I heard this story told by a professional storyteller in the 1980s, and it made a big impression on me. I’ll save my take on the story’s importance for the end.
The Story of Philomadre
Once upon a time there was a young woman who wished for only two things. She wished for a handsome husband that she could love and take care of, and she wished for three beautiful daughters that would make them the envy of all of the other families in their village. She was a lucky young woman. She met and fell in love with a very handsome woodsman. He was big and strong and he loved her very much. They got married, and in the fullness of time the couple was blessed with three daughters, each very beautiful in her own way. The mother called the three girls number one, number two, and number three. The family was happy.
The woman was surprised when she got pregnant for a fourth time, surprised and concerned. However the pregnancy turned out, it would ruin the delicate balance of her perfect family. The new child was also a daughter, and the woodsman loved her as much as he loved her sisters and named her Philomadre. The young mother was not as generous as her husband. She resented “number four” from the first day as an intrusion upon her perfect happiness.
The family lived on the edge of the forest, some distance from the village, and the father left every morning to work deep in the woods. The mother sometimes went to the village to shop, and upon returning she would call out to her daughters, “number one! Come out. Number two! Come out. Number three! Come out. Number four, stay where you are.”
One day, there was an accident in the forest, and the woodsman was killed. The young mother was distraught at first, but then she realized that she still had the family that she had wished for. She still had her three beautiful daughters. She hardly thought about Philomadre at all. After the death of her father, Philomadre was treated like a maid and given all of the most difficult tasks in the family. Number four was one daughter too many.
There was a dragon living in the forest. He was not a very big dragon, nor was he very fierce, but he was clever. He had never come to close to Philomadre’s house, because he was afraid of the woodsman and his axe, but now he became bolder. One day the dragon was lounging among the trees, looking out at the house. He saw the young mother come back from the village carrying food items. He listened as the mother called out, “number one! Come out. Number two! Come out. Number three! Come out. Number four, stay where you are.” He had seen the mother do this before, and sure enough, on this day as well, three very tasty looking girl children came out of the house. It made the dragon hungry just to lay eyes on them. The dragon began to wonder: how can I manage to eat these three wonderful children?
The dragon went back into the woods and thought about it, and he came up with a plan that he thought was a very good one. He went very far back in the forest, where no one could hear him. There he practiced sounding just like the mother! Over and over again he practiced her chant, wanting to sound just like the mother calling her daughters to come out of the house. After a few days of practice, he thought that he had it just right.
He went back to watching the house, and one day the mother left for town. After the mother was gone for a long time, the dragon approached the house. He cleared his throat a little, and began. “Number one! Come out. Number two! Come out. Number three! Come out. Number four, stay where you are.” But nothing happened! The children had heard him alright, but to them his voice sounded like a giant steam whistle!
When the Dragon realized what had happened, he tried to think about how to fix the problem. He went to see a plumber that he knew about, and asked for his help. The plumber examined the dragon’s voice pipes and said, sure, I can fix it all up so that you sound just like the mom. It’s always nice to know a dragon that owes you a favor, and the plumber did not think at all about why the dragon wanted to sound like the woman. This plan worked perfectly.
Now the dragon, with his new voice, returned to the woods near the house to wait for the mother to leave for the town again. When she did, he waited long enough and approached the house for a second try. Sure enough, this time, when he made the chant in the mother’s voice, the three children ran out of the house to see their mother. Instead, they ran right into the dragon, who gobbled them down without a moment’s hesitation. How proud the dragon was that his plan had worked so well! He went way back into the woods to rest and digest his meal.
After a while, the mother came back. She noticed that there was blood and bits of clothes around the house, and even some pieces of bone and hair. She looked in the house, and she saw that her three daughters were gone. She hardly noticed that Philomadre was over in a corner mending clothes. The mother began to scream and tear out her hair when she realized what had happened. She ran off and didn’t come back.
After a couple of days of waiting, Philomadre ran out of food and went to the village looking for help. Her mother had never been friendly, so no one in the village liked the family. No one would help Philomadre. They told her to go to the city. Maybe someone there would help her.
Philomadre was allowed to enter the city, but she did not know anyone who lived there. She didn’t know what to do. She went to the big market, because she was very hungry. She asked around, did anyone need any help with anything? Could she please have some food? No one was being very nice about it, but finally she ran into some women who worked at the palace. They always needed extra help at the palace, because there was so much to do. When the women found out that Philomadre knew how to do all sorts of things, every kind of housework that there was, in fact, including making clothes, they took her back to the palace and put her to work. She worked at the palace for many years, and grew up to be a very, very beautiful young woman.
On one lovely spring day, the Prince was walking around the grounds, and he saw Philomadre working on something. He had never seen her before. That’s how big the palace was, you really couldn’t even get around the whole thing and see everybody. The Prince asked her who she was, and she told him that she worked there, which he didn’t believe, because she was too beautiful to be a servant. They got to know one another and before too long they fell in love. The King became very fond of Philomadre, and he allowed them to get married. They were very happy together.
Years went by. Philomadre and the Prince had children of their own, and everything was really very nice. The old King died, and the Prince became the new King. Philomadre was the Queen! It was all like a dream come true, even though it was a dream that Philomadre had never dared to dream for herself while she was only “number four” working so hard back at the house near the forest. Now Philomadre was a mother herself, and she loved all of her children dearly, and they loved her. “Life is strange,” thought Philomadre, although she did not yet know just how strange life could get.
One day there was a tumult around the main gate of the city. Philomadre sent one of her handmaids to see what it was all about. She was told that there was a madwoman hanging around the gate, mumbling and laughing. Philomadre decided to go and look for herself. She was amazed to discover that the madwoman was her own mother! Even after so many years, it was impossible not to recognize her. Even dressed as she was, in a heap of the shreds of old rags, her feet unshod, her eyes not focusing on anything that anyone else could see, her teeth mostly gone, and her hair now a shocking white color, sticking out from all angles like a haystack, Philomadre clearly saw that this madwoman was her birth-mother.
She took her mother back to the palace. With the help of her handmaids, they cleaned her mother up and dressed her in some decent clothes. Her mother was given a nice room, with a big comfortable bed and a balcony from which one could see the whole city. Her mother was in such rough shape that it took a long time for her to start looking like her old self again, although older, of course. When she first came to the palace, her feet were so rough that you could strike matches on the bottoms! Even after her appearance returned, she remained completely mad. She never again looked anyone in the eye, never again said a word directly to anyone, or understood a word in return. Why, she never even recognized that Philomadre was her daughter.
Philomadre visited her mother’s room every day. She made sure that her mother was taken care of in every way. She sang songs to her mother, and sat for a long time, brushing her mother’s hair. She never intruded on her mother’s madness, but only watched over her.
“Mother, you never cared for me,” said Philomadre, “but now I will care for you.”
I have written on this blog many times about the way people casually put odes to motherhood on Facebook, or lavishly praise their own mothers as having been saints of some kind. I have tried to tell those people that they are the lucky ones, that not everyone shares their experience, nor shares their fond memories of their mothers. Some of us, like Philomadre and me, had mothers that were an absolute challenge to love, and some of us, some smaller number of us, can manage to put the past behind us and forgive our mothers in their human imperfection. In this, I did my best, but I am well and truly outshone by Philomadre, who is the patron saint of this phenomenon. This story makes me cry every time I tell it, or even think about it. It reminds me of a loss that can never be remedied. I hope, dear reader, that you enjoyed this story, and that your experience growing up with your mother was different than mine.