Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Joseph Martin Kronheim illustration for Tom Thumb, circa 1850s
Noah, my eight-year-old son, and I go to Target. He is carrying a little stuffed monkey, and as we walk through the automatic doors he puts it under his shirt. “No, no,” I say. “Bondo is shy,” he says. “I told him I’d keep him safe.” “No, no,” I say. Under Noah’s shirt, Bondo could be anything. He could be wild and alive. He could be something that doesn’t belong to him. He could be a bouquet of flowers or a gun or a book of fairy tales about the bodies of black boys. “Why?” he asks. “Why,” I answer, or I start saying something and then stop, or I say “because it isn’t safe,” or I say “I love you,” or I say “here, let me hold him.”
A few days later, a friend posts on Facebook that her nine-year-old black son is now riding his bike to the supermarket by himself. “We have talked to him,” she writes, “about using a bag for the items he’s bought, not his pockets, keeping his receipt in his hand as he leaves the store, keeping his hands out of his pockets while shopping, taking his hood off.” I imagine it continuing, “we have given him invisibility powder, we have made wings for him out of the feathers of ancient doves, we have given him the power to become a rain cloud and burst, if necessary, into a storm.”
When I was a child I could’ve hidden a house under my dress, and all I would’ve been was a girl with a house under my dress.
As my sons grow, the American imagination grows around like them like water hemlock. Poisonous and hollow. My sons’ skin is light. So the hemlock may not grow as thick as it would for a darker boy.
I look for a fairy tale about the bodies of boys. There is Pinocchio, but he’s wooden. And Peter Pan, although magical, is only the thin memory of a boy. There is Jack and his bean stalk, but Jack is more wish than body. And then I remember Tom Thumb who, like the body of the black boy, is caught inside a swallow cycle.
“The History of Tom Thumb,” published in 1621, was the first fairy tale printed in English. A metrical version was published in 1630. A plowman and his wife long for a child, but no child comes until Merlin, the magician, grants them a son no bigger than the father’s thumb: “that men should heare him speake, but not / his wandring shadow touch.” Tom Thumb is conceived and born in half an hour. The fairies visit him and make him a hat from an oak leaf, a shirt from a spider’s web, boots from mouse skin, socks from apple peels, and a belt from his mother’s eyelash.
Tom Thumb is swallowed over and over again. He is swallowed by a red cow, a raven, a giant, a fish, a frog, a cinched sack filled with cherry pits, a mousetrap, and King Arthur’s court (because his “merry tricks pleased the queen.”). Will my sons, as they grow, become more and more vulnerable to ravishment? Will they be eaten and spit out? Will they be sent into a swallow cycle to satisfy the hunger of our dear, sick country?
I don’t want my sons anywhere near the mouth of this country. I am the mother looking up and calling, “get down from there.” They pretend not to hear me. They are so happy and free.
With twine, Tom Thumb’s mother ties him to a thistle while she milks the cows so the wind doesn’t carry him off.
I am the mother who is trying to untie my sons from a fairy tale that doesn’t exist. A fairy tale that could carry them away. It’s the one about a war that’s being fought by children. But the children don’t even know there is a war, and the children think they’re still children. This fairy tale doesn’t exist because it isn’t a fairy tale. It’s right outside. Put your hand through your kitchen window. Can you feel it?
“The wind of my life,” writes James Baldwin, “is blowing me away.”
Many years ago I wrote a poem that began, “A few days before the first snow the soldiers dressed like children began to appear.” It ends with all of the soldier children sailing away to another land. Where is our sailboat? Where is the sea? How far is the land?
“What’s your plan for middle school,” asks a mother. “Where is our sailboat? How far is the most faraway land?”
At 4 A.M., Eli, my six-year-old, comes into my bed. He smells like freshly baked bread and wet twigs. “I had a dream,” he says, “I went into another dimension where there were no letters or numbers. Only signs.” “Signs?” I ask. “Like this one,” he says. He points his index fingers down. It looks like an upside-down peace sign. Or like the tiny legs of a tiny boy walking away.
“What’s your plan for middle school,” asks a mother. “We are looking into,” I want to say, “other dimensions.”
When it rains, Tom Thumb sleeps in a buttonhole. He crawls through keyholes and sails away in an eggshell. He dances a minuet on the queen’s fingernail. His body is the magic that will conquer him. His smallness is a spell cast over his body that is his beginning, middle, and his end.
In one version of Tom Thumb, he dies by the breath of a poisonous spider. In another, a woman coughs on him. At the end what is most dangerous is not the swallow, but the breath that lives inside it. Like a slur crawling over the lip and hitting the air.
I ask my husband what he would have said to Noah. “I would’ve let him keep Bondo under his shirt.” “And then what?” I ask. “And then nothing,” he says, “because God help anyone who tried to mess with him.”
Sometimes I wonder if my husband slips through little rips in space and time. He is always as much here as he is not here. Like dusk if dusk were a man. Maybe this is how he has outwitted the swallow. Maybe this is what he prays resides in our sons. Maybe he, too, is planning a move to another dimension.
When I was pregnant with Eli, the sonographer had me return three times because each time she waved the wand over my belly, Eli would cover his face, which cast a dark shadow over his heart. “It’s nothing,” said the sonographer. “It’s just hard to see his heart through the shadow.”
By writing this down, am I swallowing my children and their father, too? By naming them, do I swallow them? By being afraid, do I swallow them? Sometimes I just want to hide them all under my coat. And walk through a world where nothing is ever named Target.
I wonder if somewhere there’s a very, very old fairy tale that dried, hardened, and eventually cracked. I imagine I might find it one day, and when I do something alive will stumble out and whisper into my ear all the answers to all the questions my sons will ever ask me about fear and hate. This morning Noah asked me to help him tighten the belt on his pants. “I must be shrinking!” he said. “I’m the incredible shrinking man!” But he isn’t shrinking. He is growing. May my sons live, like Tom Thumb, to be one hundred and one. May the wind never carry them away.
Read earlier installments of Happily here.
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.
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