My weekend job involves working with young people as a writing coach, facilitating writing workshops. Last weekend, as a writing prompt to open the workshop, I tasked writers with writing a re-telling of a nursery rhyme. The choices were Humpty Dumpty, Peter Piper, The Eensy Weensy Spider, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Jack and Jill. Writers picked a card with the nursery rhyme they had to re-write (outcome had to be the same) and decided on what perspective the story would be told, what genre the tale would become (horror, romance, action, etc.) and other details that could impact the story, such as setting, etc. Since I always participate in the games and writing prompts I assign, I chose the Humpty Dumpty story.
Below is my re-telling.
Keep in my mind that I stuck to the medieval setting of the story. However, despite the character Humpty Dumpty always being portrayed as an egg, I made him human. The story is not told from his perspective, but, instead, from the perspective of an onlooker on that fateful day.
I recommend this activity for writers of all ages. As a homeschooling parent, this is the type of writing exercises I would engage my daughter in to demonstrate that writing can be fun and a communal activity regardless of age, writing skill or experience.
A Great Fall
by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Mother shook me awake hurriedly as she whisked through my room to hang my freshly cleaned gown on the wall peg. Our handmaiden Marella followed behind with a tray filled with scones, breakfast meats and coffee that she carefully placed on my night table. The nutty aroma of hot coffee wafted through the air, nudging me out of slumber. The fall season is upon us and the light chill in the air was a sharp contrast to the warm days of summer that had preceded. Despite the chill I could feel on my face, my blankets were a warm haven I didn’t want to emerge from. My mother’s sharp voice tore into the quiet of warmth and comfort.
“Agatha,” she sternly spat out, tearing open my curtains in a harsh sweep, “the sun has risen and the day is ahead. The king’s men are arriving before dusk to center square and they will be selecting the maidens who the newly knighted will marry. You and your sister must be among those in the front.” A great fall day was upon us and I imagined the harvest fare that would be at the square market. I loved the market, but, at that moment, I loved my bed more.
I was so tired and wanted to sleep longer, but, no one argued with mother when she gave an order. My mother, dressed regally already in green lace and jewels was Lady Catherine Elizabeth DuMeer, daughter of Lord LeRoy DuSable, grand-daughter of Queen Margaret. She wanted to keep her family line royal and was intent on me and my sister making that happen. If we married a knight, we would surely have our own manor to reign over as a lady.
I looked at the long white gown, covered in carefully embroidered red roses and delicate lace. The high neck of the dress had silken golden ribbons draped beautifully around the neckline. I loved the look of the dress although I was not excited about being picked to be married off. I already had a boyfriend, the farmer’s son Matthew. I really wanted to marry him. I dreaded the possibility that a knight might find interest in me today and ask for my hand in marriage.
My sister Rebecca charged into my room as my mother was picking a piece of lint from the body of my dress she was hanging up.
“Mother, oh, mother, look, my dress is not fitted!”
My mother and I looked in horror as Rebecca’s dress hung off of her body, about two sizes too big. I had a sneaking suspicion that her dress had been sewn based on my measurements. That meant that my beautiful dress had accidentally been fitted to her measurements. I could tell that my mother was thinking the same thing.
“Take that off, Rebecca,” Mother demanded. As Rebecca took off the too big dress, she helped her step into my beautiful dress with the high neckline. My sister looked amazing.
“You look beautiful,” I whispered. I looked at the dress that she had on before that laid in a heap at her feet. I stood and picked it up and hung it on a hanger. It was blue with yellow ribbon and was much plainer compared to the dress Rebecca now wore. I was disappointed.
“Agatha, no time to ponder, put the dress on and come downstairs,” my mother barked as she turned on her heel and left the room. Rebecca looked at me sheepishly before following behind Mother.
I put the dress on and pulled my hair into a high bun. Looking into the mirror, I noticed that the dress looked much better worn than hanging on the hangar. The blue complimented my tanned skin and my dark blonde hair was accented by the yellow in the ribbon. I think I looked better in this dress than I would have in the other dress, even though I loved the lace detail on the other dress. I gulped down my coffee and ate a scone before hurrying downstairs to get into the carriage with my mother and sister. The trip to the town square to meet the king’s men would be at least a three hour trip. Our father would be arriving with them and I couldn’t wait to see him.
The town square was buzzing with activity when we arrived by carriage. The clopping of horse shoes filled the air amidst the laughter of vegetable and fruit farmers selling their wares to visitors who poured out of carriages of all sizes. Our family’s covered carriage was among the lord’s lot, and a young stable boy, Marcum helped us out before he parked our carriage. Marcum and I were playmates many years ago when his mother worked as my mother’s handmaiden and his father tended to our family’s land. When his mother died, he and his father moved here to the town’s square where they tended to the stables and managed the square’s market. Marcum was best friends with my beloved, Matthew.
“Hello Aggie,” he whispered as he helped me step down from the carriage so I wouldn’t trip over my dress. My mother and Rebecca had already gotten out of the carriage and were walking to speak with ladies congregating near the center of the square.
“Mark, have you seen Matthew?”
“Not yet,” Marcum replied. “But, he has to be here. His father’s vegetable stand is over there.” My eyes followed where Mark pointed and I saw Farmer Jacob, Matthew’s father selling pumpkins, squash and other delectables to a group of handmaidens.
“I hope you are looking for me,” I heard a voice whisper behind me. I turned and my beloved Matthew was standing there. Marcum smiled and dashed away to help ladies exit carriages as they arrived. I embraced Matthew immediately without thinking and he hugged me back with equal enthusiasm.
“I’ve missed you so,” he whispered in my ear.
“Agatha,” my mother hollered from where she stood four feet away. The look of horror on her face froze my body as I stood in terror. A red blush of shame crept from my neck to completely cover my face as I saw several of the women standing with my mother look at me scornfully. My sister Rebecca looked at me sadly as she witnessed my embarrassment. Matthew immediately dropped his arms from around my waist and slowly backed up. Before he could disappear out of this horrific scene, a loud cackle filled the air.
“Yoo hoo, Cathy, I see you!”
Frederick Dumpty, the town’s drunkard lumbered towards them all, staggering unevenly as he hiccupped and tripped his way to the town square center. Calling my mother by her first name, he turned everyone’s attention from my inappropriate behavior of hugging a common person with familiarity as I had done with Matthew. His eyes twinkled with merriment as he watched my mother’s horror turn from me to him.
“Don’t you dare address me with familiarity,” my mother yelled at Dumpty. All airs of elegance dropped from her composure as rage seethed from her body towards the drunkard. I was confused. How did he know my mother’s nickname that only my father called her?
“Oh Cathy, don’t you love me still,” he whimpered. Horrified, the ladies who stood near my mother gasped in surprise. People buying fruits, vegetables and other items in the surrounding stands seemed to stand still in surprise. You could almost hear a pin drop. Before anyone had an opportunity to think, the approaching clop of galloping horses could be heard. I turned to see a horde of red on black stallions charge past to the staging set up in the town square. The King’s men had arrived. My father, Lord Ben the Lion was leading them.
My father unmounted his horse as did the rest of the king’s men. The fair maidens all lined up to be seen by those who were to be newly knighted by my father. I went to stand at the end beside my sister Rebecca as my mother had told me earlier that day. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Matthew standing by his father looking as heartbroken as I felt. My father smiled at my mother who walked to stand beside him. She had transformed back into her elegant self as if Dumpty the drunkard had not previously angered her. Dumpty stood behind the maidens, taking large swigs from the flask he held between his gloved hands. His torn clothes hung loosely on his thin limbs as his stomach protruded rudely from beneath his waistcoat.
As my father opened his mouth to announce the first man to be knighted, Dumpty interrupted from the sidelines, tossing his flask on the ground.
“Oh, Lord Ben, there you are. Dashing Lord Ben. Lord Ben the savior, the king’s knight, the king’s right hand. Oh how gallant you are. How worthy!”
My father froze and turned toward Dumpty. His face looked as if he had seen a ghost.
“Freddie, you are here.” My father’s familiarity with Dumpty made me feel uncomfortable.
“Of course my dear brother. Where else shall I be? I have been here since the day you took my sword into battle. Took my position, my inheritance and everything that was my birthright as I served our king as ambassador. Only to return and find you had reinvented who you were. A gallant knight. Ha!
You stole my love Cathy and now you have the audacity to give honor to another, to deem another man worthy? You are a scoundrel Ben!”
Without warning, Dumpty charged at my father with a sword that he had hidden under his coat. I was in shock because I didn’t know that Dumpty was my father’s brother. That meant he was my uncle. What in the world was happening right now?
Dumpty was surprisingly nimble on his feet. He almost caught my father in the chest with his sword, but, my father, a gifted fighter, sidestepped with ease and confidence. He knocked Dumpty’s sword from his hand almost immediately. Dumpty, who had jumped on the wall bordering the stage to confront my father, teetered a bit before falling to the ground below. The group of ladies standing near the spot that he fell screamed before scattering. I could see him lying on the ground, his legs crumpled beneath him.
As the king’s men began to run towards Dumpty to finish him off in defense of my father, my father called for them to leave him be.
“Please, do not hurt him, that is my brother. As idiotic as he is, he is but only a man that is still in love with someone who has never loved him. As often as I tell him this, he will not hear me. Let him be. Do not hurt him further.”
The king’s men backed away as Dumpty lay on the ground whimpering. I could faintly hear him crying my mother’s name as he took his final breath.
I looked at my mother who stood frozen, staring at Dumpty as he lay dying on the ground. A single tear dropped from her eye, wiped away brusquely with the lace handkerchief she carried at all times. Her stone-faced expression did not change as she called for Marcum to escort her back to her carriage, my sister Rebecca moving to follow her. I pulled Rebecca’s arm to hold her back. Our mother needed some time alone.
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a writer, cultural critic and homeschooling parent. She is founder of So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA).