|"Her dres wasn't nothin' but catskins all over, with the tails hangin' out."
Illustrated by Williams, B. 1948
Once upon a time, in North Carolina, USA, “there was a girl had no father and mother. She stayed with some people and they made her work for what she ate. They never paid her a thing, didn’t give her any clothes or nothin’. All she had was one old dress, and when it got all ragged, all she could find to patch it with was old cat-hides; and fin’lly her whole dress wasn’t nothin’ but catskins—cat-skins all over, with the tails hangin’ out. So they called her Catskins.” One day, the man’s wife “took sick and died.” Not so very long after this, “Catskins she washed herself and put on the dead woman’s weddin’ dress; went out in the yard and started walkin’ around. That man he saw her and came runnin’ to the house. He looked at Catkins and asked her would she marry him?” The girl said she would—if he would get her a dress “the color of all the fish that swim in the sea”. He got the dress right away, and repeated his question. Now she asks for a dress “the color of all the birds that fly through the air?”. He does this, and asks the question for a third time. This time she wants a dress “the color of all the flowers that grow in the world. ‘ So he went and got her that dress, says, ‘Now will you marry me?’ ‘ I might marry ye,’ she says to him,’ if you give me your flyin’ box”. Well, his flying box was a real treasure. Yet he longed to marry Catskins, so he gave her the box. Now she told him she would marry him—just as soon as she changed into one of her dresses. He went out the front door, but she took the flying box with her and dragged it out the back. Then she put all of her dresses into it, hopped in after them and said: “Rise and fly! Way up high!” It followed her orders, and they flew on. Soon she saw a large house with a garden below them. Now she ordered the box:”Light me down, right to the ground.” It did that and she got out, then chanted again:”Sink and lock under this rock!’ So the box sunk right under the rock, and Catskins she went on to the big house in her old cat-skin dress. It was a rich man lived there.” She asked for work in the kitchen when the door was opened. But the cook said, “ Do you think I’d hire a thing like you?” Cook’s daughter softened her mother’s heart, and Catskins was allowed to come in and work. But now Cook said, "All right then—but never a bit she cooks will go in my mouth.” When the girl went down to the kitchens in her outlandish clothing, “the kitchen folks was scared to death...Then some of ‘em slipped back and peeked around the doors, and hollered,’Scat!’ But when they saw it was just a poor girl and not any sort of varmint they came on back." One night there was to be a dance upstairs. Catskins was helping Cook’s daughter get ready to go, and the kind girl told her that it would be OK for her to “look in the window with the other poor folks”. Catskins feigned indifference to the suggestion, but after the girl had gone, she snuck out to her rock. Here she chanted, raised her box, opened it, and changed into her dress the colors of fishes. She went on in to the dance. “Who’s that?’ everybody said when she walked in. ‘Who can that be?’ But nobody knew who she was.” Well, Catskins danced with the King’s son, who had come to the party, all evening. And “directly when they were doing Lady-’Round-the-Lady, and she and that boy got around the set to the couple near the door, and when Catskins did Lady-’Round-the-Gent-and-the-Gent-Don’t-Go she slipped out the door and ran to her box and flew on back.” Later the cook’s girl asked if Catskins had been to the party. She said she had. Did she see the pretty girl? Yes, she said, she had seen that pretty girl. Cook’s girl told Catskins to let her sleep until three o’clock the following afternoon, and she could go peep again. Now, the following day, Cook’s daughter very kindly lent Catskins a dress to wear to to the ball. Catskins thanked her, then snuck off and changed into the dress colored like the birds of the sky. Again she fled during the dancing, and again Cook’s girl asked if she had been. She sure had. “ Don’t you wake me up till four o’cock. I want to be real beautiful” said the cook’s daughter. So Catskins let her sleep, and for the third night in a row went to the party. This night Catskins went to her secret flying box and changed into her dress of flower-colors. This night “the King’s boy wouldn’t let go of her hand all evenin’, and they danced and danced—every figure, from Four-Hands-Round to Killicrankie”. And just before midnight, he slipped a ring onto Catskin’s finger. Well, when she fled from him this time, it really went hard on the young man. He took sick to his bed the very next day, and the doctors said they couldn’t do a thing for him. He was love-sick, they said, and told the Queen that the only cure for it would be to find the girl the prince had fallen fall “Well, all the girls tried to make up to him; baked him cakes and took ‘em up to where he was lyin’ sick-in-bed. So one day Catskins said she’d bake a cake for him. ‘I say!’ the old woman went to squawkin’. ‘You bake him a cake! He would get sick if you was to bake him a cake. .’Aw, mother, don’t be so hard-hearted. Let her bake him a cake if she wants to.’ ‘Well! There’ll be no bite of it go in my mouth!’ So Catskins she went and got that ring, and when she baked the cake she put the ring in it. She got it baked and made it real pretty with white icin’ and then the old woman she came and took it away from her. “ And she insulted Catskins’ appearance and took the cake upstairs “on in to that boy. His mother cut him a piece and that ring fell out on the plate. ‘Why look!’ she says. ‘It’s a ring!” Now everybody spoke at once, wondering where the ring had come from and who had baked the cake. “I did’ said the old woman, ‘I did!’. ‘No such thing!’the King’s son told her. ‘Whoever baked that cake you bring her here right now, or I’ll have your head cut off. “ So the old woman had do go and fetch Catskins. As soon as the King’s son saw her, he knew she was the right girl. He smiled at her—and she ran away again! This time she went back to her flying box and got in it. Now she said, “ Rise and fly! Not too high!” so the box took her back to the palace. Here she changed into the dress the color of all the fishes of the sea and ran upstairs. The King’s son said, “ No—the other one.” So Catskins went and changed into her dress the color of all the birds in the sky. But now he said, “No—that’s not right yet.’ She went and put on her flower dress and when she came back in that time he went to her and took her hands and kissed her. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes” Catskins told him. So they got married, and they lived happy. And some folks tell it that the king made that old woman ut on the catskin dress and work in his kitchen the rest of her days.”
From Chase, R. (1948/1976), Grandfather Tales, p. 94 New York: Houghton-Mifflin, Grandfather Tales
Notes: It is fascinating to read this version, which Mr. Richard Chase collected as part of his documentation of folk culture in the North Carolina-Tennessee area of the United States during the 1940's. This is very clearly a story from the European Catskins tradition, with some very American touches. For one thing, the "unnatural father" has been sanitized. By having Catskins an orphan girl taken in by neighbors, the story tellers have written out the incestuous idea of the father wanting to marry his own daughter, as he does in so many versions. The girl all but proposes to him anyway, but putting on "the dead woman's dress" and going out in the yard where he will be sure to see her. That the girl takes flight in a "flying box" speaks to me of an unwillingness to let an often unexplained part of the story past. She left her father's home, and he could not follow: therefore, a vehicle of some kind must be involved. Terrain in North Carolina is rugged; it makes sense to want to fly to cover any real ground. Finally, the dish that the girl serves the prince is not soup or bread as it often is, which maybe did not seem fancy enough to these hill people. So she makes him a fancy wedding-style cake, complete with white icing. My favorite detail is the cattails swinging all around her dress!
Montessori Connection: 6-12 Geography/Location/North Carolina/Tennessee
1. Find North Carolina on a map of the USA.
2. List the states that border it.
3. Remember that Cinderella #17 Smoky Mountain Rose, also comes from North Carolina.
3. Remember that Cinderella #17 Smoky Mountain Rose, also comes from North Carolina.
4. Read Catskins again. Can you tell that this is a story meant to be told out loud, not read from a book?
5. Notice how the language is different from the way that we speak today, in California.
6. Learn about the culture of the Southern USA:North Carolina: A Kids Look at Our States Chiefs Tribes Reservationsd Powwows (Carole Marsh State Books) or North Carolina kid's cookbook: Recipes, how-to, history, lore & more; or A Primary Source History of the Colony of North Carolina (Primary Sources of the Thirteen Colonies Series).