“Mommy, will you read this with me?” Zaviera pats the empty space on the couch and I don’t pause, debate with myself, try to navigate the conflicting ‘shoulds’ or ‘need to’, because it is very clear what needs to be done and what I should do.
I sit down on the couch with Zaviera and we begin to read. Every few words she stops and gets confused. I sense that if she can hear the story, catch its rhythm and adventure, she’ll remember the words and the words will no longer be things to sound out only to be quickly forgotten – they’ll contain meaning for her. Meaning doesn’t leave us. It requires no memorization.
I say, “Do you want me to read a line and then you can repeat it?”
She nods and snuggles in to my arm, her fingers kneading my bicep like a content cat.
So we begin again.
I declare, “Elsie Fay, where are you?” in a blustery mother voice. I declare it with an apron-wearing, spoon in my hand, rounded hips and stocky legs voice.
Zaviera looks up at me and echoes it back, matching the rise and fall of my voice, but adding a touch of stern that is all her own. Her addition says, “I will use this spoon for something other than baking if you don’t get back here, child!”
We go back and forth until we reach the end of the story. We pause here and there to discuss the twists and turns of the story:
“He told me I was looking at the smartest troll in the woods,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“I said that I did not believe him, and he became very angry. He jumped up and down and he bit his tail.
“What did you do?” asked Elsie Fay.
“I opened my purse. I took out a tiny mirror and I gave it to him. He had never seen a mirror before. I told him that he was looking at a picture of the smartest troll in the woods.”
“What did the troll do then?” asked Elsie Fay.
“He looked very carefully at the mirror,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“And he became even angrier. He wanted to know where he could find that smart troll.”
Elsie Fay was too excited to speak.
“I told him,” she said, “that the smart toll in the picture lived on the other side of the deep, dark woods.”
I ask Zaviera what she thinks is happening and she tells me that the mother is tricking the troll because he isn’t very smart.
I remember my mother reading this story to me when I was a child. I always felt anxious for the little girl and embarrassed for the troll and his ugly vulnerability. I felt bad that he was ugly, smelly, and not so smart. I felt relieved and a little intimidated by the mother who was able to take care of herself and send the troll scurrying away to attack his own reflection.
Zaviera gets the logic of the story, “The mom was tricking the troll because it was mean and she needed to get home. She showed it the mirror and lied to him.”
She shrugs, slightly impatient with me.
I’m a little in awe of my daughter but not surprised.
Unlike me, when Zaviera meets a troll, I suspect she’ll slip out from under its anger, vanity, and territorial nature. She’ll hand it a mirror, kick it in the shins, and run like hell for freedom.
“Yes, my munchkin. Exactly.”
We read on. Elsie Fay has encountered the troll from her mother’s story and tries to use her mother’s trick but the troll isn’t fooled twice.
Elsie Fay has to think quickly and she does:
“Of course,” said Elsie Fay, “there is only one way to prove you really are a troll.”
“Oh, yes?” said the troll.
“Troll are very graceful,” said Elsie Fay.
“Quite true,” said the troll, tripping over his tail.
“And I have heard that trolls can even stand on their heads,” said Elsie Fay.
The troll had never stood on his head, but he did not want to say so.
“I can stand on my head,” he lied. “I do it all the time”
“Show me,” said Elsie Fay.
So Elsie Fay tricks the troll to standing on his head and her mother’s mirror falls out of his pocket.
Elsie Fay picks it up and when she returns to her mother to share her story, Elsie Fay feels ashamed that she forgot to give the mirror back to the troll.
I think, “Yes, that would be me. Happy to have gotten past the troll but ashamed that in the process, I’d taken something that was never the troll’s to begin with.”
Her father declares:
“Trolls, trolls,” said Mr. Johnson
“There are no trolls. And that is that.”
But here is the thing: they do exist.
Trolls and all of the other creatures of childhood stories: they exist.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days. If you pay attention to the classic fairy tales, they’re a little bit horrible. Okay, a lot horrible.
They’re scary and bloody and vicious and they require the heroine/hero/survivor to fight/flee/recognize when they are being fed to be eaten; in other words, led to the sacrifice.
I wrote about my decision to withdraw from my teacher training based on my health, my heart, my family, my writing, but what I didn’t write about was that in this journey, I came across a troll and an ice queen. I didn’t write about the records I had to take, the way I was torn to shreds by the women supervising me. I had given one of them one of my favorite pens! I bought her chocolate when she accused me of losing her keys. I over-extended myself in trying to reduce her stress levels.
She met my children. And then she lied. Twisted reality and wrote a report that left me stunned. I felt like I’d been mugged.
It wasn’t so much that she’d slung mud at my character, because I’m ready to take a certain level of lashings, but it was that she’d met my family. She’d welcomed me, reassured me, and then turned on me.
I had forgotten that the world is made of fairy tale creatures. I don’t place the blame on my situation or the characters I tangled with. It was a lesson for me.
None of us are bad, we have our roles, and I believe that we shape one another toward our best selves with our bumps and bruises.
What would this world be without testing ourselves against trolls and protecting our hearts from ambitious queens?
Ice queens have their beauty and trolls have their trollish appeal.
I want my daughter to grow-up without feeling pity for pocketing the troll’s mirror.
In years to come, as she meets the challengers of her spirit, I want to say to her:
“When you are in troll country use your wits. You will always be kind-hearted. Do not let your heart be frozen. Do whatever it takes to cross that bridge, get past the troll, and make it home, your heart beating fierce and warm in your chest.”