On Curses

I’m pretty sure I was cursed, once. It was the last morning of a women’s writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, in the summer of 2015.

A tall, silvery-haired woman gave me a hug, a firm pat on the thigh, and slipped a little handmade straw star in the left-hand pocket of my jean shorts. “Keep this!” she said, intensely. Then she was gone. 

We hadn’t struck up a friendship—if anything, she’d been kind of rude. I was puzzled but touched that she’d made me what I took to be a friendship star. 

I forgot all about it and spent the rest of the morning on a solo hike. The mountains were lovely, but I left with a slew of painful mosquito bites—even more than usual. By afternoon, the bites on my left leg had swelled to the size of golf balls. 

On my way to dinner, I limped past that same silvery-haired woman, who was burning herbs and chanting over another member of our workshop. Hmm, I thought to myself. I kept walking. 

A minute later, I reached into my pocket and found that straw star. It was prickly in my hands. I held it for a moment and then chucked it into the sagebrush. 

Within the hour, the swelling was gone and I could walk without pain.

Did the timing align with Benadryl hitting my system? Well, sure. Was I glad I’d remembered to throw that weird little twisty star out before I boarded my flight home? Again, sure. Better safe than sorry. 

Åashild Gautesdatter speaks a curse of sorts over Kristen when she mentions, off-hand, how perfect a couple Kristen and Erlend would be…if only Kristen was a bit more noble of birth. 

Kristen hones in on these words; they float right back when she meets Erlend, daring her to defy social constructs and prove Åashild wrong. 

A sidenote: Frau Aashild’s words to Kristen, and the power they seem to hold over her, stood out to me in the text, but that doesn’t mean this sits well with me—it’s almost as if this passage exists to take some of the blame away from Erlend, a man who just really deserves all the blame and then some. Erlend is a man who can’t seem to take responsibility for his actions to save his life. And here I am, focusing the blame on another woman in the story instead of on him. Am I making it all up? Am I just so programmed to protect men that I look anywhere else for a scapegoat? I’m not sure. I hope not.

It’s true, though, that Frau Aashild had strong influence over Kristen, and likely knew this, and certainly could have given Kristen a different picture of her nephew Erlend—a warning would have been much more appropriate than a recommendation. (But maybe a warning would have been another kind of curse, just as inviting to Kristen in its own way.) 

In any case, once she falls for Erlend, Kristen does seem to be spell-bound. She loses herself in her pursuit, shacking up with him in hay bales, then whorehouses, then outhouses (gross). She plots to elope with him but instead becomes witness to the shady suicide/murder of Erlend’s paramour. By her wedding, she’s a ghost of herself. Oh, and she’s pregnant—because, we learn, it’s just been too hard for Erlend to keep his hands off her when they’re alone. 

***

That little straw-star curse at Ghost Ranch didn’t upset me too much. Most likely, it was my overactive imagination, my loneliness and exhaustion, turning an eccentric old woman into something more sinister. At worst, it was extremely weak magic. Plus, now I have a fun party story to trot out if talk turns witchy. 

I hold onto the story for its imagery. It reminds me of how often we casually tuck little thought-barbs into each other’s pockets. Judgments, dismissals, rejections: those, I think, are the real curses. 

The thing about a curse—it seems strongest when hidden away. Once you see it for what it is, just words, usually born out of someone else’s pain, it often loses its power. 

I limped through my 20s, carrying painful words from others stuffed deep in my pockets. It took years of therapy, prayer, the steady love of my partner, faithful friendships, and honestly just time, to toss them aside and free myself of their power. 

Kristen doesn’t have that kind of support. Nobody at the abbey pays much attention to her (and before that, nobody was paying much attention at home) so she’s had no chance to talk things over with a mentor, or even a friend; there’s no way for her to gain any perspective, or step back and see Erlend for who he really is. Her guilt and shame heighten everything to a fever pitch. She tries to ease this pressure by seeking out her mentor, Brother Edvin. But he can’t confess her. And anyway, he’s part of the same system she is. While he radiates love and support, he also believes she’s committed a serious transgression. So she’s left to try to sort things out alone.

And maybe that’s the real curse—the silence of her community in the face of all she’s suffered: her sister’s tragic accident and illness, her mother’s neglect, her attempted rape, then her shunning after Arne’s death. In her loneliness, Erlend’s attention is intoxicating, and she sacrifices everything to feel singled out and special. 

Fairy tales often follow the story arc of a maiden who must break a curse. This is Kristen’s story arc, too: as she matures, she will begin to see Erlend for what he is, and to try and redeem her life and her choices in the best way she knows how. 

There’s still a part of me that wishes Kristen could have found a way to slip free of this particular curse a bit sooner, or that her path toward healing might be a bit less grueling. I wish that another woman in the story could have come alongside Kristen and given her the tools to break free of Erlend’s clutches. Her mother, maybe, or a wise older nun at the abbey. 

But I guess that’s part of the fascination of the book, and with fairy tales in general. As Kristen makes her choices, cursed as they seem to be, we come alongside her and sort through the patterns of our own life: our own bad decisions, our own best attempts at love, and our own path toward healing. 

Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.

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