Mark Mealing ≈ Fiction

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Queen Hemphank

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There was a king; & he had two daughters & a son, the mid-born. When the prince was grown, his father said: ‘It is time for you to marry. You are of age & my own doctors have cautioned me: I wish to see grandchildren before I die. I have called princesses & queens; choose one.’ But the prince thought of his sisters; the elder worked by cunning ways to rule him in many matters, & the younger plagued him with constant shrieks, with demands that he play with her dolls & other things unsuited to a rather young man. He had busied himself with the studies of a prince: riding, swordcraft & statecraft, & above all riding; and, having time for little else, he had lightly judged all women on the model of his sisters. So he had sworn to himself that he would complete his training & wait for mature middle life before chancing the desperate hazard of a wife.

Then the king made fair women to pass before the prince, & in the end four remained; & all of these were queens. The first was small, delicate & dark, with the bright eyes, small bones & skilled sweet voice of a bird; ‘I will not wed a sparrow’, he said. The second was ivory-skinned, adorned with well-chosen gems, full of flesh, & grand yet warm & gracious; ‘I will not wed a white cow,’ said the prince. The third was brisk, pale, with red hair down her back like fire pushed over a cliff, a daring rider & a valiant shieldmaiden: ‘I will not marry a red wolf,’ said the Prince. The last was of no particular figure or colour, but her hair was a pale golden & braided, like a skein of hemp; ‘I will not marry a Hemphank,’ said the prince, & turning on his heel he strode away. & the court muttered among itself; & the last woman went weeping away, & they called her Hemphank thenceforth.

But the king gave a great shout, & his son turned. ‘Graceless!’ said the king, ‘& you have not at all learned to be a prince. If you’ll not have a fair good queen, you shall have the next beggar that straggles by: such a wife as is so poor she’ll bear your pride, your selfishness & your bitterness. & you shall bide with her till you get a child; if she can abide you.’ So the prince went alone to his rooms, thinking only dark thoughts. By & by, the servants brought in a poor beggar of an Irishwoman, burnt of skin & dusty from the road, long unbathed & likely to remain so, & unskilled of tongue save for curses & blasphemies. & to this woman the prince was wed & sent off away, to travel & enjoy his bride.

That day they passed a great forest, rich with trees for timber, for fruits & nuts, & for beauty & peace. ‘Whose is that forest?’, asked the prince. The Irishwoman replied, ‘Queen Hemphank’s & might have been thine: but now, Acushla, you are mine.’ Likewise, they came to a great city & the prince asked, ‘Whose city is this?’ & his wife replied, ‘Queen Hemphank’s, & might have been thine; but now, Acushla, you are mine.’ & the prince replied: ‘if only I’d known! If only I’d taken Queen Hemphank!’ & his wife said,‘A thousand deathly curses & a mighty tempest of maledictions be on your head for ever, you ungrateful wretch: sure, I’m good enough for the meagre likes of you, & now, Acushla, you are mine.’ & the prince was silent, thinking many more dark thoughts. Then they must stay for the night, & they came to a stinking hovel: ‘What is this den, filled with vile vermin of every kind?’ said the prince.
‘& isn’t this exactly the home of our married joy, Acushla ?’ said the Irishwoman, ‘though I’m having my doubts.’
‘& where are my servants?’ asked the prince. ‘Servants? Servants? Is it servants he’s after, the great thickheaded fool?’ said his bride, ‘There are no servants here. Now: I’m all destroyed by the great journey; so set the fire to going, & boil water for the stew, for surely you can achieve that.’ But the prince, for whom all such things had been done in the past, could not even get the fire going in the hearth with the few damp sticks that there were. So his wife roused herself with awful groans & gasps & evil words muttered low, & helped him about, or they wouldn’t have had supper at all. & when they had eaten what there was, they went to bed, where they lay apart, stiff & separate. & here he discovered that his wife had a wonderful gift of snoring, for she snored like a cave full of winter bears, high & low together, with a whistle in between.

Bright & early the next morning, when the sun crept in at the little dirty window, she drove him forth to clean the hearth & house, & that he did poorly. So they worrited along for two days more, & then the stew was running out. ‘You must earn our keep, if it’s in you,’ his wife demanded: ‘How can we go on like this, eating & drinking like kings & abbots but earning nothing, for we’ll perish; though then I’d be rid of you, Acushla, & high heaven’s blessing on that! For I know well & well indeed who got the worst of this bargain, you poor useless stick’ So she went & cut willow withies, & bade him weave baskets, & showed him how: but he only cut & bruised his hands, 1 for the sword made callouses in other places in them, & he was soft. ‘The creature’s got the use poured empty out of him like dishwater to the ditch,’ she said; ‘I’ll get pots, & you’ll sell them in the market.’ So she bought pots from a potter nearby, & next day he took a corner in the market.

“God’s name’, he thought, ‘If any of my father’s court were to ride by & see me here!’ But he was fair-spoken & fair to look upon, & for the sake of his manner a few folk bought, & he sold a handful of pots; till a drunken rider careened by & cast over the pots, & they all smashed into countless shards, & he despaired. ‘You’re no good for any work at all, ‘ his Irishwoman scolded him upon his return: ‘I’ve made the worst of bad bargains; I hoped to rise in life by your help, but it’s you, Acushla, that’s dragging us both down to the yawning grave. Well, then: if I cannot be what I wished, I’ll be what I was, & you no better. Go forth, Acushla, & beg farthings & food, for that at least you must be able to do. I was by the palace today: go there, offer to carry wood or what they need, & beg what you can; perhaps they’ll be gracious.’

So he went by the side door to the palace, where he carried first the slops from the privies: & foul work that was. Then they had him carry kitchen wood, & the cooks took pity on him, & gave him a dozen little pots & jars with remnants of food; these he stacked in his pockets, & looked more the fool for the lopsided bulging of them. Now, it happened that a royal marriage was to be celebrated, & the poor prince, remembering his father’s court, crept up to the servants’ door & looked on, welnigh weeping for the life he had lost. Fine food was brought in, & two of the servants gave him scraps that he crammed into his pots & jars. Then a very fair queen appeared: she was dressed in silk & gold, with a silver fillet enriched with pearls binding her hair & a great emerald nestled in her bosom. & now the dancing began to a bright-edged rolling music of shawms, harps & bagpipes. & when that queen saw the prince in the doorway, in all his shabby clutter, she laughed like bells, & suddenly swept him up & into the dance. He was terrified & dragged back; but she was stronger than she looked & heaved him into the hall. Then he stumbled, & all his pots & jars fell forth & breaking, spilled on the floor. All the courtiers laughed & jeered at him, & he was destroyed in his soul & turned to run.

But a hand caught him back: it was the queen, & he saw that she was Queen Hemphank, & he cowered. ‘Don’t fear; don’t run,’ she said: ‘Don’t you know who I am? I loved you from the moment I saw you, & swore you would be mine. & so I disguised myself: I was the Irishwoman who came begging to your father’s door, & with whom you’ve been living in that filthy sty; & I was the drunken fool who rode down your pots. You scorned me, Acushla; & until you learned in your heart what scorn was, you were not fit to be a king.’ Then the prince cast himself down before her, & said, ‘it is I who have been wicked, & I am not fit to be your husband.’ But Queen Hemphank knelt beside him & said, ‘Stand up; you are not dead, Acushla; but only wiser. Did you not hear that this was a royal wedding? & even so & now it shall be celebrated, or I’m not the woman I know I am.’ & they bore him away, & washed him & dressed him in royal clothes, & brought him forth again. & his father & his father’s court were there, for they were all in on the secret; & that day the two kingdoms were joined in one. The feast then was joyful indeed, so much so that I wish you & I had been there; we would have come empty & gone home full, we would have come dry & gone home merry.

King Thrushbeard (Grimm # 52, Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 900), gender reversed.
Acushla: Darling
20/6/12

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One thought on “Mark Mealing ≈ Fiction

  1. Josie Ahearn says:

    Thank you Mark. So much enjoyed your wonderful story. I look forward to reading more.

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