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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 8

Catherynne M. Valente

  Red Deer

  Learns a Trade

  Deer Boy runs out of scratch somewhere in Wyoming. He starts showing his legs for a dollar in a cathouse. While ranch-hands wait for their friends to finish up. A dollar for a hoof, three for the whole leg. The food is good. There are mirrors everywhere. Deer Boy sees himself all night every night. He looks for the perfect world in them but it’s just him in there.

  The girls treat him real sweet. Not like you’d treat a beau—Deer Boy is not husband material. But they’re in the same line of work. One dollar for a peek. Three for the whole show.

  One of the cats gets marriage proposals every night. She’s got red hair and a pretty voice on her. Deer Boy hears the men begging her through the walls. Through the mirrors.

  Give me your heart.

  Part V

  Snow White Comes

  to Life Three Times

  Snow White

  Gets Shot with

  a Pine Tree

  It happens just as autumn’s coming on red and sharp.

  Bang-Up Jackson’s gone south to haggle over jerseys and a lump of tourmaline the shape and weight of a human heart. Witch Hex is drunk down the gulch and letting the sun sop her further. Woman Without a Name is burning ash for soap by the creek. Everyone’s minding theirs.

  Old Epharim sees her come, but nobody and nothing troubles that old bear. She stirs her stew. Badger, beans, and black honeycomb.

  Snow White hears a knock and she thinks she knows what’s up, thinks she knows to turn away whatever’s rapping. But she’s not ready and she could never be. Out the window stands her mother. Not Mrs. H. No, this is Gun That Sings. Older, grey in the pomp, face carved like someone meant to write something there and never finished. But it’s her. Snow White sees her own face. Her dark eyes. Her mouth red as feeding. Her hurt laid out like leather. It’s not a fair fight. Not even a whiff. Some things a girl has in her to say no to and some things cut her down before she knows she’s gone. Sure, some twiggy, thorny snap in her says: no, this is awry, this is a bent thing, in that place that tells her to belly up to the floor before anyone’s even shadowed the doorframe. But it don’t matter. You can’t ask why she did it, when she was warned, when she was told. The plum truth is you would too, if everything impossible stood out there saying you could be loved so perfect the past would go up like a firecracker and shatter across the dark.

  Snow White grabs on to her mama and don’t let go. First she’s quiet like morning, then she says mama a couple of times, real small against that brown shoulder. Sure, Gun That Sings don’t smell right—smells like a cold forest and a pool of frozen silver—but maybe that’s what a mother smells like. How would she know?

  “There now,” says Gun That Sings. “I found you. It’s all right.”

  “You’re dead.”

  “What’s dead but a little slower than the living? I got here. Let’s you and I roll us some cigarettes and talk up the moon. I bet no one ever taught you to roll a cigarette proper.”

  She don’t sound right either. Sounds like the wheels spinning on a slot machine, rolling up all winter.

  “Remember what I said about magic and don’t be so quick to call me the devil, child.”

  Snow White wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood. She knows how to roll a damned cigarette. Could teach the Tobacco King of Carolina to do it nice and tight for once. But she lets her mama show her, crushing the dried up leaves against white paper.

  “I tried to find the Crow Nation. I tried to find you.”

  “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” croons Gun That Sings. “You’d be the fairest of them all. No more at home than at your father’s table, all dolled up like any dress could fix you. Don’t go sticking your hangdog face where it’s not wanted. Ain’t those poor folk been strick enough? Don’t need Miss H to haul water for them, no ma’am.”

  Snow White takes the name like a fist. Go inside, her bank sense says. She’s nothing but a creature and she ain’t your mama. This will go bad on you.

  Snow White takes a shaky draw on her cigarette and falls down dead.

  Snow White

  Breathes Lightning

  Snow White comes to with Bang-Up kissing her, sucking the smoke out of her body like steam coming off a pond. Bang-Up’s nearly crying which for most folks is all the way crying and it’s a bad night. Coughing, throwing up black pitch like the devil’s shit, Old Epharim feeding her bear broth and everyone growling her didn’t we say, didn’t Hex tell you up and down, what’s addled you, girl.

  When Snow White finally sleeps it’s like being buried, that deep, that heavy.

  You said. You said.

  Snow White

  Drinks the Ocean

  It happens again when acorns start their rat-a-tat falling, like cavalry guns on the hill.

  Little Mab’s gone west to do a train job: coin and corn and a hunk of pearl as heavy as a human heart. She couldn’t stand it, not stealing anything for so long. Cocklebur is entertaining a law-man with a taste for green stockings. Astolaine Bombast is skinning a raccoon for fur and victuals. Everyone’s minding theirs.

  Old Epharim sees her come, but nobody and nothing troubles that old bear. She stirs her stew. Beaver, beans, and beets as red as blood.

  Snow White hears a knock and she thinks she knows what’s up, thinks she knows to turn away whatever’s thumping. She’s not even surprised to see her mama there again, looking like nothing ever went south, like she just wanted to see her girl again. Just wanted to jaw about the weather. Door’s open before Snow White can stop herself. A mother’s like a poison made for only one soul. She opens the door because on the other side it’s her own face looking back, it’s a mirror as big as her whole life and she just wants to be saved.

  “Come on, baby girl. We didn’t finish our conversating. Set on the porch with me and we’ll share some good whiskey. I bet no one ever taught you how to drink whiskey straight.”

  Snow White sits down. She knows how to drink for fuck’s sake. Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch.

  And this time she’s got Rose Red with her.

  Snow White cocks her girl and she doesn’t say who are you or if you play me poor I can play you back. She just sits there with death pointed at her mother. She can feel the blood in her cheeks and her breath hitches.

  “You look just like your father, staring at me like that,” sneers the thing wearing the face of Gun That Sings.

  Snow White swallows that like a sword. She lets the hammer click back in its place. Everything in her that’s not nailed down is shaking loose.

  Snow White slugs back her whiskey and falls down dead.

  Snow White

  Exchanges Vomit

  with Owl

  She comes to and Bang-Up’s got her fingers down her throat. The whiskey comes back up like it hates her personal, there’s puke everywhere and a skunky red in her eyes. Bang-Up punches a few walls and it’s a bad night. No one comes round from a thing like that looking pretty. Retching and sweating and a lump of hide in Snow White’s mouth so she don’t make supper of her tongue. Everyone snarling twice means you wanted it, what’s soured out in you girl, is you looking for your death or just banging into it full stupid?

  When she finally sleeps it’s like drowning, that dark, that final.

  I’m looking for it. I’m looking for it.

  Snow White

  Swallows the Earth

  It happens again when the snow starts riding the wind, not fallen yet but ashing the air.

  Everyone’s in camp this time. They see it happen. Even Bang-Up. But they don’t interfere. Everyone’s minding theirs. Only so much you can do to keep a body going when it’s bent on blowing town. They all see her come.

  Old Epharim stirs her stew. Fox meat and coyote bones and deer hearts black as secrets.

  Snow White doesn’t wait. In the bank of her whole self she’s already laid out on the floor. But
it’s not her mama come to shoot the place up.

  It’s Mrs. H.

  Older, white freezing the edges of her hair, lines in her face like someone meant to scar her forever but didn’t have the heart to finish up. But it’s her. Snow White sees a face she knows and fears and loves in an ugly, bunched up way. A family way.

  It’s not a fair fight.

  Mrs. H is holding a basket of apples. They look real nice. Snow White keeps her mouth shut—it’s all said anyway. She just looks at her stepmother holding her death bag of Puritan magic between them like they don’t both know what’s going to happen.

  And yet. Mrs. H falters. Snow White is the best draw going and her stare punches a hole at point blank. She aims to fill it this time.

  “Everything in this world requires a heart in trade,” Mrs. H whispers. “There’s no such thing as a good bargain.”

  Yeah. That’s about the speed of it.

  Mrs. H pulls out a deck of cards. Thompson’s fox-teeth show on the back of the seven of spades. She offers Snow White the cut, fair as fair as fair.

  Snow White don’t take it.

  Snow White reaches out and grabs an apple from the bag. She bites into it and never looks away from Mrs. H, from the crevice of her, and this is a suicide we’re watching, full faith and knowledge.

  Snow White swallows that piece of sweetness and falls down dead.

  Her mother catches her.

  Part VI

  Snow White

  Rides a Star

  Snow White

  Is Carried By Turtle

  What happens to the West happens to Snow White, which is to say they both turn into jokes. They both get told so often they become pantomime. And then worse.

  Oh-Be-Joyful don’t last much past Montana Territory unterritorying and stating up. But you never leave a girl behind. They join up with a wild west show and tour flat-dead towns on scrub-dust rivers. Not the big show, Bill’s show, but one nearly as good. They earn their dinners. The trick shots Little Mab and Bang-Up pull off look just like magic. What Woman Without a Name does with a horse would shame anyone who dared call himself a cowboy which truth be told is not too many people anymore.

  And they have a pair of aces. A curiosity unequaled. It goes in the freak show because no one knows what else to do with it, and Boss Jake says it gives him the crawling creeps.

  A little while back someone else showed up asking after work, though everybody but the lions knew he was just looking for their funny little curiosity. That kid was a much better get than the old box anyway, with those deer legs that could outrun a horse. Spends most of his nights in the freak tent with the box, talking to it like it can talk back. Talking funny. Maybe it’s French or something. Boss Jake knows he’s got a genuine cryptozoo on his hands, so he lets Deer Boy do whatever he wants. Only he says it cripplezoo because Boss Jake ain’t too bright and learned his words off his daddy’s bad mouth.

  If you pay your nickel you can see it easy enough. Read the nice red sign up there: The Glass Gunslinger. And there she is: a glass box wrapped up in some old mangy coyote pelts and inside it there’s a girl. Sort of pretty, or she would have been if she hadn’t run herself so hard when she could run. Jake reckons she’s Choctaw or Cree or something and he don’t care when Woman Without a Name tells him she’s half-Crow and half-son-of-a-bitch.

  Don’t look Snow White to me nohow.

  Bang-Up Jackson makes sure the gunslinger’s hair looks nice before shows, crosses her arms over her chest with a big crazy pistol all pigged up in jewels in one hand and a long hog-sticker rifle in the other. Keeps her face clean. Keeps the flies off.

  The gunslinger isn’t dead, but she don’t move and she barely breathes, so in summer she don’t smell too nice and the flies come singing. That’s when the Joyful girls—the furies, Jake calls them—take her out of her box and wash her in whatever’s handy. They let the Deer Boy help and the way he holds her head you’d think he’d married her before she got put in that box.

  Old Epharim catches Deer Boy kissing the gunslinger once. Standing there with the box open and crying while he kissed her red, red lips. Nothing and no one troubles the old bear. She let them alone, though she didn’t feel right on it considering he was a stranger and Bang-Up would have both those pretty deer legs bust out if she knew. But what does it matter? Been twenty years now and Snow White don’t look a day older, don’t ever sit up and ask for whiskey in her coffee, don’t do nothing but beat her heart and work her breath.

  Deer Boy kisses Snow White again.

  She doesn’t wake up.

  Snow White

  and Red Deer

  Contend for a

  Piece of Meat

  Deer Boy stands over the glass gunslinger one night in autumn. Everything smells like woodsmoke.

  He puts his hands on the glass of her box. Leans in. Deer Boy can see himself in the glass. He can see her through him.

  Deer Boy’s heard his mother’s sick back home. The lunger, maybe. But she’s old, so it doesn’t matter what it is. When she coughs it comes up red as apples. It has occurred to him that he should go to her. If he brought her what she wanted, she might heal up. Might look at him and say: what a good boy.

  Deer Boy brought a knife with him. He holds it between himself and Snow White.

  I need your heart.

  He opens the glass. Snow White is warm. He ran so far and now he runs alongside her. Keeping pace. Keeping time. He doesn’t try to understand things anymore. Deer Boy just loves like a light bulb and he never goes off.

  “It looks like a choice,” he says to her soft as falling, “between you and me. But it isn’t.”

  When the words come out they run backwards.

  Deer Boy drags the knife over his chest. He is giving her his heart. He is exchanging a deer’s heart for a girl’s heart. If hers would fix him, his will fix her. He knows it. She isn’t his sister. She is his sister.

  Deer Boy sees her eyelids move. He thinks he sees it. He’s sure he sees it.

  Boss Jake hauls him back yelling for help. Hauls him off of her and Deer Boy is crying, he is begging her to wake up. She’s dead, she’s dead, you can come back now.

  The furies clean him up. He didn’t cut deep enough. Never could. No damage done. Snow White don’t move a whisper.

  Deer Boy’s blood seeps into her white calfskins like snow.

  Snow White

  and the Story

  of Death

  Well, there’s only two ways this can end. Snow White wakes up; Snow White sleeps forever. Maybe that’s her thing. She’s always waking up and always sleeping at the same time all the time, so fast you can’t see the blur.

  Maybe she never wakes up. More likely than anything else, really. You can’t kiss a girl into anything.

  Snow White becomes an object. Barnum buys or steals her from Jakob’s show and she cools her heels with the Fiji Mermaid in perpetuity. A medical museum. A private collector with a scar on his chest. Maybe someday Snow White’s cells get scraped and stored for some researcher to kiss alive in a decade, a century, when they get around to it. When they have time.

  She dreams of the mine. Of rubies hanging in the dark like antibodies. She dreams of her mother singing to her like a gun. She dreams of her mother when she was a girl, and didn’t know the future. If you want to know.

  You know, there’s this old story. It says Coyote took his heart and cut it in half. He put one half right at the tip of his nose and the other half at the end of his tail. He did this so no one could catch him at his mischief. The two halves of his heart would fly off in separate directions, each doing whatever it pleased, and if anyone said to one half of his heart: you have done a wicked thing! the other half would say: what the hell you talking about, I was over here the whole time!

  Alive and dead, alive and dead. Both happening so fast you can’t see the blur. It doesn’t matter which. The live girl carries around the deadness she worked on all those years. The dead girl holds on to that wick of
living that’s still green in there. It flips back and forth forever like a trick ace. Thump, thump, thump in the night as a girl sits up and lays down again.

  Come on. Pick one. Pick a path and hit the briars.

  Snow White

  Holds Up the Sky

  Thump, thump, thump.

  One thing I have learned about running away is that once you start there is no end to it.

  Open, shut. Alive, dead. Sooner or later you choose. This is what happens.

  Snow White dreams about old red Thompson the fox and the spinning trees on her slots, red and gold and green and white. She dreams about the seagull with a bullet through its eye. If you want to know.

  She dreams Mrs. H palms up that deck again. And this time she takes the cut. Aces high.

  And all right, okay, one day she wakes up. It’s a hundred years, a hundred and ten, maybe some change. Stowed away in some attic in Iowa where Jakob’s Exhibition of Wildness and Wonder petered out. She wakes up because there was flooding all over town that spring and the current washed that house clean off its stones. Snow White wakes up when her glass box crunches against an elm tree and goes accordion shaped. Or maybe it was just time. Some clock ticked out inside her. Four old trees spinning up to spring.

  There’s glass in her hair. In her palms.

  Search and Rescue airlifts Snow White and half the town clear of the whitewater and nobody thinks much of it. A man with a crew cut treats her for shock. He asks how many fingers. Who’s President.