January 16, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Little Rattle Belly, By Mae Empson

I'm going to die because the King twisted my father's simple pride in my craft and profits into an impossible boast, as binding as a ligature knot. The King will return at dawn for gold or blood. 

At least there's straw here to help pass the time. Bales and bales. I can't make gold from it, but I can shape it for the pleasure and distraction that affords.

I braid dozens of corn maidens and piles of countrymen's favors. I weave a Norfolk Lantern using a cascading 5-straw spiral plait, and then a harvest cross using a 12-straw diamond plait. That reminds me of the handle I made Jane for her wedding day flowers, so I construct an entirely strawcrafted bouquet, a wild explosion of star and floral straw shapes. Jane and Alfred will have their baby soon, and I know I won't live to see it, but I make them an Anglesey Rattle anyway--another spiral plait like the lantern but sealed with dry chips of straw inside to shake.  

I've avoided thinking about what it means to die when I am only sixteen, but my hands tally the losses. Courtship, marriage, baby. I cry a little. It wastes time that I could be making something.

The spinning wheel stands idle -- a monument to misunderstanding. Neither my da nor the King can be bothered to know the difference between spinning and weaving, both being woman's work.

There is old magic in strawcraft, but it's not alchemy. I remember the stories. My gamma told me all about it, and she's the one that taught me the craft. She used to weave the corn maiden from the last sheaf of the harvest as a mannikin for the spirit of the field to rest within until the next planting. That's back when they called the last day of the harvest the Ingathering, or the Kern. She said that you had to keep the corn maiden safe in your home all winter, or your fields would lose their spirit forever. 

Is there a spirit I could catch for the King? What do they harvest in a city so far from fields?

Words, I decide. It makes a strange kind of sense to me. Words are the seeds of wishes, promises, bargains, contracts, and oaths. These things, sown, reap markets and cities and kingdoms. 

So, a talking spirit. A spirit that can talk straw into gold. 

I start weaving a mannikin. I spiral plait each fat curving arm and leg like Suffolk Horseshoes. I start a body, but then I realize wordwork requires sound. So, I use the Anglesey Rattle for the body, thin-necked, narrow-framed, fat-bellied, and full of rattling whispers. I attach the limbs with knots, and I thread a tiny harvest wreath through the neck of the rattle, an open circle of a face.

I tuck it into the crook of my arm, like a baby, and whisper to it, filling it with words. I tell it my name, my father's words, the King's threat, how the straw must become gold. 

And then I hear it. 

The doll doesn't move. But the dry straw shards inside are rustling. I'm not shaking the doll. It shouldn't be rattling. But it is, like something's blowing through its belly. 

I hear words. Rattling rustling words. I almost think I'm making it up. That it's in my head. But I bend towards the doll and the words whisper louder and clearer. 

whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme

I offer the things that I've made, lifting each creation to the hollow space inside the wreath head as if there were eyes there.

whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme whatwouldyoupayme

“I have nothing you could want,” I admit sadly. 

wouldyoupaymebaby wouldyoupaymebaby wouldyoupaymebaby wouldyoupaymebaby

I've already made it a rattle baby body for its own housing. Does it want another? I set it down gently and start to plait another mannikin, just like it. A mirror image. 

It stands up on its spiral plaited legs and walks over to see what I'm doing. This is the first time I've seen it move, but I'd believe anything at this point. I've convinced myself this thing can save me.

It moves over to the spinning wheel and starts threading straw from the bale. I can hear it whispering but I can't make out the words. 

It whisper-spins the unwoven straw into gold.

* * *

I must have fainted. I wake up and see piles of gold, big as the bales of straw had been.

The King is kneeling with his back to me, and I realize that he's crying. He hears me stirring, and he stands up and turns to face me.

He's pinned a countryman's favor to his lapel. One of the ones I made last night. He's picked up the straw bouquet and he holds it out to me. 

“You've saved us all,” he whispers. He haltingly tries to tell me a very complicated story about how his father's previously undisclosed debts to a neighboring kingdom had come due, and he'd been caught in a kind of desperate madness when he convinced himself that my da had told him that I could spin straw into gold. 

It's the first time that I really give myself permission to look him in the eye. He is a King. But I'm recently acquainted with desperate madness myself. We are not so different.

And then I think to look for the rattle mannikin.  It's gone.  Both of the baby-shaped corn dollies are gone. 

I try to explain that I can't actually spin gold. That it wasn't me. That I won't be able to do it again. 

He tries to explain that this is enough gold to pay the debt ten times. More than he'll ever need. And he adds that he doesn't expect his wife to work.

I don't quite understand at first, but he presses the bouquet into my hand. 

“I know what you must have been dreaming, making these things.”

I don't tell him that I was bored and scared and it's all I know how to do.

“You are very beautiful,” he adds. 

“I'm no Queen.”

“You could be. Here let me show you.”  He picks up the harvest cross and tries to twist and weave it into a crown. He really tries. He's terrible at it. “This is harder than it looks,” he admits, smiling. 

I take the sadly mangled thing from his hands, and catch the smile from his lips. I slowly unweave it, and make two crowns that are nothing more than 3-straw hair-braided circlets, simple as wheat. He takes off his gold crown and sets one plaited circle on his head, and offers the other back to me.

I start to imagine that I could love this man.

* * *

The King is a good husband. I make a poor Queen, but he doesn't seem to mind, and it's not that hard a job. I let him do most of the talking and I smile and look pretty. He wears the straw circle on his brow, and never wears gold again. The fields are richer than we can ever remember, and the whole kingdom prospers.

It's all fertility magic, I guess. Fields and bellies. I'm pregnant within a month of our marriage, and he dotes on me and on my belly, whispering to the child inside.

* * *

It's a boy. A beautiful healthy boy. I can sit and stare at him for hours, holding him or watching him sleep.

I check on him one night when he's maybe a month old, and I see something standing over him in the cradle. It's the corn dolly, the rattle-bellied mannikin. It slowly turns its open wreath of a head towards me.

nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby

No. That can't be what it meant, what I promised. It's a trick, a misunderstanding. I offer it gold, anything in the kingdom. 

nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby nowyoupaymebaby

I try to remember everything gamma told me about strawcraft and spirits. You had to take good care of the corn maiden, or the spirit of the field would be lost. 

I grab it by its rattle body and lift it out of the cradle. It must be weakest where I attached the plaits together. I grab one of its legs and pull hard enough to sever the knot that bound it to the rattle body. Each dismemberment opens up more wounds in the rattle. I yank the wreath head off, toss it on the ground, and stamp on it in a terrified fury. 

My movements jostle the punctured rattle, still clutched in my left hand, and the straw shards within sail out of the opened punctures and rain over the cradle.

Our son will always have a scar on his left cheek where one of the straw shards sliced his tender flesh. There's a second deep scratch on his belly, but no one sees that one.

He's otherwise as handsome as his father, and he's grown into the facial scar. It makes him look a bit fierce and wild, so the courtiers and diplomats are caught even more off-guard by his eloquent wordcrafting which has begun to rival and exceed even his father's skill.

* * *
Sometimes I wonder if those shards that bit him changed him in some way.

I wondered that a lot right after the incident and listened to his every gurgle and rasp for that rattling murmur of a whisper. I thought I heard it sometimes, but it's so hard to tell.

Babies make so many strange burbles, and we listen so hard for anything like a word in their mumbled syllables. When does ma-ma-ma-ma mean mama? Or da-da-da-da mean he actually recognizes his father? Those names, mama and dada, have such power to bewitch us, and baptize us into these new roles that seem as strange as being a king and queen. There's no handbook for parenting either, but it takes over you and fits tight as a glove. I try to be a queen. I am a mother.

Whatever our son is, whatever he becomes, he's mine. I made him.

Mae Empson has a Master’s degree in English literature from Indiana University at Bloomington, and graduated with honors in English and in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Mae began selling short stories to speculative fiction magazines and anthologies in July 2010, with upcoming publications including "Pathological Curves” in Poe Little Thing from Naked Snake Press, “Vessels of Clay, Flesh, and Stars” in the In Situ anthology from Dagan Books, and "An Interrupted Sacrifice" in the Historical Lovecraft anthology from Innsmouth Free Press.


Anonymous said...

It looks like I discovered this site and added it to my Google Reader just in time! If the rest of the pieces are as good as this one, I know I'm in for a treat.

This author did a wonderful job of providing a new twist on the story while preserving the creepy quality of the original tale. The cornstalk Rumplestiltskin was chilling.

Lauries Account said...

I so enjoyed this story! The author made such vivid pictures in my mind with her words! I have never seen anything that I read turn into a complete experience for me like this did. It makes me crave to read more and see more! What a wonderful author she is!! Wonderful and dellghtful! Thank you for sharing this!

Beatrix Cottonpants said...

Deliciously creepy, this. I love the idea of Rumplestiltskin as a mannikin.

Melinda Brasher said...

Very cool. I like the misunderstanding about the baby.

Kristin said...

Beautifully written!

Cate Gardner said...

Creepier than the original tale. Excellent story.

Amy Lou said...

Well done. I'm not a fan of first person stories, (I think I've read too many modern YA books) but this one is pretty good! Kudos!

Deborah Walker said...

I enjoyed this story very much. I loved the way in which the author played with the themes of creation, straw into Rattle Belly? Just wonderful.

nikitazden said...

I love love love the impulse to create in the face of imminent death. And the artisanal detail...the way each piece reflected a potential loss. Stunning! This is a very convincing piece.

Anonymous said...

This is a deliciously creepy twist on Rumplestiltskin. It’s struck me before that “straw into gold” could be taken as literally spinning or weaving straw into gold, or with a few steps in between of making crafts and then selling them. But I very much like this take. The idea that the girl would make Rumplestiltskin out of straw is really interesting. And I like that it’s ambiguous at the end, whether the spirit from the corn dolly transferred to her son, and I love the acceptance of her son either way.

I also like the irony that even though a misunderstanding of a boast led her to this fate, she also misunderstands what the doll meant when it asked for a baby.

I also like the more sympathetic take on the King. It’s still a little terrifying that he’d condemn a girl to die because of something her father said while he was drunk, but it’s a little more understandable if he’s up against a wall in regards to the debt and this seems to be a way out.

Danielle L.

Unknown said...

The tales flourishes with mysticism. Old magic, alchemy, spirits, kings, queens, courts, and the transformation of straw into gold really draw the reader into the fairy tale domain of enchantment. “Little Rattle Belly” is, like many of the classical retellings, a magnificent new perspective on a familiar tale. This version completely leaves out the character of the miller, and instead focuses on the daughter, who is in peril over the promise her father had made. One of most appealing aspect about this tale is the human connection made between the king and the female protagonist. Instead of the king feeling an obligation to marry the miller’s daughter, they appear, almost cleansed of any preoccupations, and are able to see one another in their purest forms. Both are confronted with seemingly inescapable dilemmas and connect with one another after prevailing their moment of uncertainty. The spinsters weaving straw together is much akin to Rumplestilskin not only transforming the straw into gold, but also in doing so, interweaving the destinies to the king and to be queen.

-Adam Z.

Anonymous said...

“Little Rattle Belly” grabs the reader in with the familiarity of a classic fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin. Brilliantly written from the perspective of the miller’s daughter, the story picks up with her already imprisoned because of her father’s boasting. She is desperate and pessimistic about the possibilities which she faces, death, marriage, and an eventual child, until she conjures a corn maiden from straw who is able to “whisper-spin” the gold necessary to relieve the king of his debts and save the miller’s daughter from certain death. The tale is much more explicit in its interpretation of the baby belonging to Rumpelstiltskin, more so than just as promised by the miller’s daughter. “Whatever our son is, whatever he becomes, he's mine. I made him.” The miller’s daughter alludes to the possibility of Rumplestiltskin being the father either indirectly, through him providing the means for her to gain the king’s attention, or directly, by being the biological father.

Megan W. said...

This story is creepy, as all get out and unfortunately reminds me of the horror movies where there's the possessed doll trying to kill everyone. And it made me think of those little feet skittering across the floor and you turn towards the sound and nothings there. Furthermore the way the voice for the doll was written makes me think of this creepy childish whisper that gives me the willies. I would not recommend reading this in the dark if you are easily frightened or paranoid like yours truly.