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Excerpt

Waking Beauty

Rebecca Solnit

November 8, 2022 
The following is from Rebecca Solnit's Waking Beauty. Writer, historian, and activist Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including Call Them By Their True Names, Cinderella Liberator, Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions, and Hope in the Dark.

Ida,
or Sleeping Beauty

Once upon a time there was a child named Ida, and wild things happened to her.

*

But that’s not where the story begins. Before there was Ida there was her mother and father, and before them their parents, and before them…

Before every beginning is another beginning. Before there is a child, there are parents. Whether she has one parent in her life or five or is raised by aunts or wolves or elves.

Ida had two human parents, so perhaps this story should begin, “Twice upon a time….” Or, since two parents and one child make three, “Three times upon a time.”

*

Her parents had fairy godmothers, seven of them.

So we could also start, “Seven times upon a time.”

The first fairy’s real name was

Incandescent Lumina Popsicle Jones,

and the second one’s name was

Dreamsicle Swantooth Felicidada,

and the other five were even worse.

Everyone called them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

They were good fairies, all of them, but Sunday was so good she was awful. Sunday thought everything should be perfect, and she was always showing up to complain that things were not what they were supposed to be. At a picnic, for example, she would complain that the strawberry jam should be blackberry, and then eat all the strawberry jam anyway.

If you told her you liked her hat, she thought that meant you hated her shoes, and her favorite question was always “What’s wrong with this?” except when it was “Whose fault is this?” She was the great killer of parties and the spoiler of games. That’s a magical power that you should try not to have.

Her full name was

Marzipanzer

Divisadero

Primrooseveltundramama

McIrritabittlepittlegram,

which is why at least there’s one thing to be glad about her: that we can call her Sunday.

The story about why she was that way begins a long time ago, when Wednesday’s pet griffin ate Sunday’s birthday cake when they were very young. For fairies, very young means about a thousand years old. It is true that a thousandth birthday cake is often very large, with a lot of candles, so if a griffin eats it all, it’s quite a loss.

*

Once upon a time, or twice, or more, two parents had their first child and invited a lot of people and seven fairy godmothers to the child’s name day.

(Once upon a time

plus twice

plus seven

is ten times upon a time.)

The invitations were written by hand on yellow paper in beautiful inky blue letters and were very nice, and they went into green envelopes

and the envelopes went into the mail.

The mail went into a red bag

and the bag went on the back of a horse that the messenger rides

and the horse galloped by a rosebush

and the rosebush had thorns

and a thorn tore the bag

and one invitation fell out

and the horse didn’t notice

and neither did the rider

and the invitation fell into the road

and then rain fell and the ink ran

and a herd of goats walked over it

so it got covered by mud

and was never seen again

except by worms and beetles

and a mouse who spent a rainy afternoon under it

but the mouse’s story is another story.

 

Unfortunately the lost envelope held the name-day invitation to Sunday.

*

The name day came, and so did the guests, and there were fireworks and there was cake and there was a nice speech by Thursday about love and some presents from the six fairies and other presents from the other people. The baby was named Ida, and she didn’t cry very much at her party, and they only had to change her diaper once, and lots of people held her and said what a nice smile she had, and wished her well.

And then Sunday came, and that was so terrible we have to start another chapter about how awful it was. And horrible. Ugly. Mean. Wrong. Bad.

*

Sunday came in like thunder, and she shouted, Why didn’t you invite me, and she didn’t wait for the answer, which was that they did, or they tried to, so there must be some mistake. Sunday did not believe in mistakes or accidents. While the other fairies were in the middle of giving gifts, Sunday cursed the baby.

She said in a voice like thunder, only more grumpy,

When Ida is fifteen she will prick her finger on a spindle and die!

And then she flashed like lightning and vanished into a stormcloud, so that no one could argue with her about what a nasty thing to do that was.

(We will talk about what spindles are later.)

Friday and Saturday hadn’t given their gifts yet, and so they worked and strained and called on all their magic power and bent the big curse into a smaller curse. When curses are freshly made and still soft they can be bent or sometimes tied

in a knot or even taken back.

She won’t die, said Saturday, but she will sleep for a hundred years.

I’m sorry, said Friday, but that’s the best we can do.

Thursday said, You never really know what will happen. Maybe something interesting will come of this.

Wednesday said, I do love sleep.

Tuesday bounced the baby and burped her.

Monday poured some more tea.

*

I forgot to mention that Ida’s mother was the song queen of the kingdom of Zur, and the family lived in the great stone palace on the banks of the river Amandla.

Ida had a beautiful singing voice and she learned the queen’s main job,

which was to sing the song that made the cherry trees bloom.

She also learned other songs about the birds coming back in the spring

and why the rabbits dance in the dew in the grass at dawn

and the one about rainy days

and the one about the boy who turned into a bear

until he found the bear that had turned into a boy,

and they both changed back, and went home to their families.

She even learned what songs the mermaids sing,

and sometimes when the moon was new

she would go down to the sea at night

and listen to them sing their mermaid songs

full of mermaid stories about how complicated life is under the sea.

Sometimes she would sing with them a little, and voices would fly up from the rocks and down from the cliff.

 

The Amandla River flows down to the sea, and on the rocks near the shore the mermaids sit and comb their hair and sing, because their hair gets full of seaweed and barnacles, and because why not sing while you work if you can sing like a mermaid?

Once upon another time, longer ago, the Queen of Zur ruled over everyone, but people got tired of being bossed around, so they made all the big decisions together at meetings. (Sometimes the meetings went on forever, because someone talked too much, but it was still better than having one person boss everyone around.). But since Zur on the banks of the Amandla River was a magic country, the queen in that time had magic powers that passed on from mother to oldest daughter. She wasn’t the only one with magic powers, but she was the only one with that magic power.

By powers we mean responsibilities, and one responsibility was to sing the songs that made the cherry trees flower in the springtime so there would be cherries on the trees in the summer and cherry jam all winter.

She wasn’t the only queen either. There was a queen of butterflies and a queen of windmills and a queen of camping and so many other queens.

*

Ida’s parents asked everyone to burn up all the spindles in the land. People did it because the two parents were very upset and they explained why they needed that done.

A spindle is a tool that people use to spin thread, and unless you spin thread, you can’t weave cloth, and if you can’t weave cloth you can’t make clothes (or mailbags or flags or blankets or tents). A spindle looks like a stick, and sometimes it’s sharp at one end. It’s called a spindle because you spin it so it twists the stuff you’re holding into thread.

They also destroyed the spinning wheels that are another way people make thread. There were big bonfires. They thought they could stop Sunday’s curse if they made all the spindles and spinning wheels go away.

In those once-upon-a-time days, people made clothes by hand, starting with the wool from the sheep or the linen from the flax in the fields or the silk from the silkworms on the mulberry trees. Because it was so much work to make clothes, people never threw them out. But with the spindles destroyed, people had to wear clothes that got older and older.

With the spindles destroyed, there was no thread to weave with. So the weavers were out of work, and they stopped making cloth. Then the tailors and seamstresses who sewed the cloth into clothes were out of work too. Though they found a little work cutting up old clothes to make new ones and making wedding dresses out of curtains and winter coats out of blankets.

*

That was a bad thing, but other things happened too. One of the good ones was the birth of Ida’s little sister Maya, and that’s when this story becomes Eleven Times Upon a Time.

(Once for Ida,

Twice and three times for her mother and father,

Seven Times for the Seven Fairies,

and One More Time for Maya makes Eleven Times Upon a Time.)

Maya and Ida were just alike and completely different. Maya couldn’t sing at all but she could draw. Both of them liked to dance, but Ida liked to climb trees and Maya liked to swim, and one of them liked strawberries best and the other one liked blackberries best, and sometimes they fought and sometimes they played.

Maya often thought it was much better to be Ida, and Ida often thought it was better to be Maya. And of course they complained about it.

Why do I have to learn the songs and Maya doesn’t have to?

Why don’t I get to learn the songs that Ida learns?

Why can’t I draw like Maya?

Why can’t I sing like Ida?

And both of them:

Why does everyone like my sister better?

Why is it my turn to clean the kitchen?

And so forth, about who had curlier hair and who had a better birthday party and whether it was easier to be the younger one or the older one.

But they didn’t complain all the time, and sometimes they had fun, like when they turned the drainspouts in on the south tower and all the rainwater poured down the stairs like a waterfall, or when they chased the sheep into the museum or trained the dog to dance or climbed the tree so high they could see the mountains behind the hills.

*

Then came the day their parents were dreading, the day Ida turned fifteen, the day when girls in Zur had their first dance party. Ida’s parents had never told her about Sunday’s curse.

Ida woke up before anyone else and thought that maybe there were some trunks of dress-up clothes in one of the towers no one had found yet, so she got up early and ran around and looked and looked in the south tower and the north tower and the east tower and she found some very interesting things.

But she didn’t find any dress-up clothes there,

and so she went where Ida and Maya were never supposed to go:

through the tunnel under the old part of the castle

and through the long hall

and the room as big as a barn full of rusty weapons from the old wars gone by,

to the dusty steps to the west tower.

Dusty and full of spiderwebs, but they didn’t stop her.

At the top was an old door and it creaked when she pushed it open. The voice of the old woman sitting there sounded just like the door as she creaked, Happy birthday, Ida!

Ida was surprised, but she was also interested in what the woman was doing with a cloud of some kind of stuff and a thing kind of like a stick and a twisting movement of her hands. She had never seen it before. Thank you, she said, because she was a polite child, and then,

What are you doing?

I am spinning wool into thread, my dear, said the very old woman, who you probably have guessed was Sunday.

You twist the wool just so, and you spin the spindle just so. She showed how to do those things as she wound the new thread upon the spindle.

And then you probably know the next thing that happened, which was that Ida was happy at the idea that people could make thread, because if they made thread they could weave, and if they could weave they could make cloth, and if they made cloth there could be new clothes. She thought maybe she could bring this great art to her birthday party as a gift to everyone.

Of course she wanted to try spinning, and of course Sunday was only too happy to hand her the spindle, and of course she pricked her finger on the sharp spindle and got sleepy. There was a little bed in the corner with the nicest quilt on it, fluffy as a summer cloud. She lay herself down there and shut her eyes for what she thought would be a moment.

Sunday had done what she had come to do, and she disappeared, leaving behind a spindle and the thread she had spun with it, and a door shut by locks and magic so no one could get in from below. No one else would enter the little room at the top of the tower for a hundred years.

__________________________________

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Waking Beautywritten by Rebecca Solnit and published by Haymarket Books in November 2022. Available wherever books are sold.




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