Pins & Needles No. 29: Wyatt Bonikowski

bad wolf
© A.T. Velazco

No. 29: Wyatt Bonikowski

Q. Your piece deals with dementia and the natural process of aging. Do you see the former—or the latter, for that matter—as a little bit “fairy”? A lack of memory certainly makes decisions less motivated, which is very fairy tale-like.

The grandfather’s “mind full of holes” certainly erases his own motivations for turning his wife—and his maid, Missy—into wind-up toys. “Why bring it all back?” the granddaughter, the narrator’s mother, asks. But the secret is out, even if the connections have been obscured, partially erased. The story repeats like a fairy tale in the nursery, told from mother to child—or mother-figure, in the case of Missy, who confirms the ghost for the narrator’s mother and gives her the first inkling of what her grandfather had done. The narrator’s mother lets slip the detail about the forced miscarriage, and the story repeats again, this time in the narrator’s words, his attempt at reconstruction and fidelity to his mother and grandmother. The grandfather no longer remembers, but the family history repeats nonetheless, appearing as a ghost to haunt the generations, even in the absence of memory.

Q. What is it about wind-up toys (or people) that inspire such longing in us? Is it the fact that they can do nothing else, or that they try to do anything at all?

Pinocchio is so happy in the end that he is finally a real boy, and the audience shares in his happiness, welcoming him to our world, the world of real people. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Olimpia gives us the other side of the coin: she appears real but is in fact only clockwork, and Nathanael (and we) understand this says something true about ourselves. For me, the uncanniness of wind-up toys and automatons is that they enable the fantasy of our own reality—I am an independent, self-sufficient individual with the agency to determine my own future—while also undermining that fantasy, giving us a distorted mirror-reflection of the ways in which we are circumscribed, driven by histories and motivations we can’t quite grasp. I think the longing they inspire in us is, above all, the desire to be real.

Q. Is there anything in your daily schedule that you wish you could just be wound up for, and do it automaton-like?

I’ve always liked the idea of automatic writing, but every time I try it, it never feels quite automatic enough. On the rare occasions when I’ve gotten close, my enjoyment of the process spoils the unconsciousness that makes it possible. Becoming a writing machine is a common writerly fantasy.

I sometimes wish that the daily automatic routines of making lunches for my children, getting them dressed and off to school in the morning, cooking dinners, etc., could become less automatic, more conscious. Would it be possible to perform these rituals with a level of awareness that would see every instance as the unique act it is: this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, this reminder to brush your teeth? It might be just another version of the fantasy of being real. But maybe it’s another kind of automatism, not a desire to feel real but to lose oneself in every act.

Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor Joel Hans.


Wyatt Bonikowski’s story “Wind-Up Toy” appeared in The Mauve Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

an excerpt from “Wind-Up Toy”

My mother sat on her grandfather’s lap at the mahogany desk in his study and he showed her his collection of tin wind-up toys. It was her happiest memory of him, she told me. There was the monkey playing the violin and the dog dressed in jacket and tails tapping a drum. A bald man leaned over a pool table and struck the tiny metal balls with his cue. Her grandfather would place the metal key in her hand and she would struggle to make it turn and click. Many of the toys didn’t work. The clown on the bicycle moved his foot only a half-turn no matter how much she wound it. Some only groaned when she turned the key. Her favorite was the woman with the broom and the polka-dot dress—“Busy Lizzie” said the words printed on the underside. The mechanical maid bent forward over her work, pushing the broom all around her grandfather’s desk. Like our Missy, her grandfather said. But Missy’s skin was beautiful and dark, like polished wood, my mother thought, not this pale yellow.

There we are now, nice and clean, her grandfather would say as he lifted my mother from his lap and sent her back to her grandmother.

Her grandmother sat at the baby grand piano every day. She had beautiful long fingers that my mother remembered her waving elegantly from her hospital bed two days before she died. She was classically trained and just beginning her career as a concert pianist when she married my great-grandfather. He didn’t like the dashing young men who gave her flowers after the shows, so he forbade her to play. Ever after, when she sat on the bench, her mind went dim, her hands lifeless.

Sometimes my mother would sit next to her on the bench and press the silent gold pedals with her bare feet. She never once saw her grandmother’s fingers touch the keys.

My mother was five years old when her grandmother died. Her parents took her grandfather and her older brothers to the funeral and left her alone with Missy, who was busy preparing the house for mourners. My mother followed Missy around the house as she swept and tidied, asking, Will you play dolls with me, Missy? Will you read me a story? She followed her into the kitchen where Missy removed platters from the cabinets and put eggs on to boil. When will you play with me, Missy? But Missy shouted, Can’t you see I’m trying to get this house in order?

She almost never spoke harshly to us, my mother told me. She was the only one in the house any of us kids could talk to. She played games with us, read us stories, tucked us into bed at night, sang us lullabies. We loved her better than our own mother, who in those years spent most of her time with a glass of gin.

My mother ran from the kitchen so Missy wouldn’t see her crying. In the living room, she wiped her eyes with the hem of her black dress and sat at the piano on the right edge of the bench, as if she were waiting for her grandmother to sit next to her.

Play for me now, Granny, she whispered.

But Granny did not play.