Every fairy tale starts with a dead mother. June’s folks weren’t the kind to bother with keeping books around the house, but she had learned that much. The few storybooks she did have were fairy tales that she’d read hundreds of times over, their spines cracked and their pages well-thumbed. So when June’s mama drove off the twisty mountain road that rainy spring midnight after drinking herself into a starry stupor at the Thirsty Stallion, June took it as an omen of magical things to come.
She stole one of her bucktoothed older cousins’ ten-speeds after the funeral and rode back up to the cemetery on the hill, barely able to reach the pedals, but determined to watch the men in green County jumpsuits shovel the dirt over her mama’s plain pine casket. She kept thinking of her mama’s heart in that buried box, like but unlike the doe’s heart that the huntsman brought to fool Snow White’s queen stepmother.
After fighting with June’s daddy, her mama had always crawled into bed with her, sniffling and wrapping arms around June from behind, so that June could feel the thump of her mama’s heart against her backbone. June wished she could save that heart for always, wrap it up in her mama’s pale yellow housedress and tuck it away someplace where it would not rot. She stood in the rain and wondered how long it would take to forget the smell of her, the smell of that knock-off perfume spray she bought at the gas station and her menthol cigarettes and her Christmas tree gin breath. June stood and watched until her clothes were soaked through. Her daddy didn’t miss her at home.
In fact, he didn’t seem to miss her all that year. Not until the afternoon he dragged her out of the basement by her hair and threw her out the back door naked as the day she was born. She’d reckoned that one of her favorite cousins, one of the twelve-year-old twin boys born just days apart from her, would be the prince in her story, so she’d given them both a shot at it. The bare bulb hanging from the rotting rafters in the cellar had made shimmery haloes of their rose-gold hair as J-bird and Tom-boy stood over her breathing through their mouths, wide-eyed and reverent.
Stripped of their dungarees, and swaying on smooth and skinny freckled legs in their bleached-whiter-than-white briefs, they looked like true angels. She imagined them just so, peering down like the matching figures that flanked the Ark of the Covenant in the bible story she’d studied at Stag Creek First Baptist Church. Except they steered their pale blue eyes to peek into a holy box brimming with magic deeper and wilder than any of that which Reverend Whittaker could have dreamed. She’d said they could do whatever they wanted to her, and they had, their foreheads glossed with sweat, until her daddy had come thundering down the steps.
She’d been able to snatch some laundry off the clothesline, but she was without shoes for a good two days, until she managed to tickle the loose lock on the pantry window and sneak in while her daddy was dead drunk. He had no intention of letting her back in the house, and June had no intention of begging for it. She was proud. She spent all the rest of that summer camping out in the woods behind the house. J-bird turned out to be the more princely of the twins, smuggling her leftovers and soggy sandwiches from her Aunt Lou’s kitchen. Lou had seen to it that both boys were whipped something fierce with willow switches for their part in the scandal, and let it be known a hundred times if once Hain’t got no pity for that hussy child.
June crept up to the house in the afternoons, when her daddy was sure to be already slurring insults at his favorite television programs, and gulped down rainwater from the barrels under the downspouts. She got caught just the once, and her daddy fired off a shot into the air with his .22 as she high-tailed it back into the trees. She was pretty sure he wouldn’t actually try to hit her, but she did fear that his aim might not be so true when he was three sheets to the wind. It was hard to run fast with a belly full of rainwater sloshing, and once she got beyond the stand of elms at the property line, she threw herself to the dirt and cried just a little, just enough to let some of that water out. After she dried her eyes on her shirt, she told herself to lift her chin, told herself it was just the kind of ordeal a girl in a fairy tale would have to endure.
Those summer nights, June laid herself down on her back beneath the canopy of moon-silvered leaves and pretended that the crickets were on the verge of telling her all about her beautiful destiny. She imagined that at any moment, they might gather round and transform from a swarm of furious-legged little chirpers into a court of golden ladies-in-waiting, graceful and kind and wanting to brush her hair and stroke her cheeks with cool fingers. June whispered the story aloud, the story of herself and the cricket-maidens. She turned her face to the earth and murmured it to the roots and the worms, to the secret silent world under the dirt, until she fell asleep and dreamed of castles and wicked spells broken.
By the time the thick brown magnolia leaves were falling and littering her mama’s forsaken garden plot, providing shelter for a host of greedy slugs, June was starting to worry about her prospects for surviving the winter. But her truancy from Mrs. Dettwiler’s seventh-grade class brought out a couple of ladies from the County, in neat polyester pantsuits, to drag her off to her other Aunt, Shirley, who lived up in Fort Rogers. Shirley had a spotless one-story brick ranch with shag carpet and a brand new glass-top electric range, and she didn’t believe in white bread. June shared a pink Tiger Beat-baroque bedroom with her cousin Tina, always a little bashful about undressing under the constant love-eyed gazes of dozens of Scott Baios and Matt Dillons, until she graduated from high school. She wore Tina’s hand-me-down miniskirts and panda bear sweaters, and bore the constant burden of her cousin’s reminders that she was, in fact, a shameless slut with no right to complain about anything. Tina was a right good version of a wicked step-sister. June kept her mouth shut. She learned to choke down whole wheat. Those awful fried bologna sandwiches weren’t none worse than having to spin straw into gold, or selling your voice to a sea witch.
The instant June turned eighteen, Shirley put her out, with all her worldly possessions in a Hefty bag, without so much as wishing her luck. She found herself a job fairly quick, at The Rose Bush up on Dixie Highway. Just waitressing, not dancing. Handing bottles of Bud Light to an endless parade of men with their names embroidered on their shirt pockets she could do, but June took a certain pride in the fact that none of them ever saw her in her drawers, grinding and tossing her hair like she was in a Whitesnake video. Not that the girls were really so bad, once she got to know them. Most of them, anyway. Most just had mouths to feed at home, bills to pay. But still, it wasn’t what June wanted. June was going to wait for her prince to come.
Nights, after closing time, as she and the dancing girls smoothed and counted out their grubby and crumpled dollar bills, one or another of them would linger at June’s shoulder and trace fancy-manicured fingers over her long straight hint-of-strawberry hair. Rapunzel they said, smiling with sweet crooked teeth peeking out from behind high-sheen lips. Before long, it was a regular thing for the girls to take turns brushing June’s hair, swirling it and braiding it into every high-class hairdo they could imagine. June remembered the story she whispered into the summer dark beneath the elm leaves. These girls were so like her cricket-maidens after all, singing for their suppers with their legs.
June rented a room at a motel starting out, but eventually she found a little apartment, shabby but furnished and cheap. She settled in that first night, thumbtacking her favorite old photo of her mama on the wall next to her sagging mattress. In the picture, her mama was open-armed, beaming, her happy gaze tilted down to child-level. She had a can of PBR in one hand, and a Kool filter king dangled from the other, but June knew that it didn’t matter. Her mama was about to scoop her up anyway, squeeze her between her bony elbows and hold her close, June’s little child-face buried in the frothy hair that spilled over her mama’s shoulders.
June thought of all that had happened to her since her mama had careened off the mountain in her rattle-can-black Nova that fateful night. Her cousins’ angel faces, her daddy’s angry footsteps on the cellar stairs, the bullet piercing the blue afternoon sky as she ran, her skinny belly brimming with rain. All the rest that came after. She wondered what her mama would make of it, this fairy tale that was not at all like any of the ones she’d read in her little books with the gold-foiled spines. June stared hard at the photograph and she saw her mama’s smile wiggle to life for just a split second.
She closed her eyes tight and she wished, harder than she ever had before, that her mama would be there when she opened them, that she would be there to tell her just what would become of her, if there would ever be a happily ever after. June heard her mama’s throaty whisper breeze into her ear. Baby, this fairy tale is gonna be what you make it she heard her mama say You gotta write your own happy ending. June’s eyes popped open and she expected to see her mama before her, standing there in her yellow housedress, in June’s own kitchenette, her eyes sparkling under a generous dusting of robin’s egg blue eyeshadow. But her mama wasn’t there.
June would heed her mama’s good advice, though. She would. And she wouldn’t tell nobody until she had done it right, until she had written her own happy ending. She rushed right over and snatched up her work apron off the back of her threadbare sofa. She sank into the cushions with her pen and her little order-taking book in hand. She flipped over the first ticket, and began to scribble on the back. She would begin at the beginning. June wrote:
Every fairy tale starts with a dead mother…
Anna Lea Jancewicz is Editor in Chief of Rabble Lit. Her short story collection, (m)otherhood, is forthcoming from Widow and Orphan House press in February.
Follow her on Twitter @AnnaLeaJancewic.
This piece was originally published at Revolution John, and no longer appears online.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by Michelle Sarchiapone.