by Jordan Taylor
Here’s the thing: you never really liked your Oma’s stories.
You wanted to be an artist, and you only looked through her old book of Märchen for the illustrations. Whenever she started to tell you the stories, you just nodded along and pretended to listen.
You even hated her little house, which was so full of flea market antiques that you had to go in spirals to get safely through the living room, and that, after she got sick, never smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg anymore, but like a musty old woman.
That’s what your mom always called it: Oma was sick. But she wasn’t, not really. You understand this as you get older. Alzheimer’s is called a disease, but it’s more like a hungry wolf. It’s the Alzheimer’s that makes her do strange things, like melting your mom’s old plastic doll in the oven, or scribbling all over the pages of her books. Like not remembering your name and speaking only in fairy tales.
When your mom calls you for the seventeenth time three months into your first fall semester, it’s to ask if you got what your Oma left you. You sigh and say “Yeah, I got it.”
You’re at Black Rock Arts College in the Blue Ridge Mountains, studying illustration, and outside the window of your little apartment, jagged green mountains, tipped in flaming autumn red, climb into the famous blue haze of the horizon, like something out of your Oma’s tales.
You love the college already, with a fierce, aching sort of love – the tiny valley full of low, Victorian brick buildings, the wide, squeaky wood hallways, the little high-ceilinged classrooms with their arched leaded windows of golden autumn light. You even love your tiny apartment further up the mountain, its hallway so slanted you can roll your pencil from one end to the other with a nudge.
The fifth time your mom called you at school, it was to tell you that Oma had been declared dead, and that the lawyer was opening her will.
Your Oma had disappeared the previous spring, the nurse that cared for her letting herself into the little house one morning with her key to find her gone. Back then, your mom had assured you that she’d eventually be found.
That was over six months ago.
When you drove down for the weekend for the mock funeral, your mom looked so white and strange in her black dress that it scared you. Now your mom, as Oma’s only child, will have to go through all of the old things in her cluttered little house, and send them out to whomever Oma has left them to, or get rid of them.
Your Oma has left you her book of German fairy tales.
When the book came in the mail, you laughed but you wanted to cry. You wondered what she’d been thinking, when she left it to you. Did she remember you liked the illustrations? Or had she still been trying to force her German stories on you?
Had this been before she got sick, or after?
It sits in its shipping box, still wrapped in newsprint, until the day your mom calls. The newsprint rustles when you lift it out. It has the same old, spicy smell that you remember. It’s large and heavy, heavier than you thought, the embossed cloth covers slipping back and forth on their loose binding. On front there’s an illustration of two little blonde children standing in the woods, their round red mouths and round blue eyes open wide. It’s faded, worn white around the edges.
“Märchen” reads the embossed title, in huge curling cursive.
“Greta Baumhauer,” your Oma’s maiden name, is written on the peeling inside cover in her shaky handwriting, and you’re surprised because you don’t remember it there.
You flip though the yellow age-soft pages. The stories are all in German, with dots over the vowels, and what looks like uppercase “B’s” in the middle of words.
You’ve never learned German.
The illustrations inside the book are more detailed than the cover, bright ink and watercolor plates glued down and covered with creased tissue paper. You recognize the dark-haired queen in the forest, the little girl in her red cloak standing eye-to-eye with the wolf, and the beautiful peasant girl surrounded by geese, but the picture of the witch’s gingerbread house seems changed. A tall, strong young blonde woman in a sky-blue dress stands in front of the house, smiling, when you remember the witch.
It’s strange, the things you remember, and the things you forget.
The illustrations make you think about your Oma, her eyes wild and her white hair in a messy bun, clutching your fingers as she tells the stories again and again and again, as if her very life depends on it.
And then… and then… and then…
You hide the book under a stack of textbooks on your desk.
You don’t think about the book again until over a week later when you’re sitting in your History of Illustration class, staring with your mouth open at slides of fairy tale illustrations like those in your Oma’s book. Dust motes dance in the yellow beam of light. You’re covering the Victorian period – ink drawings and watercolors by masters like Rackham and Dulac.
Before the projector came on, you were thinking about tomorrow night’s bonfire. Black Rock’s Friday night bonfires are legendary – although technically not school sanctioned – and even though the thought makes your stomach hurt you’re determined to go.
The last time your mom called, she asked how, if you stayed in your apartment every night, you expected to make friends.
But when the slides come up, the bonfire is momentarily forgotten. You’re given homework – to try an ink drawing in the Victorian style – and instead of going home to Google Rackham and Dulac, some kind of itch that’s been with you since the projector’s light snapped on makes you reach under that stack of textbooks.
You flip the book open to the picture of the woman in the sky-blue dress, in front of the witch’s cottage. She smiles at you from the yellowed page, and you smile back.
The scent of baking gingerbread fills the air, like the old days in your Oma’s kitchen.
You open your eyes because someone is laughing at you. It’s a nice laugh, warm and loud. You’d closed them to sniff, the way you’d done when you were a child.
The woman from the illustration stands in front of you. She’s tall, much taller than you, and her broad shoulders and muscled forearms strain her cotton dress. A starched white apron is tied around her waist. Her head with its thick bun of blonde hair is thrown back, so that the sunlight falls on her face.
You stumble backward. You’re in a clearing just like the illustration – a little meadow bordered by dark, tangled oaks and briars. Behind the woman is the gingerbread house, and the damp, sugar-crusted bread and candy sweats and glitters slightly in the warm sunlight. The wind wafts the scent of cinnamon towards you.
The breeze makes the hairs on your arms stand up. The sun beats on the back of your neck. Behind the trees climbs a hazy blue line of mountains.
The woman reaches out and plucks a sugarplum from the house. She pops it into your open mouth. Her movements are strangely familiar. Your mouth waters as the sweet candy covers your tongue.
Tomorrow you will wonder over the sweet taste of your dream.
You and the woman stare at each other, her blue eyes twinkling, as the candy dissolves in your mouth. When you can swallow, you ask “Who are you?”
“I’m the Woodcutter’s Daughter,” she says, and her voice is so familiar you choke. “And the daughter of the Witch.” She opens the cottage’s front door.
“Would you like to come in?” Oma asks.
The Woodcutter’s Daughter hums as she pours you a clay cup of milk from a pitcher on her counter, and, though she can’t be more than thirty, everything – the tilt of her head, the German tune she is humming, her bright blue eyes and her smile as she hands you the cup – reminds you of your Oma.
You’re sitting in a hard little chair at a wooden table that takes up most of her kitchen. The inside of the cottage isn’t made of candy and gingerbread, but has two rooms with whitewashed walls and flagstone floors. There’s also a pump sink in the kitchen, and a huge, round-bellied wood-burning stove. There are sooty black streaks on the wall behind the stove and its chimney. In the next room is a tiny carved bed halfway hidden behind a floral curtain, so small you wonder if she has to sleep curled up, like a doe or a fox.
“Where did you come from,” the Woodcutter’s Daughter asks, “Popping up in my clearing like that?”
“Another world,” you say, and sip your milk. It’s warm, and thicker and sweeter than anything at home.
“Another world,” she echoes, and for a moment her face freezes, her blue eyes blank.
Is it true? Does she know?
You watch comprehension creep across her features, her wide mouth frowning, her eyebrows drawing together, but then, “Keep your secrets, if you must, Fraulein!” she laughs.
She sits in the chair across from you. “But it’s dangerous, you know, out there in the forest,” she adds, jerking her head towards the door, “Even for a girl who can walk unseen.” She narrows her eyes. “You heard about The Girl in the Red Hood.”
Does she mean Little Red Riding Hood? Or could this be one of your Oma’s stories, the ones you never listened to? “No,” you tell her. You would listen to anything, to stay here with her, to keep her talking. “I haven’t.”
Her eyes widen in surprise. “Oh? It was like this…”
The Red Riding Hood
“Once upon a time,” the Woodcutter’s Daughter says, “there was a young girl who was a mighty hunter. The girl’s parents had died long ago, killed in the forest by wolves. The girl had vowed to hunt the forest’s packs down to the last wolf in revenge, and the first wolves she caught she skinned to make herself a warm fur cloak, which she wore when she went hunting.”
After the death of her parents, the girl had been raised by her grandmother. Now the girl’s grandmother was dying, and as she was dying she worked to sew her granddaughter a bright red hood for her cloak, and into this work the grandmother put all of her love for her granddaughter. “
“When she was finished, the grandmother called her granddaughter to her side, and she said, ‘Granddaughter, when I am gone, there are three things you must always remember. First, when you hunt wolves, you must never leave the forest paths, for if you do, you will have entered the wolves’ domain, and there they will have the upper hand. Second, when you hunt, you must never take off this red hood, for into it I have sewn all my love for you, and it will protect you when I no longer can. Third, you must never look a wolf in the eyes, for all wolves are enchanters, and it is in their gaze that their power lies.’ And, having said these things, the girl’s grandmother died.”
“Between the protection of her hood, and the sharp little knife she kept at her side, the girl had soon hunted the forest packs so thin that, though she wanted to obey the advice of her grandmother, she could no longer find them using the paths. Soon, it had been many days since the girl had killed a wolf. So when she heard the wolves howling in the distance one night, she was very excited. Forsaking the advice of her grandmother, the girl left the safety of the paths, and she set off through the trees.”
“The girl chased the howling wolves for many hours, catching only glimpses of their silver tails and their yellow eyes through the trunks. Then the girl ran suddenly into a moonlit clearing, and there, in the middle, stood a tall grey wolf, stone still.”
“The girl stopped so quickly in surprise that her red hood her grandmother had sewn for her fell back from her hair, and her wolfskin cloak slipped softly to the forest floor. The girl stared into the wolf’s round golden eyes, and it seemed to her that the wolf stared back into her own.”
“My, what big eyes you have!’ the girl laughed breathlessly, and her knife dropped from her hand.”
“The better to enchant you with, my dear,’ said the wolf, and he gobbled her up.”
Your phone is buzzing in your ear. You sit up, your neck stiff, and wipe your hair out of your eyes. It’s your mom again.
You answer, putting her on speakerphone as you stare down at your desk, trying to remember what happened. The illustration of the gingerbread house stares back at you. You fell asleep with your head on your Oma’s book, and you dreamed –
“Hello? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” you answer as you stare at the open pages.
You have a sudden idea.
You hurriedly flip through the soft pages to the story with the illustration of the wolf. The story that Oma – or the Woodcutter’s Daughter –told you in the dream was unique, nothing like the Little Red Riding Hood story everyone knows. Yet it had seemed as strangely familiar as the large blonde woman, as if you’d heard Oma repeat pieces of it over and over again a child.
And then… and then… and then…
You pull Google Translate up on your laptop, and type in the first sentence of the German story as best you can without the special characters.
“One time,” the translation reads, “there was a girl who was a great hunter.”
“Mom?” you say. “I’ll have to call you back.”
You stumble down the steep, twisting gravel path you always take into the valley, stones slipping under your feet. Your favorite red scarf is wrapped tightly around your neck, your hands stuffed into the pockets of your wool jacket. You shiver in the apple-crisp October night air. Below you are the tiny golden lights of the college’s windows, above, a round silver harvest moon.
You’re still thinking about what happened yesterday, about your Oma’s book.
You cut through a corner of campus, bright-lit and deserted, and plunge into the woods on the edge of town. Twigs snag in your hair, piles of dead leaves crunch under your feet.
After hanging up on your mom, you’d flipped through your Oma’s book for hours, trying to remember the fragments of stories you’d heard her tell. Every time you came back to the illustration of the Woodcutter’s Daughter, your stomach lurched.
You follow the line of parked Jeeps and pickup trucks until you can hear drunken shouts and laughter, see the orange flames flickering through the trees.
And then you stop.
You stand perfectly still in the darkness, the smell of wood smoke and warm beer swirling around you. You watch crowds of black silhouettes pass back and forth in front of the flames, their arms linked, their heads thrown back. Your heart pounds. Your eyes water.
It’s only the smoke.
A boy and a girl crash out of the trees to your left. They do not see you. He’s tall, lanky, handsome; she has long red hair that shines in the light of the flames, and she giggles as he pushes her back against one of the trunks.
For a second, the firelight gleams yellow in his eyes, and at first you’re not sure why you feel a flicker of fear.
When they start to kiss, you turn around and go back home.
Here’s the thing: social anxiety doesn’t take away the need to belong.
You crawl into bed still dressed, and for some reason you take your Oma’s book with you. In the course of two days it has gone from being painful to comforting – a piece of home.
When you open the book your fingers are so clumsy that the tissue paper protecting one of the illustrations crumples and tears under your hand. You curse and tug it the rest of the way out, revealing the plate underneath. It’s the one with the dark queen in the tangled forest. She rests one hand on a tall trunk, her head hanging down, as if she’s exhausted, or infinitely sad.
Or maybe she’s just lonely.
You curse again and flip past her. The spicy scent of the old pages is so much like your Oma’s gingerbread…
And then… and then… and then… You’re sitting at the wooden table in the Woodcutter’s Daughter’s kitchen again. Everything is the same, as if you never left. She’s still sitting across from you, her bright blue eyes studying your face. You’re still holding the same clay cup of milk.
It should be disorienting, but it isn’t. It feels more like slipping into a dream.
“What did you say your name was?” the Woodcutter’s Daughter asks, and her face, you think, could easily be your Oma’s face, just younger, rounder, without wrinkles….
“Emma,” you say, and you watch her. You watch her closely. At first her eyes widen. Her face lights up, her mouth crinkling at the corners, turning up…
Does she remember?
You hold your breath.
Does she recognize you?
But then she says, “Emma! What a beautiful name!” and you dig your fingers into the cup to keep from bursting into tears.
“Are you feeling well?” she asks, and her brows knot in concern. “You must have had quite a journey.”
You shake your head, and because there’s nothing you could say that would make sense, you say, “I wish I was the redhead I saw today.”
“A redhead?” The Woodcutter’s Daughter looks at you sharply. Her blue eyes flash. “Near here? But no,” her face softens, “It couldn’t be the one in the story.”
You laugh shakily. “What story?”
Black as Ebony
“Once upon a time,” the Woodcutter’s Daughter explains, “There was a queen who was known throughout the land as a wise and powerful witch, and it was all due to the power of the magical hand mirror that had been passed down to her from her mother.”
“One day, this queen was sewing by a window with a pane of ebony. It was deep winter, and outside snow fell from the sky like goose down. As she sewed, the queen pricked her finger with her needle, and three bright drops of blood fell on the snow. The red blood on the white snow on the black windowsill looked so beautiful that she thought, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony!”
“Time passed, and the queen gave birth to a daughter who had skin as white as snow, hair as red as blood, and a heart as black as ebony. The girl grew into a powerful witch herself, with great knowledge of spells and poisons, but the one thing she desired above all others was a glance into her mother’s magical mirror. It was said that the wisdom to be found there surpassed all other knowledge, but the mirror would not come into her hands for many years, not until her own mother died and thus passed it on.”
“The daughter tried every way she could think of to murder her mother for her mirror – poisoned laces, poisoned apples – but none of them worked, and finally the queen went into hiding in the forest, taking her mirror with her. But when an invitation to the neighboring king’s wedding came to her, carried in the beak of a raven, she was forced to either come out of hiding to attend, or strain the kingdoms’ friendship. And so she went, again taking the mirror with her.”
“Imagine the queen’s horror when she arrived for the wedding and realized that the king was marrying her daughter! Her daughter had told the king terrible lies about her treatment at the hands of her mother, and the daughter finally succeeded in killing her at the wedding feast, when the king forced her to dance in red-hot iron shoes.”
“The mirror passed to the daughter, but they say that after her mother was killed it never said another word to anyone.”
You wake up in the morning with your Oma’s book still open in your lap. Google Translate tells you that the name of the book’s Snow White story is actually “Ebony Black.”
You make friends. Slowly.
There’s a girl in your History of Illustration class with an angelic smile and long, butter-colored hair, and when you realize you forgot to ever do your Victorian drawing she smiles at you in concern.
In your freshman Composition class there’s a boy who’s a Photography major, and he stutters when he explains to you that he takes film portraits and he’d like to take yours.
His name is Jack, hers is Julia. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the three of you eat lunch together in the quad, and it feels like your little wooden bench, in its circle of brick tiles in the middle of the Victorian buildings in the bowl of blue mountains, is the center of the world.
At night you pore over your Oma’s book. You search the internet, and post pictures on online forums, but no book of Märchen exactly like yours can be found.
Every night, as your eyes start to tear up in the cold light of your laptop screen, as you catch yourself falling asleep, your arm sliding across the soft pages of your Oma’s book, you smell gingerbread, and you’re with the Woodcutter’s Daughter again.
You tell her about your friends, and she tells you the story of the regal goose girl with the butter yellow hair, of the ugly, prickly Hans-my-Hedgehog, who was so talented and kind he saved a kingdom and won the love of a princess, of the girl with the long braid, who spent her entire life in a little tower before realizing she’d always had her means of escape, of the witch who slept in a cradle of blue mountains for a thousand years.
In every story there’s something – a wise horse, a sword, a hair ribbon, a ring- a treasure, passed down and lost and perhaps found again.
And then… and then… and then…
You try to follow the crumbs on your way to class each morning, turning the stories over and over again in your head, looking for the similarities, where they connect…
A hood made with a dying grandmother’s love, forgotten in the forest. A magical mirror passed down from mother to daughter, and to glance inside gives wisdom. A talking horse that comes back from the grave to tell its story over and over again but no one will listen. A sword that cuts through a kingdom. A girl who escapes her tower. A witch who dreams a world.
Your Oma is trying to tell you something. You know this. But you were never good at listening.
Here’s the thing: when your Oma disappeared, part of you didn’t really want her to be found.
You decide to tell your friends.
You’re in the park, the last autumn leaves falling around you in a haze of gold. Jack is taking Julia’s portrait. He positions her hands just so, tilts her chin…
“No. Too far. Lower.”
When the shutter clicks you say it.
“My Oma is inside a book and I think she’s trying to tell me something.”
When Julia’s portrait develops it will take your breath away. The fall of her hair, the mystery of her smile… The tilt of her chin will be perfect.
Now, they walk home with you, and you show the book to them. Jack turns the yellow pages reverently with his long hands. Julia laughs when you show her the illustration of the goose girl.
You explain to them how important it is to you to understand.
“Of course,” they say, and “we’ll help,” and you feel a warmth in your chest when you realize you are solving a mystery with your friends.
Jack decides to take you to his favorite bookstore, promising that if anyone can tell you the book’s story, the owner can.
Jack’s favorite bookstore is a tiny shop squeezed between a candy store and a place selling college-themed mugs and tee shirts downtown. It’s a long walk from campus, and the sky looks like snow. When you meet Jack and Julia there you’re tired and cold and irritable, because your Oma’s book has been digging into your side all the way down.
And then you go in. The store is a maze of wooden bookshelves and stacked books, with old prints hanging on the walls in gilt frames, their glass grimy with age. It’s warm, warm enough that you unzip your coat and loosen your red scarf, and it smells just like gingerbread.
Jack’s face is still spotty, and his dark hair sticks up on the back of his head. Most people make him nervous, and when he’s nervous he’s rude and sometimes he stutters. But behind the camera he’s a different person.
He’s like that here. He shows you and Julia the photography section and the glass-covered shelves of rare books, and his blue eyes sparkle as he talks with his hands.
There’s a wooden counter in the back of the store, but it’s piled so high with books that you don’t notice the woman behind it until she speaks.
“Jack!” she says. She seems surprised. “Brought some friends?”
Jack leads you to her, and Julia follows behind. The owner is a mountain woman with leathery skin. A grizzled grey braid falls down her back and out of sight behind the counter. When Jack introduces you, she shakes your hand.
“Well? Let’s see it,” she says, putting on a tiny pair of bright pink reading glasses, when Jack tells her you’ve come with questions about your Oma’s book.
Her twisted fingers trace your Oma’s name and the detailed illustrations. “What do you know about it?” she asks you.
“Just that it meant a lot to my Oma,” you say. “And I think,” you hesitate, and Julia nods encouragingly, “I think it’s unique. I can’t find it online.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“Well, it’s Victorian era, I’d say,” she says, “It’s too old to have been your gram’s originally. The condition’s okay, though not great.” She closes the book with a thump. “It is odd, though,” she squints at the cover through her reading glasses, “There’s no author or illustrator or publisher mentioned anywhere.” She looks back up at you. “You read German?”
“No,” you explain. “That’s partly why I brought it to you. I,” you hesitate again, “I used Google Translate on some of the first lines, and they’re not Grimms’. I mean, they’re like Grimms’, but they’re different. Changed. I want to know who wrote the stories, and if there’s other books like this one.”
She flips through the book again. “The Victorians loved their fairy tales,” she says. “There were lots of Grimms’ copycats then – “
You sigh in frustration and she gives you a look. “I’ve got a friend who speaks some German,” she admits grudgingly. “I’d be willing to show it to him. And I can take a look online myself, maybe call up a few friends, see if anyone has seen this copy before. Would you mind leaving it here?” When she sees the look on your face, she adds, “Just for a few days.”
You look at Jack and Julia. Jack shrugs. Julia nods. “Ok,” you say. “Just for a few days.”
She takes down your number and promises to call. When you leave the shop, you feel light and hollow as an empty grave.
The three days you spend without your Oma’s book or visits to the Woodcutter’s Daughter feel empty and strange, and you catch yourself checking your phone every few minutes, waiting for the bookstore owner to call. When she does, her voice sounds different from what you remember – thinner, like it’s coming from further than a mile or two away.
“You were right,” she says, and she sounds as if she scarcely believes it. “I can’t find a record or another copy of the damned thing anywhere. And my friend went crazy about the stories. Said that if they were Victorian-era, they were unlike anything Victorian he’d ever read. Grimms’, but changed? Is that what you said? Not kid stuff at all, despite that cover. He thinks it’s either worthless or priceless, depending on whether you could find the right buyer. Did you want to sell?”
You say, “I’ll be there as soon as I can to pick it up.”
“I think we went about things the opposite way,” Jack says.
“What do you mean?” you ask.
The three of you are sitting in a circle on your living room floor, wrapped in the scratchy wool blankets your mom sent you, your Oma’s book in the middle. You’re sipping tea that Julia made you from one of your Black Rock mugs, and you think how grateful you are to have a friend like Julia, who calmly accepts the impossible, and then makes tea for everyone else who can’t.
Just an hour ago you’d called each of them to tell them what the bookstore owner said. “I’m coming over,” both of them had said, and even though it’s a school night you let them.
Now Jack has gotten an idea, and you put your mug down to listen to him.
“There’s really only one person,” Jack says, “Who can tell you the truth.” He and Julia’s eyes meet over your head, and your heart turns over because you know he’s right.
There always was.
“We’ll wait here for you,” Julia says.
Going in isn’t hard now. You have done it so many times. You stare at the illustration of the Woodcutter’s Daughter, and she stares back at you, and then you are staring into her real face – flesh and blood and your Oma’s blue eyes.
You barely catch the scent of gingerbread.
“There’s one story you haven’t told me,” you say, curling your fingers around your cup of milk the same way you had just curled them around your mug.
She stares into your eyes, and her face crumples as if she will cry.
And then you know.
In that moment, she does remember. She remembers everything.
“Ah, Schätzchen,” she sighs. “It is not a pretty story.”
“Once upon a time,” Oma begins, “There was a Woodcutter who fell in love with a Witch. This was no ordinary witch, but a great lover of stories, who wrote tales of love and loss and mighty deeds, and everything she wrote came to pass. The witch had a large, red leather book, which she carried around everywhere, and it was in this book that she wrote her stories.”
“For a time, the Woodcutter and his wife were very happy together. They lived in a cottage in the forest, a fantastical cottage made of sweets, which the Witch had written into being in her red book. They had a daughter called Greta and, many years later, a little boy called Hansel. The Woodcutter and the Witch taught them every skill they knew: how to chop and carry wood in the forest, how to defend themselves from wild animals and bands of robbers, how to cook gingerbread like that that made up their cottage, and how to tell stories.”
“But witches, even witches who become wives and mothers, have dark and strange hearts. When the Woodcutter fell sick, and then died, Hansel and Greta’s mother became silent and strange, and she refused the leave the cottage she had made in the forest. The solitary life she led there caused her to turn further and further in on herself, and daily she became darker and stranger, until Greta was sure she was quite mad.”
“One day, Greta was coming home from cutting wood in the forest when she saw clouds of black smoke rising from her cottage’s chimney. She dropped her load of wood and ran inside, to find her mother hunched over the stove. A horrible smell of roasting meat filled the cottage.”
“Mother, what have you done?’ Greta cried.”
“I’m baking gingerbread,’ her mother cackled, ‘A little Gingerbread Boy for me, who will never run away and leave.’ And she made her fingers run across the edge of the stove, like two little legs of a gingerbread man.”
“Greta pushed the frail woman out of the way, and opened the stove to find the charred flesh and small bones of her brother. Without thinking, in her anger, Greta shoved her mother into the stove, and shut the door fast. The flames whooshed through the grate, and the kitchen wall caught fire.”
“Greta, afraid and horrified at what she had done, rushed from the cottage. On a little table by the front door lay her mother’s red book, and as she ran outside, Greta took it with her.”
“Greta wished nothing more than to escape from the horrors of the place she had grown up. And so, she opened her mother’s book, and, taking a charred bit of wood which fell from the ash spewing from the stove’s chimney, she wrote her own story in its leftover pages.”
“And then,’ she wrote, ‘And then… and then… a door opened up, and it took Greta to another world, a safe world, where magic doesn’t exist, and witches are just stories. A world that feels like home, with dark woods and snow-capped mountains that reach to the sky.”
“Greta lived in this world for many years. She found that her mother’s stories were already there, but in this world they were just that – stories, Märchen, pared down and cleaned up and told to children. She married and moved to America, where she had a daughter, and when her husband later died she did not go mad. Her daughter married and had a daughter of her own.”
“Her mother’s book had come with her to this new world, but it had changed. It was no longer a red leather book filled with her mother’s strong handwriting and her own sooty scratches, but a book of this world, an old volume of Märchen.”
“But Greta remembered. And when it became all she remembered, and she was too old to make up stories, she wrote her name in the book, and she disappeared…”
The Woodcutter’s Daughter, when she finishes her story, looks older. You can see faint lines around her eyes and her mouth, the first sketches of your Oma’s wrinkles. Her hand, when she puts it over yours, is warm.
“But I don’t understand,” you say. “You’ve been trying to tell me this story for so long. What am I meant to do?”
“To do?” she asks, and she laughs, a small laugh. “You thought there was a kingdom to save? A witch to kill,” she grimaces, “A princess to kiss? Your story,” she says, “Is not one of my mother’s stories. You are writing it yourself.”
“You are the great-granddaughter of a witch,” she says, “And the granddaughter of a witch, and the daughter of one. You are a witch yourself, although you’ve never known it.” She smiles at you. “The stories are your birthright. But they’re not your life, not,” she sighs, “Like I almost let them become mine. You must tell your own stories, Schätzchen, and when they are ready, you will write them into the book, and there they will blossom, and perhaps bear fruit…”
The world does not suddenly change. You go to class. You do your homework.
The day you heard your Oma’s story, you’d returned to your own world and told it to Jack and Julia, and now you tell them all of them, just as your Oma told them to you.
The guilty weight you have carried since your Oma disappeared is almost gone, and when your mom next calls she tells you she feels a peace, even though the body has still not been found.
At night, you draw stories, and you dream of the day that your illustrations will make books come alive.
The world of your Oma’s book will never open for you again, having told every story it contains. But the picture of your Oma is still there, in her blue dress, and she is still smiling as she stands in the sunlight outside of her cottage.
It has a special place on your bookshelf now, a place easy to reach, and sometimes you take it down just to leaf through the pictures and smell its spicy gingerbread smell.
So far, you have put nothing of your own in the book, save one small thing – a tiny drawing of Jack and Julia, on the blank back flyleaf. They are holding hands under a star-filled sky, and in Julia’s radiance, Jack is beautiful.
Sometimes, when the haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains stirs something in your chest, you wonder what would happen if you wrote your name in the inside cover, under your Oma’s. You would smell gingerbread, perhaps. The world around you would fade. You would feel fresh spring grass under your bare feet, and a mountain wind would brush your face. You’d hear your Oma’s laugh.
And then… and then… and then…
“Märchen” (© Jordan Taylor) was published in Issue 5 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.