Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar

Nonfiction / Lesley Jenike

:: Yet This Is Your Harmless Fairy, Monster: A Summer Seminar ::

Venge­ful as nature her­self, she loves her chil­dren only in order to devour them bet­ter.…”   –Angela Carter

A stu­dent tells me she fell asleep last night read­ing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Cham­ber. In her dream a bomb drops and leaves a room full of bro­ken bod­ies.

It’s dark in the room and she can’t see, but by mus­cle mem­o­ry she knows where to step to avoid the bod­ies, how to walk around them gin­ger­ly, as if stabbed by knives.

Or maybe I’m con­fus­ing “Blue Beard” with “The Lit­tle Mer­maid,” she says.

/

In her essay “The Bet­ter to Eat You With,” Angela Carter coun­ters Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen (that “tor­tured dement,” as she calls him) against the rea­son­able intel­lect of Charles Per­rault, a man of his age as much as Ander­sen was a man of his. For Carter, Per­rault seems to neu­tral­ize his fairy tales’ sex and vio­lence with an iron­ic shrug. She writes, “The prim­i­tive ter­ror a young girl feels when she sees Blue­beard is soon soothed when he takes her out and shows her a good time, par­ties, trips to the coun­try and so on. But mar­riage itself is no par­ty. Bet­ter learn that right away.”

If Andersen’s hec­tic, Roman­tic ver­sion of Chris­tian­i­ty leads to his hero­ines’ ecsta­t­ic suf­fer­ing, then Perrault’s Enlight­en­ment-era char­ac­ters take a more prac­ti­cal tact toward world­ly knowl­edge. His advice at the end of his sto­ries (i.e., “Curios­i­ty, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret…”) is prac­ti­cal, even charm­ing. There’s noth­ing prac­ti­cal about Ander­sen.

/

It’s sum­mer and cam­pus is qui­et. There are only sev­en of us togeth­er for four hours, three times a week. The Fairy Tale Break­fast Club, one stu­dent calls us. I tell them, We’re learn­ing togeth­er. It’s best, I find, to make read­ing and writ­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort; it draws them in.

So we sit togeth­er under flu­o­res­cence and read, in tan­dem, orig­i­nal tales—as orig­i­nal as they can be in light of time, edits, omis­sions, trans­la­tions. I can feel our simul­ta­ne­ous shock and delight. It’s tangible—like rev­e­la­tion by expe­ri­ence, the rev­e­la­tor.

We’ve all known keys and apples and knives. Who hasn’t while cut­ting up an apple looked down at her knife in won­der? And the boy who mugged me in Franklin Park, he took my iPod—Fine, I said, but please give me back my key. It was a sin­gle white key I car­ried on a band around my bicep. If he had kept it, would he have tried every door in the uni­verse? He gave me a look of dis­gust, ripped the key off the band, and threw it back at me before run­ning off.

And what about mothers—all those miss­ing moth­ers, dead moth­ers, step­moth­ers? At the very least, who hasn’t dialed his mother’s num­ber and wait­ed ner­vous­ly for her to pick up?

One… two… three.

/

There’s a con­cen­trat­ed look on my student’s face as she recounts the dream in which she’s forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, from one end of the room to the oth­er, past and around all those dead bod­ies. Who or what is com­mand­ing her to do so, she doesn’t know.

Out­side the room is Alep­po or Boston or Man­ches­ter or the Aren­dale of Disney’s Frozen—shat­tered from the torque of explo­sives, from fire­fight and cru­cible. Every build­ing is now a skull. Every skull has a crack where the brain’s been sucked out.

In her ver­sion of the tale, Blue­beard plots his wives’ deaths from a distance—maybe in a cas­tle or cafe, man­sion or split-lev­el. Cities are his wives, and his wives are his wives, and children—not even his own—are his wives, and young sol­diers, jour­nal­ists, doc­tors are his wives. Guys who run falafel shops, who hock clams and mus­sels at fish mar­kets, women who write poems on the backs of their hands are his wives. Bicy­clists and passers­by and girls out shop­ping or danc­ing to Ari­ana Grande, drink­ing tea or plot­ting the rise of girls are his wives. Stray dogs, old hors­es, drool­ing mules are his wives. Lovers of brooches and cater­pil­lars and bougainvil­lea; haters of brooches and cater­pil­lars and bougainvil­lea: his wives. So too a lit­tle boy with a lazy eye and a cat with three legs giv­ing birth in a fish­ing boat. So too a baby in striped paja­mas pulled dead from beneath a mound of con­crete. The world is his wife and we are all his wives.

/

In high school I had a choker—a black rib­bon tied tight around my neck with a fil­i­greed key hang­ing from it. I wore every day. I couldn’t say what drew me to it. My boyfriend would joke that it was “the key to your heart and can I have it?,” which coag­u­lat­ed my dis­taste for clichés and the peo­ple who used them. I think what he real­ly meant was—you refuse to have sex with me. I was just fif­teen.

I liked fairy tales when I was fif­teen.

When she turned fif­teen, the Lit­tle Mer­maid was allowed to rise to the sur­face.

Some­times girls swerve near fairy tales, then—discovering how unse­ri­ous they are, how unworthy—swerve away again. Fem­i­nist retellings are so sec­ond-wave. Bet­ter to leave them to the nurs­ery and go after big­ger fish. Yes, sex. Yes, vio­lence. So what?

Yet, in Angela Carter’s “Blue­beard” retelling, “The Bloody Cham­ber,” Bluebeard’s final wife is gift­ed a red chok­er with inlaid rubies—meant to rep­re­sent an his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion to the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

/

Lit­tle girls love to open box­es, to fit keys into locks, to watch unbox­ings on Youtube, to unwrap gifts, to slow­ly lift a lid and then—

When I asked my daugh­ter what she wants for her third birth­day, she said, “A pink present! A pur­ple present!” “But,” I asked her, “What do you want inside the present?” She just looked at me, mys­ti­fied.

/

Imag­ine a house­wife finds her husband’s lit­tle gold key knock­ing around the clothes dry­er like a hurt bird. She plucks it out and holds it up for close inspec­tion, cocks her head as if to say, Hmm. What door, draw­er, safe, box, head, heart, cunt, dick, hurt, mouth, fear does this key fit? What lit­tle toy truck, lit­tle wind-up can­cer mon­key, lit­tle liquor cab­i­net, lit­tle bureau of pain?

/

Louis the XVI was a col­lec­tor of keys and fas­ci­nat­ed by the mechan­ics of locks, but he didn’t understand—for the longest time—how the act of unlock­ing a door is some­what like the act of love. As a result, his wife went child­less for an excru­ci­at­ing­ly long time. The result may or may not have been Antoinette’s long­ing for a baby, but was most cer­tain­ly her polit­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The for­mer is irrel­e­vant in light of the lat­ter.

/

My hus­band likes to tell me about what he’s been read­ing. Late­ly he’s been work­ing his way through a his­to­ry of music in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry titled The Rest is Noise, and he’s got­ten him­self stuck on a descrip­tion of a Ger­man opera based on the Bib­li­cal siren Salome. “In this one par­tic­u­lar pro­duc­tion,” he tells me, “Salome prac­ti­cal­ly fucks John the Baptist’s decap­i­tat­ed head on-stage.”

The last image in that recent French film-ver­sion of “Blue­beard” is of the final bride—obviously no more than twelve or thirteen—posing as if in a Renais­sance paint­ing as she strokes—gently, gently—Bluebeard’s lopped-off head neat­ly placed on the cen­ter of a gold plat­ter. She seems Madon­na-like, look­ing a bit askance—just off-cam­era as if at some­thing very sad—her head tilt­ed a bit, ever so slight­ly, to the side.

The final scene is over­ly long, uncom­fort­ably so. While we wait for the inevitable fade-to-black, our eyes roam over her lit­tle girl’s body, her odd face, her hand stroking, stroking Bluebeard’s bluish beard absent­ly, as if it were cat’s fur. I can sense my stu­dents’ dis­com­fort. Some laugh.

After­ward I ask them about Salome. Has any­one heard of Salome?

No.

There’s some sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tion here, I tell them, some­thing about political/religious/artistic extrem­ists and the women who love/hate them—but I can’t quite get my head around it.

/

In that recent film adap­ta­tion of Perrault’s “Blue Beard,” twinned nar­ra­tives con­flate at the moment the mag­ic key enters the lock. Instead of the fairy tale wife, we watch a lit­tle girl from some­thing like our own time enter the for­bid­den cham­ber. I will not be scared. I will not be scared, she whis­pers to her­self.

She steps bare­foot into a pool of blood and walks among the hang­ing bod­ies of Bluebeard’s dead wives, past and around all those hang­ing bod­ies, slip­ping here and there on that pool of blood as if it were an ice rink. My stu­dents laugh uncom­fort­ably. After the film is over, I ask them,

Why do you think the film­mak­er chose to have the lit­tle girl telling the sto­ry in the present walk into the room and not the wife?”

Because:

1. A lit­tle girl, eight years old, is dead of a bomb in Man­ches­ter, Eng­land.
2. A fif­teen-year-old who on Face­book is wreathed by illus­trat­ed flow­ers was also killed in Man­ches­ter, and her moth­er doesn’t know her pass­word, so she con­tin­ues, like Snow White in her glass cof­fin, an eter­nal sleep on the Inter­net.
3. We are always telling this sto­ry. We are con­stant­ly and in per­pe­tu­ity telling this sto­ry.

/

That Blue­beard is God is an easy answer, I tell my stu­dents, but an apt one. In this sce­nario, the wife’s curios­i­ty opens a door onto imper­ma­nence, a world in which Blue­beard is a land­scape artist, in situ—a frowsy old man crouch­ing in an Eng­lish field, arrang­ing in spi­rals his twigs and stones and water and frond.

The whole point is even­tu­al oblit­er­a­tion, wind and weath­er, the dra­ma of an Eng­lish sky and, by exten­sion, a break­able plan­et like a woman’s face at thir­ty, forty, fifty, the lines around her eyes inten­si­fy­ing until gulch, arroyo, well, wor­ry, then—well—a whole city under the sea.

Maybe Bluebeard’s cham­ber of hor­rors is just an artist’s small-scale ren­der­ing, a kind of sketch before he stalks out into the field and begins the real thing.

/

Ear­li­er in the film, Blue­beard smiles fond­ly at his child-bride. “You’re a strange lit­tle per­son,” he tells her. “Why?” she asks. “Because you have the inno­cence of a dove but the pride of a hawk,” he tells her.

This is suit­able fairy tale dialogue—riddling and rife with easy sym­bol­o­gy. The dove is inno­cent. The hawk is pride­ful. Many girls, includ­ing my daugh­ter, man­age the com­bi­na­tion until expe­ri­ence and age catch up with them, at which point they make a choice—the dove or the hawk—and nei­ther is with­out dis­ad­van­tages.

My daugh­ter just this morn­ing, I tell my stu­dents, looked out her bed­room win­dow onto the roof where a young mourn­ing dove was hunched, wait­ing out the rain. “C’mon,” I said to her. “It’s time to get ready for school” (she calls day­care school). “Birds don’t go to school,” she said. “They go to bird school.” “Can I go?” she asked. “No,” I told her. “You’re not a bird.”

/

Who was the audi­ence for Charles Perrault’s sto­ries? And who was Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s? One imag­ines Per­rault among the glit­terati of Parisian salons—many host­ed by women. There was a naugh­ti­ness, you know, about the salon. It was a safe place for women to intel­lec­tu­al­ize, phi­los­o­phize, social­ize, flirt. In the salon’s milieu a fairy tale acquires lay­ers of meaning—from tongue-in-cheek advice to young wives, to polit­i­cal com­men­tary, and final­ly to children’s enter­tain­ment.

Now imag­ine Ander­sen in the con­fes­sion­al or on an analyst’s couch. “There’s this mer­maid, you see. And she longs for an immor­tal soul…”

/

In “The Snow Queen,” a lit­tle rob­ber girl threat­ens to kill the child hero­ine Ger­da with a knife. She sleeps with her knife and keeps a cote of doves and even a rein­deer pris­on­er. “These all belong to me,” she says.

She takes Ger­da into her bed along with the knife, as if Ger­da is a baby doll or a lover, and Ger­da spends the night won­der­ing if she’ll live or die.

Even­tu­al­ly the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl decides to help Ger­da though her motives—like those of many fairy tale types—go unex­plored. All we know is that her will is fierce and she’s in pos­ses­sion of it.

What kind of lit­tle girl is this?

For Gerda’s jour­ney to the Snow Queen’s domain, the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl gifts her her rein­deer, bread and ham, muff and mit­tens; then when Ger­da slips the mit­tens on, the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl says, “There, now your hands look just like my mother’s.”

But the Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl’s moth­er is a full-grown thief, beard­ed, and mean.

/

I tell my stu­dents, on the car ride to day­care, my daugh­ter point­ed to all the lilies she saw in their beds out­side the gro­cery store and said, “Those flow­ers are mine! Every­thing is mine!” A lit­tle lat­er, I say, I post­ed a recount of the episode to social media and the com­ments include some­thing like, “What a beau­ti­ful lit­tle tyrant! ☺”

/

Is Blue­beard the baby or the birth?

More women make it out of child­birth alive than in Charles Perrault’s time, Hans Chris­t­ian Anderson’s, or per­haps even Angela Carter’s, and more babies are sur­viv­ing too. So why does our coun­try rank high­est in mater­nal and infant mor­tal­i­ty rates among oth­er wealthy, devel­oped nations? This was the sub­ject of an NPR sto­ry I stum­bled across dri­ving home from the art school where I ram­ble on at stu­dents about the mean­ings of fairy tales.

I man­age to lis­ten to the entire broad­cast and still come away with­out any defin­i­tive answers. Some­thing some­thing health care. Some­thing some­thing edu­ca­tion.

My mind wan­ders back­ward to my children’s births when I vague­ly remem­ber my mind wan­der­ing (dur­ing labor with my first, the knife with my sec­ond), back even fur­ther to an embry­on­ic fear—perhaps car­ried in my genes—that I wouldn’t sur­vive this. I was old­er after all, as all the paper­work and mon­i­tors and plac­ards remind­ed me—Geri­atric Mater­ni­ty. Advanced Age. I’d been qui­et­ly rel­e­gat­ed to “high-risk” out­pa­tient clin­ics for many of my check-ups, ultra­sounds, and, most wor­ry­ing­ly, my genet­ic coun­sel­ing, which felt like a job inter­view or, even worse, an expla­na­tion of why I did so poor­ly on my stan­dard­ized test.

The coun­selor her­self spoke slow­ly and soft­ly as she gath­ered my information—who died and of what? Who is relat­ed to whom? How many live births? How many still­births? How many mis­car­riages? “Most peo­ple,” she said to me, “are a lot more ner­vous than you seem to be.” So of course I won­dered if I should be more ner­vous. Maybe I wasn’t express­ing the cor­rect amount of ner­vous­ness.

I could die. The baby could die. Now or lat­er, or lat­er lat­er. The baby could be mal­formed, under­de­vel­oped, and maybe I’m evil for even think­ing these thoughts, for think­ing the words mal­formed, under­de­vel­oped. My uterus could sur­ren­der its mis­sion and just bail on the whole thing. My pla­cen­ta could thin and snap. There might be unmit­i­gat­ed bleed­ing, preeclamp­sia, dia­betes, post­par­tum depres­sion, post­par­tum psy­chosis. My womb is a bloody cham­ber. The ques­tion is: who’s got the key?

/

Angela Carter, in her review of psy­chol­o­gist Eric Rhode’s book On Birth and Mad­ness, writes, “Lan­guage crum­bles under the weight of this pain. Mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of this pain is a lie.” She seems intrigued by the writ­ing but ulti­mate­ly frus­trat­ed by his outsider’s exper­tise on some­thing he’ll nev­er expe­ri­ence. Should we hate Rhode for his lack of sen­su­al knowl­edge?

Nev­er mind the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a word like mad­ness, if I were to unpack Carter’s state­ment, my whole house—three lit­tle bed­rooms, one full-bath and one-half, a semi-dry base­ment, two liv­ing rooms, a gal­ley kitchen—would fill to capac­i­ty with under­de­vel­oped notions about mys­tery and lan­guage and pain. I wouldn’t begin to know how to orga­nize them, how to box and label them, then how to kneel before those box­es (were I to man­age) at some small hour many years in the future and take those notions out—one by one—and, filled with nos­tal­gia and long­ing, turn them over and over again in my hands. What I mean to say is this: I can­not say.

/

Still, death in child­birth may be the secret to so many fairy tales’ miss­ing moth­ers, but, accord­ing to writer Mari­na Warn­er, there may be an even more insid­i­ous rea­son: a mother’s com­plete erad­i­ca­tion by irrel­e­vance. (She’s become so good at being silent, her silence con­sumes her. Her cul­ture eras­es her. Her own son sets fire to her still-liv­ing body.)

And pain in child­birth may be the secret to so many trans­for­ma­tions. I don’t mean sim­ply the pain of labor itself, but the aftershocks—emotional, phys­i­cal, what Rhode refers to in his tit­il­lat­ing title as mad­ness. Maybe our fate is sim­ply to become sea foam. Pain dri­ves the tides. Pain churns the foam.

A teacher I knew long ago who gave birth to her still­born daugh­ter soon there­after became rain and ran away.

A musi­cian who lost his teenage son over a cliff became the ocean and was sucked back into the clouds. He kept play­ing.

/

A mother’s absence may have to do with a teller’s desire to pro­mote an image of moth­er­hood that’s dis­creet and gen­teel to the point of obliteration—a sort of kind­ly shad­ow that would nev­er dream of aban­don­ing her chil­dren to the for­est or tear­ing out and eat­ing her daughter’s heart.

My own mother’s moth­er is just such a mother—I mean the absent kind, not the heart-eat­ing kind. Or, she very well may have been a heart-eater, but time and for­get­ful­ness has smoothed away any jagged pecu­liar­i­ties she may have had.

She hat­ed my mother’s white Keds. I know that much. I know she want­ed my moth­er to wear sad­dle shoes, so my moth­er would hide her Keds under a bush, and when she left for school in her sad­dle shoes, she’d duck behind the house and switch them out for her Keds.

I know my grand­moth­er loved mar­ti­nis and made clothes for my moth­er and sis­ter. I know she made the lit­tle blue wool zip-up sweater in my baby son’s dress­er.

I know she bleached her hair because in the one pho­to I’ve seen of her as girl her hair is dark. I know like so many fairy tale hero­ines, her own moth­er dis­ap­peared too—an absence inside an absence.

/

Eric Rhode: “Myths con­cern­ing some lost key to under­stand­ing are wide­spread.”

Changes in fam­i­ly dynam­ics too are the stuff of fairy tales.

When my grand­moth­er came home one day to find her moth­er gone (by way of mad­ness or lit­er­al absence), per­haps she, in that moment, became some­one else’s daugh­ter alto­geth­er.

Con­sid­er Goldilocks,” says Rhode. “She breaks into a house belong­ing to a fam­i­ly of bears, or so she wish­es to think. She is estranged from mem­bers of her fam­i­ly (because her moth­er has giv­en birth to a lit­tle baby, the youngest bear; now she thinks her fam­i­ly belongs to a dif­fer­ent species). She is a stranger in her own home.… Noth­ing fits. Much gets bro­ken.”

/

When my own moth­er and father divorced, my father prompt­ly moved out. But there was a brief inter­im when he was still around (sort of), when I tried to open the old brown leather brief­case he left lay­ing around—locked by a com­bi­na­tion of num­bers unknown to me. I remem­ber think­ing all the secrets to my family’s fail­ure were there if I could just open it up and see.

Then, after a time my mom invit­ed her boyfriend to come live with us. I was a teenag­er. His blun­der­ing around the places and things I asso­ci­at­ed with my father enraged me. Like a dement­ed Goldilocks, I ram­paged my way through the house, hid­ing or destroy­ing the boyfriend’s clothes, spray­ing his shav­ing cream all over his pil­low, shov­ing ice cubes into the toes of his shoes, mock­ing him every chance I got—to his face and behind his back. The ter­ror I inflict­ed on him was mer­ci­less, then one day I remem­ber he just broke down and cried.

Eric Rhode says, “A lov­ing fam­i­ly brings up a child who has no rea­son for com­plaint. And yet the child feels itself to be an orphan. Fairy tales reflect its predica­ment. A prince wakes up one morn­ing and dis­cov­ers he has become the son of a swine­herd. A shepherd’s daugh­ter awakes to learn she is a princess.”

Noth­ing fits. Much gets bro­ken.”

/

What did my grand­moth­er die of? I still don’t know. I could find out and some­times I believe I intend to, but I also believe I enjoy the mys­tery. In my mind I can imag­ine it was neglect. Child­birth. A mur­der­ous hus­band. Wolves. Can­cer.

My great-grand­moth­er was a Swede who’d set­tled in Boston. She was an alco­holic, my mom tells me. And—I don’t know. She was put in an insane asy­lum or just ran away one day—ran away from her kids and her hus­band. I’m not sure.

/

Did you know, I tell my stu­dents, a sci­en­tist named de Saus­sure in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry thought he could mea­sure the blue­ness of the sky?

What if we could assess pre­cise­ly when night ends and when blue’s voice takes on the tremo­lo of twi­light so that before we turn the key we might deter­mine how blue cal­cu­lates against joy?

I’m sus­pi­cious of the idea that col­or is eter­nal (the idea sounds too much like reli­gion to me), but if the cen­tral argu­ment re: col­or is whether or not col­or exists phys­i­cal­ly in the world, then how could I not equate col­or with faith?

In Perrault’s sto­ry, Bluebeard’s final wife, in try­ing to make the best of her sit­u­a­tion, begins “to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all.”

/

Blue­beard could be the first per­son you slept with. He could be the death dri­ve, a killing desire, the blue under an eye you want to kiss because it sug­gests mor­tal­i­ty and invokes, there­fore, ten­der­ness.

Or Blue­beard could be a baby. Here’s why:

The man­u­al on breast­feed­ing says you can’t real­ly know how much milk your baby is get­ting except by weight gain and how many wet dia­pers and how many dirty. There are some latches—it’s worth noting—that just won’t work. Like a key in a lock.

There are bod­ies in this ver­sion too, of course. And they’re my old selves.

In this ver­sion of the sto­ry, once in that secret room I feel my way toward a win­dow and, look­ing through it, can see all the way back to—

I ignore the bod­ies and look out the win­dow

and from the win­dow I see

a cloud like the spine of a book on a shelf in the sky :
What hap­pens is this: the

I’m in a dark hall­way feel­ing the walls
for a door, a way in. A begin­ning.

Ok. Good.

Just insert the key, turn, then

push the han­dle with both hands and—

Cloud like the spine
          of a book on
                    a shelf in
                              the sky

to run
          my hand along :
Blue is the color of his nursery.

/

Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen stum­bled under the weight of his neuroses—hash marks in his diary to keep track of his mas­tur­ba­to­ry ses­sions, obses­sions with women he couldn’t pos­si­bly con­sum­mate, obses­sions with men he couldn’t pos­si­bly consummate,a love of trav­el but a shat­ter­ing fear of germs, an abid­ing lone­li­ness he tried to squelch with pub­lic ado­ra­tion, then a supreme dis­trust of pub­lic ado­ra­tion. Who could love the son of a cob­bler?

I had an Ander­sen col­lec­tion as a girl—a hand­some­ly illus­trat­ed, hard­cov­er col­lec­tion I man­aged to keep through my par­ents’ divorce, my mom’s two sub­se­quent remar­riages, so many moves, and even a long-term loan to my niece who is now near­ly eigh­teen and head­ed to col­lege.

But because I have chil­dren of my own, the book came back to me.

A live bomb, it ticks away on the shelf.

My name is writ­ten in the front cov­er. I put it there when I was maybe eight, maybe ten. The name seems to emerge from the blue end­sheet and alone, with­out a mid­dle name or a last name, it floats there, embry­on­ic.

/

I read aloud to my daugh­ter from “The Snow Queen” when she was an infant and was stunned all over again by the story’s eccen­tric­i­ty, how it seems to be a jum­ble of sto­ries all with their own poten­tial­i­ty forced into sub­servience. The mas­ter narrative—a lov­ing girl (Ger­da) quest­ing to free her friend (Kay) from the icy clutch­es of superficiality—subsumes along the way more inter­est­ing digres­sions, like the will­ful, vio­lent Lit­tle Rob­ber Girl or the flow­ers who have their own sto­ries, all of which seem to refuse the larg­er story’s chief aim—that is, to return the world to nor­mal­cy. Take, for exam­ple, the tigerlily’s tale. It goes like this:

          In her long red robe stands the Hin­doo [sic] wid­ow by the funer­al pile. The flames rise around her as she places her­self on the dead body of her hus­band; but the Hin­doo [sic] woman is think­ing of the liv­ing one in that cir­cle; of him, her son, who light­ed those flames. Those shin­ing eyes trou­ble her heart more painful­ly than the flames which will soon con­sume her body to ash­es. Can the fire of the heart be extin­guished in the flames of the funer­al pile?
          “I don’t under­stand that at all,” said lit­tle Ger­da.
          “That is my sto­ry,” said the tiger-lily.

/

We’re back to Blue­beard as fanat­ic, I say.

Will our sons grow up to tes­ti­fy against us, as Audre Lord sug­gests, or do I “fear our chil­dren will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street?”

Is it an either/or propo­si­tion?

I always thought fairy tales were just for the despon­dent, priv­i­leged white woman.

Now I won­der, do we accuse the son who touch­es his torch to the pyre or the scheme that says the fire must be set in the first place?

These are ques­tions, Friends, I can’t answer.

/

Instead, let me tell you about my mother’s house:

I go about my dreams there with new pur­pose.

Good night, Every­body, my daugh­ter said before I put her down in her fold­out crib.

It was the first night I spent with her in my mother’s guest room with its por­trait of my long-dead grand­moth­er above the bed.

(In the paint­ing my grand­moth­er wears an orange sheath dress, gold hoop ear­rings, and a mod­i­fied bee­hive made of frost­ed hair. I’ve often tried to see myself in her, but I don’t.)

Deep in the blue gut­ter of night, my daugh­ter woke up in my mother’s house and point­ed to the por­trait of my grand­moth­er. I pan­icked a lit­tle, won­der­ing if they’d been dis­cussing in ur-lan­guage all the feel­ings words feel, tugged as they are out of abstrac­tion as she sure­ly was—from absence into pres­ence. Go back to sleep, I told her.

Then morn­ing came, sun first on the old­er part of the house where we sleep. She woke this time for good, stood up in her fold­out crib, and point­ed again at that por­trait. She said to it, Night, Night, but she didn’t get it wrong exact­ly, not if you con­sid­er dark­ness is in all direc­tions, simul­ta­ne­ous to now.

/

We’re watch­ing Lars von Trier’s film Break­ing the Waves, and after the final scene in which church bells—missing from Bess the heroine’s home­town steeple—peal out in Heav­en for her sac­ri­fice, I catch one of my stu­dents wip­ing away tears. I need a cig­a­rette, she says. I’m sor­ry, I say. Did I break you?

When the Lit­tle Mer­maid nar­row­ly escapes her des­tiny as sea-foam, it’s thanks to a loop­hole in that fun­da­men­tal­ist dog­ma that says immor­tal souls are only for humans and there’s some­thing wrong with becom­ing sea-foam in the first place.

Do girls killed for obscen­i­ty rise with the Daugh­ters of the Air?

I don’t see why Blue­beard has to be a per­son,” a stu­dent writes in her essay. “Maybe Blue­beard is an ide­ol­o­gy.”

Yes!

What a cru­el man Dan­ish direc­tor Lars von Tri­er must be, how sadis­tic to make us watch a woman destroy her­self in the name of some­thing we can’t see.

But, to be fair, could we be friends with some­one like Bess, a stu­dent asks. Could we actu­al­ly put up with some­one so ide­o­log­i­cal­ly pure, a believ­er so exas­per­at­ing we watch her through our fin­gers and moan? And how can we love a lit­tle mer­maid who would will­ing­ly give up her voice in exchange for eter­nal life—just when we’ve begun to believe we’re enti­tled to our voic­es in the first place? And just when we’ve start­ed to think eter­nal life is a sham?

Some­times I feel I’m forc­ing you into a philo­soph­i­cal bind I may nev­er see my way clear of—not as long as I live.

/

The flow­ers in “The Snow Queen’s” Third Sto­ry refuse to (or sim­ply can’t) tell Ger­da where Kay is, but instead “dream only of [their] own lit­tle fairy tale of his­to­ry.”

Dream. Fairy tale. His­to­ry.

Name some sim­i­lar­i­ties and then some dif­fer­ences between these three things:

(“All these are mine!” my daugh­ter said, rak­ing her hand across the gar­den.)

/

Sto­ry One. Lit­tle Death Eater

Dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son, what kings them­selves called the First King­dom, loy­al man-ser­vants and the best whores were buried beside their czars. Ship­wrights made twen­ty spe­cial. So many wives, hair­dressers, drop­pers of petals, but lioness­es strangest of all, their roil­ing throats and ver­ti­cal pupils aping in shape a woman ris­ing from her hor­i­zon­tal land­scape. The king’s many wives ate away at his auton­o­my. Chil­dren ate at his thoughts. Chefs fed him ample food to eat his thin­ness. Lovers ate at his fat.

Why anoth­er kind of man-eater to eat at his spir­it?

There once was a wife who so despised her king, to bang his name into the stone of her face, she took poi­son of her own accord just to spite him and like a lioness ever after belonged to no one but the ghosts of her kill.

/

Sto­ry Two. Lit­tle Sore Eyes

Many hun­dreds of years ago on the Sab­bath of some­one else’s week, a reli­gion for lit­tle girls was born, first among brats and scullery maids who slept with their backs to the fire, whose altars were pig ossuar­ies, who wept in the smoke it takes to cure, then spread among ladies-in-wait­ing, whose eyes ached from scut­work, whose threads were licked thin enough to fit, whose rit­u­als went: stare hard at a ceil­ing. Let the seams between planes expand, so what bore up your life’s establishment—cherry beams, cob­webs shred to the shape of a man sleeping—thunders to your bed­room floor.

The rub­ble will spell out your future. On your knees you grope for it. You feel the let­ters, the feel­ing a type of know­ing, like a fist screwed deep in an eye-sock­et until you get stars and oh yes now the uni­verse opens its door.

/

There’s a famous anec­dote about Emi­ly Dick­in­son that goes like this:

Aunt Emi­ly reached into her house­dress pock­et and pulled out—an imag­i­nary key! She opened her palm to show me, her niece. She said, “One quick turn—and it’s free­dom, Mat­ty!”

/

Sto­ry Three. Blue­beard as Com­pos­er

Wasn’t it Tol­stoy who wrote some­thing like, bour­geois love will be the last delu­sion? No. I say the piano is. It sits petu­lant and desirous of touch in the sit­ting room, stick and bone and pearl for a cor­pus, moth­er of pearl for fin­gers, met­al ped­al for a foot. It talks in puz­zles should you know the score, built on glyphs and strikes on grids. Take the time to learn it and time bleeds. I don’t have it. But I like to think Rach­mani­noff is thun­der­ing away at a key­board some­where in Hell. Think of me as God. I gath­er up the piano in my arms and rock it to sleep before shoot­ing it. Any future instru­ment is just grist, hype, and hiz­zle for sirens whose music turns the ocean back on them. Sure, I can play the ordi­nary thing, but I do it under a nom de plume, the way you can dance by sit­ting very very still.

/

Sto­ry Four. Bluebeard’s Final Wife as Acolyte

I’m stand­ing in your door­way. Your stu­dio is white and clean but for post­card-sized draw­ings you’ve past­ed to its walls, their abstract­ed fac­sim­i­les of artic scenes, and your to-do list in nar­ra­tive imper­a­tive, hang­ing like a por­trait above your com­put­er screen:

1. the secret to this mode of crit­i­cal
2. think­ing isn’t the secret
3. which we’re also
4. haunt­ed by, but by the
5.
6.

I’m sor­ry to have missed you. Your work is strange. Whether you’ve left any trace of yourself—a pen drip­ping blood on your pad’s glacial monolith—well, let’s just say I’d kiss you if you were here (and it would feel like suck­ing ice).

/

Sto­ry Five. Bluebeard’s First Wife as Mis­car­riage

Oh how did this all get start­ed? I think it must be: blood on my bleached drift­wood stoop, on a pot­ted rose­mary, in my orchard a grape­fruit tree.

I rely on a tremu­lous class of grow­ing things, and when they don’t grow, don’t wor­ry; there are whole libraries ded­i­cat­ed to futil­i­ty.

/

Sto­ry Six. Bluebeard’s Sec­ond Wife as Fairy Tale

Chil­dren, the sky’s rum­pled sheets of stars shine tonight as they did years ago when clouds bul­lied the moon with their fists and high winds ruf­fled the scree, when weird­er still a dove purred, a dove purred as night fell, its breast yield­ing.

In such wild times as these, my mind turns to poor Don­keyskin, her eye glit­ter­ing. She lived in a trail­er in a hol­low at the head of a road that bursts the heart of the wood then ends where our coun­ty stops. She kept a bird in a glued-togeth­er cage, a sin­gle unmat­ed dove as blue as that dress of hers the col­or the sky she had made to keep her own father from know­ing her. And it’s years since any­one has. Woods seemed to wolf down her lit­tle life, keep­ing it like a light in its dark gut, a can­dle of sheep fat and old age, and there she sat. I hear tell her dove fell in love with a mouse that crept into its cage, and seemed to shel­ter it under its wing. God, we need to love some­thing. (Moral One)

Or

Among the many things in life to learn, be sure you learn how to play and sing
so when the time comes, you can play and you can sing. (Moral Two)

/

Sto­ry Sev­en. Bluebeard’s Sec­ond-to-last Wife, Dream­ing a Dream

In the sto­ry I’ve only part­ly read, the set­ting is a cal­en­dar house with 365 rooms and twelve stair­cas­es. I’m in the azure room, num­ber 243, and I impose a nar­ra­tive onto a wren clat­ter­ing onto the hearth. It drowns in its own blood. The end.

/

When he decid­ed to det­o­nate him­self, did he count as one might count before a field day sack race, a dive off the block into a pool, as a way to get in sync with a grade school friend before the secret chant—you know—Miss Mary Mack this and that and hands clap­ping and strange eye con­tact? 1… 2… 3.

Or maybe it was at inhalation—this was just the right breath to end on.

Maybe he called his moth­er before­hand to ask for her for­give­ness but couldn’t get through.

Fairy tales, I tell my stu­dents, are per­pet­u­al.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Most sum­mers I teach an extra class at my col­lege because it’s fun and I could use a lit­tle extra mon­ey. This year it was decid­ed I would teach a sec­tion of Crit­i­cal Read­ings in Fairy Tales. Because it’s a pop­u­lar course, we (and I mean the admin­is­tra­tion and I) believed the class would get enough enroll­ment to run, and sure enough, it did. Though I’d nev­er taught it before, I felt pret­ty good about hav­ing a month between spring semester’s end and the sum­mer class­es’ start to get myself up to speed on the read­ing and research I need­ed to do, but my col­lege changed the dates on me sud­den­ly and with­out notice, so I had to scram­ble to get my syl­labus ready imme­di­ate­ly after I turned in my spring semes­ter grades. All of this is to say, I came to this class feel­ing weird­ly unpre­pared.

As it turned out, I end­ed up with six stu­dents after a few dropped away, so in many ways it did feel an awful lot like study hall, or the Break­fast Club—only with odd, delight­ful­ly smart con­ver­sa­tions.

I admit­ted to my stu­dents that I was com­ing to the mate­r­i­al fresh and that I was hop­ing it would yield some­thing to me, or for me—creatively. I also admit­ted that I’d been reluc­tant to ven­ture into fairy tales since I was in my twen­ties. Retellings and adap­ta­tions felt stale—like some kind of sta­t­ic reminder of an old-fash­ioned, white-cen­tric fem­i­nism I’m try­ing to wres­tle my way away from.

But lately—thanks most­ly to my tod­dler daughter—I’ve been forced to look at fairy tales again and in them I find new oppor­tu­ni­ties, new ques­tions, new con­nec­tions. In par­tic­u­lar I’ve begun to read Angela Carter with fresh eyes and I see her as a bril­liant intel­lect, a cul­tur­al crit­ic of the high­est order, and a writer who worked mir­a­cles with old material—breathing life back into them in unimag­in­able ways.

So this essay is a love let­ter to her and to my stu­dents who helped me see these old sto­ries in new contexts—some of which are dif­fi­cult and painful. One stu­dent in par­tic­u­lar led me there with her dream of Blue­beard, and the rest seemed to fall into place.

 

Les­ley Jenike’s poems have appeared in Poet­ry, The Get­tys­burg Review, Rat­tle, Verse, Smar­tish Pace, The South­ern Review, and many oth­er jour­nals. She has received awards from The Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Cre­ative Arts, the Ohio Arts Coun­cil, and the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter. Her most recent col­lec­tion is a chap­book titled Punc­tum:, win­ner of the 2016 Kent State Wick Chap­book Prize. She teach­es lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at the Colum­bus Col­lege of Art and Design in Colum­bus, Ohio.