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Onto this week’s theme. Most of us are aware that classic fairy tales, in their original incarnations, are much darker and bloodier than the Disney takes we grew up on. Far from being juvenile, fairy tales continue to serve as fodder for contemporary writers, like Angela Carter, whose The Bloody Chamber mines childhood bedtime stories for their erotic, violent content and reinvents them. That story collection has elicited enraged reactions from students, writes Helen Simpson, which seems to support the Jungian idea that fairy tales are the expression of the unconscious—it can be unpleasant to have a direct encounter with what is ordinarily hidden.
Today we’ll look at the work of two writers willing to go there. The poem comes from Anne Sexton’s Transformations, in which Grimm’s fairy tales come into confrontation with the modern world. The story comes from the latest issue of Conjunctions, which has as its theme monsters, exploring how they are not only terrifying but also “an important part of the human legacy from one generation to the next.”
Red Riding Hood, by Barbara Swan, 1970, for Transformations, her collaboration with Anne Sexton
You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son's heart.
from diapers to Dior.
Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
eggs, cream, butter, yogurt, milk,
the white truck like an ambulance
who goes into real estate
and makes a pile.
From homogenized to martinis at lunch.
Or the charwoman
who is on the bus when it cracks up
and collects enough from the insurance.
From mops to Bonwit Teller.
the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed
and she said to her daughter Cinderella:
Be devout. Be good. Then I will smile
down from heaven in the seam of a cloud.
The man took another wife who had
two daughters, pretty enough
but with hearts like blackjacks.
Cinderella was their maid.
She slept on the sooty hearth each night
and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
Her father brought presents home from town,
jewels and gowns for the other women
but the twig of a tree for Cinderella.
She planted that twig on her mother's grave
and it grew to a tree where a white dove sat.
Whenever she wished for anything the dove
would drop it like an egg upon the ground.
The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.
Next came the ball, as you all know.
It was a marriage market.
The prince was looking for a wife.
All but Cinderella were preparing
and gussying up for the event.
Cinderella begged to go too.
Her stepmother threw a dish of lentils
into the cinders and said: Pick them
up in an hour and you shall go.
The white dove brought all his friends;
all the warm wings of the fatherland came,
and picked up the lentils in a jiffy.
No, Cinderella, said the stepmother,
you have no clothes and cannot dance.
That's the way with stepmothers.
Cinderella went to the tree at the grave
and cried forth like a gospel singer:
Mama! Mama! My turtledove,
send me to the prince's ball!
The bird dropped down a golden dress
and delicate little slippers.
Rather a large package for a simple bird.
So she went. Which is no surprise.
Her stepmother and sisters didn't
recognize her without her cinder face
and the prince took her hand on the spot
and danced with no other the whole day.
As nightfall came she thought she'd better
get home. The prince walked her home
and she disappeared into the pigeon house
and although the prince took an axe and broke
it open she was gone. Back to her cinders.
These events repeated themselves for three days.
However on the third day the prince
covered the palace steps with cobbler's wax
and Cinderella's gold shoe stuck upon it.
Now he would find whom the shoe fit
and find his strange dancing girl for keeps.
He went to their house and the two sisters
were delighted because they had lovely feet.
The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
but her big toe got in the way so she simply
sliced it off and put on the slipper.
The prince rode away with her until the white dove
told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
That is the way with amputations.
They just don't heal up like a wish.
The other sister cut off her heel
but the blood told as blood will.
The prince was getting tired.
He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
But he gave it one last try.
This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
like a love letter into its envelope.
At the wedding ceremony
the two sisters came to curry favor
and the white dove pecked their eyes out.
Two hollow spots were left
like soup spoons.
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
Who is this lady?
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928, Anne Sexton is known for her confessional style of poetry and often grouped with Sylvia Plath for that reason, a bit reductively, in my opinion. She married young and began working as a model after one year of junior college; after suffering postpartum depression and hospitalization, a doctor encouraged her to write poetry, which she’d had an interest in since high school. In writing groups in Boston, she befriended a number of poets (including Plath), and published her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, in 1960. She ultimately published nine books of poetry in her lifetime, including Transformations, for which Kurt Vonnegut wrote the preface. He writes of Sexton that “she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.”
The Moon Fairy (Excerpt)
When the Moon Fairy arrived, blown in through an open window one summer night, we were all surprised by how much it resembled Sylvie. Of course, it was much smaller—no longer than Sylvie’s forearm, the perfect size to take its place among her forgotten dolls—but its small, shimmering face was a tiny image of hers, like a portrait cleverly formed from beaten tin. The fairy was found against the bookshelf, lying on Sylvie’s discarded bathing towel, fast asleep with its wings folded along its back. Despite the astonishing grace of its form, it was clearly alive and breathing. When it woke up, it yawned so prettily, we all gasped.
Thus began the time of the Moon Fairy. At first, we thought it would fly away, and left the window open for that purpose, but it seemed comfortable in the house, and soon took to sleeping on Sylvie’s pillow, using her long hair for a blanket. During the day, it was rather paler than at night, almost transparent. After it startled Mother on the stairs, nearly causing her to lose her balance (she complained about it for a week—“Control that thing!” she said), Sylvie made it a little frock of red worsted, with openings for the wings, in which it flitted about as gaily as a kite. She also sewed minuscule undergarments for it, and a red cap with a bow, from under which its bright hair billowed like candy floss. It submitted to being dressed without complaint, closing its eyes. Sylvie taught it to eat cracker crumbs from her finger.
The Moon Fairy liked white foods: crackers, shortbread, rice, and milk. It disliked wine, loud noises, Uncle Claudius Eppenberg, and the cat. In fact, poor Mittens, whom no one loved more than Sylvie, was given away to the neighbor children soon after the fairy’s arrival. From the window on the landing overlooking the neighbors’ garden, Mittens could be observed in her new circumstances, mewling piteously as the children forced her into doll clothes, tied her up in a wagon, and dragged it over the grass. “Poor creature!” Sylvie was heard to murmur, standing at the window. However, she made no attempt to rescue the cat, which had scratched her darling’s wing, leaving a gash that took days to heal. As she looked down, holding the curtain back with one hand, the Moon Fairy curled up in its customary place on her shoulder, sighing placidly and nuzzling her neck.
It really was a charming creature. It smiled, laughed, turned somersaults in the air, played hide-and-seek among the clothes on the line, danced when Ellen played Chopin—did everything but speak. In the evenings, when its energy tended to rise, it would fly round the room up close to the ceiling, emitting a happy buzzing sound. Sylvie said it was singing, but Uncle Claudius, who often dropped by in the evening to have a drink with Father, opined that the buzzing was caused by the movement of the fairy’s wings, “in the manner of a bumblebee or other insect.” “Nonsense,” said Sylvie, frowning. She disliked hearing the fairy compared to an animal. Since the fateful evening when the young man she’d been walking out with that summer (the son of some family friends, a law student with excellent prospects) had rashly referred to the Moon Fairy as “your new pet,” he had been forbidden the house, and the increasingly desperate telephone messages from him we wrote down were crumpled up unread. Unfortunately for Sylvie, it was not so easy to get rid of Uncle Claudius, an “almost doctor,” as she called him rudely behind his back (he had never actually completed his studies), who, since his automobile accident some years before, had been living on the proceeds of the lawsuit, and had nothing better to do than read, play with his shortwave radio, and drink Father’s brandy. “The vibrations,” Uncle Claudius went on, unperturbed, leaning heavily on his cane (he could never tell when he was not wanted) and peering up at the Moon Fairy with his bulging, yellowish eyes, “may be providing it with a new sensation, one unobtainable on the moon, where there is no atmosphere. Apparently, this gives it pleasure.”
—Sofia Samatar (Read the rest here)
Who is this lady?
Sofia Samatar was born in Indiana in 1971; her father was a scholar and writer originally from Somalia, while her mother is an English teacher originally from North Dakota. She is the author of two novels, a story collection, and the book Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, Del Samatar, a visual artist. Her speculative fiction often draws upon folklore, and she has been a finalist for Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as winner of the World Fantasy Award. She teaches African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction at James Madison University.
Take a character from a fairy tale, folktale, or mythology and place them in a contemporary context. Then write about what happens.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org