When I was a girl reading fairy tales, I appreciated those courageous maidens tromping off in iron shoes or flying on the back of the west wind to find their future husbands where they, imprisoned by trolls or cannibal mothers, waited to be rescued. I admired those young women and their single–minded purpose. They were bold, resourceful, and spirited. And they were certainly a far cry from the “waiting–to–be–awakened” girls or the girls expecting to be fitted with a shoe, a Prince, and a future all at the same time.
Yet even in their plucky natures and heroic tales, there was still something about them that troubled me. Perhaps it was the assumption of happily–ever–after, or at least the seeming surrender of all that reckless adventure. Their rites of passage completed, the journey to find a husband over, there was an expectation that life for these young women would settle once again into neatly defined roles and an untroubled routine. This assumption didn't sit well with me at all. I knew from my own family that such happily–ever–afters were not true. I had parents who had met and married in a passion, and then just as passionately argued, accused, betrayed and divorced each other. The photographs of their early years depict the blissful expressions worn by most newly married couples, but the later years proved ugly, full of dark misadventures and contentious battles over money. Though I left home at seventeen, inspired I think by the example of those stalwart maidens, I roamed the world in iron shoes forged by my parent's issues and no other goal in my mind except to escape their battles. Eventually, my money dissolved, the shoes became as thin as paper, and I returned home.
What a surprise then to discover a scant year later that home had all but disappeared. A Central Asian scholar, my mother boarded a bus in Istanbul and traveled for two weeks across Afghanistan following the Silk Road up to India, where she was now living, indefinitely it seemed. My father and his new wife returned from Africa and moved to another state. My older brother and I temporarily inherited the house along with its mortgage, and one of my mother's dysfunctional, melancholic friends as a roommate. I received phone calls from my mother at odd hours of the night, from Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, mostly asking me to wire money. During the days I worked at a movie theatre, selling popcorn and watching Dirty Harry play to a nearly empty house. It didn't seem right. My mother was out there reinventing herself and I was here, stuck. I wanted to be angry with her, but the truth was I admired her. She was difficult, unpredictable, but also interesting and indomitable. I concluded that she had needed that difficult spirit to survive the dismal destruction of her happily–ever–after.
At the end of my eighteenth year I enrolled in college and met my husband. It happened with the unreal grace of a fairy tale — a single sentence really. There was an introduction, a smile, a night, and almost immediately we were attached at the hip. As pleased with each other as we were, it was disconcerting to find our joy not shared by our friends. According to his family and certainly his suburban friends from high school, I was an unlikely choice, a disaster, and an aberration. It was the seventies; I was too political for them, too opinionated; I wore flannel shirts, glasses, and said “fuck” earnestly and often. His friends whispered that he had been snared by a girl who wasn't playing by the usual rules. I was neither compliant nor pretty in the way one expects of an accessory, and I was known to have claws, verbal comebacks that stung. His parents were convinced that I was the reason he strayed from the church. I was a fornicator, from the wrong class, a pathetic child of a broken home that could only spell disaster for their errant son.
Yet on the other side of the field my women friends from the university shook their heads in equal disapproval. Self proclaimed radical feminists, these “Red Sisters” argued that marriage was bourgeois, that women in such bonds were no more than property, and they determined that the only way to avoid the trap was to sleep with each others' husbands and boyfriends, swapping them like shoes or sweaters. I refused such invitations — I had already seen where that road led and I wasn't anxious to retrace my parents' footsteps. Monogamy and true love may have been reactionary, but I found them challenging, full of creative possibilities, and, among my girlfriends, mostly untried.
Still, it was difficult and lonely to be on the margins of two worlds, so I remember the thrill I felt recognizing a kindred spirit the first time I encountered “The Monkey Girl, ” a tale from the Kordofan people of the Sudan. The youngest son of an Emir is asked to choose a bride from the eligible maidens of his village. The Prince rides his horse up and down, spear in hand, ready to cast it at the door of the chosen girl. But he seems unable to decide, and in a moment of frustration, casts the spear far out into the desert. For two days he journeys after it only to discover the spear embedded in the trunk of a lone tree, and in whose leafless branches sits a monkey. As the Prince approaches, the monkey inclines her head, and in a gentle voice accepts the proposal of marriage. And the Prince? Well, he is the hero, a man of integrity, true to his word, so he pulls the monkey up behind him on the horse and together they return to the village to be married.
As one might imagine, it's difficult for the Prince. The Emir is appalled; the Prince's brothers, married to wealthy brides, pity him. Hearing the Prince's heavy sighs, the monkey makes him an offer: “Return me to the desert and I promise there will be another woman, more beautiful than you can imagine, waiting for you on your return. ” “And you? ” the prince inquires, “what will happen to you? ” “I will die, ” she answers simply. The Prince is a decent and compassionate sort, and though it would improve his situation immensely, he refuses to sacrifice the monkey's life. Yet when the Emir decides to dine in each one of his sons' homes, the young Prince is overwhelmed with dismay — for their house is a dark hovel, their meals poor fare. The monkey repeats her offer, but once again the Prince refuses. The monkey tells the Prince to invite his father for the evening meal and that all will be ready for his arrival. When father and son enter the house, the Prince is astonished to discover a miraculous transformation. Beneath the golden gleam of a hundred oil lamps the once barren rooms are now sumptuously decorated. There are plush carpets patterned with flowers, embroidered silk pillows on which to recline, and low tables spread with silver and copper platters of rich, steaming food. The men are amazed, and for the first time the Prince begins to wonder about his bride.
What follows is a delicious, slow striptease as the monkey unveils her secrets to the Prince one pale limb at a time over a number of nights. Three times the curious Prince spies on the monkey and manages to catch sight of her sitting before a mirror and deftly peeling back a portion of her furry hide. By moonlight he can see a slender wrist, the curve of her ivory breast, a naked shoulder. Each time he moves toward her, she twirls her finger and a sandstorm fills the little room, blinding him. Only when she is ready at last to emerge as a lovely young woman is the Prince able to steal the skin and burn it. As she stands before him in all her splendor, the Prince is appropriately humbled and awed by his fantastic bride. United at last as a couple, their marriage is now on a sure and heroic footing.
That should have been enough of a happy ending. But it isn't and with good reason. How can a woman of power, of fantastic substance from that world beyond the boundaries of the human world be tamed, slotted into the narrow role of a wife? What indeed would be the point of reducing her to the ordinary? The Prince and the Monkey Girl are happily married, but the happily–ever–after is threatened when the Emir begins to lust after the young woman. He imposes impossible tasks on his son, proclaiming death if the Prince fails to complete them. Of course, it is his fantastic bride who rescues him. Effortlessly drawing on her power, she makes the gardens bear fruit overnight and just as easily consumes a storehouse of food during the second night. In the final task she tricks the Emir into agreeing to his own death should the Prince succeed in making a newborn infant learn to walk and talk in a single day. The following morning the child walks into the hall announcing the Emir's death sentence and the ascension of the young Prince to the throne. Not just a pretty face this monkey girl, but wise and adept at managing agriculture, politics, law, and dangerous men.
What fascinated me the most in this story was not the obvious ugly monkey to beautiful woman transformation. It was the idea that the Monkey Girl controlled not only the destiny of her own rite of passage, but also that of the Prince. Through the agency of the spear — a wonderful manipulation of the phallic sign — she brings the Prince out into the fantastic realm to her to begin his journey. Similarly, cloaked in the animal skin, she embarks on her own rite of passage, journeying back to the human world while the storyteller in her recounts, in figurative language, the scenario of her death as an adolescent girl, and of her subsequent resurrection as an adult woman ready for marriage. She uses her disguise not only to complete her rite of passage, but also to test her husband's worthiness, integrity, compassion, and the strength of their bond. Little by little, she reveals herself to him, gradually making him aware of the considerable hidden power she possesses. Can he handle it? Will he be frightened? Or worse, will he try to control and possess her like the Emir?
It is the task of the hero to wrestle with the ambiguous power of the fantastic world and return with its fully creative potential in hand. The young Prince proves his loyalty and compassion — and from the monkey's bestial skin there emerges a beautiful bride. This bride is unlike her mortal counterparts, no matter how brave and courageous they may appear in other tales, for she represents a union, a partnership between the human hero and the creative forces of the fantastic world. In their marriage, hero and fantastic bride work together as equals to enrich each other's lives and strengthen their community.
But this is one bride that must never must be underestimated or taken for granted in the happily–ever–after. The beastly bride, while she may shed her skin or commit herself as a sensual partner, never surrenders her power and therefore always remains a little dangerous, a little unpredictable. There are beastly brides who hide their scales, their fur, and don the bodies of women in order to marry men for their own reasons, and to have children. Perhaps these brides should come with warning labels — disrespect us at your own peril! Husbands who transgress by peering into keyholes to learn the hidden truth about their wives run the risk of losing all the privileges such fantastic women provide them. And while the tales of beastly brides may be regarded as the cautionary warnings of a patriarchal society, convinced that the difficult woman hides a furry tail, scaled thighs, or a demon's appetite, I, for one, rejoice in them. They force the essential questions of marriage: Can you respect the power I hold, the secrets that are mine, the space that is reserved for me alone, and still be loving? Can marriage be a union of two forces, each with their own gifts to be offered freely, mutually acknowledged, respected and supported? And if the answer is no and the marriage hits a bump, a snag in the happily–ever–after, these women pack their bags and leave for the forests, the deserts, the deep oceans, or India, angry, but undaunted. Years after their divorce, my father confessed to me that he had often told my mother in their bitter fights that it seemed she couldn't decide whether to be a mother or an academic. It was with regret that he had recognized too late that had he supported her, she could have been both. A beastly bride, my mother was too difficult and too rich in resources for my father to appreciate and love until she was gone.
The tale of the Monkey Girl gave me what I needed most at a critical time in my life: the image of the creative and complex woman, unique to herself but willing to share those considerable gifts with a man capable of intuiting the wealth of her worth hidden beneath the skin. But more than that, the Monkey Girl also suggested that I need not be afraid of the fragile happily–ever–after, that I had resources of my own and that I would not have to contort myself into a restricting social role for fear of losing that fairytale ending. There was always travel. I gained courage resisting the tyranny of those opposing sides: the one that argued I was too radical and sharp, and the other that insisted I was a deluded, romantic traditionalist caught in the jaws of a bourgeois trap. Thirty years later, still happily married to the same man, I feel a debt of gratitude to the powerful example of the fantastic bride.
When I began to write novels I experienced again the presence of the Monkey Girl at my shoulder, pushing me, encouraging me. What better teacher could I have had? For out of the mysteries, the imagination, the realm of all things fantastic, she creates and transforms life: gardens out of the desert sands, wealth out of a hovel, feasts out of dry bread, precocious children out of newborns, and a husband out of a promising but confused young hero. She has a flare for drama, disguise, and illusion. From the moment the Prince releases his spear in her direction, she controls the story, manipulating the narrative, repetition fueling a smoldering sexual anticipation that climaxes when she at last reveals herself quite nude and available.
But behind the Monkey Girl there is another woman, the one who tells this tale, the one who repeats it over and over again so that we may always remain respectfully awed by the provocative and resplendent power of the fantastic bride. Who could resist admiring the skill of such a potent storyteller? Certainly not me, and so it is in my own work that I follow this well–worn path and take pleasure in writing the tales of difficult women, ambiguous and fantastic women, women whose fairytale–like stories I never grow tired of imagining.