Spring 2024

That same sad tale

By Tina Xiang

A chipped pink cup sits on the table. We look at it, we eat breakfast, we drink our milk, we wait. Mother comes downstairs. She picks up the pink cup, gets coffee, and sits down across. We all stare at each other until a bird calls and Mother starts and then we tremble. We want to go outside, to enjoy the summer air. We rail, we cry—but Mother is sick!

That same sad tale.

We have to tend to her, she says.

So what can we do but stay inside this awful place, where there’s nothing for us but room, room, bathroom—these hollow spaces we pass through like specters. Mother is a specter, too, but different: she sleeps, we haunt.

My brother Bryson has it better than me because he’s a liar . And lazy, too. But those are the benefits of being bigger, older. When Mother tells us to clean the dishes, I wash and he dries—but we have a drying rack! Meaning his only task is to stack dishes, which he does poorly.

And so after breakfast while Mother retreats to the living room, where our old couch sits and sags in the middle, to rest herself—which bothers us because really she just wants to keep an eye on us—I wash the dishes.

First the plates with crumbs of bread and smeared yolk, then our glasses with drops of milk, then the coffee pot with grinds at the bottom, and then Mother’s chipped pink cup. It’s an ugly thing—pink the color of meat, a handle Mother can only squeeze two fingers in, and a chip I made when I hoped to sneak a sip of coffee, for which I got a chipped tooth in return.

And after the dishes comes the dusting.

Bryson got so sick of dusting that he began taking the things we have to dust. Like figurines: the mountaineering child with rosy cheeks and three thick, black lashes for each eye; the boy in blue and the girl in pink riding a bicycle, a pot of flowers balanced on the handlebars; and a brown horse galloping. Bryson took them out of the cabinet one day when we had to clean all of them, and gave them to me. I hid them in our closet.

“Masquerade” by Ashley Penning (Vol. 35.2)

After dusting comes sweeping, then mopping, then preparing lunch. Followed by more cleaning. And in between all that, making sure Mother is okay.

She says she’s fine for now.

Lately, at night, while Bryson sleeps, I play with the figurines. The mountaineering child can’t sit on the horse. His feet are on rocks so he has to stand atop the horse’s back, taming that wild creature. Sometimes they’re all siblings, sometimes strangers. But where will they all go? They only journey stairs and the edges of beds.

I’ve grown tired of this.

Mother is the most tired, she says.

And I pity her. Bryson did too, when Mother first got sick. But he has friends that call at the house and ask him to come out—to go to the playground, the brook, and the woods just beyond the backyard.

And one day Bryson does. He goes to all three!

When he comes back, he raves about the playground. “Slides! Swings! A jungle gym!” He runs from room to room and then out the house again.

Mother doesn’t say anything, but when I try to leave, she barks. “Stay!”

So I stay. She tells me to come sit with her by the couch and I do.

“Carson,” she says, “my lovely girl. Read something to me.”

I pluck a book off the shelf and read. It’s one of fairy tales. I read a story called “The Elves” told in three parts: “The First Story,” “The Second Story,” and “The Third Story.” Then I read, “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces.” There’s a small picture at the end.

“Do you want to see the picture?” I ask.

“Describe it,” she says, closing her eyes.

I tell her there are many pairs of shoes in disarray. “But they aren’t in pieces,” I say.

“It’s a figure of speech,” she says. “Don’t you know that?”

But of course, I know it’s a figure of speech. Only that I feel the tale had promised more. Those shoes should have been danced to pieces, rather than strewn on the floor, wrinkled and worn out. At the very least a heel should have broken off—a buckle!

Mother begins snoring. I pry open an eyelid to check if she’s faking.

Her eye rolls in its socket.

Later that week, at night, while Bryson is still out, I begin reading these tales to myself. Mother wouldn’t want me reading in this dim light. The tales put me to sleep but give me strange dreams.

One night, a white snake rests in a covered dish, bearing its eater secrets. A louse and a flea brew beer in an eggshell. Out of a loaf of bread flows red blood. Hans asks, “Do you know of a man who is acquainted with thieving?” A mouse, a bird, and a sausage keep house together. Six men get on in the world. Daughter Two-eyes cries, “I don’t wish for what is good, but give me the entrails!” Everyone sneers at a man called Dummling.

Another night, my mind creeps to the playground where Bryson plays. But the seesaw bores me, the spring rider tires me. I think: is this it?

But then, to the edge of the woods! A snake wriggles across my path. A blast of wind carries off my cap. I let it go flying. A cock and a hen build a carriage from nutshells. An ant-king cries, “Why cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies?” I think, am I a clumsy beast? I do my best to keep off.

Finally, to the brook. A fish holds a mussel in its mouth, in which lies a golden ring. He sets it at my feet. A duck complains in a pitiful tone, “Something lies heavy on my stomach; I ate in haste.” Then, a water-nixie almost snatches me away! I see my fate: the spinning of dirty, tangled flax. I fall boldly upon her; she limps back to the shallows of the stream.

So the plan is set. It’s early evening. Mother snores upstairs; Bryson is gone, swinging. I wonder, who can I keep house with? A pack of ragamuffins? No, that won’t do.

A shack in the forest, a secret. It’ll be ugly—the roof might be falling in—but perfect, of course, for me. I’ll steal cutlery from home, wash it in a clean cool brook. I’ll make a mattress of pine needles, breathing in the smell at night and dreaming of sticky trees. Bravely, I’ll wipe myself on leaves.

I raid the pantry and fridge: bread, butter, milk, chicken. I forgo the fork and spoon. The front door waits for me. What could be easier than striding through it? So I go back upstairs and squeak the window open. I bounce off the bushes below and then I’m on my feet. Might they see me, a mere outline in the dark? I dart across the open field, tittering—to think it was once an immeasurable gulf!

The woods are dark and looming. I step into them and an owl hoots a welcome. I find a field of milkweed and lie here, some plants already patted down. The impress of a deer? Or the footstep of a giant?

I marvel at the moon. The rhythm of chores stutters to a stop; the rhythm of the night picks up. And although I’m falling asleep, I feel awake to the world. A snap is the cracking whip of a donkey-drawn cart, a rustle the rumble of a king’s courier, a splash the fall to fate of an ungrateful son.

But that night I dream of Mother’s chipped pink cup. There’s a spot of coffee that can’t be scrubbed out. Dust falls upon the figurines and can’t be brushed off. Bryson has left for his own bigger, better adventures. He gains a following of truants; he’s almost killed by his own kindness. To reward him, stars fall from the sky in the form of fat, golden coins. Mother dies and there’s no one there to know.

The next morning, I finish my loaf of bread and the bottle of milk. I pick at the chicken, not wanting to eat it all at once. But then it’s gone and I coat the bones with butter, sucking on them. I feel as though I’m at a low. So I mush nuts. Bits get stuck between my teeth and I use a twig to pick them out, the taste of bark becoming familiar. I pull plants and nibble on their roots. At night, my head gets cold and I fall asleep holding my ears. Days, I search for a golden ring to return, flipping rocks but finding nothing. Once, I catch a fish and cut it open—but no ring!—so then I eat it.

I grow listless. Doubt creeps in. When will I face someone’s tricks? Where is the traveling youth who sets forth to learn what fear is? Does anyone need help crossing the brook? The stones are slippery. I imagine myself making a fool of a witch. I imagine myself finding out what makes me shudder. I imagine myself preventing the downstream sweeping of the straw and the coal. They are my size, life-like.

And then I realize, but what can I brew in an eggshell? I can’t fashion a carriage from nuts, an empty snail-shell won’t house me. I’m a giant, too big to bathe in the brook. Where are the swans, the pigeons, the golden bird?

A plain bird takes off from a tree overhead but nothing comes of it. Was I wrong to have left?
So I try a different tactic. I step on an ant, awaiting retaliation, but the rest of them carry on with their blades of grass. I nick bark with the knife. I pull clumps of grass. I pluck petals from flowers. I pee in the stream. Will something come for me, from deep within the woods, to avenge itself upon a disturber of the peace? Will it be an ogre, a dragon, a fairy disguised as a beggar?

“Where is that water-nixie!” I shout. I roll a boulder into the brook.

But only the reeds bristle.

The bright sun brings this all to light.

I have decided to discover where the woods end. Trekking through the forest, I plumb into its depths. The canopy gets thicker and thicker. The air grows more foul. Then, after some time, I seem to have arrived at the heart of it. There’s a clearing in the perfect shape of a circle. The ground starts going down and a red rose bush lies in the forest floor’s dimple. It’s lit by the moonlight and there’s only one bud. Dew drops glisten and I hear a toad, bellowing as if it’s been trod upon.

Do I do it? Do I dare do it?

Pricking my finger upon a thorn, I pluck the rose!

A crack, a stir, a swell in croaking? My heart thumps. Yet, nothing!

And so I smell the flower, hoping for sleep to seize me and a figure to emerge from the trees. Its sweetness tickles. If I make myself sway, will my body take over? But this is no poisoned thing, I realize. Alone in the woods, I despair. I drop the rose. I turn back the way I came.

When I sleep I still dream. I catch a brown foal by its mane. He begs to be set free. “Run off,” I say, “I see you’re still a giddy thing.” I patch the broken wing of a chirping nestling. A straw lays itself across a stream and six mice begin to cross. The straw slips and the mice fall in but I pluck them out by their tails. They show their gratitude with a strip of red silk.

But during the day I don’t dream.

Peckish, beat, and bug-bitten, at last I come to the edge of the woods. I spy the house, a brown box with a yellow trim. Mother’s light is out; is Bryson home? I’m fixed, frozen—unable to cross this threshold, to move beyond the shadow of the forest. Only I do. I carry myself across the field.

The front door is unlocked and the smell of the place returns. I apply balm to my bites. I eat all the biscuits. I want to drink coffee pot sludge in Mother’s chipped pink cup but I don’t. I start upstairs, stopping at the door to her bedroom where I can already hear her snores. I creak the door open. Yes, there’s a lump on the bed that heaves: the house shudders with it.

I move to my room at the end of the hall. My bed is exactly as I left it, perfectly made. Bryson rolls over in his.

“You came back,” he whispers.

I say, “Of course I did.” I pull my covers down. “Is Mother mad?”

“No,” he says, “She’ll be happy you’re back.”

I nod, crawling into bed. But looking across the room at Bryson it is as if I were still standing in the woods, the house winking across the field, or as if I were standing atop a mountain and spying his speck upon another. I turn over, hearing something soft in the walls. Or is it a branch, brushing the house? But then I think, it might be the scurrying of rats. Or something else—a quiet feasting.

Tina Xiang lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Her previous work has appeared in Fourteen Hills and 3:AM Magazine.

Spring 2024