When we were little, my sister Heidi and I used to wake in the morning and find tiny bottles nestled in the soft pink blankets at the foot of our beds—presents from our mother, who worked the night shift in the NICU. I wondered at the impossibly small bodies our mother held in the night. Were their mouths human, or more kitten? I held the bottles to my stuffed bears, practiced this lesson of care, imagining the babies’ incubators as a dark fairytale they needed to escape.
Decades later, I am looking at Kiki Smith’s lithograph Born (2002) at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art and wondering what it means to be born into a story. This exhibit is called Kiki Smith and Paper: The Body, the Muse, and the Spirit (August 8, 2017 – December 2, 2017). Born is about six feet by five feet. In Smith’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” mother and child emerge from the wolf’s stomach with bloody skirts. The wolf’s teeth are bared, a lick of blood in the corner of her mouth. The women hold each other and wear ruby hoods that scream of placenta.
I watch as a little girl toddles into the exhibit, quickly followed by her mother. Both are blond, though Mom’s hair is short and straight, while Baby’s hair is all soft curls. The baby lurches toward Red Caps (2001), four life-sized lithographs of Red Riding Hood mounted on boards, and really, who could blame her for thinking this exhibit is a giant board book, destined for her gums? Mom scoops her up just in time, then begins swinging her little girl through the space, as though Baby herself is some kind of basket.
Wolves and red capes bound through the exhibit. I listen as Mom teaches Baby the names of the characters, the danger of the animal. She’s a bit thrown by the plot twists, though. Standing in front of Born she says, “Oh, in this one both of them wear red capes.” After a moment, she tells her baby that the woodcutter, who doesn’t appear in any of these pieces, is still part of the story. He’s the midwife who cuts Little Red and Grandma out of the wolf.
The museum label next to Born says both humans in the piece are self-portraits. The print has a feeling of déjà vu, of the artist being born and reborn. The wolf giving birth again and again to different versions of the same human.
Listening to Mom’s version of the fairytale, I can’t help but feel sorry for the wolf, whose role as earthy mother has been erased. I wonder if Smith’s version can only be seen by those who aren’t tasked with keeping a tiny human alive and off the artwork. The woodcutter is part of the very old story of the vulnerability of bodies. Maybe the older the plot, the tougher to twist.
My mother kept a small wooden box with photos, letters, and baby bracelets at the bottom of her bookshelf. The box was an open secret. Though I had only one sibling, there were three baby bracelets. The third bracelet I knew belonged to a second sister—my mother’s first baby, who was carried to term but delivered stillborn. The bracelet was the only memory. There were no pregnancy photos. In grade school, I’d sit on the shag carpet in her bedroom and run my fingers over the pink and white beads, imagine who this tiny creature was, why she’d chosen to be born but not live. To be birthed into ash. I believed in angels, and sometimes pictured her in line at a cosmic fair, her tiny fist clenched around the white robe of a feathery being. She’d been born several times before, but decided to stay off the carousel this spin, for reasons the living could not understand. I imagined she could see me on Earth and appreciated being missed. From my seat on the carousel, probably on a cantering white horse, I blew cartoon hearts up to her in the clouds. I only wrote the baby’s story when I was alone. As soon as the front door opened, I shut the wooden box tight and placed it back in the corner, in the shadow of my mother’s books.
In the Art Museum, mother and baby have vamoosed, and I’ve wandered just outside the main exhibit space to giggle at Kiki Smith, 1993 (1993), the artist’s etching of the human digestive system, which the museum label says runs “from the tongue to the anus.” After this palate cleanser, I sneak back into the exhibit and pause at a glass case full of smaller items including Companion (2002), a fold-out artist’s book depicting many Red Riding Hoods walking among their wolves. I must’ve been moving through the museum too quickly, though, because I hear panicked footfalls, spin around, and spy, for the first time, the traveling docent—a subtle beast who tracks you from room to room, only revealing herself when you really haul ass.
“Sorry!” I say.
“You’re fine,” she says, breathless. “I’m sorry. I’m, like, chasing you.”
It’s awkward, being prey in a museum fairytale.
“So,” she says, catching her breath. “What’s your favorite piece?”
I tell her I’m not sure yet, that I loved Little Red Riding Hood as a girl, but I can’t remember ever being told the story. Then I ask how Smith’s version of the story is transported. I’ve been wondering how these delicate, paper pieces can slink from town to town without getting mussed.
“Crates, I guess?” she says, with only a small hint of, Don’t you know museums handle delicacies every day, little one?
I nod, and she thinks for a moment before saying, “Someone did fold the cap wrong, though. They had to steam it open when it got to Stillwater.” Beside Companion rests the paper cap that comes with the artist’s book, and yes, the paper does look a little fucked.
We’re both pleased with this story, and she dissolves back into the corner while I continue examining the paper cap, whose red is drawn with sharp red lines, like claws into flesh.
Growing up, I sometimes pestered my mom to tell me stories about my other sister. One time I asked her what she and my father had done with the body. “Was she buried?” I was imagining a pilgrimage to her grave, a granite stone I could touch, red geraniums I could plant. The way my mother’s mother tended to her parents’ graves in Hope Cemetery. I must’ve been young. I’m sure I was the one to raise the topic of the baby.
Mom waved the question away with a hand. “We were too upset to think about something like that. We had the body cremated.” I wanted to know where they’d spread the ashes, but I could tell she didn’t want to talk anymore, so I stopped trying to exhume that story.
Another time I asked if I would’ve been born if the baby had lived. I knew my parents had wanted two babies, not three. And I was the youngest. “Oh that’s silly,” Mom said. “Of course you would’ve been born.” I didn’t believe her, but I knew she wanted me to feel loved. So I accepted this version of the story, like the baby bottles from the NICU, as a lesson in care.
Back in the museum, I contemplate Sainte Geneviève (1999). Lithograph and collage on Nepalese paper. About seven feet by six feet. The paper is rumpled and has clear fold lines. In the piece, a nude Red Riding Hood places a gentle hand on the wolf’s chest as he claws her shoulder. The museum label says Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, is often represented as a shepherdess whose companions are lambs and wolves: “In a series of collaged lithographs featuring a nude and a wolf, Smith conflated this representation with that of Little Red Riding Hood.” The print is similar in effect to a pen-and-ink drawing. Though most of Geneviève’s body is pale as the paper, the hand that touches the wolf is inky, like the wolf’s body. Each creature has a bird, like the Holy Spirit, hovering over her head. Woman and wolf are equally holy.
In a 2017 panel discussion of The Body, the Muse, and the Spirit, Smith says the kinds of paper she uses appear fragile but are stronger than most would imagine. “Long fibers,” she says, help her prints survive through time. The folding and unfolding. Repeated exhibitions of her tales. And when a panelist speaks of Red Riding Hood’s vulnerability, Smith is quick to say that Red Riding Hood, too, isn’t only vulnerable, but “ferocious.”
The parallels between Geneviève, Red Riding Hood, and the wolf expose the entanglements in birth. Examining these prints, I wonder if the companionship between Red Riding Hood and her wolf comes through best in repetition. Each print adding a layer to the story, making the viewer question what they know about birth or Red Riding Hood or even paper, which Smith describes as “skin.”
When my parents were getting divorced, my father bought my mother a series of gifts. I was seventeen, Heidi nineteen. He’d never really given Mom gifts before, other than a cake on her birthday. The gifts carried with them the story of the lack of gifts, and so were surprising.
For me, the most surprising gift was the gold ring with the three birthstones. I’d never heard my father talk about their first pregnancy, so I thought the baby mainly belonged to Mom, Heidi, and me. And in the past, the baby only materialized when I called her into being. Either I imagined her, or I asked my mom to speak about her, and her spirit hovered in the room. But now here she was, in a sparkly line, and I could almost hear the repetition of another story entirely—one that had nothing to do with Heidi or me. This version of the story made me jealous of my father. Though my parents didn’t get along, here was a tale they could step inside of together, but Heidi and I could not. We could only read the scrubbed version, the one you’d tell a child. I wanted the original, not the twist.
Though, really, no one had the original, by which I mean the baby. For a creature with such a tiny grip on life, she had been born and reborn into a hundred stories. Vulnerable to being called into a version she might not enjoy, yet unwavering in her demand not to be forgotten.
In “On Linguistic Vulnerability,” Judith Butler discusses the power of repetition. How injurious speech can take on new meanings if that speech isn’t censored, but allowed to keep roaming the woods like a hungry wolf or child. So Butler writes, “There is no purifying language of its traumatic residue, and no way to work through trauma except through the arduous effort it takes to direct the course of its repetition.” Little Red Riding Hood will always carry a ghost of trauma. She will remind humans of their vulnerabilities. But when the story gets repeated, through time, this speech can take on new meanings. Red Riding Hood is born of wolf instead of attacked by wolf. Saintly enough to hang with the lambs, but gritty enough to survive her repeated births.
I think of how often the command to “grow a thicker skin” adds insult to injury, and how lovely instead to imagine Kiki Smith, cascades of grey hair, saying “long fibers.” I never ask my mom for the version of the story she told to her mom after losing the baby. And I never ask for the version she told herself when she returned to work in the NICU. All those babies waiting to be birthed by incubators. But when I hold a bookmark-size sample of Smith’s paper in my hand and remark to the docent, “Oh, it looks like paper but feels like cloth!” I get a sense of all the versions of Little Red Riding Hood layering together to weave a new tale. And later, when I think of the paper that might go into my mom’s birth stories, I think, “Yup. Long fibers.”
Now my mother writes letters to close friends or family members who have miscarried. She started the habit with a childhood friend of Heidi’s, who’d been sharing weekly photos of her growing baby bump before losing the pregnancy in her third trimester. Heidi and I have never seen or read the letters, we only know the recipients find them beautiful. I consider these letters more lessons in care. For her daughters, permission not to close our mouths around traumas as though they are food. And for moms, maybe permission to give birth to the love they’ve grown.
I think of my mother’s letters standing before Homecoming (2008). An etching with handcoloring, 21 inches by 28 inches. The print looks much like a child’s drawing. In this version, the wolf is tucked into bed, wearing a bonnet that appears almost holy. The chair in front of the bed is overturned. Red Riding Hood steps from bright yellow sunlight into gray, palm still on the open door, basket in hand. The wolf’s tongue and Red Riding Hood’s cape are the only pops of red.
She pauses her tiny feet in the doorway, one foot pointing in, the other perpendicular, on the threshold of this violence, but desiring to enter the story again, to love, to be born.
GRETCHEN VANWORMER grew up in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of a chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans (CutBank, 2015), and her essays have appeared in The Journal, Brevity, miCRo: The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Stillwater, Oklahoma.