In my new novel The Story Sisters (Shaye Areheart Books) Elv Story creates an imaginary world to help her deal with a childhood trauma that she keeps secret. Stories help her to deal with reality and with her past. In a way, she cannot live without them.
Each chapter of the novel begins with a piece of what I call Elv's Black Book of Fairy Tales. When added together they complete a psychological puzzle and tell the story of Elv's interior life. She is the sum of these stories' parts, and they are the truth of who she is.
Elv is one of three sisters, but as is true in many fairy tales, each sister has a separate path that she alone must follow. In many ways The Story Sisters is a quest that follows the structure of traditional fairy tales. I grew up in love with fairy tales, stunned by the truths they told. Many of the other stories I read as a child felt false, as if they were talking down to me. I wanted to read stories that were brutal and beautiful and fearless. Fairy tales always trust the reader to look inside the deepest truth about real life. There are monsters as well as heroes, and sometimes, all too often, it's difficult to know which is which.
Set in New York, New Hampshire and Paris, the novel also takes place in an invented fairy tale world. What good are fairy tales? They, above all other stories, explain us to ourselves and give voice to our own inner natures. In telling stories people are able to acknowledge and understand their own pain and humanity. Fairytales make up the inner story of our lives, the blood and bones. They tell of a psychological journey, sometimes through the dark woods, to a place of growth. These stories are the interior map of what happens to Elv Story. Read them and you'll know why the secret world she invents may be more real than the everyday life she leads.
The Story Sisters is a novel about the power of stories and the way in which fiction can often tell the deepest truths. How close is the fairy tale world to our own? For Elv Story, it's closer than her own front door.
Here are six of Elv's fairy tales, which you can also hear read aloud at my website. The rest of the story can be found inside The Story Sisters.
Once a year there was a knock at the door. Two times, then nothing. No one else heard, only me. Even when I was a baby in my cradle. My mother didn't hear. My father didn't hear. My sisters didn't hear. But the cat looked up. When I was eleven I opened the door. There she was. A lady wearing a gray coat. She spoke, but I didn't know her language. A big wind had come up and the door slammed shut. When I opened it again, she was gone. But I knew what she wanted. Me. The one word I'd understood was daughter. I asked my mother to tell me about the day I was born. She couldn't remember. I asked my father. He had no idea. My sisters were too young to understand. When the gray lady next came I asked the same question. I could tell from the look on her face. She knew the answer. She went down to the marsh, where the tall reeds grew, where the river began. I ran to keep up. She slipped into the water, all gray. She waited for me to follow. I didn't think twice. I took off my boots. The water was cold. I went under fast.
The witch came to the village at noon. She moved into a cottage in the middle of town, got a fire burning, put up her pot. After that a famine began. They sent me to her because I was nothing, a cleaning girl, dispensable. In the afternoon the roads were filled with frogs. By suppertime there was lightning. By early evening the birds all fell out of the trees. I collected frogs in a jar as I went along. I took the charred wood from a tree hit by lightning and tied the twigs together in my shawl. I took the birds bones and kept them in my pocket. At the well, I stopped and looked down into the black water. Nothing was reflected back. Only the rising moon. It was night and the streets were empty. Everyone had locked their doors. What do you have for me? the witch asked. I gave her the frogs, the charred wood, the bones. She made a soup and offered me some. All over people the county people were starving. I sat down to dinner with her. When she packed up to leave, I was already at the door.
My sister stayed in her room, hiding. She gazed the sky and cried. You would think she'd be happy to be human, but she kept talking about needing her freedom. I had lost sister after sister, was I supposed to lose her too? She stood on the ledge outside the window. She had only one arm; if she started to fall she would dash to pieces on the rocks below. I was always the one to save everyone. I went out at midnight to gather the reeds, though there were wild dogs and men who thought of murder. I carried sharp needles and sticks. At night I wove the reeds together while my sister cried. When I was done, I threw the cape over her. She changed into a bird and flew away. I watched until she looked like a cloud. Now she was free. Well so was I. I walked to the city and got a job. I had a talent after all. When people asked if I had a family I didn't mention that once I'd had sisters. I said I took care of myself. I said I liked it that way, and after a while I meant it.
We only wanted to look at him. We set out the trap in the meadow. It had little metal bars and a gate that slammed shut when footsteps crossed the threshold. People barely believed in him anymore, but we did. We'd seen his shadow. We caught him the first time out. We thought it was luck. We thought it was fate. We were proud of ourselves. There he was, hiding from the sunlight. Crows circled overhead. He didn't move so we poked him with sticks. We were afraid that if we opened the gate he would run, so we watched him all through the day Tell us your name, we said. We knew if he did he'd be ours forever. He said nothing. Perhaps he couldn't speak. He was growing paler. He looked like moonlight. He was so beautiful we couldn't stop looking at him. Tell us, we asked, again and again. He said nothing until he disappeared, curled up like a leaf, gone. But we heard clearly that his name was sorrow. Exactly what we'd have all the rest of our lives.
One year twelve girls went missing. One gone for every month that passed. People in town became used to this. They wondered which beast had done this, and who the next victim would be. I found a handful of teeth on the ground. My mother said they belonged to a dragon. My father said they had lined the mouth of a wolf. But the teeth were small and white, perfect as pearls. There were twelve all together. I strung them on a chain and wore them around my throat. That was when people began talking. There was a town meeting to decide what to do. Everyone said the teeth must be disposed of. They'd bring a curse to me and my village. But I heard someone whisper "No" in what sounded like my voice. I ran away. The town council came to my house. The questioned my father and my mother, but it was too late. I was on the hillside, planting the teeth in the ground. When it rained, twelve girls would grow. They would point to their murderer before they turned into flowers, each one white as snow.
Everything was red, the air, the sun, whatever I looked at. Except for him. I fell in love with someone who was human. I watched him walk through the hills and come back in the evening when his work was through. I saw things no woman would see: that he knew how to cry, that he was alone. I cast myself at him, like a fool, but he didn't see me. And then one day he noticed I was beautiful and he wanted me. He broke me off and took me with him, in his hands, and I didn't care that I was dying until I actually was.
The wolf came to me at midnight and stood below my window. He had chased the innocent, defiled the sacred, ran after horses and carriages, caused the snow to turn red with blood. But he had an arrow in his side. He was the one bleeding now. I told him it would hurt, and to shut his eyes. I took out the arrow, cleaned the wound, gave him supper. People in the village said he devoured me then and left only my boots in the snow. They said it would teach the other girls a lesson, and maybe it did. From where I lived in the woods I could hear them calling at night. I wonder what lesson they'd learned.