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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
There is an incline in the forest where bluebells blossom, dense as grapes, heady as lilac. I stretch out on my back. Green stems, like octopus tendrils, tangle my hair. The land shifts perpendicular. Down, down I slide, damp earth brushing my elbows. I land with a soft jolt onto ripe grass. The smell is beetroot, radish and earthworm.
Underground rogues, fey and trolls
guard hidden treasure
beneath marbled walls. They keep
secrets, bargain dark wishes.
From a fog, metallic as pyrite, they emerge. Blue skin, sapphire eyes that stare still as stone. One of them hands me a violin. Aged from wear and tear, its wood is warped, strings stretched. With a rickety bow, I play. Joyful noise spills from my fingers.
And yet. I do not know a single note.
Happy Summer Solstice! “Always go with fairies.”
“The gift of flight will come at Walpurgisnacht,” Granny Magda tells me. “We will travel airborne upon our besoms to the Brocken. You will then learn of your blessings, all the goddess has deemed to give you.”
“What will they be, my blessings?” I ask impatiently. I have waited all of my sixteen years for this nacht, for the firefest of summer. It will be the first time I go to the mountaintop. The first time I, as a daughter of Hekate will become a coven member and know my true and unique power.
“Hush child,” Magda orders. “Speak of them no more! What is yours is already yours.” She puts a hand to my cheek and smiles through crinkled eyes. “Trust me. The gifts will come.”
The month of April rolls by with its rain and wind, daffodils and tulips blooming in our meadow. On my calendar parchment I count the days, marking them off with a charcoal crayon. The time cannot go quick enough.
Two days before Walpurgis, Peter the goat boy appears at our door. He brings me a bouquet of wildflowers, colored blooms that float like a sparkled rainbow from his hands. “For you Kathe,” he says, “In honor of your special nacht which is soon to come.”
Peter! He is an annoyance, always milling around me, nosing in my business, cheating me at games and sport! He has been my chief nemesis for years. And now he brings flowers? An offering of peace, just as I am soon to come into my powers? Reluctantly I accept, but only out of politeness. “What do you know of it?” I snap.
“Peter knows plenty,” Granny Magda shouts from the kitchen. “You’d be wise to listen to him.”
Never do I have a moment’s privacy in this cottage! Granny Magda is always hovering over me, like a bee to a honeyflower. She now takes Peter’s flowers and places them in a vase.
“Have a seat boy,” she nods to Peter. “I trust you will stay for supper?”
Peter shakes his head. “The invitation is most kind Frau Magda, but I cannot. I am just returning from the mountain, my goat herd outside. I fear they are most cumbersome, and I only stopped to give Kathe the flowers and wish her well.”
“Nonsense!” Magda has already placed a root stew on the table and set a trencher for him. She glances out the window, waves a hand at the goats who then stand still as statues.
“The animals will keep,” she says. “Kathe, fetch the ale for our guest.”
Taking a ladle to the pail I serve up three helpings of ale. Peter nods. “Most gracious.”
We bless our food, toast good health and begin eating. I sit next to Peter. His clothes are soiled and he smells of his goats. He also smells of the meadow, of earth and something more. What is it? A sly masculinity, a scent lacking in Magda and myself. Despite my annoyance I scoot closer to him.
“Your comment, Granny,” I say later as we eat dessert, a cake with fresh berries I gathered from our orchard. “You say I must listen to Peter. Why is this?” Peter stops mid bite, red berries making a stain on his lips. His eyes, blue as the river, pop wide.
“Do not ask foolish questions, child.” Magda says. “Now Peter,” she looks out the window and waves her hands at the goats who instantly begin bleating. “I wager your goats need milking. Be off with you afore the late sun sinks on its horizon! Auf Wiedersehen.”
Peter stands and bows before us. “I thank you for the victuals, my lady.” He takes Magda’s old withered hand and kisses it. He then turns to me. “And you Kathe, I trust I will see more of you in the near future.” With awkwardness he grabs my hand and kisses it as well. I catch his eye, nod and curtsey before he exits.
I have known Peter all my life, since I came to live with Granny Magda as a two year old orphan. We played together, leap frogging in the meadow, tumbling down the rolling hills. It was he who taught me to catch fish in the river, he who taught me to shoot a crossbow. He who, in his boyhood always shot more bullseyes than I. But Peter is no longer a boy.
Through the window I watch as he rounds his goats, whistles to his collie dog. He has grown tall, his shoulders broad. His lanky frame casts a long shadow across the cobbled road. As he walks away I notice his swaggering hips, his bowed legs.
“How old do you suppose Peter now is?” I ask.
“Two winters past you child.” Granny Magda puts a hand to my head and unwinds my tight braids. “Come the Yule last he reached his eighteenth name day.”
“He has quick grown to a man.” I glance one last time before he turns into the forest, his goats following in a gray blur.
“Ja child, that he has.” She tilts her head. “And your thoughts of this?”
“I have no thoughts, it is mere curiosity!” I hiss. Granny smiles.
Finally Walpurgisnacht arrives. I stand naked in the meadow with the other women. Magda rubs my body with unctions, a rich combination of oils and nectars that will, coupled with my own magic, give me the ability to fly.
When the sun sets we mount our besoms. Soon the wind begins to blow and we rise, steady in the air, a team of thirteen, Hekate’s witches, gliding through the sky with the skill of crows. Higher and higher we rise. Soon we are bobbing amongst stars, drifting under the light of the moon.
On the mountaintop we land near the Bergwasser, a crystal stream that flows, now icebroken with the onset of summer.
“Your baptism will be tonight, Kathe,” Granny Magda tells me.
I have never before met the high priestess who now stands before me, clad in robes of black. “I am Lucinda,” she says. Taking my hand she guides me down the stone steps into the water. She lifts her wand, a branch of heavy oak inlaid with rich jewels, rubies and sapphires.
“Kathe,” Lucinda begins. “I baptize thee, in the name of the Mother, the Crone and the Holy Maiden. You, a daughter of the line of Hekate, now come full of age, are on this evening of Walpurgisnacht to enter into our coven.”
With that she pushes me underwater. The stream is cool on my head. Opening my eyes I see an array of fish before me, yellow as lemons in the blue water. I watch as they dart and bolt, thinking of this baptism, this instant I have waited for my whole life. What is to happen? The water is a silent chamber around me.
When I can hold my breath no longer I ascend. Gasping, I lie in the grass. Magda clothes me in a white robe.
“The ability to breathe underwater,” Madga smiles, “was not your gift.”
What will it be? What will it be?
“Time will tell, my girl,” Lucinda says. “Before rise of the May day sun you shall know it.” Lucinda’s gift is surely the reading of minds. Granny Magda’s is the taming of animals. And mine? The suspense haunts me.
Lucinda reads from the Book of Freya. She lights a great bonfire. Together we chant and dance around it. Holding hands we skip in unison. Even Granny Magda, now well beyond her dancing years, kicks her heels like a young maiden.
In the distance I hear a drumbeat. Approaching over the hills I see them, the tribe of Pan. They are thirteen men, goatskins over their thighs, naked from the waist up. On their heads they wear crowns of horns and masks of feathers and fur.
The balefire rages and the drums beat. Magda leans and whispers in my ear, “Granddaughter. You are ready. You will bleed to bless the earth which has blessed you. Only through this can you find your womanhood.”
One of the thirteen men then approaches me, takes my hand and joins in the dance. All is a blur of color and sound, the dance faster and faster. Soon I am on the grass, flat on my back, the tribesman atop me.
I am not the only one. Other women have been taken as well. All around me the couples are a whirl of flesh, thighs upon thighs, breath heavy, hair streaming. Wails, screams and moans fill the night air, voices desperate and satisfied.
Magda had said I am ready, but am I? My heart pounds, my whole body pulsed to the music. I am frightened but then the tribesman pulls me closer, his face next to mine. His scent is of goats but also of the earth and our meadow, a musk that lures me like subtle perfume, releasing a passion I did not know I possessed. Although he wears a mask I recognize his eyes, blue as the river. His look is the question and I nod my answer: Yes.
His mouth is firm on my lips, his tongue sweet, his thighs braced against me. My secrets are wet as the mountain stream that baptized me and in an instant he is inside me. It hurts but only for a moment until my hips synch in rhythm with his. My body quivers and I hear him breathe my name, feel his spill within me.
Before rise of the sun we anoint ourselves with unction again, then mount our besoms. The men disappear into the mountains as we fly away.
It is finished.
In the weeks after Walpurgisnacht we live quietly. I am changed but still the same, although Magda no longer hovers over me, no longer calls me ‘child’. All is well until the day the constables come, riding up our path upon their sleek stallions. They dismount and look suspiciously about the cottage. One knocks on our door, holding a warrant for our arrest.
“Which warrant and how so?” I demand. “Arrested for what?”
“For witchcraft Fraulien,” the constable says. His face is like a hard brick, impenetrable, a moving mouth with two tiny slits of eyes.
“We have done nothing wrong!” I shout.
“You both have been seen cavorting in the meadow, spreading yourselves with evil unctions and potions, then taking flight to the sky on your brooms.”
“And who has been harmed by it?” I scream. My head is burning.
“All are harmed by it! All good honest folk. You women, by your madness and your lasciviousness, violate the very decency of mankind!”
I attempt to protest but a hand slaps my mouth. Just then another constable grabs Magda and binds her wrists. I charge at him, but the next constable overpowers me, this one tall as a tower and twice as strong. He pulls me away, knotting my arms.
“My Granny is frail,” I scream again. “She does you no harm! What satisfaction do you get to badger an old woman?”
“Hold your tongue Fraulien, lest I gag your foul mouth,” the third constable orders. I fight with all my strength but in the end they win. Granny Magda and I are put onto a rickety old cart and brought south to the village of Stuttgart.
We are thrown in a slimy, rat infested dungeon where we live in squalor for weeks. Our food is gruel and brackish water, the meals so meager I fear Granny Magda will perish. Others join us, country women and bumpkins, some midwives, some herbalists, all innocent of the crimes they are accused. Yet when we are taken to trial the jury declares us guilty before we are given a chance to speak.
We are sentenced to be burned at the stake. “Consumed by the hell fire from whence ye came,” the judge declares.
Like cattle we are led to the pyres. A hooded executioner binds our bodies to the stakes and the fires are lit. I hear the crowd around us yell, “Brennen die Hexen! Burn the witches!”
Granny Magda gives me a look, hopeful in her sunken eyes. I nod. Just as the flames begin to creep around us I shout:
“As the powers within me rise, so this man-made fire now dies!”
The flames sputter and vanish as if drenched by a thousand buckets. I watch as the crowd of people turn pale with horror. “Relight the flame!” someone yells. “They must be burned! These witches must die!”
“Brennen die Hexen!” the crowd chants again. “Burn the witches!”
The executioner moves to relight the flames, but the embers are cold. He tries again and again, adding more wood, more torches, but the fire only sparkles and dies. He then stares at me, eyes wide. He crosses himself and moves away as if I am carrying the plague. “Hexe!” he whispers.
“You can relight the flames all you want and they will never grow,” I say calmly. I then begin to laugh, loud and haughty, my voice echoing on the wind. The crowd stares at me as if I were a madwoman.
“There will be no burnings today,” I say richly.
One by one they turn away in fear. Women lift their skirts, scurrying away and men run fast as their boots will carry them.
Just then I see his body in the crowd, the lanky frame and broad shoulders. Peter approaches, pulls a knife from his pocket and slices the ropes that bind me. He then rescues Magda and the other women.
“You should not have allowed it to go so far,” he says quietly.
“O, but it was well worth it! Just to see the looks on their faces,” I answer brightly. “You must admit it was a picture.” I run a finger across his cheek.
“That it was, wife.” He smiles. “As long as no harm comes to the child.” He lays a hand on my belly.
“The child is fine,” I assure my husband. “Her gift from Hekate will be the same as mine. She too will have the ability to control fire, and she too will never be burned at the stake.”
** NOTE: The real witch persecutions and Burning Times occurred in Europe during 1450-1700. Historians estimate that over 100,000 accused witches, both men and women were killed during this time. The majority of burnings took place in Germany, in some cases wiping out entire populations of women in small Medieval towns.
The real Brocken is the highest point of the Harz Mountain range in northern Germany. The Brothers Grimm spent a good deal of time in the small villages at the foothills of the mountains collecting tales of local folklore. From these tales came stories such as Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin.
Walpurgisnacht (pronounced :Vol-POOR- gus-nokt) is celebrated on April 30. Witches then gather in the Brocken and other sacred places to conduct rituals of spring.
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.
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!
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.”
“She ails not.”
“Not how so?”
“She is well.”
“Well how so?”
“She is different.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
Last of all came the troupe of dwarfs. They tumbled onto the stage, dancing, cartwheeling, even swinging on a trapeze.
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.
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.
This post is in response to the daily prompt Youth