Advice for Surviving the Fairy Tale

by Nina Sabak

1. Know that your happiness is temporary, no matter what. Your parents are farmers, or a woodcutter and his wife, or, God forbid, a king and a queen. Maybe your father gives you silly names and carries you around the room on his shoulders. Maybe your mother sings the way a river does. They are doomed, regardless, and it isn't your fault; you can't help being the heroine.

2. Keep provisions in a knapsack by your bed. There's no telling when the day will come. When you are alone out there on the empty highway, shoeless, wiping tears from your singed cheeks, you will wish you had more snacks. Your mother is dead, but she had a point about packing clean underwear.

3. Be polite to all travelers you meet. Some of them will help you, and some of them will hurt you, and some are just people whose stories briefly intersect your own. Be kind especially to old women, who may or may not be villains in disguise; pretend you don't know the difference. Lay your head on their shoulder, weep when they ask you what you have lost. Everyone, even a villain, wants to be useful.

4. Remember: all things, good or bad, come in threes. Wait for the third carriage. Don't exhale until you've sneaked past the third moonlit hut. Don't trust the first or second brother. They don't know what to do with fire like you.

5. It doesn't matter where you're going. Which is to say: you have no control over where you're going. Wander, and the road will shape itself to your destiny. If you were allowed to get lost, you would be in a different kind of story.

6. It helps to sing, mourning songs especially, if you know any. No one knows why, but it does. Maybe it adds to the tragic ambiance. Maybe there's something irresistible about a woman who doesn't know to be silent.

7. When the witch finds you, pretend you did not mean to be found. She will have heard your voice in the night, and something will draw her to you, a thing neither of you can explain. As she holds the door of her house open to you, you will look up at her and see that her eyes are the lightest shade of blue, like forget-me-nots or perfect summer days. You know that the dinner she cooks for you is only to lull you into vulnerability, but the wine is good and the mushrooms fresh. You know that witches are trouble, that they cannot be reformed, and yet when she puts her hands on your throat in the middle of the night, it will feel like a kiss.

8. Leave the witch's house. No, really, you have to. Sweet girl, remember, you have no control over your story. You are walking toward the castle, whether you want to or not. She will understand; she has met heroines before. What, did you think you were the only one?

9. The dragon in the field will not burn you if you are crying, so at least there's that. Stand and face the nearest head—all three at once, if you can. It will give you a riddle, which cannot be solved because dragons deal in non sequitur. All you have to do is point this out and you'll be free. Dragons are not equipped for existential thought.

10. The prince will be the one riding a silver horse just outside the city gate. He has golden hair and eyes like copper. He will not ask your name. You are welcome to sing to him, to see if it will draw him to you the way it drew the witch to you, but you can save your breath; what he loves is the sight of you, beautiful and burdened and in need of rescue.

11. The intrigue that follows will not require your participation. His mother is jealous, or his sister, or a princess from a neighboring land. Women in stories like yours are only good for fights. You don't have to fight back. In fact, you shouldn't; this is his moment, now, his chance to prove that he can win you, when everyone knows that he will, inevitably, win you.

12. Love's true kiss will feel like nothing. It will be warm and wet and empty. It will not remind you of hands around your neck.

13. At the wedding, play grateful. Let the people praise you. Raise your eyes to God, or whoever is in charge of these things, and if you scan the sky for a broomstick or a cloud of smoke, be subtle about it. She will not come. She will not have been invited. If you cry at the altar, you can always disguise it as joy.

14. After this, you must go it alone. The story ends here, with you inside the rose-covered walls, looking out. It is a happy ending, remember. If you are lucky, one day you will give birth to a little girl with hair like a crow's wing and eyes like the clearest blue sky, and you will love her the way you once loved the view from your father's shoulders. Teach her how it is going to be. When you kiss the top of her head that first morning, know that you have this in common: both of you, at the moment of this birth, have survived every day of your life so far.

BIO: Nina Sabak is pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pittsburgh City Paper, Three Rivers Review, Collision Literary Magazine, and The Rumpus. In 2012 she published a chapbook of poetry, Naming the Mountain, with the support of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire.