the nutcracker: a remix
in the story they tell later, marie stalhbaum is given a toy, and loves him alive. marie's feet are so light that she cannot feel the floor beneath them. the stars shimmer close enough for her to reach out and pluck them from the cloud-wool sky, close enough to hold in her palm. in the story they tell later, he held his arms open and the stars came to collect him, waving and humming a song she will forget upon waking.
but that is only the story they tell later.
in the story as it happens, marie stahlbaum is not given a toy. she is given a hand and grabs it; given a sword and wields it; given a crown and wears it. in the story has it happens, marie is given a choice and she chooses wrong.
no: not wrong.
fritz had hair the color of shortbread, burned at the roots. he will grow to be so tall he must bend over to hear their mother’s quiet voice, but then he was seven, and still small enough to fit in the cupboard. he liked it there: small and dark and warm, just the sounds of marie singing and the smell of stew. his mother always left room for him there, a little space he could fold himself into and tuck himself away like a letter in somebody's pocket.
this is where marie found him before the party. he had fallen asleep again. he pulled her hair and kept her awake at night talking, but still he was her brother, small and folded and soft even at his pointy places, so marie took the flour from the shelf above him and then closed the door and let him be.
that was the moment, marie will think, later. fritz in the cupboard, the flour smattering his shortbread hair until it rose. the choice was already made.
at the party she was given sherry and it made her head spin, spin: the dresses the music the snow drawing circles on the window panes. the tree, so tall she could not see the top unless her father lifted her. her party dress, new, stiff, smelling still like the store it came from. marie snuck champagne cake from the table and gave a taste to fritz when he asked for a third time. her mother spun around the dance floor, head thrown back, laughing. it had been a long time since her mother had laughed like that, marie thought.
herr drosselmeyer gave her the nutcracker, but only because she asked for it. he had given them a castle in the clock, filled with light, and told them all the names of the people who lived inside it. but marie wasn’t interested in castles. the nutcracker was warm, as if it had been folded between somebody's palms, or kept in their pocket.
“who does he belong to?” marie asked.
herr drosselmeyer put his hand beneath her chin. he said, “nobody belongs to anybody else,” and kissed her forehead. “but you can take care of him.”
the sherry shimmered around her like snow dust and the nutcracker twinkled in the christmas lights. marie tucked the toy’s head beneath her chin and promised, “i will! i will.”
but she didn't. she was young. she looked away.
she looked away and it slipped through fritz’s doughy hands, a headfirst dive toward the parlor floor. marie thought that maybe for a moment time had stopped, her stiff new dress held in place by the frozen air.
“fritz!” she cried out, the only name she had to cry. he fell to his knees, frantic, “sorry marie sorry sorry,” but it was too late. the nutcracker was broken in three neat pieces. marie gathered them in her hands and tried to fit them back together, but they wouldn’t stick.
herr drosselmeyer, who had always loved her more than she expected him to, gathered the nutcracker up. there was something in his eyes that marie did not understand. he ran his hands along the roughened edges and whispered something to the nutcracker, gently, like he would to a wounded animal. he ran his hands up and down the wood, fingers catching the rough edges where the wood was broken. marie thought she saw them knit back together, but it must have been the sherry because she was old enough now to know that you cannot knit wood with just your hands.
when the nutcracker was given back, there were jagged scars across him: along the line of his jaw, across the width of his torso, and from his knee to his ankle.
“will you still love him?” asked herr drosselmeyer and marie pressed kisses to where the scars were most visible.
i did love him, thinks marie. her hands are softer now than they ever were, worn with age. she blinks too often, to clear the mist from her eyes. she loved all the parts of him: the way his jaw locked where the scar was; his limp; the way he always slept on his side. of course she loved him, of course the scars had not mattered, but in the end love him or don’t love him was not the choice marie was given.
the rats were not rats. this was something that marie knew, but could not explain: they looked like rats, except in the way that they moved, skittering forward almost in a slither. their tails were too long for their bodies, and sharp, lashing out and slicing through everything they touched.
the king had seven heads, all of them in a row, all of them crowned. marie did not scream when they ran past her, though she wanted to. she waited, unsure. the toys from the party were climbing to their knees, jerky in their movements but gaining fluidity. fritz’s toy soldiers were as tall as she; had they grown? or had she shrunk?
beside her, the nutcracker stirred. he moaned, hand flying to his torso, touching the scar, and at the sound the mice king stopped. he turned and looked directly at marie, directly at the nutcracker beside her.
“oh, hello,” he said, but from which of his seven heads, marie did not know.
her nutcracker tried to stand and couldn’t; his broken knee gave out. the mouse king smiled with seven mouths.
marie’s parents never let them keep the toys herr drosselmeyer gave them. marie had thought it was because they worried that marie and fritz would become spoiled. but the seven crowns of the mouse king glittered like they were reaching for her. and when herr drosselmeyer had asked will you still love him? marie had kissed his scars.
she grabbed the nutcracker’s sword. she swung.
in the story they tell later, the first of the seven heads comes off smoothly. but this is not true.
marie was not a fighter, but she was quick, and the sword was long, and the rat king was not expecting her.
she cut off the head nearest to her. it did not come easily, not a smooth slice but two or three whacks. he screamed. marie remembers this even now, how he and all his heads had screamed, and how she had felt pity for him.
just a rat. sometimes fritz fed the ones that gathered behind the house.
fritz, who still slept, even as the rat king’s henchmen picked him up and carried him away, too far for marie to do anything to stop them except shout his name.
“who are you?”
her nutcracker’s voice did not sound the way she had imagined it. the timbre of his voice was pitched lower and less smooth, his wide eyes blinking. like a little mole, she thought suddenly. peering up at the sky for the first time after being underground.
“i am marie,” she had answered, her name like a title, her name like a crown.
“and who was the boy?”
she does not know why she did not say fritz. she does not know what had held her hand and whispered that his name was not enough, that this world needed to know not what to call him but to whom he belonged.
she said it the same way you sign a deed: “he is my brother. we have to get him back. he has to be with me.”
the nutcracker had nodded. he pushed out his chin, to the left, then to the right, testing the joints. in a very quiet voice he asked, “...and...who am i?”
marie had looked away once, and left him scarred. she knew better than to look away again.
“you’re my nutcracker,” she told him, gaze steady. he sagged a little, in relief. “you have to be with me, too.”
in the story they tell later, marie wakes and is not believed and falls asleep again. the story they tell later says that herr drosselmeyer fills her head with stories about the mouse queen and a princess who was tricked by her. in the story they tell later, you are not meant to know whether marie was asleep or awake: but she can tell you. she did not wake to be unbelieved, because she was never asleep.
the nutcracker took her hand when marie held it out. he repeated, “i am yours,” and believed it, and together they set off to find fritz. it is true that what they found instead was drosselmeyer, dressed differently than marie had ever seen him. he looked at her with recognition, his eyes sad. she had seen him look at her mother that way. she had seen him look at fritz that way. she had seen him look that way a hundred times and was almost old enough to decode it.
“you aren’t supposed to be here,” herr drosselmeyer told her, reaching out to touch her cheek.
“but here i am,” marie answered. “there was a rat. he had seven heads. he took fritz.”
herr drosselmeyer closed his eyes. “i know,” he said. “it’s my fault.”
the nutcracker squeezed marie’s hand. he had shifted so that she was slightly behind him, although it was marie who had the sword, and marie who had pulled him forward, into the woods, until they came upon the little hut with the chimney and the smoke. she hadn’t understood why she knew that whoever was inside would help them, but she had. perhaps it was because marie had heard many stories, and in the stories they tell later there is always a house, and smoke is always coming from the chimney, and inside is someone who is willing to help you, for a price.
“how is it your fault?” marie asked, as gentle as she could be, despite her impatience.
herr drosselmeyer pulled his cauldron from the fire and reached in with his bare hand, giving the liquid inside a swirl. “i will show you,” he said, “if you are brave enough to look.”
marie had not known until now that she was brave enough to do a great many things, if given the choice.
this is what marie saw:
a mouse queen, her tale flickering behind her. she is weeping. her children are dead. they will leave this out, in the stories they tell later; marie knew this even as she watched it happen. no one wanted to feel sympathy for those who wrong them, but it was impossible not to, watching the mouse queen with her crown too big for her head, her children dead around her, their snouts caught in traps. marie thought of fritz and his shortbread hair and understood the fire in the mouse queen’s eyes. marie, too, would slay a dragon to bring her brother back.
marie would slay the dragon that hurt him even if it wouldn’t bring him back. she would slay the dragon just to watch it bleed, if it had the gall to take fritz from her and send him to a place she could not follow.
she watched with a soft heart as the mouse queen gathered her weapons, as she summoned her magic and turned the rat king’s daughter into a monster: ugly not because of her cottony beard, not because of her too-wide mouth, not because of her enlarged head, but because of the blood that brought the curse upon her, the stench of the mouse queen’s dead children that wrapped around her too-big head and saturated her hair. ugly because the magic that transformed her was born of an ugly thing.
“i was sent to find the only man who was capable of curing her,” herr drosselmeyer said. “i found him.”
marie watched as a young man was brought, his face hidden from her. he brought a nut to the monster princess and cracked it. he took seven steps backward and did not stumble, not until the last step, when the mouse queen dashed in front of him and caught the laces on his shoe between her teeth. as soon as he stumbled, the curse transferred from the princess to her rescuer, and that was when she recognized him.
she squeezed her nutcracker’s hand. she did not let go.
“so you see,” said herr drosselmeyer. “he was ruined. the princess would not marry him. she has been looking for a substitute.”
marie straightened her shoulders. she kept the sword in one hand and her nutcracker in the other. she said, “i am not afraid,” and it was only part way a lie.
the choice marie was given was not between love and violence. the choice was not between queen and pauper. the choice was not even fantasy and reality; these would have been simple.
the choice was save fritz or don’t save fritz and all that each entailed. you cannot gain something without losing something else. marie loved twice but could only choose once, and she would choose it again, if given the chance.
the journey to the mouse king’s kingdom was long and not long. the path is winding and they walked it slowly, but marie did not notice the time passing. she held on to the nutcracker’s hand and listened to him talk about his life before he turned to wood. she listened to him tell of growing up a puppet-maker’s son, of the way he used to mold materials into faces.
“anything can be made to look human,” he told her, eyes sparkling. “anything can be made to be human.”
“how?” marie asked, and her nutcracker said, “oh -- just with love, and the right hands.”
marie had laughed, and believed him. she had pressed her hand against his cheek and felt the lock of his jaw, the stubble of a beard he had yet to grow. she felt his smile and his homesickness and thought her hand was right, for this.
she held the sword and touched his face and thought that perhaps she could do both, if she was brave and determined and did not look away. she was wrong.
no: not wrong.
there are worlds filled with many splendid and incredible things, but all of them are held up only by the belief of the people who live there. all of them are held up only by the agreement that life must be lived and people must live it, and if people were stop believing then all of us would crumble into nothing -- all our trees and houses, all our roads and carriages and vegetables stands, all our balls and toys and swords with hilts just big enough for girls on the verge of understanding to wrap their fingers around.
in the story they tell later, marie preserves the worlds she visits. marie becomes their queen. in the story they tell later marie believes and never stops believing.
but this is only
in the story
they tell later.
in the story as it happens, a castle appeared and marie saw fritz through the window. his hands were pressed against it. behind him, the rat king stood, with his six remaining heads. the crown from the head marie had severed was placed upon fritz’s shortbread hair, blood still drying on the rim.
her nutcracker had stopped walking. he had turned her away from the window, to face him.
“are you sure?” he asked. “we could turn around. we could love each other, and do nothing else. we could be happy for as long as happiness can last.”
marie pressed her hand again to his cheek. it felt the same as it had before. she loved him as she had before. she scanned her eyes across his face and thought of how sad it was, the way that humans loved things without reason, loved them despite knowing that love was just belief that happiness was possible.
“yes we could,” she said, “but that was not the choice that we were given.” she watched him in the moonlight and tried to commit his face to memory. she hesitated before saying, “you do not have to come.”
her nutcracker smiled. he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “i am your nutcracker,” he reminded her. “i must be with you.”
marie lifted her sword.
love him or don’t love him was a choice marie was given, but not the choice. she had loved him for every step he took, through fairyland. she had loved his limp and his laugh and the way he had loved his puppets to life. she had loved his hand in hers. she had loved the way he followed her to the castle although fritz was not his brother and meant nothing to him.
her hands are worn and wrinkled now but marie has never forgotten the way his stubble felt beneath her palm, rough in its early stages, but wanting so badly to grow soft.
“you!” shrieked six of the mouse king’s heads.
“me,” answered marie. she brandished the sword. she knew how to cut with it now. she knew how to sever a head.
fritz watched her with wide, mad eyes. there was blood matted in his hair. marie could see where his wrists had chafed with restraints, and could see by the set of his jaw that the restraints had worked. she could see that fritz was too young to save: the crown was grafted to his head, his hand wrapped too tightly around the scepter for his fingers to be loosed.
“she’s come to kidnap me!” he shrieked, pointing. “stop her! seize her! kill her!”
only recently marie had watched him sleeping in a cupboard. only recently she had looked away and in her thoughtlessness he had been taken and ruined. he was young and small and precious and hers, and she had failed him.
“there are too many of them,” said her nutcracker beside her, fingers entwined tightly with her own. “we’ll never defeat them all.”
marie looked down at where they were joined. she understood, then, the choice that she was being given. she had promised to love him no matter what he looked like and she would keep that promise, but only in her heart.
“i am glad to have loved you for as long as i was allowed,” marie said, and let go of his hand. she used both to clutch the sword and drive forward, toward her brother.
in the story they tell later --
“it’s too late!” the mouse king screamed even as she killed him, severing his final head. “he’s mine! he’s mine! he’s mine!”
marie kicked the head aside. fritz was huddled by the throne. the crown was too big for him, and kept slipping down over his right eye. her nutcracker stood behind her, breathing heavy. he was wounded, too. all of them were wounded, thought marie, but that was part of love. it was the only part that was consistent.
“fritz,” she said. “come here.”
“it’s too late,” fritz told her, eyes whirring. “it’s too late, i’m a rat, they made me a rat, i will always be a rat rat rat rat rat rat.”
marie shook her head. she dropped her sword. she held her hands out until they touched him, until she could make a face from his materials. “no,” she promised. “it’s not too late, not with the right love, not with the right hands.”
“marie,” said her nutcracker, but marie had made her choice, and she did not turn around. she drew fritz to her and closed her eyes and stopped believing.
the world crumbled.
when she woke, fritz was beside her. there was blood in his hair and a crown on his head, but they were home. in the story they tell later, marie keeps the crown; but in the story as it happens, she threw it out the window. fritz blinked awake and stared at her, remembering for just a little while before it faded. marie knew then that she would be the only one who would bear the burden of it, of remembering.
her nutcracker lay discarded in a corner, covered in scars.
“i did love him,” she told herr drosselmeyer, the next time he came through the door. he remembered too, she thought. “i’d have loved him no matter what he looked like. but that was not the choice that i was given.”
“no,” he agreed. “that would have been a far easier choice.”
in the story they tell later, this promise is enough for marie to break the spell, and the nutcracker to return to her. he brings her back to fairyland and they make her their queen. this is marie’s reward, for her love, for her hands.
but in the story as it happens, marie loved him and did not choose him and that was the end of it, forever.
no: not forever.
“marie,” fritz says, his hair peppered gray, his eyes wrinkled. both of them are so much older than marie had ever imagined they would get. it has been long and not long. she has not been sad, but there have been moments of great sadness; this is life, marie thinks. you watch your brother and you love him, because you chose him. you live as best you can with the choices you have made. “marie -- i had a dream last night. i remembered something, i -- there was a rat. he put his crown on my head. and you were there, a sword in your hands.”
marie smiles. “i dreamed that, too,” she tells him. “i chose you. you drive me crazy but i’d choose you again.”
“you stopped believing,” fritz tells her, bending down to kiss her forehead. “but there was something you forgot.”
“what?” asks marie, and fritz reaches out to frame her face with his hands, the pressure of them warm and tender.
“i have hands, too,” he tells her. “and i was also given a choice.”
marie, wrinkled, gray, arthritic, faints.
when she wakes, the world is different. her hands are no longer wrinkled. her nutcracker smiles down at her, and all his scars are healed. he reaches down and traces the outlines of her face.
“marie,” he says. “my marie.”
she laughs. she laughs and laughs. she kisses him and lets him take her hand and hold it. “i believe it,” she promises, and does: fritz had a choice, too. save marie or do not save her. they have always chosen each other, and in such different ways. “i believe, i believe, i believe.”