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The Husband Who Was to Mind The House for The Day

The traditional tale retold

A man once stomped about Northern parts who was so grumpy and surly that he thought his wife could do nothing right in the house. So one evening, during harvest time, he came cursing, blowing and fuming home, showing his teeth and kicking up a right dust.

“My love, you mustn’t be so angry,” said his goody. “Tomorrow why don’t we swap our work? I’ll go out with the mowers and mow, and you can keep house at home.”

Yes, the husband thought, that would do nicely. He was agreeable to that, he said.

So, first thing next morning, his goody put the scythe over her neck and walked out into the hay-field with the mowers and set off mowing. And the man was to stay at home, mind the house, and do the housework.

His first task was to churn the butter, but when he had churned for a bit, he worked up a thirst, and went down to the cellar to tap a barrel of ale. But just when he had knocked in the bung and was fitting the tap to the cask, above his head he heard the pig lumber into the kitchen. So off he legged it up the cellar steps, the tap in his fist, as fast as he could, to sort out the pig before it knocked over the churn. But the pig had already knocked over the churn, and stood there, snuffling and rooting in the cream which was pouring all over the floor. The husband became so mad with rage that he forgot about the ale barrel and charged at the pig as hard as he could. He caught it, as well, just as it squealed through the door and fetched it such a kick that poor piggy lay for dead on the ground. Then he remembered he had the tap in his hand; but when he ran down to the cellar, every last drop of ale had dripped out of the cask.

So he went into the dairy and found enough leftover cream to fill the churn again, and he started up churning once more, for there’d better be butter at dinner. After he’d churned for a while, he remembered that their milking cow was still locked up in the cowshed and hadn’t been fed or watered all morning, even though the sun was riding high in the sky. But then he thought it was too far to lead her down to the meadow, so he’d just put her up on the top of the house. The house, you should realise, had a roof which was thatched with sods and a good crop of grass had sprouted up there. The house was built close to a steep slope and he reckoned that if he laid a plank across to the thatch at the back, he’d get the cow up no problem.

But he still couldn’t leave the churn because there was his baby crawling around on the floor, and “if I leave it,” he thought, “the child is sure to knock it over.” So he heaved the churn onto his back and went off out; but then he thought he’d best water the cow before he put her up on the thatch; so he picked up a bucket to draw water from the well, but as he bent over the mouth of the well, all the cream poured out of the churn over his shoulders and vanished into the well. Then he gave the cow some water and put her up on the thatch.

It was getting near dinner-time and he hadn’t even sorted the butter yet, so he decided he’d better boil up the porridge, so he filled the pot with water and hung it over the fire. When he’d done that, he worried that the cow might fall off the roof and break her neck or her legs, so he climbed onto the roof to tie her up. He tied one end of the rope round the cow’s neck and made it fast, and the other end he slid down the chimney and tied it round his own thigh. And he had to get a move on, because the water was bubbling in the pot and he hadn’t even begun grinding the oatmeal yet.

So he started to grind away; but while he was going at it hammer and tongs, the cow fell off the top of the house anyway, and as she fell, she dragged the man up the chimney by the leg. He was stuck there like a cork in a bottle and the cow hung halfway down the wall, dangling between heaven and earth, unable to get neither up nor down.

Meanwhile, the goody had been waiting seven lengths and seven widths of the field for her husband to call them to dinner, but no call came. Finally, she reckoned she’d worked and waited long enough, so she went home. The moment she got there she saw the ugly sight of the cow swinging on the wall, so she ran up and cut the rope in two with her scythe. As soon as she did this, her husband came falling down out of the chimney; and so when his old dame came into the kitchen, there she found her baby cradling the half dead pig and her husband standing on his brainbox in the porridge pot. This is what happened the day the husband was to mind the house.


© copyright Carol Ann Duffy