Gretel’s Challenge Pt. 3

Gretel stared at the girl’s hand. She shook it slowly. “Gretel,” she said.

Aura beamed. “I know. I came here to see you.”

Gretel frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Aura nodded, as though she’d expected to hear that. “Sometimes when I hear a story, my ears itch. That’s how I know it’s true. And then I can Travel to where the story is happening.”

Gretel stared at the girl. “But how did you hear about my story?”

“Oh, it’s a famous fairy tale where I come from.”

Gretel frowned. “I’ve never met a fairy. Are you a fairy?”

Aura giggled. “No.” She stopped and thought about it. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Maybe that’s why I can Travel.” She frowned. “But I don’t have a wand. Or wings. So I don’t think so.” She thought for another moment. “I’d like to have wings,” she said.

Gretel shook her head. They’d gotten off track. “And your dwarf mother just lets you ‘travel’ wherever you want, any time you hear a story?”

Aura looked guilty. She leaned toward Gretel. “I’m not supposed to Travel without her,” she said, conspiratorially. “But she doesn’t like Adventures as much as me and sometimes my ears itch — SO — BAD!”

Gretel couldn’t help but laugh. It sounded rough and it only lasted a moment, but it surprised her. “So, what does the story you heard say about me?”

Aura took a breath. She tilted her head back, and her eyes focused on something inside herself. “Hansel and Gretel lived with their father and mother. They were very poor and the mother said that they should leave Hansel and Gretel in the forest. The father was sad but he agreed. But Hansel and Gretel heard this and left breadcrumbs so that they could find their way home. But the birds ate the breadcrumbs, so Hansel and Gretel couldn’t find their way home.”

While Aura paused for breath, Gretel stared at the girl. She was confused, and little hurt, by the blase recitation that sketched an outline of the horrors Gretel and her brother had endured.

Aura didn’t register Gretel’s distress. She continued with the story. “But they found a house made of gingerbread and candy with frosting everywhere and started eating it. A witch invited them inside. At first, she seemed nice but then she locked up Hansel and made Gretel cook him lots of food to make him fat and tasty for the witch.”

She stopped, looking up at Gretel. “Why did she want to eat Hansel if her house was made of cake and she had more food to make him fat?”

“Oh.” Gretel was startled by Aura’s question. It was one she’d asked herself, time and again, but had never found a satisfactory answer for. “Um. She was Bad, I guess,” she said. The answer only rang partially true, to her own ears.

Aura tilted her head, considering Gretel’s answer. She didn’t seem any more satisfied with the answer than Gretel, but she shrugged and took another breath. “The witch couldn’t see good,” Aura continued. “So when the witch would check to see if he was fat yet, he’d hold out a bone from the chicken Gretel had cooked for him, and it tricked the witch into thinking he wasn’t fat.

“But one day, the witch decided to eat him anyway. She told Gretel to check if the oven was hot enough but Gretel said she didn’t know how, so the witch checked instead. Gretel locked the witch in the oven and went and rescued Hansel. They stole lots of gold and stuff from the witch’s house and took it home. Their dad was so happy to see them and to be rich now, and their stepmother was dead.”

The story over, Aura stopped to catch her breath. Her gaze focused on Gretel again. “Sometimes the stories aren’t very true. I guess if the witch ate Hansel some stuff was wrong….?”

Gretel processed Aura’s version of the story. Gretel’s story. Her living nightmare. It almost didn’t sound that bad, at least, not in the cavalier way that Aura told it. Gretel supposed that if she and Hansel had made it back to their father with pockets stuffed with gold, maybe the cruelty of him having left them in the woods in the first place might have balanced out. But, the heaviness in her heart knew that wasn’t true.

She was foolish to have believed that her stepmother had loved them, and she and Hansel had been foolish to believe that a magical house made of candy and cake in the middle of the forest wasn’t too good to be true. They’d been foolish to trust that the witch just wanted to give them a warm place to sleep and a loving home to live in. But the part that hurt — really hurt — was their father allowing himself to be persuaded to abandon them. Twice.

And, yes, Gretel and Hansel had left rocks and then breadcrumbs to help them find their way home, but Gretel had secretly hoped that her father would follow those breadcrumbs and rescue them. But Gretel, who had followed those breadcrumbs every day for the past 9 years, every day since she’d escaped the witch, had never seen her father on the trail. This knowledge created an abscess in her heart.

This bitterness made her want to lash out at Aura, to tell her to grow up. To tell her that stories that started with parents who abandoned their children didn’t end well. Then she remembered that Aura had been adopted, and she bit her tongue. The girl seemed happy enough, ridiculously so. Maybe it hadn’t been stupid to believe that her stepmother should have been able to love her and Hansel.

She shoved the thought away, and stood. It didn’t matter. ‘Should’ wasn’t real. What was real was that Hansel was about the be eaten by a witch, and only Gretel could stop that from happening. She’d have to ditch the kid first, of course.

Greta’s Challenge Pt. 2

Gretel awoke. Her head rested on an old almanac, and the barkeep had laid his apron over her before retiring for the evening. Gretel rose, groaning as her muscles protested. The sky through the window was bright blue, and the birds screeching outside tweaked at her pounding headache. Gretel replaced the almanac on the bookcase, the apron on the hook by the door that led up to the barkeep’s apartment, and downed the shot of moonshine that had been left on the bar for her.

She clomped over to the door, her boots feeling heavy, but her head feeling lighter. She unlocked the door and opened it up. A bright smile greeted her.

“Ugh,” Gretel said, offended by such unabashed cheerfulness this early in the morning. The kid looked familiar. The hair was braided instead of pigtailed, and the poofy dress was a different color, but the sparkly red shoes and the tiger-ish amber eyes were the same as the brat who’d been sitting next to her the night before. “What do you want?” She was started to feel persecuted by the child’s persistent friendliness.

The girl’s smile widened. “I’m here to help you!”

The girl’s voice chirped sweetly like birdsong and was equally annoying. No, it was more annoying. At least the birds left Gretel alone. Gretel snorted. “Alright,” she said. She shut the door to the bar and brushed past the kid. She strode toward the woods at her usual pace.

The kid had to run and skip in order to keep up, but she didn’t seem to mind, much to Gretel’s irritation. About a mile into the woods, Gretel started following the breadcrumbs she and Hansel had left for their father, so many years ago. The trail was so familiar to her by now that though the trail wound intricately around ancient oak trees like a labyrinth, the crumbs were no longer necessary. Still, they were a comforting presence, and the longer Gretel followed the trail, the stronger and more determined she felt.

The crumbs led to an oak tree so huge and old that an archway had been carved through it. The archway rose several feet above Gretel’s head and more than an arm’s breadth wide, but the tree was so massive that the size of the opening in the middle of its trunk didn’t affect the sturdiness of its structure.

No matter the distastefulness of Gretel’s destination, passing through the tree felt like a head-to-toe hug. She walked out of the other side of the tree, her scalp still tingling pleasantly.

In her younger days, Gretel had attempted to bring people through the archway with her. Grown adults with axes of every size, shape, and sharpness who had pledged to help her rescue her brother. Every one of them had been able to pass through the archway, but had instantly lost track of Gretel once on the other side. Gretel had tried holding hands, piggybacking, and even chaining herself to these people, but every time, she’d ended up on the other side of the archway, alone.

She was so accustomed to the idea that nobody could pass through the archway with her that she’d mentally dismissed the child who had promised to help her. Therefore, she was startled, a few minutes later, by the sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs on the trail behind her. She turned, and for a moment wondered if she was dreaming. The little girl stopped skipping, and looked up at Gretel expectantly.

Gretel’s knees felt weak and she half-fell, have sat down on in the middle of the path. The girl followed Gretel’s lead, sitting down in front of Gretel and criss-crossing her legs.

“Who are you?” Gretel asked.

“I’m Aura,” the little girl said, holding out her hand.

Gretel’s Challenge

Gretel sat at the bar, nursing bruised knuckles and a beer. The witch had won again. The thought echoed in Gretel’s mind like a malignant mantra.

“You look sad.”

The voice came from the stool to Gretel’s right. She looked over, and then down. A little girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, with bright, tigerish eyes and smooth brown pigtails, looked up at her.

The girl smiled, revealing a row of tiny white teeth except for a pinkish gap where a front tooth should be. “Maybe I can help,” she said.

Gretel snorted. She sneered down at the girl, several beers and many years worth of bile welling up at the offer. “Get lost, Dwarf,” she said. She drained the rest of her beer. Before she could signal for another, a fresh mug was sliding toward her. Gretel caught it. Cold foam slopped over her hand. A welcome pain ignited at the contact of alcohol on the split skin of her knuckles. A familiar warm numbness swept through the rest of her body as she gulped down half of the beer.

“I’m not a dwarf,” the girl said. Her tone was informative, rather than offended. “My mother is a dwarf. I am of a typical height — for my age.”

Gretel looked back down at the girl. She split and swam in Gretel’s vision, but there was a false note in her statement. Gretel followed the note through the river of her own blurry thoughts. “Your mother is a mermaid,” she corrected. The double vision faded enough for Gretel to be able to see the girl’s cheeks pinken.

The girl acknowledged the hit with a nod. “My birth mother is a mermaid. My adoptive mother is a dwarf.”

The girl’s quiet dignity chafed against Gretel’s conscience. Her words had been not been meant kindly. She opened her mouth to apologize, but a huge belch escaped instead. The girl’s bangs fluttered against her forehead and her eyes widened. Gretel swallowed her apology and turned back to her beer.

“Really, I’m good at helping,” the girl said. “I help a lot of folk.”

The vibration in the word folk rippled in Gretel’s brain. She turned to look at the girl again. Her tiger eyes glowed with that unshakable confidence of all little girls who had met many challenges but hadn’t yet been defeated. Once again, Gretel wrestled with her conscience before speaking. She lost, again. “My brother was eaten by a witch,” she said. “How would you like to help with that?”

To her relief, she was unable to register the girl’s response because the copious amounts of alcohol she’d consumed finally hit the sweet spot in her brain. She slid off the stool and crumpled gracelessly on a floor varnished with blood, sweat, and drool — a decent amount of which had once belonged to Gretel.

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, there lived a princess who was born with three eyes. This wouldn’t have been unusual except that everyone else in the kingdom only was only allowed two eyes each. This deviance, of course, caused some distress to the king and queen. They purchased expensive silk scarves and wrapped them in elaborate bows around the baby’s forehead, but the baby cried and fussed until the scarves were removed.

As the princess grew into a toddler, the princess’ governess cut the princess’ hair so that long bangs would hide the princess’ third eye. But the bangs blocked the princess from seeing through her third eye, and besides which, the hair tickled her eyelashes. So, every morning, after her governess would comb her bangs straight, the princess would pin her bangs back so that she could see clearly.

After a couple of years of this, the queen, frustrated by her child’s rebelliousness, summoned the princess to the throne room. The child, aside from her insistence on using all three eyes, was generally loving and obedient. When she received word that her mother would like to speak to her, she handed the basket of wildflowers that she had been picking to her governess and headed toward the castle.

The throne room, like the rest of the castle, was made up entirely of white marble threaded through with gold. The room was large enough to hold hundreds of subjects at a time. Twin dais’ set against the back wall were home to two elaborately carved golden thrones. Upon the thrones, sat the king and queen.

Other than the few spots of dirt on her dress and cheeks, and the giant eye in the middle of her forehead, the princess was nearly the perfect image of a royal child. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes bright and intelligent, and she moved with a grace beyond her handful of years.

The queen dismissed the governess and when the princess was alone with the king and queen, the queen set her fierce gaze upon her child. “My daughter,” the queen said, her voice stern. “Why do you insist on exposing your third eye when you have been repeatedly asked to cover it?”

“My third eye has the power to see if a person is good or bad,” the child answered.

“Really?” the queen asked. “How?”

“When people are mean because of my third eye, I can see that they are bad.”

The queen was quiet for a moment, and then she burst into tears. The princess crawled up onto her mother’s lap and wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. The queen wept into one hand and held onto her daughter with her other.

Before long, the queen pulled herself together. She sniffled and then wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress. “I have something to show you,” she said.

The queen held her daughter tighter with one arm and removed her diadem with her free hand. She handed the diadem to her husband and then pulled her hair back, revealing a pucker in the skin of her forehead. It took a moment for the princess to realize that this was a closed eyelid.

“My mother was ordered to sew my extra eyelid shut,” the queen said. “But she couldn’t bear to do that to me. So she merely plucked out all of my eyelashes and ordered me to keep my extra eye closed and covered. I haven’t opened my third eye since I was a child, younger than you.”

The princess felt sad for her mother, the child. The princess also felt a guilty relief that she wasn’t the only person in the kingdom with an extra eye. She wasn’t a naturally defiant person; it had just never made sense to intentionally cripple herself for the aesthetic preferences of other people.

However, her stubbornness had consequences. For one, many people rejected her because of her deformity, and that hurt. Second, even people who didn’t mind the third eye found her open defiance offensive. And third, in her secret heart, behind all of her common sense and courage, was a secret wish that she didn’t have to constantly defend her right to be as she was. In her secret heart, she’d always wished to look like her mother, with her two perfect eyes.

And now, it turned out, that her mother looked like her, with her imperfect third eye. Sorrow and joy and words formed a knot in the child’s chest, which moved up to her throat. Unable to speak, she instead reached out and stroked her mother’s closed eyelid, which trembled beneath the child’s fingers.

The queen pulled her child’s hand away from her eyelid and held it to her heart. She had kept her third eye closed for so long that it took several minutes to assure the lid that she wanted it to open, before it budged. The eyelids slid apart and a near lifetime’s worth of tears that had built up behind that closed lid, poured out.

There were tears of shame and anger but also of joy. New tears joined the old ones, cascading down her cheeks, splashing down her shoulders and then her daughter’s, before splashing down the steps of the dais. The princess’ tears joined her mother’s, creating a pool that flooded the throne room and the entire bottom floor of the castle. It then flowed out of the castle, filled the moat surrounding the castle, before forming a river that led to the sea.

The river of tears was full of woe but also every moment of joy that the queen had ever felt. There was the day that she learned to skip, the first time she rode a horse, her first time behind the reins of a carriage. The river frolicked with the memory of first time she decided that she loved the man who would be her king, and every subsequent realization that she loved him even more as the years went by.

When the memories of her daughter’s first step, first word, and the first time she brushed the hair out of her face reached the ocean, the sea level rose five inches. By the time the flow of the queen’s tears slowed, several years had passed.

The marble stairs of the dais had eroded to the point where the queen and the princess had to slide down from the throne to the wet floor. The king, who had contributed his own portion of tears to the river, met his wife and daughter at the base of the dais’. Together, they splashed their way to the door of the throne room.

The servants had adapted to the new state of the castle floors and skated around on small boats instead of walking in shoes. The queen ordered the servants to prepare a feast, and to invite the entire kingdom. The servants rejoiced at the return of their king and queen, and immediately set to work on preparations for the feast.

The morning of the feast, the princess was bursting with excitement. Firstly, because she hadn’t eaten in several years, and now that she was approaching her teenage years, she needed extra nourishment. Secondly, the princess had outgrown all of her old clothing, and a brand new dress designed specifically for the occasion was hanging in her wardrobe. And finally, she was looking forward to the vindication of her third eye. Surely, once the entire kingdom knew that the queen also had a third eye, everyone would be forced to accept that third eyes were completely normal.

This euphoria was tampered by the governess, who, as usual, attempted to style the princess’ hair in the old way — by covering her third eye. The princess ducked the governess’ next swipe and then gently removed the brush from the governess’ grasp.

“Why are you trying to cover my third eye?” the princess asked.

The governess frowned. She loved the princess but she had not missed this old argument. The princess’ bangs had grown out, so the governess was attempting a sweep of hair across the forehead before the princess took the brush away.

“Her highness requested it,” the governess said.

It was the princess’ turn to frown. “I’m sorry, but you must be mistaken,” the princess said. “I will speak to my mother, and she will clarify this matter for us.”

The princess had received a new pair of gem-studded boat shoes for the party, but she preferred splashing through her family’s tears. Each splash that she made on the way to her mother’s chambers was a reminder of the pain that came from trying to seem like everyone else — and that that pain was now over, forever.

The queen’s chambers were decorated in reds, oranges, and golds, with watery blues and green accent that tempered the fiery tones. The queen sat at her vanity. Her dark curls had been captured by a filigree gold crown that rose several inches from her head. She wore no necklace, showcasing her long, graceful neck.

Although the queen’s back was to the princess, the princess could see her mother’s reflection in the mirror. A length of hair swept sleekly across her forehead, obscuring her third eye.

The princess’ disappointment was compounded by the foolishness of her hopes. She had known the truth as soon as the governess had, once again, wielded that hateful hairbrush. The princess felt dizzy and fell back against the door frame.

Her movement reflected in the mirror and the queen turned to face the princess. She didn’t say anything but a flush crept up her bare neck.

The princess took a few shaky steps toward her mother. She looked down, watching her mother’s tears splash against her toes. She stopped and looked at her mother. “I thought….” she didn’t know what to say next.

The queen stood. “I have decided to keep my third eye open in private,” she said. “However, in public, I can see no good in exposing myself to ridicule.”

“Like I do,” the princess said, finishing her mother’s thought.

“Like you did,” the queen corrected.

The princess stepped back. “You’ve never forced me…”

The queen sat again, and picked up a pair of golden shears from her vanity. “And I wouldn’t,” the queen said. “But I think you’re old enough to make the right decision — not just for me, but for you, and for the entire kingdom.” She rested the shears on her lap, and waited.

The princess walked toward her mother, but halted again, a few feet away. “What is so bad about having a third eye?” the princess asked. It was a questioned that had echoed throughout her entire childhood, but one that she had never received a satisfactory answer to.

“The fault isn’t with having three eyes,” the queen answered. “The fault is with having three eyes when everyone else has two.”

This sounded like the same lack of answer the princess had received her entire life, but the princess was too tired to continue arguing with it. She tried to understand that five years was half of her entire lifespan but it was a smaller fraction of her mother’s. And her mother had spent her entire life shamed into hiding that part of herself. It was unreasonable to expect a complete change of heart just because her mother had experienced one good cry over it.

So the princess pretended to understand, and she allowed her mother to cut her bangs. She closed her all three eyes as her mother encircled the princess’ forehead with a diadem made of intricate gold filigree. She opened her normal two eyes to see her mother’s resigned smile.

The princess allowed herself to be led outside to what had once been the castle lawn, but which was now a lake. The servants had set up floating platforms bursting with roasted meats, fruits, vegetables, deserts, and champagnes for the older folk, punch for the younger.

The old and infirm were rowed around the lake by jaunty servants, while the younger subjects glided around in jewel-toned gowns and tunics. Those with gowns allowed their hems to float on top of the water, whilst those in tunics and stockings displayed their gilded boat shoes proudly.

Cheerful chatter and flirtatious laughter that rose up over the band that circled the lake on their own floating platform. It was as festive a party as the princess had hoped for when she had woken up in the morning.

The king was already sitting in a golden throne on a floating platform in the center of the lake. He had trimmed his hair and beard and was wearing an elaborate crown studded with sapphires that matched his doublet and his wife’s gown.

The queen gave the princess a quick hand squeeze before slipping onto the lake with her bejeweled boat shoes. She joined her husband on the platform and took her seat next to him.

“You forgot your shoes.” The princess turned to find her governess holding out the bejeweled boat shoes. The princess expected to find the same old censure in the governess’ eyes, but empathy lurked in their watchful depths instead.

The princess could have handled yet another lecture or another stern glare, but the unexpected empathy brought tears to all three of the princess’ eyes. She took the shoes and turned away. She allowed the tears to fall silently into the lawn lake as she slipped the shoes on.

“Thank you,” she said softly, not trusting herself to look back at her governess. Instead, she tilted her chin up, and slipped into the lake. She glided aimlessly for a moment until a young lady caught the princess’ hand and pulled her into a dance. The dance was intricate and spirited. The dance reminded the princess of ones that she watched as a child, although those had been done on grass or marble rather than water. She remembered the anticipation of being old enough to participate.

She could not help but feel grown up and graceful as she caught onto the movements fairly easily. It helped that her dance partners were gracious and patient. The last time she had seen one particular gentleman had been five years ago. She had chased him across what used to be the palace lawn after he had demolished a flower crown that she had painstakingly woven from wildflowers found at the edge of the forest.

Another young gentleman had been accustomed to throwing sheeps’ feces at her and calling her a Three-Eyed-Freak. It had seemed that, at one point, every other child in the village had had a nickname for the princess, and none of them had been friendly. But as she glided through the water, clasping hands with old nemeses, it almost hurt to realize how good it felt to be accepted.

If she had realized how good this felt, she may have never fought the compulsion to allow her third eye to be closed. Several dances later, the sun had set, leaving the sky dotted with sparkling stars.

The princess, warm from the dancing, slipped away from the crowd and toward the edges of the lake. What had once been the forest was now half underwater, but the princess found her favorite tree pretty quickly. It was the one she had used to climb away from insults and tossed poo.

Opening Line Prompt #1

There are only three things in life that truly matter: Harry Hamerton, sugar and chocolate.  So that’s what I wished for, from the genie.

She looked at me with an eyebrow tweaked, and then shrugged. “Okay. Here you go.” She made a graceful flourish with her hands and in a poof of smoke, she was holding three small drawstring bags.

She handed me the white one first. It was gauzy and its surface shimmered with tiny crystals. It was surprisingly heavy. She handed me the brown one second. It was smooth and satiny, and almost slipped through my fingers. The third bag was bubblegum pink, with a heart-shaped ruby rhinestone bead drawing the bag closed.

She hesitated, dangling the bag before my dazzled eyes. “Are you sure you want this one – in this manner – as a wish?”

I nodded. Why would she even ask?

“Alright.” I heard her shrug, this time, still unable to tear my gaze away from the bag.

The first two bags filled my palms, so she hung the third on my pinkie finger. The ruby winked at me, the sweetest promise of all.

I managed bring my attention – barely – back to the genie. “Thank you,” I said, gratitude spilling out of my pores and infusing my words.

She shook her head, her general air of mischief dimming a bit. “You seem like a nice kid,” she said, regret deepening her flute-ish voice. “I apologize in advance.” Then she disappeared in a puff of smoke that smelled like honeysuckle and tasted like cotton candy.

“I didn’t even get to wish her free,” I murmured, my attention already recaptured by the bags in my hands.

I’d watched enough movies to know that she’d handed me three curses disguised as blessings, but I couldn’t imagine how anything I’d wished for could bring me anything but the deepest joy.

I don’t know how I got home but I distinctly remember placing the bags on the coffee table that I’d had since I was a child and begged off of my parents when I finally got my own place.

I opened the white bag. Sugar spilled out, tiny diamonds glimmering against the dark wood and scratched glass inlays. The chocolate flowed up in chunks and nuggets – dark, milk, white. Some with nuts, with raisins, with pretzels, some just smoothest and creamiest dreams the angels ever breathed into existence. I had to close the bags again, to halt the conjuration, but I reveled in the luxury of having as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

With some trepidation, I turned to the final bag. Harry Hamerton was my boyfriend in kindergarten; my first and purest love. The genies with their tricky wishes – would multiple Harry clones spill out until I closed the bag again? Would it be just one Harry, but the version of him that I fell in love with in the first place; me in my early twenties, him still tying his shoes with the bunny-ear method? I hadn’t seen Harry in almost twenty years, what if he’d died young; his dead body was in the bag, half-decomposed, with teams of maggots crawling out of his orifices?

Was that the curse? To spend the rest of my life imagining worst-case scenarios, and never opening the bag? To hell with that! With trembling fingers, I slid the ruby heart bead down the lace ribbon holding the bag shut. I stood back and held my breath.

The bag dissolved and morphed into a cloud of musky smoke. And then Harry was there, holding my hands. And he was smiling and a grown-up and handsome and alive. I looked into his eyes and my heart stopped, and then sank, and then shattered into a million pieces when I realized the magnitude of my mistake.

Harry’s loving gaze took on a quizzical cast. “Are you okay, my darling?” he asked.

I nodded numbly, wishing I couldn’t see that red, heart-shaped sparkle in the middle of his left pupil. I’d wished for Harry, and I’d gotten him. But Harry hadn’t wished for me.

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