Tale Telling by Couri Johnson

Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts, a rust belt refugee living in Japan, and a lover of strange fairy tales. You can find more of her work by following her on twitter @a_couri.


Tale Telling

There is a building in town whose roof is dotted with plastic dog statues. It`s a dump, really. Squat, ugly, painted rust red and old-coffee-stain yellow in a way that suggests one of the colors was slapped on cause they ran out of the first. Outside it says it’s a post office museum and a thrift store. The roof is made of tin, and the dogs all look the same, sitting stiff and obedient, with their mouths open in anticipation and their eyes cast upward at an invisible master they adore.

There were maybe a dozen of the dogs the weekend I first met you. The building was on the outside of uptown, right before it got nice. I passed by it on my way to where we would meet, and there was something in my heart that wasn’t exactly anxiety or excitement. The closest I can come to explaining it is by saying I felt a little like a teenager. But that’s not true either. It had been a long time since I had felt anything like being young.

See, I think aging works like this: time is like these drops of water pouring steadily in you. Each moment adds up and adds up until inside you’re flooded, right? And everything just starts feeling damp and sluggish and heavy. The worse the moment, the heavier the downpour.

I was already at a point that was full to burst. And I think I envied those dogs. I could tell from the way the light shone through them that there was nothing inside weighing them down.

***

There’s a story I read when I was younger about this girl who had loved this man. They were wed, but something went amiss. She did something she ought not have, and so he had to leave. He didn’t even want to exactly, but that’s the way it had to be. And as penance she had to wear iron shoes that cut her with every step she took. And she took a lot. After he left, she walked the world looking for him. She climbed ice cliffs, walked deserts, and nearly drowned wading through rivers.

There are lots of stories out there like that. So many that folklorists have given them their own classification. The Search for the Lost Husband. One of its earliest incarnations is found in a myth about the Goddess Freyja, which also served as inspiration for Snow White. She laid with a bunch of dwarves for a golden necklace. When she returned home her husband was gone. She got in her chariot and rode for ages searching for him, but she never did see him again.

Sometimes, that happens.

But this girl found her husband. He took the shoes off her, and he took her back. But by then they were both old, and her feet were nothing more but ribbons of torn muscle and bone peeking through. The skin was all gone. And I guess that’s always what I thought love was. Something you had to search and suffer for that would flay you to the bone.

***

We met at a hotel known for the creeping ivy that crawled up its walls. It looked like the backdrop to a Victorian period piece, but it was only a five-minute walk down the street from that place with the dogs. It was a place only people with money could afford to stay at, and even the small café on the first floor was outside of my price range. But it was a nice place to meet. In the courtyard there was a fountain in the middle of the cobblestone pathway, and the whole thing was lined with rosebushes. It was the end of winter then, though, so they weren’t much more than bundles of twigs twisting out of the ground.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I was trying to arrange things to be just right. Like that could make things turn out right. Or at the very least keep them from going bad.

The first time I saw you, you were standing in the courtyard, looking into the fountain with a coin perched on your thumb and index finger. When you saw me come toward you, you put the coin back in your pocket and came forward to shake my hand instead. I thought that maybe this could work.

That night we stayed up drinking. We talked. I put my mouth to yours, and each time your lips parted it felt a little like the water inside me was emptying out. Wherever you touched it felt like my skin was peeling away until I was nothing more than bone. And I thought that maybe that meant something.

But maybe those aren’t things to be thinking or doing or feeling during the first night of knowing someone.

On my walk home the wind picked up, and I watched the dogs waver on the roof, as if at any moment they might take off like kites.

***

Other stories have girls set up opposite lovers who start out detestable. Girls carried away from their homes on the backs of bears, dogs, and pigs, and alienated until their love heals whatever ailment is making the man inside a monster. The most famous of this, of course, is “Beauty and the Beast,” which is also the name folklorists gave to that category.

I spent a lot of time with stories like that when I was growing up. Now that I’m older, people talk about Stockholm syndrome. They talk about gaslighting and conditioning. It’s not romance, they say now. It’s abuse.

And I guess that’s true.

There was this one story about a girl who was taken away by a little short-toothed hound from her father`s house. She would beg him all the time to take her home, and each time he would agree, carry her within a few feet and let her off his back. When she approached the house he would ask her what he called himself, and she would say, “Dearest.” Then he would ask what she called him, and she would tell him “mangy cur,” or “trash fur,” or “the worst thing that’s ever fucking happened to me in my life.” And she would run. She would get so close that her fingertips would brush the doorknob, and then the dog would snatch her by the back of her shirt and drag her all the way back to his home. It only stopped when she finally accepted him and called him the name he wanted. Then he turned into a man, and they lived happily ever after, despite all of that still being a shitty thing to do to someone.

I guess you do what you have to when you’re broken to fix yourself.

And maybe there’s a part of me that never really learned love wasn’t about being brutal and ugly. About being isolating. About being a little terrifying.

And so maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised when it happened to us.

***

We developed a routine of it. Meet, go home together, drink as it grew dark until it grew light and pour ourselves into each other. At first it seemed natural enough. Spring was slow in coming, and when it started to come at all it came in angry. Winds, rains, the constant threat of a hurricane looming off coast. It was best just to take cover and huddle up under a blanket with a bottle of liquor to split between the two of us. It was a month and a half in that I started to worry maybe this wasn’t enough for you. It was about a month and a half in that I started to feel things weren’t pouring out, but pouring back in.

This was all starting to sit wrong with me on our walk toward your place, and I stopped to look up at those dogs again. As a precaution against the weather the shopkeeper had run a series of bungee cords from one end of the roof to the other and wrapped them around the bodies and necks of the dogs. On the side of the building the ladder was still leaning against the roof. The wind kept kicking the dogs up to strain against the cords.

“Do you want to go in?” you asked.

I was so worried saying no would lead to you leaving that I went along with it.

Inside it was lit by a single lamp in the corner behind the counter, at which a short, rotundish woman sat flipping through a magazine. All the merchandise was piled on tables set far enough apart to make aisles. We walked through them, picking up this old thing and that. There were mostly chipped and all obviously trash.

“Where’s the post office museum?” I asked.

The woman at the counter looked up at me with a scowl on her face and struggled to her feet. She came around the counter and moved a curtain away from what I’d assumed was a window. Behind it was a narrow door made of plywood with a slot cut in the wood about halfway up, and a hole where the doorknob should be.

She turned and looked us up and down. “Five bucks a head,” she told us. We looked at each other. You shrugged and reached for your wallet. When she was paid she hooked her finger through the hole and dragged the plywood door forward in a way that made it grind against the floor. From out behind it poured envelopes and folded pieces of paper. The woman kicked them back in and then stepped aside so we could slink through.

She came in and pulled the cord to an exposed hanging light above our head.

The whole room was about the size of two public restroom stalls. Along the walls there were shelves divided into cubby holes, some filled with old bronze stamps and silver scales, most of them warped and blackened. Others were filled with letters.

Some of the letters were burnt and browned. Some were yellowed by age. Others were white as movie snow. They were all over the floor. They crumpled under our feet like leaves as we stepped into the enclosed space and looked around. On the wall was a plaque that you read aloud at a half-whisper.

“Once a city post office stood here until a fire burned it down in 1944, claiming the lives of three postmen and destroying a majority of the letters, most of which were from the army, meant to reach families of deceased soldiers. Ignorant of their own loss, the families went on writing letter after letter to the dead until the end of the war came, and the soldiers never came home. But neither had their letters. People began to bring letters to the wrecked post office for those who had passed on. The superstition was that the deceased postmen would continue to deliver them. That’s what they had done with all the letters addressed to the soldiers after they died. Even after this building was constructed, the trend continued and spread. Now, people come here to send letters to those they can no longer reach. Ask about our rates at the counter.”

“I’d never heard of it,” you concluded. I nodded in agreement and we both looked to the woman.

The woman said,  “It`s five bucks to leave a letter.”

“We’re good,” I said. “So what’s with the dogs?”

She cocked her eye at me and grunted. I lifted my eyes to the roof and repeated myself.

“No one loves a mailman more than a dog.” She caught the look of skepticism that passed between us and snorted. “If not, then why are they always chasing after them?” With that she turned and shoved her way out the door and closed it behind her. We stood, hands in our pockets, looking around.

“What are we supposed to do here?” you asked.

“Read the letters?”

You looked uncomfortable at the thought, but I didn’t see any other option so I squatted down and picked up a handful of crumpled papers.
I started reading a few out loud. The one I first got ahold of was a letter from a father to children he couldn’t see due to a court ruling, at least from what I could gather. It ended pitifully. It ended with threats of suicide. The next was no better—a fiancé whose intended died in a car accident. Soon I stopped reading aloud. Soon we were both sitting on the floor, reading our own letters and setting them aside on the counter when they were finished. Some bore detailed accounts of entire relationships. Among many there were common motifs, and I started to categorize them in my head. High School Sweethearts Gone Sour, Soul Mates with Cancer, Friends and Fatal Accidents.

The unifying theme of each was longing, of course. Maybe different longings, but a longing of such pure intensity that it felt dirty just to touch the paper. A longing I had forgotten was possible.

I looked to you once, but you had your back toward me.

By the end of it I was crying. You must have heard, because you asked if we should go, and when I didn’t say anything you got up and maneuvered past me to push the door open and step outside. I stood up, scattering papers off the counter as I found my feet. You’d already made it to the front door.

I followed you out past the woman, and down the road to your house.

***

That night as we nursed our bottle we didn’t talk much, and we didn’t meet each other’s eyes. I felt the drip of each second reverberate in my bones until it was in my head beating. Tick tick tick, like the second hand of a clock.

I wanted to touch your face, but there was ink on my fingers. There was something broken that passed from the letters into our bloodstream. At least, that’s all that I could imagine having happened. I don’t know why else I would have hesitated. I don’t know why else you would have asked what you asked.

“Who?”

And I don’t know why else I would have answered. I don’t know why else my answer would have led to tears. I don’t know why else my tears would have made you so angry.

And I don’t know why else it would have come to fists, except maybe that’s just how it is with love.

***

Remember the story of Bluebeard? The young girl he married. They lived in a great big house together, and everything was fine for a while. She was beautiful, he was doting. Maybe it wasn’t love exactly, but it showed potential. And all he ever asked was that she never open this one door at the end of the main hall. But of course, she did what she ought not, and all that potential turned to so much ash in her mouth. So much blood on his hands.

That’s what lovers are. A series of closed doors that ought not to be opened.

***

The next part was all bits, and pieces, and body parts really. A few times I went for the door, and I’d feel the knob in my hands, and then you’d pull me back. Sometimes you would go to leave, and I would bar the way. Sometimes I’d be pushing you. Sometimes your hands would be on my throat. And all the time there was a deluge flooding out of us. The deluge we had passed between each other’s mouths. That we’d tasted on each other’s tongues. But we had never asked about.

***

Cinderella left a glass slipper behind, we all know that. Other lesser-known girls left behind their fair share as well. My favorite, Allerleirauh, also known as She-Bear, or Many Fur, or Donkey-skin, left a golden reel, a golden spindle, and a golden ring. There have been leaves from the tree of everlasting life, apple sprigs stolen from gods, and talking horses’ heads all laid on the altar of love.

I had none of those things. Instead I left behind my socks and a few cigarette butts. My mucus on your collar. My fingernail in your shoulder.

***

The sun didn’t exactly rise that day due to the heavy blanket of rain clouds that had settled in during the early morning. When the rain began to fall, I found myself on the street somehow, two blocks away from your house, heading up the main road. The early risers were trickling into the street for work. Some drove by me slowly, and I could never figure if it was because of the rain, which was coming down in sheets, or the way my clothes were hanging off me and the light pattern of blood down my front. Regardless, none of them stopped.

Under their straps the dogs were bucking with the wind, and I stopped to watch. The rain beat against their plastic fur and slid down the tin roof and out of the storm drain harmlessly. My hair, my shirt, my everything was plastered tight to my bones in a way that made it stiff to move.

I could have walked on, but I no longer knew where I was walking to.  So instead I climbed the ladder.

***

The wind is usually kind. It passes messages and whispers truths. In many stories, the wind carries lost things back to where they belong. Precious items to their homes just when they’re needed most. Lovers back to the beloved. It may take a long time, and it may take a lot of switching of breezes, but isn’t it always worth a shot to return back to where you were before?

To do something other than waiting and watching the sky?

I`m not saying it was right what I did, but I am saying that if you love something you should have the chance to chase it.  Even if you’re something plastic, and it’s something dead.

***

The roof was slick. I unhooked the bungee cords from the side that I had climbed up and crawled on all fours to each dog. I unwound them and set them down, and moved on to the next.  When I was finished I finally looked back, but they`d done nothing but slide down the roof to get caught on the storm drain in a great heap. The wind would make them tremble every now and then, but it did nothing more.

I got to my feet and I took the nearest dog and threw it in the air. For a moment the draft caught it, and it spun upward. For a moment, maybe, I thought I could see it riding on the wind, nipping the heels of dead postmen. Then it crashed to the ground.

I took another, I threw it, and the wind did nothing but let it fall. And the next. And on. Until I was running out of chances, and then suddenly the chances were gone.

I climbed back down the ladder to the dogs. Several had been dented. Their bottoms were a great big hole, and rain had begun to pour into them. I picked one up and threw it back into the air, but it thumped against the roof and came tumbling back down.  I tried in vain to wipe the water out of my eyes, but it kept coming.

If this were a fairy tale, I thought, if this were love, then this would be the time when you would come, and you would find me. I would open my arms to you. We would pour into one another. You would take me somewhere warm and dry. We would tell each other the words that would make us human again.

I sat down with the dogs. I held the closest to my chest. I waited.

END

 

Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/