The Season of Daughters

From The Ochre Issue

From Deutsche Märchen seit Grimm (German Fairytales since Grimm), 1919

The daughters wake for the first time on his front porch and he will never know where they come from. The first daughter hefinds is naked, trembling, and white as paper. She does not cry. When he picks her up she is so small it is like holding an egg that is larger than a regular egg. Her back is covered with small abrasions that he thinks must be from his doormat, the kind of doormat that is bristly, the kind that might hurt the sensitive skin of a baby. He thinks about the daughter beginning her life on such ungentle terms. He holds this small egg-like person in his arms for a moment and decides to take her inside.

The man is not lonely. The man has never wished for a child, for any children. He has never sat at a window while his wife slept, praying for an end to barrenness. He has no language for barrenness. This is just how things are. The man has no wife, does not wish for a wife. The man has no wishes. The man might, if the man were the kind to wish, wish that he had some wishes. This is very complicated and the man is not complicated.

He swaddles the daughter in blankets and places her in his spare room. He briefly sets her on the floor, but then thinks better of it. He makes a kind of nest out of couch cushions and decorative pillows from his bed. The spare room is unfurnished. There was once a plan for the spare room but it never got farther than carpet, fresh paint, and cheerful window dressing.

He does not want the daughter, but he does not want her to come to harm while she is in his care. This man is responsible. He flips the curtains up over the curtain rods, out of reach, but she is a baby and can’t move her head on her own, definitely can’t sit up. She rolls and gurgles.

The second day he wakes and tries his best to clean the daughter’s mess. He makes food and mushes it up, hoping she can eat it. He considers the girl and decides he has to go to work. It is an important day. There will be contracts and paperwork. He is in charge of the paperwork. The man does not wish and does not fear, but he realizes if he does not supervise the paperwork, someone at work might realize that the paperwork does fine on its own. The man would not be much without the paperwork. He recognizes this.

He considers tying the daughter to something, but he doesn’t do that. He assumes she’ll be fine where she is because she is a baby. He covers the power outlets with heavy tape, but then reminds himself that she
can’t stand up. Better safe than sorry. She is still just a large egg. She won’t get into trouble, she’s just a baby. He swaddles her, in clean blankets, tighter than he needs to, and leaves her resting in the fort of couch cushions.

On his way home from work, he picks up diapers, baby food, and tiny pink onesies. He has to ask for help at the store: What do I get a baby. The woman at the store wears a red shirt with a collar. He thinks she is not beautiful. She tries to explain about babies. She asks him about his wife. He makes up a story about his brother dying, an orphaned niece, it all came out of the blue, he says, holding a pink onesie and a yellow onesie. The woman in the red collared shirt helps him find what he needs for a baby. He considers a crib, but decides to wait. He does not know what he is waiting for.

The second girl is waiting for him on the doormat, like the first, and like the first she has marks on her back. The second daughter has dark skin, her head already growing a tuft of black hair. It is hard to carry the second daughter and the handful of bags inside together, so he makes trips, stepping over the girl to drop the bags in the dining room before going back to pick up the new daughter.

With the arrival of the second daughter, the first daughter seems to have grown. He does not know how old babies are supposed to be to do certain things, but the first daughter is sitting up, looking around,
making the first few struggling attempts to lift her whole self at once and walk. An ambulatory daughter makes him not afraid but nervous, very nervous. Two daughters make him nervous. He is afraid they will hurt one another, the larger daughter will crush the smaller daughter, or choke her, or give her poison to eat. He is afraid there will be jealousy, rivalry, that the two daughters will be close friends until they grow older, maybe one is pretty and the other not so pretty, maybe with time they are not so close. It is possible for two sisters to be enemies, he knows this, although he never had siblings. The first daughter looks at him with wise eyes, too big for her head and bright blue.

The onesies he bought fit the second daughter but not the first daughter, so he cuts holes in a pillowcase until there is a makeshift dress the first daughter can wear. It is white with gray and green leaves on it. The first daughter tugs at it unhappily. It is much too large, and it looks strange with her white skin and white hair. She looks like a drawing of a girl.

The second daughter he bathes and tucks into a onesie. She seems inchoate to him, like unless the onesie gives her shape, she is formless, a blob. Unlike the first daughter, she smiles, and gurgles happily. He feeds them both from the jars of baby food: puréed carrots and peas, sweet potatoes and squash, apples and peaches.

The next day there is a third daughter. She has fine red hair and broad features. He goes inside and the first daughter is older, like she should be talking, but she just stares at him with her wise eyes. The second daughter is starting to walk and laughs when she falls down. It occurs to him that he should stop leaving them alone, that he should pay attention. They are at an age now where they can get in trouble, and he does not want to explain dead children to the police, to child services. He imagines this is some kind of test. The daughters have come here to prove something about the man.

At night, he researches child development. The first daughter plays with his shoe like it is a toy. The second daughter sleeps on a pillow. The third daughter he cradles uneasily on his lap, and sometimes he forgets she is there. He wonders if the first daughter can’t speak because he has never spoken to her. He is used to it being very quiet in the house. According to his research, the first daughter seems old enough to speak, but perhaps she does not know any words, or does not know how to make sentences.

He decides he will talk to the daughters, in order to teach them to speak. Conversation is initially awkward. He tells them about contracts and paperwork, the proper offices to file your paperwork with if you want it to do any good. The man knows how much good the right paperwork could do, and feels like this is preparation for life. He tells them about deadlines, and how if you file too late you might be out of luck. He uses those words, says, Out of luck. The first daughter never speaks, nor does the second, but the third daughter says, ’Uck!

It goes on this way. The daughters increase steadily in number, a new one every day. He packs them into the spare room. He buys three sets of bunkbeds but has to throw them away when he runs out of space.
Instead at night he piles the daughters one on top of the other in the spare room like bottles in a wine rack. During the day, when he is at work, he allows the daughters to leave the spare room. He puts the third daughter in charge of all of the daughters.

He teaches the daughters to do household chores. They cook and clean, care for the daughters who are still babies. They teach each other to speak. When the daughters are home alone, they are noisy. They talk
and sing, chatter at each other in a made-up language they all speak. They open the windows and whistle at the birds, carry the laundry out to dry on the line. The man finds he prefers laundry that has dried in the sun. The man’s neighbors suspect something odd, but they have trouble telling the daughters apart, and it seems that the man just lives with four or five adult women and a few children. The neighbors shrug and say, It’s none of my business.

When the man comes home at night, the fifteenth daughter stands next to the man’s chair while he watches TV and holds his drink, passing it to him when he indicates that he is thirsty. The tenth daughter mixes
and brings over a new cocktail when he empties the one the fifteenth daughter is holding. The thirteenth daughter cooks him a hamburger, toasts a sesame-seed bun. The eighth daughter rubs the man’s feet and shoulders while he talks to the third daughter. The other daughters are quiet and try to stay out of the man’s way.

It is obvious that the third daughter is the man’s favorite. Every night, when she keeps the man company, she listens to him talk about his day, about doing paperwork and filing it with different authorities. She talks as well, asking him questions and favors for the other daughters.

Can we go outside? The third daughter is the bravest daughter.

It is dangerous outside the house, the man says. There are animals, and untrustworthy men, and soon it will be winter, and the weather will turn dangerous. You must stay with me, in the house, so I can protect you.

The third daughter nods her head but says nothing. She has asked this before and heard this response before. But every morning, before she wakes the other daughters to begin their chores, she looks out the
window and watches the sun rise and the birds stir in the trees. She imagines a deer sneaking out of a forest to steal an apple from a tree, but she has never seen a deer or a forest or an apple tree. She has seen rows
and rows of small, neat houses that look the same. She has seen paved roads and carefully tended lawns.

Can we have a garden? The third daughter is the cleverest daughter.

What do you need a garden for? the man asks. He brings home food for the daughters to cook.

There are so many of us that have nothing to do all day, and we grow bored, the third daughter says. A garden would keep us from growing idle, and we could use the food for meals.

The man agrees. The girls are expensive, and feeding so many people on his budget often seems unmanageable. The man brings the girls seeds, and dirt, and shovels, and from then on the girls start a garden that soon fills the man’s backyard. The second daughter loves gardening, and soon she has a group of daughters outside tending the land and helping the crops to grow. The third daughter saves the seeds of her apples and the second daughter plants them, and soon an orchard begins to bloom. The garden grows as fast as the girls, springing up from nothing overnight.

Can we keep livestock? The third daughter is the most practical daughter.

Keep it where, the man asks, thinking about how small his lot is.

Just there, the third daughter says, pointing to a little piece of land near the garden that the man had never noticed before. Pigs will eat our scraps, chickens will lay eggs, and cows will give milk, the third daughter says.

It takes considerable effort for the man to find livestock, but he brings home chickens, cows, and pigs for the daughters to care for and breed. The third daughter helps her sisters care for the livestock.

 

There are more daughters every day. The third daughter is the wisest daughter. Soon we will need to build another house, so we aren’t all stuffed into the spare bedroom.

It is dangerous outside the house, the man says. There are animals, and untrustworthy men, and soon it will be winter, and the weather will turn dangerous. You must stay with me, in the house, so I can protect you.

The man thinks about the problem of the daughters. There are so many daughters now, ranging from newborn to thirty. They overwhelm him. He is suspicious of all but the third daughter. He wonders if they hate him, if they plot against him. He questions why him, why the daughters appear here. He wonders whether they were meant for him at all, or if there has been some mistake. He convinces himself the daughters were not for him after all, that they aren’t his responsibility. When he decides to stop taking the daughters in, he moves the doormat so that it is not in front of the door, so he can walk right past the daughters
without stepping over them, without seeing them.

The third daughter, now in her late twenties, tries to go out and pick up the thirty-first daughter when she sees that the man has left her outside. He forbids her to go out, says he will not have any more daughters in his house. He tells her that if she brings one more in, he will turn all of them out.

I cannot abandon my sisters, the third daughter says.

It will be winter soon, the man says, and the weather will turn dangerous. You and your sisters won’t survive without a roof over your heads.

The daughters you leave outside will not survive the winter, the third daughter says.

There is no more room, the man says, and there is no further discussion allowed.

The third daughter hears the baby outside crying from hunger, from thirst, from cold. The third daughter is the most compassionate daughter and cannot bear to hear her sister cry. When the man goes to work, and he hasn’t missed a day of work yet, the third daughter sneaks outside, takes care of the daughter on the porch, talks to her, feeds her, makes sure she is warm. It is autumn, there is a chill in the air. Of course, as the days go by, more daughters gather on the porch. The man marvels that the daughters on the porch, daughters he has chosen to ignore, seem to be growing up, healthy and strong, that they have survived thirst, starvation, hunger, and the chill in the air. He assumes the daughters are more durable than he thought, that perhaps he has been taking too much care with them. He gives the daughters additional tasks, some more dangerous. He tells the daughters to climb onto the roof and clean out the gutters, to trim the bushes in the front lawn, to cut down a dead tree and pull up the stump.

The abandoned daughters become old enough to care for themselves. They learn to steal vegetables from the garden and eggs from the chickens. The third daughter teaches them how to make fire. The third daughter sits on the porch with the abandoned daughters. She tries to show them how to sew, how to make a dress, but she realizes the abandoned daughters have no cloth, nothing to weave into cloth, no loom
even if there were thread to spin.

The third daughter is on the porch sewing old sheets and blankets into makeshift clothes when she sees her first deer. Initially the third daughter believes it is a mirage, but then she realizes it’s real, that the
forest she has imagined so many times is real, has been on the front lawn the whole time. The third daughter watches the deer as it walks on its impossibly small deer feet and steals a bite of apple from the orchard.

This is the world, the third daughter thinks. She calls the thirty-first daughter over and points to the deer.

There, the third daughter says, see that? The deer can be the key to your survival. Live in the forest, hunt the deer, and turn their skins into clothes.

When the man comes home, he notices his neighbors’ houses seem farther away. His yard seems so wide, he can barely imagine crossing it, so long he is out of breath just walking from his driveway to the door. One evening the man sees that the outside daughters, the abandoned daughters, have built a village of tents on the front lawn, at the edge of the forest that the man had never noticed on his lawn before, not just an orchard, but a forest full of thick-trunked trees with dark green needles. The village is small and rudimentary, just some sticks with deerskins stretched over them as shelter from the wind and rain. There is a fire pit in the middle of the village with a deer roasting over it. The man has never seen a deer in his neighborhood.

The man knows his neighbors have ignored many things, but he imagines that a village on his front lawn would draw attention. He thinks about it at dinner, as one of the daughters cuts up his meat, another re- fills his glass of wine, a third brings him his newspaper. The man aches from hunching over his desk all day and calls for the daughter who will rub his tired muscles.

The next morning, he leaves for work early. The night before he had slept in fits and starts, just a few hours at a time. He made the third daughter stay up and sit at his bedside, so she could tell him stories when
he woke up in the night. The man’s muscles ache now more than they had the night before. He woke from a deep sleep many times believing that one of the daughters was there with a knife, to kill him and take his home, but there was only the third daughter, whispering a story about a deep wood and magical deer.

The daughters outside are up early building another tent. They are all young, the oldest in her late teens. The man sees them, all thin, the palest of them still dark from exposure to the sun. Their faces are thin but resolute. This is my land, the man thinks. He is angry. He thinks of the daughters who live inside, doing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping and mopping. He doesn’t know that they sing while they do their chores. He imagines they work in the same grim silence that fills up every corner of the house while he is there.

He takes an axe from his garage, planning to go out and destroy the tents. He does not think about what he will do if the abandoned daughters try to stop him. He imagines that perhaps he will take these daughters into his house after all. He has come to realize that the daughters in his house are growing old; the oldest will soon be too old to work.

It takes him far longer than he could have imagined, crossing the lawn to where the tent village is. He sees that it is farther still to the very edge of his property, his neighbor’s boxy house just visible on the horizon. The village has become almost surrounded by the forest. He has to cross beneath the trees to reach it.

Daughter thirty-one surprises him as he walks under the conifers. He doesn’t see her coming; she drops from a tree, and before he can do anything about it, he is on his back, his vision cracked with jagged light. The daughter takes the axe from his hands. He has such trouble believing that the daughters might hurt him. The daughters had always seemed to him gentle and docile. But these are a different kind of daughter. They do not do dishes. They are hunters. He sits up and sees the thirty-first daughter walking away with his axe. He touches the bloody spot on the back of his head. It seems all the aches of his body have clustered there. The thirty-first daughter does not look back at him as she walks away.

He limps back to the house, sees how late it is, and goes inside. There is no singing in the house that day, and he does not go to work. The man is in a bad mood after that. A great deal of time passes and he does not leave the house. He watches the daughters intently as they go about their daily business. The daughters are uncomfortable and silent. None of them know what he might do.

The first daughter goes first. She drops a serving plate in the kitchen, smashes it. The man tries to yell at her but she stares through him and does not see. She does not hear what he says. She does not look up-
set, but she urinates on the floor. The man is horrified. To him, the first daughter is barely human. He looks at her face, wrinkled and cracked, her hair that has been white for her entire life, her absent expression. He does not remember the serving plate or where it came from, but suddenly he feels like it was special, more special than the first daughter, whose urine one of the other daughters was mopping up. He takes the first daughter by the arm. She is so pale and weightless it is like she does not exist. He shoves her out the front door, where she lands on the porch. The doormat scratches her hands and knees.

The third daughter cries out for her sister and tries to push past the man to the porch, to bring the first daughter back inside and bind her wounds. The man holds her back. He threatens her and the other daughters. She doesn’t listen to his threats. We will live in the snow, she says, what do I care about winter? The man strikes the third daughter, hard. The third daughter is an old woman, and falls when he hits her. She sits on the ground and doesn’t move. The man stands over her, staring, breathing hard. He leaves the house, finally, slamming the door behind him. The third daughter hears the car start.

After the man is gone, the third daughter puts on a pair of the man’s old shoes and a heavy cloak. She goes to the village on the lawn, to daughters she considers her other sisters. I helped you, she reminds the
thirty-first, I taught you. She asks the thirty-first daughter to help her sister, to help all the daughters who will soon be cast out of the house. The thirty-first daughter can see blood on the third daughter’s face, and she agrees to care for the daughters who will be discarded by the man.

The next day, the man puts the second daughter out on the porch. He says nothing to the third daughter, but leaves the second daughter outside and locks the front door with a key. He is surprised when the
third daughter says nothing, does not look at him. She continues to be withdrawn and angry. He eats dinner alone. The next day, he looks at the third daughter and, without speaking, the third daughter sets down
her needlework, stands up, and walks out onto the porch. She sits on the front steps, her back to the man. He stands in the doorway for some time, but the third daughter never acknowledges him.

There is no longer talking and singing during the day, there is no longer anything but hard work. There is an anxiousness about the house. The man feels his house growing emptier and emptier. The emptiness
is smothering him. He stops showering or shaving, doesn’t think about work. He begins to regret casting the daughters out, even as he continues to do it. It never feels planned, he just looks at them and feels such revulsion he wants them out of his house. Every day, he puts the next daughter out on the porch, locks the door with a key, and every evening he goes out to see that the daughter is gone.

When he is alone with the thirtieth daughter, he refuses to cast her out, no matter how strong the instinct becomes. He stays in bed, clutching the thirtieth daughter’s hand. The thirtieth daughter is blind, her hair gone yellow-white, her hands hooked and arthritic. He tries to imagine she is the third daughter. He asks the thirtieth daughter if she loves him, repeats it over and over, Do you love me, and what he means is, Do you feel sorry for me. He clings to the thirtieth daughter and weeps. He hits the thirtieth daughter, over and over, shouting at her. He apologizes to the thirtieth daughter, promises her jewels and treasures if she’ll stay. He says he will build her a garden, a pen for the animals, a house of her own.

This goes on for many days. The thirtieth daughter bends and twists with age. Her ancient face is collapsing on itself. Sometimes the man worries she is dead, but she trembles ever so slightly and he knows
she is still alive. The man begins to regret keeping the thirtieth daughter this way, when all her sisters are together. He imagines them buried in a ring of mounds around the village outside, where their sisters lay flowers and trinkets for them every day. He imagines his daughters reborn one day, each appearing outside of one of the tents, cradled in deerskin.

The man sits in his silent house. He feels like the silence belongs to him in a way the daughters never did. He sits in the silence, feels it on his skin, hears only the occasional rattle from the thirtieth daughter until there is a knock at the door. It comes and goes so quickly that the man doesn’t react, believing he imagined it. But there is a second knock, and a third. The man sits and listens. Whoever is outside knocks twenty-nine times, and then waits. There is no thirtieth knock.

The man picks the thirtieth daughter up, holding her like she was a small baby. He remembers the first daughter, like a white egg, and the thirtieth daughter, curling in on herself, is much the same. He carries the thirtieth daughter to the door, and opens it. Outside, there is a small crowd of daughters. It is nearly dark, and each one carries a lantern. One of the daughters steps forward. She has wispy black hair and dark skin and he doesn’t recognize her. The black-haired daughter holds out her arms and the man passes the daughter to her. She holds the thirtieth daughter close and kisses her face. The thirtieth daughter seems even smaller in her arms. Carrying the thirtieth daughter, she walks through the crowd, the other daughters stepping out of the way. After a moment, the man can no longer see her. He can only see the ripple of light as the daughters move aside for her to pass.

The man realizes there is no yard anymore, no neighbors. In every direction, there are trees, so thick he can’t see beyond them. He watches the daughters walk down a path through the overgrown trees, the black-haired daughter in the lead. The man stands in his doorway, watching them walk away, taking the light from their lanterns with them. The house behind him is unlit, gloomy in the settling dark. His eyes scan the crowd, looking for the daughters he knows must be there, three sisters, their arms linked: the first sister white as paper, the second sister with her ready laugh, the third sister with her curls of red hair.

The man watches until he can no longer see any light coming from the forest. In the darkness, he takes off his stinking clothes and curls up on the doormat. He can feel the roughness of the bristles on his face and arms and chest. As he closes his eyes, he wonders who will open the door and come out of the house to find him there in the morning. He wonders whether it will be his own house he wakes up outside of.