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.

Editor’s Note: A Border of Sky

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Borrando La Frontera

In 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted swathes of the Tijuana border wall pale blue. From a distance, these painted sections blended with the sky so well that the wall seemed to disappear: it ceased, for a moment, to be a barricade, a reminder that the Global North is fortifying itself against the Global South. Fernández’s work reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood, where the edges of forests are boundaries between known and unknown worlds. In those stories, borders function as thresholds.

In Ambos Nogales, where I volunteer at el Comedor, an aid station and soup kitchen for recently deported migrants, the border wall starts outside of town. It’s a rust-colored snake that wriggles across the hill crests before descending into the city itself. It cleaves the broad avenues and beige-brick buildings of sleepy Arizona from the narrow streets and tumble of vendor carts and pharmacies of urban Sonora–cleaves city from suburb, Mexico from the US, “them” from “us.” On Sundays, families picnic along the fence, cousins with Mexican citizenship passing Coca-Cola and condiments to cousins with US citizenship, holding hands instead of embracing. The border here is porous enough for fingers, voices, shared meals; for lives to be lived across and between–but not permeable enough for whole bodies.

I’m a gring@ from north of the line; I live in a country where politicians and public intellectuals fuel fears that legions of people from Mexico and Central America are crossing north to take jobs away from US citizens and to, God forbid, speak Spanish while browsing the supermarket. In his poem “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes, “CAN’T CROSS because ‘xenophobia’ is a politically correct term.” Secure borders! US conservatives scream, and Xenophobia! the liberals respond–a cloaked word that doesn’t sound quite as bad or honest as racist.

I also live in a country that just elected Donald Trump to the presidency–a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” But he’s wrong–those are not most of the people crossing north, and they’re certainly not most of the people I’ve met and talked to: undocumented millennials who grew up in the United States, were deported, and are trying to get back to Chicago, Phoenix, or California; families fleeing gang violence and economic poverty in Honduras and El Salvador; a Oaxacan university student whose visa application was rejected by the Mexican government because he looked “too indigenous,” and came from a family without wealth or social standing.

Herrera’s poem also includes the portentous line, “CAN’T CROSS because brown is the color of the future,” which hints at the dream that someday Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants will be able to travel north freely. Herrera and other writers and artists are making a new mythology of the border: Prefiguring what could be and should be, they transform the militarized line into a threshold. “I see a whole generation … wandering around // a continent without a name,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes in “Freefalling Towards a Borderless Future,”  “Standing on the map of my political desires // I toast to a borderless future // (I raise my wine glass toward the moon).” Queer, Chicana writer Gloria Anzáldua–who grew up in the borderlands of south Texas–considers the northward migrations a “return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán,” the original Southwestern homeland of the Aztecs which, according to Anzaldúa, they “left … in 1168 AD,” bound for the Valley of Mexico. “This land was Mexican once, // was Indian always // and is. // And     will be again,” she writes in her poem El otro Mexico.

In October 2015, Ana Teresa Fernández and a group of volunteers painted a 50-foot section of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico the color of the sky. In April 2016, volunteers in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Agua Prieta did the same. With each brush stroke, they enacted the project’s name, Borrando La Frontera. They offered those on the south side of the wall a vision of what they might someday see looking north–after the steel, barbed wire, and Border Patrol trucks that divide the two countries dissolve, there will be nothing but houses, schools, mountains, mesquite trees, clouds in a hot desert sky.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.


If you’re interested in supporting direct humanitarian aid to end migrant deaths and people of color-led pro-immigrant groups in southern Arizona, please consider volunteering with or donating to the following organizations:

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes (Arizona)
Aguilas Del Desierto Inc. (S. Cali & Arizona)
South Texas Human Rights Center (South Texas)
Derechos Humanos
Protection Network Action Fund/ Fondo de Acción de las Redes de Protección
Mariposas Sin Fronteras
Southside Worker Center

Editor’s Note: Modern-Day Mike Finks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Editor’s Note: Not Capable of Not Grieving

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

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

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

— “The Seven Ravens” [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— “The Boy Magician” [4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—“A Dead Son,” Lieh Tzu [6]

I have said some goodbyes in death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are, indeed, meaningless in certain ways.

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

The landscape has already changed beyond our recognition.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Editor’s Note: Golden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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.

Editor’s Note: How to Give Readers the Shivers

wanda1by Kate Bernheimer

Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.

Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!

Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.

Or have we?

Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:

Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in

May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.

I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.

Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.

I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)

Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.

Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.

The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.

Wanda gag056


Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the  2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.

Editor’s Note: Ancient Moments of Telling

Biologists reconstruct the descent histories of life forms on planet Earth as the tree of life, its dense trunks and branches leading from common ancestors to new species. Such phylogenetic relationships are not limited to biology. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal applied the same analysis tools and techniques to storytelling.[1]  Using the catalogue of categorized written folklore in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, they “recorded the presence/absence of each [of] these tales […] in 50 Indo-European-speaking populations represented in the ATU Index” and traced along the resulting tree-like descent histories how these stories were transmitted.[2]

The vertically-transmitted story is passed down within a culture through cultural inheritance. After migration and time, the story might show up around the world, told in daughter languages that emerged out of the original language in which it was first told. A horizontally-transmitted story leaps across cultural and language boundaries to reach foreign audiences. Graça da Silva and Tehrani found evidence for stronger vertical than horizontal transmissions for many of the folk tales they studied. When “accounting for spatial relationships among linguistically related Indo-European groups,” many folktales seemed to have been rejected by adjacent cultures. Rejection by foreign cultures and missed opportunities to translate and adopt such stories that might have changed them significantly helped them to retain much of their original form.

Graça da Silva and Tehrani traced this remarkable retention of the basic story arc across hundreds and thousands of years and miles to glimpse—for a few stories—ancient origins in the oral traditions. They discovered that “The Smith and the Devil” fairy tale might have originated over 6000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Preserved in the phylogenetic relationships are ancient moments of telling: a blacksmith and their fictional story about the struggle to smelt copper and alloy, or other community members and their fictional stories about the blacksmith. After all, to pursue craft is isolating; to pursue work with metals is magical, powerful, dangerous, and thus perfect for gossip and exclusion and storytelling.[3]

Certainly the Devil is involved.[4] There’s the bargain—the smith’s soul for mastery over the new dark arts—and there’s the twist—the morally questionable smith beats the Devil at his own game—and there’s the implication that art, craft, technology, knowledge itself are both divine and damning. From roots to branches, it’s an implication that susurrates thousands of years later.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.


[1]Graça da Silva, Sara and Tehrani, Jamshid J. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150645. 20 January 2016. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645>

[2] “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu>

[3] Monbiot, George. “The Smith and the Devil.” George Monbiot. 1 January 1994. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/smith-and-the-devil/>

[4]“330: The Smith Outwits the Devil.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&act=select&atu=330>