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Borrowed Sparkle

The fairy tale fol­lows a def­i­nite pat­tern, rewards and pun­ish­ment, escape from dan­ger, and clo­sure … its defin­ing characteristic.

from Tales of Inno­cence and Expe­ri­ence by Eva Figes

I sat on a rust­ed swing hung from an I beam in our base­ment with a heavy book on my lap. I’d found the book, one of sev­er­al vol­umes of the 1949 edi­tion of The New Won­der World, in a box under the zinc-topped table where my step­fa­ther sliced hams. I was ten and lone­ly because my only sis­ter had left home a year earlier.

Our Wonder World

Andersen's Fairy TalesRock­ing back and forth, I lost myself in Andersen’s “The Tin­der Box.” I fig­ured a tin­der box was like a cig­a­rette lighter with the abil­i­ty to sum­mon enor­mous-eyed dogs that grant­ed wish­es. Next I read “The Princess and the Pea.” Back then I couldn’t stand cloth­ing or cov­ers touch­ing my neck and iden­ti­fied with the bruised princess, only my for­mer bruis­es hadn’t been caused by a pea under twen­ty mat­tress­es. 

Before I learned to read, I decod­ed Hansel and Gre­tel, a Lit­tle Gold­en Book, from Eloise Wilkins’ illus­tra­tions. My sis­ter and I had lived that sto­ry. We looked noth­ing like those dumpling-cheeked chil­dren. I was five when our moth­er remar­ried, and we moved from the gin­ger­bread house to a new brick house in the for­est. Trees with gob­lin shad­ows ter­ri­fied me. As I grew used to my kind, gruff step­fa­ther and the trees he iden­ti­fied by name, I real­ized I’d left the real gob­lins behind. 

Hansel and Gretel

Recent­ly I read a book by Holo­caust sur­vivor Eva Figes, who recounts read­ing fairy tales to her grand­daugh­ter. Between the lines in this ten­der, spare mem­oir is Figes’ sto­ry of flee­ing Ger­many as a young girl, and her grand­moth­er who didn’t make it out. She writes: 

The earth con­tin­ues to turn and there are signs of spring. A haze of palest green in the emp­ty trees. A promise unex­pect­ed­ly kept. My radio speaks of glob­al warm­ing, extinc­tion of species. My heart, on the oth­er hand, craves rhythms. Fluc­tu­a­tions of light, wet pave­ments, night and day. The tele­phone ring­ing, and a child’s voice speak­ing of birth­day par­ties. Gen­er­a­tions liv­ing out their lives in an order­ly cycle, with­out fuss. The chil­dren, I tell [my grand­daugh­ter], back from the for­est, lived hap­pi­ly ever after.

Though I was late com­ing to fairy tales, and nev­er had any­one read or tell me a bed­time sto­ry, my moth­er relat­ed fam­i­ly sto­ries while she fixed sup­per. Like the day a woman came to the door sell­ing ency­clo­pe­dias, and my three-year-old sis­ter dart­ed out­side in her birth­day suit. The steely sales­woman declared what she’d do that kid. My moth­er bought the ency­clo­pe­dias, then chased after her quick-as-a-fox child. All this hap­pened before I was a twin­kle in my mother’s eye.

I used to love that expres­sion, believ­ing that once my moth­er had a will­ful daugh­ter while her qui­et, good daugh­ter wait­ed on a dis­tant star. Yet when I final­ly arrived, I stayed in the shad­ow of my sis­ter who had enough sparkle to light up Paris. It was inevitable that she would flee the woods to mar­ry her prince, leav­ing me with a bro­ken heart and storybooks.

Years lat­er, I grew up to write my own sto­ries. Then came the pan­dem­ic, bouts with Covid, my sister’s ter­mi­nal can­cer, and a frac­tured world I no longer under­stood. I longed to return to the woods. Instead, I returned to fairy tales, the place where I began, by enrolling in an online M.A. pro­gram to study imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture. I dropped the pro­gram when I learned stu­dents were required to par­tic­i­pate in dis­cus­sions twice a week. Giv­en my sister’s steady decline, I couldn’t com­mit to such a sched­ule. If I’d been in a fairy tale, I would have wept silent­ly under a juniper tree. I flat out sobbed for a sol­id hour on my com­put­er keyboard.

Lat­er I signed up for a short-term Zoom course on the role of ani­mals in fairy tales. I found myself unable to answer ques­tions about sym­bol­ism and rela­tion­ships between char­ac­ters because I read from a writer’s per­spec­tive. Any sym­bols in my work are unin­ten­tion­al, fer­ret­ed out by the read­er. I felt stu­pid, mute as the sis­ter weav­ing net­tle shirts to save her trans­formed broth­ers. Mute as I’d once been as a child in the gin­ger­bread house.

In the mir­ror, I see a face gray from an end­less win­ter. Crav­ing sparkle like a starv­ing per­son desires a twen­ty-course din­ner, I bought myself sil­ver bracelets and rings with seduc­tive names like Fairy­tale and Princess Tiara, stud­ded with tiny star-like cubic zirconias.

My sis­ter has been liv­ing in a Grimm’s tale the past two and a half years. She can­not eat. She can­not speak. Gob­lins squeeze her lungs and wolves gnaw her feet. The tasks set before her to get through each night and day are like climb­ing a glass moun­tain, yet still she fights.

If I had a tin­der box, I’d strike it three times, sum­mon all three dogs and wish — beg, real­ly — to give my sis­ter order­ly rhythms, her voice back, an end­less spring. I’d glad­ly trade my bor­rowed sparkle for a galaxy of dia­monds and set her in its very crown.

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