Yelena stared at the wall and nurtured her rage. Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om... fifteen minutes every day. She refused to cut her hair, but clipped her nails to the quick. She was ordered to the shower at least twice a week and then refused to unlock the bathroom door. The heat was nice and the incessant swarm of bees crawled from her ears and dropped to the shower floor. Yelena watched the fleet of little yellow ships until the heat was gone. She turned off the water, stomped anything that so much as twitched, and returned to the four white walls of Beirut. The door had a very satisfying SLAM but it wasn't getting much attention anymore.
On her fifteenth birthday, Yelena, finally stung in just the right place, took to her bed. She dreamed of glass towers and waited. Beirut was a shamble of two hundred and thirty-six identical volumes; each one a promise of rescue in exchange for lust and submission. On her nineteenth birthday Yelena got out of bed and opened the window. She leaned over the sill until her hair tangled in the holly and decided it was time to get out. A girl can wait just so long for a prince to show before boredom overcomes desire.
Yelena's hair was everything and the only thing and had failed her miserably. She used the poultry sheers, and left enormous piles of hair on the kitchen floor. In the morning the queen surveyed the pile of dead animals and choked back the urge to scream. She stuffed them into a grocery bag and wondered if the princess was in the mood for a chat. The queen knocked on the door to Beirut. Nothing.
YELENA! OPEN THE DOOR! You can't leave dead animals all over the kitchen floor and not expect to talk about it.
I'm not even in, Yelena. How can I possibly get out?
mumble snarl sniff
Are you crying? Sweet Princess, don't cry! Why are you crying? I'm coming in, OK?
Christ on a bike, Yelena! What have you done to your head?!
What does it look like I've done to my head?
It looks like you've given yourself a haircut with the poultry sheers, which is sorta gross, don't you think?
It made sense at the time.
OK. Do you want me to take you to get a haircut?
I can drive myself.
OK. Do you want money? I'm happy to pay for it.
Yes. How much?
Not nearly as much as you'd like, but certainly enough to get that taken care of.
I'm going for a walk.
Yelena, since when do you go for walks?
Since right now. Is there any actual food? I'm going to take lunch.
And into the forest she marched.
There wasn't any Big Bad Wolf and there wasn't any grandmother. There was no huntsman; just a handful of dubious hikers.
This sucks. I can't even manage to get myself lost.
Yelena marched back to the castle, fetched another volume from Beirut and crashed onto the couch. When she fell asleep she dreamed of mermaids. That was fine until they turned out to be selkies. A selkie was no more romantic than a rusalka, and she had no desire to be either of those. The queen preferred selkies, rusalkas, and sirens, over mermaids. When Yelena was small, her mother told her stories about the powerful water women and mentioned nothing about a mermaid. When she brought it up, her mother said that a mermaid was nothing but a watered down version of the truth, but she found a truthful version of The Little Mermaid and read that.
The result was less than desirable.
Yelena, do you understand this story is one of the darkest fairy tales ever told? Do you understand what it's about? It's about a girl who sells her soul, which is one way of killing yourself. She doesn't shed her skin like a selkie, or call the man into the water or the woods like the siren and rusalka. She has herself surgically and brutally altered in the name of love, and when that love is not returned she kills herself. There is a moral to this story but Disney undid that, as with many other old, old tales. Do you understand this girl has given up her power before she is even a woman? She could have taken it back, but she took her life instead. The story is a horrible warning.
Well, rusalkas and sirens always end up alone, and sulkies either kill their husbands or end up dead; so I'll stick with the mermaid.
Which one are you?
I'm not any of them. I'm the fifth.
What's the fifth? There are only four.
Oh, I'm sure there are more than five but since I only know five, I am the fifth.
Why don't I know about the fifth?
Because I don't really know how to tell in a way that makes sense to anyone but me.
Mom. Which one?
You won't know her.
Yelena, I don't want to. Those kind of women have taken a beating since the dawn of time.
Are you taking a beating?
Oh, yes. But not the sort of beating I'd be taking if they really knew.
You're not going to tell me, are you?
No, sweetie, I'm not. I can't tell you because I think you are the same thing and if I tell you now, you will never grow into that.
Do I want to?
I think so, yes. I think very much. You wouldn't be fighting it so hard otherwise.
Well, what is she? Is she water like the others?
No. She is of the earth and she is the most powerful woman in the stories. Do you know how I know that?
Because of all the stories ever told, she is the most hated and frightening. In her stories, she is always the same. She is the most terrifying, vilified woman on earth. I don't think she's nearly as powerful as the stories tell but I do think one thing for sure. I think the world has always been terrified of a powerful woman. Terrified of a woman who needs nothing, adapts to change, and puts up with absolutely no shit. I think she had to have walked through fire to come out this way. There's no changing her, no stopping her.
Do you know how very powerful women are portrayed?
Think of Disney. Think of all the horrible women in those stories. What do they look like?
They're very ugly and scary.
That's right. Do I look ugly and scary?
Um. Sometimes you look very scary.
Yes, I can see how you'd find me frightening. If I were a man would I be scary?
I don't know.
Well, that might be something to think about for ten or twenty years.
Yup. That's generally how long it takes for us to claw our way out of Sleeping Beauty's glass coffin or spit the bit of apple from Snow White's mouth.
Yelena grew up and dropped her princess cloak. She didn't leave it behind, but she put it in a box in a very dark closet. She knew just where it was should she need or want to take it out again. She was a formidable woman and if anyone had told her she was the spitting image of her mother, she'd have taken out her broadsword and lopped a limb off. She was angry with her mother, and bitter, but she couldn't have told you why. She told herself she would never be that way. She wasn't sure, but she thought maybe her mother was just like her grandmother and that scared her, but she couldn't have told you why.
One day her mother went away. She said where she was going, and mostly why, and that made Yelena angrier but she told herself: Good! Now I can just get on with my life.
Yelena's mother left knowing perfectly well that Yelena got on with her life the moment she cut her hair. Her hair grew back, more astonishing than ever; however, that first intentional sheering of the thing she thought was her only thing was actually the shedding of her seal skin. And notice, Yelena, that no one has stolen it and no one is dead.
Many years later, Yelena traveled to the forest. No matter how badly she didn't want it, her desire to show her baby girl was too much to put off any longer. Her mother wasn't where she said she'd be. She was at the wrong cottage. She asked the woman who opened the door if she knew her mother and the woman said, of course. Why don't you come in and we'll talk about it. Do you like tea? I think I have just what you need to help with that milk supply.
Yelena and the woman talked for hours and the woman looked at the baby girl but said nothing. When Yelena asked again about her mother, the woman smiled and said, you are an astonishing woman. You have a beautiful baby girl and you have come into your own. Can I ask you something?
Rusalka, selkie, siren, mermaid, or Baba Yaga?
Oh, fuck! Mom! For real?
It's good to see you, Yelena. Do you suppose I can hold the baby for a minute?
You're not going to turn her into a newt or anything, are you?
Of course not! But, Yelena, even if I did, do you really think you couldn't undo it in a heartbeat?
I don't suppose I'd even have to think about it, would I?
No. I don't suppose you would.
Momma, it's dark now. How the hell am I going to get out of this forest?
And in the morning, Baba Yaga went about her business as she did most days. Life mostly quiet, but every once in a while something came out of the forest and stepped into her circle. She wondered if giving them a good smiting with the broom wasn't making her life just a bit harder than the quicker and much easier alternative.
No. This is right. After all, it is a life for a life and I don't care to take any unnecessary risks.