My publication in The Quilliad has become a pattern (to which I am not at all opposed). Last night they published my short story, “Just As Father Likes,” in their 2016 Halloween edition. The story is a modern retelling of “Hansel and Grethel,” originally written by the Brothers Grimm, and is basically everything you can expect from me at this point — strange children, old women, absent men who influence the entire action of the plot… Oh, and did I mention some horror and gore?
Happy Halloween, everyone!
To take a look at the 8 Issues of The Quilliad, and (perhaps!) make a purchase, click here.
Now on to the story…
Just As Father Likes
The old stories tell of it, but they don’t tell all of it.
You see, Brother and I had been very hungry for a very long time. We hadn’t eaten candy—at least, not the kind that Father knew we liked—since we were children. And no, we weren’t children any longer by the time we came to know Miss Perriweather, no matter what the old stories claim. It’s easier, I suppose, to say we were children. But we weren’t. We were old enough that Father decided we should have some practice finding our own candy. And that we did.
Miss Perriweather was a fat old woman. She smelled of cinnamon and sour cream. Despite the wrinkles which hung beneath her chin and the sweaty stains that crept out from under her arms, she appeared warm and fluffy, like a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. She had no children, no husband, and no grandchildren. Her parents and siblings were all dead, and everyone knew it. She was rarely called “Miss Perriweather” around the community, but rather “Poor Miss Perriweather,” or, to drive home the fact of her loneliness and frailty, “Poor Old Perriweather.”
In person, however, she was always “Miss Perriweather,” politely and primly, along with a sedate bow of the head (which was not, as I had thought when I was younger, to match her permanently bent neck). That was how Brother and I always greeted her; that was how we greeted her on the day we passed by her house on the way back from school, as we always did, and saw her sitting on her porch with a great big something in her lap.
“Good afternoon to you, too,” she wheezed once Brother and I had completed our regular routine of salutations. Instead of retreating home, as was also part of routine, we paused by her porch steps, eyeing the object balanced on her knees.
Miss Perriweather smiled. “What?” she said. “Never seen one of these before? Well, come on up, have a look. It won’t be here for long.”
Brother and I glanced at each other, and then bounded up the steps in two long leaps. Miss Perriweather shrank back into her chair and shooed us away, saying we must only approach on all fours—crawling, like children.
“Now, that’s better,” she cooed as we shuffled toward her. “You can look all you want, bud don’t touch. Not today, at least. The minute you touch I’ll lose my head.” She giggled, shaking her white hair and patting our heads with her crooked fingers.
I had heard tell of gingerbread houses before. They were what rich families made around Christmas time, and what their children ate feverishly throughout the cold season. We were not children, mind you, but we felt in that moment, while bent low on the porch, the crackling edges of chipped paint sticking into our kneecaps, that we had missed some piece of our childhood, or at least been deprived of something important. That Father had deprived us of something important, I began to think, but stopped myself.
The gingerbread house was an exact replica of Miss Perriweather’s house, except, of course, that it was made of candy. Her red door was cherry licorice with a chocolate chip door handle; her porch was chocolate bars broken and layered to mimic planks of wood; her handmade stained glass windows looking into her kitchen were melted hard candy, reformed in panes of brilliant colours; and her peaked roof was buried in fluffy white frosting, as it always looked in winter while covered in snow.
“Do you like it?” asked Miss Perriweather. I registered, as her voice brought me back to the porch, to her real house, that her fingers had never left my hair. Brother had become very still. His eyes flitted toward me and then back to the gingerbread house as Miss Perriweather scraped her long fingertips across our scalps.
“Well,” I said, “we’d better go.” I pulled away, and a strand of my hair caught in the crook of Miss Perriweather’s thumb. She yanked backward—on impulse or on purpose, I couldn’t tell—wrenching the skin above my right ear, tying me to her hand, binding me to her; then she released me, and I stood, grabbing Brother’s elbow and tugging him away.
We had reached the bottom of the porch steps before Miss Perriweather looked up and displayed a loose grin. The inside of her mouth was black and ghastly, her tongue twisting like a large worm across her lips. “Don’t stay away long,” she said. “This house will get stale, and I wouldn’t want to eat it all without company.”
Brother swallowed. We turned and were gone down the sidewalk.
The next morning I met Miss Perriweather on my way to school. She had ventured out to the top of her porch steps to intercept me. Her gnarled hand clutched the railing, and her voice trembled as much as her legs.
“Where’s your brother this morning?” she called.
“Left early,” I said, keeping my pace. Though I didn’t look at her, I knew she was smiling.
“He’s eaten nearly all the frosting,” Miss Perriweather said.
I stopped on the sidewalk.
“He’s so thin, just skin and bone,” she continued. “I couldn’t keep him away from the house one second longer. He said you might be joining us. He said he might save you some, if you wanted.”
I hesitated, watching Miss Perriweather sway at the top of the steps, her buttery lips pressed together under her long nose. I thought of the mountain of frosting atop the crisp, brown gingerbread. I thought of the candy windows, the chocolate front porch, the cherry licorice. I ground my teeth and turned away.
“Tell him to hurry on,” I said over my shoulder. “He’ll be late.”
Brother was late. Or, more precisely, he didn’t come. I asked his classmates during break if they had seen him, and they shrugged, saying they hadn’t noticed he was missing, but they hadn’t noticed him present, either.
I hurried on my walk home. Miss Perriweather waited for me at the top of her porch steps just as she had that morning.
“He’s eaten most of the top storey,” she croaked, smiling her slippery smile. “There’s still plenty left for you, if you hurry.”
“Is Brother still very hungry?” I asked, sizing Miss Perriweather up and making my decision. “Is he still very thin?”
“As a bone,” she answered.
I followed her up the steps and into the house.
The inside of Miss Perriweather’s house was dark, cramped, and unclean. As I entered, a cloud of hot air, like a breath from the innards of an ancient beast, floated into my face; it was wet and thick and sour. Miss Perriweather nudged me from behind and guided me down a long hallway smothered in dust. Ahead I could see a strange yellow and green glow emanating from a doorway, and hear a slow, crunching, slopping sound, like a pig digging deep in its trough.
My feet padded softly. My breath was short. I moved through the doorway to find that the sickly glow came from Miss Perriweather’s handmade stained glass windows, and the sound of furtive eating was coming from Brother, who sat hunkered over the remains of the gingerbread house at the table. I had entered the kitchen.
Miss Perriweather nudged me again, her fingernails poking into my spine, and I sat down next to Brother. In the corner of the kitchen I noticed a large, wrought-iron oven, its black chimney stretching up to disappear into the ceiling. It was grumbling and hot, like a belly full of gas, and I saw flames rippling past the glass window on its door. I tried to catch Brother’s eye, but he seemed not to notice anyone had entered the room. When I touched his arm he shook me off without looking up. He snapped off pieces of the gingerbread, cracking them viciously and blindly, like a starving man would snap a chicken’s neck, and shoving them into his mouth.
“We’ve been taking it in intervals,” Miss Perriweather explained, “or else he would have devoured it long before you arrived. Here, have a piece.” She lowered herself into the chair across from us and plucked up a discarded chunk of frosting to offer me. Her eyes gathered shadows of green and yellow, looking as dark and slick as the remaining candy windows in the gingerbread house. I took the frosting from her and popped it into my mouth.
Before long Brother and I had come to the end of the gingerbread house. I began to feel vague and inconsistent, as if I had fallen into a dream. Miss Perriweather’s face stretched across the table, mixing with the green and yellow light, warping until she was no longer a face at all, no longer human. Her curling white hair was fluffed frosting, her skin was loose taffy, and her eyes were black cherries, sitting small and swollen in their sockets. Her mouth I dared not label; it was horrible—deep and cavernous and writhing. It was saying something, its voice wafting over me and popping warbled in my ear.
The oven’s ready, she said, pushing herself up from the table. The room had grown very hot. It brought sweat out on my forehead and blurred my eyes. Miss Perriweather came around the table and took my hand. The oven’s ready, she said again. We must prepare it for your brother. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ve heard about your father. I’ve heard about you children. Now, get the sugar and the apples and the nuts. Get the cloves and the onions. We’re going to have a feast.
But we weren’t children. We weren’t children. We weren’t children any longer. I followed her and grabbed a handful of nuts from the cupboard where she pointed. Then, as we bent into the oven, I grabbed a handful of the frosting atop her head and tried to bring it to my mouth. Miss Perriweather shrieked. The frosting was stuck; I couldn’t pull it free. She pushed at me, so I pushed back at her and she teetered, pressing her hand against the base of the oven. Her mouth opened like a deep wound and I hated it, hated every inch of that black, squirming pit. I wanted to cut it from her face. I wanted to seal it like a scar into her skin.
She fit easily into the large oven. After some time her screaming stopped. Brother and I sat quietly at the table, listening to her sizzle and picking crumbs from the tray where the gingerbread house had sat.
“Grethel,” said Brother, turning to stare into my face. He seemed to have come to his senses. “Do you think Father will be very angry?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said, “I think he’ll forgive us everything.”
Brother smiled. It was a wet, buttery smile, speckled with gingerbread and streaked with frosting. I smiled back.
When Miss Perriweather was done, we took her from the oven and laid her on the table. Her eyes popped like pit-less cherries when we pressed them between our molars, but best of all was her frosting, which tore easily now, like cotton candy, from the top of her head.