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Archive for June, 2011

A Woodcutter and his Wife were so poor they could barely keep themselves fed, much less take care of their young son. At wit’s end they considered their options.

“We could send him on an impossible task and while he’s gone we could move to a new home,” said the Woodcutter. “Though that would require us to find a new home.”

“I’ve heard there is a witch in the forest that eats children who would be grateful if we could lead our son to him,” said his Wife. “Though that seems cruel.”

“What about the grotto?” said the Woodcutter.

“Yes, yes!” said his Wife. “The Virgin Mary’s grotto!”

It wasn’t much of a grotto to speak of, mostly a hollow in a dead tree that had once been struck by lightning. The story was that once, long ago, a child was sent to the woods and met the Virgin Mary who took the child to live in heaven. It was said that God had marked the tree by striking it with lightning so that lost and destitute children could seek it out for protection. So the Woodcutter and his wife sent their son on the path to the grotto and told him he would soon be in heaven.

When the Boy reached the grotto he called out for the Virgin Mary but she didn’t come. After several days of waiting the weather grew colder and the Boy made a protective bed of fallen leaves inside the tree.  Winds and rain and eventually snow came and began to bury the Boy. Then out of a frozen mist a gold shimmery light grew and the Virgin Mary appeared.

“Again?” she said. “What is it with these people and the stories they feed their children?” She removed the Boy from the tree and took him to heaven.

In heaven the Boy awoke and warmed and felt more alive than before. He was never in want of food or clothes and thrived just as his parents hoped he would. There were thousands of other children there to keep him company and more came every day. He rarely saw the Virgin Mary but one day she came up to the Boy and held out a ring of keys. Her voice was sad and flat, as if she had grown weary of reading a script over and over.

“Your turn. These are the keys to the kingdom of heaven. No doubt you know the rules. You may open any door except the small door at the end of the great hall, the one opened by this tiny key here. Should you open it you will be expelled from heaven and punished.” She put up her hand to prevent the Boy from making a vow. “Please, don’t promise me anything. It only depresses me.”

Now the caretaker with the keys to heaven the Boy began doing as all children before him had done, he began opening the doors of heaven. Behind each was a new marvel, treats to eat and toys to play with and things at which to marvel. Finally all the doors had been opened except the small door at the end of the great hall. Every child of heaven knew that the small door held the greatest treasure of all, the Holy Trinity, all on a throne of glory. Every child in heaven knew they were to never open the door and cast their eyes upon the glory within. And every child invariably opened the door anyway.

When the Boy opened the door he found the room empty, no throne of gold, no majestic light, no Holy Trinity.

“You really think I would keep the Holy Trinity locked in a closet?” the Virgin Mary said, appearing behind the disheartened Boy. “I suppose you know what happens next?”

“You strike me mute and send me back to earth, and there I will find a princess who will marry me and bear my children,” said the Boy. “Then you will come and take the children away one by one until the people of our kingdom insist I am an Ogre and be burned at the stake, at which point I will beg forgiveness and you come to return my children and give me back my voice.”

“Yes, yes,” said the Virgin Mary. “Now crawl into my arms and shut yours eyes.

And the Boy closed his eyes and fell into a deep, deep sleep. Soon the world of heaven faded and everything grew silent and he was dead.

In the spring after the snow thawed a Hermit came upon the grotto and found the dead Boy nestled into the tree just as when the snows came.

“Again?” said the Hermit. “What is it with these people and the stories they feed their children?” The Hermit carefully removed the lifeless child from the tree and carried him to a clearing nearby where he buried the Boy next to the hundreds he had buried before.

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Freely adapted from “The Virgin Mary and the Child” translated by Jack Zipes in The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm. This is story number 254, and I have to say, it always strikes me as odd when characters found in the bible make their way into Grimm tales. I realize it comes from a clash between the old storytelling and the new, the transition from folk tales to faith, but there is a discordant incongruity that itches my brain.
In the original story the child does see the Holy Trinity and is punished by being struck mute and sent back to earth. Marrying into royalty and having children and repenting at the stake is all there but it strikes me as equally hollow as a deathbed confession and absolution. I also imagined that if these stories were in circulation, how many parents “sent their children to heaven” as a solution to their problems. What a nice fiction to tell yourselves as you abandon your children to the wilderness!

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Near where I live three former cow paths which are now roads come together at an awkward angle to create what people in New England call an intersection. On-coming cars actually face off against one another, and left turns are only attempted by the locals who know the invisible dead spot in the middle where they are out-of-the-way of crossing traffic. And just to make it interesting, this is the main intersection in front of a K-8 school, throwing tiny pedestrians into the mix.

Among all the madness there are road signs, but the one that I’ve always liked was a white rectangle with a stack of four-letter words neatly arranged one atop the other.

LEFT
LANE
MUST
TURN
LEFT

They could have said “left turn only” or used one of those international symbols with the word “only” beneath it, but instead they went with what I only recently realized was a poetic solution to a simple direction at an inelegant passing.

With that in mind, I collected a list of four-letter words found on traffic, parking, and other common road signs and came up with the following collection of semi-found sign poetry.

REST
AREA
EXIT
HERE
DEER

SLOW
DOWN
THRU
DEAD
ZONE

TAXI
DON’T
STOP
ONLY
PASS

WORK
CREW
KEEP
ROAD
SOFT

BIKE
BEND
WALK
THIS
TIME

BUMP
ZONE
GIVE
REAR
HORN

I couldn’t resist reusing “zone” because I seem to have a vague memory of a disco-era LP that had a pair of young dancers cheek-to-cheek (and I ain’t talking faces) with a road sign above it that said “bump zone.”

Poetry Friday is stop-and-go down at Carol’s Corner this week, so be sure to look both ways and drive safe.

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There once was a Fox with nine tails. This Fox-o-nine-tails was special, well-loved and adored, but forever worried that he was loved and adored only for his tails. So it was that he decided to test his Vixen by trying her faith. Through an elaborate ruse he pretended to be dead, captured by a farmer, and sent word back with his friend Possum that he had been killed. Upon hearing this the Vixen collapsed in tears and began biting and rending the fur on her own tail in sorrow.

Possum returned and reported what he had seen but Fox was skeptical.

“The loss is immediate and her grief strong, but what if she were tempted, eh? What then?”

So Fox asked a vagabond cousin if he would do him a favor and comfort his Vixen in her grief. To make things interesting Fox cut off one of his tails and tied it to his cousin so he looked like he had two tails. His cousin made a call on the Vixen.

“I could never love another, and certainly none as vulgar as you!” the Vixen said.

When the cousin reported what had happened Fox cut off another tail and sent his cousin back. Again he was sent away. Fox did this a total of seven time and seven times the cousin was sent away. Then, with eight of Fox-o-nine-tails tails attached, he was warmly embraced and allowed into Vixen’s burrow. Fox-o-nine-tails had suspected this might happen and jumped out from behind a nearby bush.

“Ah-ha! Faithless Vixen, I see you for who you are now. You cared not for me and only for my nine tails, even when attached to this vagabond cousin of mine!”

“Ah-ha yourself, jealous fool. I thought you dead, and held myself in mourning long enough. I had no reason to suspect you were still alive and sent away seven suitors before my heart healed. I cared for you, yes, and when you were no longer around I needed to care for myself.”

“And you would take up with my cousin simply because of his silly decoration?”

“Your cousin remained kind in the face of my initial rudeness, genuine in his attention and affection over time, and far better in character and temperament than you ever were. In helping you he proved himself to be a more worthy companion. And as for his silly decoration, your precious tails, where are they now? Without them I can clearly see that you are no one special, perhaps never were, Fox-o-one-tail.”

With that Fox slunk deep into the woods never to be seen again, the entrance to his former borrow lined with his eight clipped tails.

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Adapted from “The Fox and Mrs. Fox” from The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Jack Zipes. This is story number 255, part of my on-going series of reinterpreting the Grimm tales.

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True story. Don’t ask.

Special Delivery

A simple game of hide-and-seek
Is how this came about.
I found the perfect hiding place
The best without a doubt.
Although the space is a bit cramped
And smells like… sauerkraut?
The others never looked in here
Now “All-in-free,” they shout.
But I cannot go home until
The Postman lets me out!

Poetry Friday. The roundup is hosted this week over at Check It Out. So check it out!

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All night long the Moon dashed across the sky, from one horizon to the other, around and around the Earth. Then one day the Moon stopped and sang to his mother:

Mother, dear Mother
Please make me a coat!
The Nighttime is freezing
My face is like ice!

So she measured the Moon and began cutting and sewing pieces of the night sky to make him a coat. While she was busy working the Moon skimmed the cream off the Milky Way and drank it greedily. When he was full and grew cold again he returned home.

Mother, dear Mother
Please give me my coat!
The Nighttime is freezing
My face is like ice!

When the Moon tried on the coat he discovered that he had grown fuller and the coat did not fit him. While his mother tore the coat apart to make a larger one the Moon dashed over the horizon nibbled away at the candy Sunset. The more the Moon ate of the Sunset the colder he felt when he returned to the nighttime.

Mother, dear Mother
Have you fixed my coat?
The Nighttime is freezing
My face is like ice!

But the coat was too small, the Moon had grown from snacking on the Sunset. So his mother took the coat apart and began to make a larger coat with even more pieces of the night sky. Meanwhile the Moon ran off and played hide-and-seek behind the sun, eating up Stardrops and drinking in Earthshine. When he tired of playing and eating and drinking he returned home.

Mother, dear Mother,
Is my coat done yet?
This Nighttime is freezing
My face is like ice!

Once again he tried on the coat and once again it was too small for the Moon. With this his mother tore the coat to pieces and handed him only the back of the coat with its collar attached.

Darling, dear Darling
You don’t need a coat!
You’ve tried all my patience
This cape will suffice!

And so, in order to keep himself warm, the Moon was forced to keep moving his cape around his plump little body as he crossed the night sky. Which explains why when you see the Moon overhead sometimes he is partially covered, sometimes half covered, sometime three-quarters covered, and sometimes completely covered. The Moon’s cape cannot cover more than any half of him at one time.

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I was a weird kid growing up. I never really saw the world the same way other kids did and never understood why everyone wanted to be the same as each other. In kindergarten when kids wanted to be doctors and firemen and nurses and whatnot I wanted to be a swimming pool builder. When it came to music there were divisions between the Jackson 5 lovers and the Monkees fanatics, but I was grooving to Argent. Eventually it got to the point where expressing these opinions stopped getting shrugged off and instead became the focus of taunts. It became safer to outwardly blow with the prevailing winds while internally sailing at different tides. Suffice to say I got so good at keeping things to myself that sometimes I even forgot what I truly believed.

In my youth I met a girl who had a litmus test for guys who wanted to date her. She would ask a potential suitor who their hero was and use that answer to determine if they were worthy. Though others knew of this test they failed to warn me in advance that there was no way to give a right answer because she only ever asked it as a way of turning down guys she wasn’t interested in. But, unaware and willing to bite, I considered the question seriously and said that I didn’t have a hero because I didn’t believe in hero-worship. I thought that might have actually worked in my favor, sidestepping the issue entirely with what I thought at the time was a clever answer, but instead she whipped back with “My father is my hero.” Trumped. How do you beat a girl’s dad in a hero contest? You don’t. End of conversation.

I’ve thought about that question a lot, especially as popular entertainment seems to have made us culturally obese with the glut of heroes and superheroes. It used to be good enough for a regular man to be a hero and make a stand, but now they have to be super in some way, above and beyond all reasonable ability, beyond pain, beyond the ability of an average man. Kids are brought up thinking the best thing to be is recognized as being above all others and invited to become wizards and fight the ultimate evil in the universe. As those grow older their heroes have to battle the undead or accomplish some heroic feats in dystopian games. Entering adulthood, their heroes must be even bigger and so they must be masters of weapons and never get hurt, or be able to perform superhuman feats either through technological or genetically modified advantages. Heroes used to fight for human things – peace and justice and poverty and abuse – but now they must save the world, battle evil beyond the scope of all out human resources, and look good doing so.

But this last week a man named Leonard Stern died. He was one-third of a law firm-sounding publishing company called Price Stern and Sloan and was generally recognized as the co-creator of Mad Libs back in 1958. But in thinking about his passing, and the business he and his partners created, I realized the answer I should have given was the one I once uttered back in the fifth grade. If there was anyone in the world at the time that I considered a hero it was the person who I wished I could be back then, Roger Price.

Mad Libs are, of course, a marvel of simplicity, pure comedic genius that took advantage of grammar for its humor. You couldn’t get any more intellectual in creating low brow humor than through the completion of a Mad Lib story. They were like an adult party game that adapted perfectly to any situation, and were just rude enough to play into a boy’s sense of humor.

But Roger Price also invented the Droodle in 1953. These were simple drawings within a box that appeared at first to be as cryptic as hobo pictographs that became humorous cartoons once you read the caption beneath them. For puzzle enthusiasts they were like visual riddles, but riddles best appreciated by absurdists.

some of these have more than one answer

As with Mad Libs, it was the deceptive simplicity of the humor that plays well with young and old. I don’t now how but I knew, back then, that this was the man responsible for both Mad Libs and Droodles and can remember thinking very clearly “This is something an adult can do for a living?” That was when I knew I wanted to grow up and be Roger Price.

Price wrote for Bob Hope, he was a game show panelist in the early days of television, he wrote for the Tonight Show and the early years of Mad Magazine. Later, with a bit of success behind him, he opened a gallery dedicated solely to cartoons. What joke-loving, art-making, dangerously verbal kid wouldn’t want to be like that when he grew up?

The problem is that there aren’t clear road maps kids in figuring out how to make a creative life. By fifth and sixth grade boys who plan to become athletes can join local teams and know the high school-college-professional progression toward their dream. Doctors and lawyers and teachers and other educated careers require good grades in school. But creative types aren’t generally encouraged in school, their individual paths aren’t clear, and in order to start at a young age usually requires some level of entrepreneurship that tends to run counter to growth of the creative spirit.

But that’s beside the point. What I realized just this week was that when I was asked who my hero was I should have been able to tap into that fifth grade moment and announced that my hero wasn’t a warrior or out to save the world but something a little more human scaled. He amused and brought laughter into the world – something heroes rarely do these days without cracking wise while someone else is suffering – and was a creative rather than a destroyer.

Roger Price, hero,  the inventor of the Mad Lib and the Droodle.

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A lunatic king was giving away his daughter for practically nothing. In exchange for spending three nights guarding an unused palace estate, any fellow of marrying age could have the girl and all rights and properties accorded the son-in-law of a king.

Now along came a young neer-do-well lad who was wise to world and knew how to carry himself. He’d spent many years wandering and thought it time to settle down, so with nothing to lose he applied to the king for a chance at the easy life.

“You may request three things to take into the palace with you, three inanimate objects,” the king said, “so choose wisely.”

The lad had heard tales of this king and his palace of madness and knew from the stories he would be best to take with him a carpenter’s bench with a blade, a lathe, and fire. The kind was impressed for it seemed the lad knew what he was up against, and he was not wrong. The lad had heard tales in a nearby tavern of others who had tried their hands at winning the king’s daughter, strange tales at that. Tales of disembodied legs tumbling out of the chimney, followed by heads, that could be carved into bowling pins and balls. This would be followed by cats who would challenge young men at cards but would require the trimming of their claws first.  In cards and bowling the lad had honed his skills in all the taverns of the land, and as for trimming cats claws, well, how hard could it be?

And so it was on that first night that the lad built a fire in the fireplace and say on the carpenter’s bench and waited.

At first he thought he head the sound of something coming down the chimney but instead it turned out to be someone knocking at the front door. When he opened in a man walked in dressed in a most unusual manner. He wore a lose-fitting tunic with the word STATE across the front of it, a pair of hose that hung loosely from his hips to his feet, and on his feet wore boots of such fine craftsmanship that the lad assumed they must have been enchanted. He had a sack of shiny cloth slung over one shoulder with openings that would yield and seal with the zip of his fingers.  Out of the sack her removed a pair of floppy bound manuscripts.

“How you doing? My name’s Brad. So listen, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do here.  Most of the other kids have been studying for the better part of the year so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover on these practice exams.”

The lad was puzzled. Where were the legs he could carve into bowling pins? “Practice for what?”

“Indeed, practice for what?” Brad said. “What are the SATs practice for? For going to college and taking more tests, so that you can prove you’re a good test taker and graduate and show the world your diploma and say ‘See? I am a master of test-taking!'”

The lad bent over and looked up the chimney.  “Hello? Anyone up there?”

“But then what?” said Brad. “They tell you that you can’t get a good job unless you go to college, but then you graduate college and there aren’t any jobs anyway. Then where are you?”

“Yes,” the lad said, perplexed by most of what Brad said. “Where am I?”

“Right back where you started from. Back to taking the GRE and the LSAT and the GME and getting into grad school because a graduate degree is the new undergrad degree in terms of getting a meaningful job. So it’s back to the tests to prove that you’re in the top percentile of test-takers and ready to get right back to it.”

“You don’t happen to be from St. Ives, by any chance? Maybe have some cats in that fine bag of yours?”

“But a graduate degree isn’t any better. There’s still no guarantee, and chances are good you’re going to end up like sixty percent of grads who end up working in a different field than the one they have degrees in.”

The lad began to get nervous. He understood magical bed that would romp through houses, and talking animals that would challenge him in games of chance, but the nonsense this Brad spewed sounds like the enchantments of a warlock. Clearly the palace had been abandoned for a reason and that reason was becoming clear to the lad; it had been cursed and this Brad must be the wizard who had laid the curse upon it. He picks up the knife from the bench and held it at arm’s length.

“Begone! I am not to be taken in by your spells and enchantments! I have come to spend three nights here and in doing so will win the king’s daughter!”

Brad paused and rolled his eyes. “Yes, and then what? No test no diploma, no diploma no job, no job no way to support your little princess. You ever think about that?”

“I shall share the king’s wealth… won’t I?”

Brad smiled and shook his head. “You kids. You think you know it all. I’ll leave these here and you can get started.  Try to have the first section in each book done by tomorrow.  We’ll see how you do and adjust your study strategies accordingly.”

Once Brad left the lad bolted the door and took the bewitched exam prep workbooks and threw them into the fire. Then he sat and waited all night for other strange things but none came. Soon enough he had fallen asleep.

The next morning the king arrived to see how the lad had done. Seeing the lad had sleep apnea he appeared to be dead and the king sighed. Just then the lad snorted and woke up.

“Holloa! You survived the first night!”

“Yes, and you shall find me long gone before the second night arrives! If this were the sort of place frequented by body parts and maniacal animals I could sort it out. I’m a fine kegler and a fair cardsharper and I could have at these sorts of trials.  But this place is haunted by an evil spectre that speaks in riddles and I swear attempted to steal my soul away. You may keep this madness to yourself, and good riddance to any bride that must be won through such trials.”

With that the lad returned to his wanderings and lived happily ever after.

As for the lunatic king and his daughter, who knows.

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This is my adaptation of “Good Bowling and Card Playing” from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes, part of a series. Collect them all!

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