Wing-Feather Fables: Gretel, Only

WFF: Gretel Only

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.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

14 thoughts on “Wing-Feather Fables: Gretel, Only

  1. Pingback: Wing-Feather Fables: Gretel Only | How to Feather an Empty Nest

    • I went to a panel at AWP about rewriting fairytales and then Brenda’s image was just so lovely — I had to twist it. 🙂

  2. I’m with Kathryn–Wow, Lisa. That is edgy… And dark. Wonderfully so. If Agent Cooper lived in the N.H. woods instead of the Pacific N.W., he’d love to stop by the blank window house for pie and coffee (I’m sure she has a good recipe, from her time at Maude’s–and she has the rolling pin for the crust).

  3. I love this – not because of the shock factor (and because I tend to love dark matter). Anybody can write shocking or surprising, but this one is just so well-written. That matter-of-fact description of horrors, the enumerations, list-making – the voice is entirely believable and unique.

    • Thanks so much Marina. It was a bit of an experiment. I’ve been trying out new voices, styles since the AWP conference and all that inspiration. I’m so glad this one worked!

  4. I would like to climb inside your head for an hour or two just to see how that creative brain of yours works. What great writing: sparse, with not one unnecessary word. And yet what a voice this character Gretel has. I am still amazed that this comes form one photo, one gorgeous photo. You and Brenda are quite a team.

  5. Wow! You’ve done an amazing dark twist of these fairy tale characters! The original was a bit dark, but this is a whole new kind of dark–I LOVE IT! I am so glad that you were able to get so much inspiration and so many ideas from AWP. Fantastic fable!

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