The Devil’s Wife

As is usual, the day I pick to do some moving, it starts pouring rain. It’s one of those downpours so intense that you can only drive at ten miles an hour, and when you finally get home, the fifteen feet from car to house leaves you drenched to the bone. About all you can do is resign yourself, get in the house, peel your soggy clothes off, and head straight into the shower. And then blog while you wait for the weather to clear.

However, for a brief period this morning, we experienced that Southern weather classic, where the sun is blazingly bright, behind a thin skin of cloud, and it’s raining, so you can watch rain drops splatter the concrete in your own sharp-edged shadow. It’s unsettling and weird, and the Southern colloquialism (albeit rather archaic now) for this weather is “The Devil’s beating his wife.”

James and I learned this awhile ago and have been using it with glee ever since, because it is So Damn Weird.

This morning, while bored and driving, I began pondering the theological ramifications. You never hear about the Devil’s wife. Lilith, Adam’s first wife, gets a lot of popular press, but one generally hears about Satan as a bachelor. Who’s this battered spouse suffering untold indignities whenever it’s sunny and raining?

Well, as it happens, there’s an Italian fairy tale called “How the Devil Married Three Sisters.” It’s a Fitcher’s Bird story, which is a subspecies of the Bluebeard story.

The Bluebeard story, as most of us probably know, is pretty straightforward, and found in variations all over the world. Heroine marries Weird Guy. Weird Guy often (but not always) has some peculiar disfigurement, like a blue beard or webbed feet or whatever. Sometimes he’s a wizard or an animal. Anyway, he’s Not Normal. Weird Guy and Heroine party like it’s 1099, until Weird Guy says “Hey, I’m going on a business trip. Here’s every key to every door in the house, but don’t go in this room. Here. This one. See the one I’m pointing to? That one. The shiny, enticing, mysterious door. That’s the key to it. Right there. The shiny enticing mysterious key. Right, I’m off. Remember to feed the cat.”

Heroine, to no one’s great surprise, opens the door. (Sometimes her sisters goad her into it, ala Cupid and Psyche.) And lo and behold, the previous dozen murdered wives are all packed in there, leading me to believe that Bluebeard was ahead of his time in refrigeration technology, or else Heroine had no sense of smell at all. Bluebead rushes home. Sometimes he knows automatically the door is open, more usually he’s given the wife some kind of object–an egg, a flower, or the key itself–which gets a drop of blood on it and won’t come out. Anyway, he knows the door is open, so he arranges to kill his wife. She asks for an evening to pray, sends word to her brothers, who ride up and kill Bluebeard just in the nick of time, and they all live happily ever after and convert the abbatoir into a wine cellar.

Fairy tales being what they are, and many fairy tale researchers being understandably thin-skinned about this, this is usually read as a repressive indictment against female curiosity instead of the rather more logical tract on the inadvisability of keeping one’s murderered wives stored around the house.

Fitcher’s Bird is a variation of the Bluebeard myth, and sometimes a pretty weird one. It’s got a lot of other elements thrown into it, making it a kind of fairy tale jumble. There are three sisters who marry the sorcerer, and find the hidden room, and get blood on their keys/eggs/flowers/whatever. The first two are killed. The third and cleverer one leaves her egg or whatever in her room, finds the hidden room, and reassembles her dismembered sisters, bringing them back to life, and sends them home. When the sorcerer comes home, he finds his third wife still possessing an untainted egg (or key, or flower, or whatever) and is thus content. So they throw a huge party.

At this point, it gets pretty surreal. The heroine leaves a mannequin of herself at the attic window, dips herself in honey and rolls herself in feathers. (I know this always forms a vital part of MY escape plans.) She then walks out of the house. Along the road, she meets the sorceror’s friends, who are coming to this party, and they address her, saying “Fitcher’s Bird, what is the bride doing?” (Nearsighted friends, one assumes.) She says “She’s cleaning the house, you can see her at the attic window,” and continues on. There’s three encounters like this, before the heroine gets home, gets a lynch mob, comes back, and they nail the doors shut and put the building and the sorceror and his friends to the torch.

The Fitcher’s Bird story is really kinda creepier than the Bluebeard story. The Bluebeard story has a fairly ordinary heroine responding to a weird situation. In Fitcher’s Bird, the heroine’s just as weird as the villain, casually reassembling her sisters out of parts, and the whole feathers-and-honey thing has the sense of an element from another fairy tale being subsumed into this one.

In “The Devil Marries Three Sisters,” a fairly good-natured Fitcher’s Bird version, the groom is the Devil, and weirdly enough, despite keeping a door to hell in his house, emerges as the most likeable figure. He gives each sister a flower, and when they find the door to hell, it singes. The third sister leaves hers in a jar of water, hauls her sisters out of hell, and hides them. She then forces the Devil to carry three bags of laundry home to his mother-in-law, saying that he must never stop to rest or set the bag down, or she’ll know. So the first sister goes in the first sack, and he carries her off, and it’s incredibly heavy, but as soon as he goes to set it down, the sister in the sack yells at him “I see you! Don’t you dare set that sack down!” “Holy crap,” thinks the Devil, “my new wife can see around corners and through walls!” So he doesn’t set the sack down, and ferries all three sisters home in that fashion, with the three “don’t-set-down-the-sack” encounters standing for the three encounters on the road. The heroine leaves a manniquin of herself in the attic at the end, and since it’s difficult to off the Devil, the story ends when the Devil discovers that he now has three wives, all of whom are very unreasonable about the distance one can be expected to carry the laundry without resting, gives it up as a bad job and returns to hell, where one assumes he has a swingin’ bachelor pad with leopard-print furniture and mirrors on the ceiling.

I’ve always found the Bluebeard stories kind of intriguing–a lot of people do, obviously, that’s why they’re effective fairy tales! But Beauty and the Beast were of less interest to me, Sleeping Beauty and Cindarella were a snore, but there was blood and meat to the Bluebeard story that I found interesting. Somewhere there’s about half a story kicking around that I’ve never gotten back to, about a self-absorbed woman who doesn’t bother to open the door (on the principle that everbody deserves privacy, and it’s probably some smoke-stained den with ugly wood panelling and porn lying around) and Bluebeard going slowly nuts trying to get her to open the door so he can kill her (since once a serial killer, always a serial killer.) Never went anywhere, but maybe some day…

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