An abstraction of the Suffolk countryside.
From a photograph of a pylon near Wickham Market. (2005)
A Passer By
His legs were spindly and he walked using a stick, which is what caught my attention. I wondered for a moment if the two things were linked. All questions unanswered, I returned to my reading.
ONCE UPON A TIME there was an old man who lived with his old wife. The husband planted a head of cabbage in the cellar and the wife planted one in an ash bin. The old woman’s cabbage withered away completely, but the old man’s grew till it reached the floor above the cellar. Then the old man took an ax and cut a hole right over the cabbage. Again the cabbage grew and grew until it reached the ceiling; again the old man took an ax and cut a hole right above the cabbage. Again the cabbage grew until it reached the sky. How could the old man look at the top of his cabbage now? He climbed and climbed up the stalk until he reached the sky, cut a hole in the sky, and climbed out there. He looked about him. Millstones were standing all around; whenever they gave a turn, a cake and a slice of bread with sour cream and butter appeared, and on top of these a pot of gruel. The old man ate and drank his fill and lay down to sleep.
When he had slept enough, he climbed down to the ground and said: “Old woman, old woman! What a good life one leads in heaven! There are millstones there; each time they turn, one finds a cake, a slice of bread with sour cream and butter, and on top a pot of gruel.” “How can I get there, old man?” “Sit in the bag, old woman; I will carry you there.” The old woman thought for a while, then seated herself in the bag. The old man took the bag in his teeth and began to climb to heaven. He climbed and climbed—climbed for a long time. The old woman grew very weary, and asked: “Is it still far, old man?” “It’s still far, old woman.” Again he climbed and climbed, and climbed and climbed. “Is it still far, old man?” “Still half way to go!” And again he climbed and climbed, and climbed and climbed. The old woman asked a third time: “Is it still far, old man?” He was about to say “Not far,” when the bag dropped out of his teeth. The old woman fell to the ground and was smashed to bits. The old man climbed down the stalk and picked up the bag, but in it there were only bones, and even they were broken into little pieces.
The old man set out for home, weeping bitterly. On his way he met a fox, and she asked him: “Why are you weeping, old man?” “How can I help weeping? My old woman has been smashed to pieces.” “Be quiet, I will heal her.” The old man threw himself at the fox’s feet: “Heal her, I will give you anything you ask in return.” “Well, heat up a bath, put out a bag of oatmeal, and a crock of butter, and put the old woman beside it, and stand behind the door, but don’t look in.”
The old man heated a bath, brought in what was called for, and stood behind the door. The fox entered his bathhouse, latched the door, and began to wash the old woman’s bones. Actually she did not wash them so much as lick them clean. From behind the door, the old man called: “How is the old woman?” “She is stirring!” answered the fox. She finished eating the old woman, gathered the bones together, piled them up in a corner, and began to prepare a hasty pudding. The old man waited and waited, and finally called: “How is the old woman?” “She is sitting up,” answered the fox, and spooned up the rest of the pudding. When she had finished eating she said: “Old man, open the door wide.” He opened it and the fox leaped out of the bathhouse and ran home. The old man entered the bathhouse and looked around. All he found of his old wife were her bones under the bench, and even they were licked clean; the oatmeal and the butter were gone. The old man remained alone in his misery.
Translation by Norbert Guterman