How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure…
Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after the other, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don’t need to, don’t. Wouldn’t that be great? Just don’t make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn’t true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things that are trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape and sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.
I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war—running, hiding, privation—but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to—We’re Americans now—but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and slowly moving in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn’t. Imagine a story where everything goes wrong, where everyone has their back against the wall, where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don’t, they’ll die. Imagine a story, not of good against evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame.
Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such difficult times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. “What is to become of us?” says the man. “Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,” says the woman The two children, awake from hunger, hear everything their parents are saying. Trust no one. You are expendable, a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut we will begin to plot your demise. If I were you, were smart, I’d stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father and son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no exit.
Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says “Be quiet, don’t worry. I know what to do.” And with that he gets up, pulls on his jacket, opens the lower door, and creeps outside. The lower door? Fairy tales have rules. You are a princess or you aren’t. You are pure at heart or you aren’t. If you are pure at heart, or lucky, you might catch a break. And there are other rules, like anything can happen. As well as you will not get exactly what you want. Apples fall like raindrops, three drops of blood on snow can make a child, mirrors and birds can talk, but sometimes—as in The Goose Girl—when they kill your pony, you’re supposed to feel blessed that he—the disembodied head, that is—can, thanks to the magic handkerchief, still give you good advice. I’m not suggesting the world is good, that life is easy, or that any of us are entitled to better. But please, isn’t this the kind of thing you talk about in somber tones, in the afternoon, with some degree of hope and maybe even a handful of strategies?
There’s a lot to be said for humility and taking your lumps. Vanity, in a fairy tale, will make you evil. Vanity in the real word will drive you nuts. Vanity makes you say things like “I deserved a better life than this.” Which leads to entitlement issues, anxiety, depression, an inability to approach the divine—out of frustration, refusal, or blindness—and a shitty attitude. Maybe they should kill your pony. They? I don’t even know who they are. I wouldn’t kill your pony. I’d like to believe it, anyway. I’d like to believe I wouldn’t drag you out in to the woods and leave you there, either. So far, it hasn’t come up.
The lower door. Prolly a Dutch door, but I didn’t know that then, thought it was part of the magical anything goes dealio. Still do. Even the most common nouns can take on an otherworldly shine when lit improperly. The lower door, underground railroad, a half-measure. Out he goes. The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles in front of the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak, the woman comes and wakes the children. “Get up, you lazybones. We are going into the woods to fetch wood.” She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, “Here is something for midday. Don’t eat it any sooner, for you’ll not get any more.” Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pocket onto the path.
They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It’s not an ax, it’s a branch that he had tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, it’s dark, they cry, the moon rises and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn’t have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: when someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.
My father is reading me this story and sometimes it is just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe that he is innocent, or pure at heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked throughout the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father’s house. Stupid, stupid kids.
Second iteration: We must ditch the kids. The kids overhear. This time the lower door is locked. No pebbles. A forced march deeper into the woods and, bread in hand—keep your hands where I can see ‘em—a trail of breadcrumbs. Sleeping, waking, crying, the moon rising, the crumbs gone. The narrator blames the birds. And you want to blame the birds as well. I blamed the birds for a long time. But in this story everyone is hungry, even the birds. And at this point in the story so many things have gone wrong, so many bad decisions made, that it’s a wonder anyone would want to continue reading.
They walk all night, they walk all day, they eat a few berries, walk some more, and die. Yes, they die. They die as surely as The Little Match Girl dies, and this is not lost on me, even as a child. They die either because of the pebbles or from a lack of them. There is no way to win. Everyone is hungry and the weak get tricked and do not survive. Or, they do. Which is Lesson three: in language, the teller decides. A little house made out of bread with windows made of clear sugar. Sounds like they’re dead. Sounds like the teller’s gone crazy. In other fairy tales, the magic is there from the beginning. Here, starting so late in the story, it sounds like propaganda. No, really, when I leave you for dead you’ll find all the candy you could ever want. Hey little boy, wanna see the puppy in my windowless van? And aside from the house, there’s not much magic to this story. A witch who eats kids? Not magic, just another predator. She’s hungry, the kids are hungry, the parents are hungry, the birds are hungry, the story’s over now, it’s just blather: a cage, a bone, an oven, a moment seized, discovered treasure, the journey home.
There are many versions of this story. Which one have you heard? Do the children die in your version? Who’s version is definitive? Fables, myths, and fairy tales, told so many times not even the bones of the story remain the same. The teller decides. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true but it might not be definitive. The Dali Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. Who are you going to believe?
The magazine that you are reading right now is not the definitive text. This time, we let contributors send multiple versions of their work and you do not know which version you have or how many versions there are. People die in this version. Or, they don’t. Colors and names may be quite unreliable landmarks. Anything might happen. You know the story, don’t you?