GRETEL AND THE WITCH, 1986
When I am young and don’t know much about the way lives curl and coil around each other and that we call this love, I ask my brother why he does not want the lips of girls. We are playing in the sandbox, that liminal space where other worlds are encouraged to open. He looks at me and I cannot break the stare. Our castles in the wet sand fall apart.
Years later, we find ourselves on our parents’ doorstep. My brother has not wanted the lips of girls for some time, has instead known the mouths of men. Now my brother is ill. There is a correlation, and our parents listen as we disclose this information. We are standing on the porch and I am wondering when our mother will let us into the home in which we were born and raised. I can see through the channel of the house to the back, where the sandbox still lives. It is empty like the top of an hourglass when the time is up.
As we stand there on the porch where we shared popsicles and chalked stick people, where we wiped the dirt from each other’s feet before entering the house, our parents don’t seem to understand. We try to explain in soft terms: love, men, risk. I am thinking they are not listening, but soon I see my mother hug her heavy middle. I see the skin on her face turn a kind of pale green. She is standing in front of my father, and when he tries to speak she holds up the back of her hand to his chest and he stops. He says her name, and she moves backward, pushes him into the house. He says her name again, over, her name, and my mother is shutting the door very slowly. There is our family on the porch and then there is just my brother and I, the closed door a lesson in how to be alone.
What we do not know is that this scene has been unfolding across the country. I try to imagine the parents in bed at night, in that space before sleep when the mind follows its own set of rules. Do they think of the boys they once greeted with side hugs and half smiles? Do they think of the bangs they once pushed from foreheads, the chins they once held in their palms? Or are they able to revise the past, erase the child from their history as if he never was?
My brother and I walk away from that house, the home in which we were raised. And like two characters in a story, when we step off that porch the rest of the yard shifts into the set of a production; I watch the world around us morph from the familiar site of our childhood yard into a dark and indefinite wood. We are no longer adults, but children who must use all our cunning and savvy to get to the center of the labyrinth, compelled by we know not what.
It should be said that I study folktales. I study folktales because I am interested in what is lost when stories passed on by voice are committed to paper. I study folktales because I am interested in sacrifice.
Once upon a time a brother and a sister were sent to the woods by their parents. It was implied they would not return. The parents could not know that the siblings would meet a witch, nor that they would enlist her in their efforts to survive.
Once upon a time there was a witch who collected chipped cookie jars. She found them here and there and did not know why she felt obliged to keep them. But then again, she thought, pulling the bed cover around the neck of her daughter and tucking it tightly under her chin, what compels us to collect at all? It must have to do with preparation, she thinks. It must have to do with the future and chance.
Once upon a time, I came to the witch for help. I said, My brother is gravely ill and my parents have turned us away, sent us to The Woods. I said, We were taught not to speak to strangers, especially witches, but my brother—, I said. And the witch took us into her house and put us up. And when I eyed the chipped cookie jars lining the shelves on the walls of her kitchen, she saw me. She was carrying my brother upstairs, for his weight had diminished so that he was light as a bag. She saw me eyeing the cookie jars and she said: Help yourself.
All that feels like years ago now. Today marks the beginning of my journey alone.
After the witch tucks in her daughter, she comes into the kitchen, where I am making us tea. It has been a long day. We have buried my brother. I watched my brother grow up and grow out of our small town. I watched my brother grow into the city, and then I watched him grow ill.
The witch sits down, and I see her stir honey in her tea so carefully that the spoon never hits the cup. Soon I hear the soft snores of her daughter. Time feels like it is pleating, so that before and after seem somehow simultaneously now.I study folktales because I am interested in what is lost when stories passed on by voice are committed to paper. I study folktales because I am interested in sacrifice.
I study folktales because I am interested in vanished voices, but I also study folktales because I wonder about The Woods. Behind the sandbox of our youth lies a wide and gaping expanse of trees. When I was young I wanted desperately to enter that domain, to trek the forest in order to learn about the secrets the trees kept. One day, when we were adults and very drunk, I disclosed this to my brother. He laughed long and hard and kicked the air. He was a dancer and his body was this strange and wonderful machine that elegantly navigated the pod of air around it, so that he seemed forever suspended on strings. You realize that sounds like sexual repression? he said. Years of waiting at the entrance to the woods? I gave him a punch on the arm and he feigned hurt. Between us lay the nautilus fossil we had once found in a field, a token of our union. If you really wanted to satiate your curiosity about the unknown, he told me, picking up the fossil, rubbing the hollow with his thumb, you should have followed me into the city.
I want to tell this story the right way, the way in which all the characters are depicted as powerful agents of change, in which they are not victims or heroes, but sensibly composed and well-balanced people. I want to tell this story right, but know this: I study stories, I do not narrate them.
This is why I’m asking for your pardon before I get started. I only have the stories I’ve read as a guide for how to tell this one. This is why we’ll start in the center of the maze. The first question the beast inside the labyrinth asks is, “Why are you here?”
I ask myself this as I am lying on the couch of the witch’s house the first night my brother spends under the ground. I pull the covers tight and think: My brother is gone, which means I’ve made it to the middle. Now the question is: How do I get out?
Before the cookie jars were chipped, they lived in a myriad of other houses across the Deep South. They were collected by the witch and her daughter from yard sales.
Before the witch was a witch, she was just a woman.
Once upon a time, the woman had inherited a cemetery with 262 empty plots in a tiny town in The Natural State. She would take her daughter to the cemetery on Sunday afternoons and treat it like a park, playing in the grass. What on earth, the woman thought to herself, am I to do with a cemetery? She pushed the wet bangs from her daughter’s sweaty forehead and kissed the tip of her nose.
The cemetery lay near her home, growing lonely. Beneath the surface, the earth was wanting. Beneath the surface, the soil desired.
One day, the woman went to visit a friend at the hospital. The friend was ill and was placed in a corridor with others who were sick. The woman roamed the halls while her friend slept. She noticed a door covered in a red tarp that said CAUTION. The women had read her own fairy tales when she was young and knew to keep away, but something at the core of her being compelled her. It could have derived from the way that red signifies warning but also passion, the way that red is a signal to go away and also to approach. Or perhaps this is part of the plight of women, to be always drawn to a variety of different forms of hurt.
The woman entered the room and in it found a solitary soul, delirious with illness but aware enough to know that he was coming down to this last hours. He was thin as paper, a husk. He asked for his mother, and the woman said she would do what she could do. She did not say there was a chance she could do nothing.
The woman approached The Keepers of Health and asked them why the man had not been cared for, and if his mother was on her way. The Keepers of Health told her he had The Plague that afflicted men who loved men, and so he should not be handled. Even his mother, whom they had contacted, wanted nothing to do with him.
The woman went back into the red room, ready to tell the Man of Paper that his family was not coming. But when she entered that door, the man’s face lit up and he called her his mother and took her hand. She stayed with him until the day ended, until the sun fell beneath the horizon and the man made his last blink, then opened his eyes for good. She gently closed them and promised she would take care of the sack of skin he’d left behind.
The Keepers of Health were happy to release the body to the woman. She went from one funeral home to another trying to get the body prepared for burial, but no one wanted it. Eventually she found a crematorium that would conduct the necessary task.
When she got the ashes back, she called the man’s mother. The mother hung up on her once, then again. The woman called a third time and as soon as the phone was picked up, she said: If you hang up on me again, I will make sure the obituary lists his cause of death. This is how the woman got the mother to stay on the line. But all the mother said was that her son had been dead to her for years, and his ashes were now the woman’s problem.
The woman hung up the phone and looked for something to bury the man in. She looked around the house and found nothing, found instead herself exhausted, squeezed clean of understanding, deeply and irrevocably pained. She found herself weeping on the floor of her kitchen, sobbing with a kind of abandon she had never known. She wept until her face was so swollen her eyes stayed closed. She sat on that floor in her delirium for what length of time she did not know. Her episode must have woken her daughter, for suddenly she heard her child asking her what was wrong.
The woman wiped her face with her sleeve. The woman was cautious. She said she needed a sturdy container that was once loved for a very long-term and important task. Her daughter nodded quickly, as if she understood completely the chore at hand. She left, and a moment later she returned with one of the chipped cookie jars. Here, the daughter said, and the woman took the jar and blew her nose and kissed her child.
Labyrinths incite fear because they are not by design linear. People are afraid of experiences that are not linear, experiences that deviate, diverge, digress. This is because people crave a single course. People want to move up and forward. People want a route that is straight.
The men arrived like water, a stream running from The Big Apple to The Little Rock. She cared for them each, emptied the rooms of her home and gave them beds. The men came and they brought with them their medications and their stories and their art. The walls of the woman’s house became populated with beautiful, haunting paintings and her tables adorned with sculptures. The men left her the pages of their manuscripts and the costumes from their performances. Her house became a place of great beauty, though it was also a place of great frustration and pain.
And when she could confirm the men were sleeping, the woman would call their families. She called over and over and the phones would ring and ring. When someone would answer, they would tell her she was a witch. She was a witch with a very dark soul to have taken in men as wrong as their sons. She was a witch for surrounding herself with a group of bodies who had invited The Plague inside themselves. She was a witch for intervening, for the men deserved just what they got. And the witch said: We are speaking of your son. The witch said to the fathers and cousins and grandparents: We are speaking of the child you once cared for and loved, the person with a place at your dinner table and a branch on your family tree. The witch said to the mothers: We are speaking of the child who spend nine months inside you once upon a time.
But the families would not hear. They hung up on her and she was left alone: a dial tone in her ear, a daughter in her bed, a stack of bills growing on her table.
It should be said that she got help long before me. She sought help from the local color, the kind you can only find in the South. To her rescue came the drag queens who put on balls to raise money to care for the dying men. They called her The Witch, but unlike the families she telephoned at night, they said it with a wink. And so she embraced the title and reclaimed the word. For both she and the queens knew the history of women, that too many have been killed because a man told a very elegant fiction and found enough people to believe it.
The ill came and then the ill ceased, and left behind their remains. The witch had the bodies made into ashes. She put the ashes in the cookie jars and then she put the cookie jars in the ground. The earth accepted the jars and held tight around them. The earth asked the sky if the men could rest now and the sky replied by showing the earth its band of clustered stars. Though the woman could not hear the earth speak to the sky, she saw the universe above her. She thought about the men who were beginning to fill her plots and she thought about the disease that riddled their bodies.
Is the disease up there? her daughter asked when she saw her mother staring at the sky. This after they had buried another jar full of ashes, then said several gentle words about the man the jar
contained. The woman said she did not know. The woman said she could not know if the sky was free from the illness or if the stars, too, were infected. But if they are, the woman said, let us hope very much that the celestial families invite their children home. Let us hope that the universe beyond our earth is kinder.
Once upon a time, for a group of men who loved men at the end of the worst century, the witch gave them care, affection, and a place to rest.
And the men lay quietly ever after.
Somewhere right now, people in a factory are making cookie jars. The glass is being set and the lids are being cut and the word COOKIE is being carefully impressed from the inside out, so that if a child ran her hand across the jar, she could feel the letters rising to meet her fingers. My fear is that we will need the cookie jars for several years to come.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to help the men who belonged to the same community as my brother: men who love men from the cities, who are artists and have been turned away by their families. Let me be clear: The witch did not ask me to stay—I insisted.
When I move around the house, the men tell me their stories: of the bathhouses that permitted them a freedom known only to their generation, of the theatres they frequented and the bars they called home. The parties, the art, the dancing, the drugs. Then, the rumors. Then, the friends falling first slowly, so there was time to mourn and debate and commune, and then quickly, so that they found themselves empty of tears. They kept their homes stocked with sympathy cards. They kept the flowers from one funeral to reuse at the next. They tell me of those who leave the cities, those who have adopted celibacy. The bathhouses are closed, the theatres empty, a community and culture vanishing. They tell me of those who still linger, wanting, grow thick with health; they gain weight as if to display the proof that some bodies are not ill.
I hear of the men who are gone, and sometimes the women—I hear of the art that litters the streets because the apartments are being emptied for a new generation. I hear of the men who have been partnered for ten, twenty years—how when one falls to the illness, the other is left homeless because there is no protection for unwed pairs.
I hear of the gentle ways they take care of each other: feeding, wiping, washing. Making meals and changing sheets and tending sores. And staying sane while the mind of their lover swells and then shrinks.
And then, as quick as ice turns to water, they do it again. Another lover, a colleague, a friend. Another lover, a partner, a neighbor, another lover. A stranger. Another lover.
The witch and I tend to the dying men in the rooms of her saccharine house. She pulls the blankets around their necks, wipes their brows, and distributes their medication while the smell of cookies baking wafts through the halls. One day, after telling me his story, a man asks me to tell him one of my own. He is a sculptor, and he was well so recently there is still clay caked under his nails. I tell him that I don’t know many stories other than fairy tales, but he is happy to hear one. So, I begin.
Once upon a time, there was this and now, and I am ashamed to say: I don’t know how to tell this story.
One evening the phone rings and I answer. Hello? I ask, but there is nothing on the line, just a kind of stuttered breathing. Hello? I say more gently. If this were someone aiming to say rash and horrid things, the person would have said them. Who is there? I ask the mouth on the other end, but it won’t speak and so we sit there because I know. I know it is a mother or a father or a grandparent, a brother or a cousin or an aunt. I know it is someone conflicted. What is his name? I ask and the breathing grows less even, as though the person is facing a great encounter. What is his name? I ask again, and the line goes dead.
Kinds of cookies the jar contained before they contained the men: pecan, chocolate chip, macadamia nut, peanut butter, custard cream, almond, sugar, gingerbread.
I am doing laundry, cleaning the sheets to rid them of blood and sweat and feces, when the witch’s daughter tugs on my shirt. What does the disease look like? the daughter asks. She wants to draw it, then burn it up and put it in a jar so that it, too, might die and the men might be rid of it. It is invisible, I tell her. This is what makes it so dangerous. She takes a new sheet of paper and leaves it blank. Then she asks me to turn it to ashes.
Some nights, after the men are asleep and the witch has put her daughter to bed, after she and I have our tea and she retires herself, I walk the plots and look up at the sky. I put flowers on the graves and I imagine the sky looking down at our sad circumstance. To the sky, we must demand as much attention as a grain of sand. To the sky, we are just another natural phenomenon that will leave an insubstantial trace, a fossilized arrangement of bone here, the crater of a long-melted glacier there. If only we were privileged with such distance, perhaps we could see how minor we all are, all our art and thought and illness and meaning reduced to a bit of debris, the detritus on one of a million spheres stupidly looping nothing.
The phone rings and I answer. Hello? I say, and there is the stutter breathing again. I try to take my form and put it into this invisible figure; I try to put my body in the body of the mouth that breathes on the end of this line. I try to transport myself through the line of the phone to the elsewhere this person occupies and I try to make them me. But when I try to be the body that they are, I fail. It is not for lack of want. I simply cannot come to know the world the way they do. The line goes dead.
The first rule of folklore is that stories cannot be owned. This is what I’m thinking as I watch the bodies around me fall and we do the dirty work of burning them, as I see the forms thin in the beds, the skin marked with lesions, the sheets filthy from waste, the minds going swimmy. I wonder who will tell this story. I look at the bodies surrounding me, a human wasteland, and I wonder who will tell this tale. Who, and also: How?
I think of this at night when I lie in my bed. I try to imagine this story as a fairy tale, something safely distant, something fabricated, but when I try to translate the present moment to a safe and fictional past, all I come up with is a vast expanse of sky on a clear night, full of falling stars.
We are always baking—in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the night. We are always making sure that when the men arrive they are offered something sweet.
One night I tell the witch I am starting to forget their names. The rooms are full then empty so fast, time seems to move vertically. One morning I walk in to bathe a man, and when I see his form on the bed, it is undefined, as if I am seeing him through tearing eyes. I see the form there on the bed, a man, but what I really see is several men transposed, all the men who’ve lived and left there on that bed, all the men whose bodies I’ve known. The man whose tongue swelled until he couldn’t breathe. The man whose tears contained blood.Once upon a time, there was this and now, and I am ashamed to say: I don’t know how to tell this story.
I cannot know, but I believe it will get worse before it gets better. And for all our insistence on remembering the past, this is one story I’d like to relegate to once upon a time.
The phone rings and I answer, but this time I know. This time I do not say, Hello? I am on the line and I hear the stuttered breathing, and I try to will the voice to speak. We both hold steady, in a standoff of silence. Then I break it. What is it? I ask the voice. I hear the breathing on the other line, and if I close my eyes and trick myself into believing, I imagine the person is in the room with me and I feel their breath on my face. What are you trying not to say? I ask the monster, and then it is I who hangs up.
As I am giving him a sponge bath, a man who was once a computer programmer tells me about the best lover he ever had, biting his thumbnail the whole time. He tells it comically, in detail but also with exaggeration. It’s a good story, the kind of story my brother and his friends used to tell me when I would visit him in the city. I can feel in his body the longing and nostalgia he has for the life he’s left behind. I can feel in the skin around his bones that this body I am cleaning was once a body that inaugurated desire. Then he is done and we both give one last smile, not at each other but at the memory of that life. There is just the sound of my cloth softly wiping his skin and the sound of him biting the nail of his thumb until I put my hand around his and pull it away from his mouth. He looks at me. I’m not a good person, he says. I start to interject—I’m not a good person, he says more loudly. He seems to want to say more, but I don’t push him. I am learning that half of my work is to be an ear to the mouths that will soon be gone.
It is easy to forget, but stories need not always have a purpose. We are quick to say that folktales have a moral or a lesson or a creed. But most of the stories that have survived the ages are told for one purpose only, and that purpose is to say this: “Being human is difficult. Here is some evidence.”
At night I walk the plots. I walk the plots and say a kind word at each spot, wonder how many more we will fill. I walk the plots until I come to my brother’s, which I have marked with our
nautilus fossil. But a strange thing has overcome me recently. I cannot find sorrow. There is only an anger so overwhelming, I become nauseous. So I sit where the fresh soil mounds, and I look up at the galaxy above.
One day I hope the witch will enter the story in another form, where it will be revealed how good she is. Where we will have to rewrite the story such that the world knows there are marvels if you look hard enough: in the wood and on the street. She won’t lead us out of the labyrinth, but she does her part to quell its hurt. She gives the men beds. She gives the men drugs. She puts her lips on the men’s foreheads.
We cannot know how this will end, but I read the fear in her face. And this morning, when she sent me on this task, I saw the first signs of defeat. We are in her ancient truck, me driving, her daughter in the passenger’s seat. We are moving along the country roads, driving across state borders and over and through the hours. We are vigilant for the signs that say YARDSALE.
The witch’s daughter takes the task of searching for the signs seriously. She is looking out the window, and when I glance at her, I think: What will she remember of this plague when she is older? Will she remember at all? Or will this plague still loiter in our blood, so that it is not past but present?
Then she spots one—a sign—and I tell her good work and I carefully tussle her hair. I pull the truck over and I am thinking: Will the children four generations from hers come to know this story? Or will it dissolve into history, so that they know it only as another bygone event?
We get out of the car. It’s a good one—a rich assortment of the recycled refuse of a home. There are tables lining the yard. There are live oaks looming on the periphery of the property, and the Spanish moss moves in the wind. There is the sound of cicadas in the field beyond and it’s getting to be dusk. I look out over the property, beyond the tables of wares, and I see an empty and abandoned sandbox. Just then, the witch’s daughter takes my hand, and when she does, my whole body throbs once with a surge of grief and nostalgia. A heavy woman approaches, wrapping a wet cloth around her neck. She nods and smiles at us, and it is clear she is the owner of the home. Y’all lookin’ for anything specific? she asks. Before I can speak, the witch’s daughters says: Cookie jars.
Here is the last story my brother told me, and it is a story that’s true: A man who was not ill took his ill lover to the Deep South, where the man had grown up. When they arrived, he carried his ill lover to his childhood bedroom and lay him on his childhood bed. The ill lover, a man who was once an actor, said the bed was the most comfortable bed his frame had ever known. The lover smiled wider than the man had seen in months, smiled and breathed deeply and shook his head. This bed, the lover said, his tongue caught in the cogs of thought and teeth. Here. I could end. This bed! Right here.
After the visit was over, the lovers, one sick, one well, went back to The Big Apple. But the mother. My god, that mother. The story is not done.
One day toward the end of the ill lover’s life, there came a knock on the door. When the man who was still well opened it, both were astonished to see the childhood bed.The mother had traveled north with the bed so that the sick lover could spend his last days in it. And that is what happened; the following evening, the sick lover took his last breath in the bed, and the man held his mother fast. She kissed his wet cheeks and pulled his face away from hers and told him what I am trying to tell you here—that there are two kinds of labyrinths: those you are born into and must escape, and those you choose to enter in search of what lies inside.
Reprinted with permission from Dzanc Books as a segment of
THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS, Copyright © 2019 by Lindsey Drager.