Let me tell you a story. It happened long, long ago, in places without names, but they are stories worth hearing, so listen with care. It is said that history repeats itself, again and again, and now that I am older, I do as I please and leave caution to the future. But before—well, let’s just say I was not always so old.
I once had a brother who became a bird. A swallow, perhaps, or maybe a crow. He was a strong bird, could lift heavy things, like rocks and smallish boulders. His talons had a fierce grip.
He was not always a bird. He used to be a boy, just like I used to be a girl, but then one day my mother cut off my head and then she put it back on my body and tied a pretty red velvet ribbon around my neck. She sat me on a chair and went on about her day. My brother was in school then and when he came home, he jolted my dead body with a hug and my head fell right off. My mother scolded him and he knew he deserved it because he had killed me—if only he had known the truth!
I forget the details, the order of things.
He became a bird and gave me a pair of lovely red shoes and he dropped a millstone on our mother’s head. That’s when she died and I became myself again but my brother stayed a bird forever. I painted his feathers red to match my shoes. We never had a father, so I built a house in the tree for my brother and me to live in.
The trouble with birds is that they don’t live as long as humans and after he died I became quite alone and terribly sad. My tears shone like blood on the curves of my patent shoes.
Alone without my brother I wanders the forests and meadows. I tried to talk to other birds, having learned their language, but they had no interest in me. Then I met a wolf and he seemed nice enough. He asked me where I was going and I told him nowhere.
“But you must be going somewhere,” he said. “You are, after all, going.”
“My body is moving,” I agreed.
“Where to?” he asked.
“I’ll follow your lead,” I said with a shrug.
He took me to an old lady’s house and knocked on the door.
“Pull the latch,” she said from inside, “and the door will open.”
We went inside. It was hardly a shack, nothing but sticks: walls made of sticks and chairs made of sticks and sticks broke into a fire, which made us all very warm.
Although we were strangers—and he was a wolf no less!—the old woman was kind. She offered us soup made of boiled sticks, but she added enough salt that it still tasted terrible. The old woman, however, put the bowl to her lips to let the last of the drops slide into her old wrinkled mouth.
“I suppose you will eat me now,” the old woman said to the wolf.
I looked at the wolf and he looked back at me. “That would be rather rude,” we agreed.
“You’re very pretty,” the old woman said to me. She got up and went to her closet, which was also made of sticks, but when she returned, she handed me a lovely red cape. “I made this for you.”
“But you don’t even know me,” I said.
With the bone of her finger, she touched the red line across my neck where my mother had once cut off my head. “I have known you forever,” she said. And then she looked at the wolf. “But you, you’re trouble.” She grabbed hold of a stick that did not seem sharp whatsoever and thrust it into the wolf’s heart. “Never trust a wolf,” she said. “Never again. Promise me.”
I listened very carefully and nodded my head.
“I should kill you too,” she said, “but you’ve already been dead once. What good would it do to kill you again?”
I listened very carefully and nodded my head. I thanked her for her kindness, although she did just murder my friend the wolf, but she allowed me to continue living and so I did the only thing I could and left.
I still had nowhere to go, but my shoes kept on walking.
In Rome I bought a new pair of red shoes from a children’s shoe store. They weren’t too expensive and much more comfortable above those cobble streets.
Soon thereafter I met a philosopher who told me I was stunning after licking my wrist.
Tucked deep in a corner I saw a small beggar girl. She looked pathetic and hungry. I had no food with which to feed her so I gave her my old red shoes. She went to a fountain to wash her feet before putting them on. They were a perfect fit and she began dancing. Together we danced and we danced and soon I felt tired and she danced left and I walked right.
“Thank you,” she hollered. She was quite some distance away. I felt no need to respond.
Soon I became a woman and many claimed I was a beauty. Some said they had never seen such grace, and a King persuaded me to marry him.
“I have nothing to offer you,” I explained to him kindly. “All I own in the world are these shoes and this cape. The cape was a gift, but I bought these shoes myself.”
He told me I was perfect and we married quickly and even more quickly I gave him a son. I had wanted to name him after my brother, but I couldn’t remember it. I just couldn’t.
My husband said, “What about Charming?”
My boy looked enchanting, so I was convinced.
He was a good boy, and my body wanted no more children, just this one, but he brought us both such satisfaction that neither my husband nor I could ever complain. Ours was a good marriage, a peaceful one. We never argued and we fucked every night. We were very happy.
Our son grew as they do and he made friends with a girl who was not beautiful but she had a robust spirit. They were too young to know love, and I gave her my old Italian red shoes. Since I was a queen, my shoes were now made of sea water encased in glass. Each step was an ocean beneath me.
My life was perfect. Who would have guessed?
One day our son was at school and the girl came to visit. I hardly know what happened but suddenly I had cut off her head. I had become my mother! I was possessed! My mother told me what to do, “Tie a ribbon around her neck. Let your son take the blame.” I did as my mother had instructed, but the only ribbon I could find was white. By the time my son returned home, it was red. Oh, if only I could explain his sadness, his woe.
I had to confess and did not ask for mercy.
Together we wept. We wept for days and days. Perhaps longer.
I decided my own head should be cut off, but then I remembered the old lady and how she said dying once is enough.
Not long thereafter, a visitor arrived at the castle. Well, not a visitor exactly, but a pair of dancing feet and on those feet were my old red shoes! Where was its body? Who knows and who cares? The feet danced up to the dead girl. The laces unlaced and slipped from one foot to the other and soon the dead girl opened her eyes.
We danced all night and even the night after.
My son didn’t marry the girl. It hardly seemed right.
But now let me think: what happens next?
Oh, yes, we just kept on dancing, our bodies could just jive forever.
Not all stories have morals, but here’s some advice: red shoes are made for dancing; lace does not belong around a slender neck; and never, ever trust a wolf.
Call it willful ignorance, but before I travel, I don’t want to know anything about the place I am about to visit. I build its imagined geography, and when I arrive, I allow the place to tackle me. I surrender myself to it, open.
Before I went to South Africa, I had a rudimentary understanding of apartheid—like it had something to do with race and segregation and it was really bad—and of course Nelson Mandela was the man who saved the day and he got a Nobel Peace Prize for it. The word “township” seemed equivalent to a Northeastern village, a snuggly little hamlet. And I knew Cape Town is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
I don’t regret not knowing. I don’t regret all the ways I was wrong.
When I travel, I learn. I let the place teach me.
And, of course, I read. And talk. People tell me all their stories, which may not always be the most accurate but I have always preferred a good story to facts.
I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue.
Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker.
Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review.
Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review
If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue: http://www.thetexasreview.org/issues/