by Theodora Bishop
By the time they drove into the forest, it was near-morning, and the little girl knew she must have been sleeping for some time. She woke with her hair over her face, the corners of her mouth crusted in Little Debbie cake.
“C’mon, get up. There you go, follow me—”
Waking up in her mother’s X-boyfriend’s truck was a bit like waking in Oz. Only rather than the girl’s whole world bursting into color, her surroundings seemed darker.
That the X-boyfriend had managed to walk into the girl’s mother’s house while the girl was sleeping, carry the girl to his pickup, and drive off—did that mean that the X-boyfriend and the girl’s mother were back together? That the X-boyfriend was no longer an “X,” but plain “boyfriend” again?
Scooting down from the truck, the girl, trancelike—her doll she called Hamlet tucked under her arm—trailed after her mother’s X-boyfriend and into a cabin, which smelled damply of wet fur and bad apples. Deerskins covered the walls, and over the fireplace hung an assortment of antlers and horns. A fur rug that the girl thought looked like a bear that had lumbered into the road and gotten run over lay splat on the floor. There was also a bed, and a clunky box television, and shelves filled with squirrels and foxes and raccoons. The girl assumed these guys were alive, if a little confused—thinking, where have all the trees and the grass gone? But then the girl blinked and realized the animals were stuffed.
The X-boyfriend was snapping his fingers, calling out, “Honey, we’re home!” Then nudging the girl, asking her something about a holiday. “You ready?”
The girl shook her head. The girl did not know, she was foggy. Also: what holiday?
Back in the early days when he was around, the X-boyfriend sometimes brought the girl along on outings. He’d taken her to the aquarium and to the Hard Rock Cafe, where she ordered a cheeseburger with no lettuce and got to eat it under Jimi Hendrix’s hat. Another time, they played double rounds at the bowling alley and tried to rescue the stuffed alligator from the lobby claw machine, but neither of them could save it because of the rabbit the boyfriend called “fucker.” But then the X-boyfriend went to fight in Iraq.
The girl hugged her doll to her side and spoke to Hamlet through her mind: everything is going to be fine.
Emerging from among the cabin’s menagerie of animals was a woman the girl did not recognize. The woman’s glossy black dress swooshed as she moved, and she was smiling with her whole face. Looking at the girl expectantly like whatever the girl might say was going to be the most important thing the woman would hear all day.
“Here she is!” said the X-boyfriend. And the girl did not know whether the X-boyfriend meant the woman or her. The girl’s mouth was so dry, her lips stuck together.
The girl considered her mother and the man who had taken her. Happily-ever-after? She wondered, knowing that happily-ever-after was precisely what her mother was always after.
Now, if only the girl could find her mother, who the girl was beginning to think might pop out at any moment to surprise her. . . .
“Doesn’t she like it here?” the woman asked.
And when the girl saw her host kiss the woman on the cheek, tousling her hair just like he had tousled the girl’s mother’s, the girl drew an imaginary X over the man’s face. For even a seven-year-old understood that her mother’s happily-ever-after was not in this picture.
Later, the X-boyfriend and the woman sat on the deck, beyond which was a bubbling brook and a tangle of trees.
In the middle of the table was a box of Swiss Rolls. “A present for you.” The woman pushed the Little Debbie cakes at the girl.
“C’mere and sit down.” The X-boyfriend waved her over.
“Don’t you want them?” The woman’s voice trembled as she looked from her to the cake box.
The girl watched a fly land on the woman’s cup.
“You’re allowed to talk, you know,” said the X-boyfriend.
“Do you like fairies?” The girl looked at the woman.
“I love fairies!”
The girl asked the X-boyfriend if he liked them, too.
The girl bit her lip.
“What?” the X-boyfriend grunted.
“Fairies.” The girl turned her head so her hair hid half of her face. “Do you like—”
“Course I like fairies,” the X-boyfriend said loudly.
And the girl, so tired she hardly knew what she was saying before she realized her lips were moving, asked: “Were there fairies in Iraq?”
“Fairies—what?” Coffee sprayed from the X-boyfriend’s lips. His face looked yellow and drawn out.
The girl’s tongue was a brick in her mouth. “Were there fairies in Iraq?”
When neither the X-boyfriend nor the woman spoke, the girl kneaded her skirt. Then devoured a packet of Swiss Rolls standing up.
On the cake box, Little Debbie was wearing her straw hat and checkered shirt like usual, smiling toward the girl but not directly at her. And even though the box’s backdrop showed snowcapped mountaintops, the girl did not question Little Debbie’s summer-ready outfit. For the girl knew those mountains were a mirage, it being forever sunny wherever Little Debbie came from.
That night, the wind beat against the blinds, and the girl held close to Hamlet. Once her eyes adjusted to the dark, the girl studied Hamlet’s face, and Hamlet studied hers back.
It was back when the girl watched her mother the actress perform in Hamlet—her mother, playing a servant, not doing much other than carrying a pitcher—that the girl decided it was high time she give her doll a name and a chance to star in the plays the girl herself would arrange. From that point forward, her doll would be Hamlet, seeing as Hamlet was the guy who got all the lines. Even that lady Ophelia—her hair teased in a puff, the sleeves of her dress dripping from her shoulders as she shoved the men’s chests with flowers—had barely said anything. Also the girl remembered her mother telling her that a long time ago, in the age of The Globe, plenty of men took the women’s roles. And so it was only fair that now it was her doll Hamlet’s turn.
“Hello, Hamlet,” she’d christened her doll. “It’s okay. You can talk now.”
Sometimes when the man came back, the girl heard her mother and the X-boyfriend loud-whispering into the night. “Everything is fine,” her mother assured her. Though the air in the girl’s house felt tight after, and often the light seemed to flicker.
But this was before the X-boyfriend stopped talking and sat staring ahead and doing nothing, vanishing for beats at a time. Back before basically whenever he was around, there was either some blowup or big hurrah.
Anyway, behind the girl’s mother’s house loomed an enormous black oak. The girl used to hide her doll Hamlet in the spot in the trunk that was rotted out, the girl being too large to fit her whole body and join Hamlet herself.
It would have made such a good hiding place! the girl had thought. This, in the days when her mother’s house roared, and the mother suggested the girl play her best game of hide and seek: “I’ll count, okay? One, two . . .”
What happened when the X-boyfriend returned from the war:
Day one: The X-boyfriend sat on the mother’s couch and refused to take off his boots.
Day two: The X-boyfriend emptied the cupboards. General Mills was giving away toys in their cereals, which you dug up like treasure from boxes of puffed rice. This also meant the X-boyfriend took all the prizes.
“He doesn’t want to play with me anymore,” the girl had complained to her mother, who nodded but didn’t say anything to convince her daughter otherwise.
Day three: The X-boyfriend tore out all the pictures from the girl’s storybooks and taped them up throughout the house. On the bathroom mirror: a clipping of Snow White in her coffin. On the girl’s headboard: Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.
The next days in the cabin were the same as the ones before them. And so after supper and a fairytale the X-boyfriend told from his head, the woman joined the girl in bed.
Only faintly could the girl discern the outline of the woman’s face, the glint of the gums bunching her teeth. To relax, the girl pictured a sky clotted with clouds. In her imagination, she was squeezing a sheep to her chest and Hamlet, as well.
Then the girl imagined her mother walking into their empty house. The girl’s mother would call for the girl again and again. She would search the girl’s bedroom, then every room in the house. She would think the girl was playing a trick on her. That somehow the girl had managed to hole up in a coat closet or trunk, hiding because she wanted her mother to play along and come find her.
The girl opened her eyes and tried to swallow, but the swallowing part of her throat didn’t work. It hurt.
“I love you,” she heard the woman tell someone.
“Do you?” said the X-boyfriend.
And the girl was relieved that the X-boyfriend replied. Because the girl had thought the woman was talking to her.
The girl pulled Hamlet’s hair over the doll’s eyes.
Then, when she heard the X-boyfriend say, “You said you would be happy if I brought you back a baby,” the girl searched around her, confused. She listened hard for a gurgle or cry, even the breath of a small fourth mouth, but heard only what the X-boyfriend said next: “We have everything we need right here. You, me, and the baby. You’ll stay with me, won’t you?”
The girl was frustrated: Where was this baby?
“Yes,” the woman was saying. The woman’s breath hot against the girl’s hair. “Yes, yes. As long as I get to keep her.”
Eventually, the girl let her lids fall closed. But she did not go to sleep.
Once—when the X-boyfriend and the mother were cheerful and the X-boyfriend was no longer marked X—the mother, giggling, had called the boyfriend an “ass.” And when the girl had heard this, she wondered if her mother wasn’t turning into the fairy queen she had played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The girl thinking, Silly boyfriend, silly Bottom! as her mother’s floppy-eared X-boyfriend tumbled from the forest of nectar and balm, covered in fairy dust.
And later, that time the X-boyfriend appeared in the night and told the girl to follow him out to the yard, where they played theatre beneath the looming black oak—
“But that would never happen,” the girl’s mother had assured the girl the next morning.
“You were sleeping,” said the mother to her daughter, who had flown into her mother’s bedroom to wake her. “Don’t be afraid, you didn’t do anything wrong, it was only a dream.”
Did that mean the cabin with the man and the woman and the family of animals was also a dream?
Is it happening again? The girl frowned at Hamlet. Are you awake or asleep?
Because her doll’s eyes never closed, it was hard to know.
A couple days at the cabin passed with no word from the girl’s mother. No Surprise! or I fooled you!, her mother popping out from behind the couch to announce herself. And so in many ways, this holiday was not like other holidays. For instance, holidays were supposed to come and go in a blink; the girl would spend so much time waiting for the holiday to arrive that the holiday happened as fast as it ended.
But when it came to the holiday with the X-boyfriend and woman, it seemed that just when the girl thought the holiday was bound to end soon, the holiday had only just begun: the woman feeding the girl sausages she fried up on the stove, as if the girl had been mistaken for the wolf whose appetite compels him to huff down the pigs’ house.
It was always sausages, sausages, sausages. Scrambled eggs, too.
Then one day the X-boyfriend, rifle slung over his shoulder, left the girl with the woman while he set off for the forest. He told the girl before going that she wasn’t allowed out of the woman’s sight.
The girl’s promise was only good if the girl nodded her head and told him, “Alright.”
And the girl listened, the girl answered the X-boyfriend the way he wanted her to. For the girl hadn’t forgotten the time the X-boyfriend appeared at her house with a ginormous buck he said he’d shot in the heart. And when the girl discovered the deer in the bed of the X-boyfriend’s truck—its eyeballs black grapes, its legs bent sideways—a sour taste filled the back of her mouth. In the days that came after, the girl was afraid of finding the dead deer in the yard—sometimes she thought for certain she saw it. But she never did see that dead deer again, and of that she was glad.
No matter: it didn’t mean the girl didn’t remember. The girl saw what she saw—how could she overlook the memory of that deer splayed on the X-boyfriend’s truck? And anyway, the girl never lied, the girl was a good girl. Just like her mother said.
It had been some time since the holiday began when the girl demanded to know if her mother had phoned. Shouldn’t her mother by now be seeking the girl out from the hiding spot the girl had no say about?
The X-boyfriend and the woman didn’t seem to hear her questions, though. So the girl nudged the X-boyfriend with her elbow.
“Listen, it’s for the best,” he told her.
“You being here. With us,” said the woman.
Later that night, the girl heard squeaking. Noticed, from the window, a nest of baby birds up in the tree, the mama bird darting in and out of the branches to feed them.
“To be or not to be,” the girl whispered to the window, stumped when she tried to come up with whatever it was that was supposed to come after that phrase. And whether whatever followed involved her capacity to be.
In the dream, it was the bear splat flat on the cabin floor, and not the girl, that transformed into a princess. Arching its back, the bear shook its thick black fur, looked to the girl, and roared.
At which point the girl fawned over it. Unafraid that this beast—its head grandly crowned in a glittering tiara—was much bigger and stronger than she.
Afterward, the girl played and replayed the dream. But the dream seemed like it would be much better off in a book shut on a shelf, with the understanding that the story was to be enjoyed on a wintery night, or else read in midsummer. When light was a waning thing, and darkness waited its turn.
It was too stuffy in the cabin, it was too hot in the cabin, and the girl was tired of doing nothing but being watched and eating sausages, pressing her hand to the window like it was possible for her to get out. This is not holiday! The girl shook her doll Hamlet, then felt awful for it.
It was beginning to feel like the girl and her doll had become part of the furniture. That they belonged to the cabin and it to them. Like the cabin was where Hamlet and she had always been.
And so when the girl found the stash of Little Debbie cakes—a whole variety of Cocoa Cremes and Cosmic Brownies, even one of Banana Twins—the girl tore into the cakes, fed the crumbs to Hamlet. Deciding that maybe that is what Little Debbie, beaming from all the boxes, would do if she were here, too.
And then the girl ate, and she ate until she was so sick from the cake she stretched herself across the bear rug and breathed in its fur, dabbed Hamlet’s chocolate mouth with a dishtowel. When she closed her eyes she pretended it was she, and not Little Debbie, who got to always wear the straw hat and checkered blouse. Little Debbie, who seemed unable to be anything but smiling and carefree.
And so it continued. And so the girl’s thoughts continued eating her up while she got sick on the cake, frowned at Little Debbie’s dumbly grinning face. The girl pinching herself in the hopes she might just wake.
How the girl saw all the cabin animals: guests that the X-boyfriend lugged in. So clean and lifelike, the animals were more like a child’s stuffed bear you’d buy in a shop. Not at all like the deer she’d found in the X-boyfriend’s truck.
The only sign reminding the girl of their deadness, their goneness, their dead meatness, being their eyes—which, every now and then, the girl could see herself in.
“Mommy!” she cried.
One night, in the dark, she heard the woman say: “That child is a changeling.”
Or maybe that was wrong, maybe the girl hadn’t heard it right. Maybe the woman had said changing, not changeling? Maybe the woman, in her husk of a whisper, had said, “That child is changing”?
Whatever. It seemed to the girl that both were one and the same. For what was the meaning of “changeling,” if not a child who had changed? And so in the end, it didn’t really matter: the girl had been taken from her mother.
Shortly thereafter, the woman threw a pelt over the girl’s shoulders and told the girl she was queen of the beasts.
But the girl could think only of her mother and how much her mother might have liked to cloak herself up in that pelt. Her mother loved costumes and used to tell the girl stories about women who turn into animals.
How the girl wished she had a flower like the one Puck plucks from the forest and gives to the fairy king—what was his name?
“There, there,” said the woman, dabbing the girl’s tears with the fur. “Don’t you look pretty.”
But the girl shrugged off the pelt and handed it back. “It’s too hot,” she said.
“What happened to my good girl?” asked the woman.
Later, come night, the girl sought her doll in the dark.
“Am I a bad girl?” she asked. And when her doll didn’t answer, the girl began pulling its hair: “Bad, bad, bad!”
But then once the girl realized what she was doing, she felt sorry—so bad!—and apologized to her doll, stroking her hair. Telling Hamlet over and again she was sorry: “I’m sorry, Hamlet. That was bad.”
One time the girl was sure she heard voices. Then panting, the racing gasps of animals. Sharp sputtering breaths—the woman’s voice sounding playful: “You’re dead meat, mister.”
The girl closed her eyes. More breathing, and the smell of—what? The sour of damp flowers and mushrooms when springtime rolls around. And then the woman hissing, “Stop goofing off, you’re hurting me. I said stop.”
The pause that came after was thick as fur. And then —
The X-boyfriend’s voice was flat: “Do you want me to take her back?”
“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare take her away.”
More groaning, more rustling: “Then let me have my way.”
The next morning—or maybe the morning after that, who knows?—the X-boyfriend went out, leaving the woman and the girl alone.
“Shall we pick flowers?” The woman regarded the girl, then drew her index finger to her mouth to signal a secret.
Every answer seemed dangerous to the girl, no matter which she chose—and so the girl nodded in agreement while the woman dressed her in an orange jacket, orange hat, and orange vest.
Never before had the girl seen the woman in such deep concentration as she watched her dash through the ferns.
Look at her go, picking every flower in her path! Hardly even noticing the girl trailing behind her, the girl perplexed as to exactly what they were after.
Was the woman planning to fashion bouquets for the cabin? Was there going to be a ceremony? The girl tried to imagine the woman’s flowers piled high on the floor of the cabin, an entire enchanted garden for the animals the X-boyfriend hauled in.
At one point, when the woman had moved off to inspect something or other, gone for maybe only a minute or two and no more, the girl noticed a clump of feathers and bones.
She doubled over because the forest was choking her. Because the forest shared the woman’s opinion and wanted to know what happened to the good girl, and because somewhere in the trees the girl thought she could hear the woman laughing.
Back in the cabin, the girl wondered what would happen if she flipped the X-boyfriend’s animals over. What would he do if the good girl pelted the raccoons and the squirrels against the door?
There was no need for an audience for this play. Not when there were already so many animals in the cabin. All of them standing or sitting still, like they were waiting for something major to happen.
On a day that seemed no different from any of the others in the cabin that came before it, the girl found herself alone in the bed, the woman’s dress spread out beside her. Like the glossy black dress fabric was all that was left of the woman.
Where was the X-boyfriend? And what about the woman?
The girl shoved as many fingers into her mouth as she could. She tried counting sheep, but she couldn’t keep them straight—there were too many to manage! The flock kept growing, filling her head in a jumble.
So the girl tiptoed onto the deck.
Squinting at the brook, she pictured the X-boyfriend and woman floating down it, the current knitted with silvery light. Nothing bad would happen. They would only drift away from the cabin and eventually be fished out by the fairies.
The girl started at the swell of raised voices, a shot. A shot different from the ones she had heard far out in the forest. The ones that happened before the X-boyfriend emerged from the green, towing some new sorry heap.
This shot was so close, the girl felt the boom reverberate in her throat.
From the spaces between her fingers, the girl watched the woman drop the rifle, try to drag the X-boyfriend over the bank. Only the X-boyfriend wasn’t moving, the X-boyfriend must have been too heavy. And just like the animals in the cabin, the X-boyfriend was doing nothing.
At some point the woman stopped trying to pull the X-boyfriend over the bank. At some point she stopped shouting, stopped crying. She looked down at her palms, and—
The woman lifted her face to the cabin, and the girl watched the woman stare blankly at her, like the woman no longer really saw her.
Why was the woman wearing red gloves?
Then the woman turned her back on the cabin, and the girl watched the woman run into the woods.
The girl felt no need to say farewell to the bed or the television, to any of the animals. Instead, the girl tucked Hamlet under her arm, walked back through the cabin, and out the front door. Then past the X-boyfriend’s parked truck, the girl ran—
Through the walls of the trees, in the opposite direction she’d seen the woman sprint, the girl went. Toward the sound of wheels rumbling over a road, the girl ran, and she ran until she was outside of her body, her legs and feet numb but still moving, her arms furiously pumping—
Later—how much later, she has no way to know—the girl opens her eyes.
She must have been sleeping, which explains why her doll is face-down in the dirt. Poor Hamlet, who must have been as dirty as her, the girl thinks. Blinking into the harsh white beams in her eyes. Who are these guys asking her something? Are they the next surprise?
Her feet are so cold, the bad girl realizes she had forgotten to put on her shoes.