A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: August, 2013

002. The Companionship of the Cat & the Mouse

*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.*

Becky liked to tell me about the world. I’d stand behind the counter, in front of the pies and the metal milkshake machine that you had to keep a good grip on, or it’d scrape the sides of the cup and make a terrific screeching noise. And Becky would wait as I mixed milkshakes for other customers, but as soon as the machine was done with its noise, she’d start again as though her sentence had never been interrupted.

He was stealing it the whole time, she’d say. I’ve been working since I was a kid, and I’m not a big spender, that’s for sure. Turned out, he’d faked my name on a paper that said he has equal rights to the account, was bleeding me dry.

Mm-hmm, I’d say, placing her banana cream pie down on the counter. By the time Becky died, left town, or at least stopped showing up every Wednesday and Friday night for pie, I think I’d heard it about two hundred times. Her boyfriend, the father of her three kids, had racked up a bunch of debt in her name and spent her savings on a truck, a near lifetime’s supply of weed, and a few hourly hotel rooms here and there. It was a story so clichéd that by the time she’d told me twice, I’d heard it too many times.

I didn’t know what brought Becky to the diner every Wednesday and Friday, but I figured she was the support group type. The coffee-and-donuts and anonymity type. She never asked about me, or what I did when I wasn’t working overnights serving omelets and disco fries. Sometimes I held that against her. When she’d end her story, always the same way, with her self-assured, woebegone insistence that everything was okay because “that’s just the way of the world,” I really wished I could shut her up. Not my world, I wanted to say. I’m in college, I’d have told her. I read books about tragedies way worse than yours every single day. I’m pretty sure the whole world isn’t reflected in your hick boyfriend’s problems with infidelity and theft. That, and the world isn’t forcing you to just shrug it off, either—that’s all you. But I didn’t care to hear what would follow that tirade. And to be fair, maybe when the world has shit on you, you deserve to be able to tell others what that shit smelled like. Some people don’t have much else going for them, I guess.

Cate Fricke
August 2013

Thoughts on “The Companionship of the Cat & the Mouse”

“The Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse” is a great example of a fairy tale that might be mistaken for trying to “teach” us something. It’s a simple, bleak story that seems to be offering a moral at the end but, like most fairy tales, isn’t moralizing in the slightest.

In the tale, a cat and a mouse decide to “set up a common household” as a couple, and from there it becomes exactly what you’d expect. The cat, of course, is a complete rogue. But what you might not expect is  that after the cat has royally screwed over his mouse-wife, the mouse-wife doesn’t even get to have any witty come-uppance, as would seem to be her due. She’s simply eaten.

Enter the narrator, to tell us that “that’s just the way of the world.”

Comforting, eh? And infuriating, too. The idea behind the story of the cat and mouse is so old that it’s a pretty solid given that the cat won’t make it to the end without a tail hanging between his teeth. Yet a smart reader also knows that just because this story is familiar, it doesn’t mean that the story’s closing point is gospel truth. It’s like talking to an elderly neighbor about a scam that one of their bridge partners recently fell for: “And you know—he never was a Nigerian prince! But that’s how everyone is these days.”

Yes, you know how the story goes, but you also know that not everything that’s true is truth.

But then, just to play the narrator’s advocate here—”truth” is also a relative concept. And maybe those who might turn up their nose at such a generalized view of the world are just as bad. Write a response, and let’s find out.

So if you were rewriting this story, how would you complicate that generalized “moral”? Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by Margaret Hunt in 1884, available at Pitt.edu.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

001. The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich

*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.*

My heart, dear prince, is a slippery fool. When you were changed into a low creature, you also left—and this I could not bear. Now you’re saved, and I was not the one to save you.

I admit, some nights I told myself a story before falling asleep. In it, I was the one who cared for you, took you in and gave you food. I was your playmate and companion, I was your lover. And because of my attentions, you looked at me for the first time as a man instead of a servant. In your eyes I transformed just as you did, into a youth with kind and beautiful eyes. But in the morning, after dozing off to these dreams, I awoke still myself. I am faithful Hans, old Heinrich, devoted bearer of a broken heart. I would be made into a repugnant joke, I know, if I said these words aloud. If I confessed, and asked to be allowed at your table, to share your golden plate and your clean, wide bed, you would look on me with horror and shame. You’d cover your eyes from the sight of me. I know better than that.

But my heart, dear prince, my heart—it will give me away. So I have wrapped these heavy bands around it, to keep it from slipping. Ah! Even now, when they creak, you do not see me—you think the carriage is groaning. This, I know, is how it must be. But if wishing still helped, I would be yours.

I congratulate you on your marriage, though I hear it was hard won.

Your bride is very lovely.

Cate Fricke
August 2013

Thoughts On “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich”

“The Frog King” is one of those stories that everyone remembers to some extent, whether it’s the princess’s revulsion at having to share her plate and her bed with a slimy frog, or whether it’s the kiss that everyone thinks they remembers (but which doesn’t actually occur in Grimm).

But what I love most about this, the very first tale in the Brothers’ ouvre, is the strange figure of Iron Heinrich, in some translations called Iron Hans or Iron Henry, who appears at the end. Once all is said and done–kissed or thrown against the wall–between the prince and princess, Iron Heinrich pulls up to the palace to whisk the couple away to their honeymoon. Heinrich is the frog prince’s devoted servant, and we’re told that he was so devastated when the prince was transformed into an amphibian that he had three iron bands affixed to his beating heart, to keep it from breaking.

As the prince and princess are driven away into the sunset, Iron Heinrich’s iron bands start cracking.

Now, as a kid, I just assumed, without much concern, that this meant that Iron Heinrich was dying from joy. But returning to the tale this week, I was surprised to find that, although all three of Heinrich’s iron bands snap, and the prince hears each one, the text never outright says that Heinrich’s heart is failing, or that he’s dying. Maybe I was just that morbid as a kid?

But still, he always seemed to be such a sad character, defined by what I imagined to be his tragic death in the face of utter relief and joy. Why else would the end of the story be devoted to him?

Also, so much to infer from that wonderful first line, “In olden times, when wishing still helped…”

My short piece in response “The Frog King,” Number 001. in “A Grimm Project”

The full text, according to the Pitt University’s compilers.

More information on this tale at the Surlalune site.

Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock. The Fairy Book. Warwick Goble, illustrator. London: Macmillan & Co., 1913.

Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock. The Fairy Book. Warwick Goble, illustrator. London: Macmillan & Co., 1913.