The Hanged Man

On this page I’ll share excerpts from my book, ‘The Hanged Man.’  This will be published, likely in digital form, soon.  I’m currently working on a sequel.  ‘The Hanged Man’ follows familiar characters from myth, legend, folklore and fairytale through the Neopagan wheel of the year cycle.  Here I’ll post small pieces of the book that reflect the subject matter of current blogs.

The Rules

The next morning was indeed sunny. They rolled up their blankets and rain capes and ate. Rapunzel watched Maria comb out her dark sheet of hair, twist it deftly and pin it.

“Do you ever think of cutting it short?”

“Of course not! I couldn’t do such a thing.”

“Why?”

Maria looked at Rapunzel. “It’s the custom for a woman my age to have long hair and wear it up.”

“Why?”

“It just is, Rapunzel! It’s the way we do it where I come from.”

Rapunzel giggled. “Don’t get mad. I’m not being a brat. I just want to know why it’s the custom. Who made the rule? What happens if someone doesn’t follow it?”

Maria shook her head. “I can’t answer you. I don’t know. I never thought about it before—it’s just the way it’s done.”

“Okay. If it wasn’t the rule would you ever think about cutting it, just to do something different?”

Maria felt irritated without quite knowing why. “No. I don’t want to be different. I want to be like everyone else.” She fixed Rapunzel with a stern eye. “Don’t you dare ask me why.”

Rapunzel, whose lips were framing the word, burst into giggles instead. Maria laughed too, in spite of herself. She picked up her bundle. “Are we going to walk or are you going to stand here all day asking idiot questions?” But she still smiled.

They walked. This morning they found a path along the river that made the going easier.

“I wasn’t just being provocative, Maria. I’ve been thinking about my mother. I never knew she was so lonely. It seems to me she’s been lonely because she’s different and people are afraid of her—or she’s afraid of them, maybe. Afraid of getting hurt, being rejected. It makes me wonder about rules. The only rules I ever knew growing up were hers, and I suppose they’re invisible to me, just like lots of your rules are invisible to you—like the hair thing.” She gestured toward Maria’s neat knot.

“We need rules, don’t we?” asked Maria, interested now, irritation forgotten. “There are always social rules.”

“Yes, but how important are they? Why does it matter how we wear our hair, or how long it is? And who makes the rules?”

“I suppose rules about hair aren’t important in any real sense. But there’s a real kind of punishment if you don’t follow them. I don’t know who makes the rules in the first place, but everyone enforces them.”

“Do you think less of me because I cut off my hair?”

“Of course not! It’s your hair, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Maria, I don’t think less of you because you had two sons with a man you weren’t married to.”

Maria felt like she’d been struck. “Oh, Rapunzel, that’s not the same at all! Marriage and children—that’s a religious rule, a Church rule. It’s the most powerful law there is.”

“Maybe it is for you, but not for me. Not for Juan, either. Why were you expected to follow the rule but he didn’t have to?”

“Because he’s a man,” Maria said with some bitterness.

“You mean different rules apply differently to men and women?”

“Why are you badgering me? You’ve got me all confused now.” Maria’s voice sounded angry in her own ears. “That’s enough!”

“I’m sorry. I’m just trying to understand.”

They walked along in silence. Maria strode down the damp path. Wet branches and grasses brushed against her. Sunlight shone off the river’s surface. Automatically, she watched the bank for signs of her sons. She tried to find the familiar mental resting place of dull grief and shame but Rapunzel’s questions niggled at her. Rules. So many rules. Who did make the rules? Who gave Juan the power to take her sons away from her? Why was she the only one punished for the results of their love?

The river curved and a crescent of rocky bank was exposed to sun. A fallen tree made a convenient bench. Maria left the path and jumped down onto the rocks. Rapunzel followed without comment and they set down their burdens and settled on the fallen tree trunk, side by side.

Maria watched the water flow by. Had any drop of this water news of her lost sons?

“I’m sorry. I feel like a fool. Your questions are good questions. I wonder why I’ve never thought to ask them–and find answers. I don’t like knowing I’ve been following all these rules without ever thinking about them. What am I, a sheep?”

Rapunzel laughed, then sobered. “It’s not funny, really, is it? Rules have such power. Why do you think we just accept them and follow them so blindly?”

Maria frowned. “I suppose we think if we follow the rules we’ll be safe. People will approve of us.”

“We’ll be loved?”

“Does that mean we can’t be loved unless we follow the rules?” Maria felt her temper rise again but this time it wasn’t directed at Rapunzel.

“Well,” said Rapunzel slowly, “my mother loves me, even though I broke her rules. Do you think Juan loved you?”

Maria shook her head. “I want to say yes, of course he did. I don’t think so, though. Not really. Let’s think about this. In being with him I broke rules because we weren’t married. Having children with him was evidence of breaking rules.”

“At least twice,” put in Rapunzel slyly.

Maria gave her a playful slap. Rapunzel laughed.

Maria continued, “I broke the rules because I wanted him and I was afraid if I insisted on marriage he’d go away.” She winced. “That’s hard to admit, but it’s true.”

“So he didn’t love you because you broke the rules and you don’t think he would have loved you if you’d played by the rules?”

“I don’t think the damn rules had anything to do with it at all, except that he was protected by them and I wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to lose by breaking rules.”

“You did.”

“Did I? Only because I believed in them in the first place. Only because I agreed it was important for the boys to have married parents. Only because I agreed I was a whore!” She stooped and picked up a stone at her feet, flung it into the river.

“If you’re a whore, Maria, so am I.”

Maria turned on her. “Don’t you call yourself that! You’re not a whore. That’s an ugly, ugly word.”

“But I do call myself that! If a whore sleeps with a man outside of marriage, that’s what I did. I wanted to. I even liked it. I didn’t like him that much, especially after the first couple of weeks, but I liked the way I felt with him. I’d do it again. I’m even worse than you because you loved Juan and you thought you were building a family. I didn’t love Alex.”

Maria poked at a handful of rocks, laid them out carefully in a row on the log beneath them, chose one and threw it into the water.

“It seems to me,” said Rapunzel, “the only difference between us is you wanted to follow rules I don’t care about.”

“I never thought about following rules at all,” said Maria. “I thought about what other people thought of me and my sons. I felt ashamed. I was expected to behave in certain ways and I didn’t meet those expectations. Now we’re talking about it, I guess that’s another way of saying I cared about following the rules, but that’s not how I thought of it then.”

“If those rules made you so unhappy you wanted to kill yourself, then maybe they’re bad rules. If rules are made, can’t they be unmade? Can’t we say no, that’s a bad rule, I won’t follow it?”

Maria clenched her hands together and twisted them in her lap. “Did I murder my children because of invisible rules I didn’t make and didn’t agree to? Was it nothing more than that? I threw them in the river and watched them get swept away because of other people’s rules and expectations? Those were more important to me than my children’s lives?” Her voice rose and broke on the last word. She got to her feet, threw back her head and howled.

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Rose Red’s Dance

She heard the sound of piping.

Rose Red lowered her face and stood, alert and watchful, listening hard. She couldn’t tell which direction it came from. She saw only grey-swathed trees around her, their top branches lost in fog. She found herself looking at new leaves on a tree close to her. The piping was like the tender spring green of the leaves. Or was the green like the leaping, vivid sound of the pipe? The tune rose and fell and her eyes rose and fell with it, moving from branch to twig and back again as green fire seemed to spring out of brown wood and grey fog. She had a sense of movement under her feet and looked down. The forest floor was soft and wet with a layer of old brown leaves but green shoots and fronds seemed to rise and unfurl in response to the piping.

She was possessed by a sudden feeling of joy welling up from her feet, a feeling of life. The hem of her cloak was wet and beaded with mud, brown beads like gems on the dark green wool. The piping pulled at her, insistent, compelling, and she reached down, pulled up the hem of her cloak in one hand and, following the tune, feet light and eager, danced a few steps. The piping rippled as though laughing in joy and she smiled in response. The melody quickened and she responded, moving gracefully between tree trunks, drops of water splashing down on her as she passed.

This was not like the heavy, grounded beat of Persephone’s dumbek. The pipe laughed and played, coaxing, holding out its hand, now a thin silver sound of joy and a moment later a leaping green fire. It was utterly wild and free, changing from moment to moment. It was as though the forest played itself, grey and brown, cool and wet, everywhere green life springing into being. On and on it led her, through little flowing rivulets, under trees, across clearings where new grass was thick and heavy with drops of water. Her wet curls clung to her cheeks, her boots were mud to the ankles, her cloak splashed and streaked. She smiled but tears mingled with drops of water on her face. There wasn’t a thought in her head. She was filled with a kind of wild exultation, at one with the music and forest.

Suddenly the piping paused, leaving deep, listening stillness among the trees like an indrawn breath. Rose Red stilled, poised on dancing’s edge, waiting . . . A single note like a cry, a lonely, aching sound, lost and despairing. The note died away into infinitesimal whisper of mist and breathing trees. Again the single musical cry, solitary and heartbreaking. It went straight through her, cold and sharp. Hair stood up on her body and her heart beat heavily. She wanted to run away from the sound, never hear it again. She was lost, alone, cold, wet through and suddenly terrified. She turned, seeking to flee from the heart of the chilly, wet, silver wood where only moments before she’d been so at home and joyous.

She looked up and met the stern, wide-eyed gaze of a white owl. It glared down at her from a branch. Its eyes pinned her, commanded stillness.

Silence. Drip of water onto forest floor. No movement. No piping. Waiting, watching, listening silence. Her heart beat hard in her chest. Surely it was audible to the listening trees? Her breath came in hard gasps, and she tried desperately to force herself to silence. She mustn’t run. She mustn’t panic. If she ran she’d unleash the spirit of the wood that listened and waited. The owl would swoop down and consume her.

The owl turned its gaze away, then, suddenly indifferent. She was, after all, beneath notice. She felt released. Carefully, she took a step. Nothing happened. The forest floor was soft and damp underfoot. She took another step, and another. Her terror receded a little with movement. She was allowed, then, to move among the trees. They watched her but wouldn’t try to stop her—yet.

She walked. She had no purpose, no goal. Deliberately, she took each step in what seemed the easiest place to set her foot, keeping to open ground between the larger trees. She was tense and straining to hear the sound of the flute. She knew it would come. The whole forest waited expectantly for the thread of music to be taken up again.

The ground sloped and a creek flowed, ice bound at its rocky edges. She looked down at it, the small rush of running water distracting her from the need to listen. The ice was clear as glass, a thin skin between rocks and over water.

Suddenly, from very close by, she heard again the flute. There was a series of quick, demanding notes and the ice at her feet cracked with a sharp sound. Water pushed at broken edges, thrusting them up into splintered pieces like glass. Again, the piping struck and ice cracked. She flinched, feeling it like a blow. Shards of broken sound seemed to pierce her.

It looked like a broken mirror. Ice reflected soft white light, growing stronger as she gazed down at it, disturbed but unable to look away. She realized the fog was burning away, the forest bathed in muted sunlight. Again came the series of notes, a cluster of delicate, inexorable blows that shattered the silent icy skin over the living water. There was a dead branch at her feet. She picked it up. It felt rough and wet, colder than her cold hands. She felt a hot desire to break the ice herself, feel it shatter and splinter, make her own sound of destruction. She raised the stick and brought it down. There was a satisfying crunch and a splash of water. Pieces of broken ice were swept away. She struck another blow, and another. She would smash ice, glass, mirror, smash it into splinters, smash it into dust until nothing was left, let the water wash it away, cleanse itself, run free and wild, unlimited, unhindered!

She was weeping. Her throat hurt and she realized dimly she was screaming. The piping was coming from somewhere very close. Perhaps if she looked behind her she’d see the piper but she was caught in a sensual red anger and lust for destruction. The music fed her rage, supporting it, holding it, opening it up like a fiery flower, and she beat at the ice with the branch, moving up and down the banks of the creek, beating and smashing, crying and screaming, and ice broke free and whirled away, broke free and lay melting in the mud, broke free and released water, revealed roots of rocks in the bank, broke free, melted, released and left her clinging to a tree trunk with torn, muddy, bruised hands and sobbing harshly in a foul torrent of grief and rage and pain.

Baba Yaga

“The first to arrive was Baba Yaga. She didn’t know she’d arrived, for she was asleep, lying flat on her back with her chin and nose curving over her mouth, snoring. She was in her bed, which was rather greasy, as there had not lately been a skivvy to wash her laundry. The bed was in a room and the room was in a house on scaly chicken legs and the chicken legs had been doing all the work of travel and were quite happy to have reached the end of the journey. The legs stood in the sun, looking peaceful, slightly cocked at first one knee and then the other, like a horse. The house’s eyelids were closed and a long thin string of sticky saliva fell from the lock on the front door, which was made of a bony snout with sharp teeth. Baba Yaga had things to do and preparations to make, but for now she slept.

Sleep abruptly ended, and with it peace. Baba Yaga woke with a strangled snore, sprang out of bed with fire on her tongue, threw open a window, making the human finger bone catch rattle, and let a magnificent flow of cursing and shrieking come up from the bottom of her iron-tipped dirty feet.”

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa

“I had a teacher who taught me to know one thing from another,” said Vasilisa. “It wasn’t apples, though!” She laughed, remembering. “Shall I tell you about it?”

“Yes!” Rose Red turned to her eagerly, relaxing her hands.

“When I was a child my young mother died. At the end, she beckoned me to her side as she lay in bed.

‘This is for you, my love,’ she whispered, and gave me a tiny doll dressed as I was, in white apron, black skirt, and vest embroidered with colored thread.

‘I must leave you soon. When you need guidance after I’m gone, ask this doll what to do. She’ll help you. Keep her with you always, but keep her secret. Give her food when she’s hungry. She’s made with blood and tears and my love for you.’ With that, Mother’s last breath left her body and she died.

My father mourned for a long time but life always begins again, and after a time he chose another wife, a widow with two daughters. In the beginning, they were nice to me and always smiled.

I missed my mother. For Father’s sake, I tried to please my new stepmother and stepsisters, but I often disappointed them and sometimes they were cross with me. My father was frequently gone and I didn’t like to bother him with my troubles.

One evening the fire went out. My stepmother and stepsisters sent me into the forest to beg Baba Yaga, the witch, for fire for our hearth.

Do you know Baba Yaga? She travels in a flying cauldron, steering it with a pestle-shaped oar and sweeping out her tracks with a birch twig broom bound with human hair. Her white-whiskered chin curves up and meets her down-curving nose, so nose and chin hairs knot together. Iron claws tip her hands and her teeth are of iron too.

Baba Yaga’s house sits on huge chicken legs that walk around and sometimes dance. A palisade of bones guards the house. Pointed teeth and finger bones lock and bolt the doors.

It was dark when I set out and I felt terrified, but I reached down and patted the doll in my pocket and felt better.

The doll guided me through the dark forest. Sticks broke under my feet and twigs scratched my face. The forest was full of footsteps and shadows and peering eyes, but I fed the doll some bread as I walked and followed her direction, trusting my mother’s love.

After a long time, I came to the hovel of Baba Yaga. The fence made of skulls and bones surrounding the hut began to blaze with an inner fire as I came near, so the clearing glowed with eerie light.

As I stood hesitating outside the fence, the dark trees groaned and tossed as though in a fearsome gale, and Baba Yaga in her cauldron suddenly descended on me and shouted, ‘What do you want, frogling?’

She was a terrible sight and I trembled, but I tried to be polite.

‘Grandmother, our fire is out. I’ve come to ask for a coal for my family.’

Baba Yaga snapped, ‘Why should I help people stupid enough to let their fire go out? Good riddance, I say! You’re too useless to live, toad spawn!’ She sucked loudly on a tooth, glaring at me. Then her expression softened and she grew coaxing, and I was more frightened than I’d been when she was nasty. ‘I know who you are,’ she said. ‘Why not leave your stepmother and stepsisters to die in the cold dark, hmmmm? They’re no friends of yours. Walk away! Leave them to their fate!’

‘My father—‘I began.

‘Oh yesss, I know, you couldn’t let down dear daddy, could you? Though he’s made your life a little hell, hasn’t he? Well, if that’s the way you want it…’ she trailed off, mumbling, then shot out, ‘So you want my help, do you?’

‘Yes, please, Grandmother.’

Baba Yaga said, ‘If you want a coal, earn it! I’m a poor old woman and I need some help around here. If you do your work well, which I doubt, you’ll have fire. If not…’ Baba Yaga’s eyes were like red hot iron, and I shuddered.

So, she lay down on her bed and ordered me to bring her breakfast. I cooked meat and eggs and more meat and more eggs until she’d eaten everything except a crust of bread I found on a shelf.

I shared the bread with my doll and fell asleep against the kitchen wall while Baba Yaga snored, but soon she woke and pulled me up by my hair.

‘Wash my clothes, sweep the yard and the house, prepare my food, and separate mildewed corn from good corn. I’ll be back to inspect your work later.’ She flew off in her cauldron, cackling.

The clothes lay in a fetid tangle in the yard, each garment big enough for a giantess. It would take three women a day to wash even one. The floor of the house was littered with gnawed bones, mouse tails, hairballs, toenail clippings, beetles, clumps of earwax, gobs of mucus and greasy soot. The yard was worse than the house. Next to the bone fence a pile of corn stood as high as my shoulder, mildewed mixed up with wholesome.

As soon as she’d gone, I took out my doll. ‘What shall I do? How can I do this work with no food and no sleep?’ The doll told me to do my best with the laundry, so I chose a pair of stockings twenty feet long, striped in purple and green, heated water, found the washboard and soap, and began to scrub. I changed the water and scrubbed, changed the water and scrubbed, rinsed and rinsed and rinsed, and when I was finished the stockings were a lovely violet and pale green. By then I felt so tired I staggered. The doll told me to sleep, and I crawled under the table and did so.

When I woke the work was done except to cook the meal, and I found fresh provisions in the kitchen. I cooked, and when the Yaga returned she found nothing undone. Pleased, in a way, but not pleased because she couldn’t find fault, she sat down grumpily to eat. She ate and ate and ordered me to again clean the house, sweep the yard, launder her clothes and separate a pile of wheat from chaff the next day. When I looked around me, it seemed as if these tasks had never been done before.

Night fell and she began to snore. I lay down on the floor under the table and slept, but it seemed I’d hardly closed my eyes when I woke to find her pulling me to my feet by my hair and it was morning again.

Off she went in her cauldron, screeching as though to split the sky. I took out my doll. ‘What shall I do now?’ I asked it. It told me to sweep the floor and I found a rake and shovel, a broom and a scrub brush and set to work, pushing trash and litter out the front door and into the yard below. When the floor was bare, I tucked up my skirt and scrubbed it with a stiff brush on my hands and knees. While I worked, the doll did the laundry, swept the yard and separated the wheat from chaff. Together, we made a meal.

When Baba Yaga returned, she found nothing undone. Pleased, but not so pleased, she settled down to eat, throwing bones on the clean floor and belching. When she was finished, it was nearly dark. She pointed to a pile of dirt inside the bone fence. ‘That pile of dirt contains poppy seeds. In the morning, I want a pile of poppy seeds and a pile of dirt, all separated out from each other.’

I knew I could never complete such a job, especially in the dark, but the doll reassured me. Baba Yaga fell into bed and began to snore, and I went out and started to pick poppy seeds out of the dirt as best I could in the light of a fiery skull on the fence. I fell asleep there, in the Baba’s yard. When I woke in the morning, I found a pile of poppy seeds and a pile of dirt.

‘Well,’ sneered the Yaga after she’d woken up, ‘it appears you’re not so stupid after all. Tell me, my sticky sweetling, how is it you accomplished these tasks?’ She smiled unpleasantly under her down-curving nose. ‘Someone has given you power!’

‘Grandmother,’ I replied, ‘my only power is the love of my mother, made of blood and tears.’

‘Love?!’ screeched Baba Yaga. ‘Love?! How precious!’ She spat on the ground. ‘We need no stink of love in this house, girl. It’s time you were off!’

She took a skull with fiery eyes from her fence and put it on a stick. ‘Here! Take this home with you. There! There’s your fire. Be off!’

I began to thank her, but the doll in my pocket pinched my leg, so I took the stick and skull and left without another word. Once again, my doll guided me through the forest. I walked all day and it was night again when I returned home. The fiery skull blazed with light. My stepmother and stepsisters ran out to greet me, saying they’d been without fire since I’d left. We kindled a fire with the skull and I left it in the corner of the room and went to bed.

In the morning, I found three piles of burnt cinders on the floor. My stepmother and stepsisters were gone, and the skull was cold.”

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All content on this site ©2017

Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted