A Tale Spun of Whole Cloth, by Nancy Brewka-Clark
In a valley between the wooded hills of an isle closer to the snowy glaciers of the Arctic than the warm blue waters of the Adriatic, twin sons were born to a shepherd and his wife. The babies’ noses were snubbed, their big toes were slightly shorter than the second toe on each foot, their eyes were a bright brown, and black curls covered their scalps. They both bore a black beauty mark in the shape of a crescent moon on their shoulders. Niles bore his on his right shoulder, while Giles bore his on the left, reminding their poetically inclined mother of the pages of a book pressed together to create mirror images.
Coming into the world in the wild, stormy days of early spring, when the trees had yet to unfurl a single bud but the grass was already greening, the infants were wrapped in the softest of wool blankets spun by their loving mother. She, who had never feared a blast of icy wind or drift of late snow in her life, now fretted constantly that her precious children would catch a cold and die. The shepherd, who often treated her cruelly, scorned such tender gestures, claiming that coddling would weaken his sons.
One day, against her tearful protestations, he tore the babies from the soft cocoons of their blankets, stripped them of their swaddling clothes and laid them out naked on a large sheepskin he’d spread on the grass. It was a fairly balmy day for these northern parts, but the children’s mother felt a chill. A cloud, puffy as a gamboling lamb, glided across the sun. It cast a shadow on the infants, who were kicking their chubby legs, sucking their plump fists, and gurgling with joy. “Behold, this is how to raise sons who are sound in mind, body and spirit,” the shepherd said to his wife.
Before she could reply, a huge black ram came charging around the corner of the old stone cottage. When it saw them it stopped short, pawing the ground ominously.
“Why, ‘tis our sooty runt,” the shepherd’s wife marveled.
“Aye,” the shepherd growled, “grown into a hideous beast.”
Born with one flaming red eye and one blazing blue and a double-cloven hoof on its rear left foot, the lamb had vanished from the fold three years ago. This caused the shepherd’s wife great grief, for, lacking infants of her own at the time, she’d nursed the weakling with a woolen cloth soaked in milk after its own mother refused to do so. Instead of hunting for it as he would any of the other lambs, the shepherd had told his wife, “The Devil take it, ‘tis a cursed thing.” And although she begged him to find it before a fox devoured it, he remained steadfast in his refusal.
With a snort like a clap of thunder, the ram lowered its massive head and scooped up the twins, Niles in the curvature of the left horn, Giles in the right. In little more than the twinkling of an eye, it was galloping off toward the forest. The infants’ mother let out a shriek of anguish and set out in pursuit. Dashing into the cottage, the shepherd snatched up a flaying knife, which was as sharp as a razor and as long as his forearm, and ran after her, bellowing, “Make way, woman. This is man’s work.”
When they reached the edge of the forest, there was no trace of the ram. No branches quivered. No ferns were snapped or broken. No hoof prints marked the carpet of leaves. It was as if the ram had vanished beneath the silent earth or up into the heavens. Running up and down in the fringe of soft grass, the shepherd’s wife called over and over again, “Niles, Giles, where are you?” But no responding wails drew her in one direction or the other.
“You’ve wasted enough time bleating for them like a sickly ewe,” the shepherd snarled. “Not only will I return with our sons, but I will bring you the monster’s pelt. Now go home and start my dinner.” With a grim set of his jaw, he held his flaying knife before him and entered the woods.
* * *
By dusk, the shepherd’s wife was frantic. Where could they be? What could have happened? Pacing from one end of the cottage to the other, she stopped every few minutes to stare out the casement windows into the gathering violet gloom. As the hue of the sky deepened to indigo with a sprinkling of stars and a rising full moon, she could bear it no longer and ran outside.
For an instant her heart stopped. Had her husband been killed by the ram to drift home as a ghost to sprawl in forlorn guilt on the grass? No, it was the sheepskin he’d spread for the twins. Shivering from the evening’s chill, she snatched it up, flung it about her shoulders, and ran into the woods with no fear for herself. All that mattered to her was finding her children alive and well.
As she ran, the trees thinned out. The forest became less dense. She sensed that there was a clearing ahead. Now she walked cautiously to avoid snapping a twig or branch that would reveal her presence. Sure enough, a grassy circle the size of a small pond revealed itself by the light of the moon. And in the middle of it, rising like a small dark island, lay the ram. It was snoring mightily with her precious infants still imprisoned within the great curling horns. They neither wept nor stirred, and terror rose in her breast that they were dead.
Dashing forward, she tripped first over an unyielding root and then something slightly soft and giving. “Husband,” she gasped, for it was he. Oh, how white his face, how ghastly the open eyes staring up at her unblinkingly. From the center of his chest the hilt of the great flaying knife protruded. Grief at his failed effort to find the twins turned to fury. “You did this to yourself, you clumsy oaf,” she hissed, “and good riddance to you.”
It took all her might to wrest the knife from his breast, but when she’d accomplished this, she shrugged off the sheepskin and threw it over him as a shroud. Then she marched forward into the moonlit circle to awaken the ram. “Give me back my sons,” she commanded, holding the bloody blade high, “and I will spare your life.”
At the sound of her voice, the ram leapt up and trotted toward her to kneel at her feet with a soft, “Ma-a-a-a.” Both boys began to wail. Smiling through her tears, she plucked first Niles and then Giles from the cradling horns. Crushing them to her bosom, she kissed one and then the other over and over again. Finally, she bent and kissed the ram on its broad forehead. “Thank you.”
* * *
Freed from the tyranny of her marriage, the shepherd’s widow ran her farm exceedingly well. In no time at all she was providing woolen clothing not just for her growing boys but for most of the families on the isle.
As word spread of her weaving skill, demand grew. Eventually one single bolt of her exquisitely woven cloth reached the distant mainland. The queen’s mistress of the wardrobe, who was out browsing in the marketplace, purchased it with glee. She knew that it would raise the queen’s spirits to have a uniquely eye-catching outfit to wear, even though no one would ever actually see her in it.
The royal marriage, while magical to outsiders, was actually a dismal affair because the king was not just dim-witted, bad-tempered and selfish, but exceedingly vain and more than a bit of a clotheshorse. His last three wives had been executed for committing the mortal sin of outshining him. The first consistently beat him at checkers, the second hit the bull’s eye during a royal archery exhibition while his arrow soared into the crowd killing a candlestick maker, and the third merely had thicker hair which did her absolutely no good as she laid her head on the chopping block.
Swearing the stall owner to secrecy, the mistress of the wardrobe ordered the bolt to be wrapped in plain brown paper and delivered to the queen’s private chambers. There the queen’s mantua maker set to work immediately. After nine days, the outfit was complete down to the last eyelet. Deciding she simply had to wear such a magnificent gown out in public, or at least down to dinner, the queen began to scheme with her loyal women-in-waiting. “How can I pull the wool over his eyes?” she wondered, “and keep my own head while I’m about it?”
Finally her lady-of-the-privy-stool snapped her fingers. “I know just the thing. All we have to do is pander to his vanity, stroke his sense of entitlement, and ensure that all the toadying, groveling, brown-nosed twits in his cabinet see the same thing he does, to wit, the world’s biggest idiot in the flesh and nothing but the flesh.”
“Yes,” the queen said thoughtfully, “that would be most satisfying. But how?”
“Leave the tedious details to me, your majesty,” the lady-of-the-privy-stool responded, and promptly dispatched a short note outlining her needs to her two favorite cousins residing on the other side of the city asking them to report to the queen’s chambers at dawn the next morning. “ ‘Remember,’” she wrote, “ ‘you must convince He-Who-Shan’t-Be-Named that your work is so brilliant that only people of like brilliance can see it. I leave the details, of course, to you.’”
Now, these cousins being actors with a traveling troupe the more highly regarded the farther from home they got, had been trained to convince their willing audiences that up was down, black was white, and poor was rich. Upon reading the requirements of their next performance, they put their heads together and sat up all night creating their characters and practicing the lines they’d try first on the lady-of-the-privy-stool.
Being admitted with no difficulty into the palace at cock’s crow by a drowsy guard, the two cousins climbed the winding staircase to the tower where the queen, surrounded by her ladies, awaited them in her new finery. “Ah, ‘tis a thing of beauty,” one of the cousins said, pressing a hand to his breast. “You must show the king at once,” the other cousin said. “What?” the queen gasped, growing pale. “Trust us,” the cousins said in unison.
* * *
“Good heavens, is that a new frock?” The king eyed his fourth wife as if she were a dessert he was about to stuff into his mouth with both hands, for he was a glutton, too. “The color doesn’t suit you, nor the cut. But the fabric’s passable, I suppose, although far too manly for you, all tweedy, and, oh, I don’t know. What you must do is burn that ugly thing you’re wearing at once. But send the weaver to me. He has potential.”
In unison the cousins stepped forward to make sweeping bows. “We are the weavers, your majesty.”
“Hah. Well, you made a grave error putting my wife in a tasteless disaster like that. Shameful, disgraceful, really.” The king tapped his chin with a bejeweled forefinger. “But, as I say, you do have potential. I wonder, shall I hire you, or have you beheaded?”
“Your majesty,” the cousins said as one, falling to their knees, “we wish to garb you in raiment of such glory that all who behold you will be struck by your brilliance. And that brilliance will be reflected back onto your magnificent presence.”
“It does sound intriguing.” The king clapped his hands. “Arise, weavers, and set about making me these wondrous garments. My ministers, while they’re nowhere near as brilliant as I am, will oversee your work and report your progress to me.”
“Yes, sire.” Standing and making one last bow, the cousins said in unison, “We will need thread of silver and thread of gold, and silk, and satin, and lace and pearls and—”
“Yes, yes.” The king waved his hand. “Just tell my ministers and they will provide you with your every need. Now, get cracking.”
“Thank you, your majesty. Your wish is our command.” Bowing and scraping, the cousins backed toward the door and vanished into the corridor, where they clapped their hands over their mouths to keep from laughing aloud.
The king turned his piggy eyes on the queen. “Dismissed.” As the queen began to back toward the door, curtseying all the way, he said, “Oh, by the way, don’t burn that rag you’re wearing. I see that it suits you now.”
As she crossed the threshold, the queen said, “Sire, in all truth I cannot wait to see you in all your glory. I’m sure the world will never have seen the like.”
“I fear you’re in for a disappointment, then.” With a shake of his head and a pitying smile, he said, “To truly see me in all my magnificence depends on your being brilliant. And, sadly, we both know that isn’t the case.”
“Sad, indeed,” the queen sighed, and turned away so that he couldn’t see the smile she was wearing in honor of his doom.
Nancy Brewka-Clark grew up in the woods of New Hampshire where fairies inhabited the foot of every towering oak. Her poetry, short fiction and drama have been published in the U.S. and abroad.
Art by: Amanda Bergloff
Art by: Amanda Bergloff