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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 3

Catherynne M. Valente

  Part II

  Snow White

  Contends with

  the Prairie-Falcon’s Blindness

  Snow White

  Fights a Lump

  of Pitch

  I do not believe any person is born knowing how to be human. Everyone has to learn their letters and everyone has to learn how to be alive.

  A is for Alligator. B is for Beauty.

  Maybe it’s not a lesson so much as it’s a magic trick. You can make a little girl into anything if you say the right words. Take her apart until all that’s left is her red, red heart thumping against the world. Stitch her up again real good. Now, maybe you get a woman. If you’re lucky. If that’s what you were after. Just as easy to end up with a blackbird or a circus bear or a coyote. Or a parrot, just saying what’s said to you, doing what’s done to you, copying until it comes so natural that even when you’re all alone you keep on cawing hello pretty bird at the dark.

  When Mrs. H said I was not human she meant I was not white. She was wrong about the reason but not about the thing. I wasn’t human. I was a small device who knew only how to shoot a gun, play the slots, and dress up in fancy clothes to please a rich man. Nobody had ever loved me proper and if there’s a boring story in this world, that’s it. I want to skip this part. I want to pull on the arm of my slot machine and let the rolls flip over until they show a green tree in the summertime, and me away from that house, walking tall under a blue sky. I want to skip this part but I am here to tell you: a stepmother is like a bullet you can’t dig out. She fires true and she fires hot and she fires so quick that her metal hits your body before you even know there’s a fight on. I didn’t even know what white was.

  So here’s the truth of it: there was blood and some of it came from between my legs and some of it came from my face where Mrs. H struck me over and over, because I was bad, because I looked like my mother, because I smelled like an animal, because I did not show her any human feeling or sweetness and that made me wicked. It is my understanding that when you start bleeding you are a woman so I guess that’s what I was.

  She put jasper and pearl combs in my hair and yanked them so tight I cried—there, now you’re a lady, she said, and I did not know if the comb or the tears did it. She put me in her own corsets like nooses strangling my waist til I was sick, my breath gone and my stomach shoved up into my ribs—there, now you’re civilized, she said, and I did not know if it was the corset or the sickness that did it. She forbade me to eat sweets or any good thing til I got thin as a dog and could hardly stand I was so damn hungry—there, now you’re beautiful, she said and I did not know if it was my dog-bones showing or my crawling in front of her begging for a miserable apple to stop my belly screaming that made me fair.

  For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves.

  I worked hard to be as human as possible.

  She dismissed Miss Marie the kitchen maid and Miss Mary the laundry maid. She dismissed Miss Bea the scullery. Mr. H gave up the house to her. He did not bring me a pearl for obeying Miss Dougall. The house was hers to lord over, was the word of Mr. H. Children are the province of women and none of his nevermind now, thank God in heaven.

  When she hit me, she said she loved me. When she scratched my face, she said she loved me. And let me tell you, Mrs. H loved me most of all the day she locked me in my room with no lamps or candles because I looked too long at a groomsman and that’s the mark of a whore, a slattern with a jackal for a mother, hellion trash with an animal heart. For a week I had no bath or books, no light and no food, but she loved me the whole time, whispering through the door that her love could burn the whore out of me. Love could make me pure again.

  On account of all of this I had some peculiar ideas about love. I’ll tell you what I thought on the subject back then: it’s about as much use as a barrel with no bottom. When I fed the pigs and two of them got to scrapping over an old soft onion, I thought: that’s love. Love is eating. Love is a snarling pig snout and long tusks. Love is a dress like the sun. Love is the color of blood. Love is what grown folk do to each other because the law frowns on killing.

  I said I loved her back. I put my hand on the door and I said I loved her back and when I said it I thought of kissing her and also of shooting her through the eye.

  Mrs. H dismissed Mrs. Whitney the housekeeper and Mrs. Kenny the cook. She dismissed Miss Daly who could write her name by then and did not seem sad to go. The men servants she left, excepting the groomsman I looked at. There were no ladies left but us.

  How will we keep the house?

  You will keep it. A clean house creates a clean soul and you have work to do. This is what it means to be a woman in the world.

  When Mrs. H locked me up in the dark that time, I cobbled up a second notion. Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

  For this reason, I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment, she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever.

  Snow White

  Deals the Dead Man’s Hand

  I hunted Mrs. H and I hunted her mirror. My father hunted the blue and the yellow down a long mountain range like a wrinkle in the world. I guess we’re pretty much alike when you think about it. Only he got clear of that house and it took me quite awhile to fix that for myself.

  A house is a kind of box you put a girl in. Mrs. H and me, we rattled around in it like two old bullets. I looked in the basement for her mirror and I was not afraid of the spiders down there. I looked in the attic and I was not bothered by the mice. Mice have their own troubles with cats and whatnot, they do not mind a body. I looked while I cleaned. I looked while I cut up chicken and potatoes. I looked while I boiled linens. I looked in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. H and this did fear me something awful, for I would have caught a beating to end them all if Mrs. H found me worrying her things. I sat on their bed, which had red curtains and red pillows and red stairs leading up to it like the bed was a red tower in a white forest. I put my hands into the sleeves of her dresses and that made me shudder. It was like standing inside Mrs. H and wearing her and that is full uncanny, I can tell you. I sat at her lady’s table which had a mirror even though it was not the right mirror. This mirror had a frame like a sunburst with little carnelians and opals all over it. I saw myself in it, no more or less than myself: almost fourteen, all long bones, long hair and big black eyes. I did not know to say if I was pretty. I did not look like Mrs. H, so I guessed I was not.

  I pulled the silk paper off her lipstick and rubbed it between my fingers. I knew how lipstick got itself made because Mr. H did a fair business selling low-grade garnets. Some fancy men in Paris crush them up into a powder finer than salt and stir the gems in with deer fat. They put a sweet scent on it but I could still smell the deer. When I put it on my lips I could taste it. The blood and the beating of the deer’s fright in the forest. I smelled her perfume. It gave me the oddest feeling, like I was smelling an emerald. But not a real emerald, which I imagine has no particular smell. Best I can explain is that stopper was soaked in a smell like the idea of an emerald, the idea of greenness and growing and wealth, a kind of fine light that could make a rock bloom.

  Mrs. H smelled like jewels. Like the produce of the earth that Mr. H chased all over here and gone.
She smelled like a perfect high-yield mine and I got out of that room on the quick.

  I found the mirror on account of the paintings in my dime museum. Sometime in the autumn they changed to hunting scenes: Chinese men shooting arrows at an ugly black unicorn, Spaniards hauling harpoons at a giant squid with a whale in its ropy arms, sourfaced men sitting on top of stacks of buffalo like thrones of meat. Thompson the red fox did not like these paintings but I reassured him. I thought of the seagull with my bullet in her eye. I ran my fingers over Rose Red in her holster, the red pearls on her grip. Probably I did not please Mr. H anymore at all. I reckoned Rose Red could not kill a whale or a thousand buffalo but if a stunted black unicorn with an antler for a horn and tiger stripes on its rump got a hankering for red fox, I could handle the situation.

  In considering my shootout with the unicorn, I came to see the corner of the painting was curling up away from the frame a little. A Chinese woman with gold ink in her dress covered her eyes so as not to see the skinning of the unicorn nor the sharing out of the liver and the heart, which I have heard hunters do to honor the dead thing, or else perhaps those parts are tasty. I picked at her a little and she gave way like she couldn’t wait to get out of the whole scene.

  Underneath the weeping lady, Mrs. H’s silver mirror peeked out.

  I rolled up the painting and rested it on the top of the frame—that familiar wooden frame like cold stone. I hadn’t recognized it. I admit that I am a damn fool sometimes. The mirror showed the same black starless sky as before. I looked into it for a long while. The sun in the world outside the mirror turned orange and then red like a leaf in a hurry but inside the mirror it stayed night. I set out my feelings on the matter in an orderly fashion, a poker hand on the table of my spirit.

  Pair of Aces: this is my place and she has been here. She has left part of herself here. She has invaded the place where I am most myself and stuck a flag in it. Pair of Eights: this is my place and she has made it hers but that goes both ways. I have this piece of Mrs. H and it belongs to me. She put it in my kingdom.

  Queen of Diamonds: she left part of herself here to watch me.

  Snow White

  Juggles Her

  Own Eyes

  The moon came on in the mirror.

  This time I did not run off. The mirror was an animal, like Thompson or the crocodile. You have to show it you’re not gonna hurt it, maybe feed it a little, before it stops thinking you’re prey or predator or both. I fed the mirror my face and the moon came on inside it like a huge white eye. I had already seen this trick. But I did not know how to make it do anything else. I just kept looking into it, counting craters, and I guess the mirror got fed up because the moon started creaking and spinning and before the dark side came around to the light it had turned into Mrs. H on her knees scrubbing a marble floor with pink veins forking through it.

  Mrs. H was young. You could tell she wasn’t Mrs. H yet. Her whiskey-colored hair was braided up tight and I could see dirt under her fingernails. She scrubbed and scrubbed and my hands tingled where I had rubbed them raw scrubbing just that morning. Young Mrs. H looked up at a fine lady in a primrose dress and I heard her say something real quiet like the mirror was a muzzle.

  Why do I have to work on my knees? We have more maids than books in the library. Mrs. H held out her hands. Lye burns slicked them like shiny snail-tracks.

  The woman in the primrose dress answered: this is what it means to be a woman in the world. Work until you die and work again after. Your only choice is whether you scrub the vaults of hell or the halls of heaven. Anyone who tells you different is a huckster with his hand in your pocket.

  The brush in Mrs. H’s hand blinked out and with a quickness she was bent over in the hearth in a yellow apron, picking out hard little peas. Her face was full of ash like a Catholic in spring. The same fine lady wore a cornflower dress.

  Why do I have to comb the grate? We have charwomen and sculleries as plentiful as water. Mrs. H held out her hands. Ash turned them dead and grey.

  The woman in the cornflower dress answered: this is what it means to be a woman in the world. Obey until a man gives you permission to die and keep on obeying after. The tasks you’re handed make less sense than a rooster in a Sunday hat, but if God wanted us to have a say he’d have made us men.

  The hearth hissed away like steam and young Mrs. H stood in a forest blacker and older than any white pine I’d shot a squirrel out of. She was crying. Up until then I had never seen anyone cry but me, and suspected I was the only one who could do it. I was the only body weak enough. Everyone else had a strong thing inside them where I had tears, and that strong thing protected them against sadness. But young Mrs. H was crying and no mistaking. She unbuttoned her dress and pulled out her laces and stepped naked out of her skirt into the night. The same terrible eyeball of a moon that lived in the mirror shone down and turned her blue. I had never seen a naked woman before. I could not breathe right and my heart ricocheted all over the inside of me like a misfired bullet. Mrs. H looked like a person come to visit from another planet. Her breasts and her belly glowed aquamarine, her muscled legs moved like I imagined that striped, antlered unicorn in the painting moved, graceful as a star coming up in evening. That hair like a long, stiff drink covered her hind parts which made me sorry. I wanted to look at her forever.

  Mrs. H dropped to the ground and hit that forest with both fists. She cried and she screamed and she grabbed at the mud, smearing it all over her and scratching herself bloody. Get me out, she said into the earth. Get me out.

  Well, I guess in New England there’s things living under the world that answer when you holler at them like that. Two arms bigger than stovepipes came up out of the loam and the grime, and the arms were loam and grime and leaves and roots, and they wrapped around Mrs. H like the tenderest husband ever born. A stony hand stroked her hair I heard a quiet voice like it was a long way off, but so close it whispered right in my ear:

  This is what it means to be a woman in this world. Every step is a bargain with pain. Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power. For the opposite of weakness, which is not strength but hardness. I am a trap, but so is everything. Pick your price. I am a huckster with a hand in your pocket. I am freedom and I will eat your heart.

  The loamy arms gathered Mrs. H close in. A still pool opened up under her body like a bloodstain. The water shone clear and perfect as a mirror. For a second she floated on top of the pool, then it flowed around her, up over her skin and into her mouth, filling up all the empty places in her body and pulling her down into the starry slick of it. Under the surface, her face looked so happy. But that’s not what I mean. I mean her face was happiness. Like her perfume was an emerald. Every time I seen a body take on joy in my life, it’s only been a shiver of that blue face in the dark wood, a little piece of her smile or her tears. When the water let Mrs. H go, she came up dry as a prairie, wearing a dress the color of dirt. Green jewels like moss crowded the silk, silver jewels like rivers ran through it, red gems like poison berries wound around her hips and Mrs. H was wearing the forest. She didn’t have a speck of mud on her. She had a ring on her finger with a chunk of rough green stone fixed into it.

  A distant music picked up and my stepmother moved toward it, starting to dance in time to the mandolins, the lights of some grand ball waltzing already on her skin.

  Now, I have had a long time to cogitate on this. I guess I know something about magic after everything that’s happened, enough to know you don’t go talking about it when it’s not around. But I think back east they have Puritan magic and out west we have animal magic and I’ll tell you the truth for nothing, those goodies and goodwives and poppets and dark woods scare me worse than any crow with the sun in her mouth.

  Snow White

  Wears Her Insides

  on Her Outside

  Mrs. H bathed me in milk on Sundays. She poured ice into that milk like sugar and the cream got so cold it burned me like
fire. I lay in there trying not to quake or shiver none as Mrs. H called that a weakness. My toes got so you could stick pins in them and I’d never know it. The bathtub was black, from Hungary which is a place I only know the name of. White milk and black stone and me in the middle of it like a cork.

  Mrs. H said it would turn my skin white. She said it would wash out my dark parts and better than any soap. Milk had power in the formulation of Mrs. H’s mind. Milk comes from creatures that eat only grass and drink only water and do not pollute their bodies with death. Milk comes from mothers. You can see from this that she did teach me things. When she started on this kind of talk my heart toppled over. If she was in a teaching mood she wasn’t in a hitting mood. Like sneezing and keeping your eyes open, Mrs. H couldn’t do both at once.

  Came a night she put me in the milk bath and I thought I’d die of the cold. The hairs on my arms tried to stand up and run off. She dunked me in and shoved my head under the cream and kept it there. I thrashed a good bit but Mrs. H was strong. I couldn’t see nothing but white. Shhhh. Mrs. H could sound so soft when she wanted. Shhhh. Let it happen. Take it in. It’s inside you, that’s the trouble. You don’t speak Crow, you don’t paint your face. For Heaven’s sake, I know more about your mother than you do. It’s inside you. Drink it in. What’s inside you needs cleaning. Swallow it down and you’ll come out pure.

  I choked. I drank it. It went up my nose and I stopped breathing. I hit her across the breast and the chin trying to dig up from that milk that stunk like perfume. The white in my eyes started to go dark and she let me up all the sudden like my skin burned her.

  After I squinted real close at the mirror but I didn’t look no different.