April 3, 2022

Bag of Onions, By Jennifer A. McGowan


Once there was a girl born without eyes.

She didn’t know any better, so she was happy.

She had a voice like a nightingale

and loved to tell stories.

But her mother hated her

because she was imperfect.

One day as her mother stormed the girl asked,

Why do you shout so, mother?

and the older woman snapped

Because you are so ugly!

The girl asked what ugly was

and her mother got crosser and crosser

till she shouted 

Ugly is a bag of onions!

and she threw onions at her daughter.

But the onions did not hurt the girl.

Instead, two fell into her empty eye sockets

and suddenly the girl could see.

Of course, they were still onions

so her mother screamed and ran

and the girl, sadly, bound up her possessions

behind her and set out to try her fortune.

At night Onions wandered villages and towns

singing for her supper. She was always welcomed

until she came into view.

Then people ran away

and she would weep.

Unbeknownst to her, however,

each time she cried—almost every night— 

her tears dissolved a ring of the onions.

Rain didn’t dissolve them, nor snow.

Just the hot salt of tears.

Came the time it was winter.

Onions burrowed into a haystack

and made herself a room of sorts,

where she could sit and sing, invisibly,

and asked the villagers

to leave food and water, which they did.

An acrobat wandering by

fell in love with Onions’ voice

and paid the farmer good money

to live in the barn and do chores

so they could listen and talk to Onions.

But she refused to leave the haystack.

She had been beaten and run from enough.

The acrobat persisted, saying

the animals must have hay, and,

finally, Onions couldn’t bear the thought

anything, even animals, suffered because of her

and she emerged 

hay every which way in her hair.

The acrobat had never seen such beauty,

As she raised her head, they saw her eyes,

and they began crying.

That must hurt awfully, they said,

and as they wept and held her,

the tears they shed rolled down her face.

The last of the onions dissolved

leaving real eyes as gold as onion skin.

And they lived happily for many years.

And that is why, child, you cry

when you cut onions.

Hurry up now. Put them in the pot.

Jennifer A. McGowan won the Prole pamphlet competition in 2020, and as a result, Prolebooks published her winning pamphlet, Still Lives with Apocalypse. She has been published in several countries, in journals such as The Rialto, Pank, The Connecticut Review, Acumen and Agenda. She is a disabled poet who has also had Long Covid for 15 months at time of writing. She prefers the fifteenth century to the twenty-first, and would move there were it not for her fondness of indoor plumbing.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff

Twitter @AmandaBergloff

Instagram: amandabergloff 


Kelly Jarvis said...

What a beautiful tale <3

Drew Shiel said...

That is magnificent.

Kristen Baum DeBeasi said...

I love the way this tale unfolds, how the girl finds acceptance. And how at the end, you anchor the tale in our own kitchens!

Katie Jordan said...

Excellent opening line, creative story, and satisfying ending. Nicely done!

Ari said...

@Kelly Thank you very much! It's pretty much my favourite form, the fairy tale. I blame it on the Langs' books of fairy tales.

Ari said...

@drew Thank you. That and your comment on my Eliot boast I value very highly indeed.

Ari said...

@kristen I'm middle-aged. I'm starting to write a lot about kitchens :)

Ari said...


Thank you very much!

Ari said...

Apologies to all for delays in posting comments. I'm having trouble loading the page on my ipad, and I'm mostly bedridden just at the moment. (I've emerged and am on the laptop now).

Sarah Garcia said...

This was a beautiful poem! I loved how you tied it all together as a mythic origin for why cutting onions makes us cry. Fantastic work!

Ari said...

@Sarah Thank you! Myths have been my bag for alnost as long as I can remember.

Mandy said...

This is fantastic! I'll always think of this story now when I cut onions! Thank you so much for writing it!

Lynden Wade said...

I liked this very much. It really captured a fairytale flavour - deceptively simple, with a dose of macabre, asking as many questions as it answers, and a "lesson" at the end.

Unknown said...

@Mandy. Thank you!

Unknown said...

@lynden thank you! Most folk tales have elements of the macabre, the nasty, or the downright weird. This pays homage to “Twa Sisters”, “Binnorie,” and other songs and tales of that ilk.