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Archive for July, 2011

A little hen’s
Discovery
Along the fens:
A little key!

A little cock
With puffed-out breast
Stumbled on
A little chest!

Inside the chest,
all stiff and dead;
A little tail
With fur of red!

That’s it?

Yes, it’s a short tale.

It’s not a tale at all! It stops just as it was getting interesting!

Well, what do you think happens next?

What do I think happens next? What about what happened before?! Someone had to have a reason to lock up that tail and toss the key somewhere else. Maybe no one was supposed to find that chest, maybe opening it let out some kind of evil!

That’s an interesting possibility.

And what happened to the chickens when they opened it up? Did they die of fright? Did the tail jump out at them and chase them around the woodlands? Maybe it was the devil’s tail!

All of these are equally plausible, little one.

I don’t like this tale, it cheats.

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“The Short Tale,” story number 250 from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Jack Zipes, as reinterpreted by me, David Elzey. Part of a complete breakfast an ongoing project to reinterpret the Grimm tales over the course of many, many Thursdays.

The original of this story is 43 words long and makes just as much sense as my rhymed verses. Two birds, a key, a chest, and a little red fur inside, the end. Woe to the child who was gyped at bedtime with this tale.

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It was winter, a desperate call was made to Heaven for a child. But heaven did not answer and desperation turned to despair. The woman shed her own blood upon the snow, glistening spots of cherry red flowing out across sugar crystal banks, faded at the edges to sun-burnt peaches.

The bears came. They divided what they found and left only the heart behind. The heart froze throughout winter, sank into the snow banks, took root in the earth during the thaw, and with the shed blood raised a fairy ring of deadly red cap mushrooms in the spring.

A band of woodsmen and huntsman came upon the fairy ring, seven-strong in all, who knew better than to step into the ring for fear of entrapment. Combining their wits and strategies they dangled a carrot above the center of the ring from a tree branch then they took cover. In time a white rabbit came forth, stepping into the ring to sample the carrots, and upon standing on the spot where the heart was buried became instantly transformed into a small child. The seven men waited until the infant withdrew from the enchanted circle of her own accord and then brought her home with them.

They named the rabbit-child Snow.

The seven woodsmen and huntsmen raised Snow as their own, teaching her all a young woman should know, always with the message that the world outside the house was dangerous and she was not to leave under any circumstance. The seven men knew that despite her beauty she contained whatever heart had been at the center of the fairy ring and that she could bring about great danger. For her part Snow knew nothing about how she came to be, only that the seven men found her in the woods one day and rescued her from the elements. For that, Snow was most grateful.

In time the rabbit-girl grew to be the most beautiful of young women. Her voice could literally call water to spring forth from the ground and cause trees to bear ripened fruit within seconds. Logs wood split into firewood if she hummed to them, rocks would spark and create fires for her with a wink of he eye. Upon surveying her talents the seven huntsman and woodsmen knew that Snow’s heart contained a great yearning that they would be powerless to stop on their own.

And so the seven men went into various nearby towns with tales of a beauty in the woods so perfect and rare that surly she was the fairest child any would ever lay eyes on. Their hope had been to entice men to seek Snow out, to draw out the power of her bitter heart, because they believed that bitterness would take root and transform Snow into an evil sorceress. But in spreading the word the Queen had heard raves of Snow’s beauty and in her jealously insisted on seeing the child people considered most beautiful.

While the seven were away the Queen called upon Snow’s house in the woods in the guise of a weaver and mender of garments. Snow remembered her guardian’s warnings and refused to come out and speak to the Queen-in-disguise. Explaining that she was forbidden to speak with strangers the Queen caught a look of Snow in the window and was stunned beyond belief: she was the spitting image of her long-gone sister, the sister she had despised, the sister whose tea she had slowly poisoned over time to make her barren, the sister whose husband, the King, she had calmed in his grief and later married. It had been nearly seventeen years since her sister vanished and now here she was as if she hadn’t aged in all that time.

Frantically, the Queen returned home and told her husband that there was an evil spirit lurking in the woods. She had heard that there was a Harpy luring all the men from the village to trick them into killing themselves and then devour their remains. The King didn’t initially believe his wife’s story until he saw men in the villages making plans and setting out to find this mystical beauty named Snow. At once the King sent his fleetest messengers to announce that none would view Snow until the King had laid eyes upon her himself. If the Queen was right, and that the Harpy could read the minds of those it saw and take the shape of the dead, then the King would be the one to slay the Harpy and save the kingdom.

Hearing all this the huntsmen and woodsmen began to understand what the fairy ring had brought forth. They returned home before the King or any suitors could to tell Snow the truth of her providence. They explained that they did not know what would happen, or what she should do, only that they would be powerless to help her and that she should not be afraid. After all they had done for her Snow trusted the seven men and knew in her heart that what they said was right. A great calming peace came over Snow as she sat by the fire and tended to her sewing. The woodsmen and huntsmen each took a turn kissing Snow’s head before retreating to the edge of the clearing where they could secretly watch what happened.

The King arrived with his men, followed by the Queen and the men from the village curious to glimpse the one called Snow. Pounding on the door the King demanded Snow to step outside. He had repeated the conflicting rumors that she was most beautiful and that he had reason to suspect there was a Harpy in the woods and would get to the bottom of things. Slowly the door to the cottage opened and out stepped Snow. Those old enough to remember gasped as they saw the King’s long-lost wife appear before them, while the younger men were taken in by her beauty. Standing there, Snow felt as if she had known every single face in the crowd, as if from dreams or perhaps a secret life before this one.

The King’s heart filled with poisonous pain, a combination of rage and grief. “How dare you appear before me in that guise!” the King said. He turned and grabbed an ax he had strapped to his saddle and planted himself squarely before Snow. His eyes reddened as they flooded with tears. “Have you anything to say before I kill you, witch?”

Snow began to hum and a pile of logs nearby split of their own accord. She winked and the rocks tumbled together to send off sparks. She opened her mouth to sing and the trees burst with ripened fruit while pools of water created burbling hot springs all around. Then she stopped singing and nature calmed. “My heart is ready to be released,” she said.

Though it pained him to raise his ax against the image of his one true love, the King shifted his stance and prepared to fell Snow like a tree. He took careful aim at her chest, and deep breath, then closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to remember the image of what he was about to do. But the King’s gloves had been recently oiled and the ax flew from his hands as he drew back, sending the ax flying out of his hands and blade squarely into the chest of the Queen. In the commotion that followed, no one noticed that Snow seemed to have vanished into thin air, and they certainly didn’t notice the white rabbit that hopped back into the woods never to be seen again.

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Freely adapted from “Snow White, Snow White, or The Unfortunate Child,” story number 251 in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and edited by Jack Zipes. This is part of a series of reinterpretations of every Grimm tale, usually appearing every Thursday though occasionally (like today) on Friday.

Some things I found interesting about the original tale: originally the Queen was from England, suggesting a certain regionalism where natives of the Grimmoire might have told tales of a vain and vengeful queen who was jealous of local beauty; that the Queen tries to kill Snow with a lace (corseting her so tight she cannot breath) and a comb (perhaps sticking its teeth into a nerve point at the neck that paralyzes her?) before finally poisoning her with an apple; and finally, that no prince comes to save her with a kiss, but instead it is her father and some experienced doctors who revive Snow (something to do with a rope) and they all return home to torture the Queen to dance to death.

I’m fairly certain this is a variant telling of the tale, that elsewhere (if memory serves) a version exists where a prince does come and removes the bite of poison apple from Snow’s mouth which brings about her revival. In the retelling I wanted Snow to be something more than beautiful, I wanted to find a way for her and the Queen to have some connection and thus a greater threat. I don’t imagine some people will appreciate my mixing a fairy ring and Harpies into the mix, but then things are always a little different in the Grimmoire than they are elsewhere in the fairy tale world.

 

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Well, that’s that. The 2011 Summer Residency for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is over. Though I know a few stragglers are still in Montpelier with family or are preparing to embark on vacations, everyone else was well on their way before the 10 AM check-out time.

After yesterday’s graduation we fellow Graduate Assistants went down the hill into town and ate crepes at The Skinny Pancake, an eatery most worthy. We had talked of getting an order of poutine for the table to share but in the end it was a good thing we didn’t, our stuffed sweet and savory crepes were good enough. It was the second time we ate out as a group, though we also shared plenty of other meals in the cafeteria, and I think by the end we gelled as a group the way the individual classes do. I would go back and do it all over with dp, Catherine, Christopher, and Pam in a heartbeat.

As these residencies continue I find there are fewer and fewer recognizable faces from when I was in the program, and a whole lot of new faces. The “kids” I met as First Semesters last year were now officially in the middle of the program and it was interesting to see how they’d sort of “mellowed” into things. I think that its impossible to go through the program and not be changed, while still finding your creative spirit and zeal invigorated in the process. It was great to be able to “check in” with them and not feel so much like I was returning to a school full of strangers. Of course, no one remains a stranger in a small program like tis fr long, but still. Then again, the class that will graduate in January of 2012 were the incoming class during my graduating residency of 2010, which means that if I return next summer I will encounter the entire generation of five classes that entered after I left the program. How odd! It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long!

The current graduating class – all of them really, but this one is fresh in mind – is full of brilliant writers who I cannot imagine won’t find their way onto bookshelves and e-readers in short time. Godspeed, you League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches! May your bready exteriors remain fresh and your cheesy souls remain creamy and smooth.

As usual after returning from VCFA I am both exhausted and supercharged. I’m ready to tear back into my writing with zeal but I’m also dying to take a massive nap and get some laundry down. After 11 days in a bubble I have read last Sunday’s paper and scanned some headlines on line just to make sure I didn’t miss any major news. Women’s soccer lost in a shoot-out after overtime, and Rupert Murdoch’s “news” organization is full of the same type of unsavory and immoral characters they promote into office. That about covers it, I think.

All of which to say that I am unprepared to deliver an original story from The New Grimmoire today. Tomorrow perhaps, or Saturday at the latest. I still don’t know if I’ll be pushing off Poetry Friday into the weekend as well. All I know is that, like a vacation, I need a break from the break. One day of re-entry and then tomorrow, day one, 8 AM, lasers.

 

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I’m at camp, but not really. I’m once again working the summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts for the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program as a Graduate Assistant. My duties are varied, but basically I’m here to help make things run smooth for the students, faculty, and program administrators. I also get to sit in on awesome lectures by award-winning writers and get some hints (and reminders) about ways to make my writing better.

I’ve joked before that a part of this feels like camp, and it’s the part at the end of the day when people congregate in one of the lounges and play writerly games or just talk shop and perhaps enjoy an occasional adult beverage. But the one thing this camp does have is a campfire full of camp songs. I thought back to some of the songs I learned back in my camp days and thought “The Quartermaster’s Stores” might be adaptable. I have done my best, given he lateness of the hour.

My neck is stiff, my wrists they ache,
I cannot stop to take a break.
I can-hey! not-ho! stop to take a break!

Oh there’s friction, friction, friction building tension in our fiction,
In the box, in the box.
Yes, there’s friction, friction, friction building tension in our fiction,
That we carry in our old toolbox!

My eyes are dim, my hands are cramped,
My climax needs to be revamped!
My cli-hey! max-ho! needs to be revamped!

We’ve got drawers, drawers, drawers, all crammed with metaphors,
In the box, in the box.
Lots of drawers, drawers, drawers, all stuffed with metaphors
That we carry in our old tool box!

My back is sore, my shoulders knot,
There’s massive holes inside my plot!
There’s mas-hey! sive-ho! holes inside my plot!

We’ve must flog, flog, flog our listless dialog
In the box, in the box.
Let those beats unclog the listless dialog
That we carry in our old tool box!

My jaw is tight, my ass is numb,
There’s paper cuts on both my thumbs!
There’s pa-hey! per-ho! cuts on both my thumbs!

We must feed, feed, feed our character needs,
In the box, in the box.
Yes, we must feed, feed, feed our character needs,
That we carry in our old tool box!

With furrowed brow and wrinkles deep,
I must deprive myself of sleep!
I must-hey! de-ho! prive myself of sleep…

Like all good (?) camp songs, this can go on forever. In the original the song can last for as long as people can think up foodstuffs and rhymes for all the things the quartermaster might (or might not) carry. Should the spirit move you, feel free to add a chorus or verse to “The Writer’s Toolbox.”

Well, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with something this week, but it’s Poetry Friday and here we are! A Year of Reading is hosting the round-up of poetry this week, and I bet they’d go good with s’mores!

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Okay, so first, the name. It isn’t like I had a lot of choice in the matter.  Who does?  Apparently it’s an old family name, not that I believe that, but there you go.

Then there’s this whole ladle-riding business. That happened exactly once, at an office party, and I didn’t know the punch was spiked. Oh, look, Rumpenschtumpen’s plastered. Here, give the little guy this ladle and tell him it’s a hobby-horse! It’ll be a scream! Yeah. I guess some people are easily amused.

Now, this girl who could spin straw into gold thread, or so I heard. What’s her name? Eh, doesn’t matter. All I know is that the spinning wheel used to belong to my grandmother, it’s a family heirloom. I ran into my friend Khlamushka and he told me there’s some miller who claimed his daughter was magical and could spin gold. I only ever heard of one other person who could do that and that was Gran-Gran so I went to check things out.

I have to tell you, that girl was miserable. Her father was a brute and if I’d been a few yards taller I’d given him a knuckle sandwich for the stories that girl told me. He’d locked her up in a hayloft with that wheel and had her spinning spools until her fingers bled. Then he’d wallop her for not making his dinner fast enough, and send her to bed with only an old crust to gnaw on. You know, the kind of thing you hear in fairy tales, only this guy was the real deal.

So I came up with this plan. I’d find some guy from out-of-town to come and pretend to be a prince and whisk her away and in exchange she’d give me Gran-Gran’s wheel. Sounds fair, right? She agrees and off I go. It didn’t take long to find some yokel who’d take a bath and wear come clean breeches for a few hours work and I promised him a sackful of ducats if he pulled it off.

The whole thing went down just like I planned. Our fake prince swoops in and hauls the girl away, the father thinks he’s going to become part of a royal family, the kids split up in the woods, and I get my wheel back.

Except that’s not what went down.

Turns out our prince was some kind of wannabe Romeo and the girl falls in love. They hightail it out-of-town with my Gran-Gran’s wheel, and once I heard that there wasn’t much I could do. I wrote the whole thing off as a loss.

About a year later I’ve got the local constable at my door calling me some kind of a deadbeat dad. The way I pieced it together, this girl – the miller’s girl, the one I saved – she got herself with child and Prince Romeo freaked out and skedaddled. To save face she claimed I was the father and the constable tracked me down. Only she didn’t say Rumpleschtumpen knocked me up, no, what she said was You know, that little guy who used to ride around on a ladle?

There’s just no way I’m ever going to live that down, am I?

But suddenly I get an idea. I tell the constable that he’s got the wrong guy, and if in fact the girl he’s talking about is the miller’s daughter, then she stole something from me when she left town and I’d like to collect it. By this point I could tell the constable regretted getting involved, but I was fairly sure I could get my Gran-Gran’s spinning wheel back and teach this girl a lesson about respecting her elders in the process.

Now the version of this story that you might have heard is that I went to lay claim to the child, was defeated by the girl’s trickery, and sent packing on my ladle. That’s because in the end all she had was her story to cling to and she spent the rest of her life trying to sell it to the tabloids. Here’s what really happened.

We’re there, the three of us – me, the girl, and the constable – and she points me out like it’s some police line up, screeching That’s the one!  I smile, I only smile. Because I know in a minute this girl is going regret ever having crossed me. So I say I’d have thought you could at least remember the name of your child’s father. Boy, that stumped her. Then I rubbed it in a little. I tell you what. If you can remember my name within three tries I’ll take responsibility for that child of yours and we’ll call the whole thing settled.

Did she ever fume. Her face rippled like laundry in the breeze as she tried to conjure up some sort of name.

“It’s Hollingsworth,” she declared.

“Nope.”

“No, not Hollingsworth. I don’t know why I said that.”

“That’s your first guess.”

” It’s something else, right there on the tip of my tongue. I remember we used to sing a song about you when we were young and played in the woods.”

“Yes, I remember. You children could be so cruel. Here, let me give you a hint. He dances like a little flame, Something-something is his name!”

“Tricky Dicky!”

“Such a preposterous name, child. That was your second guess. One last chance.”

“Oh, wait! I remember now. Wrinkledinkle. That’s it, Wrinkledinkle.”

Needless to say the constable was not amused by the girl’s false accusations and demanded the return of my Gran-Gran’s spinning wheel. The last she saw of me I was on the next horse-drawn cart out of town – a proper cart, mind, and not a ladle. She never did get my name right when those brothers came around and paid her a five-spot to tell her tale.

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This is story number 252, “Rumpenstunzchen,” from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes.

This is one of the original versions of a tale known in the United States as “Rumpelstiltskin.” Something I’ve never understood what the how and why of name-changing from other languages into English. The name Rumpelstilzchen means “little rattle stick” and the other variations of his name tend to reference the main character as noisy little talker. It would seem that a proper transformation of the name should be something like Chitterchatterbox and not a nonsensical approximation of the original name. But then even the Brothers Grimm seemed to come up with a variant on the original.

As for riding around on a cooking ladle, I’ve always found that to be a baffling bit of nonsense. I hope my explanation clears this matter up once and for all.

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Yes indeed, it’s time for me to skedaddle my way back to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to serve once again as a Graduate Assistant for the summer residency of the Writing For Children and Young Adults MFA program. And consistent with every residency, I’m in my last-minute list-making and packing for the twelve days I’ll be away. After six previous residencies (five as a student and one as a GA last summer) you’d think I would know what and how to pack, or at the very least be able to find my lists from previous trips.

Which leads me to today’s poem.

i’ve got a list, i’ve checked it twice
before i can proceed.
i’ve packed and repacked each bag thrice
with everything i need.

kenneled the plants, watered the cat
(no! other way around!)
i can’t forget my favorite hat
for strolling into town

unplugged the phone so it won’t wail,
the windows sealed tight,
i put a hold on all my mail,
a timer on a light.

i bought a GPS device
to help me find my way.
the route it planned is so precise
i won’t get lost today!

I’m gone! i’m out! i’m with the tide!
i’ve got no time to spare…
but, wait! i’ve locked my keys inside!
i’m in my underwear!

No, I have never left the house in my underwear, but I have locked myself out many a time. And no matter how many times I make a list, and how carefully I consider everything I’m going to need, invariably I forget at least one thing.

So here it is, Poetry Friday. Next week I’ll be posting from a my cinder block cave in Montpelier, hopefully inspired enough to have something new to post. In the here-and-now Poetry Friday is being hosted by Elaine over at Wild Rose Reader.

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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.
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“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.

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