You Know, for Children

I am one of those people that Tolkien mentions in his essay “On Fairy Stories” who loves fairy stories.  As a child, I had the sense that most of the stories I was consuming were somehow clipped, cut, and cultivated for a “lesser” mind, or as Tolkien put it, “relegated to the nursery.”  This is true of many tales: “Red Riding Hood,” for example, and its origins in “The Grandmother’s Tale.”  Charles Perrault shaped the story into a simple moral about little girls needing to behave themselves, not talk to men, to be demure rather than bold so that they may avoid the “gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”  Later, the Grimms, with their love of folklore, presented another adaptation, which is not less moralizing, but has a happy ending instead.

While I was unfamiliar with “The Grandmother’s Tale” as a child, I did know of the many other versions of “Red Riding Hood.”  The happy ending of the Grimm’s version settled wrong in my stomach.  I was out for bloodier things, things which better mirrored my notion of reality: the hero doesn’t always win, cruelty abounds, and triumphs often require sacrifice.

That was why I loved Hans Christian Andersen when I was young.  Rather than just retelling oral stories, the main body of Andersen’s works were his own invention.  Each of his tales seemed so sad: the little mermaid sacrificing her voice to follow her prince, and then accepting her fate of death instead of murdering him to return to the sea; poor Elisa doomed to silence as she wove nettle sweaters for her brothers in order to give them back their human shape, but unable to finish them before the king’s archbishop ordered her death for witchcraft; Gerda’s trials and the sacrificing of her childhood in order to save Kay from the grasp of the Snow Queen.  These stories tugged on my sense of injustice… and maybe my overinflated sense of drama and self-sacrifice.

Rereading “The Little Mermaid” today leaves feels different.  Through many of Andersen’s narratives runs a martyr thread.  Again and again, Andersen’s images rely on goodness being little, sweet, innocent.  Too many ignorant angels smiling at the idea of the Christ child, after enduring hardship after hardship.  I no longer see the sacrifices of Andersen’s little heroines as noble, but as self-effacing.  Our mermaid gives up everything in order to convince a prince she hid from to love her, she bets her life on it.  And beyond the tale itself, there is often a the moralist note for the children listening: be good, or you’ll hurt the chances of the little mermaid earning a soul!

These are the stories that are relegated to the nursery.  These are the tales we put in children’s hands.  We tell them they will be rewarded for ignorance, for being “good.”  We tell them that to be considered good they need to have suffered injustly.  I think these are dangerous ideas to put in a  kid’s head.  There are better stories to put into a child’s hands, that talk of real things, like risk and reward and danger.  I think that most little children would do better tricking the bzou alongside a little girl than learning not to talk to men.

And Who Is Cruelest?

My stepson was proud of his new belt rank, and he beamed as we opened the door coming home.  He beamed until he saw the dead lizard in the middle of the floor, my cat standing over it like a fluffy grey lion.

My stepson interacts with animals in a way I don’t quite understand.  He’s almost nine.  He’s a self-chosen vegetarian (who only eats bread and cheese).  He talks to our cats as if he expects them to understand him, asking them why they did this thing or that thing.  He expects them to conform to human morality.  He gets upset when they fight.

I’m new to this whole step-parenting thing.  I watched his face crumple as he took in the cat, her obvious pride, the lizard’s corpse.

“Millie!  Why did you do that?” he nearly shrieked.

I went ahead and comforted my cat.  The elder huntress is the elder huntress.  I examined her offering to us.  The lizard was in two pieces: body and tail, and his legs were splayed at odd broken angles.

“Why did she do it, Story?”

How do you answer that?

“Cats eat meat.  They can’t eat anything else.  Cats hunt.  It’s what they do.  C’mere.  I’m going to ask you to help with this.  We’re going to take the lizard outside.  You take the tail.  Get a cloth.”

He did so, and handed me one as well.  But when I reached to pick up the mangled lizard body, it sprang into motion.  Only its front legs worked, and now I saw that its side was perforated.  The elder huntress, not being hungry, had delivered no killing blow.

“It’s still alive!” my stepson cried.  “We have to let it go now!”

Not like that.  Not mangled.  Not when it was a slow death sentence, and the best that could be hoped for was some larger predator to find it.

“No.  We have to kill it,” I said gently.

“Why?!”

“Because it’s so badly hurt.  I don’t want it to die slowly and in pain.”

“Can’t we just flush it down the toilet?”

That question hit me hard.  It doesn’t actually matter that it’s in pain, I just don’t want to see it.  It can drown, sure, but if it’s out of my sight, its pain doesn’t exist.

“No.   That’s not a kind thing to do.  Drowning is not all that quick a death.”

And I took the lizard, wrapped him gently in the cloth, set him on the front stoop, and brought my booted foot down on him as hard as I could.

My stepson grew very quiet.

Home as a Kind of Sickness

I remember an apartment filled with bodies, an apartment loud and raucous with partying college kids, and I sat among them, a thirty-or-something, drunk on the company, but loathing the clean-up.  I hated it at times.  It was a welcome respite from the days alone in Punta Gorda, a small oasis of talk and drinking games and fire spinning.  I loved it even as I hated being the only one who cared enough to contain the mess afterward.

Here it’s quiet.  I know people.  I could go out.  Sure.  Maybe.  But I could also sit on the floor and stare up at the ceiling, and it would be about the same thing.

They call this place Tallahassee.  My spouse sent me the following etymology: “from Muskogee tvlvhasse, name of a tribal town, perhaps from etvlwv ‘tribal town’ + vhasse ‘old, rancid.'”  I looked it up after he’d sent it to me.  He’d apparently copy pasted it from the Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper.  It’s fitting.

I remember these things about Miami: fifteen or sixteen or more bodies pressed into our apartment on a weeknight.  Someone pouring the rum right-handed across his body, leaning to the left into his phone, against the counter, away from talk in order to better hear the tiny receiver.  I remember our philosopher and our resident kandi kid sitting cross-legged on the unmopped floor, hunching over the shesh besh board, dice rolls exploding from hands which drunkenly fumbled the chips in interlocked U’s.  I remember the cups of the tea set all holding rum, all glued to careless fingers, and dishwashers stuffed full of things that were supposed to have been hand washed.

It’s a folly to prefer that to this.  It’s a folly to think “I should have.”  I hated those nights when I could get no break from the noise.  But I’d trade everything in this town for one more night in a cramped apartment with friends.

I wonder if it’s wisdom to listen to our philosopher: you can be happy anywhere.  I don’t know.  I can try.  I found woods filled with paths bursting with chanterelles and wild onions.  I found pools seeping out of sinkholes smelling of earth and cool water.  I found isolation and strange hills, businesses that close early, park hours enforced, and no beach to wander at night.  Nowhere to sit until 2 a.m. with pen in hand around people, unless I want to drink coffee bad enough to hurt my stomach.

This is the choice I made.  I came here to cold winter nights and college girls stage-whispering to each other about my clothes.  I love my spouse, but my pentacle draws stares.  What do you do with that?

Once There Was

Listen.  I used to tell this story of a girl and a dog roaming the swampy slow meetings of streams in the Connecticut hills.  The truth is, I don’t remember the girl or the dog exactly.  The truth is I make it grander than it likely was, girl and dog, splashing through shallows, scattering frogs.  Oh, it happened. Just like it happened when my sister and I, lumbering beasts, deprived of our mobility by snow suits, waddled down to our neighbor’s pond to try the ice.  It wasn’t cold enough, the layer not thick enough and we fell through, soaked up to our waists.  Or maybe our knees.  But we were shielded by the trees from our mother’s view, at least we thought so until we arrived home to a scolding.  Sure, that happened.  But I don’t remember the color of our coats.  I’ll say mine was a stained glass patchwork, 90’s bright.  I’ll say hers was pink.  I’ll say my mother yelled and yelled.  But I don’t remember for sure.

Listen.  They get better in the retelling.  They get taller when we become liars.  We loan them a kind of grace.  They hold their heads higher, their backbones carry them straighter.  We use them as vehicles to talk about what we’re facing now.  What we’re thinking about this instant, unless we learned something really big.  Then the tale gathers a different kind of power, but we embellish it no less.

So the girl and the dog.  I was the girl.  The dog’s name was Chance.  She had one blue eye and one brown.  She looked something like a husky, something like a springer spaniel, because she was both.  We terrorized the frogs, singly or together.  And I learned from those wet days how like smoke a memory is.  Or maybe how big bullfrogs were.  Or how easy it is to catch a dog with arthritis in her hips. Or perhaps how we build our identities by telling it all again.

Listen, I’ll keep telling these tales so I don’t lose them.  I’ll keep telling these tales so they don’t evaporate, so they don’t fall inward like a sinkhole in my mind, their foundations eroded with time.  What I’m doing is not an act of remembering.  It’s an act of reinvention.  We are all architects of our past.  We didn’t build our past actions; we are building our memories of them right now.  We are all Gene Wolfe’s Latro, injured in the head so he can’t remember yesterday, who must always write down his doings, or they will forever be lost to him. 

Listen.  There was this girl.  I’m pretty sure she was me.  She had a dog.  I think.