Blood, Snow, Birch and Underworld by JoSelle Vanderhooft

Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Blood, Snow, Birch and Underworld
by JoSelle Vanderhooft

A daughter like a window:
full as glass
and just as empty.
The queen sucked her forefinger–the one
ever responsible for accidents,
and thought a canyon in her forehead.

Girls like blood and winter and bare branches.
All the rage, like hearts in strong boxes,
dolls in see-through coffins,
little dogs in little bags.
But what is popular is deadly as starvation,
just as catching.

A mother knows this,
when her own did not. Knows
the terror of monstrosity in miniature.

Three red drops on white,
the shellacked sill a perfect frame.
The glass between flawless,

The finger circumnavigates her navel,
dips into its wishing well.
Such a daughter: beautiless as air,
No heart
and no guts.
and safe.

Her own gut moved,


Cardinal on birch.
Snow between.

Ballet-balanced Cipher watches him
tilt head, shake wing–
twitch like the physick’s organs
electrified for the king’s curiosity.

“It’s like this, majesty–”
a flipped switch,
the heart’s veins hop.
“The blood travels on a circuit,
like the seasons.”

The Court applauded.
she closed her hand over her breast,
thought of living fruit.
Her own heart, certainly,
did no such thing.

The cardinal perks,
vanishes into December.
She watches, strokes her breast

It doesn’t beat.
Not even when Mother died.

Not even when Father dismissed the doctor,
called for something
softer, more attractive.

It makes no noise at all.
Not even my footsteps do.

she thinks everyone
knows her emptiness,
looks through her like this windowpane
in search
of something red.


is Mother’s reverse.

Skin like grave-loam,
hair curled
as wasting ivy,
dry and thin-ribbed winter
for her predecessor’s hips and bounty,
for her pallor less snowfall than August sun.

Even the mouth is different:
Knife-gash, menses smear–
Obscene, titters the Court.
Not button-prim like their Lady
who ate only in nibbles
and touched no wine.

Cipher does not think it so.
It is the first that smiles.
“You’re Cipher, right?”
Not daughter, princess,
Her lips draw into a seed. “Well,
my dear?
Don’t be afraid.”

Her smile
is the winter sun
between drives of schorl clouds.

A cardinal’s wing shadows the clerestory;
Cipher’s fingers flutter to her breasts.
Beneath her touch, a twist in hollowness.

Something is not there
that wants to be.

Stepmother’s tongue
tastes the corner of her lips.


The year’s wheel turns from snow
to colder snow.
Midwinter visits in her holly wreathes,
and crowns of candle fire.
It is a holiday, Stepmother says,
so let the balustrades wear evergreen;
the tables and ladies
moan with seedcakes and sweetmeats.
Her eyes reflect the hearth, amber
upon amber.
Cipher swirls a sugar cube, considers’”the stars
of Tartarus must look the same.
At her left hand, Stepmother laughs a toast;
the stars turn to her
and burn.
Stepmother smiles a wealth of fire opal,
leans in for a secret–
“The birch when everyone’s abed.”–
clinks stein with Ladies and then Father,
choreography subtler than wind.

Cipher’s breath snags in her ribs–
the new sun ascends between her legs.


The moon is full when dreams of emerald
and amber fall off like a sheet.
The air bites Cipher’s breasts beneath her gown.
The flagstones nip her heels,
snow bites her toes.

The sky’s unraveling quartz,
lapis, chalcedony. Snowflake
obsidian catches upon her lashes,
veils everything in air
and the moonstone winter-light of–

at the birch,
hair a wave of darkness,
smile like the sickle moon.
Empty calls to
She waves benediction–
beckon: Come.
steps through the hanging trees.
Her gown is a tear of ruby
cardinal wing.

Cipher follows,
does not blink away the snow
that settles in her eyes.

Stepmother’s burning,
beacon through elder, oak
yew and prickle-pine.
Trees stranger, tall
and ragged. Twigs of diamond,
drusy, chrysocolla pull her skirts,
brush back her bangs,
won’t wait’”Stepmother
moves like corpse candle light,
in mist direction,
but purposeful as plagues.

The darkness parts
upon another red–
tree bare as black pearl
spread ventrical

Fruit beating
a heart.

shifts like circulation,
cups one pomegranate,
brings it to her hands.
“Do you know
how you were planted?”

The wind whispers
in shades
In cautions.
Cipher does not listen,
hears only the beat
of living seeds.

She shakes her head, embarrassed.

Stepmother smiles,
like gold might smile.
“Carefully,” she says,
“like harvest grain,
like potash in fire:
for another’s purpose.”
“Tell me,”–
the pomegranate cradled in her hand–
“what need has either
soil or window
for a heart?”

The wind ripples their hair like sails
and there is a space beneath her ribs.
Cipher feels above it,

“Hurt is in the taking.”
Stepmother strokes the red curve.
“Eat, and there will be hunger,
want, rejection.
Death, too–
For seeds must die to yield.
Eat not,
You will know the story of a window–
as the world is full.”

The fruit is ice inside her palm,
heavy, cold–
familiar as the space
–that must be filled.
Cipher shuts her eyes
and plucks.

The seeds stick like stars
inside her.


Stepmother vanishes
like hoarfrost.
The palace forgets her like a dream.

The cardinal hops branch,
shakes snow from wings like waking.
Cipher smiles
like a window opened,
and a breath


JoSelle Vanderhooft is a poet and author whose works include The Tale of the Miller’s Daughter, The Memory Palace and the 2008 Bram Stoker Award finalist Ossuary. She regularly edits collections of lesbian fiction, which most recently include Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and (with Catherine Lundoff) Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Lesbian Magic Users. She lives in Florida.