Lockdown Guests

Fourth lockdown. Or maybe third. I lost count. But I went grocery shopping and bought essentials such as chocolate chips and wine. Since the pandemic erupted in March last year, I found that storytelling and baking help sustain me and fill me with hope. This week, I made hot chocolate cookies, coconut orange cake and homemade sesame rolls. I draw pleasure from rolling the sticky cookie dough and kneading the fragrant yeast mixture until it’s time to leave it be for a little.

Writing, on the other hand, does not come easy these days. Months of partial lockdown, full lockdown, breathing lockdown and tight lockdown have left their fingerprints on my soul. When your physical world is reduced to less than a square mile, your mind must go that extra mile to reach the comfort of the land of imagination, where travel is still possible. Yet, there are these moments of grace, while cooking and baking – the traditional chores of women in centuries – that set my spirit free. I lay down the hot baking pan and rush to my computer, to invite imaginary friends to a feast. They will have to do, my imaginary guests, until I am able to welcome family and friends once again into my home. 

Today, I have a wonderful guest, the Goodwife of Kittlerumpit[1], the protagonist of a Scottish folk tale, Whuppity Stoorie, a variant of the famous tale of “Rumpelstiltskin”.  

“A woman’s husband went to the fair and never returned; she was left alone with her baby son, her sole possession a single big sow. The sow was about to farrow, and she hoped for a good litter, but one day she went to the pen to find the sow dying. She was distraught, and a fairy woman asked what she would give her if she helped the sow. The woman promised the fairy anything she liked, so she saved the sow and demanded the baby. Though she would not listen to any pleas, she did tell the woman that under Fairy Law, she had to wait three days, and the woman could stop her by telling the fairy her name. The woman was distraught the first day, but the second, she went for a walk, and in the forest, she found a quarry where the fairy was spinning and singing that her name was Whuppity Stoorie.

When the fairy came the next day, the woman pleaded with her to take the sow, and then to take herself. The fairy scorned her, asking what she would want with such a woman, and the woman said she knows she is unworthy to even tie Whuppity Stoorie’s shoelaces. The fairy woman went screeching away”[2].

The goodwife of Kittlerumpit gets to keep her little boy and her sow. The evil threat has been removed, and hope is restored. The fairy, also referred to as the Green Lady in some versions, may have magic powers, but the woman, whose name remains unknown, is equally mighty.

Folk and fairy tales are filled with magic and supernatural figures, yet they’re stories about real people. They open a space for the plights and troubles of those marginalized by systems of oppression and exclusion. They are passed on from one generation onto the next, to celebrate and praise the wisdom and resourcefulness, the courage and creativity, the love and generosity of people. They also serve as a cautionary reminder of the evil, the cruelty and abuse of power that are unfortunately part and parcel of human nature.  

I love the Goodwife of Kittlerumpit and her story. She refuses to give in and musters the courage to wander into the forest in the middle of the night to find the answer to the riddle. Her love for her son and her passion for life are stronger than the indifferent, bureaucratic evil of the fairy.

So, the coconut-orange cake is ready, as are the hot chocolate cookies. When the Goodwife comes, we’ll have some tea, or wine, and drink to hope and the refusal to give in.

[1] In: Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World: Kathleen Ragan. W. W. Norton Company, 2000.

[2] Whuppity Stoorie – Wikipedia

Little Red Riding Hood 2017

She is baking donuts. The cozy kitchen is already filled with the scents of melted butter, vanilla and chocolate. She dips the warm pastry in sweet icing and lays them out carefully in a box. Soon little red riding hood will come along to carry this plentiful basket over to her grandmother’s.

She considers sprinkling the shiny chocolate frosting. Maybe it is too much. Her mother does not like sprinkles anyway. However, perhaps they would make her happy? They would please her daughter, who was still shameless in her affection to sweets.

She enters the kitchen, blushed cheeks and wayward curls gathered under a crimson shawl. ‘I’m ready’, she says. She wonders if she will ever be truly ready to send her daughter out into the world without her heart missing a few beats and have her thoughts haunted by nightmare scenarios.

She looks at her daughter, the girl-child that she is; her flowing mane of hair, her eyes, alight with a lilt of laughter. She leans in to kiss her cheek and she notices how tall she has gotten. Soon she will have discarded all the marks of childhood. She wonders if the child knows how much she wants to escort her or give her a ride.

‘Call me when you get to grandma’s house’, she says, trying to sound casual. She does not want to infect her daughter with her anxieties.

She reminds herself how important it is for them, her mother and daughter; grandma ad granddaughter, to have their time together. Just the two of them. She sends her child off and returns to scraping chocolate drippings off the counter.

But her child already knows fear. She knows fear of strangers and penetrating gazes and dark streets. She was born into a world where little girls and boys are afraid.

The kitchen is spotless and the child has not called to say she has arrived safely at grandma’s.  She decides to write in an attempt to fend off the anxiety welling up inside her. ‘Perhaps I’ll call my mother’, she thinks, ‘To ask if she liked the little cakes I sent’. She does not want to upset her mother. One worrisome woman is more than enough.

Then the phone rings. A sigh of relief. She picks up, trying to sound casual. ‘Mommy, I am about to cross the park. Can you just talk to me until I reach grandma’s house?’

So she talks to her and watches over her with her voice, and she wonders if that would be enough to fend off even the most ravenous of wolves. She hears her urging her steps through the semi dark park and then the gate creaks and the door opens. She hear her mother, the granny child ith the silver-kissed hair, embracing her grandchild in her arms.

The wolf has been left out of this story. Until the next time.

A wise young man asked me, ‘Why do we pick on the wolves? How did it come to be that the wolf is a source of fear to children and a metaphor to sexual aggressors?’

However, the tale of Little Red Riding Hood is, of course, a parable. The wolf is a symbol of all the perils that stalk children with a curious and adventurous streak. The written versions of the story put on paper by the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Charles Perrault in France were “cautionary tales” meant to educate children – and especially girls – to show obedience. In their versions, Little Red is severely punished for disobeying her mother – who told her walk straight and stay on the path. She is penalized for addressing her natural curiosity, simply by exploring the woods and picking flowers. These versions send a clear message that curiosity and disobedience are adverse qualities in a child, meant to be condemned. Qualities that lead to your death or to be rescued from the belly of the wicked beast by a valiant hunter, a stark agent of the patriarchy.

The lesson illustrated at the conclusion of the version written by Perrault in 17th century France, highlights the intimidating message of the tale, especially when it comes to pretty, polite and educated little girls, how should know better than to talk to strangers:

“From the story one learns that children,

Especially young lasses,

Pretty, courteous and well bred,

Are wrong to listen to any sort of men”

This is a horrific message, one that points a finger at the victim and spares the offender. This European-bourgeois moralité does not condemn the wolf for abusing and breaking the trust that Little Red put in him, but it condemns Little Red Riding Hood for trusting him. This lesson turns the classic story into a tool that preserves the status quo, which accepts the existence of prowlers, in the form of ‘This is way of the world and the wolf’. This twisted message prevails far beyond the dog-eared pages of folk and fairy tales books. It is alive and kicking to this very day. Just recently, we heard comments by certain men, eager to support their colleagues who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, casually saying, ‘What did she think was going to happen up there?’, or in other words, if you agree to meet with a man who is your senior in the workplace, it should be clear to you that he will try to force himself on you sexually. Why otherwise, would he have any interest in meeting with you?

We can and should tell Little Red Riding Hood’s tale differently. Feminist scholars of folklore and myth such as Maria Tatar and Cristina Bacchilega located earlier versions of the tale from the oral tradition of storytelling, ones that passed from generation to generation and were told by women to women and girls. These versions were “initiatory tales”, meant to mentor and prepare girls for adulthood. To prepare, not in the sense of warning them of healthy qualities such as curiosity and adventurousness, but by imparting an empowering message that says:

‘You have the resilience, the strength and the wisdom to cope with the challenges and perils of adolescence”. .

These versions present Little Red as a brave and resourceful girl, one that, in a joint act of feminine solidarity with her grandmother, outwits the wolf. These formative versions convey an entirely different idea, one the emphasizes Little Red Riding Hood’s ’s agency as a character and her capacity for healthy curiosity, along with the ability to handle the repercussions of that curiosity. As Cristina Bacchilega claims:

‘As an initiatory tale in the oral tradition, ‘Red Riding Hood’ did more than symbolize the child’s ability to defeat danger and evil by resorting to cunning: it also demonstrates the woman’s knowledge to survival’.

The world is full of boys and girls, men and women with stories of fearful encounters in the woods with an insatiable wolf, to him they were nothing but an object; a thing to quell his hunger, boredom or need for ruthless dominance. The world is full of people who live in fear of the wolves in their own family, workplace or community. These wolves will persist to roam amongst us and terrorize so long as we keep telling stories whose moral is ‘The fault lies with the prey’, because they ventured out to the woods, showed an interest in the world around them or trusted someone who was not supposed to harm them. It is  time to tell stories that will chase away the darkness of the forest and make it into a safe space. Innumerable brilliant lights that will expose the true wolves. Millions of stories that let out a stark cry: No one’s ventures into the woods to be devoured. It is our responsibility as a society to make our private and public spaces truly inclusive and safe.