Despite being all grown up and even considered (gasp) “old” by my younger brothers, it takes one festively displayed nutcracker to transport me back to my youth. My parents have a photo of me, clad in a pink tutu, twirling the Sugar Plum Fairy waltz circa 1985. I remember the Christmas it was taken, the Christmas I received that ballet leotard after seeing the Nutcracker Suite: a fairy tale-ballet in two acts, three scenes. What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for the imaginary.
Let’s be real though. This time of the year, age matters little in the face of angelic hosts, baby kings and Santa Claus, who’s supposedly 169 years old and still playing with elves. In light of these things, my gleeful indulgence in glittering ornaments, musical snow globes, gingerbread houses, North Star vigils, and all things magical pales in comparison. But miracles and magic are not quarantined to December. No, no, the eleven other months have their wonders too, but people seem more open to believing by the light of a twinkling tree.
This past weekend, while unpacking my carefully wrapped Christmas decorations, I got to thinking about our most treasured Christmas tales: A Christmas Carol, Jesus’ birth in the Bible‘s book of Luke, Twas The Night Before Christmas, St. Nick, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and family folklore of bygone Christmases—the stories that shape our minds, spirits and traditions.
And down the rabbit hole I fell. I began wondering about the folk and fairy tales across history and cultures. All of which have had enormous impact on our macro and micro social consciences. All of which appeal simultaneously to the child and adult. Much like the season upon us.
This led to casual online research—Google is a remarkable thing. And let me tell you, there’s a plethora of information on folklore and fairy tales. In particular, I stumbled on Yale instructor Julie Carthy’s folklore study. She quoted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim: “… fairy tales carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time… [they] suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to this life.”
Interesting. Christmastime is certainly fertile ground for narratives of this nature.
Carthy listed a handful of defining fairytale characteristics:
- Fairytale characters are unusually very clearly drawn and are typical rather than unique.
- They are not ambivalent as we are in reality, but either all good or all bad, all beautiful or all ugly, all stupid or all smart. It is this polarization which makes identifying with the good or bad, smart or stupid qualities more clear…
- The fairytale hero is also often in isolation or forced out like Hansel and Gretel.
- It is not solely on the happy ending… but also on the process of finding his way, step by step, through unknown, terrifying circumstances which will lead to a successful end.
She went on to explain, “Fairy tales show that struggles in life are unavoidable but that if one perseveres against unexpected and unjust hardships, he can be a winner.”
The triumphant spirit of the common man is given corporeal form. And isn’t that what everyone hopes and dreams of—to be the victor, the winner, of his/her hard circumstances? In my opinion, it’s the essence of the miraculous and a dominant theme of the yuletide.
Needless to say, my imagination was peaked, so in the spirit of the holidays, I’ve decided to try my pen at a fairy tale. An unconventional whirl on a traditional genre. Just for kicks. I’ll post installments as I write.
Promise not to judge me too harshly, folks. This is not a published short story or professional piece by any means. Just me having fun this December. I’ll see how the experiment goes. It’s a bit terrifying to post material that hasn’t received a gold star from your editorial team! But hey, the hero never got anywhere by sitting at home doing laundry, right? Like Carthy’s definition says, perhaps my step by step process through the unknown, terrifying circumstances will lead to a successful ending. We shall see. In any case, a turn of the page, and we begin.
The Plains Fairy Tale
by Sarah McCoy
Once upon a time in a land called The Plains lived an ordinary, young woman named Ezie who was not too old and not too young, not strikingly beautiful but not ugly, neither popular nor lonesome with a happy though not ecstatic nature. Ezie was not unusual in these respects. It was the way of The Plains people.
Each family’s home was a manor built of brick or stone, wood or stucco, whatever their owners pleased, with sprawling lawns of emerald green bordered by rainbow flowerbeds. And though the massive estates lined the horizon, none was distinct from its neighbor because no one had anything less; thus, there was no jealousy or ambition or want for more. There were no Jones in The Plains, but even if there were, the residents would not have cared enough to keep up. Life was predictable and that was good. They worked hard to keep it that way.
Ezie, like all the generations before, was coming to what the Plains people called Twilight; the age when her parents would retire to the Great Falls to drink wine and watch polo matches, and she would be responsible for the upkeep of the family property. Twilight was also the age at which she must proclaim her life’s Purpose, and herein laid her dilemma. She had none.
This perplexed her greatly and kept her awake many Purposeful nights walking the garden grounds where the crickets played their sleepy song and the wind cool the sun-baked blooms. She fingered the leaves of the apple trees lining the green and wished she could turn into one. At least then she’d know what she was meant to do—produce fruit!
Her only refuge from the mental anguish were the Trinity nights when the Plains people were allowed to forget their Purposes and enjoy not-too delicious foods and bland wine until their heads spun in common mediocrity, and for an hour or two before sleep, they felt the glimmers of something more…something real. But when they woke in the mornings, the residue of that something was always a bit distasteful, so they soaked themselves in expensive herb baths specifically created to neutralize the effects.
In the months leading up to Ezie’s Twilight, she tried to contain her troubled mind to the four Purposeful days and nights of the week, anesthetizing herself with reality TV and fashion magazines by day while wandering the gardens by night. She counted down the hours of Purpose to each weekend Trinity.
But then, while soaking in the watery bath petals on the morning of her last Trinity, Ezie remembered that she had no Purpose to claim and her Twilight was a week away.
The golden spout drip-dropped. She toed it letting the water dribble over her opal-painted toenails. In the next room, her mother packed for the Great Falls.
“Mother,” Ezie called.
“Yes, dear.” She came to the bathroom door, holding a pair of fluffy beige slippers.
“What was your Purpose?” asked Ezie.
Her mother pulled a Chintz stool to the bathtub and set the slippers on the ground. “Well, that’s easy. To be a good mother.”
Ezie nodded, her chin bobbing slowly in the water. “You knew that was your Purpose at Twilight?”
“Why, yes, of course.”
“But you hadn’t given birth to me. How did you know?”
“I knew I would eventually.”
Ezie sighed and settled deeper into the lukewarm. “Did anybody not know their Purpose at Twilight?”
“I don’t think so.” Her mother tilted her perfectly coifed head, graying equally at either temple. “Deep down, you know yours. Everyone has one.”
“But what if I don’t?”
Her mother wrinkled her brow, smiled then stuck her finger in the water. “Perfect temperature.” She picked up the slippers and stood. “Don’t stay in too long, you’ll prune. Better hurry. Lilith, Odette, and Penny will be here to pick you up soon,” she said, waving a heel overhead, her back already to Ezie.
Being the last night of the week’s Trinity, her best friends gathered with the other Twilight-ers at the local Club Sterling.
“Cheers to us,” said Lilith, placing four glasses of blush wine on the metallic table.
The light was dim. Blue and sliver beams swirled from an overhead disco ball making their drinks appear glittery despite the ordinary contents. Music played a thudding beat that had no lyrics or melody.
They took their glasses, raised them high and drank. The wine was bittersweet and unsubstantial, but everyone smiled and nodded to the pulsing rhythm. All except Ezie.
The drink left a syrupy sweetness in the back of her throat that tasted of bile and blood. She pushed the glass away and sighed so loud and abrupt that her friends shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It was the Trinity, after all, and they were supposed to forget everything but the merriment of the moment.
“Ezie, are you okay?” asked Odette.
Ezie paused, knowing it was not the time to bring up anything of consequence, but she couldn’t bottle her worry any longer. “My Twilight is a week away,” she said.
“Yes, we know. Mine’s the week after.” Odette sipped then continued. “Penny’s lucky. She’s going to marry Bill on her Twilight and his family has such a nice estate.”
“Of course I’ll have to hire a decorator,” said Penny. “To put my spin on the place. Change the color or something.”
“Yes, yes, but nothing too dark or too bright,” warned Odette.
“Naturally. It’s eggshell now, perhaps I’ll do ivory,” Penny mused.
“Ooh, or maybe champagne,” said Odette.
Ezie hid her face in her hands. It was the same every week. Meaningless conversations filled their Trinity nights. With each drunken cup, they bantered on until the hours grew small and the laughter increased over topics they couldn’t recall the next morning. But tonight, she felt different.
Stay tuned for Part 2…