The Yellow Fairy Book

Yellow Fairy

When I was a child we had copies of the old Andrew Lang Fairy Tales in the house, along with the usual Brothers Grimm. Lang published twelve popular collections in the late nineteenth century, each of a different color. My sister and I had The Blue Fairy Book and The Yellow Fairy Book. They are a good size for reading aloud to children, hard covers about the size of an adult palm, with illustrations. The Yellow Fairy Book has an imprinted gold cover, with a barefoot fairy reaching up toward the sun, rays shimmering out. There is a bird flying up out of clouds and an incongruous rooster perched on a narrow tower in the lower right hand corner. The illustrated cover is embossed, a child can trace the lines with her finger, and touching it now, I can pretend to remember doing exactly this. The smell of the book is from a century ago, paper delicate as wings, formal black endpapers framing the stories and illustrations. In this collection is what Lang calls an Iroquois tale, "The Dead Wife," about a couple who live happily together, deep in the woods, far from the rest of the tribe.

"One day, when he was away hunting, the woman fell ill, and in a few days she died. Her husband grieved bitterly, and buried her in the house where she had passed her life; but as the time went on he felt so lonely without her that he made a wooden doll about her height and size for company, and dressed it in her clothes. He seated it in front of the fire, and tried to think he had his wife back again."

One year later the doll comes to life, lights a fire and cooks for the man, but she tells him that he may not touch her until they have seen the rest of the tribe. Two more years pass, and he asks her to come back with him to their original home, so that they can finally be rejoined as man and wife. They begin the six-day journey, but when they are one day away, a snowstorm comes and they stop to rest, make a fire and sleep their way through the snow.

"Then the heart of the man was greatly stirred, and he stretched out his arms to his wife, but she waved her hand and said, We have seen no one yet; it is too soon.  But he would not listen to her, and caught her to him, and behold! He was clasping the wooden doll."

It is the same lesson we have been taught again and again. It is Orpheus and Eurydice. There are limits to what love can do and grief can create. Death is the fact that longing cannot alter. My own husband was happily married for twenty years. He waited a full year after his wife's early death to consider another woman. It is both my fortune and my misfortune that I was the first he "stretched out his arms to." I have kept company for years now with her photographs, her paintings (they are both abstract painters), the objects she placed in her home. After two years he dismantled the memorial shrine in his living room. At three years he began to put away some of the photographs. At four years he gave away her clothes. At six years he buried her ashes.

I am not the timekeeper of his grief and neither of us resemble the people we were when we fell deeply in love for the first time. This is the landscape of his life, and I also have a past mapped with people and countries he has never known. I have been reading the autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf, who lost her mother at thirteen and writes about that shocked, numb time. It took her until middle age to free herself of that beautiful ghost when she wrote To The Lighthouse, and only then, she writes, did she feel she could let go of her mother because she had imprinted and transformed her through words. I see myself as a fish in a stream; Woolf writes, deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.

The books we read as children are maps for the people we are still becoming.


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