I suppose you don’t believe in fairy tales. I didn’t. Not at first. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the breadcrumbs.
My brother Hans and I, we grew up far from trees. We lived a childhood made of bricks and theft and hunger. Our father rolled the coins we stole, mumbling the lack.
Predictably, we ended up in foster care. After several near-disasters, we were sent to live with Mrs. Sweet. That first afternoon, she fed us éclairs. It went downhill from there:
1. Mrs. Sweet cooked us casseroles and meatloaf.
2. She bought us new jeans instead of second-hands.
3. I had a pink bed with a canopy.
4. Mrs. Sweet was bat-shit crazy.
I should have guessed from all the knick-knacks, every one of them a cat, and there were hundreds. Mrs. Sweet didn’t have a pet, but she fed us through the cat door in the kitchen closet when she locked us up. I tried to brain her with the rolling pin. It didn’t work. I was too short.
Ten years of foster care and city homes can kill you. Hans ended up a little bent. I worked double-shifts at Maude’s. Hans ate hotdogs, watched cartoons, read biographies of war heroes.
He also named the Carmel Man, a regular at Maude’s. The name fit the big guy’s melted-sugar voice, hot against my ear. Okay, he was a little slick, but after all those years? I was happy not to scrabble, to dress in heels, creamy pink along my lips. We got married quick:
1. My wedding dress was silk.
2. We moved to the New Hampshire woods.
2. Hans was not invited. He showed up anyway, and often.
3. There was a room below the stairs, sound-proof walls and leather whips.
Listen, don’t be judgy. It’s not easy to invent a life. The forest won me over, maple, oak, and birch. I’d never seen a rabbit or an owl. The glades played tricks with light, conjured houses made of gingerbread. At night, beneath the shadow of the Carmel Man, I held the daylight I remembered, filtered through the trees.
Besides, I had to think of Hans, right? I sent him checks for groceries — fruit and veg. He bought a gun instead:
1. Cartoons and books aren’t target practice.
2. Carmel giggled when he shot my brother.
3. I’d grown since Mrs. Sweet. My rolling-pin connected.
4. Two grown men like that? They shed a lot of blood.
The forest had no bird song, no whisper-wind or skittering. Just me, scrambling through and rasping. And that glade? I knew it empty, but now there was a house, cobbled from a fairytale. Brick and stone. Leaded windows. Plaque and lantern. Halfway light kissed every edge like refuge.
The windows, they were blank. That didn’t scare me. The air was licked with cinnamon and the crackle of a fire. I knew the tale. I’d lived it twice already. They say the third time is a charm. I wiped bloody palms along my jeans, turned the knob, walked in. Just me, Gretel, only.
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