Herbert Cole for "Mr. Fox" in Rhys, Ernest, "Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales"

A Tale Too Long Untold

And now for something a little different…

In the process of writing the last few posts, I find my mind returning again and again to two particular variants, “The Story of Mr. Fox” and “The Sweetheart in the Wood,” unconsciously conflating them, filling in details.

Tales drawn from oral tradition tend to be sparer than written prose, matter-of-factly presenting us with events mundane and magical, wonderful and ghastly. But they catch your imagination. You circle back. And a few simple lines, which at first reading were merely unsettling, unfurl to reveal increasingly terrible implications.

For instance, the grisly souvenir our heroine takes from her lover’s house.

It’s not the act of picking up that severed hand or finger that’s horrifying — well, it is. Obviously. But that’s not the most horrifying part.

Nor is the act of revealing said hand while leveling an accusation of murder at the man who sits across from you at dinner, his eyes growing wider and wider as the “dream” you tell becomes his own waking nightmare.

Still, that’s not the most unsettling part of the tale. What’s most disquieting is left untold.

It’s the time in between. The waiting under a murderer’s bed, clutching a cooling chunk of flesh only feet from the man you thought you knew and the corpse he is dismembering. The waiting for him to leave, and waiting still longer to be sure, no longer smelling the blood, still struggling to breathe.

Still holding that hand.

The lone walk home through a darkening forest, creeping and scurrying down the trail you danced up just that morning — a distant time, a different girl. The fear that you’ll encounter him, and he will smile as he always does, that smile you love (loved), and then he will frown, and the coming dusk won’t quite hide the blood on your dress, or the thing you carry wrapped in your handkerchief.

The time between reaching home and telling what you’ve seen, and the day he passes by and your father invites him over for dinner that night.

The tales say her erstwhile sweetheart visited “a short time after” the murder. But how long is “a short time”?

Is there such a thing as “a short time,” when however long that is, it’s the length of time a severed hand or finger sits in the larder, somewhere cool, in a jar of vinegar or spirits to guard against rot and rats and insects. What is a short time? A day, two, a week?

It is certainly a shorter time than the dinner this young woman attends, facing a murderer across a laden table. The smell of cooked meat. The smell of … no. Smiling. Smiling too much. Making small talk. A small bundle in her lap.

The telling is a relief. She is giddy, watching him grow nervous as the guests fall silent, then more silent still. She feels the fear leaving her with each word, sees it touch him and crawl into his eyes.

How long has it been? Since she started off one morning following a trail of ashes — or were they peas? — to her lover’s house, in the green field, in the dark forest? Since the empty house, the bird’s warning, the dusty floorboards and the blood? How long since the first time she told this story on arriving home, told it in pieces as small and numb as the thing she still held wrapped tight in a once-white handkerchief?

Long enough to tell the story again and again to herself, like a prayer before sleep, a promise to the girl in her nightmares, a voice begging for life, so that now the words come simply and easily, flowing like blood.

He protests, but his breath is gone, his words are gasps,

“It is not so,”

— as she unwraps the bundle in her lap —

“nor it was not so,”

— as she pushes back her chair —

“and God forbid it should be so,” he finishes, and his flickering eyes find nowhere to run, surrounded by dinner guests and the sound of blades loosening in scabbards.

Standing now, brandishing the severed hand, cold wrist in warm fingers, she nearly shouts the final line of this tale too long untold:

“But it is so, and it was so, and here — the hand I have to show!”

Herbert Cole - Mr. Fox



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