There was once a woman and her daughter and the daughter kept a beautiful garden with cabbages, daisies, etc. The daughter was in her early twenties and lived at home. She was a secretary and couldn’t afford her own place, and she didn’t want to move in with some friends who had asked her. Their apartment always was dirty and there were different guys over most nights. The daughter wasn’t a prude but she got nervous about the idea she wouldn’t know who was there when she was sleeping.
The mother also was nervous and didn’t like her daughter to go out at night. But sometimes the girl went out to the bar. It was on the same block as their little house—in fact it was next door. It used to be a convenience store but it had been turned into a bar. When the daughter went to the bar and sat on the back patio to smoke, her mother sat on their back patio too. They had conversations through the chain-link fence.
One bar regular was an attractive guy in a punk band. It was a good band and he wore tiny hoop earrings. One night after hours, he leaned over their fence and picked at the daisies. The mother said to her daughter, “Can you go out front and ask that punk to move on? He’s frightening me.”
The girl stood behind the screen door of her house and said, “My mother wants you to leave.” It was three o’clock in the morning. The mother and daughter were light sleepers, and usually dozed in the front room on the couch instead of going to bed. They left the TV on all night playing Mexican soap operas.
The guy said, “Come hear my band play. We’re playing at Ejay’s tomorrow. It’s across from Bar 22. I’ll put you on the list.”
At Bar 22 the lights were always too bright. They had red velvet booths and dollar whiskey cokes. It wasn’t a cool bar, and the girl liked it there. But she didn’t go.
The next night he showed up again around the same time and started to sing to the flowers, a song about life on Mars. The woman said to her daughter, “Please, I’m begging you, just get him to leave!”
The girl went out beyond the screen door. “I don’t know what’s her problem,” she said. She wore a pair of men’s underwear and a black t-shirt with a white unicorn on it.
The musician said, “Just get on the back of my bike, and we’ll go to my house and listen to records.” He gestured toward his three-speed. It was white and rusted and had a kickstand. It had a Gordon Lightfoot bumper sticker on it and one of the tires was flat.
She shook her head shyly and went back inside.
On the third day the guy leaned over the gate and held his hands clasped together, like he was praying.
“Jean,” the mother said. “Jean!”
Jean went outdoors and said, “Can you, like, pick another garden to haunt? We just happen to live next to the bar, it isn’t my fault.”
“Jean, I’ve known you for years. Come over. It’s not a big deal.”
So she went and they listened to records. They got really drunk on tequila, the kind that comes in a glass skull. The next day she made him breakfast. Then lunch. Then supper. After a few years like this he said they should get married.
Who were the wedding guests? I can tell you this because someone told me. They were all musicians, except for the painters and writers, and all friends of the husband’s, except for one who was the head secretary at Jean’s place of employment. She lived on a houseboat with her husband, who also was there. They were both very small and very kind. Jean imagined they had a nice life on the houseboat. A bartender from the bar that was next door to her mother’s house served as the minister and the altar was a hydrangea in the front yard.
The wedding party went into the wee hours which Jean used to enjoy with her mother in front of the television but now spent by herself, while her boyfriend was out at the bars. She used to love to fall asleep under a blanket with her mother on the scratchy mustard-yellow sofa. Now she stayed up alone.
Later on that night, the husband was in the backyard with some wedding guests and others who had just heard there was a party. He smoked a cigarette. He smoked twenty. He smoked some more. He yelled through the screen to the kitchen. “Jean, get the fuck out here! Everyone thinks you’re being crazy. Act like you love me.” Maybe he saw her crying in the kitchen or maybe he didn’t.
Her husband went back to the party. At one point another musician came in and kissed her and she forgot her troubles for a few moments. But soon he pushed her away and leaned on the counter and threw up in the sink. Then it got lighter outside and her husband came to the screen and said “Jean, dude, make us some breakfast! We’re starving, man—and you’re such a great cook.”
When she didn’t answer he started yelling, “Fuck you Jean! Fuck you! You aren’t any fun. You never were fun. You ruined my life! You fucking bitch!” After a while the yelling stopped and it was pretty much silent. The party had moved somewhere else.
Jean didn’t know what to do. But eventually she went into the bedroom and found a doll she’d bought at a thrift shop. Not her usual thing, buying stuff that she didn’t need for decorative or emotional reasons. Yet she’d liked the doll. It was nondescript, made of straw. Seemed like it needed a friend. She dressed the straw doll in her clothes, gave it a stirring-spoon, and stood it next to the stove in the kitchen. Then she went home to her mother. She was forty-three years old.
Her husband came back that evening and yelled, “Open the goddamn door Jean!” Then he opened the door by kicking it in even though it was unlocked and he struck the doll hard on the head. That’s when he realized it wasn’t his bride.
Actually the girl didn’t go back to her mother, and there wasn’t any straw doll—that was from a great little story she never even had read! But she wasn’t his wife.
About the Story:
“The Punk’s Bride” is an imitation—to borrow Angela Carter’s phrase—of “The Hare’s Bride” by the Brothers Grimm. (Angela Carter was adamant that she did not do retellings, she did imitations.) In the 19th century German version, which is possibly one of the saddest and tiniest stories I ever have read, a girl is wooed by and marries a rabbit. Nothing in the story goes well. “The Hare’s Bride” is a perfect and terrible story, and perhaps tellingly also one of my favorites. You ask about my writing process: I always start with the title and “The Punk’s Bride” came to mind because I have recently watched, quite a few more times than I care to admit, a short documentary about David Bowie in the 1970s. I’ve been thinking about the music movements of my childhood years and the impact music has had on my life. The rest of the story came about by channeling the old fairy tale through some screwed-up ideas and images that come to my mind.
You know, around the time of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie said something along the lines of he wasn’t a rock and roller, he was an artist and rock and roll was his medium. I’ve been called a “fairy-tale author, editor, and professor” and even “expert,” but in all of my work, I’m just an artist and fairy tales are my medium. Fiction is my way of doing punk rock: I can’t sing so I do fairy tales—generally weird, sad, and violent ones. I love fairy tales and I love punk music, so I feel sorry that the musicians in this story come out looking bad, but the truth is no one comes out looking so great. I tried to write a nicer story than usual, but as this was written especially for The Masters Review Scary Stories month I guess it’s for the best that I couldn’t!
Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and the story collections Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, and the editor of four anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales and the current World Fantasy Award nominee xo Orpheus: 50 New Myths. Her books have been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Korean, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and other editions. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she teaches fairy tales and creative writing.