white queen, red heart
scroll down for part 2
the hut where grimhilde is born has only one window. she has no father. she has the woods. she knows this because her mother tells her, over and over: i cut my palm so deeply that it can no longer curl into a fist. the blood was hot. it melted the snow, and was swallowed by the dirt. the woods accepted. the woods gave me you.
when she is born, the first sound she makes is the same sound all babies make: she cries. but grimhilde is not the same. grimhilde does not stop crying.
grimhilde's mother holds the baby close. she rocks her, arms shaking. this is the price, she thinks, of wanting: the woods give you a child and you must watch her die. you must listen to her crying until the crying makes you want to kill her yourself.
she rocks. she sings. she presses kisses along the baby's head. the crying never stops.
she does not know why she cannot fill the girl's aching stomach, why the touch of sunlight blisters her skin. she does not know why until she opens her finger while slicing an apple and grimhilde surges forward, eyes rolled back so far that they are nothing but white.
red on white on black. grimhilde's mother watches the child come away with blood on her mouth, appeased, and understands.
she flexes her fingers, but cannot make a fist.
when the baby is six weeks old, grimhilde's mother brings her to a witch. she has no money, but she has her hands, and she is strong. someone has to tend the witch's garden.
"what have you done, you stupid girl?" the witch asks as soon as they walk through the door. the witch does not look how witches are said to look: no hooked nose, no fingernails so long they wind into hypnotizing spirals. but there is a bitter curl to her lips.
"i don't know," grimhilde's mother answers over the constant wail of her too-pale daughter. "i cut my hand. i asked."
witches do not know sorrow, but they can feel pity. this witch is old. she has seen a hundred stupid girls who opened their veins and poured their desire out. she has watched them get what they want and she has watched the blood come back for them.
this witch opened her own veins, once. the blood will come back for her, too.
"can you fix her?" grimhilde's mother asks.
"she is not broken," the witch answers. "she is old magic, and old magic is blood magic and cannot be unmade. promises made in blood must be paid in it." the witch reaches out a hand and touches grimhilde's head. she tips a vial of red liquid into her small mouth.
"come back when she starts crying again," the witch says. "and make sure the apples are sweet."
grimhilde stops crying.
grimhilde's mother plants asphodel and nettle and nightshade in the witch's garden. the apples grow round and juicy. grimhilde plays on the grass, beside the winterblooms. when she is hungry, the witch comes out from her hut and offers her finger.
on long summer days the witch makes soft brown candy in a pot. she shows grimhilde how to make it, one step at a time. the candy is sweet. it makes the house smell sweet. sweet things come to sweet places, the witch tells grimhilde. remember that.
grimhilde grows quickly, her dark hair long. she looks nothing like her mother, who was raised to work. grimhilde is lithe and soft and floats. the sun seems to shimmer through her skin, but never browns it. when she smiles at the world, it smiles back.
this is what frightens grimhilde's mother. it is not the way grimhilde tears into vole hearts and comes away bloody. it is not even the way she can feel grimhilde's eyes, sometimes, tracking her pulse.
what frightens her is the way the townspeople fall to their knees before her, mouths curled up in delight. she is a peasant woman, and grimhilde is her peasant daughter. there is no reason why the butcher should give them free cuts of lamb.
grimhilde's mother gives her two drops of the witch's blood every morning and wonders: whose desire for life cut my hand? mine or hers?
when grimhilde turns nine, the witch begins to die. grimhilde's mother didn't know a witch could die, but then, grimhilde's mother doesn't know a lot about witches. it is a slow process, so slow that at first neither grimhilde nor her mother notices. but as the witch dies, so does the garden: one at a time, first the asphodel then the nettle then the nightshade.
the apples stay fresh. grimhilde's mother slices them into pieces and feed them to the witch as grimhilde sucks blood from her fingertips.
"what is wrong with you?" grimhilde's mother asks. "what medicine do you need?"
the witch shakes her head. she holds up her hand and cannot make a fist. "i asked, too," she says. "nothing is free. promises must be kept." she cuts a long line into her arm and let's the red river run into an urn. she and grimhilde's mother watch the blood fill it up while grimhilde's nostrils flare. "this will keep her alive. but it won't last forever."
grimhilde's mother loves her. grimhilde's mother loves almost nothing else.
"what do i do when it runs out?" she asks, but of course, she already knows.
grimhilde's midnight hair is so long it pools in the space between her knees. witch blood has made her strong. the sun no longer burns her. she plays in pools of it outside in the garden, where the dead nettles stick to her skin.
"bargain-child," the witch says, voice weak, "are you hungry?"
grimhilde laughs. it sounds like music coming through a window, far away and beckoning. "mother-witch," she answers, "i am always hungry."
the witch closes her eyes. she nods. "then when the urn is full, eat."
grimhilde grows. the witch's blood keeps her alive, but it is not what she wants. grimhilde does not want to survive. she wants to eat. she wants to chase down the iron in her mouth all the way to its source. she wants to taste it before it has gone stale. she wants to touch it while it's still hot.
"come on," grimhilde's mother tells her, lashing an ax to her back. "you have to eat."
"i'm not hungry," grimhilde says. she is small, still small enough to be settled on her mother's hip while they walk. she presses her thumb to her mother's pulse and counts her heartbeats as high as she knows how.
"you're always hungry," her mother reminds her, and touches the top of her head.
"i don't want more voles," grimhilde mutters.
"well, what do you want?"
sometimes the hunger hurts so badly that grimhilde can feel something small and primitive clawing against her ribs, asking to be let out. the primitive thing knows how to eat. it knows how to feel full, and because it knows grimhilde knows too. when she dreams, she dreams of the witch's heart in her hand, still fluttering. she had felt the witch when she ate it. she feels the witch still.
she can hear her mother's heartbeat in the kitchen, can smell her sweat when she has been working in the garden. vole hearts are small, compared to a human's. she can eat them in one bite.
she is hungry. she loves her mother. both things are true in equal measure.
"voles are fine," she says.
the urn empties.
it takes time. they ration. two spoonfuls in the morning, and half a spoonful at night, to prevent her aching stomach from keeping her awake. the blood keeps the ache at bay but does nothing to quench her need for the taste of iron at its source, tangy and rust-red.
"am i going to die?" grimhilde asks as they get to the last spoonfuls.
her mother's eyes are hard. she takes grimhilde's face between her hands. "i asked the woods, and they gave you to me," she says. "the woods will provide."
the woods do. they send a boy. he is lost. the path had disappeared between his feet. when he found it again, it led him here, to the edge of the wood. to a small hut shaped like the candy his friends buy in the market. he knocks on the door, dirt smudged along his cheek. grimhilde's mother is in the woods hunting voles, so grimhilde lets him in to wait. he sits on her bed and taps his toes.
the boy is taller than grimhilde. older, maybe, but not much.
the urn is empty. grimhilde can feel the primitive thing that hollows out her bones and blows dust through them. grimhilde knows how to feel full. grimhilde knows that she will never again be given permission: if she wants to eat, she will have to take without asking.
"whose are you?" she asks, and the boy shrugs when he says, "no one's. whoever they were, they're dead. i don't remember them."
who will miss a boy who doesn't belong to anybody? grimhilde is her mother's. her mother asked the woods and the woods gave her grimhilde. grimhilde would be missed.
the boy's eyes catch on the curve of her mouth when she smiles. he smiles back. he smiles like the butcher when he is giving them free meat. he smiles like the blacksmith who always fixes their shovels when they break. he smiles like the witch had smiled when she said, are you hungry? then eat. the primitive thing reaches out grimhilde's hand and cups the boy's cheek. "thank you," she murmurs when he tips his head to expose the vein in his neck.
"you're so little," he tells her, dreamy. "what will make you happy?" and she is grateful to be able to give him the comfort of her joy when she pulls him close and eats.
"i brought you a boar," grimhilde's mother says, her voice hopeful. grimhilde wipes the last vestiges of the boy's blood from her mouth with her sleeve. she feels--not full. but better. better than she has in a long, long time.
grimhilde kisses her mother's cheek. she eats the boar's heart and says it tastes delicious. she burns the boy's clothes in the oven while her mother sleeps.
after the boy, she sticks to what her mother brings her. she sees the way her mother looks at her sometimes, afraid. not of grimhilde but for grimhilde. the witch blood is gone, and grimhilde's bones begin to hollow.
"i'll find another witch," grimhilde's mother promises, when the boy's heart is gone and grimhilde begins to wince if the sunlight touches her. "the world is full of witches."
what other witch would give her heart to me? grimhilde wonders. her mother's hands are rough from work. they are tired. her mother is tired. her mother works all day and then hunts down boar hearts for grimhilde to eat, and they taste like nothing and she is always still hungry.
she waits as long as she can. she waits until the sun is so hot that she takes care not to step into the pool of sunlight from the hut's only window. she waits until she cannot sleep, until she can almost taste the one-two-one rhythm of her mother's pulse. she waits until the primitive thing inside her ribs curls its fingers around her bones and whispers eat.
her mother goes into the town and grimhilde goes into the woods. she brings the soft brown candy that the witch taught her to make, sweet. the caramel is hard until you place it beneath your tongue. then it becomes soft and gummy. but the sweetness stays.
the woods are vast, and its thorns are sharp, but grimhilde is beloved of the woods and she does not bleed. on the far side of the woods is a village, and behind the village is a town, and behind the town is a castle. the boy had not filled her up like the witch's heart, but he had been enough to keep the primitive thing from taking a hold of her wrists. to keep her bones from feeling hollow. to keep the sun from burning her skin.
grimhilde is still small, her face still round. when she smiles at the world, it smiles back. the world curls its arms around grimhilde to shield her. the world knows that grimhilde is precious. that she must protected. that she must be obeyed.
she does not have much time. not nearly enough to venture into the village or the town behind or the castle behind. she has only enough time to lay some of the candy at the mouth of the trees, and then a trail of it into the heart of the woods, a heart so deep there is no getting out unless you are beloved by the woods and they let you.
grimhilde goes back home and waits for her mother, who sings while she works in the garden. grimhilde closes her eyes to listen.
at night, when the window is shut, grimhilde climbs out of bed and runs to the woods. she can ear the soft cries of what the woods have brought her: a girl, seated in a neat circle of mushrooms. she has sticky hands and a sticky mouth, sweet from candy.
sweet things come to sweet places.
"whose are you?" grimhilde asks, and the girl says, "no one's."
grimhilde smiles. the girl smiles back. she climbs into grimhilde's lap and offers up her wrist, at peace. "no more tears," grimhilde tells her, and the girl nods, salt drying on her cheeks.
"whatever makes you happy," the girl murmurs, and grimhilde kisses her forehead.
happiness is a full stomach. grimhilde eats.
grimhilde is not careful to avoid the pool of sunlight on the floor, which is how her mother knows. grimhilde can tell by the way her mother gardens, dirt under her nails, planting. making something come alive.
you made me like this, grimhilde thinks. you opened the palm of your hand. i did not open it for you.
her mother does not ask why grimhilde makes the candy, huge batches of it that make the house smell sweet. a silence falls on the little hut on the edge of the woods. her mother stops bringing boar home. at night, she runs her hands through grimhilde's black hair and whispers, over and over, the woods gave you to me.
grimhilde has never smiled at her mother the way she smiles at lost children, the way she smiles at the baker and the butcher and the blacksmith. she has never wanted her mother to smile back.
but in the dark her mother whispers the woods gave you to me and grimhilde can hear the sorrow in the words. she can hear the way her mother does not say sometimes i wish they hadn't.
when grimhilde is fifteen, her mother becomes sick. the whole town becomes sick. no one knows why the crops have died, only that between one sunset and one sunrise, the tips of all the fields turned black and ashen. only grimhilde, who does not eat or drink, stays healthy. she stops making candy and makes soup instead, dripping it into her mother's mouth with the same spoon her mother used to give her the witch's blood.
"i am yours," grimhilde murmurs, her mother shaking and sweating in her lap.
her mother shakes her head. she holds tight to grimhilde's hand. "the woods gave you to me," she agrees. night falls and the sun rises and night falls again. her mother sweats. her mother stops eating the soup.
"promises made in blood must be paid in it," her mother says at last. she meets grimhilde's eyes. "the witch knew. she understood."
"i can make the pain stop," grimhilde tells her, though the words stick in her mouth and taste like rust.
her mother nods. she closes her eyes. "do you make it stop when you give them candy?" she asks. "the children in the woods?"
grimhilde kisses her mother's forehead. she meets her eyes and smiles. "there are no children in the woods," she says. "i was born the way any child is born. i eat the way any child eats. you are my mother. i am yours. do you believe me?"
her mother's eyes are glassy. she smiles. the pain is gone. "yes," she says. "i want to make you happy."
grimhilde does not cry. she strokes her thumb along the vein in her mother's neck and counts the familiar heartbeat. grimhilde is beloved of the woods, grimhilde's mother is beloved of grimhilde. but this was the bargain, and to be beloved is to be beholden. "i am happy," grimhilde promises. "happiness is a full stomach."
grimhilde's mother sighs. she does not open her eyes, not even when grimhilde takes the heart that has always been hers, anyway, and eats it. it tastes of iron and of dirt. grimhilde holds her hand out to the sunlight and does not burn.
her mother is gone. who will miss a girl who doesn't belong to anybody?
grimhilde moves from the edge of the woods to the dead witch's house in the heart of them. grimhilde replants the asphodel and the nettle and the nightshade in the garden. apples grow on the trees outside.
inside, the witch left books filled with old magic. grimhilde reads them and learns. on the wall, the witch's mirror sometimes speaks to her. when she looks at her reflection, she sees dried blood on the corners of her mouth. the mirror tells her that she is beautiful, and grimhilde believes it because mirrors do not have eyes and cannot be swayed. mirrors always say what they really think.
while the sun is out, grimhilde makes candy, so much of it that the whole house smells sweet. animals come from the wood and sniff at it, rubbing their heads against the walls. they are not bothered by grimhilde, who has no need to eat boar hearts without her mother watching.
travelers come and grimhilde feeds them and lets them make her happy. they ask if she is a witch and grimhilde says, "no. i don't know what i am."
it is not until the twins arrive that grimhilde understands that she cannot live and die in the woods, waiting for travelers. it is not until the twins that she knows that the primitive thing is right: she does not have to starve. she never has to be hungry again.
grimhilde does not go looking for the twins; they find her. they are inside when she comes home, eating her candy from its pot. they do not smell like farmboys and orphans and passers-by. they smell different. their hearts are stronger.
"people say a witch lives here. they say she eats children. are you a witch?" asks the girl.
grimhilde lies. "yes," she says. the twins do not smile at her the way the baker and the butcher and her mother did. their hearts are too strong. they cannot be swayed. "what are you?" she asks.
the girl's teeth are sharp, but grimhilde can see that they have never chewed a heart. hearts are soft. they do not need blades. "we're children," she says, and grimhilde does not believe her. "don't we look like children? i'm gretel. that's hansel."
"why do your hearts sound different?" grimhilde asks, stepping sideways into the shadows.
hansel dips his hand back into the pot of caramel. he taps the mirror with his knuckle. "you thought nobody would notice you, trapping children in our rings and never offering us anything."
"nobody puts treats out anymore," gretel laments. "they used to put out sweet bread and candies to keep us from coming into their houses and taking them as our slaves, but now they've all forgotten us."
grimhilde frowns. "what rings? the mushrooms?"
hansel rolls his eyes and sighs. "bargain-children never know anything," he says to gretel, smacking his lips together. "can't even recognize a faerie when they see two of them eating candy from their kitchen."
grimhilde's stomach rumbles, and it makes gretel laugh, delighted. "are you here to make me your slave?"
"no," says hansel, mouth full. "there's too much iron in your blood."
"if we wanted you to be our slave, we wouldn't have gone through the trouble of blighting the crops and poisoning the water," gretel tells her, sounding almost exasperated. "we'd have just taken you at night, when you were eating in the woods."
"my mother," grimhilde begins, and thinks of how slowly death came, of all the soup she made in poisoned water. all those years of starving and in the end, she killed her mother anyway.
hansel shrugs. "you'd never have come to live in the woods with her around, and we couldn't come get you while you were outside them. anyway, humans live such tiny lives. it's not really such a great loss, speaking strictly in terms of time."
"we want what all faeries want," gretel says. "to indulge. do you know how long it's been since we've had too much to eat?"
"everybody's always starving for something," hansel agrees, sadly. "but you make sure we never go hungry, and we'll make sure you never do."
grimhilde leans forward, her face coming into the sunlight. her skin blisters. she thinks of the witch, who knew the price of getting what you want, and of her mother, who didn't. "never?" she asks, hungry, hungry. "never again?"
gretel reaches her child's hand out to touch the enclave of grimhilde's collarbone. "poor thing," she murmurs. "bargain-children always suffer most."
"we'll teach you," hansel promises, and sticks his hand back into the pot.
faeries were made in the woods, by the woods, for the woods. they are not beholden to the woods because they are the woods. trees bend down and stretch out their branches when hansel and gretel ask. they are as delighted by this as they are by everything, all of it in too-big portions. they do not want one tree to bend: they want them all to bend.
"what is the point of having one," hansel wonders, "if you cannot have them all?"
this is what they teach grimhilde: survival is not enough. hunger is unacceptable. you must live every day so full that you can taste it in your throat. so full that you push away your still-overflowing plate.
"humans," gretel laughs, perched on the windowsill and eating caramel from a cup. "there's nothing to them. they go right through you. oh, they'll keep you alive, of course, but who wants to be alive on an empty stomach?"
it is important, the twins tell her, to always be the -est. the kindest, the cruelest, the smartest, the hungriest, the fastest, the strongest. this is the only way to get what you want, and in great quantities.
"if not humans," grimhilde asks, and thinks of her mother's hand, curled but unfisted, "then what?"
hansel takes a break from where he is working on the witch's mirror. he flashes his teeth. "the only thing that can truly satisfy a bargain-child is a bargain-child," he says. "that is what old magic means."
grimhilde frowns. "there is no one like me," she corrects him. "i have looked and never found them."
"what do you think we are fixing your mirror for?" gretel asks, her tinkling laugh warming the whole house.
grimhilde cannot yet speak to the mirror but the twins can. they whisper to it in low tones, conferring. after several weeks, gretel lets loose a peal of laughter and then says, "excellent! excellent! grab your cape, it's time to eat," and drags grimhilde from the house by the hand. they cut through a faerie shortcut in the woods and come out on the other side, in the village before the town before the castle. hansel and gretel lead her to a small house with a thatched roof.
grimhilde comes to the house, she holds out the candy in her hands. hansel and gretel skitter back to hide behind the bushes, tittering with the laughter that has already begun to permeate grimhilde's dreams.
"ask to speak with the daughter," hansel calls, just as the candy's sweet smell summons a sandy-haired boy to the door, his mouth already watering.
"how much?" his mother asks, suspicious. grimhilde smiles. she hands a bite to the boy and ruffles his hair.
"free," she says. "all i want is to speak with your daughter."
the woman stiffens. "i only have a son," she snaps, and grimhilde smiles again, and and meets the mother's eyes.
"it would make me very happy to speak with your daughter," she tells her, and the peasant woman smiles, and nods, gesturing with her arm to a shed behind the house. grimhilde rewards her with a taste of caramel.
in the shed is the girl, a chain around her ankle. she cowers from the light that comes in through the window. she is thin and shaky, her eyes bloodshot. a pile of laundry rests in the corner of the room, a strip of sunlight between it and the girl. she has her feet in a bucket of water, cooling them.
grimhilde closes her eyes when the girl looks up, eyes wild from hunger, from the sound of grimhilde's heart.
"you," the girl mutters. her voice is rusty, unused. "you smell like--"
"you have been hungry for a long time," grimhilde interrupts, crossing through the sunlight until she is just out of the chained girl's reach. "oh, you poor thing. you must be starving."
the chained girl nods. there are no tears left in her. she looks at her thin fingers. "nothing filled me, i was so hungry, i had to eat, i had to eat, but my mother--"
"she didn't understand," grimhilde tells her. "she didn't know what kind of bargain she was making."
grimhilde's mother hadn't, either. but she had tried. she had done what she could. grimhilde feels a flash of rage: the woods are careless. they make bargains but they do not lay out the terms.
"i can make the pain stop," grimhilde promises, reaching out to touch the chained girl's head. she meets the girl's eyes and does not try to sway her. "i can make sure you are never hungry again."
the chained girl closes her eyes. "will it hurt?" she asks, and grimhilde does not lie. she presses her lips to the girl's forehead and says, "yes. but not for long."
the smell of caramel wafts in from the house. grimhilde can hear the mother and son talking in soft voices. they have never been hungry like grimhilde and the chained girl have been hungry. they don't know what it feels like to know what you need and to be afraid of getting it.
the chained girl's heart is small and weak from hunger, but grimhilde can feel it buzz through her, filling her up. she closes her eyes and savors the taste. grimhilde's mother tried, but there was nothing like this, nothing sweet as this, nothing strong as this, nothing that had made her feel full like this. she had tried to be something else, but a bargain-child born from blood can only be sustained through blood. you must live as you are made.
this is something else the twins have taught her: eat and be eaten. that's all life is.
grimhilde goes back to the house. she doesn't wipe the blood from her mouth. she lets the chained girl's mother see it, and understand. she does not listen when the mother says we had to and she was a monster and it was for her own protection.
"you made her," grimhilde snarls. "she was yours." she does not sway the woman into passivity when she takes her heart from her chest. she lets her scream.
when she emerges from the house, hansel and gretel are wrestling on the lawn, fighting over who is stronger.
they stop when they hear the door shut, and clap delightedly at the blood on her dress. "excellent!" cries gretel, and gives hansel a shove to the ground when he tries to get up. "excellent, excellent. don't you feel better already?"
grimhilde closes her eyes. she holds her hand out in the sunlight and lets it kiss her fingers.
grimhilde feeds them candy until the house smells so sweet it makes her nauseated, and then she escapes into the woods where the air is clean. she washes in the river and she dries on the bank. she is satiated, her belly round and full. the sun feels like it moves through her, kissing the primitive thing inside her ribcage as it passes. she cannot remember the last time she has felt this strong. she cannot remember a time when the sun has felt so soft and calm against her skin.
"this is my river," says a voice, and grimhilde smiles wide enough to show her teeth. huntsmen can be hard to sway.
"the river belongs to the land," she answers without opening her eyes. "you merely live beside it."
"all right, then i live beside this river," the huntsman grumbles. "what are you doing in it?"
grimhilde opens her eyes, shading them with her hand. the huntsman has his arrow notched, his eyes a hard line. it has been a long time since grimhilde was far enough from her home to feel threatened by someone outside of it. huntsmen are huntsmen because they made their own bargains and must live by them, though grimhilde doesn't know what that bargain was. the twins don't know, either, but they were made by the woods and they hate huntsmen above all other bargain-makers.