Tell-a-Fairy-Tale Day: A tale of three goddesses

More often than not, it is dangerous to bargain with supernatural creatures. If they do not try to trick you, they will punish you for faults you weren’t even aware of. Except for those rare few times when they’re just in a good mood.

 

Once upon a time, there were three old women, three plain, old, wrinkled sisters, who spent their days spinning in an old house in the woods. People who walked by their house sometimes greeted them happily, sometimes ran past in fright, thinking them witches (which was false, but not so far from the truth), or helped them carry firewood, thinking them fairies who would reward their kindness (which was neither really true nor really false, either).

One of the three sisters had a big, hanging lip like the lip of a horse. The second had a huge thumb, as if ten bees had stung it at once. The third had a large, flat, ugly right foot. None of them minded. They didn’t even joke about it. It was just part of who they were.

Who, indeed. That was a question hardly anybody asked, and nobody could answer. The three of them did not think there was a definite answer anymore. Once, there would have been; once they had been goddesses. Their life had not been very different then, mind you. They spun and spun and spun, and every now and then cut an old thread or started a new one, as the old breathed their last and the newborn wailed their first. They had been important people, they remembered sometimes. But ages and civilisations fly past, and even goddesses get tired. They still spun; after all it was all they knew to do. But they had grown less fastidious; they let their threads tangle together, and they rarely ever cut, only smiled or sighed when the tap frayed and broke. It was better that way, and kinder, they agreed. Thus they carried on with their eternal trade, ignored by the world.

But one day an unexpected sound broke their reverie. It must be said that, though the three old women liked to watch the stories that emerged from their loom (it was a loom now, not a spindle; progress never stops), they had a particular affinity with spinners. The life of spinners tends to be uneventful, and that was why they all cocked their eyebrows at the same time when hearing the loud groan of distress.

‘Who can this be?’ asked the first sister.

‘I don’t know. But she sounds like someone did her a bad turn,’ said the second.

‘A bad turn? Nonsense,’ said the third. ‘I can sense her. She’s sitting in a room full of the finest unspun flax, all to herself. Who could wish for anything better?’

Intrigued, the three old women taled between themselves for a couple of minutes. Finally, they decided that their spinning could wait for a little while.

******

In a high vaulted room in a beautiful castle, a maiden stared at a monstrous heap of unspun flax, piled as high as the ceiling, too her head in her hands, and groaned, long and loud.

Not that groaning was going to help. But at least her mother wasn’t around, and she could indulge in a little self-pity. She was never going to manage the entire heap in time. And then the prince would laugh at her and throw her out, the village would laugh at her, her mother would call her useless, and she wouldn’t hear the end of it for the next couple of years.

Then she lifted her head and her eyes went wide. In front of her stood three old women, one with a huge hanging lip, the second with a bloated thumb and the third with a large shapeles foot, eyeing her curiously.

‘What is the matter, child?’ the first old woman said.

The maiden had a thousand questions to ask them, beginning with ‘Should I scream for help?’ Being wiser than her mother gave her credit for, however, she decided to make a polite answer to she question she had been asked.

‘I was sitting quietly at home, as usual, and my mother decided to start a row, as usual,’ she said. ‘My mother says that if I don’t learn to spin properly, I will never find a good husband. I hate spinning. Have you ever heard of anythign more boring?’

The three old women looked at each other. It seemed to the maiden that they seemed puzzled. She didn’t want to argue the point, so she went on:

‘Anyway, she said the most dreadful things to me. That she’d never thought she’d be so ashamed of a daughter of hers, that I was lazy and a slob and unfit to manage a good household. I was so upset. And then right this instant, here comes… the Queen herself, with her ladies-in-waiting!’ The three crones didn’t seem impressed. Surprised, the young woman went on: ‘The Queen is so kind, you see. She stopped her own horse to ask what was wrong. I was about to tell her, but my mother was faster, see. Later she told me she had been too ashamed to admit what a lazy and ungrateful daughter I was, so she just lied. She told the Queen that I was such a hard worker, always spinning and spinning, and that I was upset that there wasn’t any tap left in the house for me to spin. What a ridiculous story! But do you want to hear the best part?’

They nodded, all three together.

‘The Queen believed her! She commended me on my dedication, said that she was despairing of all those high-born ladies who cannot perform a simple task with their ten fingers, and took me to the castle. Well, she offered. You can imagine how my mother was going to ask me how I felt about it. She just ran to the back of the house, got my best dress wrapped up, put me on a mule and ordered me to go to the castle. So I went. it seemed better that staying at home anyway. That’s because I didn’t know what the Queen had in store for me.’

She gestured towards the heap of unspun flax.

‘She said that if I could spin all that flax in three days, she’d gladly let me marry her son. I’ve been sitting here for two days. This is what I’ve managed.’ She showed a small, misshapen spool of rought thread. ‘If I don’t spin all this by tomorrow morning, I’ll be the laughing-stock of the village. And my mother…’

The three old women looked at the flax, the spinning wheel, then at each other. Finally, one of them turned back to her.

‘Would you like us to help you?’ she said. ‘One night is plenty for just that little bit of spinning.’

The maiden clasped her hands.

‘Would you do it? That’s wonderful!’ But then she paused, suspicious. ‘And what would you ask in exchange?’

They shrugged, all three at the same time. They were a strange sight, indeed.

‘Let us come to your wedding feast. It will be a nice change. You can call us your cousins and let us sit at your table. We would enjoy that.’

‘Oh, we would,’ said the second crone. ‘We so rarely go out these days.’

The young woman was silent for a while. This seemed like a very small thing to ask.

‘I can do that,’ she said. Then, after a moment: ‘I mean, I will do it, really. If this is a test and you mean to punish me if I act ungrateful…’

‘Nothing of the sort,’ said the third, the one with the flat foot. ‘It would be nice to go to a wedding feast, that is all.’

The maiden then thanked them, and they set to work. It was very little work, for the likes of them. The first sister wetted the thread with her big drooping lip to make the spinning easier; the second twisted it with her enormous thumb; the third got the wheel spinning with her misshapen foot; and in a couple of hours, they had worked the flax into shiny, even thread. Then they disappeared.

******

The prince was happy. He was marrying a pretty young lady, who, it seemed, couldn’t believe her own good fortune. She was clever and kind, if a bit absent-minded and prine to day-dreaming. While they brought the pheasant pies that had made the reputation of the palace cook, three old women entered the hall. His bride got up at once.

‘My beloved cousins!’ she cried out with genuine joy. ‘I thought you’d never turn up! Come, sit with us!’

She offered them the finest morsels and chattered on about her happiness, her wonderful husband, and how pleased she was to see them here. The prince observed them in silence. He had not, in truth, expected his lovely bride to have such ugly relatives.

After a while, he turned towards the first one, and (tact had never been his strong suit) casually asked her:

‘So… how did your lip end up like this?’

‘Oh, from wetting the thread while spinning,’ she said, not offended in the least.

The prince sucked in a breath and turned to the second one.

‘What about your thumb? What happened to it?’

‘That’s from twisting the thread,’ she said.

The prince thought about the lengths of flax his pretty young wife had just spun and grew pale. He turned to the third sister.

‘And… your foot? Spinning, too?’

‘Why of course. The pedal on the wheel, you see.’

So distraught was the prince that he missed the wink the crone gave to his bride.

However, after the guests had left, he took both her hands and said:

‘My darling, please never, ever touch a spinning wheel again in your life. Will you do that for me?’

‘For you, my love, I will,’ she said with a sweet smile. He was so pleased that he missed her own little sigh of relief.

And they lived happily ever after. It is said that when their two threads eventually frayed and broke together, years and years later, three old women living in the woods wiped a tear with a little smile.

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Environment: a good way to keep our collective head in the sand

In the seventies, Ursula K. Le Guin alluded to a world made barren by global warming. Forty years ago.

An episode of The X-Files in 1999 was titled ‘The Sixth Extinction.’ Twenty years ago.

In 2007, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a so-called unprecedented wake-up call about global warming, was released. That was twelve years ago, and it was by no means the first work that discussed it. Merely the moment when denials of man-made global warming went from slightly ill-informed to preposterous, or outright cynical.

Twelve years later, what have we done? Nothing. Every now and then a petition goes viral, a minister resigns (our own minister of the environment, Nicolas Hulot, decided that he couldn’t take anymore of our government lack of initiative in environmental matters), there’s a global conference, there are grand declarations that at last, things are beginning to change. Governments around the world pretend that they’re starting to take notice and pass laws. Except that the strategy is always the same: deadlines and baby steps, the idea being that businesses will need time to adjust. The cool thing with deadlines is that, once you realise that no one has moved and that no goals have been met, you can always set a new one.

As for baby steps, everybody loves them: by definition, baby steps cost nothing, unless you’re really lazy. Usually they achieve nothing, either. Getting a hybrid car? Yes, you’re going to save a little CO2. Just a little, because you still need fuel… but at least you can feel virtuous. The thing is, the impact of cars goes very far beyond burned fuel. If everyone drove hybrid cars, we would still build as many roads and car parks, and thus destroy just as much land and keep fragmenting wildlife habitats. Noise pollution would be only slightly improved, and possibly not for the better: animals will be less likely to hear a more silent car coming. The environmental cost of making the cars will be even higher, since batteries require rare elements, that are extremely costly to mine and process. If you look at the big picture, then, hybrid cars achieve little beyond making buyers feel pleased with themselves. And so it goes for most baby steps, energy-efficient lightbulbs, organic meat and the like. What we need is not better cars or meat; we need less, not better. That would require greater adjustments, and it would definitely not keep industries happy, but there you go. We’re far past the stage when baby steps can do anything for us.

And there is one last, big problem with this philosophy of environmentalism. If you get a better car, a brand-new house, energy-efficient electronics… maybe you’re not going to help preserve the environment very much, but you will definitely spend more money. Again, this will keep businesses happy. It will also go a long way towards convincing people that environmentalism is a luxury that only the rich can afford. It’s not so; taking the bus is both less expensive and much more virtuous than driving a car. But by focusing on replacing consumer goods by slightly more energy-efficient ones (instead of simply decreasing overall consumption), we do push the idea that below a certain income, it’s no use trying to bother with environmentalism.

And we wonder why we’ve still achieved so little.

How I found out that I was pregnant

Very simply: a few days after it began, I tried to do some exercise and ended dup so exhausted I thought I had caught the flu. Two weeks into the pregnancy, even going to work had become difficult. A number of tests revealed that there was nothing wrong with me: it was simply the pregnancy that caused the exhaustion. And that’s how my body reminded me that I was going to have a baby: just a little nausea, and I did grow a little more sensitive to strong smells (I’d always thought tobacco and pot smelled foul, but I hadn’t come near to murdering smokers before), but mainly, I was unable to function on less than twelve hours of sleep a day. Or fifteen, when I tried to go to work anyway.

So, much of 2018 went by rather quickly. When you sleep half of the time and have very little energy to get up from the sofa during waking hours, days tend to whizz past you. And that was the first stage in rethinking things I thought I knew about pregnancy. One of the traditional claims of feminism was that pregnancy is not a disease, pregnant women are perfectly capable of leading a normal life and mothers should not automatically stay at home. That’s a great idea, really, and probably a crucial part of helping women gain financial independence by maintaining their career afloat even with children… except that it fell into the wrong ears. Because there’s a big difference between being allowed to keep working when you’re able to, and being forced to keep working, on the grounds that ‘pregnancy is not a disease,’ when you’re in absolutely no condition to lift your backside off your bed before noon.

Great ideas can backfire badly sometimes. Businesses hiring women must have been even happier that women themselves to discover that pregnancy wasn’t supposed to be incapacitating. Imagine, never having to spend a penny to accommodate women who want to have children! Which goes to show that it’s always easier to do feminism when someone makes money from it (it’s much harder, for instance, to push for decent paternity leave, so we can end the employment gap and allow men to take care of their own children!). But that’s not exactly the brand of feminism we need, is it?

Back with news, and a story

This has been a long hiatus. Part of it has been the dwindling number of interactions I’m getting on this blog (here and on LJ), and the growing feeling of talking to myself; it seems that enjoying blogs more than social networks is a bit behind the times these days.

The other reason is much more fun (and ended up being far more compelling, too): I gave birth to a baby boy in September, and while pregnancy had kept me busy (and exhausted), actually having him here has changed more than I’d thought possible! Yes, I’d been told it would. I just don’t think one can accurately imagine what it’s like without having been there.

More about that at some point, hopefully. But before that, another announcement: my third published story has appeared in the third issue of Reckoning on 21st December!

For now, the stories are only available in e-book format, though they will be published individually on the magazine’s website over the course of the year. I was excited to find out that my story ended up in great company. The whole zine is available here; I particularly recommend ‘Tiger,’ ‘Fuck You Pay Me’ and ‘Flowers for the living, flowers for the dead.’

Nesting season

A few days ago, we had an unusual guest while having lunch on the balcony. A robin perched right next to us with insect legs dangling from its bill, and watched us without moving for a while. I didn’t move, either (I was sitting under the jasmine, next to the wall), and so we just faced each other for a few minutes. Eventually, it swallowed its prey and moved under a clump of leaves while I wasn’t looking. I thought it had left and got up; a mistake, since I ended up frightening it and it flew right into the flat. To add insult to injury, it spent the next few minutes trying to fly away through a closed window… but eventually found the way, and left.

We saw it again the next couple of days, peering at us from the opening of a small bird shelter we put up on the wall, in the jasmine. Then we saw it come and go, often with insects or slugs in its bill. And then, as we were giving the bedroom a fresh coat of paint during a nesting season of our own… my boyfriend noticed unusual activity in the bird shelter.

Turns out that a pair of robins had actually built a nest there. Since these birds are amazing at discretion, we hadn’t noticed anything until the chicks were so big they almost crowded each other out of the shelter; at that point, however, they had to stick their heads out to demand food, and we could see three or four of them vying for their parents’ attention, with a loud rattling cry. That was just three days ago… and this morning, we found that one of them had fallen on the balcony. We just closed the door and did nothing (picking up fallen chicks does more harm than good, as it’s quite normal for juveniles to fall off the nest), and indeed, a quick glance revealed that the nest was empty. They had all flown away.

We saw them again a couple of times, stretching their wings and chirping for their parents. In a few days, they won’t come back to say hello. It’s a harsh life out there for young robins, and it’s not unusual for an entire brood to die before they’ve reached adulthood. I only hope they find the way to the nest while they still need it. If they make it, there will be fresh butter and dried worms waiting for them on the balcony this winter.

Tell-a-fairy-tale day: Nettles

Once upon a time there was a king who had been blessed with seven sons, one for each year of marriage. His wife was pregnant again, and his happiness could not have been greater. Eight sons! Soon, eight young men to send out as ambassadors, to go to war for him, marry princesses from distant kingdoms… The king liked to entertain visions of their grand future. But too much rumination can lead you down strange paths. Seven gifted, ambitious young men vying for their father’s favour. Seven who might soon get ideas. Many a brother had been poisoned by another in a scramble for the throne. Many a father…

Overnight the father’s pride turned to anguish. In ten years his oldest son would be eighteen, and he barely forty, much too young to relinquish the throne to an ambitious young wolf. And what if his brothers backed him? What if the old king had no choice but flee or die, as his kingdom descended into chaos?

Please, he prayed, let this not be another son. Let this child be a girl. Girls are pliable; I’ll marry her to a young man of my choosing, competent, but not too ambitious. My grandchildren will be my heirs, and by the time they’re grown, I’ll be too old to reign anyway. Please, let fate give me a girl.

Whether fate obliged or he just got lucky is anyone’s guess. But soon after that a baby girl was born. There was great celebration and merriment in the palace, and on the seventh day of feasting, the king, who’d had a cup too many, stood up and declared:

‘By the gods, I solemnly do swear: from this day this little girl shall become my first and only heir! My sons shall be my sons no more, and this little princess shall bear the future king! All hail!’

The guests coughed and looked at each other in shock. The queen threw herself at his feet, begging and pleading, and at last the king realised that he had spoken too fast; but he had taken the gods as witnesses, and could not go back on his word. The queen left the banquet sobbing, to gather the young boys in her arms and carry them out of the castle.

‘My poor boys, you cannot stay,’ she said. ‘You are not the king’s sons anymore. Neither he nor I can protect you. Anywhere would be safer than this place.’

She closed her eyes and thought hard about what to do next. Seven young boys, alone in the woods, would be dead within a month. But she knew of someone who might help: an old witch, who rarely spoke to anyone except in curses. She took her sons with her. When she came back to the castle, she was alone. But her eyes were dry, and she never mentioned the boys again.

The princess grew up alone, unaware that she’d had brothers once. She played with the servants’ children in the palace, and became known for her good, caring nature. The king doted on her and was already sending portraits to faraway lands, unbeknownst to her, hoping to secure a husband he might bend to his will. But the gods were fickle, and perhaps he had managed to annoy them for good, by demanding they bear witness to an unjust oath. One day, the princess disappeared from the palace. All the soldiers and hunters sent to the forest to find her couldn’t bring her back.

What had become of the girl? Well, she had noticed a chaffinch gathering twigs for its nest, and followed it into the forest. There she had scrambled across a path of blueberries, eating until her hands and face were blue with sticky juice. Then she had followed a rabbit’s trail. Then… night fell, and she had no idea where she was.

This could had gone very badly for her, if, at that moment, she had not noticed a light between the trees. She got closer, and lo! There was a little house, with smoke coming out of the chimney and the smell of roasted parsnips drifting around. She only hesitated for a moment: everybody knew there were witches living in the woods, but their homes smelled of enticing things like cakes and toffee, not vegetables. She knocked on the door.

Everything fell silent. Then a voice from inside: ‘Who goes there?’ Then another: ‘Brother, be quiet! Do you want to give us away?’ Emboldened, the princess called: ‘Please, would you let me in? I’m lost and I’m hungry, and…’ she had nothing to offer, but hearing only men’s voices inside, she soon figured out a solution: ‘I can clean up your house if you like. I help servants do it at times. Would that do?’

The door opened. Behind it, a young man, a year or two older than her, peered as she gave a blueberry-stained grin. Something about him looked eerily familiar.

‘I won’t be any trouble,’ she said. ‘I can sleep by the chimney. Thank you so much for letting me in.’

Now she was completely reassured. Little men living together in the forest were supposed to be harmless, as long as you didn’t mind sweeping their doorstep. There were seven of them, all dressed in rags; the oldest in his early twenties. But in spite of the austere surrounding and the air of uncivilised ruggedness about them, she instantly found herself drawn to that little house, with those silent, gaping men watching her come in as if she was an envoy from the heavens…

‘Holy crap,’ the eldest said. ‘You’re our little sister!’

Now it was the princess’s turn to gape.

‘Good sir, you must be mistaken,’ she said. ‘I’ve never had any brothers. In fact, I’m…’ she paused, not knowing if they would believe her.

‘The king’s daughter, we know,’ the man said. ‘The sister we’ve all been banished for.’

His voice was hard, but as he told her the whole story and her eyes filled with tears, it softened. None of it was her fault, they knew.

‘But how did you survive, all alone in the forest?’ she asked.

‘By the help of a witch,’ her brother said. ‘At our mother’s request, she changed us into wild swans. Swans are hardier than little boys. It’s not much of a life, but it saved us. We become men again for one day every year, long enough to remember who we are. Tomorrow we will become swans again.’

‘Tomorrow? But that cannot be! I’ve only met you, how can I lose you so soon?’

Her brother shook his head, sadly.

‘We wish it could be otherwise, too. We’re men now. We’re not helpless. But the witch’s spell is potent, and cannot be broken. Go back to the palace, little sister, and come visit us next year. It’s a comfort to know you’ve acknowledged us. You were just a baby. None of it is your fault.’

‘My fault or not, I can’t lose you like this!’ She started to cry, and her brothers’ best efforts couldn’t console her. The next morning, she woke up with puffy eyes and an aching head, just in time to see seven swans fly out of the window.

Enough crying, she thought. I have to go back to the castle and demand an explanation. But just as she thought of her father, pictures came back to her mind. His hollow cheeks, perpetual sadness, the way his voice broke when he told her she would marry one day and he would have a son at last. Her father had been a fool, a well-meaning, short-sighted, incompetent one. She pitied him now, but she knew he would be unable to do anything. If she wanted a solution, she would have to find it herself.

And only one person could help her. She set out through the forest, and in the daylight, followed the rabbit’s tracks again, through the blueberry patch and out of the forest. But instead of going back to the castle, she headed towards the village, where a little hut still stood, as it had fifteen years before.

She knocked on the door. ‘Go away!’ was the first answer. She called: ‘Old mother, I want my brothers back. You helped survive for fifteen years. Please help me turn them back into men!’

At that, the door opened. ‘My my,’ said the old woman. ‘You do look like your brothers.’

The princess came in. Inside, it smelled of smoke and unwashed socks.

‘Unfortunately it was a very potent spell,’ the witch said. ‘One can’t do anything less when the gods have been called as witnesses. There might be something. But it will cost you.’

‘I can always clean your house,’ the princess said, a little too eager. The witch frowned.

‘My house is clean enough,’ she replied, dryly. ‘And this is not the sort of cost I’m talking about. Though of course, you’ve lived a pampered life. A little cleaning sounds like a big deal to you, doesn’t it?’

That stung, but the princess didn’t say anything.

‘I’m talking about years of work,’ the witch said. ‘When such harm has been done, it takes great sacrifices to undo it. And it all falls on you.’

‘But I never asked my father to do this!’ the princess blurted out.

‘No, you didn’t. But willing or not, you enjoyed the wealth of the palace and the attentions of the court all to yourself. It was done for you, and as such, it’s your responsibility. But what you really want is merely to show the world how good your intentions are…’

‘Stop it. I want a solution. I’ll do what it takes. Just tell me.’

The witch shrugged.

‘Fine. If you want to undo the spell, you will have seven years to weave seven shirts out of nettles. And you cannot say a word in those seven years. If a single sound comes out of your mouth, your brothers will remain swans forever.’

‘Nettles?’

‘That’s right.’

‘But… you can’t make cloth out of nettles. They sting. They’re…’ The withering glare the witch shot her told her she was saying something stupid, though she had no idea what. ‘Nettle shirts. All right. But can you at least show me how?’

‘They taught you how to spin and weave, didn’t they?’

‘Not really. There was that legend about what happened to princesses who got too close to spinning wheels, and…’

The witch muttered under her breath, something that sounded like ‘hopeless’.

‘I’ve told you what you need to know. Now do it, or don’t. If you speak a single word from now on, your brothers are doomed.’

And the old woman opened the door. The princess had no choice but nod, clamping her lips shut, and leave.

How does one make cloth out of nettles? she wondered in despair. She wandered all day around the village. Then a pungent smell, like rot, caught her nose. She looked ahead, and in a pond, she saw bunches of flowers, left there to decay in the sun.

Why would someone leave flowers to rot? she wondered. But a while after, a woman came to the pond, felt the stalks between her fingers, and took some of them home with her. The princess followed from afar. The woman stopped before her house, broke up the stalks and extracted long strips of stringy material. Then she combed them together, tied the end to a spindle, and started spinning.

The princess watched her with widening eyes. In a couple of hours, what she had first taken for rotting refuse had been turned into a spool of thread. So that was how you made fabric out of plants! She went out to the fields where the sheep grazed, and where she knew she would find paths lined with thick walls of nettles. Tearing strips from her dress to make gloves, she gathered a huge bunch of green, stinging stalks, and found a spot of the river where the waters quieted down.

Her first batch of nettles she left too long in the water, and they rotted to fragments. The second batch she didn’t leave long enough, and the fibres shattered in her hands. The third batch she got just right. She took a comb from her hair to card the fibres, stuck a piece of wood in an apple so she could spin it with a flick of her wrist, and made her first length of thread. None of it was easy. It took her more trips to the village to observe the women spinning flax in front of their homes before she figured out a way to make thread that wouldn’t break. Days had elapsed at this point. She ate blueberries and scraps from refuse piles, and she was perpetually hungry. One day she spotted soldiers from the castle, looking for her. She had to leave. She gathered her thread and her makeshift spindle, and set out on the roads of the kingdom.

Days passed, then weeks. What had felt at first like an impossible task started to make sense. She could now pick out the best nettles, leave them to ret just long enough, and she had made a better spindle, carving wood to a perfect shape with a sharp stone. At first she begged for scraps, but eventually, she figured out how to make fire, fashion a pot from clay she had gathered in the hills, and boil nettle leaves into soup. She grew leaned, stronger. When she met people, she smiled and curtsied, but kept her mouth tightly shut. Soon everyone around the country knew about the dumb beggar-girl, who was always pleasant to everyone, always willing to help old women carry firewood around and lending a hand in exchange for a little bread. Once or twice, she met people from the palace, asking about the lost princess. They didn’t recognise her and wished her a good day as she walked away, silently smiling.

After a while she learned how to make fine, silky thread from the best nettle fibres. She fashioned a loom, using stones to weight down warp threads. Her first bit of cloth was plain, but smooth to the touch, and when she pictured her brothers wearing their shirts and turning back into humans, her eyes filled with tears. There was so much work to do.

In autumn, she gathered acorns to make flour, leaving them in the river next to her retting nettles until they lost their bitterness. She dug up burdock roots and dried blueberries for the winter. She made a little hut with woven branches and clay to withstand the cold days. Her arms were strong now, and could carry firewood over miles. Women from the village came once or twice, admiring the fineness of her nettle thread and badgering her for her secret, but she just smiled and shook her head. She bartered a few spools for sewing needles, scissors and a thimble, and by the end of the winter, she had sewn her first shirt.

Four years passed. At nineteen, her body was lean and her face dirty, but she carried herself with the upright stance of a queen. And so fate decided it was time for another twist. One day a prince rode through the woods, and stopped at her door for a drink of water. He was mightily surprised when the occupant of the place turned out to be a smiling, confident young woman! He thanked her and rode back to the palace, unaware that from then on, he would be unable to take his thoughts away from her.

But as days went by, he reached a decision. He went back to the hut, got down on his knees, and asked the maiden to marry him. She looked at him up and down, remembered the many nights when she had gone to sleep exhausted and so lonely, and nodded, once, with a smile.

They were married the next day, in secret, then he brought her back to the castle. His mother was less than pleased, but the old king was ill, and she would soon depend on her son if she wished to live her old days as a respected dowager, so she welcomed her daughter-in-law with a tight smile. She did ask what the young bride wanted to do with that spindle and those four nettle shirts she seemed to treasure like jewels, but the young woman didn’t speak. And so her life carried on, unchanged in most ways, completely different in others. She was pleased with her husband; years of living on her own in the forest had washed out any hint of shyness left in her, and though she couldn’t speak, she made sure he knew how to please her. He was glad to comply, and delighted by this mysterious, silent bride, even though he yearned for the sound of her voice.

Now this queen had made a fortune shipping in fine silk and cotton from remote lands. Her castle was the wealthiest around, but there had been a price to pay. The common folks, those unable to afford silk and cotton, had to pay exorbitant taxes for simple woven goods; that was how the queen convinced people in the city that her silks were a better bargain than plain hemp and linen. Few people now bothered to learn how to spin flax. They resigned themselves to wearing expensive cloth, and as the custom settled, didn’t grumble about it anymore.

The servants were very surprised to see what the younger queen could do. The cloth she made was so fine and smooth no one would have believed it came from humble stinging plants. Young girls came to watch her work, and soon you could see them with spindles of their own, gathering nettles by the roads and leaving them in pools to ret. In a year, some of them wore their own skirts, made of clumsy, plain material, and paraded with pride through the castle. The queen mother was less than pleased with this. But her son was so taken with his wife that she said nothing.

After a while, however, she heard disquieting reports. People grumbled when it came to buying her overpriced fabrics, and pointed out that they could get nettles for free. She stormed into her daughter-in-law’s room, but all her yelling got her was a shrug and apologetic smile. When she tried to toss the spindle out of the window, however, the young woman stood up. She wrestled the spindle from her grasp with unnatural strength, grabbed her by the arm and threw her out, banging the door shut behind her.

That was the last straw. The queen began complaining to her son.

‘Have you never had the sense to wonder where that woman came from? And how come she never speaks?’

‘She cannot, Mother,’ her son said.

‘Cannot speak? She doesn’t even grunt! And this spinning, all day, when she should be taking care of her household? My son, you’ve brought a witch into my home!’

‘Nonsense, Mother. What harm has she done?’

The queen soon realised that there was nothing to gain this way. But she had another plan.

Soon, people in her pay were roaming through villages and towns, talking about the young queen, and how strange it was that she never spoke, and her obsession with nettles. They talked and talked, until some started to agree. Wasn’t it unnatural, that a woman should have survived alone in the forest, without the help of her fellow man? And she didn’t even care for fine silks! It’s all well and good for people to disdain luxury, but wasn’t she rubbing it in the faces of honest folks who might have liked to live in a castle like she did? One person said the word ‘witch’, then two, then three. The queen mother heard the reports, and finally relaxed. Soon she would be rid of this young upstart who was hurting her business with her homemade nettle cloth.

Halfway through the seventh and final year, heralds announced through the streets that the young queen was pregnant. Her husband was overjoyed, and his wife, as usual, only smiled, happiness overflowing from her eyes. Months went past. She rode through exhaustion and nausea without a complaint, and kept spinning. When time came to deliver her baby, she had made enough cloth for a seventh shirt. Anxiety and joy battled in her heart. This was a dangerous time for a woman; what if she never got to save her brothers? She clung to that thought, scary as it was, because it was still less scary than the one looming beneath—what if my life ends here, and I’ve spent it in silence, meaningless as an ant’s?

But when the time to give birth came, the midwives only marvelled at her strength and bravery, when she delivered her baby without a single sound of pain. A lovely girl, as healthy as she hoped. She blinked through tears, then smiled as hard as she could, so she would not inadvertently start sobbing and break her vow. Her husband cried his soul out. Beside him, his mother watched and offered tight-lipped congratulations.

And then fate tipped the scales once more. The midwifes left, and told everyone that the young queen had not once cried in pain, not even cooed when her daughter was born. There was not a doubt left. How could anyone but a witch behave so unnaturally? As she sewed the last shirt together, the young queen heard shouts below her walls. She was still spent from the birth and did not think of leaving. That was how, when the queen mother opened the gates to let the mob in, she was trapped in her bedroom, with no one to defend her but her husband, who was pushed aside by rebellious guards.

She only had time to gather all six shirts, and the unfinished seventh one. She didn’t resist when they dragged her out, until they threw up on top of a pyre, to the shouts of ‘Witch!’ She crawled down, was pushed up again. Not now, she thought. Not so close. And then it occurred to her that there was a way out. She could plead for her life, explain everything. Her brothers would be lost. But she would be saved, and live happily with her husband and daughter.

She screwed her mouth shut and did not say a word.

But when the flames touched the pyre, a wind rose from the horizon, and the silhouettes of seven great swans flew down towards the castle. Stumbling and coughing, the young queen stood up on the pyre and threw the shirts, one by one, into the wind. They caught the wings of the swans as they swooped down. But no swan landed on the ground. Instead, seven young men stumbled to their feet, naked save for a plain shirt of nettle cloth. The youngest one still had a tuft of feathers on his shoulder, where the seam had remained unfinished to the last.

What happened afterwards is a longer story, but makes a shorter tale. The young queen welcomed her brothers with shrieks of joy, confusing everyone and moving some to tears, which was all they needed to change their colours and douse the pyre. The mob left after a moment of embarrassment. The young queen and her brothers ran into the palace where they kissed and hugged everyone, propriety be damned, and then there was a long, unpleasant explanation between the queen and the queen mother. No banishment ensued, only a heavy fine (which the dowager was more than wealthy enough to pay), which was set aside to fund a school for young girls. The brothers feasted in the palace for a while, then asked their sister to build them a little house near the forest, where they could carry on with the life they had led for twenty years. The young queen kept spinning nettles and carrying firewood, and taught her daughter to do the same, along with other girls from the surroundings. She even taught her husband, because he was a good, brave man who knew that there was no greater wealth than what comes out of an honest worker’s hands.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

Overheard

On the bus, in mid-afternoon, two men in their early twenties:

‘A hundred thousand? Man, it won’t last. You have that money in your pocket, you spend it, that’s just how it works. It’s not so much. I knew this guy, he ended up with two hundred thousand, they were gone in a month. Partying, cars… You just have to spend it.’ (don’t know if they were Narcos fans or real drug dealers. I’d guess the former)

******

Another bus, righteous-looking old lady blurting out to her neighbour, in the middle of nowhere:

‘I don’t understand why there aren’t more people who commit suicide!’

*****

In class (I heard whispers while I was talking and stopped for a second, the words rang loud and clear in the silence):

‘I tell you, he’s not circumcised!’

*****

In the street at night, walking back home, a man on his phone:

‘I wouldn’t lie to you. Who do you think I am? I’m not like that. I don’t lie. (pause) Yeah, well, to the cops, yes, I lie. In court, all right, I lie. But not when it’s important. Not to you.’

*****

In class again; I was asking them for examples of stereotypes and one of them had just given me ‘Black people like chicken’:

‘Aw, that’s not a stereotype. Chicken is SO good. Oh my god. The thighs? They’re so, so good. Crap, I’m hungry.’

*****

The bus again, a couple of very proper old ladies, disapprovingly watching a group of shrieking teenage girls on the pavement:

‘Girls today! They’re louder than boys. It’s incredible. You know they even go after boys these days? Boys don’t go after them, they don’t!’

(fifty years after the sexual revolution… glad they finally caught up)