Seventeen drafts later, the final scene still wasn't anywhere near "right." All that dialogue I'd been writing for months sounded wrong, as if I were putting it in my characters' mouths rather than letting them speak for themselves. And Devon, in particular, was too ornery to let me use him for my own purposes; whenever I tried to give him words that weren't genuinely his own, he made them sound completely absurd — which was the case with most of the dialogue I'd written for him.
The end was in sight and I was stuck. I was also desperate to finish the thing. And so I went back to my source and to my amazement found things in the second half of the Grimms' story that I hadn't seen the first five times I had read it. It was, like "In the Night Country," a ghost story of sorts. And it had a good deal more to say as a metaphor for abuse.
To return to the tale: Back at his palace, the king holds a grand wedding and makes the sister his queen.
. . . and they lived for a long time happily together; the roebuck was tended and cherished, and ran about in the palace–garden.
But the wicked step–mother, because of whom the children had gone out into the world, had never thought but that the sister had been torn to pieces by the wild beasts in the wood, and that the brother had been shot for a roebuck by the huntsmen. Now when she heard that . . . they were so well off, envy and jealousy rose in her heart . . . and she thought of nothing but how she could bring them again to misfortune. Her own daughter, who was ugly as night, and had only one eye, reproached her and said: "A Queen! that ought to have been my luck." "Just be quiet," answered the old woman . . . "when the time comes I shall be ready."
There were a few things in that that brought me up short. The first was an acknowledgment: "the wicked step–mother, because of whom the children had gone out into the world." Abusive backgrounds often drive the children out of the family and into the world. If you are lucky enough to survive, being driven out into the world can be a very good thing. Clearly, one reason the brother and sister were living in the palace was because they'd been driven out into the world. It is worth recognizing that however lethal she may be, the stepmother is an agent of change. This is not to condone the role of the abuser, but to see the act of "getting out" as more than escape, as entry into the fullness of life.
The second thing that struck me about the passage was that the step–mother's own daughter, the one who stayed home and didn't get out, had only one eye. She was half–blind.
One of the subtler effects of growing up in an abusive household is that it distorts your vision. Sometimes the distortion sets in because you can't bear to see what's going on. Sometimes blinders are deliberately put on you. Sometimes you become astigmatic by osmosis -- a result of growing up in a household where everyone around you has unconsciously agreed to see only part of the picture. In any case, you compromise the ability to see clearly, and many things, including the ability to distinguish between those who will help you and those who will devour you, become confused. When you get yourself physically out of the household and yet continue to live with your vision shut down, the abuse has become internalized and self–perpetuating. When you are surrounded by others whose vision is similarly distorted, you get buried. This is very much what happens in the second half of "Brother and Sister."
Time goes on in the palace. The queen gives birth to a little boy while the king is out hunting. With the queen still weak from childbirth, the old witch takes the form of the chambermaid and convinces the queen that what she needs to restore her is a bath. (It is no accident that the witch is able to assume the shape of a helper and "the weakly queen" is unable to tell the difference.) Then the witch and her daughter carry the queen into the bath, shut the door, and run away.
. . .But in the bath–room they had made a fire of such hellish heat that the beautiful young Queen was soon suffocated.
When this was done the old woman took her daughter. . .and laid her in bed in place of the Queen. She gave her too the shape and the look of the Queen, only she could not make good the lost eye. But in order that the King might not see it, she was to lie on the side on which she had no eye.
In the evening. . .he came home. . .and was going to the bed of his dear wife to see how she was. But the old woman quickly called out: "For your life leave the curtains closed; the Queen ought not to see the light yet, and must have rest." The King went away, and did not find out that a false Queen was lying in the bed.
Again the story stopped me, this time with the image of the witch's half–blind daughter taking the place of the true queen. If you've been shut down, it is often a half–blind imposter self that goes through the world in your stead — the "good" girl or boy, carefully designed not to bring down wrath; the "clown," an equally careful design bent on defusing all tension with humor; or like Devon, the "bad" boy or girl, the ones who get their own by going farther into rage and danger than anyone else in the household. The list goes on. There are endless roles and combinations thereof that we take on when our own being is not welcome, when we have to become someone else in order to survive. Cilla had chosen the role of the "good" girl, and in doing so had denied her own beauty, vision, and sexuality. She'd given all her power away. When the story opens, she is living the life of the half–blind impostor.
Folk tales, coming as they do out of the ancient myths, are deep ground. They lend themselves to many interpretations, and so there's a danger of turning any one of them into too personal a metaphor. There was a part of me wary of reading too much into "Brother and Sister." And then I came to the witch's instructions to the king, and chills went through me, so closely do they describe the devil's bargain made in nearly every abusive home: "For your life leave the curtains closed; the Queen ought not to see the light . . ." Abusive households breed a conspiracy of silence and lies in which no one is allowed to see the light, in which everyone consents to blindness "for their lives" rather than risk the consequences of seeing the truth. This is the syndrome of the battered child who takes the stand in court and swears, possibly believing it herself, that her parents never hurt her. This is the belief that what goes on in an abusive household is "normal" and loving when, in fact, it's eating its young alive. This is a metaphor for all the lies and denials that perpetuate destructive environments — the line that says someone is always to blame, or that the child in question is worthless or evil or deserving of cruelty.
There's another level to being shut down, an aesthetic one if you will. What we also stop seeing, beyond the harsh truth, is beauty, and this loss is even more critical. We stop seeing the splendor in the natural world because the beauty has been leached from our lives; instead we see a reflection of what it is that has surrounded us. We stop seeing love, seeing instead fear or treachery. We lock ourselves into narrow parameters that have been set for us by others. Limited, and finding comfort in the familiarity of those limits, we stop seeing the possibilities for growth and joy. We stop seeing the colors. We abandon our dreams. We live half lives.
But back to the story which, like many fairy tales, is a guide for getting through the forest and past the witch. Although the true queen has been suffocated, she returns silently at midnight to suckle the babe and pet the roebuck who sleeps in a corner of the nursery. The only one who sees her is the nurse. (I do not think it a coincidence that the one who sees her is the one who gives sustenance. In the morning the nurse asks the palace guards whether anyone came into the palace during the night. Like true codependents they answer, "No, we have seen no one.")
For quite some time the queen continues to return to suckle the babe and visit the roe. The nurse who, although she sees, is also caught in fear, dares not tell anyone. Until at last the queen speaks during one of her midnight visits:
"How fares my child, how fares my roe?
Twice shall I come, then never more."
Clearly, this situation cannot go on forever; you cannot continue to have a half–blind impostor in your place. It can only go on so long and then there's true death.
The nurse doesn't answer the queen but she does tell the king what she's seen, and he comes to watch for himself. Again, the queen makes her midnight visit, this time warning that she can only return one more time. Like the nurse before him, the king "dared not speak to her," but on the next night he watches again. This time she says:
"How fares my child, how fares my roe?
This time I come, then never more."
Then the King could not restrain himself; he sprang towards her, and said: "You can be none other than my dear wife." She answered: "Yes, I am your dear wife," and at the same moment she received life again, and by God's grace became fresh, rosy, and full of health.
The corollary to not seeing is, of course, not being seen, and that is an equally dangerous state of existence. When you grow up hiding who you truly are so that you can survive, it becomes increasingly hard for anyone to see past the construct. We set the impostor in our place and the impostor is what the world reflects back to us. If this goes on long enough, there comes a point when even we can't see the difference, when even we don't know who — if anyone — is inside. Perhaps most tragically, if we don't see the sickness in this extended separation from and denial of true self, we go on to perpetuate the cycle in the next generation.
There's one more bit to the folk tale in which the queen tells the king what happened, and the witch and her daughter are brought to trial. The daughter is then taken into the forest and torn apart by wild beasts, the fate that the witch had planned for the queen, and the witch herself is "miserably burnt."
And as soon as she was burnt to ashes, the roebuck changed his shape, and received his human form again, so the sister and brother lived happily together all their lives.
According to the fairy tale, the curse is only broken when its source is destroyed (encompassed, in that the half–blind impostor must be "torn to pieces"). Being repulsed by capital punishment in all forms, even metaphoric ones, I never considered having Cilla's mother killed. It wasn't necessary. Cilla simply had to take back the power she'd given up — a process which, in fact, is not simple at all.
But then Cilla, like so many kids today, has to deal with something that the queen in her palace will never have to worry about. Cilla has to go back home. Abuse takes many forms, and Cilla isn't facing anything as shattering as sexual abuse or beatings that leave broken bones. She will probably never have a social worker or a neighbor intervene. Her home is not so life–threatening that the street is a better alternative. The sort of abuse she deals with is subtler, insidious, more a destruction of the spirit than the body (whereas the more brutal forms of abuse destroy both). Like so many kids in dysfunctional families, until she's older she's going to have to live in that house. And so it seemed the most honest thing I could do was offer her the tools with which to survive that place.
Once you've been shut down, once you've constructed the armor and gone into hiding, how do you open up again? If you're lucky, you cross paths with someone who hands you a key. Despite the fact that we live in an age where a popular "truth" insists "you create your own reality," another truth is that sometimes you can't get out alone. Sometimes you need help, especially if you're working with partial vision. For me, the form that help often took was that by the grace of the gods, I was given true friends — those who saw me not as I saw myself (an image that came from a house in which I hid), but saw inside to what I truly was and welcomed that being, allowed me to finally see my own essence and bring it into the world. Being truly seen is a gift whose value cannot be overestimated. In the fairy tale, being recognized brings nothing less than resurrection.
And so my story's end became an acknowledgment of vision. There's a part of Devon that belongs to the dark gods — the same Furies that drive Cilla's mother. And yet there's more to him than the bad boy caught in rage. Cilla sees his strength and beauty and courage as he sees those same qualities in her. Neither is completely comfortable with this new state. It's scary being transparent. But what Cilla and Devon finally give each other, what truly binds them in friendship and as kin, is the gift of being seen and the promise to hold that gift for the other.
As Cilla puts it, "Knowing each other like we do. . . that's something we've got to hold for each other, something precious. I'm not saying it'll always work this way. . . . But if I start to shut down, I want you to show up at my door and tell me I don't have to. And when you see the dark gods coming after you, you can come to me, and I'll tell you what else I see, what else is there."
Fairy tales are journey stories. They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side. Out of curiosity, I went back to the patterns of three in the tale, since the very rhythms of repetition set them off and give them importance. There are three brooks, three days of the hunt, and three times that the queen's ghost speaks. Each of these patterns presents challenge and transformation; they are the places of power in the story, the points where true magic occurs. In the first the brother is thirsty; he needs nourishment and finally gets it, a difficult metamorphosis being the price. In the second he must either follow his own nature or "die of grief"; at great risk he runs with the hunt, and that act takes both brother and sister farther along on the path they must travel to a new state of being. (It's worth noting that in the fairy tales one can rarely remain in the forest — one takes what was found there and brings it back into the world.) In the third challenge, the king must recognize the queen, an act that will restore her to life and lead to a redress of wrongs, a final ending of the curse, a coming into balance. As abuse takes many forms, so does salvation. Here are three of many acts that can get you through: nourishing yourself, following your heart even at great risk, and being seen for what you are.
Vision is one of the five senses, a gift that's easy to take for granted. It comes to us so easily. We simply open our eyes and "see." And yet there are levels of seeing. As the fairy tale tells us, when we constrict or confuse our vision we are primed for betrayal and destruction; we are in the hold of the witch. To free ourselves we must both try to see clearly and allow ourselves to be seen. These are acts of courage and of power. If we can go beyond that and see compassionately, we may even partake in acts of grace.
I'd like to claim that "In the Night Country" was written for everyone who's ever been shut down. The truth is it was written for me. There were things in it I had to find, and writing, like any of the arts, is a way of perceiving, of coming to know the heart of a thing. The things that Devon and Cilla came to know were things I needed to make my own; I suspect I needed those lessons even more than they. The story was part of my way through. And so it is dedicated in gratitude to the "seers," the ones who see us for what we are and send back that reflection in love. And finally, it is sent out in the hope that for all of us who've been shut down, for our lives, we'll open the curtains and see the light.
1.*All story excerpts were taken from The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, copyright 1944 by Pantheon Books, Inc., renewed 1972 by Random House, Inc., New York. The story "Brother and Sister" appears on pp. 67–73.
The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes
"In the Night Country," by Ellen Steiber in The Armless Maiden, edited by Terri Windling