The Juniper Tree, in Three Attempts | Rosalie Morales Kearns

“She gave her a beautiful apple from a chest that had a big heavy lid with a sharp iron lock. ‘Mother,’ said the little girl, ‘can’t Brother have one too?’”

—“The Juniper Tree” (English fairy tale)


Stop me if you’ve heard this before. No, actually don’t. Just sit there and pay attention, and be ready to discuss your responses at the end.

The mother—let’s call her Darcy—is also a stepmother, of a whiny little boy whose name she keeps forgetting. So now you’re starting to get the image of a family:

[Insert stick-figure drawing. Labels: Darcy; small forgettable boy]

This of course would not be categorized as a nuclear family the way the sociologists did back then. We’ll add in a father—yes, the biological father, so far as he knows—of both the small forgettable boy and the even smaller girl, Marlene. Thus the picture becomes:

[Insert supplemented drawing. Boy and father are faceless]

where stick figures stand for mother, father, daughter, and son, and where the conventions of stick-figure art are followed, in which females are depicted with dresses and hair, and males are naked and bald. These visual conventions are worth pondering, but not now.

We’re already on the second page, and the whiny little brat isn’t dead yet.


Q & A

Q: Whose head was severed from its body in that large, pleasant house?

A: My brother’s head was severed from its body.


Q: What sound was heard when the head was severed?

A: Many sounds at once. The thwack of the sharpened clasp on the chest full of apples. The thump of my brother’s head as it hit the pantry floor. The loud, panicky beating of my mother’s heart. The noiseless sound of my brother’s surprise at his sudden death. That was not so much a sound as a feeling that wafted around him and solidified into a cloud of bloody spray.


Q: What did the stew taste like?

A: People have been talking about that stew for years. Word has spread far beyond our village. Even now my father thinks of it fondly, and sometimes gives my resurrected brother a longing look that makes my brother very nervous.


Q: What are the wages of sin?

A: You might think I’ll say “Death,” but then that would imply that those who do not sin will live forever.


Q: Will you live forever?

A: Will you?


Q: Did the murdering stepmother have a chance to repent before she died?

A: Some say that in the instant before the millstone hit, she experienced such an intense transcendence that all her sins were forgiven, and now she enjoys life as that climbing rose next to the juniper tree.


The Chores They Did, the Dreams They Had

Little Marlene sweeps out the fireplace and puts the ashes in the garden. Father cuts the firewood. Brother gathers kindling from the forest on his way home from school. He puts it in the basket by the fireplace and tries to stay out of Mother’s way. Mother lights the fire every morning because the house is freezing and this whole family would fall apart if she weren’t here.

Little Marlene sweeps the kitchen and chases out the chickens when they wander in. Father carries the water from the well because he’s big and strong and it’s easier to do as he’s told than try to argue with Mother. Brother used to check the henhouse for eggs until he dropped one and Mother yelled at him for being stupid and now Marlene gathers the eggs. Mother goes to the market to buy apples from the farmer and bread from the baker because their garden is too meager to keep them fed and this whole family would starve if it weren’t for her.

Little Marlene dreams of the fine things she’ll have when she’s grown up and far away from the raging, terrifying mother. She’ll have apple-red shoes that will make her want to dance when she steps into them. She’ll own a gold-chain necklace and her large house will be full of singing birds, and she won’t have the heart to make them live in cages.

Father dreams of a house blessedly empty and quiet when he comes in from the fields, and an endlessly replenished pot of stew on the woodstove. No apples rolling on the floor, or heads.

Brother dreams of forests. He knows that in real life apple trees grow in orchards, planted in orderly rows, but he’s in the Black Forest under an apple tree now. He takes an apple and the flesh is firm and sweet and he wants to stay here in this forest, where his mythic dead mother is not dead but just somewhere further up the path.

Mother dreams of a paradise where there’s no Adam, no weak man who’ll take what you offer and then blame you. A world where bones stay undisturbed in their graves. Where trees and birds can talk and they understand her, and she is never disappointed.

Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis, 2017), about a female Roman Catholic priest in a slightly alternate near-future. She’s also the founder of Shade Mountain Press.