A short film utilizing fairy tale tropes, courtesy of my friend Calvin Turnwall.
Florence and the Machine is one of my favorite new groups (thanks, Boing Boing!) and I was delighted to discover their very fairy video for the song Dog Days are Over.
Once upon a time there was a discontented wife. She thought her husband limited and boorish, and her two young children drove her nearly mad with their moods and demands. She yearned for something nameless, and her heart was a panicked bird.
She dreamed of escape day and night until she figured out how to slip away unnoticed. She resolved to construct a substitute who would be like her in every respect, who would cook the meals and wash the children and do every thing a good wife should. Then no one would notice her absence and no one would ever look for her. She gathered branches from the forest, shells from the beach, flowers from the meadow, and moss from the well. The branches became limbs, shells became eyes, flowers were lips, and moss was hair. The discontented wife then gathered whatever love she had left for her family and breathed it softly into a perfect silver bell. She tied the bell where the wood wife’s heart should be and left the wood wife at home watching the children while she fled into the forest like a wild thing. No one was the wiser. The discontented wife eventually grew so wild that she lost her human shape and frayed into the forms of the animals and forgot that she had a name.
Years passed and still no one noticed the wood wife living in their midst. The affection that animated her was true and sweet, and she was a good companion to her husband and a loving mother to the two children. She loved her family tenderly and counted herself blessed. Her only unhappiness lay in the fear that one day the discontented wife would come back, that she would be turned again to a loveless pile of sticks and shells and moss.
As the children grew older, they were allowed to play farther and farther from the house, though the wood wife admonished them not to stray too deeply into the forest. One day the children wandered deeper into the woods than they had ever gone before. They played happily by the babbling brook, their laughter and conversation ringing through the trees like the bell of their mother’s heart. When they looked up from playing, they were terrified to discover a she-wolf crouched next to a tree, watching them intently. The children knew better than to run. They slowly backed away, taking care to make no motions that would mark them as prey. The wolf only watched with her great, golden eyes until they were out of sight, then turned and disappeared into the forest again.
From that day forward, the wolf came to them wherever they were in the forest. They slowly lost their fear of her, and as time passed they came to consider her their friend. They brought her scraps from the table and scratched her ears when she came to eat. They took naps nestled in her fur and she guarded them as she would her own cubs.
One day they were chattering happily to the wood wife about their forest games and told her about the she-wolf. A cold finger of jealousy snaked through the wood wife, for she knew who lay forgotten behind the she-wolf’s golden eyes. The night as she lay in bed with her husband, she told him that the children were being seduced by an evil spirit disguised as a wolf, and that he should follow the children into the forest tomorrow and kill the beast.
He did as she asked. He followed stealthily behind the children, and hid himself to spy on them as they played all day with their mysterious companion. When the children ran home, he raised his gun and shot the wolf through the heart. As soon as the shot struck home, the wolf transformed into the shape of his beloved wife. Horrified, he ran forward and gathered her in his arms, begging her to explain what was happening. She could only answer, “To restore me, bring me the bell from the wood wife’s chest and tie it where my heart was.”
Deeply shaken, he returned home and told the wood wife all that had happened. “See, it is as I said, husband. An evil spirit dogs our family and will not let us be. We should go now to collect the body and burn it. Then we will truly be free.” He led her out to the spot where he’d left the body, but there was nothing to be found.
The animals of the forest were witness to the murder of the discontented wife. When they heard her tell her husband how to revive her, they resolved to hide her body and watch to see if he would return with the bell. When he returned instead with the wood wife and a resolve to burn the body, they knew they would have to retrieve the bell themselves. They watched the wood wife from the trees and marked the spot in her chest where the silver bell rang.
That night, the mice set off to get the bell. But the wood wife was canny and had locked the big, fierce tomcat into the bedroom with them. When they awoke in the morning, the tomcat lay fat and full on a bed of mouse carcasses. The wood wife smiled to herself as she made the family breakfast.
The next night, a swarm of bees came down the chimney to retrieve the bell from the wood wife’s chest. But the wood wife was canny and had built a smoky fire in the fireplace. When they awoke in the morning, dead bees littered the hearth. The wood wife sang a little song to herself as she sat and did the mending that day.
The crows, meanwhile, had been watching with their clever eyes. They knew things the mice and the bees did not. While the wood wife and her husband were still awake, the crows flew over the chimney and dropped rotten eggs onto the hearth below. By bedtime, the entire room stank of sulfur and rot. Though the wood wife pleaded with him not to open the windows, the husband threw them open to clear out the smell. Though she tried to stay awake, the wood wife soon dropped off to sleep beside her husband. Once she was truly sleeping, a crow landed on the window-sill and pretended to be hurt until the cat leapt madly after it and out the window. Then a flock of crows flew in through the window and picked the wood wife to pieces. Once they found the silver bell, they carried it back to the forest and placed it tenderly into the hole where the discontented wife’s heart used to be.
The husband awoke the next morning to a bed full of sticks and shells and black crows’ feathers. Panicked for the safety of his wife, he ran downstairs to find her laughing and playing with their two children. She cuddled them close and nuzzled them for all the world like a wild thing. He breathed a sigh of relief to find her safe, and they all lived happily ever after.
Once upon a time there was a proud, beautiful young woman. Though she was haughty, many men wished to marry her, but none of them was good enough. Her father despaired as she rejected suitor after suitor. Eventually there came a day when her father lost his patience and declared that he would pick the most suitable husband for her and that she would marry that man whether she loved him or no. They fought bitterly, but in the end her father prevailed. He was sad, for he loved his daughter very much. So he carefully considered all the men who wished to marry his daughter.
‘He must be patient, for my daughter is tempestuous and haughty. He must be kind, so that he does not abuse her when she is too harsh and hard. He must be wealthy, so that she and their children will never want. He must have a strong sense of himself, so that he does not become henpecked and beaten. He must be intelligent, so that he might find a way to win her heart.’ And so forth. It was a very long list. And, in the end, he found a man who was an excellent match for his daughter. Handsome, intelligent, patient, kind, wealthy, confident, and with no illusions about his bride. The man understood that the girl did not love him, but he admired her spirit and her intelligence, and he felt confident that in time she would soften towards him.
He told her as much the last time he saw her before they were married, and that was the mistake that sealed his doom. The proud girl determined that she would never love this man, no matter what he did. And so, the night before her wedding she slipped out of her father’s house and went deep into the forest until she found the roost of the owl. ‘Owl!’ she called. ‘I desire a favor.’
The owl regarded her with its great pitiless eyes. ‘What favor do you seek and why should I grant it?’
‘I wish for you to take my heart. I am to be married tomorrow, and I have sworn never to love. Will you help me keep my vow? Your payment is my very heart.’
The owl blinked and bobbed its head around, considering. It fluffed its soft grey feathers and flexed its razor sharp talons. The girl stood defiantly, head high, waiting. Finally the owl swooped down with no warning and plunged its beak deep into the girl’s breast. It tore her heart out in one stab, tossed it in the air, and swallowed it. The girl gasped in shock and pain, and collapsed on the forest floor. She awoke in her bed at dawn, her nightdress stained with blood. She smiled, satisfied.
For the first few years of their marriage she didn’t miss her heart at all. Her husband was kind, and she was content to be a good wife to him, knowing that she had already exacted her revenge. But when she had her first child, the nanny and the housemaids began to whisper that though she was a good mother, there was something cold about her that made them uncomfortable. She was proud of her son, and she took pleasure in caring for him and spending time with him. But she could not love him, and nothing could completely disguise that fact.
At the birth of her daughter it became even more obvious that something was missing. She cuddled the girl, sure, but never cooed endearments, never embraced her spontaneously. Her husband and son loved each other and the baby girl so well that her own lack of passion seemed almost cruel by comparison. People in the village began to whisper that she was a monster, or a witch.
The rumors about her circulated and, like fire, eventually consumed the town. One day the townspeople came before her husband and confronted him. They accused her of selling her soul to the devil, and of planning to devour her children, and many other monstrosities that would have been silly in other circumstances. He managed to talk them into a truce, but it was uneasy, and none of them slept well that night. She laid awake in the dark, listening to her husband breathe, thinking about her beautiful children in the next room. She had come to regard her husband highly. Her father had chosen well for her, and had she not given her heart to the owl, she would have loved him passionately and been very happy. She thought long and hard about what to do. After many hours, she determined to find the owl and ask for her heart back.
So again she went deep into the forest to the owl’s roost. ‘Owl!’ she called. ‘I desire a favor!’
The owl regarded her with its great pitiless eyes. ‘What favor do you seek and why should I grant it?’
‘Seven years ago I came to you and I asked you to take my heart. I have come to regret my decision. I wish to reclaim my heart from you, and I will pay any price you ask.’
The owl blinked and bobbed its head around, considering. It fluffed its soft grey feathers and flexed its razor sharp talons. The girl (now a woman) stood defiantly, head high, waiting. Finally the owl spoke. ‘You seek to reclaim that which you paid to me. The price will be dear. Turn around.’ The woman turned around and saw a giant cage at her feet. She shrieked and leaped backwards, for the cage was full of mice. ‘Your husband and two children are in that cage. Find them and you may reclaim your heart. You have until dawn tomorrow.’
The woman grabbed the cage and ran home. She ran into her bedroom and found her husband gone, though the bed was still warm as if he’d just left it. She ran to her children’s room and they were likewise missing. She looked in despair at the cage full of mice – a hundred of them! And wondered how she would ever accomplish her task.
The next day and night were a terrible trial. The woman examined each of the mice for distinguishing features, but they were all the same. She spoke to them, asking her family to reveal itself, but none came forward. She collected their favorite things and hoped that some mice over others would gravitate towards them, towards the red ball or the well-worn hunting knife or the book of rhymes. But all the mice wandered over the trinkets indifferently, and the woman learned nothing. She sang to them, she called their names, she closed her eyes and tried to feel which of them was her kin. But without her heart, she had even less chance than others of passing the test.
At dawn the owl flew into the window. It blinked at her and bobbed its head towards the cage. ‘Have you made your choice, then?’ it asked.
The woman began to weep. ‘I cannot. I cannot tell which of these are my family. Please give me a different trial, this is unfair. With my heart I could tell. Give me my heart and I will find them in an instant!’
The owl flexed its razor sharp talons, then coughed as if it were coughing up the bones and fur of a woodland creature. Her heart landed on the table before her. ‘Very well,’ it said. ‘Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it was an unfair test. See if you can find your family now.’
The woman grabbed her heart and immediately saw her children and her husband. How could she have missed them before? They were so obvious, not like the other mice at all! She joyfully plucked each one up and placed them in a bowl in the table. ‘There! You see?’ Like lightning the owl darted its beak into the bowl and ate first the woman’s husband, then her son, then her daughter. The woman shrieked in anguish and disbelief and dove at the owl, hoping to pull her beloved family from its cruel throat.
The owl flew easily out of her grasp. ‘You said you were willing to pay any price,’ it said. ‘And so you did. You have your heart, and I have my breakfast. My part of this bargain is fulfilled. Do not trouble me again.’ And it flew away.
And for the first time the woman felt the full force of a mother’s love. And a wife’s. And she fell to the floor nearly unconscious with grief for all she had lost. Later that day the townspeople came to her and demanded to speak with her husband. They found her sobbing on the kitchen floor, arms wrapped around the cage full of 97 mice. ‘Where is your husband, witch? Where are your children?’ they said.
‘Dead,’ she sobbed, ‘all dead and all my fault.’
The townspeople searched the castle and found no sign of the family. And so they dragged her into town and they burned her alive. Deep in the forest, the owl blinked its great pitiless eyes and coughed up the bones and hair of the three juicy mice it had eaten for breakfast.
Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a tower without a door. There were windows on every side of the tower, high above the ground. The king used to stand at the windows and watch the people in his kingdom going about their business, and he wondered what it would be like to go anywhere and do anything one pleased. One day the king turned from the windows to find a beautiful woman dressed all in green standing in the middle of his tower room.
“If you do as I say,” she told him, “you can break the spell that keeps you trapped in your tower, and you can have me for your wife.”
She was so beautiful to behold, and her promise was so tempting, that he agreed without first asking what he must do.
“On the night of the new moon you must allow me to kill you and to cut you up into pieces. When I have done this, I will cover you with a shroud that I have woven for you, and I will weep over your body for three days and three nights. On the fourth day you will arise, healed and whole, and we will be wed and your kingdom will be restored to you.”
The king was sorely afraid when she told him what he had promised. but he was an honorable man and knew he must keep his word.
“As a token of my faith, I give you this yellow bird. She will fly far and wide over your kingdom, and report back to you all that happens. In this way, you will be ready to govern when you are freed. You will know who is a thief and who is in need and who is virtuous and kind.”
And so it came to pass. Every day the king would send the yellow bird out into the land, and every night the bird would come back and tell him tales of the people. He learned who was a thief, and who was in need, and who was virtuous and kind. He learned the face of his kingdom so well from his little friend that by the time the new moon came he was, indeed, ready to govern wisely.
On the night of the new moon the green lady stood once more in the center of his tower room. Before her was a large basket and in her hand was a gleaming sword. “Kneel before this basket so that your head will fall in when I cut it off,” she commanded. Quaking with terror, he did so, after thanking the yellow bird for her friendship and service. The green lady first cut off his head, which landed neatly in the basket. Then she cut off his arms and put them in the basket. Then she cut off his legs and put them in likewise. Lastly she picked up his trunk and put it in the basket also.
She carried the basket to a bier she had arranged on the roof of the tower, and she laid him out on the bier as if he were whole again. Over him she threw a shroud she had woven of fine linen, green with white stars throughout, and she began to weep. For three days and three nights the green lady wept piteously so that the shroud was drenched with her tears. She pulled at her hair and beat her breast and mourned for him as if her own beloved had died and would never return. The yellow bird sat at his feet the entire time and sang tunes so mournful that the people below stopped in their tracks and wept.
But at sunrise on the fourth day, the instant the sun peeped over the horizon, the lady dried her eyes and the bird ceased her song. Then the lady flung back the tear-stained shroud and saw that her lover was whole again, though he bore scars where she had cut off his head and his arms and his legs. She leaned forward and kissed his lips as the sun warmed his death-cold face, and he awoke.
In wonder, he took her hand as she led him down the stairs of the tower and out into the courtyard where a priest was waiting to marry them. All the lords and ladies of the land were assembled, and it was a fine wedding. The king was a kind and able ruler, and with the green lady by his side and the yellow bird on his shoulder, he governed well and lived happily all the rest of his days.