~This story was originally published in slightly different form in The Yale Review
as “Märchen” (2001).
At last their father ordered ... a proclamation made that whoever could discover how his daughters wore out their shoes should choose one of them for his wife.
— “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Andrew Lang Collection
Beneath the purpling pulp of the sky, below a flagstoned patio strung with twisted lengths of crepe paper and colored bulbs, lies a covey of brown longneck bottles a Parks and Rec grounds team of two has been tossing down on the caliche ever since mid-afternoon, when their City-issued pick-up truck accidentally-on-purpose ran out of gasoline just in time for this, an impromptu happy hour.
Be still my heart, whispers one of the crew over the lip of his fourth raised Lone Star. His shirt indicates his name is Mason and he is sitting on a large chunk of limestone hidden in the cedar, staring up at the decorated dance floor.
In the waning light he might be some fair-headed throwback; in black-and-white he could be any of the out-of-work farm boys who seventy years ago built this picnic pavilion of rustic fireplace and hand-planed beam and wagon-wheel chandelier before their company of the Civilian Conservation Corps moved along to level a state highway stretching out between here and Ozona.
Mason claims he cries at weddings, says he’s a romantic, sentiments maudlin enough to make the fellow-worker beside him to look over with suspicion, even though Mason is just gazing up at the patio. Even though he swears he’ll walk down the hill and toward the main road with the empty gas can from their pick-up’s bed as soon as the bride appears.
The fellow-worker, who cares nothing about ceremony but has never minded an excuse to have a few warm beers on the clock, adds another cigarette to the butts littering the ground around their bit of limestone. As far as he’s concerned, tonight’s party could be anything, not necessarily a wedding. The patio above him and Mason might just be decorated for a quinceañera or a golden anniversary or a business social; it could just be the fading light that makes the crepe paper twining along the metal railing seem like such a virginal white flutter. The gap the two of them earlier mapped out on the patio when they split 150 folding chairs according to their work order’s instruction could just as easily be the aisle some more jaded bride will march down as she embarks on her third marriage, little need for formal romance by this time. He’s worked with Mason before, on other Fridays; has seen all the uses this picnic pavilion could possibly be put to. They’ve pried dozens of plastic champagne corks out of the graveled parking lot, have even fished up condoms, curled and ridged like fossils, from around the very rock where Mason, half-drunk now, has insisted upon sitting.
The woman who arrived an hour ago to hang up the last of the pavilion’s white bell-shaped decorations doesn’t even know the two of them are down here. Mason sees this as a sign that they should stay. That, because their truck ran out of gas before they finished trimming back the cedar, they’re required to. Maybe all he is is a bystander well on his way to getting drunk, but just the same he’d rather see with his own two eyes exactly what kind of couple would pick such gaudy candles to centerpiece the folding tables inside the pavilion than go home.
Above them, high heels clatter across the flagstones. There’s a hesitation. The mother of the bride, or someone, is leaning over each long table to light the votive candles. Mason stares upward, cigarette dangling from one hand.
“Get back here, Anna-Marie,” a woman’s harried-sounding voice says above them. “Don’t you be slouching around like that in that beautiful dress.”
A woman in a white dress who is clearly the bride ducks under the metal railing at the edge of the patio and picks her way down the rocky hillside, stopping halfway between the ledge and their stand of cedar. She holds her skirts up delicately, like a princess or a milkmaid, and even her shoes are white. They gleam like glass.
Be still my heart, Mason whispers once more.
On the hillside above them, the bride has begun to smoke a cigarette.
Thought I recognized her name on that work order, Mason says. But then I kept telling myself: what would the odds be?
The moon is swinging up and over the hills like a Ferris wheel. The bride crushes the cigarette beneath her satin shoe. She looks toward the cedar, then ducks back beneath the metal railing.
What have all our old stories taught us to expect, if not that longing is a narrative that ends in its attainment? The point of Cinderella’s story has always been to get her from the scullery to the prince’s side, not to yank her from the ball and put her in the stilted rituals of court life. As soon as Sleeping Beauty receives the kiss that breaks the spell, our interest in her ends. The legend of treasure we remember best has never been of one already found but about those things still out there to be searched for.
All the other details are just landscape. The magical thing is not that bears have taken up sleeping in beds but that Goldilocks is rummaging greedily through their kitchen. Pigs can build houses from straw, and the lowliest sow’s-ear of kitchen maids can, through a few wishes, be turned into a silk-purse of a princess. The bad guys are required to wear black; any gun that appears in the first act should go off in the third.
If a spurned lover exists, it’s his duty to show up to disrupt the wedding.
Once upon a time, there was a man who had twelve daughters who every night wore out twelve pairs of shoes, who every night vanished from a locked room.
So here they are, our characters, arrayed before us. The father with those mounting shoe repair bills, finally at his wits’ end. All those daughters, so clever they have figured out how to escape from a sealed room. The shoes themselves, so inclined toward their destination. A hero, who trails their receding footsteps like some old film noir detective. Who hurries along a long hallway, looking both directions; crouching. Putting his eye to keyholes.
The only fairy stories we have left have might be the ones that contain both the treasure-hunter’s drawn-out search and our hope that it end in the discovery of a prize.
The pews on the patio are folding chairs, makeshift. The bride begins to make her way down the aisle between them as deliberately as she once snuck herself back into bed just before cock’s-crow.
Every satin-shod foot she places on the flagstones puts it further behind her, that old well-worn story. The way, every morning, her shoes were slipped back under her bed. Mysteriously worn out.
The moment in front of her is surely evidence enough that she is done with all that, that she is no longer a girl who creeps home just before dawn, a roulette wheel of birth control pills stashed in her handbag.
The honeymoon luggage is stowed in the trunk of the getaway car. The best man is compulsively patting his pockets for rings. The mother of the groom can’t seem to keep from pleating and unpleating a tissue.
And there, at the foot of the aisle, stands the groom. He steps forward to meet her.
The minister clears his throat and looks at them gravely from over the tops of his glasses. Behind them, one hundred and forty-two people sit back to hear the story they know by heart. The groom squeezes her hand. She squeezes his back.
They stand at the foot of the aisle like two children with clasped hands at the brink of a dangerous forest.
In all those old stories, doors demand deadbolts and keys. The one in our Once-Upon-A-Time, no exception, had even been reinforced with tight metal bands, like an old-fashioned barrel.
Inside the room there was no window large enough to crawl from using the lengths of one’s hair. Inside, there was nothing but twelve identical beds, the sheets folded into sharp creases. The hospital corners were as neat and precise as those folded by Girl Scouts.
Our story has little to say about that feminine clamor. The way talcum powder lay along the tops of twelve dressers like dust; the cloying smell of sandalwood that hung in the air. The twelve bedsteads could belong anywhere — poorhouse, hospital, nursery. Their number is proof that fairy tales always fall prey to the temptations of multiplication. Two princesses are always better than one. Twelve is even better than two! Any event ought to happen not once, but three times.
But really, all our story needs to prove its point is one bed, with one body sleeping in it. The important thing is that the room is nothing but bed. That the silence inside it resembles a convent’s. That this is the place where you lie down like a letter in an envelope waiting to be read.
The folded sheets stretch like the plains of some romantic past that hardly ever existed.
The sky behind the limestone building goes darker, is embroidered by the needlework of cell phone relay towers. Down on the dance floor, the hired band plays The Wild Side of Life.
The pedal-steel, which costs an additional fifty bucks an hour, wrings every bit of sentiment it can from the last stanza. Wife, the groom says, leaning his elbows against the metal railing, thinking: husband. Husband, the bride says, standing beside him, thinking: wife. They look out at the dark ribbon of the river. The weight of their new gold rings is on their fingers, the attentive weight of their families lurks behind them. Receiving line, first dance, the slicing of the cake: the choreography was decided on long before they got here.
Inside the picnic pavilion, the daughter of the caterer scrapes frills of icing from gold-rimmed plates into a trash bag and worries the stud in her tongue like a talisman.
She should be invisible, but isn’t, quite: three boys wearing ties who sit at one long table like the Last Supper continue to eye her. They are almost drunk and are friends of the groom; they are dripping candle wax on the white tablecloth to get her attention. She could be anyone: the mysterious stranger who just came to town, the dirty scullery maid who turns out to be a princess. Everyone wants to believe, at a wedding, and she has worked enough of them to predict— at least three couples here are going to have sex for the first time after this one.
She wouldn’t be caught dead. In that white dress so beautiful on the bride that from the back makes her butt look big. Or with that curly-haired boy in a suit who is scraping red candle wax off the white tablecloth. No way will it ever be for her, the feverish anxiety of women who wander into kitchens at parties, using their cell phones to call in and check on their babies before midnight.
The groom kneels at the top of the steps leading to the parking lot. His hands are abashed but theatrical on the alabaster-stockinged leg of the bride as he slips off her garter. Their heads are bowed, as if the gesture were something else: foot-into-glass-slipper.
The daughter of the caterer looks up, continues scraping plates.
The woman who catches the bouquet is going to have a fight with her boyfriend before she even gets home. The band will filch the last few bottles of cheap champagne, the leftover cake, the burnt-down votive candles. The singer has sideburns, he looks something like Elvis. By the end of the evening the caterer’s daughter will let him lean over her shoulder.
He makes his living off weddings, he will never get married, and out on the dance floor, he has started singing I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels, I should have known you’d never make a wife, his expression as grim as some Old Testament prophet’s.
He is the kind that she likes best.
But not even she, hardened of heart as she claims to be, can keep from feeling something when the bride and groom flee down the shallow steps like thieves leaving a bank. The planned prank of a bouquet of balloons slips from their car the moment they pull open its doors, as wispy and quick as another story everyone knows: the ghostly hitchhiker picked up in a blue dress.
Our stories understand — nothing is really as it appears to be. Every locked room contains a hidden passageway that leads us through a magic forest toward a bejeweled little castle. A crude star carved into a rock in some rancher’s back pasture always indicates the place where a cache of silver, never reclaimed, was abandoned when the posse closed in.
Night after night, the princess paced her sealed room, as nervy in the corners as a cat. And finally, when all was quiet, she pushed back the rug that lay on the floor and stooped to grasp the iron ring that opened the trap door.
She didn’t have to make up her mind before she started down the stairs. She hurried toward the possibilities below the surface the same way metal moves towards a lodestone.
It had been flamboyant, unorchestrated, but for a fleeting moment the sky had contained all: pale blue underbelly; clouds heaped like meringue; the rosy pink of the breast feathers of birds that sit on rural phone lines in fall. The minister looked up, clasping his prayer book, and the wedding guests stopped scuffling folding chairs and sorting through purses. Emmett moved to stand beside Anna-Marie.
Now, he tosses his suitcoat onto the back seat of the car and slides behind the wheel. Anna-Marie slides in, disentangling her skirt from the grip of the car door.
“First place we find to stop, I’m getting rid of these damn things,” he says as they drive away, Coke cans tethered to bumper. As soon as they turn out of the parking lot, he begins to eye the shoulder of the road. “Like here. I don’t think they’ll see us.” He pulls over, setting the parking brake; letting the door slam.
Anna-Marie studies the rearview mirror, watching him saw away at the wire the best man used to attach the cans to the car, his face rosy in the glow of the taillights.
“Did you notice?” She leans out the window. “The way every single one of them backed away from the bouquet?”
“I don’t see how the hell Ronnie attached all this junk to the car. Can you look in the glove box? I think there’s pliers and a flashlight in there somewhere.”
She gets out, hiking up her dress. “Here.” She trains the flashlight’s beam on the bumper.
“It wasn’t just the bouquet.” He lays wire between the jaws of the pliers and twists. “Did you see how lame they were about getting out on the dance floor?”
Even though, in a sentimental flurry of pity for all of those still uncoupled, they’d both instructed the maid of honor, flown in from L.A., to be sure to dance with the best man.
“There.” He stands up and dusts off his knees. “But what do they know?” He puts an arm around her. “We did it. We’re hitched now.”
“Hitched,” she repeats, putting her hand in his. Looking down the road, she can still make out the colored lights strung up in the picnic pavilion.
“Weird to spend so many months planning a party,” he says, eyes on the dancing lights, “and then be the ones who leave first.” He pulls open her car door. “Watch out for your hairdo.”
Its life, which had been guaranteed by the hairdresser who’d applied a full can of hairspray and 46 hairpins only as the length of the ceremony, is over, its demise hastened by the wind. As the car jolts back up onto the pavement, she peers in the side mirror, tucking strands behind her ears in an attempt to repair it. Beyond the windshield, the highway’s dividing line regains its momentum.
“Look out,” she cries, conscious of movement.
Every genre has constraints — but in fairy tales, logic has never been one. Princes will always wander away from their royal entourages and become lost in the woods. An outlaw with a price on his head always sits with his back to the doorway.
A harried deer, happened upon in some encroaching forest, will, in exchange for his life, always grant wishes.
“Look out!” Anna-Marie shrieks. The car fishtails.
The buck blunders out of the brush onto the road and stares toward the headlights, its eyes green. The brakes keen; catch. The buck stumbles forward.
“Jesus,” Emmett says, knuckles tight against the steering wheel.
“We didn’t hit it,” Anna-Marie whispers. This is the moment when the animal, clearly enchanted, is supposed to plead for its life in a man’s voice.
Emmett relaxes the arm he outflung by reflex toward the passenger seat. I do, he had replied in a cautious voice less than two hours before. I do, Anna-Marie had said, wondering for a second if she even understood the question.
Now, she looks over at Emmett and eases the foot she’d unconsciously mashed against an imaginary brake pedal all the way to the floor. The deer stares at them and they stare back, and then it leaps onto the road’s shoulder.
“Close.” Emmett lets the car creep forward. Headlights rush toward them from behind, picking out the white shoe polish on their back window. An approaching pick-up pulls abreast, moves past them. At the sight of their scrawled back window — Just married! — the driver lays on the horn like the laying on of hands, a brief benediction.
Or maybe the tap of the horn is meant to be a warning.
Bless you, my children, be careful; don’t put all your trust in a cottage constructed from sweetmeats.
Maybe there’s never been anything about this highway’s dusty verge to seek with longing; no sin-drenched roadside juke joints, no parking lots full of wide-backed cars as confident and blunt as bombs, trunks hiding a dry county’s bootleg. The narrow dividing line throws back their headlights. They pass a darkened Dairy Queen, its picture window soaped with mute encouragement for what must be the home team.
The car slows. Anna-Marie blinks and stretches. “I called this morning to remind them we’d get in late,” Emmett says, braking at the windblown yellow streetlight. “They said they’d hold the room.”
The building in front of them interrupts the gridded small-town streets around it like the ornate prow of a ship. Emmett pulls into the first angled space they come to.
“It said in the brochure they sent out that he had it built with the doors to the lobby facing south.” He eyes the creamy stone building, the deserted street. “To show which side he thought should’ve won. The Civil War. From limestone quarried right around here.”
Anna-Marie has already opened her door. The hotel in front of them looks to her like the sort of place that should contain gleaming brass and polished old wood. The sort of hotel where there ought be a restaurant where occasions are commemorated, where waiters lean deferentially toward the local ranchers. She reaches back to slam her door. Emmett pops the trunk and walks around the car to retrieve their bags. “The Civil War? But south of here is Mexico.”
“Either way, your room awaits.” He motions her through the lobby doors ahead of him. “Voilá: The Hotel Ponce De Leon.”
She hesitates at the edge of the checkerboarded stone floor. Across the lobby, a single brass fixture throws an oblong of light onto the long, carved — and unmanned —front desk. “Over there,” he says. “There’s got to be a bell to ring or something.”
An envelope —Welcome, honeymooners! — has been propped up on the counter. He drops their luggage with a thump and picks it up. “Guess the Hotel Ponce de Leon’s seen better days.” He looks up from the slip of paper slipped inside. “They went home to bed. There’s not even a night clerk. But this says they’ve given us Room 23. I guess it’s upstairs.”
He reaches for the key on the counter and turns around. “Should we take the elevator?” he asks, staring at its elaborate, old-fashioned cage.
“Not just no,” Anna-Marie says, looking up from the guestbook lying on the counter, “but hell no.” She signs the book with a felt-tip from her purse, reassured to see at least a little bit of evidence that they aren’t the only guests who’ve ever stayed at the Hotel Ponce De Leon.
Emmett slips a brochure from the stack fanned on the counter. “Here it is,” he says. “The Ponce De Leon was built by the illustrious Texas Ranger Hiram Marcus Gilchrist in 1911 for the belle he’d rescued forty years before.”
“He built his wife a hotel?” Anna Marie flips idly back to the beginning of the register, where the spidery names show evidence of the Palmer Method.
“The building consists of hundreds of tons of locally-quarried limestone. It originally included glass fabricated by L. C. Tiffany and the first refrigerated air west of the Sabine.” He stoops for their bags. “I wonder why, though.”
Signatures are all that’s left. Of men who once leaned back in the horn-and-cowhide chairs still set around the lobby; of women who sat beside them and blotted bold parentheses of color around the tips of cigarettes.
Just as a signature is the only evidence of the last decade’s visit by a demolition expert, who was called in by the Chamber of Commerce, and after examining the building, had to regretfully explain that the amount of dynamite required to level the old hotel would probably bring the rest of town down.
“It’s not exactly what I had in mind,” he says at the top of the dusty cascade of the staircase.
Anna-Marie swings the room key as they start down the hall. “Do you think anybody else’s staying here?”
“Maybe it’s better not to ask that.” Underneath his breath, he counts off the doors lining both sides of the hallway. “This one,” he says finally, without bothering to put the key into the lock. The door stands open. Inside, there’s a bed with an iron headboard, broken-backed and sagging. “Here we are.”
Anna-Marie unzips her suitcase while he sits down on the bed to take off his shoes. “At least it’s just for one night,” she says, pulling out her toothbrush.
A strip of paper has barricaded the toilet seat in the bathroom. She turns toward the basin in the corner. There is a rusty stain under the faucet, where the enamel has been worn away.
“At least it’s just for one night,” he says when she comes back into the bedroom and climbs into the bed. He shifts to make room. She fits her head against his shoulder, wedding ring knocking against the headboard.
Married, she reminds herself, surprised.
The way down a flight of stairs revealed by a trapdoor will always be dark, will be steep, is as precarious as falling in love, that peculiar, passionate misstep. In the old story, we’re told that the darkness on the other side of the trapdoor was the sort of black velvet jewelbox loved by spelunkers. The princess paused at its brink, surefooted and careless. She’d never be tripped up.
Taking a breath, she slips down the coiled staircase and plunges into the geographic impossibility of forest that lies beyond it.
Nothing is ever exactly what it seems to be. The sound the wind makes in those trees could be the murmured waxing of the tide, familiar, then forgotten.
Nothing is exactly what it seems to be. The hero who sneaks along behind her could be a gardener’s boy, his fate to spy a princess through a window. He could be a prince himself, his identity concealed by a disguise. Either way, our story requires him to trail her; to tread too close, to draw back when she stops and looks behind her.
Is it furtiveness or hope that sends her looking backward?
The beautiful palace in front of them is like a magnet that pulls everything in its path toward it. He ducks behind a tree and watches as she slips inside.
Surely by now you’ve figured out what dancing has always been code for?
Though it could have been this sort of rush toward a castle, not the dancing done inside it, that wore all those pairs of shoes out.
Anna-Marie has been asleep, has been married for — there’s no clock for her to check when she wakes with a start in the dark — at least nine hours. On the other side of the door, a stuttering knock travels the length of the corridor. It sounds like hoofbeats.
She flicks back the nubby coverlet and eases herself out of the bed. Emmett turns over when she opens the door. She shuts it behind her and stands in the corridor. The next sound is sharper, more metallic, and it seems to be coming from the stairwell at the end of the hall.
She walks toward it.
Like a shoulder turned, a coy display, each part hints at some whole. The curved banister snaking down into the lobby has been polished by ninety years of hands that touched it, less for balance and more because it existed and just because of that should be caressed. By women in hobbled skirts who, of marriageable age but single still, traveled west by first-class coach, desirous of a change in luck along with a drier climate. By servicemen who married high school sweethearts while on leave and then sailed off to wars supposed to end all. By salesmen in flashy checkered suits who seduced chambermaids with stories of the travel they could make if they would only hitch their wagon to a traveling salesman’s star.
Anna-Marie has always considered herself smarter than the girls in fairy stories who stand curiously in front of doors they were told not to open. Like the audience that warns the heroine up on the movie screen don’t go there! she recognizes the lessons to be learned from the teenager who, heedless of the roving manic, keeps strolling down the darkened street.
The carpet underneath her feet is gritty. She starts down the stairs.
In the old story, the castle was filled with dancing couples. The hero settled down to wait outside it, cooling his heels like a youthful suitor waiting for a bus.
Someone’s out there, the princess whispered, turning from her partner to the window.
The wind, he soothed her. Nothing but the wind. Keep dancing.
Anna-Marie pauses on the bottom step and lets her eyes adjust to the dim light. She knows it’s a trick of her imagination, but for just a second, the columns at the edges of the lobby look like a grove of trees. A small moon glimmers beyond them. It travels across the far wall. But then she understands — what she’d thought was moonlight is just the reflection of the streetlight outside on a row of pictures hanging on the wall.
But still — it almost looks like something is moving from column to column. As pale as smoke, it’s there. Then gone, suddenly wicked up.
She walks closer. Each photograph on the wall has been partnered to a neatly-typed white placard. Each frame has captured something: a solemn couple draped in fin-de-siècle fancy dress; a man gazing from atop a horse. She walks down the row, leaning close to touch a fingertip to a card. Original Owner ...Illustrious Texas Ranger...Lovely Bride...the Captain on his Dun Horse.
The subject of the last one is harder to make out. Blurred faces, and a dark space. She bends her head to read the label: Infamous Outlaw Cavern.
A floorboard creaks behind her. But when she whirls around, the bowlegged cowhide chairs are just an orderly herd in the corners. The hotel’s limestone walls are chalky in the dim light.
Someone is standing in front of the glass door that leads to the street. A workman leaving late or arriving early? As the figure slips through the doors, there’s a faint silvery sound, like the jingle of spurs on bootheels.
Once upon a time, this place was at the bottom of an ocean.
Once upon a time, a single tree atop a rise seined at the sky here, chaff blown all the way from grain elevators in Kansas escaping from its cupped hands.
The wind blowing through those branches sounded like the tide it should have long since forgotten, panted like some dog that followed the twin tracks of a wagon all the way from Tennessee. It labored like the last breath of anyone who ever followed someone all this way, and then gave up and died here.
Once upon a time, a woman stood in the doorway of a cabin chinked with limestone, staring at the boil of dust at the corner of the landscape like a stampede or a plague of locusts.
The empty acres in front of her will be divided up by spools of barbed wire soon enough —but at the moment all that ownership resides in the rosy future. For the moment, it’s more accurate to say that almost everything these people look upon still owns them.
The horsemen approach quickly.
This figure in the doorway is the daughter of someone with whom certain other people are eager to do business, and as such she might be treasure. And treasure may be held hostage and then ransomed for some other treasure, at least as far as certain sorts of tales go. She stands in the doorway, her eyes pulled to the low spine of the horizon, watching how the dust boils closer.
For, long before she was the Texas Ranger’s wife, this yellow rose was somebody else’s pearl. The circumference of her whalebone-encircled waist could be whittled down to 18 inches, and she had killed a six-foot rattler with a short-handled hoe once.
So the story goes.
For where? The nearest neighbor was five miles away. She hauled her petticoats up around her knees. She knew she couldn’t take the time to look back. Her hair was tumbling from its pins. Her heart beat at the cage of her corset, the cage of her chest. She could smell the horse behind her. It was gaining, gaining. It smelt of dust and barns, a homely —
A hand twined itself in her hair and yanked. Behind the pommel of the tooled leather saddle, she was swept up.
The entourage jogs along in silence. Under the rocks beneath the horses’ hooves are scorpions, delicate as brine shrimp. Above, nobody has figured out how to diminish the dark bowl of the sky yet.
The lead horse rocks along, a showy pacer stockinged like a call-girl. What does Somebody’s Pearl think as she rides pillion? She can’t help but be aware of the outlaw’s lean hips. What to make of his ruffled shirt, the sinister black oiled mustachios? Can courtship be read into a dandy’s impulse to go marauding in his best shirt?
The outlaw holds his reins loosely in one hand, and cocky — who’ll follow? — he begins to serenade her, his whisper as silky as the ends of the mustachios he occasionally twirls. In the dark, it’s hard to tell how cold his heart is. Or that not even the approaching dawn will begin to thaw it out, much.
If every fairy tale involves a test, this one is ours. But O, Somebody’s Pearl, don’t trust the man who wears patent-leather dancing pumps pulled from the feet of one of his victims, no matter how much you think that you love waltzing! Beware the well-dressed killer with an ill-gained diamond stickpin. The ones you were taught to swoon for are the ones who will deceive you.
She sways. It would just be a second’s work to clasp her arms about his waist, to rest her head against his back.
Cautiously, she turns her head to look back. Every shred of lace petticoat she drops catches on the branches of the mesquite trees.
The riders picked their way along the faint trail single-file; moonlight traveled mesquite; a Mexican-forged bit clinked. The men dismounted and slipped between two boulders, disappearing into what, in the moonlight, looked like a dark crease in the rock.
Somebody’s Pearl slid from the saddle. The outlaw gripped her shoulder; dragged her upright. The rest of the gang huddled just inside the entrance of the cave, urging sparks to make the leap from flint to tinder. They crouched and cupped their hands. The flicker of their fire revealed hollows where scouring water might have rushed once, and crevices a prehistoric shoreline could have etched on its retreat.
Somebody’s Pearl, unnoticed, wrapped her arms around her knees and sank into the corner.
A hostage always calls for rescue. And so — here comes the Texas Ranger in brave pursuit upon his yellow dun horse.
He slouches in the saddle, and fair or not, our story doesn’t bother with his thoughts much. The cave, however, is required to be discovered; just as, after a rousing gunfight, Somebody’s Pearl is required to be recovered. Unlucky as it might be for the outlaws, the rule is that that the stone dislodged by the hero’s mount will reveal the hidden thieves’ den.
A tag of white fabric on the ground reflects back moonlight. As the Ranger makes his cautious way toward it, his usually sure-footed mount puts a hoof wrong. A tabletop of rock tips, revealing flickering firelight. He dismounts and heaves it back.
There it is, laid out below him: girl, and gang, and cavern. The robbers’ loot gleams in the firelight and our Ranger has more foresight than the future rancher with a rock-salt loaded shotgun who will someday swear there’s never been a cave, or treasure, or any star carved on a rock that points the way there.
The Ranger marks their positions: Pearl, unbuckled holsters, firelight. He takes his pen-knife and scratches at the rock. Someday, he may want to find his way back here. He stands and nudges the dirt with his boot-toe until it trickles downward, putting out the fire. Taking a breath, he jumps into the darkness. Someday, that rancher’s descendants will find the rock carved with a star. But having long since lost the map the Ranger drew, they’ll fruitlessly whittle away the next three decades digging with a backhoe.
For treasure becomes a compelling story only if the wealth so fiercely sought remains unfound.
But eleven seconds with a Colt Repeater can easily do away with eleven million years of dripping water’s work. The Ranger has little need to worry about aiming. Every shot splinters a stalactite or ricochets off one of the walls. A curse is cut short; a high-heeled boot stamps out the fire’s dying red-hot eyes. Pearl lays low and tries to stay out of the way.
Everyone is trying not to worry about snakes.
Discretion will always be the better part of valor, for an outlaw. The gang scrambles through their back-up exit. Somebody’s Pearl shrinks against the rock and strains her eyes. The Ranger keeps his gun drawn.
In the end, the question stops being one of friend or foe, but, instead, of what a life would be worth, if you had to spend it starving in the darkness. Somebody’s Pearl moves forward; without thinking, she picks up a handful of gold coins and ties them in her apron. The Texas Ranger edges past the embers of the fire.
Until, finally, hand touches hand and the two of them begin to clamber toward daylight.
After all that, what is there to do but marry? For they’ll ride together, shoulder nudging shoulder, and it has been a very long night.
Fairy tales are usually of the mind that those whose fate hangs in the balance are much more interesting than those who’ve already made up their minds. And so, the hero had to slip inside the castle where the princess danced.
He watched for a moment and then stepped forward. “Don’t be afraid.” He took the princess’s hand and pressed her fingers. “I won’t let you be a gardener’s wife.”
As if to say, you will never be ordinary.
The royal page slipped forward with a cup. “His Majesty’s compliments, sir,” he whispered to the hero. “A drink before you dance?”
What would it hurt? The hero stretched out his hand.
“Don’t drink!” the princess cried out. Because she knew the drink —of course — was poison. “I would much rather marry a gardener.”
And just like that the charm was broken, and a new one woven.
Anna-Marie stands in the lobby. A papery sound hangs in the air, one she’ll eventually convince herself wasn’t boot leather scuffing stone, or even the sigh of the brass doors in the vestibule as they swung closed.
But for a second, the polished doors seem to reflect back something: the face of someone loved most in the moment when they turned away; the faint glow of a fire before it’s finally stamped out.
She can’t help but take one last step toward it.
She’s only human, after all, and we were all born to believe in the idea of treasure. In the fabled casket of silver that could be buried thirty feet from a particular tree. In doubloons to be dug up, as common as biscuits. In who we were once, and what we once had. In those things that are gone, which is known as nostalgia. She cups her hands against the glass doors.
Once upon a time, grass grew horse-high here, an ocean to replace that prehistoric ocean, but since then buildings have been built over the bones of slaughtered buffalo.
Anna-Marie whirls around. This time she knows it’s not her imagination — footsteps are coming closer.
“Anna-Marie?” Emmett’s voice says from the stairs.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Look.”
On the other side of the glass, the town they have arrived in is laid out before them. It consists of nothing but a dusty street of vacant buildings and a train depot that will someday be turned into an antique store, and it belongs in guidebooks only for this reason: once, something was lost here, and something else was found, and afterwards a hotel was built out of the limestone that once lay at the bottom of the sea.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote “Household Tales” not long after I moved back to the U.S. from Germany during a period when I was lucky enough to hold a six-month fellowship at Paisano, an old, white-sided ranch house on 254 undeveloped acres in the hill country outside Austin, Texas.
Before Paisano housed a writers residency program, it was the weekend retreat of J. Frank Dobie, the noted Texas folklorist. When I was there, the house still contained copies of the books he had written, his personal desk, and the blue-and-white china he’d used. Every day, I spread my writing on a long rough-hewn table where writers had been sitting down to work for over thirty years. Some mornings, white-tail deer picked their way across the yard outside the window like a bevy of belles on their way home from a dance. Some evenings, I sat down in front of the fireplace stained with 160 years’ of woodsmoke and read the folktales Dobie had collected.
If an environment like that doesn’t insert itself into what you’re writing sooner rather than later, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. How could I not think about the sorts of stories we choose to tell ourselves?
“Household Tales” is the result of that time, and that place. It’s an attempt to refashion elements of folktale, ghost stories, and westerns —old stories we think we know by heart — to weave a new fairy tale, one that is both a meditation on the stories we retell over and over and the narrative of a single wedding and the baggage bystanders and participants alike bring to it.
ABOUT KATHERINE L. HESTER
Eggs for Young America (Penguin), Katherine L. Hester’s first book, was awarded the inaugural Bakeless Prize by Francine Prose and named a New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction has appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Best American Mystery Stories, American Short Fiction, The Yale Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She has been a Dobie-Paisano and Hambidge Center Fellow and has held residencies also at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. She lives south of Interstate 20 in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two daughters.