The Curious Tale of Van Wempel’s Goose

Presented here is a retelling  of an old folktale from the days when the great city of New York in New York was known as New Amsterdam.  It is from a collection of early American folktales and traditions collected by Charles M. Skinner in his book,  The Isle of Manhattoes and Nearby Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Volume I and called Van Wempel’s Goose.

Nicholas Van Wempel

The hero of the story is Nicholas Van Wempel, of Flatbush who was almost as wide as he was tall though he was not very tall. Nevertheless, he was of a mild and timid nature which led to him being badly henpecked by his wife, Vrouw Van Wempel.   Despite his timidity he  remained unruffled despite, or perhaps, to spite her and was renowned for being something of a harmless fantasist.  To be fair to his good wife her husband had a fatal flaw that if not kept under strict control would land him in all sorts of trouble. Therefore,  she did her best to moderate it for his own good.

He was a fairly well off man but his greatest pleasure was to escape into the comforting arms of schnapps.  He sure loved his schnapps and this was his fatal flaw!  Sadly for him his wife kept tight control only allocating just enough cash to get her groceries or to buy himself clothes.

The New Year’s Goose

On the eve of the New Year of 1739 she called him to her.  Placing ten English shillings into his hand she firmly instructed him to hurry down to Dr. Beck’s store to procure a fat goose she had ordered for their New Year’s Day celebration dinner.  As he waddled through the door glad for a bit of respite the errand would bring she gave him one last instruction, 

“Do not under any circumstances go near, walk by or stop at the tavern! Stay away, stay clear, do not enter and keep out of the tavern.  If you enter the tavern for any reason my wrath shall fall upon you like a ton of bricks from a great height! Just bring back the goose! Do you understand?”

In a shrill voice she then threatened a number of other dire and deadly consequences should he dare to disobey.

“Do you understand?” she barked again, glaring at him with a look that could curdle vinegar. Indeed, Nicholas understood perfectly and shot her a weak smile in acceptance as she sent him scurrying down the path.

“As if I would ever dream of entering the tavern of all places!” he called back in answer.

Outside, the snow had fallen in the night and it was a cold, icy day.  As he struggled along against the biting wind a sudden gust lifted his hat clean off his head and rolled it into the doorway of the forbidden tavern.  Had he but allowed it to lie and passed it by things might have turned out very different, but it was a bitter wind that whistled around his ears.  He also thought he could hear someone calling to him from the doorway, but dismissed this.  He thought it was just the icy wind on his neck and decided he needed his hat back.

The Tavern

Alas, as he bent to pick it up a strong aroma of beer, booze, tobacco and schnapps assaulted his nostrils along with the sound of merry voices and a tinkling piano.  It was a heady mix!

He remembered his promise and all the dire and deadly consequences that would befall him.  Well, it was icy outside and the wind froze to the bone and inside the tavern was warm, hazy and friendly. He was sure he heard someone inside calling  his name and after a few minutes of staring at his feet they gave him permission to enter.  

Inside he met an old friend who called him over and treated him to schnapps.  They chatted and laughed reminiscing about old times and it only seemed right that he should return the treat and bought his friend and himself another schnapps.  

To his surprise and delight more of his old friends appeared who treated him and of course he returned the treat.  His friends knowing of the dominance of his wife in his life teased him in good nature.  They urged him to stand up for himself and put her firmly in her place.

Slowly but surely the goose money left his pocket to find a new home behind the bar in the till of the landlord.  Realizing his money was gone he thumped the bar. Loudly he declared that it was his money anyway and he would spend it however he saw fit without leave of his good wife.  

Snores

The last thing he remembered was standing by the bar with his friends cheering and applauding  him wildly for his heroic stand.  After that the world seemed to merge into snores.  When he came round he had his head on a table at the back of the tavern. He could hear the sound of low voices talking over the far side of the bar.  

Sleepily he opened his eyes and saw two strangers deep in conversation with each other.  He saw they had black beards and rings in their ears and around their foreheads they wore brightly colored bandanas.  

He pretended to be asleep but carefully listened to what they said.  They were talking of gold hidden on the marshes at the tide mill.  Before he could fully grasp what his ears had heard through his schnaps sodden mind the idea had worked its way beyond reason. With a sudden burst of more energy and enthusiasm than he found in years he jumped to his feet and left the tavern.

“Gold …” – “the marshes …” – “tide-mill …”

These words revolved round and round in his schnapps sozzled brain.  Fueled by these and the schnapps he crunched through the snow back to his home.  

Quietly and carefully so as not to arouse his good wife, who would surely ask the embarrassing question of the whereabouts of the goose, he crept to the shed.  There  he procured for himself a shovel and a lantern.  With unbelievable speed and quietness considering his drunken state he made his way to the old tide-mill on the marsh.

The Mill

On reaching the mill he decided to start in the cellar and began digging up the floor.  He had been so eager to commence work he had not thought to check if there was anyone else in the building, therefore he did not know there were four men upstairs.

After a short while his shovel struck something hard.  He dug quickly around the object discovering it to be a large, but old, canvas bag similar to what a sailor might possess.

Pirate Gold

Excitedly he brushed the dirt from it and found it was heavy but he managed to lift it out of the hole.   As he did so a shower of gold coins fell from it and cluttered to the ground.   Tying up his trouser legs he filled them and his coat pockets with as many coins as he could.  However, in the floor above he had been heard and four rough looking men came down the cellar steps to confront him.  He recognized two of these as the men from the tavern.

The men saw the lantern, the bag and Nicholas who despite his inebriation realized these were not just sailors but pirates.  His trousers were so full of gold he could hardly move and they laid their hands on him and dragged him upstairs.  They poured for him another schnapps and made him drink to the health of their flag and brotherhood.  Roughly they turned him upside down and shook him vigorously causing all the gold coins to fall from his trousers and coat pockets.  

With no further ceremony they grabbed hold of him and threw him out of the window thinking he would drown in the tide or the fall would kill him.  In the brief struggle he managed to grab hold of something before he was forced out.  

Fortunately for him, the tide was out and his fall was cushioned by the mud of the tidal marsh around the mill.  Finding himself unscathed he held up his hand to see he clutched a plump, plucked, goose which the pirates had stolen earlier for their New Year’s Day dinner.

After the schnapps the pirates had given him he now found the energy to struggle through the mud as the tide began creeping up on him.  Things looked bleak, but perhaps, mercifully, thanks to the power of schnapps, he remembered no more.  

The Wrath of Vrouw Van Wempel

When at last he awoke it was to the shrill voice of his good wife.  She was standing over him loudly berating him as he lay in a snow drift not far from their home.  Opening his eyes and hearing her shrill voice and seeing her formidable form all he could do was smile sweetly.  

“What did I tell you about the tavern? Where did all that mud come from? Where is the goose? “she growled menacingly.

From behind his back he brought forth the plucked, oven ready goose he still clutched in his hand and proudly presented it to her.  Seeing he had at least come back with a goose placated the angry wife diverting her attention from the state she had found her husband in.

Snatching the goose from him, Vrouw Van Wempel,  turned on her heels and marched directly back home. After struggling to his feet Nicholas followed sheepishly behind.  

In later days he tried to explain to her about the pirates and the gold and how he was lucky to still be alive.  She asked why if he had found gold he now had none to show for it?  He would reply that if his story was not true how did he come by the goose after he had spent all of the ten shillings in the tavern but he soon learnt this was a mistake. The very mention of the tavern would cause his good wife to fly into a rage and spend the rest of the day berating him.  

Whenever he got the chance he would slip off to the tavern and tell his story to more sympathetic ears and point towards the old tide mill to collaborate his story.   His friends would just laugh and tease him.  

Nevertheless, every now and then, thanks to the power of schnapps, he would find himself taken off on some bold adventure.  Unfortunately he would be brought back with a bump when his good wife caught up with him.

© 09/12//2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 9th 2020 zteve t evans

The Grateful Dead: The Tale of Fair Brow

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Old Fisherman (cropped) – Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grateful Dead Tale Type

In the study of folktales The Grateful Dead, sometimes known as the Grateful Ghost, is a tale type classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system as type 505 and found in many diverse folk and fairy tales from around the world.  It often entails someone dying in debt and being refused a proper burial preventing the soul of the dead entry into heaven until their creditors are paid in full.  The hero will pay off the debt and ensure a proper burial  using the last of their money to do so.  Then destitute they set off on a journey in which they meet up with a stranger who helps and guides them.  Often towards the end the integrity of the hero is tested in some way and when it is passed the stranger will reveal himself to be the the soul or ghost of the corpse whose debts and burial was paid for. In gratitude the protagonist is then often granted their heart’s desire, hence the term The Grateful Dead.

The Story of Fair Brow

The following is a retelling of one such story called Fair Brow from Italian Popular Tales by Thomas Frederick Crane and tells how there was once a rich merchant trader who had fair and handsome son.  He had sent him to the best school to receive a good education and when his son finally passed through the school his father decided that he should now learn how to make his way in life as a merchant trader.  He gave him a ship and he gave him a chest full of money to buy goods that he could fill the ship with and sail from port to port and sell his wares for a profit. He told his son, “Your schooling is finished and now you are of an age where you must learn to make your own way in life.  To help you start I will give you this ship with enough money to fill it with goods that you can sell in other places for profit.  Use that profit wisely to buy more goods to replace those sold that you can again sell at a profit. Be careful with what you buy.  Be careful with what you sell and be careful with what you do.  Go now and learn how to trade.”

The Corpse

So following his father’s advice the young man set sail for a distant port to buy merchandise that he could sell for a profit.  On the way, before he had bought anything at all, he stopped off at a passing port to take a break from the voyage and to see what the people were like.  As he roamed around the harbor side he came across a bier with a corpse laid out upon it. He was curious to see that although some people looked the opposite way as they passed it others would leave a coin or two alongside the corpse.  Perplexed the young man approached a passer by who had just placed a few coins on the bier and asked, “Surely this dead man should be buried properly and with dignity for surely he desires his grave.  Why do your people keep him so?”

The passer by replied, “When this man was alive he accrued a pile of debt.  Our custom is that no one is allowed to be given a proper and decent burial until all his debts are paid.  As he is dead the only way his creditors can be paid is by the good charity of others.  Until all his debts are paid in full we cannot bury him.”  This greatly shocked the young man, who declared, “Let it be known to all that he is indebted to that I will pay his creditors whatever he owes them in full.”  He went to the local authorities so that a declaration could be made public.   After all of the dead man’s creditors had been paid there was not a single penny left of the money his father had given him to buy merchandise so he went back to his ship and set sail for home.

On his return his father was delighted but surprised to see him return so soon and asked eagerly how much profit he had made so quickly.  The young man knowing his father would disapprove said, “Alas, father, as we sailed the open sea we encountered pirates who took all of the money you gave me in return for my life!  I fear we have made no profit at all.”  On hearing this father said, “In truth this is no consequence.  I am happy that you are still alive and I will give you more money to start again but this time head in the opposite direction to your last voyage.”

Pirates From the Levant

And so his son sailed off in the opposite direction to his previous voyage.  While he was at sea they came across a Turkish ship and thinking it would be better to communicate with them he hailed them as they drew near.  As they came along side he said, “And where have you come from?”

“We sail from the Levant,” replied the captain.

“And what is your merchandise?” inquired the young man.

“All have I is one beautiful girl to sell,”  replied the captain.

“How is that you have this girl to sell?” he asked

“We have stolen her from the Sultan and we will sell her for great profit because of her beauty,” replied the captain

“Show me this girl!” said the young man and the pirates brought her on deck, “I will buy her freedom from you.”

“How much will you give us?”  They asked.

“I will give you all the money in this treasure chest,” said the young man showing them his father’s money.

“Then you shall have her,” said the captain handing the girl to him.  As he had no more money was left the young man returned to his home port with the girl.  On arrival he married her and then went to see his father.

His Father’s Wrath

His father was delighted to see him saying, “Welcome home my fair and handsome son! What rare bargains have you made?  What vast profits have you gained? What riches do you bring home to me?”

His son said, “Father I bring you a most precious thing, the rarest of jewels, the most beautiful woman in the world, the daughter of a Sultan and I have brought her for my wife!  I bring her now to show to you my merchandise!”

His father looked at him in shock and disgust and then exploded into violence striking both of them rapidly with his fists and pushing them out through the door into the street crying, “Foolish, foolish wastrel is this all you have brought for all the money I have given you! Out of my house and take her with you. Go!”

He continued kicking and striking them both until he was out of breath.  Then he turned and silently went back inside his house and shut the door on them.  Of course his son was greatly upset both for himself and for his new wife but he also had a problem because he had never learnt how to make a living for himself in the wide world.   They wandered the town together and eventually found a room in a villa whose owner kindly allowed them to stay for awhile in return for work.

Fair Brow

The young man spoke to his wife saying,  “Whatever shall we do?  I do not know any trade and I have no profession or anything to sell.  How shall we live?”

“Fear not,” said his wife, “I have some talent as an artist and can paint the most beautiful works of art, though I say so myself.  I shall paint and you shall sell what I paint, but you must reveal to no one who the artist is,“ she added.

Indeed she was very skilled and renowned in her own land for her paintings and now while she created the most exquisite works and he sold them.  He soon found the best place to sell them was down on the harbor side as many ships would come and dock and many sailors and merchants and fine gentlemen would be found going about their business.  They would often look for mementos, souvenirs and things to buy to take home with them.  In this way the young man and his wife made their living and all though they did not make much money they had each other and found pleasure in each other’s company.  In the evenings he would play upon musical instruments and sing to her as he was a good musician and a talented singer though his father had never recognized such attributes as being of any value. Nevertheless in their own company they were very happy and she would call him her “Fair Brow” as he was very handsome.

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Claude-Joseph Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sultan’s Servants

Meanwhile, the Sultan had been distraught at the theft of his daughter and had sent out ships carrying his servants to search the corners of the Earth for her.   One day one of these sailed into the bay and docked in the harbor in the town where the young man and his wife were living.   The ship carried many of the Sultan’s servants who came ashore in search of his daughter.  The young man saw them coming ashore and thinking this would mean good business went to his wife and said, “Paint as many pictures as you can for I sense a good day of business today!”  So his wife painted very many beautiful paintings and said to her husband, “Remember, never tell anyone that I am the artist!”

Fair Brow nodded reassuringly and told her that he would not and took all of the paintings down to the harbor to sell.  As he unpacked and exhibited her pictures many of the Sultan’s servants clustered around to admire the paintings and recognised her work. “Who is the the artist who paints such wonderful works?” asked one of the servants.  This greatly excited the young man and he forgot his wife’s warning and said, “Why, it is my wife,”   Then they said with great enthusiasm, “We will buy all of these.  Can she paints us some more.  We will buy all you can sell us!  Can we meet her?”  Thinking at last his luck had changed he told them, “Come to my house with me and she will paint all the pictures you could wish for!”

So he took them to his house and as soon as they saw his wife they knew she was the Sultan’s daughter and they took her and carried her back to their ship and sailed back to the Sultan who was delighted to have his daughter back again.  Once the Sultan had got his daughter back he kept her out of sight in a guarded tower surrounded by a magnificent garden so that no one else could steal her away again.

The Old Fisherman

Meanwhile, Fair Brow was alone and sad without his wife whom he loved dearly.  He was ashamed that he could not stop her being kidnapped and lacking the skills to make his way in the world alone he fell into a dark, bleak depression but was determined to go after his wife.  Miserable and alone he took to wandering along the seashore hoping to find a ship that would take him on as a crew member and go in search of his wife, but he had no luck there either.  Then one day he came across an old fisherman with his boat pulled up on the sandy shore and he was sat nearby mending his fishing net.

Approaching him he said, “Old fisherman, though I am strong and supple of body, you are far better off than I!” And the old man relied, “Why is that so young man?  I am old and my bones ache and my muscles are so stiff I can barely move sometimes?”

The young man said, “You have a skill that helps you make your way in the world and I have none. Would you allow me to join you when you go fishing?”  The old man looked him up and down and smiled saying, “That I will if you so wish it.  You can use the pole to fish while I use the nets and perhaps together we shall catch plenty of fish!”

The Solemn Oath

With that the two made a solemn oath that from that moment they they would share all they had with one another and all that came their way in the future, whether it was good or bad.   With the promise made the old fisherman then divided his supper into two equal parts giving one to Fair Brow and keeping the other.  After they had eaten they went to sleep in the boat.

While they slept a storm brewed up and took the boat from the shore across the wide open sea finally throwing it aground on the shores of Turkey.  Being strangers on the shore the people who found them claimed the boat and took them to the Sultan.   He looked them up and down and took them as his slaves giving the old fisherman the task of growing his vegetables and the Fair Brow the task of growing the flowers.  The two newcomers soon made friends with the other slaves and did not have a bad life.  The work was steady and fair and they were fed well and not mistreated and even had spare time.  In his spare time the old fisherman would make the most marvelous musical instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and clarinets and the fair Brow would play them and sings songs and the others would join in.

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A Woman in Turkish Dress – Jean-Étienne Liotard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sultan’s Daughter in the Tower

High in the tower the music and singing floated up to the Sultan’s daughter with her maids in waiting.  Hearing it took her mind back to her husband and the times he would sing to her while he played upon musical instruments.  Then, she knew that this could only be her Fair Brow and she became excited.  Almost not daring to look she peeped through the blinds to the garden below and there she saw that it was indeed none other than her husband who was singing so fair and playing such wonderful music.

It so happened that every day her maids in waiting would come down from the tower with a large basket which they would fill with flowers that Fair Brow had grown and take them up to the top of the tower to brighten up the apartment of the Sultan’s daughter.   She said to her maids, “Today we will have some fun.  When you are in the garden picking my flowers put that young man in the basket and cover him over with blooms and carry him up to me. Tell the gardeners to help you.”

So her maids went down to the garden and whispered to the other gardeners what the Sultan’s daughter had ordered.  They thought it was a great joke so they put the young man in the basket. Despite his good-natured protests they covered him up and the maids carried him up to the Sultan’s daughter’s apartment at the top of the tower with no idea of what was in store for him.  When they set the basket down in front of her he jumped up like a jack-in-the-box thinking to surprise her but found he was the one to be surprised as he jumped straight into the loving arms of his wife.

Reunion

Surprised and delighted they hugged and kissed and then told each other their stories and then began planning how to escape the tower together.  His wife, being the Sultan’s daughter had a tremendous prestige and power and she ordered that a ship be laden with pearls, gold and other treasures should be made ready in the harbor.  The next day when the maids of honor took out the old flowers they hid in the baskets and the maids carried them down to the garden and down to the harbor and on to the ship.  Once aboard she ordered the captain to weigh anchor and set sail and on a fair wind quickly made it to the open sea.  Then Fair Brow realized he had forgotten something.   The old fisherman had been left behind and they had promised to share everything together both good and bad.  Despite his wife’s protests he made her order the captain to turn the ship around and go back for him even though this put them at risk of the Sultan catching them.  He told her of the old fisherman and the promise they had made each other and said, “My love, I must hold my sworn word even if caught for I must never break a promise!”

As luck or fate would have it they found the old fisherman waiting patiently by the shore as if he was expecting them.  With him safely on board they headed for the open sea and once far distant from land Fair Brow said to his friend, “Old fisherman we have a contract.  Let us divide all the treasure half for you and half for me as we agreed.”  The old man looked at him and replied, “Indeed we have promised each other and therefore I shall also have one half of your wife and you the other?”

The Grateful Dead

“My good friend, I am in your debt, therefore you take all of the pearls, gold and treasure and I will take my entire wife, or do you insist on me dividing her.” replied Fair Brow.  Then the old fisherman said, “My good young friend you are generous beyond measure and wise knowing what is your greatest treasure. Therefore, know now that I am the soul that once belonged to the poor corpse that you paid all of your money to pay off his debts. Please do not divide her!  All of the luck that you have now acquired stems from that one generous and merciful act of paying my debts and provide a proper burial that freed me from purgatory.  Now I go to my proper place in Heaven.  Farewell!” and with that he vanished and was never seen on Earth again.

And so the ship sailed on to the home port of Fair Brow and his wife and when they arrived their were great celebrations.  His father was waiting on the shore to greet them, begging their forgiveness and Fair Brow was now rich beyond measure and he lived in peace and happiness with his wife.  He would sing and play music to her and she would paint him marvelous pictures.

Curiosities of the Grateful Dead

As can be seen The Grateful Dead is a curious type of tale that explores the law of reciprocity and much more.  In this story the living had a degree of power over the dead preventing someone who had died without paying their debts from entering heaven by withholding a proper burial until the debts were paid.  Along comes Fair Brow and pays the debts and ensure a proper burial allowing the dead to enter heaven.  This explores the idea that the living have a power over the dead first by refusing proper burial and second when Fair Brow pays the debt releasing the dead man from the bond that held him from entering heaven.  It also explores the idea that the dead can come back and influence events on earth when the ghost of the dead man returns as the old fisherman to aid Fair Brow reach his heart’s desire.  There is also another idea that if the dead are released from debts they return to help the creditors achieve their heart’s desire but the creditors will be tested to see if they are truly worthy of being granted it.  Why?   Perhaps because it would then be too easy for creditors to write off debts in the expectation of reward from the dead.  They have to prove that their motive is purely altruistic and that they are truly worthy, hence the final test.

© 07/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 7, 2018 zteve t evans