Thursday, February 24, 2011

More of Molly Whuppie

"Go away, because if you don't you'll be sorry when my husband comes home."
 Molly looked at the ogre's wife, standing in the doorway, and said,
"We won't go away, because if we do, we'll freeze to death in the forest. And anyway, my name's Molly Whuppie and I'm a right good 'un and your husband will soon see that."
The ogre's wife opened the door a little wider,
"Alright then, come in, but remember what I said.
When he comes home, my husband will be hungry and he won't think twice before wringing your necks and adding your bones to our stock-pot."
Molly swallowed hard and grabbed her sisters' hands tightly before they could pull away from her and run back into the forest.
"Thankyou," she said. "We'd love to come in."
And she dragged her silent, trembling sisters over the threshold and into the ogre's house.
"What now?" Sally whispered.
Amy said, "Have you got a plan, Molly?"
"I don't know, and no," Molly answered.
"But we're all three together and it's warm and, look, there are children here already, so it can't be all that bad."
She pointed to a doll and a rocking-horse across the hall.
"We're very hungry, do you have anything that we could eat?" Molly said boldly to the ogre's wife.
"Hmmmm," said the ogress. "I'll find something, no doubt. You look as if you haven't much meat on your bones at all, and that's a pity."
In just a few minutes Molly, Sally and Amy were sitting near the fire, gnawing at pieces of old, hard cheese helped down with hot bitter tea.
The ogre's daughters, Sowthistle, Henbit and Marestail, appeared from somewhere deep inside the mansion, and now they stood with their mother, looking down at the three hungry girls.
"Such poor, wet things," Henbit said.
"So thin," whispered Sowthistle.
"Can we play with them?" asked Marestail.
The ogress shook her head.
"Wait until your father comes home."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Molly Whuppie 5

It was a long while before Molly's sisters said anything, and when they did it was to complain.
"Where are we going, Molly?"
"We're lost aren't we!"
All three girls were soaked to the skin now, from pushing through the deep snow, and they were hungry, too, but Molly wasn't ready to stop.
"You're right, I don't know where we're going, but we're no more lost than we were when we woke up this morning," said Molly.
"If we can keep walking while there's daylight, we might find home, or someone else's home or the edge of the forest, but if we sit down here now, and just wait, we're just going to freeze in the snow."
" I don't care," said Sally, tears running down her cheeks. "I'm tired and I want to stop."
She planted herself down in the snow and looked up at Amy and Molly, her face wet with snow and tears.
"Just a short rest, then," said Molly.
"You two sit here a while and I'll carry on. Follow my footprints when you're ready, but don't wait long!"
And so Molly pushed on alone.
She carried on for a good long way before she noticed that the ground was becoming more rocky and broken, and the trees were thinning a little, and she became aware of a steady rumble, or a roar, ahead of her. It was not an animal. It sounded more, Molly thought, like the noise the packed snow made when it fell off their shack's roof in the thaw.
She walked further, careful now.
When Amy and Sally caught up with her, Molly was standing still, looking ahead.
Twenty yards away, on both sides, a boiling rock-filled river roared behind the trees.
To their left they were looking downstream, while on their right, after making a tight, dizzy curve somewhere ahead, the river turned back on itself and so they were looking upstream.  The air was filled with spray and the trees and boulders hung with grey beards of frozen lichen. Great twisted icicles hung from the trees, some of them so big that glittering columns of ice had grown joining the branches with the ground.
Directly ahead of the three girls was a gate and beyond, fixed to the rocks and surrounded on three sides by the torrent, a wooden mansion loomed, dim and unclear in the foggy  dusk.
"Come on," Molly said. "Let's knock on the door."
Amy and Sally were not convinced.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Molly Whuppie again.

Under the tarpaulin in the forest it was dark, and Molly, waking first, couldn’t understand why it was so hard to move about. She pushed her hands upwards and felt cold dampness. It moved a little as she pushed, so she pushed harder, and the whole canvas shelter fell to one side. Suddenly there was light and she was covered in stinging, cold, powdery snow. The freezing shower fell on her sisters, too, and all three children, Amy, Sally and Molly, screamed and then jumped up, brushing the icy wetness off their clothes and faces.

Amy and Sally were not happy as they listened to Molly explaining that their father had most probably gone off and left them in the forest on purpose because there was not enough food for them all at home, and when she told them that she knew this because she’d overheard their mother and father talking about it, Amy said, or rather shouted,

“And you didn’t tell us! Why didn’t you tell us?”

Molly cupped her hands and blew between them to warm them, and then she said,

“Amy, it wouldn’t have made any difference. If I had told you, you and Sally would only have been upset, and then, perhaps, something worse might have happened.”

“But we’re lost in the forest,” Sally chipped in. “What could be worse than that?”

Molly looked at her.

“Being cooked alive, or stabbed through the heart?”

Amy and Sally looked shocked.

“What, do you really think that our mother and father would ...”

“Listen,” Molly replied, “you used to sit and listen to the stories just like I did. Don’t you remember Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White?”

That was enough for Amy and Sally. The two girls could take no more. First their lips began to quiver, then tears began to sting their eyes and run down their cheeks and very soon they were clinging to one another and sobbing.

Molly looked at them, blowing on her hands again. 

“I may be the youngest, and I may be small,” she thought, “but at least I’m a right good ‘un.”

She felt frightened, but she didn’t feel helpless, and she knew that, if she didn’t do something useful, all three of them would end up freezing to death where they stood, because her sisters clearly didn’t have any intention of being practical.

And so, even though she had no idea which was the right direction to take, Molly grasped each of her sisters by the hand and led them purposefully out of the clearing and into the trees. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

... her course was true, for he was an able seaman through and through ...

In a recent blog entry, "Singing Madrigals", my sister-in-law (Alison Hobbs) mentions the double-entendres  sometimes to be found in madrigals.  Our current usage of the expression double-entendre  tends to be a derogatory one, often applied to short, smutty sexual allusions of the: If I said you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me? kind. 

I wonder if the term does justice to what are often, in madrigals and folk songs at least, considerably well-crafted extended metaphors.

I don't have anything more than a passing acquaintance with the texts of madrigals (Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore than I, when I sang madrigals no more), but I am on friendlier terms with English folk songs,. 

A great number of folk-songs are about a man gaining sexual conquest over a woman, where the "hero" of the song is frequently a soldier (I drilled her into the sentry-box, wrapped up in a soldier's cloak) or a sailor (So Jack became master of that craft-o, and she was well-found both fore and aft-o). 

Just recently, I have been listening to a song called I will put my ship in order.  The story line runs: a sailor tries to persuade a girl to come down from her bed and let him in so that they can lie together; the girl is hesitant and, by the time she has plucked up courage to go downstairs, the sailor has lost patience and gone to find another conquest. 

At first listening, the song seems to be in the typical "sailor seduces girl" mould, a variant of a song that I know well  Jack the Jolly Tar. A little odd perhaps that, in this version, he does not get her maidenhead, but maybe it's a warning to all those girls out there that they should not delay in acquiescing to a lusty lover, or they may die old maids ...

... but wait. 

Part of the song is clearly metaphor. The sailor didn't just walk up to his girl's house, he drew his ship across the harbour, close to her bedroom window to hear what she would say

What, then, if we assume that there's more to the song than meets the eye, and that, perhaps, the presumed narrative text, is not what it seems to be at all:

O who is that at my bower window, 
That raps so loudly and would be in? 
It is your true love that loves you dearly, 
So rise, dear love, and let him in.
Then slowly, slowly rose she up, 
And slowly, slowly came she down, 
But before she had the door unlocked 
Her true love had both come and gone.
Come back, come back my own true love,
Come back, come back, come, ease my pain.
The fish shall fly love, the seas run dry, love
Before that I'll return again. 
 The imagery is clear; we are not 
witnessing a maiden jilted by a petulant 
seducer, but a woman disappointed 
at the hand of a prematurely spent fumbler. 
This is not double-entendre but 
poetic complaint.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Molly Whuppie 3

Father and daughters worked hard together all day. He selected saplings to fell, ash mainly, and then cut the fallen wood into logs. The girls trimmed and corded the brushwood into bundles for carrying and stacked them tightly to keep them as dry as possible. Near the end of the afternoon, to hold back the gathering cold for a while, their father made a fire and sat them around it under cover of a tarpaulin. In their damp clothes, the girls huddled close to rub their aching, white fingers back to life. They whispered together and listened to the sounds of the forest in the half-light, and laid their heads on one another’s arms in the fire’s delicious warmth as new snow began to drift out of the darkening clouds. 
And all the while their father worked on. The sound of his axe, biting wood, echoed among the trees. Thwack! Thwack! and always, it seemed, a little farther away. By the time it had faded quite out of earshot, the girls were already asleep, tricked by the stuffy warmth of their smoky den.
For a time the fire kept the night away, but outside the slowly shrinking ring of brightness and heat, the darkness edged closer and eased the sisters deeper into sleep . As they will, searching for the last scraps of wood, the flames eventually lost their strength and, long before the morning, the fire had died. But the snow continued to fall, covering the sleeping bundles that were Molly and her sisters and softly wiping away all trace of paths and tracks and signs.   

Not all of the children asleep under the clouds that night shared such a cold bed as Molly and her sisters. An ogre lived in the forest, with his wife and his own three daughters, in a wooden mansion on a great rock in a loop of the river, where the forest was deepest. Now, although they are monsters, ogres are not creatures that are born stupid, like trolls or giants. Just like people, some ogres are cunning and clever, some rough and dangerous and others are good and helpful. This ogre was both cunning and dangerous and not good or helpful at all, but his daughters were all his treasure and his delight, and they knew it well. Because of this, and because of his own weakness, they ruled their father, asking him for all sorts of treats and gifts, and this night it was gold that they asked for.
“ Pa, will you bring a gold necklace for each of us?” the youngest asked.
“Yes, do, Pa” said the middle daughter, and clapped her hands like shovels.
“You know how we love gold, and how happy it will make us,” finished the eldest, and winked at her sisters.
The ogre smiled a broad smile and kissed each of his daughters wetly on her greasy cheek.
“ Go up to bed now Sowthistle, Henbit and Marestail, my darlings, and tomorrow I’ll bring back treasure enough for you all,” he said.
The ogre's wife, busy in the kitchen, snarled as she listened to him, and hacked a chop from the spine of a long-dead lost traveller.
“Treasure indeed!  Your time's better spent hunting, mooncalf. The meat-safe’s near empty and even this one smells like it’s past its best.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

Molly Whuppie 2

Morning crept up on the cabin from the forest that spread around it like the sea. The land was so flat, and the forest so wide, that the light seemed to leak from the trees to fill the world. At first it coloured the sky a cold grey, pinching out the stars, and then it lapped at the edge of the dark clearing that Molly’s father had hacked out of the woods in those first days of building the cabin. Slowly it poured on in, filling up the space between the living tree-trunks and the dead wood of the cabin’s walls, and, as it came, it revealed the hiding places of the shadows in their deep corners and their little ditches, and it brought the shadows with it, even through the window into the cabin itself.
Inside, Molly’s mother moved about busily. She stacked five used bowls at the end of the table; she laid out thread and a long needle; she fussed over the tiny glow in the embers of last night’s fire. She pulled back the curtain that hung between her and her daughters’ empty bed and paused to take in what little of their warmth and sleepy scent remained. It would soon fade, and later, much later, she would be able to begin to forget them. 
But for now, she would clean the five bowls that were stacked at the end of the table, and then pick up the needle and thread, and see which clothes needed mending, and all the while she would coax and care for the small flames struggling in the hearth, feeding them with continual gifts of tear-damp wood.
In the slowly brightening forest, the three girls followed their father’s tall, spare figure as he trod a path for them. The night had laid a crust on top of the snow and so, as he walked, he would raise one foot high, balancing for a second before the crust cracked under his weight and sent him plunging up to his knees in the freezing powder underneath. Lift, crack, plunge, lift, crack, plunge, he ploughed forward. Behind him, the girls had to stretch out their legs to follow in his footsteps. 
Their route was not a familiar one, but they had worked in the forest often with their father, and this morning they had eaten an unusually good breakfast – there had been hot porridge as well as a little coffee - and so the two older girls laughed, and pushed at one another when they fell occasionally in the deep snow. But Molly was quiet, and thought, “I wonder how it’s going to happen?” 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Molly Whuppie: Part 1.

At first she hadn’t been able to hear 
words, for it was only the swish and sigh of their talk that crept into her sleep like a breeze and, slowly, teased her awake. The speakers were clearly sitting together, close to the still-warm hearth on the other side of the one room that the whole family shared but, even though only a curtain screened off her bed, it was not easy for Molly to make out anything of what her father and mother were saying to one another. Lying with her eyes open to the darkness, she held her breath and listened hard.
There were mumbles and pauses, sounds and silences, but she couldn’t make sense of them. She strained her ears and thought she’d caught some words but then, quite suddenly, those words turned into weeping. It was her mother, but her father’s voice was there, too, making quiet sounds, trying to give comfort, to stop the crying.  Molly couldn’t bear that sound, but it happened more and more often these days. The unusually long, cold winter had made it hard to stretch out food and firewood, the snow blocked paths, ice walled off the streams and birds and animals had fled, or buried themselves deep inside the drifts. Molly knew herself that there hadn’t been enough to eat for weeks, and they were never warm, inside the cabin or outside. But what was this latest calamity? She would have to find out, and so she sat up and folded back the blanket quietly. She was about to swing her feet out into the cold when she clearly heard her father say,
“Tomorrow, then; I’ll take all three out to the forest. I’ll come back alone. It will be for the best.” Molly stopped dead and bit her lip hard to stop herself from calling out. She sat very still, and gripped the rough edge of the blanket hard. Her clenched fingers ached and her heart pounded, but she forced herself to carry on listening.
The talking had stopped, though, and now only the familiar sounds of night in the small house were left. She heard her mother and father undressing, and then climbing into their creaking bed. Silence fell, punctuated by quiet sobs that died away into deep uneasy breathing. Later still, Molly heard the twitching of their small cabin as it cooled in the frosty night, and the small, urgent  sounds of mice in the shingles. And all the time, and all around her, she was wrapped in the long, slow, regular breathing of her two sleeping sisters in the bed beside her. She lay back between them and she wondered what to do, but sleep found her before she had managed to find an answer.