Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Six-Gun Snow White, Page 7

Catherynne M. Valente

  We live rough but we live useful and I don’t support no pillow rancher. You ain’t no woodstove; you can’t just squat in the middle of my house and stew.

  Witch Hex has been at the pine gulch with her axe. She started up the night they brought Snow White over the mountain. Without saying a word on it, the Mainer with shoulders like skin drums has stacked up pile of wood and nails north of the big frying pan in the middle of the village. Snow White will be expected to build when she’s feeling straightened. Witch Hex always says building is medicine for free.

  Snow White likes the work more than she expects. She don’t talk to anyone much. There’s a logic to a house. Though she’s no great shakes and hers will win no prizes, Snow White’s house will hold still in the wind. She whacks at wood with her hammer and shoots beaver for Ephie’s pan and combs Charming til he glows. At night she makes that not-talking not-screaming not-crying noise down the gulch until the owls light out for friendlier digs. She can’t stop. It feels so good to get empty.

  Little Mab and Astolaine help the raising of her walls and the roof will go on soon. Snow White dreams about the dude and sleeps next to Bang-Up Jackson, who holds her when she shakes but lets go before she wakes up. In her dream, the dude looks like Mr. H. He wants to play cards. He calls and shows all court cards. Hands her the Queen of Spades. He says to her: take this heart and put it in a wooden box. Then the dude isn’t the dude but the coyote in his cage in her old zoo. He spits out the body of Thompson the red fox. Howls. The noise coming out of his howl is the noise Snow White makes at night. The coyote says: it looks like a choice but it isn’t.

  There’s other women in camp Snow White doesn’t know to look at, and they don’t wear the horse skulls and breastplates but on Sunday for the services run by Woman Without a Name, who’s put her thumb down on the notion of Snow White hunting up her mama’s folk. Don’t you carve your wounds on them. Ain’t no place for you but here. You’re grown—crooked and backbent, but grown—and it’s time to stop hanging your heart on your mother.

  Snow White says ok but she can’t do it. Some loads are too heavy to put down.

  Bang-Up says everybody’s got to contribute. Turns out a camp is just like a body; you work all day just to keep it alive. A couple of sisters keep up a watch for anyone sniffing too close to Joyful: one day, one night. They don’t so much as look at anyone else. Only see each other at dusk and dawn, sharing out bread and beaver tail in the bloody light. Old Epharim allows as how their daddy was a Pennsylvania preacher of the tongues-and-snakes sort, and on account of the Bible taking a frown to the gossip of women, he cut out their tongues. The sisters have three guns each and Snow White has heard them humming to each other. She likes the sound.

  Snow White does what she knows to do. She brings in meat. All day and night blood and gristle. Goes into the forest and kills what will let her kill it. First time she kills a fox she doesn’t talk for three days. She plants onions in the earth like chunks of bone and keeps the bears off with Rose Red, marking the perimeter at dawn. Some of the girls want to get into the cattle business and Snow White allows that she could be talked into it. She likes the idea of a lot of beasts together under the old, cold sky, snorting and smelling like dirt. She likes the redness and realness of meat, the work of turning a deer into another day living in this world. She could do it to a cow. No sweat.

  She builds a door strong and bolted and the house is creaky but sound for sleeping. But Bang-Up’s bed is hard to leave and Snow White doesn’t much care to. She goes to hers in the morning and comes back for supper. One day. One night.

  Time trots along. Snow White chases her own tail.

  On good nights, when Bang-Up falls asleep holding her hand, Snow White dreams she’s a dog. She gets to sleep by the fire and eat bones and instead of talking she just howls until the moon breaks. It’s a good dream.

  Red Deer

  Sneaks Up on

  Snow White

  Someone else has Snow White’s trail. He moves by night so no one can clap eye on him, sound alarm and call a preacher out of bed. He don’t rightly know why it is he wants to find her so damn bad, but he does. It’s like he’s magnetized to her. But fact is he’s never met the girl.

  He has a name but he can’t keep it in his head. People say it and it rolls off. He thinks of himself as Deer Boy and that’s on account of his being half deer—he runs after the girl with black hair on long, backbent brown legs with white stripes down to the hoof. In spring he’ll knock fuzz off his antlers. Rest of him’s man enough but Deer Boy knows he ain’t right. If he set foot in church the font would set to boiling.

  Deer Boy knows he’s a disappointment to his mother. He don’t know how he was supposed to turn out but he knows he’s got wrongness all over him, knows when she looks at him she gets so angry the walls try to get clear of her. Deer Boy wishes he knew how he got the way he is but some things are just past him. He remembers the first time he saw Snow White and likes that memory so he figures he’ll live in it and that works for a little while: a sad girl on the other side of a mirror, standing next to someone so pretty it hurts to look at her, someone who looks like his mother but sharper, more real, like a lion to a housecat.

  Deer Boy used to live in a perfect place. He drank silver milk from his mother and she sang nice backward nonsense songs and the sun was so soft and yellow you could spread it on toast. He didn’t have deer parts back then and he got big real fast. He even had hopes of being handsome, a real shot at it. Then when he was just about grown up, the painful pretty woman came to the mirror and held out her hands to Deer Boy. She was holding a big, dripping, bloody heart, a heart so red and dark it feared him terrible. The heart came through the mirror like a red dark train and his mother went up like gas and Deer Boy lost the perfect place so fast it was like dying cold.

  When he squeezed through the mirror and into the world owned by the painful woman, he was Deer Boy and he had hooves and spotted red fur on his legs and what could you do. He also spoke backwards from other folk on this side of the mirror, which upset just about everyone. His new mother did not sing nonsense songs and she had no milk for him. She howled and ran her bloody fingers over his face, kissing him and being angry at the same time.

  She’d been tricked. There’d been a methodology and some part had sproinged. Deer Boy understood that he was a cake that failed to rise. He thought that’d be all right. Mothers forgive, that’s what they do. She looked just like his mother. It’d be like that perfect place again once she cooled off. He could run so terrible fast, after all. It was a nice aspect in a son.

  But she only said she’d fix him and over time Deer Boy came to an understanding that this meant finding Snow White. His mother owed somebody a heart. Snow White was the broken wheel in the works of his being born. Once he’d got fixed, he could see his father. Once he got fixed he could have that big house by the sea. Once he got fixed he’d get to crawl into his mother’s arms and her kisses would just be kisses and leave no blood behind. He couldn’t square the reason behind it all, exactly, but the painful pretty woman was his mother, somehow, the source of his mother, and no new one was going to show up and look kindly on his legs and his speaking and his singing.

  If he ever meant to get back into that perfect place, Deer Boy was gonna have to run Snow White down.

  Snow White

  Dances with

  Prairie Dog

  Witch Hex draws the straw and goes knocking on Snow White’s hickory door. Snow White opens it quick and she’s hardly got anything on, it’s so damnably hot and she’s coating the floor with some nice whitewash Old Ephraim stewed up out of hill chalk. Snow White’s full splattered with it.

  “See, that’s the trouble,” says Witch Hex Watson. “The trouble’s that door and you’re gonna meet it sooner or later. We all do.”

  Snow White turns the floor into winter. Back and forth sweeps her brush.

  “Listen, girl, I came to tell you that life is stupid. It just pulls the same shit
over and over. Sometimes you think you can make it come out different, but you can’t. You’re in a story and the body writing it is an asshole. You had to know that, given the action. The story you’re in tells you like firing a gun. And because you’re in a story and stuck with the plum stupidity of being alive, I’m here to tell you not to go around opening your nice new door. Because eventually someone comes for us. All of us. Sometimes it’s a husband who forgot why he beat you into running to begin with, sometimes it’s a boss or a pimp looking to lay money on your belly, sometimes it’s your mother come to drag you home. And pretty much we all open the door to them because it’s natural. But we got a nice thing going here. Life’s still stupid but we got free of story out here under the beeches and the Big Dipper. We had enough of it, of things happening one after another and no end in sight. Of reversals and falling in love and tragic flaws and by God if I see another motif in my business I will shoot it dead. The stories that happen to people like us aren’t worth my back teeth. So if you want it you can have a nice life here. You can wake up next to Jackson til the end of days and the raising of the glorious dead. You can eat squirrel pancakes out of Ephie’s pan and watch the moon go up and down. It’s a kind of magic, but then most things are. But story is an eager fucking beaver and someday soon someone will come knocking for you and you’d better just say no thank you is all I’m saying. Whatever’s on the other side of that let me in will burn you hollow and lick the ash for the last of you. The worst thing in the world is having to go back to the dark you shook off.”

  Snow White turns the floor to milk. Back and forth she sweeps her brush.

  “My babies came knocking for me,” whispers Witch Hex Watson. “Near grown up and crying for their ma. We never believed what they said, no how. We brought you combs for your hair and ribbons for your dresses. Come home, Papa’s not mad. Come back and be Mary-Grace again. Witch Hex ain’t no kind of name for somebody’s mother. And I watched them crying with snot in their faces and I couldn’t say no to my boys, I opened my door and everything they had for me was tainted because the land of Used-To-Be is just full of ghosts starving for your breath. What’s east is hungry. What’s west is hard. Just hunker down. Let it pass you by.”

  Snow White turns the floor to bone. Back and forth.

  Snow White

  Calls the

  Animals Together

  for a Meeting

  Out in the forest, Snow White finds a kit whose mother probably sizzled up on Ephie’s pan some night that week. He’s half-blind and barely as big as her hand. Little fella mews and yelps when he sees her. Not-screaming, not-crying. He’s afraid but he’s hungry. Any girl in a storm.

  The kit is red. Snow White takes him home. He sleeps next to her stove and pisses in the corners. His piss smells hot and sour. He bites her. Snow White bites back. They understand each other.

  A while later, Snow White sees a bear in the woods. She’s old and stiff. She has a patch of bald on her rump where she’s worried the fur away. The bear follows Snow White and watches her dress a raccoon. The blood makes the dirt damp and black. Snow White does not shoot the bear, even though she could. The bear is very slow. They never come too close but they like to look at each other. The bear grabs a fish out of the crick and the way she glances at Snow White it’s like the old girl wants to be praised. Snow White leaves trout guts for her and keep the red fox from gobbling them up.

  The trees stand green as summer, all in a line.

  The red fox gets big. He likes to keep watch with the night-sister and her three guns. But when thunderstorms belly up to the Joyful bar, he comes running to Snow White. He pisses on her bed. She knows that he means to indicate that he considers it his bed. That’s fine.

  Snow White stops letting her noise out at night. It fears the bear too much.

  Red Deer

  and the Bird

  from Heaven

  Deer Boy is not a tracker. His deer half is the wrong half. His human nose is as dumb as anyone’s. Besides, deer have the drive to run away, not seek out. They get hunted, they do not hunt. If he had his mother’s brains, he might have called up Chicago and got his own dude to stand him to the trail. But he didn’t get her mind within mind in the parental bargain and he’s chasing blind, running on the fuel of his want. He’s playing his father’s tune, but he doesn’t know it.

  Deer Boy has often cogitated upon the subject of what he will do if he finds her. There is not much else to think about. He imagines her. He builds her out of his memory. He runs up to her on puts his hands up on the glass between them. Is she his sister? Some days he thinks yes, some days he thinks no. Deer Boy was born in the mirror. She looks nothing like him. But look at their hands, pressing together, ten fingers to ten fingers. They are the same. They are standing with a mirror between them. They are standing with his mother between them.

  Can he cut her heart out? He tells himself yes. The answer is no.

  Deer Boy wear long trousers and chaps that hide his legs. When he drinks whiskey he can almost talk straight. He plays cards and bets for information. He bets for stories. When the Ace of Hearts turns over his breath stops. It doesn’t even have to be in his hand. Johnny, you remember when that crazy half-breed bitch shot ol’ pieface Hank out back, right? Those were the days. A man felt alive.

  She is a half-breed. She is like him. Deer Boy does not know what her other half is but he wonders if being split down the middle pains her like it pains him.

  Deer Boy would like to meet his father. He reads about him all the time. The Dakota rush. The Colorado lode. In his mind, Deer Boy’s father is made of jewels. When Deer Boy gets his legs back, his father will open up his diamond arms and gather him into the glitter. He dreams about this. On the other side of his father’s crystal body, Snow White puts up her hands.

  Once, Deer Boy tried to ask his mother why she didn’t just leave him in the mirror. Why am I myself and not some other boy? Why can’t you love what you made?

  He spoke backwards. She didn’t understand. She said: you are my price. You are my black deal in the wood.

  Deer Boy gets so drunk in Haul-Off he has to be rolled out onto the street. It’s raining dog. He stumbles up the road, his hooves sticking in the mud. The whiskey in him stands at attention. Up ahead of him he thinks he sees her, Snow White, wet and cold, her face on fire with light. She’s standing in the road; a body sprawls next to her. A bullet between his eyes.

  I need your heart.

  She puts her hands up. Ten fingers.

  I’m sorry. I need your heart.

  Snow White opens her mouth. Milk flows out.

  I just want to be loved. Didn’t you ever want her to love you?

  Snow White opens her chest like a cabinet. She takes out her heart. It is a ruby. It is dripping blood. It is dripping light. She looks at him with so much love.

  Deer Boy wakes up holding his hat tender as a baby.

  Snow White

  and the Money Tree

  It is around this time that Little Mab Volsky propositions Snow White. Let’s us rob ourselves a bank. Easiest money this side of lying on your back, she says. When a vault busts open it’s like you bust, too. That sweet. That good.

  They practice in the woods.

  Snow White puts a kerchief over her face and it is a red mask. Little Mab’ll run the show—Snow White can just shoot up the place. They holler at the crick to lie down on its belly, double quick and no funny business. Snow White bags a jackrabbit with a white blaze on his chest like a sheriff’s star. He looked at her crooked. You can’t brook that kind of upfuck. They bash in a rotted stump and get it down to forty-five seconds from first thump to vault open and pillbugs rolling out like dimes.

  Little Mab has this to say: “The thing to know about bank robberies is that most fellas who end up blowing dark through some poor soul with a withdrawal slip in his hand wanted to do it before they ever got in the door. They wanted to make a hole in something and fill up the hole with death. Most times the bank
is empty anyways. Not too many got much these days. Folks who got unlucky business there, well, they’ll put their bellies on the floor you’ll forget what you came for. They’re like dogs before an earthquake. Some instinct kicks them in the gut and down they go. We’ll take just what we need, enough for doorknobs and seedbags and a good bull to mate to the milk cows. Enough to turn into another day in this world. We’ll get Lainey to fiddle while we rob. Make it nice for them folks on the floor. Ain’t nothing to be done in this life but you can’t make it nicer for them you do it to.”

  Snow White can see it clear as day. She’ll land in that bank like a hammer. Rose Red will dance in her hand. She still has a few pearls left. Little Mab will holler and laugh like a fairy on fire. She’ll do a jig in front of the safe like she could cozen it into shedding its cover for her. Snow White can hear Astolaine playing her violin by the door. The customers will all start crying when they hear her tune. Crying out of the same place that told them to lay their head on the cool bank stone.

  Snow White wants to shoot the ceiling, the walls, the glass. She wants to put a hole in something, too. She just doesn’t want to fill it up again.

  Snow White

  and Yellow Jacket

  Get Turned Back

  at the River

  Bang-Up puts the nix on the bank plan. Banks are like little bits of Washington poking up everywhere. Banks are the law.

  “Now, we’ve gone to all this trouble to truss up our lives nice and tight with no space for the bad to come in. Why you want to go throwing open the door?”