Illustration by Walter Crane

Brother and Sister: A Matter of Seeing

A writer's reflection on the fairy tale

by Ellen Steiber


Little brother took his little sister by the hand and said: "Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step–mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away . . .  Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left over . . . Come, we will go forth together into the wide world."*


Illustration by Helen Stratton

So begins the Grimms' tale** "Brother and Sister," on which I very loosely based "In the Night Country," a story written for Terri Windling's anthology, The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors. As its title indicates, the anthology collected stories and poems that were based on traditional fairy tales and dealt with surviving the traumas of childhood. We borrowed the imagery of the old tales as a way of confronting old pain; and as an act of transformation, hoping that the magic of the fairy tales would find its way into our stories and heal those wounds. Appropriately, many of the pieces in the anthology deal with physical and sexual abuse and their aftermath. Because that was not what I came out of, I decided to write what I knew about: the breaking of the spirit, being shut down, being so locked in fear that you no longer knew who you were. Therapy had taught me that there was no magic formula to heal any of this, but intuitively I was led to a fairy tale that had quite a lot to say on the subject.

Illustration by John William Waterhouse

Illustration by J. W. Waterhouse

Even before I knew about the anthology, I'd wanted to write a journey taken by a teenage girl and boy into the Other Realm. What I could not have possibly envisioned when I began the story was how much of it I'd have to find, and that at every stage, no matter how much I had worked out beforehand, there would still be a great deal I didn't know and would have to uncover. In retrospect, the first thing that was not clear was why I was so determined to use this particular folk tale as my jumping–off point, especially since I didn't particularly care for its second half. Then again, I'd wanted to write about an enchanted journey and the story that came to me late one night was set in a sleazy diner with characters who were not a brother and sister, but Cilla, a frightened seventeen–year–old girl, who finds herself unable to go home, and Devon, the wild "bad boy" at school who had always terrified her. It was only fifteen pages later that I understood they were, in fact, the same story, and by that time I'd made a silent agreement with the Muse that I'd do my best to surrender to whatever it was the story itself wanted. And it wanted "Brother and Sister" as its base. Part of this, I'm sure, grew out of my own desperately wanting a brother when I was an adolescent. But beyond my personal history, there was something in the imagery of the old tale that needed to be explored.

At the risk of capsulizing a fairy tale that deserves to be read in full, I'd like to briefly go through the original and then talk about some of the things it revealed to me, the rich metaphors that deal with abuse and transformation, and offer a key to how it is we go about setting ourselves free.

In the Grimms' story, the brother and sister leave home and enter the forest. Hot and weary and thirsty, they soon find themselves searching for water. But as the story tells us:

the wicked step–mother was a witch, and had seen how the two children had gone away, and had crept after them secretly, as witches creep, and had bewitched all the brooks in the forest.

Twice, the pair come to a brook, but as the brother is about to drink, the sister hears the water say: "Who drinks of me will be a tiger. Who drinks of me will be a tiger." The sister begs her brother not to drink, telling him that if does, he will become a "wild beast" and tear her to pieces.

They come to a third brook, for like so many occidental folk tales, this story works in patterns of three. The third brook warns that who drinks of it will be a roebuck. Again the sister pleads with her brother not to drink, telling him that if he does, he'll run away from her.

But the brother had knelt down at once by the brook, and had bent down and drunk some of the water, and as soon as the first drops touched his lips he lay there in the form of a young roebuck.

Illustration by H. J. Ford

He does not, however, abandon his sister. The two weep for a bit, and then the sister ties her golden garter around the roe's neck and weaves a cord of rushes which she ties to the garter. In this manner, she leads him deeper into the forest to one of those wonderfully convenient, empty little cottages found in so many fairy tales. (Would that we all found housing so easily in times of need.) There they set up housekeeping. The sister gathers roots and berries for herself and brings the roe tender grass, and he "played round about her . . . And if only the brother had had his human form it would have been a delightful life."

Their peace is shattered when the king brings his hunt to that part of the forest. Then the blasts of the horns, the barking of dogs, and the merry shouts of the huntsmen rang through the trees, and the roebuck heard all, and was only too anxious to be there. "Oh," said he to his sister, "let me be off to the hunt, I cannot bear it any longer"; and he begged so much that at last she agreed.

Since the deer has obviously not lost the power of human speech, and the girl is afraid of opening the door to the rough huntsmen, they agree that when the deer returns to the cottage, he'll knock and ask her to let him in.

The roe survives the first day of the hunt but is wounded on the second. He makes it back to the cottage, is much improved the next morning, and despite his wound insists on running again the third day, telling his sister that if she does not let him out,

"Then you will have me die of grief . . . when I hear the bugle–horns I feel as if I must jump out of my skin."

Illustration by Helen Stratton

Meanwhile, one of the king's huntsmen has seen the wounded deer enter the cottage and has related the story to the king. On the third day of the hunt, the king gives orders that the deer is to be chased but not harmed. That night the king stands outside the cottage door and gives the deer's password. Thinking it is her brother calling, the sister opens the door. The king enters and finds "a maiden more lovely than any he had ever seen."

In the way of fairy tales, the king asks the maiden to marry him on the spot, assuring her that the roebuck shall stay with her as long as she lives "and shall want nothing." She agrees and the three of them go off in great style.

Illustration by Walter Crane

That's the first half of the tale, and until I was writing the very last scene of "In the Night Country," it was the only part I thought I had any use for. I wasn't much interested in what happened once the sister wed the king and settled into married life at the palace. But the images of the early part of the story haunted me with a strange and urgent resonance: I wanted to work with a contemporary girl and boy who journey together into the forest; with a magical brook that changes the boy into a thing of the wild and what it means to go into that animal inside us; with a buck who cannot resist the call of the hunt; with his risking the hunt and that being critical to the ultimate lifting of the curse.

I took my story in a different direction than the Grimms' tale. Cilla and Devon are not literally kin. They don't even start out as allies; in fact, in the beginning there's every chance that Devon will turn out to be worse than what she's running from. For my purposes it was not the witch whose magic enchanted the brook but another sort of magic altogether. And by the time I got my characters into "the Night Country" and to the first brook, it was clear to me that this was a one–brook story and its action was going to occur over the course of a single evening. (The thought of three talking brooks was simply more than I could handle.) Further, as a feminist, I had no interest in the images of the rescuer king and his palace and what seemed an awfully convenient marriage that got them all niftily out of the woods. I simply couldn't use it. More to the point, that was not what Cilla and Devon could use; they had other needs.

Illustration by Adrienne Ségur

From fairly early in the writing process, I knew where things were going. I knew that Devon would turn into a stag and that Cilla would meet the Revelers, the ghosts who would insist that she reclaim her ability "to see the colors" and with it, her sense of self. I also knew that she would confront her mother (the story's witch figure), and that Devon would be there with her, but until I actually wrote that scene I had no idea how she would come through the confrontation. It became a scene in which Cilla faced her mother's rage and then chose not to take that energy for her own, even when her mother's rage nearly destroyed Devon, who, in stag form, had come to Cilla's aid. The confrontation ends with the stag fleeing and Cilla able to walk away from her mother but unable to call back "the dark gods" (the Furies) that her mother has loosed on the deer. The night wears on and Cilla, quite alone, journeys farther through its landscape. A short time later she falls asleep. When she wakes, she finds herself on the shore of the stream, curled around the deer. When I finally reached this point in the story, I was sure the real work was done. During the months in which I'd been working on it, I'd already written the last line and most of the dialogue for the final scene between my characters. The rest would be easy. I'd simply order what I had and add a few transition phrases. Like Devon and Cilla, I was to find that things weren't what I expected.



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