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The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Page 1

Catherynne M. Valente

  The Bread We Eat in Dreams

  Copyright © 2013 by Catherynne M. Valente.

  All rights reserved.

  Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2013

  by Kathleen Jennings. All rights reserved.

  Print version interior design Copyright © 2013 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

  All rights reserved.

  Electronic Edition

  ISBN 978-1-59606-583-3

  Subterranean Press

  PO Box 190106

  Burton, MI 48519

  Table of Contents

  The Consultant

  White Lines on a Green Field

  The Bread We Eat in Dreams

  The Melancholy of Mechagirl

  A Voice Like a Hole

  The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While

  How to Raise a Minotaur

  The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World

  Mouse Koan

  The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset

  In the Future When All’s Well

  Fade to White


  Red Engines

  The Wolves of Brooklyn

  One Breath, One Stroke


  The Wedding

  The Secret of Being a Cowboy

  Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus

  We Without Us Were Shadows

  The Red Girl

  Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985

  The Room

  Silently and Very Fast

  What the Dragon Said: A Love Story

  The Consultant

  She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties. Her shoes are red; her eyes are green. She’s an Italian flag in occupied territory, and I fall for her like Paris. She mixes my metaphors like a martini and serves up my heart tartare. They all do. Every time. They have to. It’s that kind of story.

  The lady in question stands in the corner of my office, lighting the cigarette dictated by tradition with shaking hands.

  “You gotta help me, mister,” she says.

  I’m a miss, but that doesn’t matter. In situations like this, you have to stick to the formula. She’s the damsel in distress, I see that right away. I’m her knight in shining armor, even if that armor is a size eight slingback in Antique Pearl.

  “Tell me all your troubles,” I say in my best baritone, and pour her a whiskey, straight. She drinks it, leaves a frosty red lip-print on the glass.

  And she takes a deep breath that makes her black dress shift just so. She tells me a man is after her because he wants her heart. He chases her through the dark, through the neon forest of rainy streets. Or she has this brother, see, with a withered arm he carries in a sling, crooked like a bird’s wing. She was supposed to protect him from their father but she just wasn’t strong enough. Or her stepmother can’t stand the sight of her and beats her every night for a dozen sins she’s never thought of. Or she’s waited and waited for a child but nothing doing. Or she pricked her finger on a needle when she was sixteen and oh, glory, the things she’s done to keep on pricking. Or she woke up and all her savings accounts were gone, the money turned worthless overnight. Maybe it’s a simple one: the mirror said she wasn’t pretty anymore. Maybe it’s complicated, she got in over her head, and now she has three nights to cough up a name or an ugly little man is going to take her son.

  I’ve heard them all. It’s what I do. I’m not so much an investigator as what you might call a consultant. Step right up; show me your life. I’ll show you the story you’re in. Nothing more important in this world, kid. Figure that out and you’re halfway out of the dark.

  Call them fairy tales, if that makes you feel better. If you call them fairy tales, then you don’t have to believe you’re in one.

  It’s all about seeing the pattern—and the pattern is always there. It’s a vicious circle: the story gets told because the pattern repeats, and the pattern repeats because the story gets told. A girl comes in with mascara running down her face and says that she slept with her professor because she thought he’d love her forever. She wanted to walk in his rarified world of books and gin parties and wickedly sardonic quips instead of treading water in her dreary home town. She tried to speak the way his friends did and dress the way he liked, tottering on those topless high-heeled Iliac towers. She made herself write the way he did himself, made herself like his music and his opinions, and now he’s gone and she’s got this knife, see, but not a lot of courage. She’s in so much pain. Every step is like walking on knives.

  And I say: “Sweetheart, you gave up your voice for him. That was bound to go badly. Now, how do you want to proceed?”

  Because there’s a choice. There’s always a choice. Who do you want to be? You can break this tale, once you’ve got a sightline on it. That’s why they come to me. Because I can open up my files and tell them who they are. Because I’ve got a little Derringer in my desk with six bullets in it like pomegranate seeds. Because I have the hat, crooked at just the right angle, that says I can save them.

  So who do you want to be?

  Sure, no great loss to be the ingenue, sacrificing yourself for your love. Put away that knife, fix your make-up, drop his class, watch him with his hand on the waist of some blonde thing at the faculty party—never forgetting that she’s in a story too, and you can’t tell which one by looking at her, and maybe she’s the true bride and maybe she’s bleeding in her six hundred dollar shoes to convince him she’s the right girl—become like dancing foam on the waves of his society: glittering, beautiful, tragic. Maybe that’ll buy you what you’re looking for. But it’s not the only solution. Sometimes it’s better to choose the knife, cut his tenure, go back home, where you’ll be exotic and urbane, for all your experience in that strange, foreign world.

  I don’t judge. I just give them options. And hell, sometimes the best thing is to put on a black dress and become a wicked stepmother. There’s power in that, if you’re after power.

  Then there’s the back alley deals, the workarounds, the needles and the camels. You can turn around in the dark, with the man who wants your heart looming so big, so big over you, and you can give it to him, so bright and red and pure that it destroys him. Getting what you want has that effect, more often than you think. But that’s a dangerous move, the intimate exchange of hearts in the shadows, and sometimes the man in the dark walks off with everything anyway.

  Listen, everything is possible in here. You can burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom. You can cut your hair before he ever gets the chance to climb up. It is possible to decline the beanstalk. You can let the old witch dance at your wedding, hand out the kind of forgiveness that would wake the dead and sleeping. You can just walk away, get on a horse, and go wake some other maiden from her narrative coffin, if you’re brave, if you’re strong. What do you want? Do you want to escape? Or were you looking for that candy house?

  Sometimes they don’t believe me. They can’t see what I see. They can’t even see how we play out a story right there in my office: her showing a little leg, me tipping my hat over my eyes, the dusty blinds, the broken sign beyond my window, blinking HOTEL into the inky night. It’s a pretty broad schtick, but it helps make my point: nothing here but us archetypes, sweetheart. Still, when I tell them it was always fairy gold, all that money those sleek men in their silk suits said was so wisely invested, they get angry. They think I’m having a joke at their expense. But that’s what fairy gold is: fake money, wisely invested. The morning was always going to come when you opened your 401k and it had all turned back to acorns and leaves. They throw water in my face or
they beg me to hunt down the leprechaun that sold them that rotten house, and sure, I’ll do that. Whatever you pay me for. You choose your role in this. I provide an honest service, and that’s all. I don’t try to sway them either way; it wouldn’t be fair. After all, I can see their cards, but they can’t see mine.

  It’s a lonely life. Me and my patterns and scotch and ice. The nature of the process is that they leave when it’s over, exeunt, pursued by a bear with an empty porridge bowl. If they don’t go, I didn’t do my job. You have to keep moving, stay ahead of the oncoming plot. Never stop to rest, not here, not in the woods.

  And me? Well, it doesn’t work that way. If you could narrate yourself I’d be out of a job. I need them to tell me who I am. If I’m a savior in their story, or a devil. If I’m a helpful guide, or temptation in a trenchcoat. No one’s ever guessed my name. And that’s the way I like it: clean, no mess, no mistakes. No attachments. Attachments beget stories, and I’m no protagonist. Eliot had a bead on it. A bit player, a voice in the smoke. A Greek chorus, that’s me. Or maybe a mirror on the wall. Point is, I don’t work in the spotlight. I’m strictly in the wings. So they walk into my office—not always dames, sometimes a paladin in an ice cream suit, and oh, if he doesn’t have that girl with the hair down to god-knows-where he’ll just die, or his wife is bored and unhappy and maybe she only ever liked him in the first place when he was a beast, or a wolf, or he’s just lost, and he can hear something like a bull calling for him from the deeps, and I fall for them because that’s the drill, but losing them is part of the denouement, and I know that better than anyone. It’ll make you hard, this business. Hard as glass.

  I tell them: don’t depend on a woodsman in the third act. I tell them: look for sets of three, or seven. I tell them: there’s always a way to survive. I tell them: you can’t force fidelity. I tell them: don’t make bargains that involve major surgery. I tell them: you don’t have to lie still and wait for someone to tell you how to live. I tell them: it’s all right to push her into the oven. She was going to hurt you. I tell them: she couldn’t help it. She just loved her own children more. Primate instinct. I tell them: everyone starts out young and brave. It’s what you do with that that matters. I tell them: you can share that bear with your sister. I tell them: no one can stay silent forever. I tell them: it’s not your fault. I tell them: mirrors lie. I tell them: you can wear those boots, if you want them. You can lift that sword. It was always your sword. I tell them: the apple has two sides. I tell them: just because he woke you up doesn’t mean you owe him anything. I tell them: his name is Rumplestiltskin.

  And my cases end like all stories end: with a sunset, and a kiss, and redemption, and iron shoes, and a sear of light from the shadows, a gun-muzzle flash that illuminates everything as the rain just keeps coming down in the motley, several-colored light of the back end of the world.

  So come in. Sit down. We’ll have the air-conditioning working again in no time. Let me take your coat. Have a drink—it’s cheap and sour but it does the job. Much like myself.

  Now. Tell me all your troubles.

  White Lines on a Green Field

  For Seanan McGuire. And Coyote.

  Let me tell you about the year Coyote took the Devils to the State Championship.

  Coyote walked tall down the halls of West Centerville High and where he walked lunch money, copies of last semester’s math tests, and unlit joints blossomed in his footsteps. When he ran laps out on the field our lockers would fill up with Snickers bars, condoms, and ecstasy tabs in all the colors of Skittles. He was our QB, and he looked like an invitation to the greatest rave of all time. I mean, yeah, he had black hair and copper skin and muscles like a commercial for the life you’re never going to have. But it was the way he looked at you, with those dark eyes that knew the answer to every question a teacher could ask, but he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, you know? Didn’t matter anyway. Coyote never did his homework, but boyfriend rocked a 4.2 all the same.

  When tryouts rolled around that fall, Coyote went out for everything. Cross-country, baseball, even lacrosse. But I think football appealed to his friendly nature, his need to have a pack around him, bright-eyed boys with six-pack abs and a seven minute mile and a gift for him every day. They didn’t even know why, but they brought them all the same. Playing cards, skateboards, vinyl records (Coyote had no truck with mp3s). The defensive line even baked cookies for their boy. Chocolate chip peanut butter oatmeal walnut iced snickerdoodle, piling up on the bench like a king’s tribute. And oh, the girls brought flowers. Poor girls gave him dandelions and rich girls gave him roses and he kissed them all like they were each of them specifically the key to the fulfillment of all his dreams. Maybe they were. Coyote didn’t play favorites. He had enough for everyone.

  By the time we went to State, all the cheerleaders were pregnant.

  The Devils used to be a shitty team, no lie. Bottom of our division and even the coach was thinking he ought to get more serious about his geometry classes. Before Coyote transferred our booster club was the tight end’s dad, Mr. Bollard, who painted his face Devil gold-and-red and wore big plastic light-up horns for every game. At Homecoming one year, the Devil’s Court had two princesses and a queen who were actually girls from the softball team filling in on a volunteer basis, because no one cared enough to vote. They all wore jeans and bet heavily on the East Centerville Knights, who won 34-3.

  First game of his senior year, Coyote ran 82 yards for the first of 74 touchdowns that season. He passed and caught and ran like he was all eleven of them in one body. Nobody could catch him. Nobody even complained. He ran like he’d stolen that ball and the whole world was chasing him to get it back. Where’d he been all this time? The boys hoisted him up on their shoulders afterward, and Coyote just laughed and laughed. We all found our midterm papers under our pillows the next morning, finished and bibliographied, and damn if they weren’t the best essays we’d never written.

  I’m not gonna lie. I lost my virginity to Coyote in the back of my blue pick-up out by the lake right before playoffs. He stroked my hair and kissed me like they kiss in the movies. Just the perfect kisses, no bonked noses, no knocking teeth. He tasted like stolen sunshine. Bunny, he whispered to me with his narrow hips working away, I will love you forever and ever. You’re the only one for me.

  Liar, I whispered back, and when I came it was like the long flying fall of a roller coaster, right into his arms. Liar, liar, liar.

  I think he liked that I knew the score, because after that Coyote made sure I was at all his games, even though I don’t care about sports. Nobody didn’t care about sports that year. Overnight the stands went from a ghost town to kids ride free day at the carnival. And when Coyote danced in the endzone he looked like everything you ever wanted. Every son, every boyfriend.

  “Come on, Bunny,” he’d say. “I’ll score a touchdown for you.”

  “You’ll score a touchdown either way.”

  “I’ll point at you in the stands if you’re there. Everyone will know I love you.”

  “Just make sure I’m sitting with Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, too, so you don’t get in trouble.”

  “That’s my Bunny, always looking out for me,” he’d laugh, and take me in his mouth like he’d die if he didn’t.

  You could use birth control with Coyote. It wouldn’t matter much.

  But he did point at me when he crossed that line, grinning and dancing and moving his hips like Elvis had just been copying his moves all along, and Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley got so excited they choked on their Cokes. They all knew about the others. I think they liked it that way—most of what mattered to Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley was Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, and Coyote gave them permission to spend all their time together. Coyote gave us all permission, that was his thing. Cheat, fuck, drink, dance—just do it like you mean it!

  I think the safety had that tattooed on his calf.

  After we won four games in a row (after a de
cade of no love) things started to get really out of control. You couldn’t buy tickets. Mr. Bollard was in hog heaven—suddenly the boosters were every guy in town who was somebody, or used to be somebody, or who wanted to be somebody some impossible day in the future. We were gonna beat the Thunderbirds. They started saying it, right out in public. Six-time state champs, and no chance they wouldn’t be the team in our way this year like every year. But every year was behind us, and ahead was only our boy running like he’d got the whole of heaven at his back. Mr. Bollard got them new uniforms, new helmets, new goal posts—all the deepest red you ever saw. But nobody wore the light-up horns Mr. Bollard had rocked for years. They all wore little furry coyote ears, and who knows where they bought them, but they were everywhere one Friday, and every Friday after. When Coyote scored, everyone would howl like the moon had come out just for them. Some of the cheerleaders started wearing faux-fur tails, spinning them around by bumping and grinding on the sidelines, their corn-yellow skirts fluttering up to the heavens.

  One time, after we stomped the Greenville Bulldogs 42-0 I saw Coyote under the stands, in that secret place the boards and steel poles and shadows and candy wrappers make. Mike Halloran (kicker, #14) and Justin Oster (wide receiver #11) were down there too, helmets off, the filtered stadium lights turning their uniforms to pure gold. Coyote leaned against a pole, smoking a cigarette, shirt off—and what a thing that was to see.

  “Come on, QB,” Justin whined. “I never hit a guy before. I got no beef here. And I never fucked Jessie, either, Mike, I was just mouthing off. She let me see her boob once in 9th grade and there wasn’t that much to see back then. I never had a drink except one time a beer and I never smoked ‘cause my daddy got emphysema.” Coyote just grinned his friendly, hey-dude-no-worries grin.

  “Never know unless you try,” he said, very reasonably. “It’ll make you feel good, I promise.”