Friday, September 18, 2009

A Fairytale

Edited to add context: This story is the result of an exercise I set myself: to draft a tellable adaptation of a traditional "fairy wife" tale that would be appropriate for my Renaissance Faire character (a prosperous carpenter's wife" to tell. I chose to adapt "The Sky Woman's Basket" because its themes moved me very deeply. That said, I recognize the problematic history of American and European individuals and entities co-opting the culture of a colonized people for their own entertainment. This is not a story I would tell, I think. In performance I would not move the action to England, but remain truer to the original tale. The version I heard can be enjoyed here.

Once in this village there lived a man with a flock of sheep. The yarn spun from their wool was as light and fine as Venetian silk and every day he took them to pasture in the fields with the greenest and sweetest grass. Each year when the time came to shear them, his sheep gave him the finest wool in Derbyshire.

One year, the night before shearing day, the man gathered his sheep and locked them in their pen. He slept that night, dreaming of the fine wool he would gather the next day. When he awoke, he gathered his tools and his helpers and went out to the pen. There he found half the sheep already shorn! “There is a thief in the village,” thought the man. “Tonight I will keep watch and catch whoever it is when they come to finish the job!”

So that night the man locked his sheep in their pen and pretended to go to sleep. While he watched, nine beautiful maidens walked out of the nearby forest, each carrying shears and a basket. The maidens called to the sheep, who came willingingly and lay down for them while the maidens harvested their wool. Then the maidens turned to go back to the forest. The man ran after them crying “Stop! Thieves!” but they faded back into the trees.

He managed to catch up with the last maiden, who had dropped her basket and had to stop. He grabbed her arm as she started to retreat into the forest. “Woman!” he bellowed, “Thou art a thief and must repay me for what thou hast stolen. Stay and work for me for nine months and thy debt shall be paid.” The maiden thought a moment and said “That is fair. I will stay and work for you for nine months.”

Now the day came when the nine months had passed. The man went to the maiden as she kneaded the day’s bread and said, “Thy debt hath been paid, thou mayest leave me this day. But I have grown fond of thee these nine months, and I pray thee, stay and be mine own wife.”

And the maiden thought a moment and said “Thou art a good man, and I too have grown fond of thee. I will stay and be thy wife an thou makest me one promise. Promise me thou shalt ne’er look inside my basket.”

The man looked at the closed basket in the corner where it had sat ignored these many months. He laughed. “I promise thee, silly woman! What care I for baskets?”

So the man and the maiden were married and lived very happily for nine years. She bore him nine children, all tall and beauteous and wise, and their fields and flocks were most prosperous. From time to time, the man would look at the basket whither it sat in the corner and wonder what it contained, but then he would look at his beautiful and clever wife and think “What care I for baskets?”

One day his wife had gone to the market in the village and as he worked throughout the day, his thoughts returned to the basket again and again. What secrets did it hold? What did his wife hide from him? Distrust grew in him like a canker until he could stand it no more. He went inside, threw the lid from the basket, looked inside and saw—nothing.

He laughed at his foolishness, and that of his wife and turned to retrieve the basket’s lid. As he did, he saw his wife standing in the door. “What hast thou done, husband!” she cried. “Silly woman,” the man laughed, “there is nothing in this basket!”

His wife looked him, picked up the lid, and replaced it on the basket. Then she picked it up and walked out the door and back into the forest, never to be seen again. And when the man called to their nine handsome children to come home that night, they too had disappeared.

The man spent the rest of his days searching the forest for his wife and children. His sheep grew thin and dirty, his fields turned to weeds. The men of the village have always said that she left because he dishonored her. A promise is a promise, after all, e’en one made to a woman. And their wives nod their heads in agreement.

But at the well and oven and market stalls, the women tell each other their truth. They say the maiden from the forest left because the man saw nothing but an empty basket.

This story is my adaptation of a traditional story (possibly Zulu) called "The Sky Woman's Basket" as told by master storyteller David Novak. It is inspired by the work of storyteller Janice Del Negro of Dominican University in Illinois, as well as by "The Seal Maiden", "The Crane Wife", "The Tale of Melusine", and other ancient stories of betrayed fairy wives. It also owes a little debt of gratitude to the story "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell.

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