Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Tales the Devil Told Me, the new collection by Jen Fawkes. Sharma Shields hailed its unexpected takes on familiar narratives, saying, “By subverting our notions of notorious villains, Jen Fawkes has conjured a magic talking mirror whose words reveal our collective humanity and vulnerability.” And if that piques your interest, read on for the story “Tiny Bones.”
(originally published in Mid American Review)
It started with a boy named Wilhelm. I was staying with his family long, long ago when a great dearth fell upon the land. Like the famines of my youth, this dearth felt interminable and seemed, in many ways, to redefine want. There was neither a crust of bread nor a glop of gruel to be had, and as the dearth wore on—day in and day out—as Wilhelm’s family and I grew weak and delirious with hunger, we were eventually unable to rise from our beds and remained supine from sunup to sundown, dreaming of sustenance and slowly but surely starving to death.
Wilhelm’s father made a living cutting wood, and his modest cottage had a limited number of beds, so I was forced to share with Wilhelm—a small and rather sickly eleven-year-old, a bundle of nerves and awkward energy with thick spectacles and oversized feet. The boy snorted when he laughed and cried at the slightest provocation, and I often caught his father—a brawny outdoorsman—staring at Wilhelm, his expression mingling consternation and disappointment with something approaching hatred. I myself grew fond of the boy during the months we spent huddled under thin blankets, trying not to think of the gnawing in our guts. Before Wilhelm, I hadn’t had much experience with children—in truth, I was rather frightened of them—but balancing on the brink of death leads to intimacy, and Wilhelm and I often held one another and wept long into the night. He was a great one for making up sentimental songs and doing silly voices, and if I’d been denied these distractions—distractions for which, if his father caught him, he would be yanked from bed and backhanded—desperate pathways might have opened to my mind. I should have done something; I should have tried to protect Wilhelm, but the woodcutter was an undeniable figure of authority, and I was a guest in his home—an unmarried cousin, a spinster, a burden—and felt that I had no right. Moreover, what happened to Wilhelm makes any such regrets beside the point.
When I say what happened to Wilhelm, I really mean to say what we did to him—his father and I, and his two sisters and, yes, even his own mother. What we did as the months wore on, as we all grew dull and listless, living on nothing but tepid water, breadcrumbs, and distant memories of nourishment. Wilhelm, who was—as I have perhaps already stated—rather sickly, started one afternoon breathing raggedly and sweating, and there were no more songs or silly voices, just the boy, now a collection of bones held together by membranous, vein-mapped skin. He stared with unblinking eyes—eyes that seemed to follow me like those of certain oil paintings. When Wilhelm’s breath grew more labored and his gaze more intensely disconcerting, I called for his father, who dragged himself out of bed and staggered across the room. He looked down at the boy and placed a calloused paw on Wilhelm’s forehead. The gesture was the most tender I’d ever seen the woodcutter make, and my eyes fogged, and I realized that even the most seemingly immovable man is capable of tapping into the deep well of feeling that joins us all, as members of the human race. Even a man who, for instance, abandons at the altar a girl of twenty in whose belly his seed has taken root, her head covered by a handmade lace shawl—the only surviving memento of her mother. When I wiped my eyes, I saw that Wilhelm’s father had shifted his hand. It now covered the boy’s mouth and nose. Wilhelm’s bony limbs twitched under the bedclothes, and his fingers grasped weakly at mine, and then he grew still. It was a stillness I’d witnessed only once before. A stillness that spoke of permanence. Of finality.
“The boy is dead,” Wilhelm’s father announced to the room at large while fixing me with a look that said the manner of his death was something I would disclose at my own peril. Using reserves of strength I never would have guessed at, I pushed away from Wilhelm’s body and to my feet. Wilhelm’s mother and sisters rose from their beds and stumbled over, and we all stood staring down at Wilhelm’s stillness. I was crying, but none of the others shed a tear. After a time, Wilhelm’s mother sighed and said they might as well get started.
“Get started with what?” I asked.
No one answered. Wilhelm’s father lifted the boy from our bed and carried him to the rickety dining table, his head dangling pitifully from his neck. His mother rattled around in the kitchen, pulling out knives and utensils, and the two girls tripped from the cottage to draw water from the well.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, my voice aquiver, the outside edge of awareness breaking over me.
The woodcutter’s murderous fingers dug into my shoulders. “It is the only way.”
I am almost sure I whimpered.
“If we do not, we will all be as dead as Wilhelm.”
I wrenched myself from his grasp and fled the cottage, nearly colliding with Wilhelm’s sisters, who hauled a tub of water between them. I tried to run but was too weak to cover much ground. The cottage stood in a clearing in the midst of an ancient forest, and just within the tree line, at the base of a silver maple, I collapsed on the snow-covered ground. Dampness seeped through my threadbare nightgown. I decided that I would lie there until the world faded away, that perhaps if I hurried I could catch poor Wilhelm and we could journey together—discover the waiting mysteries of the afterlife. Perhaps I would find what should have been my family there. Perhaps Albrecht would be waiting with open arms. Perhaps he’d been prevented from reaching the altar by a fatal accident and not some other woman after all. He’d once said only death could separate us.
At some point I woke in darkness. I was shaking violently, but I managed to struggle to my feet. I stood only a dozen yards from the woodcutter’s cottage. Smoke rose from the chimney, and there was a smell—one that was not particularly good but made my mouth water all the same. I found my legs carrying me back, my hand reaching for the doorknob. Despite the direction my life has taken—despite the sins I have committed since—I am still shamed by what I did that night. I suppose in my own defense I can say only this: the instinct for self-preservation, in my experience, is almost impossible to ignore.
It turned out that Wilhelm wasn’t the first child the family had eaten. Like Wilhelm, the woodcutter said with a pointed look at me, their eldest boy had died of malnourishment during a dearth ten years earlier, and there had been no sense in the rest of them starving as well. Even the infant Wilhelm—then only a year old—had partaken of the flesh of his brother, mashed into a paste and spooned between his full pink lips. It was a matter of survival, the woodcutter insisted, but afterward I was never the same. I thought Albrecht had stolen all my innocence when I was a girl, but the scrap that remained was obliterated by eating Wilhelm, a piece of whom lodged in my throat—a piece I was never able to clear away.
As soon as the dearth lifted, I left the cottage of the woodcutter, finding work in a pastry shoppe not far from the ancient forest. My mother had instructed me in the baking arts when I was a girl, and after she died in the dearth of my sixteenth year, I supported myself designing and building structures from lebkuchen or hutzelbrot or stollen, edifices accented with bonbons and süßigkeiten. Castles with moats and ramparts. Sprawling country villas. French chateaux. It was one such creation that brought Albrecht and me together. A storm was gathering the day he strode into the bakery and demanded to know who was responsible for the grand kletzenbrot manor house on display in the window. I was nineteen, and as clichéd as it sounds, I saw his gleaming boots and trim hips, his mottled gray eyes—eyes that seemed cut from the brooding sky that crackled outside the bakery window—and I was lost. When he asked me to construct a lebkuchen model of his family’s estate, heat surged through me, pinking my cheeks. The wings of a dozen swifts whirred inside my rib cage. Before the year was out, we were betrothed.
Now, far older but no wiser, I once again took up the creation of pfefferkuchen monuments and soaring striezel towers. I worked twelve-hour days in the bakery, coated in flour and sugar and spice, lodging in a boardinghouse and saving my wages for a little place of my own. I aged—it was during these years that my hair began to gray, my eyes to fail, my skin to sag. Eventually I was able to buy a cottage—one that stood alone in the depths of the ancient forest. My new home was dark and rather drab, and on what seemed to me a whim, I decided to dress it up like one of my pastry creations. I ornamented it with kekse and bonbons, covered the wood siding in a façade of lebkuchen bricks mortared with white icing, coated the tar paper roof in hazelnut and almond shingles, constructed a picket fence of peppermint sticks. I lined the walkway with gargantuan gumdrops and replaced broken windowpanes with clear spun sugar. I made similar modifications to the interior—trimming the walls with a licorice chair rail, platzchen baseboards, and marzipan molding; tiling the kitchen with hard butterscotch; crafting furniture from kipferln and ribbon candy. I bought a colossal iron oven, one that took up a third of my kitchen, and started working from home, crafting my elaborate models on commission or carting them to the pastry shoppe to be displayed and sold.
I’d been in my little house for better than a year, oblivious to my deepening isolation, when on a crystalline autumn afternoon, I heard a strange sound—a scratching and scrambling. I thought squirrels or chipmunks were racing over the roof of my cottage, but when the sound persisted, then grew louder, I hoisted myself up from the table—where I sat constructing a stollen and marzipan windmill—and stepped onto the porch. Descending to the yard, I turned to glance up at the roof. That was when I spied the boy.
He was perhaps ten years old with dark hair and large, sunken eyes. He straddled the roof ridge, a brown ring around his lips, a melting shingle gripped in each gooey hand.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My voice creaked with disuse.
“Don’t be angry,” the boy said. “I’ve only eaten four shingles, and you have so many.”
“Come down from there,” I said. “It’s dangerous. You might fall.”
Once he’d shimmied down a drainpipe, he offered me the remains of the shingles. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I haven’t eaten in days, and when I saw your house, I couldn’t help myself.”
I dismissed the shingles with a wave of my hand. “Where are your parents?”
The boy dropped his head.
“Never mind,” I said. “Come inside.”
Yet another dearth lay upon the land, but living alone with mountainous stores of flour, sugar, oil, salt, and spices, I was only vaguely aware of this. I served the boy roggenbrot and pancakes, brötchen and pretzels, all of which he devoured at a breakneck pace. The sounds he made—the sighs and moans, the squeals of delight—pleased me, and I piled pastries and baked goods upon his plate for hours, until he thrust up a sticky hand.
“Please!” he cried, patting his swollen belly. “I cannot eat another bite!”
We sat in my living room, sipping peppermint tea before a crackling fire, as night wrapped its cold arms around the forest. The boy, whose name was Dieter, sat close to me on the sofa, his contented face and drowsy eyes giving the impression of unwavering trust.
“So what’s the story?” I asked. “Where are your parents?”
“Home with my seven brothers and sisters,” he said, “starving. I am the eldest boy, and I took it upon myself to strike out in search of food. My father tried to stop me, but he was too weak. I’ve been wandering the forest for five days. When your cottage appeared, I thought surely I was fevered, but I touched the lebkuchen bricks and the vanillekipferl shutters and found them to be real. I wept with relief, for I knew whoever lived in such a house must love children.”
While making the culinary modifications to my home, I hadn’t once considered my unconscious motives, but I had to admit that the boy’s interpretation had a singular logic. He maneuvered himself onto my lap, hung his arms around my neck, laid his head on my shoulder. I hadn’t been so close to a child since Wilhelm, and I’d forgotten about their cottony smell. Sitting on the sofa, holding Dieter, I recalled how I’d wept as I ground Wilhelm between my teeth, as I watched his mother suck the marrow from his bones.
Dieter stayed with me for a month—sleeping in my bed, eating ten to twelve meals a day, helping me construct my pastry creations. It was midmorning, and we were working on an elaborate baumkuchen and hutzelbrot cathedral when he told me he wished to go home. He missed his family, he said. He’d been selfish, staying here with me and gorging on pfeffernusse and süßigkeiten while they starved. He wanted to cart a wheelbarrow full of baked goods back to his father’s house. He begged me to save his parents and his siblings as I had saved him.
The boy stood opposite me at the kitchen table, affixing chocolate drops to the top of the platzchen wall surrounding the cathedral’s courtyard. Directly behind him, the oven’s glass door yawned open, ready to receive the flat sheets of dough I sat rolling out. Since he’d arrived, Dieter had put on weight, and my gaze roamed from his clothing—which now strained at the seams—to the taut skin of his face, and beyond him into the glowing interior of the oven.
“It has been a month,” I said. “You cannot truly imagine that your family still lives.”
He began to cry, his tears falling into the cathedral courtyard, but I was not yet finished.
“What would they think,” I said, “if you came home so fat and satisfied? Would they be able to forgive you?”
Dieter wept harder still. He wailed. He dropped his head into his hands and tore at his hair. Blinded, he stumbled in a circle, and when the open oven door struck his chubby legs at the knee, he lost his footing and tumbled headlong into its smoldering, gaping maw. He cried out, and the door slammed—swallowing him—and I sat, as I had during the entire episode, at the table rolling out platzchen, thinking of how I would miss his small warmth in my bed, how I would miss serving him cakes and bonbons, how I would miss fattening him. The desperate hunger that had driven me to partake of Wilhelm was a distant memory—I would eat Dieter for entirely different reasons. I would lodge a piece of him alongside his precursor, a piece that would comfort me until another needy child ventured into the forest and stumbled upon my edible cottage. It would be only a matter of time.
I have lost track of the years that have passed since that day, of the countless children I have consumed—children driven from their homes by famine, children I have filled to bursting, children I can no longer distinguish from Wilhelm or Dieter. By the time a fair-haired, apple-cheeked brother and sister appear on my doorstep, I am almost as ancient as the forest that embraces my cottage. My eyesight is nearly gone, and it takes everything I have just to hobble onto the porch and say, “Nibble, nibble, gnaw. Who is nibbling on my little house?”
They’re older than most of the children who come to me, and these siblings seem tougher, more jaded. They tell me their father is a woodcutter, and I wonder if a reckoning is upon me. Their mother died giving birth to the girl, and they have been raised by a stepmother—a nasty woman. Evil, they tell me. Wicked.
“She never loved us at all,” says the girl.
“Not even one little bit,” adds the boy. “She doesn’t know the first thing about being a mother.”
They are even hungrier than their predecessors, these children of a woodcutter. They eat voraciously but are never satisfied, and it seems that I spend every moment standing in front of the oven, sliding in brötchen and pulling out kletzenbrot, making things with which to fatten them. Unlike the other children, they do not care to help me build my pastry structures, and I enter the kitchen one morning to find my masterpiece—a towering lebkuchen and striezel palace that rises from a mountaintop to disappear in the clouds, the kind of place I have decided people flock to in the afterlife, a model it has taken me weeks to craft—smashed beyond recognition. The boy blames the girl; the girl blames the boy, and they get into a fistfight, a brawl in which they toss one another around my cottage, shattering furniture and all of my extant creations—pfefferkuchen fortresses, hutzelbrot windmills, bridges made of stollen. I try to pry them apart, but I am too old, too weak, so I am forced to watch them until they run out of steam, until everything in my home has been decimated.
They do not sleep with me, this brother and sister, and in the dead of night, I hear them whispering—plotting from pallets on the floor. They want my edible house for themselves. They plan to take it and are just trying to decide how to get rid of me.
It will happen while I am standing at the oven. The girl will drop to the floor in front of me, and the boy will shove me from behind. Or maybe it will be the other way around; this is something they fight over—who gets to do the pushing. Once I have fallen headfirst into my colossal oven—once I am nestled amid the withering embers—they will slam shut the glass door and watch my hair sizzle, my skin crisp and peel and blacken. As they whisper in the night, they talk only of getting their hands on my house, of never having to go hungry again. They never mention why they would do such a thing to an old woman who has only given them food and shelter, but they do not need to. The instinct for self-preservation—as I may have already mentioned—is almost impossible to ignore.
As I stand now in front of the open oven door, reaching for a pan of fresh-baked lebkuchen and bracing myself for the push, my own instinct worn down by age and the weight of my transgressions, I think of this:
I bore our son—Albrecht’s and mine—alone in the depths of the forest. Unwed, jilted, I hid my condition and disappeared, but living in the open, food was scarce, and I found myself starving. The child was born premature and still, covered in blood and fluids, his hands and feet perfection. I was nowhere near running water, so I licked him clean. I wrapped him in my only memento of my mother—the handmade lace shawl I wore on what should have been my wedding day—and with my bare hands, dug him a grave beneath the leaves that coated the forest floor. A pungent tang rose from the bottommost layer—an odor that never left my nostrils. I stretched out, supine, atop the grave and crossed my filthy hands over my chest, waiting for death, but I did not die. Hunger—the inexplicable need to preserve my own wretched life—eventually drove me to my feet. I wish that I had marked the spot, so I might at least have visited his tiny bones, or that I hadn’t buried him at all, that I had eaten his flesh, which I am sure would have tasted sweeter than striezel or kekse or even basler brunsli—sweeter by far than anything else I have held upon my tongue.