A Shift of Sex: A Transgender Reading of An Ancient Folktale

by Psyche Z. Ready

I have always loved stories of cross-dressing heroines. It’s a familiar trope in literature, legends, and fairy tales: a woman dresses as a man to solve some problem, or to save the day. In her male guise, she is strong, brave, skillful, and clever.[1] At the end of the tale, however, when the conflict is resolved, she usually puts back on her apron and returns home. In many variants, home is a controlling father, a bullying brother, or a drunken husband. In my search for variants, I found another tale type that ends differently. In “The Shift of Sex,” or ATU 514[2] , the heroine does not go home after her adventures, but stays in her male disguise and eventually becomes a man. Most variants follow this narrative (I’ve used the gendered pronouns given in most sources):

An elderly father is asked by the king to enter military service. Because he is old and has no sons, his daughter dresses in his clothes, borrows his horse, and joins for him. With the help of her magical horse, she excels at all she does. She quickly becomes the king’s favorite soldier, and his daughter falls in love with her. When the community begins to doubt that she is a man, they set her on impossible quests that she completes easily. Her final battle is with a demon or witch, who curses her with their dying breath: “If you are a man, be now a woman! If you are a woman, be now a man.” The hero returns home to his castle where he is celebrated, his wife rejoices, and they all live happily ever after.

“The Shift of Sex” is a very old and widespread tale: it has been told for at least two, possibly three thousand years[3] , across Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. There are at least twenty-six variants in English today, and I have spent the last year researching them. In my academic work on the subject, I argue that this tale type was historically a space to express frustrations at the limitations of the female gender. Today, however, this tale has the potential to hold space for a broader expression of gender identity.

An issue that some modern readers have with this tale is that, while it begins as a queer romance between two women, it ends with what feels like a return to heteronormativity. When the protagonist changes gender, the couple becomes heterosexual. Some readers interpret the story as a narrative message that says a happy ending for two women in love is impossible. The story is read as a condemnation of queer love. I read this story, however, not as a queer romance gone hetero, but as a trans love story with a happy ending. I would not argue that audiences thousands of years ago saw the protagonist in this tale as transgender[4], but present-day audiences certainly can.

In the many variants of this tale type, there are differences in narrative structure, tone, and detail, but the one element that is present in each is the happy ending: the princess is overjoyed that her partner has changed gender, and she and the royal family accept him, and they live happily ever after. Historically, our literary and popular narratives are lousy with stories of characters who transgress gender roles or heteronormativity and suffer for it; even contemporary stories with queer and non-binary characters kill them off, or depict them as monsters. The message spoken by these narratives is clear: any transgression of traditional gender and sexuality will be punished.

While we as a culture continue the struggle to create happy endings for transgressive and transgender characters in our own popular literature, we can take heart that there is a folktale that has been told and retold for thousands of years with a transgressive, cross-dressing, sex-changing protagonist who is not punished, but rewarded for their bravery, skill, and strength with wealth, marriage, and a happy life.

Variants of “The Shift of Sex” available online:

    • A Romanian tale, collected in Andrew Lang’s 1901 The Violet Fairy Book.
    • A beautiful, literary version of the tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
    • A Hungarian variant is translated on the excellent blog of storyteller Csenge Virág Zalka.
    • Folklorist Robert Elsie has translated an Albanian variant on his site.


Psyche Z. Ready is a reader, writer, and an instructor of English Composition at George Mason University. She loves folk narratives, fantasy, and genderfucking.


[1] Examples: Tale type ATU 884 (“The Forsaken Fiancée”), ATU 884B (“The Girl as Soldier”), and ATU 884B* (“Girl Dressed as a Man Deceives the King”).

[2]The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index is a classification system for folktales, grouped by similar motifs. Folklorists Pauline Greenhill and Emilie Anderson-Grégoire discuss ATU 514 at length in Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag.

[3] A variant appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which dates to 8 CE; another in the Indian Mahabarata, which originates in the 7th or 8th century BCE; and also “Alimbeglanya” in the Ossetian Nart Sagas, which were compiled around 2,000 BCE.

[4] These tales were told long ago and in disparate regions with notions of sex, gender, and gender identity unquestionably different from our own; to apply a contemporary understanding of gender identity to these cultures is a form of conceptual colonialism.

Illustration by H.J. Ford.  Taken from: Lang, Andrew, ed. The Violet Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901.

Editor’s Note: A Different Kind of Happy Ending

So often the story begins with one of us, the wretched of the earth. There once was a poor woodcutter. There was once a poor fisherman. A widow, an orphan, a blind man. A peasant. You can imagine their hands are as rough as your own. You can imagine their swollen joints and bad teeth. You can imagine any one of them waiting bundled at the bus stop after a double shift, exact change in pocket, no more.

The story is about a low person. But because the girl was beautiful. But because the boy was brave. Because they are smart enough, good enough. Because they deserve it, they are lifted up. They marry the handsome prince who sits upon a saddle, or they win the hand of the Tsar’s daughter. The prole becomes rich.

We are taught that a happy ending is an ending with glittering gold pieces, perfumes, roasted birds. Wealth. The word itself almost fills your belly. A happy ending would be if you were driving that sweet Lexus idling at the stop light, if you were dressed like the people in big houses on the television screens, if you shopped at Whole Foods or didn’t have to scrub your own toilet. If only you deserved it.

Subvertere, Latin: To turn from below.

Now is the time for us to look for endings that subvert the paradigm of happiness we’ve been taught to seek. Now, because we are waking; now because in our disaster collectivism, we are discovering our power. We must be ready for reimagining, and rebuilding. I offer you a story with a different kind of happy ending. It’s not the perfect radical story; we’re not meant to question the idea of the benevolent monarch, or the assumption that people need be governed at all. But “The Rusty Plate” gives us an ending in which high is brought low; it’s a tale in which we learn to wish for a joy rooted not in becoming that which oppresses us, but in a world in which equality can be realized.

The story comes to us from the oral folklore of the Jews of Egypt:

There once was a poor man who wanted to bring a fine gift to the king for his birthday. His rich neighbor laughed at him and belittled him, saying, “What thing of worth could you possibly have? You may as well take this rusty old plate from your yard!” The poor man examined the broken plate, and thought, “Yes. Surely it is a very special gift, a gift from my very own yard.” He wrapped the plate in clean cloth and set off for the city. When he appeared before the king and unwrapped his gift, the sun shined just so upon its broken edges and it sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow. The rusty spots glittered like diamonds in the light. The king was delighted and amazed. He thanked the poor Jew profusely, and sent him off with a gift in return, a small pouch of gold.

But this is not our happy ending. Our happy ending comes not with gold, but with justice:

The poor man returns to his village, and his wealthy neighbor sees what the king has given him. “Imagine,” says the rich man, “If the king gives this fool coins for worthless junk, how much more will he reward me for a gift of real value?” So he sells his nice house, his land and goats and embroideries, to buy a plate of solid gold. The bourgeois man sets out for the city, thinking smugly that he will find such favor with the king that he will become a very rich, very powerful man indeed. And it’s true that the king is stunned by the beauty of the man’s gift. He exclaims “How can I ever thank you? Yes, I know! I will give you my finest and most prized possession!”

This is our happy ending, a happy ending for a new world:

The rich man looks into the pouch the king has given him, and he finds his neighbor’s rusty plate.


 This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Anna Lea Jancewicz

Interview: Sequoia Nagamatsu

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press). His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Tin House, and elsewhere. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he was educated at Grinnell College and Southern Illinois University. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, and an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is currently working on a second story collection and a novel.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is haunting and watery, full of tales of love and loss, but it also has bright surprises of wit and whimsy. His stories are set in Japan and populated by monsters of both traditional folklore and pop culture sci-fi, from the yōkai with its elastically fantastic neck to the atomic and iconic Godzilla.

Growing up as a third-generation Japanese American, what kind of exposure did you have to Japanese folklore? Were Japanese stories part of your family’s connection to their culture?

Apart from some of the more famous tales, such as Momotarō the Peach Boy, I never really encountered Japanese folklore as a child. No one except for my great-grandmother spoke Japanese, and it was difficult for many of us to find a link to our heritage through her. That said, I did attend temple every weekend as a child (my mother was a member of one of the so-called “new” religions), and services consisted of songs and dances that told tales of sorts.

When did you become interested in learning more about Japanese folklore? How do you feel the folklore of Japan has influenced the development of your personal ethnic identity?

I’ve always been fascinated with myths and legends from an early age, but it wasn’t until I reached college that I started to explore the tales of other cultures as an anthropology major. Even then, it wasn’t until I moved to Japan that my interest in Japanese folklore really took off (in part as a way to explore my heritage). The fantastic in literature, whether it be inspired by folklore or otherwise, is often part of a tradition of critique—social, psychological, emotional, individual. Folkloric monsters can serve as an allegory and a lens into modern life, emphasizing aspects of the human condition and society while, especially in the case of Japan, being a reminder of an old world that can never completely be reclaimed. As a Japanese American whose family has in many ways lost touch with our heritage, my foray into Japanese folklore was an effort to at least dip my toes in the magical ponds of my great-grandmother’s home.

Continue reading Interview: Sequoia Nagamatsu

Sisters

by A. Marie Carter

My sister and I play a game. It’s a game of a sovereignty of sorts, and it’s played out inside the front cover of every storybook our family owns. Her name is written in neat print, at the top, there first, claiming ownership from the start. My name is always scrawled underneath; the desperate scribble of the second sister who came after all the gifts had already been given. I too own this book, it seems to say. But she’s always the first, three years my senior. Her name is always already there.

It’s inside an exquisite copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that her name irks me most. I adore this book, a present from our grandmother, with its intricate illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Each sister is drawn in a gown embellished with a different fruit or flower, and her dresses, her headwear, even her delicate dancing shoes, are themed to match. I spend countless hours examining these pictures, trying to decide which sister I want to be.

Am I the youngest princess, whose dresses are adorned with flowers of orange and tangerine? Or can I be another one? I can’t be the one who wears wine-dark grapes in her hair because she is the eldest and my own sister is already just like her, quiet and wise, while I, like the story’s youngest, am all clamour and noise. Standing in between them are ten other women, in varying shades of our own selves.

The youngest sister in this story is terrified of noises in the dark, scared by the snap of a golden twig, by the footsteps of an invisible soldier. I don’t want to be that sister. I don’t want to be the one who is always afraid, who is frightened by things she cannot see. So I try hard to be the boldest, to be the bravest.

But when our grandmother dies I am the one who sits stupefied by her bedside, unable to speak anything but sobs, while my sister says all there is that needs to be said. The thank yous, the admissions of love. The acknowledgment of things that pass between girls and grandmothers. For all my bravado, it is her that takes the burden even though, strangely, I wanted it. But I can’t begrudge her that.

Just like in all the fairy tales, it’s the eldest who inherits the throne.


A. Marie Carter is an emerging writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure and the Review of Australian Fiction. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Flinders University, where she is also completing a PhD on monstrous mothers in varying folkloric contexts.

Illustration by Errol Le Cain from The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1981)

Editor’s Note: Ancestral Hunger Pangs

My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor René Ostberg.

Interview: Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer is an American fairy-tale writer, scholar, and editor. She has been called “one of the living masters of the fairy tale” (Tin House). Her work includes the story collections Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales and she’s the editor of four anthologies, including the bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Bernheimer’s work as an author, critic, and professor explores the intersections of contemporary fairy tales with multiple disciplines; she constantly pushes her students to think beyond conventional thought and heighten their creativity on fiction prompts. Bernheimer teaches fiction workshops and fairy tale classes at the University of Arizona.

What inspired you to begin to write? Why did you focus on fairy tales?

I fell in love with reading as a young child. I would read anything — fairy-tale books, novels, toothpaste boxes, Mr. Coffee instructions, comic books, detective stories, Hollywood magazines. I began writing fairy tales when I learned how to type, in Kindergarten, first by playing around on my grandfather’s IBM Selectric. Fairy tales were my first love as a reader, so I guess that’s where I began, and I just never stopped.

Your book Horse, Flower, Bird was such a delectable and tangible read. The stories are charming, strange, and even beautiful. I remember reading it in one of my early literature courses and I thought the entire collection was poignant. It’s a fairy tale book, but some consider it as prose poems. Would you agree?

 Oh, this is so kind of you to say! These are just the words I would hope for someone to use about that little collection. I consider these short stories to be fairy tales, but contemporary prose poetry, by my reading, borrows a huge amount of techniques from fairy tales so I can absolutely see why some readers might think that. I read a great deal of poetry, too.

Continue reading Interview: Kate Bernheimer

Narrating Grandmother’s Bag of Stories

by Debarun Sarkar

Every Bengali child grows up with Thakurmar Jhuli. They are the canonical set of fairy tales and folk tales–the stories told and retold countless times. Growing up on the western coast of India, I had no affinity with Bengali culture or literature, but every night when my mother couldn’t improvise anymore, an old hardbound copy of Thakurmar Jhuli would eventually come out of the cupboard. Growing up away from Bengal made my mother try harder to pass on whatever stories she had to tell.

The book went through so many years of reading to various children that barely any of the pages were held with the binder. The pages slipped over, spilled out held together by measly threads. The book was difficult to read because of its sliding papers, so on some nights my grandfather and grandmother would borrow tropes from the Thakurmar Jhuli and Hindu myths to create stories. Unlike my mother, they didn’t struggle with the act of storytelling without reference. It was as if my grandparents were a dynamic database of folk-tales algorithmically churning out new combinations.

Indian myths were once folktales and fairy tales bereft of institutionalized religiousness. It isn’t surprising that my grandparents switched between folk and religious forms unhesitatingly. Regional variations in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are now well-known fact with deviations of minor deities and themes. Stories of some deities did not even exist in neighbouring regions. I was told constantly from childhood of how the myths represented certain historical imaginations–folk historiography accounted for the transformation of princes and princesses into Gods and Goddesses.

The most common motif that my grandfather would borrow from the stories and repeat was the separation of two princely brothers during their search for a princess kidnapped by a monster. Eventually two knives would be planted at a tree and the brothers would head separate ways. The knife would rust if the respective brother died. One brother always died, and one rescued the princess. Flying chariots were also common, fueled by the Indian mythical TV series that were being aired on national television–adaptations of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

A copy of the book still exists in my new house tucked away with old cassettes and CDs. All the stories have not stayed with me after so many years, but what fascinates me in retrospect is the zeal of storytelling that my grandparents displayed, reinventing narratives everyday in the anonymity of private lives. The closest analogy of such acts of storytelling that I can think of in the present are the fan fiction writers of today, delving into storytelling without any desire for immediate material gains.


Debarun Sarkar is currently based in Calcutta. Recent works have appeared in or are forthcoming in 1:1000, Cadaverine Magazine, Bottle RocketsWild Plum, Ink Sweat and Tears, among others. He is a staff writer at Newfound and an editor The Murmur House.

Image from the Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) by Dakkhinaranjan Mitra Majumder.

Editor’s Note: Drink Me

I was not allowed to read many fairy tales as a child.

There was a danger that leaked through those pages, a draw to ways of thinking that my parents deemed unsuitable for a good little girl to be exposed to; magic and spells, mystical creatures and witches, violence and blood. I was relegated to the watered-down Disney versions which modeled the type of young woman my parents wanted me to be:

Subdued. Subservient. Dependent.

My first, unadulterated access to the original version of a fairy tale was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As a teenager more focused on getting my driver’s license and graduating high school as early as I could, I was beyond the age of superficial enchantment and  delight at the array of fanciful characters and silly riddles. I was instead struck by one of Alice’s seemingly nonsensical questions:

“But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?”

I was already a couple of years deep into trying to answer this question. I had, like Alice, seen something in my world that didn’t make sense and I chased that anomaly down its own rabbit-hole. She and I had both been drinking out of bottles that made parts of ourselves smaller and larger. She changed physically but I drank because I didn’t understand myself. It helped me keep these new burgeoning parts of myself contained so I could fit through that small door into the garden of self-medicated bliss.

“ – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

At home I was still expected to be the obedient daughter, to not ask questions, to do what was expected of me. Under my parents’ watchful eyes I was a model of perfection. Then I would sneak away, and the control I had to maintain over my behavior would evaporate.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the cat: “We’re all mad here.”

I would drink until I blacked out. I seduced older men so they would sneak me into bars. I started smoking cigarettes. I raced cars. I got into physical fights. Every moment I had spent suppressed at home manifested in a stunning display of self-destruction. I was the Mad Hatter let loose on the world and its reaction only fueled my insanity. I was the gardeners painting the white roses red in an attempt to deceive those who held power over them. I was the Queen of Hearts yelling “Off with their heads!” whenever I would sober up enough to notice that no matter the color I splashed on everything it was a hollow action that brought about no change.

But mostly, I was Alice.

“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”

I was Alice, curious about what she was experiencing but not happy. I was lost between lands, not sure of my destination but aware that I could not live long in this limbo.

“She generally gave herself good advice (though she very seldom followed it).”

I was Alice. We were both naïve young girls who survived long falls and traversed paths fraught with unknowns. Now when I look back at my adventures, they too seem something like a fantastical dream, but unlike Alice I did not simply wake up. I had to stop heeding the labels that said “Drink Me” and let myself grow steadily until I realized that my Wonderland was a restraint, not a fantasy. I climbed back out of the rabbit-hole and emerged a stronger and surer version of myself.

“For you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editorial assistant Cat Solewin.

 

Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Kelly Vivanco is an artist whose paintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.

Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?

I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!

Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?

I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.

“Cushion Tree”

You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative? Continue reading Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Woman at the Edge of Town

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

My mother knows her way around a ghost. Their worn faces, their domestic haunts. She hears them, their restlessness on the stairs, in the basement, in the walls. She sees the lines drawn between stars, the prophesies in a palm, orbs of light floating loose in dark fields. She must be a witch, I often think. She must be a witch to know them all so well.

She’s an actress, a writer, and once worked as a clown with sea-green curls and a wide painted mouth, bells at her cuffs and waist. (My mother is a master of disguise.) Growing up, she told me stories of Judith beheading Holofernes and the goddess Hera’s endless revenges. She taught me how to break up with people, that feng shui is good for increasing energy and fooling stain-sniffing landlords. She taught me that mud can be beautiful and that blood is powerful, even sacred, especially when shed in sacrifice.

If she ever wore her dead ring to ward off the whispers, I cannot recall. But we were there all along, my brother and I, the curse our village elders called a blessing, forever lingering at her side, reminding.

*

She must be a witch, I often think, to be so singular, so shunned and so willfully misunderstood. To unravel her skin each night and sew it back thicker each morning. To cross those moats our fickle neighbors tried digging between us. To sink her feet boldly into their stinging waters and pull forth her own mythic swords of power.

*

She must be a witch, the way our neighbors shrank from us after the divorce—divorced from a pastor, no less!—narrowing their eyes and snarling back their lips at her. She who turned away their rubbernecker casseroles. Who bore their judgement without blinking. Whose story refused to end on its provided page.

Because the witch, you see, is endless. Boundless.

She builds homes out of gingerbread and theater, a smiling enchantress spinning plates on a stage. She carves runes into her skin, squeezing out living red power across her grimoires’ pages, smearing it over us, her children, like war-paint; a spell for protection, a spell to blind us to her pain.

Laughing, she lifts her dripping hands to the sky—all of it defiant, undeniable proof of Her. The Witch. She who so loves the world’s ghosts, yet will never succumb to joining them.


KC Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on her first novel, a fem near-future scifi piece about rats, ghosts, and artificial wombs. For more information, visit: kcmeadbrewer.com or follow her @meadwriter

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1613) by Cristofano Allori.