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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 4

Catherynne M. Valente

  Snow White

  Covers Her Tracks

  With Her Tail

  You may not know it but the keeping of a large house by one girl is the hardest work going on earth. I heard there’s fire in hell but I’ll bet the Devil just hands you a bucket and tells you to get moving, this place ain’t gonna clean itself.

  Snow White’s Stepmother

  Gives Birth

  to the Sky

  I could not say exactly how Mrs. H managed to catch pregnant. Mayhap Mr. H fired a baby into her from Peru with a better gun than mine. Probably he came home and performed his husbandry and left again before the sun could surprise him at it.

  More to the point, I could not say exactly whether or not Mrs. H was pregnant. Her belly did not get bigger nor did she let out her dresses. She said nothing more about it after the announcement which was reported in all the newspapers. I was coming up on seventeen and some noise was made about the necessity of marriage, but Mrs. H did not feel I was fit to entertain suitors and anyway I would not be getting my hands on any of the H money, so there seemed little purpose in it. I’ve half a mind to dump her over the border in Crow territory and let them kill her or marry her or whatever those heathens do with beasts less useful than a horse but prettier than a cow.

  Well, at least I knew my worth.

  Mrs. H came pretty often to the dime museum. She rolled up the painting of the Chinese unicorn and looked at herself in the mirror. Sometimes she talked to the mirror like it was a person. Sometimes she asked it questions. I never heard it answer but it must have or she wouldn’t keep asking. Sometimes she pressed her cheek to her reflection in the glass.

  The woman in the mirror was pregnant.

  The reflection of Mrs. H got big in the belly day by day as the winter wore on. Mrs. H stayed slim as a pen. She moved her hand over her flat stomach; in the mirror Mrs. H cradled her roundness in both arms. The paintings in the museum changed to Madonnas, women in blue on seashells and star-points and sitting on silver thrones. The parrots died. I found them with frost hardening on their beaks. I said goodbye to them in French but that is all I know how to say so it was a short eulogy. Whenever I looked in the mirror after Mrs. H left, all I saw was the copy of her, humming a song while she let the waists of her dresses out with a quick, clever needle. Once she looked at me, looked out of the mirror and into me. She put her hand on her stomach and whispered: soon.

  I ran.

  The baby came at night. I watched it happen from my hiding place and if I live a hundred years I will not see anything stranger. Mrs. H stood stock still while the reflection in the mirror cried and struggled and bled. The blood coming from between her legs wasn’t red. It was the color of a mirror, like mercury beading out of her. She looked like she would die and the baby would choke on her. Drown in her like a dress. Mrs. H just folded her hands in the museum and never made a sound. She watched. She didn’t even fidget. Finally the child spilled out of the woman in the mirror, mirror-blood gushing and a rope of that terrible black wood like stone connecting them. The woman in the mirror cut it with her teeth. The child was a boy.

  He did not look very much like Mr. H.

  But then, neither do I.

  Mrs. H laid her hand on the glass. The baby didn’t cry. Sticky silver stuff covered his skin. The woman in the mirror put the baby to her breast and the mirror flowed out of her body, overflowing his tiny mouth and trickling down his cheek. The woman in the mirror smiled and knuckled the drop away.

  And that was it.

  The boy did not come out of the mirror, which was what I expected to happen. Mrs. H came to see him often enough, but he was born in the mirror and looked fit to stay there. I came to visit him, too. I wanted to see my brother. The woman in the mirror tilted him up in her arms so I could get a better look. He got big fast—after a week or two he was walking around in there and running up to the glass when I came in, putting up his hands like he wanted to touch me. He liked me to put both my hands up against his, ten fingers and ten fingers.

  I guess he was a nice baby. I don’t know much about them. He had small pink fists. He was a healthy white baby who would own the whole world if he could get out of that mirror. The newspapers said Mr. H had a son and heir. But my father never came home to shake his son’s little fist and welcome him into the world that had been made to fit him like a good suit. He never came home much at all. I thought to myself that Mr. H was not his father and I was not his sister but that Mrs. H got a baby from the pool in the forest and he came out in the mirror. But I did not like thinking that. The baby smiled when he saw me. That was nice. Nobody did that before.

  I wished the mirror would just show the damn moon again. The rest of it put me in a black mood and that’s the truth.

  Snow White

  Wears the Sun

  I believe the boy in the mirror was about five when Mr. H sent word he would be arriving home on the Saturday evening train.

  Mrs. H said I would have to try to look pretty. She took me into her bedroom and thought that was a big favor on her part, but only because she did not know I had already been in there looking for her mirror. The Mr. Buttons had filled the milk bath already. Ice floated in it. I had got a fair sight older and grown breasts (which I did not ask for) and I did not want to be naked in front of Mrs. H but when I held onto my clothes she got out shears and cut them off of me. I stood there with my arms over myself and laundry scum on the backs of my hands. Mrs. H waited and pretty soon it dawned on me that she couldn’t lift me anymore. I got in the milk; it hurt like lye.

  Mrs. H screwed up her thoroughness and let it loose all over me. She scrubbed my hair and rubbed that cream into my skin with a boar-hair brush and made me hold ice both my mouth and my womanly parts until it melted. I did not cry but I wanted to. This is what it means to be a woman in the world. You have to get pure. You have to get clean. You just won’t do filthy and indecent and smelling like fox. Do it for your father. You love your father. You want him to be happy.

  Mrs. H dried my hair and combed it out. She put oils into it that I did not enjoy the smell of. My hair was very long then and she wound it around and around like a big black snake, fixed it up on top of my head and put ruby pins through it. Some of them pins pricked my scalp and I felt a little blood trickle down the back of my neck. Mrs. H produced a number of contraptions into which she crammed and pinched my body so that my breasts squished up and my waist tied down tiny like hers. She trembled a little bit. I was not accustomed to seeing her tremble. She seemed mighty upset, maybe even feared, though I wouldn’t know fear in that face if I saw it.

  Mrs. H pulled a dress out of a steamer trunk and it was the color of the sun. It had a high bustle and sharp pleating at the skirt-hem and a neckline I wanted to run away from. It looked like fire. It looked like molten iron. I didn’t want to be inside that dress. It was going to burn me. It was going to eat me. But Mrs. H dug her nails into my arm. Do this thing and you can call me mama. Do this thing and you can have anything you want. She dragged it down over my head. It hung so heavy. Everyone trades their heart for their children, you know.

  “I know you can do magic,” I said to her. I said it to hurt her. I said it to make her wear a dress of fire, too. But she wasn’t hurt. She never hurt.

  Mrs. H stopped strangling me in the stays of that beast. Her heart-shaped face didn’t ever show anything to me I could understand. “And what do you think magic is, my little Snow White?”

  “I saw in the mirror. What you did in the forest. And how the lady in the mirror had that baby.”

  Mrs. H stared at me for a long time. I was as tall as she was. We stood there like the same woman except her dress was blue.

  “Let me tell you something, kid,” said Mrs. H of Boston and Beacon Hill. “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone else has eaten their fill.”

  Snow White


  Herself to An Unmovable Rock

  I heard a lot of talk sp
eculating on whether myself or Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

  Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at?

  Part III

  Snow White and Porcupine Chase

  Each Other

  Around the World

  Snow White

  Stops Speaking

  This is where Snow White gets off. Where she stops telling a story about other folk and starts being in a story other folk tell. It’s like crossing a cold stream. You don’t even think much about it—water’s not that deep, and only a few miles further on there’s a meal and a bed. But you’ve left one country and hoofed it on into someplace else.

  Girl deserves a rest, anyhow. You can tell a true story about your parents if you’re a damn sight good at sorting lies like laundry, but no one can tell a true story about themselves.

  Snow White

  Steals the

  Sun’s Tobacco

  Snow White knows when it’s time to blow the scene. Saddle her whole life and get on the road. It’s a sense like smell or seeing, when she looks around at a pretty little zoo and realizes it doesn’t belong to her, she belongs to it. Ain’t never going to be the hero in this story, kid, way things are headed. Just meat for the table. Best be on your way. Kiss the bear and the fox and don’t look back. Spin those slots one last time. Don’t they come up all winter, white as death. Don’t they always. Don’t they just.

  So this is what happens: girl gets her gun, puts on a man’s clothes, steals a horse, and lights out for Indian Territory.

  Snow White’s heard her daddy’s men talk about Indian Territory. They’re skeered and scarred and when they say those words it sounds like their whole world is surrounded by a jungle of cannibal Oberons and night-blooming thunderbirds. Eat you alive and wear your skin, won’t they? What roads they got are lined with white men’s skulls. If a body gets lost in there he’ll never unsee what goes on, painted men dancing and songs like your mother dying and witches boiling bones and girls what turn into wolves. God don’t open His eye there. It’s Hell or fairyland or both.

  Snow White says: sounds good to me.

  You’ve read the papers. That girl run off because she got prettier than her mama and oh ho the old lady don’t like that! You know how mothers and daughters are. As if a body don’t just get fed up. As if a kid don’t have a limit on hardship.

  So Snow White throws her dress in the furnace to burn like it ought to. She doesn’t even wait for sundown. Just hoofs it while Mrs. H gets herself gorgeous. Snow White straps Rose Red to her hip and rides out on a big apron-faced Appaloosa with spots on his rump like eyes. So what if it’s stealing? She took her daddy’s hat, too. Snow White can ride so sweet you’d think there’s no horse under her, just a girl with four legs pounding the ground. Fuck that mirror and fuck that house. What’s she owe them? Her back, that’s what. The girl is gone. She is plum finished. She walks out through the front door. It’s night and everything smells like the sea.

  Snow White points her situation north, toward the queen hanging upside down in the sky, punished forever for using her daughter poorly. That’s the road for her, yes sir, toward Montana, toward the future, out of the world and into the black.

  Snow White

  Dances With Porcupine

  Not too long before somebody picks up her trail. He has a name but it doesn’t matter. He has a job. That’s who he is. He’s a Pinkerton, but that doesn’t matter either. Who isn’t, these days? If you’ve got a gun arm on you, that is. If you’ve got a proclivity for hitting people until they do as they’re told. This dude, he come out from Chicago with a job in his holster. Don’t care who hired him; don’t care how long it takes. He gets his money every week by wire and that’s as good as being on the right side of virtue in his book.

  It’s not the hardest job he’s ever done. Girl don’t really know where she’s going, see. It’s a long way to Montana. What she knows about long-haul travel she read in books and the man’s read those books, too. These runaways, they’re easy money. Wastrel trigger-punks with less sense than Dog gave a gopher. (This is how the dude appellates the good Lord for he does not abide blasphemy. The Great Good Dog in Heaven watch over your humble servant.) Those abandons are nothing but walking sacks of coin to him. They shin out like the world’s got room for them but it just ain’t so. Boys end up shot in some Babylon of a gold town. Girls go to ruin. This gives the dude a grand ticket to visit any brothel he passes, and the dude do like roostering himself up a spell. Once he’s got a bead on her. Once he smells her good and full. He got a late start, is all. Train from out east don’t make the trip in a blink. Pretty soon she’ll bake that crowbait horse into the ground and he’ll have her. Once she’s riding shank’s mare she’ll be easy as nickels.

  The conditions of the job don’t bother him none. He’s done worse. Most runaway jobs don’t necessitate his gun or his knife, but it’s a bad old country out there these days. Folk want all sorts of loot for their trouble. The dude’s had to bring back ears, hair, fingers, even an union-man’s eyeball once. The eye was bright blue. Easier than hauling the whole body over three states, he’ll tell you that much for free. Sometimes he thinks the rich are so different from usual folk they’re more like wild beasts or fairies than men. If this fellow had a gentle stomach he’d have taken up some other business. He does everything a Marshal does but twice as hard, twice as dirty, and without the soft and cushioning arms of the government to wipe his tears.

  The dude don’t see himself as a bad man. Way he sees it, he’s an angel for hire. He can gather in lost lambs from the four corners and kiss away their tears or he can shake a flaming sword. Up to his employers. St. Michael don’t question why when the Big Dog says git. Ole Mike, he just ties up his war-bag, thumps his golden road, eats his beans out the tin and when he sees his mark he gets to it no fuss. That’s the dude in a nut. There’s nights he don’t feel so fine on it, sure enough. But nobody likes their job sun out and sun in. Reckon there’s bankers back east right sick of the smell of money. Reckon they might like a change. But there comes a time when a man is who he is and not even a railroad spike through the chin can change it. That banker will be counting coin in his grave and come the great good day when righteous folk put on their white robes, the dude will still be a Pinkerton with an eye on his chest, minding Heaven don’t go apples up.

  No, the dude don’t call himself a bad man.

  But he’s got bad business to tend to.

  Snow White

  Shoots Antelope

  By Means of

  a Magic Arrow

  Snow White’s pony bears up just fine. She never could abide the trussed-up old world high-steppers Mrs. H favored. Pintos, paints, and appies, accept no substitutes. Snow White helped the birth of this horse in particular. Shoveling horse shit and afterbirth beat laundering a household full of button trousers seven ways. Hell is a soapcake on Monday morning. She’d cleaned the blood out of his eyes and the muck out of his tail. Old boy has a pedigree name in a ledger somewhere, but Snow White’s called him Charming ever since he mashed her foot flat half a minute after he came into the world trying to tottle up to standing.

  Snow White rides him hard, no mistaking. She needs distance, the generosity of miles. Maybe there’s no gone that’s far enough, but if there is, she aims to find it. She lets Charming snatch up sea-grass and when the sea’s so far behind them she can’t smell salt, she directs him to alfalfa and meadowsweet. Snow White portions out a bag of apples she absconded with between herself and her horse. She still does not care for apples but food is food. Sugar is sugar. She has to make them last. All the smarts in the world don’t tell you where the next town lies when you’ve never seen the big open but in pictures. Don’t matter much. She’s never been happy a day in her life until she lit out hell for Hades, and if she never sees another human face it’s just as well by her. Snow White puts her gun on her arm and takes down a beaver for a week’s su
ppers. She’s not too sure how to dry it perfect, but she does her best, and the fur sits better on her shoulders than any dress she ever wore to please her daddy. She’s careful with her bullets. Gotta miser them good. Her life is weighted out in apples and bullets.

  Snow White follows the sun.

  This is her father’s country. Every town Snow White lights on is a camp with H stamped on the gold pans. She keeps her hat down. Waters Charming and rubs him down good. They’re muddy, chawed-up shanties with more drink than nuggets. The camps recall to her some mixed-up bootblack funhouse mirror of her boardwalk back home and she understands for the first time what it means to be a rich man’s daughter. Even a secret one. Even one worked like a furnace. Snow White drinks whiskey now and it tastes like dirt on fire but it makes her feel strong. She eats son of a bitch stew and before too long she gets to like it: boiled up baby cow brains, liver, tongue, heart, kidneys and on good days a carrot. It stinks powerfully, but her body wants it awful, the blood and the iron and the fat.

  Snow White does not know much about men and she does not like what she sees. Their eyes dog her something dreadful. They are for the most part a miserable sight at cards. When Snow White plays, the Queen of Spades always turns up in her hand. She don’t like it. Don’t like being watched. Oftener than not, some poor overworked girl does all the work of entertaining—tinkles the piano if they got one, serves table, changes the day’s chiseling for currency, and there’s a menu behind the bar if you got a hunger dinner don’t touch. The miners use that girl awful in every place Snow White slows down long enough to scowl. It sticks in her jaw every time. That lady put on a purple skirt and shined herself up and damn but she can play those cowboy songs like she was born on a drive, but they don’t see it. Don’t see the mighty pains she took on their sorry behalf. Don’t see what it costs to get so fair.