The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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JUL-AUG 2014 Issue

What Girl Built

Girl on boat, boat covered in ice, ice holds boat in place. Letter is delivered to boat. Girl comes out of boat and skis north to direction from which letter came. World is cold and snow creates dunes that are blown about by wind. Girl’s hands are covered by leather gloves and girl’s face is covered by cloth but she is cold and cannot breathe well, ice closes in. Girl must keep skiing because ice is following. If ice catches girl she will be limp in ice’s grasp and disappear into snow she is passing. A small domed stone cottage with a thatched roof comes into girl’s view and is illuminated by lantern hanging outside. Stone chimney rises up out of cottage roof and smoke rises up out of stone chimney. Arched wood door opens and girl sees girl’s aunt. Aunt wears apron and rushes to greet almost frozen girl and pulls her inside aunt’s cottage of warmth and food. Aunt leads girl down spiraling stairs underground to large banquet table where all of girl’s family sits and eats. Girl looks around table and discovers mother, father, uncle, sister, grandmother, cousin, cousin, cousin. Girl looks at mother and says,

     –Mother I got your letter, where is Iver?

Family stops eating and uncle stands and opens mouth to let out words. Uncle sits back down and turns to aunt. Girl stays standing and looks at family. Girl is still mostly frozen and cannot move her limbs in the manner that she normally moves them. Ice has melted into her and her scalp is wet. Girl is hot and sweats but is still numb. People start to eat again. Mother gestures to girl to sit next to mother on wood bench that faces large banquet table but girl’s eyes widen. Cousin looks at girl and says,

     –Come sit—

But girl interrupts cousin and screams,


Girl’s mouth is taut and she starts to shake and her teeth make sounds against each other. Grandmother stands up from table, which is hard for grandmother, and whispers,

     –Girl, you are not well. You have traveled far. Let me walk you to a bedroom where you can rest your head.

Girl stays standing, shaking and yells at mother about how mother never, never tells the truth in letters. Grandmother hooks girl’s arm and leads girl away from banquet table, down another flight of stairs, further underground into the earth, into a warm small circular bedroom. Bedroom has fireplace with fire and in center of room is bed with many piles of quilts. Girl collapses on bed and puts head in hands and girl’s back heaves up and down with sobs of heavy breath. Grandmother leaves girl on bed and shuts door. Alone on bed, girl shakes harder. Girl rocks back and forth until girl has used all of girl’s breath. Fire is warm and girl is very hot. Girl stands and moves to door and pulls lock in place to bolt door shut. Girl stands in middle of room and takes off all of girl’s clothes. Girl falls to her knees. There on all fours the ground is close. Girl’s braid swings back and forth in front of her face. Girl closes girl’s eyes and reopens them. Girl closes them again, keeping them shut. Girl sits back on her calves and puts her hands together in her lap. The dirt floor is cold. Girl is sitting on the floor. Girl opens her eyes. There is Iver—across from her on the floor. Iver looks at girl without interest. Iver says,

     –Cousin, you have come to visit.


Girl says,

     –Yes! My mother wrote and told me to come Iver—Iver you look so well!

Iver stays sitting. Iver does not come close to girl. Iver yawns.


Iver says,

     – Cousin—will you build me a chair?

     –Iver, what kind of chair would you like me to build you?

     –A good chair,

Iver says,

     –Made out of wood and without any nails. Just joints. I need enough chairs to fill the room.

     –Iver, that is a lot of chairs.

Girl says,

     –Did you bring me a hammer and axe?

     –Yes of course, cousin. Look to your left, you’ll find your hammer and axe.

Girl picks up hammer and axe and walks to pile of wood between Iver and her. Dirt walls of room expand out revealing many piles of wood and many tools. A domed ceiling rises and girl sees she will need many, many chairs to fill the room. Girl bends and begins to build. A thing is built from the things around her and girl says,

     –Iver, I have finished my first chair!

Iver is napping, curled on the floor, his hands under his head. Girl goes over to Iver and shakes him,

     –Iver, Iver please wake up. I have made you a chair.

Iver opens his eyes and yawns,

     –Cousin, yes cousin. You have made me a fine chair. Thank you. To who will this first chair belong?

     –This chair is yours. The second will me mine. The rest are for the guests.

     –Cousin, you have much work to do. The night is old.

     –I will work fast.

Iver sits in his new chair and naps some more. Girl makes chair after chair. As the sun rises girl finishes her hundredth chair. Girl looks around for Iver, to show him the hundredth chair. The chairs are everywhere—lined up in the room in neat rows. She has lost track of Iver in this big room.


Girl yells,

     –Iver—there are many chairs!

Girl walks down rows. Girl looks under chairs. Girl stacks chairs up to the ceiling to make a mountain of chairs. Girl climbs mountain. The rungs of the chairs are slippery on her bare feet. At the topmost chair, girl puts hand to brow and squints for sight of Iver. Girl sees Iver, bathed in the new day, stretched across several chairs in the far reaches of the room. Girl yells,

     –Iver, I built you your chairs!

Iver twitches slightly in his sleep but does not wake. He turns, readjusts himself on his bed of chairs. Girl yells again, her hands cupped around her mouth. Girl is yelling naked on this mountain of chairs, chairs are shaking beneath her feet, her feet slip on the topmost chair and girl falls to the dirt floor.


Rita Bullwinkel

Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award and garnered a 2022 Whiting Award. Her novel, Headshot, is forthcoming from Viking. She is an Editor at Large for McSweeney’s and a Contributing Editor for NOON.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

All Issues