Sunday, February 3, 2013

A story of lust and unspeakable sin

The Snow Hen of Jostedal

A story of lust and unspeakable sin


Once there was a little legend walking about, that we will name Jostedalsrypa.

Why such a long handle, you may ask? when it would be a lot easier to name him (her!) Junie or Jolie or some such other two-syllable name?

Because Jostedalsrypa is a myth.

Jostedal, as we will now call her (given that the other name is just too long to remember) is sometimes called the Snow Hen of Jostedal. I first encountered her yesterday, though her myth (reality?) goes back to the 1300s, when the Black Plague was harvesting Europe with a scythe as lethal as the Reaper’s.

When all was said and done, when all the ploughing up to make graves and the burning down to make sanitary lodgings had passed, when the few people left on the earth were breathing little sighs of relief here and there,  Nordrik walked the sylvan glades and frosted peaks of Scandinavia. He looked up with tears of gratitude at Scandy’s burning skies and thanked the Norse gods that he had been –

But enough of this, it's getting in the way of the story.

Back to Jostedalsrypa. While this Nordrik (or Norhan, or Norvasken, depending on which scholar you quote) was beating the bushes for edible mushrooms, he heard a stirring sound.

Not like you’d stir your coffee, but more of a feather-on-leaf stir, very frail, a shaking of the bushes so minute that it might just be the stirrings of a bug.

With his ailegaard (walking pole), he gently parted the bushes. Nothing.

Then he kicked the quivering bush with his foot.

This provoked a whooshwhooshwhooshwhooshwhooshwhooshwhooshwhooshwhoosh
sound, akin to the whirring of doves spiralling upwards, of partridges flushed from the bush.

But the wings of this creature (if creature it was!) did not carry it far, as just a few feet off the ground it fell with a dismal thud.

He looked at the strange thing.

It was shaped like a hen. It looked like a hen. It flapped like a hen. It was partially camouflaged by snow, dirty snow that was half-melting and had formed around the hen as a sort of protective covering, an ice nest.

“I will call her Jostedal, after Lake Jostedal and the City of Jostedal and Jostedal Canyon," said Norrdka, lifting the terrified bird from the snow and marvelling at how heavy she seemed in his arms.

Her head jerked this way and that. A snow hen!  Imagine that. So those silly legends must've been true after all. She seemed to have the intelligence of a – well, of a hen. Her feet paddled the air. Still Norrdka trudged, wondering how she would taste stewed up with a side dish of mushrooms.

The Black Plague had left its survivors with a keen appetite.

Nothing that moved was ever wasted,  but because the Snow Hen was displaying nesting behaviour, the family  held back on eating her.  Everyone clucked with joy when  Jostedal produced her first egg. “But do not eat it yet!” cried Gromkin, the snow-crowned patriarch of the family and the one who had suspiciously survived the Plague by hoarding quail eggs in his pockets.

“Why, old man? Why not eat the egg as a side dish with the chicken and mushrooms?” cried Norrdka.

“I have a recipe for Chicken Eggskongg,” Mama chimed in.

“Hatch this egg. Nurture it. It will be extraordinary.”

Even those who did not agree with Gromkin decided they had better listen to him (he would whack them on the side of the head if they didn't), and keep the Snow Hen around as a renewable resource for food.  Meantime, they had this egg, which seemed somehow magical in their sight.

 They could not sit on the egg, so after a meagre dinner of wood fungi they coaxed the chicken to sit down and incubate it. It took a lot of shoelaces to tie her down.

But something very strange happened in the night.


Norrdka wasn’t the first to discover what had happened to her.  It was the old man, Gromkin. He saw the two of them over in the corner. The old man had a stick in his hand and was poking at her.

Squatting in the corner with not a stitch of clothing on her comely body was a beautiful young maiden!

Could this be the Snow Hen of  ancient  tales and stories? How was that possible?  Were they all seeing the same apparition?

The beautiful naked maiden whom they soon dubbed Shnowen had grown a sort of covering of white feathers over its body. And to think they had nearly eaten her the night before!

“ARE YOU HERE TO GRANT US THREE WISHES?” shouted the old man to the perplexed-looking chicken-lady.

She turned her head this way and that and made low, barely-perceptible clucking noises.


“Do be quiet, Father,” Mother cautioned him. “She is perplexed. Besides, she has already laid an egg which may be of inestimable value to us.”

And lo, it was.

As Shnownen walked around the bare cottage pecking the floor and flapping her arms. a crack began to form in the egg. The whole family, all seventeen of them, gathered around it in anxiety and hope.

The crack was very slow to form, and Grandfather Gromkin wanted to whack at it with his splinggboln, but the rest of them held him back.

And just as they were all about to give up and serve up this egg with a side dish of roasted fowl, lo!

Out popped, not a genie or a monster or an apparition or a dybbuk or a djinn. It was a child.

It was as child so tiny and radiant that no one could believe it. “That’s a chick,” declared Seventeenth Brother.

“It’s never a chick. It’s a homunculus.”

“An automaton, I’ve seen one of those, it was an old monk that could walk around.”

“Silence!” cried the magical child, who seemed to be made of purest gold.

“State your business,” bellowed the old man, who was very direct.

“I have come here not by accident, but by design. I am here to refine human nature. I see cruelty everywhere, I see grabbing at food that belongs to others, I even see people eating each other’s flesh.”

“NO! It never happened”

“How can you even think such a thing!”

“You must be evil. How can you abuse us like this?”
But the family felt a deep and secret shame.  The Black Plague had certainly brought out the worst in everybody.

“Here is the test,” the magic child replied. “For forty-seven days, you shall have no food. The doors of your humble cabin will all be locked. This is a test of your character and of your ability to be selfless, and will redeem you for the black sins you committed during the Time of Pestilence.”

“Forty-seven days? Whover heard of THAT? Why not forty days and forty nights?”

“Shhhh, Grandpa Gromkin, maybe he’s joking.”

“No. It’s not like that,” broke in one of the many anonymous brothers.  “It means forty days, like Noah's rain in the Scriptures, PLUS the seven days it took for God to create the Universe.”

Ohhhhhhhh.” They all relaxed a little.

The first few days were rather exciting, as the tiny golden child talked non-stop about many amazing things while Shnowen, now called Shwenon, picked and plucked and made hen noises. A few times Eldest Brother pursued her around the cabin, and no one could tell if it was for food, or some other purpose too dark to mention.

After a while, that bird began to look better and better.

Grandfather nagged the magic child day and night. “Are you sure you really meant FORTY-SEVEN days?” he asked him. “Maybe you only meant seven.” There was a faint clinking sound in the background as the family tightened their belts.

On the thirteenth day, they decided to kill the chicken.

Why not kill the chicken? They would not survive unless they did. But the axe and the knife and the other implements of cold-blooded murder were all outside, so they would have to corner and strangle her. This was a nearly-impossible task with a human-sized bird.

So they began to tame her. Here, chicken, chicken, chicken! Nice chicken. Because she was starving to death, she would do just about anything they asked of her, including the unspeakable act I mentioned before.

But I shall draw a veil over such evil.

One day, however, in spite of the brain fog of famine, one of them had an idea.

“Wait!” Sixteenth Brother cried. “If we can last out this wretched forty-seven days, imagine what this bird will be worth for us.”

“We can put her on display.”

“Make her do tricks!”
"All sorts of tricks." 

”And she’s beautiful, and naked. So you know how people will respond.”

“But forty-seven days. . . “

“Listen,” said Grandfather. “I’m close to a deal.”

For along with greed and pride and lust, and anger and envy, and all those other things we’re not supposed to do, Grandfather excelled at crooked wheeling and dealing. Soon he had bargained the child down to twenty-four days. With his mother held hostage, about to be roasted on a spit, he was in no position to argue.

The force-field around the cabin began to waver.

The family wondered if they could hold out much longer, as the chicken was getting skinnier and skinnier and sat listlessly in the corner pulling her feathers out. She looked bad and would not enchant or even scare anyone.

“Goddamn you, Snow Hen,” cried Norrdka, cursing the day he had ever found her. “You started this. You’ll finish it.” He rushed at her with every intention of strangling her.  But she was too feeble to resist, and collapsed with a drawn-out cry.

“NOW have we passed the test?” asked Fourth Brother hopefully. They had, after all, not KILLED the chicken. They had resisted killing the chicken, who had obviously died of natural causes.

“You failed it a long time ago,” the child answered. “What is more, there is no spell. You could have left the cabin any time you wanted to. So you committed yet another sin."
"What could that be?"

”Mountebank!” cried Grandfather.

“Look at your Snow Hen, once so beautiful and so full of promise. She has died of hunger and despair. Not only that, there is no meat on her bones to sustain you.”

“I could make a good stock,” Mother suggested.

“I could stuff her, you know, put her on display.. . . “

Silence!  You people do not deserve to be in the presence of magic, because your souls are dark and selfish and full of corruption. You abuse the thing you claim to love the most and keep her captive in terror.”

“No one will know.”

“YOU will know. The knowledge will suck the strength from your soul and blight all your days, and continue for seventeen generations."

“But this is why they made Jesus.! If we repent, he will take all our sins away."

“Not this one.” Disgusted, the child burst into a ball of flame that grew and grew and grew until it consumed the entire cabin.

There was but one person spared. As white smoke surged up from the chimney, a bird with dazzling white feathers emerged and grew larger and larger until she seemed to fill the whole sky. The Snow Hen of Jostedal had freed herself from the prison of human darkness, never to return.

POSTLUDE. The provenance of this piece is strange. Years and years ago, I saw a NOVA program on PBS about a girl named Genie, a "wild child" who had been tied up in a dark room for an incredible thirteen years by her sadistic brute of a father.

The girl couldn't speak, could barely walk, and was the size of a seven-year-old. While the public may have seen a horribly damaged child, the scientific community saw a blank slate - that is, blank except for a lot of dollar signs.

The documentary recounts the stampede of interest from scientist, linguists, neurologists, sociologists, and many other ologists who scrambled for research grants to "study" Genie. This was in 1972, and NOT ONE person believed that it would be preferable for Genie's welfare to be placed in loving foster care until she gained enough stability to work with the scientists. 

It did not even occur to them.

I can't recount all of this heartbreaking story because it's too complex, except to say that the girl was eventually abandoned by the scientists who had so greedily fallen on her when she was released from her thirteen-year prison. When she was finally de-institutionalized, she was taken home by two of the research scientists like some sort of shelter dog, then abandoned a few years later when the grant money ran out. 

At the end of this wretched story, Genie is "put away" in a nursing home, and that's the end of it. Since she's younger than me, she is probably still there, in another sort of prison. I did find a reference from some time in the '90s, when an observer insisted she was "happy and content" in the home she had never chosen. Certainly she has no power to object.

 I recently watched the NOVA program again - I'll try to find a link to it, it's riveting - and then acquired a book called Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. I was sure this book would be spellbinding, but 50 pages in I began to wonder whose side he was on.
He spent pages and pages on the work of Noam Chomsky, a pop icon and pseudo-linguist who believes there is only one language in all of human experience. As far as I can see, this demented idea has nothing at all to do with Genie and her difficult, halting acquisition of language, but it helps the author distance himself from all that mess and align himself with someone trendy.
But there's something else here, and I have to admit when I first read it I groaned. "I've been diddled," I thought. He listed various "feral" children that had been found roaming the woods over the centuries, and the farther I got into the list the more sure I was that he was having us on, making the whole thing up as a way of disrespecting his readers and jerking the leash.

“Among the cases of wild children discovered over the last seven centuries, more than fifty have been documented. The list includes the Hesse wolf-child; the Irish sheep-child; Kasper Hauser; the first Lithuanian bear-child; Peter of Hanover; the second Lithuanian bear-child; the third; the Karpfen bear-girl; Tomko of Zips; the Salzburg sow-girl; Clemens, the Overdyke pig-child; Dina Sanichar of Sekandra; the Indian panther-child; the Justedal snow-hen; the Mauretanian gazelle-child; the Teheran ape-child; Lucas, the South African baboon-child; and Edith of Ohio.”

I think it was Edith of Ohio that did it. This HAD to be a mean form of satire designed to jerk the reader around. But like the diligent little Googlist that I am,  I did a search for each and every one of these names, and lo, they WERE mentioned somewhere, even if briefly, as part of a list of "wild" children. Most of them are considered myths, an extension of the ancient story of Romulus and Remus who were suckled by wolves.
I'm not sure quite how that led to the story of the Snow Hen, except that the name really grabbed me: it really seemed like something out of Hans Christian Andersen.
The arc of the story is pretty crazy, because there IS no arc: I literally took it word by word with no forethought at all, no sense of what might come next. At various moments you have to stop and try to shape the story a bit, and then of course edit it later for inconsistencies. But I did very little of this.

It occurred to me while making my lunch today that perhaps the Snow Hen is Mary, Mother of God, and the golden child is her son  Jesus Christ, holding those wicked people in the cabin accountable for their sins. He doesn't let them get away with anything, not even throwing the Bible back in his face.  I hope Jesus would approve.