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The Contrary Wife

THERE WAS once a villager who had the bad luck to have a contrary wife. So perverse was she that other contrary people seemed well-mannered and considerate by comparison. It was bad enough for her neighbours. If someone said the parson had given a good sermon, she would say it was a bad one. If the fishmonger had only herring to sell, she would demand smelt. If he offered her fresh fish, she wanted it salted; if he had salted, she wanted fresh. When someone noticed the wind blowing from the east, she found that it was coming from the north.

But if it was bad for the neighbours, it was endlessly miserable for her husband. When he thought it would be nice to visit his brother on a Sunday, she would correct him, saying that it would be better to visit her sister. When he would ask her to mend a shirt, she would say no, it was his sock that needed darning. If he wanted beer, he would get tea. If he asked for tea, he would get water. Sometimes the neighbours complained to him about his wife. He would say: "Good neighbour, why do you complain? When you go into your house at night you hear no more of my wife. As for me, I live with her. There's no end to my misery. When I eat fast, she says to go slowly. If I sleep on my back, she wakes me to tell me to turn over."

One morning the villager and his contrary wife went out to inspect their rye field. They crossed the river and looked at the grain closely.

"The rye will be ready for harvest on Tuesday," the man said. "Monday," his wife corrected him. 'Very well, Monday," the man said. "I'll get Halvard and Hans to help."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," his wife corrected him. "You'll get Thore and Erik to help."

The poor villager was so used to this sort of thing he said, "Yes, of course, Thore and Erik." And thinking aloud, rather than speaking to hiss wife, he said, "We'll start at seven in the morning."

But his wife said, "Six-thirty."

"The weather's likely to be good this week," he said, looking at the sky.

"No, it will surely rain," his wife said, also looking at the sky. The villager was getting fed up, but he'd had so much practice at this sort of thing that he held his temper.

"Rain or shine, we'll reap with scythes."

"Scythes, did you say?" his wife asked, her voice rising. "You'll cut with shears."

"Cut with shears?" the man asked, stopping in his tracks. "Whoever heard of harvesting a field with shears? We'll reap with scythes."

"Shears," the woman said firmly.

As they argued, they crossed the bridge.

'Scythes!" the man said angrily.

'Shears!" the wife replied. 'Shears!'

So angry was she at being argued with that she didn't look where she was going, and she fell off the bridge into the water. It was deep where she fell in, and she disappeared from sight. But when she bobbed to the surface she shouted not 'Help!" or "Save me!" but 'Shears!" She sank again, and when she rose to the top the man just had time to call back, 'Scythes!" before she disappeared. In a moment she was back, coughing and sputtering and shouting, "Shears! Shears!" She sank again, and when her head reappeared in the swirling water her husband spoke in a determined and calm voice, "It will be scythes!" The obstinate woman came to the surface once more, but she was too weak to talk. She went down slowly, without uttering a word, but as her head went under her hand came out of the water, and with her fingers she made the motions of shears opening and closing. Then she was seen no more.

The villager went back to get his friends, Thore and Erik Halvard and Hans. They all searched together for the woman but they could find no trace of her near the bridge.

"Let us look downstream," one of them said. 'Surely the water has carried her away."

So they went downstream and looked, but there was no sign of her.

"Where could she have gone?" the men asked each other.

Suddenly the villager slapped his head.

"How could I have lived so long with this woman without guessing what she would do at a time like this!" he exclaimed, "There is no one in God's world like her. Other people would float downstream, that is true. But not she. She is too contrary. Would she go along reasonably with the current? No, not that woman! We'd better look upstream by the dam."

So they went upstream past the bridge, and as the villager had guessed, they found her there, trying to float upwards over the dam itself.

Norwegian. Versions of the story type - ATU 1365A: "Wife Falls into a Stream" - are known from Finland and many other places. [Uther, Vol 2, p. 170-72]

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Fairy tales, folk-tales, folk tales, Literature  

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

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