Tuesday, 17 August 2010
I do not know, but I was told this by my grandmother who had it from her grandmother... who had it from her grandmother. The men did not pay much attention, they dismissed it as the tales of fishwives. My grandfather however said nothing on the subject and never would. If you asked him he would fold his arms across his barrel chest and say, 'Humph!' Then he would ask for 'coffee, real coffee like in the old days'.
My grandmother had a photograph in her boudoir. Actually it was just an extra room attached to her bedroom. One day when I was a little boy I was allowed in to the boudoir with all the mysterious notions the word conjured up for a small boy of my age. It was mysterious and distinctly feminine and I felt then the great difference I had between my mother, grandmother and me. It saddened me for I knew that I could never be a part of that world that I longed to be a part of, for I loved the women in my life considerably. Except for my sister of course, but I never did see her as a woman. She always seemed more of a mythical beast than a woman.
Anyway the photograph. It was black and white, well actually shades of grey. It showed a young girl with a slightly wary look in her eyes that longed to believe the best but strongly suspected the worst. The smile was not quite happy but not overwhelmingly sad. There something of the Mona Lisa's ambiguity about it. The eyes were full of depth and perception for she seemed to be looking deep into everything and somehow seeing it all at once. It was not the only photo in my grandmother's boudoir but it was the only one that struck me to the core. I asked if that was her when she was younger but she shook her head and smiled, her work toughened hand gently caressing my hair.
"No my dear, that isn't me, though I was quite the beauty once. That girl..." her voice drifted off and I turned to look up at her.
She was gazing at the photo but when she saw me looking at her she smiled and kissed me, smelling faintly of roses and sandalwood. I reached up then and hugged her tightly as if I had suddenly become aware that she would not be around forever. She took me to a chair and sat me down.
"Now then," she said wagging her finger at me, "if I tell you this story you must not tell your mother, alright? She would not approve."
I crossed my heart and hoped to die if I told mama and grandmother smiled at that and hoped I would live for a long time like her uncle Vanya who had lived to be a hundred and one until a pig fell on him from a balcony. But that was another story for another time she said and settled herself. It was quiet in the boudoir. We could hear faint voices downstairs, but they seemed very far away and in another house. The spring sun came in through the windows and grandmother's old cat lay sprawled on the carpet where the sun fell.
"Many, many years ago my dear, our people lived in a little village near a great forest. There was a little wooden church and everybody worked very hard. In those days you had to be careful if you went into the forest a bear might eat you all up and in the autumn and winter the wolves would get you. But more frightening than either bears or wolves were the faeries. You never quite knew what they would do, but mostly it was not good.
Well now, one day a young girl, that young girl in the photo in fact walked into the little village where your great-great-great-great-grandmother lived and that was a very long time ago. Even before I was born. This girl had no shoes and no hat. She wore a long green and red dress of the finest stuff and over her shoulders was a woollen cloak of grey wool. She looked to be about fourteen or so and did not say a word. Instead she went to the carpenter's house and whistled. The carpenter's four dogs came out to see who called them and she smiled at them. They lay down then with their muzzles on their front paws and made not a sound but nothing more happened.
She went to the baker's house and whistled. Two cats and six pretty kittens came out to see who called them. They lay down before her and rested their heads on their front paws. The girl smiled at them, but nothing more happened.
She went to the laundresses and whistled. Six cats, four hens and a host of pigeons came to the yard to see who called them and again she smiled at them. The cats lay down before her with their front paws stretched out before them and laid their heads on their paws. The hens settled before her and the pigeons flew up in a cloud of feathers and soared away towards Bremen in the North.
The laundress, who had been in the yard was amazed and looked as wide-eyed as you do my dear. She asked the girl where she came from and what her name was. She thought the girl was lost and had come from another village you see. The girl said not a word but walked up to the laundress and kissed her tenderly on the face. The laundress smiled and took the girl in her arms declaring that she should live with the laundress.
So she did and for many years. Now here's the thing. You and I my dear, we get older every birthday, but this girl never changed at all. People wondered all kinds of things about her then. Old Peter wondered if it was because she had no birthday, for she never said when her birthday was. People laughed at that, but not much. You see, she had come out of the wood wearing red and green - faery colours. So they thought she was a faery child, but nobody knew for sure. The girl did not speak at all. Instead, she sat in the house of the laundress and sewed. She repaired clothes that were torn and patched those that needed it and her work was the most beautiful any had ever seen. But at night she ate only nuts, berries and drank a little water and while she supped she sewed. She made dresses and jackets and coats. She embroidered boots and shoes. She made... well something else, but nobody knew and she never said a word.
Tales were invented about her. There was a tale about her having brothers who were swans by day and that she had to sew shirts for them all out of nettles. It wasn't true, but it was a pretty tale nonetheless. It was said that she was a princess who had been enchanted and must sew for a living until the spell was broken. It was said - well anyway, all kinds of things were said, but right underneath all of them was the fear that she might be a faery's child. She did not seem to be a faery, her eyes were grey like stormclouds, her hair was brown as a hazelnut and her skin was pale as the milk from Basia's goats. So while she was certainly beautiful as you can see, she did not look like a faery. Her ears were not pointed as people thought faery ears were, her eyes were not wild. She was simply a very beautiful young girl... who did not seem to age.
Then one morning she simply wasn't there. The people looked all over for her but she had disappeared. Only a drawing remained by Young Peter who was deeply in love with her. He was heartbroken until he met another girl who won his heart. Love is as crazy as that, my dear.
Well a hundred years later, our people still lived in the village. One day a young girl walked into the village without shoes but dressed in a long red and green dress of fine stuff and with a dark grey cloak over her shoulders. She was that girl again. Nobody knew anything about her but everybody especially the old people noticed that she had not aged at all. She did the same as last time, but this time the baker's wife took her in and made her welcome. Now this time, there was a man who had come from the city and set up a little shop. He was a photographer and so beautiful was this young girl that he asked the baker's wife if he might photograph the girl. The baker and his wife thought that would be fine. There was talk in the village that nothing would show on the photograph if she was a faery, but the photographer did not believe in such nonsense.
He took six photographs and of all of them, this one he liked the most. He made several prints and gave the baker's wife one and one he gave to the girl but she was not interested and wandered away down the street to the baker's house. One print he put in the window of his shop for he was very proud of it. As you see my dear, it is a beautiful picture of a beautiful girl and many people of the village would stop and talk about it when they saw it. I was so struck by how beautiful it is that I bought a print and so did lots of other people. But three weeks later, the girl had gone again. We have not seen her since. Maybe she has come back to the village and is living there now. Nobody knew who she was then and nobody will ever know who she is. But I promise you, she is no faery or faery's child."