with worry and foreboding. “We could go and meet them – tell them”.

“They’ll not listen, they never do.”

The sisters stood a moment or two longer, listening. The hunt was yet miles away, hacking at the almost impenetrable wall of nature. Baying dogs, excited voices, trumpets to call order. These sounds travelled on the cool morning air, travelling easily where nothing with more substance than a ghost could pass. The sisters were old now, and did not welcome the intrusion, the dredging up of the past. They turned and headed for their cottage, using the branches on either side for balance, their hands automatically missing the thorns. They knew how the day would end, and felt great sorrow.

At Winter’s end, when the blackthorn flowers first appear like little stars of hope, and at September time, when the hedgerows at Prospect Field turn blue with sloe and red with rosehip, watch for Rose Red and Black Thorn, Red Thorn and Sloe. Stay on the path, pick only what you need, and leave the rest in peace.

Covidella: a LockDown Tale

“I want to bake a cake”

Covidella turned from the heaving sink of breakfast debris to face her stepsister, teetering warily on the top of the kitchen steps.  An unusual visitation this, and one that Ella was having difficulty processing. She paused the music and removed her headphones.

“Nigella’s dark and sumptuous chocolate fudge cake” the visitation continued in a querulous squeak, whilst flapping the torn page of a Sunday supplement food special.

It was Lockdown at the castle. Ella hadn’t thought of it as ‘home’ since her mum died.  Mum had always been accident-prone; walking into wardrobe doors, falling on the stairs. Funny really, ‘cos Ella never saw her trip, not even when wearing her old platforms for a laugh. They would skip and dance all around the house, making light of work and life. Until they heard her father coming.

The Stepmother appeared awfully quickly after that last fatal accident, dragging her two delightful daughters along for the ride. Stepmother promptly had a lift installed so she could avoid the stairs. Ugly thing.  The lift too….  Looked like a plastic Smart car someone had parked in the ancestral hall.  Still, for all its aesthetic lackings, Ella pretty soon loved it. She could chuck in all the laundry and the vacuum cleaner and mop and bucket and then sail off up through the floor like Willy Wonker in the glass elevator. Made life so much easier. Meant Ella could avoid those stairs too.

Ella missed her mum, and avoided attempts to play happy families, preferring instead to stay in the kitchen. She loved the peace down there, her mother’s presence was strong in the ping of the microwave and the sizzle of deep fat fryer. Dad had always been softened by a good plate of food. Well, not always, obviously.

Stepsister No.2 now appeared over Stepsister No.1’s shoulder. “It is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that is super squidgy, the sort of cake you want to eat the whole of, and even the sight of it all chocolaty and gooey, comforts”.

Quite. Well, do you know what? That actually sounds like a damn fine idea.  Now she was out of her musical cocoon, Ella could hear familiar sounds storming around upstairs. Maybe Nigella’s chocolate comforter was exactly what this castle needed, right now.  She’d had a food delivery only that morning, and had ordered plenty of chocolate as her own special treat. So, she’ll be eating it in cake form instead, no matter.

 “Okay, I’ll make it” Ella announced, thinking it would save a lot of mess, wasted ingredients, and possibly a super pissed off Dad at the end of it all. The Stepsisters scooted across the room glued to each other, wild-eyed and eager, clearly without a clue but very determined. They wobbled their heads frantically from side to side, no no no.  “We want to make it. It’s very important. We want to make it and we want Him to eat it, and we want Him know that we have made it.”

Oh for goodness sake, who cares? She was getting sick of this lockdown baking mania. None of her friends had anything interesting to post on social media – it was all just bloody cake.  She sighed.  “Go on then….” She started to say. Then she looked at them, which she tended to avoid doing. Oh. “Is your mother alright?” The heads wobbled up and down, a little shaky, but generally affirmative.  

Ella whipped out her phone and googled the recipe. She wasn’t touching that torn and blood splattered cutting. No.1 was put on washing up duty, No.2 on … on …helping No.1. Actually, no, lets clean her up a bit, and, um, a bit more, and then just prop her in the corner with a large brandy. 

Plain flour, caster sugar, light brown Muscovado… hmmm, nope, damn, have to be Demerara and hope for the best. Not as moist, but it will have to do. Corn oil? Corn oil? Who the bloody hell has corn oil knocking around in the back of their Covid cupboard, sunflower shall have to do.  Yup, Nigella says that’s ok. We’ve got this!

Two hours later, rather longer than the recipe generally requires, the kitchen was clean (ish), and three satisfied and rather chocolaty faces were admiring the thing of beauty they had created.  The Stepsisters had mixed and stirred, and made a wish as they added their own special final ingredient.  They were sure Nigella would understand. For good measure, they added extra chocolate and a lot of Amaretto. Just in case he noticed any undertaste. He’d watched far too many Agatha Christies to let that go without hilarious comment and tapping of his little grey cells.

Together, they made tea, gathered plates and cutlery onto trays, and lifting the gooey chocolaty comforter, headed for the tv room.

Dad loved it. He gorged on it, taking great drunken handfuls. His chocolate fudgy hands trying to grab the Stepsisters or their mother, any one, he didn’t care. Oh he was a happy man as he fell asleep in front of Tiger King.

The women were gutted and regrouped in the kitchen with the gin and the rest of the chocolate stash.  “Well, it’s for the best really.  I mean, you didn’t really want to kill him, did you?” said Ella cheerily as she broke out another bottle.  Stepsister No.2 was rereading her ceramic glaze book.  “But it says here it’s terribly poisonous. He should have been in agony by now. Maybe we just didn’t use enough.” She took one of her own brightly coloured earthenware bowls, poured it half full of gin, and went in face first. Ella looked on her quite lovingly. Really this Stepfamily wasn’t half bad.  

After the Lockdown, the women opened the castle as a hotel. Nothing boutique or fancy, more a bed and breakfast with dinner sort of a place. Occasionally some guest would mention the whole Covid thing, mention the loss of a loved one before their time. The women would agree, and tell of their own experience – that awful coughing and long long weeks of waiting.

Mostly people just wanted to move on and forget about it though, and have another slice of that delicious, comforting chocolate cake of Nigella’s that featured on every single review.

……………………..

This short tale popped into my head last week, when Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake was filling my social media feed as I read a Guardian report on the femicide numbers under Covid lockdown. Always like for my Cinders variations to have their revenge.

The picture was obviously inspired by Aubrey Beardsley – the exhibition is in lockdown, but there is a short Tate film of the curators talking which is better than nowt.

Wish you were here..

fairy in a bird cage with two colourful birds

In another land, across the Kingdom, lives the Prince Who Doesn’t Sleep.

Bored and unhappy; he’s too tired to sleep.  Its been such a long time, he can remember nothing positive.  The light blinds him, the darkness too.  He drinks of his special water and stares at nothing.

The special water has always been carried to him by a two headed Frog, in a sieve with the holes blocked by mud and moss. The Prince pays heavily for this water, but it nulls his pain and he forgets what he paid. He thought it the pure water from the Well of the World’s End.  It is not. He should have known better than to listen to the Fairy GM.  Now, he doesn’t care. He wants it to end. He drinks. The empty vessel contains no more.

Around him the castle crumbles.  The winter storms blow hard, and icy cold fingers reach in through the time worn windows.

The Fairy stays in her unlocked cage.  She stays quiet unless spoken to. Smiles when spoken to. She lost her power long ago. Sometimes when the Prince falls unconscious, she lifts her wings as far as the cage allows, and sings an out of tune song.

 

Let me tell you a story….

Many people nowadays, with their text friendly shorthand, refer to the Fairy Godmother as the Fairy GM.

sketchbook drawings for the soft sculpture work in progress of the big bad Fairy GM

This is not at all a good idea. The Fairy GM is something altogether different, something other…

Consider the Fairy GM’s achievements: pumpkins as big as carriages? Mice as big as men? Lizards that walk on their hind legs? Kitchen girls dancing with princes? Such behaviour is not naturally occurring in these species.

Do not let her hear your secret sighs, your deepest wish, your heartfelt longing for she draws her power from your thwarted desires. She will strangle your dreams and smother your wishes as her briars grow strong, her toxins thrive and her tendrils bind you forever more.

The Well of the World’s End is the last free pure water source. The Fairy GM has hidden the Well, and is busy poisoning the rest of the Kingdom. She wears at her girdle the lost flower children of the F1-Hybrids, those that will never come true, and enjoys their painful efforts to grow.

She surrounds the Well with a thicket of beastly Bindweed which grown so fast that anyone trying to force their way through will be smothered by a many stranded stem and twisted high above the suffocated forest until their pale dead face smiles at the sun.

The Kingdom is dying.  A land smothered by Bindweed, asphyxiated and bled dry.  It needs the water from the Well of the World’s End.

There are ways past the Bindweed, past those double-headed pets of hers: the Guardian Dog with eyes bigger than an Olympic stadium full of drugged up athletes cheating to the death; and the Cat of Nine’s tails would make the Torquemada blanche. It is a long and twisted journey, and to drink from any but the Well of the World’s End will enslave you to the Fairy GM forever.

Far away a girl, a child of the ancient unmodified seed, untouched by fertiliser and glyphosate, is chosen to ask the Fairy GM for water. The Girl walked until she reached the edge of the Bindweed. There she chose a small fresh green tendril and bit hard with her sharp little teeth. As the weed started to wrap itself around her, she pulled free her bag of Nine Herbs Charm and flung the contents far and wide. The Bindweed recoiled, dropping her on the barren ground, surrounded high on all sides by a Convolvulus castle.

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The Fairy GM thus summoned, looked down on the child. ‘And people call my plants ‘weeds’, she though “I’ve never seen anything more weedy than this girl’. She knew the Girl was sent for the water. She could see her dreams of saving her people. The Fairy GM drew her power from these dreams. The longer the girl hoped and wished, the more powerful the Fairy GM would become. She would keep her in the Bindweed forest for now and wring her heart dry.

The Bindweed slips and slides over its own coils, rearranging itself into a maze. The Fairy GM let the Girl go, and told her that when she reached the Well of the World’s End, she would find a vessel in which to collect the water. She was to use nothing else, and take only that which the vessel would hold without spilling.

Having spoken, she left the Girl to find her way, and did not see her unwrap an apple branch. The branch bore one small apple, one flower, and one unopened bud. This was her key – it would guide her safely on the right path – and not the way of the wrong well.

Several weeks of walking later, the Girl wrinkled her nose and recognised a new smell. It was the pure water. A gentle smell, clean and clear, like nothing she had smelt before. She was reaching the Well. The maze twisted tighter, with more paths opening before her, closing and moving as she walked towards them, then becoming still as she held her apple branch aloft.

The Fairy GM watched her through the forest. She was not surprised the Girl had ancient wisdom to help her, it would have been exceedingly foolish had she not, and would make her disappointment ever more sweet.

With one last struggle of wills against the Bindweed maze, the Girl reached a light, quiet opening. A pool reflected the sky above, and around the edge was mud and low growing soft greenery. The Girl had never seen mud, nor the sky in a hole in the ground, and was afraid. The Fairy GM smiled and grew strong.

The Girl sat down heavily on a rock and looked around her. She knew the Fairy GM was watching her, she knew her progress had been permitted. She knew she was expected to fail.

For three days and three nights, she watched the Well. Watched the water gently rippling at the muddy mossy banks, and saw small strange creatures dart across the mud for a drink. There seemed to be one dryer pathway that the larger creatures used, and it began not far from her rock. She had also seen the vessel she was to use. It was small.

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Sighing, she slipped from the rock. The Fairy GM positively purred, and grew stronger.

Carefully the Girl followed the path of the creatures towards the edge of the Well. She did not sink in the mud. She did not slip. She tested the bank with her foot, and carefully reached for the vessel.

It was a sieve.

Realising the futility of her task, the Girl knelt down, weeping. Her pure tears added to the clear water below, the tears of those who have failed before. The mirrored clouds shimmered and distorted, and she rocked forward to throw herself into their depths. The Fairy GM whispered encouragement ‘let go…let go…..let go… ’

But she didn’t fall. Observing her progress was a two-headed Frog. A heavy two-headed Frog. So heavy that as it sat upon the Girl’s cloak, she was held fast to the bank.

She turned and looked the Frog in the eye, all four of them. The Frog, as is the way in Fairy Tales, told the Girl it would help. But of course, and also being the way of Fairy Tales, the Frog wanted help in return, and the Girl must promise this help when the time comes, no matter what.

The promise extracted, the Frog gave the Girl some leaves of mugwort. These she was to wrap in her hair to protect her wishes. The Fairy GM must not hear her hope. The Frog then took a mouthful of mud and hopped into the sieve. Using its cleft tongue, it unfolded the mud from its mouth and pressed it into the holes. It then repeated the action with a mouthful of moss. The Girl watched, and then moved swiftly to reach for the thick mud she had been careful not to walk in, and soon sieve was lined.

Dipping it into the Well, she lifted up the vessel filled with all the water it could hold. Not a drop fell from the sieve.

The Girl grinned, and her face shone like the sun coming out after an eclipse. The Fairy GM would see, she would know. Her dream of success glowed too bright for the mugwort to hide.

A Bindweed tsunami ripped around them. The Fairy GM’s yellow eyes bore deep into the Girl’s head, but it was too late. She had drunk from the Well, and her dreams and wishes were her own now. The Fairy GM had never been so angry. She was beside herself and losing control, she slapped the Girl as hard as she could.

The Girl, and the Two Headed Frog in her pocket, and the sieve with the water from the Well of the World’s End flew high, high above the convolvulus, and out across the Kingdom. And as they flew, the life giving clean water fell upon the parched and poisoned ground, and the old seed began to grow. Each drop of water was as much as a condensed storm and the cracked earth drank it in and spewed out fresh springs.

The lost children of the F1 Hybrids (that never come true) that the Fairy GM kept tied to her dress, began to cry, and their tears became pure rivers, and the Fairy GM’s toxins were washed away.

The Girl and the Frog watch the growth, and the rainclouds gather, listen to the sounds of life, free life, and smile. Then Frog reminds the girl of her promise, and asks her to chop off one of its heads.

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This story is a retelling of The Well of the World’s End which is an AngloScottish Border fairy tale, recorded in the Scottish Lowlands, collected by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales.