A fractured feminist fairy tale

27 December 2011

Once upon a time there were two friends named Jonquil and Hyacinth. They loved each other very much and made each other laugh every day. They studied hard, loved to cook for each other and trade stories, and over the years they became radiant in their mutual excellence.

One day, as Hyacinth was working alone in the field, she was surprised when a voice spoke to her from the wild flowers at her feet. “You could be even more lovely if you worked a little harder developing your triceps,” the voice said from amongst the daisies, thistles, violets and posies. Hyacinth refused to respond, but that message got stuck in her frontal lobe, and she soon found herself incapable of ignoring it.

Sitting down to eat that evening over a beautiful dinner, Hyacinth couldn’t help noticing that Jonquil’s triceps needed a little help as well. Why hadn’t the flower told Jonquil to exercise harder, too? she wondered. But she well knew that it was rude to advise one’s lovely friend to go to the gym.

“I’m going to do twice as many pushups tomorrow,” she pronounced instead. “And I think I’ll skip eating that garlicky, buttery bread so I can see the results more quickly.”

Jonquil was crushed. She’d made the buttery garlic bread especially for her favorite friend, who had never refused to eat such good food before. Her mind raced: she didn’t want to waste the bread, and it paired so nicely with her cream-of-broccoli soup. Yet as she ate it, she wondered whether her own triceps needed work.

Suddenly, she became aware of a tightness around her waist, as if her dress had shrunk.

The next day when Hyacinth completed her pushups, she found herself hungrier than ever. But with the words still fresh in her mind, she worried for the first time that eating would negate her hard work.

“I feel so much better!” she burbled that night as they ate the simple broth and steamed vegetables Hyacinth had prepared after telling Jonquil they needed to lighten up on the calories. She wasn’t lying. She was ravenously hungry but did feel rather virtuous, as if this kind of self-control and abstemiousness now helped to resolve an inner yearning she had never before known she had. “And I’m so glad not to be eating buttery garlic bread. Garlic makes you sooo fat!”

“Ooof!” Jonquil said, because she suddenly felt her dress constrict again. She became a little cranky from the combination of being unsatisfied with this boring dinner and feeling so suddenly uncomfortable in her own clothes. That night as she slept, her dreams were fractured with disturbing images, and she had a hard time fitting into her dress the next morning.

In the next few days, Hyacinth forgot all about Jonquil’s triceps as she focused on her own — while at the same time Jonquil became increasingly unhappy.

On the third day, as Hyacinth was (somewhat annoyingly) explaining exactly how to do a one-handed pushup, Jonquil’s dress cinched her tight and a button popped off. “Ouch!” she said, and ran away. Her friend paused in the middle of her pushup, wondering why it wasn’t as much fun without updating Jonquil on her new diet and exercise regimen.

Jonquil ran out to the garden and dropped down to her knees, weeping. Was Hyacinth dabbling in black magic, she wondered — some kind of magic that made Jonquil get fatter every time Hyacinth talked about her new regimen? She had never felt so distant from her friend.

But why would her friend hurt her so? And how could Jonquil broach the topic without her body blowing up like a balloon? She decided to avoid the subject as much as possible.

When she returned to Hyacinth’s workout area, Jonquil found her chatting with a large pig. “This is the Count von Hogwood,” Hyacinth said. “He’s suggesting that I add a core-strengthening workout.” She paused and whispered in Jonquil’s ear: “Isn’t he handsome? And he just loves my triceps.”

Jonquil felt a seam split down one side of her dress. “Ugh,” she grunted, before she could ask why Hyacinth found a pig so handsome. When she looked closely at von Hogwood’s great girth, she wondered if he, too, had a penchant for buttery garlic bread. He suddenly whipped his head around to Jonquil and, before she could think about a menacing look in his eye as he sized up her triceps, she could feel another button threatening to pop off.

Von Hogwood returned the next day to continue to court Hyacinth, who was by now wholly absorbed with flirting. At least not talking to Hyacinth and the pig will help me preserve this dress, Jonquil told herself with a smile. But then she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and rued the changes she saw there.

So she turned the mirror around and perched herself in the window seat to look down at the sight of Hyacinth and von Hogwood’s strange courtship in the garden. As she did, she wondered again at the strangeness of her friend being so entranced by a pig.

She must be bewitched! Jonquil whispered to herself. But how can I break this spell? I can barely breathe in my own clothes anymore — heaven knows how fat I’d get if I raised the topic openly.

The only thing to do, she determined, was to leave the cottage and travel in search of a way to break the spell. She packed a few things into a sack and began walking down the lonely little path into the woods, in hope of finding an unknown assistant to help.

******

She wandered for three days before she came across another person: a little girl with a basket, skipping through a grove of dark hemlock trees. “Hello, child,” she said kindly, and the girl stopped to explain she was taking some food to her sick grandmother. A grandmother! Jonquil said to herself. That’s exactly the kind of matron who might know her way around bewitchments.

When they arrived at the little house, the little girl plopped herself on her granny’s lap in a dark corner of the room while Jonquil extracted a nice stew from the basket and began to heat it up. “Mmmm, I think this must be goat curry!” she said aloud as the stew began to bubble. The little girl came over to give it a sniff as well, and whispered to Jonquil, “Granny looks different. She’s hairier. I mean, she was always kind of hairy, but not like this.”

Perhaps she’s been bewitched, too, Jonquil wondered to herself, and poured a bowl of steaming goat curry into a bowl. As she opened Granny’s bedcurtains, she saw a wolf sitting in Granny’s lace cap and gown, looking hungry and more than a little confused.

“That smells awfully nice, but so do you,” said the wolf-Granny hungrily.

“First things first,” Jonquil said amenably. “Have some stew to whet your appetite, and we’ll talk.” As the wolf-Granny set to work with a spoon, moaning a little each time she bit into a piece of meat or a nice plump raisin, Jonquil asked her, “Are you the little girl’s Granny, or are you a wolf?”

“I used to be a Granny, but I slowly changed into a wolf, and I’m not sure why,” said the wolf-Granny. “Now I’m so much a wolf that I’d be happy to eat my own delectable little granddaughter in one bite.”

“Do you want to remain a wolf?” asked Jonquil carefully. “Because I’m in search of someone who can help me break the spell that’s been cast to make me so fat, and to make my darling friend fall in love with a pig. I’m sure such a person can help you, too.”

“You’re not near fat enough,” the wolf said drily. “But yes, finding out what happened to me is more important than eating you and this wonderful-smelling girlie here.” So the three of them sat down for a nice dinner of goat curry, and at the end Jonquil and the wolf-Granny sent the little girl home, and set off together even deeper into the dark, dark woods.

“I’ve heard tell of a famine taking place in these parts,” the wolf-Granny reported after a few hours. “People getting desperate. Kicking small children out of the house rather than feeding them; stealing porridge from bears. Desperate stuff.”

“Don’t get any ideas about taking a bite out of me,” Jonquil warned. “With this curse on me, who knows what my flesh’d do to your appetite.”

With that, they came upon a strange house nestled in a little clearing. It seemed to glisten in the few rays of sunlight that pierced the boughs of the tall, tall hemlocks. “Why, I think that roof is covered in sprinkled-sugar cookies,” Jonquil said after a moment, with her jaw agape. “I thought you said there was a famine underway here!”

“And the windows are clear sheets of melted sugar,” marveled the wolf-Granny. “If I can find an eclair, my journey might end here.”

As they grew closer, they discovered a little girl gnawing on a windowsill. “It’s a fudgy brownie, and so chocolate-y!” she squealed. “I’m so hungry. We wasted all our bread trying to leave a path back home.” Jonquil and the wolf-Granny looked at one another, and the wolf silently promised not to eat the wee thing.

“Ooof!” said someone up on the roof, followed by a clatter. Peeking around the back of the house, they found a little boy pulled down into a cage, lorded over by a strange-looking woman with a long hook, who was now pushing profiteroles through a small slot in the top. “Eat those, my pretty, and you’ll never be hungry again!” she said, licking her lips with delight.

“Mildred?” asked the wolf-Granny. “What are you doing with that little boy?”

The strange-looking woman whipped her head around. “Agnes? Why do you look like a wolf?”

“We need to talk,” said Jonquil. “Let’s go inside.” She set to work heating up the remaining goat curry and making some buttery garlic toast while she listened to the two women catch up.

“Oh, heavens, dear, I can’t possibly eat garlic,” said the witch-Mildred. “I’ve been trying for months to get rid of this big wart on my nose with the new Atchkiss Diet. Heavens, girl, don’t you know that garlic enhances wart growth?”

“I can’t eat it either,” said the wolf-Agnes. “After being sick in bed so long, I learned about the Will Yourself to Wellness Diet. Don’t you know that garlic weakens your will and makes you more susceptible to illness?” she asked, puffing on her pipe.

The little boy and girl wouldn’t eat it, either. “Garlic is stinky,” they said. “Momma and Poppa say it makes children grow up stunted and ugly.”

“That’s strange,” Jonquil said. “My friend Hyacinth says it makes you fat. But I seem to be getting fat even though I haven’t eaten much garlic in days.” She looked at the piece of toast doubtfully. It no longer smelled very nice, and seemed to ripple with danger and threat. “But you know, I’m sitting with a witch, a wolf, and two helpless children — all inside a house made of sugary goodness. I’m going to take the risk.” She took a big bite of the bread, and its garlicky, buttery goodness spread all over the inside of her mouth.

“Ahhhh,” she said happily, and used the toast to mop up the rest of her goat stew. She felt happier than she’d felt in days, and even a bit more clear-headed.“This is awfully nice stew,” the witch-Mildred said happily. “Ever since being on the Atchkiss Diet I’ve been restricted to freshly-killed meat and the odd stalk of broccoli. I can’t remember the last time I tasted a raisin, except to use them to lure children to my house.”

“Isn’t it lovely?” asked the wolf-Agnes. “I must admit, the niceness of this stew has disrupted my own Will Yourself to Wellness Diet, which limits me to raw children for three months so the illness in my body can dissipate.” The boy and girl looked askance, but devoured their stew anyway.

“Ladies, isn’t it time we took a step back?” asked Jonquil. “Seems to me there are some strange ideas about food swirling around here, if both of you think eating children is the answer to your problems.”

The wolf and the witch looked at her impassively. “You can’t argue with science,” said one. “You have to complete the regimen to see the full results,” said the other. “It’s been proven to work in villages throughout the Shire.”

“All I’m saying, is, my friend stopped eating nice food and spends all her time doing pushups, and now she’s dating a pig,” said Jonquil. In saying it, Jonquil was visited by a refreshing burst of mental clarity.

“Mmmm, fresh pig,” said the wolf-Agnes.

“How did you hear about these diets? However did you begin to eat children?” demanded Jonquil.

“Why, it was that delightful gentleman doctor who treated my bronchitis,” said the wolf. “He had the loveliest green coat — not a forest green or a spring green or a lime green or an olive green. It was the brightest green I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. A true emerald green. He knew all about diets and what foods are good for you,” she added.

“That’s funny,” said the witch. “I heard about it from the new miller, the gentlemanly one who makes house calls to deliver my flours and sugars. He wears a lovely green coat as well — perhaps green’s the new color this season. I remember him so well because his hair is almost like a bit of white-spun sugar. Thistle-down hair, it is — and white as the finest flour. Course, now that I don’t eat any bread or sweets, I haven’t seen him since,” she added.

Neither woman could remember these men’s names, nor could they imagine why those men hadn’t returned to check up on the patient and the customer.

Suddenly a knock came at the door. When they opened it, they found an odd band of bearded little men, all dressed in miners’ clothes, all wielding picks and knives and hammers.

“Witch! Is it you who poisoned our sweet lady-friend?” demanded the grumpiest-looking of the crew, a brickbat in hand. “She’s dead to the world, with only a single beautiful apple in her hand. Why would you kill our sweet lady-friend?” asked the one who wore glasses and looked professorial.

“You know perfectly well that I prefer much younger flesh-nuggets,” the witch-Mildred said rather defensively, gazing longingly at the boy and girl at the table. “You also know I lure with sweets, not apples. Take us to her, and we’ll study the situation.”

What is the deal with all you people and your food issues?” Jonquil snapped impatiently. She was getting a little tired of juggling so many people and their dietary preferences.

The little men explained that their sweet lady-friend had been cranky for several days, insisting that she had developed an unsightly spot of eczema on her neck. None of the little men could see it, which made her angrier. “She made us stop eating buttery garlic bread, even though none of us has eczema,” the dimwitted-looking one said sadly. “Can I have a bite of yours? It smells so nice.” The wolf, witch, and children cut their untouched slices into seven pieces and handed them about.

When they got to the lady-friend’s body, her skin still glowed with warmth and rosy cheeks, but she did not breathe or have a pulse. “I wish that nice gentlemanly doctor with the thistle-down hair was here,” whispered the wolf-Granny softly. “He’d know just what kind of youthful flesh would bring her back to life — and perhaps the rest of us could have a snack, too.”

With that, they heard an odd rustle, like a spluttering of air. They looked around, and each of the bearded little men raised his implement in preparation to beat off an aggressive stranger, but they saw no one. “Who’s there?” asked the shy-looking little man. “It wasn’t me,” explained the bearded little man so prone to sneezing.

“You morons, it was the Raven King!” said a voice. The voice seemed to come from above, below, and around them. As they looked around confused, tree branches all around them began to unfurl and move.

As one of the branches opened, they saw a strange face hidden there.

“Well, to be precise, it was some queen who the Raven King had bewitched into thinking she needs to be the most beautiful in the world. But the Raven King is behind it all.” The tree looked around at this strange group and narrowed its eyes on Jonquil, the witch and the wolf. “Seems like you’re bewitched as well,” it said slowly. “But perhaps not quite the same as the others.”

“I tried to warn her, but she kept nattering on about that eczema,” the tree continued. “Lemme guess: you wanted to be the smartest or the strongest? The fastest or the happiest? It’s always the same,” the tree said disgustedly to the witch and the wolf.

The witch looked down at her feet. “I only wanted to get rid of this wart on my nose,” she said unhappily. “And I only wanted to feel young and strong again after my long sickness,” said the wolf-Granny.

“Enough self-recrimination,” Jonquil declared suddenly. “I haven’t met this man, and I didn’t want my life to change. Nor do I think anyone here is to blame, really, for their bewitchments. How do we find this Raven King and get the spells reversed?”

The tree took hold of Jonquil’s arms. “Nice triceps,” it said. “You’ve got to enter the fairy world to find him, but there’s no guarantee he’ll do anything for you. Nor is it likely he’ll let you come back.”

“I don’t care,” she responded. “Enough is enough.”

And with that, she heard delightful music begin to play in the distance — the most wondrous, enticing music she’d ever heard. It was as if this music answered an inner need, a desire she’d never known she possessed. It was as if the music sang to her about all the happiest days she’d spent with Hyacinth, spinning stories for each other and eating that Moroccan lamb tanjine dish infused with saffron, dates, and figs. “Where is it coming from? How can I find it?” she breathlessly of the tree.

“God, you humans are thick,” the tree said, rolling its eyes and folding its branches truculently. “And here I’d started to think you might have a head on your trunk.”

******

Even though dusk was falling, it didn’t take long for Jonquil, the warty witch, and the wolf-Granny to find a meadow glowing with sparkly lights and pulsing with that beautiful music. They had sent the little men to take the children home and to watch over the still body of their dead sweet lady-friend.

“I still don’t understand how they could be so unmoved by this music,” the witch murmured. “It reminds me of my younger days, when my nose was so dainty — before the rhinophyma and certainly before that wart started to grow.” “I know just what you mean!” said the wolf. “It fills me with a youthful vigor and a spring in my step, just like before my hip started to creak and I had such a long winter with the bronchitis.”

At first they could not see anything but sparkly lights — but as they entered inside the lights, they began to make out the shapes of many bodies. Hundreds of beautiful, elegantly-dressed men and women, dancing and looking happier than any humans they’d ever seen in the real world.

“Aahhh, it’s like magic!” breathed Jonquil. “I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.” The wolf and the witch nodded in dumb agreement.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a familiar-looking, lovely young woman. “Hyacinth?” she whispered. “It can’t be!” But before she could catch a clearer glimpse, a gentleman asked her to dance. She’d never danced before, but his kiss on the back of her hand and his firm grip seemed to teach her everything she needed to know.

The wolf-Granny, too, stood entranced by the spectacle. As she gazed around, she thought she saw out of the corner of her eye a nice-looking granny who looked a little bit like herself — but she too was interrupted. “Would you like to dance?” asked an elegant grey-haired man to her side. “My, you look just like my Harold — well, before we got so hungry during the famine and he disappeared with his two brothers to seek a fortune,” she said. He smiled and they whirled off to the dance floor.

The witch was undeterred by the dancers and ran up to a near mirror image of herself in one corner of the room. This other witch had a lovely nose — not enlarged at all, and with no warts. “Are you — are we the same –” she stammered. “Have a cocktail,” said the witch with the nice nose. They each took a swig, linked arms, and rambled off to a corner to do a jig together.

Eventually the wolf and the Harold-looking man slowed down and approached the table of hors d’oeuvres. “I don’t know about you, but these rillettes are so tender they taste just like the most delicate flesh,” he said charmingly. The wolf-Granny gazed up at his face. “That’s just like something Harold would have said,” she pronounced, and popped three of them down her throat. “Delicioso!” she said delightedly. The more she ate, the less she noticed a mirror-image of a healthier version of herself in odd corners of the room; eventually, all she could think about was this new Harold and washing down the rillettes with the delicious green punch.

Jonquil danced three times with the hand-kissing gentleman, once with a gentleman in an emerald-green coat, twice with a rather tedious minister named Mr. Collins, once again with the man in the green coat (whose hair was a lovely tuft of white thistle-down), and twice with a handsome man in a strange-looking suit with medals and banners. “Please call me Baron von Hogwood,” said the last dancer. “I used to know someone with that name!” Jonquil smiled. “But I don’t remember him being as nice-looking as you are, nor so nice a dancer.”

“Have a sip of this marvelous green punch?” the Baron asked. “It’s marvelous for one’s figure.”

“I’ve been a little worried about my figure,” Jonquil confessed, almost drunkenly, and felt at that moment her dress cinch her tight at the waist. That’s something that hasn’t happened for a while, she said to herself in the back of her mind. But before she could put the crystal to her mouth, her elbow was jostled by a passing dancer, and the sparkling green liquid fell on the Baron’s magnificent white suit vest.

“Oh, dear,” she apologized hastily, but found herself disconcerted to see the Baron shoot her a furious look that reminded her of something. What was it? As she turned to see who had jiggled her arm, she again caught a glimpse of someone familiar. “Is that Hyacinth?” she said aloud, and her head began to clear a little bit.

“My great apologies, Madam! You require another cocktail,” the Baron now said insistently, having regained most of his composure. But Jonquil wanted to find her friend. She grasped the hand of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair and pulled him onto the dance floor.

“Excuse me, madam, but it is our custom that the gentlemen dancers lead, and the ladies follow,” the gentleman with the thistle-down hair said with a smile on his face. “It’s rather unseemly otherwise, don’t you think?” Jonquil looked at him quizzically and suddenly became aware of what a very bad dancer she was, indeed.

At that moment, however, they reached the woman who looked so much like Hyacinth. “Jonquil!” said her friend. “What are you doing here? And oh dear, you’re not supposed to lead, for heavens’ sake! You don’t even know how to dance!”

Jonquil suddenly felt unbearably clumsy, as if one of her legs had become wooden. Her dress popped two buttons right in Hyacinth’s direction. The Baron raced over with a goblet of sparkling green cocktail. “Madam, please,” he said, bending over to hand it to her. “It’s so helpful for the nerves.”

It did look delicious, she thought. And my figure can use all the help I can get. But when she reached for it, her hands had swollen into giant ham-hands, and she found herself spilling this drink all over the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

“I’m so sorry,” she cried, reaching into her pocket for her hankie, which she always kept folded neatly for such accidents. It had been so long since she’d felt the need to cry — she’d been away from home, away from Hyacinth’s push-ups, even relieved of her own expanding girth — that she knew it was tidy and clean.

But she’d forgotten that she’d wrapped her unfinished bit of buttery garlicky bread in it. As she held it out to pat away the sticky green drink from the gentleman’s front, the garlic bread’s smelly, buttery, garlicky goodness infused the air of the ball and spilled onto the gentleman’s head.

His response was shock and surprise — and then his arms began to dissolve into black ravens that dispersed throughout the dance. “What the –” he muttered. “Who brought garlic in here?” The last thing anyone saw was a floating bit of thistledown as the fairy dance disappeared entirely.

At the same time, Jonquil’s head cleared. She looked at Hyacinth, who sat next to her in an empty meadow, and at the pig Baron von Hogwood had become. “Are you really in love with a pig?” she asked her friend.

“Have I really been doing pushups for the last five days?” asked Hyacinth. “It seems so bizarre. It’s as if I lost a teeny part of myself that otherwise would have known it was stupid. Why did you run away from home and from me when I was so messed up?” continued Hyacinth.

Jonquil looked at her with surprise. “Didn’t you notice that every time you talked about those damn pushups or your diet, I gained ten pounds?”

“No, you didn’t,” said Hyacinth. Jonquil looked down at her dress and found that all her buttons were there and that she had neither a ham hand or a wooden leg. “You look just the same as always.”

A nice-looking older woman wandered up to them. “My stomach hurts from all those awful rillettes, and I think they’ve made my hip creak more,” she said miserably. “It’s possible I feel even older and sicker than I did before I started to turn into a wolf — but at least I don’t want to eat little children anymore,” she concluded. “Agnes?” asked Jonquil. “Why, yes,” she said. “Do I know you? Do you know how to get me home?” A wart-faced woman came up to them as well. “I wish I hadn’t drunk that punch,” she said groggily. “I have the worst headache, and I think my wart is even bigger. All I want is a nice loaf of my own semolina-sesame bread and a big salad, and to forget all about this stupid wart.”

“Let’s go home,” Jonquil said, and they headed back.

As they passed through the woods, they found the seven bearded little men chatting with their dazed-looking sweet lady-friend, whose spell had been broken. “Some jackass came riding through insisting he needed to kiss her, but we put the kibosh on that one,” they said, smiling at Jonquil. Jonquil and Hyacinth also found the little boy and girl home again with happy parents in a valley where the fields’ fertility had been restored and the famine ended.

They finally returned to their cottage. “Let’s tell stories and eat garlic bread,” Hyacinth said.

“Yeah,” Jonquil agreed. “And we’re going to put in a nice healthy crop of garlic in the garden for next year — maybe to replace those odd thistles that grew up in the field this spring.”

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10 Responses to “A fractured feminist fairy tale”

  1. judiang Says:

    And the moral to the story is: always take garlic bread wherever you go! 😀

    Seriously that was a lovely cautionary tale. If only we could really accept ourselves as we are. BRAVO!

    • Didion Says:

      Thanks, friends! I still like the initial idea better than the follow-through. I was always better at coming up with initial ideas for stories than completing them.

      But then, isn’t it kind of interesting how many fairy tales are obsessed with food? I’m sure a lit scholar has covered this already.

  2. servetus Says:

    Thanks for elaborating this and writing it down. It should be required reading.

  3. Megan Says:

    I loved this! Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking, clever tale! 🙂

  4. Hello Ladies Says:

    I love fairy tales and I detest hearing about diets. Thank you. This is excellent.

    • Didion Says:

      You and me both. And let’s just say that writing this seemed especially cathartic in the post-Christmas flurry of diet/exercise ads appearing everywhere. As if the post-holiday season isn’t depressing enough.


  5. […] I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened […]


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