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art by Jonathan Westbrook


Robert E. Stutts works at a small private liberal arts college in South Carolina, where he teaches courses in fairy tales, creative writing, and adolescent literature. He earned his MFA degree from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. This story is his first pro fiction sale; other fiction and poetry have appeared in Cabinet des Fées, Fantastique Unfettered, and Star*Line, among others. For more information about Robert, check out his website at www.robertestutts.com.

***Editor's Note: Adult fairytale. Adult themes.***
Even in high summer, paths through these woods are difficult to find, let alone follow, overrun as they are with brambles and briars and bracken. But in summer there is the sun above you to warm your head, and the green of trees to cheer your heart.
The winter is worse, of course, for winter lacks any kindness at all.
Nonetheless it is into the winter woods you go, following your brother, who has failed to protect you as he promised. Your parents have abandoned their children to the mercy of a forest that has no mercy, to keep their hands clean of your blood even as they fill their bellies with your portions, meager as those will be. Days have passed now, and you hope they choke on whatever crumb they sup on. If you had the means, you would have your revenge on them both.
But now you are hungry, and tired, and your eyes begin to water at the thought of a warm bed, or any bed. The night sounds terrify you, and every rustle in the brush is a wolf with meat on his mind. You will not escape a wolf's hunger; your own cannot match his. Or can it?
A push through a tangle of dead bushes, and the tiny hut appears before you, lit up like a church. But no ordinary house this, no. Around the fence sit wax tapers at regular intervals; their light is brighter than the candles you remember your mother lighting, but of course she had only four. Skulls sit on the fence posts. The gate is open, and the path through the snow leads to the dark brown house. The smell of it floods your nose, and you remember in happier times how your grandmother made bread at Christmas. The roof of the house is made of cake, the windows spun from sugar. An edible house, and certainly not ordinary. As you move closer, you see that the house squats on chicken legs as if hatching an egg. You point at the legs and the skulls and murmur to your brother, who does not care for chickens or eggs or skulls and who rushes forward to feast. You follow after, knowing that danger is but a breath away; you have heard stories, but you, too, are hungry.
Your brother has thrust his face into the front of the house and has begun to chew and chew and chew. He does not stop, and you wonder if he remembers to breathe. Gently, you pull at a bit of the doorframe and bring the bread to your lips. The taste is warm, fresh-baked.
The door swings open. A witch lives here. She is beautiful and sharp-edged, with hair the color of pomegranate seeds and eyes as pale as icicles. You know that her hunger, like yours, is terrible and insatiable. She will gobble you up. Those stories you know to be true. She is blind, but she smells you and wastes no time in snatching into her house the both of you. Your brother she locks in a brass cage, to fatten him up. You, she says, will be my maid and will learn what I have to teach you. The notion makes your stomach drop: someone else to tell you what to do.
All day long your brother eats and weeps, eats and weeps. The witch has a magic cupboard that never empties; she teaches you the words to open and lock it, so you may pull whatever she needs from its depths. And such fine delicacies the witch concocts for your brother: Beluga caviar served on little triangles of toast; large bowls of borscht with heavy dollops of sour cream; large yeasty pirozhki stuffed with sautéed cabbage or mashed potatoes (mixed with carefully diced green onions and dill) or chopped beef (sautéed with onions and eggs); pork kotlety served with sauerkraut and baked turnips. She tops blini with all kinds of fruit preserves: cranberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, loganberry, huckleberry, mulberry, boysenberry, youngberry, olallieberry. Fried syrniki comes to him garnished with honey and applesauce. All day long he eats and eats and eats, crying all the while, and you are given nothing to eat but bread crusts and some beets left over from the borscht, which stain your teeth red.
At the end of each day, the sightless witch asks to feel your brother's finger. She cannot see him to gauge how well he fattens, and she is wise not to reach into the cage. He offers a small bone he has found in the straw beneath him. She runs her own fingers along its smoothness, takes the tip of the bone into her mouth and runs her tongue around it. Not yet, she says, not yet.
Each night you undress the witch, and then yourself, and you crawl beneath the sheets with her. Her breath smells of ginger; her long hair moves across her back like honey; her skin is as white as sugar; and she tastes like wild strawberries, as warm and tart as summer, when you feast below.
The daily routine seems endless to you, although it is not entirely unpleasant. The witch keeps you warm if not full. You begin to wonder if you should tell the blind witch how your brother deceives her because his crying annoys you and he never offers to share any of his food with you. Instead, you stop telling him that all will be well.
At last, and long in coming, the witch decides that as skinny as your brother remains he will still be eaten. She has a large oven, large enough to fit two snugly enough and bake them through and through. You understand what she has planned for you now, and somehow you are not surprised to find yourself shoving her into the oven and locking the door. You saved yourself, and your brother, but it has not made you happy, it has not given you joy. You run outside to escape her screams, which do not last long. The wind is cold and damp and you feel it seep into your bones, eating up the warmth the witch left behind.
You eat the witch in many ways, with sour cream and dill, with apricot compote, with sliced turnips and parsnips sprinkled with rosemary. You feed some of the witch to your brother, whom you've left in the cage and who continues to cry every day. He has grown quite fat, and there is nothing, after all, wrong with your eyesight.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 4th, 2013

Author Comments

Most of my creative work centers around adapting older stories, and in this case I re-imagined the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." I wrote "Hungry" as part of my first semester of MFA work at Stonecoast, and my goal was to write an homage to Angela Carter. I tried to capture the sensuality of her language as well as the "folksy" voice she uses in many of the stories in The Bloody Chamber. Also, I wanted to experiment with second person, which I'd never used before and enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. Many thanks to James Patrick Kelly, who was the first to read "Hungry" and encourage me to submit it.

- Robert E. Stutts
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