Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale.
• • • •
The first lie is pretty and spirals from your mouth like candyfloss; sweet, so sweet, and I’m melting under your tongue. Baby, baby, baby, you say, and I gobble it up, unaware that every word you say comes with a candy thermometer and you’ve made me your latest caramel bonbon.
(We’ll get to that later.)
It isn’t your fault I’m starving. It is your fault your recipe is gourmet bullshit and you want to know what I look like with the apron strings tied around my neck and how best you can fit me into your oven.
(This is where I admit I’m caught by the sugar rush, but you already know that, don’t you?)
You’ll be safe here, you say. You’ll be safe with me.
I know you’re not a witch, and there’s no reason for me to doubt your royal peerage; you have the epaulets and posture to prove it.
Your house is small, but it’s bright and cheery and my feet sink into marshmallow fluff, the sort of floor on which a girl could dance a pirouette; a woman, a waltz. I do neither, afraid I might trip over my own aspirations.
Do you invite all the lost girls here, I ask.
You smile and say of course not. You’re special.
The words are strawberry shortcake, a little cloying, the portion too large, but I swallow it all.
Okay, I say, and I want to smack myself on the head because it’s late and I should be heading back, but the only thing waiting is a woodcutter’s axe with my name on it, so instead I say okay again. The light changes and for an instant, your teeth are canine sharp, your jaw a little too long, but that’s the wrong story, isn’t it?
(Perhaps you think the axe is from the wrong story, too, but there’s always a woodcutter and always a blade waiting around the corner.)
And anyway, your teeth are fine and if you bite a little when we’re in your king size bed, it’s okay. I may have a sweet tooth but I’m not delicate.
• • • •
In the morning, you’re already out of the bedroom when I wake and I hear you in the kitchen, wire whisk against glass bowl, wooden spoon stirring a sticky mess. I whisper good morning and look for the coffee, but you’ve got a piece of marzipan at the ready.
I’ve been waiting for you my whole life, you say, and the sweet sticks to my teeth and there’s a cyanide burn when I swallow it down, but I don’t pay attention because you’re already pushing another piece between my lips.
Then you hand me a bucket and a scrub brush and I’m confused; that’s definitely the wrong story, no tricks of light required, and you flick one hand.
All the stories are the same story, you say.
No, you’re wrong, I say.
Your mask slips again and what big teeth and what the hell?
A blink of an eye and you’re back.
Good trick, isn’t it, you say, but there’s something hiding in your eyes and later, when I’m scrubbing meringue from the linoleum, I realize you quite neatly sidestepped the whole story explanation bit. Clever.
When I finish the floor, you kiss my pruned fingers and I swear I see those teeth again, but maybe it’s the fumes from the cleaning solution.
I’ll keep you forever, you say.
You’re so sweet I can feel the cavities take root in my teeth, and what am I, a toy, I want to say, but I can’t talk around the chocolate-covered cherry and you’re laughing when you wipe the sticky syrup from my chin.
You pat my hips, my thighs, my stomach, but I haven’t been here nearly long enough yet, have I? Later, I touch the oven to make sure, but the burners are off.
• • • •
You leave me alone most days and I pluck gingerbread from the roof to tide me over.
At night, babylove tastes like peppermint and dark chocolate; always is orange marmalade; forever leaves a dusting of confectioners’ sugar on my lips.
But I’m still hungry.
I feel your eyes watching my ass; when you’re not looking, I check it in the mirror but it still looks the same to me.
• • • •
I’m searching the cabinets for a package of chicken soup or even a cube of beef bouillon to rid the sugar residue from my throat when you storm in, your epaulets crooked.
You were with the dwarves, weren’t you?
I laugh because I’m certain you’re joking but you whip out a handful of Polaroids and shove them in my face.
How is that even possible, I say, looking at the tangle of limbs and the woman in the center. That isn’t me, I say. I don’t know any dwarves; they’re not part of this story.
This isn’t a story, you say.
I nod toward the picture. Those are a story, I say, and not my story. Look, she has a birthmark, you can see it on her leg. I offer my thigh as proof, the skin as pale and unblemished as freshly fallen snow. (No, I’m not that girl. She’s yet another story. In spite of what you may have heard, fair skin isn’t unique.)
You move my leg this way and that and then drag me over to the window so you can see in the bright sunlight. You keep muttering under your breath and I wonder if it’s a spell and you’re trying to magic the birthmark into existence.
Fine, you say as you let go of my leg and stomp off, crumpling the photos in your hand.
But that night, you bite a little too hard, a little too many times, leaving me with a set of oddly-shaped, half-moon bruises.
I stare at the ceiling, so exhausted I can’t sleep, and listen to the rumbling of my stomach.
• • • •
You never apologize. Not for the bruises or the false accusation. Love, oh, love, I’ll never leave you, you whisper instead.
Tiramisu, my greatest weakness. Funny how you figured that out so quickly. Then again, maybe not. Maybe before the lies, you read everything you needed in the spaces between the grains of my own sugar.
You measure the width of my hips with your hands, frowning all the while.
I toss and turn beneath the sheets, drum my fingers along the xylophone of my ribs, and wish I had an enchanted spindle to help me to sleep.
• • • •
Love, you whisper, and then a name, but it doesn’t feel like my name. The syllables are wrong, all soft and slippery instead of hard and clipped. I have the sensation of falling, falling through layer after layer of whisper-thin vellum, and I’m not certain how I got here at all. Then you touch my arm and the sensation ebbs.
And I can’t remember ever being this hungry before.
• • • •
I stop eating bits of the house when you’re not here. My vision gets swimmy, my hands shake, and my stomach feels as if it’s caught in a battle between a tin soldier and a goblin, but my thoughts are sharper at the edges.
I find a sheet-covered mirror, but the distorted face inside the glass belongs only to me.
When you get home, I’m caught in the taffy pull of your hands again. Every morning, I stick my finger down my throat, but it’s always too late, and nothing comes up but bile.
• • • •
I’m scrubbing the floor again when I hear the squeak-squeak. I follow the noise until I get to a closet door I’ve never noticed. The door isn’t locked, and surely if you didn’t want me to look you would have locked it and given me the key with strict instructions never to use it.
I reach for the doorknob, but hesitate. What if the door is booby-trapped so you’ll know I’ve opened it? What if there are severed heads inside, runnels of red dripping down ornate pedestals?
I open the door all the way—I’ve never been afraid of a little blood and I’m fairly certain Bluebeard’s last wife escaped in the end—and there’s a tray of chocolates on the top shelf. All the sweets are marked with the impression of your teeth and before I can wrap my head around that little fact, the air shimmers and there’s an old woman standing with a wand in her hand.
Who are you, I ask.
Nothing to concern yourself with, she says and waves the wand.
The chocolates drop to the floor and change shape and color. Grey fur, tiny feet, whiskers, and long tails emerge and a swarm of mice run between my feet and head toward the front door, the little old woman following close behind.
You’re a fairy godmother, aren’t you, I ask.
She rolls her eyes. What, she says, did the wand give it away?
Do you think you could give me a hand?
Sorry, she says. I’m not your fairy godmother, so step aside and let us out.
On the front lawn, she waves her wand again, and the tails and whiskers and fur fall off. Another wave of the wand and women stand in place of the rodents. They huddle in a circle, squinting in the sun and covering their nakedness with their hands.
I wonder how long they’ve been here and who’s writing this story after all. I wonder if the women walk on mermaid feet of broken glass pain, but the air shimmers again and I hear a ruffle of paper as they slip back into their own stories and it’s too late to ask.
Probably for the best. Some tales shouldn’t overlap.
• • • •
Every morning, you disappear into the forest. I’ve thought of following you but it takes all my energy to keep a smile on my face.
Are you pining by a glass casket? Waiting for a gullible girl who’ll believe she can spin straw into gold? Or searching for elves so you can start a new career in shoemaking?
Maybe it’s the hunger pangs. I’d give my kingdom for a slice of roasted chicken right now, but that’s not on your menu.
When you return, you poke my side, and tell me I’m too skinny. I point to the raspberry preserves you’ve shoved in my mouth to remind you of the folly of your statement. You scrape the spoon against the side of the jar and tell me to open up.
• • • •
The ceiling in the bedroom has a crack in the center I’ve never noticed before, or maybe the crack wasn’t there before at all. I ignore the noises from my gut (in truth, they sound a little like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) and dig through the kitchen drawers until I find a pastry knife.
I stand on the bed and wield the blade until the ceiling starts to break off in chunks. And here then, is your story, hidden behind the sickeningly sweet fondant. I’d know your handwriting anywhere.
This story doesn’t have a proper narrative arc or a clear-cut plot. It rambles like lost children in a dark forest and here and there, things are scratched out and rewritten and scratched out and rewritten again where you’ve altered things to suit your fancy.
It’s nothing more than a vignette made up of all the leftover bits of other stories, but the pieces don’t quite fit together, no matter how many once upon a times you’ve scribbled in the corners. I chip away more fondant to reveal that I’m neither princess nor captive nor anything at all. I’m a character with no face, no self; quite interchangeable, really.
In the kitchen, I take a good look at your recipes, running a fingertip down the list of ingredients. Sure enough, your creations are as wrong as your story. You’ve been feeding me saccharine and genetically modified flour. This is why my ribs are showing, why my skin looks like the inside of a well-used cast iron pan.
And I’m not surprised. Not at all.
• • • •
You walk in all smiles and lollipops, and I hold out a recipe card.
How was I supposed to exist on this, I say. What were you thinking?
It’s nothing, you say. You are my everything.
Your hands are on me before I can blink, and I taste licorice in my mouth. Black licorice. I can’t stomach the stuff; it isn’t candy at all, merely some vile substance cooked up in a kitchen full of grim. I spit it out onto the floor and wipe my lips with the back of my hand.
That isn’t the way this works, you say. I don’t like girls who won’t eat.
The skin of your face splits in the middle and the two halves fall apart to reveal another face as much unlike your face as it is the same. Yet these eyes hold no expression, this mouth no mirth or kindness. You’re a blank slate and for the first time, I’m afraid. I can’t tell if you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a rabid sheep dressed in wolf skin, a bear in a man-suit or a man caught in a bear-suit in desperate need of a good fitting.
I take several steps back and your skin splits again.
I ate all the breadcrumbs, the you-thing says with a sneer and a flash of teeth. You’ll never find your way out. The woods are too dark.
Do you expect me to stay here after all this? I’ll need a huntsman to cut me out of your belly when you’re done, I say.
Wrong story, you say.
I thought you said all the stories were the same story?
I never said that, you say.
I want to laugh but the ersatz sugar has drained the humor from my veins and for a long moment, I can’t remember what my own laughter even sounds like or if I’ve laughed since I’ve been here or if I’ve ever laughed at all.
How many stories will you tell before you realize they’re all the same story? I say.
Claws emerge from the tips of your fingers.
My chest tightens, but I can’t move, as if my legs are fused together. I open my mouth to speak, to cry, but nothing emerges. My hands are shaking and inside I’m empty, a woman of bone and pain and little else, and there’s a hole inside me where the words should go.
Please, I finally whisper, hating the weakness of the word, hating the implication, hating myself most of all, for turning into the sort of person who says such a thing.
You say nothing, merely split again from wolf to you-thing to bear and back again. The oven kicks on with a whoosh of orange-blue flame. This can’t be the way this story ends, not with this cruelty.
A sharp pain wrenches my breath away, as if I’ve a thousand tiny chefs carving slices of carpaccio from my heart. The oven might be a kindness after all.
No. No, I say. This isn’t right.
You roar and the sound eclipses the ache inside me, but I don’t care if I get lost in the woods anymore. I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’ve had enough. I’m not a princess in need of rescue, nor a maiden without a voice, no matter how many times you’ve written me thus.
The End, I say, my voice sandpaper and stone.
Your eyes go wide. You can’t do that, you say.
You look like you want to say something else, but your shoulders hitch and your mouth opens, unhinging like a broken nutcracker. Out pours a kaleidoscope of peppermint rounds, caramels with cream centers, butterscotch bits, chocolate chips, candied orange slices, peanut butter cups, and lemon drops. The air fills with a cloying reek, a strange mix of sweetness and decay.
Then you change yet again, but instead of splitting into new, the pieces of you fold in. Each origami fold reveals a flicker of man, of beast, of man, as if you’ve told a hundred stories, crafted a hundred masks, and can’t find the truth inside your fiction.
The truth is that you can tell a lie a thousand times, but it still won’t make it true.
The air rushes around you, swirling in to claim the space you’re leaving behind. You roar again but it chokes off into a wheeze, you growl but it fades into a strange mewling, and you keep folding in, reducing.
There’s a sound of tearing, of something ripping free, and I feel it inside my chest. You fold in again and then there’s no you at all, only a scatter of blank pages seesawing to the floor. Cracks appear in the walls, in the floor, and all around me, the smell of burnt sugar and scorched pans.
I’ve no hidden wings and my hair isn’t long enough to braid into a rope, so I crawl out of your story and back into mine, tearing my hands and knees bloody. Even though I know my skin will heal in time, I’m afraid I’ll never wipe away the bitter taste of anise from my mouth.
There are no happy ever afters, not truly. Someone always has to pay a price.