Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology

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The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales

Happy Birthday, Jesse Vanderchuck!

It’s been forty years since I’ve seen the ocean. I mark that moment, the one when I first witnessed that infamous vastness, as one of rebirth. Standing on a wet beach, as near the break of day as makes no difference, I felt no larger than a mote. And hanging there, weightless, waiting for the sea to speak, I knew that one day I was going to die.

We were on a rare cross-country trip to visit my mother’s family. A three-hour drive down to Toronto, followed by a four-hour flight to B.C. From our little patch outside of Trout Creek to a commuter town east of Vancouver. My sister, Olivia, having just turned one, spent much of the journey letting us all know her displeasure, her volume turned to eleven.

I remember a lot of tension: my father constantly cracking his loud farmer’s knuckles. My mother’s company laugh — the she did reflexively when burdened with keeping the peace. It was less like fakery and more like camouflage.

There were unfamiliar foods I was expected to try and, more importantly, to like. Big Hungarian-style dishes like cabbage rolls and sour cream and sweet pierogies. I mean, who’d ever heard of a sweet pierogi? I heard a litany of cajoling that trip. There was the try it, you’ll like it; the just a bite, for Grandma; and the final concession, you don’t know what you’re missing. Perhaps I didn’t, but that was for me to decide, wasn’t it?

I did my best — less out of familial obligation and more out of my understanding of social rules. Not to mention the certainty that I’d bear the brunt of my dad’s frustrations should I be too resistant. My father was not a violent man. I don’t want to give that impression. He was a man easily irritated, and he was known to lack discretion when it came to venting his ire. I found it best to keep my head down and avoid catching friendly fire.

Anyway, the trip to the ocean. Dad had bundled us all into the car before sunrise, groggy and confused. Our soundtrack was the warm drone of CBC morning radio, the perfectly smooth diction of trained voices punctuated by interludes of indie rock or Inuit throat singing.

Dad was beaming with excitement, rare enough to begin with and historically fragile. As sleepy as I was, I had a tingle at the back of my mind that signalled caution. Not enthusiastic enough and he’d be disappointed. Too over the top and he’d suss I was faking. Whatever we were up for, I needed to craft an appropriate response, lest the ornament of his enthusiasm be carelessly crushed.

My mother, in many ways, was too honest for my kind of calculated behaviour. As much as she loathed conflict, she just as frequently waded into it as avoided it. Brave faces only took her so far. In any pantomime, she inevitably hit some kind of wall, beyond which there was no room for dishonesty. She was especially vulnerable at times when her guard was naturally low. Like then, as dawn broke wide against the horizon, at the very crack of creation.

When we left the main road to take a rutted dirt track between a pair of high grassy dunes, she muttered something like, “Where are we?”

Innocent enough. Reasonable, certainly. Perhaps her tone was slightly too sharp, or maybe the words hit some particular structural defect in Dad’s buoyant mood. An underlying pessimism kept him expecting negativity, so he might’ve reacted the same way regardless of what was said or by whom. The air in the car seemed to seize up like stricken oobleck. I knew that the calm was over. Time for the storm.

I was in the back seat on the driver’s side. In the rear-view mirror, I could see Dad’s mild smile wrench into a deep frown. From the top of his plaid-flannel collar, a line of sunrise-red crept up the nape of his neck. He bounced his palm off the top of the steering wheel before replying.

“I thought,” he said, voice drawn taut with careful control, “we would all enjoy going for a little drive to the ocean.”

On the radio, DNTO signed off, thanking its producers and contributors. Mum squinted at the dashboard clock. “We’re on vacation. Why so early?”

Now the steering wheel was squeezed, thick fingers squeaking as they rotated over the leatherette. Dad’s habit of intermittently clicking from halfway down his throat intensified, a sure signal he was about to boil over.

“Well, we’re here now, but if you want, we can just turn around and go home.”

Mum sighed, resigning herself to the familiar situation. We passed a sign that told us we were Now Entering Porteau Cove Provincial Park, and that swimming in the ocean was forbidden here. Barely glimpsed small print specified acidification, plastic pollution, and hordes of Humboldt squid as reasons to stay out of the water. As I breathed relief that I wasn’t the one who had set Dad off this time, I wondered if the squid mentioned were the ones that had developed venom sacs filled with liquefied PVC.

“Don’t be like that,” Mum said. “It’s a bad example for the children.”

No, I begged silently. Don’t drag me into this!

I watched Dad’s eyes flash up in the rear-view, their distinct blue hue gone hard and icy, and felt a pang of sorrow. As much as I was in for self-preservation, I felt bad for him. It’s hard for a kid to see a parent unhappy, and my father was rarely happy. The only place that kept him pleased for any length of time was his woodshop. For him, the meticulous tuning of tools, the cleaning and maintaining of machines, were akin to raking a Zen garden. If only he could’ve found that meditative calm at times like this. Maybe I should have carried around a set of oily socket wrenches as a preventative measure, dosing them out as needed.

The car stopped. Outside the sky was a shade paler than the smoked salmon frequently splayed across a long white plate on Grandma’s breakfast table. Gulls wheeled like shreds of paper being juggled on competing breezes, their gurgling laughter bouncing between sea and sky.

Back home, beside the creek formerly laden with trout, early mornings were nearly silent. Silvered snakes of mist coiled out from between trees along the face of the distant forest. Ghosts of blue jay and chickadee calls drifted across hushed fields, and the whole world felt painted onto the inside of a blown-glass bulb: frail and ready to shatter at the first loud sound.

Here there was no shortage of noise. Instead the swelling roar of what turned out to be the ocean itself permeated the stillness of the car. There were the gulls calling down to the fleets of sandpipers, and the sandpipers chirping amongst themselves as they ran stifflegged, weaving in and out of the surf.

The instant the engine went still, I was out the door, so glad to be free of the stifling tension that I nearly leapt into the sky. The sand was wet and dense underfoot, more like semi-set concrete than the gravelly lake beaches I was used to. It slapped beneath my sneakers as I ran toward the great shifting roar, away from what was almost certainly now a full-blown argument between my parents. I imagined I could hear Olivia’s rising cry from her car seat, as much from being woken up as from any situational distress. Given her status as the beloved baby, her upset might well have quelled my parents’ ire, redirecting their energies to sooth her. I couldn’t know, because I was close enough to the waves that their noise was all-consuming.

And the winds — one blew out from across the land, the great bellowing breath of the rising sun, flattening the fields of sea grasses and thrusting fists of warm air into my lower back. Another gust crashed boisterously from the water itself, its clammy, saltcrusted arms wide and sweeping, forcing me to brace against being knocked over.

It really was too bad that Dad didn’t get to see my reaction when I first set eyes on the ocean. He’d have been so pleased to see my ten-year-old mouth gaped in utter wonder. My instinct was to head directly for the water’s edge, to place my feet along the shifting join where it met the land, the way I did at Wolf Lake. Thankfully, I had enough sense to hang back. Even so, about every fifth wave came in so hard I was misted by spray. The smell was overwhelming and alien — fishy and salty and ancient. It assaulted the senses until, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Deep in the oldest part of my brain, it was understood as familiar. Beyond familiar even, if such a thing exists. It was huge and terrifying and unmistakably vital.

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We call them Bunnies because that is what they call each other. Seriously. Bunny.

Hi, Bunny!
Hi, Bunny!
What did you do last night, Bunny?
I hung out with you, Bunny. Remember, Bunny?
That’s right, Bunny, you hung out with me and it was the best time I ever had.
Bunny, I love you. I love you, Bunny.

And then they hug each other so hard I think their chests are going to implode. I would even secretly hope for it from where I sat, stood, leaned, in the opposite corner of the lecture hall, department lounge, auditorium, bearing witness to four grown women—my academic peers—cooingly strangle each other hello. Or good-bye. Or just because you’re so amazing, Bunny.  How  fiercely  they  gripped  each  other’s  pink-and-white  bodies, forming a hot little circle of such rib-crushing love and understanding it took my breath away. And then the nuzzling of ski-jump noses, peach fuzzy cheeks. Temples pressed against temples in a way that made me think of the labial rubbing of the bonobo or the telepathy of beautiful, murderous children in horror films. All eight of their eyes shut tight as if this collective asphyxiation were a kind of religious bliss. All four of their glossy mouths making squealing sounds of monstrous love that hurt my face.

I love you, Bunny.

I quietly prayed for the hug implosion all year last year. That their ardent squeezing might cause the flesh to ooze from the sleeves, neckholes, and A-line hems of their cupcake dresses like so much inane frosting. That they would get tangled in each other’s Game of Thrones hair, choked by the ornate braids they were forever braiding into each other’s heart-shaped little heads. That they would choke on each other’s blandly grassy perfume. Never happened. Not once.

They always came apart from these embraces intact and unwounded despite the ill will that poured forth from my staring eyes like so much comic-book-villain venom. Smiling at one another. Swinging clasped hands. Skins aglow with affection and belonging as though they’d just been hydrated by the purest of mountain streams.

Bunny, I love you.

Completely immune to the disdain of their fellow graduate student. Me. Samantha Heather Mackey. Who is not a Bunny. Who will never be a Bunny.

I pour myself and Ava more free champagne in the far corner of the tented green, where I lean against a white Doric pillar bedecked with billowing tulle. September. Warren University. The Narrative Arts department’s annual welcome back Demitasse, because this school is too Ivy and New England to call a party a party. Behold the tigerlily-heavy centerpieces. Behold the Christmas-lit white gauze floating everywhere like so many ghosts. Behold the pewter trays of salmon pinwheels, duck-liver crostini topped with little sugared orchids. Behold the white people in black discussing grants they earned to translate poets no one reads from the French. Behold the lavish tent under which the overeducated mingle, well versed in every art but the one of conversation. Smilingly oblivious to the fact that they are in the mouth of hell. Or as Ava and I call it, the Lair of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is a giant squid monster invented by a horror writer who went insane and died here. And you know what, it makes sense. Because you can feel it when you’re walking down the streets beyond the Warren Bubble that this town is a wrong town. Something not quite right about the houses, the trees, the light. Bring this up and most people just look at you. But not Ava. Ava says, My god, yes. The town, the houses, the trees, the light—it’s all fucked.

I stand here, I sway here, full of tepid sparkling and animal livers and whatever hard alcohol Ava keeps pouring from her Drink Me flask into my plastic cup. “What’s in this again?” I ask.

“Just drink it,” she says.

I observe from behind borrowed sunglasses as the women whom I must call my colleagues reunite after a summer spent apart in various trying locales such as remote tropical islands, the south of France, the Hamptons. I watch their fervent little bodies lunge for each other in something like rapture. Nails the color of natural poisons digging into each other’s forearms with the force of what I keep telling myself is feigned, surely feigned, affection. Shiny lips parting to call each other by their communal pet name.

“Jesus, are they for real?” Ava whispers in my ear now. She has never seen them up close. Didn’t believe me when I first told her about them last year. Said, There is no way grown women act like that. You’re making this up, Smackie. Over the summer, I started to think I had too. It is a relief in some ways to see them now, if only to confirm I am not insane.
“Yes,” I say. “Too real.”

I watch her survey them through her fishnet veil, her David Bowie eyes filled with horror and boredom, her mouth an unimpressed red line.

“Can we go now?”

“I can’t leave yet,” I say, my eyes still on them. They’ve pulled apart from one another at last, their twee dresses not even rumpled. Their shiny heads of hair not even disturbed. Their skins glowing with health insurance as they all crouch down in unison to collectively coo at a professor’s ever jumping shih tzu.


“I told you, I have to make an appearance.”

Ava looks at me, slipping drunkenly down the pillar. I have said hello to no one. Not the poets who are their own fresh, grunty hell. Not the new incoming fiction writers who are laughing awkwardly by the shrimp tower. Not even Benjamin, the friendly administrator to whom I usually cling at these sorts of functions, helping him dollop quivering offal onto dried bits of toast. Not my Workshop leader from last spring, Fosco, or any other member of the esteemed faculty. And how was your summer, Sarah? And how’s the thesis coming, Sasha? Asked with polite indifference. Getting my name wrong always. Whatever response I offer—an earnest confession of my own imminent failure, a bald-faced lie that sets my face aflame—will elicit the same knowing nod, the same world-weary smile, a delivery of platitudes about the Process being elusive, the Work being a difficult mistress. Trust, Sasha. Patience, Sarah. Sometimes you have to walk  away, Serena. Sometimes, Stephanie, you have to seize the bull by the horns. This will  be followed by the recounting of a similar creative crisis/breakthrough they experienced while on a now-defunct residency in remote Greece, Brittany, Estonia. During which I will nod and dig my fingernails into my upper-arm flesh.

And obviously I haven’t talked to the Lion. Even though he’s here, of course. Somewhere. I saw him earlier out of the corner of my eye, more maned and tattooed than ever, pouring himself a glass of red wine at the open bar. Though he didn’t look up, I felt him see me. And then I felt him see me see him see me and keep pouring. I haven’t seen him since then so much as sensed him in my nape hair. When we first arrived, Ava felt he must be nearby because look, the sky just darkened out of nowhere.

This evening, all I have done in terms of socializing is half smile at the one the Bunnies call Psycho Jonah, my social equivalent among the poets, who is standing alone by the punch, smiling beatifically in his own antidepressant-fueled fever dream.

Ava sighs and lights a cigarette with one of the many tea lights that dot our table. She looks back at the Bunnies, who are now stroking each other’s arms with their small, small hands. “I miss you, Bunny,” they say to each other in their fake little girl voices, even though they are standing right fucking next to each other, and I can taste the hate in their hearts like iron on my tongue.

“I miss you, Bunny. This summer was so hard without you. I barely wrote a word, I was so, so sad. Let’s never ever part again, please?”

Ava laughs out loud at this. Actually laughs. Throws her feathery head back. Doesn’t bother to cover her mouth with her gloved hand. It’s a delicious, raucous sound. Ringing in the air like the evening’s missing music.

Shhhhh,” I hiss at her. But it’s already done.

The laughter causes the one I call the Duchess to turn her head of long, silver faery-witch locks in our direction. She looks at us. First at Ava. Then at me. Then at Ava again. She is surprised, perhaps, to see that for once I’m not alone, that I have a friend. Ava meets her look with wide-open eyes the way I do in my dream stares. Ava’s gaze is formidable and European. She continues to smoke and sip my champagne without breaking eye contact. She once told me about a staring contest she had with a gypsy she met on a metro in Paris. The woman was staring at her, so Ava stared back—the two of them aiming their gazes at each other like guns—all the way across the City of Lights. Just looking at each other from opposite shores of the rattling train. Eventually Ava took off her earrings, still not taking her eyes off the woman. Why? Because her assumption at that point, of course, was that the two of them would fight to the death. But when the train pulled into the last stop on the line, the woman just stood to exit, and when she did so, she even held back the sliding doors politely, so Ava could go first.

What’s the lesson here, Smackie? Don’t jump to conclusions?
Never lower your gaze first.
The Duchess, in turning toward us, causes a ripple effect of turning among the other Bunnies. First Cupcake looks over. Then Creepy Doll with her tiger eyes. Then Vignette with her lovely Victorian skull face, her stoner mouth wide open. They each look at Ava, then at me, in turn, scanning down from our heads to our feet, their eyes taking us in like little mouths sipping strange drinks. As they do, their noses twitch, their eight eyes do not blink, but stare and stare. Then they look back at the Duchess and lean in to each other, their lip-glossed mouths forming whispery words.

Ava squeezes my arm, hard.

The Duchess turns and arches an eyebrow at us. She raises a hand up. Is there an invisible gun in it? No. It’s an empty, open hand. With which she then waves. At me. With something like a smile on her face. Hi, her mouth says.

My hand shoots up of its own accord before I can even stop myself. I’m waving and waving and waving. Hi, I’m saying with my mouth, even though no sound comes out.

Then the rest of the Bunnies hold up a hand and wave too.

We’re all waving at one another from across the great shores of the tented green.

Except Ava. She continues to smoke and stare at them like they’re a four-headed beast. When at last I lower my hand, I turn to her. She’s looking at me like I’m something worse than a stranger.

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