Legends & Myths: Immortality in a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterflies have always fascinated me, which is just one of the reasons I wrote this article for a regional magazine years ago. With “puddle parties” right around the corner, I decided to share this piece on the legends and myths found in the Southwest. Enjoy!

buttery_To Serve BrookeShadenOne bright summer day, the Creator sat under a tree watching a group of laughing children at play. A brown pup romped through a riot of wildflowers. The sun lit a bright blue sky dotted with wispy, white clouds. A songbird landed in the branches overhead, loosing a shower of pine needles.

The Creator watched the play of shadow and sunlight and fallen yellow leaves fluttering here and there in the late summer breeze and as he watched these things he grew sad.

“Soon these children will grow old,” he thought. “And that puppy will become a tired, mangy dog. And the flowers will die and snow will cover the land.”

The Creator became so sad at these thoughts that he vowed to preserve the afternoon for the months ahead. “All these colors should be caught forever,” he said to the songbird that watched him overhead. “I will make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to enjoy.”

He took out his magic bag and in it he put the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the brown of the pup’s floppy ears, the yellow of the fluttering leaves, a bit of blue sky and a touch of white from a cloud passing by. He added green from the pine tree and the orange, purple and red from the flowers all around. Overhead, the songbird sang her merry tune and with a smile, the Creator tossed a bit of her melody into the mix.

butterfly_Passage MarcoMazzoniBrimming with happiness, he walked to the children and offered them the bulging sack. The beautiful girl with black hair opened the magic bag and out flew thousands and thousands of butterflies in every color ever created. Enchanted, the girl said she had never seen anything so beautiful. The children agreed and the Creator was glad.

And the children danced with joy under the fluttering wings of these new, fanciful creatures. Then one, with wings the color of a summer sky, landed on the Creator’s head and began to sing a beautiful song. The other butterflies joined in and the children stopped to listen to the chirping melody.

The songbird flew down to perch on the Creator’s shoulder. “When you created the birds you gave us each our own song. Now you have passed mine around to these new playthings of yours,” she scolded. “Isn’t it enough that they have all of the colors of the rainbow?”

The Creator thought a moment and said, “You are right. I should not have taken what was yours.”

And he took away the song from the butterflies, which continued to dance over the children’s heads.

“The are beautiful even so,” the Creator said.

And that is why butterflies are silent today.

This delightful Papago version of the creation of butterflies is only one of a fluttering myriad of butterfly tales told throughout the Southwest and far beyond. The butterfly has symbolized the human soul since antiquity. The Russian name for these colorful creatures is babochka and the Ancient Greeks called them psyche – both words for the soul. The common name of the butterfly comes from the Anglo Saxon word buterfleoge for “butter” and “flying creature,” which linguists believe was the way of identifying Europe’s common yellow brimstone butterfly.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 1BrookeShaden

Of course, butterflies actually flitted onto the scene long before people started making up myths to account for them. Butterflies emerged at least 38 million years ago with the earliest known fossil discovered in Colorado’s Green River Shale. Today, there are nearly 18,500 known species of butterflies ranging in size from Queen Alexandria’s Birdwing with a wingspan of 11 inches to the diminutive Western Pygmy, which spreads out to less than half an inch. Butterflies can be found on nearly every part of the globe with the exception of Antarctica and the world’s oceans. They grace flowery fields, meadows, hillsides, stream banks, forest glades, deserts and alpine tundra. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem as pollinators and in the human imagination as symbols of creativity, joy and rebirth.

Nearly 400 species of butterflies – more than half of the total number found in the entire North American continent live in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham, once known as the Papago, focused on the sheer beauty of these insects, as some 240 species flutter through their southern Arizona homeland. The southeastern portion of the state has biological links to the Sierra Madre range and the tropics in Mexico and its varied plantlife and climate account for the region’s diverse butterfly population.

The Yaqui, another southwestern desert tribe, believe that butterflies portend the coming of rain. When they spot approaching butterflies, the Yaqui sing a rain song and throw white corn kernels or dried leaves in the air.

butterfly_Funny how secrets travel Federico BebberWhite butterflies, they say,in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

Over there, I, where the flower-covered sun comes out,

they are emerging, all through the wilderness world,

in a row they are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

As this song would suggest, the best time to search out butterflies in the Southwest is in the rainy season between the months of July in September, which is when the adults are breeding and laying their eggs. The highest concentration of species in Arizona reside in the southeastern portion of the state – specifically in Santa Cruz, Cochise and Pima counties. Chances of finding butterflies increases when two habitats overlap. Some of the best, easily accessible butterfly watching areas include Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Madera and Florida Canyons in the Santa Rita Mountains, and Ramsey and Garden Canyons in the diverse Huachuca Mountain range. Along with discovering them near their favorite flowers, butterflies might also be found congregating in “puddle parties,” depressed wet spots where the insects gather to replace vital trace elements.

But you don’t have to venture south — butterflies and their stories can be found throughout the Southwest. In eastern Arizona, the Chemehuevi, also known as the Southern Paiute, often represent insects in the designs of their highly prized baskets. The popular pattern of the butterfly shows up in these coiled baskets, which are woven out of such raw materials as willow, devil’s claw and juncus.

butterfly_A View from a Hole MarcoMazzoniLike many ancient Southwestern cultures, the Hopi often utilize the symbolism of butterflies. Prehistoric Hopi pottery shows this affinity as does the three Hopi kachina with butterfly origins — Poli Sio Hemis Kachina (Zuni Hemis Butterfly Kachina), Poli Taka (Butterfly Man) and Poli Mana (Butterfly Girl). However, the butterfly assumed a more menacing aspect to the Aztecs in Mexico. The goddess Itzpapálotl, or Obsidian Butterfly, was represented as a strong ferocious goddess with butterfly wings and big claws on her hands and feet. In Mexico, many people still believe that a black butterfly at the door portends an impending death.

Several Arizona-based cultures drew similar, disquieting morals from the butterflies fluttering, zigzag, seemingly demented flight. The Zuni sacred butterfly, lahacoma, is believed to make people crazy, especially young girls who will follow the yellow butterfly wherever it may lead. This belief is similar to the story of the Apache Bear Dance, in which butterflies entice girls from the underworld. The Tewa of Arizona also warn against the temptation represented by this colorful insect in “Transforming Bath: Butterfly Seducer” — a tale where a girl ignores her work to follow a beautiful butterfly up a mountain. Once at the top, the butterfly turns into a wicked boy who then tosses the girl down to her death.

The Navajo use the symbolism of butterflies to warn against vanity, temptation and foolishness. The Navajo story of “The Two Maidens and the White Butterfly” furthers the folly of butterflies. When the hero of the tale catches the wicked White Butterfly, he splits open the enemy’s head with an ax and thousands of butterflies escape from the mortal wound. The wise hero pulls one of the butterflies out of the air and insists that it tell the others they can no longer enter the brain of man. “You will be of little use to the people,” he says. “Only when they catch you and put pollen on their legs and arms and say – ‘May I run swiftly, may my days be long, may I be strong in arm.’” Even so, the Navajo consider the perishable dust of the butterflies’ wings a subtle warning on the fragility of beauty.

In the spring, the Apache sing the sorrowful song of the Flower Maiden, which also details the creation of the butterfly:

butterfly_Restlessness Federico BebberIn the first days of the people, many warriors sought the favor of the beautiful Flower Maiden. But of them all, she loved only two – Hidden Love and Iron Courage. They each contended for her love, but not even the Sky Father could help her make the choice. Then fate stepped in and both warriors were called to a great battle against invaders coming from the north. Flower Maiden bid them each good-bye with a heavy heart. Many months passed as she waited for her warriors to return, but when the war party rode back into camp, neither of her loved ones returned with the victorious.

Flower Maiden, who had lost any chance of happiness, took her tears and set out to find the bodies of the warriors she still loved even in death. She searched the hills and plains for years, sundered from herself in her grief.  When she could find neither of her beloved warriors, she pleaded with the Sky Father. “Please help me find their resting place,” she cried. “Please help me find their lost souls.”

“It was not my wish that your promised ones should die,” said the Sky Father. “But with them I also touched many others and in sorrow, I covered all of their bloodied bodies with soil and grass.”

The Flower Maiden lamented. “Then I shall never find them.”

Her sorrow grieved the Sky Father so, he ordered the ground to yield flowers in the colors and patterns of each fallen warrior’s shield to aid Flower Maiden in her lonely search. And when he realized she could not find the battlefield on which her beloved warriors had died in a single lifetime, he turned her into a beautiful butterfly so that each spring her spirit could wander among the flowers in search of her loved ones. And perhaps one day she will find them.

In the meantime, the Creator has given us the butterflies — ephemeral as the powdered memory of love lost, the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the yellow of falling leaves or the halcyon blue of a summer sky.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 2 BrookeShaden

Images: To Serve by Brooke ShadenPassage by Marco Mazzoni, The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 1 by Brooke Shaden, Funny How Secrets Travel by Federico Bebber, A View from a Hole by Marco Mazzoni, Restlessness by Federico Bebber, and The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 2 by Brooke Shaden. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

 

 

Hath No Fury! Story Announcement!

It has been a year since a traumatic twist of fate sent me hurtling 20 mph, face-first into the gravel-strewn asphalt near the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Just days after celebrating the fact that I survived that cycling accident and all of the related complications, I received notice that my short story “A Seed Planted” had been selected for inclusion in the Ragnarok Publications anthology Hath No Fury. Nearly 400 submissions were received, all competing for the one coveted slot left open in this curated collection. I’m overjoyed to report that “A Seed Planted” has been awarded that spot and will be published alongside stories written by some of my favorite writers including Seanan McGuire, Carol Berg, Nisi Shawl, Delilah S. Dawson, and Lucy A. Synder.

hath no fury.jpgI couldn’t be more thrilled with the acceptance issued by co-editor Melanie R. Meadors (science fiction and fantasy author, blogger at The Once and Future Podcast), and the realization that I will be joining the incredible line-up of talented authors and artists associated with the project. The anthology description is as follows: “Hath No Fury contains…meaningful stories that defy the stereotypes. In this anthology, readers should expect to find super-smart, purpose-driven, ultra-confident heroines. Here, it’s not the hero who does all the action while the heroine smiles and bats her eyelashes; Hath No Fury’s women are champions, not princesses in distress. Embracing the strong warriors to the silent but powerful, to even the timid who muster up the bravery to face down a terrible evil, the women of Hath No Fury will make their indelible marks and leave you breathless for more.”

Sign me up.

Hath No Fury will include an introduction by Margaret Weis and nearly two dozen stories written by such speculative fiction authors including Seanan McGuire, Lian Hearn, Elaine Cunningham, Carol Berg, Gail Z. Martin, William C. Dietz, Nisi Shawl, Dana Cameron, Django Wexler, Delilah S. Dawson, Philippa Ballantine, Anton Stout, Elizabeth Vaughan, Bradley P. Beaulieu, M. L. Brennan, Michael R. Underwood, Erin M. Evans, Eloise J. Knapp, Marc Turner, S. R. Cambridge, and Lucy A. Synder. How incredible is that?

In addition to the stellar story selections, Hath No Fury will also include short essays by Robin HobbSarah Kuhn, Diana Pho, Monica ValentinelliK. Tempest Bradford, and Shanna Germain. But this anthology is not just a collection of stories and essays, it will also be filled with original art. Each piece of fiction will be individually illustrated, with the majority of the illustrations completed by Oksana Dmitrienko. However, the collection will also feature art by Wayne Miller and Keri Hayes, who were selected from the open art submission window offered as one of the project’s Stretch Goals.

The acceptance of my story also hinged on the open submission window made possible by all of the people who backed the anthology’s Kickstarter campaign. “A Seed Planted” is a tale about family, justice, and revenge. It was one of those stories that surprised me even as it was being written and I’m so glad I will be able to share it with you all soon. Hath No Fury is looking at a publication date in August. Stay tuned!

Sex and Sensuality in “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories”

Bluebeard biffnoI was first introduced to the work of Angela Carter in the late 1990s when I met Terri Windling in Tucson. The first Angela Carter collection I read was The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and, since that time, I’ve gone through several copies of this slim volume. Although it is one of my all-time favorite books, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down to read it; and this is the first time where I’ve forced myself to focus on the stories as a writer instead of as a reader.

This is not an easy task. It’s too easy to slip into Carter’s lush prose, her quick wit, her decisive flair. However, as I slowed down and took a closer look this collection of short stories, I noticed that not only has her rich prose influenced my own writing style, but there are also themes she visits that are close to the ones I tend to revisit in my own work. Unlike me, Carter has no fear in peeling back layer after layer. I tend to stay closer to the surface of things, which often hinders me. This reading turned me inwards; the stories became both a revelation and a reflection of the details drawn too finely or not at all, techniques I need to concentrate on as I continue the pursuit of an independent voice and style.

Bluebeard Gustav DoreThe titular story, “The Bloody Chamber,” has always been my favorite in the collection: the way Carter uses the masculine scents of tobacco and leather; the unveiling of the bride as though she was an artichoke voluptuously stripped of its leaves; and the “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” Perhaps it’s due to my own escape from domestic violence, twice, that draws me to this particular tale, but whatever the reason, the image of the bride and the beast is among my favorite themes. When I’ve attempted my own versions of this story, I’ve always felt that I’ve fallen flat, that I could never approach Carter’s brilliance in the unveiling of this theme. It wasn’t until I reread the story as a writer that I discovered a beat that I’ve danced around—the “sheer carnal avarice” Carter flirts with throughout.

Bluebeards last wife hogretAs the story continues, Carter emphasizes this sexual extravagance at every opportunity: the “great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train;” the “amniotic salinity of the ocean” surrounding the Marquis’ palace; the heavy, hooded white lilies that “stain you.” The thing that has always bothered me about this story becomes evident when read from this alternate point-of-view. The protagonist stays passive. She never evolves to a point where she even attempts to defend herself. Instead, it is the girl’s mother who charges to the rescue. The wild-eyed mother with her revolver is the true heroine of this story. She is the heroine I want to write.

Beauty and the Beast Toshiaki KatoThe presence of carnal sensuality and raw feminine power continues as a common thread through the rest of the collection’s stories. In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” a twist on “Beauty and the Beast,” the reader is tantalized in the opening with a road “white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin” before moving on to experience the gentleness of the beast’s kiss and “the stiff bristles of his muzzle grazing her skin.” Things take a darker turn in “The Tiger’s Bride” when the protagonist, who was lost by her father in a card game to a tiger posing as a man, gives up her humanity to embrace the beast within herself: “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.”

The Bloody Chamber Bluebeard Arthur RackhamAlthough I can write about violence, I have difficulty with raw sexuality. By revisiting Carter’s collection, I have been able to see ways in which I can heighten sensory description in seemingly unrelated scenes, which then create a build-up to the carnality I’d like to add to my own collection of work. Carter flirts with dangerous themes. She dares us to dance with the Erl-King, to contemplate the meaning of love in Nosferatu’s mansion, to howl at the full moon. And what other purpose is there to writing, if not as using it as a means to shed light in the darkness?

Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has “a story,” a few people have a few stories, and yet others carry a multitude within them. Carter carried the multitude. She wrote as many of these as she could and, by doing so, gave her readers the opportunity to recognize themselves in her words. I hope to follow her example.

LIttle Red Riding Hood Arthur RackhamI know “the carnivore incarnate.” I’ve lived with the wolf that “cannot listen to reason.” I’ve known more than one man with “a wolf’s heart.” And I think Carter did too. I think she knew the wolves intimately. But, instead of letting the company of wolves devour her, she picked up a pen and wielded it like a knife. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.”  And with that, Carter let the forest close “upon her like a pair of jaws.” I like this image. I think it’s time to let the forest close upon me as well. I think it’s time to delve deep into my fears and hopes, to put them on the page. Who knows? Perhaps I will be like Carter, laughing at the threats that once faced me. Perhaps, like Carter, I too will realize I’m “nobody’s meat.”

The Bloody Chamber Cover2Work Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. Penguin Books, 1993.

Images: “Bluebeard” by biffno, “Bluebeard” by Gustav Dore, “Bluebeard’s Last Wife” by hogret, “Beauty and the Beast” by Toshiaki Kato, “Bluebeard” by Arthur Rackham, and “Little Red Riding Hood” by Arthur Rackham.

 

Disenchanted: Contemporary Issues Revealed with a Fairy Tale Twist

A Wild Swan_Little Man_Zohar Lazar_The New YorkerIn the fall of 2015, I happened across the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham in The New Yorker.  As a collector of fairy tales, both old and new, I immediately recognized this strange and surprisingly modern twist on “Rumpelstiltskin.” Cunningham revisited this and several other well-known fairy tales in his collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales. With the popular surge in fairy tale retellings, I have often wondered why Cunningham’s take achieved publication in such a prestigious magazine. A close, in-depth reading of his collection revealed elements I seldom see in popular fairy tale renditions. Cunningham utilizes a variety of clever techniques in his stories, but the ones I was most drawn to the most as a writer were his use of sarcastic commentary on modern issues and the juxtaposition of classic fairy tales with contemporary parables.

Of all the stories in the collection, “Jacked”—a contemporary take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”—was the one that captured my interest the most as a deft and detailed commentary on the single parent, only child plight so prevalent among middle-class Americans. Cunningham creates a solid foundation with Jack’s character in the opening lines: “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains” (23). Forgetting a chemo appointment is a long cry from forgetting to close the windows on a rainy afternoon, yet it perfectly captures the entitled privilege we’ve come to expect from today’s youth.

Cunningham stays faithful to the original plot in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but then modernizes it with a series of witticisms of a sarcastic nature: “The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him” (26). Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And, after reading the story, I was left with the feeling that Cunningham wasn’t in love with the original fairy tale either, which is why he pushes the unlikeable character to even further extremes. A “shockingly expensive haircut” and “200-dollar-jeans” can’t hide Jack’s self-entitled nature as a petty criminal. Cunningham makes the story relevant. He makes it his.

A Wild Swan Yuko Shimizu

All of the stories in A Wild Swan and Other Tales have roots in classic fairy tales with the exception of “A Monkey’s Paw,” which reimagines the supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, and the opening and ending stories, which offer broad commentary on people at large. I especially loved Cunningham’s snarky wit in the opening pages of “Dis. Enchant.”: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up?” (3). Cunningham continues his observation of human foibles, allowing the reader the opportunity to connect with an array of fairy tale characters. He offers the opportunity to fantasize and to relate to even the most mundane and petty complaints.

A WIld Swan Yuko Shimizu illustrationThe evil stepmother in “A Wild Swan” is given sympathy after she turns her 12 stepsons into swans and commands them to fly away: “Do we blame her? Do we, really?” (5). The witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” finds her voice in “Crazy Old Lady”: “Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you in to the oven?” (20). In addition to identity, Cunningham plays with sexual themes; Rapunzel keeps her shorn hair so her blinded prince can make love to the piece of her that was lost in “Her Hair,” a boy marries the first girl who doesn’t treat him differently just because he has a prosthetic leg in “Steadfast; Tin,” and a girl agrees to play dead for exactly twelve minutes so her Prince Charming can play out his necrophiliac obsession in “Poisoned.”

Cunningham creates a cast of characters that we know intimately: the people who were only partly cured of their curses gathering in bars, the aging women with no families who become easy targets in their old age, the couple who plays out kinky sex fantasies behind closed doors, the single men who would give anything to have a child without the entanglements of a partner, the couple who finds their love renewed after tasting separation, the girls who wonder if their only choices for a companion are the asshole and the fool, and the men who prefer to forget their losses at the cost of the ones they love. These characters are fragments of ourselves and others, fragments many of us prefer not to face.

A Wild Swan_Beasts_Yuko Shimizu

As I pondered Cunningham’s treatment of old material in a new light, I realized that I tend to shy away from the very thing he embraces. There are opportunities there, but they can only be broached if I am willing to write from the hard places. Cunningham uses sarcasm to separate himself from his material. He allows the reader to make the obvious connections and then to bear the burden of the revelations mirrored from familiar tales retold in a contemporary setting. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but I also think that this is why Cunningham’s work rises above the multitude of other fairy tale retellings flooding the market. As a writer drawn to similar subject material, I am of the belief that fairy tale retellings work because there is such a breadth of material available to mine. However, I’ve also learned that it isn’t just the more obscure tales that need to be told; it’s the true tales. It’s up to the writers to find new ways to reflect the deepest, darkest parts of themselves through the comforts of the familiar.

 

A Wild Swan CoverWork Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Images: “Little Man” by Zohar Lazar, The New Yorker; “A Wild Swan,” “Poisoned,” and “Beasts” by Yuko Shimizu. All rights retained by the artists.

The Beauty of Bavarian Oral Traditions: Schönwerth’s Collected Fairy Tales

Schönwerth4Although Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are well-known for their work in collecting fairy tales, they were not alone in their interests. Inspired by the Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie  (German Mythology), Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a high-level civil servant, began gathering oral folklore in the mid-1850s from people living in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, Germany. However, his compendium of more than 500 tales was locked away and forgotten until the archive was rediscovered and brought to light by Erika Eichenseer in 2012. This new material created a literary sensation that swept across Germany and inflamed the curiosity of fairy tale lovers worldwide, but it wasn’t until The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales was translated by Maria Tatar that the material became available for English speakers to mine.  And what promising material it is.

“Schönwerth’s tales have a compositional fierceness and energy rarely seen in stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, collectors who gave us relatively tame versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’” writes Tater (xii-xiii).  “Schönwerth gives us a harsher dose of reality. Not one to dress up a tale with literary flourishes or to make it more child friendly, Schönwerth kept the raw energy of the tales, resisting the temptation to motivate surreal plot twists or to smooth out inconsistencies.”

Schönwerth5

While reading the stories in this collection, I was immediately struck by the inclusion of  such familiar symbols as iron shoes, magic rings, and animal helpers. The difficulty came in separating the familiar from the unfamiliar, in search of new ways to approach the literary refinement of oral traditions faithfully transcribed by a civil servant more than 150 years ago. The rambling structures, inconsistent logic, and odd embellishments made me appreciate just how much work the Brothers Grimm had invested in their own canon, which they had extensively revised for popular consumption. These tales have taken on the allure of timelessness, which is one of the reasons fairy tale writers continue to shape them into new forms. Mining original material from Schönwerth’s collection that is suited for modern retellings turned out to be a more difficult task.

When tackling Schönwerth’s material, my first inclination was to favor tales that have similarities to ones that have already been established in the contemporary fairy tale tradition: “The Iron Shoes,” a variation of the lost husband stories such as “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon” and “Thumbnickel,” whose hero brings to mind “Tom Thumb” and “Thumbelina.”

Schönwerth1But, in truth, the stories I was most drawn to featured unusual takes on transformation tales. For instance, the Kafkaesque “Prince Dung Beetle” follows a cruel young man who is turned into a beetle for his sins. Another example is the rambling and discordant “The Snake Sister,” where “redemption is born from pain and suffering” (230).

One of the more curious things about the tales published in this book is that they predominantly feature men instead women. Of the 72 stories collected, only about a fourth of them feature female protagonists.  Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that primary (or secondary) female characters are lacking in heroism. For instance, in “The Red Silk Ribbon” the fisherman’s son is the one who must be saved by the princess who married him. The antagonist, a mermaid who seeks to entrap him, transforms her rival into a dragon by throwing blue sand in her face. It takes three attempts at being roasted in kilns before the last of the dragon’s skins are split and discarded, leaving the princess once again in her human form.

Schönwerth3Throughout these wonder tales are the “transformations that break down the divide between life and death, nature and culture, animal and human, or beauty and monstrosity” (xvii). Schönwerth’s dedication to the documentation of the oral traditions of his beloved Bavaria is evident in these stories’ raw energy, surreal twists, and unvarnished narratives. “Fairy tales are always more interesting when something is added to them,” Maria Tatar writes. “Each new telling recharges the narrative, making it crackle and hiss with cultural energy” (xvii).

And Schönwerth’s collection offers the prime opportunity to do just that. These tales are vibrant and fragmented and untouched, ready to take on the literary fingerprints of writers seeking fresh material to work with. “Schönwerth’s collection reveals just how comfortably the tales inhabit a world that values spontaneity, improvisation, rough edges, and lack of closure” (xvii). In effect, this discovery and the distribution of these tales is a boon to fairy tale writers looking for fairy tale silver to turn into literary gold.

Work Cited

Schönwerth, Franz Xaver von. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  Edited by Erika Eichenseer, translated by Maria Tatar, Penguin Books, 2015.

A Parliment of Owls: Native American Myths of the Southwest

calling_the_allies SSB

I spent 19 years exploring Southwestern deserts and the stories of the native peoples who live there. It didn’t take long to learn that certain stories are only told in the winter, when the world is at rest. Stories about owls fall into this category. Seeing as it’s snowing in Colorado, it seems as though this is the time to share a few of my favorites gathered during my desert years, which seem so far away they might have happened to another person entirely.
“There came a gray owl at sunset,
There came a gray owl at sunset,
Hooting softly around me,
He brought terror to my heart.”

                                                     — Pima Song

The Direction West 1994Terror poised on a tree branch, He swoops silently out of the shadows upon a victim unaware of his presence until, with a thudding impact, powerful talons crush its flesh. A curved beak flashes. A quivering end to one life brings sustenance to another.

Owl’s extraordinary nocturnal hunting abilities have inspired more fear, reverence and story-telling among Native Americans than almost any other figurative animal but Coyote. Nearly universal among tribal lore, owl tales reveal a sharp eye for ecological detail and a complex worldview embedded in the intricate weave of Native American storytelling.

Owl Wind 1992With fringelike leading-edge wing feathers that muffle the turbulent sound of wind rushing over wings common to other birds, owls descend in eerie silence upon their prey. And eyes with a retina equipped with an abundance of rod cells capture light for nighttime hunting. These capabilities are often linked to haunting Native Americans tales of death and ghosts.

Yet, owl myths also reveal complicated tribal worldviews in which traditional Western-society concepts of good and evil give way to ambiguous, contradictory and unpredictable forces of nature. Feathered ghost, protector of abused children, transformed monster, part witch, part keeper of souls — Father Owl assumes a baffling array of fierce, yet wisely just guises in tribal mythology. He’s often used as a spiritual foil to illustrate the value of reverence, obedience and right behavior — making him a favorite in the instructive world of children’s bedtime stories.

Young Owl 1994Parents receive instruction right along with children. For instance, in a tale belonging to the Tewa people, a disobedient boy sneaks out at night to watch his elders in the kiva. His father catches him, beats him with a stick and sends him into the darkness, where the boy cries and moans. Father Owl glides out of the night and lands before him, telling the boy to get on his back. Father Owl carries the child back to his nest filled with his own fledglings. “This is your new home,” says Father Owl. “I took you away from your mother and father because they were always scolding you.”

Ancestor 1987When the boy’s parents discover their son is missing, they regret beating him and begin searching for their lost child. After a time, seeing the parents nearly dead from despair, Father Owl lets the child return to his home on the high pueblo.

At first, the boy’s parents don’t recognize him — he has started growing feathers and his eyes are turning yellow like his owl brothers and sisters. Father Owl tells the parents that the boy must stay in a locked room for four days. After sunset on the fourth day, they may look in, but if they open the door before then, the boy will belong to the owls forever.

I Hear the Owl call my Name SSBBut eager to see her son, the mother can’t wait, and on the morning of the fourth day, she peeks into the room. That night, when the parents open the door, they find not their son, but a large owl flying from one corner to the other.

Overcome with sadness, the father says, “My poor boy, your mother was bad for looking too soon and now you are an owl.”

The owl nods.

“But if the enemy approaches or sickness is coming, you may come and warn the people,” the father says. And the owl, who was once a boy, flies off into the night.

So rather than simply concluding that children should always obey their parents, this story also illustrates why parents should not whip their children and explains why an owl’s call is often taken as a warning.

Ancient Ones 1991All Southwestern Native American tribes have similarly complex — usually foreboding — stories about Owl, who often serves as a specter to keep willful children in line. In “The Mountaintop Way,” a Navajo ceremonial tale, Owl Boy’s human mother abandons him because of his fearsome nature. Spurned and rejected, Owl Boy kills a member of his tribe when he attempts to return to his Navajo family. The narrator intones, “He went to them, but they were afraid of him: his big eyes, his long sharp fingernails, his voice that sounded like the wind playing a flute in a hollow tree.”

Most Native American tales also use this fierce, night-haunting predator to illustrate death, witchcraft and prophecy. The owl’s ghostly approach, keen vision and eerie nighttime habits prey on humankind’s fear of the dark and the unseen. Moreover, the owl’s strident, discordant vocabulary chills the soul and enhances its nocturnal image as a caller of death and singer of bad omens. The Apaches and Navajos believe that a hooting owl portends death and destruction. Historical records contain accounts of war parties or detachments of Apache scouts who would not fight if they heard owls nearby. To this day, a traditional Navajo will delay a journey if he sees an owl near his Hogan, and both Navajos and Apaches believe that if an owl calls your name, death is near. Similarly, Mojave, Tohono O’odham and Pima mythologies suggest that owls can hold the souls of the dead.

Owl Spirit 1981

Many cultures tell grim stories to account for Owl’s origins. For instance, one Navajo tale says that Owl is the child of one of the many monsters that once roamed the earth. In the Navajo creation story, Monster Slayer kills two winged giants called Tse’na’hale, which lived on Shiprock. After killing the adults, Monster Slayer transforms one of their bloodthirsty offspring into an eagle and the other into an owl to keep them from harming the Navajo people. Monster Slayer predicts the owl’s nature and its place in the Navajo realm saying, “In days to come men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and sometimes you will lie.” That note of ambiguity captures the complex, flexible and realistic role of the owl that animates many such tales.

Pathways 1988The oldest owl fossils in North America date back some 60 million years on the Colorado Plateau. Of the 133 species of owls found worldwide today, only 19 species live in North America. Southern Arizona, being the northernmost migratory range for several owls, hosts 13 species — more than any region in the United States or Canada.

Unlike most birds, the owl sees exceptionally well in dim light. Moreover, the owl’s disc-shaped face acts like a radar dish, catching faint sounds in a wide range of frequencies. The owl’s hearing is so acute, it often locates its prey in the dark undergrowth by sound alone — perching and hooting to panic mice and rabbits into betraying their position. Another oddity is the owl’s ability to swivel its head 270 degrees, which gives it wider range of motion to detect prey without moving and giving away its position. Add to these, the owl’s ability for ghostly flight, and you get a most successful predator. The owl’s flight is almost soundless thanks to the serrated edges of its leading feathers and the muffling effect of its downy upper surface feathers.

1989-DreamingTheOwlDream_SusanSeddonBouletNative Americans made adroit use of many of these remarkable qualities and often embedded such keenly observed details in their tales. For instance, the Hopis use owl feathers on their arrows to make the shafts fly silently and strike without warning. And Tohono O’odham medicine men, called “owl-meeters,” would discover where the enemy could be ambushed — relying on the owl’s uncanny powers of observation of the unseen. “Hoot owl medicine man, cut the arrow feathers of this my enemy,” the warriors would implore. “Gray owl medicine man, come with me! Yonder find my enemy and make him helpless!”

The Hopis also venerate the great horned owl, who is the protector of peach orchards, reflecting the owl’s skill in keeping rodent populations in check. The great horned owl also plays a prominent role as a Hopi katsina pantheon, but since it is a symbol of the dark, its feathers are not used on prayer sticks, which are offerings to the sun.

Through the Night Sky 1975

In the end, the picture of Owl that emerges from the fascinating wealth of tales remains as complicated, imaginative and mixed as the world itself. One of the most interesting and delightfully ambiguous tales is the Zuni story that explains how the world was divided into light and dark. In the Zuni tale — echoed by many other cultures — the birds and the beasts played a game to set the pattern of day and night. The birds played for day — for like human beings most birds are creatures of the daylight. However, the beasts played for night — the time when the mountain lion and other predatory mammals rule. However, among the beasts Squirrel took the side of the daylight-loving birds while Owl played with the night-loving beasts.

Midnight Sun 1984The game went on all night with each side trying to guess where the other had hidden a set of sacred sticks. As the sun came up, the birds had the most sticks and so won the sun’s daylight. Bear ran off for the cover of darkness and in his hurry put his moccasins on the wrong feet, which is the way his feet still are today. Mountain Lion’s fur was tinted golden with the sun, leaving only his mouth black to show his connection to the night.

Meanwhile, the children of the sun, War Twins, chastised Owl for playing with the beasts and said, “you have not stayed among the winged creatures. You have made a mistake. Therefore, you have lost the sun’s daylight.”

To this day, the owl prowls his dark domain, the soul of the night and keeper of secrets. But sometimes, if you listen closely, you may hear a warning in his haunted lament.

Keeper of the Mysteries 1985I am the owl.
I sit on the spruce tree.
My coat is gray.
I have big eyes.
My head has two points.
The white smoke from my tobacco can be seen
As I sit on the spruce tree.
The little rabbit comes into sight,
Nearby where I sit on the spruce tree.
I think soon my claws will get into its back,
As I sit on the spruce tree.
Now it is dawn, now it is dawn.
The old man owl’s head has two points.
He has big, yellowish eyes.
We see white smoke from his tobacco.
Ho, ho! Ho, ho! Ho, ho!”

— A Navajo song

 

Storyteller 1989

All of the featured art in this post was created by Susan Seddon-Boulet (1941-1997). Images: Calling the Allies (1982); The Direction West (1994); Owl Wind (1992);  Young Owl (1994);  Ancestor (1987); I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1982); Ancient Ones (1991); Owl Spirit (1981); Pathways (1988); Dreaming the Owl Dream (1989), Through the Night Sky (1975); Midnight Sun (1984); Keeper of the Mysteries (1985); and Storyteller (1989). All rights reserved by the artist’s estate. Archival prints and original art can be purchased at Turning Point Gallery.

New Beginnings

dites-le-avec-des-mots-by-catherine-chaulouxI suffer from acute procrastination, especially when times are tough. And times have been extremely tough the last few months. Seeing as it’s the first of March and there are no terrible deadlines hovering, I decided it was time to break the silence.

Blog posts are the most enjoyable during the research phases or as a way of reliving a fabulous event. I attended the World Fantasy Convention at the end of October and rode that high for nearly a week before the bottom fell out of my personal life. All of the wonderful words, the excitement, and the momentum gained from this wonderful experience disappeared when I was faced with a dramatic turn of events in my home life.

I don’t want to go into details, but someone close to me made a decision that sent me spiraling and unable to function more than at the basic level. My home, which had been my sanctuary and writing retreat, went up on the market in November and I was faced with the problems of figuring out how to survive on my own while finishing my MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast over the next 18 months. Luckily, I was greeted with love and support by family and friends both home and abroad. I knew the transition was going to still be hard, but it was eased with the knowledge that I would not have to go through these challenges alone.

la-dame-au-dragon-by-cathering-chaulouxA few weeks after this rupture in my home life, I went forward with a scheduled knee surgery to address chronic pain and mobility issues caused by my bicycle accident in June. The surgery was supposed to be a breeze, but it turned out to be more complicated than expected. (Go figure.) Boxing up all of my belongings and being faced with the prospect of moving when I couldn’t even walk put me in an even deeper despair that continued through most of December.

On a high note, I took a 10 day trip to Hawaii at the beginning of December. The whole thing had been arranged by my girlfriend’s husband without her knowledge. It was a wonderful surprise and it came at the perfect time. Her love and kindness helped to ease my physical and emotional pain. There is something to be said about stepping away from a negative environment, even if it’s just to take a breath. I wish I could say that my trip to the Paradise of the Pacific healed me–I even considered staying–but I had to return and face the turmoil waiting for me at home.

les-apprentis-by-catherine-chauloux

le-verre-a-moitie-vide-ou-a-moitie-plein-by-cathering-chaulouxThings started to look brighter in January. I went to Ireland for 10 days for my second residency at Stonecoast. A few of my classmates and I toured Dublin for three days before taking the train to Howth for a truly remarkable workshop experience. That trip could have (and should have) fueled the fire for half a dozen blog posts. Perhaps, in the coming days, I will return to that time and share some of the details. For now, it’s enough to say that it was a life-changing experience that ended with the thrilling announcement that Elizabeth Hand would be my second semester mentor. I was, and still am, over the moon.

A week after returning from Ireland, the house closed and I had my share of the proceeds in a bank account. Suddenly, I had unbridled freedom and a bit of cash in hand. On a whim, I attended AWP and met up with a few friends. Things started looking up. February was filled with writing my residency response, unpacking and getting (somewhat) settled, attending therapy sessions, preparing and submitting homework packets, and the decidedly uncomfortable process of down-sizing. I also went forward with what I hope will be the last surgery connected to the June ordeal and I am currently in my second week of recovery.

So now, it time to get back to business. As I enter March, I can take a deep breath and count my blessings. Are things perfect? Not yet. But I feel as though I am moving forward more days than not and I am slowly moving into a more positive and productive space. And, I can’t ask for more than that.

de-a-a-z-tout-sur-les-oiseaux-catherine-chauloux

Images: Dites le avec des mots (Say it with words); La Dame au dragon (The Lady with the Dragon); Le verre à moitié vide ou à moitié plein !i (The half-empty or half-full glass!); De A à Z, tout sur les oiseaux (From A to Z, all about birds). All rights retained by Catherine Chauloux. To see more of her work, check out the artist’s online gallery.