unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm read-through

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The Mouse, the Bird, and the Bratwurst

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ere we are back again, and here we go back from where we left off. Remember everything I said last time? Oh, good. It’s not relevant just now.

There’s a wonderful Jewish proverb that Paradoxes regular katew once brought to my attention, and which I think should be emblazoned across everything I write.

Don’t ask questions of fairy tales.

In other words, like sleeping dogs, let them lie. Or rather, let them speak—they might not necessarily be telling lies. In fact they probably aren’t.

And, as Neil Gaiman says about Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, analyzing them can be like catching a soap bubble—catching and shattering and losing for ever that delicate, shimmering, and beautiful thing.

For some tales, at least.

Today’s tale is a tale one ought not ask questions of the way one does not ask questions of the chap with dreadlocks, a stop sign, and a melodeon, wearing something between an evening gown and a decommissioned military uniform or both, standing outside the bookmaker’s and yelling ‘You know it’s true! You know it’s true!’ to the blaring accompaniment of The White Album on a stereo that’s much nicer than the one you have a home.*

The tale goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a mouse and a bird and a bratwurst who all lived together in a little house and all shared the chores because they were best friends. They lived happily because they were Best Friends. And what more, says the narrator sentimentally, or should say, does the world need but shared chores among best friends?

Bird drew water from the well. Sausage boiled the water and cooked all the meals over the fire(which is really weird if you start thinking about it, but it’s sensible enough for folklore). Mouse gathered wood for the fire to boil the water.

And there’s something else you should know—Sausage seasoned the food by rolling in it. As in, laying down on the veg in the pan and rolling back and forth. They did not have health inspectors in those days. So they were happy.

What more, repeats our insistently smug narrator, does one need than the Company of Best Friends?

Well, bird meets other bird.

Hey, hey, hey, hellooo, says other bird. You want in on some of this action? Meee-ow!

You are disgusting and sick and weird, says bird to other bird, and you so totally need a new pick-up line. I mean—meow? That’s like a cat going up to another cat and going Woof!

Not quite, sulks other bird. Dogs don’t eat cats.

Some doges do, says bird. You know it’s true.

There is an incredibly awkward silence.

Well, goodbye, says bird.

Will I see you tomorrow, asks other bird?

No, says bird.

But you’re here every day, says other bird.

How do you know that, bird demands?

You know it’s true, says other bird.

Have I told you you are totally sick and weird, says bird?

Yes, says other bird.

Good, says bird. You know it’s true. And leaves.

So life went on happily for the mouse and the bratwurst and the bird for a few more years. Then bird met another bird. Please don’t think badly of bird for always meeting other birds. Bird was the only one of the happy gathering who ever got out of the house much. If mouse had been going out and about more, it might have met other mice. It’s just what happens.

Hi, says the another bird.

Hi, says bird.

What are you doing, says the another bird?

I’m drawing water from the well, says bird.

Why?

So bird tells the another bird. The another bird laughs itself out of the tree. I mean, a mouse, it says? And a bratwurst? And you’re, like, in this commune thing together? And you draw water from the well for them? Oh, come on, you’re killing me! They’re, like, laughing their noses out at you, I bet. Watching telly all day while you run around gathering wood! And you think it’s like, oh, giving peace a chance! Harahrahaahhara—come on, kid! I mean, really. You know it’s true.

Then THE CAT, who’d immigrated here from another tale, pounces and eats the another bird in one terrible gulp of feathers and blood and crunching bones and a dreadful fluttering, and bird drops the bucket and flies off home for dear life. So the another bird does bird a good turn in spite of itself, and in spite of all the horrible things that happen afterwards.

You know the rest of the story. Bird is unhappy, and makes everyone trade jobs. Sausage goes out to draw water, and meets another sausage. Then THE DOG, who’d chased away THE CATE and is actually supposed to be in the story, says, Oh boy—two sausages! This is even better than the Grimms version! and eats them, mostly on the basis that they are inexplicably carrying forged identification papers. Mouse cooks dinner, and tries seasoning the food after the manner of Sausage, with unfortunate results. Bird tries to put wood on the fire and burns down the house instead.

The Grimms seem to find a certain smugness in the final demise:

[Such] a conflagration ensued, the bird hastened to fetch water, and then
the bucket dropped from his claws into the well, and he fell down with it,
and could not recover himself, but had to drown there.

So, what does it mean? A parable against social mobility? A stern caution against Them That Are Not Content With Their Station? A fable on contentment? A radical new social programme of anti-hegemonic restructuring of the civilizing project? Something to put the kids to sleep? All of the above? None of them?

It doesn’t matter. It’s fun and sick and funny and weird and wonderful and we never forget it. Perhaps we’ll even tell it again, ourselves, in new words. It’s a fairy tale. And even more important—we see it. We laugh and walk away, only to come back and read it and laugh again, though why we’re not sure. We just do.

We know it’s true.

*Actually, it’s a little unsettling to think of how many of my friends would stop to ask that guy questions. Since a) how could you miss an opportunity to ask someone that remarkable his or her view on life, the universe, and the number forty-two, b) any answers are probably going to be really, really unforgettable.** I remember those conversations…

**Perhaps this an apology for fairy tale criticism?

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