Share and Share Alike: A Russian Folktale

Once upon a time there was a young man — let’s call him Ivan — who decided to go out in the world to seek his fortune. When he told his parents of his decision, his father gave Ivan his blessing, and some money for the trip. Ivan used part of this money to buy two fine horses, then off he went.

After traveling a while, he stopped to spend the night at a roadside inn. The inn wasn’t in very good repair, and the woman who ran the inn seemed troubled. As he ate his supper, Ivan noticed some surly-looking men arrive. They peered suspiciously around the place, and spoke to the innkeeper in rude, even threatening tones. After they left, Ivan asked the woman if anything was wrong. She burst into tears.

“My husband died two years ago,” she told Ivan. “But when he died he owed money to those men you saw — and to many other people, too. I can’t pay them back, and so they harass me, and curse my husband’s name — and curse me, too! I don’t know what to do.”

“How much did your husband owe?” Ivan asked.

The widow named a sum. It was exactly the amount of money Ivan had. So Ivan offered to pay the innkeeper’s debts.

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Design of hundred hryvnias bill (Ukraine), Heorhiy Narbut, 1918. Source: Wikiart

The widow was so happy! The next day, when more creditors came by to bother the innkeeper, Ivan paid them off. Word got around, and soon all the dead man’s creditors arrived. Ivan gave each of them their money.

But the widow hadn’t calculated correctly; she’d forgotten a couple of creditors, who of course came by just as Ivan had paid out his last ruble. So Ivan offered them each one of his horses as payment, which they took.

Now the widow and the inn were secure; but Ivan was broke. Should he go back home? What would his father say? Ivan got back on the road, trying to decide what to do.

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Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton? We appear as skeletons covered with skin — male and female — and lust after each other. When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low. Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a set of bare bones. Think about it — high and low, young and old, male and female, all are the same.”

–Ikkyū (“Skeletons,” 1457) Translated by John Stevens

 

I was lucky enough to catch the Asian Art Museum’s Seduction exhibit before it closed about a week ago. The exhibit was a view into Japan’s “Floating World,” in particular the Yoshiwara District of Edo, as represented not only in prints and booklets, but in textiles, too. Everything was lovely, but the piece that caught my interest most strongly was Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s diptych Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan:

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Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. (Click to enlarge).
Image photographed from the Seduction catalog two-page spread; I couldn’t find this online, and I couldn’t bring myself to rip apart my catalog for a better photo.

Those skeletons! That the piece itself (especially with that title) should get my attention is no surprise, if you read my blog. The story that the diptych refers to worth repeating, too.

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The Enchanted Priest

We just got back from two weeks in Peru and Ecuador (photos here, if you’re interested). Machu Picchu and the Galapagos! It was a wonderful trip. On the last day in Quito, we paid a short visit to the Mindalae (Museo Etnohistorico Del Artesanias Del Ecuador), a small but well-curated ethnographic museum, with an interesting selection of the artwork and craftwork of the various peoples of Ecuador.

In the gift shop, my sister-in-law spotted a collection of Ecuadorean ghost stories (cuentos de aparecidos), which she then waved under my nose. How could I resist?

The cuentos in the collection are all post-colonial, Catholic-oriented ghost stories; mildly disappointing, though not too surprising. The author, Mario Conde, presents them as occurring in specific towns and locales throughout Ecuador (mostly the highlands, and none in the Amazon regions), though most of the stories are found throughout the Christian areas of Ecuador. I should probably give you a story with a specific Ecuadorean beastie, like a duende or a huaca, but the story of the Enchanted Priest caught my eye. It feels just a little bit like something you might find in The Decameron, or The Canterbury Tales: a priest up to sexual mischief.

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Reading Help for the Haunted

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When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.

The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.

The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.

Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.

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The Miserere by Gustavo Bécquer

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I featured a couple of winter tales by Spanish author and poet Gustavo Bécquer this past December; this week I’m sharing my favorite Bécquer ghost story, “The Miserere , in honor of Holy Week (the week leading into Easter).

In the Abbey of Fitero, the narrator (presumably, Bécquer) discovers a curious piece of sheet music, an unfinished Miserere:

This was what got my attention at first, but when I looked more closely at the sheets of music, I noticed that, instead of the Italian terms they usually use, like maestoso, allegro, ritardando, più vivo, pianissimo, there were some lines written in fine print in German, some of which mentioned things that would be difficult to do, like: “they are creaking…, the bones creak and it should seem like cries that come from the marrow”; or this other one, “the chord moans without being out of tune, the brass thunders but does not deafen; therefore, everything is heard and nothing is lost, and all of this is Humanity that sobs and moans”; and then undoubtedly the strangest of all, at the end of the final verse it declared: “The notes are bones covered with flesh; undying light, the heavens and their harmony…, strength!…, strength and sweetness.”

Naturally, the narrator is curious, and asks the monks about this. An old man then shares with the narrator the story of a musician whose mission in life was to compose the ultimate Miserere (as penance for a youthful crime), and of the ghostly monks, murder victims who died without last rites, who return to the ruins of their monastery every Maundy Thursday (Thursday of Holy Week) to pray for redemption — by singing the Miserere. This is the creepiest of all Bécquer’s ghost stories; the scene where the monks and their monastery come back at the stroke of eleven is just awesome.

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An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

Did you know there was coal mining in California? I didn’t learn that until recently. This, despite the fact that the Mount Diablo Coalfield, the largest in California, was in Contra Costa, the very county where I was born. From 1850 to 1906, mines in the Mount Diablo Coalfield, many under the operation of the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company, produced 4 million tons of (low grade) coal, the primary source of coal and energy in California over that period. The region was home to five mining towns, the largest and oldest called Nortonville.

In 1885, the Black Diamond company shut down its mines in the region and moved its miners to Black Diamond, Washington, where the mines produced better coal. They dismantled the railways and the towns completely, leaving nothing but some brick foundations in Nortonville, some great piles of dirt where the openings of the mines had been, and the cemetery, now known as Rose Hill Cemetery, which overlooked the town of Somersville.

Here’s Somersville in 1878. You can see the cemetery up on the hill to the right, and the great mounds that mark the openings of the mines.

 

Here’s that region today.

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A view of Rose Hill Cemetery from afar. (Click to enlarge)

 

You can’t see it in this photo, but the mounds over the mine openings remain. Nothing grows on them. The region is now part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, just outside the city of Antioch.

We visited the park on a cool, overcast March Sunday. Early spring is the best time to visit that area; there are hills that block the ocean breezes from that part of the county, and in the summer it can be twenty degrees warmer — or more — than it is in San Francisco, only an hour away. It can also be very dry and brown. I was a bit worried, since we haven’t had any rain, but the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers.

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(Click to enlarge)

 

By the time we visited the cemetery, in the early afternoon, the clouds were burning off and the sky was turning blue. Continue reading

Of Weasels, Foxes, and Dolphins

I’ve started reading The Legends of the Jews, a collection of Jewish tales and legends (Haggadah) compiled by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg in 1906. It’s an impressive collection. Rabbi Ginzberg’s goal was to gather all the Jewish legends, from their original sources: not only classical Rabbinic literature, also but apocryphal and pseudopigraphical literature — all texts that are not part of the Hebrew Bible, and so not part of the canon. He even delved into early Christian literature.

Furthermore, Jewish legends can be culled not from the writings of the Synagogue alone; they appear also in those of the Church. Certain Jewish works repudiated by the Synagogue were accepted and mothered by the Church. This is the literature usually denominated apocryphal-pseudepigraphic. …

If the Synagogue cast out the pseudepigrapha, and the Church adopted them with a great show of favor, these respective attitudes were not determined arbitrarily or by chance. The pseudepigrapha originated in circles that harbored the germs from which Christianity developed later on. The Church could thus appropriate them as her own with just reason.

[…]

Besides the pseudepigrapha there are other Jewish sources in Christian garb. In the rich literature of the Church Fathers many a Jewish legend lies embalmed which one would seek in vain in Jewish books. It was therefore my special concern to use the writings of the Fathers to the utmost.

— From the Preface of The Legends of the Jews

Quite a scholarly endeavor.  The work encompasses four volumes, and the legends cover the period from before the creation of the world to the story of Esther. And the stories are all told in an engaging manner; I haven’t even gotten to the appearance of Adam and Eve, and already I’m hooked.

As with any collection of folktales, the continuity is loose, at best. Here’s the beginning of the fifth day of Creation:

On the fifth day of creation God took fire and water, and out of these two elements He made the fishes of the sea. The animals in the water are much more numerous than those on land. For every species on land, excepting only the weasel, there is a corresponding species in the water, and, besides, there are many found only in the water.

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Sohni Mahiwal: A Punjabi Folktale

I’ve been quiet of late, for which I apologize. Lots of activity (and deadlines) in the data science side of my life. But I don’t want to abandon the other sides of my life, like Multo or dance. I’ve managed to slip in a little combination of the last two, in a new post I’ve written for the Dholrhythms Dance Company blog.

We have some new choreographies to showcase at our upcoming Non Stop Bhangra performance this Saturday. The theme of the night is Hip-Hop/Bhangra fusion, but surprisingly, the songs we’re debuting are both fairly classic folksongs. One of them, by Surjit Khan, is based on a famous Punjabi love story, Sohni Mahiwal.

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Once upon a time, on the banks of the river Chenab, near the city of Gujrat, lived a potter named Tulla. Tulla’a pottery was famous, and in demand all through Punjab, and even in lands beyond. Tulla had a daughter who was so lovely that he and his wife named her Sohni (“Beautiful”).

Since Sohni grew up in her father’s shop, she learned how to decorate the pitchers and pots that came off his wheel with beautiful designs: flowers and elaborate patterns. And so the family flourished.

One day a rich young Uzbeki merchant came into Tulla’s shop to buy some of his pottery. The merchant’s name was Izzat Baig. Sohni was in the back of the workshop at the time, painting her designs on her father’s pots. Of course, she caught Izzat Baig’s eye. And since the merchant was not only rich, but young and handsome, I imagine he caught her eye too. Izzat wandered around the workshop much longer than he had intended, sneaking glances at Sohni, and bought many more pieces of pottery than he had planned to. And he came back the next day, and the day after that….

You know this doesn’t end well. You can read the rest of the story at the Dholrhythms blog.

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Two More Literary Excavations

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I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

Charlemagne, the Snake, and the Magic Ring

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When Charlemagne was King of the Franks, legend says, he had a pillar erected in front of his palace, with a bell attached. If anyone wanted to appeal to the King for justice, all he had to do was ring that bell, and he would be immediately conducted to the King to have his case heard.

One evening, when Charlemagne was at dinner, he heard the bell ring. He sent a servant out to see who it was, but the servant returned, saying that when he opened the door he found no one. Dinner progressed; the bell rang again. Same result. When the bell rang the third time, the monarch himself rose and went to the door.

At the pillar, he found a snake wrapped around the pull-rope of the bell, using its weight to ring it. The palace servants tried to drive the snake away, but Charlemagne stopped them.

“Clearly,” he said, “the beast has come to have its case heard. And so it shall.”

And he asked the creature what it wanted.

The snake seemed to bow before the King, and then slithered away, looking behind itself as if it wanted them to follow. They followed the snake back to its nest, where they discovered a huge, poisonous toad sitting among the snake’s eggs, quite comfortable. The snake looked up at them, as if pleading.

The King ordered his servants to take the toad away and burn it; then he and his court returned to the palace.

At the next evening’s dinner, to everyone’s surprise, the snake suddenly entered the Great Hall. It glided straight to the King’s table, bowed, then came up onto the table and dropped a magnificent diamond into the King’s wine glass. It bowed again, and then left.

The King had the diamond set into a beautiful gold ring, which he then gave to his Queen, Fastrada.

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