Check out this excerpt of Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, out on February 28 from Subterranean Press:
Valente’s adaptation of the fairy tale to the Old West provides a witty read with complex reverberations from the real world. Snow White is the daughter of a Crow woman abducted and forced into marriage by an unloving white magnate called only Mr. H. She gets her name in mockery, as white is “the one thing I was not and could never be.” When her father remarries, Snow White’s glimpse into the second Mrs. H’s mirror suggests they share the yoke of female subservience, but the two are inevitably at odds—so the young woman dons a man’s clothes and, like Huck Finn, chooses the “Indian Territory” that so frightens Mr. H’s world. Enter a pursuing Pinkerton’s detective, a pony named Charming, seven kick-ass outlaw ladies, and a variety of showdowns as Snow White searches for meaning, love, and a semblance of belonging. Any attempt to derive a simple message from this work would be an injustice to the originality of the atmosphere, the complexity of the interplay of its elements, and the simple pleasure of savoring Valente’s exuberant writing.
Coyote had a plan which he knew he could carry out because of his great power. He took his heart and cut it in half. He put one half right at the tip of his nose and the other half at the end of his tail.
How Snow White Got Her Cunning
The Creation of
I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver. It don’t trouble me none if any soul calls me a liar.
The biography of Mr. H is well known: he had one wife and one son and that was the beginning and the end of his capacity for love, excepting of course the copper lode in Peru, gold prospects in the Dakota Territories, the Idaho opal mine, and other pursuits I cannot tell you about as they are beyond my ken. Most everyone grants he was a kingly fellow, else the blue would not have showed itself to him. That is a wholly peculiar way of thinking, but it is very common.
This is the truth of it:
Flush and jangle with silver and possessed of a powerful tooth for both spending and procuring more of whatever glittered under the ground, Mr. H traveled to the Montana Territory on a horse so new and fine her tail squeaked. He disliked to travel in company, being a secretive man by nature. Mr. H had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up. The notion of a sapphire rush brewing in the Beartooth Range pricked up the north of that comstock-compass stuck in his heart. All the way out in San Francisco he felt the rumble of the shine. However, upon his arrival in Billings and establishment at the Bear Gulch Hotel, the whiskeytalk leaned another way: black diamonds. That is how coal miners appellate their livelihood. In my experience, folk find it nigh on impossible to call a thing what it is.
It never mattered much to Mr. H whether silver or sapphires or coal or copper weighed his pockets just so long as he never walked empty. He made his arrangements to accompany a pair of Cornishmen into the range the next morning. He strode out into the bone-cracking cold to survey the town, though Billings in those days could barely be called more than a camp. Horseshit outnumbered honest men by a margin.
Mr. H encountered the woman who would be his first wife by chance alone. She turned up like an ace of spades in the general store, trading elk meat for cotton cloth and buttons. Her brother, who had shot the beast, escorted her. But the girl did the bargaining. She had good English and did not like the owner of the general store.
The terrible covetous heart of Mr. H immediately conceived a starvation for the girl not lesser in might than his thirst for sapphires or gold. In the lamplight her hair had the very color of coal, plaited in two long braids and swept up at the brow into what I have heard called a pompadour. Her dark mouth was a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true. She looked over her shoulder at him and her body hardened to run if such became necessary. Mr. H took this slight stiffening as a sign that his feeling was returned. He saw no reason any person should fear him, being well-dressed and pleasant enough in his features. He had loved women already in his time, though never married, all of them of good though not old family. Square-shouldered sunburned freckles and kisses like milk and hair brushed a hundred times before bed. He savored a rich seam of shame over his lust for the Crow woman and this shame made him only more needful.
Mr. H purposed himself to have her. He inquired after her name, her family, how often she visited the town to trade, where she and hers might make their camp. The Beartooth coal ran thick and deep, but he did his business by rote. Mr. H had sung his song many times. It sang itself. His true occupation was now the striking of the Crow woman, whose name was Gun That Sings. At first, his imagination wakened only to the possibility of bedding her. He saw no reason this should not be possible and right quick. Silver speaks louder than sin. But when Gun That Sings returned to town with her relations and Mr. H had opportunity to clap eyes on her again, he knew he could not be satisfied except to own her entirely. A man don’t rent a silver mine. He buys it right out.
He attired himself in a fine new suit sent by coach from San Francisco along with jewelry, gowns, and other items indicating his affection, for he was prepared to make her a civilized woman. He would put silk on her body and emerald combs in her hair. He would teach her to read Shakespeare and encourage her to play out the part of wild Titania in his parlor at home, naked save for a belt of violets. He would instruct her in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and the keeping of the Sabbath; he would deliver to heaven a sterling modest maid. The anticipation of transforming her inspired a pleasure so sharp that Mr. H necessitated an entire afternoon to recover from it.
When Mr. H deemed the great moment of his matrimonials to have drawn close, he rode out on his combed and curried horse across the Bighorn River to the village of Gun That Sings’s people. Mr. H had often purchased meat and horses from Indians at what he considered a fair price and foresaw no trouble. The card-men at the Bear Gulch Hotel had informed him that the Crow allow their women to rule like heathen Cleopatras, and so Mr. H addressed himself to an old and august lady he spied leading a horse to pasture, requesting the presence of his bride-to-be.
When Gun That Sings was produced, Mr. H suffered some disappointment. She would not look at him, but kept her eyes fixed on the dirt. Her braids caught the winter light and seemed now not only as rich as coal but veined with liquid silver. Mr. H felt a powerful need. He behaved himself as though to a white woman. He presented his prospects to the maiden’s mother, his silver mine, his hopes for Dakota, his colleagues in Sacramento, his friends in Washington. As he described himself, the resolve of Mr. H hardened along with his impression of his own endowments, and he lost any doubt that he would be married before the night. Only an addled woman would despise the ring of such an excellent example of frontiersman quality.
I do not know what Gun That Sings said to him. If I had my rather, I would put words in her like bullets. I know she spurned him. That I do know.
Mr. H recovered his pride on the quick. Sometimes a man finds it necessary to work a claim for a space before it gives up the blue. He returned to his rooms to collect the bride gifts that would ensure her. Mr. H chose a gown like the sun to represent him. It sported a high bustle as was the fashion in the city, with sharp pleating at the skirt-hem and a neckline I would not wear if it were stitched in paper money. But the color did not recall the wholesome sun of spring. Its model was instead the terrible inferno of the sun itself, hanging in black space like a Utah ruby, erupting into eternity, pocked with lava.
Once again, Mr. H rode out past the river and presented the baleful dress to Gun That Sings. She looked on it and began to shake in her shoes. Mr. H pressed the gown upon her but she wept bitterly into the cloth and said to her mother: “These are white woman’s clothes. Put them in the river; I will burn up inside them.”
Mr. H brought next a gown like the moon. This one presented a wasp waist and high lace collar. So much fabric in that skirt it bent a back to lift it over its skeleton-hoop of leather and wire. The shimmer of it took after the moon itself, hard and without poetry, stuck in the orbit of the thoughtless earth like a California pearl. Mr. H lay the dress across the flank of his horse like a stolen girl and forded the Bighorn to lay it out for Gun That Sings. She trembled something fearful and tore the brocade wrestling herself free. She said to her mother: “These are clothes for a white woman. Give them to a white woman. Put them in the fire; I will choke on them.”
Mr. H suffered no discouragement for desire speaks louder than decorum. He drew from his trunk a gown like the stars at night. Its long sleeves and gathered skirt were black as Bibles, stitched all over with tiny crystals. In its folds Mr. H concealed a necklace of Colorado diamonds so fine and luxurious anyone who looked at it felt like they were looking at a naked woman, and turned away. The dress of stars glowed with cold, lonely fire, like the Dog Star howling in the black. Mr. H saddled his horse and rode out a third time. When Gun That Sings saw the dress and the necklace she tried to run from it like it was death come for her, but Mr. H caught her up in his arms. He felt a big man with her there, not going anywhere at all. He held her by the throat. He put the necklace on her, all them diamonds hanging down her chest like war medals. Gun That Sings did not cry but stared him down with fury and didn’t say a damn thing.
Mr. H didn’t let her go for a second. He stood to Gun That Sings’ brothers and her mama and her father with his hand on the butt of his gun and told stories about how hitched up he’d got with General This-and-That and Senator Big-Name and wasn’t it a nice patch of earth you people have here, right on the river and green as you please. All his Washington friends would just pick up and move right on out here fast as a cough if they could see it. Gun That Sings heard what he had to say and what he didn’t say, too, and the next Sunday she stood there in her dress of stars and said her vows and signed her name Sarah H. on the register because you can’t name a girl for a gun in civilized society.
And I guess that’s how a man gets a wife. I’ve heard it told elsewise but I don’t believe it.
Well, Mr. H took his bride to a place he was building, a castle by the sea. He put silk on her body and emerald combs in her hair. He brushed out that hair every night, wrapped himself up in it, drank up the color and heat of coal in it. He kissed her dark blood-bright mouth over and over like he could drink out the color of them too. Mr. H told it with pride that he taught her to read Shakespeare even though she had English letters just fine already. He made her play wild Titania for him wearing nothing at all, not even violets. He instructed her in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and the keeping of the Sabbath and he got her with child.
In his private prayers Mr. H said the following: let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine.
By now I expect you are shaking your head and tallying up on your fingers the obvious and ungraceful lies of my story. Well, I have told it straight. A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood which is its history. My body is my truth, and I have laid it out as evidence on the table of my father’s reputation, for by now you may have guessed my next revelation: I was the child Mr. H put inside of Gun That Sings.
Mrs. H uncovered her condition in wintertime. It did not snow much in that part of the country but the ground did freeze, and frost over, and purchase from heaven a meager dusting of the cold stuff. Gun That Sings went out into the forest at night. All the stars like dresses hung up in the sky. She took up a kitchen knife and hacked at her arms until steam rose out of her like she was a kettle. Her blood dripped down onto the white ground and she hoped she’d die but she didn’t. Mr. H’s people found her and patched her up and locked her in a little room til the baby could come at which point she died anyway, all alone in that big unfinished house.
My father did love me after a kind. He liked to see me trotted out for supper in a lacy white dress, so he could see my black hair against it. He liked to see me dressed in black so my skin looked lighter against that. Less regular, he put me into calfskin and two long braids which is how Crow girls dress. I did not like the look of him when I did that. Mr. H did not often introduce me to his business acquaintances or his more intimate partners. A daughter was a special doll to be kept in a glass cabinet. An automatic girl the master of the house brought out to entertain at the table with charming words, to be polished up with powder and elaborate costumes. Pull the lever in her heart and she dispenses love, pose her arms and legs and she exhibits grace—then put her away in her cabinet again.
I gradually understood the truth of my situation: I was a secret. Few enough of my father’s folk knew he’d married anybody in the first place. Gun That Sings had barely outlived the mail service that delivered their nuptial announcements. Mr. H found it more difficult to explain the sudden appearance of a daughter than to have me privately instructed and forbid me to leave the grounds of the slowly growing castle by the sea.
For a long time this did not trouble me as the grounds would have put the shame to Eden and Babylon. The hills swooped down to the shore in grassy, gentle humps, split up into gardens, fields full of pheasant and grouse for hunting, stables and ponds, good pine forests. Up on the north acreage, my father ordered a tiny zoo built, along with a brass carousel and a miniature boardwalk along the creek. The boardwalk boasted two shooting galleries, a dime museum full of paintings of faraway cities in Europe and South America, and a saloon with a player piano and sarsaparilla taps that never seemed to run dry. Inside the saloon stood a black and silver slot machine specially made to accept wooden coins my father had struck as part of my raising—they pictured myself on one side and Mr. H on the other. I received a set and non-negotiable number of these every month and could trade them for toys, extra helpings of dessert, another hour before bedtime, or any other sorts of things for which a child might wheedle and beg. The spinners on the slot machine depicted a lonely tree in winter, spring, summer, and autumn. If I lined up the seasons correct, real coins would spill into the tray, silver dollars like raindrops.
I played alone on the boardwalk. My governess was not allowed there as Mr. H felt every soul required a space to lord over. The sun beat my hair and the magpies watched me hopscotch across the birch slats. The slots spun only for me. I pulled my own mugs of sarsaparilla. I shot the tin geese in the galleries over and over again until dark. Sometimes the dime museum paintings changed, but I never saw new canvases hung up or old ones taken down. I had no friends or company other than my father, my governess Miss Enger, and the groundskeeper, who came to feed the animals Mr. H collected on his travels and installed in the zoo. We had an ancient circus bear called Florimond, a red fox, a slow-witted buffalo, a shaggy gibbon’s monkey. I was powerful afraid of the crocodile, even though she was caged up. The coyote also lived in a cage, as he could not be trusted to come back if we let him roam like the fox and the bear, who knew a good thing and an easy meal. I recall specially a pair of enormous emerald-colored parrots with red and yellow and purple feathers my father had brought by sea from the West Indies. They could talk a little but they did not speak English.
Mr. H liked more than anything to see me dressed like a boy, with a cattleman’s hat and a revolver made to my hand. It had a grip pounded out of the first silver bars of Mr. H’s fortune, so pure and bright it could blind a body cold. That would have been gun enough for any girl, but I reckon my father had nowhere else to spend his love back then. He had great big red pearls stuck into it like drops of blood spattered on the snow, one for every time I pleased him. On my tenth birthday he presented me a black opal the size of his thumb which he set himself into the pommel.
Like your mother’s eyes, he said. Like your eyes, he said.
When I looked at it I did not see my mother’s eyes. I saw fire. Veins of fire like anger in the dark. Like coal. Like coals. And in the silver I saw my face reflected like a terrible, wonderful mirror.
I could shoot that gun easy as spitting. The tin gallery-geese, the apples off the orchard trees. I named my gun Rose Red for them fancy cranberries nubbling up against my palm. It was some years before I understood that pearls were more usually white. My main observation on the matter of the opal was that it changed the weight of my gun, which did not please me. If I was not shooting the pea-rifle at tin buffalo on the boardwalk, I spent the better number of my afternoons shooting bottles on my father’s high fences, also rabbits, black squirrels, and opossums which I gave to the groundskeeper. He took the meat and returned me the pelts and I judged that a sound bargain. On occasion I shot big black rats which I gave to the coyote, as I do not prefer rat fur. He crunched their skulls between his jaws. He watched me with yellow eyes while he did it. When he howled he sounded like a body dying.
Once, I took a bead on a seagull and shot it plumb out of the sky. I did not expect to come close to it. As soon as it dropped down toward the sea my heart fell through a hole in my chest. I looked for the bird all over the meadowy grass, crying miserable. The sun set my tears to boiling. I talked myself into the notion that I would find the seagull wounded through the wing and keep her and mend her and teach her to love humans and live in a house. She would help me and bring me fish and be my companion. She would sleep in my bed with her soft head against my shoulder.
I found the poor bird down at the bottom of a green hill. I had put my bullet straight through her black eye.
Mr. H paid wages to these folk, though I am not accounting for the men he employed in San Francisco, Sacramento, Chicago, and New York as I never met them. Most all got some extra scratch for keeping quiet about my person.
Mrs. Maureen Whitney, Housekeeper
Miss Marie Andersen, Kitchen Maid
Miss Annie Dougall, House Maid
Miss Mary Duffy, Laundry Maid
Mrs. Catherine Kenny, Cook
Miss Beatrice Criscone, Scullery Maid
Mr. Thomas Button, Butler
Mr. George Button, Valet
Mr. Simon Paget, Hall Boy
Mr. Garland Clague, Groundskeeper
Mr. Linus Healy, Stablemaster
Mr. Peter Fjelstad, Stablehand
Mr. Henry Fredrik, Useful Man
Miss Christabel Enger, Governess
I had nursemaids and the like but I do not remember any of them.
Snow White’s Father
Replaces Arrows With Bones
I was eleven years of age when Mr. H married the daughter of Mr. M.
The wedding occurred at high summer in the castle by the sea. A whole mess of new people suddenly tramped all over my private kingdom, tying gardenias to every damn thing and building silk tents in the golden grass. The Mr. Buttons were so fussed I thought their heads would fly off and Mrs. Kenny hollered something fierce at the sculleries. The cream was too feared to whip.
The new Mrs. H was a stranger to me. I knew the following interesting items concerning her: Mr. M was a railroad baron and owned most everything Mr. H didn’t. She had grown up in Boston and gone to a fancy Paris school for girls. She knew French and Spanish and Latin. Some kind of scandal worried her back east. I heard the wedding people say Mr. H was good to take her after all that business. But I also heard them say the only reason she would marry a man with no family name at all was because of her lowered station.
They all said she was beautiful. It hurt to look at her sometimes, if the wine stewards were to be believed and I did not. Who ever heard of a person so pretty it pinched to set eyes on them? Probably they were drunk, I reasoned.
Mr. H told me to stay out of the way and I did. I stayed in my zoo while the wedding went up like a white circus. I chewed licorice root while the red fox whom I had named Thompson curled in my lap and the big old raggedy bear snored away. Who, who? hooted the monkey. Elle, elle, answered the emerald parrots together as they did not hold forth separately. I thought on how excited Mr. H got over the idea of a wife. He kept a picture of her in his breast pocket but he would not let me see it. He barely looked at me at dinner, even if I wore my hair in two braids. I did not see the appeal of a wife. We had never had one before. She would not be half as interesting as our buffalo.
Miss Enger said a man required a helpmeet and a solace. She said a house like this cried out for a feminine hand. She said poor Mr. H longed for companionship and children of his own. Two things settled into my brain upon listening to my governess philosophize on the marital condition. The first was that Mr. H had lied upon the matter of me; Miss Enger believed I was his ward and not his daughter. The second was that Miss Enger nurtured hopes concerning my father that had recently been squashed flat. Before Miss Enger my governess had been a Canadian lady called Miss Grace Bornay. She did not think I was anybody’s ward. But she and the rest except Mr. Clague the groundskeeper had been let go and new souls brought in a year back. Miss Enger was prettier than Miss Bornay, but Miss Bornay could play the flute and Miss Enger could not so it all came out in the wash.
The fox wandered off into his little fox-house and I walked down to my empty saloon. Maybe the new Mrs. H would sit with me the way the fox did. Maybe she would come to my saloon and play cards around the table where no one else ever upped an ante or called. It might be good fun to play with another body. Maybe she would brush my hair and sing to me and that would be nice. Maybe she liked to shoot. Maybe she would teach me Latin and French and dancing. Maybe she’d want to dress me up as something. Maybe she would love me the way I loved my gun.
I spun the slot machine. Four winter trees whirled up, bare and heavy with ice. A silver dollar rolled into the pan. It echoed a good while.
Bites Her Own Reflection
Mrs. H arrived the night before the wedding. A white stagecoach brought her. The inside of the stagecoach was black. I wanted to pick flowers for her and practice a welcome speech. Mr. H told me no. He said I would have plenty of time with her later. I was not to come down or bother her. I was not to bother Mr. M or his servants. I was not to pick flowers for anyone. I was to wait in my room and play with Miss Enger and my toys until the wedding was over, and then Mr. H would figure a way to present me.
I did not apprehend before that moment that Mrs. H did not know Mr. H for a widower with a child already on the ground. She did not think he had a ward, either. She did not know about me at all. If you ask me how I felt on that I will tell you nothing good.
So I watched her come into the house from the window of my bedroom. I hid in the red curtains and peeped down on her. I gathered information. She wore a grey dress with embroidery and white boots. Her hair was braided up nice. It had a color like good whiskey. I could not see her face, only her scalp, white and sharp as a knife. She had what I guess menfolk call a figure. She walked graceful as a greyhound. Mr. H helped her out of the coach and kissed her cheek. Mr. M bounded out the other side and clapped my father on the shoulder and his piggy jowls shook when he did it. I couldn’t hear them talking because my bedroom was very far up. They looked like a puppet show, pumping each other’s hands up and down and laughing without making noise.
The new Mrs. H looked up at my window. I am certain she saw me, but I ducked anyway. Her face was shaped like a heart and so pale I thought she might be sick. It did hurt to look at her after all. She looked like a painting that used to hang in my dime museum, with a lady on a shell coming out of the sea. She looked like somebody’s mother. But not mine.
It was not customary for a lady to bring her things inside the house while she remained unmarried. They left it all at the servants’ doors. Draped with muslin, her trousseau looked like some dreadful machine. I snuck out to look at it while they had a big dinner inside. I could see them through the window. Mr. M drank a bear’s measure of wine and his mustache turned red. The new Mrs. H didn’t drink at all. She moved her finger around the rim of her glass and didn’t sip and watched everyone like a bobcat. Her finger had a ring on it. I knew it was not an engagement ring as it was on her forefinger. It was green, but I did not think it was an emerald. I am only dwelling on her ring because it will be important later. I expect everyone in Boston has something like that ring, which is why I am glad I have never been to Boston.
I took my eyes back from the dinner table on the other side of the window. I lifted the muslin. Underneath it was a chest of linens which I did not find interesting. I walked around the right side of her belongings and lifted the cloth again. I found a chest full of little bottles. Each of them had some different liquid inside it and they smelled something awful. They smelled moldy and damp and also sharp and spicy. They smelled, if you want to know it, like Florimond’s pelt after he had gotten rained on. I had on occasion scratched and kissed the old circus bear in the wintertime when he slept very soundly so I am familiar with such smells. As I could not guess what use the bottles might have, I walked around the left side of her belongings and pulled up the drape.
Underneath that was the biggest mirror I ever saw.
It was not like any of the mirrors Mr. H had brought over from Italy and France, with gold all over them and fat babies holding up the corners. It did not have any roses or lilies or ribbons cut out of silver. It was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The glass was so full up of dark it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror. The frame was wood, but wood so old and hard and cold it felt like stone. I reckoned if it came from a tree that tree was the oldest, meanest tree in a forest so secret not even birds knew about it. That tree saw dinosaurs and did not think much of them. I touched the mirror and my fingers went hot and cold, like candles melting.
The moon came on inside the mirror. I could see the craters and the mountains on it clear and true. But the night above my head was moonless as a sack of wool. I dropped the muslin but I did not scream. I do not scream generally or cry very much. But I can run powerful fast.
Obtains a Mother
He married her.
I knew I was not to attend the wedding, but I scrapped up a black oak tree and saw the whole thing start to finish. It all happened at sunset under a tent with silver stars painted on it. I never saw so many lanterns or so many flowers. I thought: nobody else in the whole world must have any roses now. Mr. H wore a black suit and looked just as fine as rain. A pack of fancy folk arrived in coaches. The ladies wore dresses like springtime and egg whites. The fellows wore velvet and other fabrics I was not aware of. Some of them had long bright guns I would have liked to get a better look at. Little girls and boys threw violet petals on the grass. They were somebody’s children, I cannot say whose. I thought to myself that I could throw petals better. The littlest ones dumped half their baskets in one spot. I wanted to throw violets, too. I would throw them so good Mrs. H would give me a kiss.
When the bride came out of the house everybody sighed. She had a dress on all lace and silk like a snowflake and pearls all over her head. Around her neck was a necklace of Colorado diamonds so luxurious I didn’t want to look at it, like if I looked at it, I had already stolen it.
After, they danced together. Violins and harps and horns and drums played to wake the moon. Mr. H never stopped smiling. He kissed her seventeen times. I know because I counted. Mr. M danced with a girl in a pink dress and only got two kisses. The violet-tossing children ate too much cake and fell asleep on the grass.
There was a fountain of champagne and it looked like starlight you could drink.
I fell asleep in the black oak tree.
Scratch Each Other
My father and Mrs. H took their honeymoon in Peru where Mr. H intuited the good blue waited for him. I will observe that not even the softness of a bed containing Mrs. H could cool his lechery for silver. The only word I received from them was a painting that appeared in my dime museum. It appeared as suddenly and without warning as if a ghost hung it up. I looked at it a long time. It showed a kind of pyramid with sides like staircases and a flat top. That is how they build pyramids in South America, which I know from reading a great number of books. Jaguars live in South America also. I would like to see a jaguar someday, but probably I will not. In the painting, a person stood on the top of the pyramid. It looked like a woman, but the figure was very tiny and I am not artistic. She held her arms straight up, toward the moon rising over the pyramid. I could not help but think of the mirror. I had not been able to find it again once they moved Mrs. H’s things into the house. Maybe the moon had gotten out of the mirror and decided to live in my painting instead.
I was a child and when you are a child you think things like that.
Mr. H sent word by telegraph that I was to stay in my rooms so as not to make worry for Mrs. H once they returned. If I liked I might spend my days on the boardwalk once my lessons were done, but at night I must obey Miss Enger, eat what is left over, and look after myself. Surely I had enough toys and books to amuse any girl. Miss Dougall minded me like a pot of boiling water. The housemaid locked my door at night and kept me out of the front rooms with the end of a broom. Miss Dougall was the sheriff of my father’s law and every night I wished she would fall down the stairs and bust her big curly head. She did not oblige me. Miss Enger patted my hand in sympathy but did not unlock my door or bring me anything extra to eat.
I sat at my window. I spun the chamber on Rose Red and ran my fingers over the pearls in the grip. There were a lot of them by then. I had pleased Mr. H often, but it had been a good bit since he’d given me any new pearls. If I obeyed Miss Dougall perhaps I would get another. This idea cheered me up some.
Things began to happen all in a row: I knew my father and Mrs. H had come home, I could hear them laughing and walking and banging forks against plates. But I was not called for. My food was brought. My linens seen to. Miss Enger did not come to see me anymore. Mrs. H sent her on her way with a fair clutch of money and a reference. A new Irish hall girl drew the chore of my lessons. She was called Moira Daly and could not herself read. She was very apologetic, however, and I took it on myself to teach her letters so that somebody between the two of us could learn a thing. Still, no one called for me. Miss Daly was not nearly brave enough to take my questions downstairs.
In the evening, I could hear Mrs. H playing the pianoforte. She was very good at it. She sang as well, and was particularly fond of strange old songs like Hymn to the Evening Star and Fairies of the Hill. I lay against the floor and listened every night. I drank her voice up like milk.
I had never heard a woman sing before. Only the coyote in his cage and the seagulls crying.
After Miss Daly’s lessons each morning, I crept out of my window and shimmied down the olive tree. I came away yellow with olive pollen and ran up to my boardwalk where Thompson the fox waited for his bowl of sarsaparilla. Florimond wandered around his paddock on his hind legs, looking for a trainer to praise him. I gave him the apples from my breakfast. I do not care for apples.
I played cards with Thompson in my saloon. He had lost the trick, but I suspected he had the Queen and I was done for already. Thompson chewed on the seven of spades.
A shadow moved over the saloon-door. It was not a groundskeeper’s shadow. It was not a bear’s shadow. I looked up and I will confess I was angry. No one was allowed up there but me. Miss Enger, Miss Bornay, even rotten Miss Dougall knew they had no power here. They had the whole house and the world on top. The saloon was my place, and whoever it was would not get any sarsaparilla. But it was not Miss Enger or Miss Bornay or Miss Dougall.
Mrs. H stood in the doorway. She wore a vermillion dress. With the sun behind her she looked like a planet on fire. Her heart-shaped face was blank. I suddenly felt very shabby and small in my playdress. She was ever so much taller and prettier than I would ever be. Wherever they invented women like that, it was country I could never even visit.
Thompson leapt away from the table and skittered under the bar. Mrs. H moved in her greyhound way, her heels clicking on the floorboards. She sat down and took up the red fox’s cards, fanned them out like an old gambler. She slotted the seven of spades into her hand, bending back the chewed-up part. Her fingers had nail paint on them which I had never seen before, not being acquainted with many fine women. I stared. The paint looked like blood. Was she sick? She was so pale and her nails so red. Did she hunt, like me, and dress her own kills? Had she killed something today and forgotten to wash herself? Mrs. H said nothing. She drew a card from her hand laid it down between us. I could see the green ring better. It was an uncut emerald the size of a man’s knuckle with fiery flaws winking down at the bottom of it like fish in a pond.
Mrs. H laid down the Queen of Spades. I’d lost. The Queen of Spades has black eyes and black hair, like me, but her gown is red, like Mrs. H’s.
“So you’re the little Indian child,” she said, and those were Mrs. H’s first words to me. She looked all around the room. Looking at her felt like drinking something harsh and strong. It woke you up and made you dizzy all at once. Her eyes were green like her ring.
“I can see we have a lot of work to do,” she sighed.
My whole body felt like I had when I touched the mirror under the muslin. Like a candle melting into icewater.
“Please,” I whispered. “Don’t be mean to me. I’m good. I promise I’m good.” That sounded babyish and nonsensical out of my own mouth. I tried again. I spit in my hand and held it out like I’d seen Mr. H do with horse-breeders. “If you love me, I’ll love you back,” I bargained.
Mrs. H laughed. The wind picked up outside. I did not think she would shake on it but she did. Her fingers were cool on mine. She avoided my spat-upon palm and wiped her hands on her skirt afterward.
Mrs. H reached over the card table and smoothed my hair between her fingertips. “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean. And that hair! Black as coal, and those lips, as red as the hearts your savage mother no doubt ate with relish. That’s all right. All women have a taste for hearts. But you will discover that I am a gentle soul. If you do as I say and imitate me as best you are able, perhaps you will find yourself gentled as well. It is not beyond possibility that God will overlook your coarser half and take you to His bosom at the end of days.”
Mrs. H stood up. Her dress rustled like breath. She walked over to the slot machine and pulled the arm without dropping a coin into its mouth. The reels spun. Four red apples whirled up, glossy and dark. I had spun that beast a thousand times and never seen one apple. Silver dollars exploded into the pan like rifle-fire. Mrs. H left them there. She left the door swinging. She left me alone.
From that day forward she never used my name. Eventually I forgot it. Mrs. H called me something new. She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.
Six-Gun Snow White © Catherynne M. Valente 2013