The squirrels had come to warn her that day, after she had cast her divination.
She was grateful, for the signs had made no sense. A fair and scrupulous creature, she was a grandmother to all, dwelling in a house she had baked herself, speaking to birds and to beasts, asking for news and healing them when they fell ill. Yet the warnings were earnest: human children would bring about her downfall.
It was not wise to ignore such portent, so when the two children had arrived, curious and hungry and arrogant, she acted. She kept them safely locked away, gave them food, kept a critical eye on their health as she wrung her feelings, deciding what to do with them. Her home was her haven, and her power waxed there, so she waited. Then one day, they left, agony in their wake.
Months had passed as she recovered, lying burnt, eating broken corners of charred gingerbread, her house reduced to crumbs and great sweet slabs that the dumb animals of the forest came and sampled, afraid. To this day still she awoke, wreathed in sweat and fear, remembering the hiss of the oven and the crackling of the flames as they ate her hair, melted her lips, left her teeth in an open sneer. She wore a wig now, and an attractively embroidered veil, and told others she was from the East. She kept a glamor on. She procured glasses with which to correct her blindness. Her sight had never been good; she saw more clearly now.
Grown weary of her memories, the grandmother traveled, luring the occasional wayward child into her bag to eat. She stopped to ponder, massaging her bent spine, questioning missing gods who never answered. Revenge was the only pure-hearted action, she decided. All others were sudden, self-fulfilling responses to other goads. Revenge was a true action, a choice, and since humans were the only creatures to have developed it, she was justified. They had eaten in her home, stolen her wealth, tried to murder her. She served them pancakes, she had, her own batter, with apples baked in, and sugar, and walnuts for strength.
But did they not outsmart her, best her at her own game? Yes, yes they did. Hans was such a handsome lad, Greta so quiet and servile, and she had forgotten herself. She would therefore improve, and climb higher again in the food chain. That was natural.
She found their old home, the one they had left, for she could smell their tracks even after so many years. It was of wood chopped by steel, humble and sad-shouldered.
The father had died. She found his grave, and the grave of the stepmother, she who was said to be so hard-hearted as to send away the children.
“They misunderstood you, dear lady, as Eden misunderstood Eve,” she whispered gently at the dirt. “We women are always at the root of the troubles, aren’t we, always punished. In the stories the stepmother always dies conveniently, to free one from challenge.”
The grandmother bent her back to dig at the earth with a shovel, brushed dirt from the withered face and whispered in worm-ridden ears, and raised her as a servant. The stepmother, no longer fully dead, sat on the dry soil, her skirts splayed about her, and bowed her stringy-haired head as if to weep, although this was impossible.
The grandmother patted her shoulder, very gently. “There. The stories aren’t told from our point of view. They say you were the stepmother, but we know the truth, eh? You are their mother. A mere changing of the facts, it was, to blame woman yet keep a shining vision of virginal motherhood. You merely came up with the solution, as we always do. Survive.”
The mother plodded behind the grandmother, silent and reluctant, as the old woman continued, throwing a shawl over one shoulder. “You tried to teach them self-reliance, how to provide for themselves and not be a burden, but no. They thought only to find their way back, and the forest creatures helped because they knew no better. They came back, to make you give, and give, and give until your breasts were dry and your eyes were hollow.”
The grandmother walked dirt roads, then cobblestone, the mother-servant in tow. In the cities she cast glamors to keep them beneath notice, as they passed wagons, suspicious-eyed guards, and townsfolk too simple to understand. To her servant she applied herbs and perfumes constantly, for the death had not quite left her. The mother’s face, too, was veiled.
Along the way they met old Grýla, struggling under the weight of her sack and stumbling over a giant ragged cat who slunk always underfoot. They traded leftover meats, and sat together, on opposite sides of a campfire.
“Those children. I tried to take Greta under my wing, to teach her skills and seek independent thought,” the grandmother said, sucking the marrow from a shin bone. “But Greta thought only of her brother, her handsome, stupid brother. They assumed God would not forsake them. What kind of lesson is that? What happened to God helping those who help themselves? That’s where they were helped. They helped themselves—to what I made. And because I did not assume in my arrogance that God would not forsake me, I was burnt.
“But there is no use in complaining,” she nodded.
“And what was their reward for their wickedness?” asked Grýla, sniffing her meat judiciously. The horrendous cat at her feet growled; she gave it a punch in its sunken ribs, jingling the bells on its neck. “Did they marry a prince, or did they fade from the story, living happily and ever after?”
“The latter, I think,” replied the grandmother. The mother’s face lowered silently.
“Then their story is not done. Go see Frau Trude,” said Grýla. “She knows all about willful children.”
“You went about it all wrong,” offered Frau Trude, not unkindly. She beckoned to one of her servants, a blank-eyed huntsman, who poured another cup for her visitors, although the silent mother had not drunk any.
“My heart was not yet hardened,” said the grandmother, fidgeting. The house was quite warm from the blocks blazing on the hearth, and she did not like the closeness of the flames.
“Go see Dame Jaga,” said Frau Trude. “She will have lessons for you.” She waved away the massaging hands of another of her servants, a handsome collier, whose awkward grip was annoying her.
The grandmother nodded, and thanked her friend for her wisdom. Gathering up her skirts and her companion, she left the house, nodding at the thick-jowled butcher who held the door.
She attended study groups, taught by Dame Jaga in her house that crunched underfoot. Each lesson left them in another city, for Dame Jaga moved endlessly; not for her to stay in one place. Still, it was worthwhile, for the grandmother learned technique, and spells, and patience. She must, Dame Jaga said, go and get what she was living for, not wait like a fat spider for prey. Go, she said, and spread secrets like a blanket. The world requires balance, and even a gift will always bring payment. Go, and give, she said. The grandmother nodded, while the mother-servant sat in the corner and wept from dry sockets.
In a city that smelled correct to her, the grandmother had no difficulty in finding work as a cook and a baker, applying her expertise in seasoning. It was distressing to use an oven, to move hot iron over a stove, but she chewed up her fear. She gave to others, and received praise. In an eyeblink she was raised to head chef. At night she took desserts home to the mother-servant, who swallowed with her dry throat.
Then one day, as she was buried under responsibilities and had almost forgotten what she had been traveling for, Hans entered her establishment, a plump and handsome man with pressed trousers and a tall hat. She knew it was he, instantly. He sampled this and tasted that, and nodded, and declared her creations quite tasty.
Every day he would return, asking what was special, and soon the grandmother began concocting pastries and pies and dainties just for him to try, laden with sugars and creams and privilege and goodwill.
“It is so good!” he declared as always.
“Of course, dear.”
“It reminds me of… it reminds me…” he looked troubled.
“Just recipes,” she said kindly. “Recipes handed down to me.”
“Would you… are you available as a personal chef? I will pay! More handsomely than what this bakery can offer.” Hans beamed, as if the idea was the grandest anyone could possibly have had.
She of course agreed, and took along the mother-servant, claiming she was her daughter. She took command of his kitchen, and made him roast pig with apples and laziness, and hearty stews of beef and rhubarb and compliments, and baked him pies bursting with berries and indulgence.
She was careful never to bake him gingerbread, and thankfully he did not crave it.
He grew fatter, coming home from whatever gentlemen did, handing his hat and coat to the silent servant and bragging of his life as he ate the grandmother’s creations. A powerful burgher, he was never brilliant, but he had always been good at following trails. He followed the trail of money, and cared not from whom it came or who suffered from its absence.
“What a fool,” she grumbled to her servant as they cleaned the dishes. “He is worthless. His own sister had to save him, for he knows only to follow pebbles and crumbs and papers, and take and take. He believes God provides, and so God provides. Why is that rewarded?” Here, he was being fattened even more than in her own house. She did not even want to eat him, although she felt she probably would, to complete what she had started. Dame Jaga always urged her to complete things.
He had many people he thought were his friends, and he often invited them, boasting of the skills of his chef. Always they agreed that the chef was outstanding, and her spices rare and delectable, and joked that such a man as Hans did not deserve such a chef. He laughed with them as they drank his brandy.
One cold day Hans’s sister Greta arrived, arm in arm with Hop Thumb. The grandmother, picking herbs in the garden behind the house, smelled her instantly, and shuddered. The girl was a high-society dilettante, she could tell, experienced at making others give her things, and giving very little in return. She was well taken care of. Bundling her herbs, the grandmother ducked into the kitchen and began to think.
“Hello, sister!” Hans cried, and had the servant take her coat and hat and muff. Greta stood in a fine cambric dress, her saffron hair gathered expertly into a voguish bouffant, and the servant gazed silently at her until Greta and Hop were discomfited. Hans rushed them into the dining room, bowing grandly, and his sister mocked him.
“Look at you! You are such a boor, Hans.”
“Oh, Greta, do relax and be pleasant. You are so busy dashing from suitor to suitor that you cannot stop to enjoy an evening.”
“I smell something in your house,” said Hop Thumb, uncertainly. He was not tall, and quite thin, but his suit was well-tailored, for Greta would not have it otherwise.
“Of course you do!” roared Hans, sticking his thumbs in his suspenders. “A rack of lamb, with potatoes and leeks, with herbs from my garden out back, don’t you know! And later, some brandy. That is what you smell, Hop.”
His old friend drew him aside. “I grew up on the streets, an urchin who had to live by my wits. If you have ever done so, do so now.”
“What are you saying, Hop? Ha! I live by my wits every day. Why don’t you stay? We will have a smoke together.”
They all sat then, and dinner was served. Greta squinted at the cook, hidden behind a veil, and at the silent, polite servant whose hands were so thin, like paper stretched over twigs. She looked carefully at her food before she tried any of it, and Hans thought she was praying. He laughed, and then grew sober.
“I miss Father.”
“Oh, yes, Father,” she replied, trying a bite of the potatoes, which were quite excellent and made her furious. “So kind, so stupid.”
“Greta! You have no appreciation.”
“And Mother,” she continued. “I do not miss Mother.”
The dead maidservant dropped a spoon, curtsied, and slipped out of the dining hall. Greta watched her exodus, pretty eyes narrowed.
In the kitchen, the grandmother took up a ladle and bit it in half, chewing. How should her revenge be shaped? Greta was, she could see, canny for all her beauty.
“I am worried for your brother,” said Hop quietly as they shrugged on their coats.
“Don’t waste your worry,” said Greta.
“Have him meet me at the club, and I will talk to him,” said Hop. “We will have dinner there.”
Hans’s anger eddied into the room after him, as he nearly threw his coat at the mother-servant.
“Hop knows nothing! I don’t see why I associate with him,” he growled. “He envies me and all I have, is what he does.”
“Of course, dear,” answered the grandmother, and served him a berry tart and extravagance, and a digestif. “There is no need to suffer such indignity. But why not invite your dear sister over again?”
“And wherefore should I? I have built everything I have from my own work, and she does nothing. She is my only family, but she has gotten where she is from the goodwill of men like me.”
“Still, perhaps. She is your only kin. What would happen to her if you were no longer?”
His sister was invited the very next day.
“Where is my brother?” asked Greta acidly, shaking the rain from elegant shoulders. The mother could not answer, so hurried away with the sable coat.
“He has turned in early,” said the grandmother, hands clasped in what she hoped was a harmless manner. “He did, however, wish that you eat, and enjoy yourself. Do please sit in his chair at the table, for he would wish that.”
Greta sat, and watched the grandmother bustle, serving her a meat pie as an appetizer, steam twisting gently from the golden crust.
“I am sorry to displease my brother, but I am not hungry,” she said. “For I have already eaten.”
“Then please come again tomorrow,” smiled the grandmother. “And bring your appetite.”
Greta did so, arriving the next evening and handing her foxfur coat to the servant.
“Hans could not join us again, for he had a business appointment,” apologized the grandmother, serving a roasted haunch, carved into delectable pale slices, with a light gravy.
“I wish I could eat it, but I have been feeling ill all day,” said Greta.
“Oh dear! Then please come again tomorrow, and I will make you a soup,” said the grandmother, mouth twitching under her veil.
“I believe my brother is dead,” said Greta to Hop Thumb, working her pretty mouth into twisted shapes as she thought. They sat at a cafe, sipping tea.
Hop started, and nearly cracked his cup on its saucer. “What? How could it be? What has happened?”
Greta tapped her chin, stirring absently. “He never would have guessed. It was I who had suggested the breadcrumbs, I who had noticed the witch’s poor eyesight and whispered to him to prod a finger bone through the bars.”
“What are you speaking of?”
“So again I enter the prison, but willingly, for my brother is dead. I am not lured by candy and sweetness. By hunger, yes, but not the simple hunger of a stupid child.”
“I knew something was wrong!” Hop frowned.
“Nothing is wrong. Hans contributed nothing, learned nothing, and in his death there is no difference.”
Hop was scandalized. “Greta! He was your brother. You are… I cannot associate with such a cold-blooded witch.”
“No one is asking you to,” said Greta calmly, and rose from her seat to walk away. She walked across town, to Hans’s house, and raised the brass knocker. The door was opened immediately, and the mother-servant nodded. Greta stalked past her and into the kitchen.
“I remember, Nana. I remember when we found your house, hungry and young, and you tried to teach me. You have so much wisdom, and I know now that I hunger for it. I want to make my own way, not balance on society’s blade, waiting for my beauty to collapse. I belong to society, but none of it belongs to me.”
The grandmother looked at her for a long time, face blank behind her veil.
“What of Hans?”
“Why, is there anything left of him to serve?” answered Greta, with a soft shrug. “He is dead, and in his will, he left everything to me. I want you to stay here forever, Nana, and cook, and teach.”
The grandmother was troubled. She knew the young woman was canny.
Still, she agreed, for Dame Jaga told her to give. She began to teach Greta her ways of herbs, and of spices, and of flowering plants, and poisons, and sweets, and spells. Greta learned to bake pies of sweet dough, filled with fruit and respect, and create stews of rich lamb, bitterness and secrets. The grandmother was very careful never to turn her back on the young woman, or get between her and the open oven, but could not deny that Greta learned quickly and well. She began to warm to her.
“You are doing so well, dear,” she said. “I think soon you will be ready to meet someone special, someone who could teach you more than I.”
The mother, too, tried to reach out to their young visitor. She would take her coat and try to caress her arm, only to have that delicate limb pulled violently away. She would look longingly at Greta as she ate at Hans’s place at the table, only to meet a green-eyed glare. She tried to speak to her, but there was no voice in her dusty lungs, only to be ordered to go away. She would leave, to collapse in a corner far from the kitchen, shoulders shaking.
“Perhaps she means well, after all,” the grandmother said one day before Greta was due to arrive, sliding a tray of newly kneaded and sugared cookies into the blazing oven. “Greta is the daughter I never had, I daresay.”
The mother, behind her, stood straight, her bone-thin arms quivering. A spark suddenly gleamed in her dead eyes, and she pushed. The grandmother lost her balance, and disappeared into the massive oven, shrieking, clambering to get out, the old pain devouring her.
This time, there was no escape.
The front door thundered, and Greta tore into the hallway and into the kitchen, in time to see the mother-servant, devoid of life, slumping to the tiles like the dead doll she was. The young woman rushed to throw open the fiery grate, to no avail, for the grandmother’s cries had stopped.
She wept, for there was no one now to teach her, and in a rage she kicked the mother-servant’s body into pieces. Through her tears, she blinked, looking about her, at the seasonings and utensils and pans. The grandmother was there no longer, and there was no way to absorb her knowledge—save to absorb her.
When the oven cooled she hauled out the burnt, frail body with great effort, and began to prepare her, skinning, seasoning, and dressing, putting all the learning she had received into her work.
Soon, she sat herself to dinner.
She left the house, locking the door behind her, infused with the spirit of the grandmother, and ready to learn, to obtain things for herself, with her own power. She turned, and beamed, for a great hut stood before her, bowing on its legs. Dame Jaga waited, beckoning with a gap-toothed smile.
David Elsensohn lives for coaxing language into pleasing arrangements, and for making good chili. A native of Los Angeles, he lives with an inspirational wife and a curmudgeonly black cat. He has works published in the Northridge Review, Grim Corps II, Kazka Press’s California Cantata, and Literary Underground’s Unearthed Anthology.
He has the occasional unexplained craving for green-tea-flavored Kit Kats.
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