The Wild Bride of BKLN
by Amy Bobeda
Cities were once built for walking; it was not until the Enlightenment that ceilings became white when we tried to dispel the evil diseases of the forest. There’s an old ceiling in the financial district reflecting summer light. Tainted plates of a sun, two pelicans, other animals I don’t remember. The Fearless Girl in bronze stares at the Stock Exchange, hands on her hips, defiantly she shimmers; I shimmer sticky pores.
Music wafts from a nearby bar, one of those bars near the ferries whose tavern name outshines the street names — Bridge, Water, Pearl —as if colonial English was limited to seven words. Two musicians sing as we weave through the evening. I drink the first live music I’ve heard in as long as I can remember. I close my eyes and it feels like Europe licking my skin, until my nose itches from the chafe of my mask. The song sounds like something from The Wild Bride. In the story of the Handless Maiden retold by Emma Rice, the queen is played by the girl without hands. She cuts a red ribbon tongue from a four-foot marionette in the likeness of a doe. The audience closes their eyes and shutters.
The psychologist Iain McGilchrist writes, Poetry evolved before prose. Prose was at first known as pezos logos, literally ‘pedestrian, or walking, logos’, as opposed to the usual dancing logos of poetry. In fact, early poetry was sung: poetry is a variety of song, it evolves from song lines.”
Most people think this is a story about the devil and cheating death, but when a pubescent girl bleeds from her would-be hands so profusely, and cries so hard she washes her body too clean for the devil: this is a menstrual tale.
All the bodegas are closing. We miss them one by one. I need to pee, woozy-drunk in dehydration as saline drips from my nose to my tongue. No one sees me sip my sweat under the pink fabric. Passing Trinity Church, I layer upon myself: the teenager touching gravestones, the young woman who stumbled upon a concert five years ago to find her teenage ghost touching gravestones. I stick my hand out in the air between the iron posts, myself reaches back. One million unclaimed bodies nestle into one another over the water. Hart Island in the Bronx becomes its own metropolis, the underworld plundering New York City’s social and economic outsiders—doe slaughtered in pandemic forest. In order to keep hands clean of humanity’s secrets, setting ourselves apart from the land of Hades, the dead becoming numbers beyond grasping hands. On days like this, I wish it reality were fiction. That every story was not a menstrual story of death.
My tires thump rhythmically like the banjo thrums across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Wild Bride opens with the devil, tall and lanky is his white wool union suit strumming his banjo. The cast sings, “went down to the crossroads, full of woe, went down to the crossroads, demons in toe,” before the miller inadvertently sells his daughter to the Devil.
Each rotation of spokes, our shadows dance: touching heads, before spinning the opposite direction. In a moment, we merge, only to separate, to later pull back together. People say The Wild Bride is a morality tale—don’t sell yourself short in times of economic hardship just because your mill doesn’t work. People rarely mention it’s the apple tree the miller is happy to trade the Devil for the mill’s success.
More trees were lost in 2020 than the last twenty years as fire swept the Amazon, Congo, and south east Asia: a loss of trees equivalent in size to the Netherlands. A Hart Island of old growth carbon syphons engulfed in flames. When the Devil comes to collect, the miller’s daughter cries her hands so pure her father must chop them off for the Devil to take her. Handless and bandaged, the girl retreats to the forest before the Devil can nab her.
I seclude in New York City during summer, like the wild bride secludes in the forest, hungry for the pears she steals between her teeth in the queen’s garden. I too search for sustenance, swearing as I ride through throngs barbecuing on the promenade. Meat smoke burns my nostrils. I slap mosquitos from my itching thighs, only to find unshaven hair sprouting dirty blonde, from the sun.
In the forest, the hungry handless maiden finds a pear tree, and nips a single pear between her lips. A will-be king watches from the window. Enraged and entranced, he asks the maiden to be his wife by presenting her with a set of silver hands.
In Poetry and the Primitive, Gary Snyder writes, “A hand pushing a button may wield great power, but that hand will never learn what a hand can do. Unused capacities go sour.”
Silver hands may be a beautiful sight, but without skin, how can she lay her hand upon the world?
Like most of the city, Hart Island has homed many things. Repurposed again and again. Civil War prison camp. Psychiatric institution. Tuberculosis sanatorium. Jail. Rehab center. The resting place of COVID mass graves. The Devil, they say, follows industry. It is not until the mill falls on troubled times—drought, famine, misalignment in supply and demand—the Devil makes a call to assuage the Miller’s fear that living beyond his means cannot last forever.
When the king goes off the war, the wild bride stays with his mother, nursing the hands she lost to her father’s deal with the Devil, and eventually nursing her son, Sorrowful. The Devil remains intent on collecting what’s due and proceeds to intercept each letter the king and his bride mail. Their words twist into delusions: fake news filling their feed. The king orders his mother to kill the woman and child. Instead, the queen sacrifices a doe to save her family.
Four months before the pandemic began to burn its way across the United States, National Geographic wrote a piece on deforestation leading to the next great pandemic. “It’s a numbers game: The more we degrade and clear forest habitats, the more likely it is that we’re going to find ourselves in these situations where epidemics of infectious diseases occur,” the disease ecologist writes. In 2018, Yale School of Medicine sequenced the genome for Lyme bacteria, unraveling its own 23and Me lineage to find the bacteria has existed on the North American continent longer than humans. The rise of deforestation through settling the states for industry, milling lumber for railroads and housing invited deer into neighborhoods and neighborhoods into woods. Warming temperatures extend the tick’s breeding season. National Geographic reports HIV, Ebola, and Malaria among other diseases evolving from forest dwelling creatures.
“For Americans,” Snyder writes, ‘nature’ means wilderness, the untamed real of total freedom—not brutish and nasty, but beautiful and terrible.”
Obsessed with photographing discarded masks, I don’t bother much in New York City—there would never be time to do anything else. It is as if these pieces of pleated paper on strings have become as disposable as our bodies, with the shame of a menstrual rag. “We do not know the exact origin of COVID-19,” the CDC exclaims, “but it did originate from an animal, likely a bat.”
I walk my bike around the corner as James Hillman says, “cities are void of soul, we must put soul back into the city,” in my ear. Someone has sprayed the words too many humans too little soul, lead with your heart, in big words on the grey plywood outside the pizza place. Afraid her husband’s threat to kill her over the Devil’s misunderstanding, the wild bride takes to the forest, where in seven years’ time her hands regrow.
A year later, I return to Bklyn in summer sequester once more. Signs for The Jungle still hang in Dumbo. Opening April 2020 they read in tiny letters as we begin to shed our skin, take off our masks, lay down our silver hands to touch the water once again with a smile. In some versions of The Girl With No Hands, the maiden’s son falls into the river. She fears she cannot grab him as her silver hands sink to the murky river bottom. By grace, mercy, and the sheer will of motherhood, her hands regrow as she pulls him from the water. In time, her husband finds her in the forest, where they may stay a long while before returning to the castle.
Touching hands for the first time. We reach for one another. “Something is always eating at the American heart like acid,” Snyder writes, this time is no different. Ghosts, bodies, trees, grazing the Devil we are destined to meet, disfiguring hands endlessly.
Amy Bobeda holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where she serves as director of the Naropa Writing Center and teachers pedagogy, writing, and processed-based art. She’s the author of Red Memory (FlowerSong Press), What Bird Are You? (Finishing Line Press), mi sin manitos (Ethel Press), and a forthcoming project from Spuyten Duyvil. She’s on Twitter @amybobeda