A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

026. Little Red Cap

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here.*

We pull our hoods up when we reach the house. The yard is dark except for the light from the kitchen window; we creep around the porch, the brightness drawing us like moths. Inside, we already know, is the granddaughter: thick-chinned, bag-eyed, preparing a supper. The old woman sleeps upstairs, but we’ve never seen her.

The worst we ever do is throw a clump of snow or dirt at the window. Once, we rang the doorbell on the porch, but the granddaughter, we learned that day, doesn’t answer the door. Halie, who stayed out back by the kitchen window, told us that at the sound of the bell, the granddaughter froze up and bit her lip and didn’t move for a full minute, her eyes sidelong at the front hall. Madeline thinks the granddaughter’s afraid of an evil ex-boyfriend; Jen says it’s bill collectors she doesn’t want to see.

Tonight, the granddaughter leans over the little dining table set in the middle of the kitchen, spreading Nutella on a piece of white bread. She pours a glass of cranberry juice and cuts it with water. She shakes pills from three different bottles and pours them from her hand into a short paper cup and places it all on a tray. Eliza says, let’s go. This is dumb. Eliza’s dumb. Not really, but she’s always afraid we’ll get caught when we go around peeking like this. Caught, or worse. We all heard about that girl who got shot asking for help after some car trouble. But that’s not our neighborhood. That’s not us.

Nutella, Madeline whispers. For dinner? Lame. Jen, who’s shorter than the rest of us, elbows us aside and pulls herself up with her hands on the windowsill to see better. The window frame creaks, and she jerks back down before the granddaughter can look up from her table.

Granny? we hear the granddaughter say. Her voice rises at the end of the word, and clips it into two sounds. Halie sniggers. Gran-nee? she laughs. We take it up, too, yipping as we prowl along the side of the house to the front, letting our sounds echo. We’ve had enough silence; now is the time of night for a little noise. Gran-nee! We run together up the street. Behind us, the granddaughter must hear, but we don’t care. Gran-nee, we cry. Gran-nee, gran-nee, gran-nee.

Cate Fricke
January 2015

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

025. The Seven Ravens

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

What you’ve carried: A three-legged stool, for sitting. So that’s five legs in all, which makes any journey shorter. A pitcher, for water, for it’s winter here, below the stars, and a jug full of fresh snow will last you till the Glass Mountain and beyond. And a knife, that too, though when you started you didn’t know what for.

What you’ve been given: Most helpful directions from the stars themselves, who arranged themselves in a perfect map to point you to your brothers’ home. A lesson, from the sun and moon, that what looks friendly from far away will devour you if you get too close. A key of bone — oh, where has it gone?

Now you stand, your little boots filling with snow, before the door in the side of the Glass Mountain, and they key is nowhere to be found. You bend your eye to the keyhole. Look there! A table, made of finest wood that you recognize from the forests of home, lovingly varnished to a gleam. Steaming pies — apple and peach — whose scents condescend to find you at the keyhole. Ah, don’t they smell just like your mother’s. As though, for lo these years, your brothers have made a copy of the home they remember, here in this wintery place. But there is no one at the table but birds. Until you are there, it is no home.

Quick, little one, lift up your finger. It will just fit into the lock. A slice, a break, and you will not miss it. Seven brothers, with ten fingers each and more tales than even that, will be your reward. Alas, no one returns home all in one piece.

Cate Fricke
November 2014

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Thoughts on “The Seven Ravens”

Another tale in the “brothers turned into birds” fairy tale sub-genre, “The Seven Ravens” is notable for its whimsical and frightening imagery, and the fact that it’s a rashly uttered curse, rather than a witch or a powerful wish, that turns the seven brothers in the tale into ravens.

As far as any fairy tale might have a moral, “The Seven Ravens” could well be interpreted as a warning again using harsh words which you’re sure to regret: in this story, when a man’s seven sons don’t return after he sends them to get fresh water for his ailing infant daughter, he angrily shouts, “I wish all those boys would all be turned into ravens!” Sure enough, they immediately are. (I’m indebted to this scene for the header illustration featured here on the blog, which is by Albert Weisgerber.)

But the story, like most “brothers turned into birds” tales, really belongs to the little sister who, upon learning that she once had brothers, sets out to find and rescue them. What I love about “The Seven Ravens” versus “The Twelve Brothers” and “The Six Swans” is that this particular  sister journeys to the literal ends of the earth to find her brothers. She meets the sun, who eats human flesh; the moon, who is terrifying and threatening; and the stars, who are described as very friendly, each sitting on its own little chair. She finds her brothers living inside of a glass mountain — to enter it, she must cut off her own little finger and use the bone as a key. The tale is so dreamlike, so evocative of a child’s darkest imaginings, that it lifts itself above the other tales of its ilk, for me, and sets my imagination spinning.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by Felix Hoffman

Illustration by Felix Hoffman

 

024. Mother Holle

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

Mother Holle goes on holiday to a place where there is absolutely no snow. She presses and pulls herself into a two-piece, orange and yellow plaid swimsuit and dons a sun hat with a brim wide enough to say, I know what I’m doing. Regarding herself in the hotel room mirror, contained in a brass frame in need of a polish, she shakes her bottom and watches her hips jiggle. This satisfies Mother Holle. When Mother Holle shakes her behind, Bloody Marys appear next to deck chairs across the land.

Mother Holle takes the elevator to the lobby and shows her key card to the young man guarding the entrance to the pool. In the breakfast buffet, separated from her by a railing — more brass — groups of men and women uniformly divided by gender nurse hangovers with plates of bacon and create-your-own omelets.

A woman in a red two-piece brings Mother Holle a mimosa, still fripping with freshly-poured champagne. Anything else this morning? the woman asks. Mother Holle likes the woman’s clean smile, her feet that show no hint of self-tanner. How often do you work here? she asks the woman. I’m here through Thursday, she answers. She points to a tag pinned to the strap of her bathing suit, leaning askew. I’m Meredith, if you need anything else. Just ask.

Mother Holle adjusts her sunglasses as Meredith walks away, wiping them with a corner of the striped towel draped over the back of the chair. The sun, not yet at its zenith, pours over the roof of the hotel and down into the pool area, and suddenly Meredith is lost, disguised behind rays of gold. Mother Holle squints, and puts her glasses back on.

Cate Fricke
November 2014

 

DBP_1967_539_Frau_Holle

Thoughts on “Mother Holle”

“Mother Holle,” like Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads,” is a tale about a kind girl and an unkind girl, and the consequences of their vastly different behavior. The kind girl in this tale is akin to Cinderella, in that she’s treated unkindly by her stepmother, but comes into good fortune. But her story is more similar, in fact, to the Russian tale of Vasilisa and the witch Baba Yaga. As in “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (or “Vasilisa the Brave,” depending), the girl is sent from her home to complete a task for her stepmother, and ends up crossing paths with a frightening, but ultimately benevolent, witch. When the girl returns home, laden with gold for her good behavior and domestic skills, the stepmother sends her own ugly daughter to find Mother Holle and be rewarded as well. But the ugly daughter is unkind and lazy, and instead of a shower of gold, she is showered in pitch.

Maria Tatar makes some comparisons in The Annotated Grimms’ Fairy Tales between “Mother Holle” and the Greek myth of Persephone, but with a layer of domestic didacticism: the girl finds Mother Holle after falling down a well after a lost spindle, and waking up in a mysterious meadow. She has, in a sense, journeyed to an underworld. One of the domestic tasks that she must perform in order to gain Mother Holle’s good graces is to shake the witch’s featherbed, so that snow will fall on Earth–a uncommonly mythological jump for a European fairy tale. What is decidedly European about “Mother Holle,” however, is its focus on domestic instruction. After all, beauty cannot be a woman’s only virtue.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my writing response here.

DBP_1967_540_Frau_Holle

 

023. The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

The dog took up his post at 4pm, as per usual, just as the sun was settling low in the sky, like a wheezing woman sinking into an old chair. The road between the village and the capitol was at its busiest at early dusk. Tradesmen creaked their wagons homeward and mothers lumbered back from market with bread under their arms and children, tired, whining behind them. The dog liked to smell the children’s palms, on which lingered traces of each scrumptious thing the children had fondled before being told no, you’ll ruin your dinner, and for goodness’ sake wipe your nose. The children, and their parents, too, smelled familiar to the dog, and familiar was what he liked.

No one had ever told him to guard the road — but the dog could see that it needed guarding, and he figured himself the best candidate. He was old, nearly twelve, but his nose was still sharp.

In fact, it was his nose which stayed awake on evenings such as this, while the dog himself dozed. This was the bargain he’d struck with himself, for he knew his best skills, and how to account for them. The dog’s eyelids closed while his discerning nostrils remained open. The nose sniffed — the traces of a fine fish chowder — and the dog fancied himself swimming through thick, creamy brine, snapping at haddock, licking the peppered chunks of yellow potato clean.

Cate Fricke
November 2014

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage”

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage,” a fable-like tale similar to “The Companionship of the Cat and Mouse,” it’s that one ought to be content with what one has, especially when one’s situation is working well. But, as the line in this morbid tale goes, “those who lead the good life are always looking for ways to make it even better.” And according to this fable, that search can only end in disaster.

Because this isn’t a very well-known tale, here’s a brief summary:

A mouse, a bird, and a sausage live a good life together. The bird flies into the forest to get wood for the fire, the mouse lights the fire and brings water for the soup, and the sausage does the cooking, seasoning the food by ‘sliding’ through the soup just before mealtime. But one day, the bird meets another bird who, upon hearing about this well-organized arrangement, tells the first bird that he’s a dupe for doing the hardest task each day. The bird, incensed by this, demands that he and his fellows switch jobs. The sausage sets out to gather wood, the bird is charged to fetch water, and the mouse becomes responsible for the cooking and seasoning of the dish. As you may have guessed already, this new plan doesn’t go well. The sausage, having left the home to fetch wood, is eaten by a dog (who, when interrogated by the bird, claims he had every right to eat the sausage, as he’d found forged letters on the sausage’s person). The bird and the mouse intend to carry on, but after the fire is going and the water is boiling, the mouse tries to slide through the soup the way the sausage did, and is boiled alive. The bird, in his distraction, allows the fire to grow too hot, and when he goes to get more water to put out the flames, he drowns.

Philip Pullman points out that, unlike the Cat and Mouse, these companions “are not fundamentally ill-matched.” If it had not been for the bird’s sudden dissatisfaction, they could have continued to get along very well. And so the story intimates that this dissatisfaction can lead to ruin. A slightly more troubling read suggests that in order to avoid catastrophe, one should know one’s place, and not seek to change it.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

022. The Riddle

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

A man dies carrying a virus.

He is a pacifist. Correction: he was a pacifist. He had no children and no wife. He lived in celibacy. This was his contribution to the great smooth orb of life. He dies content that he has harmed no one, and that the virus has died with him.

A man dies robbing a store.

Correction: He does not die all at once. He is wounded by a shotgun fired by the store’s owner. The bullet enters his right shoulder as the man runs away. It makes a home for itself behind the man’s collar-bone. He dies later, in the hospital, the result of a surprising resistance to the painkillers he is prescribed.

A woman dies, very old, two streets away in the hospice wing of a retirement home. At the same moment as the robber, isn’t that funny?

Nine more like these come to mind, but you haven’t got all morning.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? You and I have nothing to do with these. We do not create death. This seems like a fact that one should take comfort in. Let us say that we leave our home, our destination a workplace of some kind, and our coffee spills from the cup-holder and we reach to wipe it up, and hear screeching tires aways behind us, coming closer and then too close. Yes, let’s imagine accidents, both realistic and improbable — a terrible game. There, perhaps we’ve slain someone today, if only in our minds.

But then, let us say that we sneeze at an inopportune moment, and a fellow with a delicate immune system catches the cold we said we’d shoulder through, and cannot produce the necessary antibodies to fight it. We moved ahead in a line of traffic that made it impossible for the robber to make his clean escape, several blocks away. We busied the bank teller with our questions just before closing time, keeping him from his weekly chat at his elderly mother’s bedside, and she, already ailing, slipped away in loneliness. Perhaps we will never know. How am I to take a step, not knowing? I am responsible for a sudden darkness in too many lives to count. So many lights sputtering out, so many more than these I’ve described to you, and I am still here. And that is a riddle indeed.

Thoughts on “The Riddle”

The cruelest women in fairy tales, if you were to ask the Grimms, are not the witches, but the women who slay innocent men in order to avoid marriage. They live in the Aarne-Thompson type #851, “The Princess Who Cannot Solve a Riddle,” and have a lineage that reaches as far back as the Greek Atalanta, who challenged her would-be suitors to a foot race. If they lost, they died. If she lost, she would marry them. Similarly, in tales like “The Riddle,” the princesses who riddle ask that their would-be suitors pose a clever question: if she can guess the answer, the suitor will be executed. The first one to posit a riddle that stumps her will be her husband. In this particular tale, the unsolvable riddle is “One slew nobody, and yet slew twelve”—meaning a raven that died from eating poisoned horse meat, and the twelve people who died after eating the raven.

Despite setting the challenge and then being served her match, the riddling princess is not too keen on marrying the winner, in this or most any tale of the type. In “The Riddle,” the princess sends two servants, then sneaks herself into the suitor’s chamber at night to hear whether he will say in the answer in his sleep. Yep, the riddling princesses are women who really doesn’t want to get married. They are the Grimms’ versions of bra-burners, proto-feminazis. And I love them.

Of course, I always wonder why the heroes of these stories always end up marrying them anyway—you would think ordering the deaths of several men and then falling for a trick would turn most people off, but no. A hopeful part of me likes to think that our protagonists admire their brides’ independent spirits, but then, our protagonists are part of the cage around those spirits, in the end. In this day and age, when marriage by itself is not always a happy ending, one might wish for another ending beyond the final words—when the blushing bride flees the tower in the night, clutching a knife.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by H.J. Ford

Illustration by H.J. Ford, found at https://chaztales.wordpress.com/tag/the-riddle/

 

021. Cinderella

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

At first, I did not know that anything at all was happening to me.

But then as my skull grew, and my brain with it, I began to realize that something unnatural was occurring, and I became afraid.

It was not until I drew myself up from staring at my own feet, and found myself tall enough to look into the kitchen maid’s eyes, that I also felt large enough to love her. And I did—all at once. My heart, which only that morning had been the size of a kernel of dried corn, beat at a volume that would have terrified my once-minuscule self. It beat for her.

She, too, was undergoing a change: a new gown and precariously delicate shoes. The dirt had disappeared from her ankle-bones and between her fingers. But almost as soon as I was large enough to know that I loved her, I knew that her transformation had nothing to do with me, and my new heart felt its first breaking.

When, at the evening’s conclusion, I began to shrink back to my former smallness, I felt at first as though I was dying. I couldn’t bear the notion of leaving her—I was finally capable of understanding all her kindness throughout the many days of my life, and my gratitude overwhelmed me. Instead of killing me or setting traps for me, she had left lentils out on the floor for me and my brothers. She had sung both to herself and to us as she lay by the fire, attempting sleep. I remembered all this, and I hoped I always would.

Then the world was so much bigger—my toes extended and became knobby and clawed. The garden path was as wide as I was used to. Goodbye, I tried to say, but the few words I had known in my quick time as a man became no more than a clearing fog in my mind. On the grass of the garden, I saw dewdrops looming. Goodbye, my brain echoed, the last fractured thoughts before the ordinary fright of survivial: Scurry. Go. Goodbye love goodbye goodbye good bye good go go go

Illustration by A.H.Watson

Illustration by A.H.Watson

 

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