February 26, 2012
Two little girls meet a young woman by the roadside. She carries a music instrument, and claims that when she plays a tiny man and woman will come out to dance. Only naughty children get to see them, though. The sisters accordingly put on their worst behaviour at home but their mother warns them: if they continue a new mother will take her place, a strange being with glass eyes and a wooden tail. They persist, but the woman with the instrument is not satisfied, and they don’t get to see the dancers. Worse is to come. At home their mother is gone, and soon the new mother arrives. She crashes through the door with her wooden tail and the girls flee, doomed to live alone in forest forever.
It’s a story of vague threats and things left unsaid. The young woman’s motivation for corruption goes unexplained, and we never discover what the new mother might actually do to the girls. The story even seems to have a life of its own. The girls flee to the forest, in fear of the strange new mother:
“They are still there, my children.”
The anonymous, omnipotent third person narrator is swept to the side, and a much more intimate voice is heard. It is as though someone has sidled up next to us.
“… my children.” This fragment is perhaps a hint that the story is for reading out loud: it addresses listeners. But what if it means ‘my children are still there’? Then it is the mother – the true mother – who narrates the story, a disconcerting idea as there seems to be no will or desire to save the children.
Either way the sentence marks a pause, a moment to take in the fact that the story is not over, indeed never will be: “they are still there.”
The new mother may have glass eyes and a wooden tail but she is not the story’s real monster. The reader plays that role: every time we read that strange sentence we call forth the girls at their most hopeless moment, and hold them there, as if caught in a spell. We are given powers we can’t refuse before it’s too late.
A good story leaves space for our imagination: it invites us to bring it to life. “The New Mother” does that with almost brutal force. It takes the tone of a folk tale, and so we believe it belongs to the realm of the long, long ago. That one sentence eliminates the safety distance, though. The girls are in the forest now and forever, thanks to us readers, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
That eerie powerlessness is what makes the story stick to me like a burr.