Did someone mention childhood trauma? You know how there are situations where people will say that a dog tried to, or did attack them, and that they’ve been afraid of dogs ever since? Maybe you, who read this text, had that sort of the experience.
Well, it’s the same for me and geese. I remember a gaggle attacking my mum and I when I was a really small kid, truly in my formative years. It ended with a deep-seated fear of geese. Thus, I had to write a story where they are beasts from hell, because of course.
This is the story behind the story: Mistress of Geese edition.
Warning: there’s a lot of geese.
In the March of 2020 (I almost wrote of this year) Croatia had our first lockdown (technically, the only lockdown? I don’t know if what we have now could be considered a lockdown, at least not in the way it was in March). I mean, you know how it was in March and April, because we all had a version of lockdown and quarantine, thanks to the pandemic, so I don’t think I have to explain all of it. Mostly, I think I don’t need to explain that a lot of Decameron projects started popping up everywhere, given the topic of Decameron, plagues and Covid. Croatia had at least six (I think?) different Decamerons going on.
I was on the editorial team of one—Decameron 2020: Stories from the Quarantine. During that period, from March to May, we published stories by different authors on a daily basis on the blog, and during summer we collected all of the stories and put them out as an ebook, and are currently in process of finishing the English translation version. I already wrote a piece about it on this blog, just in Croatian. In any case, it gave us some sort of purpose in the context of cultural events, creative work and art. I also wrote and published a story for Decameron, called Gospodarica gusaka, or, translated into English, Mistress of Geese. So this is the second story in my Mistress of Geese collection which had been published somewhere else, prior to this collection, and translated from Croatian. (Of the five stories in the book, two were originally published in Croatian, and three were original, previously unpublished stories written in English).
I actually had an idea for this story long before I wrote it. I knew a few things I wanted to do. I wanted to write a story set in Zagorje, a hilly region of Croatia where my father’s family comes from. My late grandparents used to live there, in the small village, and kept that gaggle which attacked me when I was a kid. Zagorje has beautiful nature, just stunning. When we’d visit relatives, I would always go strolling in the forest, and I absolutely love to go grape picking in the autumn. But there was a certain melancholy I would always feel there. Like time stopped and nothing ever changed. Like everything was always the same.
That feeling of frozen momentum was what I felt during the lockdown, so I remembered Zagorje and that story I had in my head, but which I’d never put to paper before. I knew that I wanted to write about a girl stuck in that frozen time, doing nothing, feeling nothing, guarding something, and I knew what she was supposed to be. I had a setting and I had a character, but the plot came to me thanks to the lockdown. Because my mind finally made a connection—a fairy tale one. This place stuck in time reminded me a lot of the curse that befell Sleeping Beauty, where she and everyone at her court fell asleep for centuries, until the curse was broken. In that time, the world changed, but not them, who missed the time by sleeping. And as a reteller (if I can call myself that), I sat down and told a version of Sleeping Beauty, inspired by Zagorje, Covid, quarantines, my fear of geese and a bit of Greek mythology.
Oh, and it has sapphic girls, because of course it does.
I mean, I need to be honest here, but Sleeping Beauty is not a type of story that I like. And I’ve read multiple versions of it. But it just has a lot of consent issues and the whole unconscious thing, especially in the Sun, Moon and Talia version, which is the worst contender, and which went with full-on rape and loving your rapist. So, saying that Mistress of Geese is a Sleeping Beauty retelling is maybe stretching it a bit too far. But there is definitely a connection to and clear inspiration from it, only with lesbians and without the whole “kissing the unconscious stranger” part. (BTW, I know that in one version, I forgot which one, the prince just kneels before her and doesn’t even kiss her. I still don’t like it.)
Some small references you can also find in the story are: Hansel and Gretel and Bratac Jaglenac i sestrica Rutvica (Brother Jaglenac and Sister Rutvica), which is a Croatian fairy tale written by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (a big-name early-20th century writer). There is also another trope I played with, but I’m not going to mention here, because spoilers, though I think it’s fairly easy to recognize it in the story.
A fun fact I would also like to point out is that, when I wrote the story, I wasn’t actually planning for it to be folk horror. I was trying to do a fairy tale retelling. But my partner-in-crime pointed out that it is horror, and then I heard more comments about how my descriptions really brought out the feeling of old Croatian folklore. In the end, it appears that I did write, unconsciously, folk horror. It’s not that surprising, because it was the second thing I finished writing after my previous and first folk horror story The Lottery.
So, after this story I knew I would like to write more folk horror, and here it is. And the collection got its title after Mistress of Geese because both my editor and co-publisher and I agreed that the name is too good not to use.
Also, after publishing it in Croatian, the most comments I got were that the descriptions of geese are a) great, b) accurate (my mother confirms). And people are now sending me geese related stuff, or telling me outright that, when they see geese, they remember me. So, I’m now truly a mistress of geese.