The Silent Sister
Where the north wind blows restlessly over a bleak and lonely land, there lived a family of five large and hardy brothers and one silent sister. The brothers worked long and hard every day, farming the land and tending the beasts that provided food and companionship for the family. The sister stayed at home, as she had been raised, keeping house, growing vegetables in the garden and cooking meals for her brothers. She worked as hard as any of them but spoke never a word, for she had long ago learned that one woman’s voice is to five busy men as the plaintive cry of a solitary curlew is to the noisy honking of a gaggle of geese.
So being a practical woman, the sister tried to content herself with the rhythm of domestic routine, cooked breakfast, lunch and tea for her brothers, made their beds, picked up their socks and remained silent for so long that she began to wonder if perhaps in the end her voice would disappear entirely.
One morning, as the cockerel crew loudly and the sun’s first rays peeped through clouds on the horizon, the sister had cleaned the hearth and lit a fire to warm the farmhouse she shared with her brothers, and was busy cooking breakfast in a great iron cauldron. One by one her brothers came clattering down the stairs and she served them great bowls of porridge, which they ate whilst discussing the business of farming that was to be done that day.
The youngest brother complained long and loud about the wee red hen who had suddenly stopped laying the day before. This was a serious business indeed, for she could usually be counted on for one large brown egg every morning, and had even been known to give two from time to time. The five men debated the matter and decided she would be allowed one day of grace, after which if she had not obliged she would have her neck wrung for the soup pot.
Silently, their sister cleared the porridge bowls and tidied the table, as her brothers donned their overcoats and heavy boots and left for the day’s work. She grieved for the wee red hen, for she was a cheerful creature, and pleasant company during the long days with her cluckings and scratchings, and she did not want to cook her good-natured little friend. So that day she hurried through her morning duties, and before her brothers came home for lunch she went to find the wee red hen, whom she found sitting alone in the hen-house, shivering.
As quick as quick, the sister saw that there was a hole in the wall of the hen-house, right next to the wee red hen’s roost, which was letting a cold draught in to upset the sensitive little bird. She ran back to the house for a hammer and nails, and quickly fastened a new plank of wood over the hole, making it all snug and cosy again. The next morning, when she went out to open the hen-house before cleaning the hearth, building a fire and making the breakfast, the wee red hen had produced two big brown eggs and the sister smiled to herself, knowing that her friend was safe for the time being.
At breakfast that morning, her brothers sat down to their porridge and congratulated themselves on the recovery of their hen. So proud were they that they puffed their chests out and clapped each other on the back, and boasted that the wee red hen was the best layer in three counties. As their sister served them with great mounds of toast and marmalade, conversation turned to the brown cow who had only given half a bucket of milk yesterday, instead of her usual two buckets. The five men debated the matter and decided she would be allowed one day of grace, after which if she had not obliged she would have her throat cut for the roasting tin.
Silently, their sister cleared their bowls and tidied the table, as her brothers donned their overcoats and heavy boots and left for the day’s work. She grieved for the brown cow, as she was a gentle creature, and pleasant company during the long days with her limpid brown eyes and soft nuzzling muzzle, and she did not want to cook her affectionate friend. So that day she hurried through her morning duties and before her brothers came home for lunch she went to find the brown cow, whom she found lying alone in her pasture, weeping.
As quick as quick, the sister saw that a sharp wire had become tangled around the brown cow’s leg, cutting deep into the flesh so that the bright red blood oozed out from underneath. She ran back to the house for a bucket of hot water and some clean linen, and gently removed the wire, bandaging the creature’s leg so that she would be comfortable again. The next morning, when she went out to milk the cows before opening the hen-house, cleaning the hearth, building a fire and making the breakfast, the brown cow produced two full buckets of creamy milk and she smiled to herself, knowing that her friend was safe for the time being.
That morning at breakfast, her brothers noisily celebrated the recovery of their brown cow, wringing each other’s hands and bellowing hearty congratulations on their ownership of the best milker in three counties. Their sister frowned as she silently cleared the porridge bowls and tidied the table, for surely one of her brothers might have thanked her for nursing the brown cow, or even for mending the hen-house? But they just donned their overcoats and their heavy boots as usual, and left for the day’s work, leaving her to her morning duties.
In something of a temper, the sister hurried through her chores again that morning, and instead of the quiet tinkling of crockery being washed gently, the farmhouse rang with the sound of the metal mop bucket clanging noisily on the flagstone floor, and the clanking of the mangle as she none-too-gently wrung water out of her washing. All that morning she banged and crashed her way through the housework, and when her brothers came home for lunch she slapped their bacon and eggs down on the table in front of them with none of her usual quiet grace. Her brothers were a little startled, for they were used to her being a gentle, biddable sort of person, but they recovered themselves quickly and made a few raucous jokes about the time of the month before settling down to discuss the business of farming that was left for the day.
The eldest brother complained long and loud about the pink sow who produced regular litters of piglets for the bacon larder. The sow had taken exception to recent attempts to wean her latest litter, and had bitten him viciously on the backside as she chased him out of her pen and away from her brood. The five men debated the matter and decided she would be allowed one day of grace, after which if she had not obliged she would be slaughtered for the bacon larder herself and they would rear one of her piglets instead.
All that afternoon, the sister wrestled with dismay, for she had seen for herself how much the pink sow loved her piglets, and every time she was called upon to give up a litter her cries of grief were pitiful to hear. She hurried through her afternoon chores and before her brothers came home for their tea she ran down to the pigsty where the pink sow was nursing and guarding her family.
And quick as quick, she saw that to separate that fierce and loving mother from her children would be nothing but cruel, and she could not bring herself to consider her bacon larder more important than the welfare of the pink sow who, after all, was pleasant company during the long days with her gaping, yellow-tusked grin and her fondness for being scratched between the shoulder blades. But she could not think how to save the sow, for she knew well that her brothers would not forgive another bite on the backside, nor let her escape slaughter if she refused once again to give up her piglets.
That night, as she lay in bed sleepless and wrestling with the fate of the sow, the sister heard a stealthy scratching on the roof of her bedroom, which lay under the eaves of the farmhouse. Rising quietly, she went to the window and opened it to find the wee red hen, who had apparently escaped from the hen-house and fluttered up on to the roof.
“How now mistress.” The wee red hen greeted her in a whisper. “How now, wee red hen.” The sister replied in shock and surprise, as much at the sound of her own voice as at the talking hen. “What brings you to my rooftop? For sure, I never knew you to leave the hen-house at night before.” The wee red hen replied, “Tis the pink sow, lady. She is in grave danger and I am come to beg you for her life and for the lives of her piglets, for I know you to be a kind and capable sort of woman.”
The woman’s face fell, and she shed a quiet tear. “Ah my friend, alas I cannot save the pink sow, for my brothers have agreed she will be slaughtered on the morrow if she will not give up her piglets, and they will not listen to me.” The wee red hen clucked sadly and fluttered down from the roof; and as she scratched her way back to the hen house, the woman heard her whisper sadly, “then the pink sow is lost indeed.”
Not a wink did the woman sleep that night, as steadily her grief at the fate of the pink sow grew and grew. More and more tears she shed into her pillow until the time came for her to rise from her bed to milk the cows, open the hen-house, clean the hearth, light the fire and make the breakfast. As she dressed and descended the stairs soundlessly, she believed her heart would break if she could not save her friend.
At the breakfast table that morning, her brothers agreed to slaughter the sow at lunchtime, for there was much work to be done in the morning, and they could ill afford the extra time spent dealing with a recalcitrant pig. And as usual after breakfast they donned their overcoats and their heavy boots and left the farmhouse, paying no attention at all to their silently weeping sister.
That morning the woman did none of her chores. The floor remained unswept, the linen unwashed; she left the beds unmade and she prepared nothing for lunch. Instead, she went to the pigsty and wept over the pink sow, scratching between her shoulder blades and feeding her some of the tastiest vegetables from the kitchen garden.
As lunchtime approached, the woman’s five brothers came back to the farmhouse from the fields; the eldest carried an axe which he sharpened with a file outside the pigsty as the other four cornered the sow and separated her from the squealing piglets. The woman watched as the men grabbed the struggling creature and pinned her to the ground, and as her eldest brother raised the axe to remove the screeching sow’s head, the horror of what she beheld overcame the woman and she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Stunned, her eldest brother let fall the axe, and the four men on the ground were startled into loosing their grip on the pink sow just enough for her to wriggle free. She charged out of the pigsty, followed closely by her children, and the hairy pink horde stormed out of the farmyard and down the track towards the forest. The woman, seeing them go, collapsed on the ground and sobbed loudly with relief, for surely the pink sow would be safe among the trees.
Her brothers, who were decent enough men, were shocked at her noisy tears, for their sister had been entirely silent for as long as they could remember. They lifted her gently to her feet and led her into the farmhouse, where they saw the breakfast dishes strewn across the table, congealed porridge clinging to them the way black mud clung to their boots. Quietly, they cleared the table and rekindled the fire, then raided the pantry for some bread and cheese which they shared for lunch with the woman who continued to hiccup and sob softly from the rocking chair where they had placed her under a blanket. By and bye the youngest noticed that she was terribly pale and tired looking, so they put her to bed with a hot water bottle where she slept the rest of the afternoon and the whole night through.
In the morning, the woman woke to find that the cows had been milked, the hen house opened, the hearth cleaned, the fire lit and the breakfast made. It seemed that her brothers had had the whole story from the wee red hen, who had surprised them all by appearing at the kitchen window while she was sleeping. She had explained who had saved her from the soup pot by mending the hen-house, and the brown cow from the roasting tin by nursing her leg. And the brothers, who were shocked enough that their sister could talk, could hardly muster any additional surprise at all about the talking hen, so they accepted her explanation with good enough grace.
From that day on, whenever there was a problem with the livestock, the five brothers would take it first of all to their sister, who quick as quick would know what was to be done for the best; so as the years went past, their farm became the best-managed farm in three counties. The woman continued to keep house for her brothers, but she would wake reasonably often to a clean house and a hot breakfast herself, because the five men had debated the matter and decided that since she was helping the farm to run so smoothly it was only fair that they should do their share of the housework.
And as far as anybody knew, the pink sow and her family vanished forever into the forest and were never see again. In truth they were only ever spotted by the woman herself, who would visit from time to time bringing some vegetables from the garden; but of course, she wasn’t saying a word.