Rings On Her Fingers, Bells On Her Toes

As a child, one my favorite comfy pastimes was to lie in my bed, reading aloud to my cat, Amos. She (yes, Amos was a lady) was my best friend, and she would listen patiently for hours as I stumbled my way through my favorite books with her. My favorite book contained a collection of Mother Goose rhymes, and over time I memorized most of them. Here we are, thirty five years later, and I can still recite many by heart. I wonder if Amos ended up learning a few, as well.

Today I was reflecting on what a comfort it once was to create a nest of old quilts and pillows, burrow in to cuddle with my four-legged friend, and recite old rhymes. Immediately, the following verse popped into my head:

“Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.”

There are various speculations as to what the imagery in this rhyme might mean. A “cockhorse” at one time meant an ungelded horse, but from the 16th century onwards, it came to also be used as a term for a hobby horse or for a child being bounced on an adult’s knee. There are various guesses as to the identity of the fine lady, including Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Godiva. It is also thought that the idea of bells on her toes is most likely a reference to the 15th century style of sewing bells to one’s shoes. None of of this mattered to five-year-old me, though.

When I was little, sitting up in bed, reciting a story of a grand lady on horseback to my cat, I focused on the last line: “She shall have music wherever she goes.” Think of it–no matter where she travels, this mysterious lady, beholden to no one, has her very own horse, bejeweled fingers, and the power to make her own music. What an image!

In those days, I was enamored with the fine lady; I wanted to see and hear her. Even when I played on my own version of a hobby horse, a child-sized plastic pony on springs, I imagined myself to be riding down the road to Banbury Cross, on my way to meet the lady. What would she look like? Would she see me? Was she rich and haughty, to match her jewels, or was she charming and inviting, to match her musical toes?

Eventually I grew out of nursery rhymes, but looking back, I must wonder if they affected me more deeply than anyone could have imagined at the time. When I thought of my old favorite rhyme this morning, I wasn’t surprised to note that I now see the world from a new angle: on top of my horse, my own fingers dripping with jewels, a toe ring or two on each toe, each affixed with its own tiny bell.

Could my understanding of home as a concept be related to this core memory from childhood? Over time I came to see the lady as colorful in manner, and rich in experiences. Her rings and silks are an affectation, but the bells and horse are integral to her being. She lives to see the world, and collects and disseminates songs wherever her feet touch the ground. I can’t help but think that behind the horse there must be a caravan, inside it, a bed strewn with heirloom quilts, crowned with a sleeping cat.

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