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?
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?”
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.
Just insert the key, turn, then
push the handle with both hands and—
Cloud like the spine
of a book on
a shelf in
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.”
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
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)
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.