This tale is an exerpt from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book, Women Who Run With The Wolves. It’s one of my favourite tales ever, and one of my favourite books ever. Her story is for anyone, man or woman, who has journeyed through life feeling exiled or alone, different from everyone else, and like you don’t fit in anywhere. May you read these words, and may they bring your heart peace.
It’s a story many of us know from our childhood, but maybe didn’t take the time to understand as an adult, unless maybe you’ve got children of your own by now. I felt compelled to share this with you this week. I highly recommend this book, not only for women, although I feel every girl and woman should have this book next to her bed as a guide for life. I have found it to have sacred properties, in that, whenever I pick the book up (I have been reading it slowly) the place I pick it up from applies to what I am facing in my life at the moment. She unpacks situations we all face, but have never really had anyone to teach us the way of the wild woman, which is inside all of us.
The Ugly Duckling
Sometimes life goes wrong for the wildish woman from the beginning. Many women had parents who surveyed them as children and puzzled over how this small alien had managed to infiltrate the family. Other parents were always looking heavenward, ignoring or abusing the child or giving her the old icicle eye.
Let women who have had this experience take heart. You have avenged yourself by having been, through no fault of your own, a handful to raise and an eternal thorn in their sides. And perhaps even today you are able to inspire them to abject fear when you come a-knocking. That’s not too shabby as innocent retribution goes.
See to it now that you spend less time on what they didn’t give you and more time on finding the people you belong to.
You may not belong to your original family at all. You may match your family genetically, but temperamentally you may belong to another group of people. Or you may belong to your family perfunctorily while your soul leaps out, runs down the road, and is gluttonously happy munching spiritual cookies somewhere else.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote dozens of literary stories about children who were orphans. He was a premier advocate of the lost and neglected child and he strongly supported searching for and finding one’s own kind.
His rendering of “The Ugly Duckling” was first published in 1845. The ancient motif underlying the tale is about the unusual and the dispossessed, a perfect Wild Woman demi-history. For the last two centuries “The Ugly Duckling” has been one of the few stories to encourage successive generations of “outsiders” to hold on till they find their own.
It is what I would call a psychological and spiritual root story. A root story is one that contains a truth so fundamental to human development that without integration of this fact, further progression is shaky, and one cannot entirely prosper psychologically until this point is realized. So, here is “The Ugly Duckling,” that I wrote as a literary story based on the eccentric version originally told in the Magyar language by the falusias mesélõk, rustic tellers from my family.
The Ugly Duckling
It was near the time of harvest. The old women were making green dolls from com sheaves. The old men were mending the blankets. The girls were embroidering their white dresses with blood-red flowers. The boys were singing as they pitched golden hay. The women were knitting scratchy shirts for the coming winter. The men were helping to pick and pull and cut and hoe the fruits the fields had brought forth. The wind was just beginning to loosen the leaves a little more, and then a little more, each day. And down by the river, there was a mother duck brooding on her nest of eggs.
Everything was going as it should for this mother duck, and finally, one by one her eggs began to tremble and shake until the shells cracked, and out staggered all her new ducklings. But there was one egg left, a very big egg. It just sat there like a stone.
An old duck came by and the duck mother showed off her new children. “Aren’t they good-looking?” she bragged. But the unhatched egg caught the old duck’s attention and she tried to dissuade the duck mother from sitting on that egg any longer.
“It’s a turkey egg,” exclaimed the old duck, “not a proper kind of egg at all. Can’t get a turkey into the water, you know.” She knew, for she had tried.
But the duck mother felt that she had been sitting for such a long time, a little longer would not hurt. “I’m not worried about that,” she said, “but do you know that scoundrel father of these ducklings hasn’t come to visit me once?”
But eventually the big egg began to shudder and roll. It finally broke open, and out tumbled a big, ungainly creature. His skin was etched with curly red-and-blue veins. His feet were pale purple. His eyes, transparent pink.
The duck mother cocked her head and stretched her neck and peered at him. She couldn’t help herself: she pronounced him ugly. “Maybe it is a turkey after all,” she worried. But when the ugly duckling took to the water with the other offspring, the duck mother saw that he swam straight and true. “Yes, he’s one of my own, even though he’s very peculiar in appearance. But actually, in the right light… he is almost handsome.”
So she presented him to the other creatures in the farmyard, but before she knew it, another duck shot across the courtyard and bit the ugly duckling right in the neck. The duck mother cried, “Stop!” But the bully sputtered, “Well, he looks so strange and ugly. He needs to be pushed around.”
And the queen duck with the red rag on her leg said, “Oh, another brood! As though we don’t have enough mouths to feed. And that one over there, that big ugly one, well, surely he was a mistake.”
“He’s not a mistake,” said the duck mother. “He’s going to be very strong. He just laid in the egg too long and is yet a little misshapen. He’ll straighten out though. You’ll see.” She groomed the ugly duckling’s feathers and licked his cowlicks.
But the others did all they could to harass the ugly duckling. They flew at him, bit him, pecked him, hissed and screeched at him. And their torment of him grew worse as time went on. He hid, he dodged, he zigzagged left and right, but he could not escape.
The duckling was as miserable as any creature could be.
At first his mother defended him, but then even she grew tired of it all, and exclaimed in exasperation, “I wish you would just go away.” And so the ugly duckling ran away.
With most of his feathers pulled out and looking extremely bedraggled, he ran and ran until he reached a marsh. There he lay down at the water’s edge with his neck stretched out and sipped as he could from the water now and then.
From the rushes two ganders watched him. They were young and full of themselves. “Say there, you ugly thing,” they sniggered. “Want to come with us over to the next county? There’s a gaggle of young unmarried geese over there, just right for the choosing.”
Suddenly shots rang out and the ganders fell with a thud and the marsh water ran red with their blood. The ugly duckling dived for cover and all around were shots and smoke and dogs barking.
At last the marsh became quiet and the duckling ran and flew as far away as he could. Toward nightfall he came to a poor hovel; the door was hanging by a thread, there were more cracks than walls. There lived an old raggedy woman with her uncombed cat and her cross-eyed hen. The cat earned her keep with the old woman by catching mice. The hen earned her keep by laying eggs.
The old woman felt lucky to have found a duck. Maybe it will lay eggs, she thought, and if not, we can kill it and eat it. So the duck stayed, but he was tormented by the cat and hen, who asked him, “What good are you if you cannot lay and you cannot catch?”
“What I love best,” sighed the duckling, “is to be ‘under,’ whether it is under the wide blue sky or under the cool blue water.” The cat could make no sense of being underwater and criticized the duckling for his stupid dreams. The hen could make no sense of getting her feathers all wet, and she made fun of the duckling too. In the end, it was clear there would be no peace for the duckling there, so he left to see if things would be better down the road.
He came upon a pond and as he swam there it became colder and colder. A flock of creatures flew overhead, the most beautiful he had ever seen. They cried down to him, and hearing their sounds made his heart leap and break at the same time. He cried back in a sound he had never before made. He had never seen creatures more beautiful than they, and he had never felt more bereft.
He turned and turned in the water to watch them till they flew out of sight, then he dove to the bottom of the lake and huddled there, trembling. He was beside himself, for he felt a desperate love for those great white birds, a love he could not understand.
A colder wind began and blew harder and harder through the days, and snow came upon frost. The old men broke the ice in the milk pails, and the old women spun long into the night. The mothers fed three mouths at once by candlelight and the men searched for the sheep under white skies at midnight. The young men went waist-deep in the snow to go to milking and the girls imagined they saw the faces of handsome young men in the flames of the fire while they cooked. And down at the pond nearby, the duckling had to swim faster and faster in circles to keep a place for himself in the ice.
One morning the duckling found himself frozen in the ice and it was then that he felt he would die. Two mallards flew down and skidded onto the ice. They surveyed the duck. “You are ugly,” they barked. ‘Too bad, so sad. Nothing can be done for such as you.” And off they flew.
Luckily a farmer came by and freed the duckling by breaking the ice with his staff. He lifted the duckling up and tucked him under his coat and marched home. In the farmer’s house the children reached for the duckling, but he was afraid. He flew up to the rafters, making all the dust fall down into the butter. From there he dove right into the milk pitcher, and as he straggled out all wet and woozy, he fell over into the flour barrel.
The farmer’s wife chased him with her broom, and the children screamed with laughter. The duckling flapped through the cat’s door and, outside at last, lay in the snow half dead. From there he straggled on till he came to another pond, then another house, another pond another house, and the entire winter was spent this way, alternating between life and death. And even so, the gentle breath of spring came again, and the old women shook out the feather beds, and the old men put away their long underwear. New babies came in the night, while fathers paced the yard under starry skies. During daylight, the young girls put daffodils in their hair and young men studied girls’ ankles. And on a pond nearby, the water became warmer arid the ugly duckling who floated there stretched his wings.
How strong and big his wings were. They lifted him high over the land. From the air he saw the orchards in their white gowns, the fanners plowing, the young of all of nature hatching, tumbling, buzzing, and swimming. Also paddling on the pond were three swans, the same beautiful creatures he had seen the autumn before; those that so caused his heart to ache. He felt pulled to join them.
What if they act as though they like me, and then just as I join them, they fly away laughing? thought the duckling. But he glided down and landed on the pond, his heart beating hard.
As soon as they saw him, the swans began to swim toward him. No doubt I am about to meet my end, thought the duckling, but if I am to be killed, then rather by these beautiful creatures than by hunters, farm wives, or long winters. And he bowed his head to await the blows.
But, la! In the reflection in the water he saw a swan in full dress: snowy plumage, sloe eyes, and all. The ugly duckling did not at first recognize himself, for he looked just like the beautiful strangers, just like those he had admired from afar.
And it turned out that he was one of them after all. His egg had accidentally rolled into a family of ducks. He was a swan, a glorious swan. And for the first time, his own kind came near him and touched him gently and lovingly with their wing tips. They groomed him with their beaks and swam round and round him in greeting.
And the children who came to feed the swans bits of bread cried out, “There’s a new one.” And as children everywhere do, they ran to tell everyone. And the old women came down to the water, unbraiding their long silver hair. And the young men cupped the deep green water in their hands and flicked it at the young girls, who blushed like petals. The men took time away from milking just to breathe the air. The women took time away from mending just to laugh with their mates. And the old men told stories about how war is too long and life too short.
And one by one, because of life and passion and time passing, they all danced away; the young men, the young women, all danced away. And the old ones, the husbands, the wives, they all danced away. The children and the swans all danced away… leaving just us… and the springtime… and down by the river, another mother duck begins to brood on her nest of eggs.
The problem of the exiled one is primeval. Many fairy tales and myths center around the theme of the outcast. In such tales, the central figure is tortured by events outside her venue, often due to a poignant oversight. In “The Sleeping Beauty” the thirteenth fairy is overlooked and not invited to the christening, which results in a curse being placed upon the child, effectively exiling everyone in one way or another. Sometimes exile is enforced through sheer meanness, as when the stepmother casts her stepdaughter out into the dark wood in “Vasalisa the Wise.”
Other times exile comes about as the result of a naive error. The Greek God Hephaestus took his mother’s, Hera’s, side in an argument with Zeus, her husband. Zeus became infuriated and hurled Hephaestus off Mount Olympus, banishing and crippling him.
Sometimes exile comes from striking a bargain one does not understand, such as in the tale of a man who agrees to wander as a beast for a certain number of years in order to win some gold, and later discovers he’s given his soul to the devil in disguise.
“The Ugly Duckling” theme is universal. All stories of “the exile” contain the same nucleus of meaning, but each is surrounded by different frills and furbelows reflecting the cultural background of the story as well as the poetry of the individual teller.
The core meanings we are concerned with are these: The duckling of the story is symbolic of the wild nature, which, when pressed into circumstances of little nurture, instinctively strives to continue no matter what. The wild nature instinctively holds on and holds out, sometimes with style, other times with little grace, but holds on nevertheless. And thank goodness for that. For the wildish woman, duration is one of her greatest strengths.
The other important aspect of the story is that when an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both an instinctual and a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgment and acceptance, that person feels life and power as never before.”