A warm TKnC welcome to Talkbacker, Lou, with something a bit different...
I love sweet things. Goodies, tasty morsels, delicious little treats. A fairy cake here. An iced doughnut there. I deserve it, with what I have to put up with.
When I met Gustaf, I knew straight away what sort he was. A plain Madeira, reliable but boring with a tendency to go crumbly with age. He was rich, which was the icing on the cake. And he was desperate to get married, which was the cherry. He had been married before, you see, with two children who needed a mother. Not that he told me that. I only found out when he produced four airline tickets for the honeymoon.
He had been scared, he confided. Scared I would refuse him if I knew. I was too beautiful for a man like him and he had hardly believed his luck when I had shown an interest. The fool didn’t realise I only wanted him for his money. Well, as the saying goes, a fool and his money are soon parted. But before I had got half the surgical procedures I’d planned, Gustaf lost everything on the stock market and soon we were living in a two bedroom shack in the middle of nowhere while Gustaf pottered around pretending to be a groundsman.
Me, the Queen of Tarts (read that any way you like), married to a woodcutter and dragging up two brats like a wicked stepmother.
I wasn’t having it, not one bite.
The children were the sort of annoying little cupcakes everyone coos over. They sickened me with their creamy youth. The boy, Hansel, was tall but still rather stringy for my tastes, but the girl would soon be rising to womanhood and bringing the photograph of her dead mother on the mantelpiece to life before my eyes.
That picture. That picture. The beautiful wife who never aged. I smashed it one day in a fit of rage. Gretel burst into tears but Hansel simply picked the photo out of the shattered glass and said, “She doesn’t need props to make her beautiful.”
I knew what he meant. It was at that moment that I made up my mind. I put an arm around them both. “Oh my poor little ones. Let me be your mother now. I want us to get to know each other more. Why don’t we go for a picnic in the woods together?”
Now I knew Hansel and Gretel wouldn’t be keen on the idea. Firstly, they hated me, and secondly they were afraid of the woods and never went in there if they could help it. There were rumours that a witch lived there who caught children and ate them. Where that all started I don’t know.
Before the brats could disagree, I grabbed a basket and called out to Gustaf that I was taking his delicious darlings for a special treat. Gustaf was delighted. He stood in the broken pieces of his wife’s photo frame and waved us off with tears of joy in his eyes.
Poor, besmitten Gustaf.
I led the children into the woods, turning left and right and doubling back until they had no idea which way we had come. I had grown familiar with the little tracks and pathways recently, however. I stopped at a clearing and threw down the picnic basket.
“Unpack this,” I ordered Gretel. “I’ll go and find some sticks to make a nice little fire.”
“There are sticks here, Stepmother,” pointed out Hansel.
I gritted my teeth in irritation “Yes, but these are damp. I’ll find some much better ones. Just stay here and unpack the picnic.”
I walked off laughing quietly to myself. There was nothing in the basket but a stale loaf of bread. It might keep them alive for a few days but there were plenty of creatures in the forest who preferred meat to bread. As I crept back towards the house I couldn’t help rubbing my hands together with glee.
I saw a number of shiny white pebbles dotted along the track but thought nothing of it until later when Gustaf and I were enjoying a romantic meal back at the shack. I had to make him fall in love with me even more, so that when he heard of his children’s tragic deaths in the forest he would be so blinded by love he would not think to blame me.
I nearly choked on my leg bone when I heard Hansel’s voice.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he continued. “For the picnic.”
“Good,” I said, finally managing to swallow.
Hansel’s face was as stony as the trail of pebbles he had left. “And the extra time in the forest by ourselves.”
“Glad you enjoyed it.” I smiled at him mirthlessly. “We must do it again some time.”
Hansel left the room and Gustaf grasped my hand and kissed it passionately. “I never thought such a beautiful woman would ever agree to be my wife,” he gushed. “But to see you be a mother to my children as well, especially in these hard times we must share together – it’s just the –“
“Icing on the cake,” I cooed lovingly. “We’ll go again tomorrow.”
And so we did. The children were even more reluctant but Gustaf insisted. It made him happy, he said, to see his little honeybuns with a new mother. Mother? I nearly choked with disgust at the word as I hurried them away into the leafy darkness.
This time we walked twice as fast as before. There were no pebbles to guide them home now, I made sure of that. We found a new clearing where the trees stood round like candles on a cake.
“I’m going to get some wood,” I said. “Hansel, Gretel –“
“Yes, we know,” said Hansel.
On the way home I noticed that somebody had carelessly dropped pieces of bread all along the path. I whistled and threw a few pieces up in the air. Soon the path was full of twittering, squabbling birds. Such a shame to waste food, I always think.
When I got back to the shack I prepared another delicious meal for Gustaf. The sort of meal which would make a husband swear never to leave his wife. He got so drunk on homemade wine, he didn’t remember to ask about the children until the following day.
“The naughty things refused to come home with me,” I sobbed. “And now they’ve probably been gobbled up by wild animals!”
I knew Gustaf would want to search the wood. I insisted on giving him a drink for the shock first. Then another, and another. When the crying finally stopped I slipped out. I had to be sure the brats were stripped of their meat, one way or the other.
They had found the house, my other house in the woods. My fantasy. It hadn’t taken them long, once they had given up trying to get home. The smell had probably driven them to it. Nothing like the smell of gingerbread when you’re starving.
That devil Hansel had eaten half the roof and Gretel the window frames by the time I got there. I shoved Hansel in a cage to fatten him up, but Gretel was already ripe and so I told her of my intentions.
“Show me the oven,” she said, no doubt intending to sound brave, so I did. My lovely, huge oven, big enough to cook anyone who wandered into the woods unprepared. When I told Gretel where our household meat had been coming from, she didn’t believe me. I put my head inside, just to show her, and the cursed creature pushed me in like I was a Christmas cake. She cranked the oven up high, that girl, burning me from the outside in. I only escaped with my life because the timer was faulty.
It took me two days to crawl back to the house where my husband was waiting for me. Every movement was a torture. Half my face and most of my fingers and toes were burnt off. I was blackened and charred, a neglected piece of meat.
“What have you done to the children?” he yelled.
“What have they done to me, you mean!” I shouted back. “Look at me. I’m ruined!”
“They said you planned to... to eat them.” Stunned at his own words, Gustaf staggered a little and steadied himself against the wall.
“So what if I did? It’s your fault. I would have been content with plastic surgery but you had to go and lose all our money. I had to go back to my old ways. Did you want a wife who looked like an old crone? I need meat, Gustaf! Human meat! It keeps me beautiful. And you want me to be beautiful, don’t you?” I advanced on Gustaf, who backed away. “You would give me your children if it kept me beautiful, wouldn’t you?”
Incredibly, the silly fool looked like he was about to agree. Desire, confusion and self-loathing flashed across his face. Then he broke down in tears. “They’ve gone,” he sobbed. “They blamed me and left. You’re all I’ve got, and look at you!”
“Yes, look at me,” I said. “And you’re all I’ve got. I’d say you’re nearly ready now, too. The oven here isn’t as big as the one at the gingerbread house, but after all, you are a woodcutter and there’s a very big axe in the shed. If I can’t have your money, I’ll have my beauty back.”
And I did.
So beware, my dears. Beware of second marriages and wicked stepmothers and old women who live in the woods. But most of all, beware of sweet things.
I was a sweet thing once, you know.