Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Fire Tales -- The Miller and The Snow Witch

I'm thrilled to be able to kick off this week's holiday writing, not to mention my first post as a full-time contributor to the Chicks, with a piece of my own work. To get the introductions out of the way, I'm Hayley, you may have seen me playing devil's advocate in the comments. I'm a fantasy writer and English Lit grad, and I enjoy exploring and questioning the boundaries between literary and genre fiction. I hope to bring another unique viewpoint to the craft of storytelling and show writers that the techniques of fantasy can apply to all genres, just as romance crosses every genre.

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Did I ever tell you of the night the miller vanished? They used to tell me, on nights like this, when they’d huddle around the hearth and overlook blood-taint for the heat a small body offered. They told me the miller was a wealthy man, before the storm took him.

Two daughters he had, and a fine son to teach the trade. How to channel the fast mountain stream to turn the wheel, or yoke pack-beasts when streams froze in winter. How to balance the scales, add a thumb’s weight to tip the payment with none the wiser. He had a pretty wife, the miller. And he had a pretty mistress.

‘Twas a night like this and twice as black, with the wind a-baying to drive the wolves to earth, ‘twas a night like this he disappeared. Snow in the pines, ice in the rocks, ale in the mug. Stay indoors child, they tell me, else the snow witch get you.

But the miller does not stay indoors, possessed of an itch as cannot be scratched alone. Just off for a pint, my lamb, and then straight home, I. So he kisses his dear wife and she takes it. He bids his daughters, his fine son goodnight, and they nod their heads and out he goes. By the warmth of his need he’ll brave the driving snow, and they’ll utter not a word of protest.

Go to your lady who awaits you across the village. Craigend, walled heart of the north. She keeps a light in the window for you. May lust guide your way.

How long the miller walked, I cannot guess, but of a surety he knew himself lost when he tumbled down the hill, though he swore the gate shut on such a night. Black torsos of pines darted about him, lunging and vanishing in the driving snow, and all around the howling, howling wind.

They say she howls over a fallen love, a lost child. They always say such things. They also say the miller fell to his knees when she appeared before him, although none were there to see it.

The snow witch. Frigid, wailing tempest of the superstitious north. Cloth spun of ice shards, hair of flying snow, eyes of the black frozen sky beyond the gale. She has no feet, for she needs none, borne upon her own storm, but her hands are cold and hard as river ice and she grabs the miller with them. Blue lips plump and grow flush as her cold penetrates his body, drinks his warmth away.

Perhaps he cried out. Perhaps he did not. He had an itch as could not be scratched alone.

The blizzard dies down. No cock crows in the dead of winter, but a pale sun rides low in the east. Snow in the pines, heaped in the branches. Bowed, bent, broken. The gate stands shut. Craigend, walled heart of the north. It is death to venture beyond those walls, and the way is shut on such a night.

Where is my husband, have you seen him? Fear wells in a wife’s eyes, or perhaps only the glare of light off new-fallen snow. It is very bright, after all.

No tracks in the village to mark a lost soul’s passage. One could not say if any had ventured about that night. The lady knew not where he might have gone; she did not know he meant to come at all. Only the pretty wife knew, two daughters and a fine son, but none say a word why the miller might have ventured out so late. Where he might have gone.

They find him in the valley, the dogs a-baying their discovery. Twisted. Frozen. Dead. Blue-lipped from the snow witch’s kiss. The widow sheds no tears; it is too cold for tears.

Stay indoors child, they used to tell me, but no spirit stopped me when I left the gate. Never looked back.

The miller was a wealthy man, before the storm took him. His family prospered.


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16 comments:

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

I’m not that knowledgeable about folktales. What style is your story most like?

I noticed that like many folktales, it can be used to frighten children into obeying their parents (for their own good.)

Would it be too modernistic to say this tale is really about Tiger Woods? Methinks I spied cat eyes in those woods flashing between the falling flakes.

I’m going to enjoy reading your posts this next year.


Vince

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, stylistically Angela Carter has probably been the biggest influence on my short fiction and folk tale writing. Her fairy tale collection, The Bloody Chamber is really fabulous. As for the classic tellers, I wouldn't presume to compare :)

I think the beauty of folk tales is that they retain a timeless quality. No matter how modern we get, we still appreciate the elemental quality of civilization vs. the wilds, natural vs. supernatural, etc, although I prefer to leave it to the reader to decide whose side they're on. If the story strikes an allegory to current events for you, then I'm thrilled (and love the pun you struck there). I think my narrator might have a few words for you on whether the frightening of children is for their own good, or the good of the parents, though ;)

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

Are you familiar with Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who wrote “Women Who Run With Wolves”? She has many tapes on folk tales and their psychological significance. She may have more on this than anyone else. She’s an absolutely fascinating woman. I have many of her tapes.
I also try to listen to all the audio tapes I can get on Native American folk tales. I like the tales more than the myths.

BTW, one reason given why folk tales are so violent is that there were so many dangers living in the wilds and so little supervision by adults available. Children had to be scared into not walking off into the woods or going out alone into the night. A child might not get a second chance to learn from experience. The dangers were deadly and real.

I don’t read much fantasy but I do love Mercedes Lackey. Her writing is poetry and a joy to read. Is she one of the authors you read?

I am going to get a copy of “The Bloody Chamber” as soon as possible. I have read all of H.P. Lovecraft. The “The Bloody Chamber” sounds like something he would write.


I look forward to reading more of your stories in the new year.


Vince

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, I actually haven't read Estés but I've heard her mentioned many times. The last several years of my life have been taken up primarily with assigned readings for my English degree, so I'm finally starting to dig into everything I want to read for research and pleasure, and trying to expand my folklore readings when I get a chance. I'll be sure that Estés is on my list.

One of the other reasons I've heard of the functions of folk tales is to encourage cooperation and proper expectations. A good example is Beauty and the Beast, which could essentially be interpreted as "you're going to have no choice in the man you marry, and he'll probably an awful beastly man, but if you work very very hard, you can turn him into something vaguely more charming." Perhaps not always the intent, but an interesting reading. It's the way one of my seminars approached Angela Carter's explorations, and a great essay from The Madwoman in the Attic

Mercedes Lackey is one of the first fantasy authors I started reading, although I've gotten behind on her releases more recently. I love the way she dabbles with fairy tales in some of her series.

Anita, a member of Church on the Hill said...

Thank you, Hayley. I really enjoyed this story. Your lyrical writing style gave it an old world feel. And yes, it read like the fairy tales I read as a child.

I'm glad you've become a permanent Prairie Chick and look forward to your posts.

connie said...

Hi Hayley
Loved the story! I told folktales weekly in schools from the time our oldest was in grade one until our youngest finished grade four. I also had a television program on Global telling folk tales...which leads me to this: I have Women Who run with Wolves and also Bruno Betelheim's book on the meaning of folktales (as in their influence on society)
If you want to borrow either, let me know before the next meeting and I'll bring them along
And, hope you have the best Christmas ever
connie

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, very glad you enjoyed it and love that 'old-world feel' That just makes my day!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Connie, thank you for the offer, that's very generous. I'm not sure yet whether I'll be at the January meeting (still waiting on word about that possible visit home) but I would love to borrow either/both of those whenever we can both attend a meeting. Bettelheim is someone I've been interested in reading as well.

Looking forward to your contribution on Tuesday :)

Janet said...

Fantastic kick off to our Christmas Stories week, Hayley. Anita took the words - a very 'old world' feel and so like the folk lore of yester year.

We're looking forward to your unique perspective here on The Prairies as an official Chick - we've enjoyed your comments and contributions over the past year :)

DebH said...

Hayley
wow... that was a cool folk tale. i'm looking forward to seeing your posts in the future. i really enjoy visiting the Prairie even though I don't always comment.

you kicked off the story week really well. i agree with anita - the story has an old world feel... like reading Brothers Grimm

Karyn Good said...

What a wonderful tale, Hayley! I loved the imagery and, as others have said, the old world feel.

Bravo!

Very glad you're now a regular Chick :D

Angela Sasser said...

I suppose I'm a Hayley stalker (aka friend) and I'm lingering around this blog at her recommendation. Looking forward to reading more when time permits:)

I really like the visual description of the snow witch. That part of the tale gripped me in particular. I love the description of needing no legs because she is borne on her own storm. It makes her that much creepier somehow. Her assault on the Miller is almost sensual in a way, which is why I'd wager why so many are reading Carter-esque vibes in this.

While it seems many others got the message 'Little children, don't venture into the unknown!" I find this story teaches a lesson against adulterous and lecherous men (a hidden undertone in many old fairy tales that makes this even more convincing as far as the mood you set). Keep that itch to yourself or suffer the consequences of a woman scorned! Or in this case, an elemental force that gives you exactly what you want, while taking what you thought to never lose. Sin has a price and there is no redemption for the unrepentant who give in to their urges.

I feel sorry for his family, though! Is there a message in there about not being complacent when you know something is going on with your husband as well? For them to end up penniless seems a lesson in life's harshness and not relying on a cheating husband for life's riches.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Ang, so glad you finally got a chance to read this story at one place or the other. I love that you mentioned the sensual language of the assault. I had fun playing with the innuendo there without (hopefully) making it snicker-worthy.

I wouldn't say the family were complacent though, and they certainly prospered from both his wealth and his death (not penniless, but penni...ful?). My narrator for these fire tales (always ends up being the same person) doesn't buy into the smoke "Fear the creepy things in the trees!" mentality, so I like to read it to the reader to decide how much is fact and how much is fable. If there's no snow witch, someone must have opened the gate ;)

Angela Sasser said...

aah I was a little confused about whether the family was left prosperous because of the repetition of "The miller was a wealthy man" I figured this was a focus on past-tense that meant he was dead and they were penniless.

Are they not complacent? They seem so when they just accept his reasoning to go into the storm without question, but that may also be because we don't get the whole picture of the family's life through the narrative. Maybe they were quietly upset, but that sort of 'action' isn't shown for sake of the narrative? (can't get too complicated lest you ruin the nice rustic mood!)

Either way, it's the mood of the tale that really sets the story. I don't think the encounter with the snow witch was snickerworthy, but rather ironic and very suiting, considering his purposes for being out in the storm. Poetic justice, as it were.

Silver James said...

I'm so glad you're a full-time Chick, Hayley. I love your writing style and enjoy everything I've read of yours. Sorry to be so late in finally catching up on all the PC posts. Life. What can I say?

Silver James said...

Okay. I'm brain dead. silverjames @ swbell DOT net.