The Secret History of Detroit
By Joanna Koch, contributing author to In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight
Cinderella stories capture the imagination because they tell of transformation. The American Cinderella, contorted by capitalism and disfigured by Disney, gets transformed by a new wardrobe. As a precursor of makeover shows, our superficial Cinderella teaches that the right fashion choices will win the heart and wallet of the prince.
Is he worth it?
I set my story “Every Lucky Penny is Another Drop of Blood” in Detroit, the Cinderella of cities. Stepsister cities love to laugh and point at her. They say she’s covered in ashes. They give her impossible tasks, such as recovering from the housing crisis with a thief as mayor. Like Cinderella, Detroit acquiesced to unreasonable demands, survived, and is now dressed up and ready to crash the big dance. Much of Detroit is alive with urban gardens, independent art galleries, and people creating safety, community, and culture.
Horror still has a home in Detroit. Poverty and urban decay haven’t vanished. No fairy godmother came in with a magic wand and waved it away. Detroit is a work in progress, full of contrasts.
Like Detroit, the heroine of my story is an unlikely candidate for prom queen, but always willing to get out on the floor and dance. When we meet Astilbe, she’s counting up coins, scraping together a few dollars while her man Andy is looking for work. What he does for a living is anyone’s guess. I don’t presume to know. Sometimes, with men like Andy, it’s better not to ask too many questions.
Amid the filth and decay of old coins, in a pile of dirty money, Astilbe discovers an unusual penny. Superstitious, Andy has cautioned her to roll every last coin, and she’s promised she will. But Astilbe wants this coin. It looks lucky to her.
She keeps it.
She doesn’t tell Andy. All couples have their secrets.
Overnight, the money starts to flow, the party never ends, and life gets better and better. Or does it?
Envisioning Detroit as the new Paris, I conceived a maven of fashion design who is part fairy godmother, part evil stepmother, and one hundred percent bitch. (Let’s reclaim the word bitch. There’s nothing wrong with women being strong, demanding, and uncompromising, is there?) Astilbe comes up against a woman who is a force of nature, or perhaps something completely unnatural: both enemy and ally, she’s a conundrum of the dead gift-bearing mother, the central archetype of the oldest Cinderella tales.
Stories of the dead gift-bearing mother appear around the globe, not only in Europe. In “A Cinderella Variant in the Context of a Muslim Women’s Ritual,” Margaret Mills recounts how women in a remote village of Afghanistan share a story of female solidarity so secret that most men deny knowing it exists.
Told with food as well as words, “Soup for the Lady of Wishes” begins a day before the telling. Women silently beg ingredients after sunset from homes where matrons with deific names reside. Later at the mosque, women prepare a ritual dish following specific traditions, speaking aloud only to recite common prayers. Women make wishes in silence. Salt, as well as other items, are spread on the floor. The next morning, all return to seek evidence of the dish being blessed. A primary signifier is the trace of fingermarks in the salt.
Love like salt is another old Cinderella theme, and one which haunts King Lear. Below the city of Detroit, at a depth of eleven-hundred feet, there is a hidden city of salt.
According to The Detroit Salt Company’s website, “Some 400 million years ago, a vast expanse of salt deposits formed under much of Michigan, including the city of Detroit. Buried deep beneath sediments in the area known as the Michigan Basin, deposits formed as horizontal salt beds, as ancient bodies of water receded and evaporated…separated from the ocean by a natural bar of land. As the basin continued to sink lower into the earth, salt-laden ocean water…gradually evaporated, forming miles of salt beds.”
This body of water resembled the Red Sea. Today, Detroit’s salt mine comprises over one hundred miles of roads under the Motor City, traveled only by miners and whatever denizens of the deep they may unearth. The land is ancient. Some people say land is sentient.
In Afghanistan, our story and soup are just about ready. Let’s return to the mosque.
A widow and an orphan sit beside each other. The widow has a full vessel, the orphan an empty bowl. As the widow recites the story, she spoons soup into the orphan’s bowl.
The crone (ocean) fills the empty bowl (basin) as the story unfolds. Tricked by a conniving teacher into killing her own mother, Cinderella becomes the despised stepchild. The teacher marries Cinderella’s father, and they have a daughter. The dead gift-bearing mother appears later as a yellow cow (is this the Yellow Queen conspicuously missing from horror lore?) and Cinderella transforms by heeding the cow’s guidance. The moon marks her brow. In other words, Cinderella connects to a cosmic power source. She succeeds through actions, not gifts. Her stepsister fails by disregarding the yellow cow’s wisdom, and is marked by a penis that sprouts from her forehead.
Each day it re-grows. Each day her mother cuts it off.
At this point in the story, the father’s love (fickle Lear) has grown irrelevant, and there is no sign of a prince. The failure of female solidarity remains in Disney, although penises have been purged, alas! The mother maiming the daughter persists through early versions of Grimm’s, where heels and toes are chopped to fit the glass slipper.
Glass in some European languages sounds similar to the word fur, and our famed glass slipper is a translator’s mistake. The original telltale shoe was a fur slipper, rumored to come from China.
Maiming women’s bodies to fit fashion is a practice at least as old as foot-binding, as brutal as fur trapping. In “Every Lucky Penny is Another Drop of Blood,” the new fashion capital of the world is Detroit, a city founded on the fur trade. My imaginary Detroit boasts some of the most advanced medical and surgical facilities in the country. Models flock to town. The transformation industry booms.
Fashion dictates form. Astilbe must make choices about her body, her alliances, and forces beyond her control. Love and revenge play their parts.
Astilbe is not Cinderella, nor is she an evil stepsister. She’s both, because people aren’t products. People are too complicated to pin down in simple, fairy tale terms. Even the fairy tales can’t do it. They mix up their own characters. Cinderella and her sisters trade penises and moon-brows as their story weaves through time.
You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy “Lucky Penny,” but you may find it interesting to hear I researched the history of Detroit through maps and geology while writing. You may wish to contemplate the mystery that the women’s ritual soup is never consumed. Or you may ignore all that and have fun: strap on your dance shoes, get out on the floor, and shake your money maker. And forget about the prince.
About Joanna Koch
Author JOANNA KOCH writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Her short stories have been published in journals and anthologies including Doorbells at Dusk. Joanna is a Contemplative Psychotherapy graduate of Naropa University who lives and works near Detroit.