“Dipplespin” was a story that came about at Clarion South in 2009 – and a big thanks to Sean Williams for giving me some pointers on how to hone it.
I had the image in my head of flowers that actually lit up a clearing, a house with a pretty girl in it and a not-so-pretty girl watching her. They were half-sisters I realised, and friends. There was a bitter woman, Olwen, who truly hated the not-so-pretty girl, Dibblespin, because she was proof of the infidelity of her husband (the husband is father to several girls throughout this book). Olwen (who is the baby Patience Sykes rescues in “Gallowberries”), chooses to become a wolf part of the time; she makes her own little pack of children, too, to keep her company.
Dibblespin is part human, part troll, but has no harm in her. She loves her sister, Ingrid, who loves her in return, but perhaps less so because of her beauty she is more inclined to expect love than give it. Unlike trolls, Dibblespin loves sunlight; she’s clever and kind, but judged only on her appearance. I made up her name, riffing on Rumplestiltskin, the sound of it a little nonsensical, yet kind of melodic in a strange way, a bit like the girl herself. She appears again later in the story “Lavender and Lychgates”.
I wanted two sisters and a kind of ‘wicked stepmother’ as characters, to explore and in some ways invert the usual fairy tale tropes of half-sisters who usually hate each other and stepmothers who are always inimical to children not their own. I wanted Ingrid’s betrayal to be one of omission rather than action.
Ingrid knows the woods better than anyone except me. She recognises every tree, rock, leaf and can easily tell one from another. The thick underbrush parts quite willingly when she walks through, because it recognises her in return.
‘Dibblespin,’ she says, ‘things are moving in the forest.’
‘Things always move there,’ I reply.
She shakes her head, silvery hair rippling like water. ‘Dark things. Something is awake. I hear wolves outside my garden at night.’
‘Not your mother?’
Ingrid fears nothing in this place. She has lived there all her life. So did her parents and both sets of grandparents, who Ingrid says she sees sometimes, in new forms: Grandma Finkel is a squirrel; Grandpa Ezza is a bright-eyed bird with blue feathers; Grandma Pandy is the large toad who lives under the water barrel out back of the cottage; Grandpa Sidle is the tabby cat, spending his time by the hearth fire. Father is the dormouse who lives in the walls and her mother, Olwen (free of familial constraints) has become a grey-eyed wolf.
‘Never my mother at night.’ She hesitates. ‘They seem to sing, but not with wolf-voices. They sound like children.’
For the first time, she is afraid. I can smell it on her skin; it seeps through the pores like sickness. She plays with the silver knife that hangs at her belt, its hilt shaped like a wolf’s head.
I do not know what makes me ask again, but I say ‘Your mother, Ingrid. Have you seen her?’
She lowers her green eyes and lies when she answers, ‘No.’
My sole inheritance from our father are my green eyes and bright red hair. From my mother came my large nose, heavy brow, harsh chin, flappy ears, long fingers, monstrously large feet and hunched shoulders. Needless to say my mother was not Ingrid’s mother. More than reason enough to hide from someone as beautiful as Ingrid, if she was not so kind – and more than reason enough to hide from Olwen.
That night I sleep sweetly in the arms of an ancient oak, thick of trunk and sturdy of limb. The trees are so densely branched and close together that I can travel through the tree-tops, stepping lightly from bough to bough, and make a bed of them when I need to.
I do not spend much time indoors. I do not like it. When my mother turned to stone (branches above broke and fell, letting sunlight pierce down like a lance to catch her on its point), I burned down her hut. I hated its dark corners and sour smells; nothing good ever happened to me there.
Ingrid’s cottage was once in a clearing but the years have encouraged the forest to grow back and Ingrid’s father and grandfathers had no inclination to argue. There is a small yard, a tiny garden, hedged in by young trees, not as much girth to them as the old ones, but trying hard to reach higher, grow wider. In the garden are all manner of flowers that bloom year-round to spite winter. The yellow ones keep the space around the cottage bright so the lack of sun doesn’t matter much. At night, they close their lovely faces and go to sleep.
Ingrid knows eyes watch her from behind bushes and rocks, but it bothers her not at all. I like, sometimes, to simply observe my sister. She is so beautiful; I do not look at my reflection in the stream or pond. I pretend we share the same face. She doesn’t call me ‘stinky’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘troll’. When she smiles her teeth show straight and white; mine are snarled and yellowy.
I wonder still what her father saw in my mother. Part witch, part troll-wife, she lived in the deepest part of the woods, where no sun shone at all and no blossoms grew to give light. He did not spend all his time in the cottage. For weeks at a time he would go into the city not far from here, with its great walls and imposing cathedral and neat palace, and live there. Perhaps he wandered on his journey home, got lost, found the ramshackle hut the foul thing called home. Perhaps she threw an enchantment over him so he thought her palatable (if I am ugly, my mother was worse still). She let him go only when she knew he’d finally planted a seed. Nine months later I appeared, and Ingrid had a half-sister.
Her grandparents died, one by one; then our father. I saw him only a few times in my life, never close enough to touch. When chopping wood, he missed the block and took off his foot. No one was around to help stem the flow of blood. Olwen wandered away the very next day, making her way among the trees until she was just a speck of dancing red, and then nothing at all. She came back six months later to drink from the rainwater barrel, but on four legs instead of two, and politely ate pieces of meat from Ingrid’s hand.
I am woken by the scuffling and snuffling at the base of my tree. There is a low growl and I can hear claws determinedly trying to reach my perch.
But I am up too high, and the shadowy thing with flashing eyes cannot climb. It has my scent though. I try to peer into the darkness, to discern what waits so impatiently. There is only the glow of eyes; more than one pair, a forest of red glares up at me.
One by one, the owners of those glittering orbs begin to sing. It starts as a howling, but soon enough the chorus melds and twines into a tapestry of voices, the unalloyed joy of children. They embroider a folk song, a fairytale set to music, so the ideas dance in my mind, sugar-pink girls and bold boys, hand in hand moving through the woods. There is nothing else to be done, so I let them sing me to sleep.