CdF

Sep 112012
 

SB16

Rosa and the frozen tears
by Pen Clements

‘What about her? Would she make a good princess?’ said the King, watching his son and a young blonde girl as they ran across the palace lawns.

‘Rosa? Absolutely not. Neither wealthy nor well connected,’ said the Queen.

‘He’s always liked her,’ the King replied. ‘Since they were very small.’

‘He’s only ten now,’ the Queen said. ‘Far too young to know his own mind. We’ll find him a real noble’s daughter.’

They watched the prince grab Rosa’s hand and pull her towards him. The girl strained to get away but Prince Roderick had a strong grip.

‘I don’t think he wants anyone else, ’ the King said. It was Roderick’s seventeenth birthday and he had Rosa trapped in the birthday waltz. ‘You know how determined he is. She’s the one he wants to marry.’

‘Nonsense dear, she’s a passing fancy. He’ll grow out of it,’ said his wife.

They watched as Roderick held the young woman in his arms and twirled her round the floor.

‘She looks like she’s trying to get away,’ said one of the attendants, peering at the glittering aristocracy from behind a velvet curtain.

‘You had better hope she doesn’t,’ said the prince’s nanny. ‘He’d never get over it.’

Much later, when the revellers had hopped into their carriages and rolled home, two figures could be seen in the rose garden. They sat side by side on a carved stone bench, listening to a string quartet playing softly in the background.

‘You planted these for me?’ Rosa said, gesturing towards the shadowy garden.

‘They remind me of you. And now you’ll always be surrounded by roses.’

‘What if I don’t want to be?’ Rosa said, under her breath. Only the silver moonbeams saw the frown that crossed her face.

‘I think we should have four children,’ said Roderick, ‘Two boys and two girls would be nice, but as long as we have some of each I don’t really mind.’

Rosa paused before saying, ‘I would like to travel. Across the Seven Seas in a sailing ship.’

‘I’ve been thinking about names,’ Roderick continued, ‘but I haven’t decided on those yet.’

‘I would like to climb the Mountains of the Sun,’ said Rosa, her voice a little loud, ‘and find the dragons that live there.’

‘I’m looking forward to it,’ said Roderick.

‘So am I,’ Rosa said, tapping her foot.

They fell silent and gazed at the moonlit roses. The musicians hoisted their instruments and tiptoed away.

The prince reached his full height. His hair was a glossy black, his eyes a clear blue. His shoulders were broad and his back as straight as young larch tree. All the women in the palace loved to look at him. On the day he turned twenty-one he rose in buoyant good humour, flinging open his shutters and beaming at the clear, blue morning. He smiled as he walked the castle’s corridors, nodded to everyone he met, hummed a happy tune under his breath. The king watched him at breakfast. Now and then the prince reached his hand into his pocket and fondled something in there. Something small and round, just big enough to fit on a finger.

‘I told you he would marry her,’ said the King, when his son had left the room.

‘So stubborn,’ said the Queen, with a sigh. ‘And I did want a girl with her own title.’

‘He hasn’t asked her yet,’ mumbled the nanny, but nobody listened to her.

Roderick stood in the garden. Rosa was supposed to be there. He’d seen her last night, told her to wait by the rose beds he’d planted for her . She’d looked at him and although she hadn’t said anything, he knew she’d heard. He frowned and shaded his eyes, peering across the herbaceous borders. Her blonde head was always visible out here. It was the way the sun turned her hair to gold.

‘Rosa!’ he called, ‘Are you hiding? Are we playing a game?’ but there was no reply. Roderick walked in circles around the garden. The shadows lengthened. The ring was heavy in his pocket.

‘A noble’s daughter wouldn’t do this,’ said the Queen as she peered out of the conservatory window. ‘A noble’s daughter appreciates a good bloodline.’

‘I think you should tell him,’ said the King.

‘You’re his father,’ said the Queen.

‘And you’re his mother,’ said the King.

‘I’ll do it,’ the nanny said.

The prince took it hard. Very hard. He cried swollen tears that froze as they slid down his cheeks. They looked like icy diamonds.

‘I hope they aren’t cold,’ said the King.

‘Pity they aren’t real,’ said the Queen.

Roderick spent his days in the rose garden. A frosty rime appeared wherever he walked and his trailing fingertips left a rim of glass on the rose petals. Soon the rose garden was a silver wasteland, beautiful, but dead. The petals were sharp as thorns and no-one but the prince would go there. Roderick stopped crying but could not be parted from his frozen tears. After a time he had them fashioned into a necklace that he never removed.

The King and Queen waited for his melancholy to pass. It didn’t. Their prince moped in the rose garden and the only person he talked to was the dog.

‘We’re not getting any younger,’ said the King.

‘Speak for yourself,’ said his wife.

‘We need heirs,’ said the King,’ Grandchildren. Or one of those inbred cousins will take the throne. Roderick must marry.’

‘We could post a reward,’ the Queen said. ‘Let’s give his hand away in marriage to the first woman that can make him laugh. Or cry. Properly I mean. None of that frozen nonsense.’

‘I thought you wanted him to marry a noble? Someone with a good title, bloodlines and all that. And beautiful, of course.’

‘I don’t see what beauty has to do with anything,’ said the Queen, unconsciously stroking her large nose. ‘Besides, I don’t care what she’s like any more. I just want the rose garden back. Oh, and Roderick. ’

A flood of suitable and unsuitable women poured into the castle. Some were far too old to be marrying such a virile, handsome prince and some were far too young. Judging by the pale skin around their wedding fingers, some were married already.

The prince sat on the throne he was to inherit and listened to them all. He wore black or grey nowadays, the necklace of frozen tears shining against the dark cloth. The women sat on a red velvet cushion beside him and did their best to make him laugh or cry. They shared the tragedies, joys and triumphs of the kingdom. They told him everyday tales and histories that spanned generations, they sang, they recited poetry. Roderick gained a unique insight into the fears and dreams of his subjects but he wasn’t moved. He didn’t laugh and he didn’t cry. The most he ever did was to stroke the necklace around his neck with the tip of his little finger. Nobody existed for him but a young woman with golden hair and a laughing spirit of adventure.

The flood of women dried up. Decades went by. Now and then a stranger would appear out of curiosity, having heard rumours of the beautiful black-haired young man who seemed to have stopped time. For Roderick never aged. His faithful dog died, then the nanny, followed by some of the attendants who had been with him since childhood. Roderick didn’t gain a wrinkle.

‘Perhaps we should tell him Rosa is dead,’ said the Queen, in a quavering voice. She was very old now.

‘What’s that?’ said the King, ‘Speak up!’

‘I said, tell him she’s DEAD!’ shouted the Queen.

‘Can’t do that. He’d cry tears of blood and all we’d have is a matching set of jewellery.’

More time passed and a new visitor came to the castle. This one was far too old to be a suitor but she asked to see the prince anyway. Roderick sat on his throne, sighed and looked out of the window. The old woman began.

‘Once there was a lovely young girl and a handsome young man,’ the old woman said. ‘He wanted to marry her, have lots of children–four in fact–and live happily ever after.’

‘Heard it all before,’ said Roderick.

‘She wasn’t ready for that,’ said the old lady. ‘But he never seemed to hear her. She longed to sail the Seven Seas and climb the Mountains of the Sun. She wanted to see the dragons that live there.’

A slight frown crossed Roderick’s unlined face.

‘And did she?’ he asked.

‘Oh yes. She sailed all seven of the seas. And she climbed the Mountains of the Sun and found the golden dragons there. She even rode one of them.’

She had Roderick’s attention now.

‘And then,’ the old lady paused and reached out to Roderick, her touch as soft as a rose petal. ‘Then she found herself far from home in a foreign land. She married a handsome young man from that place and had lots of children and lived very happily with him until the day he died.’

Roderick clutched his necklace of frozen tears.

‘But she always remembered her young prince. She thought he would have forgotten her, married someone else and lived a rich and full life. She thought she’d come back and visit him, to hear his stories, to laugh over their youth and their memories, to share tales of his life after her.’

The old lady held Roderick’s hand.

‘And here you are,’ she said. ‘Frozen in time and far too young for me. You have stayed behind, too far behind for either of us to share anything again.’

Roderick sniffed. His nose was blocked and a wet stain spread across his front where the necklace hung. Only the gold chain was left now. He gulped and then he sobbed. He tried to stand and rubbed his back, puzzled. His knees creaked and his ankles were sore. He pushed his hands through his hair and realised it was no longer smooth and there wasn’t much of it. Rosa looked at her prince and smiled. Roderick looked at her, at his wrinkled hands, and cried again. Tears of sorrow for a life unlived, tears of joy for a lost love found.

‘I told you he’d marry her,’ said the ancient King.

‘He always was stubborn,’ the Queen said, putting her hand in his.


Pen Clements would like to be a botanist, a Shaolin monk or an anthropologist in a galaxy far, far away. She’d also like to have wings, breathe underwater and meet an angel. Unfortunately she hasn’t managed all of that yet, but being a writer lets her pretend.

Pen lives in tropical north Queensland with her husband, two sons and a traditional wooden sailing boat. She loves exploring the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and is inspired by the natural world. Her first novel, Oceanheart, will be released late 2012 and you can find some of her short stories on www.penclements.com.

 Posted by at 11:07 am

Late summer by Ruth Jenkins

 Issue 16 (Sept 2012)  Comments Off on Late summer by Ruth Jenkins
Sep 112012
 

SB16

Late summer
by Ruth Jenkins

her fingers bleed from the picking.
girl of summer canal-bank dirt:
black plastic bags, long feathers,
nest of gaudy ties, torn skirts. no, you can’t.
not again this time.

her basket is full. her skin
red with the juice of the fruit that grows by the
high humming wires, raw brick and flies.
we sit cross-legged. slash lines
in all our childhood dresses.

the water carries songs in her voice
the sky is not a liar but did he come back

hold out your hand
and i’ll tell you the truth

the stream is not a liar but did he. come back.
we have our own baskets packed to the brim
we drink the day hot and sweet and full.
the sea is not your lover but did he
and i’ll tell you the truth:
her berries are the dark of the eye of the beast we gut every spring:

we knew you.
pale man at the front of the class, we turn
the first pages of your green-covered books.
you are saying. to a question asked when we weren’t
paying attention. no. not her. not again this time.


Ruth Jenkins writes speculative poetry and short fiction on cities, magic and deserted buildings. She works in a library in North London with a cat that sneaks up stair wells and mews for stories and milk.

 Posted by at 11:06 am

Bachy Soletanche by Jason Erik Lundberg

 Issue 16 (Sept 2012)  Comments Off on Bachy Soletanche by Jason Erik Lundberg
Sep 112012
 

SB16

Bachy Soletanche
by Jason Erik Lundberg

Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche? Nah. Never heard of him.

What? Ten? Only ten? Ah, fifty, good. Hundred, even better. Oh, yah, Bachy Soletanche. Yeah, we’s acquainted. Followed his exploits, cheered on, lent an occasional hand. Hands holding huffily hilarious hornswaggles, Horatio.

Look, we never actually met. Don’t know what he looks like, him, hum, higgeldy hero. Got some emails, sure, but never saw. His face, you see? But oh, oh, oh did we have us some fun, we did. A man of smoke he was. Could sneak slide slip into anywhere anywhen then vanish without leaving behind a fingerprint or scuff on the floor. A djinn? No. No. Maybe, who knows. Sneak sneak sneak, them local superstitious supercilious silly sycophantic slumberers think of him a ghost, sure, seeing ghosts everywhere, them, in the trees, in the sewers, in the toilet water, nowhere to hide, and weren’t nowhere he couldn’t get.

Yeah, saw the headlines, the naughty nomenclature naming him, a terrorist, they said, hah. These fat flatulent fucking philandering photo-whores spreading that filth, them. No call for that, no sir, no, not necessary nor niggling nighttime lovers of laughing lacivious loneliness, no, wasn’t fair wasn’t right, they. Terrorists spread terror, but Bachy. Bachy. Bachy spread art, spread snark, spread satirical dissatisfaction and they can’t have that, no, them with their hands around the throats of the populace, wiretapping, scunts, search-tracking, IP monitoring, analyzing buying habits, determining nationalism, do you love this flag enough? Nation-building, how committed are you?

But Bachy Soletanche, Bachy Soletanche, ripple, float, fly, infiltrate all the nooks and crannies, yes. Can only tell what I know in person, but yes, it was him hacked the local broadcasts, replacing sad stupid silly serial soap dramas, them with the crying eyes and dramatic wide eyes and squinting eyes and the bad bad bad. So bad, the writing, the acting, the cheap production, but yet the locals eating up with a spoon, this mind garbage, this pestilential putrid putrescence of the populace, and so yes, yes, yessir he hacked, hooded and holy, and replaced with Marxist debates, with techniques of water desalination, with that man sitting in a black box studio reading the dictionary, some people think that man Bachy Soletanche, but no, no. Bachy Soletanche not that stupid to show his face. Not me neither, though I volunteered.

And the augmented reality. Oh the genius! The slight sly slipstreaming somnolence of the little bits, the binary of quality/non-quality invading iSpex over the entire population, Haru, spicy and speculative, avatar architect autonomous apotheosis and aggregate of information feed and overlay. No more the GPS directioneering, no more the instant access to the stringy vibrations of knowledge, but instead the compulsion to volunteer, to raise the poor, to serve community as “mandate” by the gahmen, gah man, heh, hah, a whole society putting down the shackles of more and new and shiny, putting aside the love thyself for love thy neighbor, doing for the meek, helping the helpless, homeless, heh heh, oh such gracious gratifying goodness gifted from the “gahmen” til the real gahmen re-established the iSpex links, rebooted the moral/ethical, replugged into the commercial buy buy buy you aren’t good enough and forget about those sleeping on park benches and under train station awnings, why aren’t you spending? But the seed, the seed of involvement, they couldn’t quash that, no.

But the best time, the best time, the very very best time was that one morning. Oh, that morning! You know, you know the one I mean, yes, yes you do, we all do, the morning all the Members of Parliament awoke molecularly bonded to the ceiling of the chambers by their buttocks. Ah! Ah! The raucous religious range of refrigerated revisioning that came after, but we knew, we knew. Minds foggy still druggy they awoke, they realized, they screamed shrieked shriked shanked but then all fell silent as their PM, their man, their leader, descending denuded downstairs donning nothing but his shoes, naked on that staircase into the chambers as the day of his birth and singing a meme-virus planted by Bachy Soletanche that infected the rest, songs of protest of solidarity of false flippancy. Of course, of course, they should, the song told them, put aside power, protect the population, encourage dissonant dissident deductive debate, allow a multiplicity of political parties, party on, rather than unicameral unitary unilateralism. Them, them, oh them, were it to be but no, no, not all susceptible, and those meme-immune managed to masterfully manipulate monsterish montages of mental mopery that halted the song and brought them back to themselves.

But Bachy, Bachy Soletanche, vanish after that, him, can’t bring about such humiliation without retaliation, and the death warrant, the bounty, turned the man of smoke to dissipation, scattering to the winds but he still, still out there, a unique form of continuity in space. The city rises with abstract speed and sound, and falls with text fixed in type, in electrons. His name everywhere, his being everywhen, on the side of construction cranes, spread all over sites of recalcitrant regulatory renovation even. In your head, in your head, zombie. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche. Bachy Soletanche.


Jason Erik Lundberg is the author of several books, most recently The Alchemy of Happiness (2012) and Red Dot Irreal (2011), as well as the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, the editor of Fish Eats Lion (2012), and co-editor of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (2008) and Scattered, Covered, Smothered (2005). His writing has appeared in venues such as Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the Raleigh News & Observer, Qarrtsiluni, Sybil’s Garage, Strange Horizons, Subterranean Magazine, The Third Alternative, Electric Velocipede, and many other places. Lundberg’s short fiction has been nominated for the SLF Fountain Award, shortlisted for the Brenda L. Smart Award for Short Fiction, and honorably mentioned twice in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and holds a degree in creative writing from North Carolina State University.

 Posted by at 11:05 am
Sep 112012
 

SB16

Hungry Greta
by Dan Holbrow

A big stainless steel fridge stands in one corner of the kitchen. It’s full of food, and the old fridge in the back room–the white one with the old-fashioned rounded corners and chrome handle–is half full, too. And then there’s a freezer in the basement, and a cold room full of pickles. The old woman loves to pickle; she pickles everything. She also loves children. But Greta does the rest of the cooking.

Greta can make all the food she wants, but she has to offer it to the boys first. That’s the rule. And it doesn’t seem to matter how much food she makes: the boys eat it all except a few scraps. The old woman told her once that if she was caught sneaking food, she’d lose a finger the first time, and the second time, a toe. After that, who knows?

Greta is missing the little finger on her right hand. She can’t stand the idea of losing a toe, so Greta is always hungry.

Little boys often wandered up to the house. It was a pretty cottage, edged and shuttered with wood cut in filigree patterns like lace, gleaming sugary white. Greta whitewashed the wood every spring, along with the picket fence. She even whitewashed the paving stones that led from the gate to the chocolate-brown door.

A pretty place like that, you might expect girls to like it and boys to shy away. But boys, especially alone, seemed to like pretty things. They delighted in leaving the gate open, and in leaving muddy prints all over the paving stones. Greta wondered if it was something Darwinian–a hard-wired sexual selection sort of thing. Maybe if Greta and the old woman lived in a concrete bunker ringed with barbed wire, little girls would knock on the steel door with fingers bleeding from the fence, looking for the hard, smoky man who lived there.

But they lived in a pretty little cottage, and they mostly got boys.

Every so often a girl would knock at the door, once or twice a year, usually in winter. The old woman always used to stand on the porch with her rusty shotgun and shout at the girl until she left. There was no ammunition, but of course the girl couldn’t know that. Then, once, the old woman invited a girl in for tea. Greta hid in the basement and listened to the clink of the cups and saucers, and thought about how hungry she was, and how she’d have more washing up to do today.

When she heard the girl leave and the front door squeak shut, Greta went up and complained to the old woman about the extra washing up. Perhaps, the old woman said, the girl could have done the dishes? Yes, Greta thought so. Come to think of it, the old woman said, maybe the girl could have made the tea, baked the cookies? Greta hesitated, nodded. Come to think of it, the old woman said, maybe the girl could fatten up the little boys? Then Greta would be free to leave for good.

After that, whenever girls came, the old woman would invite them in for tea. Greta would hide in the basement and listen to the clink of the cups and saucers. Then, when the front door squeaked shut, Greta would go upstairs, smile at the old woman, and do the washing up.

The boys despise Greta. Some of them don’t treat her badly at first, but once she has fed them for a few weeks they all grow round and smug and ill-tempered.

They fawn on the old woman, though. She waddles in, puts her hand between the bars, and pokes them to check their plumpness, and they laugh and make eyes at her. Greta makes them their favorite foods–roast chicken or pies or fancy pastries, whatever they want–and they sneer at her. They gobble up the food, sure enough, but they sneer at her all the same. They hate the one who feeds them, and fawn on the one who keeps them prisoner.

But then, maybe they can tell that Greta resents them, and that the old woman wants them. Greta thinks about this as she rolls out a piecrust. We all want to be wanted, don’t we?

Once, years ago, Greta tried to do away with the old woman. At first, it all went just as she’d planned. She said there was something wrong with the oven, and the old woman came downstairs and stuck her head in to see what was wrong, and Greta tried to work up the nerve to push her in and latch the door.

The old woman knelt there for a long time. Greta stood and looked at the woman’s sagging backside wrapped in its gaily-colored skirt, thought of shoving it into the oven. Then the old woman stood up and grinned at her.

“Got that out of your system?” Her voice was soft and rough at the same time. “Everyone’s read that story. It’s only make-believe, you know.”

Every month the old woman orders self-help books from a catalogue, but she never reads them. A pockmarked man comes in a delivery truck. He muddies up the paving stones and leaves the gate open just like a little boy, though he’s larger and hairier. He brings a big box of books and a new catalogue to the door, and then drives off again. The old woman snatches the catalogue right away and sits at the dining room table, cooing and gurgling over all the ways she could improve herself, while Greta carries the unopened box downstairs to stack it with the others.

Sometimes, when Greta can’t sleep, she reads one of the books by the light of the naked bulb that hangs from the rafters above her bed. Most of the books are about dealing with problems she has never had, like unfaithful spouses, or the death of one’s parent, or unsatisfactory sex. Some are funny, others are horrible, but they all make her think that most people are like the boys that come to the cottage: trapped, and greedy, and wanting the people who will hurt them. Whether they ought to be taken care of or gotten rid of, fed or eaten–that depends on the book.

It seems to Greta that she and the old woman and the boys are all part of the same process, all keep each other going. The boys come to eat and be eaten. Greta fattens them up for the old woman. Maybe the old woman only eats the boys so that they’ll go on fawning on her. Maybe she eats them so that Greta has to keep cooking to feed them. Anyway, Greta isn’t sure, after all this time, what else she would ever do with herself.

She used to walk in the woods. They smelt moldy, like the basement, but older and fresher and less oily. Once she walked for a long time, and came out blinking into the sunlight. Facing her was a row of shops, and in front of the shops was a row of cars and trucks.

She stood and watched for a while. Cars and trucks came and went. People got in and out of them, and went in and out of the shops. There were women like Greta, drawn and weary, caring and seething, and there were women like the old witch, sleek and carefree, with predatory smiles. There were boys and girls, most of them locked into the back seats of cars as though into cages or ovens, looking blankly at the woods with familiar despair. And there were men. They all looked different from the pockmarked driver who brought the books, but they still all seemed like larger, hairier little boys.

When she got back to the cottage, the boys were howling for their supper. She brought them sandwiches, and they cursed her. One of them spat on her.

After that, she stopped going for walks.

The old woman hasn’t come downstairs. Greta feeds the boys for a day, for two days. Then she goes up to see.

She has never been up to the old woman’s bedroom before. It’s small and tidy, with a little bed much like Greta’s, a chest of drawers, and an oblong mirror on the wall.

The old woman is lying on the bed. She looks strange: flaccid, and curiously unlike herself. The smell makes Greta choke. Greta wraps her in the sheets, and pulls the bundle off the bed. It strikes the floor with a thick bump. She grabs the bundle by the loose ends of the sheets and drags it down the stairs, wincing with every muffled thump of head or limb. Why does she wince? The old woman is dead now, Greta reminds herself; but she winces all the same.

She drags the bundle a little way into the woods and leaves it behind a thicket, out of sight of the house. She covers it with leaves. She cries a little.

When she gets back to the house she orders a lot of groceries, but when they come the next day, she can’t bring herself to eat them. Instead, she makes an extra-special meal for the little boys. They jeer at her, and then they eat it all and she goes to bed, hungry.

She wakes up hungry, too–hungrier than she has ever been before. She looks at the food and thinks about all the things she could make from it, but the thought of cooking just for herself makes a lump in her belly. Her hands are trembling.

The little boys howl. “Where’s our breakfast?”

“Shut up.” The force of her voice surprises her. “The old woman’s gone, and I’m through with you.”

Midway through the afternoon, the boys stop howling. At dusk, Greta goes to see them. They sit at the backs of their cages and sulk.

“Come over here,” she tells one–a very little boy, with freckles and golden hair. “Come on.”

He stands, and then sidles shyly toward her.

“I’m hungry.” His voice is like chocolate, like smooth gravy.

She prods him with her index finger. His belly feels soft at first, but firmer when she presses harder. He giggles.

Someone knocks at the door. Greta leaves the boys in their cages, goes to the door, and peers through the peephole.

A little girl in a checked dress stands awkwardly on the porch. She glances over her shoulder at the darkening woods, and then turns back toward the door. Her face is drawn, careworn. She knocks again.

Greta opens the door and smiles at the girl.

“I’m lost.” The girl’s voice is dry and hollow as an old tree.

“Come in,” Greta says. “Have some tea.” And then, after a long pause: “Can you cook?”


Dan Holbrow is a writer, musician, and recovering academic from the friendly and desolate plains of western Canada. This is his first appearance in Scheherezade’s Bequest.

 Posted by at 11:04 am

This December by Lyn Lifshin

 Issue 16 (Sept 2012)  Comments Off on This December by Lyn Lifshin
Sep 112012
 

SB16

This December
by Lyn Lifshin

A swan moved into the house, camouflaged
among geese. She must have been, or the
mist from the pond blurred her. I say her
because her antics never seemed male. Never
threatening, but coy. And never loitering
on my side of the bed. I suppose she was
cold or starved. This year, the pond froze
early. When I think back, I remember a white
feather on the deck but that wasn’t so strange.
The tangerines were gnawed before they were
ripe. It could have been crows or gulls I
told myself after the space between my lover
and I in bed got wider. He thought this
whiteness was lovely as he had psychotic
ballet dancer lovers who became swans. The
quilt’s full of feathers he’d insist when a
pale wreathe of her circled the sheets. I thought
it was more like something wild staking territory.
It wasn’t that we really saw her though it is
clear the cat did. She was more of a presence
and haunting as a dead love whose handwriting
lures and chills. I felt her watch him. She
knew his moods, each move and had more time to
plot seduction than I did. Being unattainable
didn’t hurt. He felt her breath and his blood
couldn’t sleep. Drugs hardly helped but for
once, he didn’t mind not sleeping. When he turned
up music too loud for me, she moved into his arms
downstairs. I kept typing. I could feel her legs
sprawled open like a dancer with a miracle 180 degree
arabesque, hardly human, a wild open grin. Crumbs
and bread disappeared. There were more feathers,
it was like a mist and the moon was hazy through her
as if a storm was coming. Once when I opened an old
quilt from Odessa the room filled with its snow.
Some days seemed as opaque. The day the pond froze
for good the house felt somehow different. The cat
stopped being spooked. A downstairs window looked
splintered but then I saw it was only frost etched
in what looked like a hieroglyph, something in a
language I don’t know. I vacuumed up the last
feathers. The stain of wings still hangs in the
air, gives the room a bluish light. Still, her
leaving wasn’t like a break up where someone leaves
the house, packs a painting, favorite gloves but
more the way something comes apart, as it did, so
slowly it’s hard to tell when what isn’t wasn’t
still whole


Lyn Lifshin’s Another Woman Who Looks Like Me was published by Black Sparrow at David Godine October, 2006. Also out in 2006 is her prize winning book about the famous, short lived beautiful race horse, Ruffian: The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian from Texas Review Press. Lifshin’s other recent books include Before it’s Light published winter 1999-2000 by Black Sparrow press, following their publication of Cold Comfort in 1997, and in ’92 Rapple from Coatism. Persephone was published by Red Hen and Texas Review published Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness. Most recent books: Ballroom, All the Poets (Mostly) Who Have Touched me, Living and Dead. All True, Especially the Lies. And just out, Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems. In  Fall 2012, NYQ books will publish A Girl Goes into The Woods. Also  just out: For the Roses, poems after Joni Mitchell. For other books, bio, photographs see her web site: www.lynlifshin.com.

 Posted by at 11:02 am

The Hair Nest by Mae Empson

 Issue 16 (Sept 2012)  Comments Off on The Hair Nest by Mae Empson
Sep 112012
 

SB16

The Hair Nest
by Mae Empson

Sara knew she was in trouble when her mother told her they were going to see Old Nan. The old witch lived in the forest on the foothills of Crowmount above the coal mine where the men of the town worked. No one went to Old Nan for anything but to ask for a curse or to see a wrong righted.

Sara knew she’d done wrong. She wished she could tell her mother that the whole thing had been a mad impulse, a sleepwalking half-dream. It hadn’t. The truth was that she had been nursing the thought of ruining her sister’s hair since the day handsome Jack brought Jane flowers. Jane’s hair shone golden like sun on a corn husk reflected in the water. Each morning, as Jane happily brushed her long, lustrous, and radiant hair, Sara combed through hair that was a muddy brown to black, brittle and thin, and impossible to grow past her shoulders.

Last night, she’d had enough. She’d waited until her sister was sleeping deeply and then she’d cut it. Big handfuls of severed golden hair. Foot lengths. And meanest of all, rather than bury it, she’d intentionally spread the golden harvest out on their yard during the night for birds to carry off.

Their ma made them bury even the fine tangled slivers that caught up in their combs just to be safe, as her own mother had taught her. Everyone knew if you lost track of a single hair, and a bird threaded it into its nest, you’d have awful headaches until the bird made a new nest.

It had been a nasty thing to do. Sara regretted it as soon as she woke up, and ran out to the yard to recapture the golden strands, but they were all gone.

Old Nan sat in a rocking chair by the hearth, in a faded patchwork dress. Sara had heard she was ugly, and she was. Old Nan was bent and dried out looking, with a crooked nose, matted black hair, and long dirty fingernails.

“So, this is Sara, is it?” Nan rasped, and beckoned her closer. “You want good hair, I hear. It’s more important to you than blood ties or kindness, yes?”

Nan spit in one hand, and reached into an apron pocket with another and pulled out a fine powder that she mixed into the spit. She smeared the mix across both hands and then rubbed it into Sara’s hair, pulling hard when Sara flinched.

Nan looked up and dismissed Sara’s mother. “Best you leave this next part to us.”

After the door closed, she looked back at Sara. “Good folk like your ma and your sister and that Jack you like so well attract their own good fortune. But, the world has meanness in it, and sometimes, the village needs meanness to fight back, so they put up with ugly creatures like me, and I daresay you. We shall see what comes of you. But, for now, I’m inclined to simply give you what you want and see what falls of it.”

“Really?” Sara asked, and thanked her, legs practically buckling with relief.

Nan stabbed a knife through her own palm without wincing and then rubbed her blood into Sara’s hair, over top of the spit. “May you have hair that is longer, stronger, shinier, healthier, and faster growing than your sister’s. This say I by the power of my blood.”

Sara expected something to happen then, but Nan simply brushed her palms off on her apron. “Well, that’s that. Be off with you now.”

Sara met up with her mother outside the cottage, and they hurried home.

Over the next few weeks, Jane developed stinging, blinding headaches and had to lie in bed in a dark room, unable to concentrate enough to stand or eat more than a few bites. Jack visited her constantly, and Sara had to do both of their chores.

Jane looked beautiful convalescing because her hair grew back quickly, but it was nothing like the speed with which Sara’s hair started to grow.

After two weeks, Sara had to spend an hour braiding it up tight so she didn’t trip on it. After three weeks, she had to thread it up tight and then wrap it in coils around both of her arms, shoulder to wrist, under her blouse, so the weight was distributed more evenly. No blade would cut it, and the weight was giving Sara headaches of her own.

The town doctor said Jane would die if they didn’t find a way to stop her pain. Sara knew she had to do something.

The very next morning, Sara started searching the village and the surrounding forest for bird nests. She climbed up trees, and on to rooftops, and was soon sore and bruised from tree bark and falls. She found nest after nest, but not one that shone with the gold of her sister’s hair.

After another week, there was only one place left to try. The top of Crowmount. They said that the crows up there were big as bears and twice as mean. Everyone knew blackbirds liked shiny things, so even if some smaller bird had seen it first, it made a kind of grim sense that they would have offered it up to their betters, or had it taken from them to end up there.

Sara figured she could manage the climb. She was getting to be a pretty good climber, even if her cursed hair weighed so much now that it threatened to yank her head clean off her neck if she leaned back too far while climbing. She reckoned she’d be in trouble if she encountered a monster crow. The best bet against them was probably a bow and arrow, and the best shot in town was Jack.

Sara could imagine what would happen if she involved Jack. Wouldn’t Jack like being the hero, and bringing that nest back to Jane, and wouldn’t Jane like it, too? She swallowed her pride, and pulled Jack aside and told him her plan.

It took the better part of a day to climb Crowmount. There was only one good side to climb, the side facing the town. It was darn steep with the best trail snaking all over the face of the mountain, requiring a lot of doubling back. The other approaches were worse–sheer cliff faces. Sara had anticipated it would only take a few hours. It was pretty dark by the time she and Jack made it to the top and found a gnarled grey tree growing up into the stars.

Jack stood at the bottom of the tree, bow at the ready, while Sara started climbing. Only there wasn’t a single nest to be seen.

Up, up, up, she climbed. Nothing.

The branches were getting thinner and didn’t look fit to bear her weight, and she could see plainly that there was nothing up there to find. Nothing.

Sara felt tears welling up. This was supposed to be the right thing to do, her chance to fix things. She leaned back against a branch, trying to think. What had she missed? Were there other birds? Were the crows of Crowmount just a story?

The branch gave way under her weight and she felt herself tumbling out of the sky. Other branches broke her fall, each lashing like a whip as she plunged past. She could hear Jack yelling. She hit the ground, and managed to roll with it, taking some of the momentum out. While that probably kept her from breaking anything, she kept rolling and sliding, still falling. She tried to grab something, anything, to slow her descent. Her hand connected with a vine, and she caught hold, and lurched to a stop.

She clung to the side of the mountain. She’d gone over the edge, over the bad side, the back side, and was clinging to the sheer cliff face.

Up above, Jack leaned over the side and looked for her, yelling her name.

Sara held on, breathless. She couldn’t form words until she could get air in her lungs again. She rested the weight of her head and hair on one shoulder as she gasped for air. That was when she saw the cave.

There was a shelf cut into this side of the mountain, a huge cave, inaccessible by anything but flight. She might have missed it in the dark, but the moonlight gleamed off a huge nest with bits of shiny things woven into it, broken glass, mirror shards, and long bright golden strands of hair.

“It’s here!” she shouted.

Jack leaned over the edge. “I think I see it. I might be able to drop down there and get to it.”

Sara thought maybe she could climb over to it, but Jack was crazy if he thought he could just jump down to it. There wasn’t any kind of ledge sticking out of the cliff face. It was just an opening. “I don’t think…”

Jack launched himself over the side, and slid past her perch, and past the cave. He crashed to a heap on a ledge perhaps fifty feet further down the cliff side.

Great, Sara thought. Now we’re both stuck.

She felt her way over to the left. There were rocks she might be able to reach to bridge her way. She slowly pulled herself along, shifting from one tentative foot and hand hold to another.

“I’m at the cave, Jack. Hang on. I’m going to lower a rope to you.”

Sara didn’t have any rope, but she had an idea. She took off her blouse and uncoiled her ridiculous hair off of her arms and began to unbraid it. It was so long now. She re-threaded it into a single braid. She lay flat on her back on the floor of the cave, so there was as much support beneath her head as possible, and all of her weight to counter-balance. She pushed the heavy braid over the edge.

“See it?” she yelled.

“I see it. Hang on.”

The first time he put his full weight on the braid, she thought her entire scalp was going to tear off. It hurt worse than anything she’d ever felt in her life. But the hair held, and she was sure he was making progress. She realized she should have put her blouse back on first, before tossing down the braid.

Then she saw several stars wink out of sight. That was odd. She realized something very large and very black was flying out of the sky down towards them.

“Jack! Hurry. One of the crows is coming.”

“I’m almost there.”

His weight pinned her in place, as she lay topless on the floor of the cave. The bird plunged towards her, closer and closer. Her hands were free. She tried to shield her face.

She could have shaken Jack off her hair and gotten to a more protected position, but he would fall. She decided that it didn’t really matter what happened to her. Her body weighed just as much dead as alive. The braid ladder would hold. He’d climb up, deal with the crow, get the nest, and Jane would be saved.

The crow raked her chest, and the back of her right hand that she had tried to interpose. She screamed.

“Sara!” Jack shouted. He was trying to climb faster, and each yanking movement was a hot knife-plunge of pain against her skull.

The crow circled again, and plunged. Talons raked her face, and its beak pecked out Sara’s right eye. She screamed again, as blood blinded her in the other eye.

Sara gritted her teeth. Her face was good and ruined now, but that gave her an idea. An awful idea. As the blood streamed across her face, she whispered “May I always see what needs to be done, however sightless. This say I by the power of my blood.”

She saw the cave from the crow’s eyes, watching Jack readying an arrow in his bow despite its broken fletching. She saw the crow diving to protect its soft belly, and the arrow catching it clean through its throat.

She felt Jack climbing up over her. He screamed at the sight of her ruined bloody body. “Aim for its throat, Jack,” she called. “You can make the shot.”

“The arrows broke when I fell. There’s no point.”

“I ain’t asking Jack. I’m telling you. I’ve got hag sight now. You can make this shot.”

She didn’t see it happen, but she heard him pull the bow string, and she heard the crash as the crow fell out of the air. She started pulling her hair up, so she could sit upright.

Jack helped her wipe the blood out of her one eye. The right was gone, but she could see pretty well with only her left eye, and the right had plenty to see as well.

She saw that they could cut her hair now. They could bind the long braid to another damaged arrow. Jack could shoot the braided arrow up to stick fast in the tree. Then they could haul themselves back out, up the hair-rope, with the nest.

It was mad, but she saw that it would work. Jack had always been lucky, and now she could see what needed to be done. It would be easy enough to climb back down the other side, once they got back to the summit.

Jack listened to her plan with a look that said it was the most foolish plan he’d ever heard, and then went ahead and did exactly what she asked.

He’s going to make Jane a good husband, she thought, and she was surprised to realize that it didn’t even make her jealous anymore to think about it.

The town will need another Old Nan one day, she thought, and Nan could use an apprentice right now. Some of us aren’t meant to marry, she decided. We’ve got other work to do, mean work, hard work, wise work. My work.


Mae Empson writes short fiction and poetry, often referencing fairy tales, myths, or superstitions. Her fairy tale inspired publications have appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Enchanted Conversation, and Crossed Genres. Recent and upcoming short stories and poems reference Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Love like Salt, and Vasilisa the Beautiful. Her fiction has also appeared in anthologies from Prime Books, Dagan Books, and Innsmouth Free Press. Mae is a member of the Horror Writers Association, and of HorrorPNW–the Pacific Northwest chapter of HWA. Follow her on twitter at @maeempson. Read her blog at http://maeempson.wordpress.com.

 Posted by at 11:01 am

Golden Apples by Tina Connolly

 Issue 16 (Sept 2012)  Comments Off on Golden Apples by Tina Connolly
Sep 112012
 

SB16

Golden Apples
by Tina Connolly

The golden apples are round and smell of autumn. Sometimes the men throw yellow quince, hard as butternut squash, hard as stones. Sometimes they drop ruby-throated nectarines, and then she kicks them, steps on them, crushes them as she runs.

The men all know of her quest and they all try to distract her. No matter that she is as fleet as a doe. Even with their distractions she can outrun them all, those plodding men with their grasping hands and heavy tread, who will not cast aside their swords and armor and war medallions even for a foot race.

And so they cheat. And so she stops and examines each golden fruit they drop, to see if they have found what she wants. It is an odd thing she wants, and in the weeks before each race, where she chats with each new suitor and tells him of her quest, she mentions it. An apple of freedom, she says, and then they laugh at the idea, for in what way is she not free? But they have gone into the race forewarned.

The men find her substitutes. One tracks down a solid gold apple inscribed with Kalliste. When she scoops it up she understands that it is meant to tell how beautiful a woman is–or perhaps, how easily a woman is misled. It is an apple that has started wars. She runs to the cliffs and flings it into the sea, and she still wins the foot race.

Another throws a russet apple into her path. This man wears teeth around his neck that chatter as he labors past her. When she picks the apple up, her palm numbs and death coats her fingers like candle wax. She remembers a story of a girl who ate such an apple, and thereafter lay unmoving on her suitor’s glass bed, silent and perfect until the end of time. She will not bury this apple, afraid of what it might grow into. When she bests this man, she watches as the guards feed him this apple.

A third throws a golden-orange fruit, pebbled and shining like the sun. It is a miraculous tree indeed that fruits and blossoms at once, for a white blossom still hangs from a twig. When she smells it sunlit images flood her mind–a green tree growing from a fountain of youth; a fruit of immortality. It is the kindest gift so far, but immortality is not a word that tempts her, not when it comes with an equal yoke. She drops the fruit in the man’s path as she flies past him, hoping that this life might not be on her conscience after all.

She feels sorry for many of them, and encourages them to go home. But they do not, and then they cheat, which salves her conscience. It is not as if she has a choice in their deaths. Her father has made the rules and she is his. She runs when they wish to run, and her only choice is whether or not to lose. Her father tells her a good maiden would throw the race.

As the bodies pile up, she doubts more and more that the apple she dreams of exists. It seems unfair that men should be able to find apples of youth and life and knowledge, and the one thing only she wants is denied.

At last there is a man who seems kind. A man who talks intelligently of the world, who seems almost to understand when she explains yet again her foolish quest. This man refuses to cheat. He brings her a fruit the morning of the race and offers it to her on one knee. It is a pomegranate, rose and gold and thick-shelled, and he cracks it open, splays it into a diadem of ruby jewels.

“Milady,” he says, “I have asked councillors, I have asked explorers, I have asked the world. No one has heard of the apple you seek. They doubt its existence, for they all agree that no man is truly free. Therefore I have brought you the poor substitute of my love. If you eat of this love-apple twelve seeds you may choose to bind yourself to me as I am in my heart bound to you. We will leave this place together.”

As she takes the fruit, he bows and there is longing in his eyes. He readies himself for the race, and she half-smiles at his preparations, for he strips himself of all honor and wealth, and dresses himself in a thin shift like her.

She meets him at the starting line. She knows the tale of the girl who lost her winters to the underworld by eating six seeds. And she knows that while love might be a two-way bond, the rest of her life is ever one-way, as she is the apple and never the one who eats.

She holds out the fruit. “What if you choose to eat and bind yourself to me, as in my heart I might perhaps be bound to you?”

His eyes narrow and the whistle sounds and he runs. Runs the race, running to win her. In his shift he is fleet, but so is she, and her nails bite into the pomegranate, scattering the seeds into the dirt. Juice as red as blood stains the dirt.

They run towards the finish, but she is the doe, the whistle of wind, the girl in search of an apple, and she does not stop. She runs, leaving him behind. She runs until her feet are as red as the pomegranate and then she runs some more. Someday her soles will harden, until they are as tough as sun-yellowed quince. She is fleet, she is gold, she is cold as the ruby-throated dawn.

In the air she tastes the first apple blossoms of spring, drifting free on the wind.


Tina Connolly lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young son, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthology Unplugged: Year’s Best Online SF 2008. Her debut fantasy novel IRONSKIN is forthcoming from Tor in October 2012, with a sequel in 2013. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and is narrating a 2012 flash podcasting venture called Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard. Her website is tinaconnolly.com.

 Posted by at 11:00 am

Scheherezade’s Bequest 16

 Our Grim(m)oire  Comments Off on Scheherezade’s Bequest 16
Sep 112012
 

Scheherezade's Bequest 16Welcome to the last online issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest. We opened our doors in the autumn of 2005, and for seven years have offered fairy tale fiction and poetry online on a semi-regular basis. During that time, our staff has gone through several transformations, Cabinet des Fées has gone into print and out again, and most importantly, the online fairy tale community in general has grown in ways we, back then, could only hope for. We are very proud to have been (and be) a part of that, and we are very grateful to our readers — those of you who have been with us since the beginning and those of you who may only be finding us today — for doing your part to keep the fairy tale tradition alive and well. We hope you’ll all stay with us as we make the transition into print, and will return to Cabinet des Fées as we continue to explore the fairy tale in fiction, film, non-fiction, and art here on the website as we’ve always done.

To close the long journey of Scheherezade’s Bequest‘s online manifestation and open its journey into print, we’d like to take you back to an editorial written in 2006, appropriately titled The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation, in which Erzebet YellowBoy, one of our founding mothers, discusses the liminal nature of fairy tales. Be assured this is not the end of Scheherezade’s Bequest, it is simply another one of the transformations that mark a fairy tale–and transformations are what this issue is about.

They are not always pleasant, as Dan Holbrow shows us in Hungry Greta. They are not always wanted, as Tina Connolly deftly expresses in Golden Apples. They do not always turn out as we expect, as you’ll see in The Hair Nest by Mae Empson. Sometimes, they don’t happen at all, as Alexandra Seidel informs us in A Lie Written in Scarlet. Other times, a hero comes along and forces them upon us, like Bachy Soletanche of Jason Erik Lundberg’s tale of the same name. Many times, in order to transform ourselves, we have to leave others behind, as Pen Clements reveals in Rosa and the Frozen Tears. And then we have that moment where the unexpected happens and the whole world is transformed, as happens in Frederick Hilary’s Swan King. If those aren’t enough for you, Sofia Samatar has reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a story that might possibly transform you.

We’d like to remind you that we are still seeking submissions for the first print issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest, in which we are looking at the Loathly Lady and challenging the often harmful ideas of what beauty is.

Editor Nin Harris is also still seeking submissions for the third issue of Demeter’s Spicebox, CdF’s ongoing experiment in crossing borders and hybridising the fairy tale as we go. Nin has updated the guidelines, and we have a little surprise in store for those of you brave enough to join the dialogue. The long-term plan for Demeter’s Spicebox is to wrap up the four-issue volume by publishing an experimental chapbook, in which we reprint the first three issues along with the fourth, including companion artwork and poetry, to celebrate a journey around the world. We can’t do that unless you send us your stories, so please do join in!

And don’t forget our fund-raising chapbook, Cinderella Jump Rope Rhymes, which you can read about in detail here. Proceeds from the sale of this gorgeous little book are being donated to charities of our choice in the first year of its publication, so we are depending on you to help us spread the word.

Before we close, we’d like to talk about some of our reasons for taking Scheherezade’s Bequest into print. One of the driving forces behind this decision is our love of the printed word. Since the onset of the ebook craze, we have read a thousand arguments that print is dead. We here at CdF appreciate anything that will get people to read, but at this point we feel the need to fight back just a little against the digital craze by producing issues you can hold in your hands. Our online issues also take a lot of work and time to produce, and to be quite honest, we need a break from this particular part of CdF. As we’ve said before, this is not the end of CdF either. We will continue to promote and publish non-fiction in the form of reviews and essays, and even the occasional piece of fiction for our online readers to enjoy.

We hope you enjoy this last online issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest and will continue to support us as we transform.

With love,

Erzebet, Donna, & Virginia

 Posted by at 10:46 am

The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation

 Fairies and Fairy Tales  Comments Off on The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation
Sep 112012
 

Illustration for Charles Perrault's Peau d'ane, by Gustave DoréThe Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation
by Erzebet YellowBoy
(First published as a CdF editorial in 2006.)

In our original introduction to this website we said, Cabinet des Fées does not seek to define the fairy tale, but only to share and promote the tale type in all of its various manifestations. While we still do not intend to define the tale type, we’d like to add to the general discussion yet another view on the fairy tale as a type of story and speculate about why that type has retained its power since its birth as a literary form.

What I find interesting about fairy tales is the blending and re-blending of the oral tradition and the literary tradition in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The oral tradition–a tradition of the folk wherein stories were memorized and shared among a community or handed down through the generations–gave birth to the literary tradition, which came into being as these folk tales were collected and compiled in a written form. Like the sands of an hourglass, these two distinct forms flowed into each other and back again, influencing and adding to each telling of the tale until we were left with a literature that defied definition. The fairy tale has retained its fluidity–motifs and themes common to what we know as the traditional fairy tales are easily embedded into the genres and sub-genres of today. Yet, because of this fluidity, it is difficult to determine exactly what a fairy tale is.

If we think of genre as the many-patterned fabrics that make up the story-telling tradition, the fairy tale can be seen as a loom on which those fabrics can be woven. Yet, the fairy tale is in itself a genre of story whose definition depends on the way its author uses the tale’s known functions to induce a sense of wonder in the reader. The fairy tale has certain characteristics that expose its presence within stories of all types and yet mark it as a type unto itself. The most significant of these characteristics is the sense of wonder that it impresses upon the reader. An import from the oral tradition from which the modern fairy tale has partially evolved, this sense of wonder often involves a transformation of some sort–but not just any transformation. The fairy tale concerns itself with the miraculous, the marvelous transmutation of one thing into another: of peasant into princess, of prince into beast and back to prince again, of straw into gold.

In order to more fully explore the fairy tale as a type of story, I recommend Jack Zipes’ introduction to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Titled “Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale,” this sweeping discourse establishes the history and dialogue of the fairy tale from its early beginnings in folk culture through to the modern day. Noting the monograph by Jens Tismar, Kunstmärchen (Sammlung Metzler, 1977), Zipes states that “…the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author” (vx). Therefore, while the fairy tale certainly falls under the definition of genre, to consider it as a distinct genre of story can be a bit misleading, for the fairy tale slips easily among them all. Horror? We have it. Fantasy? Of course. Romance? We have that, too.

In the oral tradition, the wonder tale usually leaves us with a happy ending, for the tales are expressions of what the scholars call “wish fulfillment”. In the literary fairy tale, this is not always the case. Indeed, some of the most powerful modern retellings do not end happily at all, but they retain that familiar sense of wonder and awe that distinguishes them. And yet, because of the fantastic nature of fairy tales in whatever genre they manifest, and whether they end well or not, they are a part and parcel of that genre known as fantasy. How can this paradox be? How do we have a tale type that transcends genre and yet is of one? That, for me, only serves to add to the wonder of the fairy tale. I can’t explain it, nor do I want to have it explained to me. I prefer to leave every element of the fantastic intact.

One of the defining characteristics of the fairy tale and the sense of wonder to which I refer is that impossible situations are not only possible, but expected and anticipated. Disbelief is suspended–no one questions the great wall of briars around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or that a fairy godmother appears to turn mice into men, or that a wolf can lie in grandmother’s bed. The fantastic is interspersed with the ordinary–birds talk (as they should not) and fly (as they should) and these things occur as naturally as any sunrise or sunset. It is a sign of modern cultural loss that to accept the fantastic in such a manner is seen as a form of escapism from the real world.

I don’t believe in escapism. If you love story (no matter the subject) so much that you spend every possible minute immersed within it, you are not escaping life–story is your life. What the fairy tale offers is not escapism, but a renewed sense of wonder at the world in which we live. I think I need hardly describe why this sense of wonder is relevant to us today. Despite the advances in technology (some of which cause that very sense of which I speak), we are not so much different, as a whole, from those who first committed the oral wonder tale to paper and reshaped it to fit whatever vision or message they chose to impart to their readers. I find that most of us retain the basic human desire to believe in the impossible, the miraculous, and to hope for some sort of transformation–in ourselves, in our lives, and in the very world around us. For no matter where or when we live, the world is fraught with peril–much like the wild wood of old–and we who walk through it ever hope for the miracle that will ease our path or the paths of others. The fairy tale, in whatever genre it manifests, often provides us with the very thing we seek, even though in story form. It lets us believe that, no matter how awful the circumstances, a miraculous transformation will occur that will somehow lead us out of the perilous forest and more, the fairy tale allows us to make that transformation and to make it right here in the very same world from which we have been accused of trying to escape. The fairy tale can therefore be seen as a liminal tale–a literature through which transformation may be found in both fantasy and reality. True to its fluid nature, the fairy tale weaves a sense of wonder into both.

 Posted by at 10:06 am

Deathless – review

 Reviews  Comments Off on Deathless – review
Sep 042012
 

Deathles by Catherynne M. ValenteDeathless
by Catherynne M. Valente
Tor Books, 2011
Reviewed by Sofia Samatar

A woman takes a man downstairs, into her basement. She commands him to stand against the wall and ties his hands to a meat-hook. She kisses him, strikes him, gloats over him. The man closes his eyes in ecstasy. Does he want to get away?

Yes and no.

Yes, he wants to get away; but only because the desire to escape generates pleasure, and pleasure, of course, is the reason the man is tied up in the first place. This tension between desire and restraint, between the urge to break free and the pleasure of being trapped, creates the energy of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless.

Deathless is Valente’s first novel set in Russia (the companion volume, Matryoshka, is forthcoming in 2015). Time in Deathless is double: there is the time of the twentieth century, approximately from the Russian Revolution to the Siege of Leningrad during World War II; and there is the time of the fairy tale, which is always.

The central fairy tale at work here is the story of Koschei the Deathless, a being whose immortality is guaranteed because his death is elaborately hidden. Like many immortals, Koschei is a demon, and he has a demon’s attributes: beauty touched with a hint of repulsiveness, passion that veers toward cruelty. When Marya Morevna, a human girl, marries him, two questions arise: first, if a human loves a demon enough, can she become a demon too? And second, can a familiar tale grow a different ending?

The answer to both of these questions is: yes and no. Marya’s struggle with the first question really starts before her marriage, when she’s a young girl dazzled by Pushkin and tormented by other children, who call her “crazy” (p. 27). Marya’s “craziness” is vision: she sees magic. She knows that her sisters’ husbands are birds in disguise, and in a particularly delightful episode, she meets the dwarfish domoviye who live in her house, and attends a meeting of their boisterous goblin workers’ collective. Marya’s sensitivity to this hidden world makes her an outcast: “She was a person, but she was not one of the People” (p. 28). When she marries Koschei and moves to his land of Buyan, the Country of Life, she seeks not just love, not even immortality, but community.

Marya makes a good demon, and she makes good demon friends. But the second question, the question of the inevitability of fairy tales, comes to haunt her. As she discovers some of Koschei’s secrets, she finds that being a demon means living out demon history, which is a history of repetition. “We obsess,” Marya is informed by the most famous character of Slavic folklore, a wonderfully bawdy and sadistic old woman who calls herself Chairman Yaga: “It’s our nature. We turn on a track, around and around; we march in step; we act out the same tales, over and over, the same sets of motions… We like patterns. They’re comforting” (p. 110).

Patterns may be comforting to a demon, but Marya is stuck in a tale at the end of which she is supposed to abandon Koschei. She is also supposed to attempt his murder. Her efforts to escape the pattern initiate a new phase in the war between Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and his brother, the Tsar of Death. This cosmic war is juxtaposed with the violent history of twentieth-century Russia, in manner that examines the question of power, an issue that also takes shape in the novel as the central question of marriage: “who is to rule” (p. 58).

Deathless keeps a lot of elements in play: there’s a double history, a quest, and a variety of vivid characters and landscapes. There’s also a powerful commentary on marriage, in which the world of married partners figures as a kind of Buyan, a Country of Life, necessarily a little bit demonic: “A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders” (p. 215-16). The trickiest part of all this is not the movement back and forth between fairy tale and history (though that is hard enough to pull off), but the movement between the large, collective history of Russia and the private, individual history of Marya Morevna’s marriage. There’s a risk, either that the suffering of an immense number of people will appear less important than a single woman’s relationship with her husband, or that Deathless will come off sounding like the punch line to a feeble joke that goes: “Why is Stalinism like a bad marriage?”

Realism saves Deathless from the former fate, and fantasy saves it from the latter. By “realism” here I mean all the extraneous stuff that literature uses to imitate life: the sneezes and make-up and kettles and subplots and minor characters that differentiate the novel from the fairy tale. A good deal happens outside the lines of Marya and Koschei’s story: Marya becomes a soldier, she loses friends to war, and she is forced to admit her own role in the oppression of faceless others, whose right to be heroines is equal to her own. By straying off the strict path of the fairy tale, and addressing the creation of an individual heroine as an ethical problem, Deathless avoids turning its setting into mere window dressing. As for the other risk–the risk that Deathless will be read as pure allegory–fantasy comes to the rescue, for fantasy can say “yes” and “no” in the same breath. Yes, Marya’s sisters marry birds; and no, they don’t, because they marry men. Yes, Stalin is a little village boy who stomps on flowers. And no, he isn’t. He can only appear as such in a country where there is no death–and that country, the novel insists, is not ours.

Above all, Deathless is about the magic of fairy tales, and the narrative patterns that shape us even as we try to change them. A story can save you, but it can also trick you. A story can ruin your life, yet remain as beloved and compelling as a certain meat-hook in the basement. Like Marya’s secret ability to see magic, your story may tell you: “I am your husband and I can destroy you” (p. 28). You may need to get away from that story. You may need to tear the ropes, get out of the basement, break the pattern.

Do you want to?

 Posted by at 4:02 pm

Gramarye – review

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Aug 232012
 

GramaryeGramarye
The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy
Issue 1, Spring 2012
Edited by Prof. William Gray, Dr. Jane Carroll, and Heather Robbins
Reviewed by Erzebet YellowBoy

Gramarye is the brand new Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy, based at the University of Chichester in England. The inaugural issue appeared in Spring of 2012, and is the issue I’ll be reviewing here. It is 75 full-color pages printed on wonderfully thick paper, and includes illustrations by Brian Froud, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, and more. Professor William Gray, who co-edits Gramarye with Dr. Jane Carroll and Heather Robbins, prefaces the journal with these words:

It is almost with a sense of wonder, and certainly one of delight, that I am writing the Preface to the first issue of Gramarye…”

I would like to echo that sentiment and say I was delighted by what I found inside this journal. This could be in part because the first essay is called “Terry Pratchett: A Vast Consumer of Folklore”, by Jacqueline Simpson. My love affair with Discworld spans decades, something I apparently have in common with the author, who collaborated with Sir Pratchett on The Folklore of Discworld. The author discusses how that book came about with anecdotes about the book’s creation, and more importantly an explanation of why it happened in the first place. As if there weren’t enough reasons to admire Terry Pratchett, here we are given a glimpse of his determination to preserve rapidly vanishing folklore for future generations. Simpson’s story of the thought processes and research that went into The Folklore of Discworld is a must-read for any Pratchett fan.

Diane Purkiss, who readers might recognise as the author of ‪At the Bottom of the Garden‬: ‪A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things‬, writes about “The Undomestic Witch: Scottish Witches, Fairies and Old Religions”. Using the confessions, or dittays, of three historical Scottish witches (Andro Man, Marioun Grant, Issobel Gowdie), Purkiss discusses the beliefs of the undomestic witch: “a witch whose concerns and activities involve an exploration both spatial and intellectual of places outside the home and the hearth, the very places, in fact, that the home and the hearth exist to exclude.” The point of the article is to show how these beliefs developed from their beginnings in paganism through medieval Catholicism where they were, if not incorporated, at least in some fashion accepted, and then finally to the time of the trials, when religious Scotland was under the Protestant rule of the Kirk, and the beliefs were often executed with the believers. Purkiss makes no claims, but instead presents her cases clearly and with a wealth of information, and leaves us with much to think about.

The next piece in the journal is a short essay by Maria Nikolajeva, whose work in the field of children’s literature earned her the International Brothers Grimm Award for lifetime achievement. “My Favourite Story when I was young” is an unexpectedly deep piece that discusses why we should not hide the original, blood-thirsty tales from our children. Nikolajeva reveals that Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales “were perhaps the most formative in [her] childhood readings.” She was fortunate enough to have the complete, unabridged versions of his tales, which means she probably spent a lot of time hiding under her covers. Or did she? Nikolajeva says “all children would benefit from reading the original dark stories…,” but I won’t tell you which of those dark stories was her favorite — that would spoil it.

Two more pieces follow: Karl Bell writes about “The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack: Urban Folklore and Victorian Popular Cultures” and John Herbert retells “Magic Fruit” from More Tales from Denmark, originally translated from the Danish by Stephen Badman. The issue closes with reviews of Anti-Tales: The Uses of Enchantment and New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations.

Overall, this is a wonderful start to a new production. With this first issue the editors have proven their commitment to respect the intersection of fantasy and folklore, and I am certain future issues will be every bit as informative and interesting as this one. If I have one criticism of the journal, it is in the choice of sans-serif font used for the body of the text. I’m getting on in years and my eyes aren’t what they used to be. A little bit of tracking, or letter-spacing, would go a long way. That’s just my opinion, and should not be seen as a flaw in this beautiful, colorful production. If I have one wish for the journal, it is that the editors consider that for those of us who love fairy tales, folklore, and fantasy, seventy-five pages is not enough.

Readers of CdF take note–the journal also includes submission information, which you can find online here, along with information on how to order a copy of your own.

 Posted by at 3:48 pm

The Moment of Change – review

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Aug 152012
 

The Moment of ChangeThe Moment of Change
Ed. Rose Lemberg, 2012
Aqueduct Press
Reviewed by Belle DiMonté

This anthology is, quite simply, beautiful and transcendent in every sense.

This collection of feminist speculative poetry featuring work by many talented poets is a long and juicy read like a bush of ripe berries, each poem a delicious bite of bright imaginings, telling of worlds full of flowers, fish-eyes, cauldrons, broken slippers, and much, much more.

The work contained in this volume is incredibly diverse, both in genre and subject matter, though all the works are undeniably feminist, upholding the power—poetical and mundane—of women and their enchanting stories. With poems ranging in flavour from Lisa Bradley’s darkly thought-provoking “The Haunted Girl” to Rachel Manija Brown’s fine-woven offering “River of Silk” to Delia Sherman’s moving “Snow White to the Prince” and, at last, to Mary Alexandra Agner’s modern-day “Tertiary”, this anthology is a fantastical sampling of femininity, delving into many different traditions and genres to produce a patchwork quilt of literary greatness. In this tome, the reader will find poems inspired by Bengali fairytales, classic fables, dreams, memories, forest wanderings, and flashes of inspiration in the night. But all are united by the common theme of shared femininity and feyness. Each poem is a world and message all its own, a brilliant glimpse into the minds and lives of girls, women, and witches. Each line, each word, sings with life and strength, the song of women through the eons.

Most notable are, perhaps, the contributions of these poets: Theodora Goss’ entrancing poem “The Witch”, an eloquent and elegant portrait of a witch and her life, her magic, her strength; Cassandra Phillips-Sears’ “The Last Yangtze River Dolphin”, a melodious and sonorous poem on princesses, love, and rebirth; and Catherynne M. Valente’s invigorating poem “The Girl with Two Skins”, a ravaging and vibrant tale that delves into kitsune lore, feral desires, and personal integrity.

Diverse, divulging, and raw, The Moment of Change is an anthology whose images and messages will stay with readers for a long time after the final poem has been enjoyed, and will likely be a favourite for reading on rainy days when some magic and spice are needed to colour the world. Girls, women, and witches—as well as their friends, consorts, and familiars!—will find this anthology an irresistible and necessary addition to their personal library.

 Posted by at 12:32 pm

Perfection, Control, and Inner Authority: a Black Swan Symbolic Review

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Jul 252012
 

by Colleen Szabo

Black SwanThe swan is a universal symbol of transformation, since it morphs from a rather ungainly grey cygnet into one of the most graceful and comely of animals. Black Swan is the first very clearly female “enlightenment movie”, as I lightly call them, using the alchemical symbolism that’s prevalent in fairy tales, that I remember viewing. Black Swan cheats more than a little in achieving this position, since it’s heavily reliant on popular fairy tales for its content. Transformational/enlightenment tales in film are usually focused on either masculine heroism, which portrays an aspect of personal transformation for either gender, or reclamation/rescue of the anima, a man’s abandoned or repressed feminine side. This cinematic leaning in the direction of masculine heroism and rescuing the female is undoubtedly the case because most film-making is done by men who live in male-centric societies.

Black Swan focuses on the reclamation of a woman’s repressed feminine aspects, as well as developing intimacy with, connecting with, masculine inner authority. The protagonist, Nina, also develops the ability to, the courage to, express her creativity in “the world”, a developmental step which results from her successful inner connection-making and reclamation. This courage to manifest one’s authentic creative expression is one of the sometimes semi-heroic tasks we often see depicted in films. I’m approaching the film from the viewpoint that the reclamation project Nina is on is basic shadow work, in Jungian terms. The shadow is all of the suppressed and repressed and unclaimed aspects of the psyche and of experience. Connecting with, understanding, and accepting these hidden and often scary aspects brings them into our lives as creative powers and options that were previously unavailable to us. Based on the law of opposites, that every human experience has its duality, its yin and its yang, shadow work is also the bringing together of these opposites into our waking consciousness. Termed the coniunctio in alchemy, or integration, this experience of holding the tension of opposites may be, for example, part of understanding that behind our mask of conditioned, passive, feminine “goodness”, anger and aggression hide. That’s one element of Nina’s transformation in the film.

Nina will also work with the human experiential duality of control and flow. Usually, one of any given human experiential duality pair has been asleep within us, though it often literally haunts our dreams. For example, often women who have dreams of male attackers are afraid of manifesting some creative expression in the world. The masculine energy of worldly expression, when suppressed, becomes increasingly aggressive, a coiled up spring of psychic energy which bursts out seemingly randomly, as an attacker might spring out of the dark. Since the masculine manifestation energy is feared, being treated like an enemy, an unwanted potentiality, it acts that role in the psyche. When the masculine energy is embraced, made conscious and utilized, the power which previously drove the dreamer’s fear can be used for manifesting. Women often have to develop agency, do transformational work to express worldly forms of human manifestation, to get their gifts “out there”. Manifestation, especially in a patriarchal society, requires the utilization of some masculine energies, skills, attitudes and values, though most Euro-Western women these days have learned more about masculine ways of operating than men have of the feminine.

The filmmakers used some very obvious clues signaling the underlying plotline of shadow work, as is the case in the story of Swan Lake, the ballet Nina dances in. Most obvious is the use of black and white. Black and white, as in the yin/yang symbol, represents duality and its opposites. Shadow stuff is black, stuff we are unconscious of and about, whether or not it is something our society would deem “bad”. Nina begins the film always dressed in white and a little doll-like pink coat. Her shadow selves, Lily, Beth, and Nina’s mother, wear predominantly black. As Nina begins to unfold her shadow self, she starts to wear more grey, as does Lily. The final scene, where Nina dances the black swan part, is where we see her all in black at last, having recovered some aspects of her shadow stuff.

Shadow work is a part of the ancient art of alchemy, or transformational magic. Alchemy is the art of transforming our base metals, our life’s ore, that which we have been given from our fates, our families, and our other life circumstances and events, into the gold of consciousness, “spirituality” in contemporary American parlance, or transcendence in the words of Thomas, the ballet director in Black Swan. Alchemy, as Jung wrote about it, uses three colors to describe the basic trajectory of human transformation: black, white, and red. Fairy tales sometimes do the same, pointing to their office as wisdom tales, stories of personal transformation. The well-known women’s transformational story Snow White opens with the three alchemical colors, signaling the story’s alchemical bones. There are the mother’s three wishes for her daughter (skin white as snow, etc.) as well as the ebony window frame, white snow, and red blood. The black, the nigredo, of alchemy represents falling into the shadow world of chaos and fear and darkness and suffering, a first step in the transformational process. Next red, rubedo, a color with ancient religious roots as the nourishing blood of earthy passion and love, symbolizes sacrifice, the moment of death, the letting-go of the old. White, albedo, is the symbol of purification, of the new consciousness which follows the darkness and sacrifice. White acknowledges the fact that something new has been brought to light. Some shadow material has made its way up to the daily waking awareness, and is no longer shadow.

The film begins with a dream Nina has, of dancing with the bad guy of the ballet Swan Lake, Von Rothbart. Swan Lake’s story is solidly seated in fairy tale symbolism and themes, and Von Rothbart is an evil sorcerer. A sorcerer or witch, and their spells, amount to a fairy tale personification of our psyche’s unconscious, habitual, stuck behaviors. One earmark of the shadow’s presence or influence is an inability to control ourselves, to choose to do something different and implement that choice. The most obvious and pervasive evidence of shadow, especially in contemporary America, is found in addictive behavior patterns. Ascribing our situations of choicelessness and compulsive behavior to a witch or wizard is something we quite literally do all the time, when we blame others, our parents, for example, for our inability to live up to our own potential, to live differently. We can blame or project onto others great and good things, as well as bad things. Either way, when we dance with our shadow sorcerers, we are like the perplexed puppet Nina acts when dancing with Von Rothbart. We are dependent on others for our experience of life, acting and reacting in ways that don’t serve our personal development. We are stuck, under what feels like a spell. Nina’s Von Rothbart dream signals her coming descent into the scary unconscious nigredo, the shadow.

We then are presented with the situation as it stands. Nina’s daily life concertedly excludes shadow and darkness. Nina is living in her pink and white childhood room, and her stuffed animals and ballerina jewelry box shout the fact that this woman has been delaying her personal growth in some ways. Her mother is still helping her dress, tucking her into bed, preparing Nina’s “pink” meals (as Nina remarks at breakfast one morning), giving constant advice. Their relationship would be described in family therapy as “enmeshed”. One cannot move without the other. Nina is like the Sleeping Beauty; her castle is asleep, because the parents wanted only the white, success and happiness and gifts of light, and forgot that the darkness was needed for transformation and growth, as the seed must be held underground. She is developmentally stuck without any descent into the dark.

Thomas the ballet director, Lily, Nina’s mother, and Beth represent, or reflect, new, or previously buried, aspects to Nina. Since I watched with a symbolic eye, I didn’t realize the average moviegoer saw the film as a thriller. IMDB’s synopsis says Nina “slowly loses her mind as she becomes more and more like Odile, the black swan.” Surely our revelations of new perspectives and of buried aspects can seem like insanity, especially if it happens fast — as it surely must in a film. However, the insane bits in the film — the wings growing, the imagined sexual intimacy with shadow aspect Lily, the mother’s talking pictures, etc. — are metaphorical descriptions of discoveries Nina is making about her inner self, about her shadow stuff, though they could also be reflected somehow in her life’s outer events. Fairy tale and myth work the same way, blurring the line between inner and outer; that’s the nature of metaphor. Since film has no narrative (usually), it (usually) has to portray the inner life with metaphor, and events which seemingly happen in “the world”. Back in the day, this reliance on metaphor designated such a film as an “art flick”.

Another ubiquitous healing/transformational symbol or metaphor in the film is the mirror. Professional dancers are by the nature of their work seriously involved with physical image, how they look. Snow White also famously uses the metaphor of mirror. As soon as Nina gets up, she’s in front of her little-girl-room mirror, and the filmmakers chose many scenes where Nina sees herself reflected in mirrors and windows to get the fact of her self-consciousness across. Nina’s reflections also work well as a device for showing the audience what she is seeing when she looks inside herself, experiences her life below the surface appearance. This is why it seems she’s crazy, when the unusual reflections are taken literally by the audience. Shadow work entails this inner looking at oneself, or at least a switch from an external experiential focal point to an inner one. We have to get the shadow’s side of the story into our waking consciousness, and the mirror can depict that side for the audience.

The key issue of perfection, the one which will close the film, is raised very early on, as a new female soloist is being chosen for the upcoming Swan Lake production. The ballerinas chat in the dressing room about how the ticket sales are down, and the previous principal ballerina, Beth, is getting canned. The theme of renovation, of sacrificing the old, the rubedo, is in the air, a theme which enters many a transformational fairy tale. Nina thinks Beth, the old ballet queen, is perfect, but, as a shadow aspect, Beth is going to prove otherwise. She’s going to give Nina a previously unseen, sordid perspective behind her reign as queen in the ballet company. She will reveal ways in which striving to fulfill one’s creative destiny, to manifest authentically, can bring up hidden fears.

Beth also brings into Nina’s hyperprotected life the necessity of sacrifice, letting go of the old, which comes with taking on new levels of responsibility, with opening to a more whole way of being in the world. From the internal mirror’s eye view, Beth will join Nina’s Mom as metaphor for dying forms of Nina’s internal female authority. This authority, its attendant choice making, and its responsibilities such as self-protection, is power that Nina had been giving away to Mom and Beth, which she will claim for herself by the end of the story. She will then be capable of making her own choices, caring for herself, rather than conforming to her internalized protective mother authority, and imagining herself as subservient to some inner perfect Beth ideal, which is by its very nature as “ideal”, nothing more than a constraining idea. This nigredo stuff which needs to be sacrificed is personified in the fairy tale Snow White by the wicked stepmother/witch.

Thomas sets up the duality of perfection early, when he tells Nina, “But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both. I see you getting obsessed, getting each and every move perfect, but you never lose yourself.” This duality between perfection/control and flow/getting lost, merging with the creative force, governs creative manifestation. Artists in every medium always teach us about this duality, which can be applied to the creation of a human life in general. The masculine ability to discipline, to control, to persistently learn how to use a paintbrush, to play an instrument, to build muscles, which Nina already works with, is optimally paired in the art making moment with the feminine intuitive ability to relax into the grace of embodied, animal-like presence. Thomas is asking Nina to discover the shadow perfection of her innate feminine wildness and naturalness, find her creative flow, closely associated with what we call intuition — qualities Lily, with her black swan tattoo, already possesses. Maybe because I live in a malecentric society, even women of my social demographic (the same as Nina’s) have to frequently reclaim their feminine ability to flow intuitively and instinctively. Then the masculine power of perfection that’s already been developed will morph into a different kind of more balanced perfection, as Nina witnesses to in the end of the film.

Thomas tells Nina later, “Perfection is not just about control…surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence.” As the male authority, a soulful animus aspect from the shadow perspective, and the orchestrator of Nina’s transformation story, Thomas is wise to the gift of surprise, which can be an important element in experiencing transcendence. Transcendence, in alchemical terms, is described by the cuniunctio, conjunction, the state beyond identification with one or the other side of a given duality, any good/bad, control/flow, masculine/feminine — or ultimately with duality, period. As in the old Zen stories about enlightenment following a surprise whack on the head by the master, surprise bypasses the ego’s defenses, allowing us to drop ego’s usual control of our consciousness. Surprise (laughter is one common example) helps us to temporarily, at least, escape the sorcerer’s spells, which depend on our seeing the imaginary Sleeping Beauty walls built of old habitual, expected ways of being and doing.

Truthfully, we are our own most constant audience, thus “surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience”. In this way, Thomas points out to Nina that changing her world, creating personal agency, begins with changing her own life experience. This responsibility for our own experience is what most people avoid, but it must be learned in order to express deeply and authentically. Accepting responsibility for the way they experience life in their own skins is the line artists are often called to step over. They must choose and validate their inner experience above, or as at least equal to, their socially conditioned experience. Otherwise we daily fail to surprise ourselves; we don’t know that such surprise is even part of the game, because we are still stuck in childhood’s effort to please the individual, or social/governmental parent — or rebel against it.

Nina got the prima ballerina part because she bit Thomas- surprised him, and herself, as well. Her shadow, natural animal ability to instinctively defend herself from sexual aggression was close enough to the surface to act, though Nina, because of her social conditioning, assumed that her animal-like behavior would bring nothing but rejection. She didn’t count on Thomas’s deep wisdom, his ability to recognize her inner black swan’s readiness to come forth hidden within the action. Despite their beauty, swans are actually rather nasty, aggressive creatures; I’ve known some. Sex is the other big theme in the film, actually, as is the case with lots of transformational films. The act of sexual intercourse itself isn’t so important in shadow work, though a depiction of sexual intercourse is a metaphor for a joining of opposites. In alchemy, the act of human intercourse symbolizes the hieros gamos, the holy inner marriage of transcendence. The intimate connection between male and female bodies represents the dissolving of duality, possible even if the two participants are of the same sex. After all, we all are half male, half female, in theory.

Nina’s “dream” of sexual intimacy with Lily represents the inner meshing of her masculine, controlled approach to her art, and Lily’s relaxed, feminine flow. It is a prelude to the event in the dressing room where Nina “kills” Lily. In symbolic story, the death of some character can signal the fact that the characteristic they once depicted is no longer experienced by the protagonist mainly, or only, in the outer world, in other people. The characteristic has now been claimed for ourselves. That’s why the stepmother has to dance herself to death, and the old king must die. When control and flow are integrated, intimately connected, in Nina’s conscious waking life, there is no need for Lily to carry naturalness and flow for Nina any more as a seemingly separate quality. The sexual part of a transformational film adds tension and engages the audience, too, because it is this tension between the opposites that is so fundamental to human life, to other animals and to plants and to the gravity which holds the Earth in place around the sun and who knows what all.

Thomas, as the only wisdom figure in the film, uses this sexual tension in an object lesson designed to push Nina into discovering her shadow black swan. He turns her on sexually when they are alone one evening, and then walks away, telling her what had just happened; he just seduced her, but she was supposed to be seducing him, seducing the audience. Nina is terrified by the prospect of seducing because it is associated with being seen as a whore, and the shadow whore shows up as soon as she has the Swan Lake part, when she finds “WHORE” written in the mirror of the backstage bathroom. As a very attractive, overprotected woman, she has undoubtedly been trained to behave in ways which would be unmistakably UN-whore-like, with her little girl coat and her hair tied back severely. She’s avoiding that particular responsibility of human adulthood. Sex for her is in the shadow, as Thomas knows.

Yet the lurid shadow side of sex haunts her throughout the film, when a horny old guy makes lewd gestures on the train, when Beth accuses her of being a whore. This is the haunting, dark, shadow side of her repressed sexuality coming up, her guilt and fear and discomfort with relaxing and enjoying herself, letting go, living a little, as Lily and Thomas say, with even masturbating. The fact that she is so enmeshed with her mother is clearly one reason for this shadow-heavy state of affairs, as Nina starts getting totally into a hot and heavy masturbation in her own bedroom, which for most people would be private space, only to see her mother in the chair, which puts the end to any of that uncontrolled, self-intimate fun. Her mother is still trying to protect her from sexual relationships, which she fears could derail the controlled professional dancing goals both she and Nina have invested in for so many years. Also, Mommy fears that Nina will repeat her “mistake” of becoming impregnated by a man who will not help in child raising.

Nina’s mother is the most obvious loan from Snow White, though there are many transformational tales for girls and women that feature the evil stepmother. In fact, folklorists I’ve read say that the older versions of Snow White and other “stepmother” stories were about mothers, not stepmothers. The stepmother thing was supposedly added as a clean-up when the collectors two or three hundred years ago wanted to publish the oral tradition as collections of children’s stories. They didn’t want to freak the little kiddies out. It is widely agreed upon that these male authors, who obtained their stories from women, Christianized, moralized, and otherwise updated the tales to fit their own post-Enlightenment perspectives. Indeed, there are few contemporary lovers and publishers of fairy tales who are in agreement with the symbolic, transformational perspective here presented; more “scientific” historical and psychosocial interpretation are most popular. So I was happy to see the mother depicted as — the mother! Mostly because, from a symbolic perspective, it states a great developmental truth; our parents and other caretakers live within us in outdated, distorted ways, and as long as we don’t explore how it is that we harbor their presence for good or bad, we can’t choose to change the ways these internal constructs affect our experience of life. We can’t take what we need from those relationship experiences and leave the rest.

Nina’s mother is depicted so perfectly, as a woman whose inability to realize her dreams, to “perfect” her art, turns her into an overbearing control freak, living as though her daughter were her little puppet, her little “Mini-Me”. Yet the portrayal also brings us into the crux of the magic spell; for love and tenderness are felt there, too. This sort of Doctor Jekyll-Mr. Hyde thing is what keeps all controlling relationships rolling, and is emblematic of long-term spousal abuse. The controlling/abusive one begins as doting, often idealistic lover, and may remain in that role as long as the controlled one’s behaviors remain within the controller’s comfort zone. When the controlled steps outside of the comfort zone, the controller slides or slams into some kind of sorcerer’s evil rage, only to wake up next morning back in the role of regretful, adoring one again, and the circle is complete — for now.

The most obvious indication of Nina’s Mommy’s own painful creative sterility is the wall in her bedroom plastered with amateurish self portraits and portraits of Nina; I think they might have thrown up a few of Beth, as clues for the symbolists in the audience. The paintings, due to their coloration and general rendering style, make it sometimes difficult to discern if they are depictions of Nina, or Mother as a younger woman, sometimes. I guess the general audience thought the pictures’ mobile eyes were just another indication that Nina was going nuts, but from the shadow work perspective, it means Nina’s experiencing another view.

Mother’s paintings are a record of her retarded view of Nina, or perhaps more precisely, Nina’s internalized mother’s retarded view of her. When the pictures move their eyes and talk, these perspectives have just “come alive” for Nina; she can feel them, they are no longer a mental picture, two-dimensional information, redundant stories of “When I was your age…” and blah, blah, blah. Lots of times our parents have actually moved on to other things, but we still harbor these childhood parental perspectives inside, whether they ever were really those held by our parents, or not. Children can’t really understand parents, after all — their motives, responsibilities, their personal challenges. Old unexamined parental stuff typically causes all kinds of authority issues.

The theme of rubedo sacrifice, and its often unhealthy, retarded aspect, martyrdom, comes in early, too. Early on we see Nina is itching for change, for sacrifice, scratching and hurting herself, causing blood to flow, a scene that reminds us of the ubiquitous, usually female and adolescent behavior of cutting. The unhealthy, hung up, dependent, martyring aspect of sacrifice is presented in the scene where Nina and her Mom are working on her ballet shoes in the living room, and Mom advises Nina not to make the same mistake she made — getting pregnant with Nina, and giving up her career. “What career?” asks Nina scornfully, thinking of the amateurish paintings. She had seen her mother sobbing in front of them, dabbing ineffectually at one with a paintbrush. Like any competitively hard working young son or daughter adolescent or older, Nina feels she has done more than enough to try to make the parent happy, to compensate for any implied or blatantly expressed parental sacrifice made to ensure the child’s comfort or competitive success.

Most children, at even a very young age but increasingly in adolescence, will instinctively feel this prolonged sacrifice of the caretaker’s freedom, of the parents’ creative life, as a martyrdom, as a burden, a relationship cross that all participants are asked to lug around. They feel its unhealthy, futile expectation that the children’s actions could ever heal the wounds and stuck shadow spells of their parents’ and caretakers’ lives, that they could ever hope to fill up such leaky psychological buckets. It is hard enough for us to find the way through the terrain of our own fates and destinies without trying to drag others along, others who insist on remaining stuck in old roles and identifications. As inhabitants of the Earth, we must periodically let go of old perspectives, we must update, if we want to allow new creative energies to flow into our lives, if we want to realize our potential. This new creativity is often symbolized by wings, and Nina’s wings sprout where she had been drawing blood, trying to scratch away the old skin to get to the new. The bloody fingers and the nail clipping is part of that symbolism, as feathers grow on the “fingers” of birds as well. Mother’s overzealous nail clipping then becomes an apt metaphor for clipping Nina’s wings, just as she experiences her motherhood as a clipping of her own wings.

Sacrifice is evident in Nina’s stripping her toe shoes of padding and damaging her feet, those parts of our body that represent our way of moving towards our destinies. There’s a lot of shots in the film of toe dancing, en pointe, which might symbolize the perfectionist, upward-aspiring, ethereal tendencies of the art of ballet, where thin, bird-like women are flown through the air by strong masculine bodies. Interestingly, Nina doesn’t really transform until she develops some understanding of her mother’s former sacrifice of her own artistic aspirations, a sacrifice which is now stuck in martyring. Nina will embody the understanding of her mother’s stuck sacrifice through stepping into Beth’s metaphorical shoes, and understanding something about the tenuousness of any position of outward power, perfection, or authority.

When Nina feels she is about to lose her new prima ballerina position to Lily, she empathizes with Beth, who so recently lost her worldly position of power and authority to Nina. Nina becomes emotional and paranoid, and rushes to see Beth in the hospital and apologize, saying “I know how you’re feeling now, I came to apologize.” There is no going back, though, no way for Nina to “make up”, to set things right. She can’t be the “good girl” here, as she has for so many years with Mommy. She has to witness the fact that moving forward to her own development means, among other things, the ability to face whatever destruction and pain that might cause to the old. After Beth’s self mutilation scene, Nina anxiously rushes home, washing Beth’s blood of responsibility from her hands, and sees her mother, looking like a fairy tale stepmother-witch, a frightening shadow figure, in the kitchen. Mother’s pictures are all speaking; Nina is now empathizing with the same fears her mother, and Beth, must be experiencing, which hold them in stuck patterns, fears of loss of identity, of authority, of power. The connection between the internal experience of Beth and Mother is made clear when Beth comes into the bedroom, all bloodied, and morphs into Mother.

At this realization, this deep experiencing, of her Mom’s and Beth’s positions of authority, of sacrifice and its blocked, martyring forms, Nina’s internally directed transformation ramps up. Her black swan feathers start to pop out; her eyes go red. Mother tries to break into the room, to stop this personal development, as she always has before, but Nina is so taken by her transformational process that she stops at nothing to force the mother out of her personal space. This scene where the previously compliant Nina realizes she will have to get mean, to hurt someone, in order to be allowed the space to develop, to become her true self rather than the self which others would like her to be, is enacted frequently in the lives of adolescents. Nina is basically doing what adolescents are innately designed to do; finding ways to disconnect from old identifications, to fight for their souls, to wildly and instinctually sacrifice anything that gets in the way of growth. Nina previously missed that developmental task, as symbolized by her overabundance of pink stuffed bunnies and other toys.

The understanding of parent(s)/childhood caretaker(s) as flawed and sometimes suffering human beings, rather than childhood’s largely idealized and/or hierarchically powerful authority, is important in Jungian development. This is called individuation. Until we experience our parents as individuals, we are not free to be individuals, either. We will be acting roles, like perfect little pink daughter, and supporting the roles of others, like martyring parent. Roles can themselves be spells which elicit habitual responses to life. Nina’s mother may seem to be supportive of her daughter, but she has also, within her own psyche, co-opted Nina’s success, keeping both of them from experiencing their individuality.

As long as Nina accepts her mother’s loving but overbearing help, and remains intimately enmeshed with her, not making her own choices and needing personal space, Mom can bask in Nina’s glory like it was partly her own. She is still the matriarchal queen, who protects and controls both of these people who make up her tiny kingdom. But Nina, through her desperate, violent, passionate insistence on her own personal space, makes the truth of the situation evident; there are really two distinct individuals here. Mommy is a woman who has martyred her own creativity to her daughter’s way past the sell by date, the mother-queen falls from that imagined position or throne, and Nina’s creative success is separated, individuated, from her mother’s. Now Mom will have to face the responsibility of claiming her own creative life, a transformation that frightens many women when their children have grown, and it’s time to drop the Mini-Me game, look inside for a “new you”, and work at dissolving inhibiting habits and identifications.

Beth has probably martyred herself, too, made some unhealthy sacrifices, traded her body and her affections to further her perfectionistic ambition. There is Beth’s implied previous dependent, “whorish” sexual relationship with Thomas, covered up by alcoholic behaviors, by addiction. Like the mother, Beth’s position is dependent on the affections of others, and on the common human illusion that one’s affections and favors (caretaking by mother, sexual intercourse in Beth’s case) can be traded to ensure the stability of a given position of power and identification. In that position of dependency, our creativity must always bend to those relationship roles, requirements, habits and constraints. When both Beth and Nina’s Mom are divested of their power within Nina’s psyche, she will have access to the energies previously given away to those figures. This new energy will allow Nina to seduce the audience with her wholeness, to “be great”, to open herself to surprise rather than relying always on hard work, to defend herself and stand up for herself, as she does so coolly when it seems Lily will be dancing for her on opening night. She now embodies the best of the dark which was previously experienced as threatening, as fear, and the wise figure of Thomas smiles when he witnesses these blossoming powers and potentialities.

The last scene, where it turns out that Nina didn’t sacrifice/kill Lily, but rather herself, is a pretty obvious reference to shadow work and its requirement of sacrifice. It also clearly portrays the fact that Lily is really an aspect of Nina. Nina is quite obviously transformed at this end point; fairy tales end at the point of transformation, since that was the objective of the story all along. As a matter of fact, stories in general do so; most stories require just enough epilogue following the story’s dramatic crisis to show that the protagonist has changed. When Nina makes white Odette’s Swan Lake sacrificial leap onto the mattress behind the platform, Nina’s voice and face are filled with acceptance, as Thomas recommended during her rehearsal of the leap. Acceptance is a transcendent state. She is in white again, signifying the albedo, the state of purification which follows the sacrifice, the death, of the old ways of being and doing. Lying on the mattress in a sort of ecstatic state, Nina says “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” Rather than using her body like a controlled machine, she has finally felt the flow. She has “lost herself”, made conscious the previously hidden aspect of her very powerful artistic gift, witnessed to by the excited audience, whom Nina has just surprised into the transcendence that art can lend to anyone. The two opposites of control and flow together consummate the inner marriage. She has completed her initiation, with the help of Thomas and Lily, and Sleeping Beauty’s castle can awaken, those once briar-hidden walls now penetrated.

I discovered that Natalie Portman received an Oscar for her role in Black Swan, and I certainly was impressed by the excellence of her performance. However, I also discovered there was a scandal attached to her success. Her dancing double was hushed by the “authorities”, the filmmakers and their PR, I guess, to stay mum about how much dancing Natalie had actually done. It says much about our human love of fantasy and our innate ability to project perfection onto others, just as Nina does in the film, when we as audience imagine that an actress can learn professional level ballet in a year. Or maybe it’s more a case of ignorance; most people haven’t ever attended a ballet class. I have. I still would have liked to believe that Natalie could do more than is humanly possible, though, just as I wish the same for myself.

I had the magic fairy godmother of the internet to consult, though. The suppression of the “imperfect” aspect of Natalie’s performance — the fact that she had to use someone else’s dancing body — became shadow material, in the case of the filmmaking. The covering up of this CGI truth was pretty much an echo of the hang-ups about imperfection which haunted the film’s protagonist, Nina — and all of us. The filmmakers, hoping to reach the top, a sort of hierarchical perfection, had to martyr someone (Sarah Lane from the American Ballet Theater company), putting her in shadow, silencing her voice and her claim to her own creative efforts, so that Natalie Portman, and the filmmakers by proxy, could shine all the more brightly, however much suffering that lie caused for anyone. Interesting how art always imitates life…


Colleen Szabo returned to school after raising kids in the boonies of northern New Mexico, finishing with an MA in transpersonal psychology. Retreating to the ancestral lands lakeside in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is working on a manuscript for young adults, “the course I would teach at Hogwart’s”, and a book on spiritual emergency. Visit her website at colleenszabo.com.

 Posted by at 2:27 pm

Dreamchild: A Film Essay

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Jul 062012
 

Dreamchild: A Film Essay by Elwin Cotman

Dreamchild, directed by Gavin Millar“What was that name that Lewis Carroll used to call you?”

“That’s right. Dreamchild.”

That is a beautiful movie poster. Made doubly so by the fact that, in the movie, the moment it illustrates most likely didn’t happen. Dreamchild, the first film made by the Jim Henson Creature Shop without the auteur’s input, is a film about memory. What happened, what we wish had happened, what we wish we could take back. It is also, like the poster, beautiful.

In college I worked at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. I was in the stacks department. We put books back where they belonged. I believe the department was famous for having Pitt’s longest-serving employee, a cantankerous old man who headed stacks for 30 or 40 years and always talked about his trips to the “picture show.” It was a job anybody could do and, accordingly, we were paid nothing. But it was comfortable, so comfortable it never occurred to me to secure an internship or some kind of real job at any point during my three years of undergrad. For two years I pushed around carts and tried not to fall asleep while shelf reading.

A great part of shelving books was the opportunity to lollygag and dillydally. I got plenty of reading done when I was hidden among those metal shelves. A particular favorite place to waste time was the magazine section, an impressive collection of hardbound magazines. I would dive into the old issues of Cinefantastique, the greatest ever journal devoted to speculative film. It was like having a time machine. I wiled away the hours reading articles about classic movies from before they came out. On-the-set reports from Temple of Doom and Conan the Barbarian. Reviews of Dragonslayer and Krull. Interviews with Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper during the height of Spielberg’s media ascendance.

One issue previewed a small English movie with an intriguing title: Dreamchild (1985). An intriguing title with an intriguing premise, based on true events: the 80-year-old Alice Hargreaves (née Liddell), the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, journeys to America to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University, in honor of the author’s centennial. In Depression-era New York City, she has several fantasy sequences involving characters from the novel, designed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop.

Let me repeat that.

Jim Henson.

Doing Alice in Wonderland.

In the eighties.

For a nerd, I am relatively modest in my fandoms. That said, I have watched Labyrinth from beginning to end at least one hundred times. Like many in my generation, I was raised on Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, that classic duology of dry humor, genuine scares, big haired eighties pop, Froud faerie designs and breathtaking puppetry. They have achieved iconic status and deservedly so. The Henson fantasy oeuvre is all the more special for how little of it there is. You have the two features, Fraggle Rock, and The Storyteller TV series. It seems absurd that anything would pass under the radar, yet you will find many a Henson fan unaware of Dreamchild.

After learning of Dreamchild, it shot high on my list of films to see, and stayed there until–thank the gods for Youtube–I finally saw it this year. It’s easy to see why Gavin Millar’s film hasn’t achieved the cult status of the other two films, and not just because Henson didn’t direct it. Dreamchild is not a fun movie. The film is sad, elegiac, has a dark color palette and, for a movie full of animatronic puppets, startlingly understated. No goblin dance parties here. It’s not even a fantasy, per se; all of its speculative scenes are firmly rooted in dream sequences. The film takes place in the real world, the protagonist is elderly, and it deals with end-of-life issues in a frank manner. Dreamchild is a deeply thoughtful picture with a lot to say.

Before I go on, I must admit I know little about Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, one of the most fascinating figures in English literature. I love Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, of course, and it’s way past time I gave them a reread. His complicated relationship with the Liddell family has been subject to much investigation, and centuries later there are still no concrete answers. Was Reverend Dodgson a harmless pedophile obsessed with Alice Pleasance Liddell? A mentor caught up in the Victorian cult of the child? Whatever the truth was, the movie falls firmly on the side that he loved Alice. The character of Dodgson is absolutely smitten with his prepubescent muse, and she has a certain affection for him, as well.

Dreamchild was made by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, not Henson, and it would be illogical to think he had any more to do with it than with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. Yet somehow it fits with the two Henson-directed films, to the point that I would call it a trilogy closer. I’m sure some will claim The Witches has that title, but hear me out.

The Dark Crystal is a full-blown fantasy world, every single detail down to the smallest flower a work of imagination. The story is pure monomyth, a child’s heroic fantasies (and nightmares) brought to life. In Labyrinth, the fantasy world is conquered by humanity in the form of David Bowie’s Jareth. Conquered and ultimately rejected by Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah, though she retains that fraction of whimsy that will help get her through her adult life. The climax of Labyrinth makes it explicit that the fantasy world is the world of childhood.

The first movie is a child’s dreams, the second movie about reconciling childhood concerns with those of maturation. Now we are at Dreamchild, which is firmly about the regrets of old age: the inability to change the past, the loneliness, the approach of mortality and the uncertainty for those you leave behind. The fantasy world that was so vivid in Dark Crystal is now dark and claustrophobic, the realm of fragmented adult memory. It is interesting to me that Labyrinth is also about a romantic relationship between a young girl and a much older suitor; in that way Dreamchild works as a spiritual sequel, the girl coming to terms with the relationship, now that she has nothing left to do but reflect on the past.

That the world of imagination/childhood is rendered so terrifying makes Dreamchild doubly effective. The Henson duology, particularly Dark Crystal, are often scary, just as childhood can be scary. The adult mind forgets the fear it felt the first time the Skeksis shambled onscreen in their hulking Baroque costumes, just like it tries to forget (yet subconsciously remembers) childhood trauma. Alice’s trauma stems from her girlhood. She begins the film by lying to herself, saying she was merely the template for Dodgson to create his stories. As things progress, her repeated question “What does it all mean?” goes deeper than simply wondering why so many people love a children’s book.

The Story

Dreamchild opens like a horror film: ominous cello music, camera panning over water that does not look entirely natural, to a beach tossed with debris. The Mock Turtle is crying; his fur is patchy, his oblong face is bewhiskered and a dark green color. The Gryphon looks somewhat like a Skeksi, unfolding wings so tall they stab at the top of the screen. They do the classic dialogue with the elderly Alice (Coral Browne), insulting and threatening the scared woman. She turns into the child Alice, who is not so frightened. “Where are you?” the woman thinks as the camera fades. “Where have you gone?”

New York City. The 1930s. We are introduced to the upper crust Alice Hargreaves and her timid assistant Lucy (an early turn by English TV actress Nicola Cowper). Alice is not particularly likeable. She is judgmental, self-possessed, obsessed with being proper, henpecks her assistant, and spends her time ruminating on curious American customs, such as this gummy paste they chew all the time. She’s the type of woman who insists on being called Misses Hargreaves. Needless to say, Alice is flabbergasted when they are met at the harbor by a horde of journalists who chase her down, thrust stuffed rabbits in her face, call her by her first name, and generally behave like nuisances. Alice claims to have no idea what the fuss is about, which begs the question: why is she there?

As if to prove this movie was made in the eighties, Peter Gallagher is in it. He plays Jack Dolan, an unemployed wheeler-dealer reporter who sets his sights on Alice as his meal ticket. To get to her he seduces Lucy, then decides to break the young woman out of her shell. It is up to Jack to explain the situation to the audience: America is in the middle of the Depression and everybody is looking for a little wonder in their hard lives. As such, New York City is gaga for the arrival of the “real Alice.” Alice in Wonderland is a story embedded in the human DNA: everyone knows the inquisitive little girl’s adventures down the rabbit hole even if they never opened the book or know the slightest thing about its author. The reporters who hound Alice certainly don’t know their facts, asking her who this “Dodgson guy” is. The idea of art taking on a life of its own is an important theme of Dreamchild.

The film flashes back to Alice’s relationship with Dodgson. These scenes are the linchpins of the movie and they play like scenes from a Victorian novel, patiently told. Beneath every scene is the intense longing Dodgson (Ian Holm) has for his muse. Amelia Shankley, a charming child actress who did some period pieces in the 1980s and early ‘90s before, unfortunately, disappearing off the face of the planet, portrays Young Alice. It is easy to see how the nervous, stuttering photographer becomes so infatuated with her. She is not the Alice of the books, but she is bold, smart, and mischievous. She is also knowing, and interested in Dodgson, if only because he is her first experience of a man feeling this way toward her.

In her very first scene, young Alice is already his confidante. She relates to her mother and sisters a story about Dodgson photographing Lord Tennyson. When her mother wonders with concern why Dodgson tells her so much, her response is, “Because he loves me.” She knows the emotion, if not the extent of the writer’s feelings. There is a preternatural sexuality to the way she interacts with this hapless man, showing her interest in the only ways she knows how: flinging water at him during a boat ride, offering to dry him off with her own handkerchief, knowing that she makes him nervous. The movie makes a bold move in having his affections returned. Her feelings for him aren’t sexual, and, if Dodgson feels sexual desire, he hides it. They exist in a strange place, child and man-child, with the child often having the upper hand. Taunting him, complimenting him, knowing when to give and hold back her favors. These scenes are filled with tension, and provide a dark undercurrent to the older Alice’s regrets.

Nostalgia

Dreamchild is not really a film about children’s literature, but our relationship to this literature. In exploring this, and the way it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, it joins a unique sub-genre of fantasy film that deals with this topic. Finding Neverland and The Neverending Story are also in this category. The media is wild about Alice because she provides a nostalgic feeling in the midst of the Depression. Despite the economy, Columbia University is willing to throw large amounts of money toward this nostalgia trip.

Never mind that the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in no way comfortable children’s lit in the way that, say, Winnie-the-Pooh is. The book is oftentimes frightening and undoubtedly surreal. It is also, arguably, not really for children; stuffed to the brim with philosophy, satire of Victorian figures, and references to contemporary people, places, and events. In the 1930s, as now, many people’s fond memories of it had more to do with how old they were when they read it, and less to do with its bizarre cavalcade of disembodied heads, abused lizards, and pepper-flinging cooks. Lewis Carroll’s weird combination of a child’s rambling logic and adult cynicism has become a fairy tale: a story template endlessly retold through the ages. One need only look at Tim Burton’s recent adaptation, in which he bends the novel backwards, inside-out, then sets it on fire to turn it into a Lord of the Rings-style war epic, to see how far perceptions of the story have strayed from the context. Dreamchild, being a narrative of the conflicts between childhood and adulthood, is one of the more faithful Wonderland pastiches.

As Jack explains to Alice after barging into her hotel room, a world in economic disaster is very open to distraction. For her part, Alice is trying to work out her transition from muse to relic of the idyllic past. The idea of the nostalgic permeates every frame of the movie, with a running theme of how media is used to create fabricated visions of history. Much is made in the flashback scenes of Dodgson’s career as a photographer, such as his heroic portrait of Lord Tennyson. The advent of photography (and its subsequent influence on the novel) changed the Western world and Victorian England, specifically; what was lauded as a means of capturing reality was just as often used to fabricate romantic images, such as the angelic representations of childhood in Dodgson’s portraits of the Liddell sisters.

The movie positions Dodgson as a man-child trying to connect with his own youth through indulging his sense of whimsy. Fast-forward seventy years. A generation raised on his novels now gets their nostalgia through radio, as shown in a scene where Alice visits a recording studio. She witnesses the recording of a melodrama about a singing cowboy, the kind of popular Depression-era entertainment that had little to do with the real Old West. There is also mention of the 1933 Paramount Pictures Wonderland adaptation. It is also important that Jack is a reporter; the first scene in the newspaper office shows the editor-in-chief sending his minions after the “real Alice,” desperate to report something “fun.” Dreamchild illustrates a pivotal point in journalism, in which entertainment and celebrity are starting to be equal with, if not taking precedence over, world events. This is par for the course in the modern era, but Jack and his comrades are at the start of this shift.

Dreamchild positions these new and old medias against each other, an ever-evolving search for simplicity for an increasingly jaded public. This makes Alice Hargreaves truly unique: she is not a photograph, or a book, or a radio serial. She is a living totem of childhood nostalgia. “Better than Peter Pan, Huck Finn, and Santa Claus all rolled into one,” according to Jack. The 10-year-old Alice had no choice in becoming the subject of Dodgson’s art. The 80-year-old Alice willingly exploits herself on the radio for money, clumsily reading a monologue somebody else wrote, where she represents herself as the character from the book.

And all the while, Alice continues to protest that she does not understand what the fuss is about. Everything stems from her relationship with Dodgson, a burden that she alone is left to shoulder. Meanwhile, the world around her is trying to make something simple from the difficult life of a woman whose difficult relationship with a difficult literary figure spawned a difficult text, a private elder who has endured her share of personal tragedy. If Alice is the messy truth behind the art, then Jack Dolan represents the commoditization of said art. When Jack, armed with his charm and bare minimum of knowledge about Lewis Carroll, tries to woo the old woman by evoking her relationship with the author, it seems that, manipulative as he is, he “gets it” better than she does.

“Misses Hargreaves…We just want you to be the Alice we all remember.”

Her response: “It would be difficult enough at my age to be what I once was, but utterly impossible to be what I never was.”

There is bitterness in that line, as if Dodgson hurt her somehow by turning her into a beloved literary character. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to the book’s admirers if she is the “real Alice.” A huge part of Alice’s dilemma is dealing with the fact that something so personal to her has taken on a life of its own, and making sense of her role in this. That dilemma is what she’s willing to acknowledge to others, but Dreamchild goes even deeper.

The Inner Mind

This is as good a time as any to talk about the puppet work. There are six puppets in the movie: the Caterpillar, the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. The Wonderland characters have aged with Alice; decrepit, sickly versions of Tenniel’s illustrations, they are brusque and insulting to the old woman in her fantasy sequences. They also stand up there with the best of the Henson Shop’s work. Just look at the disgust in the Caterpillar’s eyes when he asks Alice: “So you think you’ve changed, have you?” It’s amazing.

As stated, the young Alice in the fantasy sequences is perfectly capable of keeping up with the Wonderland characters. It is when she switches to her current form that their well-known dialogues confuse her. Her inability to deal with her past has only been exacerbated by age. The puppetry sequences in Dreamchild serve to delve into the complexities of the human heart. Herein lies the power of this movie: in a medium known for being explicit, it allows the characters to say one thing and think another.

For instance: in a particular scene halfway through the movie, Alice is getting ready for bed. She has a lovely conversation with Lucy about how she has become used to the fact of her death. She believes death will come as a friend, that God is a gentleman, and she looks forward to seeing her husband and sons in Heaven. While the old woman sleeps, Lucy goes dancing with Jack. Alice is awoken by a ringing telephone; addled and helpless without her assistant, she walks into another room to find Dodgson sitting on the edge of the bed, staring condemningly from the afterworld.

At this point, the movie delves into serious psychological horror territory. Alice is about to answer the phone when she looks into another room and sees the Mad Tea Party. The March Hare is ugly and insolent, with crooked incisors and a wildly twitching nose. You can smell his bad breath through the TV screen. The Mad Hatter is even uglier, and appears to have partaken of the wine that the March Hare offers. Once Alice sits down, they go about the famous dialogue word for word, but their delivery is sinister. The Hatter is violent, knocking hot tea everywhere, pouring it on the Dormouse’s nose. The March Hare keeps sticking his ugly snout in Alice’s face. The question of “How is a raven like a writing desk?” is thrown at her like an accusation, her inability to answer the answerless riddle only more proof of her helplessness. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” says the Hatter, scattering dishes. When Alice accuses them of wasting time, she is really talking about herself.

“You half-wit,” the Hatter calls her. “Ugly old hag. You should be dead, dead, dead.”

Past and present merge. The scene is juxtaposed with a flashback of an enthusiastic Dodgson telling the story of the Tea Party to the sisters during their famous rowing trip. Young Alice muses on how she wishes the characters were real, while at the same time the characters scare the elderly Alice. The scene ends with the old woman trying to make sense of the solicitors on the other end of the phone. She is completely at her wit’s end, unable to reconcile with her past and her shortening future. As beautiful as her conversation with Lucy is, the film makes the point that no amount of age can prepare someone for mortality. Furthermore, the Christian afterlife might be just as full of people you have wronged as those you wish to see. The puppetry sequence is employed to truly get inside Alice’s head, weaving the past, present, and fantasy worlds seamlessly. This is masterful filmmaking.

Gallagher and Cowper are fine as the young lovers, but this is Coral Browne’s movie. It was the final feature for the legendary Australian actress, and it is impressive to think how the proper character she portrays is so opposite to the famously ribald thespian. Her performance is understated and completely natural. Browne is a beautiful woman with an evocative face, and she does a lot with the character of Alice Hargreaves: at turns self-absorbed, frightened, confused, reflective, blunt, greedy, a liar, vain, and full of humor. One has to think that the thoughts on Alice’s mind were most likely on Browne’s, as well. The actress would pass away six years later.

The puppet scenes are used to get to the meat of Alice’s trepidations. “Repeat after me,” the Caterpillar says. “You are old, Misses Hargreaves.” For the life of her, Alice cannot remember why her mother burned Dodgson’s letters to her, or why he was forbidden from coming around her and her sisters. It is unclear whether she has forgotten due to age or because she made herself forget. Among these things she has forgotten, she gradually comes to acknowledge the truth of her feelings.

“I used him,” she says of her first suitor.

Love

At its heart, Dreamchild is a love story. Not love with a capital L, but the down and dirty love that leaves people sick and opens the door for catastrophe. All of the events in the movie stem from the sad, doomed, and unhealthy love between Dodgson and Alice.

Towards the end of the film, there is a painful flashback in which Alice, alone with Dodgson in his dark room, expresses her excitement over having tea with a group of boys, including a certain young sportsman named Reggie Hargreaves. The pain is clear on Dodgson’s face, and he comes this close to telling her his feelings. The words of love are right on his lips. Instead, he stammers some advice about not falling for the first lad to sweep her off her feet. Naturally, she doesn’t get it. It kills him inside when he hands her a copy of his book, this testament to his affection, and all she sees is a story. Then the kicker: Alice races off to join her sisters, blithely tearing back the window curtain, exposing his pictures to light. Dodgson is left alone, spurned, and all he can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all.

It is not Alice’s fault that she did not love a much older man, but the trip to America dredges up all the scars. She feels terrible about the way her relationship with Dodgson went. She cannot remember whether it went to an inappropriate level, but the guilt she feels for his banishment from her life is like that of a woman who has rejected her lover. This is underscored by a flashback towards the end where Alice and her sisters, the dashing Hargreaves boys in two, ask Dodgson for a song. He stutters through the “Mock Turtle’s Song” and they laugh at this dweeb, already engaging in adolescent cruelty. Young Alice can’t help herself, but the woman she grows up to be feels guilty for the fact that she literally outgrew her first love. “I used him.” In her mind, she entertained herself with his affection and cast him away, and there is no chance now to make it up to him.

Cinefantastique described the plot as the elderly Alice helping to bring together two young lovers. Thankfully, the movie is not nearly so trite. It is about love in all its hardships. The romantic B-plot is itself complicated and, in a realistic turn of events, largely unresolved at the end. Lucy is unsure of whether Jack wants her or if this is all a ploy for money. It all comes back to children’s literature. Alice is the complicated truth behind the beloved art. Jack is its commoditization. Lucy is the innocent in the scenario, with this sojourn to America her own coming-of-age story, her introduction to the world’s complexities.

That the love story does not quite work is to the movie’s favor. It is possible that Jack is charmed by this beautiful and nervous young Englishwoman; equally possible that his feelings are paternal and condescending. It is possible that Lucy sees the vulnerability under his snake oil routine; equally possible that she is latching onto the first man who will have her, transitioning from an ailing mother figure to a lover she can depend on. That Alice is so impressed by their “love” speaks more about her than them. When we last see them at the celebration at Columbia, Jack is sitting next to Lucy, having successfully insinuated himself into both women’s lives. Whatever love they have is the kind that will not solidify in three days, and the movie does well to leave it open-ended. This is no twee romance between Lucy and Jack. The possibility is there for a relationship just as traumatic as Alice and Dodgson’s.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was Dodgson’s love letter to Alice. It is in realizing how far this story has gone beyond their personal relationship that Alice finds her peace at last.

Real People

The ultimate strength of Dreamchild is that it allows its characters to be complicated. This is a film about real people. Real people agreeing, disagreeing, loving, and clashing. It follows the interrelated relationships of four nuanced characters: Alice, Lucy, Jack and Dodgson. Does Alice love Lucy as a daughter or see her as a servant? Does Lucy depend on Alice because she needs a job, or because the way the old woman speaks makes Lucy, according to her, “see through her eyes.” Does she fear Alice’s death for Alice’s sake or hers? Does Jack want Lucy or is his quarry the old woman? Is he in it for the money? Is he a sympathetic con artist or a crass con artist taking twenty percent of Alice’s earnings? When Alice decides to do the radio show, is she doing it to work out her feelings or because she wants lots of money? Does young Alice love Dodgson or is she playing games with him? Does Dodgson appreciate her family at all, or is his whole mentor routine just to get close to his beloved?

The answer is, wonderfully, all of the above. These characters are written in shades of gray, and the fact that they constantly use each other still allows for genuine feeling. They’re human and are allowed to be as complicated as human beings are. The same goes for their relationships. For all the abusive undertones in their interactions, Lucy seems to be the only person who truly understands Alice. Mrs. Hargreaves expresses her affection the only way she knows how, and it is possible her relationships with Reggie and her sons were just as stilted. In navigating her first experience with a male suitor, Lucy grows disillusioned with both Jack and Alice. She lashes out at them, but she still loves them.

It is in seeing how art moves beyond the personal that Alice finds her solace. At the ceremony, she flashes back to that painful rendition of “The Mock Turtle’s Song.” As a men’s choir performs the song, Alice uses her imagination to rewrite history. Instead of laughing at Dodgson, she hugs him, an embrace that hits the man so hard he can’t even return it, but lets his arms drop to his sides. He is so lovestruck that he can only receive. Seventy years later, Alice is now the artist recreating the world as she wants it. It is telling that Alice, prior to this a scared victim of her memories, takes control of the world of childhood/fantasy by embodying her former self. This makes sense, as the child-self is the version of her most comfortable in that world. Listening to the choir, she appreciates everything Dodgson accomplished in a way that her girlhood self never could. This is a revelation that could only come with age. Whatever occurred between her and the reverend, the product of their relationship has flourished beyond them as individuals. It is now a part of the world, and this fact helps her go to her rest in peace. At least, that’s what I got out of it. This being Dreamchild, the final image on the Mock Turtle’s beach is both creepy and heartwarming.

Dreamchild is that rare movie, fantasy or otherwise: a film made for adults. You have trauma on the inside, the Depression on the outside, and there are no easy answers. You are required to think. Was the historical Dodgson romantically interested in the young Alice? It doesn’t matter. This movie is not a biography of Dodgson or Liddell: it is a treatise on how art takes on a life of its own. It examines how art stems from individuals, and how it affects individuals. With this in mind, the movie works better because they’re not striving to tell the 100% truth of anything.

The movie is also a swan song. Both Browne and Henson died shortly after its release. Henson left us with a few more creations before his untimely death, projects that he was more personally invested in. However, his genius is all over the puppetry in this movie. As such, Dreamchild is an opportunity to see two master artists at the top of their form, before they became a part of history.

For a movie with so much to say, Dreamchild is both short and inconclusive. I feel myself drawn nowadays to storytelling that does not tie everything up. As the character of Dodgson shows, even death is not the end. The story will go on, and as long as there are human beings, we will retell it in our own ways.


Elwin Cotman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1984. In 2005, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Writing. In his time, Elwin has been a Wal-Mart employee, bookseller, middle school teacher, youth counselor and ESL instructor, and has finally found a job that pays less than any of those: fantasy writer. He currently resides in Oakland, California. Follow his blog at http://www.lookmanoagent.blogspot.com.

 Posted by at 1:22 pm

Scheherezade’s Bequest open for submissions

 Our Grim(m)oire  Comments Off on Scheherezade’s Bequest open for submissions
Jul 022012
 

Scheherezade's BequestWe said in our last editorial that we are taking Scheherezade’s Bequest into print and today submissions open for the first issue of the first volume. Editors Donna Quattrone and Virginia M. Mohlere have compiled new guidelines, so please be sure to read them! We are hoping to produce a multimedia volume, so we are currently seeking fiction, poetry, non-fiction, artwork, and graphic fiction (comics). For our first issue we intend to challenge modern notions of beauty by deconstructing the archetype of the Loathly Lady. We are particularly interested in stories that add to the sum of the world’s joy. The guidelines and technical details (word count, etc.) can be found on our submissions page. Thank you for sending us your work!

 Posted by at 8:00 am