Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Hänsel and Gretel, by Darstellung von Alexander Zick
In February, as a plague enters America, I am a finalist for a job I am not offered.
I am brought to campus for a three-day interview. I am shown the library I’ll never have access to, and introduced to students I’ll never teach. I shake hands with faculty I’ll never see again. I describe in great detail the course on fairy tales I’ll never offer. I stand up straight in a simple black-and-white dress. “Don’t say anything strange,” says my mother. “Don’t blather,” she says. “You have a tendency to blather.” I meet with a dean who rubs his face until it reddens, then asks me whether writers even belong in universities. I meet with another dean who asks me the same thing. There are so many deans. I cannot tell the deans apart. Another dean asks me who the babies in my first collection of poems, The Babies, actually are. “We only have a few minutes left,” he adds. “They don’t exist,” I think I say. I am hurrying. “I was writing about voices we’ll never hear,” I think I say. He stands up and shakes my hand. I shake so many hands. I can’t tell if everything is at stake, or nothing is at stake. All I know is that I am being tested, and whether or not I am offered this job will depend on the appetite and mood of strangers. “Your final task,” I imagine the dean saying, “is to make a rope out of these ashes. Do it and the job is yours.”
On the third day of the interview, the head of the creative department asks me if the courses I would be expected to teach should even exist. “No,” I wish I had said as I made my body gently vanish. “They shouldn’t exist at all.” Instead I say yes, and pull a beautiful, made-up reason from the air and offer it to him as a gift. Gold for your dust, sir. Pearls for your pigs. “Who is watching your sons right now?” he asks. “Their father,” I answer.
What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go?
It’s May now. More than thirty million Americans have lost their jobs. What mattered in February hardly seems to matter now. My sons, my husband, and I are lucky. We have stayed healthy, and we have enough money and enough food to eat. In between teaching my sons the difference between a scalene triangle and an isosceles, and moving my writing workshops from my garage to pixelated classrooms, and cleaning my house, and going nowhere, and being scared, and looking for bread flour and yeast, I can barely remember what it felt like to plead my case for three straight days. It feels good to barely remember.
“You write a lot about motherhood,” says the sixteenth or seventeenth dean.
In the Brothers Grimm’s “Cherry,” an old king with three sons cannot decide who of the three should inherit the kingdom, and so he gives his sons three trials: the first, that they should seek “cloth so fine” the king can draw it through his golden ring. The second, that they find a dog small enough to fit inside a walnut shell. And the third, to bring home the “fairest lady” in all the land. In the Grimms’ “The Six Servants” a prince will win his princess if he brings back a ring the old queen has dropped into the red sea, devour three hundred oxen (“skin and bones, hair and horns”), drink three hundred barrels of wine, and keep his arms around the princess all night without falling asleep. And in “Rumpelstiltskin,” if the poor miller’s daughter spins larger and larger rooms full of straw into gold she will become queen. If not, she will die. Fairy tales are riddled with tasks like these. Some contenders cheat, and some were never worthy, and some take the dreary, barren road, and some take the smooth, shady one, and some are helped by birds, and some are helped by giants, and some by witches, and some by luck.
I call my mother. “I can’t find bread flour or yeast anywhere.” “Fuck the bread,” says my mother. “The bread is over.”
In fairy tales, form is your function and function is your form. If you don’t spin the straw into gold or inherit the kingdom or devour all the oxen or find the flour or get the professorship, you drop out of the fairy tale, and fall over its edge into an endless, blank forest where there is no other function for you, no alternative career. The future for the sons who don’t inherit the kingdom is vanishment. What happens when your skills are no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust comes and carries you away.
In fairy tales, the king is the king. If he dethrones, his bones clatter into a heap and vanish. Loosen the seams of the stepmother, and reach in. Nothing but stepmother inside. Even when the princess is cinders and ash, she is still entirely princess.
I send my sons on a scavenger hunt because it’s day fifty-eight of homeschooling, and I’m all out of ideas. I give them a checklist: a rock, soil, a berry, something soft, a red leaf, a brown leaf, something alive, something dead, an example of erosion, something that looks happy, a dead branch on a living tree. They come back with two canvas totes filled with nature. I can’t pinpoint what this lesson is exactly. Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I empty the bags and touch the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.
Tomorrow, on day fifty-nine, I will ask my sons to “find me an acre of land / Between the salt water and the sea-strand, / Plough it with a lamb’s horn, / Sow it all over with one peppercorn, / Reap it with a sickle of leather, / And gather it up with a rope made of heather.” I will tell them if they perform each one of these tasks perfectly, they will be rewarded with more tasks. And if they perform each of those tasks perfectly, they will be rewarded with more. Until, at last, they will not be able to tell the difference between their hands and another boy’s hands.
Over the years I have applied for hundreds of professorships, and even received some interviews. I’ve wanted a job like this for so long, I barely even know why I want it anymore. I look at my hands. I can’t tell if they’re mine.
“Of course you can tell if your hands are yours,” says my mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I have no real job,” I say. “Of course you have a real job,” she says. “I have no flour,” I say. “Fuck the bread,” says my mother again. “The bread is over.”
And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, are mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive. I text a friend, “I can’t find bread flour.” She lives in Iowa. “I can see the wheat,” she says, “growing in the field from outside my window.” I watch a video on how to harvest wheat. I can’t believe I have no machete. I can’t believe I spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.
If I had a machete I would use it to cut the mice, and the princess, and the king, and the stepmother, and the castle, and the wolf, and the mother, and the sons, free from their function so they could disappear into their own form.
But also I wanted an office with a number. I wanted a university ID. I wanted access to a fancy library and benefits and students and colleagues and travel money. I wanted the whole stupid kingdom. “And then what?” says my mother. “And then nothing,” I say as I jump off the very top of a fairy tale that has no place for me. “You’re better off,” says my mother. I look around. I’ve landed where I am.
I like it here. I feel like I’m in Gertrude Stein territory, where the buttons are so tender they’ve come undone. The whole kingdom is spilling out of itself. There are holes everywhere. To the east, a pile of impossible tasks of my own making. To the west, a mountain of broken crowns I will melt and recast into a machete. “This is so nice,” writes Gertrude Stein, “and sweet and yet there comes the change, there comes the time to press more air. This does not mean the same as disappearance.” It’s day sixty of homeschooling. Eli asks me to remind him how to make an aleph. I take a pencil, and draw it for him very carefully. “It’s like a branch,” I say, “with two little twigs attached.” “You know what, Mama?” he says. “You’d make a really good teacher.” “Thank you,” I say. And then I show him how to draw a bet.
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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