The day her husband died, Sleeping Beauty gave back to him the kiss he had bestowed upon her consentless lips sixty years before. Their daughter did not kiss him; kisses were for true love, and she felt no such affection for her now-late father. She only squeezed his limp, wrinkled hand and said goodbye to a body she did not believe could hear her in its death-sleep. His hand was thick with veins like a map of a world of undried rivers, far from the world in which she and her mother had grown listless.
Sleeping Beauty lived in a double-wide on seven acres of now-unenchanted land; her daughter lived in an identical trailer a mile down the gravel road. They had no neighbors save a man who lived across the way in his own torn-up trailer with a rotting wood porch. Sleeping Beauty and her daughter had only seen him once, after an earlier death, one they did not but would soon remember. Then, he had been a fragment of a man on his porch with a guitar in his lap; they could not hear it. They had not seen him again.
Since her father’s death three weeks previous, Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had not slept in her trailer. Instead she had spent all her waking and sleeping hours at her mother’s, the two of them packed into the bed that used to be a marriage bed, crowded around a breakfast table that used to seat husband and wife. They’d found in their grief a new routine meant to comfort, meant for the duration of a grieving process. But three weeks is a very long time for two unemployed, unremembered women. It felt like three lifetimes since they’d regressed back to Sleeping Beauty’s daughter’s childhood habit of crawling frightened into mother’s bed.
Late into the night they spoke: of nothing, of everything, of the once-prince-always-prince-of-Oak-Street-Trailer-Park, of the hounds who had gone out one morning and never returned, of creaking bones and aching joints and veins beginning to bulge, their own rivers sprung back to life as though to remind them, there were real rivers once. They swam in those rivers when they were younger. Sleeping Beauty in her glass slippers had led her children through the pebble-dotted muck. Now, with no rain falling for years, only dry creek beds of cracked dirt remained, and Sleeping Beauty and her daughter did not visit them for fear of remembering their majesty. And for other reasons: the memory of a bloated body in their waters.
“Don’t you ever die on me,” said Sleeping Beauty’s daughter one night, in her father’s bed-place.
Sleeping Beauty was used to commands. “I won’t,” she said.
Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had many names, none of which she had clung to as hard as she now clung to her mother’s hand in the night. When she was young enough to think the moon followed her, she was called Moon. When she was the age of sleeping all the day and staying up all the night, until the sunset yawned across the horizon, she was called Aurora. Sometimes she was called only Daughter, only Child, only Girl. All of these faded with the magic of the world.
Before, when there was rain and water, when there were talking trees and singing frogs and their trailer was not a trailer but a palace she could lose herself in, Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had a brother called Sun. Once upon a day, Sleeping Beauty’s daughter found his body bobbing against the mud shore of the river behind the house, surrounded by old potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers and used condoms kids up-river had thrown into the current; these strange objects were new to Sleeping Beauty’s daughter, as they were new to the world. She stared at the trash tracing her brother’s body.
She fetched her parents. They followed her to where the boy lay forever sleeping. Sleeping Beauty knelt in the mud, her glass shoes sinking. “Don’t touch him,” said her husband. She did not. That day was the day of last sun. All other days turned to rainless gray. The once-prince-always-prince buried the boy in the backyard and parked his tractor over the grave to keep the hounds from digging him up. They burned his breakfast chair and hid his photographs and never spoke of him again.
Until, while searching through the dusty photograph drawer, Sleeping Beauty’s daughter came across a picture of the boy. She was looking, she told her mother, for pictures of her father, whose face she could no longer remember. Really she was looking for pictures of her mother, whose face was changing every day. Her brother’s picture was familiar, but she could not place it: could it be her father as a boy? She clutched the photograph in her shaking hands and brought it to her mother in her bed. Sleeping Beauty poised her finger over her son’s face but did not touch his image.
“Is this father?” said Sleeping Beauty’s daughter.
“No,” said Sleeping Beauty. “This is a little boy. He lived here once, and took the world with him. He was made of my blood, your blood, your father’s blood. Now he is part of the dirt in which we buried him.”
Sleeping Beauty’s daughter remembered, then, the brother and the tractor, like a dream that crept back after waking. “Is he still there?” she asked.
“Yes, he is probably still there,” said Sleeping Beauty.
“Can we get him?”
“No,” said Sleeping Beauty. “We are not allowed.”
That night as they sat huddled on their leather couch that stunk of death, the dead trees scratched insistent at the windows, and Sleeping Beauty and her daughter saw the neighbor again. This time he was a skeleton of a man with long, dark hair and sun-ruined skin, too young to have lived in that house for as long as they had known his invisible presence. In his lap he cradled his guitar like a child. He stared across the gravel road, through Sleeping Beauty’s window, as he played. It was as though, Sleeping Beauty felt, he were strumming her, his fingers playing across her skin, a beautiful feeling. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter shivered; she felt a different presence, one of a long-gone brother come to fetch a mother away. They could not hear his music from inside.
“I wonder what it sounds like,” Sleeping Beauty said.
“We can’t.” Sleeping Beauty’s daughter drew the blinds. “Time for bed,” she said.
They drank their chamomile tea beneath Sleeping Beauty’s quilt, passed down from queens and kings who were rulers of nothing, now, but their graves, who even in their reigns did not hold as much power as they wished for. Wishes were worth less and less each year, until they were useless as photographs. Titles, too, withered like trees. Sleeping Beauty had been a forever-princess, married to her forever-prince, the monarchial world a dream like the dream of sons, of brothers, of water, of true love, of restful sleep without the hard press of a stranger’s lips. Such pressure woke her each morning, as though even his death could not keep him away. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter slept through her mother’s gasping wakes. Sleeping Beauty settled back into her slumber. When her daughter entered again into the waking world, she always believed that she were waking long before her mother. “Mom, you’d sleep all day if you could,” she often said.
But Sleeping Beauty could not; princesses always woke.
After tea they turned off the light and leaned back into a wall of pillows white as virtue. They spoke, then, not of the brother-son but of the father, one painful subject a relief from the other. Sleeping Beauty never loved him, for he was not a man to be loved. This she told her daughter as she had never told anyone. He was not even a man but a truth, like hope that never pans out the way you want it to. “His mother was to blame,” Sleeping Beauty said. “She was an ogre of a woman with a taste for human flesh.” Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had never heard these things; it half-thrilled her to hear them, but also she was saddened by her mother’s life. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter reached over the blanketed divide between them to comfort her, but Sleeping Beauty rolled away.
“The neighbor man,” said Sleeping Beauty. “I wonder what he sounds like.”
“Don’t you ever die on me,” Sleeping Beauty’s daughter said.
“I’ll try,” said Sleeping Beauty.
The next morning Sleeping Beauty’s daughter rose before her mother. The neighbor man still strummed on his porch, staring across the road at their blinded windows. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter peeked through the slots and grimaced. She was sure that this brother-spirit, if that’s who the neighbor man was, would not take her too, and so she did not tell Sleeping Beauty of his stony-eyed insistence. She woke her mother with a cheek kiss, a safe kiss.
“Let me be, let me be,” said Sleeping Beauty.
Her daughter pulled the blankets off the bed. “I won’t,” she said. “Come to breakfast.”
Sleeping Beauty’s daughter went to the kitchen stove and cracked three eggs into a skillet. She remembered golden eggs, the metal taste on her tongue.
Sleeping Beauty wandered into the kitchen as though by accident. “Can we let some light in?” she asked, combing her hands through her ever-tangled hair.
“I have a migraine,” said Sleeping Beauty’s daughter. The crackle of bacon made her ears pop, but her head was filled only with the burning déjà vu of being watched. “Leave them closed.”
Sleeping Beauty knew when her daughter was lying, had always known. She never stopped her; it was her right to lie, as Sleeping Beauty had never been able.
“Do you miss him?” Sleeping Beauty’s daughter asked, spooning burnt eggs onto her mother’s plate. Two strips of overcrisp bacon lay there like entrails. They had no juice.
“Him,” said Sleeping Beauty. They were all one, all the hims: the son, the husband, the neighbor. Was it her husband who used to suck at her breast, her fingers? Was it her son who used to kiss her mouth? “Yes,” said Sleeping Beauty. “Despite everything, I miss him.”
Sleeping Beauty’s daughter did not miss her father—of this she was certain. She missed only her mother in his presence, for through all her servitude at the stove and the yard and the bed, her mother was not herself now. Each night she slept deeper and deeper. This morning Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had been sure she was not even breathing.
“It’s so dark,” said Sleeping Beauty. Her plate untouched, she rose, went to the window. “Please, just a little light.”
Before her daughter could stop her, she had pulled the string, had seen the neighbor.
“He’s still there,” she said. She stood and watched him play and was entranced by his ordinariness. He wore no crown upon his head. His guitar was made of simple polished wood. She knew from looking at him that he was not a man who would kiss you in your sleep. “I have to know what his music sounds like.”
She went to the door and, for the first time in three weeks, opened the lock.
“Wait, mother,” said Sleeping Beauty’s daughter. Sleeping Beauty did not wait. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter was at a loss. Her mother was not one to ignore requests, to ignore the insistent pleading of someone who needed her, who wanted her. “Your shoes,” said her daughter. “Where are your shoes?”
Sleeping Beauty did not need shoes to step on her porch. She felt the wood bare under her toes, like climbing a tree used to feel, when it was possible to climb them. Now they were too brittle and served only to scratch upon their windows, to remind them of ghosts they may have forgotten. Even on the porch, she could not hear his music, only a hint of a crooning melody.
“I’m going to hear him now,” said Sleeping Beauty. She pressed her palm against her daughter’s face then closed her hand with nothing in it: no shoes, no photographs. She did not kiss her, not even on her cheek.
Sleeping Beauty’s daughter held her mother’s glass shoes. Every princess, she knew, had a pair of her own. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter had always wanted them. Without her shoes, Sleeping Beauty would cut her feet, would give her blood to the dirt, to the brother who was part of it, when she had never given that blood to her daughter. What was there in a son and a husband that was not in a daughter? Sleeping Beauty and her daughter could live forever in their bed, with their bacon and their tea. They could build the world back around them.
“Please don’t go yet,” said Sleeping Beauty’s daughter. “Don’t you die on me.”
“I don’t want to live forever,” said Sleeping Beauty.
She took the first step, the second. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter tried to turn away, to run back inside, to find an object that would tether her mother once more to their life, to their grief, to their missing of husband-fathers. But Sleeping Beauty descended the last step, and scrunched her toes into the last patch of dying grass. “I’m going to hear the music,” she said, and walked without looking back across the path to the neighbor’s house, where he smiled upon greeting her and took her onto his porch and played for her the music she wanted to hear. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter watched as her mother’s face lit up then fell, as in all good songs there is both happiness and truth, love and death. Sleeping Beauty’s daughter did not long, like her mother, to hear that song. She stood and watched as Sleeping Beauty took the instrument and laid it down and took the man’s hand and led him into the trailer from which Sleeping Beauty’s daughter knew they would not return. She clutched the glass shoes so hard they cracked, and their cracks were like veins were like rivers were like the world of her childhood, of her happiness, of her last chance.
In her mother’s bed she found the photographs of her brother. In the photograph drawer she found her father’s face. There were no photographs of her mother, she who took the pictures, but she was there, then, in the angle of the camera, in the swath of light against the skin of men. Out back Sleeping Beauty’s daughter planted the photographs in the dry, dry dirt. She did not water; there was no water, not to waste. She knelt at the covered-up photos as though to pray, watching to see if anything might erupt from where she planted them. She waited. She kissed the ground until her lips were caked with dirt. She mounded dirt around the photographs: three graves. Then, a fourth, for the world she used to know.
She did not want the old world back, but she did not want the new one, either. She wanted a world of her own shaping, a world where she could love her mother’s glass shoes but never wear them. A world of full-leafed trees and bodiless rivers, of rain. She wanted rain. More than all else, to fill the cracks. She slept, then, upon the dirt.
She woke to the kiss of water upon the bridge of her nose. Another droplet kissed her shoulder. A third, the part of her hair. They were not the kisses of men, or of true love. They were not the kisses of a mother who had never been comfortable with kisses. They were, she thought, her new world, come to greet her, for the first time. She looked up into the rain, and let it blind her as it fell.