It’s dark inside the witch.
Gretl’s body is disjointed. Dismembered. In the process of being eaten, she was reduced to her component parts, until she was only bits that are named in songs.
Head and shoulders, knees and toes.
The arm bone was connected to the wrist bone. The wrist bone was connected to the hand bone.
Still, her parts are all present. Neural sparks fly among them, whispering of being a body, a whole thing, if she can just sort herself out. In this, she’s up against it: she never could touch her nose with her eyes closed, let alone with her eyes removed, but now it’s imperative. Her body needs to pull itself together.
There are a number of problems, of course. For instance, this is the first version of this story in which she is, in fact, eaten. The witch is supposed to fatten Gretl’s brother for dinner; Gretl’s job is to push the witch off-balance so that she falls into the oven and becomes her own dinner.
But she was unprepared for the preternatural equilibrium of witches. It makes sense, that they’d have that: witches have to fly, balanced on broomsticks, notoriously narrow and seatless, and they never seem to have intimate splinters, so their balance must be.
She wasn’t expecting the witch’s jaw to unhinge as it did, to encompass the girl who’d tried to push her. The stretch of skin without bones to shape it. The spreading teeth.
In that process, somehow, Gretl came apart, but she’s close to putting herself back together. She’d be done already, only it’s dark in here.
Her knee bone connects to the leg bone. (Bones. Three of them.) Ligaments re-form around the joint.
Her knee reminds her that it also is made up of several bones. Pads of cartilage and fluid have their roles to play, as well. Her skin knits over them, generating its half-shaven stubble and mass of ingrown hairs. The newly-mended skin flakes and dries out.
Eczema is connected to the knee bone.
The inside of a witch is nothing like an animal’s stomach. Gretl has seen those. She’s pulled them out of slaughtered carcasses and slit them open, looked at the half-digested grass and leaves and smaller animal. The wet that comes loose is acrid and liquifying, constantly in a state of literal flux. (Vocabulary lesson: flux is a liquid flowing from the body, as in dysentery. As in bloody flux, the purging that comes before death.) Beyond the stomach, sphincters await. But the witch’s interior is nothing like that. It’s less circumscribed. Less liquid.
There are still limits. Gretl finds them when her legs fuse with her pelvis, and her torso curls inward. She is nearly fetal in this space.
If you come home after too many accidental trips to the woods, your mother has to eat you herself.
If the witch fulfills her role and eats you, then she becomes your mother.
Gretl has several mothers, now. No memorable father. But in there, she remembers having a whole family. A brother, even.
He’s going to be joining her before she knows it.
She needs to find herself, quickly, before her brother’s parts start to mix with hers. He’s so huge, now. Slack like veal.
The witch was planning to cook him first. Perhaps even to chew him a little. He won’t arrive cognitively intact, like Gretl. He’ll come down like primordial ooze, and she’ll be forced to absorb him like a poorly-developed twin, like she should have done the first time, before they were born.
Her shoulders re-form and now, now she can stretch. Arms outward and fingers reaching. The walls of the witch are elastic, black and flexible as the fantasy of a balloon. If Gretl pushes, the witch expands. She changes shape. Warps around the girl inside.
If Gretl arranges herself just so, she can stand up, wearing the witch’s skin.
Head goes up through the neck like a too-small sweater. Her skull aches and then expands, joyously, inside the other skull. Milk skids across her eyes.
The witch has cataracts. Gretl and her brother took advantage of that, where they could. The witch is strong, but she doesn’t see details, and clever children can rearrange the room, pretend to be sticks, deny that they haven’t eaten, or that they have. Though Gretl suspects that, like her sense of balance, the witch has unexpected resources of vision. A third eye. Perhaps sonar.
Still milky, Gretl slides her hands inside the old hands. Her bones fill up and replace whatever was under the skin before. Worn by the girl, the witch’s wrinkled flesh tightens; her face re-forms into a younger version of itself. She’s enormously strong. She has the strength of ages and of two women, at least. If Gretl blinks carefully enough, she might even be able to push the cataracts away and see properly into the world.
There was nothing to eat, at home. The animals were gone. The plants that the animals ate were boiled for soup and devoured, and it was so cold. She remembers licking rock salt like she believed it could provide enough to sustain her body by itself.
Did her family discuss the options? Was there a fantasy meal of boy and girl before the plan of forest abandonment?
Gretl thinks she would have done it, in her mother’s place. Eaten them. The bodies that come out of you, they must somehow remain yours. There must be circumstances in which you can take those bodies back, to keep your own alive.
You can, if you concentrate, absorb other corneas into your own eyes. You can pull them down, into your other stomach, and save them for moments when you have nothing else to eat. You can see everything. Even this:
Her brother’s naked body is trussed into a roasting pan. He’s been massaged with olive oil and rosemary. Lemon drops have provided the acid, in the absence of actual lemons.
(What kind of a witch can’t summon her own citrus in times of need?)
He stares at Gretl without recognition. He used to sleep against her breastbone. He developed his first thoughts in concert with her own. They had, in those early months, one mind, and it almost didn’t separate. They could easily have been born half-divided, a ghoulish spectacle that would have killed their mother in the process of emerging. They’d have breathed for a minute, maybe two. Maybe even an hour.
Or Gretl could have absorbed him and lived with an entire heart. Carrying the mass of one whole person.
Inside the witch, it’s hungrier than she would have expected. The candy walls of the house are sickening. They’re nothing like food. She can’t build new bodies out of sugar. She needs protein. Bone.
She needs more fat.
The fire is one of her better creations. The oven’s been warming for an hour. Witches like the heat. They like the energy.
They become your mother. You can wear them. You can use their hands to open the oven door and their strength to push in the pan. You can take back all the parts of your brother that you resent having surrendered in the first place.
Gretl stays by the oven the entire time he’s roasting. Even the vapours rising out of his body are hers. He came from her. Every part of him, even the fragments of smell, is a debt she’s owed. With him, her body can make other ones, when she wants to. She can take them back whenever she’s hungry enough.
Annette Lapointe (she/her/hers) has lived in rural Saskatchewan, Quebec City, St John’s, Saskatoon, Winnipeg (where she earned her PhD), and South Korea. She now lives in Treaty 8 territory, on the traditional lands of the Beaver people, and teaches at Grande Prairie Regional College. She has published three acclaimed novels and a short story collection. Her latest book is . . . And This is the Cure (Anvil Press, 2021).
Artwork: Laura Makabresku