Fee fi fo fum [February 2]
(The following is a short extract from my second memoir, due to be published early in 2022)
Not all the books I read as a child had happy endings. There were certain books in our house that I couldn’t look at. I knew exactly where they were – at the bottom of the bookshelf in the living room – and I averted my eyes whenever I walked past them. One was a book on Australian wildlife that contained detailed life-size illustrations of spiders. Redbacks, huntsmen, funnel-webs – I had seen them once and that was enough. Another was a children’s book with a drawing on the front cover of a man chasing a black hat that had blown away in a strong wind. That hat had evil powers, the man was desperate, and I could feel the evil and the desperation from the other side of the living room.
There was third book on the bottom shelf that I couldn’t bear to look at. It was called Fee Fo Fi Fum and inside the front cover was a picture of a giant wielding a cudgel. The giant had wild red hair and a gaping smile, and he was striding through surf. One huge foot had just sent two children tumbling head-first out of a boat and into the pounding waves. On the shore two other children were running away from the grinning giant. The words on the page came from the mouth of the giant, who apparently spoke in rhyme:
Fee fi fo fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman:
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
I still remember the yawning horror of the giant’s grin and the sound those grinding English bones made in my imagination.
The things we fear usually catch up with us. Somehow that book has ended up in my possession. It is stained with age now, the spine peeling, the giant’s red shirt fading to pink. There are some details in that picture that I had forgotten. In the water behind the giant there is a man drowning. Another drowned man lies face down on the beach.
I don’t remember making the connection between that picture and our family’s story when I was a child. Now, though, I find myself wondering – who thought this book was a good gift for children like us? Who leafed through these pages, not seeing the pounding surf or the flailing man? Or had this book been in our family before my father disappeared under the waves? Had he read it to my sister at bedtime, not realising that The End – his end – was hidden in those pages?
On the back cover of the book there is a picture of a lion and a unicorn sitting up at a table, drinking tea. Someone has scribbled all over this picture with a violent black pencil. Perhaps it was me. Perhaps, when I couldn’t bear to look at the murderous giant, I turned the book over and paid out on the happy couple.