The usual crowd gathers for Thalia’s Halloween-night story: Melissa, Johannes, the fairy, the brownies, and myself. However, the story is being told early—the sun is not yet set—because Thalia will be going off to a Halloween party with Jini.
To Johannes’s amusement, I think, Thalia wears a black cat costume. It is made up of black leggings and a black jumper replete with a tail. Pointy ears and painted-on whiskers do the rest. When Jini and her mother come, she’ll be ready to go.
She waits until I get the fire in the hearth going, then announces, “The Three Army Surgeons.” She is holding her old, battered copy of Grimm’s fairy tales.
One evening, three army surgeons were at an inn where they intended to stay for the night. The friendly innkeeper asked them where they were going and what they did. They told him they traveled the world practicing their profession. This led to boasting. The first surgeon said he would cut off his hand that evening and restore it in the morning. The second said he would do the same with his heart, and the third said he would too with his eyes.
No one else knew that these surgeons had a magic salve that could heal anything.
Before the surgeons went to bed, they cut out their assigned body parts, the innkeeper put them on a platter, and the maid put them in a cupboard for safekeeping.
Unfortunately for all, this maid had a soldier/sweetheart who showed up after everyone else was asleep, and the maid brought out food for him, leaving the cupboard door open. In came the cat, who made a meal of the surgeons’ body parts. When the maid found out what had happened, she declared all was lost.
The clever soldier had other ideas. Borrowing a butcher knife, he popped out and returned with the hand of a thief he’d seen hanging from the gallows. Then he grabbed a cat and poked out its eyes.
“What!” objects Johannes. He rises from his window seat, his tail straight in the air, and, with indignation, strides from the study.
“Oh drat,” Thalia frowns. “I think I’ve offended him. He’s so touchy.”
“Well, my dear,” Melissa says, “he is a cat.”
“A cat-sìth, actually,” I say, “but still a cat.”
The brownies titter, Thalia sighs, and she continues.
The heart of a pig, butchered that day, made up for the last of the losses. In the morning, the surgeons restored the substituted body parts with the magic salve, much to the praise of the innkeeper.
The three surgeons traveled on their way, but the surgeon with the pig’s heart delayed their travel by rooting through whatever garbage he could find, while the others tried to drag him back by his coattails.
That evening, in the next inn, the surgeon with the thief’s hand, stole money from an unwary patron. After they had gone the bed, the surgeon with the cat’s eyes could see in the dark and commented upon all the mice in their room that the others could not see. They then concluded they didn’t have their original body parts, and it was the fault of the previous innkeeper.
They return, accusing the innocent man of cheating them. He—rightly so—accuses the maid. But the maid, seeing the surgeons coming, ducked out the back door never to be seen again. The surgeons demanded as much money as the innkeeper had or they would burn down his house. They got a goodly sum, but it was in no way a replacement for their lost body parts.
The doorbell rings.
“It’s them. Bye.” Thalia darts out the study door, leaving the fairy, previously settled on her shoulder, fluttering in mid-air.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2022 The Three Army Surgeons – Part Two
A little to our surprise, the fairy settles into Melissa’s lap and curls up to nap.
“I think I’ve been honored,” Melissa smiles, “but now I can’t get up. Will you pour me some more wine?”
I pour her half a glass.
“Oh,” she says, “you are remembering last year.”
“That sounds much better than candy. What is squash toast?”
“You will see.”
I leave for the kitchen and soon return with steaming mugs of soup and small plates of squash toast. “It appears we will dine in the study since you are anchored by Thalia’s fairy.”
“Off to a Halloween party. My, but she’s growing up,” Melissa reflects.
We settle into sipping our soup by the hearth.
“What an odd Grimm tale,” she muses. “Not their usual fare.”
“Well,” I say, “there are a number of what I call ‘foolish tales’ in the Grimm collection, such as Riffraff.”
“I don’t recall that one.” Melissa samples the squash toast. “Oh, this is good!”
“As I recall, the story starts out with a rooster and his hen going up a hill to eat nuts before the squirrels get them all. After eating their fill, they don’t feel like walking home. Instead, the rooster builds a coach out of nutshells, then waylays a duck, with whom he has an argument, to pull the coach.
In this way, they journey until they come upon two other travelers.”
“Wait a moment,” Melissa says with laughter in her voice, “I thought they were just up a hill.”
“Home seems to be getting inexplicably farther away, but wait, it gets worse.
“The two travelers are a needle and a pin who had drunk too much beer at the Tailor’s Tavern—I am sure that was meant to be some sort of pun—and could not find their way home. The rooster allows them into the carriage since they did not take up much room.
“When they come to an inn, they decide not to travel any farther.”
“Oh dear,” Melissa smirks, “this coming back down the hill has gotten rather surreal.”
“Hasn’t it though. A foolish tale, as I said.
“Well, the innkeeper raises objections to their spending the night, but the rooster promises him the egg the hen laid along the way, plus he can keep the duck. After settling that, they have a merry evening.
“However, the rooster and the hen rise early, crack open the egg, and devour it. . .”
“Wait. What? That was cannibalistic of them,” she says.
“. . . then they take the still sleeping pin and needle, putting the pin in the innkeeper’s towel and the needle in his comfy chair, and fly off. The duck, seeing them escape, does the same.
“The innkeeper, of course, scratches his face with the pin and sits on the needle, declaring he’ll never allow riffraff like them again at his inn.”
“I see your point. Your foolish tales are those filled with absurdities rather than princes, princesses, and magic.”
“There is the magic salve in The Three Army Surgeons, but it is more of a prop than anything else.”
Melissa nods. “I can just hear these two tales being told at an inn along with much drinking. By the way, instead of more wine, can you get me more of this toast?”
That I am glad to do.
Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2022 The Three Army Surgeons – Part Three
I return with more squash toast to find the fairy still curled up in Melissa’s lap.
“I hope Johannes is not too upset about the cat in the story.” Melissa nibbles.
“He’ll get over it.”
“The poor pig was already done for,” Melissa goes on, “but the image that got to me the most is that of the thief’s hand.”
“And why is that?”
“I’m not sure. The Grimms were a bit more descriptive about this soldier going to the gallows and cutting off the hand than they were about the demise of the animals. “
“Ahh,” I say, “the gallows. That is bound to engage the imagination. I think the Grimms knew that and referred to them numerous times in the tales.”
“Do they figure in other stories?” she asks.
“Well, let me think. There is The Two Travelers, in which one of the travelers has his eyes gouged out by the other as a matter of spite. The victim ends up falling asleep under a gallows. During the night, he hears two hanging corpses talking to each other and learns that the dew on the grass beneath them will restore a man’s sight.
As the story goes on, he acquires animal helpers and eventually ends up in the employment of a king who also employs his previous fellow traveler. The spiteful fellow causes trouble for our hero, but he is saved by his animal friends, and the villain is eventually banished. The villain ends up sleeping under the very same gallows as before. Crows, resting on the corpses, fly down and peek out his eyes.”
“Oh, how delightful,” Melissa can’t help saying.
“I recall another.” I hold up a finger. “Let me remember. A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.”
Melissa applauds my memory.
“In this tale, whose hero is rather dense, the lad has never felt fear, which he calls
‘the creeps.’ In part of the tale, he is assigned to spend a cold night under the gallows. The winter wind knocks the bodies together, and the lad feels sorry for them. He brings them down and sets them around his fire to warm them up a bit. They prove to be boring company; he can’t get a word out of them. In disappointment, he hangs them all back up again.”
I get another round of applause.
“Oh, how could I have forgotten,” I remember, “The Master Thief. A count has challenged a master thief to prove himself. One of the tasks is to steal the bedsheet from under him and his wife. One night the master thief cuts down a corpse from the gallows, sets a ladder up against the count’s bedroom window, and pushes the corpse ahead of him up the ladder.
“The count, expecting such a move, is ready with a pistol. When the corpse’s head appears in the window, the count fires. The master thief lets the corpse drop. The count rushes out to see what he has done, and the thief slips in, pretending, in the dark, to be the count, and tells the wife he has killed the man and needs the bedsheets in which to wrap the body. She, of course, complies. “
“Oh, how gruesome,” Melissa exclaims.
Her raised voice awakens the fairy, who yawns, stretches, flutters up, and leaves the study.
“Sorry,” Melissa calls after her. “Well, at least I can now get my own wine.”