From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Notes Toward a Comparative Mythology

Why quests do not have sequels.
So you left your skin out on that rock to get all warm and toasty in the May sun, and you swam. You must have known what you were getting into. Must have known, or guessed, someone was watching. At least in the stories, somebody always was. Kind of eye, you say? Kind of heart? Gentle with his hands? So what? You still aren’t free. What binds you both is this: the itch for the unknown, a kind of cartoon fire in the eyes that flared up to see you step away from your own skin, to see him step toward it, a fire that diminished with the exact speed that you neared, until the gap closed and it quenched out like a candle thumbed to smoke.

On the giving of the firstborn.
Your mother was among the rare few fortunate, unfortunate, who cry seven tears into an ebbing tide and actually are answered. (“What did you expect,” he asked, seeing the look on her face, awed and stricken, exultant, terrified, “to go home thinking you were crazy?” “Yes,” she said.)

Under his skin he was the color of buckwheat honey and his hair was blacker than her own dyed braid, so she forgave him the slight smell of fish guts and brine. When she lay back in the twilight, in the broken shells and bladderwrack, three children took root in her: three curls of life that bobbed and spun together, triskelioned, in the saltwater of her womb; then grew; then shot out to her backbent cries, so fast she had to catch them with her bloody feet.

Two with webbing in the gaps between their fingers, toes. Supple and resilient stuff, and when the doctors sliced at it with scalpels, it grew back tough as bootsoles, lettuce-edged, and the very devil to excise.

And one with downy white fur and strong flippers where her arms and legs belonged. Your mother took one look at you, took one look at the door through which no doctors had yet come, opened the window, hurled you out into the river running past the hospital, and prayed you’d reach the sea.

You still have those dreams of falling.

The genesis of shipwrecks.
At first, like dragons out of films you’ve seen, you were convinced you were the last or only of your kind. Over the years that passed since then, you’ve seen the others laughing at you from the meringued waves, in dreams and out of them, and you scoured the library for their stories, their poems, their songs, until you had a migraine for a week.

There were the kept, the ones like you. The ones who’d mislaid in memory the tart salt buoyancy of tides, the taste of fish, the waveworn rock or gritty scramble of a haulout. Whose days blurred by in cooking and scrubbing and swelling with babies and captivity until, had they managed to find them, their skins wouldn’t’ve fit anyway. Captives feeding jailers, a looking-glass zoo.

And then there were the keepers. The ones against whose cunning mothers would mark girls with crosses, once upon a time, before allowing them to sea. The ones who’d sink or run aground whatever vessels crossed their way, from kayaks to cruise liners: out of vengeance, some said, or else sheer fey spite, or sheer fey gamesomeness. If you close your eyes you see them, threading through shipwrecks like worms through a skull, then flashing past and gone.

You drop stitches when you think on that too hard. You burn the cookies black.

The price of compliance may not be the price of consent.

When you climbed out of the water, naked and dripping, you saw him standing by the rock where you’d left your skin in the sun, just standing over it with a quizzical look, poking at it with a finger. His eyes slid up along you and down again to it. With your skin in both hands he stared at you. For a long sickening minute you were horrified he’d take it, horrified he’d destroy it, horrified he’d drop it in the mud and go his way laughing at your indignation.

You don’t know how many times since you’ve wondered why you didn’t lunge for the skin while you still could. You were faster than him and almost as strong. You could have had it fastened round you in fifteen seconds flat, then be away and safe and vanished in another five. But you stayed put.

Your husband put a ring on your finger, a narrow gold band with a diamond on it like a drop of seawater. He had you dye your hair, wear short skirts and lipstick, walk smiling on his arm. He listens to your stories and laughs at your jokes. They’re awful, but he doesn’t care. He loves you.

Later, when your fine-tuned musclework has atrophied to mush and you can’t zip the skirts up anymore, your stories are losing their novelty. Your jokes are still awful. He notices this now.

If he kisses you, it means he’s leaving for work. Or returning. Or apologetic. Or going to sleep. If he fucks you, that means it’s a Saturday, or he’s been out to the strip club with his friends. He presents you with roses every Valentine’s Day. Again on your anniversary. On your birthdays he takes you to the best seafood restaurant in the city, two hours round trip, and is carefully silent at the spectacle of you packing three kilos of fish away, carefully uncomplaining at the bill, carefully tiptoeing on eggshells the whole ride home while you stare out the window in an access of nostalgia, your eyes like deep dark lakes gone dry.

What you wanted was a swimming pool. A vacation to the shore. Your skin back, maybe for just a little while, maybe for a while longer.

(You still want to please him. You entertain grand notions of finding your skin and letting him keep it, maybe putting on a little show for him, wearing one skin and slowly stripping to the other, from dark to pale, from perpetually young to aging with all the speed of a runaway train. You think better of it.)

What you got instead was a fur coat. He’d caught you gazing at that storefront with those distant eyes and saved secretly for months because he’d misread your wistfulness.

You begin to understand what drove your mother to the sea that day. What horrifies you is that it might bear some similarity to what drove you out of it.

And it was as though, with every step, she walked on knives.
After a week of hot flashes and dizzy spells, you buy yourself a pregnancy test. You’re blushing when you bring it to the counter, though you’re not sure why. When you piss on it you pale. But you know why.

The gynecologist’s nurse asks you when you think you conceived. She has a wheel chart and a pen in her hair, and plucked-to-nothing eyebrows that raise when you give her a day, date, and time.

“You sound pretty sure,” she observes, and before you know what to say to that she’s reeling off a list of recommendations. Keep exercising. Swimming is good. Eat healthy foods. Fish is good. But be careful. Omega-3 EFAs are good for the baby’s developing brain. Mercury poisoning, not so good.

On the way home you play out scenarios in your head: keep it, don’t keep it, tell him, don’t tell him. Knowing nothing of your own birth’s circumstances, you can’t decide whether the little twist of flesh you’re harboring is more likely to be legged or flippered, pink or grey, or something patchworked, ineffectual, caught forever in between.

A trip to the library later you realize that at this stage it’s just a bug-eyed little shrimp-thing with neither legs nor flippers, neither pink nor grey. Its heart is on the outside. You could read your palm through it if you cupped it in your hand. In fact, it hasn’t any skin at all.

Unattainability is the greater part of worth.
You keep it. You tell him. You grow.

At first you’re happy. There is much planning, much babbling to your baby bump, much well-wishing from family and friends. He brings you breakfast in bed, then holds your hair while you puke it up. You argue good-naturedly about whether you want a girl or a boy, whether to find out which it is, what to name it.

He goes with you to all your prenatal visits. Together you hear the baby’s heartbeat, the sucking tidal song of it half-buried in the static. There’s a rushing sound when the baby kicks against the wand, and you don’t know whether to picture flippers or feet. The image in your head is of a vague sleek shape turning somersaults. You wonder if it’s happy.

In the waiting room there’s a TV playing a cartoon with dolphins. They’re bright blue and they go streaking through the whitecaps with a fierce fey grace you still remember in your dreams. The cartoon dolphins make you cry.

He’s used to it. He doesn’t try to comfort you these days. These days, you huff up the stairs and you can’t see your feet anymore, and when you ask him if you’re still sexy he says yes, kisses your forehead, and goes to sleep.

These days the hormones get the better of you. You see your life stretching out before you in a slippery slope of diapers, pot roasts, sitcoms, fights as passionless as sex, vacations as prepackaged as the junk food that eventually will clog your heart’s blind alleys and stop it like a watch.

These days you remember that you let him steal your skin. And, what’s more, you remember why. You wanted to climb mountains. You wanted to learn to fly a plane, to speak Italian, to paint landscapes, to surf. You wanted a career and a black belt and a love story. You wanted somewhere to belong. And you were tired of trying to find it on your own.

You still are.

These days, you’re restless, aimless, searching. At first you’re not sure what it is you’re looking for, but this comes to you in time. What never crosses your mind is that you might never find it, that after all these years you might have forgotten what it looks like, that you might come upon it anytime and mistake it for an old coat or a plush toy or a throw.

When he’s in the shower you rifle the closets, you dig under the bed. When he leaves for work you climb up to the attic and survey the stacks of boxes with a weary resignation.

All real witches hide their hearts in stones.
It’s a week later and you’re halfway through the attic when your water breaks. You don’t notice it at first. Only when you stand back up do you feel the gush start down your thighs, blood-hot, blood-salt, and the image comes to you of the baby, nine months treading water, suddenly left high and dry as sandbarred ships, beached whales, hooked fish, yourself.

Why some quests do, in fact, have sequels.
The baby comes, and grows. To your husband’s obvious relief, your daughter looks like him—like either of you, now, with arms and legs. Not even the finger-webbing is present to give her away. The only hints, and only apparent to you, are her love of water—it soothes her, makes her laugh, like nothing else on earth—and the appraising cast to her eye, there before she can so much as crawl, that far-ranging look that seems to say I know there’s something more.

The attic’s done now. You bring her to the garage. By now your search is an obsession, and you leave her—in her swing, her playgym, her high chair—to dive headfirst into packing crates and emerge covered in dust, arms scratched by picture frames and knickknacks, mouse turds in your hair. You feed her, change her diaper, set her down, turn on the space heater, the fan. One box-cutter blade goes dull, then another. You take her out back to the woods and peek in hollow logs, up hunters’ platforms; you search for younger undergrowth, turned earth where something might lie buried. You park her stroller in the shade, her playpen in the attic when you return for a third look, then a fourth. She cries and you can almost tune it out. She says her first word and you can’t hear it above the rummaging. She kicks over her block city to reach for you, and when you don’t respond she takes to following you around: first on hands and knees, then on foot, progressing from handhold to handhold along the furniture, then hands-free, graceless, but with a growing surety.

She toddles up to you one morning with a raggedy old bundle. It’s early and you’re half-asleep, pulled from a dream when she came tugging on your arm to wake you, and to your wirewalking mind, half-here, half-gone, she’s coming at you bearing roadkill in her hands, ash-colored and empty as a sleeve. “It’s a dancing dress, Mommy,” she says, holding it out. “I found it in my dream.”

“For me?” you ask her, oddly shy, for now that you’re faced with what you’ve searched for, a real choice, you’re shocked to find you can’t decide. “Are you sure?”

She nods.

You touch it and your fingers sink in. The skin’s eyes glint at you like the glass ones on a rich woman’s stole, cloudy with disuse. One of the yellowed teeth breaks off in your hand. But by now you’ve sewn enough curtains and altered enough of those flirty skirts into toddler-sized dresses to know that it could be reworked—looking at it now you see a coat, musty and worn bare in patches, but big enough to fit you with your daughter on your back and warm you both on all your wanderings.

“A dancing dress?” you say, and she nods again. You sweep her up and swing her and the skin’s eyes glint and she laughs a laugh like waves, like shoals of fish, like sunshine, like your mother dragging skirts against the sand and saying Yes.

“Well then, sweetie,” you say, “let’s go dancing.”

nicoleNicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, two ferrets, the cutest toddler in the universe, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, GUD, Goblin Fruit, Lone Star Stories, and Farrago’s Wainscot, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Desideria, was released in December 2008, and her featured poems from the Summer 2009 issue of Goblin Fruit are available in the beautifully-illustrated chapbook Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties. For further miscellany, check out her blog at wirewalking.livejournal.com.

If you liked this story, you might like to purchase Jabberwocky 4, which is chockfull of similar stories and poetry, by various contributors, including: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Adrienne Odasso, Sarah Colona, Shea McCandless, Robert Borski, Sonya Taaffe, Berrien C. Henderson, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Jennifer Crow, Jane Yolen, Becca de la Rosa, Rose Lemberg, Jeannelle Ferreira, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Kat Eason, Mike Allen, Jessica Paige Wick, Douglas Campbell, Jennifer Lawrence, Amal El-Mohtar & Jessica Paige Wick, Allison Sakaida, Erik Amundsen, and Genevieve Valentine.

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