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My mother died in September. It was one of the worst Septembers we’d had in years. Cold every day, a constant fear of black ice, weeks when we’d forget the sky could be blue. It wasn’t a surprise or anything. She’d been ill for months, and we knew it was coming. The funeral was held in October. I’d told my father a few weeks before. I wrote him a letter because I was afraid of how his voice might sound down the phone, and, if he received it, he never let me know. It sounds like a delicate situation, but it wasn’t. I’ve never been close with either of my parents and, as far as I could tell, they were never that close with each other.
I was two months out of university. I’d moved back home to see her through those cruel and final days. She was an organised woman, my mother; the practicalities of her death distracting us both from the fact it was happening. There were lists, boxes, jewellery that might have been worth something but probably wasn’t. She’d closed most of her bank accounts, ordered the coffin. I made tea and held her hand while she slept. She wouldn’t have let me hold it while she was awake. We didn’t have that kind of relationship.
There wasn’t much reason for me to stay afterwards. I had a friend in the city with a room to rent and a life that only promised to get better. I kept a box of things for myself: a few of her books, toys I vaguely remember playing with, a dusty picture of my parents looking both strange yet familiar, young and in love and nothing like the people I knew.
The sun came out on the October afternoon that I drove away. If you asked me about that day, I’d tell you about the house in my rearview mirror, the blue sky behind it and the scratch of The Velvet Underground coming out of the broken radio. I’d tell you how it felt like the beginning of something.
A lot of things happened after that. I moved in with my friend, the one with the room, and October turned into November and then one year turned into the next. I got a job, I lost the job, I moved out, I fell in love and it nearly killed me. I had a few more jobs after that and a couple of stints in therapy. I sat on sofas and talked about the day my father left. I listened to specialists tell me how it affected me, like I didn’t already know, and I walked out of rooms I never went back into. There were joys and setbacks and bosses I hated. There were men who made promises they weren’t able to keep. I got married around the same time everyone else did, to a kind and well-familied man. I never mentioned my mother’s house to him. We pooled both our incomes, saved for years, and eventually we bought our own place, a two-bedroom flat on the coast. If I told him I owned a semi-detached three-bed that stood empty just four hours away, he would ask why I never tried to sell it. You might be wondering the same thing. It looks premeditated now, like I’d always decided to keep it for myself. A place I could take the other men where he’d never find out. But it wasn’t like that. It still isn’t, I swear.
The thing is my husband has lived the kind of blissfully ignorant, perfect life all parents wish their children will. I don’t talk about the house because I know no one would buy it. I don’t talk about the house because I rarely talk about my parents. I’m not ashamed of the place I grew up, but I know for a fact that where he comes from children never went missing in the woods, they didn’t steal, and they didn’t murder. I know that my husband never knew anyone like Gretel or Hansel. His life was just different to mine, that’s all.
The road to my adulterous affair began at a Christmas party. I’d never thought about cheating, though I wasn’t one of those people with strong opinions on it. I’d dated a married man in my 20s, and my mother had affairs that began far before my father left. But when I got married, I didn’t think I’d be the type to cheat. I suppose none of us go into it thinking we will. I don’t love him, if that’s what you’re wondering. He was wearing a velvet jacket. A teenager in a white shirt was pouring champagne into my glass and there was a Bing Crosby song playing in the room. My husband had to work, his wife had a headache, and it made sense for us to share a taxi home. We were both going west.
The first time was rushed, more about the thrill of it, the shock at what we were doing – what we had done – than anything else. I found his email address online a few days later, waited, and then wished him a happy new year. He was parked outside my mother’s house two weeks after that, and then I was unlocking the door and talking about how long it had been, apologising for all the dust. I mean it when I say I don’t love him. I don’t mind the drive; it clears my head and honestly sometimes when he’s above me and his face is scrunched in concentration, the bed beating against the wall, I’ll wonder if I even like him at all. I’ll wonder why I need this.
I know today is the last time. It’s not that he’s said anything, but sometimes you can taste the apprehension on someone’s lips. We did all the things we usually do, yet somehow it didn’t feel the same. Afterwards we drank tea, and he looked out of the window, into the woods. That’s when he said we should go for a walk.
I don’t like to go into the woods. I wouldn’t be here at all if he hadn’t suggested it. If I didn’t know he’d got something he needed to say,and whatever it is that’s coming, he can’t say it looking me straight in the eye. It has to be here, where we’re listening to the birds and smelling the green and looking at the trees, not each other. I know what’s coming. The guilt has crept in and for one reason or another – maybe she’s pregnant maybe it’s cancer maybe she found a receipt in his wallet – it’s over.
I’m talking fast. About my mother and the food she used to cook, about the men who would come over and spend the night, the ones I’d meet in the bathroom or in my father’s robe at the kitchen table.
“That must have been hard,” he says, and I say: “not really.”
My mother’s house is in the centre of town and even as a child I never came to these woods. No one did, after what happened. We’ve been walking for almost 30 minutes and, though sunlight flickers through the leaves, the air itself is cold. Tree roots splattered with moss knot their way across the path. He stumbles over a rock.
I start talking about the summers. The ones when my parents were still together and we’d have these barbecues where my dad would round up strangers from all over town and he’d get drunk and laugh loudly and later my mother would shout and smash things.
He stops me. “Marisol,” he says and right then my heart goes straight through me. I don’t know why it is, but the idea of this man I don’t love telling me he doesn’t love me back is enough to shatter me whole.
“I’m really sorry,” he says. “I can’t do this anymore.”
We’ve come to a clearing, and the light hits the grass like a spotlight, the smell of sun mixing with yesterday’s rain. I didn’t realise it was this close. I guess everything seems bigger when you’re a child. The cottage is in front of us. It’s small, wonky, and wooden, the gingerbread-coloured paint more of a sooty brown than I remember. There’s tape wrapped around it. Crime scene tape that no one bothered to ever take down. He knows I’m not listening. I’m staring at the narrow brick chimney, the one that leads straight from the oven, the one they found the old lady burnt to a crisp inside.
“Marisol,” he says. “She knows about everything.”
I can’t hear him. I’m thinking about that winter, almost 30 years ago now. The winter Gretel and Hansel went missing. I’m thinking back to the flash of red and blue lights in the streets at night. The sound of sirens and police cars and reporters asking why. The shock of adults crying. Parents with watery eyes holding us so much tighter, thanking god that it wasn’t us.
Gretel was in my class. She was pretty, which meant she was popular, and at the start of each school day she would decide which one of us would be ‘shunned.’ Being shunned meant that no one was allowed to speak to you for the day. If you tried to talk to the others, they would run away from you laughing. It’s not a nice feeling having people run away from you laughing.
Hansel was nothing like his sister. He was a year older than us, which would have made him nine. He was shy. He had the same almond brown eyes and soft blond curls and he melted every mother’s heart. People in town loved Gretel and Hansel because they were beautiful and poor and their father chopped wood and their mother was dead and they had this stepmother who so clearly wanted nothing to do with them.
Even before what happened happened, people would look at the two of them, walking hand in hand down the road, and they’d turn to each other and whisper: “Isn’t it sad? No children should grow up without a mother.” But nowadays people in town don’t remember the sympathy they felt for Gretel and Hansel. Not after what they did to that poor old lady, not after they pushed her into an oven, not after they burnt her alive.
The story goes something like this.
Gretel and Hansel went for a walk in the woods with their stepmother. They’d done this a few times, the stepmother leaving them in the woods, the two of them finding their own way home. It was all very odd, but we lived in the kind of place where people who felt they should do something, interfere somehow to make it better, never really did. When you discuss something enough with all the wrong people, you often lose the compulsion to do it.
So the stepmother would take them on these long walks and one day they never came home. I remember seeing her on the news, the stepmother. She had long dark hair and these awful, crooked teeth and she cried into the camera as she explained how they’d run away. How she’d had no choice but to return home without them. Four weeks went by. The woods were searched, no bodies were found, and the parents were called in for questioning.
There was at one point a story that she’d left them alone there to die. That the woodcutter and his wife didn’t have enough money to feed them. There were a lot of different stories like that. None of us ever knew what to believe.
For those first four weeks, they were doe-eyed missing children snatched cruelly from their family and their faces were all over the news. I remember that time so clearly. The town was heartbroken. School was closed and my mother put lasagnas in tupperwares and left them outside the woodcutter’s house. My father hadn’t moved out yet, but he was on his way. What happened with Gretel and Hansel had nothing to do with my family, nothing to do with the breakdown of my parents’ marriage, yet when I look back on it now, it all happened in such close succession that it’s impossible to separate it. The start of everything that went wrong – the divorce, the piles and piles of lasagnas, the rotation of men squinting in the sunlight of our kitchen and the ones in adulthood whom I’ve since begged to love me – it all started that winter. It all began when a crooked-toothed woman with straggly dark hair left her stepchildren in the woods and never looked back.
It was about a month later when they were found. A fisherman was walking along the river and he saw them desperately trying to cross it. Their arms were laden with emeralds and rubies and their faces, though hollow and scared, were just as beautiful as ever. He knew who they were, it was impossible not to. They were returned to their father, the stepmother now long gone, and the whole town wept with emotion.
In a perfect world that might have been it. Their happily ever after.
But we all know the kind of world we live in; life isn’t a fairy tale and there were a lot of people with a lot of questions. Like why was Gretel so thin and Hansel so fat, where did the jewellery come from, where had they been all this time, and why was there smoke coming out of the chimney in that old cottage in the heart of the woods?
They found her body a week or so later. Or what was left of it at least. The question of why was never answered. No one knows why two children walked into an old woman’s house, what they did there for the weeks before they killed her, and why at the end of it they did. A film crew came about 10 years ago, something about a true crime documentary, though, if one was made, I never watched it.
I didn’t see Gretel or Hansel after they came back. They were only at home for a few days before they were in a psychiatric ward, and then they were no longer innocent motherless children but monstrous child killers. I’ve heard they were detained until they were 18, their names were changed and none of us ever found out what happened next. The father moved away. To America, I think.
The sun is behind a cloud and a crow flaps around on the roof of the cottage. It flies down to the ground and picks at the crime scene tape.
“Marisol,” he says. “Did you hear what I just said?”
I’m trying to picture the old lady they killed. The image in my head is of a beak-nosed woman hunched over a walking stick in a long black cape, though I don’t know where this comes from. I’m trying to imagine her here in this cottage, here in these woods. He’s not looking at the house, he’s looking at me.
“It’s fine,” I say eventually. “We always knew this was going to happen.”
I think about telling him the story of Gretel and Hansel and the house that’s right in front of us but somehow I’m not able to form the words. Maybe it’s because he’s ending it. Maybe it’s because he’s come here each week and laid in that bed with me and now he’s walking away like it’s nothing at all. I can’t give him anything to make him stay, not my body, not my heart, not some scary story about two kids I used to know.
“You really are an incredible woman,” he says though I wish he wouldn’t because it makes it so much worse. “I hope you find what makes you happy.”
As we silently walk back to my mother’s house, I wonder if I can sell it. I thought about it a few years ago, before everything else got in the way. I must have talked myself out of it; all of those houses lost their value after it happened, people moved away, and a lot of them stand empty now. I might as well keep it, I thought to myself.
One day people might forget. One day life might move on.