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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 1

Catherynne M. Valente




  Catherynne M. Valente

  Subterranean Press

  Six-Gun Snow White Copyright © 2013

  by Catherynne M. Valente. All rights reserved.

  Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2013

  by Charles Vess.

  All rights reserved.

  Print version interior design Copyright © 2013

  by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

  All rights reserved.

  Electronic Edition



  Subterranean Press

  PO Box 190106

  Burton, MI 48519

  Coyote had a plan which he knew he could carry out because of his great power. He took his heart and cut it in half. He put one half right at the tip of his nose and the other half at the end of his tail.

  —Apache folktale

  Part I

  How Snow White

  Got Her Cunning

  The Creation of

  Snow White

  I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver. It don't trouble me none if any soul calls me a liar.

  The biography of Mr. H is well known: he had one wife and one son and that was the beginning and the end of his capacity for love, excepting of course the copper lode in Peru, gold prospects in the Dakota Territories, the Idaho opal mine, and other pursuits I cannot tell you about as they are beyond my ken. Most everyone grants he was a kingly fellow, else the blue would not have showed itself to him. That is a wholly peculiar way of thinking, but it is very common.

  This is the truth of it:

  Flush and jangle with silver and possessed of a powerful tooth for both spending and procuring more of whatever glittered under the ground, Mr. H traveled to the Montana Territory on a horse so new and fine her tail squeaked. He disliked to travel in company, being a secretive man by nature. Mr. H had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up. The notion of a sapphire rush brewing in the Beartooth Range pricked up the north of that comstock-compass stuck in his heart. All the way out in San Francisco he felt the rumble of the shine. However, upon his arrival in Billings and establishment at the Bear Gulch Hotel, the whiskeytalk leaned another way: black diamonds. That is how coal miners appellate their livelihood. In my experience, folk find it nigh on impossible to call a thing what it is.

  It never mattered much to Mr. H whether silver or sapphires or coal or copper weighed his pockets just so long as he never walked empty. He made his arrangements to accompany a pair of Cornishmen into the range the next morning. He strode out into the bone-cracking cold to survey the town, though Billings in those days could barely be called more than a camp. Horseshit outnumbered honest men by a margin.

  Mr. H encountered the woman who would be his first wife by chance alone. She turned up like an ace of spades in the general store, trading elk meat for cotton cloth and buttons. Her brother, who had shot the beast, escorted her. But the girl did the bargaining. She had good English and did not like the owner of the general store.

  The terrible covetous heart of Mr. H immediately conceived a starvation for the girl not lesser in might than his thirst for sapphires or gold. In the lamplight her hair had the very color of coal, plaited in two long braids and swept up at the brow into what I have heard called a pompadour. Her dark mouth was a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true. She looked over her shoulder at him and her body hardened to run if such became necessary. Mr. H took this slight stiffening as a sign that his feeling was returned. He saw no reason any person should fear him, being well-dressed and pleasant enough in his features. He had loved women already in his time, though never married, all of them of good though not old family. Square-shouldered sunburned freckles and kisses like milk and hair brushed a hundred times before bed. He savored a rich seam of shame over his lust for the Crow woman and this shame made him only more needful.

  Mr. H purposed himself to have her. He inquired after her name, her family, how often she visited the town to trade, where she and hers might make their camp. The Beartooth coal ran thick and deep, but he did his business by rote. Mr. H had sung his song many times. It sang itself. His true occupation was now the striking of the Crow woman, whose name was Gun That Sings. At first, his imagination wakened only to the possibility of bedding her. He saw no reason this should not be possible and right quick. Silver speaks louder than sin. But when Gun That Sings returned to town with her relations and Mr. H had opportunity to clap eyes on her again, he knew he could not be satisfied except to own her entirely. A man don’t rent a silver mine. He buys it right out.

  He attired himself in a fine new suit sent by coach from San Francisco along with jewelry, gowns, and other items indicating his affection, for he was prepared to make her a civilized woman. He would put silk on her body and emerald combs in her hair. He would teach her to read Shakespeare and encourage her to play out the part of wild Titania in his parlor at home, naked save for a belt of violets. He would instruct her in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and the keeping of the Sabbath; he would deliver to heaven a sterling modest maid. The anticipation of transforming her inspired a pleasure so sharp that Mr. H necessitated an entire afternoon to recover from it.

  When Mr. H deemed the great moment of his matrimonials to have drawn close, he rode out on his combed and curried horse across the Bighorn River to the village of Gun That Sings’s people. Mr. H had often purchased meat and horses from Indians at what he considered a fair price and foresaw no trouble. The card-men at the Bear Gulch Hotel had informed him that the Crow allow their women to rule like heathen Cleopatras, and so Mr. H addressed himself to an old and august lady he spied leading a horse to pasture, requesting the presence of his bride-to-be.

  When Gun That Sings was produced, Mr. H suffered some disappointment. She would not look at him, but kept her eyes fixed on the dirt. Her braids caught the winter light and seemed now not only as rich as coal but veined with liquid silver. Mr. H felt a powerful need. He behaved himself as though to a white woman. He presented his prospects to the maiden’s mother, his silver mine, his hopes for Dakota, his colleagues in Sacramento, his friends in Washington. As he described himself, the resolve of Mr. H hardened along with his impression of his own endowments, and he lost any doubt that he would be married before the night. Only an addled woman would despise the ring of such an excellent example of frontiersman quality.

  I do not know what Gun That Sings said to him. If I had my rather, I would put words in her like bullets. I know she spurned him. That I do know.

  Mr. H recovered his pride on the quick. Sometimes a man finds it necessary to work a claim for a space before it gives up the blue. He returned to his rooms to collect the bride gifts that would ensure her. Mr. H chose a gown like the sun to represent him. It sported a high bustle as was the fashion in the city, with sharp pleating at the skirt-hem and a neckline I would not wear if it were stitched in paper money. But the color did not recall the wholesome sun of spring. Its model was instead the terrible inferno of the sun itself, hanging in black space like a Utah ruby, erupting into eternity, pocked with lava.

  Once again, Mr. H rode out past the river and presented the baleful dress to Gun That Sings. She looked on it and began to shake in her shoes. Mr. H pressed the gown upon her but she wept bitterly into the cloth and said to her mother: “These are white woman’s clothes. Put them in the river; I will burn up inside them.”

  Mr. H brought next a gown like the mo
on. This one presented a wasp waist and high lace collar. So much fabric in that skirt it bent a back to lift it over its skeleton-hoop of leather and wire. The shimmer of it took after the moon itself, hard and without poetry, stuck in the orbit of the thoughtless earth like a California pearl. Mr. H lay the dress across the flank of his horse like a stolen girl and forded the Bighorn to lay it out for Gun That Sings. She trembled something fearful and tore the brocade wrestling herself free. She said to her mother: “These are clothes for a white woman. Give them to a white woman. Put them in the fire; I will choke on them.”

  Mr. H suffered no discouragement for desire speaks louder than decorum. He drew from his trunk a gown like the stars at night. Its long sleeves and gathered skirt were black as Bibles, stitched all over with tiny crystals. In its folds Mr. H concealed a necklace of Colorado diamonds so fine and luxurious anyone who looked at it felt like they were looking at a naked woman, and turned away. The dress of stars glowed with cold, lonely fire, like the Dog Star howling in the black. Mr. H saddled his horse and rode out a third time. When Gun That Sings saw the dress and the necklace she tried to run from it like it was death come for her, but Mr. H caught her up in his arms. He felt a big man with her there, not going anywhere at all. He held her by the throat. He put the necklace on her, all them diamonds hanging down her chest like war medals. Gun That Sings did not cry but stared him down with fury and didn’t say a damn thing.

  Mr. H didn’t let her go for a second. He stood to Gun That Sings’ brothers and her mama and her father with his hand on the butt of his gun and told stories about how hitched up he’d got with General This-and-That and Senator Big-Name and wasn’t it a nice patch of earth you people have here, right on the river and green as you please. All his Washington friends would just pick up and move right on out here fast as a cough if they could see it. Gun That Sings heard what he had to say and what he didn’t say, too, and the next Sunday she stood there in her dress of stars and said her vows and signed her name Sarah H. on the register because you can’t name a girl for a gun in civilized society.

  And I guess that’s how a man gets a wife. I’ve heard it told elsewise but I don’t believe it.

  Well, Mr. H took his bride to a place he was building, a castle by the sea. He put silk on her body and emerald combs in her hair. He brushed out that hair every night, wrapped himself up in it, drank up the color and heat of coal in it. He kissed her dark blood-bright mouth over and over like he could drink out the color of them too. Mr. H told it with pride that he taught her to read Shakespeare even though she had English letters just fine already. He made her play wild Titania for him wearing nothing at all, not even violets. He instructed her in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and the keeping of the Sabbath and he got her with child.

  In his private prayers Mr. H said the following: let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine.

  By now I expect you are shaking your head and tallying up on your fingers the obvious and ungraceful lies of my story. Well, I have told it straight. A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood which is its history. My body is my truth, and I have laid it out as evidence on the table of my father’s reputation, for by now you may have guessed my next revelation: I was the child Mr. H put inside of Gun That Sings.

  Mrs. H uncovered her condition in wintertime. It did not snow much in that part of the country but the ground did freeze, and frost over, and purchase from heaven a meager dusting of the cold stuff. Gun That Sings went out into the forest at night. All the stars like dresses hung up in the sky. She took up a kitchen knife and hacked at her arms until steam rose out of her like she was a kettle. Her blood dripped down onto the white ground and she hoped she’d die but she didn’t. Mr. H’s people found her and patched her up and locked her in a little room til the baby could come at which point she died anyway, all alone in that big unfinished house.

  Snow White

  Secures Fire

  My father did love me after a kind. He liked to see me trotted out for supper in a lacy white dress, so he could see my black hair against it. He liked to see me dressed in black so my skin looked lighter against that. Less regular, he put me into calfskin and two long braids which is how Crow girls dress. I did not like the look of him when I did that. Mr. H did not often introduce me to his business acquaintances or his more intimate partners. A daughter was a special doll to be kept in a glass cabinet. An automatic girl the master of the house brought out to entertain at the table with charming words, to be polished up with powder and elaborate costumes. Pull the lever in her heart and she dispenses love, pose her arms and legs and she exhibits grace—then put her away in her cabinet again.

  I gradually understood the truth of my situation: I was a secret. Few enough of my father’s folk knew he’d married anybody in the first place. Gun That Sings had barely outlived the mail service that delivered their nuptial announcements. Mr. H found it more difficult to explain the sudden appearance of a daughter than to have me privately instructed and forbid me to leave the grounds of the slowly growing castle by the sea.

  For a long time this did not trouble me as the grounds would have put the shame to Eden and Babylon. The hills swooped down to the shore in grassy, gentle humps, split up into gardens, fields full of pheasant and grouse for hunting, stables and ponds, good pine forests. Up on the north acreage, my father ordered a tiny zoo built, along with a brass carousel and a miniature boardwalk along the creek. The boardwalk boasted two shooting galleries, a dime museum full of paintings of faraway cities in Europe and South America, and a saloon with a player piano and sarsaparilla taps that never seemed to run dry. Inside the saloon stood a black and silver slot machine specially made to accept wooden coins my father had struck as part of my raising—they pictured myself on one side and Mr. H on the other. I received a set and non-negotiable number of these every month and could trade them for toys, extra helpings of dessert, another hour before bedtime, or any other sorts of things for which a child might wheedle and beg. The spinners on the slot machine depicted a lonely tree in winter, spring, summer, and autumn. If I lined up the seasons correct, real coins would spill into the tray, silver dollars like raindrops.

  I played alone on the boardwalk. My governess was not allowed there as Mr. H felt every soul required a space to lord over. The sun beat my hair and the magpies watched me hopscotch across the birch slats. The slots spun only for me. I pulled my own mugs of sarsaparilla. I shot the tin geese in the galleries over and over again until dark. Sometimes the dime museum paintings changed, but I never saw new canvases hung up or old ones taken down. I had no friends or company other than my father, my governess Miss Enger, and the groundskeeper, who came to feed the animals Mr. H collected on his travels and installed in the zoo. We had an ancient circus bear called Florimond, a red fox, a slow-witted buffalo, a shaggy gibbon’s monkey. I was powerful afraid of the crocodile, even though she was caged up. The coyote also lived in a cage, as he could not be trusted to come back if we let him roam like the fox and the bear, who knew a good thing and an easy meal. I recall specially a pair of enormous emerald-colored parrots with red and yellow and purple feathers my father had brought by sea from the West Indies. They could talk a little but they did not speak English.

  Mr. H liked more than anything to see me dressed like a boy, with a cattleman’s hat and a revolver made to my hand. It had a grip pounded out of the first silver bars of Mr. H’s fortune, so pure and bright it could blind a body cold. That would have been gun enough for any girl, but I reckon my father had nowhere else to spend his love back then. He had great big red pearls stuck into it like drops of blood spattered on the snow, one for every time I pleased him. On my tenth birthday he presented me a black opal the size of his thumb which he set himself into the pommel.

  Like your mother’s eyes, he said. Like your eyes, he said.

  When I looked at it I did not see my mother’s eyes. I saw
fire. Veins of fire like anger in the dark. Like coal. Like coals. And in the silver I saw my face reflected like a terrible, wonderful mirror.

  I could shoot that gun easy as spitting. The tin gallery-geese, the apples off the orchard trees. I named my gun Rose Red for them fancy cranberries nubbling up against my palm. It was some years before I understood that pearls were more usually white. My main observation on the matter of the opal was that it changed the weight of my gun, which did not please me. If I was not shooting the pea-rifle at tin buffalo on the boardwalk, I spent the better number of my afternoons shooting bottles on my father’s high fences, also rabbits, black squirrels, and opossums which I gave to the groundskeeper. He took the meat and returned me the pelts and I judged that a sound bargain. On occasion I shot big black rats which I gave to the coyote, as I do not prefer rat fur. He crunched their skulls between his jaws. He watched me with yellow eyes while he did it. When he howled he sounded like a body dying.

  Once, I took a bead on a seagull and shot it plumb out of the sky. I did not expect to come close to it. As soon as it dropped down toward the sea my heart fell through a hole in my chest. I looked for the bird all over the meadowy grass, crying miserable. The sun set my tears to boiling. I talked myself into the notion that I would find the seagull wounded through the wing and keep her and mend her and teach her to love humans and live in a house. She would help me and bring me fish and be my companion. She would sleep in my bed with her soft head against my shoulder.

  I found the poor bird down at the bottom of a green hill. I had put my bullet straight through her black eye.