Bad Kid

As many of you long-time followers of Speculating Canada know, I try to have a little gift for you around the holidays – a tale inspired by this time of year. There is a long history of telling stories (and especially spooky stories), after all, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year with the longest nights. 

The story I bring you is inspired by a monster from Yule traditions – Gryla. She is an Icelandic ogress who eats naughty children on Christmas. If you want to learn more about Gryla, check out my post on Through the Twisted Woods at https://throughthetwistedwoods.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/creepmas-yule-monsters-gryla/.

Note: Trigger Warning for discussions of abuse and family violence

Bad Kid

By Derek Newman-Stille

I know I haven’t been the best kid this year. I know that I’ve caused trouble. I know that I keep making Dad angry. I know that he hits me because he wants me to be better.

All of the other kids seem happy this time of year, as Christmas approaches. All of them seem to be excited for the holiday season and to be rewarded… even the kids that I don’t think are good… even the kids that bully me.

But who am I to know what is good? I’m a bad kid, so how am I to determine who is good or not. How am I to decide what is good behaviour or bad?

None of them seem to be afraid.

None of them worry about her.

Not like I do, at least.

Even though I know that it is still a few weeks before she comes down from the mountains, I can hear the chomp of her jaws, hear the clomping of her feet, and feel the chill of her breath.

Dad told me about her when I was really little. “If you don’t behave, Gryla will come down from the mountains and slice you into pieces and throw you into a pot and boil the evil out of you and she will eat you.”

There was even a statue of her in the town square with her oversized ears, her horns, her big nose, and teeth worn flat from chewing the bones of children. She leared over a big pot, looking hungrily into it.

If you wanted to, you could climb up on her statue and even climb into her pot, pretending to be a sacrifice to her monstrous appetite. While the other children crawled all over her, dropping themselves into her pot and laughing as they looked up into her looming face, I couldn’t go near it.

Father would push me toward the pot, telling me “Those children think it’s funny. They think Gryla will leave them alone. That she is just a silly troll from our stories, but you, my dear, you know she is real. Maybe they don’t think they have anything to fear from her, eh? Maybe they think that they have been good little boys and girls who listen to their fathers?”

He would look down on me with the same monstrous hunger that Gryla’s statue showed. I would tremble as I looked up at him “I don’t know, father. I don’t know why they aren’t afraid”

“Are you afraid, my girl?”

I would silently nod my head, my curls bouncing up and down.

“Say it, girl.”

“Yes.” I would squeak out, “I am afraid.”

“And why are you afraid?”

“Because I’m never good, daddy.”

“That’s right. Never. Good children listen to their fathers. You never do. Go, get up into Gryla’s pot. Remember what it feels like. That could be you this year. That could be your Christmas, eaten up by Gryla the troll.”

This year I was extra afraid of Gryla. The eyes of her statue seemed to follow me, and they seemed hungry to me. If I stared too long, I swore I could see her move.

Just a little.

Not even a step.

Just a slight shrug and she was closer.

The other children began to sing.

“Down from the mountain

I come abounding

on silent feet

up to your window.

I hear your breathing

hear your fear

knowing you’ve done

bad deeds this year.

Leaving my Yule Lads

up to their mischief

as my cat

goes prowling at night.

I am hungry

hungry for meat

even though you are rotten

even though you are bad.

I come abounding

out of the darkness

Gryla the Ogress

Gryla the Troll.

My hooves will step lightly

My hooves with step sure

Before you know it

I’ll be at your door.”

The children laughed and rolled in the snow and I watched on, wishing I could be like them. Wishing I didn’t have to be afraid.

Last month, I asked one of the boys in my school, Einar, why he wasn’t afraid of Gryla.

He had stared at me and asked “You don’t really believe in her, do you? The Troll?”

I nodded back at him.

He began laughing, calling all of the other children “Hekla believes in Gryla! Hekla believes in Gryla. She’s a little baby.”

He shoved me in the snow, kicking me in the face. Red ran into the snow as other kids joined him, laughing and kicking snow into my face.

I lay still.

It was the same thing I did when my father hit me. I pretended I wasn’t there. I wished I was invisible. I wished they had something to distract them.

I wished Gryla would take them and eat them.

“Your parents give you presents and your parents say that Gryla will eat you so you will be good all year.” Said Magnus, pushing the other children away and looking at me with something worse than anger. A sadness.

I knew that couldn’t be true. My father wasn’t smart enough to think of something like Gryla, wasn’t smart enough to lie that well. His lies were always so silly, blaming me for things that he did.

He didn’t need to lie well.

He had all the power, and I had learned a long time ago that powerful people don’t have to lie.

Magnus reached down and I winced. I think he was trying to help me up from the snow, but I knew it was safer to look after myself.

I spat blood into the snow. Father said I should never spit, but the taste of the blood was making me sick. I rolled over and stood up while Magnus held his hand out for me. He moved closer to help me up and I pulled away. I didn’t know what he wanted.

“You know,” Magnus said, “It’s okay to believe in Gryla. I just wish you wouldn’t. Parents made her to make us afraid. She’s not real. The other kids make fun of you because they don’t believe in her any more.”

“Do you?”

“No… of course not.”

He still looked uncomfortable and I noticed his eyes drifting toward the mountain. Toward Gryla’s home.

I nodded to him.

It was our secret.

I knew he didn’t want to admit it. He wanted the other kids to think he was tough.

I was late, so I hurried home.

I didn’t realize that my coat was stained with blood until I got to my house.

“What happened to you?” His voice was angry, not worried.

He pulled at my coat, knocking me down.

“I’m sorry.” I said, trying to keep the tears out of my voice. He hated when I whined.

He didn’t ask what happened. It didn’t matter to him. I always tried to figure out what I had done wrong and I knew I had done something wrong. I ruined another good coat. I got into a fight at school. I was making him look bad. I- I-

“Get in here. The neighbours are going to see all that blood and think that I’ve been hitting you. I shouldn’t have to get in trouble because you can’t behave and you do things like this.”

He could get in trouble for hitting me?

He always said that it was a parent’s right to punish their child. Even the teachers said it. And the priest said it. How could he get in trouble?

“You will have Child Protection knocking on our door and then what will I do? Huh? What?” He was screaming in my face, spraying it with spittle. If the neighbours cared that he hit me, they would have called Child Protection before now. They must know. How couldn’t they know?

I looked at the floor like I always did. Looking up was “getting smart” with him. I stared hard at the floor, trying to memorize every knot in the wood, every burl. I ran my toes over the worn parts of the floor, which he seemed to think was me being apologetic.

“Get to bed. No dinner” He dragged me half way up the stairs before I could get my feet under me and run the rest of the way to my room.

I closed the door, wishing it could keep me safe. Wishing it could keep him out.

Wishing it could keep Gryla out

***

I heard the crunching of snow outside my window.

Or was it bones?

It didn’t have the crisp sound of boots in the snow or even bare ogre feet. It made a grinding sound, wet and slushy.

I pulled my blankets off of my bed, darting beneath it.

I knew she could smell me.

I knew that the reek of bad girl was all over me.

I knew that her big ears could hear my breathing, my sobs.

I could feel my finger nails dig into the palm of my hand. Maybe if I just hurt myself that little bit, I could keep from sobbing out loud. I clenched my teeth down on my tongue.

Everything in me said “run”.

My body was shaking with fear.

I knew I couldn’t outrun her. How could she eat so many bad children if they could all run away? She had to be faster, had to be able to catch us.

I couldn’t tell if it was the huff of my breath or if it was hers. It seemed too close.

My bed sagged down with me beneath it.

I swore I could smell the stink of rotted flesh from her breath.

“Don’t be afraid” came a gravelly voice. It was a voice that was used to harshness, used to yelling, but trying to be soft-spoken, comforting. It made it all the more terrifying.

“You don’t need to fear me.” I let out a squeak of fear and shoved my hand into my mouth, breathing around it.

“It’s okay. You’re a good little child, aren’t you?”

I wanted to shout “No”.

“You are, you know. I wish you knew that. You don’t smell like food to me. You smell like fear, but you wouldn’t taste good. There’s nothing rotten in you.”

I wanted to tell her that I was rotten – that I knew it. I wanted to tell her that I deserved to be eaten. I was more than rotten, I was downright evil. I knew it. I still had the lash marks on my back to prove it.

“Something rotten has been done to you. Parents are supposed to look after their children.” I heard a low chuckle, “I look after the Yule Lads, feed them fresh meat from the bad people of the world. I keep them fed. I clothe them. I give them the clothes of the people we eat. I’m a good mother.”

I felt her shift on the bed above me, but she still didn’t look over the edge. “But you. No one has looked after you, have they? Oh, I know you have clothes. I know you have food. I know you have a bed and a house. But you don’t have a home, do you? A home is where you should feel safe, protected. You’ve never felt that. Don’t you think you deserve it?”

I let out a whispered “No”.

“Have you never felt wanted?” She waited, but I couldn’t answer again. “What if Gryla wants you? What if you could be my child? No, no, not to eat. There is enough rot out there to keep me fed.”

A ragged, warted hand appeared over the side of the bed, reaching down gently, slowly. I could see the blood under her nails, see the pustulant warts leaking down her hand.

It hovered there, open and relaxed.

It reminded me of Magnus’ hand, reaching out to help me out of the snow. This wasn’t a fist, wasn’t a hand that was grabbing at me. It was a hand that was offering something.

I think anyone else would be disgusted by those thick knuckles, by the sprouts of hair, by the thick, yellow nails. I think I would have been disgusted before.

I just knew I wanted something and there had only been one thing that I had ever wanted – escape.

This was a hand of escape. It was a hand that was marked by living in the wild.

The blood didn’t even bother me… and I didn’t know why.

I reached a finger up and touched it to the middle of the hand.

She didn’t move.

I pushed a little with my finger and she playfully pushed back, tapping her fingers on mine.

I let out a giggle.

Somehow things are more funny when you have been scared. It had gotten me in trouble so many times, those little laughs when I was being punished – those “outbursts” as he called them.

I pulled my hand away, afraid that Gryla would hit me for laughing at her.

“It’s okay” came the gravelly, whispery voice.

I don’t know what it was about hearing those words — maybe it was because I had never heard them before, maybe because nothing ever seemed okay — but I let my tears fall and grabbed onto her hand, really believing that it could be okay.

Part of me still expected her to grab my hand and drag me away to the dark of the mountain… but she didn’t. Her rough hands caressed the back of my hand.

“It’s okay” she said, over and over again. “You’re safe now. Will you come out from under the bed?”

I pushed myself across the floor, craning my neck up to see her.

She looked just like the statue, all rough bark-like skin, warts, and horns.

But her face seemed gentle. Natural. And her eyes were gentle, brown and wide with compassion.

“No one will hurt you again.”

My heart jolted. “What about him?”

“Do you know when a bear is at her most angry and scariest?”

“No” I said, looking up into those eyes.

“When her cubs are in danger. She becomes fierce.” Gryla lifted her other hand, showing off her blood-crusted nails and playfully swiping at the air. She made a little grr sound.

I giggled again.

I don’t think it was the awkward giggle of fear.

She smiled with her flat broken teeth, but somehow they seemed soothing, even silly. I couldn’t help but smile back. “I am the mother to children who have been hurt by bad people. I am the mother to children like you. I don’t let my cubs get hurt.”

I finally knew what she meant.

I looked again at the blood on her long, yellow nails, at the crusting of blood around her hairy knuckles, at the drip running over the lines on her palm. I jumped up and grabbed around her neck, holding tight.

I finally pulled back, looking deep into her eyes. “But, you already have children. You have the Yule Lads”

“Oh, my dear, do you think those were Leppaludi’s children? He is so lazy, he never moves. No, they are children like you, ones who haven’t been loved like they should.”

“But you only have Yule Lads. I’m a girl.”

“I know, love, I know. That’s the way the story goes. But my children aren’t all boys. There are girls too – Yule Lasses. They may even do more mischief than the boys do.”

She gathered me up into her arms, standing up so that her head pressed against the ceiling. She looked down at me again, a smile on her twisted lips “Do you think you could do some mischief?”

I smiled back at her.

I would start thinking of mischief I could do. Nothing really really bad. Maybe just pinch some bullies. Just a little pinch. Just to let them know that Gryla is watching.

These Beans Lost Jack

These Beans Lost Jack

A review of Ace Jordyn’s “The Story of the Three Magic Beans” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Do magic beans ever get tired of granting wishes? Do they ever get frustrated with having to fulfill everyone else’s dreams instead of their own? Do they ever crave a normal life without all of that magic where they can just soak up some water, nest in the soil, and get warm in the sun? Ace Jordyn’s “The Story of the Three Magic Beans” answers those questions with a resounding “YES!”. Where Rati Mehrotra’s story took readers into the animal world, Ace Jordyn’s tale brings us into the vegetative world.

Plants and plant products play an important role in fairy tales. They are often catalysts for change and transformation, but they don’t often get the credit they deserve. After all, who would Cinderella be without her pumpkin carriage? Who would Snow White be without the poisoned apple? Who would Jack be without his Beanstalk? Plants are figures of change, which may be why they appear as objects of transformation in fairy tales. They change from seeds, dropping roots into the ground and sending shoots of green up into the air where they feed on sunlight. They change with the seasons, sprouting leaves, bringing them to flower and bloom and sometimes to produce fruit and then letting those leaves change colour, dropping them to decay and becoming bare branches or retreating into the ground in a bulb. The vegetative world winds tendrils through our fairy tales, but often gets ignored. Ace Jordyn centralizes beans – transforming them from passive objects and foods into characters with agency, desires, and figures who go through their own transformations.

The beans of Ace Jordyn’s story not only question ideas about the passivity of plants in fairy tales, they also challenge limited ideas of family by exploring different family structures and ideas for raising young (seedlings). The beans go through their own adventures seeking a place to call home and a sense of belonging while also battling to keep themselves from being eaten, meeting other vegetables, and finding their way through a complicated world.

To find out more about Ace Jordyn, visit http://acejordyn.com

To discover more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and visit Exile Editions at https://www.exileeditions.com

A Fable About Overcoming The Odds

A Fable About Overcoming the Odds

A review of Rati Mehrotra’s “The Half Courage Hare” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile Editions, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Animals offer a fascinating element to folklore and fairy tales, often grouped into their own category of “animal tales”. These tales often use animals as symbolic representations of human characteristics, hyper-accentuating these characteristics. The animals are anthropomorphised (given human characteristics like speech, human cultural customs, and human behaviours) as part of this rendering of animals into the symbolic realm to speak about human experience. From Aesop’s fables to medieval bestiaries to the plethora of cartoon animal stories, we have been fascinated by our relationship with the animal world and with our belief that animals can reveal something about us and our experiences.

Fables are a form of folk tales that uses animals to convey lessons to people about how to operate in the world. One of the most popular fables is the Tortoise and the Hare, a tale that originated in Aesop’s Fables and conveys the lesson “slow and steady wins the race”. It is a common type of folk tale that explores power structures by illustrating two opponents of differing power (one who is believed to be much more suited to the task at hand, and one who seems underpowered) and by reversing the audience’s expectations about who will succeed and who fail at the task.

Rati Mehrotra’s “The Half Courage Hare” tells a tale many generations of rabbits after the initial contest, exploring a family of rabbits who have lost everything. Mehrotra mixes otherworldly entities into this classic fable who have stakes in the race, providing a potential sanctuary for the all-to-vulnerable animals who are trying to live out their lives close to a farm with a human farmer who likes to hunt.

“The Half Courage Hare” is a tale of the vulnerability of rabbits and the potential of the vulnerable to resist oppression and find new ways of rallying through community.

To find out more about Rati Mehrotra, visit https://ratiwrites.com

To discover more about Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com

The Watcher on the Shelf

For all that you readers have done this year to support Speculating Canada, I thought I would write a story for your enjoyment as a way to celebrate the passage into a new year. I hope that you enjoy the story. 

The Watcher On The ShelfBy Derek Newman-Stille

Staring, staring, always staring.

They made sure of it when they dipped me into the cauldron, pinned my eyes wide open with merry thorns of holly. I was meant to be a silent watcher, a judge, a surveillor. They created all of the Watcher Elves the same way. I say “they”, but i suppose i mean “we”… or more specifically “he”, since none of us really have any agency of our own. We are toys, motivated by the whims of he who pulls my strings.

He makes each of us wear red, the same colour as he, and stained through the same process. We are beaten into our smaller elvish size by his cane, reduced with each strike of the cane as our blood is struck from our bodies, and it stains his suit deep crimson. No one seems to think about this “right jolly old elf” as a redcap because they are too focused on the beneficence of his gifts, but those of us who experience his beatings know that the red he wears is the paint of victimization. 

Most seem to have forgotten the term “redcap”, so invested are they in the Disneyfied fairies of modernity. They have forgotten that the magical encounters with the fey have often been marked with tragedy. The term redcap comes from the crimson colour of their hats, dyed in the blood of humans who have strayed into their homes. They need to kill regularly to sustain their own lives, feeding their caps with new blood or their hats will dry out and so to will their vitality. I suppose i can stop saying “they” because he made each of us his kind. 

When he beat the blood out of us, we became like him, needing it to stain our own caps and coats to keep us “Watcher Elves” alive. Everyone needs blood – needs the vital fluid running through them to keep their bodies moving. We need it more than most because our bodies miss it, deprived of it for so long. We can only move at night, when the moon’s own fluidity surges through our bodies, and only for a few moments before we are frozen again at rest, motionless surveillors frozen in watchful silence, unblinking eyes wide for anything that can justify that blissful moment where we can sustain ourselves and stain our caps anew.

Unlike his mythical brothers, mostly extinct now due to human interventions of iron, this redcap is beloved, invited into human homes and fed on cookies and milk that are but dust and ash in a mouth that is sustained by crimson sap. He is so beloved that we, this new breed of redcaps, are equally invited into their homes (so like the homes we once had), stared at with glee and excitement.

And how does he achieve it? How do we all achieve it?

Admittedly, part of it is human greed – an ironic twist of fate because we punish greed at the same time as we rely on it to gain entrance into homes with the promise of gifts on a midwinter night…

But greed is not all we rely on. Greed only does so much to permit people to allow themselves to be perpetually watched. There is something that they don’t want to admit…. They like to be watched.

They feel comfort in the touch of a watchful gaze. They feel that our eyes keep order, sustain normalcy, and prevent acts of rebellion. 

And they justify the idea of punishment too. They convince themselves that punnishment will only come for the wicked… and who genuinely thinks that they are capable of wickedness? Who isn’t able to justify any actions they take as “for the better good”? Who doesn’t convince themselves that they only hurt the guilty, that their acts of harm to others are because “those people are lazy”, “it’s really their own fault”, “they had it coming to them”, “they would have done the same to me”…?

They invite us into their houses to watch their children, to become the omnipresent threat of the deprivation of presents on a midwinter morning… but we are only partially watching the children. Most of their acts of wickedness are wrought from a lack of understanding, and we generally think of them as excused from the crimes they commit because of their lack of experience… such a short number of years to learn the world around them. The people we pay the most attention to are the adults, the ones who justify bringing us into their homes as a threat to their children, using punishment to achieve control. They are the most interesting.

Children focus on the little sparkle in our eyes, seeing magic. They don’t know enough to see hunger there. Adults rarely look into our eyes, viewing them as vehicles only for a child’s imagination and therefore beneath their notice. They would be able to see the hunger in that persistent glance if they looked deep and long enough, but they justify ignoring that hungry gaze because they are too busy to look deeper. They don’t want to waste their time on frivolous things. 

The frivolous things are so often sustaining.

If any person stared at their home and their children with the intensity of our redcap eyes, they would feel threatened. They would feel a compulsion to protect what is theirs. But we are immobile things, lifeless. They have forgotten how to fear lifeless things. They have forgotten that predators freeze before they pounce on their prey, making themselves seem like just part of the scenery, part of the landscape.

And so we become part of the landscape of their home, hidden in plain sight. They even give us the perfect predatory view of their home, perching us up high so we can survey everything beneath us. Silently waiting.

It is amazing how easily we learned to be predators, we Watcher Elves. I would like to pretend that it was part of the process of being turned into a redcap, part of the abduction by the jolly man in red, the beating until his sack of toys and corrupt people turned red, the pinning of our eyes with holly, and the dip into the icy cold cauldron of the Northern Pole… I would like to believe it.

No matter how strong I imagine myself and my fellow humans to have been innocent, to be anything other than predators, I have to admit that these traits were easy to uncover and that the beatings just give us cause, justification to want the things that we are convinced were taken from us – blood. Hunger can justify a lot of actions that we pretend we aren’t capable of, and the feeling of loss, the desire for what once was, can sharpen that justification.

Without blood, so many things become hollow. I watch the children dance around in front of the fireplace, looking gleefully up at me, perched near their stockings, calling me – ironically – Holly, a name that they rhyme with “jolly” in a persistent sing-song of joy that I only hear as mockery, feeling the pain of that herb in my eyelids, holding them perpetually open in staring horror. I feel only emptiness and pain, hollowed out partially by the ceremony that inducted me into this madcap menagerie of joy and pain, but more painfully hollowed out by my remove from the holiday cheer, my watchful distance, forced to re-live again and again the moments so similar to those that led up to my incarceration in this hollowed out body, my imprisonment on the shelf. 

I wonder sometimes if my children look up at me and see their daddy or if they forgive me for the horrors i subjected them to before i was taken away one Christmas Eve and stuffed in a sack, made more spacious for the gifts he left for my children. Parents buy all of the toys, but he leaves deeper gifts, gifts of learning and understanding that children unwrap through their own imaginations. 

I stare and stare and stare at the hollow thing that hatched from wrapping paper, tape, and imagination and has taken my likeness, the perfect dad that they always wanted, that they dreamed about as I struck them. 

I stare and stare and stare at what I could have been and I wait for someone else to be naughty, to bring them into my huge family of Watcher Elves. I wait and watch.