Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
“I hope you’re not afraid of mice,” my friend Amy says. I am in her car. She clicks open the glove box and a soft shock of fur and paper and string is gently exhaled. A mouse nest. “Hello there,” says Amy. The nest is mouse-less for now, but the mice will return to it when it gets cold. Eventually the mice will eat the guts of the car, a mechanic told her. But Amy won’t disturb the nest. “It’s their home,” she says, shutting the glove box back up, not before petting the little nest that seems so alive I swear it might be breathing.
For years I have kept René Magritte’s The Healer over my writing desk. The bronze man with an open birdcage for a chest. A cane in one hand, and a suitcase in the other. Limp and flee, limp and flee, limp and flee. He is faceless, and his cloak is open. There’s a hat on his nowhere head, and in place of his heart is a nook for doves to rest. Amy’s car moves me the way The Healer moves me. Both tell a story of kindness and protection and ruin. Both will give up their guts to keep the vulnerable ones safe. Months later, I am again in Amy’s car. The nest has doubled in size. The car, for now, still runs perfectly.
Fairy tales are crowded with saviors: the prince on his horse, fairies, gnomes, godmothers, and witches. They appear out of nowhere. They are hidden, like the subterranean and the aristocratic, and then out of a clearing they arrive to save, or erase, or enchant the day. They are not angels or saints. And they are not without flaws. In German, Rumpelstiltskin (or Rumpelstilzchen) means “little rattle ghost.” And it is Rumpelstiltskin who can, unlike the miller’s daughter, spin straw into gold. He saves her, and even adds an escape clause to their contract because he a compassionate gnome: if she guesses his name in three days she can keep her child. He spins like the storyteller spins. And as he spins I wonder whether the miller’s daughter ever hears the whir, whir, whir in his empty chest. For his work, he wants what is missing. He wants something alive. No, the miller’s daughter cannot hear the whir. She has cried herself soundly to sleep.
“I prefer a living creature,” says Rumpelstiltskin, “to all the treasures in the world.”
I wonder sometimes what the Healer would do if there were no doves. Would the Healer still exist if he was empty of the thing he was trying to save? Would he stand up and walk home? Would he disappear entirely? Would his ancient face slowly return?
In Italian, Rumpelstiltskin is Tremotino, which means “little earthquake.” “All great storytellers,” writes Walter Benjamin, “have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience as on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds.” Gnomes also come from the interior, and can move through solid earth as easily as humans can move through air. When I write I am rumple, and stilt, and skin. Everything is in disarray, and then if I’m lucky there’s an ascension, and then an undress. Lately I have been hurting people I love with my writing. One friend (who is now no longer my friend), whose name I used in a story that was not about her, said to me, “I need to protect myself as a human being,” as if the story I wrote asked for a living part of her. I wasn’t the healer’s chest or the glove box as I had always hoped to be. I had always believed writing kept oblivion at bay, but suddenly I was accused of spinning it into a thicker existence. My fiction punctured my reality, and now I was the rattle-ghost that disrupted my friend’s kingdom. “Tomorrow I brew, today I bake, / Soon the child is mine to take.” Her name is not Rumpelstiltskin, though she did once teach me how to spin straw into gold. She once taught me how to write, and in return I hurt her. Her name means “enclosure.” Like a nest or a cage.
“The storyteller,” writes Walter Benjamin, “is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.”
Once, many years ago, when I was writing only poems, an ex-boyfriend gave me a mannequin head for my birthday. It was rescued, he told me, from a children’s clothing shop that had caught fire. The head was a boy’s head. With singed hair and ash marks across its face. On the night he gave it to me, he told me he had fallen in love with someone else. I remember carrying the head home. I took the subway with it on my lap, too sad to realize what a sight we were. For about a year, I tried to keep the head in my apartment. It had already been through so much, and I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing something away with eyes and a mouth. But it ate at me, this boy’s head. It was hungry for something that hurt. It stared at me. I wrapped it in an old, soft blanket, and moved it to the back of my closet. Finally I took it to the Salvation Army and left it there. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t,” I said.
How much of what I try to rescue is not actually the broken thing in my hands, but the broken thing inside myself? The burned lonely boy, and the girl with no magic, and the doves and the mice. When I write I spin a long, knotted rope. I toss the rope down. And it is me who is climbing up, and it is me who is climbing down.
A miller is also a moth with powdery wings. Moths cannot tell the difference between artificial light and moonlight. It’s not the miller’s daughter’s fault she cannot spin. It’s her father’s fault. He trapped her “in order to appear as a person of some importance.” And she’s only a moth-girl with powdery wings. A nameless moth only two letters away from being a mother. Two letters and a name.
I have a dream in which Amy pulls the whole nest out of the glove box and tells me we should eat it. She holds it up as though it’s a soft piece of cake. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just can’t,” I say. “I have no more room.” “But it’s your birthday,” says Amy. “And you forgot to blow out all the candles and make a wish. And now nothing will come true.”
My sons play this trick on their friends. It goes like this: “I one my mother.” And then the friend goes, “I two my mother.” And then back and forth: “I three my mother, I four my mother, I five my mother, I six my mother, I seven my mother, I eight my mother.” And then my sons say, “Oh my god, you ate your mother!” And everybody laughs. Because the mother inside the body of her child cracks everybody up. A crack like a fault line that shakes the earth. And down, down, down goes the mother into the body of her son. Where finally she can rest. And feel safe. I’d be less afraid of dying if I knew I could one day be buried in the bodies of my sons. I know this sounds grim, but it’s true.
Rumpelstiltskin dates back to the sixteenth century, and can be traced back to Johann Fischart’s Affentheurlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung (1577), which very roughly translates to “Glorious Storytelling.” In it, Fischart describes a game called Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart (or “noise, limp, goblin”), which is like duck-duck-goose except instead of a goose there’s a goblin, and instead of a duck there’s a man with a limp. The children take turns chasing after one another like goblins, and scaring one another away with goblinish sounds. The objective of the game, as in so many games, is for the children to save themselves.
As a kid in yeshiva, I remember singing about the Messiah. Hundreds of kids jumping and shouting. Our red cheeks glowed with a desire for a desire we were taught to desire: “We want Moshiach now. We want Moshiach now. We want Moshiach now. We don’t want to wait.” But I didn’t want Moshiach now. Even at seven I knew the only thing more traumatic than the Messiah never coming was the Messiah actually showing up. I had a hunch the coming of the Messiah meant losing something. But I couldn’t imagine what. Now I know that what I was afraid to lose was control of the spindle. I was terrified of being saved by a story that wrote me before I could even begin to write it.
There is a drawing of Rumpelstiltskin (by George Cruikshank) in which he looks like the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. A letter that should’ve come after z, but fell behind. When the miller’s daughter tells Rumpelstiltskin she knows his name, he stomps his right leg so hard it goes into the earth. His lines are sharp like thunderbolts. He looks like a dying letter, or an animal going extinct. The nameless queen and her nameless courtiers are standing around him laughing and laughing. Even the nameless baby appears to be laughing. Half buried, Rumpelstiltskin rips himself in two.
What becomes of Rumpelstiltskin? In Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” half of Rumpelstiltskin dreams he unspins himself at the wheel:
When the last of him whisks from the treadle and into the air, he is gold, through and through. He lies there perfect, glinting, and altogether gone. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is the whole of the picture and nowhere in it. He is beautiful, and remunerative, and he isn’t even there to see it. Half of Rumpelstiltskin has spun himself empty. There is nothing of him left.
By saving the girl, Rumpelstiltskin fell apart. But what good is his magic if it goes unused? I sit in the passenger seat of Amy’s car, knowing one day the car will stop running. And the mice will stop nibbling. And these words will fade like the marks on the burned boy’s head. All of us are the whole of the picture, and all of us are nowhere in it. Our magic is also our undoing.
Rumpelhealskin, Rumpelprayskin, Rumpelpoemskin, Rumpelloveskin, Rumpelsaveskin. Rumpelsonskin, RumpelAmyskin, Rumpelstoryskin, Rumpeltruthskin, Rumpelpainskin. I used to think being a writer meant being a kind of guardian, a good guy. Maybe that was when I had enough of me to spare Now I know better. It’s about always being torn in half. It’s about being dead and alive. An asylum and a danger. A rattle and a lullaby. Mother and unmother. Saved and forgotten. A feral angel. A wing and a paw. Broken and sutured. I’m sorry. You’re sorry. You hurt me. I fixed you. I lost you. You found me.
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.