At five years old I had zero siblings, no television, and two parents who spent most of their time writing and reading and talking about books with each other and their friends, so I taught myself to read for something to do. I still have one of my instruction manuals in this pursuit, the musty and crumbling 1924 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, whose pages I marked up by penciling wobbly ovals around unfamiliar words and writing down my best-guess definitions in the earnest and deliberate hand of a fledgling scribe.
The book, even way back then, was an elegant old tome that some parents would have kept on a high shelf away from sticky fingers, but my mother – literary aficionado, writer of poetry and prose, reciter of verse who named me after a Robert Herrick poem – not only didn’t object to my juvenile marginalia, she encouraged it. Her neat block printing explains the words I couldn’t figure out. Treacherous: bad. Officious: busy-body. Unamiable: unfriendly. Ungracious: he didn’t thank them.
The idea that something could be said in more ways than one thrilled me, and it was exciting to collect powerful and tragic words that nobody said in real life. Slaughterer. Forcibly. Affrighted. In the Grimm stories, certain rules apply; the unfamiliar words and phrases were an entrée to that world. Tell one of your slaughterers to cut off the head of the horse I rode upon, for it was unruly and plagued me sadly on the road. That story, The Goose-Girl, is the one in that particular volume that bears by far the highest concentration of my childish underlinings, arrows, and exclamation points. Most likely not coincidentally, it’s also one of the bloodiest stories in the book.
The goose-girl is, in truth, a princess, who has been betrayed and deposed by her villainous waiting-maid, who robs the true princess of her finery and her beloved horse, who has the gift of speech. The maid, posing as royalty and fearing that the horse will reveal her treachery, orders the decapitation of the horse. The true princess sweetly asks the slaughterer to nail the horse’s head to a wall so that the true princess can continue to converse with him. All comes right, thanks to the truthtelling of the horse-head, and the false, would-be princess is put in a cask studded with sharp spikes and dragged through the streets until she’s dead, a fate that she herself unwittingly decrees.
I remember being fascinated by one of the illustrations to this tale. The princess in her goose-girl dirndl looks earnestly into the horse’s face. The horse is almost smiling, speaking his poetic wisdom as dark blood drips from the nails that affix the skin of his neck to the gate.
The physical book itself had its own dark glamour, with its brittle and yellowing pages. And on every page were the thwarted evildoers who we hope to never meet: vicious dwarves, cannibal witches, jealous queens. But the meaty, dark words – grievous, ill-disposed, roguery – they were the portal to that faroff, longago place and time that never exactly was, but still is and always will be.
Thus began a collection, a lifelong savoring. Words evoke, invoke, transport. The ones with a sinister connotation have special weight. Buckra. Scimitar. Gorgonize. Hoosegow. Blight.