By Lauren Spinabelli
Miss Ursula specialized in curing young women of tangible and intangible fears. She was the best doctor in our village, concocting medicinal fairy tales to cure any phobia. Growing up, she was a brainy and imaginative child prodigy. While our parents snuck science and mathematics books under the covers by the flickering light of firefly jars—rotting our brains with childish trash— Miss Ursula toiled away in the art of fairy-taleing. She crafted ethereal fantasies, spun them in such a way that amazed our local scholars and doctors. They made outlandish predictions that she would someday tell a story to cure every fear—even the most malign phobias: Loss and Death and After Death and Public Speaking.
They soon discovered Miss Ursula’s talent was somewhat limited. Her method of fear-curing involved identifying intangible through association with tangible fears. This required quite a bit of poking and prodding at her patients. We would perch on the examination table, which was cluttered with ancient books, pencil shavings, leaves of paper, and pens that had run dry. The walls were laden with maps and charts, and all the mirrors were covered with thick tapestries. Miss Ursula would pry and pull every sliver of fear from the patient’s mouth. For example, our sister’s diagnosis in Miss Ursula’s examination room unraveled thusly:
Miss Ursula, I think I have a tangible fear of Water.
What kind of water?
I’m not quite sure.
Liquid? Gas? Solid?
Picture the water—is it swimming with
What’s the temperature?
It’s rather cold.
Saltwater or fresh?
It’s liquid, cold, fresh water?
Is it sky water collected in a
Is it sinister in nature?
Is it dark and foaming,
churning with poison?
with a cursed pirate treasure sunken at the bottom?
No, it is rather innocent in nature.
Innocent water… is it for watering
candy apple trees?
Water in a bird bath?
Water in a human bath?
Yes! That’s it!
Cold bath water… did it start off cold or was it once hot and is now cold?
The second one.
Miss Ursula scrawled Cold Bath Water in blue ink across the top of her notepad, the tangible fear solved. Next, she launched into a series of specific, occasionally eccentric, and always personal questions:
Have you ever made love in a bath?
Ever tried to drown yourself?
Did you once draw a hot bath, but got distracted with
a distressing telephone call?
the arrival of a pumpkin deliveryman?
the urge to fly?
a petty quarrel?
an irresistible and vaguely threatening offer of psychedelic drugs?
As a child, did you bathe
for extended periods of time?
So long your fingers and toes would turn into wrinkled, dried apricots?
And the water would grow cold?
Miss Ursula picked up her pen and wrote Fear of Growing Old beneath the tangible fear. The intangible fear was diagnosed, and at last she could begin the lengthy and complicated process of fairy-taleing a cure. She would occasionally consult her more complex medical books, however this was a simple and common case requiring healing through juxtaposition. Cold Water sat opposite Fire on the Juxtaposition Table, on page 56 of Miss Ursula’s copy of In/Tangible.
She jotted out her prescription, a precise formula, to be delivered vocally to the patient. A single dose. The Tale of the Girl-Phoenix:
Once Upon a Time (for all cures began this way) there lived a girl like you. She feared Cold Bath Water, just like you. In fact, she feared it so much, that she refused to bathe at all. She avoided all liquids. And one day, she burst into flames.
Her tongue was the first to go. She starved it of every hint of moisture. It became a sandpaper sheet in her mouth, a desert growing between her teeth. One day she coughed and it scraped like a matchstick against the roof of her mouth, setting itself ablaze. She spat the ash onto the sidewalk. Next came her hair, a crackling brush fire—and her fingernails, which shot off the tips of her fingers like bottle rockets. Once the heat of the brush fire reached her skin, she was engulfed in light. She shimmered like a desert mirage, an earth-bound supernova. She came fizzing and sputtering into a quiet pile of ash on the concrete.
From her pile of ash, a sunflower emerged.
After the sunflower, she was
a blood orange tree
the red-hot cherry on the tip of a cigarette
a campfire, ringed with ghost stories.
And this was her life—never quite ending, never growing old, always changing, and always an adventure. And certainly never cold, nor wet.
With the final words, The End, our sister was cured of both tangible and intangible fears, and Miss Ursula accepted her humble payment.
Not two weeks after this particular treatment, we discovered the dried and flaking husk of our little sister lying in bed, her eyes still open. Our village coroner examined her dust-filled ears, her chalky, tongue-less mouth. She died of dehydration, he told us.
* * *
We watched and waited as Miss Ursula began to grow old. Her hands trembled as she jotted out dosages, she forgot basic juxtapositions and formulas. Her lemon-colored hair faded to white frost at the roots, the skin around her eyes crinkled. She did not know the impish girl, our magistrate’s stepdaughter, would be her last patient.
The last girl was not as easy as the juxtaposition patients. Not as easy, yet not as difficult. She did not need to be pried at with questions, the painful teeth-pulling. She recounted her tale and practically diagnosed herself:
My mother had just died, and it was nearing the end of October. My stepfather and I were prepping for the candy apple harvest—our most popular crop. Every night, after a day full of pruning and watering, my stepfather would knock at my bedroom door and ask if he could touch me. Every night, he would ask, and every night, I would say no. Until—
It came time to harvest the crop—the last night of October, as always. The candy apples were ripe and glistening with sky water. We set out at midnight, under the light of the pumpkin moon. My stepfather plucked the first apple from the first tree and handed it to me, which is our tradition. And I ate it, same as always, and—
Was it soaked in
a sleeping draught?
an inorganic fertilizer?
No, no. It was worse and more painful. It was—
Was it embedded with
Yes! You’re as good as they say. It was razor blades, laced into the candy coating. He must’ve snuck out to the orchard while I was asleep. The blades cut up my mouth—my tongue and my lips.
That night, just like every night before, he knocked at my bedroom door and asked if he could touch me. But this time I couldn’t say no.
And now I have intangible fears and desires that I cannot name. All I know is that my tangible fear is Sharp Objects, but every night I dream of sewing my legs together with a sharp needle and thick silver thread.
Miss Ursula consulted the Juxtaposition Table, but there was no simple opposite for what the last girl had endured. She pulled The Encyclopedia of Contradictions from its nook. She thumbed through its pages, but found no listing for Sharp Objects. She snapped the book shut with a frustrated sigh. The last girl’s ocean-colored eyes peered patiently at her from the examination table. Miss Ursula plucked a thin, battered paperback from her bottom most bookshelf. Fear-Driven Desires and Corresponding Creatures. A previously useless resource to Miss Ursula, who specialized in fears but not desires.
What did you say you dreamt of every night?
Sewing my legs together with a needle.
Miss Ursula leafed through the worn paperback. She found a bloodstained page titled Desire for Body Modification. Sewing Limbs was listed, and Legs corresponding with Mermaid. Of course. Mermaids can’t be touched by their stepfathers, or anyone else for that matter. A mermaid’s legs are perpetually closed and no man, however pure or wicked his intentions, can force them to open. Miss Ursula began devising her prescription:
Once Upon a Time (for all cures began this way) there lived a girl just like you. She feared Sharp Objects, just like you. But she desired to sew her legs together—and her desire proved greater than her fear—so she did. She sat at the ocean sewing, letting the saltwater wash her blood away with the tide. When she finished, she was no longer a girl but a mermaid. Her legs formed a single, strong tail and the tide pulled her out to sea. It was there that she floated, a speck of dust in the vast galaxy, swirling along the sea stars and diving down to the purple-blue depths. She needn’t come up for air, but one day she surfaced, out of curiosity, and came to the place where the sky kissed the sea. The mermaid was met with a sinister chorus of whistles—a ship brimming with pirates, plundering along the open water. They reminded her of a man she had encountered once, and she gritted her razor blade teeth. She waved them closer to her, seduced them with her ocean green eyes and her sea foam smile. They sailed towards her, and she motioned them even closer. Every time they adjusted the sails and steered in her direction, she swam further out of reach. At last one man grew so frustrated and impatient he splashed down from the deck of the ship, plunging into the icy gray water. He came grasping and flailing towards her, but still she remained just out of his reach. The pirates hollered and spat profanities from the ship. She teased him as he tried to stay above the churning universe, allowed herself to come fractionally close to his grasp. He lunged forth in a final effort to reach her, his sharp fingernails scratching at the thick silver thread that bound her legs together. This frightened the mermaid, and she flicked her tail and dove back down into the watery galaxy, away from the man who was now drowning.
And this was her life—emerging occasionally from the depths of the sea, luring pirates and sailors to their watery deaths. Never touching, never being touched. And never encountering another Sharp Object, for all that entered the ocean was eventually softened by it.
Miss Ursula finished writing the prescription, set down her pen, and looked up a the last girl—a fragile imp of a thing, who had fallen asleep curled beneath a covered mirror, tucked among the towering stacks of books and paper.
I’ve finished writing the cure, Miss Ursula awoke her softly.
May I look it over first?
Miss Ursula handed the last girl her prescription, confident that it was her best work yet. But as she read, the last girl’s eyes grew wider and wider.. At last the girl set down the final inked page.
I’m sorry, Miss Ursula, but I can’t accept this cure.
Why not? It cures both your fear and desire.
But I don't understand why
the innocent sailors drown?
the mermaid is cured through the deaths of others?
she must mutilate herself to overcome fear and desire?
Because sometimes revenge is the only cure.
We waited for the magistrate’s daughter outside of Miss Ursula’s. She told us about her treatment. Be careful, we warned her. Don’t end up like our sister. Don’t listen to Miss Ursula. Her stories are just stories, they’re not instructions. The girl nodded, a faraway look in her eyes.
The magistrate discovered his daughter afloat in the claw-footed tub, a sharp needle sunk to the bottom, her legs bloody and mangled.
* * *
We plotted our attack carefully. We interrogated every surviving patient of Miss Ursula. The girls described her study: her antique books, her star maps, her juxtaposition charts. Each young lady spoke with fire in her eyes, despite, or maybe because of, her bruised neck and shredded fingernails. The last thing each girl mentioned, almost as an afterthought, was the covered mirrors. Why were the mirrors covered, we asked. The girls smiled knowingly. They understood, without being told, that Miss Ursula could not give a prescription in the presence of a naked mirror. It would bounce back onto her. Then why not take the mirror down entirely—why have a mirror at all? Again the toothy, wise smile:
Then how would Miss Ursula cure herself?
* * *
Miss Ursula had fallen asleep beneath a covered mirror, her aging body hunched over the scattered leaves of paper. She did not stir when we entered her study. We carried a bottle of gasoline. We pulled her up by her elbows, dragged her onto the examination table, her eyes as calm as a motionless sea. We ripped the tapestry from each mirror. She nodded because she knew. Some of us were holding her, keeping her seated on the examination table. But she didn’t struggle, so we gradually eased our grip on her wrists. We said:
Read us a cure, Miss Ursula. Read a story to your own reflection.
Read all of them.
It was our oldest sister who spoke. We scrounged the room, collecting scraps of inked pages. We stacked them into a cluttered pile of curling leaves of paper. We turned Miss Ursula to face the naked mirror.
Once Upon a Time…
Once Upon a Time…
Once Upon a Time...
We doused her books in gasoline. We lit a match. We said,
This is for our sister, the Girl-Phoenix.
She came to you for help, she trusted you.
We all did.
We watched the flames lick at her chart and papers. Miss Ursula insisted,
I was only trying to help.
Editor's Note: This was previously published at Strangelet Journal in a print issue.
Lauren Spinabelli is a writer from Pittsburgh currently living in Brooklyn.