Editor’s Note: When the Street Lamps Glow

There is a statue near the border of Nogales, Arizona of a small boy. Every time my mother, brother, and I would walk by she’d turn to us and say that if we misbehaved or did not follow her instructions we would become a statue just like that small boy. My mother was always aided by folk tales or myths to scare us into thinking that if we deliberately disobeyed her, consequences would arise.

My mother is from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Molded by a culture full of folk tales and old proverbs, she passed on generations of stories to my siblings and I.  My mother shared the legends of El Cucuy, the Mexican boogeymann and El Chupacabra, a goat-like creature the size of a small bear–its spines reaching from its neck to the base of its tail–that haunts the desert. She also told me about La Llorona.

La Llorona is told as a cautionary tale to children to make them behave properly. Different versions of the story are told depending on the region. Some say the story focuses on Maria, a woman so beautiful that all the men in her town attempted to woo her each time she walked by. Maria, with a sense of self absorption, believed she deserved the attention. She would flirt with the men but vowed only to marry the most handsome and wealthiest man she could find. The only problem interfering with her lifestyle? Her two sons. So she decided to drown them.

Other versions of the tale say Maria married a wealthy man and they were happy. She bore him two sons. After a time, the man would go away for long periods of time and when he returned, only focused on his sons. One day, he returned with another woman at his side and left again. Enraged, Maria drowned her two children in the river. Maria became deeply remorseful and wandered along the banks hoping her sons would return. It is said that when she finally died, her weeping spirit wandered the land, crying, “¡Ay, mis hijos!”

One day when I was five, my three siblings and I were playing a game of freeze tag on my grandma’s patio. Our dogs chased and barked at us. The daylight was quickly vanishing and the street lamps were turning on. As the sun set, my mother called out to us and yelled it was time to return inside. We didn’t listen. She yelled out, “¡Si no regresan ya, los va a agarrar La Llorona!” which roughly translates to, “If you don’t return now, La Llorona will come get you.” My brothers stopped playing and ran inside. I didn’t understand who my mom was speaking of because I was the youngest and had not heard the tale. I stayed outside for another five minutes and when I decided to go back, I found the door was locked. My mom on the other side said it was too late and La Llorona coming. Panicking, I begged to go inside. She hesitated. I said I was sorry for not coming back when she asked. The door unlocked and I ran inside.

I sat on a rusty old stool as I listened to my mother explain the importance of La Llorona. A weeping women all dressed in a white dress and her face covered by a white veil. She wouldn’t rest until she found her kids. That’s when my mom uttered the word: “Unless…” I stared at her, tightening my eyebrows. “Unless she finds other children, children who misbehave, and takes them instead.” I felt my skin lose its smoothness and small bumps started forming from my forearm to my shoulder. “La Llorona will come as soon as the lights on the street start turning on. Make sure you’re inside when the street lamps glow.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editorial assistant Gabriel A. Jiménez. 

Ancillary to Memory

by Benjamin Winkler

I can still recite the entirety of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.” It unknots itself from my tongue with the same cadence as shma-yisrael-adonai-elohainu or the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s almost as if the words themselves are not important but the act of worrying them. I used to carry a turquoise stone and a Garden State Parkway token in my pocket for the same purpose.

All of these were central to growing up in south Jersey, between the Pine Barrens and the City, but the memories bound up with this cultural flotsam are much more pleasant: I’m four or five and sitting with my mother on the beige sofa, finger pressed firmly to page, sounding out words like “quince” and “runcible.” I used to carry books with me everywhere, in the car, to school, in the red wagon my parents would pull me up the hill in to the Garden State Discovery Museum.

Lear’s was the first poem I ever loved and the first I ever memorized, but it was only later I learned to understand the words without the Jan Brett illustrations I knew. And then I wondered what it was like to sail across the ocean, or pierce my nose, or fall in love across a species.

I later stored away lines by Berryman and Bishop, but those are subject to forgetting. I have to look for them, to coax them out like the piggy-wig in the woods. I think the mysteries of memory are a lot like dream-logic: We don’t know why something is there, only that it is and could not be otherwise. We can tease it apart pacing around a living room or on a pricey analyst’s couch, but ultimately that your mind found this important is all the reason you need.


Benjamin Winkler lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA. His work has previously appeared in RHINO, The Ilanot Review, and Lockjaw Magazine. Find him online at www.benjaminwinkler.com or on Twitter at @cmdrcallowhill.

Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

Continue reading Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

We Look At Each Other

by Kimberly Campanello

The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.
-Audre Lorde

He forbids us from knowing anything. From finding anything out. From unlocking the door, behind which we suspect there are so many more.

He doesn’t leave us alone, as you might have thought, with a ring of keys. He doesn’t leave us with a test after extracting a promise of obedience. Instead, he’s everywhere. He won’t leave us alone. We are given no keys. We don’t have the run of the house, luxurious beds, diamond chokers.

Instead, we do our work where we can.

He doesn’t leave us, ever. He hovers around our meals, our games, our songs. Every day, every night, he tells us things, sometimes in a short burst of speech, a tiny phrase. Sometimes he goes on for hours.

When he’s silent, we thrash in our beds, trembling for more. Will he ever tell us about the door? Will the door ever be a thing he talks about? We tarry at our work. We burn soup.

We ask about the door. He says we don’t care enough about the door for him to say anything about it. He says many things about himself, over and over again. He reassures us of his love more than once.

We get tired of this.

We get bolder.

We want to talk about the door.

We ask about the door again. He tells us to sit down. The question is too difficult to answer, he says. We are being unfair.

He talks about himself, about things, about us, but never about the door.

He won’t look at us anymore. We look at each other instead. We look at the others. And they look at us.

Still, we keep asking him about that door. We are really asking about all the little doors and rooms behind it. We are asking about the whole house.

We know because we saw the plans. The old woman shared them with us. They were in the cellar wrapped around old garlic bulbs to keep them dry. The old woman had known a time would come to unroll the crumbling paper in the light, to show the plans for the whole house.

She knows we have come at last to open these doors. She knows we have come to plumb the house’s depths. We have come to tear it down.

And we have come just in time because the plans are faded, almost invisible. The woman might have died. The garlic might have rotted into the paper. All might have been lost.

When no one is watching, we tattoo the plans onto our bodies in indigo blue. When we get through that door, we will always know where we are.

The old woman says the garlic is sprouting now that it’s seen some light. We look at each other. We have forgotten his name. We know where the door is. We have the plans.


Kimberly Campanello was born in Elkhart, Indiana, and is a dual American and Irish citizen. Her poetry collections include Imagines (New Dublin Press), Strange Country (The Dreadful Press), Consent (Doire Press), Spinning Cities (Wurm Press) and Hymn to Kālī (Eyewear Publishing). MOTHERBABYHOME, a book of conceptual and visual poetry on carceral practices toward women and children at the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland, is forthcoming from zimZalla. Her play Constance and Eva on the radical sisters Constance Markiewicz and Eva Gore-Booth will be produced in London in September. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University in the UK. www.kimberlycampanello.com

Editor’s Note: Let the Toads Fall From Your Lips

Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads”[1] is a story of two sisters whose character traits are cleaved along the usual fairy tale lines: one sister is beautiful and preternaturally kind; the other plain and rude. The pretty, sweet sister meets an enchanted woman at a well and the woman gives her a peculiar gift: each time she opens her ruby mouth to speak, flowers and gemstones fall from her lips. The other sister tries to replicate the first one’s success but is cursed, rather than blessed, by the enchanted woman. Toads and snakes escape her mouth when she opens her pencil-thin lips. Although Perrault sends the diamond-mouthed sister to marry a prince and the toad-spewing sister into the woods to die, he didn’t really need this ending to clarify which sister was bad and which was good. It would have been clear to readers of Perrault’s day, for whom diamonds were shiny symbols of wealth and toads were associated with devilry.

The connection between toads, frogs, and evil has deep roots in Western folklore and religious literature. Throughout the brutal and bloody witch trials of 15th-18th century Europe, toads were frequently considered the familiars of black magick practitioners, hopping about villages to carry out the work of warty, spiteful sorceresses. In Roman mythology, rude villagers forbade the goddess Latona from drinking clear pond water, even after she implored, “‘Why do you refuse me water? Water is free to all. Nature allows no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water.’” As punishment for their refusal, Latona turned them into frogs.[2] And in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the second plague the God of the Hebrews casts upon the Egyptians is that of frogs: “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.”

That sounds like a terrible plague, but when the Ancient Egyptians weren’t beset with frogs they venerated them. The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was frequently represented as a woman with an amphibian head. This association between frogs and fertility was related to a natural phenomenon: millions of frogs were birthed when the Nile flooded, a yearly cycle that provided much-needed water for Egyptian crops. Similar associations are found in Aztec and Ancient Greek cosmologies, recognizing amphibians’ crucial ecological roles.

Frogs and toads are still important although, these days, they’re dying off. “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction. The culprit is a deadly fungus called batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). While the origins of Bd are uncertain, one thing seems clear to scientists who study the issue: it was spread by the shipment of Bd-carrying frogs around the world. Two possible vector species, African clawed frogs and North American bullfrogs, are “widely infected with Bd but do not seem to be harmed by it.” The African clawed frogs were transported to other continents for use in pregnancy tests in the 1950s and 60s; North American bullfrogs have both stowed away on ships and been intentionally exported for culinary purposes.

“Extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels,” Kolbert adds, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”[3]

When I re-read “Diamonds and Toads,” I find myself daydreaming about meeting the enchanted woman at the well. I imagine thousands, maybe millions, of humans–those of us concerned about the mass extinction racking the earth, an extinction caused by our species–lining up to talk to her, saying rude things and getting cursed in return. Perhaps some of us would, like the naughty sister, spill toads from our throats, repopulating amphibians across the earth. [4] Perhaps the fairy woman would tire of that curse and vary her punishments. Corals and mollusks, leopards and lemurs would leap from our mouths; those very same animals consumed by human spears and axes, guns and poison, by the pavement that has been poured over the earth.


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


[1] Heiner, Heidi Anne. “The Annotated Diamonds and Toads.” SurLaLune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/diamondstoads/

[2] Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable. 1859. Dover Thrift Editions, 2000.

[3] Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. Picador, 2014.

[4] Of course, you could argue that those frogs would come down with chytrid fungi in due time, that they too would be wiped out. But this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t supposed to make perfect sense.

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.