From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

The World Is Cruel, My Daughter

I still have their eyes in jars, on the shelf in the kitchen. Every morning the beads on my necklace clank together while I fry myself a fishy concoction of duck eggs and marsh tubers. Behind me, light pours in through the large hole in the side of my house and illuminates the staring eyes. They are three colours—blue, brown, and green—and it is the last of these that accuse me while the others stare cattywampus at the floor and ceiling.

I could shake the jar with the green eyes, so they look elsewhere, but I don’t.

#

When my daughter was one year old, I loved her for her smile. Anything could tempt her to joy—my own smile, the noises of cooking food, the proximity of the black kitten I gifted her upon her arrival.

What a fool I made of myself, contorting my face and making unlady-like sounds. All I needed was another giggle and the game would go on. She couldn’t yet ask questions I couldn’t answer and was delighted by the information I volunteered. “Kitty,” “No, it’s hot,” and “Boo!” all brought smiles. Even when she disobeyed me, I never struck her. My disappointment was enough to bring her to tears and she would pour herself dry on my bosom before looking up once again with a hopeful smile. Did I forgive her?

Of course I did.

When my daughter was five, I loved her for her eyes. They were the impossible purplish hue of forget-me-nots. We don’t have them in the salt marsh where I built our tower. Her eyes told me what she would say before she said it. But sometimes she still surprised me.

I bit my tongue when she asked me why our house had no windows on the bottom floor. She still hadn’t conceived of a “door.” I knew she would ask some day, but then, on that cool April morning, I wasn’t prepared.

“The sea rages in the winter, poppet. We don’t have room for her to live with us, do we?”

My daughter giggled and returned to her innocence, but her question haunted me for years, until she was twelve and I loved her for her hair. It hung lustrous as silk, curled at the ends like pumpkin tendrils, glinted like sunlight caressing the sea.

This is when her questions grew children of their own, broods of what-ifs and how-comes. One day it was, “Why haven’t you any hair, Mother?” She stroked her own golden locks, which now swept her ankles, as she waited for an answer.

I let my fingers stray up over the gnarled mass of scars that capped my skull, most of it numb, some of it still tingling with ruined nerves if I pressed it, as if it yet burned. “It wasn’t as beautiful as yours,” I said. “I don’t need it.”

“Yes, but what did you do with it?” she persisted.

For an instant I regretted having given her a library. I’d selected each book with the intention of keeping her life beautiful. But in choosing only the sweetest tales, I’d inadvertently given her the idea that the world was a beautiful place, one she perhaps would be permitted to explore. Now was my best chance to make it clear to my daughter that this was not so.

“Someone else wanted my hair,” I lied, “so she carved it from my head while I slept.”

My daughter was horrified, but it didn’t stop the questions. “But didn’t you awaken?”

“She fed me an herb which forced me to sleep.” My daughter had seen me take tea for my aches and accepted this.

And oh, how I bitterly wished I had been unconscious! Sometimes I still wake from nightmares of fire, my robe tangled and spongy with sweat, surprised I’m not held in the flame with the same pitchfork that left the scars across my back. But my daughter only knew of the fake deaths in fairy tales in which the princess is revived by a kiss or justice is dealt to wicked stepmothers. Wicked stepmothers, but not witches. There were no witches in my daughter’s books.

She shook her head. Her sweet blue eyes watered. “But why? Why do something so terrible?”

“We are like the stories in your books,” I said. “But other people are not this way; they will value your hair as gold. They’ll steal it and leave pain in its place.”

To distract her from the books, which she would now doubt and scrutinise, I revealed the fourth floor in the tower.

Until she was eight, my daughter only had the run of the first two floors: the kitchen, scented with bunches of shallots, garlic, and fresh spices; and the room above wherein the gleaming copper tub and waste chute took up one half and the garden and balcony took up the other. At ten, I allowed her into the library on the third floor, a circular room with an abundance of windows.

The fourth floor, the second-to-last, held a variety of musical instruments. We dusted and shined them. She learned to read a second time. The notes came to her easily, as I’d known they would, and she composed songs in her own spirited voice as often as she played classic tunes on the flute, cello, or piano. The latter I had acquired at great expense, commissioning a man to assemble it inside the room before I stabbed him through the heart and buried his corpse under a driftwood log deep in the marsh. If you sit at the piano and look out the window, you can see gulls and terns perched on the log as you play.

By the time my daughter was fifteen, I loved her for her talents and wit. She sang melodies on the spot, making gentle fun of household tasks or the elderly cat’s occasional accidents on the kitchen flagstones. Neither of us begrudged Utney his infirmity; he’d been a loyal companion.

He was her fateful introduction to death.

#

Over the course of fifteen years, the estuary had migrated to the north, leaving the southern marsh more shallow. At the height of summer, our tower now had toes of exposed mud. It was during this summer heat that my daughter’s heart was broken.

She put down a dish of broth for the cat, but Utney stayed curled by the fire. Her delicate fingers trailed along his neck, but he didn’t lift his head to scratch his chin against her nails.

I held my sobbing daughter, my hands tangled in her golden hair, which now trailed behind her on the floor if she didn’t bind it up in loops or braids.

Some children ask for a new pet when the old one passes on, but to my daughter, her cat was a fixture of the world, as irreplaceable as a piece of the tower. If the roof were torn off in a storm, we’d have no roof—likewise, there were no cats in our vegetable garden, no cats come up on our fishing lines, no cats in the bird traps I hung out of the music room windows.

He was the only cat in the world and he was dead.

I’d never seen her blue eyes so raw. They shone with an arterial flow of tears, bruised where blood vessels had burst. I was almost afraid the grief would kill her.

I boiled the carcass and made her a necklace of Utney’s bones, whispering that his spirit still lurked there and would love her for all her days. She wore the gift gratefully, but it only quieted her sorrow. In silence, his death still burned her the way my nightmares burned me.

And so I climbed out the window in the night and trudged through four miles of dense sawgrass, marsh bramble, and sucking, salty mud.

There are always unwanted kittens.

#

The boy from whom I got the kitten suggested I choose one of a different colour, in case she wanted to separate the memory of her old pet from her new one. He had eyes like my daughter’s but lighter, like cornflowers. He refused to look at me any longer than he must. I chose a ginger kitten, with clever eyes and unruly fur.

When the water and mud became very deep on my return journey, I held the kitten over my head. I treated my daughter’s gift as carefully as I would have treated her.

I climbed back into the tower with difficulty, the kitten dangling from my mouth the way its own mother might have carried it. And so, with my clothes full of mud and my mouth full of fur, I spilled into the second floor. I coiled the rope and hid it under the box of brambles I keep for firewood. I scrubbed myself and my clothes. And I said nothing of my journey.

“But where did he come from?” she asked, when I gave her the kitten. One finger tapped the scarred table just ahead of two determined, orange paws.

“We are like the stories,” I said, smiling. “We are the only good in the world, and the world appreciates it. It provides for us. He came up in my fishing net.”

The next day, my daughter sang again. It was a sad song, an ode to Utney, but beautiful nonetheless. It was the final clue needed by that little blue-eyed bastard to track us. I had made the mistake of mentioning I had a daughter “about your age” who’d lost her cat—and now, of course, he wanted to rut.

I was drying tomatoes and grapes on the balcony, waving a broom at gulls who dared swoop too close, when my daughter’s song stopped mid-note.

“Have you named your kitten?” the horny cur called. The mud I’d tracked through the dry streets of town must have led him to the marsh, his eyes must have led him to the tower, and now his ears had led him to lounge beneath her window.

I imagined him clambering into our world and ripping the lovingly sewn dress from my daughter’s nubile form; stabbing her innocence with thrusts of his pimply, adolescent body, tossing her aside, bruised and soaked in seed and sweat and shame. It was why I was there, why I would always be there: so the world couldn’t happen to her the way it had happened to me.

To her credit, my daughter didn’t speak to the scum—she ran to me, and I met her on the ladder, her forget-me-nots staring wild. “Mother, there’s a boy outside!” she said.

“I heard him,” I said. “He’s after your hair.”

“He only asked about my kitten—”

“Quiet! Take Sunshine to the kitchen and stay there until I come for you.”

I had never raised my voice to her, and she began to cry. It couldn’t be helped; I could soothe her feelings later, after I’d removed the threat.

#

“I only wanted to look at her,” he gasped, drooling and coughing as I pulled the knife free. Scarlet life fountained into the morass of human waste that marked the northern face of the tower. This year, the winter storms could feed on his blood with our refuse.

I placed him with the piano builder and the glasiers, but I hated him too much to leave him buried in peace. I hacked apart his body and spread it for the eager gulls. I kept his eyes, because of his final lie. You’ll look at the inside of a cupboard, I thought.

When I’d finished bathing away the traces of my ordeal, I descended to the kitchen. My daughter crouched by the hearth, red-eyed and nervously stroking Sunshine.

At the time I thought she hadn’t seen what transpired, what her mother had done.

But sometimes I wonder.

#

My daughter’s sixteenth birthday arrived in the hottest days of summer. When I revealed the attic, the fifth floor of the tower, I expected one of her questions, but not the others.

Windows ringed the room as with the third floor library, every one of them wrought in fantastic rainbows of colour. Light streamed in, rays of blue like her eyes, gold like her hair, orange like her growing kitten. The scenes in the windows would have cost me more than I could afford if I had paid the glasiers instead of putting them to rest by the driftwood. Fairies and unicorns, noblemen on a fox hunt, a castle haloed in a striking sunset … these I’d commissioned for my daughter. It was a room fit to live a life in.

“Is this—just for me?” she asked. Her eyes shone with the realization of how much I loved her.

“Yes,” I said.

And then she ruined it, tore this precious moment apart by asking me if, for her birthday, she could go out into the marsh—into the squelching mud, where we fished only in the turbulent winter to avoid ingesting our own refuse, where frogs and mosquitoes filled stagnant pools with their slimy spawn.

Where I buried the unworthy criminals who would have prevented her paradise.

My ultimate gift wasn’t enough for her.

The finality of my answer cracked her belief in my love, and I watched trust bleed out of an innocent heart. I retreated to the kitchen.

Loudly, she wept above in an ocean of coloured light, nestled in folds of her silken hair; quietly, I wept below on a hard stool, clutching a jar containing two withered eyes. I stared at those unseeing lumps of flesh and directed my hate at them. The eyes, and the world.

It thirsted for my daughter, but I wouldn’t let it hurt her.

#

I take some responsibility for leading Cornflower to the tower, but not Dirt. That foul tom came of his own volition.

I could barely hear my daughter singing, from where I cut shallots in the kitchen, and when she stopped I assumed she was napping again. She’d been sullen those last few weeks, curled in the windowseat or reading on her new bed, a hammock strung from the exposed rafters.

I happened to run out of rosemary. I climbed to the balcony, intending to cut some, but at the sound of a male voice, I froze. He was pleading, but I couldn’t hear the words clearly. I edged onto the balcony and crouched while I strained to hear their conversation.

“But don’t you want my hair?” she asked, doubtful.

The boy laughed, a muddy jackal baying for her blood, but of course she didn’t know. “I’ve got my own, lass. Whyever should I want more?”

“Well, it’s golden, and there’s an awful lot of it,” my daughter said. “Mother says you’d find it valuable.”

She must have shown him; he whistled. “Wowee, miss! I could just about climb up on that!”

“You mustn’t climb up! Mother would be furious.”

“I shall visit again tonight, then, when she sleeps,” the arrogant little cockerel promised.

I stomped up the ladder, my anger echoing through the wooden boards of the third floor, the fourth, and then pounding via my fist into the trapdoor of the fifth.

“Daughter!” I called.

Some whispers and a short commotion of bare feet later, she pulled the trapdoor open.

“Are you talking to someone?” I asked.

“No,” she quavered. The lie was a fly in cream, piss on snow. Abominable.

I glanced out the window, but the rat had gone. For a moment, I couldn’t even breathe, and then I lost my temper. I screamed at her, spit flecking her terrified face, until I collapsed in sobs.

I didn’t beat her. I never beat her. She only tripped on her own hair as she backed away from me, and split her brow upon the corner of a table.

My daughter, my perfect, precious, innocent daughter. I made her promise never to speak with strangers again.

“They lie, poppet,” I said, smoothing her hair. Tears coursed down both of our cheeks, hot and salty like the stagnant marsh beyond our tower walls. “And their sins are contagious. See how you lied to me today? You’ve never lied to me before,” I said, hoping it was true, sure it was true. “And look what’s happened now.”

“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said, and we embraced, my gnarled, fire-scarred claws stroking her golden silk, her soft hands petting my misshapen baldness.

I was waiting there that night when the boy I thought of as Dirt came back. He never saw me. In the night, I was sure my daughter also was blind to my knife slitting his gullet or scooping out his eyes.

But sometimes, I wonder.

#

I didn’t find out about the third boy until early autumn, when the birds flew away from the marsh and the brambles lost their leaves. My hearing’s not what it was and I was prone, especially in the cooling weather, to impromptu naps in my chair by the fire.

One grey morning, while my daughter was safely tucked away in her room, I’d taken my collection from the very back of the bottom cupboard. I met their stupid gazes with smug satisfaction. Insipid blue, conniving brown.

But she was mine again. She adored her cat, perhaps not so much as she’d once adored Utney; she played all her instruments, not just the lyre, and her own voice soared in accompaniment; and she helped me with enthusiasm in the kitchen and garden. Every afternoon we had tea together in the kitchen before she climbed the ladders to the music room while I napped.

I noticed a darkness in her, a hesitance to believe what I said until she’d thought it over, but this I suspected would fade with the removed influence of the village vermin. Her songs, after all, now praised the sun rather than the storm, explored questions of joy and not despair. My favorite was a ballad detailing the playful love of the sleek otters we sometimes glimpsed from our windows.

Rain crawled in from the bay, soaked my tired garden and sluiced dust off of the window panes. It rejuvenated everything but my badly healed bones. It wasn’t enough for the townsmen to thrust me into the fire—I was beaten first and bent over a horse trough for their whims. I’ve always taken the potent marsh skullcap with my tea to dull the pain brought on by inclement weather, but when I uncorked the jar, I found it very low.

Suddenly I understood my daughter’s love songs and my frequent naps.

She made my tea.

#

I switched our cups that day.

#

I thought the boy would use the balcony. It was closest to the ground, and the railings provided an anchor for rope. I confirmed it by checking the pumpkin vines where they hung down in a cascade of leafy tendrils. Some of the leaves were bruised.

“I’ll save you,” I said, to my daughter, or the pumpkins, or myself.

A search of her room turned up no rope, so the boy would have it. Sure enough, he tossed a coil up, and I bent over and knotted it for him, my twisted face hidden behind the yellowed tomato plants and pea trellis.

He spewed lies between breaths as he climbed.

“My father says he’ll help build a cottage for us just north of the farm. It won’t be as beautiful as your room here—”

That part was true, at least.

“—but we’ll be happy. And I asked because you said, but I already knew he’d let you bring Sunshine.”

His face popped up over the stone rail, and I stabbed him in the throat.

Hadn’t the boy I loved once made those same promises? And hadn’t he blamed me when I could save one of his young brothers from the fever but not the other? Hadn’t his mother then spit in my eyes and accused me of murder, of witchcraft?

He dribbled blood from the cut, a mere finger’s width that leaked as he coughed and swallowed and coughed again. It was nothing then to stomp on the fingers of one hand while I stabbed the other. The lying bastard tumbled down. One of his legs snapped at the wrong angle. Unfortunately, the soft peat saved him from further injury.

Rain stung my scarred head as I dangled over the edge, lowering myself down the rope with even more difficulty than last time. My bones ached, my arms trembled with the effort, but at last my feet sank into the mud.

“Monster,” he rasped, and when he coughed, he sprayed red at me from his wound. “You beat her, cage her. Ellis said.”

Ellis must have been Dirt’s name. That was how this green-eyed turd had come to stalk my daughter—his rat friend’s word.

I howled like an animal, and it crumbled into the words, “I love her!”

“No, I love her. You’re a witch,” he croaked.

He hit me as I crawled onto him, but I didn’t feel it, and his wounds weakened him. I knelt astride his chest, pinning his arms down with my knees.

And this time, with one fist wrapped in his black hair, I cut out his eyes before I killed him.

#

I dragged his worthless corpse to the log in the marsh.

I cleaned up and started supper.

And my daughter woke in her chair.

“What time is it?” she asked, stretching.

“It’s nearly supper. You’ve tired yourself playing the flute,” I chided. “Perhaps you should go back to the cello for a few days—you won’t have to hold it in the air.”

She held her breath as she realised she’d missed her date, that the boy had come calling whilst she slept. Her innocence was only too plain. She supposed she could hide the truth from me.

I thought with great hubris that because she couldn’t hide, she also couldn’t seek.

For days my daughter still sang love songs, but they became increasingly forlorn. They were no longer of happily-ever-afters, but of unrequited love. The October rain drove me to a drowsy state, all aches and naps and mourning for the sunshine, but not my daughter. A song would no sooner begin than she would change her mind; she would sometimes skip supper because it wasn’t to her liking.

Finally, her mood roused her to clean the tower. She started in her room, shining every individual window pane, dusting the rafters, sweeping away fallen grit while Sunshine pounced at the broom. She oiled the instruments of the music room, and categorized and then alphabetized the library. She scrubbed the tub and covered the garden in compost. Then she started in on the kitchen.

While I snored in my chair, she found my collection. I didn’t see it, but I can imagine. She would have been repulsed but curious at the blue eyes. She’d never seen a mirror, but I’d told her what colour hers were. The brown ones might have given her a clue. And when she found the green ones, she woke me with her screams.

“You killed him! You beast, you killed him!”

I started in my chair, my eyes scanning the room for the intruder before I realised my hysterical daughter was shouting at me. She dropped the glass jar, but she was only kneeling, so it didn’t shatter; instead, it simply rolled across the flagstones, the eyeballs searching for her as the jar spun.

She scraped her knees scuttling away from the dusty cupboard, her scrub brush forgotten, her eyes narrowed in revulsion.

“He would have hurt you,” I wheedled, tears rolling down my cheeks, but she would hear no excuse.

“He was right. You are a witch!” My daughter began climbing the rungs to the second floor, and by the time I reached the bottom, her young muscles had already ascended the second ladder.

“I’m not! I’m not!” I screamed.

Faster than I could follow, she was into her room with the trap door slammed shut. Her feet stomped across the floor, in harmony with her desperate, screaming sobs. I felt her pain in my heart and when glass crashed and tinkled, it somehow felt right.

The trapdoor wouldn’t open. I pounded on it for long minutes. Sunshine watched me from behind the piano pedals, wary of this sudden, loud insanity. In a fury, I descended to the kitchen and snatched the hatchet we used to fit especially large pieces of bramble or driftwood into the kitchen hearth.

The trapdoor was solid, but with relentless chopping, it finally splintered away. I climbed the ladder to see that my daughter had thrown her footstool through the window that depicted a charming castle.

She stared at the hole, her blank, blue eyes swimming red with burst capillaries. Her tongue protruded as dark and swollen as a dead mudskipper, and her soiled dress fluttered in the breeze from the broken window.

My daughter, my sweet Rapunzel, had thrown her hair over the rafter, then braided it tightly around her neck and jumped off one of the hammock braces.

#

I made that hole in the side of the tower, but I don’t think I’ll fill it with a door. I think I’ll let the winter storms in. There’s plenty of room in here now, even for the sea.

I moved the green-eyed boy’s body, to the stand of stunted trees where I long ago buried my daughter’s parents. Rapunzel also sleeps with them, though the necklace that clinks while I make my breakfast is made of her bones. Polished with sand and tears, they look magnificent and feel terrible when I wear them with my woven scarf.

It’s lustrous as silk, curls at the ends like pumpkin tendrils, and glints like sunlight caressing the sea.

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Cory Skerry

C. San Inman

Cory Skerry lives in the Northwest U.S. and works at an upscale adult boutique. In his free time, he writes stories, draws comics, copy edits for Shimmer Magazine, and goes hiking with his two sweet, goofy pit bulls. He took a break to be the class clown at Viable Paradise in 2010. When he grows up, he’d like science to make him into a giant octopus. For more, check out http://plunderpuss.net.

13 Responses »

  1. This story is remarkable! Beautifully worded, while as grim and meaningful as the original fairy tale. It’s a very creative take on old material. Loved it.

  2. A fabulous re-working of a classic tale. I particularly loved how you use point-of-view to reveal both the emotional pain and sociopathic nature of the mother. Bravo!

  3. Haunting retelling, kept me glued to the screen with its originality. Good stuff from beginning to end!

  4. Gorgeous! Love and fear twisted together. going from a bright beginning progressively darkens to the bleak black horror at the end. Really well done.

  5. This story grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go until the end. Beautifully written and quite possibly one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.

  6. Without a doubt, the best short story I’ve read in 2011. Grabbed hold from the first graph and didn’t release me until the last. You have a bright future in writing. Very impressive.

  7. Reversal tales are often satisfying, especially when they impose realistic sensibilities and feelings on a classic tale. Combining what “witches” were and how they were treated with the psychological reality that early wounds lead to lifelong behaviors, makes this story especially resonant. I also like the fact that the protagonist/mother/witch is every bit as monstrous as the witch in the original tale, except that her monstrosity is entirely comprehensible, maybe even a reasonable emotional accommodation to the betrayal-torture-rape-mutilation she has suffered, so that she arises as a sympathetic character. Well done!

    For teachers of literature it will be especially useful to contrast this story to the Grimm tale and to Tangled as three lenses through which to see the same narrative.

    I wonder, though, whether I would call this a “fantasy.” It is surely a horror story in the classic, psychological sense of that word, as in the best of Stephen King. But it is not really fantastical, is it? There are no supernatural or magical elements — these are ordinary (well, extraordinary) people reacting to extreme situations. While I’ve elsewhere argued against strict genre definitions, I’ve also argued that they’re necessary to signal the reader a to what sort of tale to expect. http://fantasy-matters.com/taxonomy/term/36

    Altogether a marvelous job. I shall be recommending it.

  8. A writer with this kind of imagination, this facility with words, this clarity of expression and exposition and, yes, this solid grasp of reality even when ostensibly creating fiction is a literary treasure that should be included in the list of protected species, if there were such a thing for writers who have the priceless ability to enthrall and entertain readers with every story they write. Am not kidding.

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