They Didn’t Live Happily Ever After-A Fairy Tale

Cathryn D’Aldi

 

Gretel placed her double latte and a box of fresh, honey-glazed donuts on the executive assistant’s desk. “Listen, Miss, ah—you’re new here—well, whatever your name is—”

“Ms. Christian Potter. And I repeat, you haven’t made an appointment,” said the recently hired assistant to the editor of Mother Goose’s World publishing house.

“Someone should have informed you, Miss Potter. I have unrestricted access to your boss.” Gretel put both plump hands on her thick waist. Her azure-blue eyes, bloodshot from a binge-drinking weekend, wandered over the executive assistant’s firm bust, toned arms, trim waist.

“If you like, I’ll check his schedule. Let’s see. Mr. Lewis will be free next Wednesday around—”

“Wednesday!? I can’t wait until it’s convenient for Mr. Bigshot.” Gretel’s shrill, angry voice carried into the editor’s office.

Mr. Carroll Lewis, seated at his rosewood desk, frowned. “Your sister’s giving my new assistance a difficult time, Hansel,” he said to the publishing company’s most famous (and most lucrative) author.

The two men had spent the last hour discussing Hansel’s proposal for the third book in his series of fairy tales for children.

What the hell is Gretel doing here? The young man seated across from his editor fiddled with the square, yellow sapphire cufflink in the French cuff of his white shirt sleeve.

The sapphire was part of the treasure stolen from the evil witch who, once upon a time, had lured Hansel and his sister Gretel into her house. Hansel’s first book relating their capture and harrowing escape received the prestigious Jacob Ludwig Karl and Wilhelm Carl award.

“My sister. She’s delusional.” Hansel rubbed the old, silvery-pink scar circling his wrist–the result of being handcuffed to a metal bar of a cage where he was being held–fatten for the cannibalistic witch’s All Hollow’s Eve feast. “Does she come to your office often?”

“Yes, repeatedly, I’m afraid. Since publication of your latest book, Hansel.”

“Protesting my version of the fairy tales, no doubt.” Hansel reached for the copy of his best-selling book, Retold Fairy Tales for Modern Children, resting on the edge of the CEO’s rosewood desk. “

‘’ ‘Pack of lies,’ is what Gretel calls your stories.”

“Lies?” Hansel ruffled the pages of the book with his thumb. The truth would incriminate my sister. Gretel had pushed the witch into the fiery oven. He shuddered at the memory. The witch’s shrieks. The smell of burning flesh.

The office door opened.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Lewis.” Ms. Potter’s cheeks were tinged with color.

‘Perfectly all right, Ms. Potter.”

“This woman insists–.” Ms. Potter’s hand fluttered towards the  pump woman in  the doorway with her hands on her hips.

“Thank you, Mr. Potter. I will speak with Gretel.”

“The sister of a world-famous author doesn’t require an appointment.” Gretel wiped a sticky smudge of icing from her cheek. “Remember that, Miss Potter.”

“If there isn’t anything else, Mr. Lewis.” Ms. Potter glided towards the doorway.

Gretel smirked. Old witch! Bet I know how she got the job. “Excuse me, Miss Potter. Bring in my latte and the box of donuts.”

Ms. Potter sniffed. I don’t think so.

“Help yourself to a donut,” Gretel said. “I love sweets. But I guess with your figure—”

Ms. Potter quietly closed the door.

Hansel stood and grasped his sister’s hand. He detected a whiff of alcohol on her breath. Drinking again. Or worse. “If you are as broke as you claim, how are supporting your habit?” he asked.

Gretel sat in Hansel’s vacated chair, crossed her legs, and adjusted the low, curved neckline of her blouse exposing plump breasts resembling two yeast buns rising in a pan. “A girl has to make a living somehow.”

“What happened to your share of the treasure?” Hansel asked.

After Gretel had unlocked the handcuff around Hansel’s wrist, the two rushed from the stable into the house and hunted for the witch’s hidden treasure.

Hansel had stuffed pearls and precious jewels into the pockets of his lederhosen, and Gretel filled her apron and returned home—to the chagrin of their parents.

Their father, overjoyed at seeing Hansel and Gretel, had wept and begged his children’s forgiveness. Their mother managed a weak, forced smile; her eyes, cold and calculating, had examined the precious stones spread on the kitchen table glittering from the light of a burning candle.

Gretel giggled. “Expensive living in this city,” she said.

Hansel gazed out the window at the towering sky scrapers, the bustling thoroughfares. The city’s electric atmosphere, its energy was intoxicating. Gretel never adjusted. “You could get a legitimate job,” he said.

“You mean like waitressing? Making peanuts? Or a mere glorified secretary?”   Gretel looked at the closed office door. Where the hell is that Potter woman with my donuts? “Don’t be a silly goose, Hansel.” She swung her foot. “I’m thinking of writing my memoirs.”

Hansel gasped. “Are you insane, Gretel?”

“Quite sane, Brother. Mr. Lewis, would you be willing to offer me a substantial advance?”

“Lucrative contracts require exceptional writing skills.” Mr. Carroll Lewis cleared his throat and fumbled with his gold tie clasp. “You’d be in direct competition with your brother.”

“My tales are, ah salacious. Targets a mature audience. Three Pigs Literary House’s agent has shown an interest.”

“You haven’t been offered a contract?”

Gretel sighed. She pressed her hands on the arms of the chair for support and stood up. “Guess Miss Potter isn’t bringing my coffee. Too cold to drink now, anyway. Mr. Lewis, thank you for your time. Hansel, nice seeing you. I have friends who are willing to help.”

“Where are you going?” Hansel asked.

“The Tinderbox Pub. Blackie still tends bar there.”

Hansel bit his lip. “You’re not thinking–?”

“Of returning to Fairy Land? Of course. That’s where the witch’s remaining treasure is located.”

“The Tinderbox?” Mr. Lewis asked. “Know this district like the back of my hand. Never heard of the place.”   He flipped a button on his desk. “Let me call my limousine service.”

“Don’t put yourself out on my account, Mr. Lewis. The Tinderbox Pub is only three blocks from here–if one knows where to look.”

Hansel put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. His face puckered with worry. “You really shouldn’t, Gretel. Go back, I mean.”

“I’m a big girl, now, Hansel. Your protection’s no longer necessary.” Gretel brushed off her brother’s hand and opened the door to the outer office.

“Keep the donuts, Miss Potter,” she said on her way to the elevator.

#

The house loomed ahead.

A white dove perched on the crooked chimney.

The witch’s house! Made of bread with clear, spun-sugar windows and a roof of frosted cake, and not, as her brother, Hansel, best-selling author of retold fairy tales, claimed, a gingerbread cottage covered with sweets and sugarplums.

Finding the house again wasn’t a piece of cake. Gretel kicked a dense layer of moldering leaves blanketing the primeval forest floor. So much for childhood memories.

A gray mouse scurried across the young woman’s sturdy hiking boot.

Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Gretel recalled with a shudder the evil witch, who, years ago, had opened the door and invited her into the house made of bread. Hansel had been so hungry he’d climbed on the roof and sat eating a huge chunk of cake.

Gretel unzipped the small pouch fastened around her waist, unwrapped a granola energy bar, and leaned against a massive oak tree. She was famoushed, but nibbled—like that mouse; she hadn’t packed enough food. She ate half the bar and wrapped the remainder for later.

A chill autumn wind blew through the primeval forest.

Gretel shivered, tucked her long, blond braid inside the fleece-lined jacket, and turned up the collar. Damn, it’s cold. Night’s approaching. I’ve got to find shelter. Her azure-blue eyes scoured the woods.

Shaken by the wind, ancient oak trees, etched against the sunset’s fading yellows and golds, swayed, and the, low-hanging branches trembled. Witches work!

A sound in the oak tree’s canopy startled Gretel.

What’s that?!

Fear pounced like a ravenous beast.

“No, no.” She remembered that sound—like wood being sawed–and her father’s betrayal many years ago.

 

Their father had abandoned Hansel and her in a small clearing beside a flickering fire.

“Listen, brother,” Gretel had said. “Father is nearby. Cutting firewood. I hear the sound of his saw.”

Two branches whipped by the wind rubbed together produced the sound of a handsaw cutting wood. Their father had lashed two tree limbs together—to fool his children.

“I’m frightened, Hansel. And hungry.” Gretel had searched in her apron pocket for a crumb of bread. “When is father coming for us?”

Young Hansel tossed a few twigs on the flickering flames. He had overheard his parent’s plans to leave them in the woods.” Should all four of us starve?” his Mother had asked.

Hansel wrapped a thin arm around his little sister’s trembling shoulders. “Don’t worry, Gretel. If father doesn’t come for us, we can follow the pebbles I’ve dropped along the path. When the moon rises, we’ll return home.”

 

Gretel ran blindly through the shadowy forest, tripped over a mossy, half-rotted log, and twisted her ankle. “Damn!”

She hobbled on one foot to a nearby oak tree.

Pressing her back against the tree, she slid down the rough trunk landing with a thud on the damp, leaf-littered ground.

Gingerly, she felt the injured ankle. Ouch! I’ll have to spend the night.

#

Sunlight filtered through the trees. Gretel opened her eyes, yawned, and checked her ankle. Swelling’s nearly gone. Gretel washed down the second half of the energy bar with bottled water.

She found a fallen limb suitable for a walking stick. Which way? Gotta find a short cut.

A white dove, cooing loudly, flew through the trees and landed on a tree branch. Bright eyes stared at Gretel. “This way,” the bird said. “This way.”

Using the walking stick, Gretel followed the dove. The bird circled back several times.

Twenty minutes later, the dove dipped its wings and glided to a landing on the cake-topped roof of the witch’s house.

The witch was dead; she wouldn’t poke her head out the door with a snaggle-toothed smile and an invitation to come inside for breakfast, yet Gretel hesitated at the foot of the sagging front steps. I’m not ready to go inside.

She limped around to the back of the house.

The stable where Hansel had been held prisoner leaned to the left. The windows were broken, and the faded green door hung precariously by one rusted hinge. 

Chiseled stones from the large outdoor oven lay in a ring like remains of a collapsed monolithic idol on the overgrown lawn, and the rusted iron oven door poked through a tangle of weeds and dried, twisted vines.

A blazing wood fire burned bright the morning Gretel had pushed the witch into the stone oven, and bolted the iron door.

Got her. My first murder.

Gretel had waited until the screams died before freeing Hansel from the cage. Together they had searched for the witch’s hidden cache of precious gems.

“I wonder if I’ ll find the casket hidden under the floor boards?” she muttered and hobbled around to the front of the witch’s house. She propped the walking stick beside the door and peeked through a transparent, spun-sugar windowpane.

“House’s safe,” said the dove from his perch on the roof. “Few visitors since the old witch’s death.”

Gretel opened the door.

The house, dark, dank, and draped with grey cobwebs, smelled of rat droppings, decay, and mold.

The dove followed Gretel into the witch’s bedroom and perched on the fireplace mantel. Dust scattered.

Gretel opened the closet door and lifted a floorboard. “Gone.”

The bird stroked a wing feather with his bill. “The Nightingale Catcher stole the jewels.”

“Nightingale Catcher?” Gretel frowned.

The dove looked at Gretel unblinkingly. “She’s a witch. Not as well-known as others in Fairy Land. But wicked. Extremely wicked. Many a fair maiden lured into the Nightingale Catcher’s enchanted garden are never seen again.”

“How many?”

“According to rumors, the witch prised the gems from the pins, earrings, necklaces and bracelets her victims were wearing. Possibly thousands—

“Thousands? Ridiculous.”

“You asked Blackie, the bartender, at the Tinderbox Pub to open the secret passageway to Fairy Land, didn’t you?” The dove’s white feathers ruffled. “You aren’t in the real world, Gretel. Anything is possible here.”

“What happens to those women who trespassed? In the Nightingale Catcher’s garden?”

“Transformed. Into nightingales.”

Gretel scratched her nose. Others had suffered a worse fate at the hands of witches. “Show me the way to the Nightingale Catcher’s castle,” she said. “I’m going after the treasure.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” said the dove and flew out the door.

#

The hunch-backed old woman leaned against the castle turret overlooking her enchanted garden and fondled her long, curved nose which grazed her pointed chin. The wind whipped her dark, flowing gown, and the wicker birdcage she held in one hand swayed. Beneath black, thick eyebrows, her beady eyes sparkled as the gate in the stone wall opened, and a young woman, limping slightly, entered and walked along the winding path bordered with red asters and yellow chrysanthemums.

The Nightingale Catcher cackled. Another pretty birdie. For my collection.

Hanging in the many cavernous room in the Nightingale Catcher’s castle were hundreds and hundreds of wicker bird cages. Each cage held a nightingale.

Every morning, and at dusk, seven thousand nightingales twittered, chirped, and warbled. The forest and surrounding countryside rang with their melodies.

Gretel sat on a stone bench and watched Koi swimming in a small oval pool. The setting sun reflected in the rippling water.

Shrill, soprano chirps and tenor warblings floated from the castle windows. Gretel listened, enthralled by the nightingale’s hypnotic evening choir; she didn’t hear the rustling of the Nightingale Catcher’s robe as the witch crept behind the stone bench and opened the wicker birdcage.

Instructor Response

Cathyrn,
Great. I’d consider this finished. (Don’t fall into the trap of over revising.) Only one suggestion: maybe change the title; relate it more to characters or plot than outcome. You’ve picked up many techniques that you use very effectively. If you’re going to submit, consider waiting a few weeks or months and do a final revision. Time gives you interesting, often surprising, perspectives.
Thanks for opportunity to read.
All the best,
WHC

  1. Dear Dr. Coles,
    Thank you very much for your review; I will certaiinly let this piece “rest” as a cook does with a ball of yeasty dough.

    Very best to you,too,

    Cathryn

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