I was looking for a spooky tale today, saw the title “The Corpse Watchers,” and thought it might be perfect. It’s not really spooky at all, more of an adventure story, the kind where the young man heads out into the world to seek his fortune, although in this case it’s a young woman. The story’s from Ireland, but I read it in Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World by Kathleen Raglan.
There was once a poor woman who had three daughters. One day the oldest asked for some cake and meat so she could go out and seek her treasure. The mother made both and when it was ready asked the daughter if she wanted half with her blessing or all with a curse. The daughter took it all and off she went. The mother may not have cursed her, but she certainly didn’t send her blessing.
She walked until she was tired and hungry, and sat down to eat. While she was eating it, a poor woman came up, and asked for a bit. The daughter refused. Now, we know that you never refuse to help and old woman in a fairy tale, but apparently the daughter wasn’t aware of that. At nightfall she found lodging at a farmer’s, and the woman of the house told her that she’d give her gold and silver if she’d sit up and watch her son’s corpse in the next room. She said she’d do that; and so, when the family were in their bed, she sat by the fire, and cast an eye from time to time on the corpse. All at once the dead man got up in his shroud, and stood before her, and said, “All alone, fair maid!” She gave him no answer, and when he said it the third time, he hit her with a stick, and she became a grey flagstone. About a week the same exact thing happened to the second sister, who had also gone out to seek her fortune without her mother’s blessing. She was left as a grey flagstone by the side of the other.
At last the youngest went off in search of the other two. Now we know that the youngest is almost always the hero, or in this case the heroine. We know she’ll have a much more successful adventure than her sisters. She took care to carry her mother’s blessing with her and shared her dinner with the poor woman on the road, who told her that she would watch over her.
She stayed at the farmhouse, too, and agreed to watch the corpse. She sat up by the fire with the dog and cat, and amused herself with some apples and nuts the mistress gave her. She thought it a pity that the man under the table was a corpse, he was so handsome.
But at last he got up, and says he, “All alone, fair maid!” She responded that she wasn’t alone, she had the dog and cat, apples and nuts. He said she was full of courage but said she wouldn’t be brave enough to follow him, as he was going to cross the quaking bog, go through the burning forest, enter the cave of terror, climb the hill of glass, and drop from the top of it into the Dead Sea. It does sound dangerous, but she stated she would follow as she had promised to watch over him.
He jumped out the window, and she followed him till they came to the “Green Hills,” which opened for them to pass through, and then they were at the edge of a bog.The man trod lightly over the shaky bits of moss and sod. While the young woman was thinking of how she’d get across, the old beggar, who more nicely dressed than before, appeared to her, touched her shoes with a stick, and the soles spread a foot on each side, so she could easily walk over the shaky marsh. The burning wood was at the edge of the bog, and there the good fairy flung a damp, thick cloak over her, and through the flames she went. Then they passed through the dark cavern of horrors, where she would have heard the most horrible yells, if the fairy hadn’t stopped her ears with wax, but she did see frightful things. When they got out of the cavern, they were at the mountain of glass; and then the fairy made her slippers so stick that she followed the young corpse easily to the top. They saw a deep sea and the corpse told her to return tot he farm before he jumped straight into the sea. She, however, plunged right in after him. They swam towards a green light at the bottom of the water. At last they were below the sea, which seemed like a green sky above them, and were sitting in a meadow. By now, the young woman was half asleep, leaning against the corpse. She fell asleep and when she woke she as in bed at back at the farm, and he and his mother sitting by her bedside.
Apparently a witch had put the young man under a spell, holding him between life and death until a young woman was able to rescue him, which she had done by following him the whole way. At her request, her sisters got their own shape again, and were sent back to their mother, with their gold and silver. Of course I doubt they learned their lesson. The youngest daughter married the young gentleman and we’ll assume they lived happily ever after.
Just goes to show, if you’re in a fairy tale, help those who ask for it and always keep your promises.
Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.