Horse, Flower, Bird
Stories by Kate Bernheimer
Coffee House Press, 2010
Once upon a time, there was a lovely petal-winged book that had legs so small they poked into the tiniest capillaries of your heart, a mane that smelled like sea air and nostalgia, and a young girl’s eyes that promised penance prior to murder. This book is called Horse, Flower, Bird, a kind gift from the vast imagination of Kate Bernheimer. Bernheimer is the author of three novels–The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and the forthcoming The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold—and three children’s books—The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, and the forthcoming The Lonely Book and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. A true advocate and self-described “celebrator” for the fairy tale, she is also the editor of three anthologies dedicated to the exploration of the form and is the founder and editor of the popular Fairy Tale Review.
Horse, Flower, Bird is a collection of eight stories–jewels that politely but firmly ask to be held up into the light, examined, perhaps coddled, maybe caged, and then, of course, set free. First, to hold them up. Opening the beautifully and whimsically illustrated book comes “A Cuckoo Tale” where a young girl’s happiness relies on atonement, her joy in self-denial, and the avoidance of being cooked in an oven and eaten by a witch with a taste for sinners. In “A Tulip’s Tale,” a lonely dug-up tulip bulb (“or bulbette, really”) finds a friend in a fishmonger’s daughter, and later mourns her tragic death. Next out of the music box is “A Doll’s Tale,” the loss and loneliness of earliest womanhood explored through the character of Astrid, and her life-size doll, also named Astrid, and then her invisible imaginary friend of her life-size doll, again named Astrid. From inside the cottage we get “A Petting Zoo Tale” in which a woman cultivates a small farm in her basement, complete with a miniature pony, a secret world apart from her lawyer-husband who fails to notice the squawking or sacks of chicken feed. Lift the next latch to find “A Cageling Tale,” where Edith resides, the daughter of an oppressive mother who finds confusing solace in a pet parakeet and later becomes an exotic dancer and men’s mistress who welds herself a room-size birdcage of scrap metal. “A Garibaldi Tale” brings us the careful story of the life of a child of “few concerns” as she grows up near the sea. Next down from the sky is “A Star Wars Tale,” where two sisters continuously reenact Star Wars to no conclusion, creating scenes that are at once humorous and heartbreaking. This tale certainly stands out from the rest in terms of style and subject matter, though is by no means any less moving; in fact, even more so. Last out from behind the lock is “Whitework,” in which I found myself as lost as the unraveling bedridden protagonist, but the story nevertheless strikes a chord by the conclusion.
Often before picking up a book, or perhaps shortly after, I like to have an idea of approximately what “chord” that story will strike. Am I going to be snorting with laughter, sobbing, subtly touched, stylistically astounded, intellectually intrigued, inconsolably depressed, or feel like I made a new friend? Am I going to remember this character, this story, this object, this scene? After reading Horse, Flower, Bird the answer is yes, with some blurred edges, to all of the above. Bernheimer effectively creates a world that is unmistakably different from the one we live in, but somehow unmistakably the same. A story that feels at once as though it might have happened a hundred years ago in a remote snow-covered cottage in rural Germany and like it happened to you, in suburban Ohio, just some years ago. After all, didn’t you have that same doll? Didn’t you feel that same way when your sister called you a freak? Didn’t you play that same game?
In fact, Bernheimer’s attempt to physically place these tales was their only downfall–when the witch smells “Russian bone,” when the tulip bulb discloses, “This was all in the town of Sneek, near the Wadden Zee…” Despite the town’s obvious imaginary nature, these clarifications disappointingly limit the tales. Fortunately, the sheer nostalgic force of the stories and their form overcome these walls and still manage to sneak into your more intimate psyche. That being said, in the same way they appeal to memory and nostalgia, whether your own or someone else’s, they also exist comfortably in our contemporary world. They acutely reflect the depth of profound loss, the isolation of inescapable loneliness, the confusion surrounding inexplicable guilt, and the conflicting spectrum of emotions that cling to the afflicted.
How Bernheimer accomplishes this is almost as mysterious as the tales themselves. It is, perhaps, the magic that comes along with the mastery of the fairy tale form. It’s what gives them that impossibly universal quality; it’s what makes them “beg to be read aloud,” as Aimee Bender astutely appeals. The stories, at a glance, are small. They’re in a large font, in a physically small book that is mostly white space. There are clusters of pages that contain no more than a single line. Most of the stories are even about small things: children, dolls, parakeets, tulip bulbs, and tiny cottages in tiny towns with tiny picture frames in the corner. The tales themselves, however, after even a cursory read, are far from small. The white space in Horse, Flower, Bird is not only effective; it is necessary. It gives the singular images created by Bernheimer’s expert yet simple manipulation of language a chance to penetrate, settle, and affect before the page is turned. It allows for the narrative layers to build slowly. It also allows the subtle satire, humor, tragedy, the past and present of fairy tale, the poetic and the linear, the real and the imagined images not only to co-exist peacefully but to work intricately together to create a simple “essence” for each unique tale. The white space is the part of the page that allows for the complexity to bleed out from the seemingly simplistic structure, like dripping water onto black ink and watching the expansion of the colors. If nothing else, it certainly created an appropriate frame for the artfulness of Bernheimer’s storytelling.
A diverse group of readers will not have a problem finding something to treasure in these stories. Something to keep as a charm, to remind oneself of the exquisite world Bernheimer accurately describes as “gently sad” that exists not apart but alongside, perhaps even inside, the one we often carelessly live in now. However, Bernheimer’s world in Horse, Flower, Bird is undoubtedly and deeply feminine. All the central characters (even, as I understood, the inanimate narrators) are female. Dolls, birds, pink dresses, embroidery, and tulips surround them. Much of thematic force comes from largely feminine experiences: the experience of being a wife, of being a daughter, of the imagination of a young girl. I would be curious to see if the depth of what it can offer a female reader is akin to what it could offer the male reader. There are no brothers in this world, no fathers, no sons. I did not feel the lack very acutely, but as a woman, I can’t say that a male wouldn’t.
Throughout this review I’ve been instinctively referring to the collection as a world in and of itself. I think that’s a true testament to Kate Bernheimer and the success of these tales. Above all else, they truly create a space to exist in, which is a lofty task, to say the least. Bernheimer stated in an interview, “you yourself live in the book” and I heartily (and heartedly) agree. She references Maria Tatar in saying that in fairy tales, “there is a ‘contact zone’ between story and reader, a magic mirror you walk through with trepidation and bliss.” Having walked through Bernheimer’s magic mirror, I can attest to this, and I can also say that it’s not something you can easily walk out of. Despite, or maybe because of, the elements of darkness and brokenness, I was thrilled to be in the world of Horse, Flower, Bird. And though I’ve closed the book, I’ve not left, and have no plans to do so. I encourage you to come visit soon, and I encourage you to stay.