The Girl with the Snow Queen’s Kiss

Yes, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it first came out. We were in the Hawaiian Islands, on Kauai, and I sat in the garage-lanai the first morning and afternoon, mid-December, bathed in easy warmth, a flowering cactus just outside the doorway, and read about depredations on sanity, Swedenesque. Last evening, one of the few Sunday Halloweens I remember, the neighborhood graves opened and out poured a werewolf who peered in my window like a mask out of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Princesettes in pink tulle pirouetted; one face-painted pumpkin bobbed her real pumpkin handle attached to reddish hair, and some plump teens gave shame-faced grins because they hadn’t bothered to doll-up.

The last and favorite was a tiny girl wearing the Snow Queen’s Kiss–all in white, with spangled slippers, bunny fur wrap, and a wand with sparkly silver star. A premonition of the season to come? Or a character from Crime and Punishment which I’ve been listening to with my late night exercises? The waifs and discards of society find their makers in mid-to-late 19th-century European fiction–Dickens., Mrs. Gaskell, and Dostoevsky are the best. American writers don’t take up the theme of the earth’s outcasts until later, and then wrap them in outrage–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for instance. Our myth of human perfectibility and the New Eden doesn’t easily admit extreme human need.

My limited knowledge suggests that Europeans don’t do Halloween the way we do in the U.S. For intensely Catholic countries, the day after, All Saints Day, is what’s celebrated. Similar to the Mexican practice of visiting family graves with marigolds and skeletons made of sugar. “It’s a liminal time,” a Catholic friend tells me. Over the years, as my list of dead grows, I’ve come to understand what she means. Liminal, or of the doorway. In these days of dwindling light, the dead press closer to us, they rap quietly at our awareness; they hover just out of sight. Tears spring into my eyes and I’m mourning my mother, the most recent, profound loss. I picture her sleeping as I last saw her, when I came early into her room in assisted living and sat, watching her in her long afternoon nap. The pallor of her face struck me with the intuition that she would not live much longer.

In the last few months, two Italian-American poets and translators have given us versions of the early 19th-century Italian poet and philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi. W.S. Di Piero’s translations and selections of Leopardi’s notebooks contains these sentences: “The ancients assumed that the dead thought only about the things of this life…that they grieved or felt contented depending on what had hurt or pleased them here in life, and so as they saw it–and as Christians do not–this world is mankind’s home, that other world is exile.” (In Poetry magazine, Nov. 2010, p. 130)

I like to think that this liminal period reminds us that living is precious; the earth that supports us ultimately demands our respect and nurturing in kind. We are kin/kind with those who have gone before and those who come after.

I remember loving Halloween: my Swedish-German mother, not given to effusive displays of affection, yet knew how to decorate and conduct a party. She made us elaborate costumes–Pucinellas in ruffed motley or Japanese ladies with wallpaper kimonos. Then she and other Old Citadel mothers gathered us in the three-story, echoing courtyard of the “center building” where we bobbed for apples, touched slimy disgusting things, pinned some kind of tail on a pumpkin, and shared our “trick or treat” loot. “One hundred and fifty children in one block,” she would marvel. She who grew up in tiny Hankinson, North Dakota, whose population at its highest couldn’t have been more than 1000.

In this night of misrule, we can blame our pranks on the dead, laugh and stuff ourselves with easy sweetness, and put aside any notion that life hereafter trounces such pleasures. I’m all for believing in benign heavenly guidance and malign distrust. But, so far, I’m more convinced that the dead remain with us, nurturing and terrifying.

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