The Girl Who Sold Slippers to Snakes

A short story from Ghillian Potts

This story is mentioned in Ghil’s forthcoming finale to the Brook Storyteller series, Wolftalker, which is published next month.

The Girl Who Sold Slippers to Snakes

Long ago but not so long as all that, nor so far that you could never reach it, there was a town where lived a woman with one daughter.
The daughter, who was called Stonecrop after the little plant which can flourish even on bare rock, was very clever. She was wise as well as clever; but her mother was not wise. Her mother was very proud of Stonecrop and unwisely she boasted of how clever her daughter was.
“She can cook as well as I can,” boasted the mother. “She can sew with the tiniest stitches you ever saw. She can sing fit to charm the birds themselves and she can talk so well that she could persuade a snake to buy a pair of slippers!”
Now there many other mothers in the town who were quite as proud of their own daughters and they grew very tired of hearing how marvelous Stonecrop was. Perhaps if she had not been as pretty as she was clever, they would not have been so jealous. As it was, three or four of them got together and decided to bring down the pride of Stonecrop’s mother.
They went to the young lord who was the town’s protector and told him that Stonecrop was too clever to be allowed to live in that town.
“Why,” they said, “her own mother says that she can sell slippers to snakes! Whoever heard of such a thing? She must be a witch!”
The young lord did not know that the women were jealous. He did not believe in witches. He just thought that Stonecrop must be very vain and boastful. So he said, “How does one tell a witch? Let her come to my Court of Justice and I will question her. I cannot send her away unjustly.”
The women went away smiling. The first part of their plan was working. Now for the second part! They went to Stonecrop’s mother and told her that the lord himself had heard of Stonecrop’s cleverness and wanted to speak with her next day in the Justice Court.
“You must tell him about her,” they said, “You know how modest she is. She will make no sort of a showing if you don’t speak up for her. But don’t say anything about it to her beforehand; she is so shy!”
Stonecrop’s mother was so puffed up with pride that she suspected nothing. Next day, when the lord’s officers came to tell Stonecrop that the lord wanted her to come to the Court, her mother ran ahead and, as soon as the lord called for Stonecrop to come forward, her mother pushed in front and began to tell him how wonderful her daughter was, just as she always did.
“And she talks so well,” she ended as usual, “that she could surely sell slippers to snakes!”
Stonecrop knew that she could not stop her mother boasting, so she stood quietly waiting in the doorway until her mother finished.
The lord did not see her; he had grown impatient with her mother and now, angry, he exclaimed, “Then she had better go and do so! And never return to this town unless she can prove she has sold slippers to snakes!”
Then Stonecrop stepped forward and bowed to him and he looked and saw her for the first time and wished that he might take back the words he had just spoken. But spoken they were and nothing could alter them now.
However, that lord never afterwards gave any verdict, no matter how convincing the evidence, until after the accused had spoken. So some good came of it.
Stonecrop was hurt and angry at being banished in this way but she said nothing. She packed some clothes and food in a basket, said goodbye to her mother, who was weeping and wailing, and walked out of the town by the nearest gate. She had no idea where to go, so it did not matter which way she went.
She walked and she walked, and presently she came to a village. She asked if there were any snakes nearby.
“There’s a mound where they lie in the sun sometimes,” said the villagers. “We throw stones at them if we see them.”
“Are they poisonous snakes, then?” asked Stonecrop.
“Don’t know,” said the villagers. “Who cares? A snake is a snake.”
Stonecrop went to look. She saw lizards basking in the sun and then she saw the biggest grass snake she had ever seen.
Some of the village children had followed her. They began to throw stones at the snake.
“Leave it alone! It can’t hurt you. Why kill a harmless snake?” asked Stonecrop.
“It’s a snake!” yelled the boys. Stonecrop didn’t bother to argue. She stood over the snake to shield it. The boys did not dare throw stones at her. They went away.
It was getting late. “I can’t go to the village for shelter now,” she said aloud to herself. “Where shall I go?”
As she stood gazing around her, the huge grass snake uncoiled itself.
Stonecrop started away from it in alarm. Then she remembered that it was only a grass snake and she stood still and watched it.


It reared up its head and seemed to inspect her, then turned and glided between the trees away from the road. Stonecrop hesitated for a moment, then followed it. The snake led her stealthily through the trees, across a small field and into a hollow filled with low bushes.
In the middle, so sunk into the ground and overgrown with mosses that it was almost invisible, was a tiny house.
The snake slid up to the door and drew itself slowly under it, into the house.
Stonecrop watched until its tail tip had vanished, then went and knocked gently on the door. There was a faint scuffling sound from inside, then silence.
Stonecrop called out, “If you please! Your friendly snake led me here. Will you tell me where I may find shelter for the night?”
The door creaked open, just a crack, and someone peered at her. Then the door was opened wide and there stood a little old man, the smallest and ugliest Stonecrop had ever seen.
“If’n you bain’t afraid of snakes,” the old man said, in a voice as creaky as his door, “you c’n stay the night here.”
Stonecrop thanked him. “I’m certainly not afraid of harmless snakes,” she said. “But,” she added cautiously, “I am scared of poisonous ones.”
The ugly old man grinned at her. “I ain’t  got no poisonous snakes,” he told her. “Never worry, girl.”
Even the grass snake seemed to have vanished. So Stonecrop spent the night quite peacefully. In the morning she told the old man her story.
“That is why I was willing to follow your snake,” she explained. “I must find some way to make everyone think that I have sold slippers to at least one snake, or never go home again. And what earthly use could a snake have for slippers?”
“No money to pay for ‘em, neither,” said the little old man.
“It’s hopeless,” said Stonecrop. “I haven’t any slippers to sell, in any case!”
“Make some,” said the old man.
Stonecrop thought and thought. Then she took long strong grasses and wove them into slippers.
“I have slippers,” she said to the old man. “Now, how would a snake use them?”
The old man said, “Snakes like warmth.”
Stonecrop thought some more. “Would your snake sleep in a slipper of grass?” she asked.
The old man nodded.
“Will you let me take your snake back to the town with me?”
“You saved him from the stones. He’ll go with you,” said the old man.
“But what about payment?” said Stonecrop. “I can’t say I’ve sold the slipper if I haven’t been paid!”
“Snakes go under the ground as well as on it,” said the old man. He went into the house.
Presently the big grass snake came sliding out. It lowered its head and dropped something at Stonecrop’s feet. When she picked it up, she found it was a ruby as large as her little fingernail.
“But this is far too much!” she said.
The snake glided towards the road. It seemed to beckon impatiently with its tail. So Stonecrop followed it. She called goodbye and thanks to the old man but he did not come out or answer.
“I’ll come back and thank him properly later,” she said to herself.
The snake led her to a short cut. When she was sure of the way, Stonecrop carried it in her basket. It could not travel as fast and far as she could.
At last they came in sight of the town. Stonecrop let the snake coil around her shoulders. “You’ll be safer there,” she told it.
Everyone was very surprised to see her come back so soon and with a snake draped round her.
“Here is the snake I have sold a slipper to,” Stonecrop told them, “and here is the payment.”
When they saw the ruby, they ran to the lord’s house to tell him. He came to meet Stonecrop and she told everyone how she had saved the snake and made it a slipper of grass. The snake coiled itself up in the slipper and everyone could see that it was pleased with it.
“Now,” said Stonecrop, “I have done as you said and am no longer banished. But I will not stay here. I mean to go and live on my own, once I have taken this snake back to the old man.”
And she refused to listen to anyone’s persuasion. She gave the ruby to her mother and went on her way. Some of the townspeople tried to follow her, but the snake hissed at them so loudly that they were scared and ran back.
When Stonecrop got back to the hollow, the hut was gone. The little old ugly man was gone, too. Stonecrop was bewildered. She set the snake down in the grass.
“Can you find him?” she asked the snake. “I must thank him properly.”
The snake reared up its head and looked at her. It seemed to want her to do something. Stonecrop stroked it gently and then looked away. When she looked back, the little old man stood there. The snake had gone.
“I do believe you’re the snake!” cried Stonecrop, staring at him.
The old man grinned at her. “Took you long enough,” he said.
Stonecrop flung her arms around him and kissed him. “Thank you,” she began – and then jumped back with a gasp. The little old man was growing and changing! He was taller than Stonecrop and young and good-looking! He was laughing with joy.
“Thank you, Stonecrop,” he said. “You have broken both the spells that bound me. A wizard set them so that I must be a snake for half the time and an ugly old man the other half. Once someone knew the old man for the snake, I would be the old man all the time; and once a girl kissed me, ugly as I was, I would regain my real form. Will you marry me, Stonecrop?”
Stonecrop said, “I liked you when you were a snake and I liked you when you were an ugly old man. I think I like you enough to marry you! But what shall we live on?”
“While I was a snake,” said the young man, “I found many jewels in the ground. And as a little old man, I polished them. I think we shall have enough to live on.”
So they were married and lived as happily and as long as was good for them.

 

Previously published in Independent Story of the Year 4: the Ten Winning Stories (Scholastic 1997) There’s a rather mean review of the book as a whole below, which singles out this story as ‘…Outstanding. Its ingredients are traditional but the quality of the writing shines.’

 

A new Review for Joy Howard’s Foraging from The Lake

A lovely review of Joy Howard‘s collection on The Lake poetry website from Jayne Marek

who says (amongst other things)

Foraging finds sustenance in the relics of our personal and collective histories, whether droll, sobering, or sad.  Howard’s confident insights show love and respect for “that same tide / which will come for all of us” (“Going Back”).

One of those reviews that reminds me all over again just why I published a book. (She even mentioned how much she likes the cover.)

cover design by Karen Keogh

Review of With Paper for Feet in Poetry Salzburg Review

We have a review of Jennifer A McGowan’s With Paper for Feet in Poetry Salzburg Review no 31 Autumn 2017 from Colin Pink.

And very appreciative it is too!

Here’s a taster

There’s a ribald, troubadour quality to McGowan’s poetry that reminded me strongly of the medieval French poet Francois Villon.

She retells traditional stories in a clear, conversational tone containing a generous dose of satire and wry humour. It’s a book that makes you smile.

Her clever, punchy, highly accessible writing has immediacy that I can imagine working very well as performance poetry.

 

The voices in McGowan’s verse are lively and compelling.

 

Anniversaries, war and diaries #Arachne5

As part of our Arachne 5th Anniversary celebrations, we’ve asked all of our authors to come up with a blog, that might have something to do with writing or anniversaries. Some of them responded! This one is from Jill Sharp whose poems we published in The Other Side of Sleep and Shortest Day, Longest Night.

August 17th 1944

‘There are moments when I would give anything just to get into a car and drive home, saying I was fed up with the whole show and they could look for someone else to fill my job. The making of plans is child’s play as compared with putting them into execution.’

 

It may be the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, but for me it’s been a summer of war, reading the edited WWII diaries of Alan Brooke. Brooke masterminded the very tricky retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk, and then oversaw Home Defence during 1940 when a Nazi invasion seemed imminent. For the last four and a half years of the war, he was at Churchill’s right hand day and (often) night, advising on military strategy as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

The diary was written as a daily note to his wife back in Hampshire, about events at the decision-making hub in London, and became a safety-valve for a man experiencing almost unbearable stress and responsibility. Reading it, you’re closer to the uncertainty, fear and anxiety of the lived experience than any detached historical account can provide. It demonstrates the value of an immediate record, both as a historical source and also as an insight into the individual human psyche during momentous events.

I’ve been deeply impressed by Brooke – a man who managed to negotiate tricky human situations as well as military ones. It was a revelation to me how much skill was needed to steer Churchill and our American allies, let alone to devise overall military strategy.

Because the US had the greater number of allied forces in 1944, Brooke was passed over as Commander of Overlord in favour of Eisenhower. In his diary, he expresses deep frustration and concern at the American general’s often hesitant strategy, feeling the war in Europe could and should have been concluded that autumn, with a very different outcome for the political map of Europe.

March 5th 1945

‘Breakfast with Ike and another long talk with him. There is no doubt that he is a most attractive personality and, at the same time, a very, very limited brain from a strategic point of view… He only sees the worst side of Monty and cannot appreciate the better side… I see trouble ahead before too long.’

Brooke may have received all the official honours due to him, becoming Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. But this modest man, whose name, I feel, should stand as high as Nelson’s in our national consciousness, had to sell his beloved collection of bird books after the war, when his military pension was insufficient to support his family.

I’m grateful that Brooke finally agreed to make public what is a very private and personal document. So many similar texts are destroyed by their authors, out of consideration for their own reputations as well as others’. But what a unique form of writing a diary is, when it’s done with such non-self-regarding honesty.

Come to the 5th anniversary party!

First Review for The Old Woman From Friuli

We’ve had an absolutely lovely review for Ghillian Potts‘ book for younger children, The Old Woman from Friuli from Sue Magee at The Book Bag

I loved this story. It’s told in clear language and once the emerging reader has her tongue around Friuli and counsellor they have a good story to get their teeth into. There are some illustrations, but probably not enough to give clues to any other pesky words which don’t spring off the page and introduce themselves, but that’s me being very picky.

What is great is that it’s a story which shows that the law applies to everyone, high born, or just the old woman from Friuli. It shows that property can’t simply be taken away at the whim of an aristocrat or anyone else who has an inadequate grasp of the law. It’s also a clarion call to our daughters: they don’t need to have a husband – they can make their own way in life and they’re just as good as any man.

Three cheers, I say! [4 stars]

read the whole thing here

Poetry Review — Foraging

A lovely review from ‘evil cyclist’

Poetry Review –With Paper for Feet

With Paper for Feet by Jennifer A McGowan is a collection of narrative poems using folklore, historical literature, and even religion as a source. McGowan, one of Oxford’s Back Room Poets, gr…

Source: Poetry Review –With Paper for Feet

Review of The Don’t Touch Garden in Salzburg Review

A lovely long review of Kate Foley‘s The Don’t Touch Garden from Lindsay MacGregor in Poetry Salzburg Review

Kate Foley’s eighth collection, The Don’t Touch Garden, is firmly rooted in her own life…
It is hardly surprising that it has taken Foley, born in 1938, so many years to publish these poems. She confronts difficult issues and complex feelings head on. “Lost Property” (8-9), imagining the distress of her birth mother, ends rue-fully: “She’s lost her memory but not / its weight and shape and pain.” (9)
Foley is adept at using sound, particularly alliteration and rhythm, to bring observed moments to life. So, in the title poem, we distinctly hear the repeated hacking as: “My father coughs the cough that kills / thirty years later” (16).
The collection makes for a challenging read, confronting all of us with the vulnerability of childhood and the isolation that comes with inability to articulate feeling.
But there’s humour too. In an observation which may resonate with many British readers, “My mother murdered cabbage. / It died with a yelp in the pot.”
This is a tender and moving collection. Although it is about adoption, there is something in this collection for anyone who has been a child…

Review of The Don’t Touch Garden from ArtemisPoetry Nov2015

a random button / from my mother’s button box / though each one had its story, / a scrap of whole cloth / dangling from its shank. (Sometimes I Feel Another Face)

Foley’s account of her search to make the random particular is absorbing and moving. She writes of the intimate details of family life, warts and all, with painful regret at the stiffness of her relationship with her mother who as she remembers “made the world / seven times over each day … and peopled it, / a touch of iron / for those who strayed / beyond the picket / of your imagination” (Making the Days).

Her father – whose large hands, at once hard and tender, feature throughout as a kind of avatar for his care and protectiveness – provided, you feel, the nurturing of that poet’s sensibility which has helped her to look back at her parents with compassion and understanding, until finally she can write “I have collected all our tears in a small bottle / and put it on the shelf with the household gods” (The End of a Long Conversation Has Come).

Foley is a mistress of the spare but telling detail which gives immediacy to the places inhabited by this unfolding story. The reluctant forcing down of “cold gobs of cod” and the limping home “in my new stilettos / and sugar starched slip, / creaking like ice” for example have an immediacy that vividly evokes either end of the post-war decade (Milk). The awareness of difference built up by small accretions are suggested by snatches of conversation – “thicker / than water hissed at the tea table / wasn’t a cup of weak tea, / but how you described / who I would never be” (Elephant Aunts).

Foley, like all adopted children, has to resolve the matter of belonging. She asks (and it feels as if she is here addressing both her birth and adoptive mother) “Do you see me now / in my skin, in my own skin, / printed with relics / of a child never yours? //1 will wear your echoes / for company” i Adoption). She concludes that perhaps “Ostermilk was thicker than blood” (Thyrotoxicosis), but leaves us with an acute awareness of the “trembling / possibility of nakedness” (Sometimes I Feel Another Face) and the sense of a search that is ongoing until “one day / if only I can find the right bones” she will find reconciliation with both life and death (The Right Bones).

However, for Foley the reclamation of personhood through love is also possible – exploring the lines of “A very wise poet” who “once said lovers / ‘are each other’s parents’ ” she reaches with great tenderness a place of new resolution “let the roof shelter / nouns into verbs” (Mothers and Fathers).

This is a remarkable collection of poems that should be read by everyone. The Don’t Touch Garden is concerned with many of the specifics about adoption and its aftermath, but contains much wisdom that also applies more generally about self-discovery, making sense of our pasts and moving into a future which can, at least in part, be as we make it.

Joy Howard

First review for The Don’t Touch Garden

Amsterdam Quarterly‘s Bryan R.  Monte has reviewed Kate Foley‘s The Don’t Touch Garden

Last is a poetry book by British-born, Amsterdam resident and local treasure, Kate Foley. The Don’t Touch Garden is a compilation of poems from six of Foley’s previous books. These poems are about birth, adoption, childhood, family and the search, albeit too late, for one’s biological parent. This new edition of these poems by Arachne Press is bound in a wrap-around photo cover of a garden with a gate and a bench which, despite the book’s title, seems to welcome one in. This book, like Klein’s, is small enough to fit into a coat pocket and is the type of book I would read and meditate on when I was younger as I wandered around my town “looking for the trapdoor out of suburbia.” In “Bison” Foley comments on her almost lifelong lack of knowledge of her biological parents: “My pre-history is a blank as a people without pots/or bones.” Or with advancing age, suddenly finding our parents in the mirror as we begin to resemble them unwittingly physically and psychologically. The poem “Paradox” also discusses this voyage of discovery of parentage: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/the old joke goes/I am my mother after all.//but which ?” It also illustrates her advice in the introduction to this volume: “to parent the face we find in the mirror.” It is a brave book, which recreates what some children growing up were probably told to (and would like to forget), but which others feel impelled to explore to understand who they really are.

The Don’t Touch Garden includes poems about war-time Britain, (the title poem being the longest and the most interesting in this collection to me due to its historical nature), poems about young parents, “Corchipoo,” (including a young child overhearing her parents having sex) and an abusive, adoptive uncle “The Man on the Bike.” In this poem, the adoptive mother asks: “Tell me! What did he say?”//She means ‘What did he do?’” The tensions between wondering about who her birth parents were, to trying to find a place in a home where she doesn’t seem to fit due to her expanding poetic perception and her parents more restricted worldview (whom she takes care of as they age) continues throughout the book including the poem, “The End of a Long Conversation” where she literally zips one of her parents into a body bag. The Don’t Touch Garden is small, beautiful, thought-provoking book, which should be in every English-language collection about adoption and searching for one’s true parentage.