Posts Tagged ‘folktale’

A Thanksgiving Side Dish…

November 26, 2015

TheTurkey'sTaleThe aroma of fresh poultry wafted towards me as I entered the butcher shop on my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to secure a choice turkey. Holding my nose against this odiferous chore, As I navigated through the crowd towards the service counter, I heard a shrill squawk as I slipped on something squishy buried beneath the sawdust-covered floor, colliding with a strange, dark figure.

Recovering her composure, the elderly patron scowled and pointed a bejeweled, wrinkled finger at me. I shrugged and apologized but barely suppressed a grin. With her beakish nose and trembling, wattled chins, she looked like a tough old turkey in human disguise. Outlandishly clad in a turban-wrapped fez, an iridescent feathered cape over an embroidered vest and paisley knickers, her dignified bearing was mysteriously intimidating. I expected she would berate me for my rude, if accidental move, but instead, looked me up and down with contempt and turned dramatically back towards the counter, muttering to herself with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent.

“How weird was that?” I mumbled sub-vocally, reaching for a double-digit service number. My wait would be longer than I thought since several ‘pilgrims’ were ahead of me, including the ‘turkey lady’. When I took my place in line, I found my artist’s eye drawn to her burgundy velvet fez with it’s gently swinging silk tassel. Idly, wondering whether turkeys might really be from Turkey, I remembered a fanciful notion described by some sixteenth century English naturalists. It seems they imagined a resemblance between the turkey’s red head adornments and the fez, a tasseled cap worn at the time by Turkish men as a national headdress! Stirring the sawdust around with my shoe, I began to recall other bits of turkey trivia.

Actually, turkeys pre-date humanity by about 10 million years, having roamed throughout Africa and most of the Americas. However, history records that an exotic bird with a featherless head and white-speckled feathers on its rounded body was imported from the Guinea coast of Africa into Europe during the Turkish invasion early in the sixteenth century. This creature was later classified as a guinea fowl. Along with other strange products, such as coffee, a chewy confection called ‘loukoum’ and beautifully patterned textiles and carpets, the English dubbed anything that had never before been seen in the west as ‘Turkish’, including the ‘Turkie-bird’.

The line to the service counter finally started to move and the ‘turkey-lady’ waddled up to claim her order. Before depositing her payment on the counter, she opened her package to inspect its contents and immediately began to haggle with the butcher’s assistant. Flustered, he stared at her, then ran off to fetch his boss. The portly, ruddy-faced butcher emerged from the back room, wiping his bloody hands on his apron and glowered at his bizarre customer. “What do you mean, haggling with my prices?!” he roared. “My turkeys are the finest in town and worth every penny I ask! Furthermore,” he continued craftily, “my turkeys are so delicious, your guests will praise you to the heavens, swearing that you got twice the bird you bargained for!” Appearing to consider this, the ‘turkey lady’ suddenly assumed a mask of complete charm and proceeded to defend her point of view. “My dear Mr. Hogg,” she murmured, “I can see that you are very busy today, but if you would be so kind as to hear my little Turkish tale, then perhaps you will understand.” Intrigued, I joined the other customers as they moved closer to listen.

“Once, long ago in Turkey,” she intoned, “a ‘hodja’, or learned man went to the bazaar in his village. Strolling the aisles, he chanced upon a handsome curved scimitar that bore a price tag of three thousand ‘kurush’ . The hodja carefully inspected the scimitar but could not see why it should be so expensive. So he approached a table of patrons at a nearby coffee stand to see if they might offer an opinion. “That is a very special scimitar!” they exclaimed. “ We have heard that if you use it to attack your enemy, why, it grows five times its original length!”

Considering this, the hodja returned to his home, fetched the tongs from his fireplace and carried them back to the bazaar. Gathering a crowd, which included the coffee drinkers, he sang out, “Who will give me three thousand kurush for these fine fire tongs?” Curious, the coffee drinkers approached the hodja and asked to inspect the tongs. “These are rather ordinary tongs,” they frowned collectively. “Whatever has possessed you to ask three thousand kurush for them?”

“Well,” answered the hodja with an ingenuous smile, “when my wife is angry with me and she threatens me with these tongs, why, they seem to stretch to ten times their present length!”

The butcher stood there, a reluctant grin spreading across his broad chin. Shifting his weight from foot to foot in embarrassment, he agreed to accept her modest payment, but on one condition. “And what would that be?” she simpered. The butcher looked at his customers who were obviously fascinated by the ‘turkey lady’. “The condition is that you will return next year with another story.” “OK, she nodded. Then, with a triumphant smirk on her heavily lipsticked mouth. “I will, but only if you will give everyone here a fair price, too!”

Watching the other customers whispering among themselves, I thought, “Wow, that was impressive; could that hodja have been her ancestor?” Without waiting for an answer from Mr. Hogg, the old bird winked at me and secured her feather cape. Then, she gathered up her parcel and swept out of the shop, yellow sawdust rising in her trail.

The Turkey’s Tale was first published in 1993 as the Thanksgiving folktale feature in the Focus Magazine of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It is one of my Visual Fiction stories published in the T-R between 1993-97.

A Wedding On Hallowe’en?

October 29, 2015

VF-TheBridesFinger-Illustration

Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.

Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming  that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered. 

Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object. 

“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…

Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.

“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape. 

In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.

That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.

Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the  marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.

The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.

With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.

Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.

“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.

For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.

The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.

Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”

The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!

When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.

“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.

But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.

At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.

*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!

Moving The Immoveable Feast

July 8, 2015

In recent weeks, I’ve become rather addicted to an online magazine called Mental Floss. Much of what is posted is silly, National Enquirer grade stuff, but with a little patience, some real gems come to the surface. One of these was a 2014 piece about a strange tree, an artificially cultivated hybrid (multibrid?) of forty different fruits (what??). Anyway, the tree is a sort of installation art project conceived by a Syracuse university professor named Sam Van Aken. The story can be read here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/60243/tree-flowers-40-different-fruits

Upon reading this article, I was immediately reminded of a story that I had written in 1994 called ‘Moving The Immoveable Feast’. It was one of series of twenty+ illustrated short stories that were published monthly (between 1993-97) by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review newspaper under the collective title, Visual Fiction. I adapted this one from an old Mayan folktale that told of a similar, though mythical tree. I am planning to publish a more fully illustrated anthology of these little tales but until then, I will post some of them here from time to time. Your comments and suggestions for this volume are welcome!
MovingTheImmoveableFeast

Scratchboard-Long before there were people everywhere, a tree that should have been impossible stood at the very center of the world, where the ruins of ancient earth pyramids now stand. The Old Ones called it “The Everything Tree” because every kind of fruit and vegetable drooped heavily from its twisted branches. Coconuts, peaches, mangoes, bananas and oranges were among its myriad fruit and its vegetables included every variety of bean, squash, pepper, eggplant, tomato, pickle and leafy green thing. The exception was corn whose tall stalks surrounded the massive tree’s trunk stretching as far as the eye could see.

Each day, from sunrise to sunset, animals gathered at The Everything Tree to sample its bounty. But for hundreds of centuries, people who eventually appeared had no clue to its existence. Until the day a man, who understood the language of animals found it. The man, who had been enjoying an afternoon nap, was awakened by the excited bleating of two of his goats as they discussed the tree’s wonders. Intrigued, he decided to follow them and see this miracle for himself.

After traveling many days over mountains and rivers, he stepped into the shadow of an enormous tree that appeared to loom just ahead, but was still many miles distant. At last he made his way through the aisles of animals that surrounded it. Starved and exhausted from his long journey, the man ate his fill and quenched his thirst with a juice he made by squeezing many fruits together into an empty coconut shell. As he rested, he marveled at the miracle he had found.

“Wouldn’t life be wonderful,” he thought, “if a tree like this grew near my home! We could enjoy its shade on hot, sunny days and we would always have enough to eat!” Plucking one more juicy plum, he set off for his village and decided to return to the tree with his friends and neighbors. Maybe together they could find a way to bring this wonderful tree closer to home.

When the man arrived at his village, the people gathered to hear of his adventures. They were fascinated at the notion of a never-ending feast and could hardly wait to witness this magical wonder. They began at once to prepare for the long, difficult journey. Anticipation made the miles pass quickly and they stood at last in the shadow of the Everything Tree.

As they approached it, several of the villagers fell to their knees at the sight, awestruck at the evidence and glory of their Earth Goddess. Then, amidst prayers of thanksgiving, they timidly began to reach for the tree’s fruits and vegetables, smacking their lips at the delicious new taste sensations. When their hunger had been satisfied, the villagers’ voices began to hum with proposed plans to transport this wonderful Tree back to their own lands. Soon, it was agreed that the tree should be cut down and its seeds carried back to be planted.

Led by a group of strong young men, the people brandished their sharp, stone axes and boldly chopped at the immense trunk. The day passed and darkness spread her curtain over the land. Exhausted from their journey and from chopping at the Tree, everyone soon fell asleep under the stars. When they awoke in the morning however, they could find no trace at all of the previous day’s work. “That’s odd,” the men murmured, glancing at each other in bewilderment. “Maybe we are looking at the wrong place,” someone suggested brightly. So they set to work again, chopping away at the Tree until sunset.

After managing to cut a few inches into the trunk, the men buried their axes in the groove to mark the spot and again retired for the night. But the next morning, the men nearly tripped over their axes that lay scattered on the ground. The tree had healed itself once more.

Frightened by this new miracle, the villagers held a council meeting to decide their next move. The strong young men advocated redoubling their efforts, while others quaked in terror. “We are risking the wrath of the Goddess,” they chorused. Then, one of the village Elders, the man who had first discovered the tree, spoke up. “Let us cut a few more inches into the trunk,” he proposed. “Then, I shall stay awake this night so that I may observe the Tree’s magic. Perhaps the Goddess herself might appear and reveal the solution to our needs.” Deeming this an equitable suggestion, the people did as he asked and then went to sleep while the Elder stationed himself among some cornstalks.

The hours passed and a soft breeze stirred the old man’s beard. Soon, he heard a faint musical sound emanating from the Tree. Curious, he began to creep through the cornstalks around her perimeter looking for the source of the music. Suddenly the Elder felt, rather than heard the Earth Goddess’ voice gently directing him to sleep and pay attention at the same time. Confused, the man struggled to keep his eyes open, but succumbed at last to the world of dreams.

Asleep, yet awake at the same time, the man became aware of a deep violet light that slowly suffused the Tree. Fascinated, he watched as the light summoned every living creature of the land and sky including elephants, armadillos, cockatiels, macaws, jaguars, serpents and monkeys. When all had arrived, they organized and set to work, eyes glowing yellow and orange in the darkness. Collecting bits of bark and root from the base of the Tree that the men had chopped away, the animals worked all night. Patiently, they replaced each tiny piece in the trunk and before the sun rose, the Everything Tree was just as it should be.

Shortly before he awoke, the old man again felt the Earth Goddess speak. “You and your people may not cut down My Tree,” She commanded, “ for it is my soul. But you may sample all that grows upon me, planting the seeds of your harvest throughout the world for all generations. Go now. For when you have filled your basket and returned to your village, I must cause you to forget where you have been.”

In the morning, the Elder related his experience to his friends and neighbors. “It was truly a miracle! The Goddess herself spoke to me!” he whispered in a hushed voice, prostrating himself briefly on the ground towards the Tree. The villagers were filled with joy, for the solution to their needs was so simple after all. Triumphantly they gathered some of every variety of fruits and vegetables from the Tree’s twisted branches, then returned to their homes. For generations afterward, their descendants carried the seeds of that first harvest to the four corners of the earth.

Although the Earth Goddess had decreed that no one would ever remember where the Tree stood, it is entirely possible that we were left with the suggestion that the Tree existed only in our imagination. Nevertheless, the colorful fruit and vegetables enjoyed around the world remain as tribute to that magical immoveable feast, The Everything Tree.

Text & Illustration ©1994 Ilene Winn-Lederer