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Good Letters

The Sleeping Beauty, John Collier, 1921

Around the middle of the summer, I noticed that one of my chickens had disappeared. The next day, another was missing. The morning after that, my kids came in from doing their chores.

“All the chickens are dead,” my seven year old informed me. “And one of them has its butt eaten off.”

Does this sound gruesome and horrific? It is. This is the reality of farm life, where all the physical and visceral elements of the cycle of life are visible to us, daily. And death, sometimes even violent death, is part of that cycle. 

Recognition of this reality can co-exist with a recognition of the sacredness and dignity of life—all life, not just human life. Here on our farm, we emphasize animal rights and oppose the abuse and exploitation too often seen in the agricultural world, but we can’t escape nature, famously red in tooth and claw. In this case, we couldn’t escape the fact that a raccoon had decided to make our hen-house his playground. Hawks and foxes will take what they need to eat and depart, but raccoons go into mass-murderer mode, biting off heads, tearing off wings and legs. When I surveyed the damage, blood was literally splashed on the walls.

I report the chicken massacre with trepidation. Many of my peers believe we ought to shelter our children from the knowledge of death. Our intentions are good; we all want to protect our children’s innocence. We want them to enjoy the simple pleasures of life free from anxiety for a few precious years. That respite before Knowledge of the World comes to them is so very brief and fragile.

When it comes to stories, most of us don’t want to enact the paranoid censorship of religious fundamentalists. We don’t want to deprive our children of the critical tools necessary for evaluating stories, or for engaging with difficult or complex topics through art. But we’re aware that art and stories are not necessarily safe. No story is ever really neutral, even if it may pretend to be. The right story can set the world on fire—and so can the wrong story, in a different way.

The world is burning, even now, in the bad way. And my children need to know because, like it or not, it’s the world they will inherit. 

I don’t want to expose them to stories that are cavalier about suffering or ignore issues of justice and liberation. I don’t want them to witness violence as normative, war as glorious, assault as romantic, or racism as comedy. But they will witness, in real life, people who enact all those things, and they need to be prepared. 

Hard things come into every life, no matter how strenuously we try to prevent them. Death, especially, will come, as it came for their chickens.

There Be Monsters

The embroiderers of folk-tales knew this. Most of us know by adulthood that the original fairy tales, drawn from the oral traditions of many different cultures, often overlapping and criss-crossing along the way, are far from their pastel Disney adaptations. They are, like a chicken house after a raccoon attack, splashed with blood.

See the delightful cooing doves: Here they are giving gifts to the virtuous Cinderella; here they are pecking an evil stepsister’s eye out. Here is a princess talking to the severed head of her beloved horse. Here is a prince carrying off the dead body of a murdered child. Here is a man eating black puddings made from the blood of his own son. Here is the murdering stepmother crushed under a millstone. 

from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, public domain

The magical world of these stories is also unsafe, violent, and vulgar. “Write what you know” is the mantra, and the tellers of these tales told what they knew. They were raising children they knew might not make it to adulthood. They lived through poverty, famine, plague, and wars waged by the powerful at the expense of the weak.

The traditional “happy ending,” in which the poor maiden or youth ends up in a castle married to royalty, must have been especially compelling to the peasants who kept these stories alive, not because of any starry-eyed romance, but because ending up in a castle meant you were safe. It meant no more homelessness, starvation or drudgery. (Notice how many of our fairy tale heroines go from having to work day and night to living a life of leisure.)

Some of the stories we regard as the most charming (and “safe” for children) are effective not simply because of the quiet depictions of tranquil everyday life, but because those scenes are juxtaposed with a view of life beyond the boundaries that make the world safe and secure. Beyond those edges may be monsters–and the monsters may even be us. 

Consider Beatrix Potter’s beloved Peter Rabbit, the delicate illustrations of the little bunny with his blue coat, the quintessential English garden, the cabbages and carrots all just right. What could possibly be more soothing to consider than this little rabbit’s sojourn through a kitchen garden, and a day ending with chamomile tea? But between the beginning and the end of the story, Peter Rabbit is very close to death—and not just death, but being turned into a pie and eaten.

Peter Rabbit’s simple quest for food ends up putting him in danger of becoming food, like Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops or among the Lestrygonians. All Odysseus wants is to get home, or at least to the lands “where men eat bread.” The tranquility of domestic life and chamomile tea, the literal rootedness of Odysseus’ marriage-bed, are magical when seen through the eyes of the weary wayfarer.

The fear of being turned into food is a central factor in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a novel of farm life dear to me both as a tribute to spiders who also happen to be writer-activists and as the drama of Fern and Wilbur, the girl and the runt pig she saves, which has played out in my own family. My children know very well where meat comes from, and have even helped when we’ve processed a deer my husband harvested, and they are also deeply attached to our own animals. Once an animal is named, it becomes sacrosanct. The kids make a point of naming them all. 

The act of naming an animal makes it an honorary member of the human family, which makes killing that animal taboo, even if one recognizes that carnivorous activity is part of the same web of nature that binds us. By naming Wilbur, Fern takes the first step in saving him, but without the intervention of Charlotte the activist-spider, it would not be enough.

Why is only Wilbur saved from the butcher? Isn’t that unfair? My children want to know.

I don’t have an answer. Neither can I answer why Yahweh destroyed Job’s entire family. The Book of Job is frustrating because it is unsatisfying, but it’s also strangely gratifying. Stories that offer an easy answer to life’s sorrows may seem soothing so long as we remain privileged, cocooned, unaware of the violence of human history, but stories that leave us troubled and uncertain are the ones we can take with us when we are exiled from this narrow shelter. 

This often happens early. For some, the loss is earth-shattering: a parent or a sibling dies. A family is torn apart. But sometimes even what seem like small losses, such as the death of a pet, can devastate a child.

The Ordinary, Everyday Goodness of Stephen King

Here on the farm we’ve had many animals, so we’ve seen many deaths. The first to die was our dog, Leia, and we buried her down by the plum trees. Over the years we buried more animals there: my cat, Woozle, who had traveled with me to grad school my first teaching job, through a disastrous marriage, and back home again; my parents’ little dog, Frodo, shot by a neighbor; their dog, Thurber, who died of old age; our cat, Tracker, hit by a car; and recently, three little kittens who succumbed to kitten flu in spite of our treatments. Some of the graves have markers.

Mark Gunn, Pet Cemetery at the Presidio, Creative Commons

This was such an unlucky year for animals on our farm, I decided to read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for the first time. I was looking for chills, and I found them, but I also found, as I always do in King, a profound affirmation of the kind of ordinary, everyday goodness we might think of as decency. Goodness isn’t about the transcendent promise or the far-away; it’s about the act of kindness or solidarity right now, in the flesh. Horror in his stories is usually the kind of evil that violates this decency.

The family in Pet Sematary is terrified of death, cannot speak of it, refuses to think about it. The daughter, in particular, is sheltered from any hint of death. So when death comes, they are unprepared. And it truly does seem like the ultimate tragedy: the violent and senseless death of a child.

Yet when we see the consequences of trying to cheat death in this novel, we find a horror that makes the initial tragedy seem wholesome. Loss is human. Mourning, even the mourning of a lacerated heart, is an act of decency, compared with the illicit resurrection of the uncanny undead. Like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, King reminds us that death is not the worst thing that can happen, and that the desperate determination to escape death makes us inhuman. It makes us monsters. Death is not good, but it is part of nature, incorporated into the cycles in which we have our roots and, ultimately, our ends. 

In Pet Sematary, horror is unleashed when a family refuses to acknowledge the hard truths about being embodied. I thought about my kids’ own pet cemetery, about the funerals we’ve had there, about the tiny bodies we grieved over, the poorly-spelled markers. I thought about our decapitated chickens and about the world my children live in, the wars and genocides and famines. Some stories will give them shelter. But I also want to give them stories that will make them brave and hopeful, in a world such as this.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Rebecca Bratten Weiss

Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a farmer, writer, and activist. She speaks and writes on topics ranging from Nietzsche's aesthetics to Bronte's feminism, on vulgarity and religion, and on women's issues. Read one of her poems, "Never Could Walk the Line," at The Seawall:

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