Continuing the process of remembering how to write short fiction, I’ve started a tale tentatively titled “Bluebeard’s Daughter”. I’m trying to roll in a bunch of fairy tale motifs – without making them cheesy – to dig down into all the layers of nastiness that hide at the heart of old tales. It’s what I do.
‘Here,’ she says, ‘have an apple.’
Yeah, right. As if I know nothing about stepmothers. As if I know nothing about apples. But I’m polite and I’m not stupid, so I put the green orb in my pack, and thank her.
‘Now, don’t forget: you’ll need to be careful and cunning. You’ll need all your wits about you. It’s hidden deep, the treasure, and there will be all kinds of obstacles.’ She puts her hands on her hips and surveys me critically. ‘It’s a long journey, but you’ve got the most fat on you of all of us. You’ll be fine; the exercise will do you good. Don’t forget that apple.’
As if I’m likely to forget that apple. Nice of her to manage a dig at my weight ? I come from a long line of women who eat their grief, yet she’s of thin stock, my father’s fifth wife. Busy, busy, busy all the time, bustling and fidgeting, organising and ordering, hating anyone to be idle; she’s got the energy of a hummingbird and a heart of stone. Gods forbid anyone should spend an afternoon sitting on their arse, reading a good book.
That was how I got caught; sitting on my arse, buried in a book, oblivious to the world. The rest of the family had made themselves scarce, knowing she was on a tear about too little food, too many mouths; as if we were poor, as if my father didn’t provide for all the children he’d fathered, and all those that had been brought by previous wives and left here when said wives had gone.
As if she wasn’t just trying to cull the herd.
As if she hadn’t done it before.
As if a horrifyingly large number of my siblings – full, half, and step – haven’t ended badly.
‘Here’s the map, but you won’t need a compass, you’ve got a wonderful sense of direction.’ We both know I get lost in the library sometimes. ‘Remember to be polite and biddable to any creature you meet on the way. Be home before winter … then again, your natural insulation should keep you warm. We’re all counting on you, Beth. And don’t forget that apple, if you’re peckish.’
She finishes adjusting the strap of my satchel and stands back, surveying me with the resigned disappointment of a woman who knows she’s done her best with second-rate materials. ‘Well, that’s you done then.’
Or so she bloody well hopes.