My Heart Broke This Morning

But I put it back together, again.

A few months and several decades ago, I drove for an hour and picked up three adorable but surly hens, right before the stay at home orders came down in my state. I’ve really enjoyed tending them and trying to win their affections, but last week I sat in a vet’s office, wearing my prettiest flowered mask, and cried my heart out as they took the sweetest of them away to be put to sleep.

Pros of wearing a mask while grieving: Catches the snot.
Cons of wearing a mask while grieving: Catches the snot and stores it directly against your face.

She was very sick. It was either very bad luck or very good luck, depending on how you look at it. All the rest of our chickens, including her four little chicks that she hatched out herself and adored so much, were fine. No one else caught the common, contagious, but not usually deadly disease. Just Erik the hen, who was still tenderly feeding her chicks even after she began to struggle with swallowing her own food. But there’s no treatment, and she couldn’t breathe anymore, in spite of one rather desperate surgical attempt to save her, so we had to do the kindest thing.

My dad and my sister are fighting over our aging family cats. My dad got angry and said some of the crueler things he’s ever said to me because I tried to reason with him on my sister’s behalf. He’s the only parent I have left, since my mother drifted away from reality years ago and never particularly liked me in it anyway. I was willing to forgive my dad a lot because he still kinda loved me, in his absent-minded way, but the reality is that I’ve always been expendable to both of them when it comes right down to it. I’ve always known that, so it doesn’t hurt as much as it probably should to be reminded of it again. It doesn’t help, either.

My single remaining grandparent is losing her memory and her hearing. I called to check in on her, but she couldn’t hear anything I said unless I just shouted a yes or no answer into the phone. She asked me five or six times when I was coming to visit next. She still doesn’t know when I’m coming to see her next, and neither do I.

My siblings are all beautiful, amazing people who are living their lives in different places, and I miss them terribly, but I don’t know when I’ll see them again either.

I haven’t seen my boyfriend in months, and the vague sense that he still doesn’t really understand why has been slowly making me doubt the seriousness and reality of what’s going on in the world even though I can see it clearly every day. I don’t know how to bridge gaps like that in judgment and perception. Maybe that difference in assessment wouldn’t bother a more confident person than myself, but I am not that person.

This year, this pandemic, and this political climate have felt like a sandblaster aimed straight at all the softer parts of me. The parts of me that want to build and make and love and tend are all aching and damaged and scared.

All my energy has been going into staying stable. I thought that was for the best, and that it was probably all I could really offer to my partners and family and friends. Just hang on with a grim grip, but keep a real smile on my face when I can, because I’m still genuinely so lucky to have everything and everyone that I do. Prep for the next waves of disaster as they loom on the horizon, but don’t have more panic attacks than are really reasonable for the current immediate circumstances. Try to keep up daily walks with my cohabitating partner and dogs, and to keep watering the garden even as the sudden and intense heat of our brief summer here tries to burn away all the green and tender things I’ve planted. Try to keep looking and moving forward, but not too far, or I’ll surely run into something hard or sharp in all this murk.

I woke up early this morning from such a sweet and comfortable dream, after months of non-stop stress dreams and nightmares. Before I was even fully conscious, my mind started reminding me of all the reasons why that dream wasn’t real and wasn’t even possible. It wasn’t anything fantastical, just a very pleasant dream about a person I admire, but my waking mind wasn’t having it. You don’t deserve that, it said. You’re not wanted, it said. Don’t be ridiculous, it said.

It was just a really nice dream, and it broke my heart to wake up and realize how hard I’m always working, even when I’m half asleep, to avoid ever reaching for something people might say I don’t deserve or going where I might not be wanted. I’ve been trying so hard not to ever make anyone’s day even fractionally worse that my art and my writing and my ability to take risks have all shriveled up, and absolutely no one is the better for it.

What a fucking waste.

My heart is pretty prone to this kind of breakage. It’s soft. I’m putting it back together and trying to make it stronger but not harder. Maybe a little more structurally sound, and more resistant to the idea that the only thing I have to offer the world is all the smallness I can muster.

Ruby and Peridot, two of Erik’s chicks, hiding under my purple sweater. They have all kindly allowed me to take over mothering duties in her absence.

“Deerskin”

I just finished reading Deerskin by Robin McKinley. It was intense and beautiful. I didn’t want to put it down, mostly because I didn’t want to leave Lissar where she was. I felt like I needed to see her through to the end. She’s an excellent character, and I found that I cared very much about her very quickly.

The writing feels kind of fairytale in style. It tends toward some truly impressive run-on sentences, but the language also had an interesting flow to it that I really liked once I got into it. Even though it’s a bit wordy, the descriptions of her surroundings, sensations, and internal experience are extremely vivid and gripping.

Princess Lissar is accompanied throughout her journey by her loyal fleethound, Ash. I loved how relatable her relationship with Ash felt. The canines in this fantasy world might be almost supernaturally beautiful and graceful and clever, but they’re also just dogs, with all the weird little behaviors and quirks that people love them for. The story centers a great deal on her bond with Ash and the way they care for and rescue each other.

The rest of this post warrants a trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, so please be warned.

Deerskin deals with sexual trauma and Lissar’s struggle to survive and recover. I didn’t find that it in any way sensualized the abuse, which can be a big problem in some fiction. It does, however, go very deep into her senses, her emotions, and the resulting flashbacks and disassociation. I haven’t experienced PTSD, but it was in line with what I’ve been told it can be like. I was impressed by that, since I haven’t seen many realistic depictions of trauma in fantasy, but it might also be very painful for some people to read.

The story is based on Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault. I actually think that as a kid I had an illustrated book of the fairytale version, which is slightly terrifying to me in retrospect. Most fairytales were originally much darker than their modern kid-friendly versions, but this one is probably not as familiar to a general audience. Not so shocking that a story about a father trying to marry his own daughter didn’t catch on quite as easily as some of the others, where at least the creepiest parts were easier to pare off while leaving the stories intact. The original telling, of course, doesn’t focus on the terrible reality of incest so much as on the virtuousness of the princess in being willing to suffer ugliness and hard labor to escape her father’s immorality.

This story, on the other hand, is about Princess Lissar and no one else. It’s about her experiences, her rediscovery of herself, and her anchoring connection with the faithful dog who sticks by her through it all.

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Dead roses feel quite appropriate for such a disturbing fairytale.