by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma
Once there was a husband and wife who were simple people, born of the soil. Their cottage smelled of fresh baked bread infused with the fragrance of rich loam and vetiver. Moss grew in the gutters, housing mice who nibbled at the cheese which the wife (a sympathetic soul) left out for them before she went to bed each night.
The couple were happy, and their needs were few. They sang as they worked, and lived from day to day, eking out a living from the land. In time the wife gave birth to a child; a lusty son who cried all night and slept all day, and who latched to the breast with jaws like clamping irons. The man became tired and blamed his wife and son, and arguments grew like weeds from one day to the next, until there was no space between them for talking or laughing.
When the son reached his seventh year, he changed. He slept all night and sang all day, and all should have been peaceful and harmonious. But his father by then had taken a lover – a woman as thin and pale as his wife was round and pink, and the lover liked the cottage and wished to live there.
So out went the wife and child, out into the cold, and they begged from door to door for a shed to lie down in, until a neighbour took pity on them and gave them a corner of his barn. There they lived, sleeping in the sweet, dusty hay, with the lowing of the cows their lullaby.
In the cottage, the lover put the cheese away at night and left the mice to starve. She made extra quilts for the marital bed, as the cold seeped into her bones and held strong there. Each night she seduced the husband with words that pricked his desire for her until it was all he could think of. Each day he rushed through his work, leaving more and more undone in his eagerness to return to his lover in the soft feathered bed where she stayed to keep warm.
When a year had passed the lover wanted a child, but her womb remained as hollow and empty as her heart. She whispered in the man’s ear that, should his son return, she would care for him as if he were her own.
Unable to refuse her anything, off the husband went, searching for his wife and child. When he found them in the barn, curled up beneath the hay, the task of persuading his son to return to the cottage was easy. Despite the wife’s tears and pleas, he left with the son, and she was alone with only the cattle to comfort her.
Triumphant, the lover fed the child with bowls of milk, and crusty bread with cheese. But the milk was cold, where he had become accustomed to the dusky heat of a cow’s body, and the cheese was hard around the edges where it sat for too long in the pantry. He missed the warmth and roundness of his mother, and the woman’s elbows poked at him like sharp sticks when she put her arm around his shoulders.
Back in the barn, the wife carded and spun wool plucked from the hedges where the sheep liked to graze. She dyed the wool with onion skins and chamomile until it was the colour of the sun and smelled of apples. And from the wool she knitted a hat for her son, imbuing each stitch with her love for him. She sewed the seam and crept to the cottage before dawn, to leave the hat beside the closed door.
In the morning the son woke with the first birds. He stretched and yawned, and stepped outside to breathe in the sharp tang of autumn air. When he saw the hat he picked it up and put it on his head. A warmth flowed through him like his mother’s embrace, and even though his father and the lover teased him, he wore the hat night and day and would not take it off.
Before long his vision became sharper than a hawk’s. He could see for miles around. Each tiny insect became finely drawn. The mice in their nests, the birds which were mere specks to his father, the stamens of the autumn flowers, were all outlined in light, and magnified.
As his vision grew keener from day to day he saw the mould on the cheese and bread the lover fed him. He saw the hungry skeleton beneath her skin and the cruel light in her eyes, and he saw his father’s need for her. The cottage smelled of sour milk and spilt dreams. And the more that he noticed, the angrier he became that his mother had been cast out to live in a barn. His words grew hard and hurled themselves like stones upon his father and the lover, lacerating them until all peace was lost.
The lover eyed the woollen hat with baleful glances, certain that it bore the mother’s curse. While the son slept, she crept into his room and stole the hat gently from his head. She boiled water in the cooking pot and placed the hat inside until it shrank to a quarter of its former size. The cottage filled with the fragrance of sunshine and apples as she dried the hat by the fire, then tiptoed in to place it on the pillow beside the sleeping boy’s head.
In the morning the boy wept to find that his hat would not fit. His father took it from him and threw it on the compost heap, then shut his son indoors until he sobbed himself to sleep.
The cool blue sky grew heavy, and dark clouds rolled overhead. Hail fell, sharp as needles on the skin, and lightning split the sky into jagged fragments. The man and his lover huddled by the fire and, when it did not warm them, they took a candle to light their way to bed.
When the man woke he could not see his lover’s pale hair upon the pillow beside him. He drew back the feathered quilt and found that she had shrunk to a quarter of her size, and now resembled a bony little goblin. Her voice was tiny and high-pitched, and grated on his ears as she raged at him. To escape he went to his son’s room, but the boy was gone. He opened the door and squinted outside into the growing darkness.
Where the hat had been cast grew a rose bush with a single yellow bloom. Its roots and branches, spiked with sharp thorns, spread in a circle around the cottage.
To the sound of his wife’s outraged squeaks, the man took his axe from the fireplace and hacked at the wood that held them prisoner. But each cut of the axe released only the fragrance of sunshine and apples, and the wood sprang more branches with each blow until the cottage could no longer be seen by any who chanced to pass.
Back in the barn, the boy leaned into the warm hay, and drank cups of sweet steaming milk, while his mother carded and spun the wool for a new hat for her son.
Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is the author of thirteen non-fiction books, a novel and a screenplay. She has been fascinated by fairy tales and mythology from an early age. To learn more visit her website at http://www.tenzindolma.co.uk.