Alternate middle #43
G. and H. let the Witch’s house burn, run out of the house, grabbing a few hot gumdrops on the way out, and keep running until they get back to their Father’s house, which they immediately set on fire. One taste of vengeance may lead to another.
The Monster’s tools may undo the Master’s house.
The Mother’s tools may unmake the Father’s house.
As you wish.
The widowed Father runs out of the burning cottage and is shocked to see his two children very much alive: dirty, smelly, faces and limbs covered in soot, and strangely unhappy, arms crossed over their rigid frames. H. looks almost fat, G. terribly thin. H. holds his Father’s axe, the one that Father had strung up in a tree to make the children think he was chopping wood just a little ways away.
“What have you done?” cries the Father.
“We decided to come back,” says G.
“Not what you expected?” says H.
“We’ll let you live,” says G. “But you’ll have to start over.”
“Where’s Mother?” asks H.
“Dead,” says Father, looking sad.
“Starvation, I presume,” says G. drily.
“Stroke,” says the Father. “She was so young.”
“We’re younger,” says H.
“We’ll let you start over alone then,” says G.
“Goodbye,” says H.
“You selfish, terrible children,” says the Father.
“We just did you a favor,” says G. “Be grateful.”
“Two,” says H. “We survived and let you live. You have a chance now.”
“Start over alone,” says G. “It’s your only way out of the Enchanted Woods.”
“And this time, you’ll get your first wish,” says H. “We won’t be coming back.”
Two children, around the age of eight,
were found at the edge of the Enchanted Woods early this morning at 4:52 a.m. PDT. Forest Ranger P. Charming reported that she found the two children sleeping under a tree next to the Ranger’s Lookout Station, as she was making her morning sweep of the area.
Ranger Charming noted that when she woke the children, who had been sleeping soundly in spite of the cold morning fog and cacophony of birdsong, they had looked frightened, the girl yelling, “Stay away from us!” and the boy suddenly wielding an axe that he’d apparently been sleeping on.
According to her report, Ranger Charming assured the children that she meant them no harm and asked them if they wanted to go inside the station, where it was warm and there was hot porridge and cocoa. The children, much to the Ranger’s surprise, refused though they were clearly malnourished and seemed to have no provisions. The girl looked particularly thin.
“Inside is bad,” said the boy.
“We don’t want your candy,” said the girl.
And with that the children bolted off back into the Enchanted Woods. Ranger Charming reported that she was unfortunately unable to catch up to the fleeing urchins who, as it turns out, may have been involved in two cottage fires that occurred earlier in the week, one, according to the police report, an act of arson by the homeowner’s own children.
On the inside: walls made of metal painted white and once inside, there is no door, no windows. The children wish badly for the candy house or even their Father’s cottage. G. takes the axe and begins hacking at a wall to no avail. H. takes the axe and tests the walls in different spots, tapping to see if any place sounds different. The metal walls ring and ring; they are hollow or very thin and seemingly impenetrable. The axe is their only tool, and none of this was apparent from the outside.
From the outside, the cottage had looked simple, clean, and ordinary—a bit friendly with a pot of blue and red flowers on the stone steps leading to the wooden door, which was embossed with the phrase
Velkommen. Mi casa es su casa.
Hungry again and reading neither language, the children entered preparing to do battle with whatever monster they found in there. Instead of a Witch or Other Aberration, they found an empty room, cool and soulless, the front door disappearing into the wall behind them. For the first time in their trials, H. and G. cry like children.
Their tears mix with the dirt and soot still covering their faces, and their crying leaves inky droplets on the spotless white floor. H. wipes his face, snuffling, and notices small holes in the floor where his tears have fallen.
“Look!” he says to G. “We must cry harder.”
H. and G. huddle together and aim their faces at the floor and cry and cry and cry, making a small puddle, which becomes a hole that widens as their tears pour into it. They cry and cry until the hole is big enough for the children to see what’s beneath the house, and what they see is water moving swiftly, the house on stilts or pillars six feet or so above the moving stream.
The children cry until the hole is big enough for them to fit through it. G. holds the axe with one hand and holds H.’s hand in the other as he lowers himself into the hole, his feet skimming the rapidly moving water. He can see the bottom of the house, which appears to be made of wooden beams.
G. quickly follows, hanging the blade of the axe on the edge of the hole and lowering herself down. H. is fully in the water, as G. lets go of the axe, which she cannot unlatch.
H. and G. are carried by the swift moving river past the edge of the cottage, which appears again to be made of stone and timber like any other house, back into the Woods where it is now dark, the great trees green-black around them. The river, which is quite wide, carries them faster and faster toward something, the destination of course unknown. The current is too swift and direct for the children to swim out of it to the shore.
Though the water is cold, G. does not feel cold. It is mildly pleasant to be in the stream, which is salty unlike any water she has felt or seen. The river continues to carry the children along as the moon and stars rise in the sky, the moon revealing the whispering leaves along the riverbank. The children stay afloat easily in the salty water and eventually fall asleep.
When they awake with the light of day, the children find themselves in a pool surrounded on three sides by steep, pine-covered mountains. A small waterfall drums into the pool. The children swim to the pool’s edge and sit looking at the gray blue water and the falls.
“Where are we?” asks H.
“Lost,” says G. “But this place looks better than the last.”
In the fantastical world we are watching,
the Black women are victims, the White women are sluts, the Black men are violent monsters, the White men are brave heroes, and the Asian men are inconsequential. We are watching this world as it flickers against a bare, white wall, and we think it lacks imagination for an imagined world, as it resembles several of the made-up worlds we’ve already watched. The characters speak clearly and smoothly in the world we are watching. There are young and old White males, and they are nice to each other.
This fantastical world flickers and hums before our eyes, expanding from a blue beam of light. This world was made by a famous Believer, a man with a graying beard who lives across the river in the far North. We would like to know why the Believer of this world made the Black men so violent and ill-tempered. When the White people break the law in this land, which is covered with hills and trees like ours, it is to help orphans. They want to give the orphans a house to live in, food, names, education, and useful skills. In this Believer’s world, when the Black men break the law of this land, they do it to hurt their own children, raping them.
We are orphans, but we do not understand this made-up world or how the orphans live together like the dwarves or the bears. We have never lived in a big house with other orphans or met any other orphans in all our travels. We live in the Woods by ourselves. Sometimes we take shelter in a cave or a clearly unoccupied building, if it looks ordinary. We no longer trust fancy houses that look like our childhood fantasies. The first thing we do when we enter a house is figure out how to quickly escape, should a Witch or a tired, hungry bear or an adult show up.
We have also never met a Black, Asian, or Latinx man or woman in the woods. We have met many White men with knives, such as the Huntsman and the Fowler. Our Father had axes because he is a Woodsman. We took one of the axes for protection, but we lost it when we went into a hole in the floor to escape the house with the unbreakable white steel walls. The axe got stuck on the edge of the hole, which closed itself around the axe after we dropped down into the River of Children’s Tears and floated away.
In our world, the women, who are White, are monsters not sluts. A monster is someone who wants to eat, kill, or have sexual relations with children. We know about the first two, though we prevented those things from happening.
That was our happy ending: inhibition. This is our denouement: wandering and growing.
Someday we will be adults, bigger than our Father and dead Stepmother. Bigger than the Witch, who was not so large physically. We do not know if the Witch counts as a woman. We call her “she” and “her,” because it is convenient.
We do not know if our real Mother was a victim, as she died right after giving birth to us. Our Stepmother may too have been a victim. Our Father said it was a stroke, but our Father has been known to bend the truth. In our world, most people view him with pity and indifference, though that is also how they treat everybody. It is OK to be a monster if you live by yourself.
In our world, the heroes are children, so we are not too excited about becoming adults, though it will be good to have all the food.
When we are adults, we will build an ordinary-looking house with seven good escape routes, and we will let only orphans into the house. We will build a strong door, and we will get another axe.
When we watch the other made-up worlds, we do not know which real and fantastical worlds they correspond to. There are so many Believers and so many worlds coming out of the Believers’ hands and mouths.
Sometimes we have found ourselves outside the Enchanted Woods, transported by the wind, a river, or our feet to another land. Sometimes we just watch the other worlds and spend a little time in them to think upon their strangeness with mixtures of confusion, rage, helplessness, and admiration.
Having successfully avoided Three Unsavory Fates—
being married to a bully, being married to a passive-aggressive post-feminist, being married to a feckless charmer, G. found herself free as the birds who ate H.’s crumbs, free and, of course, alone.
“Free to be alone anywhere though,” thought G. Meaning: free to change the backdrop, and changing the backdrop can change the inside out.
“The art of leaving isn’t hard to master,
leave it harder, leave it last or
first or whatever . . . ”
G. gleefully mangled the poet’s sad, witty verse, repurposing the poem.
In avoiding three disasters, G. had, of course, embraced another, that of the solitary wanderer—like Odysseus, unable to stay put long enough to enjoy the incredibly well-defended fruits of hearth and home even after being away and sowing all kinds of magical oats for 20 years. Especially after 20 years.
Crossing that threshold back to civilization, the land of routine and domesticity, slaying the old frenemies yucking it up in your house, pursuing your spouse, disguising yourself as a beggar—that part was fun, and shooting down those guys one by one, that part was easy, a continuation of the Action! Bringing that adventure back into the old domicile . . . it’s staying that’s hard. Abundance and logic can cure everything but hunger and the drive to drown it or kill it.
G. is not G. but a snake of herself in her own garden.
She feels very far away from everyone she loves and claims to love in her own heart. Her neck and shoulder are a mess. It is another beautiful day in Paradise, a paradise like a Hell of her own making. She is surprised by her irritability, though she is not surprised by her aggravation with the lack of privacy in Paradise, the lack of neutrality, which is the state she craves.
Everyone is irritable. Everyone hates everyone else in Paradise. G. knows that the Woolgatherer is writing nice, articulate stories about their interactions, how their pleasantries are belied by resentment or some such nonsense. G. dislikes realistic fiction very much.
La Chinita is walking down the red brick path,
down the hill, listening to El Rubio prattle on about his French mother, who has been dead for four years. El Rubio is red-haired not blond, La Chinita is Korean not Chinese, and both are American. El Rubio talks about how he was his mother’s favorite and thus his older sisters hated him.
“I almost hate him,” thinks La Chinita, “and I just met him. He never stops talking, and he’s clearly obsessed with his mother even though he’s almost 50.” She thinks that it’s not a coincidence that he’s spent his romantic life alone in spite of storybook good looks, a successful career, money, and sociability. She thinks about women hobbling their sons with too much love, sending them boxes of homemade cookies on their 34th birthdays while they’re completing their neurosurgery residencies or economics Ph.Ds.
She is fervently jealous of that box of cookies, being treated like an infant, and how certain men through the influence of their uninterrupted need manage to make even that ridiculous behavior enticing. They will always be rescued, doted upon, sent jars of peach jam, returning the favor with resentment and adoration for the all-powerful, all-serving Mother and her analogues whom they make and find.
Later in the day, when the hot sun beats through the breeze, she hears El Rubio crossing the courtyard, talking aloud to no one but himself.
Over the Sea
“There’s a lot and a little both here,” said the new Hansel, describing the small village G. had just arrived in. She had travelled to the village in the North at the invitation of I., the Director of an artists’ residency in the village. G. had never heard of the place before, but she knew the area from the wanderings of her youth, as she had worked there among the fjords and mountains for one golden summer, picking red berries and preparing apples for the harvest. Unemployed now, she had truly had no money then, and all her possessions had fit into a green rucksack with leather straps, all her possessions being some clothes, toiletries, a laundry line, a sink plug, and some books including a biography of Gandhi, which a kind man in the South had given her and which she still hadn’t read.
That was the first time she’d left the cottage, leaving H. behind to fend for himself, as there had been no persuading him to leave.
“I’m more dependent,” he had said. “I’m the baby.” He was younger by only a few minutes, but G. had understood this statement to be mostly true. So, she’d packed her rucksack and found out where she could take a ship across the Sea to P_______, the furthest place she could think of. She already knew her way around and through the Woods by heart and had figured it would take two days’ travel on foot to get out of the forest and to the harbor where the ship was. She had left the cottage in the very early morning before anyone else was up, leaving a note on the breadbox that said, “I won’t be returning this time. Please give H. my share of the food.—G.” Then she had added: “And remember: There’s always enough.”
Even then—especially then—G. had felt rage and distrust for her Stepmother and contemptuous pity for her Father’s weakness and the way he caved over and over again to their Stepmother’s attempts to starve, eject, and passively kill H. and G., in spite of telling them how much he cared for them. G. distinctly remembered the look on his face when they had returned to the cottage—dirty, exhausted, and tick-ridden, H. still plump from the Witch’s nefarious overfeeding, G. thin as a chicken foot. Their Father had smiled before crying out and embracing them, but for an instant before that, there was a flash of something else, fear perhaps or what G. later interpreted as self-pity for the struggles to come.
The escape, therefore, had been easy. No one had stopped her, as G. had known no one would, and no one came looking for her. She had slipped through the forest along a familiar series of paths, leaving the Enchanted Woods and making her way to the seaside port where she would begin the voyage.
And that had been a fantastic summer, beginning with that first journey across the dark blue ocean. Prior to setting out, G. had earned a little bit of money by doing chores for an elderly couple who had taken pity on her and H., and she worked on board the ship, scrubbing the latrines and washing the deck each night to pay for her fare. The work was so easy; she left the latrines and deck gleaming. She had always worked, and the ship’s crew supervisor was constantly pleased with her efforts, which did and did not surprise her.
In the months and years to come, G. would do many jobs that would satisfy many bosses in different lands: picking oranges in the South, serving beer to the pale men and occasionally women in L________, gathering signatures for the population counts in R______, selling books of mostly low value in the big city of B________, and of course more cleaning and carting and lifting.
All that was 25 years ago, thought G., who now in middle age had found herself for the first time suddenly unemployed.
And here was a new Hansel, who looked nothing at all like the old one who like G. had pitch-black hair with eyes to match. The new H. was large with dirty blond hair and goofy blue eyes like the storybook Hansels that G. had read about. He wore a striped black and white shirt, as if he’d just gotten out of a comic book jail, had a small paunch and a very direct gaze. As it turned out, the new H. was exactly G.’s age.
G. didn’t know what her Brother looked like anymore, though she imagined him to still be a bit chubby, perhaps bearded and rabbinical but more Asiatic. G.’s own weight had waxed and waned throughout her adulthood according mostly to her financial station. The poorer she was, the more she ate, ever since she had had the means to feed herself. And during her bouts of wanderlust, when she absolutely could not stay in one place for more than a few weeks at a time—there had been four thus far—she either put on the pounds from anxiety and inertia or shed them from overactivity and illness.
This time she was ravenous, eating bowl after bowl of muesli with the sour cultured milk of this Northern land, fried sausages, salads of beets and hard-boiled eggs, tubes of cod roe dyed bright pink, thick slices of brown bread and butter, triple helpings of noodles with tomatoes or butter. The Witch would have been very pleased.
New Hansel was sitting across from G. at the long wooden table. G. offered him a tube of mayonnaise and somewhat reluctantly pushed a box of half-eaten oat crackers toward him, asking, “Do you want these?” Clearly somewhat disgusted, he declined, which made G. smile with relief.
Alternate ending #3
Bare bones, bare bones, the Witch’s bones charred and cracked in the black iron oven, all that was left of her when we went back there some weeks after we burned our Father’s house. We did not return intentionally but by accident, stumbling upon the gooey remains of the Witch’s house in our wanderings. We were, it appeared, permanently lost, the Enchanted Woods shifting its paths day to day by an unpredictable design, so that we never knew where a familiar branch or path would lead. The shifting of the paths began after we left our Father’s house, which we had had no trouble finding.
Coming into a circular clearing, we recognized immediately the remains of the candy house by the odor of burned flesh that lingered, mixed with the delectable smell of burnt candy, which still drew us in and which had melted and coagulated to a hard, sticky pool spreading from the oven like the old floor of the house.
A cold needling rain was steadily pelting the candy floor, the oven, us, and the trees around the clearing, with their charred and miraculously still green leaves. The fire had not extended further than the grounds of the house due to either the enchantment of the Woods or the Witch’s intent. She may have cast a protective net around her magical house, of which nothing but the oven, two cauldrons, and the candy floor were left.
The house had burned. The Witch was dead. Those were her bones blackened and hissing in the cooling oven, which was still warm to the touch. Yet, still we felt that we might feel her bony fingers tapping our shoulders or grabbing our wrists at any minute. Or that we might turn around and see her hovering above us with her craggy face, her large incisors, and light-colored hair blowing behind her. We expected her to appear and yell at us for trespassing, for disturbing her peace.
She was dead—we had shoved her in the oven ourselves—but she did not feel dead. We had pushed her in with our own hands, sealing the iron door shut as she thrashed and cursed us, wishing us short, unhappy lives, a redundant wish. G. had pressed her hands against the oven door and had the burned palms to prove it.
We did not know what spell the Witch had cast to make us feel that things were not over when they were or how she made us think of her repulsive being and death when we did not want to think of any hideous, unpleasant things. The Woods had treated us well for the most part. We had found plenty to eat in the forest, and shelter when we needed it. Most of the animals did not try to eat us, and we fended off those that did with much less effort than it took to kill the Witch or leave our Father for good. Our hearts’ desire was to never think of the Witch again, to never feel her threats as real, and to leave the Enchanted Woods. But we found ourselves often thinking about the Witch and our Father, and we could not find our way out of the forest.
Using the axe and the shovel we had found in the Huntsman’s shed, we carved a pit in the candy floor, cracking the hard surface and digging and digging down through the moist black dirt. Using the shovel, we removed the bones from the oven and threw them into the pit, putting all the ashes in as well. We covered the hole with dirt and fresh leaves and recited the following words:
You tried to kill us and eat us
and now you’re dead.
Because you’re dead,
You can’t be angry or hungry
There’s no need.
As we were digging, burying the bones, and saying the words, the rest of the candy floor melted away in the rain, leaving a square of beautiful wet dirt, which we walked across to head into the Woods again. At the edge of the clearing, we heard a loud soughing noise and turned to see the oven sinking into the earth, sucked down as if by a great tunnel of wind. The axe also flew out of H.’s hand and into the tunnel, and we feared we might be sucked in as well, but then the hole suddenly closed over. We noticed small shoots of grass and weeds pop up where the candy house had been. We re-entered the Woods having witnessed some magic at last.
Great stalks of pine and the birds circling and circling
G. knew enough about the ways of the world—cast into the Woods as a child, casting herself out into the world beyond that primal realm as an older child—to know two things:
(1) Another door would always open if she could take
herself far enough to get there.
(2) Some chances present themselves only once.
(3) There are no twins in tales only triplets.
And through the Woods
The next door was always around the corner leading to a new realm where the natives are kind to strangers, and apples grow on trees like so much money. Where the average citizen lives to be 98, and even the lame and the halt wheel freely down the path through the Woods. Where the response to tragedy is not hysteria but sadness, and where when the young, strong Huntsmen kill a deer or a moose, as they do each late summer in the open season between Solstice and Equinox, they share the bounty with everyone in the village so that those who are too old or weak to hunt may eat as well.
“You think that such a place does not exist, but I will tell you,” said G., “that it does. I lived there in my youth and a quarter century later, and this place, unlike the others I revisited, was virtually unchanged.”
Like Sleeping Beauty in her castle of thorns, but richer upon awakening.
But what price, you ask, because everything comes with a price, you say, not believing that some imaginary and real worlds are better than others.
“The same price as always,” acknowledged G. “Loneliness and the permanence of loss, which I can tell you is the only thing we ever have, as it is the only thing that lasts, and here,” she added, “they feel it unadorned, without distraction, having no poverty, no crime, enough food and work for everyone to work just enough. Their grief is felt keenly, and some do die of it. Their divorce rate is the same as yours. Abundance and logic can cure everything but heartache and the drive to drown it or kill it.”