Robin Romm’s Grimm-ly Realistic Inspiration

The current issue of the literary magazine Tin House is dedicated to “Fantastic Women,” writers who are blurring the lines between fantasy and literary fiction, and Robin Romm would fit right into that crowd. based on the short stories in her debut collection, The Mother Garden. Here, she reminds us that the early experts on fairy tales knew the power of realism, too.

robin-romm.gifWhen I was young, my grandparents sent me a book of fairy tales. My grandfather, a bit of a scholar, treated books at least as well as he treated members of his family and so the book arrived swaddled in cellophane, wrapped twice in butcher paper, in a padded envelope. The pages were thick and the illustrations, if my memory can be trusted, depicted realistic children in lederhosen amidst flowers and rocks. No ordinary book, this. It was the real Grimm’s. Cinderella’s stepsister hacked off her toes when her foot failed to fit the glass slipper Bluebeard’s closet nearly erupted with the ghosts of his decapitated wives. But the story I most vividly recall—the story that stayed with me through my entire childhood, informing my stories into adulthood—is a story entitled “Babes in the Woods.” The story runs parallel to the story of Hansel and Gretel. A stepmother urges a brother and sister to go searching for berries, or some such delight, in the autumn woods. They scatter crumbs behind them to mark their path, but when they reach the end of the day, the birds have feasted on the crumbs. No witch house appears on the horizon. Not much, if my memory serves me, actually happens in this tale. The children are lost. No one finds them. The night grows cold and they die.

I loved this story. My mother, crouching by the bookshelf obliged my longing to hear it a couple of times, but soon she refused.

“It’s morbid,” she said.

We can’t really argue with Mom there. The story held within it a warning: don’t go wandering in the woods alone. (Or maybe: never let your father marry a stepmother.) But the story did more than that. It entrusted me with something my parents and teachers would not entrust me with for many years. Things don’t always work out. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes a darkness will descend, blacker and bigger than your mind can comprehend. This is part of it, what it is to be alive.

A few years later, when I’d fallen off my bicycle into the neighbor’s steep ivy, I’d found a baby bird with a big lump in its neck. The mother had likely ousted it because of its sickness. I took it in, put it under a lamp in the bathroom, made it a nest out of washcloths and a shoebox. I held that bird in my hand and squirted sugar water down its throat. The bird was a goner from the moment I found it, but there was something meaningful in the whole exchange anyway. It would stretch open its beak and I would try my best to save it. The bird trembled at the effort to stay alive, but within days, whatever it was that led the bird to the ivy patch won.

This essay, my mother might say, has taken a morbid turn.

The first story I ever wrote, less than a decade after the bird in the ivy, starred two orphaned siblings alone in their house. The boy thought he was dying of an undetermined illness, but his sister paid him no mind, obsessed as she was by her love affairs. Loneliness pervaded the tale and, needless to say, it didn’t end well for the siblings. Ten years later, I found myself still interested in what “Babes in the Woods” provoked. I found that, as a writer, I wanted to leave the reader with that complexity of feeling. I wanted my worlds to be full of difficulty and sharp edges, but with the light that all fairy tales have, too.

I think that what I wanted, at six, at ten, at twenty-nine—as a reader and as a writer—was to feel close to the possibility of darkness, to test its waters, to put my toe in, my whole leg. And then to withdraw it, to retreat back under the orange quilt, to the mom in her old robe, her face shining with makeup remover. I wanted to feel the hard truth, but not to live it. Somehow I knew, like most kids know, that someday I’d need this knowledge. That these stories were put on paper for a reason. They’re a path we can follow when we need to feel less lonely; the crumbs that don’t appeal to the birds.

20 October 2007 | selling shorts |