10 Archetypes in 2000 Words
by Cherie Priest
My grandmother is dying, and I don’t care. Her liver is
shriveled and hard like a catcher’s mitt. My mother drove her to
it, or so I’ve been told. I have no opinion on the matter. I am
only the vehicle between them. I am the tin cans and string
through which they shout at one another.
I read her cards yesterday. “Death means change,” I said, but
she laughed at me. “Then I can’t change soon enough. Pass me my
pipe, baby. Bring me my matches. Your mother’s a whore, did I
tell you that?”
I must owe her something, I think. Or maybe I’m afraid that one
day it will be me, lying in a soiled bed and swearing out rings
of yellow smoke. Just this one last favor, then.
I put on something short, and something low. I dressed myself in
nature’s warning color, and I uncovered my hair. My basket is
open and overflowing. If you like what you see, we can make a
deal. Come out, come out, wherever you are. It’s an easy job and
there’s nothing to fear. The woodsman died before I was born.
His axe rusts in a stump out back.
The Sea King’s Daughter
My mother married him too young. I was born before she could
order a drink in the Mexican restaurant where they often ate,
and my brother came a week after she’d sampled her first legal
margarita. The salty rim stung her split lip.
When I was still small, she would fill up the bathtub and
sprinkle in the crystals my aunt gave her for Christmas. The
water would smell like some perfumer’s idea of the ocean, and if
the door was locked my mother would quietly sing to herself. I
pressed my ear against the crack and held my hand across my
Grandpa said she wanted to make music when she was my age. He
gave her a tape recorder for her tenth birthday, and she filled
up a shoe box with someday audition tapes. I found the shoebox
beneath her bed. Each tape is labeled in careful purple
Maybe I’d recognize the songs if I could hear them. I’ll ask for
a player and some headphones at Christmas, and maybe I can hear
her then, even when she’s not taking a bath.
Even when my little brother’s awake. Even when Dad’s home.
In church they made me hold
still in my fluffy dress. The priest worked his slow,
small-stepped way along the line, feeding wafers and wine into
the mouths of the willing. I didn’t get any. I folded my
little hands into my lap and fiddled with my patent leather
purse until my mother smacked my knuckles and I put it down.
Then, when I was older, they
told me to kneel on the padded bench with the grown-ups – my
mouth agape like a baby bird. The priest would mumble and I
would eat, or so they told me. The kneeling bench was hard on
my shins. I shifted my weight back and forth between my knees.
This is the body of Christ,
they said, and it smelled to me like a Saltine. This is the
blood of Christ, they said; and I thought it smelled like wine
until they held the cup up to my lips and told me to drink.
Then, when they brought the cup
close it smelled like pennies and salt and I couldn’t touch it.
I twisted my neck away, and I started to scream.
I later said that I must’ve
seen a spider.
Her father all but sold her to
me; he offered her as a sacrifice, as penance for pricking his
hands on the roses by the gate. But she swears she’s come to me
freely and of her own volition. She might believe this lie, or
maybe her father never told her of the bargain we struck between
I’ve given her the room in the
tower, where she lives alone because she will not speak to me
yet. In time, perhaps a week or two, she will grow accustomed
to the darkness. In time, perhaps a month or two, she will
worry less when the dogs outside sing songs of the hunt.
In time, perhaps within the
next one hundred years, she will agree to join me as a wife and
partner; and in a thousand years more she may not fear me. I am
older than any tree she’s ever climbed.
Yesterday she spoke for the
first time since she’s been here. She asked me why there were
no mirrors. I told her that it was a selfish thing. Only one
of us has to know what I look like.
I can lie too, when need be.
My big brother is hopeless, his mind is a circular room with
windows tinted on both sides. “He doesn’t mean to shut us out,”
mother has always insisted, but she does not know how wrong she
is. He’s never had a means to let us in.
He communicates with us in little ways -- accessing the world
outside his head through habit and preference, through immediate
wants and half-remembered needs. We lead him through the house
with M&Ms, little trails to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to
One day our father snapped. It’s easy to be impatient but hard
to understand, and parental guilt is the tie he wears to work.
While I was gone at school he threw my brother out -- tossing the
bag of candy into the front yard. When I came home I found the
shells. They were cracked apart like brightly-colored birdseeds,
with the chocolate nibbled out of the center.
The next-door neighbor lady is an elderly widow with very sharp
eyes and a warm oven. She lured my brother into her home with
the smell of cinnamon rolls. I sat in her dining room and hugged
my knees while she quietly phoned our mother.
It’s not enough to only love him, though of course I do. This
Kevlar coat of media coverage has made for him an ivory tower;
it has set him apart from me, and so I hate it.
His cold, redheaded agent hovers like a mother bear, and his
publicist stands beside her – a great grizzled man with a hot
cup of coffee that will scald me if I get too close. Last time
they called the cops.
But I made it into his house again, all the same. I checked my
reflection in the hall mirror and ruffled my hands through my
yellow hair. I tweaked the curls (oh so fetching, I know
he thinks). I listened for the sound of him sleeping, and when
he rose to stand in the bedroom doorway after I spoke his name,
I swear to God my heart stopped. “I could be your puzzle piece,”
I told him, “a last small corner of sky that makes your picture
whole. You don’t have to live alone in this glass cave. Let me
stay and warm your bed.”
I hid the gun behind my back and waited for his answer.
This long-legged girl with bleached teeth, she last washed her
face in a bus stop bathroom. I think she’d wanted a proper
rescue, complete with a kiss and a horse and a guy with money.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” she admits, sneaking a stare at my
badge and watching me tap my pen against the clipboard.
“Where’d you get the pills?” I don't really care, but I need to
file the paperwork.
Her hands shake while she sips from a blue and white Dixie cup.
Some nurse gave it to her. I guess it's water, or something else
to flush her out and wake her up. “My mom keeps them in her
sewing machine case. I shouldn’t have taken them, but …” She
lets the sentence hang. Maybe she wants me to ask for the rest,
to draw the answers out of her like so much poison. Her jaw
quivers, and maybe it's a little cute.
But I did my job when I slapped her face, down under the bridge,
so she can keep trying. It won't work on me.
It only reminds me of the way her eyes creaked open when she
threw up in my lap.
I saw you in your stroller, brunette and big-eyed as a Halloween
cat. You were one of a baker’s dozen; I wanted to ask your
parents, “Christ, don’t you know what’s making them?” But Jesus
needs more babies to love Him, and your mother and father lived
You would have too, if I had not taken you. I had no daughter of
my own to teach, and their backs were turned. You looked up at
me, in the grocery store line. You peered out from under those
thick black bangs and you smiled at me -- seeing neither crone nor
I loved you then. And I lifted you up, out of your stroller and
into my home, into this tower room. I made a nest for you with a
soft bed and gourmet food from the health food store down the
street. You grew tall and strong, and your phenomenal mane grew
past your knees, past your feet.
The note you left (lying on top of the coiled black cable) says
you were lonely. I’ve been lonely before, too. But a woman who
cuts her hair for a man deserves whatever she gets.
You came uninvited, your hands outstretched as you begged for
shelter. “I can pay for your silence,” you said, and indeed you
did. You paid us as mother, maid and wife. Our love for you was
complex and seamless.
Tall and dark, you were Etruscan and strange in your poverty
princess thrift store wear. We should have cast you out when we
had the chance, before you became caregiver, and lover, and
vulnerable small sister yet twice our size. For seven and one is
an even number, easily divided. How carelessly you left us. How
smoothly you bit the red ripe flesh of your mother’s fruit.
We men though small are strong and skilled, masters of our
craft. We made for you a tomb. We cut our hands on the glass to
make your shroud. We crushed our fingers, pounding the gold into
place. No fair queen or venerated saint ever rested in a bed so
fine. But when he came, you lifted your face and took his hand.
Until you rose that day and cast us aside, what did we know of
We were children to you, as high as your hip and as easily
He picked up my DNA from the cigarette butt I left outside
Haliburton, on the last day I worked there as a temp. I stubbed
the half-smoked thing into a frayed mash of paper and leaves
before I went back inside to quit. The boss’s boy was watching.
Daddy sent the goons around, wanting a bit of blood -- bringing
that glass slipper to nick our feet and take a drop or two of
sample. Hell of a way to ferret out a princess I say, but what
Junior wants, Junior gets.
I would have left, but there’s only so far you can run when the
city walls reach the sky and no one was offering day passes to
anyplace -- not until they found the smoking blonde.
And the curious shoe made its cutting rounds.
One in a million chance of an error, I heard, but I’ve never had
that kind of luck. The tiara fit me, a crown of iron thorns. I
wear it always, even here in the bathroom where I have won my
small victory. It took two flushes to send his half-formed wolf
She’ll never know it, this little favor I’ve done for us both.
About the Author:
Cherie Priest was
born in Tampa, Florida, beside the ocean and beneath the sign of the sun. At
present, she resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she's a writer for a
computer company; there, she spends her 9-5 composing and checking advertising
copy about electronics equipment, power tools, home appliances and computers.
In 2002 Cherie graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with an
M.A. in Rhetoric/Professional writing. She also has a B.A. from Southern
Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, which she finished in 1998. She
uses her college diploma as a mouse pad.
In 2003, Cherie haphazardly joined the illustrious ranks of published writers
with her southern gothic novel Four and Twenty Blackbirds. In October of
2005 this novel was re-released in a gloriously revised, expanded edition by Tor;
and a second novel, the sequel Wings to the Kingdom, is slated for
publication late in 2006. Not Flesh Nor Feathers will complete the
trilogy in 2007.
And furthermore, because heaven knows she's not busy enough as it is, Cherie is
working on a novella for Subterranean Press. It is tentatively titled "The Wreck
of the Mary Byrd," and it promises to feature werewolves, steamboats, and ghosts.
Story © 2006 Cherie Priest.