Once upon a time, in another part of now, there was a girl.
She was graceful and talented and pretty as dawn—though no more than she ought to be—and she was lucky enough to be the daughter of a very minor king, rich but provincial, with few real responsibilities. She was delighted with life, and with her own way of living in it. She loved stories, and music, and most especially, painting. She loved to create small strange worlds on paper and had set up a gallery in several rooms of her home for her art: the royal version of the family refrigerator. And she had a fairy godmother, because magic in this part of the world was stronger than it is in ours, and it lived out in the open and fed on the fat ripe sun and the clotted cream of moonlight.
Her mother, in the way of most fairy tale mothers: dead.
Her father, in the way of most fairy tale fathers: dreadfully flawed.
The girl herself: naïve; or, charmingly innocent, if you prefer. The girl herself, in the way of most humans: unready for unhappiness.
This fairy tale, in the way of most fairy tales: a warning disguised as a wish.
• • • •
When the king’s daughter was young, he cared little for her, for her drawings or her songs or her stories or her good heart, or for anything at all beyond the alliances her marriage could bring him. Indeed, he was almost a stranger to her. But the girl was not sad; since she’d never known any parent’s affection, she didn’t miss it, and she was raised by nursemaids and governesses and loved by her fairy godmother. She had three cats and two dogs and four turtles, six fish and two ponies, and an enormous library full of books and blue velvet drapery. She had royal playmates and a private lake. She had expensive paints and pretty dresses and riding lessons and music lessons and was probably happier than we’d like to admit a motherless child could be.
But one day, her father happened to look out the window, and he saw his only child riding her bicycle back from the village. He saw her long legs, pedaling gracefully. He saw her long arms, balancing a basket of bread and wine between the handlebars. He saw her long neck, so like her mother’s, and he decided (because of course) he must marry her at once. We are to assume, maybe, that he was senseless with grief? Perhaps this is true. Or perhaps the father felt himself entitled to all the world’s beautiful women, even his blood relations. This too is not uncommon, in fairy tales or otherwise.
In any case, the girl was properly horrified. She cried until her fairy godmother arrived in her sudden way and hugged the girl tight till her breath was flown. (Fairy godmothers aren’t all lacewings and dew, like everyone supposes. They are quite substantial, sturdy as stout trees and deep as rich dark earth, and their love is as good for you as vitamins and vegetables.) The girl’s godmother told her not to worry, that she must ask her father for the impossible before she agreed to marry him. But what could be impossible for a king? The fairy godmother—magical but not inventive—deferred to the girl and her artistic imagination.
A dress, said the girl.
Hmm, said the fairy godmother.
But not just any dress.
Hmm, said the fairy godmother.
A dress the exact color of blood, said the girl.
Ah, said the fairy godmother, and smiled. That’s very good.
• • • •
Because this is a fairy tale, the dress is made, and made perfectly. The dress is the exact color of blood, is a bright, saturated wound; it is a monstrous heart made of tulle and lace.
So the fairy godmother suggests a second challenge. The girl goes to her father, who is now impatient as well as incestuous, and demands a dress the color of bone. If the father had not already lost his mind, he would surely have expressed concern at such morbid selections. But he is already lost, and so he demands the sleeping seamstresses awaken at once and begin sewing the bone dress. The girl begins to pack her trunk, her faith in the fairy godmother diminishing just a little.
• • • •
As she’s dreaded, the dress is the color of bone, a dingy yellow-white shot through with streaks of pink. She models it for the king-her-father, and he closes his eyes in pain. I can’t think, he says, why you would want such a thing; it’s as though you’ve turned yourself inside out.
She thinks she could say much the same of him, but she doesn’t. She curtseys and waits to be dismissed with a wedding date. Then she runs to her rooms to finish packing.
Where will you go? asks her fairy godmother. And how will you get there? With his horses? His carriages?
I don’t know, says the girl, and she sighs. She understands that she has been ill prepared for life in the wide world, and she regrets that now. But what else can she do? She won’t sleep with her own father, no matter how lost he is. It’s escape or death. She doesn’t mean to sound so tragic, she says, but it’s true just the same.
Okay, says the fairy godmother, and she puts her wide arms round the girl. Her shawl smells of cinnamon and sourdough. (Imagine Cary Grant’s housekeeper in To Catch a Thief—the one who strangled Nazis with her bare hands—and you have something of the idea.) Okay, she says, here is what we’ll do. We’ll ask him for a dress the color of death. How could he possibly achieve that? Death is so subjective that no matter what he has made, we’ll simply disagree with it. Yes?
Yes, says the girl. And she asks for a dress the color of death to wear at her wedding. I may as well be dead, she says to the king, if I have to marry you.
Most suitors would be somewhat or very put off by that, but not our father/suitor. He simply shrugs, and agrees, and somewhat ominously adds: This is the last such request I will honor.
When the dress is presented, she screams and sticks her hands up over her eyes. It is indescribable, but nearest to a deep black pooled with scarlet and vermillion and mustard and loam—it is the color of rot, the color of flesh in the earth, the color of dust to dust. It is the color of the last bit of tallow before the candle is snuffed. She cannot disagree that this is death; the seamstresses have done such masterful work. She cannot disagree at all. I will be married in this dress, she thinks, and then I will throw myself from the castle turrets. It will be a fitting shroud.
Oh, come, says the fairy godmother, who is lounging on the girl’s lace and lilac bed, prosaically eating a leg of lamb. (And who, by the way, decided fairies were dainty? Spenser, perhaps? It takes a sizeable constitution to carry all that magic around, after all.) Wasn’t your original plan escape? Let’s pack that trunk, then, and get moving, she says, mouth still half-full. Your father will want to be devouring you (and she has the good grace to shudder here) by nightfall.
• • • •
The girl stuffs her trunk in a hurry. Pack light, says the godmother. Bring a little gold, your paints, the three dresses, a toothbrush and some extra underwear. And we need to disguise you, since your father will have his men out looking for you.
Disguise me how?
The fairy crosses her arms and frowns. She is formidable, even deep in thought. When you run from your father, she finally says, come straight to the stables first. I’ll be there waiting. Then the fairy gives a sharp slap to the trunk and it vanishes, WHOOM.
My trunk, wails the girl. What about my toothbrush? My paints? My underwear?
Not to worry, her godmother tells her. This will help you travel light, live in studio apartments, take trains and busses and things. When you want your things, you just snap your fingers in the air and say, Trunk, show up! And obviously, wait until you’re alone. When you want it to disappear, give it a good whack.
When the girl arrives at the stables, her fairy godmother is standing over a slain donkey, silver knife in hand. Jesus, says the girl.
Had nothing to do with this, says the fairy godmother grimly. Like most fairies, she respects organized religion, but finds it too tame for her purposes. This is old, wild magic, she says, and the girl finds herself wrapped in the donkey’s hide, stinking and bloody and covered with flies and fat globs. The girl is horrified. Clean it with your magic or something, she demands.
But the fairy godmother shakes her head. I can’t hide you from your father without masking the scent trail, she says. He’ll have the bloodhounds out after you. They walk to the wood, the girl trying to keep from fainting. She can close her nose to smells, a trick she learned years ago, but she can still taste the metallic tang of blood, still feel the flies biting at her face and hands.
This sucks, she says.
The fairy godmother nods, and stops. With her strong arms, she pulls at the front of an enormous black oak tree, pulls and pushes until it swings open cleanly, reveals an inside thick and dark as night air. It’s an abditory, explains the godmother. A place for hiding precious things. Ash is, of course, the traditional choice of shut-away women and spirits, but there isn’t any ash around here.
You’re going to shut me in a tree? I’d rather die! The girl tries to run but the donkey’s head falls over her face, oozing and fly-ridden, and she stumbles over a stump and falls. She didn’t think she could weep anymore, and here she is weeping again. This is rotten magic, she says. Just let me die like I wanted to.
Oh, buck up, melodrama, says the fairy, and she pulls the girl to her feet. I’m not shutting you in a tree—what kind of shitty godmother would I be? I’m sending you on a journey, that’s all. It’s this first part that’s hardest. Then step into the tree, step into a new life. I’ll warn you, it’s harder for me to cross over into that country. Far less magic there—it’s all gone underground. I’ll do what I can to help.
The girl hesitates. Her fairy godmother wouldn’t trick her, would she? Well, anyway, better than having her father forced onto her. She supposes she would rather live in a tree. One could tell oneself stories, make friends with the woodland creatures. One could be alone.
Oh, says the fairy. One thing you should know. The donkey skin—burn it. But not until you find true love. You’ll lose your chance at love forever if you shed your skin too soon.
The girl stares. Though she is hardly a girl now, she corrects herself—the creature stares, glimmers of girl visible in shining dark eye, in small sleek foot. She puts that foot out now, bare and bleeding a little. She steps into the black mouth of the oak tree. She wonders what true love will look like.
• • • •
When she first takes life drawing classes, she thinks, for some reason, about that donkey. She draws the lines over the calves, the human hips, the belly—but she is all the while thinking of the chocolate-colored hide, of her godmother’s golden hair come down with the knife, the blood splashed over the straw like ketchup. The sadness and the new freedom of that hide.
She is still living with him now, and it will be a few years yet before she leaves him. He is making them chicken salad sandwiches during a break between classes. She is wearing the bone-colored dress, his favorite, with big black boots, thick-soled and tall. She is still in love with him, in this moment, in this part of the story, and so she put her arms around his skinny back and squeezes. They are both laughing. They are both laughing in her tiny kitchen, they are making love under the soft heat of the skylight, they are making sandwiches, they are making time, space; they are making room for someone or no one else already.
They are making a bonfire at his parents’ cabin and they are burning the donkey skin. It is something she will never regret, despite her godmother’s warnings.
• • • •
The butcher is the first person she meets, on stepping out of the tree. She finds herself in Central Park, though she doesn’t know it’s Central Park, and the butcher thinks she might be one of the Shakespeare in the Park actors. He’s tattooed from neck to toes, and taking a short break from running his hip-and-featured-on-a-cable-travel-show butcher shop. He’s a sweet, funny man, handsome and a little older than her father, gentle even with the dead flesh of his animals. Perhaps it’s having lived in the donkey skin for a moment, but she feels drawn to him. He likes her to wear the skin when they have sex. (He cleans and tans it first.) He tells her important things about this new world.
The stars, he says, are just salt. The grass is fuel for the animals that feed us. The city is our audience, a million hungry bellies and eyes.
And an animal, he says, is always a dragon that will devour her if she doesn’t respect it. He takes her to the country some weekends, teaches her how to hunt with a bow, to kill with a knife. He teaches her to skin, to flay. He teaches her to preserve a hide.
She uses the butcher’s beast blood to make new paintings; she paints startling, painful creatures with thousands of tongues and no heads. The butcher doesn’t mind—but he lives alone in a room above his shop, and he doesn’t have the room to keep her there. So she eventually packs up her things back into her magical trunk—Trunk, show up!—and she agrees as a last favor to deliver a hog to a roast for a recent art school graduate.
You’ll meet some people like you, the butcher says. Kids who paint, the kind of weird shit you love to paint. Your people.
She doesn’t tell the butcher that her people are busy ruling over sleepy seaports, busy discussing casino taxes and port tariffs. She doesn’t tell him the only art she ever saw there was hung in the hotel lobbies she toured as a princess. It was her job to bless their grand opening with champagne and a serene smile for the photographers. She wore her best watered silk and knew the paintings were no good.
• • • •
The art student was the second person she met. He wore a ridiculous hat and she was, of course, wrapped in the eponymous donkey skin, her protection among strangers. He thought she was a performance artist like him. He made corporate logos out of clay, fired them, then smashed them with a hammer while his friends filmed him. You’re an idiot, she told him. I’m escaping my father. He wants to marry me.
Just like Oedipus, he said, and she never bothered to correct him. It grated on her, years later, and she felt sure she should have done. Perhaps they could have stayed together then, if he had only known his Greek tragedy. Maybe then he would have understood her better, understood how suffering steals the aptitude for happiness from you. Maybe he would have been okay with her melancholy then.
He took her to his tiny place and asked if she needed clothes as well as a place to crash. She said no and yes and snapped her fingers in his tiny bathroom. The trunk came crashing down on the sink. What was that, he said, are you okay in there, I mean, what the fuck?
Yeah, she shouted, throwing on the blood-colored dress. She snapped again to dismiss the trunk and walked out nervously, hoping he would let her stay. His place wasn’t much bigger than the butcher’s. Her fairy godmother was hovering somewhere over the stove, giving her a thumbs up and looking a bit cramped by the ceiling. She rarely used her wings.
He’s got a trust fund, said the fairy godmother. Good catch!
Okay, said the girl. What is that?
What’s what, said the boy. Holy shit, said the boy. That dress is incredible. It’s exactly the color of blood.
I’m a painter, said the girl. I want to go to art school. Can I stay here? She almost said, can I take advantage, but she stopped herself in plenty of time. A life at court had adequately prepared her for every form of falsity, if not much else.
You are so goth, said the boy. He was in awe. He was in love. Yes, you can stay.
She told him his hat made it difficult to tell if he was being serious. Maybe I don’t want to be taken seriously, he said, and grinned, and just like she was his, they were they, they were on the floor, on the couch, on the counter, on the balcony in warm weather and much to the neighbors’ annoyance. (Don’t judge her too much—he really was very nice, and very handsome, and an artist at that, and she’d only met older men in her father’s castle. And he really did have that trust fund.)
Happily ever after, yes? True love, yes? And suspiciously easy, she sometimes thought. Her godmother stopped showing up after she burned the dress, and she had to follow the days on her own just like any other young American woman (albeit with a magic trunk.) Except that after the endless grinning and the explosion and the joy and the music and the all-night painting sessions and the great sex—after all that comes the okay sex and the bad sex, the fights and fallout and the nights spent alone or wishing they were alone. And finally comes the rain, and the last night, always tinged with such poignancy that it feels, just a little, like the page after the last page of the tale, the grin and the hat and the door closed on his face and then nothing. A tape played forward then backward past the beginning.
It was a ring in a cake that finally did it. She was baking a cake for them both, celebrating her first show. They had friends over, crowded into the tiny flat, and she was wearing the dress the color of blood over a pair of black jeans. Everyone was laughing too loudly, and there was music, too much bass and she never could get used to their music here, so bold and brutal, and his jacket was in her way on the counter she was clearing. She picked it up and a ring fell out. It was intricate and silver, and inscribed—and not to her. Something switched off inside her. She put her hands down on the cool countertop, felt the warmth of loss flood her fingertips. She calmly put the ring in her mixing bowl. She watched the yellow swirls of batter slowly snare the silver.
She remembers it now, though she can no longer remember his face or even his hat. She remembers the impossible clang of his teeth, biting down on the solid metal. She remembers the yell, the slow recognition, the way he screamed, You could have fucking killed me. She remembers the friend with the green hair and the Ramones tee, so red-faced she knew it must be her. She remembers the feeling, finally, of that door closing on everyone. The feeling, not bad, of being alone again. She almost wishes for a love affair again, sometimes, just to be able to end it. Just to feel that door close once more. Would that be true love? The relief of loneliness, replayed forever and ever?
• • • •
The third person she met was herself. Welcome, she said to herself, and she smiled. She put on a little weight, enough to feel comfortable and soft in her own skin. She got a job in a coffee shop and rented a tiny studio in the building next door. She baked a cake for herself every morning, and every night she walked through the nearby park, just her and the ghouls and the owls. She made paintings that made the art world shudder, and cut off her long dark hair. She watched movies on Netflix with her friend the butcher, and she told him she’d given up on love. I’m done with that for good.
And you so young, he laughed. It won’t be forever. Someone will snap you up. But they won’t, she thought, and she was so alarmed at the thought that she couldn’t shake it, all through her midnight walk.
The next night, she asked to borrow one of his biggest knives. And the next night, she and her dresses (and her underwear and toothbrush and that useless gold) disappeared, though she left behind her unfinished paintings. And though art museums will occasionally run retrospectives, and a publication or blog might speculate on what happened to that promising young painter, no one has seen her again.
But on moonless nights, in deep woods miles outside the city, some souls say they’ve glimpsed—just briefly—someone draped in what looked like an animal skin, huge head and furry ears fallen back over an elegant neck and throat. The shape always flees before it can be clearly seen.
Other people just possess you, she’d told her friend, the butcher.
Is that so bad, he’d asked? To be possessed?
It’s the worst fate of all, she’d say. The donkey skin, she thought, was everything else in the world; it was solitude, anonymous, beautiful, and bloody.
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