My dear listeners, a fairytale showed up to me this week, asking to be written. Enjoy!
The Women Who Cry With Dry Eyes: a fairytale for the anthropocene
by Janelle Hardy.
Once upon a time, which could be anytime at all, there was a kingdom, ruled by a man who knew how things worked and who made things happen. He was efficient, smart and bull-headed.
This kingdom was prosperous. It was orderly. The roads were repaired when they grew ragged, the people lived in villages with their families. Almost everyone had their own home and there was a doctor in every neighbourhood.
The forests were filled with walking trails, the Saturday markets were busy, and everyone had a dog or a cat and food in their bellies.
But although the king seemed fair, the fairness was rigid, brittle and unkind. He ruled with an iron fist, clenched and tight. Everyone was prosperous yet discontent.
The king had a son, and he raised his son to know his ways of governing, so that, by the time the son was 17, he was running the kingdom side-by-side with his kingfather, and everything ran so smoothly the king had no worries.
But he was growing old, and although he’d invited many modern ways into his kingdom, there was one thing left before the kingdom would accept his son as king, and no matter how hard he’d tried to change this custom, he knew his son would have to go through the same initiation he himself had gone through, the feats of endurance contest.
It was time to pass on the crown to his son, but everytime he tried to ring the bell announcing the beginning of the crowning process, he stopped. He simply couldn’t pull the rope down to get the bell ringing.
Puzzled, for he’d never been a man to doubt or pause once he knew the next steps, he sought counsel with the kingdom’s priest-advisor.
“Dream on it,” he was told, and so he did. Night after night he went to bed with a plea for guidance. “Why can I not ring the bell and get my son crowned?”
For the first 5 nights he slept deeply, uninterrupted, but spent his days in a haze of waking-confusion, unable to focus. All he saw were his subjects’ walking about their daily lives with their distant eyes and a lack of connection with each other.
He was puzzled because he had always thought the world he governed was perfect and happy.
For the second 5 nights he slept lightly, waking often from confusing dream images that he could not understand. He saw a waterfall, spilling over, not with water but with what looked like milk. He saw a mountain hotspring coming to a boil, evaporating all of the water and then overflowing with lava. He saw a fox birthing pups in the dark. And he heard, in all of these dream images, the sound of a woman’s voice, singing.
During his waking hours he saw how his subjects put one face on around him, but, if they thought he was out of sight and hearing, they spoke and moved differently. He saw that people were discontented, and he was confused.
Finally, on the 11th night, as turned out his lights and slipped between his sheets, he sent a brief prayer out. “Tell me what to do! I need to know, beyond doubt, how to crown my son king. What do I do?!?”
And with that, he fell deeply asleep, and he slept for 2 nights and 2 days before waking, with the instructions ringing in his ears, and tears running down his cheeks.
The king went and rang the bell, which hadn’t been rung in 35 years, signaling the end of his reign, and the beginning of the crowning process.
He looked out at the gathered crowd, and felt a wave of bitter resentment and hate, rolling toward him. His tears thickened as they rolled down his cheeks, drenched his clothing and puddled at his feet.
“My son,” he said. “These are your instructions.”
He paused to breathe, and keep from sobbing but he could not stop the weeping.
“Go within our kingdom. And do not return until you have found the women who cry with dry eyes. You cannot leave the kingdom for this. Then do as they say. You cannot return otherwise.”
And with that, he embraced his son, kissed both cheeks, and whispered in his ear “I am so sorry, for all I have taught you is flawed,” then he took his crown off, set it in the bell tower and walked away, out of the city, into the forest, never to be seen again.
The kingson, filled with confusion and grief, left the belltower and castle, spurred on by the people of the kingdom itself, who alternated between cheering and hissing, hope and despair, for they needed a new kind of leader, but they had little faith.
He walked in the opposite direction of his father, following a stream through a small wooded area into a sunny meadow. There he found an elderly woman with a furious face and leaking breasts. He was horrified for no one in the kingdom aged to the point of wrinkles, and she had so many. None of the women in the kingdom expressed anger, yet here she is with sharp pointed words and a snarled up face. And no one, that he has ever seen, has had liquid leaking out of their breasts.
Having been raised to be respectful, he greeted the woman anyways, and she walked up to him, gripped his shoulders with her gnarled, crooked pointy fingers and, looking directly into his eyes, told him to walk to the nearby field, close his eyes, open his nose and ears, smell and listen, and then do the next thing he’s guided to do.
She he walked to the nearby field, sat down on the grassy, prickly earth, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He smelled the flowers, heard the buzz of bees, and drifted off.
When the buzz got louder, opened his eyes a crack to see one bee dancing right in front of him, over and over. He slowly stood up and the bee flew a tiny bit away from him. When he took a step towards the bee, it flew away again, and in this fashion, in stops and starts, the bee eventually led him to the edge of the field and the bank of the stream, next to a willow bush.
At the willow bush he met another old woman, again with wrinkles, dry eyes and leaking breasts, standing in a pool of blood. She told him she was wild with grief but he didn’t understand, because one of his father’s rules was that no one could be sad. Even when family died, there were no grieving rituals, they were simply buried and never spoken of again, and if grief showed up in the kingdom, it showed up sideways, with anger, resentment, ennui, weird clothing styles and strangely cooked food.
So the young man, as he mulled the idea of grief over in his mind, took in the strange appearance of this old woman – her wrinkles, her leaking breasts and the pool of blood she stood in, which seemed to be coming from her.
As he stood there marveling, she told him he must chew on the willow tree – really scrape at the bark with his teeth – until he got some in his mouth, and then to keep chewing until he turned into a mash.
This took some time. He felt like a strange animal.
When the mash of chewed spitty willow bark was ready, the old woman got him to spit it all out into the palm of her hand, and then she divided the pile into two. One half she plastered across his heart, and wrapped in bandages. “For the loss of your father,'” she said.
The other half she plastered on her belly and between her legs. “For the loss of my children and grandchildren,” she said.
Then she fed him muesli and warm, bitter water, for, although he felt he’d only been journeying a day, he’d actually been seeking the women who cry with dry eyes without sustenance or rest.
On waking, she told him to walk to the stream beside the willow tree, cross into the middle, find and pick up a treasure, then look for another crying woman.
“Are you my dry-eyed crying woman?” he asked her in confusion.
“I am one of many,” she said. “But you must find all of the dry-eyed crying women, not just one or two.”
So the young man thanked her for the food, rest, medicine and guidance, and then did as he was told, because, right now, what else could he do? He walked into the stream up to his knees, looked down, saw a glint and reached into the water to the bottom of the stream and was suddenly knocked over by a surge of muscled, ragged salmon.
He bumped into a boulder, grabbed hold, steadied himself and stood upright.
Dripping, in the middle of the stream, he shook his head, spraying water out of his hair and ears, and heard a song and saw a woman on the farthest bank.
“Momma?” He felt so confused and disoriented. Sloshing and stumbling towards her, wetness dripping down his face, he reached with an aching heart as she extended a hand to him, pulling him up onto dry land.
She was also dry eyed, but her song caused him to cry, and he couldn’t remember a time when he ever, ever cried.
She, too, had dripping breasts, and, when he felt a tingling pinch comes from his belly button, he looked down to see a cord extending from the bottom of her skirt between her feet, towards him.
She embraced him.
“My son. My son. My son!”
The tingle from his belly button intensified, his heart started to ache and he began to feel very very strange. Thoughts receded, and, as she grew dramatically bigger and wrapped her arms around him, helost all thought, only crying out with waving hands and flailing arms “mama, mama, mama!”
He had transformed into a tiny child, all fat arms and cheeks, toothless smiles and bowed legs.
When he was finished nursing, she bent her face over his so that her hair fell around them like a curtain, keeping her gaze steadily on his eyes, and said “my son. My son. My son!”
“I have missed you so much. We all have missed you so much!”
The babyson cried. He wailed, he sobbed, he gnashed and raged, as an infant, for the first time in his life, he is held, contained and protected.
They spent a great deal of time together as mother and baby, suspended in the magic of the forest, and the stream, and the nourishment of her mothering and her milk.
They played. They murmured and they giggled, and they did all of the things that babies do with loving mothers, things he never received, things she never got to give.
The earth and the forest nourished them in return, and they gave back their attention, their care, their own forms of nourishment, which the plants and insects thrive off of, with their urine and feces.
Finally, she nursed him once last time, from each breast, and said, “Go! Return! Your kingdom is dying. Now. It is time. Time to leave your baby state and return to being a man. Go. We will follow!” She gestured around and behind her at the trees, the animals, the bees and the water.
“I promise we will follow.” She reached down and picked up the cord from between her legs, followed it to his bellybutton and said, “we are never apart.”
As she said this she dipped the cord into the water, rinsed it, and it curled and twisted and revealed itself as a golden chain.
She wrapped the cord/chain around his wrist, kissed his forehead, set him on the ground and walked away as he changed, from fat chubby toddler, to, again, his young manform.
He returned to the kingdom. He reunited the kingdom’s subjects with their own mothers, all of them, walking in a wave of women with dry eyes and leaking breasts behind his mother.
And all was restored, and there are no longer women with breasts that cry out for their children.
The young man thinks, often, of his father, and forgives him.
Some notes on the let-down reflex
There is a scene from a book I read in a university literature class which has stayed with me for over 18 years.
In it, a woman stood by the railroad tracks in a northern Canadian landscape, surrounded by wilderness, in a threadbare dress, edges fluttering just above her elbows, just below her knees, buttoned up the front and fitted to her figure.
Alone as the train chugged past, she was chilled, her nipples prominently visible, the passengers, headed south, or north, I can’t remember, watched, with an indifferent gaze, at her, as she gazed back, equally indifferent as if to say, “I dare you!” and dark circles of moisture spread around her nipples, then ovaled out towards the ground.
I read the scene before I really understood what it meant, before I was a breastfeeding mother myself, in an era where, although we experienced the let-down reflex if we were breastfeeding, we were able to hide it with breastpads, or breast pumps, or nursing, or bulkier clothing than this woman had on.
After I had my daughter and was breastfeeding, I knew this experience of the let-down reflex intimately.
It’s a tingle in the breasts, almost painful – a sensation that warns, just moments before the milk starts to leak out, that my body is responding to what it perceives as my baby’s need for nourishment.
If my daughter cried in a certain pitch, or was fussing, or was next to me, no big deal, the let-down reflex was a response that was tied exquisitely to her needs, because breastmilk changes it’s composition depending on the baby’s age, as well as, during each individual nursing, it’s nutrient and fat composition at beginning, middle and end of nursing session.
However, the let-down reflex can be triggered by other things too.
If I thought of my daughter and she wasn’t there and I was longing for her, my breasts would tingle and contract, and start to let-down milk.
If I heard a baby, any baby, cry in that certain famished ‘I’m ready for food’ pitch, my breasts would ache and start to leak.
If I spent a little too long away from my daughter, my body would know it was time for her to nurse, and prepare, regardless of whether I actually planned to nurse her (or even had her near me) at that moment or not.
It’s such a deeply connected and physical experience.
The let down reflex, also called the milk ejaculation reflex, is an exquisitely responsive reflex.
It happens when, as a breast-feeding parent, tiny nerves in the nipple are triggered to cause hormones to be released in the bloodstream, one of which (prolactin) acts on the milk-making tissues in the breast.
The other hormone (oxytocin) causes the breast to ‘push-out’ or ‘let-down’ the milk because then the cells around your alveoli (the crinkly differently coloured circle around the nipples) contract and squeeze out the milk as the milk ducts themselves widen, making it easier for the milk to flow through to the nipples, where they are released, droplet by droplet through a number of tiny holes in the nipples.
To be let down also means to be disappointed by a desire/need that is not adequately met or reciprocated.
We can have this experience of let down in relation to our expectations and with the people in our lives. We can also have this let down response when it comes to gorgeous uplifting experiences.
This is also known as the workshop haze or let-down. The post-holiday slump. The post-vacation depression. The valley after the peak experience. The high and then the low.
The let-down can tell us what we’re hungry for, what needs to change, and attune us to where we’re not attuned, where we’re not connected, and what’s not nourishing us in our selves and our lives.
How about you? What did this story spark for you?
PS – if you’d like to explore this more deeply go ahead and set a timer for 15 minutes and flow write on this story. Notice the details in the story and your writing, as well as any personal stories that arise for you. See what shows up in your writing. Turn it into a story. Enjoy!
There are so many ways to explore this story.
Some starting points are: breastfeeding. Being breastfed. Not being breastfed/breastfeeding. Caring for farm animals that produce milk. Caring for babies. Raising children. Relationship with fathers, and mothers, and parents in general. Connection to earth, land, mother nature. And/or disconnection. Your own reactions to the body-based descriptions in the story. Etcetera.
Have fun with it.
Connecting with Janelle:
- Outline Your Memoir workshop
- The Art of Personal Mythmaking: a transformational memoir-writing course
- 10 gentle yet effective ways to heal painful memories using writing & your body – a free PDF.
Listen to me narrate the fairytale on my podcast!