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:

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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

[2] http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast152.htm

[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.