A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: September, 2013

005. The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

*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 mother was an expert seamstress, and she taught me well. My stitches, like hers, are smart and straight, not one a hair longer than any other. I can slip-stitch and blanket stitch or straight-stitch, and I can make hidden seam so delicate and pulled tight that the two pieces of fabric look they’ve been made into one by magic. You’d never know it was ever rent.

Each wolf, my mother taught me, though he speaks very rough, has a belly like silk. Easily split, easily rejoined. His knives, his claws, his teeth have little to do with a woman’s art, bark though they might.

A wolf is just another cloth to refit into something else—something tattered, with teeth like metal fringe, shows up at your door and what do you do with him? My mother taught me never to cower—she taught me to snip away at sinews, to slice muscles and fat like felted wool.

When her fingers went to work on that first wolf, I watched closely. Her delicate white nails became purple with the red dye of his blood. His left hindpaw twitched intermittently as my brothers and sisters leapt out from between the flaps of his belly. My mother’s white thread became scarlet, crimson, and cranberry as it passed through the wolf’s delicate hide to sew him up again. I was afraid at first, but now I know that this is the way of the world, and my mother—I had not know this, before, or perhaps I had, and just not realized it—is of the world, too, and knows how to deal with its evils. Villains are meant to be remade, with a sly and determined hand. If someone crosses you, you cannot be without skills.

Cate Fricke
August 2013

Vintage German stamp, courtesy of Flickr user vintageprintabledotcom

Vintage German stamp, courtesy of Flickr user vintageprintabledotcom

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Thoughts on “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids”

A violent cautionary tale in the vein of “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids” is the story of a group of young goats who are told by their mother to be on their guard for the wolf as she goes into the forest to find food. The wolf comes three times, and twice the kids are too clever to let him in, but on the third try he fools them, enters, and devours all except the youngest, who hides in a clock. The mother returns to a scene of carnage. Together, and she and the youngest kid open up the wolf’s belly with scissors (he was lying not far from the house, sleeping, of course), and out come the first six kids. The mother replaces the young goats with stones and sews the wolf up, so that when he awakes, he waddles to the well for a drink and the weight of the stones pulls him in. The mother and her seven children dance and sing around the well.

Like most fairy tales, “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids” is a simple story, yet it contains more than it would appear to—themes of death and rebirth, the steadfast purity of the home versus the devilish, ever-knocking darkness of the invader, and the impossibly superhuman qualities of the mother’s domestic skills that end up saving her children.

But when I first read Maria Tatar’s notes on this tale in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” I misread one sentence that had me thinking a little differently about this tale, and which I still stand by, even after re-reading the sentence and finding that I had it wrong:

“The wolf…is turned into a pure predator, and unrelated creature of a different species…with the result that the domestic sphere comes to be sanctified as the site of safety and tranquility.”

She’s comparing the tale to the Greek myth of Cronos, in which a father is tricked into eating his own children, who are then resurrected from inside him, similar to the way the kids are reborn from the wolf’s belly. But in contrast, in “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids,” the wolf is an outsider, not a father.

When I first read that, I misread “sanctified” as “sacrificed,” implying to me that, through her act of cutting open and then fatally sewing up the wolf, the mother has in effect put an end to the domestically blissful scenario the story opens with. By meeting the wolf’s level of violence, she has ended the period of innocence for her kids, while also saving them.

Even after I re-read the sentence and found that Tatar meant just the opposite—“sanctified,” meaning that the domestic sphere is still the site of safety and tranquility after the wolf is dead—I like my misreading. It pointed out to me something that’s always horrified me about this story, the ease with which the mother enacts violence, and the glee the family feels having just literally dug their hooves in the wolf’s innards. They’re safe, but they’re not the same.

Click here to read my freewrite inspired by this tale, and click here to read the full text, courtesy of D.L. Ashlimann and Pitt.edu.

Vintage German stamp, courtesy of Flickr user vintageprintabledotcom

Vintage German stamp, courtesy of Flickr user vintageprintabledotcom

004. A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was

*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.*

When the bed stopped its bucking and the cats had gone to find milk, I straightened my suspenders and set off to explore the final wing of the castle. What fun I’d had so far—sheets askew and cards scattered, the castle had the look of a gaming den. One final hallway, one final door. I rapped my knuckles loudly, and the door gave way.

Ah, it’s you, someone said.

I could see no one in the dark. The voice was quiet and raspy.

Nursing a cold there, eh, sir? I said.

I heard a scratching noise near my feet. Fumbling in my pockets, I found the last match and lit it against my shoe sole. The small light flickered—two eyes looked up at me from the stone floor, reflecting the match’s dance.

Hullo, what are you doing down there? I asked. The man—for that’s what the speaker was, a very old man with a beard as long as his body, and pointed nails caked with dirt—extended a bony hand towards me and touched my cheek. Careful there, Granddad, I said. Those nails look sharp enough to scratch.

I had forgotten how full those cheeks were in my youth, the man said. Look, how healthy that hay-colored hair. So handsome, I was.

I didn’t much care for the smell of him.

See here, old dirt-nail, old fish-stink, which way to the treasure? Dawn’s a-coming fast, and if I don’t find it by then, we’re good as burnt toast, no use to anybody. Help me out, will you, instead of lying there?

There is no treasure, the old man said. His eyes had become very bright, this I noticed just before the match fizzled down and nipped my thumb and forefinger with a sharp little searing. There is only you.

I backed away, feeling around behind me for the door. You’re dotty, you are. If you’ll be no help to me, then fie with you. I’ll find it on my own, and by morning, too.

I’m sure you will, the man said, waving to me faintly as I left the room and faced the deeper darkness of the hall. Yes, I’m sure this time you will.

Old tosser, I thought.

Cate Fricke
August 2013

Thoughts on “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was”

The Grimms’ tale that is one of the most populated by frightening imagery is also ironically one of their most comic tales. “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” or “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers,” or others depending on the translation, is about a young man who is such a simpleton that he doesn’t understand what it means to get “the creeps,” even when confronted by every terrifying thing that the storyteller can throw at him.

An “extended anecdote,” according to Maria Tatar, the tale has the bawdy quality of a story meant to be told in various comic voices around a fire—like a ghost story that’s silly enough to make you laugh but creepy enough to keep you up later in your tent, wondering about the various noises outside.

The boy in the tale leaves home and experiences a series of increasingly unsettling encounters, from having a one-sided conversation with a slew of dead men hanging from a gallows to three consecutive nights in a haunted castle, in which he meets a pair of enormous black cats, two halves of a man that fall down the chimney to play cards, and a bed that gallops around the castle on its own when the boy tries to sleep in it. Throughout his trials, the boy is too dumb to realize that he should be afraid, and it is because of this that he comes out the other end with a wealth of riches and the hand of the king’s daughter. When the king’s daughter pours a bucket of minnows from the nearby stream on him, the boy finally knows what it means to have “the creeps.”

Marina Warner suggested something sexual behind the image of the newly-wed bride pouring a bucket of minnows over her husband—Bruno Bettelheim, too, posited that it was marriage which finally made the youth “human” enough to feel something like fear. The youth’s similarity to other German folk heroes such as Parsifal and Siegfried, who sings that he never knew fear until gazing on the sleeping Brunnhilde, makes him one in a long line of German “heroes” whose simplicity and good nature carry them through life until they meet with the fearful beauty of a woman. It’s a silly tale, and an incredibly satisfying one, too.

So what bugs me enough about this tale to prompt a 10-minute freewrite? If I had the guts, I’d ask what the most terrifying thing is that I can imagine, since this tale does suggest that the teller was meant to top themselves with something more and more terrifying each time they told it. But I’m afraid whatever I’d write wouldn’t be frightening enough—not for our lad, anyway, clearly. The satisfaction of the tale lies in the balance of utterly terrifying and utterly silly. So it’s hard to pull off. Let’s try it.

Click here to read my freewrite inspired by this tale, and click here to read the full text, courtesy of D.L. Ashlimann and Pitt.edu.

Illustration by Albert Weisgerber

Illustration by Albert Weisgerber

003. “The Virgin Mary’s Child”

*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 fruits of the forest are messier to eat than the fruits of Heaven. Such sticky, red fingers one has all a sudden; such long, animal hair that grows once you’ve seen too much and must make your own way. The girl’s arms and legs became as quick as pistons as she climbed the forest’s trees. She liked it there, where no one saw her. The golden florescent rays of Heaven’s lights could not blind her here, for the trees shut it out like kind umbrellas. What thought shall I think today? This was the girl’s favorite question, for any answer would suffice. In the brightly-lit hallways of Heaven, each question had only one answer, and this was hardly enough to satisfy. The girl could not speak anymore, but she could think, and she could laugh. The girl ate a jumping frog one day and felt it squiqqle all down her insides and it made her laugh, and her laugh was the loudest thing in the forest and she liked that. She played a game, up in her tree, which was played with only two teams—herself, and the world. I am in the 13th tree, she’d think with all her might. Come and gaze on me. When the world did come for her, later—when it found her with her hair down to her calves and her fingernails like peeling birch bark, she was still laughing. And when everyone in the world asked her what sat behind the 13th door of Heaven, she said nothing, and she thought Nothing as loudly as she could, and this was terribly funny, too.

Cate Fricke
August 2013

Illustration by Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Illustration by Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Thoughts on “The Virgin Mary’s Child”

“The Virgin Mary’s Child” is a Bluebeard tale, with an ominous figure who forbids a young woman to open the door, while simultaneously handing her the keys to do it. Punishment lies in store for the woman when she succumbs to her temptation and curiosity, but what is punished is not exactly a character flaw—it’s an inevitability. In “The Virgin Mary’s Child,” the punisher is not a heinous, murderous husband, but the blessed Mother. “Bluebeard” is a horror story, and “The Virgin Mary’s Child” is a morality tale, for once the girl confesses, after many years, that opened the forbidden door, Mary restores her speech and her family.

But what’s most interesting about “The Virgin Mary’s Child” is not the figure of Mary as divine judge and jury, but what the girl sees behind the 13th door:

“Suddenly the door sprang open, and there she saw the Holy Trinity sitting in fire and splendor. She stood still for a while and looked at everything in amazement. The she touched the light just a little with her finger, and the finger turned golden.”

The girl is cast into a wilderness for lying to Mary about opening the door, and also for disobeying Mary’s orders not to open it in the first place—but what has she seen? In some ways, “The Virgin Mary’s Child” is also like the story of the Garden of Eden, and many writers have had a bone to pick with that one as well. If the girl’s sin is that she was haughty enough to look on God, or curious to know what God looked like, then is she being punished for pride? So that’s where the prompt was for me: what did the girl understand about what she saw? What did she see? And after all that, was the wilderness punishment, or freedom?

Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by D.L. Ashlimann, available at Pitt.edu.

Illustration by Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Illustration by Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban