I have an abiding love of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Fairy tales, whether they spring from myth and legend or came into being as a way to explain away the unexplained, offer an often macabre form of entertainment, no less horrific than Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Take the original Cinderella, for example, as the desperate step-sisters allow their mother to cut off their toes and heels in a last-ditch effort to fit into the glass slippers and snag the prince. And Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” certainly doesn’t live happily ever after.
Nursery rhymes, on the other hand, are most often rooted in politics and historical events. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is reputed to be none other than the infamous Bloody Mary. Not the popular cocktail, of course, but the daughter of Henry the Eighth. And those pretty maids? The guillotine.
Fairy tales especially seem to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity with a bit more emphasis on the macabre. Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, Into the Woods, is a conglomeration of several well-known fairy tales. Authors such as Gregory Maguire have taken fairy tales and the like to a different level. His wonderful book, Confessions of an Ugly Step-sister, is a wonderful retelling of the Cinderella story, but with a slightly different slant. Television shows such as Grimm and Once Upon a Time are popular with their modern take on various aspects of life within the fairytale. Movies, too, have followed the trend with multiple retellings of Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and the upcoming Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Nursery rhymes don’t have quite the same impact, but the following little story offers a slightly different look at Contrary Mary.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With cockle shells and silver bells
and pretty maids all in a row.
Jenny Derby flounced a lot. Her beribboned ringlets flounced, as did her numerous white and frilly petticoats, and when her petticoats flounced, her shapely legs and satin, button-up boots were often seen, scandalizing Mrs. Hickory, the postmistress, and Boodles, the butcher’s fat cat.
Jenny did not care. She knew she was pretty. In fact, she thought she was the prettiest girl in the village, certainly prettier than Mary, Polly, Bessie, or even Jill, her best friend.
She knew, too, that when she walked from one end of the village to the other end, tossing her golden curls over her shoulder, that all eyes were on her from the candlestick maker’s apprentice, Robin, to the baker’s assistant, Willie, and all the other boys in-between.
For this reason, she often volunteered to run her mother’s errands. Every day, her mother would give her a list of things to pick up from the village, and every day her mother would stand by the garden gate and say, “Be sure to get exactly what I need and nothing more, and be sure not to go beyond the village border.”
And every day, Jenny would answer her mother, “Yes, Mother, dear.”
She knew why her mother said this. Everyone knew that just beyond the village, on the outskirts of the Dark Forest, lived Contrary Mary. And everyone said that Contrary Mary was a witch.
No one knew for sure how old Mary was, or where she had come from. She had no family in the village that anyone knew of, and for the most part, people avoided her, because she tended to be very contrary.
If Mrs. Hickory said, “The day looks to be fair and sunny,” Mary would counter, “I’m sure it looks like rain.” If Mr. Mulberry, the baker, said, “My loaves are hot and fresh from the oven,” Mary would reply, “They look day old to me.” And if the hat maker, Miss Pigeon, dared to say, “This cloche would look lovely on you,” Mary would retort, “I have no use for hats; they flatten my hair.”
So, to be honest, most people avoided her, although they all had to admit that her little home was the prettiest in the village. It was built of gray stone with a tall red chimney and an ornate, thatched roof that never seemed to need repair. Sturdy lilac had grown up the front of the house and arched over the windows and doorways. A pebbled path led from the garden gate to the front door and wound its way through the most beautiful garden.
Mary’s garden bloomed year round with roses in every color, lily of the valley, and jasmine climbing up fences and arbors. There were violas, black-eyed Susans, and petunias planted in pots set amongst the lavender and rosemary. There were bright daisies, eglantine, and pansies clustered in hanging baskets.
Mary’s garden even bloomed when the snow was piled up against the hedgerows, when everyone else’s gardens had withered and died from the cold.
This, of course, made the other villagers jealous, and eventually the rumors started. Mary was, without a doubt, a witch.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for Mary, she did not resemble the villager’s idea of what a witch should look like. She was tall and slender, with blue eyes the color of lapis lazuli and golden hair like spun sugar, as pretty as one of her flowers, as delicate yet hardy as clematis. She wore long, tiered skirts in bright colors like lemon yellow, tangerine, or fuchsia paired with delicate, smocked white blouses. One would have expected her to be friendly, outgoing, and pleasant, so it was always an unpleasant surprise and something of a shock when Mary was always so contrary and disagreeable.
The boys of the village tended to stay clear of her, except after dark when they would throw stones at her house or try to catch her cat, but Jenny, well, Jenny was not afraid of her.
Because Jenny loved Mary’s garden. It was the loveliest garden Jenny had ever seen, and right in the middle of it was a magnolia tree with brilliant white blossoms the size of dinner plates. Jenny not only wanted that flower, she needed it. Just one, she thought. She just wanted one. Surely Contrary Mary wouldn’t miss just one.
So every day, Jenny would flounce her way down the village streets, past the thatched cottages, faded white picket fences, and ordinary rose gardens. She would skip past the blacksmith’s shop pausing to let Little Tom get a glimpse of her ankles, and then on she would go past the tailor’s, the vicarage, and the schoolhouse.
And every day, she would disobey her mother and end up outside Mary’s garden gate where she would stand and stare off into the forest as if she didn’t even notice the beautiful flowers behind her. She would stand there as if she had no interest in Contrary Mary’s garden at all.
But her eyes were on the magnolia tree and those huge white blossoms. How beautiful one of those blossoms would look, tucked behind her ear, framed by her exquisite golden curls. She had to have that flower. She just didn’t know how she was going to get it, because every day when she arrived at Contrary Mary’s cottage, there was Mary herself, working in her garden.
One day, though, as Jenny flounced her way through the village, tossing her golden curls and showing off her pretty ankles, she spotted Contrary Mary at the market. She was having some kind of argument with Simon Picadilly, the shepherd’s son.
Jenny thought to herself, Now’s my chance! I can get to her house, through the garden gate and pluck one flower, just one flower, off that tree before she gets home. I know I can.
Jenny was so excited she dropped her mother’s shopping basket and took off running. She ignored Robin, who was polishing candlesticks; she ignored Willie, who was delivering muffins to the vicarage; she even ignored Little Tom, who was flexing his muscles and pounding the blacksmith’s anvil.
She ran faster than she had ever run in her life, running up to Contrary Mary’s garden as quick as she could. By the time she reached the gate, she was out of breath. She gasped for air, clutching her sides. The heady aroma of Mary’s flowers floated up around her like a thousand bees. She was dizzy from the scents, and her hand shook as she reached out to unlatch the garden gate.
It opened with a snick, and it shut behind her with a snack. She took a couple tentative steps onto the pebbled path. Her button-up boots tip-tapped on the little stones beneath her feet, the only sound in the garden. It seemed as if even the insects had stopped chirping, and not a single bird warbled or trilled.
It seemed to take her forever, but finally, she was standing underneath the magnolia tree. The lowest branch seemed to be just out of her reach as she stretched and stretched, trying to grab hold of just one branch, just one blossom. She jumped and jumped, but the harder she tried, the farther away the blossoms appeared.
The silence was enervating; the fragrance exhausted her. Weary and stupefied, she slumped to the green grass beneath the tree.
“Well, well, what have we here? Such a pretty little maid here in my garden.”
Jenny looked up to see Contrary Mary standing over her, hands on her hips. With the sun behind her like an aureole of light, Mary looked dark and monstrous, her eyes blazing like Little Tom’s forge and her hair like wild, diaphanous tentacles.
“I just wanted to see the flowers,” Jenny whispered, the lie catching in her throat. She struggled to rise to her feet, but was unable to move.
“Well, my dear, if you like my flowers so much, why don’t you join them?”
“What, what do you mean?” Jenny clutched at the tree’s rough trunk, scraping the palms of her hands.
“Exactly what I said, my pretty little maid,” Contrary Mary said, growing larger and larger.
Except that it was Jenny getting smaller and smaller. She felt herself twisting and turning, coiling and winding; she felt her body slip out of her flouncy petticoats and her feet slid out of their satin, button-up boots. The pretty ribbons fell out of her lovely, golden curls. She reached out her hands to catch them but saw only green tendrils where her hands used to be. As she twined and curled and spiraled down into the green grass, she could still see Contrary Mary standing above her.
The sun was so bright, and she wished she could shield her eyes, but she couldn’t move.
Contrary Mary knelt down and whispered, “Don’t worry, my dear, my sweet little Creeping Jenny. I shall take care of you, along with my lovely Roses, Black-eyed Susans, my Violas and Violets, and all the others. You will never be lonely here, surrounded by all my pretty little maids. I promise. And you can trust me, Jenny, because my garden always grows.”