This story by Nini Berndt, the latest chapter in the “Works in Progress” series of this blog, was inspired by the collaborations of Maurice Sendak and Randall Jarrell that produced such remarkable, haunting books as The Bat-Poet (1964), The Animal Family (1965), Fly By Night (1976), and especially Jarrell’s translations of Grimm fairy tales in The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973).
Haunting and remarkable are words that also describe Nini’s story.
The Hooved Girl and the Giant
By: Nini Berndt
When the girl with hooved feet thought she was alone forever, along came a man she did not expect. He was so much larger than her. Much too large. He was larger than anything, larger than the houses and larger than her father long dead, and larger than the body of a whale that lay on the beach. It was from the beach she first saw him. Where she lived the sky was a forest and the sea was shallow forever. It was a beautiful sea and a beautiful sky. Visitors came to admire it’s beauty, but never stayed long, because of the rain and the sounds of the girl with hooved feet crying for her brother who had left her alone on the edge of the sand. The brother walked into the sea and never came back. So every day she returned to the sea to watch for his return, weeping when she did not see him, and scaring away any visitors who had come to see the beauty of her home. And that is where she first saw the giant.
From that distance he could be seen as just two great bulging knees, hairy on his calves and down onto his feet. It should have frightened her but it didn’t. She had seen other men, and they had legs that behaved in the same way, but for their size. She looked down at her own legs, ending not as they should, but in the hooves of a goat. They were heavy and she never got the sand washed out completely. When she done weeping for her brother, she often wept for herself. Sorry, sorry girl, she told herself. You will always be lonely.
It was fortunate the sea was so long and shallow. You could walk forever, and that is how she believed her brother was still alive, and how she could reach the giant, who stood far from the shore. She wanted to ask him if he had seen her brother. She was willing to offer a small sum or some other favor in return for his help in finding him and bringing him back. She walked nearly a mile to reach him. That may not seem like much, but for a girl with hooved feet, it was very long. Those hooves were not made for a girl’s upright legs, for her long straight spine.
When she was still what seemed a long way from reaching him, the giant folded his enormous body and reached his arm in the surf, like a great, flesh colored whale, and scooped the girl up in his hand, sea water sifting between his fingers. He admired her, though her hooves dug into the soft skin of his palm.
“I wasn’t born this way,” she told the giant.
“I was,” said the giant. “I was the biggest baby you’ve ever seen.” The girl pulled straw from the giant’s ocean of hair. How straw got way up there she wasn’t sure. Maybe farm girls from a far away countryside slept on their backs way up there.
“Have you seen a boy that looks like me?” she asked.
“Does he have hooves like you do?” the giant asked. His face smelled like pine. His eyes blinked like eclipsed moons.
“No,” said the girl. “I am the only one like this.”
“Then yes, I’ve seen someone. But it was a long time ago. He’s far away now. Too far to know where to look.” The giant could see how sad this made the girl. He could see her eyes begin to drool. If his tongue was smaller, he would have licked away her tears. He was so hungry. He was always so hungry. There were never enough fish in the sea.
Slowly, the giant bent and placed the girl in the warm, shallow sea. He lay down beside her, stomach flat so that his body sunk into the sand and created a deep crevice in the sea floor. Fish nibbled on the dark hairs covering his arms and legs. The girl felt over his lips with her palms. They were dry from the sun.
“If you were not born this way, then how did it happen?”
“When I was a baby, my mother cut off my feet and then the hooves of her goat. Everyone said I was a very pretty baby, and she hated me for it. So she sewed these hooves to my legs and taught me to walk. No one thought I was very pretty anymore. My father hated her then and died of grief. And then she died, of even more sadness. It was just my brother and I.”
The giant tried to pet her head with his thumb. It was as big as a dog and almost as hairy.
“My mother died of sadness also,” he said. “Because of me. But that wasn’t her fault. She never asked for it.”
On the beach a group of visitors had stopped to look at the girl and the giant, speaking to each other in the sea. A few snapped photographs and whistled and waved their arms. The girl and the giant could not hear or see them, or pretended not to be able to. It was very still and warm in the sea that day. Everyone, the visitors included, felt glad to be in that part of the world.
“I will look for your brother,” said the giant as the girl brushed his hair with her fingers. It would take her a month to get through all of it, but it felt good, for both of them. “If you want I will look for him for you, and bring him back, if I can.”
“How long will you be away?” she asked.
“As long as it takes, I suppose,” he said, and smiled through his sadness at the girl, who he loved.
Before he left the girl kissed him on his nose. She kissed his two moon eyes and his dry, sunburnt mouth. He cried into the sea. The fish nibbled his skin. “I will wait for you every day,” said the girl, and did not look back as she walked towards the shore. The visitors waited on the beach until the girl reached the shore and shook the water from her hooves. No one spoke to her, but they smiled like visitors do.
He was gone for a long time. The girl thought about him in the mornings when she woke up, when she ate lunch, before bed, and sometimes when she woke because the forest in the sky was shaking and falling onto her little house, covering it in thick vines and leaves. And then, one day, as she stood on the edge of the sand, the giant’s great bulging knees could be seen, hairy orbs like hills in the distance. He wouldn’t come any closer, though she knew he could see her. So she walked to where he stood.
“You’ve been gone for so long,” she said, and pet the hair on his ankle. She looked for her brother but did not see him. “You didn’t find him?”
“I have something to tell you,” he said. He kneeled in the sand and brought his face down so that his chin was as level with her chin as it could be. “I found your brother. I found him in the countryside where he was living with a farm girl and her family. He looks just like you, it’s true. And I told him he needed to come home to you.” The girl smiled and kissed his chin, but the giant pulled away, shaking his head gently. “He said he wouldn’t come, that this was his family now.” The girl could see how upset the giant had become. She put her hands on the tip of his nose. “I ate him,” he said. He did not want to say it, but he did had to, because he couldn’t lie to the girl, who he loved so.
The girl dropped her hands to her side.
“You should not have done that,” she said.
“I know,” said the giant. And he did know. The girl and the giant stood in the sea and did not speak. The sky was dark and began to howl. After a long time of quiet the girl spoke, reaching for the giant with her arms.
“Let’s go,” said the girl. The giant scooped her up in his hand like he had the day she first found him and set her to sit on his shoulder. Her hooves clicked against each other as he walked. They would walk as far as the sea would let them, which was forever and ever.
Copyright 2014© Christina J. Berndt
Image by Gary Yost