“I mean, if you don’t want to have one,” he says, that single line down the center of his forehead like his face is about to peel.
“Someday,” she says. His hand is too tight in her hand. One of them is sweating.
• • • •
The prince and princess had no child.
• • • •
Long ago, a woman in Bavaria had to peel some potatoes. She had to do the washing. She had to check on the soup that simmered on the stove and was never quite thick enough. She had to watch her smallest child where it lay wrapped near the fire and sweating, and watch her oldest daughter tying back her hair to look finer when she went to trade the day’s milk for some woolens from the merchant with the unmarried son. She wanted to tell a story that could lock the door.
The prince and princess had no child. The princess insulted a peasant mother as unfaithful for having triplets; as punishment, the princess bore seven sons in seven days. She sent them to be killed. (Mothers in stories are hateful and unkind; they never peel potatoes for the soup.) The prince found them and saved them and let them grow, and as soon as they were men of eighteen, they appeared in the feast hall to swallow the princess whole.
Wolves, the mother calls them, when she speaks of young men. Oldest daughters don’t fear much anymore—they don’t fear enough—but a wolf can still make a girl pause at the window and glance into the woods, just in case.
Fairy tales are collected by the scholars who show up in the center of town with neat coats darned at the cuffs, with pen and ink and paper, but they begin with a woman at the fireside, looking out the open door and fearing the worst.
She wants the lock to sit fast, even if it’s too late. She wants to make her daughter listen to the story of a princess who couldn’t bear children and then suddenly, horribly could; who saw only a wolf when her husband forced her to look in her mirror; who was ruined the moment she insulted the farmer, because women are doomed if they open their mouths, and that mountain’s so steep it can ruin a queen.
You tell stories because your fears have no easier name. The merchant’s son smiles, but he’s tall, and when his father is gone to sell near the cathedral, the son offers to show girls the woolens they store upstairs and keeps them there too long. The soup is going to sour any minute, and your daughter needs to come home.
• • • •
“How can she have so many?” she says, looking at the woman who can barely push the double stroller, one older child dragging on her shirttail. One of them is shrieking. It won’t stop. The mother looks like she hasn’t slept in a hundred years; her anger flaps empty and worn-out every time she opens her mouth.
Her husband says, “We should be so lucky,” and for a moment she looks at him like his tongue has turned into a salamander before she remembers that the last time she mentioned she was doing well at work, his smile was thin. (He still hasn’t assembled the desk in the room that’s supposed to be her office; she does her work at the dining table, as her mother did the darning. He’s gotten adamant that they clear it before dinner. “We’re a family,” he says, “we should get in the habit to make it easier when we have children,” and she thinks about what he looked like the first time he told her he wanted to marry her and what her mother says about the Holy Spirit alive in the home, and makes her work disappear.)
Her stomach goes rancid. He doesn’t see it—what’s there to see, in an empty space? He has an office in a company that matters, with windows on two sides. She’s going to go to the doctor and slap her feet in the stirrups and vomit for months and swell and lose her job and her wits in the mud of pregnancy, and she’ll expel a child from a body that’s been wrecked by an intruder (she knows what that’s like; she’s lived with her husband long enough).
She wonders what would happen if she took her hand out of his hand and ran until she dropped.
One of the other children is crying now; piercing. She checks to see if her nose is bleeding.
• • • •
The princess was chosen, not born. The prince rode by her parents’ hovel with his hand out to her, and the saddle chafed the back of her legs so much she dared not sit before the king and queen. They thought it charming. She kept her hands clasped behind her when she departed; they thought that charming, too.
The prince had left a stain on the back of her dress, a small dark spot she clasped her hands over. She’d been foolish, and had dressed in white like a bride.
He laughed when he saw it and said, “That’s what happens to a prince with a pretty maid and a long ride,” and she said, “But I’m a princess now,” and he smiled as if she was agreeing with him and not warning him.
• • • •
Seven boys. Seven sons. We imagine it; a thousand legends and a thousand songs have taught us to want them. It’s a mythic number that means greatness, that suggests higher purpose, a beautiful whole.
Later stories come by to separate them into people, and they take up songs and novels and celluloid and occupy different faces, but the fairy tales seldom bother. They’re frightening enough just as they are—a brother for every day of the week, all healthy, enough grown sons to fill the doorway of the audience hall—and really, there’s no time. The old Bavarian woman who let some scholar write down “The Wolves” can barely bring them back into the story in time to condemn their mother to death for sending them into the forest as soon as they were born. It takes only so long to make porridge, to card wool, to shuck peas, to worry about her daughter. The story has to be over before the work is over. The point is, men will conspire to win. The point is, women are sacrifices. The point is, take the bread off the coals before it burns.
You can’t leave a story like this broken off for later. It has to be whole to make any sense. Halfway through this story, the queen’s given birth to seven sons in seven days to punish her for an accusation even fairy stories know is false, and a maid is carrying seven babies through the woods to be eaten, and in a cave that no one ever sees, the beast sits with its jaws open, waiting for a meal it will never get. Bring them back quick as you can and punish the queen. The sun’s going down.
Heroic, though, those seven sons, any story you find them in. (And of course you find them; we’re taught early of the worth in groups of men who conspire.) The oldest one solemn and sure—but not the darkest eyes; that’s the fourth one, the one who has no time for the small-minded girls from their small-minded home. He and the second brother and the youngest sit up at night on the tallest hill they can come by and look at the road until it vanishes.
It doesn’t matter when the story takes place, not really—just that there’s a road. Some of them have wagon ruts and point toward the market in the shadow of the king’s cathedral. Some are paved black and empty, and the brothers tighten their fingers around the grips of their motorcycles.
The third brother, the only one who isn’t perfect, stands with one hip cocked to hide that one leg’s shorter than the other. The second-youngest is the runt of the litter, who still has the tenderness of a newborn, soft and young and seamless no matter what work they’ve done: farmers, maybe, or mechanics; grease on his face is like nightfall on the moon.
The fifth brother is the angry one. In any age, he handles metal. In any age, he makes the iron shoes.
They’re cruel, probably—groups of men tend that way no matter how carefully someone has raised them up from the dirt; they’re called “the wolves” because it’s a flattering enough name for something terrifying that the brothers will never realize is a warning to strangers—but still, the town that sheltered them will weep to see them go.
The brothers never think of that town again. They haven’t thought of it in years. The first time someone told them they were princes, they were gone.
• • • •
The king and queen walked past a christening—triplets, three at once, showered with petals by the cheering villagers and juggled by an old woman who staggered under the weight of the baskets.
“Where is the father?” the queen asked in horror, wanting to look away from it, desperate to be gone. The mother dead—she had to be, with some stranger carrying the children—and the farmer father wandering the churchyard, accepting the accolades and the sympathy while his wife was dead in the ground, broken by sons.
Bile tasted green in her throat. “So many children, too many at once—it’s a betrayal—”
Her husband the king laughed and took her arm to hold her fast. “Stop babbling. Are you accusing a dead woman of adultery? Her husband stands there, he’ll hear you.”
The priest was congratulating him on his children, nodding solemnly. The father wore a black ribbon and a white one, and a jacket gone thin at the elbows.
“But the mother,” the queen said, at the same time as the king told her, “Don’t say such cruel things; it’s your own fault we have nothing, if you want children so badly.” At home he pointed at her mirror and snapped his teeth like a dog and gave her a look like he’d picked the wrong girl out of the dirt.
But she’d tried to point out that the mother was missing. She knew the mother had been faithful, you’d have to be to carry three of his issue; it was the children who killed her that had broken trust.
• • • •
Women tell each other stories about it. (You can’t stop women from telling you stories about it; it’s a horror as old as the dark, and a different monster emerges every time.)
She had kept her mother sick for seven months, and when her mother couldn’t keep down enough food to satisfy her, she had sucked the marrow from her mother’s teeth. Her mother only had ten left now—they’d crumbled to dust, hollowed out by the parasite she’d carried. The rest of her teeth were false, and they would be cruel to look at if her mother ever smiled anymore.
You birthed a queen, she wants to say, I kept you safe and rich and those false teeth are made of ivory; but she’ll birth princes and knows there’s no comfort in it.
When she wakes up, the baby’s pulled at her skin so much that the white gouge marks along her stomach are raised from the pressure of the blood inside, pulsing, like worms converging on a meal.
• • • •
You drown in your children. She knows. She prepares for a siege.
It takes four years for him to get her to agree, but eventually his smiles and that line between his eyes feel like the tip of some ice pick, and she doesn’t dare. So let him divorce her, she thinks when she’s angry, but as work slows down and her boss starts to ask about family plans and her mother offers to go with her to the doctor or to church for counseling on the woman’s place in the home and the glory of children, she realizes with the sensation of dropping off a cliff that she might as well have a child—someone has to be on her side, and she’ll have to start from scratch, because the world has already gotten to the rest.
She lets it happen. She grits her teeth against it, but she lets it happen. The first time it moves is like a nail in the bed underneath her.
She picks a name for the child. It takes three weeks, during which he comes home from his office with the two big windows and they stand together in the room that had been meant for her work or her sewing and is a nursery now, while he paints and she reads names he hates.
“I like that one,” he says sometimes. She keeps reading until she finds one she likes, and folds a corner over. The nursery gets painted yellow, like piss on a stick.
He sleeps on the couch for the last week of name selection, until he breaks, and she writes the two names she wanted down in the journal his mother bought her as a reminder that the child is coming and she will have to be interested in it for the rest of its life.
She lets him fuck her for a while until he forgets to resent her; it’s an even trade, she figures, because sooner or later she won’t have to fuck him anymore, but that child will bear the name forever. (“Pregnancy hormones,” he laughs, unfastening his pants. “The guys all told me.”)
It’s not for the child’s sake she works so hard for the name. It’s not for the child’s sake she eats until she can feel food pressing against the back of her eyelids, and her arms float out to the size of loaves of bread and her ankles swell so badly she can only wear mules and the reflection in the mirror would agonize her if she was vain.
She eats because if the parasite has no nourishment, then it eats its host. She makes sure it has enough to feed on. She gives it room in her stomach, then her rib cage, where her lungs start to feel tight five months in and only get smaller; she gives up room for it in the bladder that holds less and less.
She picks a name she hopes to care about because it will be her name, appended at teacher conferences and playgroups and anywhere else her husband isn’t there for her to be appended to: as soon as the baby breathes, she’ll be Christopher’s Mother.
It never stops consuming you, a child; not so long as it lives.
• • • •
Everyone knows how to tame something: You start with a wolf, something sovereign and smart enough to know better, and you wait until it’s starving, and then you feed it and teach it to put up with the touch of your hand, and you raise its children and its children’s children until their teeth fall out and they gum at your fingers with no pride left, endlessly starving for your kind words and your palm, where they sit on the ground at your feet for the rest of their locked-in lives, and they get so good at it that you name them “familiaris,” to take the wolf out of even their name, so they have nothing ever again but you.
• • • •
The king was away when the queen gave birth: seven boys in seven days, red and screaming and hated.
“Carry them into the forest and feed them to the wolves,” she gasped over and over through lungs that had no room left. A maid with sharper eyes than the others bundled all seven into a basket of laundry and promised to let them be devoured, and as soon as she was gone, the queen burst into tears that shook the bed beneath her.
Remorse, all the nurses told themselves, packing up the bloody linen (seventh-best, the babies hadn’t left much time to appease royal sensibilities) and watching the queen clutch at her heart. It’s only fear that’s made her do this—she can’t be caught out looking unfaithful after that fuss she made, to be sure, they all have to go—but ah, it’s kind she mourns them now.
The queen pressed her hand against her lowest ribs, the ones that had cracked under the endless swelling of them all (with luck, the physicians had told her, they would set tighter toward one another once the child came, so her waist would be pleasingly small). She felt the relieving emptiness of her stomach, between her legs; a ruin vacated. Her breasts were heavy with kings’ milk.
Let them die soon, she thought, before they cry out, lest my body betray me and answer.
She had no need of worry. The milk turned to dust before the king ever came home.
• • • •
In the story, the king meets the maid on the road and asks her purpose. She shows him the children, on their way to be placed in a wolf’s den and eaten.
How stories fail us without the right teller, with wool to be carded before the cows’ milking. What on Earth possessed that maid? Was she crying? Was she foolish? Was it triumph? Did loyalty to the king overwhelm her at the last? Had the queen given her one duty too many and the maid wanted only for the queen to suffer? Was the road long enough for her to become afraid of something well beyond the understanding of the king and queen—perhaps the maid had a mother who told her stories, too—and she hardly minded being run through so long as she didn’t have to look a wolf in the eye?
The woman by the fire wanted to make her daughter wary of kings; for no other reason would that maid have submitted to the sword. It would have been no work to lie to a king—lying to a man is easy—and manage the work she had promised. The wolf was nearby, so close the king just barely stopped her in time, and she knew the way. Wolves in stories are easy to find.
The king takes his seven sons from the dead hands of the castle maid and brings them to the village and orders them raised up: tall and handsome, long hair shining, eyes on the road that leads to the castle gate.
He goes home to his milkless wife and waits for eighteen years.
How stories fail us! What a pleasant husband he must have been—distant enough that his wife had space to think, deferential enough not to arouse suspicion among the court that anything was wrong. What a measured monarch he’d have made, building a kingdom worth inheriting as if his wife wouldn’t know what it looks like when a king has heirs. What a kind man he must have been, all that time; men always are when they have something to look forward to.
But this is a fairy tale, where there are more lessons than reason. The mirror reflected a wolf when the queen came home from church, to warn her she would bear them. She must have known the boys would live to revenge themselves. Every day from sunset to darkness, the queen stood at her balcony and waited. She was standing there when they came back, after eighteen years and seven days, racing horses in a cloud of dust along the road that led from the village. She must have known who they were the moment she saw them; she must have known, for eighteen years and seven days, that her children would walk through the doors and consume her.
• • • •
Seven sons. One at a time, she loses her life to those beating-heart swellings that leave an abscess, that suckle your breasts and then forget the sound of your voice (children never listen, they’re wolves), the questions that make you hope they choke on their tongues, the toys that pierce your feet and the screams that pierce your ears. Seven sons, and she feels every moment that she should have stopped it somehow—tied her tubes, thrown herself down the stairs, spit in the aisle of their church until the priest disowned them and she could start walking and not stop until traffic hit her. But whenever she tried to do any of them, it was with the futile force of a dream, where you open your mouth to warn yourself but nothing comes out, and you keep moving the way the dream has laid before you because you know you’ll never wake up.
She ceded the office long ago to the wailing babies, but then they engulfed the guest room, the basement. “Maybe someday,” he says about a bigger house when she confronts him, “but houses are expensive, and we only have one income now,” and when he sees her face even he must be embarrassed, because he amends it to, “Later they’ll be so big, we’ll cherish the memory of all being together like this,” and her face must not change much, because he curses under his breath and leaves.
It’s no loss, really, the guest room and the basement. Her mother can’t come this year anyway; her mother can’t ever help except to offer wrong advice and to tell her she’s selfish when she complains and to ask for photos every day. There’s no help. Who could help her with so many sons except someone who would take them and run?
The baby sits in a bassinet at the foot of their bed, so not even her dreams are quiet, and she’d stay awake watching television except the children broke an armrest on the couch (on her side; they know better than to ruin anything of their father’s) and it makes her want to grab the nearest thing and slam it into the wall.
One day the formal dining room that has two doors she could close on them becomes a playroom. She can’t remember if she agreed or if their father just had a bright idea. But her anger about it is the anger of a dream, too, where no matter how much your skin itches from the insects laying eggs inside you, you can’t make a noise. Not like anyone would hear it with all the children who drag at her fingers and yowl to be fed and laugh when her husband laughs at what a mess the house is, at how peevish she looks.
(He doesn’t care how she looks. He’s been sleeping with someone else since the fourth son. She hopes he’ll file for divorce. She’ll get herself admitted to a hospital so the children can’t follow her, and will swallow any pill they give her for the rest of her life, swallow a handful at a time if they’re trying to kill her; she doesn’t care so long as she’s alone.)
He gets angry with her for staying mad at him; he watches TV at night, so he’s used to husbands being forgiven in twenty-two minutes. She’d maybe forgive him if she could close the dining room doors and think it over. Her seven sons won’t stop breathing.
She spent a summer at camp once, when she was ten, and mosquitoes hovered over her face every time she lay down, and all she could dream of was them laying their eggs and the larvae crawling out of her ear. She got too paranoid to sleep, because every time she closed her eyes, they found her. The camp sent her home after a week because she hit another camper with a tennis racquet. Exhaustion, they said.
When her children cry, she sobs until her husband gets out of bed to tend them, and she doesn’t care how angry it makes him, because he’s a stranger to them and they might listen. She knows she would pick up the heaviest toy in the room and swing.
She’s thirty-eight—baffling, impossible, how much of her life has she lost?—and there are seven sons. Her husband says he’s house-hunting for something bigger. He’s fucking the real estate agent, so it’s slow going, but sometimes he brings home a flyer from a viewing: a five-bedroom charmer so far away from their school and their friends that she’ll spend the rest of her life in the station wagon; a house with a yard so small she’ll have to enroll the older ones in soccer and baseball and slice oranges on game day and stand next to the other mothers and pretend she doesn’t want to run them over.
“You’re making this goddamn difficult,” he says when she turns them down. “I thought you wanted a new house.”
She doesn’t sleep much anymore; the grub at the foot of the bed claws at her breast twice a night, the soft sleek hair at the back of his head like a spider’s leg. The oldest one won’t stop telling her that all his friends think boys are better than girls and how lucky he is to be a boy—“Thanks, Mom,” he says with a smile, every time—and she wants to hold his face in the bathwater until the waves stop, until he’ll never say it again.
• • • •
Christopher’s Mom, says the envelope from school with the field trip instructions on it. They need chaperones.
“Well, I can’t do it,” her husband says. “This presentation is really kicking my ass, honey, and this is really your thing. Come on, you know.”
She was sick for four months with Christopher. Her body tried to rid itself of the foreign object every day for four months, until it got too weary to resist and let the thing have its way with her.
Like pushing a kid under the wheels of the bus, she thinks, on the way home from the field trip, wherever it was that they went. You fight the idea for a long time until you’re too tired to do it, and that’s how any child gets to grow old.
Five kids are shrieking in the back of the bus. Something lands near her head. She checks to see if her nose is bleeding.
• • • •
The queen stood in the tower, looking out over the kingdom. Her hands were on her stomach. She was looking for her children.
She had seemed incomplete for the last five months of the pregnancy, heaving, pitied; a woman is complete, and a woman and a child, but when you’re pregnant everybody knows you don’t quite have what you want yet. Expectation. Cannibalism.
In the churchyard, the farmer father and the priest were digging a grave. Only one of the triplets had died, then. A merciful winter.
(Her children would all live. That’s how these stories go—the ones you hate always prosper until the very end, when you find out whether or not you’re the villain.)
They were seven years old then, all the way up to seven years and seven days. They can consume you even when you don’t want to; you can still know they’re breathing. Somewhere—perhaps in the village where the prince had found her—they were growing up, and someone was telling them their mother hated them, and it was all perfectly true.
She was frightened, looking out from the window of the tower. Who isn’t frightened when they think how death is coming? But it was steadying to think she would die for an honest reason. It was good to think she’d have these years alone; these long and quiet years.
• • • •
In the story, at the grand feast when the wolves appear, when the king asks the queen what punishment awaits a woman who abandons her children, she tells him that such an unfaithful mother should be danced to death.
Of course she does. He’s been open about his tastes since that day in the saddle. She knows what he’s planning. His eyes have sparkled for six months. The forge goes all night, practicing shoes.
It’s all right. She’s practiced her dancing. A tame hand and a cage are very different; the first she’s never bent to, the other carries no shame. Lupus, she thinks when her seven sons walk in the door, sulking and vicious and already tame. The last glimpse the wolves have of their mother is her smile.
• • • •
Someone at the bank asks for her name. She says “Christopher’s mom” without thinking, and when the teller’s still waiting, she forgets for ten full seconds what else she can tell him to prove who she is.
“I have to get out of here,” she tells their father at home, so hard it startles him.
“What about the beach?”
“Mosquitoes,” she says.
He says, “Sand’s free.”
She keeps her eyes open all night and thinks about waves.
• • • •
Someday, iron shoes.
Spread the word!