There are two stories that I want to tell you about a child unwittingly promised. I will begin by telling the earliest story, which takes place not in your time and not in my time but in a time long ago and far away. The setting is an old grist mill in Castleton, Ontario, that my great uncle owned for a period in the nineteen eighties. The mill is two stories tall with a peaked roof and a wooden sign, barely visible today, that spells out the name of the former owners across the façade. They were the Purdy family, but this story didn’t happen in their time either. The mill is a stage set. It is the location my mind conjures when I read this fairy tale and, also, when I think about it.
The mill sits alongside a stream at the foot of a small hill. There is an apple tree in the field behind it, but only in my mind’s eye. Thirty years ago, my mother’s cousin ran an antique shop out of this mill. She was choosy about which items she would sell to people. If she felt the piece didn’t suit the buyer—a teacup, a side table, a cuckoo clock—she would tell them that it wasn’t for sale. She believed each item had a rightful owner. She was more matchmaker than salesperson. Once, when I visited the shop, my mother’s cousin allowed me to buy a set of dishes which I still own today. They are a soft yellow colour with a sweet pastoral pattern—a thatched cottage nestled among rolling green hills, half an orange sun peeking through fluffy clouds above.
The landscape on these dishes is the backdrop for the first story of the child unwittingly promised. The pattern is what you might see in the distance if you were standing and facing the old mill, which is where the story opens. The first person to appear in this story is the miller, but I do not cast my great uncle in this role. My great uncle was sweet and achingly kind, while the miller is a greedy, clueless man whose features aren’t altogether clear to me. His face is a smudge, a hint of a face above blue coveralls. The miller, who lives with his wife and their teenage daughter, has fallen little by little into poverty, but we don’t learn why. As in most fairy tales, all that happened before the traditional opening line is meaningless. The action is immediate and linear, contained within the tale. There is no past to consider, no narrative flashbacks to give context. These details are up to the listener to fill.
One afternoon, the miller decides to go to the forest to chop some wood. Perhaps he could sell some kindling, he thinks. Maybe he could sell it in bundles along the roadside, the kind you see in crates at the foot of country lanes with painted signs alerting passers-by that there is firewood for sale.
In the woods the miller meets an old man he’s never seen before. This old man says that he’ll buy what lies behind the mill and in exchange the miller will receive a lifetime of wealth. This has the ring of a get-rich-quick scam, or at the very least a pyramid scheme, but, as I mentioned, the miller is greedy and this tends to cloud his logic. The miller does a brief mental inventory of what lies behind the mill—grass, earth, what else? Oh, there’s the old apple tree. Well, he can do without apples, he thinks. He agrees, and the old man hands him a pen and a contract to sign. The miller signs the form and hands it back without reading the terms and conditions, maybe because he’s illiterate and he can’t, or maybe because he’s careless. The old man folds the contract neatly and tucks it into a pocket of his windbreaker.
Back at home (which I imagine to be the thatched cottage from the yellow dishes) the miller finds his bewildered wife on the doorstep. She has come outside to escape her house because it is brimming with gold coins from every drawer, closet and cupboard, and she does not understand how or why, but she has a bad feeling that her husband is involved and that the money is dirty. She doesn’t say this outright, but you can read between the lines when she says, “Tell me, miller, how did all this wealth suddenly get into our house?” She’s obviously ready for an argument because she doesn’t use his proper name, which we don’t know, but, surely, she does.
The miller is focused only on his good fortune, and he shrugs off his wife’s accusatory tone.
“A stranger in the forest promised me great wealth if I agreed, in writing, to give him what’s behind our mill,” he says. I envision him smiling broadly as he tells her this.
I see the wife turning away from the miller when she responds, so that she’s facing the rolling green hills, the puffy clouds, and the orange sun in the porcelain yellow sky.
“You fool, our daughter was sweeping behind the mill,” she tells her husband. “You’ve promised her to the devil.”
The second story begins in a genetic counsellor’s office at the Victoria General Hospital on Vancouver Island. The office has high ceilings, pale green walls and a bank of windows that face a stand of white pines. I am sitting beside my husband on one side of a narrow wooden desk, and on the other side are a genetic counsellor and a student trainee who is shadowing her. My husband and I offer information about our medical histories as the student trainee draws our intertwined family trees, using circles to represent females and squares males. Some of the circles and squares are marked with an X to indicate that they carry a known genetic mutation. I am an X, my husband is an X, and our daughter is an X, although her circle is shaded to indicate that she has expressed the mutation. She has albinism, which means she lacks pigment in her hair, skin and eyes, and that she is legally blind. The first X on my family tree is a cabinetmaker from New England who moved to Niagara Falls, Ontario, at the beginning of the nineteenth century and founded a funeral business. The cabinetmaker lived not in my time and not in your time but in a time long ago and far away; however, like my uncle’s former mill, the funeral home remains today and I’ve been there enough—for memorial services only, as my family sold the business in the nineteen seventies—that I can visualize my ancestor’s interior world without too much effort.
I’d tracked him down after my daughter was born because I knew nothing about albinism, and I thought my ancestors might offer some insight. I’d slowly drawn the branches of our tree by using information gleaned by scientists who studied our blood and spit, and, less dramatically, by telephoning distant relatives who’d never heard of me, by scouring archives and old newspaper records, and by poring over the disintegrating family photo albums that my father inherited from the funeral home. I collected each X as if it marked a treasure, as with old pirate maps.
Although the mutation that my husband and I carry in our genes is recessive, we cannot draw an X in any of the circles or squares that represent his family because their records are not as vast as ours. This is partly true. It is also true that my husband’s need to know the path of our mutation was not as fierce as mine. I say need, because that is how it felt to me. Looking back, I understand that this urge to uncover what I could not see was actually a want. It was a choice I made, and, as with any information, once revealed, it could not be forgotten. It would always be a part of our story.
My daughter is three now and I am pregnant again. We have moved across the country since her birth, so this is a different genetic counsellor, office, and hospital than the first time around. Despite these changes, the circles and squares, and the questions they elicit are nearly identical.
Once the trainee has finished completing our family tree, she hands it to her superior so that we can discuss what we might do next. The genetic counsellor gives us two choices: The first is that I can undergo amniocentesis, a procedure in which a needle draws amniotic fluid from my womb that can then be tested for the mutated gene. After receiving the results, we can opt to terminate or continue with the pregnancy. The second is that we can forgo the test and adopt a wait-and-see approach. The second is the safest option. Having the test offers us the information we want, but it comes with a risk, albeit small, that I might miscarry. While this weighs on me, my pursuit of knowledge overrides my fear. I am greedy for information. I can have what I want, but there is a cost.
“Don’t be alarmed by this,” the counsellor cautions, pointing out a line on the consent form that suggests we will change the management of our pregnancy if the test comes back positive for the mutated gene. The euphemistic wording makes it sound as if we are choosing a home birth rather than a hospital birth, or perhaps opting for a midwife over an obstetrician, but it is nothing so benign. It means that we will terminate the pregnancy if the result is positive. The counsellor tells us that this caveat is related to funding. The provincial government does not fund in-vitro testing for parents seeking knowledge, like us, only those seeking action. Determining whether your baby will have a genetic condition as a means of preparing for that child is not deemed necessary or cost effective.
“Don’t worry,” the geneticist says. “They don’t hold you to it.”
She says this with a little laugh, and at first I think this is because she is uncomfortable, but then I wonder if she’s not actually laughing, if maybe she’s baring her teeth. She is a white woman, with straight blonde hair, and I would guess that she is in her late thirties. She looks like she might be a jogger although I can also picture her on one of those stand-up paddle boards that I see people using in the bay when I walk the dog in the mornings. Outside the window the pines bend in a gentle wind. We are, in a technical manner, in the woods. Her ordinariness could be the perfect disguise. Maybe she’s the devil and by signing this form we are making an unwitting promise.
Three years later the devil comes for the miller’s daughter. I imagine that the young maiden waits for him on the bank of the stream that runs alongside the mill. She has immersed herself in this water, in preparation. She then draws a circle with white chalk on the ground and steps inside. From where the maiden stands, meaning, from where I’ve positioned her in my mind, she can see the devil as he turns onto Mill Street, passing my great grandmother’s house, the green saltbox with the white trim, as he rounds the corner.
He approaches the maiden with such speed, such smug confidence, that he is momentarily bewildered when he finds himself unable to touch her. The maiden has no agency over her own life. She has been sold without the ability to protest, given away without her consent, so she has turned to magic as a defense. It was an unlikely bet—she must have known this—but it has worked. The devil’s confusion quickly gives way to rage, one so fierce and hot that it evaporates all the water from the world.
“There,” he says, “Now you cannot wash. I’ll be back for you tomorrow.”
But when he returns for the maiden the next day, she’s wept her hands safe. Her tears are impenetrable. The devil finds that he cannot take hold of her for a second time. He knows what to do. He seeks out her greedy, cowardly father.
“You better cut your daughter’s hands off,” he tells the miller. “Or, I’ll come for you instead.”
This part is difficult to understand, and, also, to envision. The daughter remains calm, holds her hands out to her father. They stand in the interior of the mill, but not in its incarnation as the antique shop. It is in its present form, which is to say, it is abandoned, and the windows are boarded shut. The space is dimly lit and shadowy. It has an uneven, earthen floor. I see the old millstone, lying inert, on its side. It has become a butcher’s block. The maiden lays her arms across the stone, but at the last moment I turn away so I can’t describe this scene. You will need to imagine it yourself.
She is betrayed and mutilated by her father, harassed by the devil, but, astonishingly, the maiden persists. She weeps into her ghost hands, her bloodied stumps, and, when the devil arrives for this third attempt, he finds that she is a fortress. He cannot touch her. He cannot take her home with him. The devil storms away, disappears into the bush off a dead-end road. He has given up on her, for now, but the maiden is not safe. Not at home with her father. The miller stands at the door to his thatched-roof cottage. The clouds have parted and the orange sun is relentless in the hard-yellow sky.
“Come home,” he says, holding the door ajar. “We are rich now, and you are free.”
The maiden knows that only one of these statements is true. She turns away from him. She walks into the rolling hills and never comes back.
The summer that I am pregnant with our second child, I drive to California with my husband and our daughter to attend a conference in San Diego. The conference is for people who share my daughter’s genetic condition as well as their families, and this is our second time at the gathering since our daughter was born. At the end of the trip, we have planned that my husband will drive home alone while my daughter and I will fly back to Vancouver Island without him.
On the final morning of the conference, after my husband begins his drive home, I meet an old woman in the lobby of the hotel. I am standing in line with my daughter, waiting to check out of our room, and the old woman, who is sitting in a chair by the wall, waves me toward her in a way so familiar that I wonder if we know each other. She is wearing a pastel blue cardigan and a long denim skirt. Her white hair is swept into a bun. She nods at my daughter.
“I saw you across the room and I knew that I wanted to meet you,” she says to her.
After speaking to my daughter, she lifts her eyes to meet mine. She tells me that her adult daughter has albinism, and that this was their first time at the conference. She asks if my daughter is my only child. For now, I tell her, but we are expecting our second in December.
“The baby is due on my daughter’s birthday,” I say. This is a superfluous detail, but I am hopeful that it will work to re-include my daughter into our conversation. It does not.
The old woman congratulates me, and then she pauses for some time, fixing her gaze on something just beyond my shoulder.
“I had another child,” she says, after a long silence. “A son. He also had albinism but he died at six months of crib death.”
I tell her that I am sorry. I speak in a careful, measured tone, but my voice tremors and I feel as if I might lose control. The sensation is unexpected. I fear that I may weep, or, worse, howl, and be unable to stop and it will all happen here in this crowded hotel lobby with my daughter by my side. There is no heightened risk of crib death for children who have my daughter’s condition, none that I know of, but it is difficult not to equate this story with my own situation, my own baby, particularly after the woman has made a point of drawing parallels between our two lives. Still, I feel that my reaction is strange and too large for the situation. The old woman doesn’t seem to notice my problems, or maybe she is unbothered. She might think it an appropriate response to her tragedy.
“Being here over the past few days, I saw all these little boys and teenagers who looked the way he might have looked, and the adults, the grown men who’d be about his age now,” the old woman says, and she makes a sweeping gesture with her arm, as if to summon the boys and men. “It was difficult, but I also felt close to him here. Closer than I have in a long time. I felt his presence.”
“That must feel—”
I can’t find the right word to describe such a thing, but the old woman nods, and says, “yes.” As if I have finished my sentence with the perfect explanation of how she’d felt. The line is growing longer at the front desk, and although my urge to weep has subsided, I feel unbalanced and tired, ready to finish this social exchange. I excuse myself and my daughter and say goodbye.
After checking out of our hotel we have an entire day to wait for our flight home. To entertain my daughter, I take her to an outdoor shopping mall. It is the only place we can walk to from the hotel. At the mall, there is a fenced-in AstroTurf play area for young children. It has a slide, some garish plastic animals on springs that rock back and forth when you sit on them, and a small swing set. I sit on one of the benches that line the periphery of the play area. This is where all of the mothers sit, watching their children. The other mothers, who are presumably locals, look wealthy, and most are younger than I am. They are tanned, and wear gold bangles and necklaces and large hooped earrings. They carry small purses. What fits in those small bags, I wonder? What about the containers of cheerios and the water bottles? What about the crayons and paper? Where do those things go?
As I watch my daughter spring back and forth on a shiny plastic pig, I think about the old woman we met that morning. I imagine the woman sitting at one of the round tables in the conference buffet room, watching for men of a certain age. What do they offer her? A glimpse of something impossible, a different option, one that was never offered, never available for her. What word could you use to capture the feeling of coming close to your lost child? Comfort, maybe. Hopeful, perhaps, despite knowing otherwise, that you might chance on a dimension where your child lived. Is there a word for a hope like this? Is it nostalgia but for something that never came to pass? No, that’s not quite right either. Then, it comes to me. She must have felt consoled. Yes, this is the word I had been seeking, the word that would have filled the blank space in our conversation. The old woman felt consoled.
My daughter moves onto the swing. She wants me to push her. She is searching for the mother-shape that is me, amidst the other mother-shapes on the benches. I get up and walk across the AstroTurf until I am close enough for her to see me. She kicks her small legs in greeting. I position myself behind her and pull the swing back as far as I can, and then I let her go.
The maiden wanders until dusk. She finds herself in a stand of pear trees that belong to the king which I envision as the four fruit trees that grow in the yard of our rented bungalow in Victoria, where we’ve lived for nearly three years. The maiden is hungry so she eats a pear right off the branch, despite knowing, somehow, that the fruit is counted nightly and the missing pear will be noticed. The next night, she returns again at dusk for another pear, but this time the king waits for her. He’s in the living room of our bungalow, watching her through the sliding glass doors that lead to the back deck. You wouldn’t know he was there because all you can see is the reflection of the branches and the purple-blue sunset. This is an ongoing tragedy at our home. No matter how many black silhouetted decals we paste on those doors, birds keep flying into the glass. The king watches the maiden and he finds her lovely, out there, gnawing the pears straight off the branches of his trees. He slides the patio door open, breaking the silence of the night. The crows that live in our compost heap scatter.
“Have I imagined you?” he asks her. “Are you a spirit or a human being?”
“I’m not a spirit,” she says. “I’m just self-reliant.”
The king finds the maiden captivating. He wants to marry her. She accepts this fate. Does the maiden find the king captivating? My hunch is that she does not but that if she found him too old, or hideous, or just boring, his status is far higher than hers, so, she wouldn’t have the power or resources to refuse the king. This is an act of fate, but one that it is prescriptive rather than romantic. If she hadn’t met the king, she would have been tethered to some other man, through a financial transaction orchestrated by her father, which, in a way, is what led her to the king. We never learn how the maiden feels. By the next sentence she is pregnant and the king has left for battle. He has asked his old mother to care for his wife, and to send word when the baby arrives.
The maiden gives birth to a boy and names him Sorrowful. This is a beautiful name, but I question the choice. I would worry that it might be predictive, that a child might grow into a name like that.
The old woman sends a message to her son—You have a new baby boy!—a missive of joy that is intercepted by the devil. He’s never been able to move past his defeat, to accept that the maiden’s witchy magic was stronger than his. He writes a new letter, forging the old woman’s hand.
Your wife gave birth to a changeling.
The king is worried by what he reads, but he does not respond the way the devil hopes.
Take care of them, he writes to his mother. But the devil rips up the note, writes a fresh message.
Kill them both. Keep her tongue and eyes as proof.
The old woman is disturbed by her son’s response. I imagine her in my grandmother’s bedroom, standing at the tall south-facing window as she makes her decision to intervene. She will kill a doe herself and cut out its’ eyes and tongue. She will immerse the eyes and tongue in a jar filled with fluid and store it in the root cellar, a dim, low-ceilinged space with a warren of endless rooms in the basement of my grandmother’s house.
The old woman wakes her daughter-in-law with blood-wet hands.
“Go out into the woods with your child and never come back,” she tells her. This might be the hardest thing she’s ever done, this disobedience, the murder of the doe, setting the maiden and her child free. She watches them walk away in the dark. I stand with her.
Sorrowful is tucked into a soft green carrier, the one with the leaf pattern on the reverse that I bought for the new baby. I see that he is wearing the striped cap that my sister knit for my daughter when she was born, as well as the matching booties. Oh wait, I think, remembering that those booties always fell off. I want to call after the maiden to tell her this, but I can’t interrupt the story. Besides, I am too far away for her to hear me.
I am lying in the dark surrounded by a forest of green bodies. Above where I lie, the half-moon of a surgical lamp is suspended from the ceiling, illuminating my body on the table. The attending doctor is a green man with a tiny miner’s lamp strapped to his head, a blinding star whose light will act as his guide. There is an ultrasound machine placed on my belly and the baby’s heartbeat drums through this small, crowded space. The other greenbodies are students and nurses and the person operating the ultrasound machine.
“It’s time,” the green-man doctor says and I turn my head to the side because I don’t want to see the doctor’s needle. In the dimness my gaze is met by a set of eyes, trained on mine.
“I’m hot,” I whisper to the eyes.
“I’m here,” the eyes whisper back.
The eyes place their cool palm on my forehead. At the same time, I feel the needle pierce the skin of my belly. The pain makes me gasp but more unsettling is the pressure, a tugging and a shoving, meeting with resistance. There is a problem. I understand this from the green-man doctor’s murmured consultation to the students and nurses, and from his tone. And, then, also, there is the fact that the needle has been pulled out again. This seems too quick to have drawn liquid.
A scattering of pinpricks spreads across my scalp. The palm stays cool and steady on my forehead. The eyes are calm and remain fixed on my face.
“It didn’t work,” the eyes tell me, gently. “The uterus wouldn’t let them in, so they will need to try again.”
Half an hour earlier, I’d stood under the florescent lights of the hospital hallway with the genetic counsellor—who I once believed was the devil in disguise, but who may simply be yet another bureaucrat. I’d held a letter from the hospital up for her to read. I’d opened the letter the night before, late, after my daughter and I arrived home to Victoria from the conference in San Diego. In it, were instructions on how to prepare for the amniocentesis test, and to let me know when I should expect the results.
“I don’t understand the timing.” My head was buzzing. I felt drowsy and tired from travelling. “It says the results will take six weeks.”
“That’s right,” the counsellor said, in a careful, measured tone.
“But, I’ll be almost six months pregnant by then, so what if I’d wanted to change the management?” I asked, using the euphemism for abortion that I’d learned in her office.
“We’d need to investigate other options.”
I stayed silent, then, for an uncomfortably long time. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because a heavy sorrow weighed on my words. I looked down at the floor rather than at the counsellor. It was as shiny as a lake, and the tubed ceiling lights reflected down its middle like a median line on a highway. I wanted to ask a number of questions, such as: Why had I been forced to make this promise? Was it a test? A trick? A threat? Why, if it had been a ruse, had I been required to sign away my child? Was that what she’d meant, with that odd laugh, when she’d said, “They don’t hold you to it”? Had the form, and my signature, been meaningless from the beginning? If so, why make women agree to these violent terms? Why make them sign away their babies, even in theory?
I noticed a crease of consternation forming between the counsellor’s brows. Our genetics are tangled and feral, and the more I understood about my human self the wilder I became. Knowledge had illuminated the forest that lives within me. It had revealed the intimate network of roots and branches, vines and weeds, all interwoven and impossible to tame. Alive, yes, but also, ancient and connected to ghosts. I sensed that the counsellor knew that I was upset, but she remained silent, too. I wasn’t able to ask her any of my questions, anyway. The nurse at the registration desk called my name. The procedure room was ready.
The needle enters my womb on the second try. It is sharp starburst of intrusion. My heart beats fast, out of step with the baby’s heart. I feel bile in my throat. Throwing up would be a problem because I’d been told to hold absolutely still. I work together and against my body at the same time.
“Breathe,” the eyes say, in a clear, even tone. “Breathe,” they repeat, until the pressure eases, and the needle is removed from my body.
After the procedure, I am taken to a recovery room where I lie on my left side. The eyes come with me.
“You seem as if you might faint,” the eyes say, looking concerned. As I lie there, the eyes hand me three vials of straw-coloured liquid, still warm from being inside my womb.
“I want you to check that all your information on the labels is correct,” the eyes say. “This part is really important. Read each one back to me.”
I wonder if in the future, amniocentesis will be cited in medical history books as a once popular but rather barbaric way of testing for genetic conditions. One that will surprise young people; they will be shocked at what we once signed away in exchange for knowledge. Some new technology will arrive in its place, of course, with its own inherent violence. Women will keep using their magic to survive, to persist. I turn the vials over in my palm so that each label faces up. I read my name out loud three times and it sounds like an incantation.
The maiden and Sorrowful come to a clearing in the forest, which, I see as a campsite on the banks of the Skeena River, near Hazelton in Northern British Columbia. It’s where we camped the summer that I was pregnant and my daughter was three, about a month after we returned from the conference. The maiden finds a cottage in the clearing, and I imagine it as the A-frame log cabin where my grandmother’s friend Violet lived in her old age, and so the window boxes are dripping with the yellow and orange nasturtiums that she planted every year and I can faintly hear the propeller of Violet’s wind-powered electricity.
The cabin door is open and a magic woman waits there for the maiden. She is a healer-woman, an artist-woman. She has painted an enchanted sign that only the maiden can read. It is an encrypted welcome. Implicitly, the maiden knows that she and Sorrowful will be safe here.
The cottage has everything that the mother and child need, and the magic woman encourages them to move in with her, and so they do, and they are both happy here. At night you can hear the gravelly whoosh of rockslides on a faraway mountain, as we could when we camped in this spot, and the sound of the river racing over the stones, and you can also see the stars. Every single one! I imagine that they eat salmon and wild berries and that sometimes the magic woman visits the shops in Hazelton and returns with lemon tarts, and squares of dark chocolate, loaves of sesame-crusted egg bread and fresh ground coffee.
I’m not saying that the maiden should forget about the king and stay here forever, and, in the version of this story that I know best, this notion is never suggested. But, if you ask me, I think that when the maiden is an old woman she will remember this seven-year period, here on the banks of the Skeena, living with the magic woman and Sorrowful, as the best of her life.
You should know that I have modified the maiden’s story where I felt I could get away with it, but, also, that this doesn’t make it any less genuine. Everyone tells it differently. There are so many versions, and not just the hundreds found in Germany. There are thirty-three recorded variants in Japan.
One person who told this tale was named Marie. She was a storyteller but she’s become marginalia. She lives today as a name and date scrawled in the white space beside the maiden’s story in the original manuscript of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s Household and Fairy Tales. It was March 10, 1811, when Marie told Jacob the maiden’s story. Marie was twenty-three. Ringleted and bright-eyed, she’d woken transformed and vivacious after a prolonged childhood illness. The stories gleaned from books as well as her parents and visitors, and maybe from nurse maids (although this is said to be folklore), were the silver lining of her many years spent in bed. She set these tales to memory. She must have retold them to herself as a way of learning their twists, their characters and plots,and probably as a form of entertainment. Maybe she regaled her little sisters and brother with these stories, drawing them to her bedside, keeping their company for just a little longer.
As with so many women before and after her, storytelling was Marie’s survival skill. She tweaked and she invented as she drew on the stories from her combined German and Huguenot ancestry. Some say that she is largely responsible for the French influence that runs like a river through so many of the Grimm fairy tales. She was greatly influenced by the stories in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé, also known as Mother Goose Tales, which was printed in Paris in 1697. Like the Grimms, Perrault also collected oral folktales from anonymous women and then published them under his own name.
These storytellers are a succession of women, a recital of women, a chorus of women. I can hear their voices singing through the crowded text. I can see their sleight of hand. I see it in the maiden’s assured self-confidence, her pluck, that she eats when she’s hungry, how she was traumatically maimed and yet she persists; and I can see it in the old woman’s decision against violence, in the magic woman helper, in the agency of all the women in this story, despite the caged world within which they exist.
The images that I see, however, are my own. They are of my present and my past, a pastiche of my personal geography. What flickers to life in my mind’s eye as I read or listen to a story comes unbidden. I could no more conjure them on purpose than I could stop them from appearing. They run like tickertape even as I record my own version of the maiden’s story. Telling, reading, hearing, imagining, writing, together these acts are a collaboration carried out across geographies and through centuries, between the dead and the living, between intimates and strangers, between people who live and breathe and those who live only on the page, and, also, between you and me.
I am seven months pregnant when I see the eyes again. I have returned to the hospital for bloodwork. I’m sitting in an examination room, the same place where I’d held the three warm vials of my amniotic fluid. I’m staring at my phone when the eyes walk in. I look up and remember them immediately. I remember their cool palm on my forehead. The eyes remember me, too, and, for a nearly imperceptible moment, they seem startled by my presence. They act as if they have seen a ghost.
“It’s so nice to see you again,” the eyes say, then they pause, and look at me, really look at me as if trying to see through me to the other side, before adding, “at this stage in your pregnancy.”
I feel uncomfortable, but in the moment, I can’t exactly place what is making me uneasy. I’m not able to interpret the pause, the prolonged stare, or the statement that followed.
The eyes break the silence.
“You look better than you did the last time that I saw you.”
We both laugh, awkwardly.
Driving home, I reflect on the strange phrasing that the eyes had used. At this stage in your pregnancy. What stage, exactly, I wonder? Nearly to term. Past the point where you could possibly consider changing the management. Outside, the soft green landscape of Vancouver Island rolls by in a mist. I can just make out the points of the sword ferns that march along the roadside, the knotted twists of the rocky mountain juniper shrubs, and, beyond this, the Gary Oaks, their trunks, branches and bark engulfed by the English ivy that is slowly killing them. I’ve always thought that if humans instantly vanished from this island it would take nature about half an hour to reclaim what we’d left behind.
I return to thinking about the examination room, to the eyes, and a troubling thought crosses my mind. The eyes know that I have unwittingly promised away my child (my son, I know his gender now) but that I have kept him, regardless. How could the eyes know my test results? How could they know that the baby is positive, a carrier, an X, just like his mother and father, but will not express the gene like his sister? The eyes do not know these details, of course. But they know one thing about me, and it is the same piece of information that they know about every woman who has undergone that test, every woman whose gaze they have held in theirs—all of us signed that form. Is this what the eyes were looking for, when they stared at me in the examination room, some kind of admission? Or could it have been empathy? I don’t know. Maybe I imagined their look of surprise. Maybe I was just hungry.
The king returns after seven years at war to find that his mother has killed his wife and child. I imagine the king and the old woman sitting at my grandmother’s octagonal kitchen table, the mason jar between them— the lolling tongue and watchful eyes suspended in liquid that has yellowed over time. The king lowers his head and weeps. The old woman crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. She has now come to occupy my grandmother’s body, so she is wearing a V-neck powder blue sweater from Talbots and a pair of tan slacks. She embodies my grandmother’s voice, too, a stern tone that no one ever questioned or fought against.
“Go into the woods,” the old woman says to her son, in an echo of her statement to the maiden. “They are alive there.”
After a days-long search the king finds the maiden and Sorrowful at the cottage on the banks of the Skeena River. The king doesn’t recognize the maiden because he is distracted by his hunger—he took a dramatic vow that he wouldn’t eat until he was reunited with his family, something he no doubt regretted after a few days in the woods. The magic woman intervenes and vouches for the maiden, and the family is happily reunited. I feel a tug of regret about the cleaving of the union between the maiden and the magic woman, but this is not a plot point that I can tweak, so I will just have to let it happen. There is, however, a moment where Sorrowful obstinately refuses to believe the king is his father. He is keen on his mother. He doesn’t want any intrusions or distractions muddling their relationship, certainly not of the romantic, or, maybe just the male, kind. He’s seven now. He wonders, reasonably, “If you’re my father, where have you been all this time?”
I had camped with my family on the banks of the Skeena that summer because we were on our way to a wedding in Smithers, about an hour’s drive south. This is why, after the king is reunited with the maiden, and they decide to marry a second time in celebration, I conjure the log cabin lodge where our friends were married. It has one great room, a peaked roof, and sits at the end of a dirt road, opposite a small lake. The blue hump of the Hudson Bay mountain lies on the horizon.
Now, I see us at the maiden and king’s wedding dinner. We are near the back of the crowded room, sitting with a few other families at a large round table covered in a white tablecloth—me, my daughter, my husband, and, my son, still tucked inside, of whom we understood so little then. I don’t know this yet, but when my son is eleven months old we will leave Vancouver Island and move across the country again, for what I hope is the last time. I will immediately register my son with the new healthcare system and snip his previous identification cards into tiny pieces. Sometimes, though, I won’t be able to stop myself, and I will think of the form that sits in a filing cabinet in what I imagine to be a dark, vine-covered storage space, cobwebbed, and without light, deep in the recesses of the hospital that is surrounded by a white pine forest. I will remember my signature on a dotted line, and I will imagine, hope for, a fire.
The wedding hall is stuffed with alpine flowers— roseroot, pink mountain heather, glacier lily, and arctic lupine. The wooden floor is polished to a gleam, and fairy lights are strung overhead. I take a sweep of the great room, surveying the wedding guests, and I see the devil at a corner table. He’s in disguise, in the body of a drunk uncle this time, that wedding archetype— the drunkle—there for the open bar, the party. It seems that the devil has acquiesced, finally, in the heady happiness of the second marriage celebration. He has decided to leave the maiden alone. He orders another drink and slips into the crowd. The genetic counsellor is at a table across from ours and she lifts her glass and nods at me before turning back to the green-man doctor, whom she’s brought as her date. The magic woman wanders by, arm-in-arm with the eyes.
I notice that the bride’s parents aren’t here, the miller and his wife. Of course, the maiden wouldn’t want them to be a part of her celebration. But I do see the old woman from the conference, sitting at one of the round tables. She’s swaying gently to the music. There’s a faraway look in her eye, although she appears content. I notice that the seat beside her is empty. I know that this spot is reserved for her son, but I cannot conjure him. Not the infant that she knew and lost, and not the man he might have grown into. I can’t say for certain, but I think this is because he lives only in her mind’s eye. I can’t see the old woman’s son here because I can’t see him anywhere. He is not mine to imagine.
The music gets louder, and the twice-married couple takes to the dance floor. Sorrowful, whose new life is just beginning, joins them, and then one after another, we get to our feet, and begin to dance, all the people from the two stories of the child unwittingly promised, including me, my husband and our daughter. I can see this just as perfectly as if we are there again, or there for the first time, together, in the final scene of this fairy tale.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.