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Kate Bernheimer: Horse, Flower, Bird

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Horse, Flower, Bird

By Kate Bernheimer

Coffee House Press, paperback

Grimm’s fairy tales are, well, grim. Reading them after a childhood of being fooled by story books and Disney movies is a bit shocking and totally wild. The original tales are filled with little girls treated like property: traded for plants and hidden away until a prince “visits” them at night (“Rapunzel”), married to the manipulative amphibian that turned into the neighboring prince after she threw him against a wall to get him out of her life (“The Frog Prince”), and promised to the devil by her father on accident (“The Girl Without Hands”). It’s for good reason fairy tales are never told from the perspective of the child or woman at their center, and Kate Bernheimer’s new book of very short stories, Horse, Flower, Bird, calls bullshit on that tradition from the very first line.

“A Cuckoo Tale” opens with “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to atone. She especially liked The Day of Atonement. Atoning she felt at one.” Vaguely religious, in that way religion can seem to children, the story tells of the girl’s guilt, which is born from the history of the Jews (ovens are not just in houses of gingerbread) and faith rituals that were never fully explained to her. “As a child the girl would often not eat to get free of sin. Free of someone?”

In “A Cageling Tale,” Edith buys a parakeet who dies when it tries to fly into the room it sees reflected in a window darkened by night, where “(There was thick glass and then dark woods, full of crows and mice and men who chased you home).” Never feeling loved by her mother, Edith too flies the coop and finds work in the city as a topless dancer in a cage swinging from the ceiling—and builds her own cage in her apartment, where she sits and, not moving, “she feels calm.”

By taking up residence in the main female characters’ hearts and souls and by looking out from their eyes, these stories give others a glimpse of not just what she sees of what’s taken place, but what she thinks of it all in sometimes meandering, sometimes lucid trains of thought. The stories in Horse, Flower, Bird are melancholy—as are Rikki Ducornet’s accompanying illustrations—but also as bright and sprightly as a little caged bird.

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