Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Douglas Firs as Ladders to the Otherworld

Douglas fir trees, with their deep-veined bark, broad branches good for climbing straight up like a spiral staircase (though I can never get very far!), and new tips delicious as tea, are humbling trees. I came across the following article in an early issue of News from Native California— Volume 1, Number 5, November/December 1987— about the significance of the Douglas fir to the Hupa people of far Northern California. In their land, the trees are wide and tall: redwood, doug fir, pine. The rivers are thick sinews through the valleys. Snowy geese, migrating up north to Alaska, travel through openings in the sky to other worlds. Here is an excerpt from Lee Davis's beautiful article, "The Sacred Life of Trees." The photos are all mine, from my own journeys in this area (not the far north forests) along the central California coast.

Douglas firs surround a secret lake north of Bolinas
"The Douglas fir trees were called chime chwing in the Hupa language. Nothing was eaten from them. They were not used to build houses. Their economic value was negligible: deadwood on the ground was collected for firewood, walking canes were made from their limbs. Other less abundant plants had considerably more material value: the essential oak tree, prairies of Indian potato tubers and seed-bearing grasses, rare medicinal plants, sugar pine, and red cedar. However, the Douglas fir, growing tall in the High Country, was a passageway to the other worlds in the sacred landscape, a passageway to the Immortals. […] The tops of tall trees on high mountains were at the Top Of This Earth, and the places closest to and most easily seen by the Immortals from the Sky Above.
            Places of Passage were associated with Times of Passage— into life at birth and out of life at death. The Times of Passage into and out of life on This Earth were marked with ritual activity involving high places and trees. (…)

Enormous fallen Douglas fir right over the path on the way to Alamere Falls

The father of a newborn baby took the stump of its umbilical cord, which fell off a few days after birth, into the hills of a high, windswept point with a sweeping view. He found a sapling of a Douglas fir tree and split its most upward pointing branch, placed the umbilicus inside the split and tied the branch back around the baby’s navel stump. As the baby tree grew up, so the child’s physical and spiritual growth was measured. This tree was watched by the baby’s family and later by the maturing individual. As the sapling Douglas fir grew in shape and strength, it became Nature’s medicine counterpart, the spiritual omen for this individual.
At the ridge where the baby’s medicine tree grew, or on the father’s journey to it, it was propitious if the father found a medicine plant. From the plant he either took a part home or took the plant itself to transplant near the village as the baby’s medicine plant. These birthcounterparts, trees, plants, special rocks, and so on, were talismans of luck and power. They were one’s lifelong personal medicine, and were called xwen natehidichwen, meaning “along with this person, medicine was born.

At the death of a man, his sweathouse partners took the pipe which he had smoked for religious communication and placed it at the top of a Douglas fir, high upslope. Some other item of ceremonial regalia personally associated with him could be placed at the tree top as well. His body was buried in the ground, but his pipe and regalia were placed high and clear where the Immortals could see them. The Immortals spent all their time dancing ceremonies and if they admired and desired his religious regalia, they might bring him with his dancing wealth to Sky Above."

I think this is so beautiful-- the cord woven between human being and Douglas fir tree from birth to death in Hupa culture. A tree that has  your umbilical cord buried within it, well, that is something very strong indeed, a place where you, very literally, have roots.

This fallen Douglas fir was so big I could have laid out a blanket and slept on its bark. We could walk beneath, packs and all, almost without ducking.

We walked up through the branches, horizontally of course, but it was still like climbing a ladder. The very top was narrow and dense, grown with moss and lichens touched by wind and osprey, robins and sun. To imagine the whole tree upright-- it does feel like they might pierce straight into another world. It felt like we had walked into a new wild territory, at the top of that fallen tree, a place humans rarely go.

A while ago, I wrote a sketch about Douglas fir trees, how they need fire to open their pinecones and birth their seeds. It became something magic and strange. It is connected to the piece I mentioned in my last post, the mythic story-beginning with Edith and the old women who have bones in their hair, right here.

These are scraps of a Point Reyes myth world rapidly evolving in my head, soon to become something longer, I hope! Enjoy:

The Douglas-fir tree drops whiskered cones between the bracken ferns and the leaves of wild ginger. Old tapers of pale lichen hang from the straight branches. The breeze moves them, slowly. Old Man’s Beard, the lichen is called, brittle and green. Sometimes Douglas-firs are draped everywhere, on all of their swaying branches, with lichen, each dip of green smelling of humus and songbirds.
            The whiskered cones need fire to break open the seeds they protect. A rough blaze to crackle off the husk, to flush the soil fresh with ash for the new roots. The ashes of the dead to feed them. Branches and ferns and huckleberries up in orange flames. Fire that roars, whistles, and transmutes the bodies of crickets, yellow-sapped saplings, Northern spotted owls, into dirt. Mountain beavers, burrowers with tunnels under the roots, in places where rain water seeps, are roasted. Between their white bones the Douglas-fir seeds, skins melted open, reach their tiny clear veins. Seedlings grow to saplings. When their roots are as thick as earth worms, they crush the small skulls of the mountain beavers.
            The fire Edith sees glowing the Inverness ridge one morning was lit by the young men with fire in their eyes, the men who smoke long thin pipes and sing like birds. When fallen branches gather up enough, they go out to the fir forests and drop the embers of their tobacco in the dry twigs and grasses. They watch as the underbrush catches, as flames move against the trunks of grown Douglas-firs, barely singeing. They sing and their tongues make sounds like the fire cracking. A fire for rebirth. The oldest great blue herons, with thin, ragged feathers and long beaks worn from hunting, emerge from the salt marshes and estuaries as the first grey pine smoke rises. They fly to the edge of the burning, where the young men sit, smoking and singing and holding fire in their palms. With slow steps, they walk into the lapping heat.
            An old woman with gopher bones in her hair crawls out of the warrens and woodrat lodges once the ground has cooled. She is called Heron-claw. She reaches her dark feathered hands into the phoenix ashes of the herons and pulls out the new eggs. Reborn from the dust of their deaths, like Douglas fir seeds reborn only in heat. Dark blue eggs with stars on the shells drawn by embers. She tucks them into deep square pockets. Gathers fire-opened Douglas-fir seeds, popped out of their cones, and chews them between green-stained teeth. Quietly, she slips back down the warrens, ginger-stepping, with eggs in her pockets.

Great blue heron
Blue heron

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Of Otters and Words with Roots

A family of five or six river otters swam under the bridge at Abbott’s Lagoon, rippled beneath the hem of marsh-pennywort that gleams green along the edges, and climbed up the great edge of the dune. They tumbled and they played, did belly-slides, tangled up in a ball of wet brown fur, huffed and loped. Their fluid playful bodies, whisking tails and clever wise faces— I could barely breathe for joy. Maybe they were Dobharchu, King of the Otters, and his companions, who in the Irish tales would grant any wish if captured to win their freedom back. Their black pelts could protect a warrior from death, and keep a person from drowning. Whatever deities they might have been (for all wild things are to me, in a way), with curling black-brown tails and dark, dark eyes, scrubbing the lagoon from their fur into the sand, I could see, watching them, why otters seem to represent "creativity" all over the place in the human traditions. They catch you right in your stomach and make you want to sing with their grace.

Which brings me to the unexpected exploration, here (when all I set out to do was post this video—poor resolution, I'm sorry!— I took of the otters at their morning play!), of creative inspiration, the source of it in my life, the dance between madness and muse so beautifully offered up by Terri Windling and others as a "Moveable Feast," right here. Not very long ago, maybe a year and a half, I realized that for me, writing is about place. Deep involvement with place. I've always loved tales of magic, of other worlds, or other times. These are the stories, in one way or another, I've always tried to write. Stories where the edge between girl and tea-plant is thin. Where deserts reflect back dreams. Where women with heron-feet come into bedrooms on storm clouds and demand impossible things. But all through college on the East Coast, so far from the native mountains and seaside of my California upbringing, I couldn't find my voice in those stories. I couldn't find that river-otter, lagoon-slick tangle of joy and purpose, sand-dune belly-sliding and all, that deep abandon, which accompanies the creation of truly meaningful work.

Then, two summers ago, in the Big Sur mountains with my family, after just having read Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, and while driving past the Point Sur Lighthouse (a truly magical almost-island, fog wrapped and rough, with a lighthouse at the tip), I was knocked over the head with a sudden revelation. THIS place, the place I was born and raised, was my muse. THIS place, these redwood forests, manzanita and oak woodlands, coyote brush and sage chaparral, wild coasts, fireroads dusty and wide, was my muse.

I wanted my words to grow roots and veins. I wanted to seek the myths and magic of this land; it was so close to me I hadn't stepped back to see it with my writing eyes and hands.

A living, speaking, real landscape is always full of magic. Magic is the language of elk as they speak to each other through the fog. Magic is the way granite forms over millennia, the way murres lay green eggs. Magic is the sounds of tall grasses in the wind. Magic is the way fog is formed. Magic is the stories people leave behind in the places they inhabit, the spirits, ghosts and gods they talk to. Magic is the towhee poking about in the dirt for worms and seeds, singing her own peculiar tune.
Slide marks from the otter-bodies.
So I began writing this way, and my first novel length piece, Tomales Point: Creation Stories emerged—the story of a part of the Point Reyes peninsula, told from the perspective of mountain lions, dairy ranchers, grasslands, Coast Miwok remains, an old woman riding the granite in the tectonic plates over millennia. A mythos, part my own imagining, part this land, was born. I haven't looked back since.

I’ve found that beneath the surface, this place has old women with heron feet, men whose shadows are coyotes in the dark, voles tilling and tilling the earth, tunneling it into labyrinths, a worship of aerated earth, woodrat nests that witness generations, land masses like the bodies of tule elk. But most important, perhaps, for the act of writing— this place has my heart buried in it. California, and more specifically the ecosystems in which I grew up, are not just a physical landscape to me, but an emotional one too.  And Abbott's Lagoon is at the heart of it all. I've been coming here since I was small. It is my place of pilgrimage.

I used to come to Abbott's Lagoon for picnics as a little girl, with my parents and my younger brother. The drive was about an hour and a half from our house, around a mountain and through several valleys, but it felt like we entered another world. In that way of little children, time passed in long leaps on car-rides, and I was completely disoriented, dropped into a different landscape of blue lupine, orange and black caterpillars crossing the paths, a bright blue lagoon, a dune like something from a fairytale, the thrashing white-capped ocean beyond, thundering her song.

We’d lay out the blanket in that vast expanse of sand, like a moon. I was endlessly enchanted by it, the way the wind smoothed and danced across it, the strange tracks criss-crossing every direction, how hard and slow it was to walk through that much sand, into the wind. It made me think of the dunes and camels of Egypt that I read about in books; it made me think of adventures, with a sturdy green sack full of salami sandwiches and tough plums, a wildcat or a river otter as a friend, setting out across a seemingly endless dunescape. 

Abbott's Lagoon is a magic place. Seeing that tangle of playing river otters, relaxed and chortling in their otter-way in the unusual July sun (normally the fog is thick through the summer mornings out there, hanging onto the edge of the Pacific ocean), is just the sort of thing this place always seems to offer, something that goes straight into that imagined organ between heart and sternum, where beauty, soul-magic and creativity reside. I’ve seen giant whale skull bones washed up on the beach here. A moonbow. I fell in love, really, truly, while walking together along that tideline and exploring those dunes. In high school I found my soul, I think, in this fog, in the light green-blue crash of waves. I found myself connected to all things.

Then, last fall, I started taking classes in animal tracking. Many of them took place on the dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon, because they are like a canvas for wild creatures to write with their paws upon. Coyotes side-trot over the sand in flirting pairs, kicking up their heels and leaving claw marks of joy. Jackrabbits bound. Bobcats walk quietly along the very edge of the dune, where it meets tule grass and marsh pennywort. Great blue herons stalk. Ravens land and chatter, gulls circle, deer mice hop between tufts of dune grass. They all leave stories behind.

So, Abbott’s Lagoon has become like a sacred living manuscript to me as well, the heart of my own journey toward understanding a little bit of the languages of wildness all around me. It started when I was six or seven, reading books full of myth and picnicking there with my family. It is my own symbol of creative inspiration, in the inner world I wander to while creating stories and poems.

The point is, through all of this rambling— the muse for me is not something intangible that floats through the ether and grabs my shoulders from time to time, spilling inspiration. The muse IS the land. I write to bring stories of place— that nexus of animal, human, plant, land and weather— back into our literary and cultural landscape. I write to learn the land I live in and on more deeply, and I write to give voice to the more than human world, both as it intersects with our human lives, and as it exists far beyond, in all of its mystery, in all of its true magic.

As to the veering into madness that art can cause, particularly when you are trying to learn the minds and ways of other species, (and other families of life altogether, including the myth-beings we can’t quite see anymore…), well. I think it needs to be a dance, close to abandon but not quite, like those otters tumbling in knots together. Playful but so strong and so graceful they are like water, never losing balance on the steep dune, belly-sliding when necessary, so fierce the bobcat who lives in a den under the nearby willows won’t bother to stalk them. They make their home in water and on land; they walk that line; but they are always up for a good play in the sand. They know the dune is near, if the water gets too deep.

A bobcat lives in the willows to the left, and uses that marsh-edge as her road.
Bobcat prints, faint in the sand (the trail on the right side of the photo)
I’ve read that the old Irish bards carried their harps in cases made of otter-skin, to keep them dry as they travelled through rain and mist, town to town, selling songs. So as I sit down at my little desk to write in the early morning, wielding a cup of tea, I imagine an otter skin over my shoulders. The transforming cape, to take you under, to keep you dry in the lagoons and warm on the sanddunes of the imagination.

(For some mythical writing that is set the landscape of Point Reyes, go here, to a new page I've made with an excerpt of one of my tales.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Walking the Elk-Veins

The grass was pale with summer and the fog galloped up everywhere, like herds of elk-ghosts. On Sunday my dear friend Lara and I walked the Tomales Point trail from start to finish. The fog stayed with us the whole time, moving close to the ground, holding us in a small circle the whole time. We couldn’t see very far ahead or behind, to the right or left, sea or bay, so we felt like we were walking out of time, down a tawny dust trail, through light gold grasses that hissed in the wind, past herds of tule elk, mostly females and their growing-up babies. Their backs and bottoms are exactly the color of the grass, so when they bend their heads to graze, they almost vanish.

The cows (as the females are called) travel in “harems” that are constantly shifting in numbers and composition. Bulls, right now with a gold dusting of velvet all over their antlers, fight each other for dominance and then take over whole harems. Part of their job is to keep as many cows near them as they can manage, but the ladies may wander off any time they please, if they get bored, if they find him not quite up to the job of mating with all of them, if his antlers aren’t quite large enough or his bugle lacking in that eerie piercing strength. He will try to impress them by bowing his head into the grass, the tips of his antlers into the dirt, and dragging up dry roots and flower-stalks and dirt clods, so that his rack looks even bigger than it is, topped with four fingers on each side.

As we walked with the fog all around us, a little bit dizzy with the dry gold land and the gently rolling trail (once the path used by dairy men at Pierce Point Ranch to horse-and-cart butter, milk, potatoes, wood, nails, children, up and down the Point), it felt like we were actually walking on the body of an elk. Female, probably. Walking along a winding vein or muscle that lay against her spine.

Ghosts of the elk that used to be here, before they were hunted to death in the late 19th century and then re-introduced to the Point in the 1970’s, moved up the long sloping canyons from the ocean in the form of fog. 

I took the following two photos of a bull elk in a previous summer, a little later into the rutting (mating) season, when the velvet was all rubbed off his antlers. 

He was not very pleased at my nearness, nor at my camera. Right after this moment, he started to charge me, because I was starting to get too close to his ladies and their calves. Although I turned on my heel (with two friends) and fled, panic flying through my body at the thought of those antlers, later, I thought of him again and again. It was contact, direct, visceral, even if all that had been communicated was-- get away from my herd. Okay, I'm leaving. Okay, I'm sorry.

To imagine the land as one big elk body, her heart and liver the stones and hardened magma inside the peninsula, the grasses and brush her fur, the rocky end of the point, spilling off into ocean and cormorant roosts, her nose, her strong swift legs plunging somewhere far below into the tectonic crust, her womb, hidden where we can’t find it— this dream is as old as the human spirit, as old as rock art. 

Reindeer rock art from Alta, Norway

Great herds of elk, reindeer, buffalo, bison, these are the deepest roots of fecundity, of sacredness and plenty, in the human soul and the human biological-system. Somewhere still in our subconscious, herds of elk stir up the reverence and the need reflected in those rock carvings and caves—Chauvet and Lascaux in France, the Chumash Painted Rock in California, Alta in Norway. Hunter-gatherers probably co-evolved with ungulate herds— we shaped each other, in patterns of migration and forage, in the development of the human imagination. 

Her vein, her spinal cord, her artery.

Her fur.

Her strong square jaw and nose.

In the far north, the Arctic Circle region, caribou, or reindeer, the elk of the polar lands, who can smell lichen through snow banks, have been semi-domesticated for millennia by Arctic peoples, such as the Sámi of Scandinavia. Unlike the laden prairies and forests of California, where food of all sorts was plentiful and therefore native peoples never needed to herd elk and bison, the reindeer is one of the only reliable food sources in those glacial lands. The reindeer holds in its body almost everything a human needs to survive—meat, fat, blood, bone for structures, sinew for rope and string, fur so warm it banks out the chill, hide for shoes, milk. In some Sámi creation myths, the world is made from the body of a great golden reindeer doe. In the myth-time story of Meándash, rivers are veins of blood with livers and kidneys for stones, and tents are made from the skeletons and skins of reindeer.


Swimming Reindeer, male and female in their autumn coats, carved in Mammoth Tusk 13,000 years ago.
Sámi man, Lyngen Troms 1909
Sámi lavvu shelter made of reindeer hide, tripod poles hung with a cooking pot.

Sámi reindeer herd
They hold magic in their velvet-tipped antlers. The story of the human species, I think, is held inside that thick fur, those tough hooves. They've watched us and run from us and, some of them, depended on us, since the beginning. They've heard our hunting songs, they've given us milk, they've been captured and abused and revered.

Some other beautiful things from the rest of the walk, along those elk-veins on Tomales Point, with the fog holding us in an otherworld:

 A barn swallow mother kept flying in and out of the torn window-netting. When she entered, a flash of blue and orange, we could hear the babies cheeping away to be fed.

 A vole home, in an abandoned garden area at the ranch complex— Pierce Point Ranch, of which I have written so much!

 Two boats, maybe fishing boats, maybe steamers, carved into the wall of the bunkhouse, where ranch-hands used to all sleep, in tiny snug quarters. They are painted over several times, and still the carving shows through. Who made them?

An abandoned machine, all rust and periwinkle vines. I love truckbeds, barns, stone walls, that are overgrown, falling into the earth again.

The pathway, once used by ranch carts, all those old wheel ruts.

 A wildly twisted tree, right above where the Lower Pierce Ranch once was, halfway up the point.

 A bit more of the tree, with an ancestral dusky-footed woodrat nest to the right. They pass on these nests for generations, one rat living inside at a time, hoarding shiny things and acorns. Sometimes many nests are clustered together in one area, like a village.

 Cobwebby thistle, that silk around it the color of the fog, the down the color of a heart.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Catskin Blanket

Two Aprils ago, I traveled around the Welsh countryside, working on small farms in exchange for a bed to sleep in and food to eat. I pruned blackberry and hawthorn in the hedges, chopped up branches of ash wood, milked goats, clipped sheep hooves, walked by cold dark Welsh "rivers" (which to my eye looked like streams), knitted by a woodstove at night, slept clutching a hot water bottle and two hot stones wrapped in old yellow envelopes, because it is bloody freezing in Wales in April. Nothing was as cold as this chapel, my bedroom at Old Chapel Farm, a 45 minute walk outside of the 1,200-year old town of Llanidloes.

It was a rough and drafty chapel, with sharp raw rock walls, rooks living in the belfry, a nightly drip leaking down through the roof onto the plywood floor of the sleeping loft, where I made my bed. I slept under four comforters that smelled of sandalwood, holding to my chest a hot water bottle stuffed in a felted wool case, and still I woke up shivering. That early spring air, sharp with frost, damp with the exhalations of those ancient sloping hills, that early spring air baby lambs were birthed into and crocuses bravely popped up their heads above the cold earth to greet, it slipped through the stone walls and windows and turned my nose red. 

None of this is to say that I was unhappy. On the contrary, I had been struggling with insomnia at school in Rhode Island, but in that chapel loft bed, shivering at dawn, surrounded outside the window by 18th and 19th century tombstones, and below the slate floors with 13th century graves disturbed no doubt by the construction of the building, I slept deep and heavy. Even though when I turned the light out and plunged the rafters with dark, the stars a thick map like snow outside, I was terrified of ghosts. I muttered for them to just come on through, so long as I didn't have to see them. I hid my head under the covers and didn't peak until light, until the rooks began to scratch and chortle in the belfry, and the hills sighed out their cold morning breath as the sun rose. Then I would get up and feed the sheep, dodging ewes' horns as they clambered for the food, check for baby lambs born over night, who needed their umbilical cords dabbed with iodine and their tails bound up with a rubber band. 

When I found them they were mostly still damp with afterbirth. They smelled of womb and new fur, the tenderest creatures you can imagine, and so much more clever and playful than their mothers. 

Some were orphaned— mothers died or refused to give them milk— so we took them inside and bottle-fed them. They slept in the kitchen in cardboard boxes. 

Or lamb-piles. 

One of them, named Tamarisk (or Tammy for short), behaved like a puppy. She followed us everywhere, on walks to the hills or down to the stream. She liked to be held. Her nose always smelled of dry milk.

A big bell was rung at 11 and 4 for tea. We all ate dinner in the dining room of the 16th century farmhouse, by candlelight, drinking home brewed elderflower wine.

I was calmer, more peaceful, sleeping in that chapel surrounded by graves, tending the sheep and laying floor tiles, planting potatoes and other such things, than I could remember being. 

The point, however, of this post, the story I meant to tell, was of the Catskin Blanket. After several nights of cold, after hoarding most of the blankets left in the house, Fran leant me and another girl sharing the loft her catskin blanket, given to her while she was traveling through Ethiopia in the 1970's. One side was a quilt of the softest catskins, the other dark green felted wool. It smelled a bit musty, and was very heavy. The first night, I let my chapel-mate use it. I was a bit wary, a bit alarmed, by all those pelts, so reminiscent of house-cats. The next morning, I was up early, shivering, my cheeks icy, and she was buried under the cat and felt blanket, toasty and warm. 

 We switched that night, and I became a devout convert to the Catskin Blanket, which kept me warmer than a woodstove could have, and filled my thoughts with faraway deserts and wildcats. It was a magic thing. It kept out the Welsh cold, it made me feel safe at night from the ghosts I was sure were there, slipping through the night, threading between stars. This blanket gave me a deep appreciation for the power of animal skins and furs to ward off cold before the invention of heating systems, particularly in those lands further north than Wales, were snow is deep and long. In the Arctic Circle cultures of the world-- from Saami to Inuit-- animals and the bounty of their bodies were and are revered in a way that I think is hard to fully comprehend in places of warmth and plenty. The body of a reindeer, for example, can provide everything-- fur for warmth, muscle, organ and blood for nutrition, sinew for cordage, bones for tent structures, leather for shoes. Its fur is thick and insulating; it was made for withstanding polar winds. Catskins were made to keep those sweet feline bodies warm, perfectly, gracefully, more fully than any down comforter or woven blanket that human hands might make. I was deeply grateful to them.

English Fairy Tales. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. New York: Macmillan Company, 1918.
I thought of the deep warmth of that catskin blanket again today, after all these seasons, while re-reading one of my favorite fairytales, Catskin, an English story in which a young girl, unwilling to marry the leering old man her father wishes her to wed (or, in some versions, her own father, gone batty with the loss of his wife), goes to the hen-wife for advice. The woman tells her to demand dresses for the wedding that should be impossible to create-- one made of moon, one of sun. This doesn't work. In the end, the girl has to escape by night in a coat made of catskins, and travel alone, on foot through the woods and mountains, until she finds a place to sleep and work as a scullery maid. In some versions she wears a donkey skin, or rabbit skins, rushes, a bear skin, a suit of leather, a mossy coat. In all versions, she becomes a thing of the wild for a while, protected by cat and moss and rabbit. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of Catskin, collected by Joseph Jacobs in the late 1800's.

"Well, there was once a gentleman who had fine lands and houses, and he very much wanted to have a son to be heir to them. So when his wife brought him a daughter, bonny as bonny could be, he cared nothing for her, and said, ‘Let me never see her face.’ So she grew up a bonny girl, though her father never set eyes on her till she was fifteen years old and was ready to be married. But her father said, ‘Let her marry the first that comes for her.’ And when this was known, who should be first but a nasty rough old man. So she didn’t know what to do, and went to the hen-wife and asked her advice. The hen-wife said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of silver cloth.’ Well, they gave her a coat of silver cloth, but she wouldn’t take him for all that, but went again to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of beaten gold.’ Well, they gave her a coat of beaten gold, but still she would not take him, but went to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat made of the feathers of all the birds of the air.’ So they sent a man with a great heap of pease; and the man cried to all the birds of the air, ‘Each bird take a pea, and put down a feather.’ So each bird took a pea and put down one of its feathers: and they took all the feathers and made a coat of them and gave it to her; but still she would not, but asked the henwife once again, who said, ‘Say they must first make you a coat of catskin.’ So they made her a coat of catskin; and she put it on, and tied up her other coats, and ran away into the woods.

So she went along and went along and went along, till she came to the end of the wood, and saw a fine castle. So there she hid her fine dresses, and went up to the castle gates, and asked for work. The lady of the castle saw her, and told her, ‘I’m sorry I have no better place, but if you like you may be our scullion.’ So down she went into the kitchen, and they called her Catskin, because of her dress. But the cook was very cruel to her and led her a sad life.

Well, it happened soon after that the young lord of the castle was coming home, and there was to be a grand ball in honour of the occasion. And when they were speaking about it among the servants, ‘Dear me, Mrs Cook,’ said Catskin, ‘how much I should like to go.’ " 

For the rest of the story, go to Sur La Lune , a wonderful site full of European fairytales and their variations.