Interview: Sonya Vatomsky


collageSonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist, born in Moscow in 1985. Sonya currently lives in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Sonya’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Entropy, Lodown, The Hairpin, VIDA, The Poetry Foundation, and other publications, and their chapbook My Heart In Aspic is available from Porkbelly Press. They hold a BA in Linguistics with minors in German Linguistics and Finnish from the University of Washington.

Salt is for Curing is a dark and delicious book. Your poetry is teeming with folklore and food, evoking a hunger that simmers in magic. Blood, bones, vegetables, herbs mingle with robbers, wolves, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool. There is bread and there are potions. Ripe plums and Koschei the Deathless. You’ve said “There’s not really a divide between folklore and my… sense of self — at least the stories I had told to me as a child, and that’s usually what I’m referencing in poetry.”

Which figure from Russian fairy tales did you most identify with as a child? In whom do you see yourself now? Did you connect more deeply with male or female characters as a child, and has that changed?

The one I felt pulled to was Koschei Bessmertniy, though not in an identifying type of way — more like I wanted to be his lover or flunky or something. I never ever cast myself as a hero, and I can’t decide if that’s because I was a timid child or because I had such a strong sense of ego that I disliked role-playing as someone other than myself. Maybe both. “Male-adjacent” is a good way of describing how I connected with characters, though. I internalized gender roles enough to know I couldn’t be Koschei, but you’d never find me in Baba Yaga’s camp either. I was really intimidated by female characters. Baba Yaga scared the shit out of me, to the point where I didn’t even like her as a folktale figure, whereas Koschei was bae.

Continue reading Interview: Sonya Vatomsky

The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.

Editor’s Note: Modern-Day Mike Finks

A note for readers: this essay mentions physical and sexual violence. 

Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.

It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.

Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?

Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.

I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.

I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor René Madonna Ostberg.

Interview: Pauline Greenhill

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In 2014, when I began studying fairy tales, I came across Pauline Greenhill’s “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars,”  an academic article that offers a queer reading of “Fitcher’s Bird,” my favorite Grimm fairy tale. The article has deeply influenced my thinking and writing on fairy tales and so I was thrilled when, after sending off an email to Greenhill, she agreed to an interview.

Greenhill is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her most recent book is Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films, Culture and Society, which was co-edited with Steven Kohm and Sonia Bookman, and published in 2016. She also co-edited Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives with Jack Zipes and Kendra Magnus-Johnston in 2016; Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag with Diane Tye in 2014; Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television with Jill Terry Rudy in 2014; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms with Kay Turner in 2012; and Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity with Sidney Eve Matrix in 2010. She is the author of Make the Night Hideous: Four English Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940 (2010). She has fairy-tale research published in Feral Feminisms; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Marvels & Tales; Narrative Culture; Studies in European Cinema; and Theoretical Criminology among others.

There’s a storied tradition of studying fairy tales through a feminist lens, but you take that work further, examining queerness in fairy tales. How did you find your way into this field of research?

Absolutely my queer/trans research is an extension of my feminist research! But my route to queer and trans fairy tales was circuitous. I started a masters in Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977. At the time, and to a sad extent now, the cool kids avoided traditionally recognised forms of folklore like ballads and fairy tales. Trying to be one of them, I did my masters thesis on family photography.

However, when I got to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, where I did my PhD, I worked with Roger deV. Renwick, a ballad and folk song scholar who has always been an advocate for studying traditional genres (see e.g. Renwick 1980 and 2009). So for my PhD dissertation on folk poetry in Ontario under Roger’s supervision, I was looking for the old in the new, as it were (Greenhill 1989).

After five years teaching Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, I came to the University of Winnipeg’s (then) Women’s Studies program in 1991. (We’re now a Department with six full time faculty and we’ve included “and Gender.”) At the time I was working on Newfoundland ballads about women who dress as men to follow their lovers or seek adventure as sailors, soldiers, or robbers. You can listen to one example here, sung by the fabulous Newfoundland traditional source singer Anita Best on the compilation album Bristol’s Hope–Lately Come Over. Hitherto folklorists’ readings assumed that these songs were about men and their experiences, and my feminist reading asserted that they were also about women.

Continue reading Interview: Pauline Greenhill

Thirst

by Harmony Hazard

I picture my mother at the helm of a boat somewhere in the thick of ocean. Floating behind the boat is a glacier, a compression of quiet grace. My mother has tied a thousand ancient ropes to the glacier and is pulling it through the water with the same conviction that I imagine Moses had when he parted the sea.

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For years, she has whispered her plan to us. Before they all melt, my mother wants to transport a glacier from Alaska to wherever my sister and I are living, so that we will have a secure source of water. To keep it from melting, she will coat the glacier in sawdust, as if sprinkling confectioner’s sugar on a slice of bundt cake. Then, she will chain it to a tugboat and tow it across the ocean, where it will finally be left in a dry pond or a desert’s scorched riverbed so that my sister and I will not die of thirst. We have always rolled our eyes to this idea. Impossible, we’ve said. But, recently, I’ve wondered.

On the night of her seventieth birthday, my mother told my sister and I that some scientists believe the moon was once part of the earth. This theory surmises that when the moon separated from the earth, the Pacific Ocean was formed in its void. We were eating pineapple-upside-down cake in the flicker of candlelight, she was wearing a white kimono and a halo made from fourteen carmine flowers, and my sister and I balked at the idea. But my mother insisted until my sister googled it. It’s called the fission hypothesis, my sister says. I guess I have to get a PhD, my mother responded with a tilt of her halo, for people to listen to me.

Over a decade ago, my mother had a theory that the energy from the moving bodies at gyms or playgrounds could be used for electricity. When she and I walked past fitness centers with treadmills in the windows, she pointed to the sweating bodies and said, Imagine how many light bulbs they could be powering? My eyes went from the runners’ wet, mangled hair to the ceiling, where fluorescent lights hummed incessantly above their heads, but I wasn’t convinced. Years later, my sister saw an advertisement: a company was utilizing the velocity of playing children to power electrical outlets in a playground.

Maybe I’m wrong to not believe that you can part the sea, that a body can run enough to flash on a light bulb, that the moon can slice itself from the earth and spiral out into the knitted black of the sky. Maybe I am wrong to not picture the glacier, hulking and glossy, rising over the sea like a skyscraper; to not look closely at this image until I can see my mother’s reflection in the ice, waving at the distant sight of land, her salty seaweed hair swept into the sea-wind, rough waves smacking against the sides of the boat. If I look even closer, I will discern on my mother’s face not only the knowledge that her family’s thirst will forever be quenched, but also that now, after all these years, they will maybe, finally, believe her.


Harmony Hazard hails from both Tucson and New York. She is completing her MFA in creative writing with Stony Brook University. She edits the “Participate” column in make/shift magazine, has been published in CALYX and Border Crossing and is part of a collective editing an anthology of creative writing about the Sonoran Desert borderlands.

Photograph by Timothy Neesam.

Editor’s Note: From Inside the Wolf’s Belly

wolfbelly3You. You are a girl, and where there is a girl there is a story. A story about a girl.

Your mother will give you a bag. Maybe a fine leather satchel, or maybe a rough sack.

It will be much heavier than it appears.

*

Your mother cannot speak, so she cross-stitches her warning to you. Her thimbled finger pushes the needle that pulls the thread. She spells it out so you see her words framed by pine above your pillow. Each day you wake to them, and each night you bed down beneath them:

Do not go into the deep dark woods alone.

You hear the story of your mother from the women of the village, so often that you know it by heart. The old wives tell their tale. Your ears grow heavy to carry. Sometimes the women are raccoons chittering, sometimes birds wide-beaked and screeching grief. You want quiet. You want dark. You want to be alone.

You set off carrying your mother’s bag.

From inside the wolf’s belly, you don’t hear the old wives at all.

Still. You know their story, by heart.

Your mother lost her voice to the jaws of a wolf. She went into the deep dark woods alone, with her basket in hand. She was plucking mushrooms from the good rot when the wolf came upon her. He caught her by the neck. At the last moment, a hunter saved her. He drove his knife through the beast’s belly. Soon you grew in hers. The hunter built your house. The hunter brought meat. But the hunter did too break your mother’s bones.

From inside the wolf’s belly, you can hear the hunters swarm for rescue. You stay very quiet.

*

They will leave, with their knives and axes and arrows. You will begin to chew.

You are a girl, and where there is a girl there is a story. A story about a girl.

The old wives will tell this story of you:

The girl went into the deep dark woods alone, chasing her shadow. The wolf had pale yellow eyes and a black smile. He gulped her down whole. But the girl ate the wolf from inside his own belly. She ripped and chewed and swallowed until the beast was inside her belly instead, every last sharp tooth of him. She belched. She howled and barked at the moon.

*

You. You will whisper to the wolf inside you:

You ought not have gone into the deep dark woods alone.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Anna Lea Jancewicz

Our Kids Are Singing About Child Sacrifice

by Claire Zlotnicki

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When my sisters and I were young, my dad used to sit one of us on his lap and thump on our back and chant “Hurley-burley, thumpety whack! Pretty good fellow, pretty good back! How many fingers do I hold up?” He would pause for us to guess a number, then resume the chant. “Two, she said, and three there were. Pretty good fellow to go to the war!”

Nobody I’ve talked to knows where this rhyme comes from—maybe it’s about sending child soldiers to war, or about the arbitrary nature of death. Often, those people tried to look  at simple nursery rhymes and try to find dark or scary origins for them. But most nursery rhymes, I’ve found, weren’t even created for children—they were the jumbled together songs and poems that tired mothers brought into the nursery, searching for anything to soothe a crying child. In fact, most nursery rhymes probably don’t mean anything, although one of the few that might have dark origins is “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Archeological evidence supports the claim that “London Bridge” is about human sacrifice—specifically, the practice of burying children in the foundations of a bridge to keep it standing. Though there are no findings of human remains in the current-day London Bridge, other old bridges have been found with human remains. Many of us have played the children’s game that goes with the song—two kids form an arch with their arms which falls to catch one of the others passing underneath. Maybe that “caught” person represents the victim of superstitious bridge-builders of the past.

But does the fact that this familiar chant might be about child sacrifice mean I shouldn’t tell it to my children one day? Or that I shouldn’t pass down my father’s rhyme? No, I think it means I should. Nobody knows what my father’s untraceable chant or “London Bridge” or “Ring Around the Rosie” are really about, but the world is still as dangerous a place as it was back then. We can make up our own stories as we go along, but the origins we give them today will be no better than the ones they might really have. Human nature hasn’t improved over the centuries. Old stories about children with candles who were killed to protect an ancient bridge aren’t fooling anyone that we’re better off today—not even our kids.


Claire Zlotnicki is pursuing a Women’s and Gender Studies degree at the College of Charleston. She graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Creative Writing. She is from Florence, South Carolina.

Editor’s Note: Not Capable of Not Grieving

I begin with a question: Why are goodbyes so absent in fairy tales?

She had no rest or peace until she set out secretly, and went forth into the wide world to trace out her brothers and set them free, let it cost what it might. She took nothing with her but a little ring belonging to her parents as a keepsake, a loaf of bread against hunger, a little pitcher of water against thirst, and a little chair as a provision against weariness.

And now she went continually onwards, far, far to the very end of the world.

— “The Seven Ravens” [1]

Every story, even each of our own, involves a departure from our homes, and our parents. How this happens is different for everyone, but the ending is the same.

I said goodbye to Madison, the place I was born, and to my favorite little woods in the city. I said goodbye to my mother, who cried as I packed inside the car with my wife and my dog and my cat [she cries every time I leave her, or she leaves me]. I said goodbye to my father [he always told me that if I didn’t leave the place I was raised I would always regret it, and he was right].

But when his youngest daughter came to sit next to him and be questioned, she said, “These and all other blessings are from Allah.” Angered, her father said, “Since you place so little value on what I can do for you, go and discover how many are the blessings of Allah!”

The girl tied a few clothes into a kerchief and, trusting herself to God’s protection, stepped out of her father’s house. She had no idea where to turn, so she walked in the direction that her face was pointing until she came to some ramshackle sheds.

— “The Girl Who Spoke Jasmines and Lilies” [2]

Unlike the girl, we had a destination: Tucson, a 1,700-mile drive, fairy-tale in its oddities: a Kansas hail storm, a hundred eager dust devils whipping the New Mexico border.

The fairy tale must leave out the goodbye as technique, as purposeful disconnect. It renders the world a little less real. Those who love fairy tales understand the idea of flatness: characters are unnamed, and receiving only an emotional silhouetting. Our dear Kate Bernheimer says fairy-tale characters “are not in psychological conflict.”[3] I don’t think all goodbyes have to be conflicted, but mine certainly are.

“In the name of Allah, I beg you to teach my child.” Fine. She left the boy and went home.

Then what did the magician do but push the boy into a large room, close the door, and lock him in.

— “The Boy Magician” [4]

In Arizona, I was asked to learn, and do work. There were times when graduate school felt like a locked room, but there have been plenty of magicians in the shape of friends, in the shape of mentors, in the many-shaped desert.

I said goodbye to knowing peace. I said goodbye to one unbroken wrist, and then the other. I said goodbye to the sensation of being cold. I almost said goodbye to my marriage [maybe it wasn’t that close, but it was the closest it has ever been].

“Just imagine: I asked him how he was planning to earn his bread, and he actually wanted to learn how to get the creeps.”

“If that’s all that’s wrong,” the sexton replied, “I can help him out. Send him over to my house, and I’ll shape him up.”

The father liked the idea, for he thought, “Maybe this will smooth his rough edges.”

The sexton took the boy in and gave him the job of ringing the church bells.

— “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” [5]

Is fear the fulcrum? Outside of fairy tales, we fear that saying goodbye makes a departure real. It means that going back becomes impossible. Inside of fairy tales, saying goodbye must ruin the genre’s lovely happenstance of events, the chain of one thing happening, followed by another. It must introduce the idea of the protagonist someday reversing the narrative, returning to the point of goodbye. Maybe a goodbye is antithetical to abstraction. Maybe it is too logical.

A man of Wei named Tung Men-wu did not grieve when his son died. “You loved your son as no other father has in the world,” said his wife. “Now he has died, but you do not grieve. Why?”

“There was a time,” replied Tung Men-wu, “when I had never had a son. I did not grieve then. Now that he is dead, it is the same as when I had no son. What have I to grieve for?”

—“A Dead Son,” Lieh Tzu [6]

I have said some goodbyes in death.

I said goodbye to my pet rabbit, Georgie. I said goodbye to my mother’s father while holding my grandmother’s hand [what a responsibility, I thought later that night, for her memory of that long-term loss to be tied to my fingers, my hand, my body, my me].

I never said goodbye to my pet cat, Zelda. I never said goodbye to my pet cat, Spike. I never said goodbye to my father’s father, because he was gone before I arrived. I never said goodbye to my friend Steven, who disappeared from my life in the nine months before he committed suicide [for a semester, after getting surgery on both his knees, he convinced our Spanish teacher he needed help carrying his backpack, affording us an extra ten minutes of lunch (we ate in a stairwell, we had a name for ourselves, but I’ve said goodbye to the memory of that, too)].

Unlike the man with the dead son, I am not capable of not grieving.

One day a young man said, “This tale about everybody having to die doesn’t set too well with me. I will go in search of the land where one never dies.”

He bid father, mother, uncles, and cousins goodbye and departed. For days and months he walked, asking everybody he met if they could direct him to the place where one never dies.

—“The Land Where One Never Dies” 77-79 [7]

Even here, we are not wealthy in detail. There are no tears, there are no words spoken, he is not afraid. The young man finds a place where no one ever dies, but he wants to see his family again. He wants to reverse the narrative. Is it only because he said goodbye? Is it because he has depth?

On the way home, so much time has passed that a sea has turned into a prairie, a forest has turned into desert. A mountain, flattened, carted away rock by rock. But when the young man finds that his relatives have all died long ago, the story is abstract and brutal: “That was the end of it. ‘I might as well go back at once,’ he decided.” The return of flatness renders the goodbye into a motif, not a motivated act. It renders it meaningless.

This is what I find wonderful about fairy tales: they fascinate and horrify in equal measures. Goodbye or no goodbye, a fairy tale will do its finest to discomfort.

The lesson here is not that we should all promise to speak our goodbyes.

They are, indeed, meaningless in certain ways.

The lesson here is not that we should return to those places of departure, seeking comfort, or answers.

The landscape has already changed beyond our recognition.

We are, indeed, each venturing continually outwards, far, far to the end of our individual worlds. We are always at the envelope, the edge between. All we can do there, here, is know that there have been places behind us where we thought to say goodbye, or thought not to, or couldn’t, or didn’t, and that these are maybe our discomforts but they are also our definitions: we bring nothing with us but them; they are our little rings, our keepsakes, that can keep us going.


[1] The Grimm Reader, ed./trans. Maria Tartar

[2] Arab Folktales, ed./trans. Inea Bushnaq

[3] “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” by Kate Bernheimer, http://www.katebernheimer.com/images/Fairy%20Tale%20is%20Form.pdf

[4] Arab Folktales, ed./trans. Inea Bushnaq

[5] The Grimm Reader, ed./trans. Maria Tartar

[6] Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies, ed./trans. Moss Roberts

[7] Italian Folktales, ed. Italo Calvino, trans. George Martin


This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor Joel Hans.

Between Life and Death

by Bethy Wernert

I am four when she first appears to me.

Trembling and afraid, I lie in ICU, other children dying around me. My parents sob silently. A mournful priest murmurs the last rites to someone in the room next to us, separated only by a thin curtain.

My seizures have brought me here, to this place between life and death, and I feel my soul lingering in the hazy realm between worlds.

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As I lie in the hospital bed, the mattress firm and cold, a shadow dances across the curtains. I feel a hand—a caressing breeze—stroke my hair. I can’t see her, but I feel her. Ancient, like trees rooted in centuries. She smells of earth after rain, and birds outside raise their choral hymn in honor of her. She whispers, her voice, maternally soothing, “Everything is okay. This is who you are, and you always will be.” She then disappears as a brush of wind trickles through the window.

The doctors come in with the verdict. “Epilepsy,” they tell me, “a seizure disorder. Idiopathic—no one knows how it’s caused.”

My parents leave the hospital, wondering why I was “cursed to have this disorder, this—this disease.” I leave the hospital feeling blessed. As tired and scared as I was, I now feel at peace.

Over time, I discover that I’m not alone, that epilepsy has long been associated with spirituality, wiring our brains to the belief in the mystical. [1] Our brains become conduits, neurons sparking our sensations to perceive the otherworldly amidst the mundane. Believing in magic, my mother raised me on myths of fairies and ghosts, shadowy nature spirits that drift between worlds. I’ve always believed in these spirits, but epilepsy allows me to sense them.

Eventually, my seizures are controlled with heavy doses of anti-epileptic medication, pentagonal, powder-white pills labeled Lamictal. And through the passing years, the epileptic sparks in my brain cease to light.

“You no longer have seizures,” my neurologist proclaims.

I feel a loss of identity at his words, my sense of self, melting into nothingness. What am I without my seizures? Without everything I’ve experienced? Without everything I’ve seen?

Yet, my soul remembers that realm, that place between life and death, and she still visits me, wandering through the shadows when the air is damp with rain, when the creosote breathes its gentle perfume, and when the mist clings to the crevices of the mountains. She comes when the sky is darkened with magic and storms, and she whispers, “This is who you are, and you always will be.”


[1] Coles, Alasdair. “Temporal lobe epilepsy and Dostoyevsky seizures: Neuropathology and Spirituality.” Royal College of Psychiatrists (2013): 1-7. Web. 7 June 2016.


Bethy Wernert lives and works in Tucson, Arizona after graduating with a BA in English from Northern Arizona University. Her nonfiction has previously appeared in Communion. When not working and writing, she likes to sit in nature and drink tea.

Editor’s Note: Golden

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The Dodge Ram scrambles over rocks and rain-hewn ditches; water gallons and bean cans jostle  in the truck bed. I gaze out the window, stretch my pointer fingers and thumbs then hold my hands catty-corner to pretend I’m making postcards. Snap!—everything gold, gilded.

The sinking-sun landscape looks like one of those photo essays from Arizona Highways I leaf through in the library. The Altar Valley is amber with cholla and prickly pear, acacia and mesquite trees. The dusk casts miniature, scattered mountain ranges in vermilions and mauves. Baboquivari’s cuspate peak stands sentinel above it all, so backlit that it looks like its cut out of black construction paper.

Golden hour is seductive enough to lure me towards forgetting. I pull myself back, remind myself that the recent history of this desert is a catalogue of predacious desire for aurum, Au, the metal that shines like the sun:

1540: Coronado (arrogant, silver-plated) searches the Southwest for Cíbola, the legendary city of gold. He finds no such city but still plunders towns and villages, leaving death and destruction in his Spanish wake.

Pima County, 1774: Manuel Lopez, a Spanish holy man, forces a group of Tohono O’odham to extract gold from the Quijotoa Mountains. Thus begins gold mining in Arizona.

1877: White settlers open the Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona. Until 1940, when it’s abandoned, residents extract gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper from the mine.

(Ruby is now one of the two best-preserved mining ghost towns in Arizona according to Wikipedia, twenty-five-odd buildings scattered on a hillside below the gaping mine mouth. The mine is home to thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that swirl into the darkening summer sky, going north-south-east-west in search of bugs, disregarding the nearby cattle fence that splits two countries like a wound.)

Then there’s my own white, middle-class childhood. 1994: I’m five, in a pink-painted bedroom just north of New York City, thousands of miles from this dusty border. My father reads to me from My First Book of Fairy Tales. The illustrations are full of golden objects–the giant’s eggs in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. After he finishes a story, my father asks, “What’s the golden rule?” and I respond, well taught, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s his favorite punchline. We laugh, oblivious to how it implicates us.

The princesses in the volume have locks so burnished they seem incendiary–like they might, at any moment, burst into flame.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Founding Editor Wren Awry. Photograph by Margaret KIlljoy.