Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved fairy tales. Her skin was freckled and unevenly tanned. Her legs always had bruises because she was easily distracted and clumsy. Her hair was not golden like the sun, but that shade of blonde-almost-brown that the adults around her described as dirty—or dishwater—blonde. When she started squinting at things far in the distance and inching closer and closer to the TV, she had to get glasses with pink plastic frames. She was a reader, her nose perpetually stuck in a book. She was a daydreamer who imagined different possible worlds than the one she inhabited. Worlds in which parents didn’t divorce, fathers loved their children unconditionally, people were kinder, she was a princess, and anything was possible with magic.
She imagined a world of enchantment and predictable narratives. She called on these worlds when life around her became too much. If she was being unflinchingly honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was more comfortable inside her head than out. Her imaginings followed certain storylines, the characters were reliable and trustworthy, and evil never triumphed over good. The real world made little sense. People, adults and other children, were mercurial and unpredictable. There were no clear storylines to follow, no patterns that made engaging with others easy or manageable. Kindness quickly transformed into cruelty with little warning.
Some days, reality was too much to decipher, so instead of playing with her friends on the playground, she would turn inward to the safe confines of her imagination and create her own fairy tales. She would wander the playground and tell herself stories. Princes rescued princesses. Evil witches were defeated. And often, sometimes, she climbed up onto a swing and imagined that the heroine would figure out how to save herself. All while, she swung higher and higher. Her body tethered by reality and gravity, but her mind was gloriously free.
Fantasy offered up endless happy endings. Real life, on the other hand, had few happy endings. And even when the endings were happy, the happiness was conditional and fleeting. Happiness never seemed to linger. She often wondered why.
When her own imagination couldn’t help her escape reality, she lost herself in books about fairy tales: Snow White, Cinderella, the Snow Queen, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and so many others.
At her grandmother’s house, there was a big green book of fairy tales, published nine years before she was born. Its cover was faded and worn. Its pages tempered by all the people who held it before her. She would run her hands over the cover and lovingly touch each of the illustrations. This book contained magic. She was sure of it. She sighed with pleasure as she opened the book and chose a story to read. There were fifty different tales in this volume, but not all of them could hold her interest.
She was drawn to particular stories, in which evil queens tried to harm innocent princesses, evil witches locked princesses in towers, evil fairies coaxed princesses into pricking their fingers on spindles, or evil stepmothers refused to let their stepdaughters attend the prince’s ball. She was drawn to tales with evil antagonists and young, vulnerable female protagonists. She knew that she was bringing her life to bear on the stories. That she was placing her own burdens heavily on these fairy tales. That if the stories could bear the weight of her life, then maybe she could, too.
The book shifted from place to place at her grandmother’s house. It could be found inside in one of the two bedrooms or discarded on the floor in the living room or outside in the small shed that housed the washer and dryer. She was happiest to find the book lurking in the shed, which was swelteringly hot in the summer and almost too cold in the winter. Yet, she would endure the heat or the cold to read her fairy tales. Enduring the temperature was easier than enduring the drama unfolding in the house. The shed gave her distance and quiet when she needed it most.
She would sit cross-legged on the floor with her back resting against the cool metal of the washer and read the same stories over and over again. She would rush to finish the story the first time through to know how it ended. Then, she would read it slowly and carefully looking for every small detail. The book was heavy, so had to readjust it in her lap. She would sit with her shoulders hunched forward and her head hanging down to read each line of the story. And then, she would read the story another time and another and another until the narrative of the story was seared in her brain. It became a pattern she couldn’t forget. This is how the story goes. This is what must happen. This is how it ends.
Fairy tales brought her comfort because she knew how they would end.
The girl grew up and moved away. And moved on. Some people, much later, would note that she saved herself from a bad situation while others denigrated her for abandoning part of her family. She hasn’t spoken to her grandmother or her father in seven years. She hasn’t returned to that house in eight. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. She still flinches when she drives by the road that used to lead to a place that was supposed to be a home. She stops herself from wondering about where that road leads to now.
The book of fairy tales, however, made the journey with her.
At first, the book resided on the bookshelves of her first apartment and of the second apartment and then a house. Eventually, she packed it away with all the other books that she no longer reads. She couldn’t quite bring herself to give it away. It sat in storage for years. And then, she was clearing through boxes, in yet another move, and found it again. She hesitantly touched the cover, placed it on a new set of bookshelves, and promptly forgot about it.
Until yesterday. She remembered the book and desperately needed to see it. She’s been thinking about her childhood for weeks now. Flashes of memory try to overwhelm. Shaking hands and shallow breaths were the evidence that the memories made it through. She tried to forget her early life, but the more she tried to forget, the more she seems to remember. She became frantic because she couldn’t find the damn book. Tears welled in her eyes; she was afraid that she had lost it. The book, or maybe, her mind. Either way, she searched and searched.
Upstairs in her partner’s office, the book of fairy tales was tucked into a bottom shelf of the shelves he made by hand.
Its cover is more tattered now. There’s a large stain on the top left corner. The spine has a rip in the seam. The illustrations look dated. It looks like an artifact of the past, but it feels like a lifeline. She turned the book around in her hands. It still feels heavy and solid but less than before. She opens the book and notices that a few pages are loose. She’ll try to fix them later, or maybe, she won’t.
She grabs the book and hugs it against her chest. She rests her chin on top of her book of fairy tales and tries not to cry. She moves the book to the island in her kitchen, unsure what to do with it.
Her seven-year-old daughter discovered the book resting there and started reading it. She wonders if she should say something about this book, this particular book, to her firstborn, but she stops herself before she utters a word. She wants her daughter to discover the magic of these tales unburdened by the book’s history or her own.
She pauses for a moment and then finally says, “This was my book when I was a little girl.”
Her daughter smiles.
And she smiles back.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
Excerpted from Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness by Kelly J. Baker. Copyright © by Kelly J. Baker. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Blue Crow Publishing.