Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
It is December in Georgia, and we are driving past twinkling lights, and wreaths, and mildly poisonous winterberries, and a wire reindeer whose red nose softly glows on and off, on and off. My six year old, Eli, looks out the window.
“Can we have a Christmas tree, Mama?”
“What if we paint it black?”
I consider this.
The holiday season does not bring out the best in me. I go sour and frantic. Mandatory cheer sinks my spirit. For my sons, I pile up presents for the eight days of Chanukah. The house grows small and dizzy as toys and more toys are torn from their boxes. The menorahs flicker and, yes, they’re beautiful, but if there is a miracle here, who could find it under all this pleasure? “It is possible I am doing everything wrong.” I say this to my husband three times a day, like I’m praying, until December is over. I’m awful at holidays, I know. Years ago, watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan, I was so nervous my whole family would fall off the roof that I was told to sit in the stairwell because I was ruining it for everybody. Where’s my December stairwell? I’ll go sit in it until everybody comes back down.
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1817 “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” opens with Marie and Fritz “huddled together in a corner of a little back room.” They hear a “distant hammering,” and shuffling and murmuring, and Fritz tells his sister a small, dark man has crept down the hallway with a big box under his arm. The small man is Drosselmeier. The children call him their godpapa. He wears a black eyepatch, and a wig made from strands of glass. He is as much toy as he is toymaker. “You’re just like my old Jumping Jack,” says Marie, “that I threw away last month.” “Dross” is waste, and “drossel” is to stir things up. And Drosselmeir is both. He is December. He is the month that makes waste inseparable from delight.
“Drossel” also means to choke. And it also means “a thrush,” a speckled songbird. The bird that sounds like a flute in the woods. Over and over again, Drosselmeir is exactly what he isn’t.
Around the time I was trying to get pregnant, and my step-daughter was eight, my husband bought her two goldfish. Over the years the tank darkened, and smelled like old garlic, but the fish thrived. One of the fish (I don’t remember if she had a name) was always pregnant, or having babies, or eating her babies. This is how December makes me feel. Like I am the most un-pregnant person on earth watching a goldfish that is endlessly fertile eat her babies. “I am nothing,” writes Karl Marx, “but I must be everything.”
The holiday season, like a fairy tale, is for breeding the myths we consume, which will nourish us so that we can breed more myths to consume. An elliptical feast! A banquet of myths! We nibble our tales until we get to our head. By the end of December, we are full of ourselves. We are swollen with myth. And then on January 1, we make a resolution to be somehow different than how we are. We clean off our desks, thin out our air, and start again.
I don’t buy my sons a Christmas tree and paint it black, but my mother and I do bring them to the Nutcracker ballet where she buys them each their own wooden nutcracker. Eli clicks the mouth open and shut, open and shut, open and shut, and is shushed. The Balanchine has the muscle of Hoffmann’s story, but not its bite. The astronomer is missing. Marie is now Clare. There is no Princess Pirlipat, and the horror of the mice has been softened into a joke involving a canon that shoots cheese. Eli is wearing his pajamas, and I hear at intermission at least four audience members comment on this. “Is that boy in his pajamas?” I want to remind them that we’re all in a nightmare disguised as a dream. That we’re all fast asleep. That it’s way past our bedtime. But I say nothing instead.
At the end of the ballet the Cavalier almost doesn’t catch the Sugarplum Fairy, and her fury brightens the stage like fake snow.
Like most fairy tales,“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is all hole and shell. If there is a kernel, it’s already inside us. There are cracks everywhere: the ones in the kitchen for the mice to come through, the Nutcracker’s broken teeth, Marie’s cut arm, the bites in the sugar figures, the cracks that let fiction leak into reality, the toys running free through shattered glass, and a mother who disbelieves everything her daughter feels.
There is even an extra hole in the toymaker’s face. I imagine a ballerina peeling back Drosselmeier’s eyepatch and climbing into the abyss in his head. I’d follow her. All the way down the socket. Maybe that’s where we’ll spend next December. Inside Drosselmeier. Not where the toys are, but where they begin. A forest of rattles before they are shaken. The stirrings of a doll before her mouth is sewn on. A miniature airplane before its first soar. A four-day, five-night family vacation at the precipice of a man’s imagination.
“And then you wonder,” says my mother, “why Noah has anxiety.” “What do you mean,” I say. But I know what she means. She means my heart is contagious, and my eight-year-old son might be catching what I have. All winter, living with Noah has been a little like living with Werner Herzog. What would happen if there was no wind? Where do we go when we no longer exist? Did you hear that sound? What if love was a person we didn’t know. What would happen if I had no DNA? Can you die from spilling milk on a mushroom? Each question arrives like a pirouette balanced at the edge of a stage only Noah can see. Each question is the dance of one thousand wise sons. “To be radical,” wrote Karl Marx, “is to grasp things by the root.” Noah has a fistful of roots. A stunning bouquet. I sniff them and these questions, to be honest, flood me with relief. It’s when I don’t know where the roots are, that’s when I’m sullen.
None of Noah’s questions comes with a toy. A toy is an answer to a question a child hasn’t learned how to ask.
“My favorite part of the ballet,” says my mother, “is Mother Ginger.” Mother Ginger’s giant crinoline skirt is a house filled with children. The door opens and out they run. The tallest male ballerina plays this birth scene, forward and backward. At the end of the dance, he rewinds the children back into his body, which is also a house and a joke and a spectacle and a garment. Attached to Mother Ginger is a parasol, a fan, a mirror, and tambourine. She is well-stocked, but she can only move sideways. The trick is not to step on the children. The trick is for the children to never grow old.
Mother Ginger is everybody’s favorite part, but it’s not really my mother’s favorite part. Her real favorite part is when the Sugarplum Fairy almost falls, and smacks the Cavalier in the face. “I like when things go awry,” says my mother. She likes seeing the roots, too.
“Where’s your holiday spirit?” asks a friend. “It’s hiding,” I say. “It won’t come out until yours goes back inside.”
I don’t know what’s bothering me. Maybe it’s that I spend a lot of time picking up broken toys, and so it’s impossible to see piles of beautifully wrapped gifts without seeing the shred and the shard. Without seeing the albatross’s belly turned vibrant from the plastics it picks from the ocean. A belly as colorful as a toy shop, and as dead. “Remember,” says my husband, “when there was only one Superman?” And I do. I remember when there wasn’t even one. I remember when all there was, at first, was biodegradable me. What if all a toy really is is just the absence of a mother? This morning I reached into my pocket for my house key, and found a small blue plastic leg instead. Every day I am reminded that ending up where you actually belong might be the biggest miracle of all.
When I was a little kid, I spent every Shabbat at my great-aunt’s house. After lunch, our whole family would sit around the dining room table talking, and singing, and arguing, and cracking open walnuts. The nutcracker didn’t have a face. It was just a pair of long silver legs as strong as a ballerina’s. I cracked open nut after nut, and studied its wrinkles and folds. Its two hemispheres looked exactly like the brain, and this delighted me. I would eat too many, and feel a little sick and happy. By late afternoon, the plastic tablecloth would be covered with shells and fading winter light. I want so badly to bring my sons to this table, but no one is sitting there anymore. As each December cracks open, and leaves only its shell behind, I want to give something to my sons to hold. Something like belonging. Something that will last. But I don’t know what. All I have is this kernel. And it’s too small to see.
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.