Little Red Velvet

Little Red Velvet
by Christine Butterworth-McDermott

As Evelyn approached the swing,
White suggested teasingly. . .“Let’s give this kiddie a ride.”
—Paula Uruburu, American Eve


At fifteen, Evelyn Nesbit
posed for Eickemeyer.

Stanford White gave her a red velvet cloak
and placed a crown of chrysanthemums on her head
          Gold flowers are the symbol of happiness
                                           (and grief)

White chrysanthemums are symbolic
           of lamentation.
In Italy, chrysanthemums are symbolic of death.


Little Butterfly, he calls her, little
egg shape, chrysalis
unbroken, his to break.

She looks at Eickemeyer’s camera
and the tiger’s mouth looks at the camera
wide, black, a hole she could dive into
as dark as her mama’s hair
when she was ten              before the way men looked at her.

Come on, Kittens, Stanford directs,
smile, wink for the camera, wink

                        in the fairy light
le bébé, angel-child
                                       Come on, Kittens

                        Flash us that smile.

She gathers the white flowers to her bosom.


Evelyn Nesbit stares at the window
of FAO Schwartz.
Above is Stanford’s secret apartment.

All the toys, all the stuffed animals

There’s a new one wrapped for her
each time she comes

wrapped in a bright red ribbon
tin monkey in a red fez scrambles
a tin tree for a bunch of tin bananas

and a toy tiger, open-mouthed, harmless
(ready to bite)

the apple, fruit, pomegranate, knowledge

                      waiting in the wings

There is always red velvet
in the rooms owned by powerful men

some construct swings on the ceiling
and coax you into them

higher and higher she swings

toward a hanging paper parasol
         printed with chrysanthemums

He asks her to
puncture it
                                her beautiful bare feet
he cries,
again and again and again,

when she comes down, it hangs
like a shredded moon

he takes her hand
and she can feel him trembling


The silk sheets are also red

                      This man
                      could make you
                              —You’re meant for something bigger than this world, baby
                              Trust your Stanny
                      This man
                      could break you

           Persephone can be rescued if she doesn’t eat of the fruit

Everything tastes like chocolate-covered cherries.
She is called little bon-bon, ma cherie, and devoured.

Bear skin rug, mouth of the bear open
Four poster bed, canopied
purple, midnight
curtains drawn by a gold cord

The lights change color from amber to rose to blue

Everything decorated like nymphs’ palaces
under the sea. It almost feels like drowning

                The mermaid gave up her voice
                for a prince who did not love her.
                That’s the story.

She was always outside looking in.

Evelyn spins in a room of pillows
and blankets (red orange maroon)
like a dancer in The Arabian Nights

                       Persephone ate half the fruit Hades offered.


Drink this, eat this
It’s labeled
                                    Drink me, eat me
Here, love, lie down

lie down in this room of mirrors

The walls and ceilings covered

The floor an imitation
glass so seamless it is like a solid sheet of ice

and there’s Evelyn over and over and over and over,
her small red mouth in an “o.”


Light shatters                               refracts in all that reflection

And just for a minute in the reflection of a reflection
she sees the wolf
his teeth
coming at her

                   All the better to eat you with, my dear.

And there is no huntsman.
And there is no mother.

She drinks from the bottle that says drink me
There’s a buzzing a drumming
            a thump-thump-thumping in her ears
dizzy and sick and everything blurs
and Stanny’s voice at a distance
far far away.


And she wakes up in all that velvet
on his bed, his man hands all over her body
And she wakes up and they had been taking pictures of her
sleeping, “The Sleeping Butterfly”
                            waiting in the wings


into the tiger’s mouth, the teeth so bright, so white

Pretend he’s not a wolf, Little Red, pretend, pretend, pretend

Big game heads on the walls,
rug on the floor
They used to be alive
before they were captured
hollowed out

And she wakes up to blood between her legs, on her hands
His naked manhood against her thigh
A pink undergarment the only costume left.

The blood makes her scream.
For God’s sake, don’t! He clamps his hand
down over her mouth and she thinks

this is horrible, horrible
and she knows without understanding
how this could be
how this could be

                        Don’t cry, Kittens. You belong to me.

The incisors of kittens are small
they can’t devour and they can’t wound.

There is no Father.
There is no God.
There is no Huntsman.
No one can save Little Red
as she goes down
in the wolf’s arms.


Christine Butterworth-McDermott is the author of Woods & Water, Wolves & Women and serves as the head editor for the online journal Gingerbread House Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, Cider Press Review, The Normal School, Southeast Review, and others. She teaches creative writing and fairy tales at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. "Little Red Velvet" is part of a longer manuscript that examines Evelyn Nesbit's relationship with Stanford White and Harry K. Thaw.