Serialized Fiction: Madame The-Ground's-Too-Low

This week, we continue our series of children's literature by the late French writer Pierre Gripari, as translated into English by your humble narrator. This is a charming folktale Monsieur Gripari dug up God knows where. I had never heard it before. It is short, and I publish it here in its entirety.

Madame The-Ground’s-Too-Low

A folktale told by Pierre Gripari. as translated by Robin Ford Wallace

In the country of Here – or maybe it was the land of Over There, the nation of Parts Unknown, or possibly the republic of Somewhere Else – there lived a farmwife.

This farmwife had fields and pastures and a husband to work them. She had a farmhouse with dining room, bedroom, kitchen and fireplace. She had horses, cows, calves, geese, rabbits; chickens and chicks, ducks and ducklings, turkeys and turklets–well! and lots of other animals.

Now, this farmwife worked very hard for the simple reason that what choice did she have with all that stuff? But by nature she was seriously slack–sloppy, wasteful and so lazy she would never sweep or even bend over to pick up things that she’d dropped. That’s why the people of the countryside, instead of using her rightful name, took to calling her “Madame The-ground’s-too-low.”

One fine morning as she returned from the stable, Madame The-ground’s-too-low accidentally dragged into the house a long piece of straw that had stuck to the bottom of her shoe. This straw, after a couple of steps, fell off the shoe and found herself lying on the floor.

Astonished, the straw asked: “What am I doing here? My place is in the stable! I hope at least that lady will throw me outside!”

So she began to shout:

Help me, help me, Ground’s-too-low!

I’m lost! This isn’t where I go!

Come on, lady, take your broom

And sweep me from this stuffy room!

But do you think the farmwife swept the straw out? Think again! She didn’t even listen.

One minute later a tiny explosion – paf! – was heard in the fireplace. A burning log had collapsed, and a beautiful little coal, all burning and red, came rolling out and landed close to the straw. The coal was also talking to herself, asking:

“What am I doing here, in the middle of the room? This is not my place! I hope that lady will take the tongs and throw me back into the fireplace!

So the coal commenced to shout:

Help me, help me, Ground’s-too-low!

I’m lost! This isn’t where I go!

Don’t just stand there looking lame.

Toss me back into the flame!

Do you think the farmwife took any notice? Not in the least! She hadn’t heard a word.

Fast-forward five minutes and we find Madame The-ground’s-too-low sitting at the table shelling beans. Shucking the pods, she lets the beans fall into a big pan. But look! Now she makes a false move and one little white bean slips through her hands, falls on the floor, rolls, rolls, and comes to rest beside the straw and the coal.

“What am I doing here?” cried the bean. “My place is not on the floor but in that pan with all my brothers! I do hope that lady will go to the trouble of picking me up!”

Help me, help me, Ground’s-too-low!

I’m lost! This isn’t where I go!

Lean over now – I know you can –

And put me in the veggie pan.

Hearing this, the straw and the coal, finally wise to the farmwife's evil ways, began jeering at the bean:

“Hey, stupid, you’re talking to air here. That lady has already forgotten you!”

In fact, do you think the lady gave a rap? Not in this life! She hadn’t even noticed. She finished shucking the beans, then she threw them into a pot and put them on to cook, not paying one bit of attention to anything on the floor.

After this, she decided to sew a button onto her husband’s jacket. She took some black thread, she took a needle, and she tried to get the one into the other.

The first time, she failed: “Zut!”

The second time, she failed: “Shoot!”

The third time, she failed again: “Flute!”

The fourth time, she succeeded and that’s just as well, because what on earth would she have said this time?

But now look what happens: She takes the jacket in one hand, the button in the other, and where does that leave the threaded needle? It slips out of her hand, slides down her dress, and falls on the floor right beside the straw, the coal and the little bean.

Annoyed, the needle protested: “And what, pray tell, am I doing here? My place is not on the floor but in the workbasket. I do hope that lady will pick me up right away.”

Help me, help me, Ground’s-too-low

I’m lost, this isn’t where I go!

Please don’t leave me out of place.

Return me to the needle case!

Hearing the needle rave on in this fashion, the straw, the coal and the bean rolled on the floor laughing: “Hear that, everybody? This needle thinks she’s somebody! Hey, honey, you can just lie here like the rest of us!”

And by this time, did you really think the farmwife would pick up the needle? She didn’t consider it for a second! She just rolled out another length of thread, chose another needle, threaded it, sewed the button back onto the jacket, and considered it a case of Mission Accomplished.

When the needle understood that she was going to be spending the night here, maybe a couple of days – possibly even the rest of the year – she picked herself up and pronounced in tones of deep disapproval:

“I see, I see. In that case, my dear friends, I have one thing to say to you: You may do as you like but as for myself, I do not intend to stay one moment longer in the house of a person with such low standards. I am off to see the world!”

“Well! That’s a good idea,” replied the other three. “Can we come, too?”

So off went the four of them: first the straw, who walked along on two sprigs, because she was getting a little frayed; then the coal, still good-looking, red and glowing strong, sliding along the path; next, the bean, who went along in little leaps; and finally the needle, walking proud and tall, trailing behind her her length of thread like a bridal train.

They walked, they walked, and finally they arrived at the edge of a stream. A very little stream, actually, a ditch, a furrow that you and I would cross in one step. But for these tiny objects, it was a pit! an abyss! a precipice! However were they to get to the other side?

Fortunately, the straw had an idea.

“Because I am very long,” said the straw, “I can lie down across the stream and act as your bridge. You will walk over me, one after the other, but be careful! I am flimsy and thin and not all that solid. So please go over me as fast as you can, and above all without stopping!”

“But of course!” said the others.

So the straw lay down across the stream and the coal started out first. But as I mentioned, the coal was red, glowing, very, very pretty – and as she knew all about it. What a coquette! So when the coal saw her image reflected in the water of the stream, she found it so enchanting, she stopped to admire herself and –

And what did you think? The coal burned the straw, the straw broke in two, the two halves fell into the stream, and off they were carried by the current. The coal, meanwhile, also fell into the water, went “pfft,” was extinguished and rolled to the bottom, nothing now but a little round pebble.

Seeing this, you’d think the bean would have pity on the coal and the straw. Au contraire! Instead, he found it so funny, this heartless legume, that he started laughing. He laughed so hard, so hard, he exploded!

So there he was, his belly blown open and all his little beanie guts spilling out. He stopped laughing then, the self-centered pod vegetable! In fact, he began to cry.

But the needle, who under all her snootiness was a good sort of girl, consoled him:

“Come on, come on, stop crying. I’ll sew you right back up!”

And that is what she did, just as she’d said: She stuffed all his little innards back into his belly; she stuck back together all his little shreds of skin, then she sewed the whole thing back up so solidly he’d never have the same accident again!

But the thread being black, the bean was no longer all white, he was only part-white now. It is only since that time that there have been in the world what are called “haricots metis,” or mongrel beans, mutt beans, white beans with black bellies. But don’t worry, they’re just as good as the other kind. I should know, I’ve eaten enough of them.

Once the needle had finished the job, she said:

“I have an idea.”

“What?” asked the bean.

“We are way too little to roam the world,” said the needle. “It’s too dangerous. So why don’t we go back to the house?”

“Yes, but if we go back,” said the little bean, “Madame The-ground’s-too-low will just leave us on the floor.”

“I know, but here is what we will do: Once we’re back, we’re going to play some fine tricks on her, and teach her a lesson.”

“How do we do that?”

“You will see!”

So back they went to the farm and, once there, the needle stuck herself, by the blunt end, into the body of the little bean. That allowed her, for the first time in her life, to keep herself raised up in balance, her head low and her pointy end up in the air.

Joined together this way, the bean and the needle became a sort of machine infernale, a machine of evil! They slipped into chests of drawers, hid themselves in piles of handkerchiefs, shoved themselves into cushions, pillows, bolsters – the farmwife kept coming across them everywhere. It was enough to drive anyone crazy!

When she was lacing up a shoe,

She’d prick her foot and shout out “ooh!”

Trying to shell an English pea,

She’d prick her hand and holler “eee!”

Sitting down to peel a spud,

She’d prick her rear and draw the blood!

She got pricked arranging flowers

And in the bathroom, taking showers!

When she tried to take a bath,

She pricked herself right in the ath!

But the most unkindest cut

Was when she pricked her you-know-what!

Vraiment, you could hardly call it a life! So, little by little, the farmwife began to change her ways. She became wary, cautious, suspicious. She looked everywhere, she scrutinized, she watched. She listened, she sniffed, she examined.

And then she began blowing on things, she whisked here, swept there, wiped there, started picking up her belongings, dusting. You can believe me or not, but by the end of the summer, she had completely changed!

One day, because she had cleaned up the entire place by then, she found the bean with the needle stuck in it. She put the needle back in its needle case, then she took the bean, slung it into the stew and ate it that same evening with a leg of lamb.

Since that time, the villagers have no longer called her Madame The-ground’s-too-low. They started calling her Mother Duster, or even Mother Broom. Sometimes they went as far as Mother Scrubbie, Mother Clean-it-up or Mother Make-it-shine!

If you go to the country of Here (or maybe the country of Over There, the nation of Parts Unknown, or possibly the Republic of Somewhere Else), you can see for yourself that everything on that farm is washed, scrubbed and polished. Even the dirt is so clean you can eat off it.

The needle is very happy now. As for the little bean, I was never able to find out if he liked the leg of lamb.

The moral of the tale is clear

And I’m about to tell you here.

If you want to hear me say it,

Listen up and I’ll relay it:

Please do not laugh at the woes

Of your sisters and your bro’s.

On bridges, walk fast, do not creep,

Especially if the water’s deep!

And, my sisters and my brothers,

Please respect the work of others.

Respect the labor that they do

For soon you’ll be a worker, too.

Respect their job, and I hope that

You’ll never hurt a dog or cat.

As for inanimate objects, things

Your snorkels, fins and water wings,

Don’t let them lie, put them away,

Clean up the places where you play.

Remember that your poor sweet mother

Has probs enough, don’t be another.

Sweep out your room, and vacuum, too,

When you’ve got nothing else to do.

And if you drop a fork or cup,

Please lean down and pick it up!

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