Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blame the Opowiadanie

My favorite criminal mind is my own.

I loved fairy tales when I was a little girl, and while I appreciated the Disney offerings, I was really drawn to the Polish tales or opowiadanie in beautiful illustrated volumes given to me by some relative or other. (Immigrant grandparents all around, so there you go.)

You think Grimm was a soul-searing joy-sucker? Well, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve read this stuff. In a Polish fable, children are starved and then poisoned with moldy crusts of bread; young girls’ fingers bleed when they are consigned to an eternity spinning thorny flax; a passle of handsome brothers are turned into geese in a fit of rage by a spurned lover.

In a particular favorite of mine, three sisters go to Mass. The first lets her mind wander during the sermon, noticing a neighbor girl’s fetching new frock, and thinking about making a similar dress for herself. The next daughter notices a handsome boy and entertains romantic thoughts of walking hand-in-hand with him.

Only the third daughter, the youngest, keeps her mind focused resolutely on the Mass.

Afterwards, they come out of the church and the first two daughters – eyes blinking in the sun after the hours in the dim church – are turned instantly into hags. The third daughter, who was the prettiest anyway*, becomes like twenty times hotter and gets to marry a rich guy.

That particular tale stuck in my head like hot tar. I couldn’t shake it, even – particularly - while I was sitting in Mass myself. The harder I tried to focus on the sermon, the wilier my restless mind became.


Only I didn’t think about dresses. Or boys. (At least, not always.) I thought about the people walking past me on the way to communion. I watched them and observed all the little details of their dress and comportment and I made up stories for them. This one is in love with the woman with the donut-shaped chignon. That one wishes she never had children and is plotting to abandon them and move to Saint Louis. That bearded one – he has barely washed the blood from his hands after killing a friend in a bar fight and sleeping it off in a doorway.

As I got older, it got worse. There are so very many opportunities to be bored in this world. Truly, can you be captivated by a chamber music concert? An Indy 500? An exhibit of Drurer sketches? Your own child’s preschool talent show?

You’re horrid, my inner voice chastised, unredeemable. But the voice had lost potency. Once terrifying and powerful, it was now just annoying and shrill. Chalk it up to years’ worth of competing signal, perhaps. It’s hard to sustain a crippling guilt burden when you’re raising kids and making the mortgage and figuring out what to make for dinner.

So I gave my imagination free reign, and came up with stories for everyone. They aren’t pretty stories. They smack of vices indulged, life-wrecking impulses, innocence squandered on ill-advised trades. Underbellies. Things crawling from under rotting logs.

My mind is so full of criminal impulses that I’ll never get them all written down…

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

* In Polish fairy tales, it’s always best to be the youngest daughter. Older daughters are routinely cast as homely, selfish, clumsy, and lazy. (I am an oldest daughter.)

18 comments:

Rebecca Cantrell said...

How did you even SLEEP at night? I remember getting nightmares from some Grimm's fairy tale about a guy in a bloody sheet climbing in or out of a window, but that's nothing compared to the Polish ones.

I am not the youngest daughter either. Harumph.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Becky, sugar....i have a suspicion that we elder daughters live a bit harder. Just sayin'

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Soph, the Poles know noir ... ;) You know I'm half Polish, right? My mom just got back from a trip to Krakow, where every day at noon, a trumpeter climbs a church tower and plays an abruptly truncated version of a song.

Why? It commemorates an occasion in 1241 when the Tartars attacked the city, and the guard on duty warned the citizens ... and was then found shot in the throat by a Tartar arrow.

Hence the abrupt ending to the song. The melody is now a Polish cultural anthem, and is played on the radio to mark the time--like Big Ben in England. And in Krakow, the fire brigades take turns sending buglers up to the cold, windy tower to play live.

You think maybe the Polish part is the noir gene? Joseph Conrad was Polish, too ... ;)

Great post!!!!

xoxo

Kelli

Bill Cameron said...

Mmmmm, so many criminal impulses. That means we will have wonderful Sophie tales to read for years to come!

Shane Gericke said...

Oooooh, Sophie, I'm sitting next to you at ThrillerFest and bathe myself in the delicious dark evil that is you :-) I think every culture has their version of those "scared straight" stories, but my, yours take the cake. So what happened to the boys in these stories? Or were only the girls eligible for such nightmare treatment?

Shane Gericke said...

Bill, great beard in your mugshot. But you might cut back on the bananas, you're getting a yellow cast :-)Seriously, good to hang out with you on this newfangled grog Kelli was so good to invite us to play in. It's like a sandbox except blood instead of sand ...

Tim Maleeny said...

I never thought of you as lazy.

Shane Gericke said...

Tim, I must have missed something ...

Shannon Esposito said...

Hi, Sophie. I just had to comment because I was just reading an article about "mind wandering" and how scientists believe it's actually necessary. They think we evolved this ability as a way to switch from paying attention to the present to thinking about long term goals.

Of course, where your mind went as a child just proves you were a born storyteller. :-)

I look forward to reading you.

Shane Gericke said...

Shannon, mind wandering is a very important part of my writing being. I get the best ideas cutting the grass, or doing some other physical effort. Not consciously thinking of a scene or story line helps my mind actually seize upon it--hopefully, make it better. Thanks for writing to our blog!

Kelli Stanley said...

Great comment, Shannon!! Thanks for dropping in!! And Shane, I know what you mean about grass cutting. For me, riding the bus is an exercise in the kind of free associating story-telling Sophie's talking about.

You see *a lot* of "living stories" on public transportation! ;)

Kelli

Vivian Zabel said...

How interesting. I'm glad to discover this blog. I'll return again.

I'm interested in criminal minds for my own books.

http://vivianzabel.blogspot.com

P.A.Brown said...

Isn't it fun to be twisted and demented and get paid for it? What other profession can you read and research the grisliest things and not get locked up for the thoughts in our heads?

I'm very glad I'm not Polish. I'm Wlsh/Irish and I don't think they had anywhere near those kinds of children's tales.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks for stopping in, Vivian!! :) And we look forward to hearing from you and your criminal minds. :)

And P.A., you are so right about what we get away with! Are any Irish or Welsh fairy tales as gruesome as Polish ones?

Thanks for visiting Criminal Minds!

Kelli

Sophie Littlefield said...

Cześć, fellow Poles! Lovely to see my fellow countrymen here...I've never been, but now I think I must go see the blood-stained land myself. And plus then I'll have something to blame my dour self on. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Shane, as you know, Bill is even more appealing in person...

oh, I can hardly wait for bar time. :)

So as for the boys, they were always being given impossible tests, which they would fail, and then receive grievous punishments until they were dead. Which was a portent for their foreign policy, I guess...

Bill Cameron said...

You kids!

betty said...

Hi everyone,

I loved reading about your ideas for characters. I'm working on an idea that's coming out of my short term stay in a nursing home. Ironically the idea came from my victim and the suspect is one of my friends.
Looking forward to more from this blog.

Betty Johnson
Rochester, NY