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The Laws of the Fairy-Tale King

Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood. 

Children’s book illustration of “Old King Cole”

“If we didn’t have rules,” I say to my sons, “we’d all be on the roof in our underpants talking to the clouds.” “But what if the rule-maker is bad? What if he hates us for no reason? What if he hates kids and brown people?”

I learned about the Nuremberg Laws as a kid in yeshiva, and I learned how those original laws bloomed and spread like a virus into more and more laws: Jews are prohibited from buying cake. Jews must surrender their fur, wool, typewriters, telephones, bicycles, cars, radios, dogs, cats, and birds. Jewish children are prohibited from going to school. And, eventually, Jews cannot exist. I think I was nine. I had a dog. I would hide her, I decided. I’d break all the laws. I’d make sure my brothers always had cake. I’d exist.

My relationship to the word law has always been fraught. It’s always reminded me of a yawn with jagged teeth. Or a large pink eraser that could rub me out.

“I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream,” says Alice in Through the Looking Glass. The Red King, a chess piece on the checkerboard country, is asleep and Alice has a “great mind to go and wake him and see what happens.” More and more, it’s like this country has become the endless dream of a Red King. Do we shake the king awake? Or is it best to let the Red King sleep, gently close the door, and tiptoe into the woods where things have no names, hold the trees, and pray we don’t disappear? As Alice crosses squares that are brooks and streams marked by broken sentences and asterisks, the Red King never wakes.

Fairy tales are perched on a shaky turret of laws that seem to be both drafted and passed by whimsy and appetite. What keeps fairy tales from toppling over is that once the law is passed, the inhabitants of the tale stay under its spell until the spell can be broken. Until the dreamer wakes up. The citizens of fairy tales have lived under these laws long enough to know the tale they’re in has stitched a “Y” to the end of “FAIR”—it’s a weirdly shaped wing that carries fairness away. Fairy, from fata, is rooted in fate but lifted by magic. Here comes the wind.

In Giambattista Basile’s “The Flea,” a king is bitten by a flea. When he picks the flea off, he is so moved by its beauty he places it in a carafe and feeds it daily with his blood. The flea grows and grows. At the end of seven months, the flea is the size of a lamb. The king has the flea-lamb skinned, and issues a decree: whoever is able to recognize the animal to which the hide belongs will be given the princess in marriage. People flock from all over. Is it a monster cat, a lynx, a crocodile? No, no, no. An ogre soon enters, “the most horrible thing in the world.”   The ogre, because he’s an ogre, guesses correctly, and since the king can’t go back on his promise he gives him his daughter, Porziella. This is the law of fairy tale. “Either you’re a king,” says the king, “or you’re poplar bark.” Porziella’s face turns yellow. Her home will now be the ogre’s home, decorated with the bones of men the ogre has eaten. “I can’t go back on my promise,” explains the king. We learn from fairy tales that utter is both verb and noun—what is declared is also absolute. The King’s decree, not his daughter, is his offspring. Like a mother, the king nurses a flea. Unlike a mother, the king nurses a flea to grow into a guessing game that keeps him entertained at the expense of his progeny.

Fathers in fairy tales are not good fathers. In “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm, they eat their own children without realizing they are eating their children and throw the bones under the table. “Wife,” says one father, “this is the best stew I’ve ever tasted … Give me some more.” Only after the children return from the danger their fathers left them in do the fathers repent. Unlike the stepmothers who pay with their lives, the fathers are usually forgiven. They are ineffective at best. Their hearts are clogged with forgetfulness. They are sleepwalkers. They wish to marry their daughters. Meek and docile, they obey the evil stepmother’s wishes. Porziella laments, “Oh, better if my mother had suffocated me, if my cradle had been my deathbed, my wet nurse’s tit a bladder of poison, my swaddling nooses, and the little whistle tied round my neck a millstone, considering that this calamity was to befall me…” “Enough with your anger,” her father replies, “sugar is expensive … don’t try to teach a father how to have daughters.” If she doesn’t shut her mouth, he threatens to “sow the earth with her teeth.” The fairy tale father is myopic. He cannot see the larger picture his daughter is standing inside. He can only see the flea. Why is this? Why is the fairy-tale father a void? A hole an entire family might fall through? The hide of a forgotten law? If all the fairy-tale fathers were gathered into a moonlit field it might look something like this: OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Three years ago, a doctor found a black spot inside my husband. We send the report to my father, a doctor as well, for a second look. The black spot is a law inside my husband’s body I could not read, so I asked my father to read it. What does it say? I prayed the black spot had broken the law of what I feared. Maybe it was just a small black flower growing inside my husband. Or the first letter of a story he was about to write. “The bottom line…” said my father. He always gives bottom lines. From my father, I have hundreds of bottom lines. Whenever he gives me the bottom line, I imagine the last three layers of ocean: the midnight zone, the abyss, and the trenches. Lack of light, continuous coldness, and few nutrients make it difficult, but not impossible, to live inside the bottom line, and yet the bottom line is a strange comfort. It’s a place I can sleep when I’m drowning. And some simple, beautiful organisms do occur there, like snailfish and sea cucumbers. Bottom lines are the cousins of laws, their long, cold bodies stretching out like the only correct answer to a world we will never fully understand.

Fairy tales are filled with bottom lines: the stepmother is evil, the mother is dead, the lamb is a flea, the boy is a bird, the Red King is sleeping, with a kiss the spell can be broken, and whoever is able to [fill in the blank] can marry the king’s daughter. The fairy tale breathes in the spaces above and around the bottom line. The figures in fairy tales live not because of the laws, but despite them, outside of them.

In Kafka’s parable, “Before the Law,” a man from the country “prays for admittance to the Law.” The door is open, but there is a doorkeeper who warns him that through the door is a long hallway filled with more doors and more doorkeepers all more powerful and terrible than the next. The man sits on a stool and grows old. He has come to know the doorkeeper so well he even knows “the fleas in his fur collar,” and he begs the fleas to help him change the doorkeeper’s mind. He never gains admittance to the law, and yet the door is always open. I imagine Kafka’s fleas and Basile’s flea passing notes back and forth:

“What is a law?”
“It is as naked as it is clothed. As wide open as it is shut.”
“Like the naked emperor from the fairy tale?”
“Yes! And the cheers of the crowd?”
“Yes, and the parade, too!”
“And the emperor’s shame?”
“Yes. The law is the emperor’s shame and the boy calling out and the father telling him to shush.”
“Anything else?”
“And the noblemen holding up high the emperor’s train that was never there. That, too, is a law.”
“Are we done?”
“One last thing.”
“What is it?”
“The law is a fictionless fiction which, like us dear brother, depends on its hosts.”

The fairy-tale father and the fairy-tale law are the same. The seed of the father, like a law, only grows once it leaves the father’s body. I sniff the father’s pelt. It smells like a country before its inhabitants arrive. I sniff the law. It smells like everybody is always missing.

In his first one hundred days in office, Trump signed more executive orders than any president since World War I. The orders allow the President to act on his own, bypassing Congress, and flying solo. He is like the mythical weejy weejy bird, whose single wing causes it to fly in tighter, faster, and smaller circles until it disappears up its own ass, and then disappears entirely.  The executive orders range from the approval of pipelines to cutting down forest trees to promoting artificial intelligence. Hours after being sworn in, he signed an order to reverse the Affordable Care Act. And now, like the wolfless boy, he is declaring an emergency. Tomorrow maybe he will order a guessing game: Sniff the fabric of America. To which people does its skin belong?

At the end of “The Flea,” Porziella is saved by seven sons who are “seven jewels, seven oak trees, and seven giants.” When she is returned, her father “never stopped declaring himself a thousand times guilty to Porziella for having placed her in such danger on account of a mere whim, without a thought to how big a mistake is made by those who go looking for wolves’ eggs and fifteen-teethed combs.”

Hasn’t Trump read the fairy tale about the king who builds a wall so high between his country and the country that manufactures wolf eggs and impossible combs that his people, their hair all knotted and tangled together, slowly starve?

Hasn’t Trump read the fairy tale about the king who every morning crows from his castle “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY,” causing his citizens to flee and his country to grow cold and dark and empty?

Many things set this president apart from other presidents, but one in particular is how tweet and burst and whim turn foreign and domestic policies into scribble. What Trump intends to do, is already doing, or would never do is ever-shifting. It is erased, written over, written over again, and then erased by a sudden “caw, caw” or “law, law.” Bafflement ensues. “What is government?” asks my five year old. I want to say, the thickening smudge of a bird falling from the sky, but instead I say, “It’s who’s in power.”

A Twitter called Trump Draws superimposes drawings of steel slats, pickles, dinosaurs, bunny rabbits, the nuclear launch code (“1234password”), Mr. Lincoln, a leak, and chocolate cake over the executive orders. Except for the one that reads “I’m scared of dying alone,” the words are usually misspelled. Other than the replaced orders, the rest of the scene remains intact: Trump’s serious three-point display, the applause behind him, and the shaking of hands. “Thank you,” he mouths. “Thank you.” Like any good joke, it reveals an important truth: What’s being ordered first and foremost is not the actual order. It’s the symbol of his solitary reign and, of course, the applause behind him.

This morning my seven year old tells me he had a nightmare in which a crumpled-up piece of paper and a pencil were floating, and it was his job to keep both up in the air. “If they fell,” he said, “a ghost would appear.” And then he gets very quiet. After a long while, he says, “I feel so invisible. It’s like no one sees me.” I feel a small crack in my heart beginning to spread into the shape of a boy. “What can we do,” I ask, “to make you feel visible?” Silence. And then he says, “I like being invisible. It gives me time to think.” “Me too,” I say. “I get it,” I say. I think of Italo Calvino, who said he wrote If On a Winter Night a Traveler to see how well he could write if he did not exist. My son is the floating paper and pencil, and he is the boy keeping it up in the air, and he is also the ghost. He is the law of himself. We all are. So often we forget this, I think. We peer down the long hallway filled with doors and doorkeepers, looking past ourselves, hoping to be told who we are.

And even further down the hallway there goes America, like a darkening parade. And here come the floats: the Sleeping Red King, the Emperor Growing Cold, and a Presidential Tweet. Everything is covered with ticker tape dotted with fleas mistaken for words. And there goes the boy in the crowd, crying, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” He is a large, beautiful boy and he is growing louder and louder and louder. He is so loud he wakes himself up. He is so loud we wake ourselves up, too.

Read earlier installments of Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, here.

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim TsumWild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.