Throughout time, across cultures, the idea of sisters has always been an important one. In mythology, groups of sisters often hold great power. Think of the Muses and the Fates, or the Furies and the Sirens, in Greek mythology. In more recent terms, many fairy tales revolve around sisters, or even more often, stepsisters.
The tellers of tales knew, long before the modern soap opera was ever dreamed of, that families make for drama, and blended families more than most. Just consider Cinderella, and her Wicked Stepmother and Ugly Stepsisters. There's also another common fairy tale beginning which has to do with stepsisters, and with which of them will be favored over the other when one's mother and the other's father get married. In these stories, one sister is usually sweet and good and the other cruel and nasty, and naturally they end up as bitter enemies.
But there is one tale of stepsisters which does not take this route. I know it best in its Scottish form, variously called "Kate Crackernuts" or "The Two Katherines", but I would imagine it has other tellings as well. In this story, sister is not set against sister. Instead, the girls actually band together against a different antagonist...
But I'll let you read my take on it for yourself. That's right, O readers, Made-Up Monday is back! And you thought this post was just going to be me blathering on forever. Nope, not today!
In other news, before I give you the story (sorry, but this won't take long), my own sister gave me a very beautiful present for Christmas. She does wrapped canvas quotation paintings as a hobby, and did three of them for me, with a quote on them I love a lot, because it speaks about the power of genre fiction.
Any writer of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, mystery, thriller, etc. who has ever taken a standard college-level writing class has probably encountered the scorn with which most literary writers talk about genre fiction. The textbook in my single class of this type mentioned genre fiction only in an appendix, in which it scathingly declared that all such stories were formulaic dreck, unworthy of being considered real writing. Only literary fiction, to the textbook author's mind, could ever be worthy of a writer's time or a reader's attention, and only literary fiction could truly convey the important messages a writer wanted to get across to a reader.
To that I say, as did Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh, from whose book Thrones, Dominations this quote (slightly paraphrased) is taken:
"If they thought they were being preached at they would stop their ears. If they thought you were bent on improving their minds they would probably never pick up the book. But you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we all should be living."
Here, then, is your stealth missile for today. Happy 2016, O readers. Let's make it a good one, and change the world sneakily, one story at a time.
Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman, who each had a daughter but no spouse, for the man's wife had died of an illness and the woman's husband had died in a war. Now the woman went to the man and said to him, "Your daughter should have a mother, and your household a wise woman at its head. If you will marry me, your daughter will have the best of everything, and your household will prosper and grow."
The woman's daughter now stepped forward for herself, and smiled at the daughter of the man. "My name is Katherine," she said, "but I am called Kate always. If you will be my sister, every morning you will drink wine and wash in milk, while I shall drink water and wash in it too."
The man's daughter returned Kate's smile. "My name is also Katherine," she said quietly, "and I think I would like to have you for a sister. But—"
"Not now, Katherine," said the man, who was looking at the woman. She was still beautiful, and he had heard much of her skill in holding household. As well, her daughter was comely enough, but a rough-edged girl who had spent her life running wild through the forests and mountains of their land. His own Katherine was gentle and mild, a girl to sit and spin all the day while she listened to old tales, or tend a garden of herbs and oversee their drying for medicines. The two girls, the man thought, might be good for one another.
"If you will have me, madam," he said aloud at last, "I will indeed marry you."
So it was done. The wedding was celebrated with joy, and Kate and Katherine sat together at the high table and shared one plate and one cup. When they grew tired of the ribaldry in hall, they withdrew to Katherine's chamber, where they climbed into the broad, soft bed and slept. And when they wakened in the morning, just as Kate had said, water stood ready for her to drink and water for her to wash in, while Katherine had fresh milk to wash in and a goblet of wine to drink.
Now Katherine looked over at Kate and smiled her gentle smile. "I do not like to drink so heavy a wine in the morning, my sister," she said. "If you will spare me some of your water to add to the cup, we can share it between us."
Kate returned the smile and poured some of her water into the goblet, and they took turns drinking until the wine was gone, and then each took a long drink of water to cleanse her mouth.
"Now to wash," said Katherine, drawing back her sleeves. "But I will need to rinse myself when I am finished washing in milk, for otherwise it will cling to my skin and I will begin to smell of cheese."
Kate laughed aloud, and tapped her basin. "If I may wash in your milk when you are finished," she said, "you may have some water to rinse yourself, and welcome."
"So it shall be," said Katherine promptly, "and this I like right well. For if we are to be sisters, we should share what we have, rather than one being favored over the other."
To this Kate assented, and the two girls washed themselves first in milk and then in water, and helped one another to dress. And so the first day passed pleasantly, for Katherine showed Kate all the ins and outs of her home, and plucked herbs with which to flavor the meat for dinner, and Kate took Katherine to one of her favorite spots in the woods, and chose mushrooms with which to make a tasty dish to add to the table that night.
On the second morning, when the girls awoke, water was standing for both of them to drink, and water for both of them to wash in. Kate frowned at this, but Katherine only laughed. "This makes matters so much the simpler, my sister," she said. "Perhaps your mother has seen that we shared what we were given, and decided that we shall be treated equally from henceforth."
"Perhaps," said Kate, but she made no other comment. The two girls drank their drafts of water and washed themselves in the basins, reserving a few drops each for splashing at the other in play, and the second day passed much as the first had done. First Katherine spun in the solar while Kate told her a tale of long ago, and then Kate led Katherine to a grove where a certain plant grew, which had roots to dye Katherine's thread a beautiful russet.
So the third morning dawned, and the two girls arose from their sleep. And there to greet them, standing innocently in goblet and basin, was water for Katherine to wash in and water for her to drink, while Kate had milk to wash in and wine for her to drink.
Kate's hands closed into fists, but Katherine shook her head. "It matters not, my sister," she said. "If we share what we have, how can it make any difference which of us was given what?"
"It matters to me," said Kate tightly. "I promised your father that you would have the best of everything, and my mother has made me a liar."
"And yet, if you share with me, I will know that I have the love of my sister, which is more to me than the best wine or milk could ever be," Katherine returned.
To this, grudgingly, Kate agreed, and so the sisters did on that day as they had done on the first, and every day thereafter was the same. But still Kate harbored anger in her heart for being made to break her word, and from that day onward, though the woman did not know it, her daughter was an enemy to her...