A Piteous Day
by Alice Stratton
Illustration of a father and two daughters, one holding a hollyhock flower with a black currant attached to it, the other holding a shoebox filled with hollyhocks with black currants attached

EDITOR'S NOTE: "A Piteous Day" was originally published in The Relief Society Magazine, vol. 56, no. 5, pp. 338-342, May 1969. The story is based on an actual event from Alice's childhood.

Brigham Young University's Harold B. Lee Library has made digital scans of Relief Society Magazine available online as part of the Relief Society Magazine Digital Project. This article is online there in the original format at:

The article is reprinted here with permission.

Daddy always refers to it as "the happening," and to him I guess it was. You see, Daddy is very practical minded—like bread and butter without jelly.

Susan and I were playing paper dolls under the dining room table one evening. We played in whispers so as not to be noticed, for it was getting late and we might be hustled off to bed.

"It's about time they learned the difference between the real and the imaginary," Daddy was saying. We knew we were being discussed again.

"Nonsense," Grandma retorted. "There's nothing far-fetched about seeing an elephant turn into a peacock."

"Nothing but an exaggerated imagination. I think they should call a cloud a cloud, instead of an elephant or a peacock. It's just the idea of the thing. They fabricate something unreal out of everything. Take tonight. Instead of simply putting the supper dishes away, they twitched their noses and went 'dingle, dingle' and bewitched them into the cupboard. I tell you, that pair should be brought down to earth and made to talk normal and act normal just once."

We had heard all this before, so we went on playing.

The most worn-out phrase in Daddy's vocabulary was "exaggerated imagination," and he always used it when he talked about us. Usually he would end up saying, "Someday, something will happen that will bring them down to earth hard, and it's going to hurt."

Grandma's answer was always the same, "Pity the day." So we were expecting that piteous day, although we had no idea what was supposed to happen.

The next day was Saturday, and Daddy and Grandma were in the garden tying up rose runners. Susan and I hurried through our work, for usually on Saturdays we could go upon the hill to play. We had built a fairyland there. With old spoons we had dug out a king's castle and a witches' den in the bank of a dry gully. We had a sardine can for a chariot and white bones for horses.

We had gathered hollyhocks and were sticking black currant heads on them and piling them into a shoe box.

"Why didn't you leave stems on your flowers? How can you arrange them this way?" Daddy asked.

Susan spoke up. "They aren't flowers."

The muscles in Daddy's jaw worked. "They are hollyhocks, and hollyhocks are flowers."

I could feel a lecture coming on so I hurried to explain. "We know they are hollyhocks, Daddy, but when you put heads on them, they become people, like this ruflly pink one. She is a fairy princess, don't you see?"

"No, I don't see."

"Now may we go to fairyland?" I asked.

Daddy's eyes shot sparks. "Where?" he demanded.

Ducking my head, I mumbled, "We want to go upon the hill."

"Well, why didn't you say so? A hill is a hill, understand?"

"Yes, Daddy. May we go now?"

"All right. But don't stay too long."

With our digging spoons and shoe box, we scurried out the gate. On the way up the hill we gathered sego lilies and Indian paintbrush for the fairy garden which had to be planted fresh each time we came to play. Clearing away the old dried flowers, we poked the fresh stems down to where the sand was damp. Just then a lizzard streaked past.

"A fire-eating dragon!" Susan shrieked and shot after him. Tripping, she sprawled to her hands and knees, then froze to the spot. Her eyes and mouth open wide, and she stared as if in a trance. "Look!" she whispered, pointing her finger.

I squatted beside her and looked. "All I can see is an old chicken egg."

She came unfrozen. "It isn't a chicken egg. What chicken would come up here to lay?"

"Then, what is it?" I asked.

"It is the dragon. He turned himself into an egg just as I fell. I saw him."

I crawled over to examine the egg. It was innocent looking enough, lying there on the bare earth. I poked around the bush with a stick. "See, here's a hole, Susan, a snake could have laid the egg."

"But a snake didn't. This is a bewitched egg. Inside is a dragon which is really under a witch's spell. When we break the egg, the spell will be broken and the prince will be set free."

"When we break the egg, little snakes might run up our arms and legs." I shuddered.

She gave me a look of contempt. Dumping the hollyhocks, she stuffed the shoe box with chaparral and cradled the egg inside. "Come on, let's go."

"But we came to play," I protested. "Our people will be ruined."

"So what! There are plenty more hollyhocks. Don't you see? This is an important happening." Then she chanted, "We'll set the prince free, under the mulberry tree!"

She clutched the box to her and we began our descent. Suddenly she stopped. "Listen," she whispered. "I hear something inside." She held the box for me to listen. There was the scratch- ing sound of chaparral twigs against the lid.

"Something is running around inside," I said.

Scornfully she said, "No prince would run around in a shoe box."

"All right then, what do you think you can hear?"

She put her ear to the box. "It is the prince, sending us a message in code… He is promising us a reward for setting him free!"

ALL the way home we speculated on what the reward would be. The possibilities grew more exciting with each step of the way. We ran the last stretch, and were out of breath when we reached our yard.

"Land sakes!" Grandma exclaimed. "Back already?" Then scrutinizing us she asked, "What happened? You look as if you'd seen an apparition."

We could not speak for our throats were dry. Susan thrust the box at Grandma, who lifted the lid.

Daddy put down his shovel and looked. "Well, what do you know! Old Speckle is laying again."

"Oh, no!" Susan panted, "Speck didn't lay this egg. This isn't a laid egg."

"Of course it is. You can see it for yourself."

"No, Daddy. I saw a dragon change himself into this egg."

Daddy looked sternly at us. "Young ladies! Bring that box here and sit down. We're going to have a talk. You come along, too, Grandma."

He and Grandma took the lawn chairs and Susan and I sprawled on the grass. "Now," he said with the formality of a judge, "will you repeat that last remark, Susan?"

"I saw a dragon change himself into this egg," she repeated solemnly.

"Kathy, did you see the dragon?" he inquired of me. I nodded. "What did he look like?"

"Something like a lizzard," I stammered.

"Umm humm… If we put this unlaid egg under Old Speckle, then we can hatch us a dragon."

"Oh, no. Daddy, we mustn't do that!" Susan protested. "If we hatch it, then the prince would have to be a dragon forever. We have to break the spell!"

Sternly Daddy said, "Very well! We will break the spell now! In the first place you saw a lizzard—not a dragon, mind you—upon the hill—and not in fairyland. Get that straight?"

The very air felt as brittle as shattering glass. Surely this was a piteous day!

Then to our astonished ears came Grandma's laugh. "Tch, tch, tch," she chuckled. "The hill it is nowadays and not fairyland, when such a few short years ago it was the prairie where a small boy galloped on his stick horses chasing Injuns."

Annoyed, Daddy said, "All right, all right… Now where were we? Oh, yes, the egg. Where did you get it?"

As Susan told her story. Daddy's brows were drawn with perplexity. "Now what do we do?" he inquired.

"It is simple. I will need a silver knife. Kathy and I will sit under the mulberry tree and you and Grandma can watch. We'll all say 'abbracadabra,' then I'll whack the egg. The shell will crack and the prince will step out. He'll be big instantly and stand and bow before us and kiss our hands and ask us which we'd rather have, a golden carriage or a helicopter and we'll take the helicopter."

Illustration of a father standing beneath the mulberry tree looking at two little girls kneeling on the ground next to an egg

"I see," Daddy said. "Go fetch the silver knife at once."

As Susan flew to the house. Daddy turned to Grandma and said, "Mark my word, those two are due for a fall. This fabricated, imaginary, ridiculous world of theirs is about to tumble before our eyes. They are going to be hurt. Now you will understand the harm an exaggerated imagination can do."

This was going to be more than a piteous day. This was doomsday!

Hopefully I scanned Grandma's face, searching for a grain of comfort. Sadly she shook her head. "It is a pity children are forced to grow up so soon."

How baffling! Were we going suddenly to become big like the bewitched prince was supposed to do?

Susan returned with the knife and everyone did as she said. We had to say "abbracadabra" three times before it suited her. Then she whacked the egg. The world stopped turning and the sun stood still. My spine tingled and goose pimples popped out all over me. If a volcano should have erupted behind me, I could not have taken my eyes off the egg. Susan held it away from her and a firm yellow yolk, surrounded by clear white, plopped onto the grass. No one spoke. She raised up on her hands and knees, leaning over the magical thing.

"Wow!" she exclaimed. "Wow! Take a look! A blob of gold in a puddle of crystal!" Then she sat back on her heels and laughed. Relieved, I rolled with laughter on the grass.

Drooping like yesterday's sego lily. Daddy slumped down on a stump. With elbows on knees and chin in hands he studied us. Grandma pulled her low weeding stool next to him and sat down. With ill-concealed merriment, she said, "Well, son, they took quite a tumble, didn't they! They sure act hurt."

Daddy was the one who seemed to be hurt, but he recovered. Clapping his hands with a loud pop, he demanded, "You little vixens, come here!"

Laughing we scrambled to his side.

"What are you laughing for? Where is your prince?" he scowled.

"He left his gift and scrammed," Susan said.

"Some gift! A raw egg. Where's the helicopter? Why aren't you crying miserably with disappointment?"

"Daddy, you're so funny," I giggled. "We were only pretending, don't you see?"

"It was mighty real pretending," he insisted.

"Good pretending always is," I explained.

He spread his hands in a wide, helpless gesture, and we flung ourselves into his arms.

"Tell me, kittens," he said tenderly, "how can you conjure up something so real and then let it vanish without being sad? Don't you feel like crying?"

Susan snuggled her cheek against his. "No, Daddy. You see, grownups pretend, too. When Grandma calls us 'punkin' she doesn't cry because she can't make pie out of us. Just now you called us 'kittens.' Do you want to cry because we aren't covered with fur and have whiskers? Pretending is fun. Your pretending makes us feel soft and cuddly and loved."

Daddy burst into a hearty laugh. Grandma laughed, too.

"I love piteous days," I exclaimed. "They are fun."

Jovially Daddy said, "This is a happening, little kitten."