Six-Gun Snow White, Page 2Catherynne M. Valente
Mr. H paid wages to these folk, though I am not accounting for the men he employed in San Francisco, Sacramento, Chicago, and New York as I never met them. Most all got some extra scratch for keeping quiet about my person.
Mrs. Maureen Whitney, Housekeeper
Miss Marie Andersen, Kitchen Maid
Miss Annie Dougall, House Maid
Miss Mary Duffy, Laundry Maid
Mrs. Catherine Kenny, Cook
Miss Beatrice Criscone, Scullery Maid
Mr. Thomas Button, Butler
Mr. George Button, Valet
Mr. Simon Paget, Hall Boy
Mr. Garland Clague, Groundskeeper
Mr. Linus Healy, Stablemaster
Mr. Peter Fjelstad, Stablehand
Mr. Henry Fredrik, Useful Man
Miss Christabel Enger, Governess
I had nursemaids and the like but I do not remember any of them.
Snow White’s Father
I was eleven years of age when Mr. H married the daughter of Mr. M.
The wedding occurred at high summer in the castle by the sea. A whole mess of new people suddenly tramped all over my private kingdom, tying gardenias to every damn thing and building silk tents in the golden grass. The Mr. Buttons were so fussed I thought their heads would fly off and Mrs. Kenny hollered something fierce at the sculleries. The cream was too feared to whip.
The new Mrs. H was a stranger to me. I knew the following interesting items concerning her: Mr. M was a railroad baron and owned most everything Mr. H didn’t. She had grown up in Boston and gone to a fancy Paris school for girls. She knew French and Spanish and Latin. Some kind of scandal worried her back east. I heard the wedding people say Mr. H was good to take her after all that business. But I also heard them say the only reason she would marry a man with no family name at all was because of her lowered station.
They all said she was beautiful. It hurt to look at her sometimes, if the wine stewards were to be believed and I did not. Who ever heard of a person so pretty it pinched to set eyes on them? Probably they were drunk, I reasoned.
Mr. H told me to stay out of the way and I did. I stayed in my zoo while the wedding went up like a white circus. I chewed licorice root while the red fox whom I had named Thompson curled in my lap and the big old raggedy bear snored away. Who, who? hooted the monkey. Elle, elle, answered the emerald parrots together as they did not hold forth separately. I thought on how excited Mr. H got over the idea of a wife. He kept a picture of her in his breast pocket but he would not let me see it. He barely looked at me at dinner, even if I wore my hair in two braids. I did not see the appeal of a wife. We had never had one before. She would not be half as interesting as our buffalo.
Miss Enger said a man required a helpmeet and a solace. She said a house like this cried out for a feminine hand. She said poor Mr. H longed for companionship and children of his own. Two things settled into my brain upon listening to my governess philosophize on the marital condition. The first was that Mr. H had lied upon the matter of me; Miss Enger believed I was his ward and not his daughter. The second was that Miss Enger nurtured hopes concerning my father that had recently been squashed flat. Before Miss Enger my governess had been a Canadian lady called Miss Grace Bornay. She did not think I was anybody’s ward. But she and the rest except Mr. Clague the groundskeeper had been let go and new souls brought in a year back. Miss Enger was prettier than Miss Bornay, but Miss Bornay could play the flute and Miss Enger could not so it all came out in the wash.
The fox wandered off into his little fox-house and I walked down to my empty saloon. Maybe the new Mrs. H would sit with me the way the fox did. Maybe she would come to my saloon and play cards around the table where no one else ever upped an ante or called. It might be good fun to play with another body. Maybe she would brush my hair and sing to me and that would be nice. Maybe she liked to shoot. Maybe she would teach me Latin and French and dancing. Maybe she’d want to dress me up as something. Maybe she would love me the way I loved my gun.
I spun the slot machine. Four winter trees whirled up, bare and heavy with ice. A silver dollar rolled into the pan. It echoed a good while.
Bites Her Own Reflection
Mrs. H arrived the night before the wedding. A white stagecoach brought her. The inside of the stagecoach was black. I wanted to pick flowers for her and practice a welcome speech. Mr. H told me no. He said I would have plenty of time with her later. I was not to come down or bother her. I was not to bother Mr. M or his servants. I was not to pick flowers for anyone. I was to wait in my room and play with Miss Enger and my toys until the wedding was over, and then Mr. H would figure a way to present me.
I did not apprehend before that moment that Mrs. H did not know Mr. H for a widower with a child already on the ground. She did not think he had a ward, either. She did not know about me at all. If you ask me how I felt on that I will tell you nothing good.
So I watched her come into the house from the window of my bedroom. I hid in the red curtains and peeped down on her. I gathered information. She wore a grey dress with embroidery and white boots. Her hair was braided up nice. It had a color like good whiskey. I could not see her face, only her scalp, white and sharp as a knife. She had what I guess menfolk call a figure. She walked graceful as a greyhound. Mr. H helped her out of the coach and kissed her cheek. Mr. M bounded out the other side and clapped my father on the shoulder and his piggy jowls shook when he did it. I couldn’t hear them talking because my bedroom was very far up. They looked like a puppet show, pumping each other’s hands up and down and laughing without making noise.
The new Mrs. H looked up at my window. I am certain she saw me, but I ducked anyway. Her face was shaped like a heart and so pale I thought she might be sick. It did hurt to look at her after all. She looked like a painting that used to hang in my dime museum, with a lady on a shell coming out of the sea. She looked like somebody’s mother. But not mine.
It was not customary for a lady to bring her things inside the house while she remained unmarried. They left it all at the servants’ doors. Draped with muslin, her trousseau looked like some dreadful machine. I snuck out to look at it while they had a big dinner inside. I could see them through the window. Mr. M drank a bear’s measure of wine and his mustache turned red. The new Mrs. H didn’t drink at all. She moved her finger around the rim of her glass and didn’t sip and watched everyone like a bobcat. Her finger had a ring on it. I knew it was not an engagement ring as it was on her forefinger. It was green, but I did not think it was an emerald. I am only dwelling on her ring because it will be important later. I expect everyone in Boston has something like that ring, which is why I am glad I have never been to Boston.
I took my eyes back from the dinner table on the other side of the window. I lifted the muslin. Underneath it was a chest of linens which I did not find interesting. I walked around the right side of her belongings and lifted the cloth again. I found a chest full of little bottles. Each of them had some different liquid inside it and they smelled something awful. They smelled moldy and damp and also sharp and spicy. They smelled, if you want to know it, like Florimond’s pelt after he had gotten rained on. I had on occasion scratched and kissed the old circus bear in the wintertime when he slept very soundly so I am familiar with such smells. As I could not guess what use the bottles might have, I walked around the left side of her belongings and pulled up the drape.
Underneath that was the biggest mirror I ever saw.
It was not like any of the mirrors Mr. H had brought over from Italy and France, with gold all over them and fat babies holding up the corners. It did not have any roses or lilies or ribbons cut out of silver. It was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The gla
ss was so full up of dark it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror. The frame was wood, but wood so old and hard and cold it felt like stone. I reckoned if it came from a tree that tree was the oldest, meanest tree in a forest so secret not even birds knew about it. That tree saw dinosaurs and did not think much of them. I touched the mirror and my fingers went hot and cold, like candles melting.
The moon came on inside the mirror. I could see the craters and the mountains on it clear and true. But the night above my head was moonless as a sack of wool. I dropped the muslin but I did not scream. I do not scream generally or cry very much. But I can run powerful fast.
Obtains a Mother
He married her.
I knew I was not to attend the wedding, but I scrapped up a black oak tree and saw the whole thing start to finish. It all happened at sunset under a tent with silver stars painted on it. I never saw so many lanterns or so many flowers. I thought: nobody else in the whole world must have any roses now. Mr. H wore a black suit and looked just as fine as rain. A pack of fancy folk arrived in coaches. The ladies wore dresses like springtime and egg whites. The fellows wore velvet and other fabrics I was not aware of. Some of them had long bright guns I would have liked to get a better look at. Little girls and boys threw violet petals on the grass. They were somebody’s children, I cannot say whose. I thought to myself that I could throw petals better. The littlest ones dumped half their baskets in one spot. I wanted to throw violets, too. I would throw them so good Mrs. H would give me a kiss.
When the bride came out of the house everybody sighed. She had a dress on all lace and silk like a snowflake and pearls all over her head. Around her neck was a necklace of Colorado diamonds so luxurious I didn’t want to look at it, like if I looked at it, I had already stolen it.
After, they danced together. Violins and harps and horns and drums played to wake the moon. Mr. H never stopped smiling. He kissed her seventeen times. I know because I counted. Mr. M danced with a girl in a pink dress and only got two kisses. The violet-tossing children ate too much cake and fell asleep on the grass.
There was a fountain of champagne and it looked like starlight you could drink.
I fell asleep in the black oak tree.
Scratch Each Other
My father and Mrs. H took their honeymoon in Peru where Mr. H intuited the good blue waited for him. I will observe that not even the softness of a bed containing Mrs. H could cool his lechery for silver. The only word I received from them was a painting that appeared in my dime museum. It appeared as suddenly and without warning as if a ghost hung it up. I looked at it a long time. It showed a kind of pyramid with sides like staircases and a flat top. That is how they build pyramids in South America, which I know from reading a great number of books. Jaguars live in South America also. I would like to see a jaguar someday, but probably I will not. In the painting, a person stood on the top of the pyramid. It looked like a woman, but the figure was very tiny and I am not artistic. She held her arms straight up, toward the moon rising over the pyramid. I could not help but think of the mirror. I had not been able to find it again once they moved Mrs. H’s things into the house. Maybe the moon had gotten out of the mirror and decided to live in my painting instead.
I was a child and when you are a child you think things like that.
Mr. H sent word by telegraph that I was to stay in my rooms so as not to make worry for Mrs. H once they returned. If I liked I might spend my days on the boardwalk once my lessons were done, but at night I must obey Miss Enger, eat what is left over, and look after myself. Surely I had enough toys and books to amuse any girl. Miss Dougall minded me like a pot of boiling water. The housemaid locked my door at night and kept me out of the front rooms with the end of a broom. Miss Dougall was the sheriff of my father’s law and every night I wished she would fall down the stairs and bust her big curly head. She did not oblige me. Miss Enger patted my hand in sympathy but did not unlock my door or bring me anything extra to eat.
I sat at my window. I spun the chamber on Rose Red and ran my fingers over the pearls in the grip. There were a lot of them by then. I had pleased Mr. H often, but it had been a good bit since he’d given me any new pearls. If I obeyed Miss Dougall perhaps I would get another. This idea cheered me up some.
Things began to happen all in a row: I knew my father and Mrs. H had come home, I could hear them laughing and walking and banging forks against plates. But I was not called for. My food was brought. My linens seen to. Miss Enger did not come to see me anymore. Mrs. H sent her on her way with a fair clutch of money and a reference. A new Irish hall girl drew the chore of my lessons. She was called Moira Daly and could not herself read. She was very apologetic, however, and I took it on myself to teach her letters so that somebody between the two of us could learn a thing. Still, no one called for me. Miss Daly was not nearly brave enough to take my questions downstairs.
In the evening, I could hear Mrs. H playing the pianoforte. She was very good at it. She sang as well, and was particularly fond of strange old songs like Hymn to the Evening Star and Fairies of the Hill. I lay against the floor and listened every night. I drank her voice up like milk.
I had never heard a woman sing before. Only the coyote in his cage and the seagulls crying.
After Miss Daly’s lessons each morning, I crept out of
my window and shimmied down the olive tree. I came away
yellow with olive pollen and ran up to my boardwalk where Thompson the fox waited for his bowl of sarsaparilla. Florimond wandered around his paddock on his hind legs, looking for a trainer to praise him. I gave him the apples from my breakfast. I do not care for apples.
I played cards with Thompson in my saloon. He had lost the trick, but I suspected he had the Queen and I was done for already. Thompson chewed on the seven of spades.
A shadow moved over the saloon-door. It was not a groundskeeper’s shadow. It was not a bear’s shadow. I looked up and I will confess I was angry. No one was allowed up there but me. Miss Enger, Miss Bornay, even rotten Miss Dougall knew they had no power here. They had the whole house and the world on top. The saloon was my place, and whoever it was would not get any sarsaparilla. But it was not Miss Enger or Miss Bornay or Miss Dougall.
Mrs. H stood in the doorway. She wore a vermillion dress. With the sun behind her she looked like a planet on fire. Her heart-shaped face was blank. I suddenly felt very shabby and small in my playdress. She was ever so much taller and prettier than I would ever be. Wherever they invented women like that, it was country I could never even visit.
Thompson leapt away from the table and skittered under the bar. Mrs. H moved in her greyhound way, her heels clicking on the floorboards. She sat down and took up the red fox’s cards, fanned them out like an old gambler. She slotted the seven of spades into her hand, bending back the chewed-up part. Her fingers had nail paint on them which I had never seen before, not being acquainted with many fine women. I stared. The paint looked like blood. Was she sick? She was so pale and her nails so red. Did she hunt, like me, and dress her own kills? Had she killed something today and forgotten to wash herself? Mrs. H said nothing. She drew a card from her hand laid it down between us. I could see the green ring better. It was an uncut emerald the size of a man’s knuckle with fiery flaws winking down at the bottom of it like fish in a pond.
Mrs. H laid down the Queen of Spades. I’d lost. The Queen of Spades has black eyes and black hair, like me, but her gown is red, like Mrs. H’s.
“So you’re the little Indian child,” she said, and those were Mrs. H’s first words to me. She looked all around the room. Looking at her felt like drinking something harsh and strong. It woke you up and made you dizzy all at once. Her eyes were green like her ring.
“I can see we have a lot of work to do,” she sighed.
My whole body felt like I had when I touched the mirror under the musli
n. Like a candle melting into icewater.
“Please,” I whispered. “Don’t be mean to me. I’m good. I promise I’m good.” That sounded babyish and nonsensical out of my own mouth. I tried again. I spit in my hand and held it out like I’d seen Mr. H do with horse-breeders. “If you love me, I’ll love you back,” I bargained.
Mrs. H laughed. The wind picked up outside. I did not think she would shake on it but she did. Her fingers were cool on mine. She avoided my spat-upon palm and wiped her hands on her skirt afterward.
Mrs. H reached over the card table and smoothed my hair between her fingertips. “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean. And that hair! Black as coal, and those lips, as red as the hearts your savage mother no doubt ate with relish. That’s all right. All women have a taste for hearts. But you will discover that I am a gentle soul. If you do as I say and imitate me as best you are able, perhaps you will find yourself gentled as well. It is not beyond possibility that God will overlook your coarser half and take you to His bosom at the end of days.”
Mrs. H stood up. Her dress rustled like breath. She walked over to the slot machine and pulled the arm without dropping a coin into its mouth. The reels spun. Four red apples whirled up, glossy and dark. I had spun that beast a thousand times and never seen one apple. Silver dollars exploded into the pan like rifle-fire. Mrs. H left them there. She left the door swinging. She left me alone.
From that day forward she never used my name. Eventually I forgot it. Mrs. H called me something new. She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.