We're delighted to present an extract from Meet the Nameless Thing and Call it Friend by Deirdre Sullivan, a retelling of the classic Rumpelstiltskin, and one of thirteen dark feminist retellings of traditional fairytales in her new book Tangleweed and Brine, illustrated by Karen Vaughan and published by Little Island.
Straw to gold, he’d mutter. Straw to gold. His eyes upon her back. The one good thing about her. Every night. An awkward thing that grew a pretty veil.
Anything that’s fibrous can be spun. She worked with mainly wool, bought from a neighbour who kept sheep for meat.
She liked to do things. A spindle and a whorl. A spinning wheel. She’d spin and spin and think about her life. The roads that she could take. You take a fibrous mess, and get to work. The threads and strands, around, around, around. Order. Repetition. Building. Soothing. Soothing.
She’d like a baby. Something small and simple she could love. Would love her back. She thought about her husband sometimes. The form that he would take. She couldn’t see a face that looked at hers and smiled at her and meant it. But maybe somebody would like her dowry. Like her father’s mill, her wide hips, tidy house.
She’d spin before her bed. Fibre into wool. There’s so much you can do with wool. Weave, crochet, knit. It can take any shape once you instruct it skilfully with hands. She thought of all the strands while sitting, spinning. The paths to take. The wool itself can’t care what way to go, but still some roads are softer than the others. Little seeds and leaves inside the fleece, she’d find. She would pick out. Sheep are more than meat. There’s something else to them. That’s not for eating. It filled her heart with something, as she worked.
And every night, he watched her brush her hair. She thought of spinning. Something beautiful. She’d pluck each strand from off her aching head and weave it in a scarf to make him happy. But it wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t do. She saved the strands that fell out in a box. The most important parts of her were drifting off, and she was losing. She was getting lost.
One evening, she was rubbing cracked hands soft again with butter. He stumbled in. His face was flushed with drink and pale with fright. A piebald, dappled man. She sat him down. ‘What is it? You can tell me.’ And when he told her, she wished he had not. A man in the tavern, making comments. He’d spoken up, but in his cups the straw to gold had turned to something else. A magic power. Something like a witch. She felt the lick of flame against her boots. Her face drained white as his.
‘You need to do it. Need to learn how.’ He blinked at her. ‘Your mother had a way about her. Something in her blood that called for help. You need to find that love. To save us both.’ His fat face gaunt. ‘I am a boastful man. And I am stupid. But it will be us both who pay the price.’
She looked at him. He drifted into something then, a waking sleep. He asked her for more ale. She poured it, left him. Went up to her room and slapped her hands against her stupid face that wasn’t lovely. She slapped her arms until the blood rose, swelling like a tick who’d glutted long.
The spindle sharp. And could she use that thing to hurt a person? How thick a rope to spin to end a life? How deep a wound? She sat upon the mattress and she stared and stared until her eyes were dark. She set to work. Down to the stable for a bundle of straw, the freshest and the brightest. She cleaned it and she set it out to dry. Best to prepare. In case. In case. In case.
They’d burned a girl two towns over winter before last. For stealing milk. She’d turned into a hare, they said, and suckled long from all her neighbours’ cows. A woman to a hare. How would that work? she’d wondered. Did she have to comb her body out into another, fibrous shape and weave herself into another form? Black-tipped ears and smacking lips and teeth. There are so many things in the world. Horrid, grasping things. And was she one? Is the lack she always felt inside her a sign of something broken, something wrong?
Could you unfurl your life? she wondered. Straw or no? Could you spin yourself to something else? The basis for another kind of cloth. Something a little softer, even pretty. She rubbed her hands against her skin and slept. Her father’s face inside her dreams was bright. He smiled at her. He took her hand and smiled.
A knock came at the door as morning broke. It was a broad man in an expensive cloak. So neat it was, you couldn’t see the stitching. He had to repeat himself, her brain sleep-fogged, her eyes upon the detail of his garb. His voice was thick, authoritative. Firm. He asked to see her father. For a word. She nodded, swallowed. Left him at the door.
Father was slumped, his face pebbled with stubble. Spittle drenched the corners of his mouth. She set to work. She splashed his face with water from the jug. Explained things slowly, and in little words. He spluttered and he smoothed himself and stood. They murmured as she waited in her room. She could hear the low hum of their voices. She knew that they were talking about her. Exchanging goods for services. Gold for gold, and maybe gold for blood.
Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island) is out now.