Once upon a time there was a young boy, which means that he is not longer.
When his mother died his father took on a new wife, the boy’s new stepmother, and we can all pretty much guess how the story went from there.
Or can we?
The boy’s new stepmother had a daughter and both loved the young boy very much. During the day the girl would play with her new brother and they became close companions. The stepmother devoted herself to the children, baking cakes and other small treats for them. Together they were a happy family.
But we know the boy is no longer alive, so something must have happened that would cause us to tell his tale.
Ah, yes. The pear tree.
One day the young boy had traveled into the nearby woods on his own. Exploring, as young boys do, he imagined himself a brave prince climbing a tower to rescue a princess. He had found a pear tree with a stout trunk made for a perfect tower. He was so overcome with victory at reaching the top that he lost his footing and tumbled down through the tree, breaking his neck as his body wedged in tight among the branches.
His family spent days looking for the young boy, the girl weeping for weeks on end after it had been concluded that he had been lost for good. Consumed with grief, the family fell out of their routines and failed to notice that their stores of rye grain had begun to sprout a fungus before the stepmother baked it into a loaf of bread. That night at dinner, and again the next morning when they ate the bread with breakfast, the family ingested the ergot and began to hallucinate wildly. The father imagined his ax in the corner taunting him to chop his family to bits. The stepmother became dizzy and saw the world in hues never before seen. And the girl heard her brother’s voice in the song of a little bird that alighted in their window.
If you want to know
What happened to me
Look to the boughs
Of the old pear tree!
The girl knew exactly which tree she imagined the bird was talking about. She rushed into the woods with her parents following and when they reached the tree they looked up and saw what was left of the boy among the branches. Another bird – or perhaps the same one – landed nearby and began singing.
Although she seems kind
And full of good cheer
Stepmother’s the one
Who threw me up here!
The girl, horrified, related what the bird had told her and demanded an explanation from her mother. Unclear in her own mind, the stepmother began weeping and confessed to having killed the boy and throwing his body up the tree, though she admitted not remembering doing so. While the girl and her mother wept the father returned home to ask the ax for advice. The ax suggested he hack his wife to bits, and the father had determined to do so, but when he returned to the pear tree he found both his wife and her daughter had been flattened by a boulder that rolled down the hill and came to a stop at the foot of the tree.
“Stepmother” freely adapted from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brother Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes. This is story number 253.
Once again we have the evil stepmother character, and aside from being tired of the repeated notion that a not-of-blood parent is inherently evil, what most interested me about the original was the ending. In the original the stepmother secretly chops up and serves the boy for dinner, the girl ties the bones together and tosses them into a pear tree, and the boy turns into a bird that comes back to tell them all what has happened. Then, out of nowhere, the stepmother is flattened by a giant millstone. Where? How? What the hell? I get that the stepmother must be punished, but the overall effect was of an old Monty Python sketch where someone would suddenly have a 16 ton weight dropped onto them from out of the sky.
So instead, I went with a more common set of explanations in keeping with the time: death by misadventure, and ergot poisoning, similar to what probably was responsible for that unfortunate business with the witches of Salem.
And a bloody boulder-out-of-nowhere.