October 10th – The Festival of the Ussglander Arms

Symbols tend to have fixed meanings and associations; it’s part of what makes them a symbol and not simply an image or pictogram. There are many of these symbols all around the City; the little whirlpool for public toilets, the open book for a public library, the specific font type (Robeau’s Last Typeface – round and thick) which signifies official directional signage. There are also those symbols which are more esoteric; the stylised circular barrette of the General Union Council, the skull-like smile of the Onanic Fellowship, the three stacked loaves carved beneath the window of anywhere a baker lived in 1359, so that they might be knocked up at three in the morning to start work. Yet whilst these symbolic meanings might have changed over time, as with the ‘boxing hare’ which has come to symbolise the Warrens on the whole, but was once the symbol for one specific self-defence league, the Knuckles, there are few symbols like the Ussglander coat of arms; symbols which hold multiple contradictory, recognised meanings at once.

The coat of arms is, like many of the examples given above, spread across the City on the side of buildings, over doorways, on bridges, adorning picture frames in galleries and carved into the rafters of many a church. It depicts an eastern white wolf on all fours, wearing a dress. In some instances the dress is finely adorned with bright dots and delicate floral designs, in others it is plain and representative. Beneath the wolf are the numbers 10/10. In the basic sense, the symbol does have a single, undisputed meaning; it represents the Ussglander family; but if you look beyond that things start to get tricky.

All coats of arms have an innate meaning to them, something about the family that they wanted to convey through certain forms of loaded iconography; there is, for example, the symbol of the tree for venerable old age and wisdom, or the wine cup for generosity, or the squirrel for wealth. In other cases there are historical signifiers, like the right and left hands which signify upon which side the family fought in the 1287 Battle of the Bloodied Pancake. Yet when it comes to the wolf in a dress, there are no obvious comparisons (there are some vague associations between wolves and strength, but it is seldom seen in heraldry) or known historical events, so it is assumed that the image instead symbolises some family myth or significant event which happened to early members. Precisely what caused the symbol to be used is where interpretations vary, where a multiplicity of meaning spawns from.

The Ussglander family lived a long time ago, dying out in 1426, but whilst they lived they were perhaps the most influential non-monarchic family existent in Buentoille. The family business seems to have been centred in textile or clothes manufacturing, although by other accounts they made the largest proportion from rent; they owned huge amounts of land, and seemed intent upon building as much on that land as was possible. This is why their coat of arms is still visible throughout the City; they stamped it into whatever they made, and they were obsessed with building grand buildings everywhere. There are (possibly apocryphal) stories about the family living in poverty, despite having a large income, because they were investing so much in building. Unfortunately, as most of the family was illiterate, there is very little known about them beyond this predilection for construction.

The fact of the matter is that there is no real way of verifying any of the stories which are acted out today, in an odd attempt to give each one some sense of credibility. Thousands of folks claim to be descendants of the Ussglanders, who lost the name when their ancestors married into different families, and quite a few of them are probably right. There is a great range of stories which surround the clothed wolf, but they are mostly variations on three base stories (those which are acted out today, like a Catrosondian mystery play): The Child Stealer, The Woman Transformed, and The Bad Disguise.

In The Child Stealer ‘play’, folk will dress up as a pantomime wolf, with a person at the rear and front, wielding a great set of snapping jaws, which are articulated with both hands, like a very large pair of scissors. In this tale, the first of the Ussglanders is carried, as a baby, into the City from some unknown outer place in a picnic basket held in the jaws of the wolf. The basket has a top, which is held closed by a catch which the wolf cannot open. The wolf carries the child up a street full of washer women and is scared off by the child’s future adoptive mother, getting trapped in a dress on a low hanging line in the process. The image remained forever stuck in the mother’s mind, and she would often tell her child about it, who she named after the name on a locket it grasped in its tiny hands. In the ‘play’, the wolf runs through Castoff street, which is filled with hanging washing, and whoever can trap it in a blanket gets the contents of this year’s hamper (usually a sweet treat rather than a baby).

In The Woman Transformed, the family’s matriarch is given a glamour by a witch that, instead of making them young and beautiful as they’d intended, turns them to a wolf on the night of every full moon. As this ‘play’, women from Callow Hand House, which is adorned with the coat of arms, will dress up as wolves, usually just with masks, dresses and tails, and terrorise the local men, chasing them around the halls. Apparently the family built a circus around the wolf matriarch, and this proved very popular earning the family enough capital to start up their business.

In The Bad Disguise the wolf comes to the City, looking for mischief, dressed as a human to avoid suspicion. For many this works, and they do not see a wolf but a beautiful young woman who breaks many hearts, steals lots of money, and eats plenty of children when adults aren’t looking. Yet the nascent family do realise the disguise, and they strip the wolf, revealing it for what it is, then cast it out. They are celebrated for many days. This play is more traditional in its storytelling efforts, and there is little audience participation at the old dye works yard where it is held. The story is thought to be allegorical of the family unveiling some royal wrongdoing.

All three ‘plays’ are held today, on this, the tenth day of the tenth month, which is what people have always assumed the ‘10/10’ meant. It could, of course, have signified to contemporaries that the family were a good financial bet. Each local group that hosts the plays claims that theirs was set up by the family themselves long ago, in an attempt to make it seem more true and to discredit the others. Quite why anybody cares so much is a question that nobody seems to be able to answer.

Other festivals happening today:

  • Show us the Heart Festival
  • The Festival of Trumpet Malfeasance
  • The Attenuated Salt Crust Festival