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A Tale Out of Time

By Nancy Willard

I recently asked my students in a class on the history of fairy tales a simple question: What was your favorite fairy tale when you were growing up, and how did you find it? Or, to put it differently, how did that particular tale find you? These are students who can’t imagine a world without computers and who are so adept at finding their way around the World Wide Web that it seems no secrets are hidden from them; there are no doors that can’t be opened when you know the password or the command. If Rumpelstiltskin appeared to them and said, “Guess my name,” they would know a hundred ways of finding it. They are perfectly comfortable in rooms that do not exist in the physical world, meeting and conversing with people whose cloak of invisibility makes them as fictive and even dangerous as anyone they might meet in a fairy tale. A world wide web — the very name strikes my ear as the invention of a spider of great power, and woe betide the traveler who gets caught in it.

It’s no surprise that many of my students came to fairy tales through Disney’s re-shaping of them. It’s also no surprise that the students who remembered hearing the original stories had parents who knew the importance of reading aloud to their children. But however they came to the stories, they discovered that what they remembered of each tale and what they had carried about for years like a talisman was not the plot but a scene, a character, or an image buried deep in the shadow of the main event. I have come to believe that none of the transformations that happen in fairy tales — beast into prince, pumpkin into coach — are as astonishing as those that happen to the stories in the minds of those who re-read and re-invent them. What you forgot tells you something about who you were when you first heard or read the tale. What you remember tells you something about the magic of the tales themselves, in which one’s destiny dwells in ordinary objects: a slipper, a comb, a lamp, waiting to be recognized. Revisiting a fairy tale is like revisiting a house you knew as a child, only to discover there are rooms you never explored and floors you did not even know existed. For me that house is my grandmother’s house in Owosso, Michigan, which was torn down long ago to make room for the post office building. Before I can consider the house as a metaphor for remembering fairy tales, I have to tell you a little about that particular house.

If I tell you it was a large white house with many rooms, and that there hung in the vestibule a chandelier on which gleamed dozens of cut-glass tears, do not imagine for a moment that my grandmother’s house was a castle, or even a mansion. For years and years the cut-glass tears had been falling, gradually, leaving bare patches on the tarnished brass fixture. My grandmother rented all the upstairs rooms and one of the downstairs rooms as well, and she did all the cleaning of those rooms for the tenants. She made the beds, she dusted the bureaus and windowsills, she scrubbed the floors, the fixtures, and the walls. Whenever she found a glass tear she would tuck it into a kitchen drawer that was already crammed with handles, screws, brackets, old nails, and unidentifiable parts of defunct appliances.

The family lived on the first floor, in the humblest and darkest rooms. My grandfather was an osteopath who kept in his office a cuckoo clock that no longer kept time and held a bird that no longer sang. But what did it matter? My grandparents took the measure of time not by clocks but by the look of the light. “Let’s walk to the drugstore while it’s still light,” or “Time to start dinner. It’ll be dark soon.” The office was connected by a hallway to a storeroom crammed with tables and chairs wrapped in brown paper, bought at discount and never used. Beyond the bedroom lay a kitchen with a tiny bathroom stuck on like an afterthought. The hallway had been converted into my grandfather’s treatment room, which held a padded table that looked about as comfortable as an ironing board. Behind the glass doors of a small cabinet, phials of medicine stood like potions.

When my mother and sister and I visited, we slept in whatever room happened to be available. If all the rooms were rented, I slept in the kitchen on a cot. There was but one downstairs tenant, an elderly widow named Mrs. Ferris, whom we never saw but whose existence we could never forget. One morning, my mother could not find her shoes; having searched for an hour, she was ready to give up, but just then Mrs. Ferris called out like Thisbe to Pyramus from the other side of the wall: “Did you look behind the radiator?”

In that same town there was a castle, a very small castle, built on the banks of the Shiawassee River by a writer named James Oliver Curwood, who for years had longed to live in a castle and whose popular novels had earned him enough so that he got his wish, accomplished not by magic but by cold, hard cash. Having seen no other castles, I thought Curwood’s castle, with its arched doors and diamond windowpanes, the most enchanted residence imaginable. Years later I returned to Owosso for a visit, and since the castle was now open to the public, I stepped inside. The rooms were few and had been turned into offices. No giants, no ogres, thank goodness. And, alas, no fairy godmothers.

So when I think of a house as the metaphor for remembering fairy tales, when I think of a place full of rooms to be explored and scenes to be enjoyed, I do not think of a castle. No, I think of my grandmother’s house, crammed with ordinary inconveniences and alive with the voices of real people who paid rent and went off to work in the morning. What made the place like a fairy tale for me? The hidden lives? The spaces I didn’t know upstairs? The memory I had of once (and only once, because I was ill) being put in a newly vacated upstairs room full of light that illuminated a marble sink, perfectly egg-shaped, a room I never saw again? I would have thought it was a dream if my mother had not said, “Yes, there was such a room. It was the most expensive room in the house.”

We all know that fairy tales are as full of familiar things as your grandmother’s pantry or my grandmother’s kitchen, with its stove and its bin of apples and its bit of mirror stuck in the tiny bathroom off the kitchen and its row of boots and slippers by the back door and its Farmers’ Almanac, with the phases of the moon like a secret alphabet making its way with small steps down the calendar pages. The apples in that kitchen were not golden, the mirror did not speak, the slippers were not glass, the boots could not carry you seven leagues, and the useful advice in the almanac would never transform your life, though it might keep the moles out of your garden or prevent the clothespins from freezing to the line. And because neither our lives by day nor our dreams by night are really ordinary at all, and because things hidden wait for someone to find them (whether it be a shoe behind the radiator or a scrap of memory), when you go back to the fairy tales you find that you experience them differently; you find that you cannot step into the same tale twice. The tale has not changed, but the reader, no longer a child, enters by a different door. So when my students return to their favorite fairy tales, they find that what they need from the stories has always been there, waiting for them to recognize it.

As a teacher, I try to open those doors for my students. As a poet, I go back to the fairy tales, looking for what first called me to them: the miracle of time itself, into which we are born and from which we will depart. I go back to the three tales that showed me the experience of time without hours, minutes, and seconds: “Mother Holle” from the Brothers Grimm; “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a Russian tale; and “The Seven Doves,” an Italian tale that may not be as familiar to many readers as the other two.

“Mother Holle” is a story I have carried with me on the long journey from innocence into experience, like a living candle in the heart. Everyone will recognize the character of the abused stepdaughter who is forced to sit by a well and spin, until the day she accidentally drops the reel of her spindle into the water. In desperation, she leaps in after it, loses consciousness, and wakes to find herself in a sunlit meadow full of flowers. Here the girl is hired by an old woman to keep house. The girl’s first impression of her employer is not a good one. The text says, “She had such big teeth that the maiden was scared and wanted to run away.”

In spite of her big teeth, I was disposed to like Mother Holle, for she seemed a close relative of all those mysterious old women in Mother Goose. She is close kin to the woman who lives under the hill (“and if she’s not gone / she lives there still”). And she is at least a first cousin to the woman who ascends in a basket with her broom in her hand, not riding on it to some Witch’s Sabbath but putting the broom to the use for which it was intended:

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Seventeen times as high as the moon;
Where she was going, I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom.

Old woman, old woman, old woman, quoth I,
Where are you going to up so high?
To brush the cobwebs off the sky!
May I go with you? Aye, by-and-by.

Too much Sunday school had made me a little nervous about following strangers into the heavens, lest I wouldn’t be allowed to return. But Mother Holle invites no such fears. The story (as recounted in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes) tells us that “the old woman cried after her, ‘Why are you afraid, my dear child? Stay with me, and if you do all the housework properly, everything will turn out well for you. Only you must make my bed nicely and carefully and give it a good shaking so the feathers fly. Then it will snow on earth, for I am Mother Holle.’”

What’s in a name? Her name, of course, means Hell, which in Old English, spelled with one l, names the queen of the dead in Scandinavian mythology, whose home was reserved for the spirits of ordinary citizens who died in their beds, not in battle, and were therefore not bound for Valhalla.

The story does not tell us very much about what to me is the most fascinating part of the tale, the girl’s life with this goddess of the dead turned domestic weather lady. We are told she spent “a long time” with Mother Holle, who was pleased with the girl’s work, yet a season passes before our eyes in a single sentence. “In return, the woman treated her well: she never said an unkind word to the maiden, and she gave her roasted or boiled meat every day.” What kind of meat did they eat and where did it come from? And what did Mother Holle’s house look like? The girl would have known it intimately, for nothing acquaints you with a house more quickly than cleaning it. When, I wonder, did the girl notice the absence of bells to mark the passing of human time — wedding bells, church bells, death knells? What did the young girl and the old woman talk about? In the evening did they tell stories? Did Mother Holle tell her a story she’d heard long ago, perhaps from another visitor, a story about the Month Brothers, the twelve men who sit on twelve chairs on a rocky plateau in a distant woods, and pass the staff of time from one brother to the next? Did the girl say, “Oh, I know that story. When January holds the staff, there is snow. When June holds the staff, there are strawberries. When September holds the staff, there are apples”? Did Mother Holle chuckle at their names and remind the girl that those who change the seasons are far older than the Gregorian calendar?

What looks like a death by drowning — the girl’s arrival into the underground world through the water in the well — turns out to be a rebirth, a kind of baptism by total immersion. And what calls me back to the story is the journey back home and the girl’s reason for making it. “I’ve got a tremendous longing to return home, and even though everything is wonderful down here, I’ve got to return to my people.” Pleased with her request, Mother Holle leads her to a large door, which has not been mentioned before, and opens it. Gold showers down on the girl as a reward for her industry. The gold itself is useful but not remarkable. More marvelous than the opening of the door is the closing of it, after which we are told that “the maiden found herself back up on earth, not far from her mother’s house.” In her end is her beginning, and surely she has been as changed by her departure from the things of this world as if she had indeed returned from the dead. Now she is back in the world, and the circle of her journey is complete. What did the girl learn about the world during her retreat from it and about herself from her sojourn with Mother Holle? And what did Mother Holle learn about homesickness and the condition of being human?

The wise women of the fairy tales have many relatives, and some of them would rather devour their guests than feed them. How fortunate for the girl that she found Mother Holle and not Baba Yaga, the old woman who rides through the Russian forests in a mortar and pestle and whose hut turns and turns on its unlikely foundation, a pair of chicken legs. Her fence is made of human bones, spiked with human skulls. The posts of her door are human legs, the bolts that close it are human hands, the lock is a mouth full of sharp teeth.

The beautiful Vasilisa is sent by her stepsisters to fetch light from Baba Yaga, so they can finish their tasks. There are easier ways to fetch light; their underlying motive is to get rid of their competition. Vasilisa’s two-day journey is measured not in miles or hours but in the coming of light and dark:  daybreak, sunrise, and nightfall pass the girl on the road to the witch’s house.

“Suddenly a horseman galloped past her: his face was white, he was dressed in white, his horse was white, and his horse’s trappings were white — daybreak came to the woods.

She walked on farther, and a second horseman galloped past her: he was all red, he was dressed in red, and his horse was red — the sun began to rise.

Vasilisa walked the whole night and the whole day, and only on the following evening did she come to the glade where Baba Yaga’s hut stood. . . . Suddenly another horseman rode by. He was all black, he was dressed in black, and his horse was black. He galloped up to Baba Yaga’s door and vanished, as though the earth had swallowed him up — night came.” (Russian Fairy Tales, Pantheon, collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, translated by Norbert Guterman.)

Time’s messengers are surely more dangerous than the bones of dead: the dead might feel a twinge of sympathy for the girl, but time carries out its duties without mercy. If an uninvited guest of great power decrees that your daughter shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die, even a wise godmother can’t undo all the damage and you must settle for a modified curse of a hundred-years’ sleep.

Much is shown and nothing is explained in Baba Yaga’s house, including the identity of the souls who once inhabited the skull and her relationship with the three horsemen. Baba Yaga tells Vasilisa that “all of them are my faithful servants.” What is her power and how far does it reach? Is it so great that she can command the sun to rise? That she is in league with time is certain. Her house is made of time. When darkness falls, the eyes of the skulls on her fence gleam until “the glade was as bright as day.” When morning breaks, the eyes of the skulls fade and go out. You might say that Baba Yaga had the first automatic timer, and she powered it herself.

With her sharp teeth and her command of natural events, she is the fierce sister of Mother Holle. Was Baba Yaga once a guardian of the hearth, to whom was assigned the broom, the pestle, and the mortar? Was she a guardian of both the living and the dead, giving life and taking the living back into the earth from which they came?

The fairy tales give a face and a name to what in real life is everywhere and nowhere: the mystery of time when it is not measured by clocks or when it is not measured at all, the way time had abandoned the cuckoo clock in my grandmother’s house. Instead of telling time, it told us its story, which was carved all around the face of the clock: two cuckoos alighting on the edge of a nest feed their hatchlings.

Fairy tales that showed the secret life of time when it was off-duty were a great comfort to me, because when it came to telling time, I was a very slow learner. My mother, always an optimist, bought me a picture book with a toy clock in it, and the clock had movable hands. Though I could easily read the o’clocks — seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and so forth — I couldn’t get the hang of what happened in the spaces between them. It was perfectly clear that time passed at different speeds, quickly if you were happy, slowly if you were bored. Grown-ups spoke of losing an hour or not knowing where the time went. Nothing on the face of the clock in my book or the clock in our kitchen took this into consideration. So whenever my mother asked me, “What time is it?” I would answer truthfully, “The big hand is at three and the little hand is at four,” unless the hands stood on the hour, which was something you could give a name to: four o’clock, or noon.

To complicate matters, the picture on our calendar for January showed Father Time, an elderly man in a toga holding a scythe, much like the one in use on my great-grandfather’s farm. I knew what the scythe cut did not rise again. Its purpose was to clear space for the next sowing, the next generation. Perhaps that is why time, when he appears as a character in fairy tales, is sometimes accompanied by a wise crone who remembers how, in her day, time passed in weather and light and seasons that came round again and again.

But does time itself have a local habitation? For the teller of fairy tales, nothing is impossible. “The Seven Doves” contains the most vivid account I know of time’s living arrangements — or perhaps we should say his dying arrangements. In Time’s house, artlessly furnished with broken statues and shattered columns, the walls are cracking, the foundations crumbling, the doors worm-eaten. Files, saws, scythes, sickles, and pruning hooks litter the ground, along with Time’s trophies: thousands of small earthen jars that bear the names of cities Time has conquered. Only his coat-of-arms over the door has escaped destruction. Quartered, it shows a stag, a raven, a phoenix, and a serpent biting its tail.

But the story can’t begin until Channa, a young woman whose seven brothers have been turned into doves by an ogre, learns that only the Mother of Time can tell her how to break the spell. On her quest to find Time’s house, she meets an old pilgrim who tells her what to expect and how to behave. She is to hide herself until Time flies out, leaving his mother in charge, seated upon a large clock that is fastened to the wall.

“As soon as you enter, quickly take the weights off the clock. Then call the old woman, and beg her to answer your questions; whereupon she will instantly command her son to eat you up. But the clock having lost its weights, her son cannot move, and she will therefore be obliged to tell you what you wish. But do not trust any oath she may make, unless she swears by the wings of her son. If she does so, trust her; do what she tells you, and you will be content.” (The Italian Fairy Book, Anne Macdonell)

All happens as the pilgrim has predicted, and when Channa lets go of the weights, she kisses the old woman’s hand, “which had a mouldy smell.” Touched by this gesture, the old woman tells her to hide behind the door and promises to find out all she wishes to know. “And as soon as he goes out again — for he never stays quiet in one place — you can depart. But do not let yourself be heard or seen, for he is such a glutton that he does not spare even his own children; and when all fails, he devours himself, and then springs up anew.”

The original tale, which must have been a variant of the more familiar “The Six Swans” from the Brothers Grimm, has been embellished by a literary hand. The animals on Time’s coat-of-arms were assigned by an imagination that loved allegories, and their symbolic presence reinforces the message: stop the clock and you can stop the only time that matters in this tale, the time allotted for a human life. No falling down wells or shaking the snow out of featherbeds here, and no messengers waking the sun or bringing the darkness home to roost. The junkyard of Time is crammed with the tools of human lives and the dust of human triumphs. It reminds me of the storeroom in my grandmother’s house. Even Time is bound by the human contrivance of a clock, and he must enter his house by a door, behind which a human visitor may safely hide. Wherever a door opens, a threshold appears, and a threshold signals a new beginning.

What do I want my students, many of whom are fledgling writers, reading some of these tales for the first time, to take with them into their own lives and writing?

May they never forget that a fairy tale is like a house that can be entered by many doors, and behind every door lies a new story. Take, for example, the Grimm tale “The Worn-out Dancing Shoes” (called “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in Andrew Lang’s version) about the twelve princesses who escape every night, through a trapdoor in their bedroom, to a glittering underground estate where they dance all night with twelve princes, of whom we know nothing except an odd fact that the storyteller reveals in the last sentence: “The princes, however, were compelled to remain under a curse for as many nights as they had danced with the princesses.” Who put this curse on them, and for what reason, we are never told. However, one of my students decided to find out. He wrote an elegant story in which one of the princes describes his life before his stepmother banished him and his eleven brothers to the underground kingdom. As he said in his preface, “I am writing this story to explore the unwritten element of the story, and to find out what happens in the spaces between the words.”

Fairy tales are as luminous and layered as an onion. When I tell my students that a fairy tale is like a house they can enter by many doors, I also tell them they can find those doors even if they’ve forgotten the story. There is a difference between forgetting a story and forgetting about a story. The story you forget about vanishes, the story you forget will return when you need it. When you forget a story, it does not forget you. Like the houses we live in, stories are a shelter and a station; a place to keep us and a place of departure. Though Time takes us all in the end, he gives each of us a beginning and puts us into a story, in which some are tellers and others are listeners who will pass the tales on to other tellers and other listeners.

And what, in the end, do I wish for my students?

May their best stories, born in time, live outside of it. I wish those stories a good journey.

From the January/February 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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