"Midnight Raven" by Isobelle Ouzman

Rewilding the Fairytale

On the stories that help us survive

RAIN WAS FALLING when I carried my two-year-old daughter and her tricycle home from the park. Her legs, galoshes swinging, straddled my pregnant belly. One small rubber tricycle wheel bumped against my shin with each step; the other spun on its axle. At that moment, I didn’t know about atmospheric rivers, about the flooding that would devastate Whatcom County. I only knew that it was raining, and my little fox wasn’t feeling well. My arms were wrapped around her orange raincoat; its tail flicked back and forth. She rested her head on my shoulder, pressed a wet fox ear against my cheek.

Once inside, I shuffled us out of our rain gear and over to the sofa, where I hoped we both might nap. I could hear the rain striking the windowpanes, fiercer than the subdued drizzle we were accustomed to in western Washington. I covered us with a blanket, scrolled on my phone for audio to stream quietly, and landed on a playlist of a kind nanny who read aloud fairy tales.

A music box unwound its thin notes of welcome, of warning. It was as if I’d opened a pop-up book that still smelled of the dark forest from which its pages were milled. We were in a time long ago and a land far away. A small fox curled against me. We could hear someone at the door knocking, a princess with wet hair and shoes filled with water.

Soon the princess would be tossing and turning in her bedclothes, bothered by a pea placed beneath a pile of feather beds. Soon my daughter would be dozing beside me, her cheeks flushed with fever. Soon I would be lost in the woods, realizing I couldn’t find myself in these stories. I tried to remember: were fairy tales regressive or subversive? I read once that telling fairy tales was a domestic art—stories that women told to children or to each other while they worked—that men who aspired to make literature of folklore had tamed the tales they took from the mouths of women. Since then, the cultural status of fairy tales has been debated, simultaneously undervalued and overvalued, marginalized and mythologized, like motherhood.

By bath time, the wind howled at the eaves and rainfall pelted the skylights. My daughter slept fitfully that night, and each time I woke to tend to her, I was startled by the rain’s insistence. The next morning at the kitchen table, we heard the rush of the sump pump in the basement keeping the rising waters at bay. Forced to remain indoors, we returned to the forest.

The fairy tales came to us through my phone, and so, too, did weather alerts about atmospheric rivers bearing historic rainfall. A boy climbed a beanstalk to the sky. Drone footage captured kayakers paddling city streets and swollen creeks overflowing their banks, swallowing parks and neighborhoods. Two hungry children followed a trail of bread crumbs home. The Nooksack River crested to the north, displacing hundreds and stranding families in their homes, all awaiting rescue. A mother played a guessing game to keep her firstborn child. The floodwaters pushed northward, threatening to overwhelm the pump station responsible for draining a lake to make an artificial prairie for settlers to farm. A wheel that spins straw into gold came at a great cost.

In those days of fairy tales and floodwaters, I was reading an anthology called Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. The editors suggest that “sensibilities from folklore and science fiction” may help us navigate environments made strange by climate disasters. They argue that “ghosts and monsters unsettle anthropos, the Greek term for ‘human,’ from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges.” In my third trimester of pregnancy, I was keenly aware of myself as both creature and habitat, a body of water, an ecosystem within an ecosystem, and I worried about what that might mean for the child I was carrying during a year of disturbing weather extremes.

When I read of ghosts and monsters, I thought: fairy-tale mothers. Might the subversive origins of fairy tales, and the women’s wisdom that once circulated within these narratives, teach us how to live again with ghosts and monsters? Perhaps rewilding these stories may help us work out the tensions inherent to bearing, and sustaining, life on a planet that’s imperiled, to hold our griefs over a changing climate, to shape our imaginations for possible futures.

On my phone, I scrolled through images of submerged minivans and front porches, of washed-over cribs and highchairs covered in silt, and recalled how my daughter had tossed with fever upstairs in her bed while several miles away children woke to muddy waters cresting within their homes, and awaited rescue not in the form of a beanstalk or a braid unfurled from a window but a stranger’s boat, a neighbor’s tractor.

As a mother, I’m most interested in telling my children stories that will help them adapt and survive—through their relationships, their resourcefulness, their enchantments—on a damaged planet.

Sometimes a coat can make a fox of a daughter, a story can remake a map, and rain can river the sky.

Kaitlyn Teer lives with her family in western Washington, where she teaches writing. Her essays have been published in Electric LitCatapultFourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.