ATU tale type 923, “Love Like Salt,” is one of the odd ones out. It is often not a tale unto itself, but the inciting episode of ATU 510A, the “Cinderella” story with which we are most acquainted, and 510B, “Donkey-Skin.”
During my little sister’s last cheer competition, my father drove me out about thirty silent minutes from the hotel to an empty fairground — not the kind that fills and empties out every autumn, but the kind that keeps its skeleton all year. Keeps its Ferris wheel and restaurants and kiosks and, apparently, phone repair shops.
Alan Dundes, in his contribution to The Flood Myth, claims that the relationship between God and man is a proxy for that between parent and child. My family only half believes in God. My father once took me to his mother’s church, where women were still not allowed to be pastors. We opened the books in front of us but didn’t bother even pretending to sing.
I like my dates to parallel each other: to kiss them on the same couch in the same basement; to take them to the same genre of bad animated movie; to eat at the same Steak-n-Shake afterward in the same booth; to order the same meal and compare their choices against the others. Life should be forced to imitate art, sometimes.
In Morphology of the Folktale, Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp calls recurring plot beats “functions.” For example, Bluebeard’s wife opening the door to his forbidden murder room and Belle going into the West Wing of the Beast’s castle both fulfill the function of the husband’s interdiction transgressed.
Bruno Bettelheim says Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard are two sides of the same psychological coin. That while the former reassures children that marriage and sex only appear frightening, the latter says no, they’re exactly as scary as you think they are. In fact, they’ll fucking kill you! Beauty and the Beast, he says, is meant to assuage fears about marriage. Bluebeard says the only way to escape your serial killer husband is to send off the doves your mother gave you as a wedding gift, and then simply sit and wait for your brothers to kill him and take you back home.
My parents have long since gotten rid of the couch I had my first kiss on. They’ve also gotten rid of the mattress I kissed my second boyfriend on after homecoming. And the house with my sliding mirror door and Easter Bunny wallpaper.
I come home one day during the summer to find my dad’s thrown my and my sister’s shoes and toys into the trash without a word. I take them out and tell her to just stay in her room for the rest of the night, so he doesn’t see her.
When my parents leave in the morning, I sit in my mother’s chair and rock the way she does, or curl up naked on her side of the bed, ropes of dark, wet hair snaking along the cream of her pillowcase. The bed is always already messy from the night before, but I become accustomed to making it before one of them gets home.
The first night of Fall Break, my little brother tries to goad Dad into a fist-fight over the unruliness of his dog.
My sister is in my room as the argument unfolds, my mother attempting to diffuse it — my sister is in my bed just as I had been in hers the last year of high school, telling her not to cry as I made shadow puppets on her wall. “God will bless you,” she’d said, because she was still young enough then to believe in a God not personally redefined.
While looking through old forgotten scraps for a story, I come across a piece I’d written early last year: my third and current boyfriend’s point of view, my take on his feelings early on in our relationship, because I pride myself on knowing him the way I know to write my name in the dark. When I’d first shown it to him, he’d refused to talk about it — something about it hitting too close to home, his tone almost angry over texts. I show it to him again, and he doesn’t remember reading it at all. He describes how I inhabit his body as “factual but not accurate” to his experiences.
The kissing couch gone, my first date with a girl took place in my room, a sleepover our parents didn’t know the full intentions of. I changed in front of her as End of Evangelion played on my computer, the film sequel to an anime I only know about through controversy. Supposedly it’s about the tension between desiring human connection and being too scared to act in the face of it. Supposedly, no one likes the main character because he’s a young teenager who won’t simply get over his anxiety and trauma and let people in. Supposedly, at least according to Schopenhauer and Campbell, life is a novel most meticulously planned.
We slept in my bed, turned away from each other.
Of course, Schopenhauer’s transcendent fatalism is dependent on looking back on one’s life, and memory is inherently faulty. Life will always seem more orderly and novelistic with the many bad days and boring days and plot threads that didn’t go anywhere dumped from our minds. You can’t write a novel out of someone holding the door open for you, or finding dimes on the ground. Yet how many award-winning books do you know revolve wholly around the world grinding our protagonist under its heel?
So many tiny happy things we’ll never get back, while the worst stick to the sides of the mind like tartar and rot. Getting my teeth filled in hasn’t stopped them from aching.
My mother returns from an Alcoholics Anonymous conference and tells stories of speakers who tried to kill themselves by shooting up their dog’s mange medication, speakers who drank on Antabuse and then drank their own vomit because it had alcohol in it. My friends tell me of mothers crashing dates, too drunk to cut a slice of pizza. They tell me of unspeakable things their drunk mothers have done to them, things neither party can clearly remember. My grandmother tells me of her drunk father coming home every night to play a violin that’s not there, until she turns fourteen and he’s tossed across the train tracks. At night, my grandmother occasionally calls the guy who didn’t help kill him but helped cover up the crime; he’s drunk every time.
When my mother is drunk, we hide the keys, and as I help her make her bed she tearfully complains that my father is writing her to be the villain. She sits in her rocking chair, the way she has every day for years, and watches TV. Sometimes my father tells me to sit in the other chair and watch her. More often than not, the night ends anticlimactically.
That’s one thing about stories people often gloss over: that no longer being alone in your pain means you can start measuring it up. You tell yourself you’re lucky over and over, like throwing old kitchen sponges into the sea.
In “Donkey-Skin,” the heroine for some reason must flee her childhood home in the skin of an ass or a bear. In a lot of cases, when not preceded by a “Love Like Salt,” the inciting episode is the “Monstrous Husband”—if it’s not an ogre that wants to marry the main character, then it’s her brother or father. Dundes, being a Freudian, attributes this to a projected desire of daughters onto their fathers (for which the girl wants to be punished, sometimes by the father cutting off her hands). But I don’t really blame him for that; Freudians apply this thinking to all child abuse in folktales. The concept that sometimes people consciously write about their own experiences seems to escape them.
When I think of a child’s desires projected onto a fairy tale, I think of The Cinderella Cat, where the heroine drops a chest lid onto her stepmother, instantly snapping her neck.
While writing this story I am interrupted; a friend, high on Adderall, calls me from New York and begs for my help on an essay due tomorrow. His assignment is to extract the truth about human existence from Samuel Beckett’s texts for nothing #4. It’s one in the morning. I guess that Beckett eventually realizes how silly it is, pretending his desire for a more inspiring, story-like life is something separate from his rational self.
I quote, “That’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.”
One night, my little sister calls me up late and asks if she can sleep in my bed while I’m gone.
The ATU system, or the Aarne-Thompson Uther Tale Type Index, is an attempt to classify every Indo-European folktale, fairytale, and fable based on the assumption that every tale is but a corruption of some Ur-form of itself. This method plots narrative distribution over space and time so that it may then swim back up the channel, looking for the perfect stories time has forgotten. An article from Atlas Obscura calls the ATU system “like the Dewey decimal system, but with more ogres,” and “a catalogue of the weird ways humans have explained the world to each other and themselves.”
Most versions of the “Bluebeard” Cycle — tales of type 311, 312a, and 955 — focus on the plight of the woman, telling most if not all of the story through her perspective. Folklorist Marina Warner goes so far as to say that a feminist retelling of the Fall in Eden is the “Bluebeard” Cycle’s “inner structure” — a woman defying authority in her quest for knowledge and living happily ever after for it.
One of the other titles for 312a is “The Brother Rescues His Sister from the Tiger.”
In “Love Like Salt,” the king asks each of his daughters how much they love him.
The first says, “I love you as I love my life.”
The second, “I love you better than all the world.”
The third, “I love you the way fresh meat loves salt.”
He kicks her out. In many versions, like King Lear, the sisters then kick him out once he’s signed over all his accounts.
My dad complained to my mother that I didn’t “give him anything” after he paid for my phone repair, despite my protests. Even writing this now, I think of the rug burn scarred onto my right elbow, of how red it was for weeks afterwards.
For my sixteenth birthday, my father wrote me a letter that to this day I have not opened.
Everything happens for a reason, the pastor says of every tragedy, from rape to earthquakes to cancer. God has a plan for you.
God has a plan for you, my grandmother says, speaking of my “deep soul” at the tender age of I Forget, But It Was Probably Late Middle School.
God has a plan for you, they say, and I think to the end of Babbitt, as the titular character tells his son: “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life!”
God has a plan for you, my mother probably thought as she named me — the firstborn, the one conceived a year to the day of her first and only miscarriage — after the Cabbage Patch doll she’s had since she was eleven years old.
When I was in middle school and still seeing my sister’s therapist, she asked me to write a poem from my mother’s point of view. I couldn’t bring myself to let go of the page. “You’re laughing,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem like you find this funny at all.”
Back then, it was my mother’s job to taxi me back and forth to appointments. I showed it to her in the car and she cried. I only vaguely remember what it said.
Every time I pass the Young Adult section at Barnes and Noble, it seems that ten new feminist fantasy action fairy tale retellings have sprung up, like a hydra with as many heads as there are drops in the sea.
“Do you think Mom could relapse?”
I struggle to speak coherently, until all I can ask is, “What makes you think that?”
“Nothing,” she says, looking away from our video-call. “Just that if Demi Lovato can relapse, so can Mom.”
Demi Lovato’s life experiences and our mother’s are very different, I tell her.
“Were you abused?” My boyfriend asks the second time I start bawling in the middle of sex, knelt down by the side of my bed, his large hands completely encasing mine. It’s the only narrative that makes sense to him. I’ve looked up the symptoms; I have them, more or less. Everything is familiar, yet there is nothing that I understand.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I don’t think so.” I don’t know. I never want to know.
I go to my closet, and on top of my pile of clothes I find another brown grocery bag. It is full of three small, empty bottles.
My sister swears Mom has been sober, and I call Mom in, who in turn swears she has no idea how they got there, they’re old, and I rest my mind with the knowledge that if she was lying, someone more observant than I would have told me about it.
My current boyfriend isn’t a poetic man by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes the planets align. One day I apologize for trapping him in my web, and he simply replies, “But your web is home.”
During one of Mom’s relapses, my father and I find ourselves in the basement. There are bottles of ancient beer and tequila in the fridge. I tell my dad I want to smash them; he tells me not to bother because Mom only drinks wine and vodka. Somehow it comes up that I write stories to understand what the hell other people are thinking.
Years later, I’ll find a huge wine bottle hidden in my room and smash it with a hammer out on the front porch. It’s very underwhelming.
“Obviously,” Propp writes, “the tale is born out of life; however, the wondertale is a weak transcript of reality.”
When I return home right before Fall Break, it is because I dropped the Fairgrounds phone, its screen shattered and unresponsive. I arrange my pick-up through email, and my father comes to get me. Without my music, we talk about his job, the falling out with his former business partner that has been dragged out since the summer, the contest he and my mother have to out-earn each other every week. Mom, he says, has been doing fine — she’s earning far more as a partner in their own firm than she ever was before.
The next day, he, my sister, and I pile into his newest car and drive to the AT&T store, and he gently bullies me into buying the latest and greatest Apple has to offer.
On the way home, Dad buys us a pizza so piping hot we have to turn it around in my lap so it’ll stop fogging up the windows. The story’s reset, and everything is normal again.
As I’m revising this story, I am interrupted and asked to go to my brother’s guitar recital. He has always downplayed how much he has wanted me to go, or so others tell me. My brother is fourth-to-last and somewhere around the second acoustic Imagine Dragons cover, my father and little sister create a group chat for venting our frustrations.
During one of the performances, I look over and see that my brother has texted Dad, “You’re the reason kids kill themselves,” to which our father has responded, “Therapists need to make a living too.”
Some time ago, quite casually, my brother told me I was one of the reasons he needed a therapist.
One month ago, my brother told me that he was secretly hammered during one of our midnight bullshitting-in-the-basement sessions.
Two years ago, my brother told me I’m the one holding this entire family back with my inability to let things go.
Every six months or so, my boyfriend and I fight over how he never understands why I say I’m sorry so often, and how I never believe him when he says he’s not angry.
I keep telling myself that one day I will write the story on why this story has been so hard to finish. I post it, I take it down within hours, I edit it for submissions without ever re-reading more than a sentence.
But here's the actual reason: I am ashamed. I am ashamed of my inability to communicate my pain to you without stripping my voice out entirely. I am ashamed to have ever been made this way—and how in telling my story, I am remaking my own destruction. Statues scrapped white with wire. Teeth worn out by the curious rooting of tongues far more than the cavity.
And here we thought the trend was towards giving fairy tale girls back their agency.
We had flown across states to attend my cousin’s wedding. My sister, despite her exaltation at being the flower-girl, had failed to pack any appropriate shoes. My mother had forced me to relinquish my comfortable flats; I’d wear her black high heels instead. With every step, I felt the bones in my foot spreading apart. My ankles wanted so badly to taste the floor.
What a beautiful greenhouse ceremony: Everywhere white flowers, leafy stalks climbing misted windows, buzzing family I hadn’t seen in years. And here I was thinking of how Ariel gave her voice to walk over knives. How the wedding is the perfect ending of the wondertale: the gold carriage, the white horses, the gentle sunset behind the golf course.
At the reception, I left my shoes under the table and raided the buffet. My brother and father and uncles drank bottles of beer and red wine. I had soda. Mom had water.
Italo Calvino’s fairy tale Catherine the Wise ends with the narrator undercutting the glorious reunion of cruel, stupid husband and clever, abandoned wife: “They lived happily ever after. While we sit here grinding our teeth.” It’s one of my favorite endings by far.
Truthfully, I’ve only had alcohol three times in my life. Here is the last:
When my mom was in jail, I paced the scalding edge of my friends’ community pool and felt the five or so experimental sips of vodka and blueberry drink mix solidify into a headache right above my eye. I didn’t grind my teeth, but my jaw ached just the same.
The joke of “Love Like Salt” is that at the end, the third daughter’s ungrateful father is invited to her wedding, in which none of the food is salted and thus tastes like shit. They tearfully embrace, all sins forgiven, and so live out the rest of their days in bliss — an ending so saccharine that it leaves you almost sick.
“Then it goes,” writes Beckett, speaking of his reason, “…and I’m far again, with a far story again…That’s where I’d go, if I could go, that’s who I’d be, if I could be.”
I should know, I was the one drunkenly tearing up her buffet.
Taylor Drake is a native Georgian and recent English graduate of Agnes Scott College. Her creative and academic writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Onyx Review, LURe, Outrageous Fortune, The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, and Storm Cellar Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter @grilledcowheart.