This week’s weird fiction story.
Review: “The New Mother”, Lucy Clifford, 1882.
Young children really need to heed their parents because … well, Clifford provides one memorable and odd answer.
The two children who supply our cautionary lesson in this children’s story are Turkey and her brother Blue-Eyes. (Clifford, right in the first paragraph, tell us why they have these strange names.)
They live about a mile-and-a-half from a village in a house they share with their mother and baby sibling. The house lies bordering a wood, and their father is away at sea.
They start out as good children. Their home is modest but happy. Every day, their mother sends them to the village to pick up any possible letters from their dad.
The story sounds like a folk-tale and children’s work in its repetitions and rhythms, and we sense right away the importance of their mother telling them,
“Go the nearest way and don’t look at any strangers you meet, and be sure you do not talk with them.”
But, on the way back home, they do. The stranger is tall, a 15-year old girl who claims to be rich but is disheveled. She is carrying an odd instrument, a peardrum, and she strikes up a cheerful, polite combination with the children.
In a little box, she tells Turkey and Blue-Eyes, she has a little man and a little woman who beautifully dance.
Naturally, they want to see it.
They only get shown, says the girl, to “naughty children”. Turkey and Blue-Eyes just don’t have the skill to be truly naughty.
And then begins a downward spiral. After their first encounter with the girl, the children are just upset they didn’t get to see the little people. When their loving mother finds out part of the problem – the children never do tell her about the girl and the little people, she tells them they wouldn’t be naughty if they loved her because love “is stronger than all bad feelings in one, and conquers them”.
And, if Turkey and Blue-eyes do succeed in being “very, very, very naughty”, their mother will have to leave them and “send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail”.
But, of course, children heeding parents doesn’t give you this kind of story.
Every day, the children meet the girl, tell her they’ve been naughty, and would like to see the little people. Every day, after hearing what they’ve done, she tells them that’s not really naughty and disdains their attempts at misbehavior. She also tells them that all parents give out that story about the new mother.
Finally, one day, the children trash their home. They put out the fire, bang the pots around, break the clock, turn “everything upside down”.
The mother gives them one last warning:
‘Unless you are good to-morrow, my poor Blue-Eyes and Turkey, I shall indeed go away and come back no more, and the new mother I told you of will come to you.’
But the children still want to see that little man and woman. They give their report next day to the girl. She’s unconvinced and asks when their mother is leaving.
The children aren’t totally committed yet. What will they do if their mother does leave?
The girl tells them:
”People go and people come; first they go and then they come. Perhaps she will go before she comes; she couldn’t come before she goes. You had better go back and be good … you are really not clever enough to be anything else.”
“Make-believe naughtiness” isn’t going to give them a view of the little man and woman.
So, that night, they trash the house some more.
And, true to her word, the Mother takes the baby and leaves and tells them the new mother will be there soon. It’s too late for their pleas they’ll be good to do any good.
Keeping a previous appointment with them, the girl shows up. (Oddly enough, she shows up with the other villager we hear about, a man with two dogs. The children never talked to him, but, perhaps, he could have easily been the children’s downfall if they had. All strangers, it is hinted, are bad.)
She tells him they “did it all badly”. The clock wasn’t busted up enough. The cooking tins weren’t thrown in the middle of the room. The baby wasn’t stood on its head.
And, when they ask about the little man and woman, she tells them they are far away, the “box is empty”. And then, confirming she’s a liar, she says she’s going home to the city many miles away. But, she tells them, their mother isn’t coming back, and the new mother is on her way.
And the new mother shows up. She does have glass eyes. She does have a wooden tail.
The children flee the house in terror and into the woods.
And that’s where they still are at story’s end, months later, living in the woods, seeing the flash from the new mother’s glass eyes and hearing the rumble of her dragging wooden tail.
I think the story’s strong point is the way the girl is characterized. She’s a seducer of children, a destroyer of families, and she does the typical conman thing of making the mark more eager by denying a request. She’s even-tempered, even cheery, as she works on the children’s curiosity and vanity.
She also exploits the children’s kindness since they originally stop to talk to her because they think she’s crying and appears, given her dress, in distress.
Is she a supernatural creature? We get hints of that in her “bright black eyes and dark freckled skin”.
Clifford surprised me by having the children flee the new mother. She doesn’t kill or devour them. She’s more like the angel from Genesis with the flaming sword preventing Adam and Eve from returning to Paradise. Also, the new mother, if a creature of legend or folklore, is not one familiar to me.
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