"Byn Som Slukades Av Dimman" by Maja Sukeile.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
THE CLEVEREST DAUGHTER
by Sarah Marshall
She cannot remember what she dreams of the first night.
On the second night she dreams of a road in Wyoming. Not any particular road—they all look the same, at least the ones she takes.
On the third night she dreams of going to see her father, of arriving at the train station in Minot, just one room with the darkness pressing itself against all the windows. The station is open from midnight until eight o’clock in the morning, because the only trains that come through Minot come in the middle of the night. She asks for a map of the town and the stationmaster slides a phone book under the bulletproof partition, shows her a black dot in translucent white. She sees one line coming toward them, then leading away.
She goes to the pay phone and calls her father again, listens to the phone ringing in his empty apartment. He lives above a donut shop. Sometimes the shop gives him a few free day-olds, and as she listens to the telephone buzz she thinks not of her father but of those pink boxes sticky with sugar, waxy glaze and waxed paper, the feeling of a full mouth.
When the train station closes at eight o’clock, the stationmaster brings her a candy bar from the vending machine, then guides her outside, locks the doors behind them, and gets in his car and drives away. She sits down on the sidewalk next to her suitcase, the ground all around her flat enough that she can watch the man leave for a long time.
On the fourth night she dreams of her husband’s dogs—snouts pressing, breath swarming, teeth gnashing together to make a sound closer than touch.
On the fifth night she begins to lose track of the nights. She sleeps and wakes and sleeps and wakes. She feels she has to remember something.
On the sixth night she dreams of the faded pansies on the sugar bowl, their little velvety mustaches, the petals linked in a chain, and how they have all turned to a color that is somewhere between yellow and purple, or might just be no color at all.
On the seventh night he rests.
On the eighth night he is back.
On the ninth night she crawls back in bed with Larina, the way she used to do.
She’s sleeping, can’t you see? Larina asks, when he comes looking.
She can sleep later.
You’ll wear her out the way you’re going.
You could take it.
I was older. I was loose.
Jo could take it, and she was this one’s age.
You think no one porked that princess before you?
(Her eyes squeezed shut, she can hear the vibrating air in the room, her husband’s hands not knowing what to do.)
You have two others already, Larina says. You have a boy. A perfect little boy. What more do you want?
More, he says. Only thing worth wanting.
You’ll wear her out, Larina says again.
Maybe it’ll be good for her.
Don’t tell me you don’t like her the way she is. You didn’t want a little girl, you shouldna got one.
A boot scrapes on the floor.
You like her too, Rina?
No sound after this. Is Larina staring at him, with those wide black eyes? Is he looking back at her? Is he raising his hand?
The door closes.
You want to keep from having any, Larina says finally, I can teach you things.
I don’t think I can have any.
You haven’t had your bleeding yet?
I don’t know, she says, thinking: sure there has been bleeding, but is it supposed to be that kind?
You want to know, Larina says, I’ll show you. But not yet, maybe. Maybe you need something a little different now. Maybe you need a story.
What kind of story?
I don’t know, Larina says. A true one, I guess.
Once upon a time (Larina begins), a rich man had three daughters. They lived in a cold kingdom in the far north of the world—
No, she says. Stop guessing. She clears her throat and begins again.)
Once upon a time, a rich man had three daughters. They lived in a cold kingdom in the far north of the world, where the snow fell every day but one. The kingdom was ruled by a polar bear king, and he treated his subjects well, except for one day each year—the snowless day—when he ventured out of his cave, chose one daughter from the kingdom, and took her away with him. Each girl he took was never seen again. Some said he ate them to satisfy his hunger, but no one who saw him as he wandered on the bright winter days ever noticed blood on his fur.
(But wouldn’t he have blood on his fur from the animals he ate?
Maybe he wasn’t eating animals.
Then what was he eating?
Larina clears her throat. Who’s telling this story, anyway?)
As I said before, there lived in the kingdom a rich man who had three daughters. The rich man had grown rich by selling things that came from warm places, places far away from the kingdom and its endless cold: pearl necklaces and pineapples, silk dresses and pet monkeys that fit into the palm of your hand. He was the richest man in the kingdom, and maybe even the most powerful—after the polar bear king. And like all rich men, he was proud of his daughters, for each one was younger, smaller, and more beautiful than the last.
The oldest daughter had eyes the pale blue of sea ice, and a waist so narrow the father could clasp it in his hands.
The middle daughter had eyes the calm, liquid black of a muskox’s, and hair as dark and as soft as a muskox’s underfur, and was so light that the father could have held her on his shoulder if he wanted to, and sometimes he did.
And the youngest daughter, the smallest and the most beautiful, had hair as bright as the snow and teeth as sharp as a fox’s. Her skin was also as bright as the snow was, and when she sat outside in one of the white silk dresses her father had given her—for she had always known the cold and it did not cause her pain—she seemed to become a part of the land, and the wolves came to sniff at her, thinking she was some invisible animal, or maybe the spirit of an animal long dead. She was so light she could slip onto their backs without them noticing, and ride them as they hunted and prowled the lands. In this way she saw more of the kingdom than anyone else—though still she never saw the polar bear’s cave.
But the youngest daughter was also the cleverest daughter, and as she grew up she worked out a plan to kill the polar bear king. And with each year that passed she grew more and more beautiful, until finally she knew the year had come when the bear would come and take her to his lair.
(How old was she?
Does it matter?
She can’t have been very young if she thought she could kill him.
She had to be stronger than him.
No one was stronger than the polar bear king. But the daughter knew that. She had other plans.)
Finally, the snowless day arrived: the day when each girl stood in front of her house and waited as the bear made his rounds.
The oldest daughter put crow feathers in her hair and blackened her teeth with soot.
The middle daughter rubbed rabbit droppings on her cheeks and pulled out all her lashes, so her beautiful black eyes swelled shut.
And the youngest and cleverest daughter brushed her bright hair so it shone brighter than the snow, put on her white silk dress, and stood beside her sisters, waiting for the bear to take her away.
Finally, he arrived. He sniffed at the oldest daughter. He touched the middle daughter’s face with his paw. But when he came to the cleverest daughter, he did not move. He looked at her for a long time, and she looked back. Eventually, he lowered himself flat on the ground. The cleverest daughter knew what this meant. She climbed onto his back, and he carried her away. Her sisters were too afraid to stop him—were too afraid even to call her name.
For three days and nights the bear carried her north, through blizzards and across barren wastelands, over mountains and through half-frozen seas. She clung to his back and buried herself in his warm, rough fur. Beneath the fur's whiteness his skin was black, and when she pressed her cheek against his skin, he felt hotter than anything she had ever known, hotter even than the sun itself—for the sun in the kingdom was dim and weak, and had long forgotten the people there.
At the end of three days and nights, when the daughter’s eyes were crusted over with ice and her hands were frozen into claws, they reached the bear king’s cave. It was so small that even the daughter could not stand without her head brushing against the ceiling, or lie flat without her feet pressing against the walls. The snow was packed in so tightly that the cold had no chance of getting in, but neither did the light or the air.
At night the bear lit the room with a single low-burning lamp but during the day, when he was out hunting, he left the daughter alone in the dark. When he came home, his paws bloody, he wrapped himself around the daughter, making the darkness even darker. Though she waited for sleep, it never came.
And so in the daytime, as she lay alone in the cave, she sang a song to call the birds to her aid. She sang a song to call a bird of prey—a snowy owl or a gyrfalcon or a rough-legged hawk—but all that came was a little snow bunting, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Yet the bunting heard the fear in the daughter’s voice, and pecked and pecked away at the snow until it had made a passage wide enough to winnow its body through.
(She was afraid?
Of course she was. Wouldn’t you be, in the bear king’s cave?
I thought she had a plan.
She did. But she was clever enough to know that even the best plan might not be enough.)
The snow bunting flew down and nestled against the daughter’s neck, and said, Sister, why do you sing?
She told it that she was the bear king’s prisoner, and that he had kept her here and for more days and nights than she could count in this dark snow cave. The bunting asked if he had hurt her, and she said he had not—not yet—but she lived in fear, and worse than that she missed the kingdom’s weak white sunlight. She missed the sight of the new-fallen snow. She even missed the cold.
And then—leaning in close to the bunting and whispering as quietly as she could—she told it of her plan to kill the bear king, and what it must do to help her. And when she had told the bunting all it needed to know, it flew through the passage and into the light, and left the daughter waiting for her husband.
The next morning, the bunting came back to the cave, three bright red berries held in its beak. Just one of these berries, it told the daughter, will poison the bear and kill him instantly. The daughter secreted them away in the folds of her dress, and when the bear came home that night, dragging the carcass of a seal he had caught, she hid the berries in the blubber when he was not looking, then watched as he ate it, bones, fur, and all. But as the poison began to take hold he realized what was happening, and—so swiftly the daughter hardly knew what she saw—he reached into his mouth and pulled out his stomach, saving himself from the poison. He was weakened, but not so weak that he could not swipe the daughter with his enormous paw, his claws ripping her cheek to ribbons.
The daughter had never imagined such pain, and she knew that if she cried out the bear would only hurt her more. So she pressed the snow against her cheek and thought only of the next day, when surely she would be able to kill him.
The next morning, seeing that its plan had not worked, the bunting came back and brought with it a thin rope woven from the underfur of the arctic wolves, who had heard of the daughter’s plan to kill the bear king.
This rope, it told the daughter, is the strongest in the world, and with it you can pull the bear’s breath out of his body, and then be free again.
The daughter thanked the bunting, and after it had flown away she took off her dress, tore it into strips, and added them to the rope, for she knew that silk was strong as well, and she did not want to take any chances. When the bear came home she waited until he turned away from her, then leapt onto his back and wrapped the rope tight around his neck, pulling until it bit into her palms of her hands and blood began to trickle down her arms. She was small, but she was strong, and she felt what she thought must be the bear’s last breath shuddering free from his great body before—with his last bit of strength—he pulled the rope up to his mouth and cut through it with his enormous jaws.
He collapsed and lay still for a long time, until the daughter was so sure he had died that she crept toward him and peered down at his face: his eyes glassy and dull, his dark mouth open. She reached out and let her hand rest on his broad chest, feeling for breath and feeling nothing, then worked her fingers through his coarse, thick fur, searching for the heat beneath. It was then that she felt the heart still faintly beating, though it seemed no bigger or stronger than the bunting’s, or her own.
In a single motion, the bear sat up and sank his teeth into the daughter’s shoulder. He let her feel that he could just as easily tear her arm clean away as take a breath. He held her like that for a long time, and she remained silent, doing her best to think of anything but the pain.
Then he released her. Sure that she had learned her lesson, he went to sleep. And the daughter rubbed snow deep into the bite marks, did her best to numb the pain, and lay awake all night, thinking of what she would do next.
The next morning, the snow bunting came back to the cave and brought with it a thick white walrus tusk. She could use it, he said, to bludgeon the bear on the back of the head, and just in case that did not work, the bunting would stay with her all day, and when the bear came home it would fly at him and peck out his eyes so he would be blinded.
On the first day, or even the second, the daughter would have told the bunting to fly away before the bear came back. But today she was wounded and weakened, and more frightened than she knew she could be, and so she let the bunting stay.
When the bear came home that night, the daughter did not wait for him to turn away from her. She hit him on the side of the head as soon as he entered the cave, stunning him. The bunting began to peck out his sight. The bear roared in pain and anger, but his great paws were too big to grasp the bunting, who riddled his right eye with holes before it began on the next. As the bear turned about, growling and struggling, the daughter hit him on the back of his head as hard as she could, and the bear fell forward, crushing the bunting to death beneath him.
For the first time since she had come to the cave, the daughter allowed a cry to escape her lips. As the bear righted himself, he looked up at her. Though the sight was gone from one of his eyes, the other was mostly unharmed, and open wide.
The bear looked at her in a way that seemed almost human. The daughter stared back. Then the bear lunged toward her and bit into her leg, ripping and tearing until nothing was left but a mangled mess, the cave filling with the warmth and the sick-sweet smell of her blood.
The daughter passed out from the pain, and when she woke the bear was sleeping. When she reached down to feel her leg, she pricked her finger on something knife-sharp—the splintered remains of one of her bones, protruding just below her knee. But if the part of her leg bone that remained was this sharp, she thought, then the part the bear had taken from her might be even sharper.
Slowly, slowly, the daughter ran her hands across the hard-packed floor of the cave, feeling first the smashed body of the bunting, then the shattered remains of the walrus tusk, and, finally, the rest of her leg. She ran her hand along the skin until she reached the place where it had been torn from her body, mangled in the bear king’s jaws. And there, beneath the blood and the meat that was no longer her, she felt the jagged sharpness of bone. Something within her was strong as a bear’s teeth. It only needed breaking to be found.
As she scraped the flesh away from her weapon, she thought of her sisters at home, who surely believed they would never see her again, and of all the other girls in the kingdom, and the girls she had not known. How many had come here before her, she wondered, and where would they be now, if not for the polar bear king?
And as the daughter worked, she also thought of the strange look in the bear king’s eyes in the moment before he wounded her, those eyes that for a moment had looked almost human.
When her weapon was ready, she crept toward the bear’s sleeping body. A little light forced its way in through the hole the bunting had made, and she thought of how bright the morning must be outside, and of how long it had been since she had seen the white winter sky. She began to make out the outline of the bear, white against the brightness of the snow, and the gleaming of his sharp teeth, brighter than anything in the cave, and perhaps in the kingdom.
Slowly, she maneuvered the bone into her right hand and waited until his mouth was open wide. Then she aimed and plunged her weapon inside him, past his teeth and into the soft flesh at the roof of his mouth, and into his brain. Death was instantaneous; he did not even have time to struggle. She pulled the bone free, and wiped it clean of the polar bear king’s blood.
She waits for the rest of the story, but Larina has finished.
That’s it? she says.
What else do you want?
I don’t know. Something.
Larina smiles. You thought the polar bear king would be a handsome prince?
I don’t know, she says, and turns her face away.
No, Larina says. Just a polar bear. Well, all right—how’s this: After she killed him, she used the bone to cut his skin away, to keep her warm on the long journey home, and once she took she skin away she found that the polar bear king was made of polar bear meat. She took the meat home and fed her family with it for a year. It was gamey, but they ate it anyway. And everyone lived happily ever after. The end.
On the tenth night there will be no dreams, or none that belong to her. She curls herself up at the bottom of the bed and pulls the frayed sheet around her body. When nothing can get in or out, she is ready.
Sarah Marshall is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015, and many more publications. You can find her at sarahmarshallwriter.com. Another story of hers, "Cutcomb," was featured in 2014 in One Throne's first issue.