Wicked Stepmothers and Suspicious Stews; (Or, “This Broth Is Nice, but It Does Taste Like Our Mary”)

(This and other illustrations in this post by Walter Crane for “The Almond Tree” in “Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm”)

I’m hoping that the previous post gave you a brief respite from the vibes of child-murder and cannibalism in “Birds of a Feather, Part I.” If those themes didn’t suit your…taste…sorry, I guess. Otherwise, bon apetit. (Too much?)

In the category of “tales in which a wicked stepmother kills her stepchild and feeds it to the father, after which the child usually comes back as a bird for revenge,” we have several examples. As I often do, I used as reference a list compiled by D. L. Ashliman in his Folktexts database: Mother Killed Me, Father Ate Me.

On that note, I wanted to call this post “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” because what more can you ask for in a title? But, as you can see, I’m hardly the first to recognize this great titling opportunity (see also this book of retold and new fairy tales). Still, I think I nailed it with the alliteration and the contextless-yet-ominous quote. 

“The Juniper Tree” – Murder and a Magical Bird

Let’s start off with “The Juniper Tree,” sometimes known as “The Almond Tree,” which is the first of these tales I read and still seems most iconic to me. This is another German tale collected by the brothers Grimm. It goes a little something like this: 

A peasant has a beautiful, pious wife. One winter day, peeling an apple under a juniper tree in the courtyard, she cuts her finger, sees the blood on the snow, and wishes for “a child as red as blood and as white as snow.” Yes, that again. This comes up way too much in fairy tales. 

Her child is born, a son, who is red as blood and white as snow. The mother promptly dies from … happiness, we’re told. Let’s be real–it’s probably  blood loss or some postpartum infection.

The father remarries, and his new wife has a daughter, also “red as blood and as white as snow.”

The new wife becomes insecure/influenced by “the Evil One” (Satan) and decides she’ll never be number one to her husband as long as the dead wife’s son is around. One day she gives her own daughter an apple, then tells the girl to call her brother to get one too. The boy comes, and when he’s reaching into the apple chest–apparently a refurbished guillotine, because it has “a large heavy lid with a large sharp iron lock”–the stepmother slams the lid down, chopping off his head.

old-coffer.jpg
I was skeptical, but this looks like it could do the trick.

Wait. Don’t go. It gets worse. (This may become a refrain on this blog.)

The stepmother puts the boy on a chair facing the window and balances his head on his neck. Then she calls in the sister, Marlene, and tells Marlene to have her brother give her the apple, and to box his ears if he won’t.

Let me just add the passage from the story directly, because I can’t outdo it:

So Marlene went to him and said, “Brother, give me the apple.” But he was silent, so she gave him one on the ear, and his head fell off. Marlene was terrified, and began crying and screaming, and ran to her mother, and said, “Oh, mother, I have knocked my brother’s head off,” and she cried and cried and could not be comforted.

“Marlene,” said the mother, “what have you done? Be quiet and don’t let anyone know about it. It cannot be helped now. We will cook him into stew.”

I know. I know. Poor Marlene. They sure didn’t have therapy back in those days. Good luck with that PTSD, Marlene.

After this, Marlene doesn’t even get dinner (assuming she could be hungry anymore), because of course she’s not eating her brother WHO SHE IS CONVINCED SHE HAS KILLED. But her father, after asking where his son is and being just mildly unhappy to learn he’s gone to his uncle’s house for six weeks, eats all of the stew. All of it. 

Marlene gathers the bones in a scarf and puts them under the juniper tree. She is “crying tears of blood,” a nice touch. A fiery mist gathers in the tree’s branches, and out comes a bird, at which point the bones disappear and Marlene goes in to eat (the stew? it doesn’t say, but…who knows. Let’s just hope her dad really ate it all).

The bird flies off singing:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

Pretty chill for a bird/boy-who-was-just-murdered-and-eaten, right?

First he goes to a goldsmith, who in exchange for getting to hear that song gives the bird a golden watch chain. At least, we’re told it’s because the song is so beautiful, but honestly, the goldsmith probably just gave him the chain so the bird would stop singing that super-creepy song and go away.

The bird does the same routine at a shoemaker’s shop, coming away with red shoes. A third time he sings for some miller’s apprentices, and comes away with a mill-stone he carries around his neck.

jewish_youth_grinding_coffee_on_millstone_sanaa_yemen_1934
An actual millstone, with a human boy for scale.
almond-tree-illustration-millstone
That is one strong bird.

The bird flies home, where he sings the song. His father comes out; the bird drops the watch-chain. The sister comes out; the bird drops the shoes.

The stepmother (very reluctantly) comes out. She gets smooshed by the millstone. When the smoke and fire and dust clear, there is the brother, and he takes Marlene and his father by the hands and leads them into the house, where they sit down to eat, the stepmother still in the courtyard under the millstone.

almond-tree-end-illustration
“Here, son, have a hug. Let’s pretend none of this ever happened, okay?”

I am assuming that the father ate all the stew the previous day. Otherwise, we’d have the very strange situation of a boy who has just been a bird eating a stew made of his own corpse from the day before.

“The Satin Frock” – No Birds, No Magic, Just Murder

Now. That is just one variant. Most of the others follow similar veins, with the boy killed, stewed, and transformed into a bird.  Not so in “The Satin Frock,” from which I got part of this post’s title. It’s quite short, with none of the magic or beautiful/creepy songs of “The Juniper Tree” and related stories. But it shares many  similarities nonetheless, and makes up (?) for the lack of magic and length through sheer brutality. 

“The Satin Frock” comes from Yorkshire, England. The thing here is, the father knows the stew is made from his daughter before he eats it, because he goes down to the cellar while his wife is gone and find his daughter’s head hung up there instead of a sheep’s head. He waits for his wife to come home, sits down to dinner, and takes a sip of the soup before saying: “This broth is nice, but it does taste like our Mary.” This obviously freaks out his wife–who didn’t, until this moment, know that he knew. Then he kills his wife in the cellar with an ax. The end.

Sorry for the bummer. Maybe try reading the first story again–you’ll see that it has a perfectly nice ending, after all.

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