“Octopi in the Sky”
[They] drew up before a white Spanish-style home all embowered in trees.
verb – (literary) – surround or shelter (a place or person), especially with trees or climbing plants.
Denis took out The Ring of the Nibelung from the library and dutifully ploughed through it. Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, the silvery Rhinemaidens, began to float and dart through his imagination.
Der Ring des Niebelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four German-language epic music dramas composed by Richard Wagner. The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. It is often referred to as the Ring Cycle, Wagner’s Ring, or simply The Ring. Wagner wrote the libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874.
Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde are Rhinemaidens (water-nymphs). They are generally treated as a single entity and they act together accordingly. Of the 34 characters in the Ring cycle, they are the only ones who did not originate in the Old Norse Eddas. Wanger created his Rhinemaidens from other legends and myths, most notably the Nibelungenlied.
“Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege…”
The first lines sung by Woglinde in the Ring; wordless vocalizations. Wager explained that he had derived Weiawaga from Old German and that it was related to Weihwasser, meaning holy water.
Denis, turning in wonderment, saw beside him a nixie, a sylph with a body as firm, green, and cool as an iced avocado.
noun – (in Germanic mythology) a water sprite.
“Uncle Dion, who is drunk as a trout, is dancing on the edge and singing the Spanish Lady.”
A traditional Irish folk song, also found in England. Dates back to the 17th century.
“The Magnesia Tree”
In particular he numbered among his acquaintances many elegant elderly ladies who would arrive, stepping (…) into Mr. Bon’s brougham, in time for afternoon tea.
noun – (historical) – a horse-drawn carriage with a roof, four wheels, and an open driver’s seat in front.
an automobile with an open driver’s seat.
“A tree takes longer to live than a man, and longer to die, too.”
His name was Mr. Smith, and he was a smallholder, very small indeed, who lived just beyond the town wall.
A smallholding is a small farm. In British English usage, a smallholding is a piece of land and its adjacent living quarters for the smallholder and stabling for farm animals.
“You are a very odd young man,” she pursued, considering him through her lorgnette.
noun – a pair of glasses or opera glasses held in front of a person’s eyes by a long handle at one side.
 A story that lives firmly in the realm of magical realism; the opening paragraph sets the style very well:
A wave swung high and lazily, with a curve like the white breast of a pouter pigeon, swept little Miss Roe clean off the deck of the elderly immigrant ship where she lay sleeping in the sun, and sucked her back underwater without any noise or commotion; she vanished among sea-thistles, tangled ocean-daisies, foamtips crossing this way and that, and the glitter of fins bright as mica. Nobody noticed; she was just a typist, with no relations, on her way to look for a job.
“You’d better wait,” muttered Singer Jones, “or Cap’ll feed you to the tiburones.”
Fear soon finds relief in vengeance.
“We don’t want her haunting us. We drop her overboard, the sharks eat her, we get her duppy climbing up the side every night and pulling us by the ankles.”
noun – (West Indian) – a malevolent spirit or ghost.
I was thunderstruck to see that Father had on his old A.R.P. warden’s coat.
(from a UK homework help site) Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were organized by the British national government and delivered by the local authorities. The main purpose of ARP Wardens was to patrol the streets during blackout and to ensure that no light was visible.
I will draw a veil over the rest of my day. Anyone who has looked after babies know how they behave when they don’t care for their surroundings. Anyone who hasn’t looked after babies is in a state of enviable ignorance, and I will leave them that way.
“The Sale of Midsummer”
Very successful as a short story; a dash of mystery, a dash an irony, and an end that lingers in the mind.
 Reference (real?):
“It originated in the eighteenth century when Morpurgo, the Poet Laureate, came to live here.”
The only Morpurgo I could find is Michael Morpurgo (b.1943), an English book author, poet, playwright, and librettist who is known best for children’s novels such as War Horse (1982). Morpurgo and Aiken were contemporaries of a sort and Aiken’s use of the name might be a nod to him.
“He slept all the year round and woke only for three days in the summer to compose an ode for the queen’s birthday and earn his tun of wine.”
noun – 1. a large beer or wine cask.
2. an imperial measure of capacity, equal to 4 hogsheads.
Contains all the atmosphere and dread of a classic Gothic mystery. I loved this one.
Menispe at age nine had been a skinny waiflifke little creature, all pale freckles and bony, sharp features, with an unexpectedly engaging triangular grin, a mobile face, never still for a moment, stringy fair hair, and shrewd hazel-green eyes.
She was witty even then, mechante, but also touching.
Polite, dutiful bread-and-butter letters.
A letter expressing thanks for hospitality.
Numero Onze, in trailing metal script on the door.
[He] was gnarled, shaky, dwarfish, and stooped, like some ancient Nibelung creeping out of his crevice on the scent of gold.
In Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (note ), Nibelung denotes a dwarf, or perhaps a specific race of dwarfs.
“Fortunately his patron was Cardinal Richelieu – the affair was smoothed over. He had to burn his books, of course, but… Before that… twelfth-century Sieur d’Aveyrand… brought back books on alchemy and physics from the East – and a wife too, a Moorish astrologer…”
“Indeed,” Frost commented, politely concealing irritation and boredom. Now he remembered Menispe, aged twelve, airily boasting, “Of course I was named after a Saracen princess.”
Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642) was a French clergyman, nobleman, and statesman. He was often known by the title of the king’s “Chief Minister” or “First Minister.” He is a leading character in The Three Musketeers (also referenced in “Spur of the Moment”; Post 1, note ).
Sieur d’Aveyrand: Invention of this story.
Menispe: This name seems to entirely be an invention of Aiken’s.
Saracen was a term widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages. The term’s meaning evolved during its history. In the early centuries A.D., Greek and Latin writings used this term to refer to the people who lived in desert areas in and near the Roman province of Arabia. By the 12th century, “Saracen” had become synonymous with “Muslim.”
The professor called out, “Coffee! Coffee!” in a feeble voice amid his eructations.
noun – (formal) – a belch
Frost managed to pack the armour-suited model into the golf bag, wadding it with copies of Le Monde and France Soir.
Le Monde (The World) is a French daily afternoon newspaper that has been continuously published in Paris since 1944.
France-Soir (France Evening) was a French daily newspaper which ran from 1944 – 2011.
“The Monkey’s Wedding”
Jan Invach’s celebrated, almost legendary picture of a street scene in the town of Rocjau (…) the high-arched, 700-year-old bridge over the river Fos (…) [Invach] had made a special journey to Soubctavia (…) to identify the painting.
These three locations/names seem to be inventions of Aiken’s (though there is a city in Germany named Rochau).
“The Monkey’s Wedding” of course, in colloquial idiom, means a scene with sunshine viewed through rain, or rain seen through the sun’s rays.
A sunshower (or sun shower) is a meteorological phenomenon in which rain falls while the sun is shining. The phenomenon has a wide range of sometimes remarkably similar folkloric names in cultures around the world. A common theme is that of clever animals and tricksters getting married.
It is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding” in Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Trinidad, Tobago, and Kokani.
“I know those Soubs and those Dobrindjans – they’ll be at each other’s throats again in thirty-six hours.”
Inventions of Aiken’s.
These facts came from Mrs Invach like dregs of juice from an already-squeezed lemon.
“You were wrong when you told me that, Mother.”
Did he mean wrong in the moral sense or merely mistaken?
The tune they played was “Gathering Peascods,” which, as it happened, had been the final dance before the party came to an end.
An English country dance. See it in action here.
 This story is stylistically the oddity of the collection. It’s told in the first person (one of only two stories to do so) but examines events that happened to another (the narrator’s aunt). The writing is conversational, switching between past and present tense the way an off-the-cuff story might:
What was her astonishment, then, to see a wee boy sitting on the bath mat by the bath, naked as a bullrush, and crying his heart out!
“Who in the wide world are you?” says my aunt Martha.
But he cries all the harder and makes no reply.
“There’s a wee boy in my room, and, poor little dear, he seems clean moithered!”
verb – (dialect) – 1. to bother or bewilder
2. to talk in a rambling or confused manner
“The Fluttering Thing”
“I thank you! – I thank you!” gasped the stranger as Mark scrambled up and was about to resume his plodding march. “Wait! Don’t go! I am able to reward you! I have a – I have a – a thing.”
“Water of Youth”
“Quien sabe? Maybe they do.”
Spanish: who knows?
Quick as a wink Jones picked up his clarinet and tooted out “Men of Harlech.”
A song and military march which is traditionally said to describe events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468.
The coiled rope stood up and begged like a hamadryad.
noun – (Greek & Roman mythology) – a nymph who lives in a tree and dies when the tree dies.
2. another term for king cobra.
“Angels are singing ‘Cwm Rhondda’ round him this minute, likely as not.”
Taken from the Welsh name for the Rhondda Valley; a popular hymn tune written by John Hughes.
“Oh, but I’ll have you yet,” shouted the termagant.
noun – 1. a harsh-tempered or overbearing women
2. (historical) an imaginary deity of violent and turbulent character, often appearing in morality plays.
Read The Monkeys Wedding if you like short stories with touches of fantasy, especially if you like them as love stories. Many of these involve down-on-their-luck, lonely men marrying beautiful, headstrong women.
I have no issues with Aiken’s technical abilities but many of these stories lacked the bit of spark that makes a short piece stick with me. She sets up interesting situations without payoffs. Things simply fizzle out after a certain number of pages.
I do recommend “Hair,” “The Sale of Midsummer,” and “The Helper,” which, to be fair, were good enough to make this worth reading for me.
Next week: a not-very-triumphant return of Ira Levin with Son of Rosemary.