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.


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


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,

[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.


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


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.

Editor’s Note: To Stop the Sound of Gnawing

I’ve found myself fascinated, lately and distantly, by the accumulation of human action. I like to believe that as our universe expands it makes more space for beauty or good, which has dimensions and mass and density. We see a poet who puts affecting work into the world and we see small bits of beauty settle into once-empty spaces of her readers. It is matter; it matters. It takes up space, but unlike other matter, it can’t be destroyed.

One story[1] of the beaver posits a different perspective on the universe:

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 9.44.47 PM

I find myself fascinated with this story, not because of its brevity, and not just because of its apocalyptic vision—what strikes me is a universe built around anger as the constant, and not beauty, or not good, or not anything else that might not be contained by mathematics. I think about us all toppling. I think about the end of ends.

But this is just one story humans have told about beavers.

Another story about beavers is that they hate the sound of running water, hence their famous drive to build dams and lodges—in truth, a trickle triggers an instinctual response, to package a leak in the dam with young willow or the branches of birch. It’s both more simple and more complex than we give them credit for. Hate, it seems, is a human specialty.

Another story about beavers is recorded early by Aesop, famous for his fables: “When pursued, the beaver runs for some distance, but when he sees he cannot escape, he will bite off his own testicles and throw them to the hunter, and thus escape death.”[2] This belief percolates for roughly two millennia, until the 17th Century, when Sir Thomas Browne points out that a beaver’s testicles do not pendulate outside the body, making self-castration difficult.

“In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish,” writes essayist Amy Leach.[3] Surely anyone who had touched or skinned a beaver must have known the truth, but correcting the papacy  hasn’t always been easy.

We can see here the spectrum of stories about one thing, but also many: some are simply incorrect, some are mischaracterizations, some can be outwitted by science or simple observation, some exist beyond us, some we’ll never be sure of. But my fascination with all of these stories is that each of us readers have space to make our own meaning of them. We get to decide correctness or incorrectness, and someone else can do the opposite. We can react, retell, recast. We can always make beautiful, if that is what we choose to do.

There is much in the world that I believe would make the Great White Grandfather Beaver angry. Lately, this feels hauntingly present, and it all, too, accumulates, in the shape of the thinning pole that keeps up our world. But I also like to believe in an addendum, in a story beyond the story of the “The Gnawing”: It is known that if one goes alone or in a group, in the evening, to tear down the local beaver dam twig by twig, send them all down the newly-made stream, the beavers will stay up through the night to make the necessary repairs. And maybe the Great White Grandfather Beaver might spend a night gnawing through the anger to find a broken pole and a broken world that leaks water or something worse, and that he, like all good beavers, might decide instead to fashion a dam to hold up the world and make it quiet again.

That is a story I can believe. A little more time to tell old stories, and make new ones from the old, and to find ways to convince the Great White Grandfather Beaver that we are worth the work, even if we are terrible, and even if our beautiful isn’t enough.

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

[1] From American Indian Myths & Legends, eds. Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes


[3] From “In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters,” published in her 2012 essay collection Things That Are.

The Morals of the Stories

by Carmen Maria Machado

A note for readers: the links below lead to many places, including articles describing physical and sexual violence. 

If you are a woman and you are curious, grief is not far behind. Your thirst will be quenched for a moment, yes, but then consequences will limp-lope toward you like an injured man (and isn’t that the world’s most dangerous creature, an injured man?) and you will regret all of your choices. And if you are a woman and you age, you will be invisible and no one will want you, but if you tighten, lift, tweak, cut, suck, pack, polish, paint, or conceal, then vanity is your weakness and you deserve what comes to you. And if you are a woman, your pleasure is a problem that needs solving. And if you are a woman and someone needs a bartering chip, you are that bartering chip. You can be bought and sold, taken without consequence, passed around, bound against your will. Your worth, to them, falls somewhere between organic greens and broodmare—an object to be consumed, fucked, acted upon. Do you see the pattern, now? And if you are a woman and you promise something to man or beast, that promise is eternal and binding. You might think your mind is yours to change, but you would be mistaken. And if you are a woman who walks in proximity to a monster, even if you don’t know it, even if the monster has soft fur and a kind smile and friends, even if you have been sent to the monster by another monster, then your downfall is of your own making. And if you are a woman and you do what they want, you will die, and if you are a woman and you reject what they demand of you, you will also die. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your voice. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your mind. And if you are a woman, they are coming for your body: Fire will find your flesh, the knife will find your chest, the boot will find your neck, the bullet will find your brain. Because if you are a woman, you look delicious, and the world is hungry for all the wrong lessons.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

004. Charmander

by Colette Arrand

“The flame on its tail shows the strength of its life force. If it is weak, the flame also burns weakly.” – Pokémon Gold

Say I discovered my name on an alien terrestrial planet where, stranded, I’m dying in a network of caves. In the heart of them, my name is always burning. It’s my job to inhabit cold rock and live, somehow, but I am attracted to that molten core. Into it, I disappear completely.

Or, say that my name is a witch who either helps travelers or eats them. Let’s say that I have been both travelers.

Or, say that my name is a feast.

Or, say that my name is a locked room that I’m not allowed to enter, that every other door in the mansion is open to me and thus of no interest. The man who owns the house says that my name is blood and death, but through the keyhole my name is a tongue of pale fire flickering in the dark.

Or, say that my name is in the heart of a forest where I’m lost and the wind conspires against my torch. My name lives in a house I’ve never seen and it waits for me to come for it, to rescue it from a curse. My name is frightening, but I’ll know it is mine when I’ve pressed my lips to it, when it transforms as I’ve dreamed of transforming, which is to say that it becomes me and I become my name.


Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia. She is the author of the chapbook To Denounce the Evils of Truth. Her work has appeared in The Atlas Review, CutBank, and elsewhere. She tweets @gh0stplanet and can be found online at

Editor’s Note: The They-Child Grows Wings

At the edge of the forest, the they-child saw the one-clawed bird, its feathers glinting cerulean in the sun. The bird stopped preening itself and stared; the they-child put their fingers to their neck and slowly shook, until the mask they wore wiggled loose. Off came the long auburn hair, the blue eyes ringed with sleeplessness, the mud-red collar buttoned to the chin. Underneath it the they-child was something else, something more splendid and strange, for the first time. They lifted the girl-mask up as a sort of offering. The bird extended its one giant talon and wrapped it around the part of the mask that had hugged the they-child’s skull. The bird started to fly, slowly at first–slow enough that the they-child could follow–and then faster, and the child found themselves lifting off the ground and gliding with new wings above the forest.

979ff707-61c5-434e-8459-22ad9a5b07b7I’m writing a fairy tale. It’s a very simple tale, with familiar archetypes and motifs: a young person, a bird, the woods, transformation. But it’s a tale that Sotheby’s–the auction house that owns Toyen’s Message from the Forest, the painting my story is based on–tells differently. In their version, there is no mask, no avian helper. “An owl-like spectre bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a girl,” says Sotheby’s of the painting; they also refer to Toyen as “she.”[1] The transmasculine Surrealist has been rendered into a woman; the painting, too, has been broken into its most obvious component parts: “owl-like spectre,” “one remaining claw,” “severed head of a girl.” I want more from it, I see more in it. So I read the painting queerly–through my own experiences as a non-binary genderqueer person, through what I know about Toyen–and try to riddle out a message from the forest that makes sense to me.

This is the story I choose to write: the girl-face as mask, the one-taloned bird as helper, the they-child running freely, as themselves, into the woods at last. I think of the obvious parallels between my life and the story: my tomboyish adulation of the woods as a child, and the avian name I chose at twenty in an attempt to be proud of my small stature and jumpy mannerisms, to give myself a non-binary name that fit my non-binary gender. I think, too, about which story Toyen would have preferred–mine or Sotheby’s, or neither. I struggle to imagine Toyen–an avowed anarchist, who hid his artistic partner, the poet Jindřich Heisler, of Jewish descent, from the Nazis–seeing nature, rather than humanity, as evil. Though perhaps he used the brightly colored bird as a stand-in for sinister human acts: Sotheby’s does say, “An image of anxiety and helplessness, it gave rise to the series of twelve drawings that []he embarked on over the next two years, influenced by the Nazis occupation of Prague, entitled Spectres of the Desert.” Sotheby’s has, I’m sure, proper art historians writing their descriptions, with proper training in historical context and technique–although I wonder what their biases make them overlook, or what they choose to ignore.

When I try to find something transgressive behind Message from the Forest–a bit of overlooked history, or a queer reading of the painting–perhaps I’ll only find my own reflection: the face of a strange and overgrown they-child standing, at the edge of the woods, girl-mask outstretched, hands trembling, wings pushing out through my shoulder blades. I’ll offer up the-gender-which-is-not-me-but-has-been-ascribed-to-me to my avian friend, who takes it and leads me deep into the woods, over rock and vine and river, to a place where all the birds are singing. Where I, too, will be a bird.

This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry.

[1] This is common across the internet and in academic articles I’ve found on Toyen (Czech, 1902-1980). It is well-known that Toyen used the masculine case for himself and lived as a man yet art history seems to insist on presenting him as a cisgendered woman.