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Authors: Caitlin R. Kiernan

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BOOK: The Drowning Girl
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Of course, I’ve never actually met an innocent person. Everyone hurts someone eventually, no matter how hard they try not to be hurtful. My mother, she hurt me by getting knocked up by my asshole father (who never even had the courtesy to marry her, though he hung around for ten years), but I’m sure that she had no intention,
at the time, of hurting a daughter who didn’t even exist yet. I guess that makes it a crime of passion, what she did, or only a lack of foresight. I’m sure Grandmother Caroline had no idea, when she got pregnant, that her daughter would inherit her insanity and then pass it along to an illegitimate granddaughter. When I almost stole books from Abalyn that day, books I wasn’t
to steal, I had no intention of causing her harm just by talking to her, but the way things worked out, the way that conversation led to our relationship, I did. I did cause her harm. I don’t believe in sin, original or otherwise, but I do believe people cause other people harm, and that to imagine it can be any way else is only asking for disappointment. I believe this is true, just like my inaccurate recounting of that first talk with Abalyn, even though I would be hard-pressed to suggest any sort of factual foundation or causal agent for
it’s true.

All this said, I feel as if I should write something factual, now. Telling this ghost story, I’m beginning to think of facts and truth like bricks and mortar, only I’m not sure which is which. The facts are probably the bricks, with truth being the mortar that holds it all together. I like the sound of that, so I’ll consider it a provisional truth. By the way, all this business about truth and fact, I can’t take credit for that. It comes from an essay in defense of fairy tales, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, titled “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” She might just as well have asked, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Ghosts, Werewolves, and Mermaids?” Anyway, she writes, “For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. And that is precisely why many of them [Americans] are afraid of fantasy.” That’s another quotation I keep thumbtacked to the wall in the room where I paint, right next to the quote from Virginia Woolf’s suicide note.

Imp stared a moment at what she’d written, then added, “Stop stalling, India Morgan Phelps. It’s annoying.”

My favorite fairy tale when I was a child was “The Little Mermaid,”
and I was especially fond of having it read aloud to me by Grandmother Caroline. She had a tattered old copy of
Stories from Hans Christian Andersen
, which had been printed in 1911, three years before she was born. She said her mother had purchased it at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, while she was still pregnant with Caroline. My grandmother’s book of fairy tales is illustrated with twenty-eight beautiful watercolor paintings by a French artist named Edmund Dulac, who was born in 1882 and died in 1953. When Caroline killed herself, this book was one of the few things she left to me, and it’s yet another thing I keep in the room where I paint. The pages have turned yellow and brittle, and the illustrations are beginning to fade. I imagine they were much more vivid ninety-seven years ago, when my great-grandmother bought the book so that she’d have fairy tales to read to her child. Sure, I also liked some of the other stories, especially “The Snow Queen” and “The Wind’s Tale,” but none of them half as much as I liked “The Little Mermaid.” I’m sure Caroline must have known the story by heart, I asked to hear it so many times. But she always pretended she was actually reading it, and would pause to show me the illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I’ve seen two film adaptations of the story—
, which came out two years before I was born, and the animated Disney version, which was released when I was three, so I saw both on VHS. The way Disney changed the ending made me angry. Sure,
changed the ending, too, but it wasn’t filled with insipid music, and at least Daryl Hannah didn’t have to stop being a mermaid.

To me, the ending of the Disney film took a true (though not factual) story, and turned it into a lie.

My least favorite fairy tale when I was a child was “Little Red Riding Hood.” It wasn’t in the book my great-grandmother bought in Boston, of course, because it wasn’t written by Hans Christian Andersen, but by Charles Perrault (not to be confused with Albert Perrault). And it wasn’t published in 1911, but in 1697. That’s the
first time it appeared in print, but the story existed in many forms long before Perrault put it down on paper. I have a file on “Little Red Riding Hood” with versions that go back as far as the eleventh century. Most people know the story the way that the Brothers Grimm wrote it, and most children are told that tamed and toned-down variant, in which a huntsman saves the girl from the wolf. But Caroline told me the story the way that it was published in
Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’oye
in 1697. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten by the wolf, and no one comes to save her, and there’s no happy ending. This is, I think, the truer incarnation of the story, though, even as an adult, I really don’t care for either.

Anyway, even with the happy ending, the story terrified me. For one thing, I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs, and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf. So, I suppose I saw it as a werewolf. When I was older, and read a book about wolves and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen the wolf, in my mind’s eye, made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves. Especially if you’re a wolf, or a little girl.

My mother never read me fairy tales, and she never told them to me from memory. Rosemary Anne wasn’t a bad mother, she just didn’t do fairy tales.

Imp typed: “I think this is what you call prolegomena, what I’ve written so far, which is a word I’ve never before had a reason to use.” And then she got up and went to the bathroom, because she’d needed to pee since that part about Daryl Hannah. She also got a handful of Lorna Doones and an apple, because she’d skipped dinner again. Then she sat back down at the typewriter and typed, “The importance of fairy tales, and her love for ‘The Little Mermaid,’ as well as her aversion to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ is very much at the heart of the ghost story she’s writing.”

Which means that wasn’t a digression.

A couple of months after Abalyn moved in with me, we went to an exhibit at the Bell Gallery at Brown. Going was her idea, not mine. The exhibit, which was called The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (in Hindsight), was a retrospective of the work of an artist who’d died in a motorcycle accident a few years before, a man who called himself Albert Perrault (though that wasn’t the name he was given at birth). I’d heard of him, but not much. Abalyn had read an article about Perrault somewhere online, and I went because she wanted to go. The exhibit consisted of an assortment of oil paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media pieces, almost all of it inspired, in part, by fairy tales, and mostly by “Little Red Riding Hood.” Had I known that beforehand, I might have let Abalyn go alone. I probably would have insisted. As it was, I held her hand almost the whole time we were in the gallery.

We signed the guest book at a table near the door, and Abalyn took a copy of a glossy brochure about the exhibit. The first painting had a Latin name,
Fecunda ratis
. The canvas was executed mostly in shades of gray, though there were a few highlights of green and alabaster, and a single striking crimson smudge floating near the center. A card on the wall beside the painting explained that Perrault borrowed the title from a book by an eleventh-century pedagogue named Egbert of Liège, a book that had included “De puella a lupellis seruata,” an account of a lost girl found living with a pack of wolves. In the story, she’s wearing a red wool tunic, given to her by her grandfather on the day of her baptism. Someone spots the red tunic, and she’s rescued, which I suppose makes it a morality tale. Baptize your children, or they’ll go live with wolves.

I didn’t like the painting. It made me uncomfortable. And not only because it went straight back to my old hang-up about “Little Red Riding Hood.” There was something awful about it, something that made it hard for me to look directly at for more than a few seconds
at a time. I suppose this should have impressed me, that the artist had so effectively managed to imbue his work with such a sense of dread. My impression of it was formed piecemeal. I’d glance at the painting, then turn away again. I don’t think Abalyn noticed I was doing this; I’m not sure she had any idea how the exhibit was affecting me until I asked if we could please leave, which was about twenty minutes and several paintings and sculptures later.

Before I sat down to write this, I googled
Fecunda ratis
and looked at some images on the web, because I didn’t want to rely on my unreliable memories. The painting doesn’t upset me the way it did that August day at the Bell Gallery. Too much has happened, and the sculptures and paintings of Albert Perrault, for all their dreadfulness, pale by comparison. But, like I’ve said, mostly all in gray, and then the red smudge near the center. The smudge forms a sort of still point, or a nexus, or a fulcrum. It’s the child’s wool baptismal tunic, and it’s the only thing she’s wearing. She’s on her hands and knees, her head bowed so that her face is hidden from view. There’s nothing but a wild snarl of matted hair and the red tunic, which, when the painting is considered as a whole, seems to me cruel and incongruent. The girl is surrounded by a circle of dark, hulking forms—the wolves—and the wolves, in turn, are sitting within an outer circle of standing stones, a looming megalithic ring.

The wolves are rendered so indistinctly that I might have mistaken them for something else, if I hadn’t first read the card on the wall. I might have looked at those great, shaggy things squatting there on their haunches, lewdly, hungrily watching over the girl. And I might have mistaken them for bears. Bears or even, I don’t know, oxen. You can’t tell from the painting if the wolves are about to eat the girl, or if they’re keeping her safe. You can’t tell if they’re marveling at what a strange wolf she is, or thinking about how they’ve never made love to a human woman and maybe that would be an interesting change of pace.

But the very worst part of the painting was a strip of rice paper worked into the lower left-hand corner of canvas. Printed on the paper were the words
Nobody’s ever coming for you.

I had it in my head, when I sat down with my apple and my Lorna Doones, that I would be able to write in detail about all the pieces that made up The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (in Hindsight), or at least those I saw before I started feeling sick and we had to leave the gallery.
Night in the Forest
, which was very much like
Fecunda ratis
, only more so. And
Sudden Fear in Crowded Spaces
. A series of rusty metal cages collectively titled
, each cage holding a single cobble inside, each stone engraved with a single word. And the grotesque pinwheel spread out at the center of it all,
Phases 1–5
, a series of sculptures portraying a woman’s transformation into a wolf. Not just any woman, but the murdered and dismembered corpse of Elizabeth Short, known to most of the world as “the Black Dahlia.” I had nightmares about those sculptures for weeks. Sometimes, I still do. I was going to describe all of this to the best of my abilities. But now I think it’s better if I don’t. Maybe later into the story I will, when doing so might become unavoidable, but not now.

“So,” Imp typed, “I’ve made my beginning, however arbitrary and disjointed it may be. I’ve begun my ghost story, and I’m going to pretend there’s no turning back now.”

It’s a lie, but I’m going to pretend, regardless.

In the end, it may or may not all add up to something coherent. I won’t know until I’ve
the end.

Me. Rosemary Anne. Caroline. Three crazy women, all in a row. My mother’s suicide and my grandmother’s suicide. Taking away words so that scary things are less scary, and leaving behind words that no longer mean what they once did. “The Little Mermaid.” The cloudy day I met Abalyn. Dead sparrows and mice trapped inside stoppered bottles.
The Drowning Girl
, painted by a
man who fell off a horse and died.
Fecunda ratis
, painted by a man who fell off a motorcycle and died. A man who took the surname of the Frenchman who is often credited with having first written down the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and then proceeded to create horrific works of art based on that same fairy tale. Which happens to be my least favorite fairy tale of all. Jacova Angevine and the Open Door of Night, which I’ll come to later. Contagious hauntings and pernicious memes. The harm we do without meaning to do any harm at all.

A dark country road in eastern Connecticut. Another dark road beside a river in Massachusetts. A woman who called herself Eva Canning, who might have been a ghost, or a wolf, or maybe a mermaid, or possibly, most likely, nothing that will ever have a name.

These are the sum of the notes my mother told me I should make, so I won’t forget that which has made a strong impression upon me. This is my apology to Abalyn, even though I know she’s never going to read it.

This might be my pocket full of stones.

“That’s enough for now,” Imp typed. “Get some rest. It’ll still be here when you come back.”


BOOK: The Drowning Girl
12.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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