Winter Tales Begin: Madame Von B.’s story

Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. This year I’m starting the series a little differently, by sharing a few “true” ghost stories, rather than explicitly fictional tales.

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I’m taking these stories from Catherine Crowe’s 1858 book, Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas. Those of you who have read the adventures of Vera van Slyke in Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted know that Mrs. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. Ghost and Family Legends was Mrs. Crowe’s sequel, in a way: a collection of true (or at least truthy) anecdotes told around the fire over a course of a week at a December house party in 1857. Anonymized, of course, because who wants to admit to believing in ghosts?

“But there are no ghosts now,” objected Mr. R.

“Quite the contrary,” said I; “I have no doubt there is nobody in this circle who has not either had some experience of the sort in his own person, or been made a confidant of such experiences by friends whose word on any other subject he would feel it impossible to doubt.”

After some discussion on the existence of ghosts and cognate subjects, it was agreed that each should relate a story, restricting himself to circumstances that had either happened to himself or had been told him by somebody fully entitled to confidence, who had undergone the experience.

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Creepy TV and other Thanksgiving Fun

Back from Thanksgiving weekend with my parents: four days of non-stop eating and family and wine (I blame my sister for that last part). It was the first time in a long time that we, my parents, my sister’s family and my closest first cousin’s family were all in the same place at the same time, to celebrate the birth of my youngest nephew (or whatever the proper term is for my first cousin’s child).

We happen to be a family with strong introvert tendencies, even the men who married into the family, and we are also very loud, in that stereotypical ethnic family sort of way. So periodically, certain people would disappear from the gathering, to be found hiding in another room with a device of some kind…

Which is a long-winded way of saying that my ten year old niece has started me down a wormhole of recreational reading and tv-watching time sinks, just in time for the holidays. Follow me down the path: Continue reading

Hummingbird and Fly: A Keresan Folktale

Next in the hummingbird folklore series, as a followup to our previous story from the Hopi of Arizona: a story from the Laguna (Kawaik), one of the Keresan speaking Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. As in the Hopi story, Hummingbird, this time with Fly, must save the settlement from starvation.

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Long ago, the people lived at White-House, a settlement so vast that they had seven different kinds of shaman to perform ceremonies to bring food for the people, and to cure disease. After many years of success, the shamans became so proud of their abilities that they thought they were more powerful even than Mother Nautsiti, who brought life. In their hubris, they mocked her. She heard, and she got angry. In her anger she hid the rain, and so the crops died. For five years (some say seven), the people starved. Some say the people got so desperate that they even killed and ate their children…

As the situation got more dire, the shamans and the chiefs called a meeting to discuss how to find the Mother, and ask her to bring back the rain and the food. As they met, they remembered Hummingbird, who slept in an opening in the middle of the south wall. In the midst of all this famine, Hummingbird remained healthy and well-fed.

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How Hummingbird Saved the Children: A Hopi Folktale

A new installment in the hummingbird folklore series! This story is from the Hopi people of Arizona. Here we learn about the desertion and subsequent repopulation of the Oraíbi (Orayvi) settlement at a time of great famine, and hummingbird’s role in saving two children — and ultimately, the village.

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The time of great famine began with the frost which killed the corn, just as it began to ripen. Luckily, the people of Oraibi had food stored by from previous years, so that first year, they didn’t go hungry. But the drought began, too, and slowed down the growing of the corn plants, so the ears were just forming when the winter frost came back and killed them. And the third year, with no rain, the corn grew slower yet, and again the frost killed it. The fourth year was even worse, and some of the villagers began to move away, in search of kinder land. By the fifth year with no rain, the corn withered and died almost as soon as it was planted. By now, the food reserves were gone. With no choice, the remaining villagers left; Oraibi stood deserted. Continue reading

Another Budget of Book Reviews

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October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently. Continue reading

Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading

East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon

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I recently saw a reference to the wonderful illustrator Kay Nielsen. I didn’t remember his name, but I recognized his illustrations immediately. Gorgeous! And it helps that East o’the Sun, West o’the Moon is one of my favorite fairy tales. Nielsen is almost one of the reasons I love that tale so much.

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The Mbyá-Guaraní Creation Myth

As a follow-up to the previous installment of my hummingbird folklore series, here is a version of the Mbyá-Guaraní creation myth, as rendered by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan. He apparently got this story from an informant he names Cantalicio, the mburuvicha [chief] of Yvypytã (a site loated near Colonia Mauricio José Troche). This is my translation of his Spanish rendering.

In his text, Cadogan gives this myth in the context of his etymology of the term aju’y, the name still used by the people of Guairá for the black laurel (Cordia megalantha, I think). The chapter in his book is titled “La Columna de la Tierra”, which I’ll render “The Pillar of the Earth.”

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The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

The fifth installment of my hummingbird folklore series comes from the Mbyá, a Guaraní people who inhabit the southern part of Paraguay in Guairá, parts of Brazil, and the Misiones Province of Argentina. This piece is the first chapter of the Ayvu Rapyta (which means roughly “the foundation of the world”), a book in the Mbyá-Guaraní language that records their myths and religious traditions. The book — full title Ayvu Rapyta: Textos míticos de los Mbya-Guarani — was compiled by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan and published in 1959. This version is my translation of Dr. Cadogan’s Spanish translation.

As in the Ohlone myths of California, Hummingbird (and Owl, apparently) are present at the creation of the world. Hummingbird feeds and refreshes Ñamandú, the “First Father,” as the First Father goes about the task of creation.

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The Devil’s Mother-In-Law

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I’m still working on my hummingbird legends, but in the meantime I thought I’d share this charming tale with you. I found it in a fun 1921 collection called Devil’s Stories: An Anthology by Maximilian J. Rudwin. He intended this work to be the first volume in a series of collections of devil-related literature. Alas, the rest of the volumes never came to be.

The author of “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is one Fernán Caballero, the pseudonym of Swiss-born, Spanish-residing Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber, Marchioness de Arco-Hermoso. “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is originally from her 1859 Cuentos y poesias populares Andaluces (Popular Andalucian Stories and Poetry), translated into English as Spanish Fairy Tales in 1881. As Rudwin says, “in her stories we find perhaps the purest expression of mediaevalism in modern times.”

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