I'm trapped in this burning coffin, victim to the flames that I conjured not a quarter of an hour ago.
I can smell my flesh cooking: rotten, rank, bubbling with unspeakable atrocities. The scent has barricaded itself in my throat—into my chest and in my eyes and nose and limbs—and it now sits there, smoldering while it waits for me to succumb to its brother, Fire.
Though my eyes are screwed shut, I can still see the fire burning—illuminating the red and orange veins that draped across my eyelids. Had my voice not died out before me, I would still be screaming at that little square of metal that proved to be my doom and still my only source of salvation.
It continues to get hotter. Everything is pulsating—throbbing, going dark and roaring.
The two demons are watching me burn alive through the small hole on the other side of the oven, shoving more logs of wood through the opening no larger than my hand. Their eyes are slits of azure ice, and their white-gold hair flows and slithers as they laugh and embrace at my demise.
They trapped me in here, they pushed me in.
I was so close—so close to consuming them, to tasting that sweet, pure freshness. I had trapped one of them in a cage, caught him while he was eating my house, my work of art, and the other one—the female—had surrendered with no fight at all. I could smell the bread—now just a pile of ashes—and the stew boiling in the cauldron. I was so close to that thick, slippery ambrosia…
Scent and Fire are now waltzing around me.
My legs are melting. I'm melting into the floor.
They dance faster and faster, twirling and whirling around my head.
Blue and gold peer through that little box and grin wickedly.
Everything begins to spin—I'm losing feeling. Darkness begins to creep across my closed eyes. It squats in front of me, blocking my view so that it can watch my inferno blaze brighter. My throat is being squeezed shut, and I'm gasping for air. There is no way out. No way except for that portal—for that damned door.
It's not fair. This fire was not meant for me. It was meant for someone else, but not for me.
Everything around me is an inferno, and reality is suddenly a land in which time slows down and visions—visions like a Saint—begin to quiver and tremble into existence, racing past me as I slip away…
My mother was a prostitute, a 'no-good, open-legged, diseased little thing.' She worked in Magdeburg, working the docks along the Elbe River, until I began to grow inside of her. She fled from the wrath of her pimp in the dead of night, traveling on and on, for however long I never knew, until she reached a forest in the middle of the Dresden Region. She found a house—a miserable cottage with a miserable tenant, begged to be taken in, remained there for a month or two more, gave birth to me and died in labor. I never knew what she looked like, though I was told that the horrible warts and growths on my face and body were something we had in common.
My earliest memories are of Baba Yaga, of her skeletal arms and flashing iron teeth. The two lines of metal were most often bared at me, even when I tried to smile at her, and when I grew old and brave enough to ask her why her teeth weren't white, she told me that the Devil had given her this set so that eating children would be easier for her. When I would ask her why her nose was so, so frightfully long, she would grin awfully, extending her face towards mine, and tell me that when the Devil had asked for payment in return for her teeth, she had refused him and shoved him back into Hell, but not before he had grabbed onto her nose to keep himself from falling back into the pit. It had stretched and broken until it looked the way it did now, and the two dark bubbles on the tip were from where his fingers had touched her. And when I asked her why she did not eat me, she would explain that eating a disfigured, hideous, and diseased child would only make her flatulent for days.
Though I would later realize how pleasant life with Baba Yaga was in comparison to what would later befall me, the first twelve years of my life were grim.
The woods around her house were deep and dark: pine trees dressed in sweeping robes of emerald consorted so closely together that sunlight was a rarity. Mists tended to creep around our hut, licking the bone fence, and sometimes wrapping itself around the four stilts of gnarled wood that some said looked like chicken legs. Apparently, people also believed that our house could walk (and sometimes the wobbly stilts did feel as if they were shifting around from side to side), screech, and that only a certain arrangement of mystical words could gain access to its interior. I never really understood why anyone would want to see the interior of our hut: it was simple and dull, and very dusty, no matter how much I cleaned it. I had a little bed in the corner of the room by the fire, and Baba Yaga kept her bed close to the little kitchen and hearth across the room. We had a small sitting area in which sat one red, shabby couch and an emerald green armchair, and between them a wooden table lay on uneven legs. In the center of the hut sat a long dining table, the only finery in the house, and on either end were two chairs: one for her and one for me. My chair had a little cushion that allowed me to at least see over the gigantic table, though I often did not get to sit in it due to my obligation to wait on Baba Yaga during our meals
Until blood began to flow from me, I was never allowed to pass beyond the gates unless I had Baba Yaga's permission. The two front windows of the house, circular and crossed with bones, watched me beneath hooded eyes, waiting for me to step one foot beyond the border of the yard while Baba Yaga was away.
Monsters dwelt in the forests: carnivorous beasts that loved the taste of children. They would grab you when you least expected and take you back to their lair, where they would sing to you as they devoured your flesh. They would then gnaw on your bones until they were as white as snow—and then bring them back to Baba Yaga as tribute. Every time Baba Yaga told me this, she would finish her tale by taking her broom of silver birch and rattling it against the long, smooth bones that made up our fence. The noise made a clip-clop-clip-clop-clop that, according to Baba Yaga, was the exact noise the demons made before they seized you in their large claws and carried you away. Each time I traveled through that forest, alone with just my cart and my frail horse, I would strain my ears to listen past the jingling of the harness and the creak of the wheels. I learned to differentiate the noise of my horse from the sound of the ferocious beasts, though it was eventually to no avail.
I spent my childhood cleaning Baba Yaga's house, which seemed to be in a constant state of filth, a fact that was mainly attributed to her voracious appetite. She would spend her days stalking through the woods for food: for any animal that walked or flew, while I was told to tend and harvest the food from her garden. I did as I was told, always wondering how she managed to have a full, lush garden in such a horrible location, and how an old, frail woman would manage to hunt and successfully kill beasts with only a club that resembled a pestle. But every night there would be a feast enough for both of us. Even in the winter, when our garden was frosted over and buried beneath three feet of snow, we would eat like queens.
Baba Yaga's teeth would sparkle and rip through the cooked meat, her face practically buried in the mound on her plate. She would grunt and moan as she pushed food into her mouth, her spidery fingers grasping onto bones until they gleamed white. I would watch her as soon as I was finished with my meal, observing the way her wisps of silver hair seemed to fall from her head like moss. I was not allowed to leave the table until she finished, and every meal, regardless of how good I had been, or whether or not I had trekked the thirty miles to the nearest town to retrieve supplies with our dying horse and rickety wagon, she would remind me of how easily she could cook me in a stew and eat me. And then she would point with a bone at the windows, gesturing at the fence outside, and tell me how each of those bones was from the body of a child who had behaved poorly.
Naturally, I was terrified at the end of each meal, though I did know with a certain amount of relief that the meal was indeed over, that I was safe for another day. One night, about a year before I left her house, I caught her repairing a broken bone in the fence with a bone that I identified from our meal hours earlier. And soon after that, I finally realized that I had never, not even for one moment, seen a child pass by her house, or heard a monster's clip-clopping approach.
I was not terribly unhappy with Baba Yaga, though I did have my moments of misery. She never beat me, even though she threatened it, she took care of me when I fell ill, and she allowed me to develop a palate early on that would probably become an indicator of my doom. I could identify all kinds of meat, even when they were bogged down with spices, I could break down the ingredients in a sauce in one bite, and I could tell when fruits and vegetables were at their peak (or decline). She never told me why she bothered to keep me, especially since she continued to tell me the cautionary tale of my mother's fate, and now—now that I am far away from that hut and in one of my own, perhaps it was the hand of Loneliness that kept her from stifling me in my swaddling.
So we lived together until I was twelve in a state of moderately peaceful coexistence—I did as I was told and I was able to remain in her household. I never grew fond of the fence made of bones, though I did not know of any other option at the time, and I always felt that the stilts of the house were a bit too frail for my liking. But the house never collapsed, the monsters never broke through the fence, and I never, ever went hungry.
The day that I began to bleed marked the end of my time with Baba Yaga. I woke up to see Baba Yaga's iron teeth gnashing against each other as she leaned over me, felt a sharp pain in my lower belly, and began to scream in terror as I saw the blood spreading across my bed. I propelled myself off of the bed, collapsing onto the floor, grasping my belly to keep my organs were falling out, and it wasn't until I had scrambled through the doorway that Baba Yaga began to laugh at me. My screams were muted when I realized that I was not sliced open, but rather oozing blood from between my legs. My body hurt all over, and pain kept on rippling through my lower back like an enraged boar. I asked Baba Yaga what had happened to me, and after she had bathed me and given me garments to keep my clothes clean, she explained that I was a child no longer. When I asked her if I was a woman, she snarled and merely told me that I would soon be leaving her.
The morning after, Baba Yaga disappeared for two weeks. Upon her return, she explained to me that she had found a suitable job for me now that I was unsuitable to live in her household. Two women, she told me, would only eat all the food.
Though the Baker who came to pick me up from Baba Yaga's house looked good (save for his gigantic belly), the horrors that I would endure while in his presence made the little hut with the bone fence look like an Eden. I was told that I would be his apprentice, and that with him, I would learn all of the culinary delights that Munich had to offer. Whether Baba Yaga knew that the man was a cannibal, I will never learn.
I remember the way he stared at me when I came out of the hut, the way he asked Baba Yaga if the sores around my mouth and face would ever go away, and she told him no—emphasizing the fact that I was now 'a woman,' and that such things are permanent after the first bit of blood is spilled.
The Baker was bald, obese, and had small, dark eyes and an upturned nose that seemed to fade away into his drooping cheeks. His lips were always quivering, as if some unfinished sentence were prancing across them, and his hands—his paws—were always wringing themselves. A sheen of sweat never failed to glisten on his face, and he constantly smelled of bacon and hard liquor.
I was silent for the two-day journey to Munich, and I spent much of the time wondering why Baba Yaga had never properly said goodbye. I had seen her interact with the hunters and trappers that occasionally passed by our hut, and the farewell that she had given me paled in comparison. I didn't cry, for I did not fully comprehend the situation into which I had now been thrust; though now that I look back—lost in these cascading images—I believe that, had I known, still no tears would have been shed.
Munich was overwhelming. The air smelled of brewing things and manure, and buildings taller than the most imperious fir tree lined the streets in crooked rows. Noises filled my ears like a thunderstorm: people at the market calling to one another, children screaming at play, animals parading along the street—clip-clop-clip-clopping along. Everyone seemed to be busy doing a thousand tasks at once, and they were quite eager to declare it. Munich was an entirely different world than the small town that I ventured into every few months to retrieve supplies. In the six years that I lived there, I never fully adapted to the loudness of it, to the dirty smells and the thick, musty air that floated into every crevice of its wood and stone structures.
For the first month, the Baker taught me how to make basic things, things that I had already learned with Baba Yaga: bread, pastries, and traditional dishes. I didn't dare question him as to why he decided to teach me these things, and he never offered me any explanation. I relearned quickly and, despite the occasional burnt batch, I was relatively talented. I rarely spoke to the Baker, except in short sentences, and kept my eyes upon his log-like feet whenever we exchanged words.
Sometimes he would brush past me, ever so gently for his physique, and no matter how many times I felt a hand graze my body, I could never stop the feeling of nausea from sweeping over me. It weakened my knees and quickened my heart, and made a tight ball of bile rise in my throat. When we shared our meals, it was a similar experience. He had no wife or children, least of all any friends, so it was always he and I, alone in his candle-lit, flour-coated kitchen. The food was delicious, though sometimes I would look up from my plate and find those little specks of black staring at me so wildly that they seemed like coal. He would keep his gaze upon me as he raised his food to his face, ripping off hunks of flesh and meat with concise, quick jerks of his chin. Sometimes I would catch his tongue, a horrible little pink snake, whipping out across his fork or spoon, and I could not stop suspecting that that tongue was meant for me.
He brought me to our church for the first time after two weeks. It was a rain-stained gray building, rising up from a hunk of rock along side the Isar River like a horned head. We arrived when much of the dark-clad crowd had filtered in through its arched oak doors. The smell was musky, almost rotten, but it was quickly forgotten as my eyes rose above the hundred, filled pews and to the ceiling above. Pillars of stone reached upwards, crossed by broken bridges of marble, weeping eyes and gnashing teeth carved into their sides. It seemed as if all the souls of Heaven were looking down upon me, their faces twisted in judgment before I could even have a seat. But above them stretched a canopy of glory: The One—the Savior that Baba Yaga had mentioned occasionally, and mostly when drawings of him appeared in the few books she possessed. He sat enthroned beside his mother—who had no sores at all—and his bearded face seemed to look down upon me with none of the overwhelming condemnation of the stone people. My necked ached from peering upwards, and I immediately dropped my eyes back to the earth as I felt a heavy hand on the small of my back. I suppressed a shudder, but then felt a greater seed of fear began to grow at me.
Faces—freshly-scrubbed—had turned to look at us. Their eyes were narrowed and cold, and more than one mouth was freely whispering to those around it. I saw no smiles, no looks of interest: they mimicked their counterparts above. I could feel the distortions on my face grow larger, my plainness increasing along with it, and I did not know how to stop it. I had cleaned and dressed myself as the Baker had ordered, but I knew that was not what they were viewing.
The Baker ignored them and squeezed himself into a pew at the back of the cathedral, the wood groaning as he sat down. I shuffled my feet to follow him, my face burning. The whispering became a noise, a horrible, harsh noise that approached on the pulpit: clip-clop-clip-clop-clop.
A man appeared, clad in white, and the heads turned towards him. I seated myself, somehow understanding the passed judgment, and looked up at the King, feeling the darkness in my eyes begin to expand.
I still remember the face of the girl that he brought into our shop. It was narrow—her cheekbones angled so sharply downwards that I immediately knew that she was poor. Her body was thin, and her hair was a dark brown, like the color of ground cocoa beans, and her eyes were ordinary. There was no spark of interest in them, though they did widen when she saw the display of baked goods that lined the wall behind the counter. I looked down as the Baker took the girl by the hand, his deep voice grumbling that she would receive even more food in the back room—food that he had prepared specially for her.
I smiled at her as he led her into the back room, knowing that all that room contained were sacks of flour and spices and a very heavy, very worn iron door. After the incident was over, I looked into the room and found the remains of the encounter: a bit of blood spilled across a sack of flour, the imprint of both of their bodies still made out in the spilled powder. But the most disturbing were the scratch marks, the dents, and the stains that occupied the lower half of the door, the exact height where a child would stand.
Even now, burning just as the girl later burned in our oven, I can still hear her faint screams coming from that back room, still hear a bit of pounding against the door, still see the red and black chasm in her head. Curious, I had followed them to the back, listening—I would later learn—as he began his preparations to utterly consume her. When he had finished the initial step, the Baker emerged from the room, carrying the girl in his arms, covered in flour from head to toe. She was also as white as a ghost, though the blood that covered her stomach and abdomen had merged with the flour to become a horrible brown paste. As I opened my mouth to scream, the Baker simply turned to me and explained that if I were to tell anyone, if I were to even protest, he would do the same to me, even though I was apparently a woman.
He had me go to the front of the store once more, to close shop for the night. My arms were heavy as I shut the wooden door, and though I dropped the plank of wood across the lock with a resounding thud, I could still hear him sharpening his knives from the kitchen. I watched as crowds passed by the glass window of our shop, ignorant to the unimaginable horrors that were occurring not forty feet away. I heard the clank of the large pot being hung over the hearth, and the slosh of water as it filled its dark insides.
After he began to call my name, my mind went blank.
I remember the final presentation: there was a stew, two or three filets, and then the most abnormal, the most obscene. Two small hands, fried for barely a minute in a vat of boiling lard. They were brown, the skin wrinkled and barely hanging on. Her fingernails had been stolen from their beds.
He took a hand, broke off a crispy finger with a horrible crack and crinkle of bone and skin, and popped it into his mouth, sucking the flesh until he spat out the bones. I sat in my chair, reeling in horror, my hands stuffed between my legs as I fought to keep my bladder inside of me.
His eyes rolled back into his head as he took his first dainty sip of the stew, his jaw sawing back and forth across chunks of meat and vegetables.
He pointed to the red and pink steak in front of me with a bone from another finger. "Eat."
I moved to shake my head, but instead vomited so violently onto the floor beside me that I began to sob. The Baker ignored this, and continued to eat from all of his dishes, occasionally cleansing his palate from his goblet of red wine. Or at least it looked like wine.
This was a nightmare—this man was a monster. Had Baba Yaga done this to punish me for becoming a woman? Why had she found this man? How had she found this man?
But I didn't. I clamped my hands onto the bottom of my chair and shook my head. The Baker's piggy eyes bored two tiny holes into mine and filled them with terror.
"As an adult, you should understand why I am doing this," he explained so calmly that I felt a damp warmth spread across my lap. I had never heard him speak like this to me, let alone utter an eloquent word to anyone. A light came into his eyes, widening their borders, defining the black abyss in its center. He seemed strangely transformed—mutated, as if all of the caked flour in the creases of his face was washed away.
"You see," he continued, chewing through a bite of the girl's steak, "animals don't like the taste of humans." He wiped his greasy mouth on his sleeve and took a swig of his drink, red staining his teeth as he opened them to speak again. "We taste like how we are: we taste full of corruption, full of sins against God. Animals do not know of sin, animals have no soul. But when they taste us, when they taste the blood that pumps through our hearts and brains, they taste every evil thought, every crime against Heaven." He raised his eyes to the ceiling, the thin line of black hair on his arms standing on-end as he shivered.
"But children, young girls," he said, wafting the scents of the girl's meat towards him with his thick, man-killing hands, "they know no crime. Until they taste that first bit of desire, until that first squirt of blood comes out from between their legs, they do not know evil. They are, in essence, pure."
I then understood that I was as safe as I had been in Baba Yaga's house, though it was not because of this man's gluttony. Had Baba Yaga waited to send me here, waited until that first seed of corruption grew in my abdomen?
"When an adult consumes, when an adult eats the flesh of a child, they are, for a moment, until the meal is over, free of all sin."
The Baker shoved two fried fingers towards me. He had the actions of a Scythian barbarian, but a voice not unlike the priest in our Cathedral. "Now, eat. Wash away your sins."
My chair was soaking, and the sharp smell of urine was now stinging my nostrils.
I refused, though the Baker tried twice, in growing anger, to get me to eat the body of the girl. When he was done, he stood and wiped his trousers before hurling the napkin on the table. He commanded me to clean up, and to never say a word to anyone for fear of death. Until I learned to enjoy human flesh, he repeated this to me at every meal.
I vomited once more while I threw the girl's bones into the large sack he provided for me, and cried bitterly at my fate as I hid them beneath the cellar. But when I tried to return to the main level, I found the door locked. Through the keyhole, I could see the Baker standing outside, breathing so loudly that I could hear him from the foot of the stairs. Through the door he told me that until I learned to eat what I was told to, I would not eat, I would not see sunlight or speak to anyone at all.
I was down there for two days, starving, when I heard the next girl come into the shop. I never saw her face, though I did hear the pleading as the Baker prepared to kill her in the back room. She squealed for a while, a horrible noise barely audible above the Baker's grunts of pleasure, but soon was dead. The Baker threw the door to the cellar open, and tried to make me eat, but yet again I refused.
I found several candles—as well as flint—and managed to stumble across a trickle of water along one of the stone walls. My mouth had been as dry as straw, and as I cupped my hands against the freezing surface, all that I could see was the Savior—child, as I learned, of God, though born of a woman who had not known sin. I thanked Him again and again as my tongue rolled the water into my parched throat, sobs of exhaustion wracking my body.
It was also long this very wall that I soon discovered my other salvation. It was a bookcase, twice as high as I and nearly three times as long, filled with books.
I had been instructed how to read and write by Baba Yaga, though my knowledge was still vague, and, with nothing to do as I sat in the candle-lit gloom for hours, I gingerly selected a tomb from its shelf. Was this the source of the Baker's eloquence? I could still hear his words in my head.
I began to read—slowly at first as I stumbled over words, and found myself transported away from my dank prison. I was lost in a dark wood, my companion a ghost named Virgil who was to lead me back to the correct path. We traveled through Hell, encountering all sorts of evil and judgment—at points abandoning all hope of ever reaching our long-awaited Heaven.
I would continue reading long after I left the cellar—I would sneak down at night to steal books, replacing them as soon as I had finished reading them in secret, stealing chapters whenever the Baker was asleep or away. My reading improved, naturally, though the burning scene around me is now probably all the worse because of it.
I was down in the cellar for four more days, and so hungry that I had to abandon my adventures after encountering a man named Charon to spend most of my day chasing after rats. They all escaped me, of course.
Hunger squatted inside of me, gnawing at my insides so harshly that soon the empty barrels began to look appetizing. I missed Baba Yaga's feasts; I missed seeing her carrying animal carcasses over her shoulder as she emerged from the woods. I read when I could, descending deeper and deeper into Hell, trying to forget the horrors that lay around me.There were hundreds of sacks that lined the far wall of the cellar—and I knew what lay inside. When I slept, I heard their voices; I heard the rattling and creaking of them trying to reassemble themselves so that they could go home, or at least find an empty grave. By the time the week ended, I was so delirious with hunger and terror that when I heard the child—a girl—screaming, I was desperate.
I vomited after I put a piece of the girl's flesh in my mouth, but kept on eating. I pretended it was not a girl, pretended it was a cow, or a pig—yes, a pig, the flesh matched that of a pig—so that by the time I had consumed an entire steak, I was able to move onto the stew.
When I vomited for two hours later that night, safe in my own room on the second floor, I found myself more disgusted with the fact that it had tasted good. There was something about it.
But now I was dirty. Now I was corrupt, rotten.
I felt the girl's meat being digested through my body, felt her goodness squeeze through my intestines, her innocence leaking into my blood. I knew that so long as this thing, this good, clean thing was inside of me, the Baker, the epitome of evil, could do no harm to me.
It took me three more children to get through a night without empting my stomach, but by that time, I was allowed to participate in the cooking process itself. I was never allowed into the back room, never allowed to kill them in my own way, but as I learned the best ways to slice bone in two or cut the meat from their legs and bottom, it all became a ritual.
We attended church every Sunday, often during the week as well, and as I learned more about the religion that Baba Yaga had explained to me in brief, and was able to compare it to the books that I devoured by night, I began to fully understand the workings of our unusual sacrifice. I would pray to God as I cut them, as I ate them, to fill me with the innocence they provided for us, to bring me closer to His Grace. Sometimes I would pray aloud, and though I still never looked at the Baker, I could tell that he was smiling. He saw no God in this. All he saw was Greed.
As the years passed, I learned the secret workings of the Bakery: I learned how to make culinary masterpieces that drew crowds to our shop. But I also mastered the art of eating the body, the ways to make flesh sing to you as you cooked it, the way you could immediately judge a child's goodness by how much they talked, by who they babbled about as the Baker slew them. The more I created evil, the more I cleansed it. I could not stop. My mind began to expand, to push on my skull with the literature that had seeped into it, and questions arose that began to pound and wail.
By the time I was nineteen, things in Munich were stirring. Children, lots of children, were missing, and all roads led to our shop. When we got word that a mob was on its way, we fled to the countryside, this time going so deep into the Dresden region that we bordered Austria. All of our belongings, all of the books and sacks of bones and precious tools were left behind. At first, I was caught up in the excitement of it: I was a legendary rogue, on the run from the mindless proletariat that had caught onto our wicked plans.
But as the noise of the crowd disappeared into panting, my eyes saw what really lay before us. The forests here were as dense as they had been with Baba Yaga, though these were not lush. The trees were skeletal, the carpet of the forest was a brown cape of needles, and hungry wolves prowled amongst the gray trunks, looking for a snack.
We ran until we could not run anymore, until our provisions ran out and we found ourselves in front of a rundown cottage three days from the nearest town. We were possibly in Austria, lost in some part of the once-Holy Roman Empire. There was little vegetation, little sunlight, and little possibility of any kind of garden or livestock thriving here. But here was where the Baker wanted to remain. He found some roots, which were so bitter that you spat them out immediately, and immediately refused to venture into town to sell his remaining jewels and gold in exchange for food.
A week passed by, and we managed to find a single bird—a wild chicken—to eat. I barely received a wing. The forest was dead. Songbirds chirped far above us, and at one point, the Baker had me climb a tree to find nests, but I couldn't even make it up to the first branch before slipping down.
Another week passed by.
The stone cottage was filled with dirt and debris, though some semblance of life did still remain, and there were several holes in its thatched roof. When it rained, we cowered in the corners of the house, finding company with mothballs and spider webs.
We were starving. Starving yet again.
I knew what his plan was from the moment he sent me out into the forest to find something to eat. I waited close to an hour before returning through the maze of trees, and felt a knot of fear twist itself into a lead ball in my stomach as I saw smoke rising from our chimney. I don't know why I came back.
I entered our house, saw a cauldron filled with boiling water from our well, as well as what looked like several of those awful roots, and I let out a cry of terror as the door slammed shut behind me and he charged forward, carving knives in hand. I was able to maneuver around the furniture of the room with relative nimbleness, but somehow—in some way, he managed to herd me before the hearth. I tried to make a run for the door, tried to escape his monstrous form, but it was to no avail.
With a burst of speed, he knocked me off of my feet, sending me flying towards the cauldron. I felt the heat of the fire singe my hair, I tasted the metallic blandness of charcoal, I smelled the Baker's consuming greed as he waddled towards me, his knives glowing red in the fire. The Baker stood before me, his brown pants torn and filthy from weeks of starvation and travel, his apron stretched across his wide belly.
Stupidly, though it saved my life, I frantically pulled myself up, grabbing the lid of the cauldron for support. My hand spasmed in pain as I felt my flesh melt onto its burning hot surface, but it was enough. The cauldron, an old, rusting, untrustworthy thing, tipped and poured forth its boiling contents just as the Baker leaned downwards to grab me. The liquid poured onto his head, onto his chest, emptying its contents so quickly that he only began screaming afterwards.
I scrambled away, my legs and hands aching from the burns I had just received, and I watched, horror-stricken as he screamed on the floor. His face was red and white, his eyes seemed to me melted shut, and his lips were so swollen that within moments he could no longer scream. His clothes had attached themselves to his skin, and as he wriggled on the steaming floor like a maggot, I could only stare.
It took him half a day to die, and I sat by him the entire time, watching him from the safety of the kitchen table as he lay before the dying fire. It took me another half a day to make sure that he was really dead, and by that time so much of him had melted together that I had to throw aside several major parts of him before getting to the meat that lay inside.
I made a quick stew, gagging, as I tasted his flesh, though my hunger did take control. I could not stop eating. It seemed as if all the evil lay inside of him, and as I fed off of his body for two days, I was in a constant state of prayer. I could not repent enough for taking this man's sins into my body. I could taste them; I could hear the demons swimming around in me.
When I was strong enough, I smoked and cured his meat, preparing for the journey that I knew I had to undertake. I dumped his bones in the nearby river, covering all traces that might lead it back to me. I took all of the jewels and money that remained, as well as enough of his remains to keep me alive for three days, and headed towards the nearest town.
Along the way, I knew that I had to pay for this atrocity. I had to remove from myself the evil that I had taken in—just to survive.
And so I hatched a plan, a way to lure children to my house and keep myself clean from the Baker's diseased body.
When I reached the town, I bought a horse and cart, and then spent a good portion of my remaining money on the necessary things: baking goods. I bought hundreds of pounds of flour, sugar, and yeast. I bought chickens, a cow, and an assortment of seeds. I bought enough to build my vision.
But then, for some odd reason, I saw something that made me stop. A woman—ordinary, plain, your usual peasant, smiled at me. She smiled at me and did not knot her brows over my ugliness. She did not know what still sat in my organs, but she seemed to not care. She smiled—displaying her crooked, yellow teeth—and I forgot about the cottage.
I invested in a small shop: a good place to begin your own business. I cleaned it out thoroughly, eating nothing but bread and water as I worked, and set up shop. From the moment I hung my wooden sign above the little door, people began to stream in. They smiled at me and asked questions, and came back again and again, saying that my food was far better than the other baker in town.
I would have enjoyed this thoroughly, were it not for the realization that dawned on me soon after my first successful week: I was alone. For the first time, I had no one leering at me, no one piling on commands, no touching or snarling or glaring at me. The freedom was stifling. The whole world seemed a flat expanse of space, filled with evils and pleasures that no page in any book could ever describe. I could smell the air of a life without shackles, and it stung my nose.
I baked marvelous inventions: seven-tiered pastries, filled with a rainbow of red, pink, and white crèmes; cookies that took on the form of real animals; cakes that could have passed for miniature castles. Day and night I labored, trying to adapt to the open air around me, and could do nothing but try to cover myself with work. I bought more books, spending much of the money that poured in, but found no solace in them. The world still seemed so vast, and I seemed too meek and disfigured for it. I could not decide whether to run or to lie down, and so I just stood—for five months—waiting for someone to choose for me.
I don't know how the rumor got started, to this day I still suspect my rival, but soon the smiles began to fade. Fewer people came around, and when they did, conversation was minimal. I would watch children outside of my shop hurry by, whispering to each other a word that I could clearly make out on their lips: witch.
I still attended their Catholic church every Sunday, but I soon ceased attending when I walked into the scene that I had consistently witnessed in Munich. With a single word, I heard the clink of iron once more. I stopped producing my works of glory, stopped creating anything except for the basic essentials, but still the silence continued.
It was when I awoke to the distinct sound of my front glass window shattering, followed by a string of curses and condemnations that I considered that perhaps the rumors were true.
I suddenly understood why I had been standing for so long. I still felt the Baker inside of me, felt his filth and heard his contrasting words of Enlightenment, and when I looked in the mirror at my marked and unsightly features—which seemed to have grown in the past seven years—all I could see was his face, grinning at me. I scratched at myself, flinging myself around the room as I tried to pry him from my body, but I could still feel the weight of him. I could hear him crunching on bones, sucking fat from little fingers. He was squatting within me like a toad, and until I could remove him, I was indeed a witch.
The next morning, I bought triple my usual supplies, loaded them into my cart—which was filled with all of my belongings—and spoke to no one as I closed my shop for good, save for the whisper, the glowing lie that I poured into the ear of a little boy. I then headed into the woods, my plan for Salvation hanging like a web before me.
When I returned to that miserable cottage, I immediately set to work. I ripped down the thatch, which was now even more decayed, with my own hands, fired up the brick oven, carefully repairing the iron door that hung by its hinges. Little did I know that that same door would later lead to my Doom.
For two weeks I baked as if I were a Fury, not even Baba Yaga's daily feasts could have matched what I conjured into my house: mammoth walls and a roof of gingerbread, glued together with glaze, gumdrops the size of my head, life-size gingerbread children that were to line the path to my house, icicles of clumped sugar, trees made of chocolate lace...
A miraculous glaze held it all together: made from eggs, sugar, and, low and behold, the bitter root (which curdled the sugar so intensely that it bound to everything). I glued the gingerbread walls to the existing stone walls, inside and out, using the original structure of the house as a support for my vision. I was actually able to make a door out of treacle and taffy. I baked and baked and baked until I could bake no more.
When I finished my work, and stared at the final product, I could not believe my eyes. It was a fairytale; a vision conjured from St. Nicholas' workshop, a masterpiece. I had built a gingerbread house.
It took another week for the first child to venture towards my cottage: it was the same child I had instructed to spread the rumor of my house to. He greedily began to eat at my sugar-paned windows, and while he was stuffing icing into his mouth, I grabbed him from behind and slit his throat with a carving knife.
He was plump, and his flesh, which I cooked immediately, was as fine as any I had eaten before. This was the first time I had ever prepared and cooked a child on my own, and I consumed him with greed. I did not mind that he was a boy, for I had really never understood the logic behind the Baker's exclusivity, and as I consumed all of him, I felt purity wash over me more liberating than any solitude.
For the next eight years, children continued to come to my house, fed by the legend of a house made entirely of candy and a kindly old lady occupying its interior who would feed you until you exploded with joy. The first time it rained, I began to panic, but was soon relieved to find that the glaze—that amazing, bitterroot glaze—held everything together against the rain. True, my sugar-pane windows did melt, but I quickly replaced them once the rain had stopped.
It was an ordinary day: I was smoking a particularly fat child in my kitchen, singing along to myself, as I heard two children approach my house. I could hear them cry with delight, lifting their voices in praise to my Lord, and then I could hear them break off bits of my house, munch-munch-munching. I waited until they had eaten their fill—waited until their bellies were too full to run, and then hobbled outside. They gasped at my distorted face, but I grabbed the boy before he could run.
His hair was a mop of curled blond, and though his clothes hung in tatters, he commanded me with a pompous voice that only the spoiled could have. He couldn't have been older than eight, and as I dragged him towards the door, his sister—a scrawny, rotten looking thing—began to attack me. She pulled my braid and hollered until her nasal voice broke, and I realized that I could not kill them both right now.
As I knocked aside the girl and yanked and hurled the boy inside, he kicked at my door, knocking it clean off its hinges. The girl began a rampage: she ripped down curtains of spun sugar, shattered my windows, tore my gumdrops off of the walls, and by the time she was done hurling my flower-shaped cookies onto the floor, I had thrown her wretched companion (who had screamed and commanded me the whole way) into the pen at the far end of the room. It was small, barely big enough for pigs, and it thankfully had iron bars and a steady lock provided.
The boy howled and reached through the bars at the girl who was now kneeling before him, weeping.
I felt a headache coming on, and as I watched them glare and sob at me, I could not control my frustration. I just wanted a meal. All I wanted was to taste that quick, soft purity and feel it wash through me again. The girl began to blabber about her father, so I barked at them the inevitable truth: I was going to eat them for dinner.
They were both painfully skinny, as if they had only eaten breadcrumbs for weeks, and I realized that no meal would come of them. I needed more, more flesh.
The girl was a nimrod without her brother, Hansel, as she called him. Locked behind bars, Hansel could do nothing for them, and so the girl, Gretel, was under my control.
As she had destroyed much of my house, I put her immediately to work. I knew she would not leave her brother, and once I learned that they were lost and suffering from a bout of Wicked Stepmother, I knew that there was no help to be gained be fleeing anyway.
All day long, I had her alternate baking my house with baking food for her brother, who could do nothing but complain. Every night, I would check the fatness of his fingers to measure his weight gain, and every night he remained bone thin.
A week passed by: my house was repaired, and while Gretel was rapidly gaining weight, Hansel remained as thin as ever. It seemed that, with all of his complaining and moaning, all of his food was quickly burned off.
They would ask me why I was so wicked, why I insisted on eating them, when they were so good and kind. They told me of their poor, dead mother, who loved them so much. They inquired constantly about how long I would insist upon keeping them there, about how I would kill them if I ever got the nerve, and as the days passed by, they became bolder. They wanted to know how I expected to face God, and when I told them that their flesh brought me close to God, then condemned me to Hell.
When Hansel attempted to chew through the walls around them, and discovered the thick layer of stone between, I heard nothing but wailing for hours. When Gretel burned her hand on the cauldron, I could do nothing but listen to her groan. But Hansel, the ringleader, the little lord, would not grow fat.
I was hungry, starving. My mouth began to water every time I looked at them. They were mine to eat.
I felt filthy, felt as if I had fallen into a deep abyss of ice. I heard the screams of that first girl, heard the breathing of the Baker, felt his hands brush against my body. I needed purity, and only a feast of two children would cleanse me.
And so I began to build a fire, a great fire, in the oven. I would shove them both in there and dance to the music of their screams as they burned alive. Hansel and Gretel were both unbearable now: they called out scripture at me, called me a hypocrite for having a Bible and reading aloud to them, and pointed fingers, little flesh-covered fingers at me. They said that God cursed me with my ugly, wart-covered face, and that the sores around my mouth were a result of my poor diet.
I was going to kill them today. I was going to shove the girl first into the oven and then her brother.
I could taste their flesh; smell the spices I would use to flavor them. All I could see was that feast.
I decided to trick Gretel into climbing into the oven. I would tell her to add more wood, tell her to reach in so far that I could just shove her into the chamber and shut the door. But then she began to complain in that high-pitched, close-nosed voice. She ran her hands through her golden curls, her blue eyes filling with tears as she said that she could not fit into the oven.
I was furious. I could have slit her throat immediately for that. To prove her wrong, to finally prove her wrong, I climbed in to show her that she could indeed fit in.
But then I felt two small hands push against my softening bottom, pushing so hard that I was thrown forward, face-first, towards the fire at the center of the oven, my legs sliding in behind me across the smooth surface.
I heard the shrill cry of the oven door slamming and locking shut—a lock that I had put on there—and then I began to panic.
It was so hot.
I was dying.
There was no air to breathe, and the fire blazed in front of me.
I had been tricked; I had been made a fool of. I was going to die.
Had this been what God intended for me? The Darkness was now covering everything. Pain was slipping further and further away. I could still hear them laughing outside, still hear the scrape of wood as they shoved it in through the hatch.
Everything keeps on flashing by me—again and again and again—so fast that my entire life takes but a second to view. It passes by me seven times.
Why hadn't I been given choices? Why had Baba Yaga left me to that man? Where was God now? He was resting in the bellies of those two demons, resting there and laughing with them. Why had he dealt them such a fortunate hand? Why had they escaped?
The fire blazes brighter, just for a moment, and then everything stops. I see bodies buried in ice, only their heads revealed above the tundra, heir mouths hanging open as they ask the question that surges up from my soul.
Why not me?