It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no-one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.
SLEEPING BEAUTY IS pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.
It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. (“She literally sleeps through her own climax,” as my favorite gender studies professor used to say. “Double entendre fullyintended.”). Jezebel ranked it as the “least woke” Disney movie of all time, which, in a world where The Little Mermaid exists, is really saying something. Ariel might have given up her voice for a dude, but Aurora barely uses hers: she has a grand total of eighteen (18) lines in her own movie, fewer than the prince, the villain, or any of the individual fairy godmothers.
Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White.
Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.
* * *
I DON’T REMEMBER the first time I saw Sleeping Beauty—probably in some waiting room or hospital bed, interrupted by blipping machines and chirpy nurses—but I remember the first time I saw Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. It was my sixth birthday, after cake but before my evening pills. The second-to-last gift was a cloth-bound copy of Grimm’s fairy tales from Dad. I was flipping through it (pretending to be a little more excited than I actually was because even at six I knew my parents needed a lot of protecting) when I saw her: a woman in palest watercolor lying artfully across her bed. Eyes closed, one hand dangling white and limp, throat arched. Black-ink shadows looming like crows around her.
She looked beautiful. She looked dead. Later I’d find out that’s how every Sleeping Beauty looks—hot and blond and dead, lying in a bed that might be a bier. I touched the curve of her cheek, the white of her palm, half hypnotized.
But I wasn’t really a goner until I turned the page. She was still hot and blond but no longer dead. Her eyes were wide open, blue as June, defiantly alive.
And it was like—I don’t know. A beacon being lit, a flint being struck in my chest. Charm (Charmaine Baldwin, best/only friend) says Sleeping Beauty was my first crush and she’s not totally wrong, but it was more than that. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing my face reflected brighter and better. It was my own shitty story made mythic and grand and beautiful. A princess cursed at birth. A sleep that never ends. A dying girl who refused to die.
Objectively, I’m aware our stories aren’t that similar. Wicked fairies are thin on the ground in rural Ohio, and I’m not suffering from a curse so much as fatal teratogenic damage caused by corporate malfeasance. If you drew a Venn diagram between me and Briar Rose, the overlap would be: (1) doomed to die young, (2) hot, in a fragile, consumptive way, (3) named after flowers. (I mean, look: I have a folklore degree. I’m aware that Sleeping Beauty’s name has ranged from Talia to Aurora to Zellandine (do not Google that last one), but the Grimms called her Briar Rose and my name is Zinnia Gray, so just let me have this one, alright?). I’m not even blond.
After that birthday I was pretty obsessed. It’s one of the rules for dying girls: if you like something, like it hard, because you don’t have a lot of time to waste. So I had Sleeping Beauty bedsheets and Sleeping Beauty toothpaste and Sleeping Beauty Barbies. My bookshelves filled with Grimm and Lang and then McKinley and Levine and Yolen. I read every retelling and every picture book; I bought a DVD set of the original Alvin and the Chipmunks run just to watch episode 85B, “The Legend of Sleeping Brittany,” which was just as awful as every other chipmunk-related piece of media. By the time I was twelve, I’d seen a thousand beauties prick their fingers on a thousand spindles, a thousand castles swallowed by a thousand rose hedges. I still wanted more.
I graduated high school two years early—another one of the rules for dying girls is move fast—and went straight into the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology at Ohio University. Seven semesters later I had an impractical degree, a two-hundred-page thesis on representations of disability and chronic illness in European folklore, and less than a year left to live.
Dad would cry if he heard me say that. Mom would invent some urgent task in her flower beds, tending things that weren’t going to die on her. Charm would roll her eyes and tell me to quit being such a little bitch about it (it takes a particular kind of tough to pick the dying girl to be your best friend).
All of them would remind me that I don’t know exactly how long I’ve got, that Generalized Roseville Malady is still largely unstudied, that new treatments are being tested as we speak, etc., etc., but the fact is that nobody with GRM has made it to twenty-two.
Today is my twenty-first birthday.
My relatives are all over for dinner and my grandma is drinking like a fish, if fish drank scotch, and my worst aunt is badgering Dad about crystals and alternative therapies. My cheeks hurt from fake-smiling and my poor parents are doing their very best to keep the celebration from feeling like a wake and I have never been more relieved in my short, doomed life to feel the buzz of my phone on my hip. It’s Charm, of course: happy birthday!!
And then: meet me at the tower, princess.
* * *
TOWERS, LIKE WICKED fairies, are pretty rare in Ohio. We mostly have pole barns and Jesus-y billboards and endless squares of soybeans.
Roseville has a tower, though. There’s an old state penitentiary out on Route 32, abandoned in the ’60s or ’70s. Most of it is hulking brick buildings with smashed-out windows and mediocre graffiti, obviously haunted, but there’s an old watchtower standing on one corner. It should be exactly as creepy as the rest of the place, poisoned by decades of human misery and institutional injustice, but instead it looks … lost. Out of time and place, like a landlocked lighthouse. Like a fairy tale tower somehow washed up on the shores of the real world.
It’s where I always planned to die, in my morbid preteen phase. I imagined I would dramatically rip the IVs from my veins and limp down the county road, suffocating in my own treacherous proteins, collapsing Gothic-ly and attractively just as I reached the highest room. My hair would fan into a black halo around the bloodless white of my face and whoever found me would be forced to pause and sigh at the sheer picturesque tragedy of the thing. Eat your heart out, Rackham.
God, middle schoolers are intense. I no longer plan to make anyone discover my wasted body, because I’m not a monster, but I still visit the tower sometimes. It’s where I went after high school to ditch track practice and get high with Charm; it’s where I made out for the first time (also with Charm, before I instituted dying girl rule number #3); it’s where I go when I can’t stand to be in my own house, my own skin, for another second.
I switch off the headlights and coast the last quarter mile down Route 32, because the old penitentiary is technically private property upon which trespassers will be shot, and park in the grass. I pop my eight o’clock handful of pills and make my way down the rutted lane that leads to the old watchtower.
I’m not surprised to see the orange flicker of light in the windows. I figure Charm dragged a few of our friends—her friends, if we’re being honest—out here for a party, rather than hosting it in the hazardous waste zone she calls an apartment. I bet she brought red plastic cups and a half keg because she wants me to have a legit twenty-first-birthday experience, completely ignoring the fact that alcohol interferes with at least three of my meds, because that’s the kind of friend she is.
But when I step through the tower door, it doesn’t smell like beer and weed and mildew. It smells luxuriant, heady, so sweet I feel like an old-timey cartoon character hooked by the nostrils.
I waft up the staircase. There are murmuring voices above me, faint strains of very un-Charm-like music growing louder. The highest room in the tower has always been empty except for the detritus left by time and teenagers: windblown leaves, beer tabs, cicada shells, a condom or two. It’s not empty tonight. There are strings of pearled lights crisscrossing the ceiling and long swaths of blushing fabric draped over the windows; a dozen or so people wearing the kind of gauzy fairy wings that come from the year-round Halloween store at the mall; roses absolutely everywhere, bursting from buckets and mason jars and Carlo Rossi jugs. And in the very center of the room, looking dusty and rickety and somehow grand: a spinning wheel.
That’s when I recognize the song that’s playing: “Once Upon a Dream.” The main theme from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a waltzing melody stolen straight from Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
I am way, way too old for a Sleeping Beauty–themed birthday. I can’t stop smiling. “Oh, Charm,you didn’t.”
“I one hundred percent did.” Charm passes her PBR to the girl beside her and flings herself at me. She does a little heel-pop when I hug her, like an actress in a black-and-white movie except with more tattoos and piercings. “Happy birthday, baby, from your fairy godmothers.” She waggles her wings at me—blue, because Merryweather is her favorite character—and mashes a plastic princess crown onto my head.
Our friends (her friends) clap and hoot and pass me warmish beer. Someone switches the music, thank God, and for a few hours I pretend I’m just like them. Young and thoughtless and happy, poised at the first chapter of my story instead of the last.
Charm keeps it going as long as she can. She forces everyone into a game of Disney trivia that appears to have no rules except that I always win; she passes around pink-and-blue frosted cupcakes in a plastic Walmart clamshell; she plucks petals from the roses and flings them at me whenever my smile threatens to sag. Everybody seems to enjoy themselves.
For a while.
But there’s only so long you can hang out with the dying girl and her best friend without mortality coming to tap her knucklebones at your window. By eleven, somebody gets drunk enough to ask me, “So like, what are you doing this fall?” and a chill slinks into the room. It coils around our ankles and shivers down our spines and suddenly the roses smell like a funeral and nobody is meeting my eyes.
I consider lying. Pretending I have some internship or job or adventure lined up like the rest of them, when really I have nothing planned but a finite number of family game nights, during which my parents will stare tenderly at me across the dining room table and I will slowly suffocate under the terrible weight of their love.
“You know.” I shrug. “Just playing out the clock.” I try to make it jokey, but I can tell there’s too much acid in my voice.
After that, Charm’s friends slither out of the tower in cowardly twos and threes until it’s just the two of us, like it usually is. Like it won’t be for too much longer. Her friends took their speaker with them, so the tower is silent except for the gentle rush of wind against the windows, the crack and hiss of another beer being opened.
Charm resettles her fairy wings and looks over at me with a dangerous softening around her eyes, mouth half open, and I have a terrible premonition that she’s about to say something unforgivably sincere, like I love you or I’ll miss you.
I flick my chin at the spinning wheel. “Dare you to prick your finger.”
Charm tosses a bleached slice of hair out of her eyes, softness vanishing. “You’re the princess, hon.” She winks. “But I’ll kiss you after.” Her voice is saucy but unserious, which is a relief. Dying girl rule #3 is no romance, because my entire life is one long trolley problem and I don’t want to put any more bodies on the tracks. (I’ve spent enough time in therapy to know that this isn’t “a healthy attitude toward attachment,” but I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.)
“You know it wasn’t originally a spinning wheel in the story?” I offer, because alcohol transforms me into a chatty Wikipedia page. “In the original version—I mean, if oral traditions had original versions, which they don’t—she pricks her finger on a piece of flax. The Grimms used the word spindel, or spindle, but the wheel itself wasn’t commonly used in Europe until the mid-sixteenth … why are your eyes closed?”
“I’m praying for your amyloidosis to flare up and end my pain.”
“Okay, fuck you?”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to fit a spinning wheel in the trunk of a Corolla? Just prick your finger already! It’s almost midnight.”
“That’s Cinderella, dumbass.” But I lurch obediently to my feet, discovering from the delicate spin of the windows that I’m slightly drunker than I’d guessed. I curtsy to Charm, wobble only a little, and touch my finger to the spindle’s end.
Nothing happens, naturally. Why would it? It’s just a dusty antique in an abandoned watchtower, not nearly sharp enough to draw blood, and I’m just a dying girl with bad luck and a boring life. Neither of us is anything special.
I look down at the iron spike of the spindle, slightly cross-eyed. For no reason I think of the girl in that Rackham illustration, blond and tragic. I think how it must have felt to grow up in the shadow of a curse, how much she must have hated the story she was handed. How in the end all her hate didn’t matter because she still reached her finger for that spindle, powerless to stop the cruel gears of her own narrative—
Distantly, I hear Charm say, “Jesus, Zin,” and I become aware that I’m pressing my finger into the spindle’s end, burying the point in the soft meat of my skin. I look down to see a single red tear welling at the end of it.
And then something happens, after all.
Copyright © 2021 by Alix E. Harrow
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow is now available on Fully Booked! You may grab a copy of this book on Fully Booked Online.