She leaves the children in the woods because they’d expect a surprise, and aren’t met expectations a kindness? She builds a fire the way her grandfather taught her, a pyramid of finger twigs and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. What a hike! she says, lighting it up, and when the girl asks her why they’ve only packed one rain poncho, one sweatshirt, why they have no chairs or tent, she says, oh, don’t worry about it. They’ve gone deep, deeper than she’s ever been, the dirt path long behind them, the forest blanketed in sticks untouched by human hands. The light comes to them at an angle through the conifers, a turn to the pressing dark.
Take these, she says, and gives each child a hot dog. She shows them how to skewer the dogs and hold them over the flame. The girl turns hers at a steady, rotisserie pace, and the fire spits when the meat begins to blister. The boy has sap on his hands and can’t wipe it off and now he wants his tablet. Where is the outlet? he wants to know. They are so terribly equipped for what’s to come. I’ll be right back, she tells them. I’m getting more wood, she says, kissing the tops of their dirty heads, and she cries in great sobbing hiccups on the way home, finding her way with a flashlight and her grandfather’s walking stick, weaving through the trees so the children cannot follow. She wishes she’d left them more. She isn’t a monster, after all, or maybe she is.
Days later, a new neighbor asks, are you the stepmother with the talking mirror, or were you involved in this business about the glass slipper? They’re kneeling in the dirt and checking their gardens, picking slugs out of seedlings. Even the slugs are down to crumbs now, ravenous for shoots. She wishes she still had her ducks, to keep the slug population at bay, but she slaughtered the last of them the week before, her favorite, her Lucy. I’m the one who left the boy and girl in the woods, she says, as if the difference matters. Aha, the neighbor says, pinching a slug in half and thinking of something good to say. It must have been hard, coming so soon after their mother died. I heard she was a saint.
She loves the children, but even so, the world is a mess. People are growing corn where there are now marshes and making lakes where there is now sand. Everything’s to the left of where it belongs. The hot dogs she’d given the children were the last she’d ever see, though she knows it’s not a good look to dwell on this fact. Before she took them to the forest, she taught the children how to play Monopoly, how to bake clay, though these days, she tries not to think of ovens. She drove them to see the Pacific when trips like that made sense. You’re good at this, people had said. Really stepping into the role.
Sometimes, though, the children peeped like angry chicks. They clung to her in punishing ways. At bedtime, they cried out for their mother, the saint, and when she went to check on them, they threw their pillows at her and called her a witch. They’d cut the blanket her grandfather had left her into little scraps, and they wouldn’t tell her why. This playing out under the creeping hunger. She wasn’t a mother, they told her in all of their child languages. She didn’t have the parts for it, the heart. She’d never bled for them or put them to her breast. The relentlessness of another person’s life.
Leaving them to the witch, the real one, wasn’t great. She won’t pretend it was, but then again, the witch was a confectioner. She could make windows out of peppermint and walls out of gingerbread; her shutters were giant gumdrops. Wasn’t there a chance she’d impart some magic to the children in this dying world? Wasn’t there an endless pile of candy to share? Who could have predicted those awful cravings, that oven?
What would the mother, the real one, have done?
When it storms one night, she makes the last of the duck into a thin soup and stares at the girl’s winter coat, which hangs on its hook by the door. The rolling blackouts are longer now, but she keeps the boy’s tablet charged. For what and for whom? What is wrong with her, that she hasn’t done better than this?
One afternoon not long after, the children return. When they do, to the house at the edge of the forest, the light again comes sideways. They’ve changed. Their hair is full of brambles and their eyes have become like wolves, their outstretched fingers grown into claws. She can see this even as they lurch across the yard, though she can no longer tell which is the girl and which is the boy. Their skin puckers where their cheeks have grown fat and then thin again. Nobody’s asked where her husband, the woodcutter, has been. Cutting wood, they’ve all assumed, or maybe getting a beer with the boys, absolved before the story begins.
While the children were gone, she’d shoved their beds against one wall and filled their room with hay. She wanted a different fairy tale, she decided. She didn’t want to be one of the stepmothers anymore, wishing instead to be the princess who spins straw into gold, who staves off the greedy imp for love of a child. But the hay has mold, and she can’t find a spinning wheel. So many rookie mistakes. Still, she’s learning. The children must sense it, she thinks. Why else would they have come home?
And here they are, having followed their trail of pebbles, clever children of the woods. She opens the door and she finally does it, she bares her neck to them both.
Nicole VanderLinden’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review (where her story was selected by Lauren Groff as the winner of the 2020 NOR Fiction Prize), Shenandoah, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, MoonPark Review, and others. She currently serves as associate editor of Colorado Review and as a reader for Ploughshares and the Masters Review. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and is currently working on a short-story collection and finishing her first novel. She’s at nicolevanderlinden.com and on Twitter @vandanicole.