Desert Isle Keeper
Earlier this year I read and fell head over heels over head over heels in readerly love with Larissa Brown’s Beautiful Wreck. (Melanie’s DIK review is here.) Ms. Brown was kind enough to send me a copy of her latest work, a luscious treat, called Tress.
This novella, just 21,000 words, from its opening line–Tess sways with the night breeze, wet grass between her toes, remnants of old drinking songs at her back. —tugged me into a fictional realm full of strong magic, great pain, and crazy love. As I read the fable’s final words—Tress is here. —I shook myself, rather sad to be back in the real world, a less magical realm than the one I’d just left.
I love dark fairytales. As a child I read the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths repeatedly. I read Andrew Lang’s colored compendium of Fairy Tales (my favorite is the Brown Fairy Book.) Tress is a modern story, with references to the terrors of the world we live in now—clinical depression, terrible car accidents, and the numbness to be found in drugs. Its heroine, Tess, is barely healed from a wreck that took her hand from her and is trying to cobble together the sanity that would enable her to leave the safety of the residential treatment center she’s lived in since the accident. Despite the modernity of the tale’s context, the story itself reads like something Perrault might have penned.
Tess, since the age of ten, has kept a “fairytale journal,” filling up one book each year. She is currently on number thirteen. Each journal has a theme:
One whole year in junior high, she drew every shape of loaves of bread, braided, round, golden, interspersed with drawings of women in long aprons and flour-covered skirts. Another year, she drew woodland animals with strange prostheses, birds with bionic eyes and deer with metal forelegs. One year, she mostly sketched vines and thorns — all in charcoal. She’d draw for hours, coming away with hands as black as the hearths in her imagination.
This one, number 13, is full of houses. She’s imagined dozens of designs for cottages with thatched roofs, climbing vines and snowy white berries. The little homes crouch like toads or squirrels behind iron gates.
The first one she ever created began with the question, “Why hands?” Tess wrote this question long before she lost her hand—now in its place she has a miracle of modern medicine one made of metal and silicon—but hands, something about her hand, has always threaded through Tess’s thought, something she knows matters but can’t quite understand.
One weekend, Tess goes with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend to a reenactment fair. Her first night there, she sees across the campsite, a man chopping wood.
A woodsman straight out of a fairy tale.
A breeze comes, and his fire flickers. Tess’s dress moves against her calves, and a wisp of hair comes loose and waves about. She pushes it off her forehead, and the man does the same. He wipes his eyes with the back of his wrist. Across the distance, he looks up. He sees her.
And the years rush away.
Everything about now is gone, flying past Tess with a swing of his ax, leaving only night creatures and tent and flame. Sparkling stars and grass and this man, boots laced up to his knees and a drinking horn hanging at his waist, his movements as liquid and easy as a song. Tess is in the tale with him, caught in time and by his eyes, across this softly sighing field.
Is Tess in the tale with him? Is he the woodsman of the Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, a man to slay the wolf and rescue the girl? Or is he the one from Snow White, unable to kill the girl but unwilling to save her? Or is he something or someone else entirely?
I’m not telling. Read the novella and find out for yourself. Just make sure you have a few hours to spare for once you begin this spellbinding concoction, you’ll be ensnared until you’re through.