Quite possibly we’ve lived through centuries of propaganda. Stories and news and traditions that we are told represent us. Or the truth. Or things we must believe. Stories we either simply enjoy without realizing that they were actually sticking to the ribs of our sense of ourselves or, eventually, take for granted as commonalities within ours and others’ cultures. Sometimes quirky tales of fairies and seal people, bigfeet and wicked step-mothers, other times messages that we eventually wear as spiritual and mystical garments, like underworld and afterlife, reincarnation and justice, karma, you create your own reality. Yes, and happy ever after.
How do they stack up under an eventually realized biased lens?
When I was little I was given a big thick book of stories. Not like now with Where The Wild Things Are or How to Train Your Dragon but old, old tales, from Alice Through the Looking Glass to the Pied Piper. Even Dick Whittington and his cat.
And, speaking of the Pied Piper, has anyone guessed at the date at the end? Or wondered how the Sword in the Stone proclaims a destined wisdom holder and teacher (forget he word king, it’s loaded), or what Snow White really is about, and how the brothers Grimm seduced us all long before Disney?
We grow up with a skewed view of the human race, even other species, earth, language and truth, if we don’t dissect these stories, if we just them without seeing our situations reflected in them or if we don’t learn the inherent message they convey. Even if/when we consider them worthless. Might we be missing the magic in the wisdom? Misunderstood story for childre who never initiate for all the elders were imprisoned or hung? Or humilitaed and belittled into their own oblivion?
THAT UPPITY WHITE WOMAN
Mother tried to drown me when I was born. Our culture does not allow albinist children to live. Bad luck. I’d cause pointless hunting. I’d dry up the milk of cattle. I’d be responsible for shriveling the penises of men, and causing babies to be spat out of a woman’s womb not a month into pregnancy. We reminded them of the old days. The stone and antler cave days. We reminded them of who we truly are before the world seemed to become tame. I arrived, unfortunately for her, at the time of the deep, dark, frozen cold.
But Father—crow-black hair and amber-eyed, a mouth full of laughter, strong-armed and deep-voiced—stopped her, and spirited me away. He took me to Manna, a miniwikin not long birthed of a dead person, her big, full breasts futilely overflowing and causing her pain. He carried me through fear-high drifts of snow, keeping me alive bundled in goose feather pillows and fox skins, and he dropped me down into the midwife’s lap, even without her say-so. Men. Go figure what they see in some of us? He told me later that her eyes went wide with both fear, and that other thing that happens to some at the sight, smell, and touch of a newborn, though mewing, violet-eyed kitten of a kid that I was. She told me, in later years, that her milk dripped right off, making cold the front of her smock, right down to the tool belt.
So there I was. Like a limpet sucking sustenance from a tide-bound rock pool.
Mother raged at Father when he got back to the dun. Fuckwit! Call yourself a king? For goodness sake, you’re supposed to be a fucking man! It’ll be the laughing stock! Don’t you dare ever say it came out of me, I’ll have your balls on my breakfast toast quicker’n you can squeal, you muthafucking, wetnosed, nostalgic wimp of a man! And she’d not humped him all winter after that.
Well I just kept on being a white-as-winter four-legged, left to myself most of the time, or else hanging out with the dogs. I got no evil eye from the villagers: not goodwife nor hunter, blacksmith or tanner. Nor any of the animals neither. Especially not Spud. As pale as me, he is, but nobody ever gives him a hard time for the color he was born to. He’s big as a fucking pony and destined to head the sled team when he’s fully trained in the traces. Life’s been me and him from as far back as I can remember.
Mother… what’s her name again? You know those words that are so cruel on the tongue you forget them on purpose somehow? Like widow-makers. You know what they are? Sometimes hunters pitch a tent for the night, sheltering till brother blizzard passes, then crack, in their sleep, that massive lower branch snaps under the weight of too much ice, killing every one of ‘em.
A bit too smart for your own good, is what Manna says, time and again, when I say stuff like that about the woman who bore me, who I sometimes see at a distance—at the market or down by the pier, at the ships, bringing treasure from the East. Manna suggests I keep thoughts like that to myself, but who am I supposed to tell anyway? Other kids? The other kids? I’m as white as the fucking snow and not even a freckle to break up the ghost of me. No. Other kids learned early not to look in my direction. Playing is what sled dogs are for. Spud and the others.
Mother looks my way from a distance. I know who you are, Mother. By your crown. Narrow heavy metal line around hair the color of a dangerous autumn forest, eyes hooded, as though you’d rather not see me. I’m supposed to be dead, I know. A thin line to your lips suggesting what? Hatred? Your gaggle of my honey-skinned siblings, their hair as black as Father’s, dressed in finely-woven, woad-dyed wool, fine ermine and bear fur for their shoulders, walking behind you with the grace that the privileged are taught at your knee. At your command. None of them know about me, do they?
Father keeps the miniwikin in ample stock. For payment, I guess. Not that Manna cares. I was her pride right from the getgo, and only her own mother and Robert The Axe—the man who loves her and shares her bed—knows. And even though Robert is the best woodsman for mile after vast mile, keeping the houses in the dun, and outer walls of the longhouse loaded high with deep-seasoned redwood and spruce logs, peeled and quartered perfectly, he could never be paid the kind of meat that Father could provide, so he cedes my upbringing by Manna with humble grace.
That was that, and all very fine, for ten or more years. I ran with Spud and the other dogs, learned the way of the sled like a navvie, if not like a musher. I could chew rawhide to soft leather with the best of ‘em. And I gained an education in miniwikin, to the point I can identify and name every healing wort, and gathering-green, in all the valleys and on all the mountainsides, for miles and miles. I know everything from how to lance the pus from an infection, to what it takes to pull a calf from her mother, legs first.
And then I hit about twelve, I guess. I get hair under my arms and in my groin. Small round mounds where my nipples, until now, have been of little consequence. I keep this to myself of course, as I figure this to be trouble, there not being anything I haven’t seen that people with such get up to, me traveling with Manna and the sled dogs, to near a cabin for a birth or a death. Me watching from the tree line. Taboo. Getting an education from a distance. I understand rutting – sex they call it—same for a person as for a dog and a bitch, or caribou and reindeer in season. Same as foxes and wolves.
People, and me too if I’m honest, are so used to me hiding out and being this kid who disappears into the color of winter, that I’m just part of the landscape, because there is no hunting more pointless than sometimes happens anyway, there is no drying up the milk of cattle and, from what Manna jokes about, no shriveling of the penises of men or babies spat out of women’s wombs only a month or two from when they get planted.
But then my hair takes on the light of butter, and within a year that turns to amber, a little lighter than Mother’s, and I have to think of what to do next. Now, at night, I am able to be seen when I hunt with Spud. And the blood has begun. Ho. What a curse is womanhood, eh?
Worried out of her brain about all this, Manna sends for the six other miniwikins of the region, and she banishes Robbie to the forest when they come, saying go cut a brother down or something for a week, love. Shape something beautiful with your axe and knives, okay? because he is trained in forest lore, not woman magic, and therefore, for now, this is not about him The miniwikins come together one dark December night, well after midwinter and, after they’ve had copious cups of mushroom tea, I’m called inside from where I’m grooming the puppies in the byre. I sit on a stool in the firelight from the hearth, surrounded by these women, from smooth-skinned to leather-barked, all hung about with copper and bone talismans. All belted with stoppered, sap-collecting jars and, despite the warmth of the cottage, are swathed from head to foot in fur and woven linen, their skin covered voluminously in scars of sooty ink. Manna is the eldest, though not as skin-wrinkled as the others close to her age, because she’s big and round from the cuts of kill Father delivers. The best fat, the liver, the intestines. Whatever he can snaffle from the dispersion.
How much miniwikin she got? was the main question asked over the tobacco smoke from their pipes. Fire and dog, said Manna. Best dog magic EVER. That gets nods and pouts, lips scrunching like bums. It means there is a use for me. A really good thing under the circumstances, and it is all round agreed that if I ever get to looking any more like Mother she’s going to get pissed and deadly. Like winter not wanting to give way to spring. So what’s a miniwikin to do?
They stay for six more nights, and every night I am made to sit with my head in my hands and listen to the how of tracking my way to each demesne where they abide, that each of them describes. Every landscape, every river. This twisted tree, that standing stone between two hills, the cove between two headlands that looks like horns holding the moon, the lake with stones that lead to the island in the middle – but only in autumn and before the leaves fell. The road made by mules, to-ing and fro-ing from the salt mines, bowed low enough to make tarmac. Lore. Maps. I learn those places by shutting my mouth and just listening.
. . .
Then, one night not long after, Father comes, a bundle in his arms: a cloak of tanned mammoth so soft it’s like a dream remnant, despite its size. Sharp knives and scissors, needles of whalebone, the makings necessary to craft shafts, the bow already cured from last year’s ash. A cooking pot. A warning. A nod to Manna. A whispered message to Robbie. Then a look. He gives me a look. Something that, should I become snaggle-toothed, I will always remember. Is that love?
And so it has come to this. The dogs are hugged one-by-one, except for Spud, untethered and by my side, my only companion for the long haul. Manna smelling deep into my lungs, her body enfolding mine like I was fingers in her mittens, in that night of the midnight sun, just before the season turns towards the light again. Me and Rob, side by side, huffing white air into white air.
Robbie picks up a trail of the spoor of a parcel of deer. A day and a night hunting the straggler. My shot. Him gutting. Us sharing the eating of the heart. Him stowing the liver and the lungs in his satchel.
You, he explains.
Her? I respond, knowing the answer.
I love you, Snow White, is the last thing he says as I run towards the escarpment,
knowing I will never see him, or Manna, or Father, ever again. And deep, deep in the guts of me, feeling an ache that will last forever.
. . .
Now I live in a small house on the shore of Loch Sgadabhagh, on the island of North Uist, amidst the Innse Gall—the islands of the strangers—amidst the dottings of the Outer Hebrides of the coast of what is rudely called Scotland. My mothers and fathers and I have been here since long before the Vikings came, surviving it all. Enough to set the story straight, told mother to child, mother to child, miniwickin to miniwickin until nobody knows the word anymore. Except us.
I am generations down the boon-line from being Snow White, or snow of any tint for that matter, but I’m still her. Although I have a very freckled face, I am the same woman. And no matter what gets thrown at her she, too, survives. Of course: no prince, no dwarves, no glass coffin, no ebony, because what peasant knows about these things, way off on the continent, and a thousand years beyond the truth of it all? Winter thought of as a wicked, jealous queen, a bane to other women. A bad name.
You want to know my regret? Those honey-colored, crow-haired brothers and sisters are still in the world somewhere. And we have never met. We probably have such different stories and such different histories. If I could sit with them—my relatives—we could watch each other’s faces as we tell the way of legend… well, I can only dream.
The apple? The food that the shape-shifting wild weather, written of as a step-mother, really is? The poison words, that were just another way of killing me when Robbie’s deceit was uncovered? Each successive trick failing until the wicked last—that I am the pretty possession of some wealthy man…?
That apple, I think, is still lodged in the throat of the miniwickin, cut by the pen of the gatherers of what are, spuriously, called fairy stories for children. By such pompous, grim, Grimm men, and published into popularity, for the reading by girl-children, and so to fool them into believing that someone will rescue them… from what exactly? And that when the desolation of happy-ever-after becomes known for the propaganda it is?
But money talks, bullshit walks, isn’t that how the saying goes? There’s a price to be paid for hiding. There are reasons for fearing winter. And liberation mixed with threat when the thaw begins again. Because we have known all these already or we would not be alive as anyone.
The codes to crack are written in the shallows by a river and inked into ready skin. They are between polite lines and in books called fiction just in case.
We may be ready if we have rooted deeply enough into ancestral soil. We are unafraid when we know we are not alone in knowing what we do and are.