Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
I am halfway through writing an essay about “Sleeping Beauty” when I get a text from my mother: “It’s lymphoma.” My sister. She is twenty. Three lumps on her neck. I erase the entire essay. And then I vomit.
Ever since we went into our homes and shut the door, I have been comforted by images of nature reclaiming deserted places. I search the web and watch snow fall on a dead escalator in an abandoned mall. I find a tree growing out of a rotting piano. The pedals have disappeared into the earth, and on its brown wooden torso someone has carved the initials “C+S” inside a heart. For hours, I search the web for more. Goats walk through city streets as if remembering the woods that once grew there. White mushrooms push up through the floor of a cathedral. I trace each mushroom with my thumb. It makes me want to pray.
“I don’t believe in anything anymore,” says my mother. “Don’t say that,” I say. “Please don’t say that.” But she can’t hear me. She’s already somewhere far, far away.
Before the text, I had been writing about Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” because I wanted to write about the bramble. I wanted to write about the hedge of briars that grows around the castle when Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep for one hundred years. I wanted to write about the fairy who touches the governesses, ladies-in-waiting, gentlemen, stewards, cooks, scullions, errand boys, guards, porters, pages, footmen, and the princess’s little dog, Puff, so that they all fall asleep, too. I wanted to write about the kindness of the fairy who makes sure when Beauty wakes up she doesn’t wake up alone. I wanted to write about the wind dying down, and the sleeping doves on the roof. I had an idea that the bramble was good. That what we’ve needed all along is for us to hold still and allow nature to grow wild around us. I had this idea that when we all woke up together, the bramble would teach us something. I imagined we’d all rub our eyes and a new civilization would hobble toward the bramble and learn to read its script. I imagined the bramble clasped together like hands filled with cures and spells. I imagined we’d learn a lesson that could save us.
“The lesson,” says my mother, “is that we’re all going to die.” But my mother doesn’t say this. She would’ve said this two weeks ago before my sister was diagnosed with lymphoma because it’s like a thing my mother would say. But now when she speaks she sounds different. She has an echo now. Like the only mother awake in a castle filled with sleeping daughters.
My sister is breathtakingly beautiful. This is a fact. When she walks into a room people turn around and stare.
“Maybe you should write about widows instead,” says my husband. A small vine begins to creep up his neck and winds around his face. “I am not writing about widows,” I say. And the vine vanishes.
When I was twenty-nine and my sister was five, my mother and I brought her to Disneyland, where you can eat breakfast at Cinderella’s castle with all the princesses. The princesses came out all at once, as if through a hole in the air, and spun around in their blue and pink and yellow gowns. My sister climbed onto the table and reached her arms out. Had my mother and I not pulled her back down, she would’ve let the princesses pick her up and carry her away.
I write about Sleeping Beauty and then I erase everything I write about Sleeping Beauty, while my husband starts saving eggshells, and carrot peels, and coffee grinds, and bread, and dryer lint, and banana peels, and orange rinds in a plastic container that sits on our kitchen counter. He has started worm composting. In three to six months he promises we will have nutrient-rich soil to grow more flowers and vegetables. I am worried there won’t be enough airflow, and he will forget to harvest the worm castings, and all the worms will die. I am worried about maggots and rot. “Trust me,” he says. “Please trust me.” And he’s right. I need to trust him more. And I need to trust the worms and the air and the soil more, too. But I’m still worried.
“I wish everyone would just fall asleep,” says my mother, “and not wake up until Sasha is okay again.” I want to assure her when Sleeping Beauty wakes up she gives birth to a son and a daughter named Day and Dawn. But what a stupid thing to say. What good am I? An old daughter writing about fairy tales when I should be cooking my mother and sister actual soup. “She’s going to lose all her hair,” says my mother, which makes me want to cut off mine and swallow it.
“Your book came,” says my husband. He hands me Christopher Payne’s North Brother Island. I had ordered it weeks ago, and had half given up on it ever arriving. It’s a book of photographs of an uninhabited island of ruins in the middle of the East River. Once used as overspill for college dormitories, then as a quarantine hospital island to treat infectious disease, and then later for drug addiction, it was abandoned in 1963. A forest of kudzu and rust grows around it. Sunlight bounces off disappearing buildings. Water drips through collapsing roofs. Oh, brotherless North Brother. Even the herons who made it a sanctuary flew away in 2011, and no one knows why. And then the swallows came.
“I can’t find my goddamn earbuds,” says my mother. I imagine peonies and daffodils and heliotrope blooming from her ears. “Let me call you back,” she says. But she doesn’t call back. She forgets to call me back. My sister has lymphoma, and that’s all any of us can remember. I imagine her phone crisscrossed by spiderwebs and dust.
In the essay I erased, I wrote about the old fairy. The one who was forgotten. The one who was assumed dead or bewitched, but she wasn’t. She was very much alive, but when Beauty is born she isn’t invited to the ceremony. And so when the fairies bestow gifts upon the princess, the old fairy emerges from her dust and out of spite declares Beauty will die from a prick of the spindle. Another fairy steps out from behind a tapestry. She cannot undo the old fairy’s spell but she can change dying to sleep that will last a hundred years. In the essay I erase, I write something about how we are quarantined inside our kingdom because we forgot the old fairy. I write something about how we are not asleep, but we’re also not awake. I write in the essay I erase that had I been the old fairy, I would’ve cursed us, too, and that we don’t deserve to be kissed and woken up. But I take it all back. I want the bramble to part. When did this tear in a fairy tale become wide enough for my whole family to climb through? I want to beg the old fairy for forgiveness. Where is she? Who cursed my sister?
I want to go to North Brother Island, and just stand there until a patch of moss grows on my cheek. “I’m so tired,” says my mother. “I’m so tired, I’m so tired, I’m so tired.” I want to hold my mother’s hand on North Brother Island. I don’t remember ever holding my mother’s hand though I must have, at least once, as a child. I want the moss to grow on my mother’s cheek, too. When enough moss grows I will peel it from our cheeks and boil it and give it to my sister on a spoon like medicine. Like a miracle cure. I tell my mother about North Brother Island. “Maybe we should buy it,” she says. “I need somewhere to go.” What I don’t tell my mother is that we have already gone somewhere. We are already in this place where the world we once knew is rushing out of us. We are standing in its unbearable greenness. There is a pinprick on my sister’s finger that is so small and so black it can easily be mistaken for a pokeberry seed.
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.