Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
When my grandfather was dying, he pointed into the gray hospital air and said, “Buildings.”
“Drawn in light pencil,” he said. “All around me.”
“Are they yours?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “They’re mine.” Now he is dead and his children are fighting over these buildings. I tell my mother I am writing about inheritance and fairy tales. “Well,” she says, “soon there will be no inheritance.” I imagine an eraser rubbing all the pencil drawings out at the exact moment my grandfather takes his last breath. An inheritance of rubber dust, as soft as the sawdust lining the twelve coffins in the Brothers Grimm’s “The Twelve Brothers.” That fairy tale begins with a king and a queen and their twelve sons. They are happy until a daughter is born with a gold star on her forehead. The king wants her to inherit the kingdom and so he orders twelve coffins made. A coffin for each son, filled with wood shavings and each fitted with a small pillow. He orders all his sons dead, but the queen orders them to flee into the woods.
What is inheritance? In fairy tales it’s where loneliness resides. It divides and isolates. It leaves the girl with the star on her forehead looking up at twelve empty shirts on a clothesline that once contained her brothers.
“These shirts are far too small for Father. Whose are they?”
The queen replies with a heavy heart: “They belong to your twelve brothers.”
The girl heads straight to the forest, and walks all day long until she finds the enchanted hut where her twelve brothers fled. They are happy until the girl picks twelve white flowers. What she imagines as a gift for her brothers vanishes the hut, and turns her brothers into ravens. She plucked from the earth what didn’t belong to her. An old woman appears and tells her the only way to save her raven brothers is to not speak or smile for seven years, and so the girl finds a hollow tree to sit inside and she begins to spin though no one tells her to spin and what she is spinning is left unwritten. Is she spinning a tale of forbidding silence? Is she spinning her new inheritance?
By the end of the month my eighteen-year-old stepdaughter, Eve, will be living with us full time. Eve’s mother is moving, and Eve has graduated from high school with no clear next steps. She is lost, and dreamy, and hopeful. Like the mother in “The Twelve Brothers,” I raise flags to guide her. But unlike red for “flee” and white for “stay,” the messages on my flags are torn and blurry. There are days I raise none. There are days I raise too many flags while unfamiliar objects dot my house. I feel a quiet infestation, as my husband’s second wife slowly empties her house into my house. Soon my stepdaughter’s pet tarantula will arrive. “Don’t worry,” says my husband, “it barely moves.” Its name is Mavis.
Tarantulas have eight eyes, but they can barely see.
I am inheriting the kingdom, but I don’t want the kingdom.
My husband once was someone else’s husband. And before that he was someone else’s. When you take something that doesn’t belong to you, with that comes an inheritance, too. The girl inherits seven years of silence and no laughter. I’ve inherited a girl, a tarantula, and little specks of meanness on my heart.
In fairy tales when a stepmother cooks or banishes or beats the child, her rage is knotted into her fear of dividing the patrimony. My husband wears a small wooden juju, in the shape of a man, around his neck. When he lived in Senegal, a Ghanaian chief imbued it with spiritual protection and gave it to him. Breathing it in is like breathing in my husband, always as faraway as he is close. He never takes his juju off. It smells like earth and starlight. In its torso is a dent that reminds me of the hollow the girl with the star on her forehead climbs inside. A birth in reverse. My husband has a will, but I haven’t seen it and I don’t think he’s updated it since our sons were born. There is no money, only debt. But there is the small wooden man. I want not his daughters, but our sons to inherit it one day. But which son? The juju is the color of lentils.
I look up fairy tales about spiders, as if I could use the tale as a salve. A fairy tale ointment I could rub on Eve’s doorknob so when I turn it and see Mavis I won’t hate her. I find the Brothers Grimm’s “The Spider and the Flea,” about a spider who scalds herself while she and a flea brew beer in an eggshell. The spider screams, so the flea weeps, which makes the door creak, and a broom sweep, and ashes burn, and a tree shake, and a girl break her pitcher, and a stream grow bigger and bigger until it swallows up the spider and the flea and the door and the broom and the ashes and the tree and the little girl, too.
I can’t figure out if this is good news or bad news, and then I remember I am reading a fairy tale, not a will or lab results. What is a spider doing brewing beer in an eggshell? And whose eggshell is it? The flea’s? The spider’s? Mine?
“I am the mother of this house,” I say to Eve. I am the mother of this eggshell.
To my mother, I describe writing this essay on fairy tales and inheritance as spinning a web. Sometimes spiders even eat their webs and use the digested silk to spin more. Maybe Mavis and I have something in common after all. But tarantulas don’t spin webs. They are burrowers. Female tarantulas can live up to thirty years, which means it’s possible Mavis will outlive me. When they molt they can replace their organs, including their genitalia and their stomach lining. They can even regrow a lost leg. Mavis is the kingdom she inherits. I am slowly beginning to like the idea of her. In preparation of Mavis’s arrival, I watch a video of a tarantula molting. It sheds its exoskeleton like a ghost skin. Still itself, it crawls away from itself. The last time I watched a video in preparation for an arrival was a few weeks before my first son Noah was born. It was a video on swaddling. On how to mimic the atmosphere of the womb for as long as possible.
Inheritance marks the place where one family member begins to fade out and another begins to fade in. I’ve inherited my father’s legs and his hands and his sadness and his rolltop desk and his desire to fix everything. But the fade isn’t smooth. It’s a blizzard of static. A soft wrestle for existence. In this blizzard, the birthmark Noah and I share comes into focus. A dot above our lips, though mine is lighter. Like the ghost of my son’s. Or the half-realized dream of his more vivid one.
When my grandmother Lila died I inherited a ring that left around my finger a blackish-green band, like a thin swamp. The ring had been lost and then found. She died from Alzheimer’s, and every night when I removed the ring and tried to rub the color off my finger, the smudge felt like her mind blurring.
I ask my father about a small mezuzah my grandmother Gertrude wore around her neck but he doesn’t answer me. I don’t ask again. I’ve inherited a terrible shyness of asking for what I want, but from whom I inherited this I do not know.
Sometimes a check will arrive from my grandfather’s estate. A visit from the dead. I cash it filled with shame and gratitude. I sneak to the bank like a thief. Sometimes I don’t even tell my husband.
About a month after my grandmother Gertrude dies, a letter appears addressed to me in her blue cursive. I open it. It’s a coupon for hearing aids. The font on the envelope is computer-generated, a cruel trick. BUY 2 GET 25% OFF. From my grandmother I inherited the ability to listen endlessly. The coupon is cold and glossy. I rub it on my ears just in case it was my grandmother who sent it.
Every month my grandfather received a check for $1,229.54 from an Austrian Bank. Holocaust reparations. Social security from a country that spit him out as a boy. That was his inheritance. I wonder how he felt cashing it. I kick myself for never asking, but he was a very quiet man and I imagine he would’ve just shrugged. My great-aunt, his sister, receives a check, too. “It’s like finding money on the ground,” she says. The ground, I think. Some ground. The ground that once called us a plague of rats. Though we were more tarantula than rat. We shed our skin everywhere. A glowing inheritance for all of Eastern Europe to keep.
I ask Eve what she does with Mavis’s exoskeletons. She tells me she throws them out because they are rough and hairy. Like Esau, I think, who sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentils. I imagine sewing all of Mavis’s exoskeletons together to make myself a gown. A stepmother gown. Something with a plunging neckline. A long, flowing, discarded kingdom I could wear while I wash my stepdaughter’s dishes.
Or maybe I am the inheritance Eve doesn’t want? My house the hollow tree where she spins her story not in silence, but in a language I cannot understand. In seven years, maybe the spell we are under will break. And I will go back to being the kind, beautiful mother with endless patience, and she will become the girl with a star on her forehead bright enough to guide her.
I live walking distance to the Tree That Owns Itself. In 1890, twenty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, William Jackson left a deed that conveyed the oak tree entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet on all sides. The original oak fell on October 9, 1942, while trains overflowing with Jews were being sent to concentration camps all across Europe. A son grown from one of the tree’s acorns stands there now. I imagine the girl with the star on her forehead and Mavis the Tarantula and my stepdaughter and my sons and husband and all my dead grandparents eating lunch under the shade of this tree. A perfect kingdom. Where nothing, for a moment, is written out. Not even the silences. Not even the fear of being forgotten.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.