Mouths, the illustrator thinks, this story is full of mouths: mouths that cannot be fed, mouths belonging to children that fill themselves with the witch’s home, mouths of ovens that consume, the mouth of the witch who wants to eat the children. We think of this as a story about two children abandoned in a wood by their parents and the way breadcrumbs fail to lead them home. We think of this as a story about escaping supernatural atrocities. But perhaps it is really a story about how to eat, whom to fill the gut with, and why. Perhaps this is a story about the way the body aches to be satisfied, and how we call this both hunger and desire.
In the corners of her studio, spiders have dwelled and in dwelling, left their webs.
Do you know The Way? Hansel asks. And Gretel: Yes. She has learned how to mislead gracefully, convincingly. She knows all about deception and duplicity. Her job is to ease unrest, and inventing fictions is the best method of doing so. Half her work is tricking him into trusting himself, and the other half is giving him the tools to make the right decisions. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will find that these are the first steps toward being an adult.
Mouths, the illustrator thinks. The hardest task of illustrating is choosing which lines of the prose to put into action. Illustration should amplify the text, not mute it or render it reduced. Illustration should be a mechanism for helping the story breathe. Or rather, illustration should be the instrument that invites the reader to digest—a break in the forward propulsion of time, the same way silence punctuates music. That is why they call silence a rest.
She has studied the tale intensely. What she didn’t know before she took up this project: that the Brothers Grimm are not the story’s authors, but its keepers, recorders, and curators. That folktales once lived only in the memory of those who passed the stories through generations and across hills and prairies, so that their telling was an ephemeral event. That the story of Hansel and Gretel has been categorized by a very specific system, and that system places it in a family of stories deemed Otherworldly Opponents.
Mouths, the illustrator thinks. Imagine the mouth that invites the body of another. It could be an act that instigates pleasure, or it could be an act that inaugurates pain.
What did you dream last night? Gretel asks Hansel. I dreamt that all the flat planes in the sky—the moon, the clouds—had width, like you and me. I dreamt the sun was spherical like fruit. I dreamt the forest lasted forever, and instead of reaching the end, the world curved and we kept walking until we traversed the whole earth and met the place from where we started several years from now.
What did you dream? Hansel asks Gretel. She looks at him and says she dreamt that she was burned until she became ashes and then he gave the ashes to the wind. In this way, she traveled across great distances, plural and multiplied, seeing everything simultaneously, all places and all times.
She says this, but it is a lie. She cannot come to tell him that she no longer dreams.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are standing outside. They are watching the night sky and thinking about the third edition of their collection of tales. Under Wilhelm’s pen, the stories have changed shape, moved further from their origins to become more palatable and refined. But something unsettles Wilhelm about the way he’s shaping them. He worries that in honing them, he is making the stories grow toward his desires and wants, and not those of the folk. He looks over to his brother, then looks up at the sky. He thinks: illness, glass enclosures, spiderwebs. He thinks: preservation, collaboration, loss. He thinks: ashes, mazes, mouths. He thinks: once upon a time.
The comet is coming, he thinks. He steps outside to look up at the stars and what he thinks is: the infinite expanse.
The logic of the breadcrumb. There is something like poetry to the idea: to leave a bit here and there, a set of clues helpful only to one who knows to look. A set of clues that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Jacob Grimm looks up to the sky, and he can see the comet getting ever closer. Imagine watching us from up there. Imagine all that the comet has seen. It grows close and then rides its orbit around our sun and back to the end of our universe, only to be slung our way again. Does it look like much has changed from up there, when the comet casts its gaze down? We have marked this earth in so many wrong ways, Jacob thinks. Does the comet know? We are born and sleep and earn keep and pay and lie and die. We cut down trees and empty oceans and kill beasts. Does the comet wonder if, on one of these orbits, it will return to find there is nothing left, a vast expanse where once stood our grand planet? Or will the comet even notice we are gone, our obliteration just another blemish, another body of rock that has failed and faded in the infinite chasm?
Because its inhabitants treat their world poorly, the rules of the universe change. What seems certain in one decade is indefinite in the next. For centuries the comet that comes every seventy-five years was thought to be safe—it was not a threat. In fact, it was said to be dying, falling apart with the great force that fueled its travels, such that it would eventually dissolve. But the earth is an unstable stone on which its occupants are planted. It must be tended with care, or else it will rebel. Our rock tells us when it’s hurt or yearning, and we must listen. Otherwise, one morning we may find it no longer wants to revolve.
When illness invades a body—of flesh and tissue or of melted rock and crumbled shell and glass and bone—suddenly everything is possible. This is the first step in understanding that everything expires.
Hansel and Gretel are stopped at a river, quenching their thirst. Gretel asks her brother to look at her. She wets her thumb with her tongue and uses it to wipe a bit of dirt from his forehead and cheek. He watches her work and thinks, Our lives will never again be in such close proximity. It will always be a moving away from each other, from this point on.
Which is to say, to love a sibling is to anchor your life to a series of sanctioned departures.
The illustrator reads the story. Then she reads it again. She thinks about the way mouths operate in the story, how it is all about filling openings. She decides she is not interested in drawing this tale as so many others have, illustrating the world in gothic childhood mirages. The story is real, she thinks as she reads it an eleventh and twelfth time. It is a story about abandoned youth and the stigma that surrounds women, be they stepmothers or witches. It is about the lure of the domestic, the way it tastes sweet. It is about the fear of being eaten, but it is also about the fear that eating will satisfy cravings we can only vaguely know.
The illustrator thinks about how the story is fact in the safe costume of fiction. How to illustrate an archaic story that is true and timeless, she thinks. How to illustrate the real.
Gretel holds Hansel’s hand as they are moving through the wood. Dusk is coming on, and he is telling her a story. Gretel, he says then, stopping her. Gretel, he says. She has been listening, and so she knows what he wants to tell her: he does not long for the lips of girls.
From above, the trees cannot hear her whisper, cannot see Gretel kiss her brother’s sweaty bangs and say, her mouth against his forehead, Everything moves in an orbit. She tastes his sweat on her lips. The trees cannot hear her say, You are part of a much bigger tale.
From above, the comet tumbles across the sky, making its approach. It breaks and dissolves and advances, boring an empty channel through the black expanse.
The illustrator considers what it means to be in the forest, in the wood. She considers the characters that populate the narrative she draws. She wants to crawl inside it, to enter the domain of the story she is trying to depict.
She is grateful she is not a writer, for writing is a ghostly, haunted thing. It permits one to enter different temporal dimensions. It allows one to enter different human psyches. It requires one to manipulate the feelings of another until one elicits a particular response.
To read is to consume, to put the book on the tongue and push it down the throat. She reads the story again and again, silently. She catches herself in the glass of the window, and for a moment, she does not know the lips that mouth the words.
Beginnings, Wilhelm thinks. There is always the issue of beginnings. How to get the thing off the ground, how to initiate, to launch. It has to do with offering a series of possibilities and then deciding on a single route. It has to do with purging the list until there is only one option left. He and his brother have been working with the tales for years now, molding and shaping their form, settling on the best iterations, cutting and pruning and leaving things implied. The question is whether the work they’ve done is right or wrong. Wilhelm looks up and scans the sky for the comet. He recalls a conversation with Jacob when they first undertook their work. In order to record a tale, something must always be lost. Some things must be left unsaid and disguised, his brother had said. For as everyone knows, the art of storytelling is all about where and how to leave the voids.
The illustrator studies the spiderweb in the corner of her studio. She imagines it is human-sized. If it were, she thinks, it would look like a net. It would look like a cage made of rope.
Endings. There is always the question of whether or not to let the narrative conclude with text or image. It is a difficult decision, especially when it comes to the work of this story, for the final line is this: “Now all their cares were at an end, and they lived happily together.” But that is the not the end at all, the illustrator thinks. In some ways that is the beginning. Now that they have returned, and they have a history. They have entered the forest and in entering found themselves in the middle of a story about mouths and transgression. The forest, the illustrator thinks, is where children go to grow up.
From above, the comet hurtles toward earth at a speed that resists time. It burns and flames and trips through the air. On Earth they think the great comet is dissolving, losing strength every time it visits and then retreats. But the comet behaves in response to the acts that unfold on the rock that teems with life. It listens and replies.
What strikes her is the image of the children eating the witch’s house. It seems to be about subversion: usually a house eats us, its door swinging like a tongue, our bodies living in its gut. But the image that most haunts the illustrator is that of Gretel crying tears of blood. Gretel, seeping blood, in fear and foul ways. Gretel bleeding from the eyes and mouth. She would be about the age at which the blood runs, the illustrator thinks. Then she thinks: how to depict any of it at all?
The illustrator looks at the giant shells upon her windowsill, the webs that fill its hollows. She thinks about the way the skin is porous, the way canvas feels along her fingertips, the impossible color of the moon. We are a strange and wonderful kind of creature, she thinks, always wanting to look.
It is getting dark, and they can hear the sounds the forest makes. Gretel holds her brother from behind, her arm a brace across his middle. She can feel her brother’s beating heart. Did you remember to wear your invisible cloak? she asks. And he says, Yes. I have it on now. That’s good, Gretel tells him. With it on, no one will see you.
They lie on a bed of soft leaves she has collected and they hold each other close. She can feel his heart slowing a bit, though she can also smell his sweat. When the world ends, it will end because of heat, Gretel says. This is a story she has told him time and time again, a story they tell each other when time grows long. When the world ends, it will end because of heat, Hansel repeats. There will be a great storm with thunder and lightning but no rain. And Gretel: The lightening will strike, and it will be breathtaking. But we won’t turn to ash, or to fire. Why not? she asks her brother. And her brother replies, as he has replied innumerable times before: We will bury ourselves in sand, and when the lightning hits, we’ll turn to glass.
In the windows of her studio, the illustrator sees that the fog is settling, and for a moment she can’t remember if it is morning or night. She threads her fingers around her charcoal pencil, the one with the soft tip, best for rendering shadow. She has been in this room for hours now, thinking about feeding, consumption, the art of filling the mouth in order to fill the gut. She has been in this room for hours, thinking about the way the promise of something sweet on the tongue is the oldest sort of seduction.
The illustrator hears someone knock and then open the door. It’s time, she is told, and she rises from her seat. She feels comfortable leaving her room because she has a plan, an idea of how she will render the story. She has a plan for how to render this story in images, and she knows how she will come to make it happen. Beginnings, the illustrator thinks.
She walks outside, and the fog has fully vanished. She stands and watches the great comet move like molasses through the sky.
We put ourselves in prisons, the illustrator thinks. She looks across the way at the sign that says Asylum for Women. Then she scans the crowd for her lover’s face, and it is there. They are two women, looking across a vast field, and then they are two women looking up. A growing collection of other women stand together in the field of the asylum and gaze at the comet that passes every seventy-five years. They think: One day. They think: There will come a time.
Which is to say, when enough people have been hurt by coded forms of hate, they will gather and they will start a war.
The brothers’ eyes are cast toward the sky, watching the comet’s tail. The ending, Wilhelm thinks. The beginning, Jacob thinks.
The center, Gretel thinks, and squeezes her brother’s hand.
The comet hurtles toward earth, until it undoes everything we have come to know as fact. It tumbles chaotically through the infinite region we know as beyond. From afar, the collision looks like a bright freckle on the skin of the cosmos that swells for a moment, then goes out.
Hansel and Gretel are nearing the house. Hansel points to the comet overhead. Is this the end? he asks. His sister takes his hand. They cannot know that over the next hill is the woman and her house of sweets. In the corners of the room they will sleep in tonight, a spider weaves her web. Gretel looks at the way the skin on her hands is cracked and the nails are caked with dirt. Is she a child, or is she a woman? I can’t know, Gretel says. She brushes her brother’s hair back into its part, runs her tongue along her top lip. I can’t know, she says, but it will be the wrong end if it is.