by Dan Holbrow
A big stainless steel fridge stands in one corner of the kitchen. It’s full of food, and the old fridge in the back room–the white one with the old-fashioned rounded corners and chrome handle–is half full, too. And then there’s a freezer in the basement, and a cold room full of pickles. The old woman loves to pickle; she pickles everything. She also loves children. But Greta does the rest of the cooking.
Greta can make all the food she wants, but she has to offer it to the boys first. That’s the rule. And it doesn’t seem to matter how much food she makes: the boys eat it all except a few scraps. The old woman told her once that if she was caught sneaking food, she’d lose a finger the first time, and the second time, a toe. After that, who knows?
Greta is missing the little finger on her right hand. She can’t stand the idea of losing a toe, so Greta is always hungry.
Little boys often wandered up to the house. It was a pretty cottage, edged and shuttered with wood cut in filigree patterns like lace, gleaming sugary white. Greta whitewashed the wood every spring, along with the picket fence. She even whitewashed the paving stones that led from the gate to the chocolate-brown door.
A pretty place like that, you might expect girls to like it and boys to shy away. But boys, especially alone, seemed to like pretty things. They delighted in leaving the gate open, and in leaving muddy prints all over the paving stones. Greta wondered if it was something Darwinian–a hard-wired sexual selection sort of thing. Maybe if Greta and the old woman lived in a concrete bunker ringed with barbed wire, little girls would knock on the steel door with fingers bleeding from the fence, looking for the hard, smoky man who lived there.
But they lived in a pretty little cottage, and they mostly got boys.
Every so often a girl would knock at the door, once or twice a year, usually in winter. The old woman always used to stand on the porch with her rusty shotgun and shout at the girl until she left. There was no ammunition, but of course the girl couldn’t know that. Then, once, the old woman invited a girl in for tea. Greta hid in the basement and listened to the clink of the cups and saucers, and thought about how hungry she was, and how she’d have more washing up to do today.
When she heard the girl leave and the front door squeak shut, Greta went up and complained to the old woman about the extra washing up. Perhaps, the old woman said, the girl could have done the dishes? Yes, Greta thought so. Come to think of it, the old woman said, maybe the girl could have made the tea, baked the cookies? Greta hesitated, nodded. Come to think of it, the old woman said, maybe the girl could fatten up the little boys? Then Greta would be free to leave for good.
After that, whenever girls came, the old woman would invite them in for tea. Greta would hide in the basement and listen to the clink of the cups and saucers. Then, when the front door squeaked shut, Greta would go upstairs, smile at the old woman, and do the washing up.
The boys despise Greta. Some of them don’t treat her badly at first, but once she has fed them for a few weeks they all grow round and smug and ill-tempered.
They fawn on the old woman, though. She waddles in, puts her hand between the bars, and pokes them to check their plumpness, and they laugh and make eyes at her. Greta makes them their favorite foods–roast chicken or pies or fancy pastries, whatever they want–and they sneer at her. They gobble up the food, sure enough, but they sneer at her all the same. They hate the one who feeds them, and fawn on the one who keeps them prisoner.
But then, maybe they can tell that Greta resents them, and that the old woman wants them. Greta thinks about this as she rolls out a piecrust. We all want to be wanted, don’t we?
Once, years ago, Greta tried to do away with the old woman. At first, it all went just as she’d planned. She said there was something wrong with the oven, and the old woman came downstairs and stuck her head in to see what was wrong, and Greta tried to work up the nerve to push her in and latch the door.
The old woman knelt there for a long time. Greta stood and looked at the woman’s sagging backside wrapped in its gaily-colored skirt, thought of shoving it into the oven. Then the old woman stood up and grinned at her.
“Got that out of your system?” Her voice was soft and rough at the same time. “Everyone’s read that story. It’s only make-believe, you know.”
Every month the old woman orders self-help books from a catalogue, but she never reads them. A pockmarked man comes in a delivery truck. He muddies up the paving stones and leaves the gate open just like a little boy, though he’s larger and hairier. He brings a big box of books and a new catalogue to the door, and then drives off again. The old woman snatches the catalogue right away and sits at the dining room table, cooing and gurgling over all the ways she could improve herself, while Greta carries the unopened box downstairs to stack it with the others.
Sometimes, when Greta can’t sleep, she reads one of the books by the light of the naked bulb that hangs from the rafters above her bed. Most of the books are about dealing with problems she has never had, like unfaithful spouses, or the death of one’s parent, or unsatisfactory sex. Some are funny, others are horrible, but they all make her think that most people are like the boys that come to the cottage: trapped, and greedy, and wanting the people who will hurt them. Whether they ought to be taken care of or gotten rid of, fed or eaten–that depends on the book.
It seems to Greta that she and the old woman and the boys are all part of the same process, all keep each other going. The boys come to eat and be eaten. Greta fattens them up for the old woman. Maybe the old woman only eats the boys so that they’ll go on fawning on her. Maybe she eats them so that Greta has to keep cooking to feed them. Anyway, Greta isn’t sure, after all this time, what else she would ever do with herself.
She used to walk in the woods. They smelt moldy, like the basement, but older and fresher and less oily. Once she walked for a long time, and came out blinking into the sunlight. Facing her was a row of shops, and in front of the shops was a row of cars and trucks.
She stood and watched for a while. Cars and trucks came and went. People got in and out of them, and went in and out of the shops. There were women like Greta, drawn and weary, caring and seething, and there were women like the old witch, sleek and carefree, with predatory smiles. There were boys and girls, most of them locked into the back seats of cars as though into cages or ovens, looking blankly at the woods with familiar despair. And there were men. They all looked different from the pockmarked driver who brought the books, but they still all seemed like larger, hairier little boys.
When she got back to the cottage, the boys were howling for their supper. She brought them sandwiches, and they cursed her. One of them spat on her.
After that, she stopped going for walks.
The old woman hasn’t come downstairs. Greta feeds the boys for a day, for two days. Then she goes up to see.
She has never been up to the old woman’s bedroom before. It’s small and tidy, with a little bed much like Greta’s, a chest of drawers, and an oblong mirror on the wall.
The old woman is lying on the bed. She looks strange: flaccid, and curiously unlike herself. The smell makes Greta choke. Greta wraps her in the sheets, and pulls the bundle off the bed. It strikes the floor with a thick bump. She grabs the bundle by the loose ends of the sheets and drags it down the stairs, wincing with every muffled thump of head or limb. Why does she wince? The old woman is dead now, Greta reminds herself; but she winces all the same.
She drags the bundle a little way into the woods and leaves it behind a thicket, out of sight of the house. She covers it with leaves. She cries a little.
When she gets back to the house she orders a lot of groceries, but when they come the next day, she can’t bring herself to eat them. Instead, she makes an extra-special meal for the little boys. They jeer at her, and then they eat it all and she goes to bed, hungry.
She wakes up hungry, too–hungrier than she has ever been before. She looks at the food and thinks about all the things she could make from it, but the thought of cooking just for herself makes a lump in her belly. Her hands are trembling.
The little boys howl. “Where’s our breakfast?”
“Shut up.” The force of her voice surprises her. “The old woman’s gone, and I’m through with you.”
Midway through the afternoon, the boys stop howling. At dusk, Greta goes to see them. They sit at the backs of their cages and sulk.
“Come over here,” she tells one–a very little boy, with freckles and golden hair. “Come on.”
He stands, and then sidles shyly toward her.
“I’m hungry.” His voice is like chocolate, like smooth gravy.
She prods him with her index finger. His belly feels soft at first, but firmer when she presses harder. He giggles.
Someone knocks at the door. Greta leaves the boys in their cages, goes to the door, and peers through the peephole.
A little girl in a checked dress stands awkwardly on the porch. She glances over her shoulder at the darkening woods, and then turns back toward the door. Her face is drawn, careworn. She knocks again.
Greta opens the door and smiles at the girl.
“I’m lost.” The girl’s voice is dry and hollow as an old tree.
“Come in,” Greta says. “Have some tea.” And then, after a long pause: “Can you cook?”
Dan Holbrow is a writer, musician, and recovering academic from the friendly and desolate plains of western Canada. This is his first appearance in Scheherezade’s Bequest.