Family: A Fairy Tale

From the Archives

From The Ochre Issue

1. Puberty

The boy did not know when he ate the seeds that out from his belly button would grow a vine. He decided to show his mother who was busy with his winged sister. She was always busy with her, a handful of a girl, who took to flight only a few days ago. Now his sister refused to still her wings, the way she refused to still her mouth when she learned speech. The boy complained to his mother about the vine in his belly button.

“It’s only a vine,” his mother said. “I told you not to eat the seeds.”

“I told you not to eat the seeds,” his sister echoed, whirling around the boy’s head, naked as a peach.

The boy told his mother that he did not want to go to school with a vine in his belly button. He did not want the other boys to see his vine. He feared the locker room taunt. He feared being shirtless when he changed into his gym suit. Worse yet, what if he was picked to be “skins” in the basketball game, and then it would not be just the boys who would see the vine; it would be the girls too, and then who would want to be the girlfriend of the boy with a vine sprouting from his navel? The boy wanted a girlfriend. He imagined this girlfriend daily, and she was beautiful the way princesses in fairy tales were beautiful. He did not think a girlfriend would want a boy with a vine in him. He told his mother this, who was trying to net his sister.

“This is your own doing,” she said. “Those seeds. I told you.”

“Those seeds,” his sister said. “Seeds, seeds, seeds.”

The boy thought this would be a matter in which a father might be useful. He was, regrettably, without one. He wondered if his father suffered the same predicament when he was a boy, whether he too had a vine sprouting from his belly button. He wondered how his father would have handled the situation. Perhaps, the boy thought, he inherited this.

He asked his mother whether his father had a vine.

“You don’t have a father,” his mother said. She kept swinging a net and missing.

“No father, no father,” his sister said.

Frustration grew in the boy. Frustration and a vine. The boy decided he would not leave the house, would not go to school to get ridiculed by boys, would not be rejected by a girlfriend he desperately wanted. Instead he lay on his bed and closed his eyes and wished hard for the vine in his belly button to disappear, wished he would disappear. He thought, if he were to have a vine grow from his belly button, let it cocoon him in green, let this vine wrap its tendrils around him, let him be devoured.

2. Not Icarus

It only takes one bug in the eye to deter you from any form of flight. She can tell you this. She can attest to the inconvenience of having wings. You do not know pain until you encounter a bee sting on your eyeball. It is not a pleasant experience. These wings of hers—What a novelty, they said. A gift from heaven, they said. But they—whoever they were—had not possessed an enlarged right eyeball, had not experienced a throbbing swell, as if a heart pulsated on her face. She cannot cover a swollen eyeball with makeup. She cannot cover a swollen eyeball with sunglasses because sunglasses cannot fit over a swollen eyeball. So what happens? What happens is she walks around school with a swollen eye and wings that seem to hit and knock everything over.

White wings in the library: bookshelves tumble like dominoes.

White wings in art class: dipping into watercolors.

White wings in gym: stilled wings are not wind resistant in sprints, and Mr. Pauly said flying was cheating.

White wings in language arts: Mrs. Babcock has nicknamed her the white albatross of trouble.

White wings on the school bus: always in the rear view mirror, always sitting alone.

She hates her wings. She does.

But she finds herself in the air. All the time. Such is life. What brings pain, brings pleasure. She soars the skies, looking at the earth from the vantage of birds. She does not test Icarus’ fatal flaw—such a stupid boy, like all stupid boys, like her brother—but when you have wings, when you use them, you are literally above it all. You feel as if you can fly toward the sun without repercussions. You are larger because the world below you, the people below you, become microscopic, become ants in tiny ant hills. And from here, you can see the trouble of the world approaching, like that storm in the distance, the clouds that have darkened the sun and sent the ravens into flight.

3. The Blended Life

The father is unseen. Most fathers are. But this father blends. If he is among the hedges, he becomes the hedges. If he is among the shrubs, he becomes the shrubs. It is an unfortunate circumstance to be unseen. It is most unfortunate to be unseen and a father. The unseen father is blamed for many woes. The unseen father is at fault. His absence is reason for turmoil.

But the father is not absent. Never absent. He was there when his daughter sprouted wings. He was there when his son grew a vine in his bellybutton. He was there. Silent. Always watching. From his blending life. He is even there, today, when he watches the mother sit at the kitchen table one afternoon with hardly another breath left in her. Oh how she keeps everything together. Oh how she feeds and nurtures. Oh how she mothers. A cup of tea steams in her hands. Her shoulders slump in exhaustion. There are not many still moments for the mother, the father notices, and to see her sedentary reminds him of a time when she was not a mother and he was not a father. When on an autumn day, she saw him among a white wall.

“I see you,” she said.

He did not say anything. He assumed it was not him she was speaking to. But her eyes, they were aimed at him. Aimed at the white wall. Aimed at him against the white wall, is the white wall.

“I see you,” she said again. “Your eyes, they’re very brown.”

How odd it might have seemed to be only a pair of eyes on a canvas of white.

“You’ve been watching me,” she said.

The father, who was not a father yet, did not know what to say. He spent his whole life blending into things. He spent his whole life unnoticed. It was a lonely life, but one he had become accustomed to.

“You have beautiful eyes,” she said.

This is how love starts. This moment of being seen.

But it happens. It always does. Love changes. Roles change. And suddenly he found himself a father and began to fade. And, she, this woman at the kitchen table, became a mother and her life became about mothering.

“I know you are there,” she says. She sips her tea.

“I am,” the father says. He is the transparent kitchen window.

“I know you are always there,” she says.

“I am.”

“Coward,” she says.

“I am.”

And the father expects her to leave, to say something harsh and turn her back, forget him the way the world forgot him. But she does not. She remains. She sips her tea. She says nothing else, as if he is gone. As if he does not exist. Because he doesn’t. Not to her. Not to this family. He is peripheral in all things. The outsider looking in. He knows this. Knows she will not leave. Will never leave. It will be the father who steps away first. Who enters the dark forest. Becomes the forest. Becomes the leaves quivering in a tree.

4. The Envious Life

Once upon a time, she had a name.

Once upon a time, she was young.

Once upon a time, she was not Mother.

But do not ask her to recall that life. That life has receded.

There is nothing special about her. She does not have wings. She does not have vegetation growing from her navel. She does not have the ability to hide. Quite the opposite. She is always in sight. Always in service. The magic she possesses is that she does not have magic.

Day in, day out, she sees yoga moms in yoga pants going to yoga classes with yoga mats tucked under their sinewy yoga arms, and she envies them. She envies their lives. She spends a lot of time envying.

Once upon a time, she did not envy.

Once upon a time, she was envied.

Like those lost years before she became Mother and was a woman with full hips and even fuller desires. Like those years when she dreamt of swimming among the dolphins and marlins, those years of study to be a marine biologist, a life of the sea and salt. Like those years when she took in lovers, when she rushed them out of bed, when she controlled who had claim to her wants and needs.

Now she is landlocked.


Like this afternoon, when she was tidying up the living room because her son left sticky sap on the windows and her daughter has begun to molt. She was wiping the window when she noticed a boy sneaking around the blue house across the street. He was a young boy, with a full head of curls like fiddleheads. The boy was older than her son, who was about to go to college in botany, but young enough to turn heads of envying mothers like her. She watched him slink among the roses and climb a trellis of purple clematis into an open window on the second story. And there she saw her. Another mother. Another mother who was not her. This mother was without clothes. This mother was pale and pink and plump in the right places. This mother was naked and beautiful—the way her red hair fell over her bare shoulders, the way her luscious lips stood out from her face, the way gravity did not prey on her parts.

Envy snaked through the mother’s body then, snaked and coiled and constricted. Envy made her touch her own body, as if she was touching the mother from across the way, who tangled herself around the boy, her long legs wrapped around his hips, her hands touching with frantic urgency his shirtless torso. The mother found herself touching her own face, ignoring the cracks and wrinkles and blemishes, ignoring the dark sags under her eyes. She touched her own chest under her oversized tank top that read Best Mother embroidered in pink thread, and felt the sag of her breasts. She slid her hand under the waistline of her sweats and touched the places no one has touched in a long time and her head hit the window and her breath fogged it up. And when she came, she did so in tears. She did so in quiet sadness.

The blinds came down across the way.

“Damn,” she said.

The window was streaked with tears and smudges.

“Damn,” she said again and began to wipe the window.

The sun casted longer shadows across the yard and she knew it was late afternoon and she knew it would not be long before her children came home. She could hear them now, their voices ringing across the distance, the name she has come to hate.