Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales

 

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Fairy tales were meant to be dark. Dark and sinister, full of evil stepmothers, vengeful ogres, big bad wolves and seemingly unsolvable problems. Fairy tales take us into hidden realms of the psyche, thus giving an opportunity to explore, provoke, and discover new power.

No one understood this better than 20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today I pay homage to this man, born on August 28, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.

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Having spent the greater part of his professional career involved with emotionally disturbed children, in 1976 Bettelheim published his masterpiece The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.   In this book, Bettelheim explained how fairy tales are symbolic of healthy human development. He advocated fairy tales as necessary for children to make the process of ‘growing up’ easier.  A good dark fairy tale gives the child a chance to stimulate his/her imagination and think up creative solutions to problems.

While Disney was busy sanitizing Cinderella, and while the censorship dogs fanned the flames of banned books, Bettelheim became an advocate for exploration of the scary monsters, the bloodthirsty giants, the magic mirrors.

Bettelheim himself was no stranger to the Dark Side. His life was a series of unfortunate incidences, but it was also full of unprecedented victories.

Born just after the turn of the 20th century, Bruno was the son of a wood merchant. His family was Jewish and middle class.  In his early twenties he began study at the University of Vienna but when his father became ill he quit school to take over his family’s lumber business. Dark strike number one.

As it turned out – the illness Bruno’s dad was suffering from happened to be syphilis. This reportedly brought a slow and painful death, not to mention irrevocable shame and stress upon his family. Dark strike number two.

In 1930 Bettelheim married his first wife Gina. Eventually he returned to the university, earning a Ph.D in philosophy. In 1938 he became an accredited psychiatrist and was one of the last Jews in Europe to be awarded a Doctorate degree before the Holocaust.

Enter the Nazis. In 1939 Bruno was arrested by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. Dark strike number three.

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Luckily, he was released through payment (Nazi officials not being beyond bribery.) Upon returning to a blighted Vienna, Bruno found that his wife had left him, his home and business were devastated, and he had lost virtually everything. Dark strike number four.

In 1941 he married his second wife Gertrude Weinfeld. They emigrated to the United States in 1943 and became citizens.  Bettelheim published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 work:  Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.  He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.

Bettelheim also served as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. His work there was world famous.  The Uses of Enchantment became a best seller. It was awarded the U.S. Critic’s Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

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To be fair, it should be noted that Bettelheim was also considered controversial. He has been called “inspiring, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness.”

Perhaps he had to be. He was up against academia and a culture that, for the most part, does not like to examine its own flaws.

The need to sanitize fairy tales was no doubt well intended. Walt Disney himself was also no stranger to the Dark Side.  His remedy was to create likable dwarfs that whistled while they worked and a sweet as pie Cinderella that never did harm to anyone.

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Never mind that the original Cinderella sent her birds to pluck out the eyes of her stepsisters. Never mind that the stepsisters literally mutilated their own feet with knives in a effort to fit the slipper. Never mind that the dwarfs had prurient intentions toward the nubile Snow White — who might be considered a prototype for Nabokov’s Lolita.  Some things are simply not for children’s eyes and ears.

However, Bettelheim argued that an attempt to hide hard and sinister truths from children would only hinder their development, making them less able to cope as adults. (Besides that, it would cut out a good deal of the fun!) Most children are very interested in the Dark Side. It has a magnetic quality.  They love to hate the villains and identify with the heroes.

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As our society becomes more self conscious and politically correct, we are more in danger of sanitizing reading material. This trend could greatly damage young people.

I once read an internet review of Alice in Wonderland in which the adult reader claimed this story was ‘way too scary for children.’ Having been raised on the story myself, I was somewhat appalled. (I also thought – what if my own parents had deemed Alice ‘too scary’ for me and prohibited my reading it? Now THAT would have been truly horrific!)

I considered the so called scary parts of Alice. Tumbling down a big rabbit hole and then having no control over your own growth. Facing a queen who threatens to behead the entire world. As a kid I loved it! As an adult I love it!

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Bettelheim argues that this type of scary story is good for kids because it allows them a chance to face terrible circumstances in their imagination, and follow the hero to a creative solution. When faced with a real life problem, it will not be so overwhelming.

Around the time I read this assessment of scary Alice, I read another online review of Oliver Twist. The critic also deemed the story ‘way too scary for children’, this due to the fact that Bill Sykes murders his girlfriend Nancy, is haunted by her ghost and goes on to hang himself.

As a kid I loved Oliver. These horrific events did not phase me. Not one bit.

I have often wondered if we, as adults, lack coping skills and unwittingly disempower children through our own fears.

I recently had a nine year old student ask me if she could read Shakespeare. (This was her idea, not mine!) Of course I said YES!! We read through a children’s edition of Romeo and Juliet. My nine year old read the murders of Tybalt and Mercutio without batting an eyelash. The story intrigued her. She was not disturbed by it, she was INTERESTED in it. Likewise the suicides of R and J. My nine year old came away loving this romantic story, remembering the good parts, working through the bad. It would have been a mistake to deem it ‘too violent’ ‘too scary’ or simply ‘unacceptable’ for a child.

Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein both knew this. Einstein, a great fan of fairy tales, often advocated for the use of them in education. Magic hits us in the quantum heart.

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If we want our children to be free thinkers, problem solvers and imaginative  individuals, we would do well to let them to explore the dark side of fairy tales.

Happy Birthday Bruno!

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Ryder and the Wolf

 

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As I stepped to the forest path the moon was platinum full, bathing its pale light over the changing leaves of October. The Native tribes called this moon Hunter, and sure as I gazed at it, I knew Diana’s strength embraced me.

In my basket I carried victuals, all manner of  which would aid my ailing Granny. There were sweet cakes spilling with honey. Wine pressed from dandelion and elderberry. Ginger root to be brewed in a strong tea and garlic bulbs to be steeped in milk. All of it was surely enough to cure any grippe or fever. My poor Granny suffered. Her health and well being were the most important things to me in all the world.

The night was gray, a thick fog rising, air soft as early autumn’s gauze.  There was a stillness to the wind, an eeriness like the calm before a storm.  This night was odd, I felt it in my bones. Strange things were portended, and if it weren’t for my ailing Granny I would scarce have left from my cottage.

Yet the Hunter moon beckoned.

Halfway through the lupine pass I spotted the wolf. A coat black as ebony and blue eyes that gleamed bright as sapphire.

 

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No doubt the animal had sniffed out my victuals, or even, I daresay, my own blood. I was not a-feared. Humankind surely has dominion over the beasts of this planet. Still, I knew I’d best keep my distance.  I made myself scarce among the heather and pine. I even scattered a few cake crumbs so as to throw the beast off my trail. I then proceeded in another direction entirely, forgoing the shortcut yet proceeding to Granny’s cottage all the same.

My dodging was to no avail, for some three leagues down the road I encountered the wolf again. This time the most wondrous of things happened, so much so that you gentle reader, may doubt my words. I assure you it all is true, sure as my name is Ryder Redd and I dwell in the forest of Galbraithe.

The wolf spoke to me, in a voice clear and stern as any man. “Ryder Redd,”  quothe he. “What brings thee to the forest?”   I was, of course, taken aback.  And yet, in the pale light of the moon, where all manner of wondrous things  happened, and in the still of the fog where metamorphosis morphed, a talking wolf seemed, in that instant, not so very strange at all.

“I bring remedies to my Granny, black wolf,” said I. “For she ails in fever and such victuals are sure to cure it.”

The wolf then sniffed, stuck his snout in the flannel napkin of my sack.  “Have you no meat, woman?” he asked, a rise of tension in his voice.

“Nay sir,” said I. “So sorry to disappoint, but it is medicine I bring. Honey cakes, ginger, strong wine, and garlic, noxious enough to clear any head.”

“Bah, what good are you?” said the wolf. With that he bounded up the path. I silently thanked Diana, for she had no doubt protected me. As the Huntress keeps her animals at bay, so humans are free to wander the earth.

By and by I came to Granny’s cottage. I knocked upon the door. No answer. The house was still as rock, no sign of stirring within.   Granny was, no doubt, in slumber.  I opened the door. The house was dark and I fumbled for some candles.  Having lit them I checked the bedroom, looked beneath the sheets, lifted the dust ruffle and even peeked under the bed. “Granny?”  I called. She was nowhere to be found.

Just then through the window I heard an earth shattering howl. Then more howls joined in unison. My heart quickened, for, confronted with one wolf I was able and competent, but this – a whole pack outside my Gran’s door? For this I was not equipped.

Still, curiosity got the better of me and I went to the window.  What I viewed, gentle reader, you will surely not believe. Yet I saw it with the eyes in my head, a steady gaze not tempered by imagination nor spirits. I even pinched myself to make sure it was so.

There, under the light of the moon I saw the pack of black wolves.  Nay wolves!  I say wolves – but not these! These were some strange form of animal, heads and bodies like wolves but with spans of feathered wings that fluttered from their backs.  They were like Pegasus, if such a creature existed.  Like Gryphon, were such a creature true!

 

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By my wits and my troth I should have been frightened. Frightened white as Diana’s moon. But no.  The winged wolves stared at me with eyes of interest. Something was so enticing, so inviting about them.  And so I opened the door, left the safety of the cottage and joined them in the field.

The one whom I had seen in the woods came forward. He  now had sprouted wings but when he spoke, the voice was exactly the same as I had heard it before. “Ryder Red,” quothe he, “we are pleased to see you.”

The wolves then swarmed in their circle. I moved closer.  And then! Such a hideous sight I have never before beheld.  Between them they shared a large carcass of meat, marbled  with gristle and tendon.  Upon closer look I recognized it as the torso of a human chest. The flesh was bloody, severed at the waist, spiky bones of a rib cage protruding. The air smelled of iron and meat.

I watched mesmerized as the gryphon-wolves, with dagger sharp teeth, ripped at their prey.  They growled and squabbled, slithered their tongues to lap up the pouring red blood. Finally one beast, the leader of the pack, dug his snout deep into the torso, gnawing until he pulled out a heart. Greedily  he chewed at it, a stew of scarlet veins, aorta bursting and even more blood that splattered on his fur like liquid roses.  The others consumed all  the leftover bits, licking remnants from the grass. I took a step back.

Pleased to see me? My ears burned.  Had the wolf  actually said ‘pleased to see you’?  And where o where was my Granny?

The wolf I’d made acquaintance with moved away for the circle and approached me.  He studied me and inasmuch as an animal can smile, he smiled at me.

“What name sir?” I asked nervously, for it seemed the beast must have a name and I should use that name to address him. “And what know you of my Granny?” I added. She was the most important!

“I am called Lycan,” he answered. “As for your Granny, she is changed. Never to be the same again.”

“Changed how?”

“She ails not.”

“Not how so?”

“She is well.”

“Well how so?”

“She is different.”

“Different how?”

“She is changed.”

“Aye sir!” I screeched. “Bring an end to this riddle! I am to tend to my Granny.”

“She needs not tending,” quothe he.

Then, with all the grace and ease of the moon and all the obscurity and blur of the fog, one magnificent gryphon-wolf flew forward. “I am she,” said the voice and I knew it was the voice of my Granny.

“To what form have they brought you?” I gasped. Yet as I watched her I was not frightened nor disgusted. Inasmuch as an animal can smile, she smiled at me.

 

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“My eyes child,” she said, “are all the better to see with. And my teeth all the better to eat with. My ears hear as never before. Sharp as an animal’s.”

In that moment I heard a scurry of feathers, the loud beating of wings.  A glitter of silver like so many falling stars scattered across the sky. All the gryphon-wolves, save for Lycan, disappeared quick as cats, vanishing into the fog.

“My Granny is no more?” I cried desperately.

“She is no more for you to see as such,” answered Lycan.

My heart fell although Lycan assured me it was for the best. He then guided me back to the cottage. Once inside, he bid me open my basket. “The honey cakes need not go to waste,” he insisted.

By then I had grown quite hungry, and so I devoured the cakes.  I had also grown quite thirsty and so I drank the wine. I felt my head go light. I became very sleepy and stupid, still unable to grasp what had happened. My world was a prism, a split of fog and moon, a mixture of fear and compassion. The fire blazed in its hearth, surreal in its ever changing facets.

 

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“Time for bed Ryder Redd,” said Lycan. With that he pressed his paws to my chest and unbuttoned the stays of my red cloak. Yet in that unbuttoning, his hands somehow changed. They were no longer the paws of a beast. The fingers that pulled at my stays were graceful fingers, with well manicured nails. The hands of a human and a wealthy one at that, the hands of fine breeding.

He pulled the cloak from my shoulders and pressed his face close to mine. It was not the face of a wolf, but a man with a mane of black hair, a face chiseled, cheekbones that glowed bronze and healthy.  His sapphire eyes glided over me. His touch was gentle upon my shoulder, gentle upon my waist.  He unlaced my camisole, slid my pantaloons off my buttocks and I, docile and sleepy with elderberry, complied to him.  I fell into the sheets of Granny’s bed and Lycan climbed beside me.

“You have not eaten, my lord,”  I said, for in that moment it occurred to me; I had been most inhospitable, gobbling all the tarts and chugging all the wine. “Of the honey cakes, I fear none are left,” I added sleepily.

“Ryder,” said he, “I am a carnivore, consuming only blood and meat.” His kiss was warm on my breast.

 

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Needless to say, he did not devour me, for if so I would not live to tell this tale. Yet suffice it to say he did not go hungry. That night, and every night thereafter I spent with my wolf- man.  He was an agreeable sort and a perfect gentleman toward me, save for once a month at Diana’s full moon when he transformed.

It was then that a pack of black wings fluttered over the forest. It was then that the gryphon-wolves feasted, the poor body of some disease-ridden human finally rescued from its illness. It was then that the flesh became silver stardust, spread across the sky like a flurry of crystalline diamonds.

The saved one would speak of new eyes, all the better to see with. And new ears, all the better to hear with. And of course, new teeth. All the better to bite with.

 

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Snowe and the Dwarf

 

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In my youth I remember my parents fawning over me.  “Oh, such a pretty little girl,” they said. “Skin white as snow, hair black as jet, lips red as berries.”  They even named me ‘Snowe’.  That ‘e’ on the end was, I suppose, their creative twist.  They always considered themselves somewhat avant-garde although in reality, before the pageants, we lived in the squalor of a  trailer park, supported solely by government food stamps and my father’s seemingly permanent unemployment checks.

I was eight years old when my parents first decided it would be a good idea for me to enter the Little Princess Glamour Pageant.  At age eight, I was perhaps a late bloomer, but that was the year my parents became avid fans of children’s beauty pageants, after having persuaded my Uncle Billy Jack to hook up a pirate cable station in our trailer.  After a while, even Uncle Billy Jack thought their obsession with children’s pageants  was quite bizarre and unhealthy.  Billy Jack attempted to unhook the cable, but once it was up and running, he could not seem to undo it no matter how hard he tried.  My mother just smiled, hands on her hips as she watched.  “Who’s the fairest, who’s the fairest?” she’d scream to the TV, often playing a game with herself to predict the winner.  The TV reception was  fuzzy but still, it gave my parents plenty of ideas.

Finally, they bought a thrift store dress, some cheap rhinestone jewelry and entered me in the pageant. I had no say in this matter.

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As it turned out, I won first place. My parents drooled over me and drooled even more over the $10,000 prize money I pulled in. This began a long journey of what I call my ‘Pageant Years’.

I became known for my trademark look; pale as a corpse, coal black hair, blood red lips.  I was almost a child vampire and I suppose my exotica impressed the judges. I was never allowed to go out in the sun, for my mother feared any bronzing of my skin or lightening of my hair would alter my appearance and end my winnings.

As I got older, my mother fussed and worried about keeping me ivory white.  She took to bleaching my skin with sponges soaked in Clorox.  They burned like a wasp’s sting and made me smell like a chlorine pool. My mother also darkened my hair with shoe polish.

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At the age of twelve I was taken to a disreputable doctor who injected my lips with Botox and some type of stain to keep them permanently red.  He charged an exorbitant amount of money for this procedure.  The red lip dye affected my taste buds.  All food became cardboard to me.  This may have been just as well, as my parents then put me on a diet of wheat germ and vega-thaw to keep my weight down.  “The swimsuit competition is IMPORTANT, Snowe,” my mother said. “We can’t have you getting chubby now, of all things!”

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At age fourteen I was taken to a plastic surgeon for breast enhancements and liposuction. By then my mother was worried that my skin had lost its little girl elasticity, and my father thought my breasts were not developing fast enough.  The surgery rid my thighs  of every ounce of cellulite.  My new breasts ballooned like enormous silicone melons.  My parents then hired a personal trainer. He was a Nazi taskmaster who did all but crack a whip at my back to keep me ‘fit’ and ‘nubile’.  I performed a four hour daily workout routine which included weight training, calisthenics and long distance running.

As a result of my low caloric intake and this constant exercise, my body hardened to a mass of muscle.  I never menstruated.  My mother thought this was a good thing. The monthly blood flow, she said, would only make me a ‘hag on the rag’.

All this hard work and body alterations apparently paid off, for in my competitions I had no rival.  My exotic looks made the judges’ heads spin around. I won  title after title.  Miss County Cuteness.  Miss Bodacious Beauty.  Miss Gorgeous Girl. Miss Pretty as a Picture. And the silly lists went on. With all my winnings we abandoned our trailer and my parents bought a mansion on the ritzy side of town.

By the time I was sixteen I was quite tired of this ridiculous routine.  I was no more than a trained dolphin, entering competition after competition.  How I longed to get away from it all!   And so, when Cadbury’s Colossal Carnival came to town, performing for one night only, I saw it as a perfect chance for my escape.

Because my parents kept such a careful watch on me, I normally would not have been allowed out at night, but  Uncle Billy Jack helped me.  He thought up an ingenious scheme of mixing sleeping tablets in my parents’ cocktails on the night the carnival arrived.  It worked wonderfully.  By 7 pm both of my parents were in the land of nod. Sprawled on their fluffy couches they snored loudly as their vast home entertainment system flashed image after image.  (Mostly beauty pageants.)  Billy Jack gave me a ride to the carnival in his pick-up truck.  I really wanted him to have a better car, but my parents, as my legal trustees, kept all my winnings to themselves.  I had not seen a penny of it. I did not even know how much I had earned.

The carnival itself was magnificent! Ferris wheels and tilt o whirls, spinning reels of neon lights as the zipper and Pharaoh’s Fury rocked back and forth.

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There were concession stands of funnel cakes, hot dogs and pretzels. I bought a pink cloud of cotton candy but then cursed my stained lips as the bland wisps of sugar melted in my mouth, tasteless as water.  How I longed to be normal!  I sadly realized I could no longer remember what ‘normal’ was.

Nonetheless I would not let this ruin my escape plan! I silently admitted, with some sheepishness, that I actually did not have a plan. But I knew I could not go back home.

Lights flashed and harpsichord music blasted.  Barkers beckoned, “Step right up!” and arcade rifles blasted. Girls walked with armfuls of teddy bears. Gypsy women in dazzling clothes told fortunes as the merry-go-rounds spun and the bumper cars bumped. In the center of all this chaos was the big top, an enormous tent where the real entertainment was about to begin.

First up were the elephants, next the clowns and then the tigers with their trainer.  I watched as they jumped through hoops of fire. I pitied these animals; for they were no better than myself, trained performers, put on a treadmill to entertain the crowd.

Next came the freak show. A bearded lady proudly displayed her two faces, one with a thick growth of hair, the other smooth, feminine, elfin.  Two sides of a same but much different coin. There was the Frog Man, his body literally covered with warts. Then a petite contortionist shut her body up like an umbrella, folding limbs like bent spokes until she actually fit into a tiny  glass jar.  I had never seen anything like it.

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Last of all came the troupe of dwarfs. They tumbled onto the stage, dancing, cartwheeling,  even swinging on a trapeze.

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Directing them was one who I knew must be the leader. His name, I would find out later, was  Gilgamesh .

Despite his small stature, Gilgamesh was magnificent.  His tumbling and dance skills were matched by no other.  Even from where I sat I could see the sinew of his arms, the curve of his calves. My stomach fluttered as I watched him. His complexion was ruddy, with a mane of red hair and a thick neck protruding from his square shoulders.  He had short firm thighs and small but wide feet that reminded me of a Hobbit.

I had not met many men before, save for those hideous pageant hosts.  Oh, they were annoying, those hosts!  Fake smiles, moussed hair and cheesy jokes.  But now. Here before me, THIS was a man of the earth!

A tree trunk of flesh, gnarled elbows, deep hard eyes that spotted me from across the ring.  This was a real man, and never mind his dwarfism!  To say it was love at first sight sounds trite, but  Gilgamesh  captured me.

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At the show’s end I decided I must meet him. I pushed my way backstage, shy as I was, forcing myself every step.  I did not know what I’d even say to him. Yet when we met he was oddly gracious. He thought I wanted an autograph and was genuinely surprised to find I wanted no such thing.  Somehow I knew, I sensed it would be him who could bring my freedom.

The carnival was leaving town that night and I begged  Gilgamesh  to take me with him.  He cocked his head, looked at me as if I were a sad  puppy.  I explained every detail of my life at my parent’s house, the terror of the pageants, the alterations that had been forced upon my body.  Finally he said he could not refuse me.  As the roustabouts packed gear, Gilgamesh and I sat under the stars, speaking of all our hopes and dreams and fears.  I felt as if I had known him forever.

It was during this conversation I found myself growing increasingly hungry. The cotton candy had been nothing, a spider web of sugar within me.  Gilgamesh, upon hearing the roar of my stomach, promised he had the perfect thing for me.  From his pocket he produced an apple. It was large, red and ripe, so big it was a basketball in his small hands.

It had been years since I had eaten an apple.  My mother had always been so worried about my sugar intake, even fruit was not allowed.  Gilgamesh  held the apple to my lips and I eagerly bit in.

It was then the dye that had been implanted in my lips seemed to dissolve.  I could taste the apple!  For the first time in so many years I could taste the sweet tartness, the faint flavor of earth. It was delicious.  Ravenously I gnawed until there was nothing left but the core. I then continued to eat, swallowing every bit, seeds included.  I could not stop myself. I then felt my cheeks go hot.

The train was  leaving.  Gilgamesh  said I could ride with him in his bunk.  As captain of his troupe he had the largest room. “No luxury,” he said, “But I believe you will be comfortable.”  I laughed and informed him I had been raised in a trailer park.

Once we’d boarded the train he directed me to the bathroom.  It was there I came upon a small mirror on the wall.  Glancing into it, I could not believe my eyes.

Who was the woman I now saw in the glass?  To be clear, she was a woman, not a  child.  My skin was flushed and bronzed, not at all like someone who has been kept from the sun all her life.  My lips?  They were normal. Normal size.  No longer blown out of proportion with Botox. No longer  blood red, but a natural color of peach pink. Was I now normal?  My hair, although still dark, was a creamy shade of brown, free of the shoe polish dye.  I smelled my own arms. No bleach or chlorine. I smelled only my skin and sweat and the green soap I had pumped from the bathroom spout.  I smelled like a woman.

I joined Gilgamesh in his bunk. Tenderly, skillfully, he kissed my lips. His fingers found their way to my breasts, no longer silicone but now soft mounds of flesh and nipple, small enough to be cupped in his tiny hands.

In time Gilgamesh and I would be wed.  My menstrual cycle would  begin and move naturally with the phases of the moon.  I would become the mother of his children.  In time Uncle Billy Jack would find a skilled lawyer who would help me regain my pageant winnings from my parents. Gilgamesh  and I would then leave the carnival, purchase our own farm, and take some of the show animals with us, freeing them as well from this life of bondage.

But for now it was enough that he held me, cradled me in his knotted arms. I shed tears  and buried my face in his chest. The train rumbled on through the summer night.  I never entered a pageant again.

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This post is in response to the daily prompt Youth

The Changeling

 

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My child was not frail at birth.  Oh no!  He was strong, fit and robust. I named him Gideon the Tanner’s Son. My husband, you see, worked in the trade of  leather. Gideon was my first child. The first to survive, anyway.  Before that I had borne three.

My first  baby died in my arms, umbilical cord wrapped round her neck. Poor thing never cried, never gasped a first breath, never even had a chance at life.   My second, a girl as well, became riddled with the sweating sickness and passed before her first year.   And my third, a boy, was born with no hands. He had only tiny withered stumps that protruded from his wrists like small quivering worms.

“Mathilde!” my husband shrieked at me, as if this malformation were somehow my fault. “What have you wrought? What have you brought forth? A demon child!  Lack of hands, lack to make a living!” My husband then snatched the baby from me and threw him in the fire.

Flames leaped and ash sizzled as the baby’s flesh burnt like a crust of over-baked bread.  My heart wrenched. I could not bear to watch it. I fled from the cottage, even in my feeble condition. I carried the afterbirth in my arms, for I knew it should be buried in the forest as a gift to the fair folk.  I did not want my husband to destroy that as well!  It was then I came upon the blue fairy.

 

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This was not so strange a meeting as one might assume. Fairies were  a-plenty in our forest, if one only had Sight to see. The blue fairy was tall with skin the color of turquoise and blue tangled hair that matted like seaweed across her face.

She did not ask what vexed me, for she already knew.  “Fret not Mathilde,” she told me. “Soon you are to deliver another boy child. He shall be hale and healthy, and live to full adulthood. He shall wed and bear many children of his own.”

I was overjoyed at this news, so much so that tears poured down my cheeks. The blue fairy smiled and dried my eyes with her long hair. “Be aware, though, my lady,” she cautioned. “The survival of your son depends upon one condition.”

Oh, the fairies! They were sneaky, evil things!  Although they promised much they always asked much in return.

“Be not suspicious, my lady,” she told me.

The blue fairy had read my mind, knew my thoughts before I uttered them. This was  a bothersome problem when dealing with the fair folk!  One must monitor one’s thoughts, keep them secret. This, of course, was quite impossible.

“Alright,” I sighed. “What then is the condition?”

“You must let this son do as he pleases. He shall be free to take any occupation, wed any lass he so chooses, live his life in a manner he himself sees fit.  Do not impose restrictions upon him, for if you do, the consequences will be vile.”

Exactly nine months after the blue fairy’s promise, I delivered Gideon into the world.

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My son grew sturdy and tall, a child of the earth and sun. He loved  animals and all things in nature.   He also loved to draw.  With chalks and inks he drew the likeness of everything he saw; the forest and trees, the flowers, the cows, my own countenance and even, upon occasion, that of my husband.

When Gideon reached his seventh name day, my husband attempted to teach him the trade of tanning hides.

Gideon, however, could not abide this. He wept at the very thought of skinning an animal for profit. The cows, he claimed, were his family as much as my husband and myself. He immediately ran to the garden with his chalks and began drawing the flowers.

“That is pish and nonsense!” my husband scowled. “Doodles and scribbles! What profit could possibly come of it?” With this he took all Gideon’s creations, his paints, his inks, and threw them in the river.

My poor son cried all night. I tried to comfort him, but it was for naught.

“There will be no artistry in this family,” my husband insisted.  “Gideon, come the morrow you will go with me to the barnyard. There I will teach you the trade of tanning. You will use chemicals and treat leather hides which we shall sell at the market.”

The next morning I went to awaken my son. Upon drawing the curtains from his bed, I was astonished at what I saw. Gideon was pale and frail, a tiny wraith of a thing!  He was no longer the picture of health that I had raised for the past seven years.  He looked at me with wide, placid eyes. In a stuttering gasp he coughed and spewed, blood and mucous spouting from his mouth.

“Gideon!” I exclaimed. “What has happened?”

But I knew only too well. The blue fairy’s warning came back to me, her voice a ringing bell in my head.  “He shall be FREE to take any occupation…  live his life in a manner he HIMSELF sees fit.  Do not impose restrictions upon him, for if you do, the consequences will be vile.”

Of course.  The blue fairy had taken Gideon and left in his place a changeling! The creature that now sat before me could barely lift his own head. Upon rousing the bed sheets I looked closer. Oh no! This was worse than I thought! The changeling flung his legs across the mattress, rolled wearily on the bed and I saw that  he had no penis. This was no boy child but a female!   I tried to speak to her, but she only stared, vacant faced. The changeling  did not even have a command of the human language.

 

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Just then my husband pounded upon the door. “Gideon!” he yelled. “Get up lad, for there is work to be done!”

I panicked. What to do? If my husband saw our ‘son’ in this condition he would surely be outraged. He had already thrown one child in the fire. I put no act of violence past him! I crept to the door, cracking it open to see my husband’s ruddy face, knife and ax clutched in his hands. I peered through the slivered doorway.

“The child is – ill, my dear. I fear he may have the plague.”

My husband arched his eyebrows in horror.  “The plague? The deadly plague?”

“Yes, yes,” I continued, for once I began to spin a lie, I could be quite good at it. “Get you gone from this room my dear,” I pleaded. “For I have already been exposed, but you have not.  Go to your duties. I will tend to the child.”

“God’s blood!” My husband backed away in terror, quickly leaving our cottage.

I then led the changeling back to the woods where the blue fairy again appeared to me. She crossed her arms, eyed me sideways as though I were some disobedient child. “You are a foolish woman Mathilde,” she said. “I had warned you of Gideon’s upbringing, had I not?”

“Yes, but it was not my doing! It is my husband who imposes the trade upon the boy.”

“And you stand by and watch? What kind of mother are you?”

“What am I to do?” I rung my hands. The changeling coughed, spewed more blood that trickled down her chin. She was but a whey faced imp, yet I felt a kindness, a tenderness for her, as much as I did for the three babes I had lost.  If only there were some way to nurse this changeling back to health…

“Very well then,” they blue fairy said. “You shall have them both. The changeling and your son. But on one condition.”

I sighed. Here it came again! The fairy’s impossible ‘condition’!

“Oh, Mathilde.” The blue fairy crouched her tall, towering frame close to mine. “It will not be as bad as you think!  Now listen. You must leave your husband, never to return again.”

I cringed. Leave my husband?  How would I survive? A woman alone in this world, no trade of my own, with a frail changeling in my care?

The blue fairy shook her head. “Mathilde! For a clever human you are not very resourceful. Now listen.  I will  give you a key to a cottage in the next village. In this cottage you will find a lavender cake. Feed it to this changeling. Then wait three days.  During these three days you must have no contact with the human world at all.”

I did as she asked. In my web of lies I convinced my husband that I was to take Gideon to an apothecary, many miles away.  There he would be treated with the best of care. I fed the lavender cake to the changeling and sure enough she flourished, cheeks pink with health. I named her Rose for she so reminded me of a thriving flower.

 

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After three days Gideon returned. I raised both children in the new cottage.  I started a business for myself, selling the lavender cakes that the blue fairy soon taught me how to bake. These cakes contained medicinal properties that cured many  illnesses. In the village I was known as Mathilde the Cake Baker.

Gideon became an exquisite painter, commissioned to make portraits of the royal family. He soon obtained a status of gentleman and purchased a coat of arms for our family. We then moved to a large estate where we raised animals of every species.

When Rose came of age, Gideon took her as his bride, for she had now grown to a beautiful woman.  Gideon and Rose gave me many grandchildren, all healthy and beautiful, and all – strangely enough – able to read my mind.

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My husband? I never heard from him again. The blue fairy told me he came upon an unfortunate accident. It seems a stampede of angry cows overtook him, administering injuries so violent that he fell dead on the spot.

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This post is in response to the Daily Prompt  Frail

Alice’s Journey

 

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The white rabbit looked at me with pink eyes, the color of clouds at dusk.  I became curiouser and curiouser as I watched him from my garden. The rabbit hopped fast, but not  fast enough to  get away from me, for I was quick on my feet.

They will tell you the rabbit pulled a watch out of his coat pocket and began to fret about the time, exclaiming “Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late!”  This could not be further from the truth. Everyone knows a rabbit will never carry a watch. They are timeless animals.  Nor will they wear a coat, as they have ample fur of their own.

My journey was one of impulse and instinct. For better or worse,  I followed the pink eyed creature.

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They will tell you I slid down a rabbit hole.  This, of course is a dimensional impossibility! Have you ever SEEN a rabbit hole? Have you ever tried to get so much as one FOOT down a rabbit hole?  Oh no.  What happened was, I ran after the rabbit until we came upon a vast lavender field.   It was there that the space craft  landed.

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The space craft was beautiful!  Cylinder shaped, dazzling as the sun at noontide, so bright I could barely look upon it.  A staircase descended from its door .  When the white  rabbit hopped up the steps, I simply followed.  I was young then, you see. I had  a habit of acting without thinking.   It did not occur to me where this journey would lead.

When I got on board  I walked down a long hallway to a room that seemed to be made  of blue sky.  A man in a top hat was hosting a tea party.  At his table were seated  the most peculiar characters;  a king and queen, a March Hare and a duchess who carried a pink flamingo beneath her arm. The man in the  hat  invited me to sit down.  I’ll admit I had a bit of trouble with the gravity at first…

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He poured me a cup of steaming tea,  which I drank immediately  (for I knew  it would be rude to refuse his hospitality.)  I then became sleepy and the room  began to sway.  The top hat man grew tall, his  hat protruding high out of his head.  His face contorted like a reflection in a fun house mirror. I  heard laughter. The queen’s tiara  shattered and  she screamed “Off with her head!”  I knew she could not possibly be speaking of  me, for I could barely FEEL my own head and  surely there was nothing  to cut off!

After that I remember little.  At one point I lay naked  upon an operating table. The top hat man smiled, and I imagined him as a cat with a huge grin. He said he came from Cheshire. I did not know where that was and wanted to ask him, but he simply disappeared, leaving only his grin behind.  Next thing I knew I felt a speculum being stuck inside me, cold steel against my vagina.   “The eggs, the eggs!” someone shouted. “Get her eggs!”  That was fine and well with me, for I had plenty of eggs.  I knew I would produce hundreds of thousands in my lifetime and  I could certainly spare a few for whatever was their cause.  After that I must have fallen asleep.

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When I awoke I was fully clothed. The space craft spun in its orbit  and I looked out the window where a thousand stars streamed like glittering diamonds in the darkness.  The Duchess sat next to me, her pointy chin on my shoulder. She handed me her pink flamingo.  I asked where we were headed. The Duchess smiled calmly, pointed  to a marbled  sphere and assured me I would like it.

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When we landed I descended the staircase, still following the rabbit.  The Duchess  however, was wrong .  I did not like this place!  Not one bit. We had apparently landed in the middle of a war zone, every man armed with weaponry. Land mines  exploded like fiery  traps, blowing  human bodies to a confetti of blood and bone. Children wailed in the streets and men hobbled, many of them missing limbs. I asked what was this horrible place, but the rabbit could only twinkle his pink eyes.

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I felt my stomach lurch and I vomited, barely missing the poor rabbit who hovered beneath me.  When I could stand it no longer the rabbit led me to another part of this world but I did not like this part either.  There I saw only  death and disease;  bodies rife with plagues and cancers and malnutrition.  I could not bear to look upon it, and the rabbit led me to yet another place. Here  were tall skyscrapers and inside, dark boardrooms where men  sprawled in leather chairs.  They drank champagne and spoke a language I did not understand but I remember their words: ‘market’ and  ‘bailout’  and ‘Wall Street’ and ‘junk bonds’.   These people were evil and when I could tolerate their presence no longer the rabbit lead me back to the space craft.

Top Hat and the Duchess welcomed me.  I wanted only to return to my home, to planet Wonderland.    Top Hat smiled.  “You have done your task well, Alice,”  he said.  “The hybrids from your eggs will be hatched  some time in the 21st century. With  the DNA of Wonderland within them, these beings will be  pure, void of greed and malice.  Your hybrids will be the only hope for that planet they call  Earth.  Without your hybrids the civilization  will surely destroy itself.”

The journey back to Wonderland  was quick. I bid Top Hat and the Duchess goodbye, kissing them on both cheeks. I then followed the rabbit off the space craft and back to my own garden.  I was glad to be home.

After that, I developed a  strange penchant for  drinking tea. My faithful rabbit never leaves my side. Recently I have heard word from the Duchess. It seems my eggs have yet to hatch.

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This post is in response to the Daily Prompt Journey

Glass Slippers

 

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By day I swept the floor, cooked their meals, washed their trenchers.  By night I slept in the hearth cinders.  I was no better than a slave, an indentured servant, bound by my stepmother’s rules and the whims of her spoiled, guffawing daughters.

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When the Prince’s ball was announced, my stepsisters were giddy with glee.  He was the Prince of their dreams. They wished only to wed him and from this lot of attendees he would pick an eligible maid.  Silly women!  As for me, I wanted no part of it.   A marriage to the Prince?  Such a thing would be little more than a step up in my indentured servitude. I could just imagine it.  “Yes your Highness.  No Your Highness.  Good morrow Your Highness. What bid thee, Your Highness?”  Bound to the Prince just as I was now to my stepmother.  Oh no.  I’d have none!  But what I DID have was an escape plan…

On the evening of the ball my stepsisters fussed and preened. I brushed their gowns, tied their bows, even pinched their cheeks to add color to their pasty, sallow faces.  “Cinderella,” they said, “You are to remain here. Do not wait up for us. Surely we will be late. That is IF we return at all!”  With that they cackled loud laughs like crowing roosters. My stepsisters planned to seduce the Prince and stay in the palace the entire night, scandals be damned.

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They will tell you a fairy godmother appeared to me, offered me a fine gown and made a carriage from a pumpkin. That is rubbish.  The truth is, I weaved my own gown, from discarded lace and damask thrown away by the Queen’s dressmakers.  (You’d be surprised how much the Palace let go to waste.) I needed no carriage, for my feet were good enough to carry me to the ball.

But it is true I had a godmother of sorts.  Old Nelly  lived in the wood.  She eked out her living by blowing glass figurines.  Such beautiful sculptures they were! Fit for the King’s Court. The palace knew well of her work, but Old Nelly lived in squalor, never adequately paid for her creations.

 

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It was at Nelly’s  hovel that I weaved my  ball gown till it was finally complete, rich blue, the color of sapphire with a taffeta train, fine enough for any castle.  I now needed decent shoes. I had only my tattered wooden patterns, worn from trudging to market, soiled with soot.  If my plans were executed correctly, I’d have far to walk that night.

Old Nelly blew her glass into a fine pair of slippers, a perfect fit to my rugged feet, which were, by the way, not small.  I was no delicate thing; my chores had made me strong and sturdy.  My slippers too were strong , made of unbreakable glass,  with hard cleats, fit for any journey.  Nelly then braided my hair and rubbed my skin with her own perfumed creams.  “This,” she said, “will help a good deal.” I smiled, for I knew Nelly was wont to put a bit of magic in all her creations.

When I entered the ball, I was myself, but not myself. I looked like some otherworldly creature.

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The Prince was well taken with my beauty.   It took no effort to catch his eye and engage him in a sparkling conversation, which he quite enjoyed, for the Prince was not used to women of my bold manner.

A servant girl such as myself is no stranger to the world of men.  I had lain with many, and proud I was of my skill. The Prince was no virgin either, and eager he was to partake of my gifts.   Together, we rolled in lust upon the satin sheets of his palace bed. Oddly,  no one at the ball seemed to notice his absence. When it was finished the clock struck midnight. The Prince was so exhausted he could no longer entertain his guests.  How sweetly he slept, so innocently.  I even felt a bit guilty when I took the pouch of gold from his chamber. Ah, but no matter!  My services were worth it.   Besides, he would not miss it. That gold, although it meant the world to me, was a mere tuppence to him!

I left the Prince sleeping  and vanished away in the night.  My glass slippers carried me like the wings of Mercury, cool on my feet.

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I walked all the night and still felt no fatigue.  When daylight broke a coach approached along the cobblestone road.   The driver pulled back the reigns and studied me. His eyes popped at  my blue glass slippers, for who else in the kingdom wore such a thing?  “Your Majesty,” he called to the Prince inside the carriage. “I believe we have found your woman.”

The Prince offered me marriage but I refused.  What I accepted instead was his eternal friendship.  That and more gold. Which I would use as seed money for my new glass factory!

Old Nelly and I created a line of fashionable glass slippers, available in every color, custom-made to fit to every foot.  We sold them at cut rates to the women of the village, peasants and gentry alike, so all  could own a piece of that beauty.   When the women wore our glass slippers, wonderful things happened, for each shoe was imbued with a bit of Nelly’s magic.  Most of all, with each pair came knowledge; no women should ever sell herself short of her skills, talents and ambitions, whatever they may be. My stepsisters even bought a few pairs, though they complained they never got another servant as good as myself.

The Prince?  As my business prospered I paid him back tenfold!  Besides that, he and I had an eternal friendship that was mutually beneficial to us both.

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This story is in response to the Daily Prompt Glass