February 26th is Tell-a-Fairy-Tale day, a fact I discovered two years ago on asakiyume‘s blog. I loved the idea, although I didn’t take part last year (I think I remembered that I wrote my story two years ago on a day of fine, warm weather, which made me think it was spring, and I completely overlooked the fact that I was in Nice at the time and fine warm weather with plenty of flowers lasts around 365 days a year).
Anyway. There was a story I liked when I was little, which has given me much thought ever since. My mother didn’t seem to like it as much as I did, and I couldn’t really understand why. After all, it was a very cool story of a girl discovering that she should stand up for herself and finding creative ways to do so, and I treasured that kind of tale at the time, as they were so rare among the stories of heroic guys and helpless, worthless girls. That’s how I saw it anyway. Years later, I learned a bit more about how people thought when that story was first told, and I came to suspect why my mum didn’t like it all that well. A girl who stands up for herself is one thing, a girl who has to take responsibility for her husband’s violence is another. Sadly enough, many stories were told to teach women that they were accountable for their husband’s behaviour, and that they should be able to change him through the power of their feminine virtue if they are dissatisfied. That’s how I discovered that a story I naively believed was about a resourceful woman was, probably, not much more than a tool to teach women their proper place in the world.
But then I wondered: does it have to be so? If this tale had such a bleak hidden meaning, how come I found it so good when I was a child? I rooted for active, resourceful heroins long before I learned the word ‘feminism’, after all. This story I read could not be all that sinister. So here is today’s story: not the one in the book, but the one that formed in my head when I read it.
The Lady and the Lion
Once upon a time, there was a woman called Halima. She was a good person who always had something in her pantry for visiting neighbours, kind words for the children and a warm meal on the stove for the beggars in the neighbourhood. She was not a saint; she got angry and swore sometimes when she had cause to, but she was patient and kind and most people loved her for it. Even people who are no saints have a right to be loved.
As far as her friends and family were concerned, Halima led a happy, eventless life and was blessed with reasonable wealth, a lovely home and a good husband. They often congratulated her and she gave them tight smiles in return, which they never seemed to notice. In truth, Halima had long given up hope that they would see the dark stain on her perfect life. Marwan, her husband, worked hard enough in the day and kept her fed and clothed, it was true. But at night, he came home with alcohol on his breath, and then the smallest thing she said was an offence that demanded punishment. Had she made something to eat just before he arrived? It was too hot, she was trying to poison him! Had she cooked in advance so it would be the right temperature? It was cold, she was such a slob! Did she greet him with a smile? She was mocking him! With a blank face? Disrespect! The slaps left red marks on her cheeks and blue marks on her body. And when they went to bed, she screwed her eyes shut and clutched at the sheets to avoid crying out in pain under him.
But she could not tell. She could not be ungrateful. After all, he bought her clothes and a pretty house, and they never wanted for food. So she told the other women at the bath house that she had been negligent and insolent and that he had hit her in justified anger, or sometimes she said nothing and she just smiled. But one day she couldn’t take it anymore. She was still sore from the beating the night before, and her pillow was wet from her crying. So she wrapped a scarf around her face and sneaked out of the town, to a mountain in the outskirts where a wise hermit was known to live.
After a long climb, she reached a cave. The inside was lined with all sorts of strange things: jars, instruments, dried animals. At the very end, an old man sat on a threadbare rug. Swallowing her fear, Halima entered and greeted the hermit. He cut her short.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘My husband!’ she replied, and was surprised at how easily the words cascaded out of her mouth. ‘I want my husband back. He used to be so sweet when we were married, we were in such beautiful love, but as the years went by, his patience wore so thin! Now he comes back drunk every night, and everything I do earns me a beating. I’ve tried my best with him, I swear I did. But there’s nothing to calm him when he’s in one of his moods. And he’s in always in his moods now.’
‘Tried your best, have you?’ the hermit snorted, a harsh, sudden sound. ‘Right. I can help you. But for that, there is one thing I will need from you.’
‘Of course. What is it?’
‘Three hairs from the mane of a living lion. Go now. Don’t come back until you have them.’
Halima ran out. Halfway down the mountain, she burst into tears. The only hope she had of getting help rested on her doing something that would get her killed. But was it worse to be killed than to live on like this? She wiped her tears and went back home, thinking.
That night, a huge lion went to drink from the stream in the valley. He was a young male looking for a pride to lead. He was a bit hungry, but otherwise very pleased with himself: he was a lion, and every animal in the country feared him. So he was not a little surprised when a furry bleating thing leapt haphazardly at him and almost landed on his face.
The lion was a pragmatic beast, however, so he promptly devoured the helpless lamb and licked his lips, contented. When he raised his eyes, however, a second surprise was waiting for him. A few steps away, a woman stood, still and trembling. He eyed her for a moment. But he was not hungry anymore, and she was of no interest to him, since she appeared to have no more lambs to toss at him.
The day after, he came back to the stream. This time again, the woman was there, and she tossed him another bleating critter before slowly walking away. Every day after that, she came back, every time standing a little closer, for a little longer. The lion didn’t mind. She was a nice woman, and she had an excellent eye for prime lambs.
Day after day, Halima’s fear of the lion diminished. At first she had been terrified, convinced that her last hour had come. But the lion had just looked at her, his wrinkled face unreadable. After a while, she stopped bringing lambs. He seemed a bit disgruntled the first time, but otherwise not overly annoyed. Then one day, she knelt beside him and put a hand on his mane. He just kept drinking. In a daze of fear and excitement, she closed two fingers on a hair and pulled.
The heavy muscles tensed under the skin. Then they relaxed.
Emboldened, she plucked a second hair. The lion shook its mane. She closed her eyes and plucked a third. Somethine warm and wet touched her arm, and she thought that this was it this time… until she opened her eyes, and found the lion licking the back of her hand, purring like a kitten.
Halima ran up the mountain, to the hermit’s cave.
‘I have them! I have three hairs from a living lion’s mane! Now please, please tell me what I should do?’
The hermit took the hairs and examined them. He nodded.
‘Indeed those are three hair from a living lion’s mane,’ he said. ‘Now tell me, Halima. You managed to tame a wild lion, a beast who terrifies the best hunters… and you’re telling me you’re unable to manage an unruly husband?’
Halima looked at him. It was her dismissal, she understood, the lesson she had been waiting for. She nodded and thanked him, and walked back down the mountain.
Once she was back home, she went to her kitchen. She prepared rich stews of veal with prunes and of pigeons in saffron sauce, made dishes from aubergines and coriander, salads from oranges and cinnamon, sweet almond cakes and pancakes dripping with honey. She put on her best clothes and waited, appeased and trusting, for Marwan to return.
Stories don’t ever really end. They are just cut at the most convenient moment. What better moment to finish a story than a promise? ‘Happily ever after,’ ‘Tomorrow is another day’: those are just promises for new beginnings. And so does this story end: on the promise that the strength of feminine virtue and patience can tame lions and bring brutal husbands to reason. Here is the beauty of such promises: they don’t depend on anyone for their realisation but the person they are made to. If your husband still beats you and drives you to despair, this one says, then you haven’t tried hard enough. Try harder, and all will be better. Try all your life. Hope and believe, for you’ll receive help from no one but yourself.
But this is not the end of the story. For Halima at least, here is what happened afterwards:
When Marwan came back home, the first thing he saw was his wife, dressed up and smiling in front of a princely feast.
‘Welcome, my love,’ Halima said, opening her arms. It would be better this time. It had to be better.
Marwan staggered through the door. His eyes narrowed.
‘Who did you make this for?’ he hissed. Then he shouted: ‘Who is he? Who are you waiting for, you whore? Tell me where he is!’
‘It’s you!’ Halima cried. ‘There’s no one but you!’ But as she cried she realised she did not look at him. Yes, she was saying the truth, but it was not her husband she was talking to. The one she had been expecting was a kind, loving, smiling young man called Marwan, who would never have raised a hand on her and who had disappeared long ago, and much as she wanted to cry when she realised it, he was never to come back.
Marwan stumbled towards her and hit her across the face. ‘You lying whore. I’ll break your bones!’
The neighbours disagree on what happened just then. Some said that a man’s scream covered Halima’s usual cries. Some said there was a terrible commotion that stopped abruptly after a few seconds. Some say that, on the contrary, there was a sudden silence. Whatever happened, a man from the neighbourhood went to their door after a moment, and knocked.
‘Come in!’ a joyful voice said.
In he came, and he found Halima alone, sitting in front of a table laden with an incredible banquet. Well, almost alone. As the neighbour was about to apologise for surprising her in her private quarters, he saw the huge head of a fearsome lion, its chin still dripping with red, rise from under the table and stretch onto Halima’s lap. Halima smiled as if there was nothing unusual, and offered him to take some food home.
‘What… what…’ the neighbour could find no adequate words for all the questions he had.
‘Oh, this,’ Halima said with a graceful wave of her hand. ‘Well, you see, it appears that the hermit was right. If you didn’t marry the right man, you can always get help from the right kind of friends.’ And she fed the purring lion some fragrant veal from her hand.