New Fiction, An Apocalyptic Fairy Tale

A couple of years ago, I was rereading some Grimms’ fairy tales, and I wondered what these stories would be like if they were set at a time when society had collapsed. IN other words, what if I took these stories and put them in an apocalyptic context. Then, I wrote “Hansel and Greta.”
I’ve written this sort of thing before. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a collection of fractured fairy tales that offered new ways to look at older tales, such as “Red Riding Hood, Again Revisited” and “Mr. Wolf and The Seven Kids, An Urban Fairy Tale.” That collection is called Fractured and Other Fairy Tales. These stories are aimed more at kids, and I had my own daughters in mind when I wrote them.
In retelling Grimms’ stories as apocalyptic fairy tales, I have a different audience in mind. These are not stories for children; they are bleak and often violent, and, well, grim in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, I’ve tried to maintain the spirit of the original tales, in as much as I’m able.
“Hansel and Greta” is the first of these stories to find a home. I must have sent it to a dozen journals before Laura Mansfield and Feast picked it up. Feast is an eclectic online journal about food based in Manchester, UK, and the latest issue is called Consuming Children. Thank you to Laura and the people at Feast for publishing the story. I’m especially grateful that Laura saw the piece as something she could include. Enjoy the story, check out the rest of the journal, and, as always, post any comments.

The Wedding of Mrs. Fox — that didn’t Actually Happen

Mr. Fox lived with his wife in the old city. He insisted Mrs. Fox do all that was required of a good wife, but he was a lousy husband. He spent his time drinking, gambling, and trolling the streets of the city with his friend Mr. Wolf. The two thought of one another as friends, but they generally didn’t trust one another for a second.
One day, Mr. Fox decided to play a trick on his wife. He suspected her of cheating, and he was determined to catch her in the act. Coming home from a night of carousing with Mr. Wolf, Mr. Fox lay as though dead on the couch in the front room. And he waited.
Mrs. Fox came down at her usual time to make the coffee and set the bread to rise for the second time. She spotted her husband lying as though dead on the couch—tongue lulling and eyes half closed. What is he up to, she thought.
She stepped up to the couch and looked down. “Oh mercy,” she cried. “My poor husband is dead! What will become of me?”
She cried and wailed and wailed and cried until the ruckus brought Mrs. Mole scurrying from next door. “What is it, Mrs. Fox,” asked the alarmed neighbour.
“Oh mercy,” cried Mrs. Fox. “My husband is dead! And he has left me without a penny in the world. I suppose now all I can do is throw myself on the mercy of Mr. Toad.”
Ha! thought Mr. Fox to himself. She is seeing that villainous old Mr. Toad, it seems. Mr. Fox occasionally worked for Mr. Toad, one of the crime bosses in the old city. He didn’t have the backbone to take revenge upon Mr. Toad, but he could certainly teach his wife a lesson.
“All we can do is get the body ready for burial,” said Mrs. Fox. “You can help me, Mrs. Mole.” And she fetched a sheet with which to cover the supine Mr. Fox.
Burial, thought Mr. Fox. We’ll see about that.
Word spread quickly in the old city, and soon a line was forming outside Mrs. Fox’s front door. They weren’t creditors—those would come later. They were suitors. A number of seedy characters knew that Mr. Fox had a tidy bit hidden away, and they thought if they could marry his widow, they might get their hands on his gold.
“Someone here to see you Mrs. Fox,” called Mrs. Mole up the stairs.
“Invite them into the kitchen,” called back Mrs. Fox. “I’ll be down directly.”
Soon the kitchen was full of suitors, and Mrs. Mole poured out coffee and handed round fresh biscuits. One by one, the suitors crept into the living room to have a peak at the deceased Mr. Fox. He looked very dead. But the crafty fox wasn’t dead, of course; he was just asleep. His night of carousing had left him more tired than he thought.
Mrs. Mole went up the stairs to check on her friend, and she found the clever Mrs. Fox packed and ready to leave. Tucked into her purse and about her person was Mr. Fox’s gold, which he thought he had kept well hidden.
“I’m off to a new life in the new city,” Mrs. Fox said to her friend and neighbour. “Take this gold piece and buy yourself and your children something nice.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Fox. And bless you.” Then Mrs. Mole hurried out of the front door, telling the impatient suitors to wait just another five minutes for Mrs. Fox.
They waited, and they waited. But Mrs. Fox was long gone. She was in a cab on her way to a new life in the new city.
When Mr. Fox suddenly gave a grunting snore, the suitors came piling into the living room and tore away the sheet.
“Why the scoundrel is alive!” they cried. And they gave Mr. Fox the beating of his life—mostly out of disappointment. It was many days before Mr. Fox was able to be up and about. He had lost his wife, his gold, and whatever pride he had left, and he spent his days and nights complaining about his misfortunes to anyone who would listen. Most didn’t.
As for Mrs. Fox, she had enough to set herself up in the new city. Eventually, she opened an orphanage that made its mission the rescue of parentless children from the old city. Mrs. Fox taught her children how to read and write and how to behave, and she sent them out into the wide world to do some good. “For the world,” she was often heard to say, “doesn’t need any more like my old reprobate of a husband.”

The Elves, or What to do when You Get an Invitation from the Fairies

Once upon a time in the old city lived a young girl, who was serving maid to a family. The family wasn’t exactly poor, but the serving maid had nothing. Her name was Elsa, and she slept in a little garret room at the top of the house. The family was miserly and secretive, and they didn’t like Elsa much, but they kept her anyway. Even in the old city, having a servant girl was a sign of wealth.
One day, Elsa was sweeping the floor, and she spied a letter sitting in the hearth. Elsa couldn’t read, so she took the letter to her mistress, who received it rather suspiciously.
“Why,” said her mistress, sweetly, “it’s an invitation to attend the Queen of the Fairies on the christening of her child.”
Elsa’s mistress was no fool, and she watched Elsa expectantly. It was a fine thing to have a serving maid, but Elsa insisted on being fed—and so often. This was her chance to get rid of the girl.
But Elsa was no fool either—even if she couldn’t read. She knew the fairies were trouble. They lived in the suburbs of the old city, and they were constantly stealing children or trying to lure people into their mounds.
“But anything is better than this drudgery,” thought Elsa to herself. And she got her heavy coat, and she left the house in search of the mound of the Fairy Queen.
It wasn’t long before Elsa was met by three fairies, all dressed in jeans and black leather jackets. One had spiked blue hair, the second had a pink Mohawk, and the third was a skinhead. Tough looking characters.
They led Elsa to the suburbs of the old city, where the roads were split and crumbling, and the houses were falling apart or entirely collapsed. They brought Elsa to what seemed the most ruinous of all the houses, but inside, weirdly enough, was a wide hall, hung with tapestries of gold, and at the far end the Fairy Queen herself, a beautiful lady, wearing rich robes of silver and green, and holding in her arms a fairy baby.
“Welcome, Elsa,” said the Fairy Queen, with a dazzling smile. “Let the ceremony begin.”
Things got under way, while Elsa held the baby. The fairies didn’t look so scary in their own hall, and after the christening, Elsa laughed and danced and ate to her heart’s content. The fairies certainly knew how to have fun.
After what she thought was three days, Elsa told the fairies: “It’s time for me to go—back to my life in the old city.”
The Queen filled Elsa’s pockets with gold, and sent her on her way. The same three fairies guided Elsa back to the old city, but Elsa had a bad feeling. She didn’t like the way the one with the pink Mohawk was smirking at her.
She got back to her own mistress’s front door, but when she turned to thank the fairies, they were gone. Sighing a little, Elsa went into the house. She caught up the broom and began to sweep.
“Where did that chair come from?” she said to herself, as she swept. “And I certainly don’t remember that at all,” she said, looking at a dark-wood bureau, stacked with elegant china dishes and plates.
“What are you doing in my house?” cried a voice behind her.
Elsa whirled to see a woman standing in the kitchen door. She was definitely not Elsa’s mistress.
And then she knew. She hadn’t been three days with the fairies; it could have been years. “What’s the date?” asked Elsa.
The woman was so taken aback by the question, she answered at once.
“Oh dear,” said Elsa. “Seven years, for sure.”
Elsa explained to the woman what had happened—how she had gone to visit the fairies on account of the letter. It turned out Elsa’s old master and mistress had died in the meantime, which Elsa found she couldn’t be too sad about.
“But you can come and work for me,” said the woman, looking Elsa up and down.
But Elsa remembered the days of drudgery, and she thought of the gold in her pocket that the fairies had given her. “You know,” said Elsa. “I think I’m good.”
Elsa left the house, and she set up on her own, not in the old city, but in the new town. She bought a condo overlooking the river, and she went to school. “Reading and writing could come in handy,” she said to herself. She didn’t stop there. She went on to university and got a degree. Then she set up her own consulting business, and she specialized in advising people who received letters from the fairies. She lived very happily, but Elsa could never bring herself to hire a maid.

Mr. Fox and the Geese

Mr. Fox liked to walk along the edge of the old city. One spring evening, he was strolling along, and he happened upon a marshy place where a flock of geese were gathered, splashing and gabbling in the swampy water.
“What do we have here?” he said, eyeing the fat geese, as he leaned on his walking cane. “Looks like dinner.”
The geese were terrified, and they honked and cried for mercy.
“Mercy,” laughed Mr. Fox. “You will find no mercy here. I’m interested in some dinner. Now you just line yourselves up in a row, and I will wring your pretty necks one by one, and then take your carcases back to my house in the city.”
But there was one old goose who was at least as cunning as Mr. Fox. She was a grand dam of the flock, and she peered up at Mr. Fox.
“Mr. Fox,” she said, bobbing her head, “since you are going to eat us anyway, I don’t suppose you would mind if I told my children and grandchildren one more story?”
Now, if Mr. Fox had a weakness, besides a greedy desire for fresh goose, it was for a good story. “Oh, very well,” he said, petulantly. “Tell your story. But when you are done, I expect you to lineup like good little geese so I can pick out the fattest for my table.”
The old goose began her story. She gabbled and honked, telling of faraway places, of all the things she had seen on her travels, of the lives of people and animals, of strange and secret things only seen by moonlight and starlight. And before she was finished, she was joined by one of her children, and together, they gabbled and grumbled and honked of the places they had seen together. They were join by the others, one by one, until soon the whole flock was gabbling the story of their travels, from the hot countries of the South to the wide spaces of the North.
The sun slowly set, and Mr. Fox listened, forgetting about everything else as he was swept away to places he had never known.
Did Mr. Fox ever get his dinner? Who can say, for the geese are still telling their story to this day. And if you stop to listen, in the spring and the fall, you can hear it too—the gabbling of traveler’s tales upon the air.

Snow White, or Learning to Love Your Stepmother, Part II

Rocky walked through the forest all night. It was dark, close, and scary. Even Rocky, who wasn’t afraid of much, soon began to get unnerved by the shadows and the silence. She had walked as far as she could when she came upon a little house. It was neat and snug, and it sat there in the middle of a small clearing, just as though a giant hand had set it down like a toy.
Rocky didn’t care if anyone was inside; she wanted to get out of the trees for a while. She cracked open the little door and sneaked inside.
She had just closed the door when she heard such a racket that she nearly wanted to run. The snoring, sighing, and belching that filled the little house made rocky wonder if she had wandered into a den of bears. But no. With the light of dawn through the windows, Rocky saw seven beds lined up against the wall, and in each bed was a form snoring and blowing and muttering.
Rocky hid herself as best she could. It wasn’t long before one of the figures got up and began tending the fire in the stove. Soon the little house was filled with the smells of fresh coffee and oatmeal porridge flavoured with cinnamon. Rocky’s stomach growled.
When Rocky peeped out from behind the barrel where she hid, she could see that all the little men were now sitting around the table, slurping coffee and shoveling in porridge. They were dwarfs, with shaggy hair and long beards.
“Brothers,” said one of the dwarfs. “I think an animal has broken into our house.”
The others looked at him and nodded. “Indeed,” said another.
“Is it a monster?” said a third.
“Or a forest demon?” said a fourth.
“Or perhaps,” said the first, “it is a naughty princess who has run away from the castle.”
“Surely not,” cried the others.
Rocky sighed. “All right,” she said, coming out from behind the barrel. “I’m right here.”
The dwarfs all gave a convincing jump. “The monster!” cried one. “The demon!” cried another.
“I’m sorry I sneaked into your house,” said Rocky, with all of the dignity of a small princess. “But could I please have some breakfast? I’ve been wandering around the forest all night.”
Laughing, the dwarfs made room for her at the table. Soon Rocky had a steaming bowl of oatmeal, a hot scone, and a mug of coffee. It was delicious.
The dwarfs of course wanted to know her story, but they waited until Rocky had eaten her fill. Then she told them about the queen.
“A bad business,” said one, shaking his shaggy head.
“You can stay here with us,” said another, “at least until you get this all sorted out.” The other dwarfs nodded.
“I’m never going back,” said Rocky, now near to tears. But it had been a long night, and she was, after all, only seven.
One of the dwarfs made her a bed in the corner, and soon Rocky was tucked up and falling asleep. The dwarfs got ready for their day in the mines, but one agreed to stay behind—to mind the Princess. He got his knitting, and sat on a chair in the morning sun, while Rocky slept.
Meanwhile, the night before, the huntsman had gone to see the old cook. But even before he came storming into the kitchen, the whole castle already knew the princess had run away. “Do you know what that woman asked me?” thundered the huntsman, as soon as he stood before the cook.
Everyone knew who that woman was. “I can guess,” said the old cook, while the under cooks and the serving lads and lasses stopped to listen.
The huntsman told his tale. “And now the princess has run off into the forest. What are we to do?”
The old cook looked thoughtful. “First,” she said, “you needn’t worry about the princess. She’ll be safe. She’ll find her way to the house of the Seven Dwarfs. You can check on her in the morning, if you like. I will deal with the Queen tomorrow.”
The next morning, the huntsman left for the forest, and soon enough he came to the house of the dwarfs. It wasn’t that far from the castle. Rocky had been going in rather a circle the night before. The huntsman found one of the dwarfs seated on a chair, his knitting needles clicking and flashing in the sun.
“Come for your princess?” asked the dwarf, glancing up at the huntsman. “She’s fast asleep inside. Help yourself to coffee.”
The huntsman knew the dwarfs well. He was relieved, to say the least. He had a quick look at the sleeping princess, and then he took another chair and a cup of coffee and joined the dwarf outside.
Back at the castle, everyone knew what had happened the night before. There was some angry muttering, but the old cook said that she would take care of the Queen. The cook was a wise woman, and she had a little magic of her own. Taking a small looking glass from her pocket, she peered into its murky depths. She spoke to it. It flashed once and went dim again. With a little smile, the old cook tucked the mirror back into her pocket, and then she went to check the bread that had just come out of the ovens.
It was the Queen’s custom to sleep late. The King had left early with a hunting party, and the morning was well under way when suddenly the whole castle heard a shriek.
“The Queen’s awake,” said the old cook.
The shriek was soon follow by another, and soon a wailing and blubbering queen came down the steps. “My mirrors!” she screamed. “What has happened to my mirrors? They’re all broken!”
It was true. Every mirror in the castle was covered with a spider web of cracks, and they were all as dull as the winter sky.
The old cook let it go on for a while, and then she went to look for the Queen. The woman was slumped on a chair in the Great Hall. The cook stood before the Queen. “Your Highness,” she said, ”you have done an unconscionable thing.”
The Queen looked up at the cook through her tears. She wasn’t especially good at listening to others, but something in the cook’s tone made her pay attention.
“What have I done,” she sobbed. “Some wicked person has broken all of my mirrors.”
“You’ve only got what you deserved,” said the Cook, “after what you tried to do to the Princess.”
“The Princess,” said the Queen. And since she didn’t have a mirror to distract her, the Queen had to think for a moment.
“Yes, the Princess. You should be ashamed of yourself. What sort of queen asks the Royal Huntsman to dispose of a little girl?”
The Queen wasn’t a bad sort, really. She was vane, and she read too many fairy tales, but she didn’t actually mean Rocky any harm.
“If you do the right thing,” said the old Cook, “maybe—just maybe—one or two of these mirrors will start working again.”
The Queen sniffed. “If you mean,” she said, with another sniff, “that I should apologize, then I suppose I could. Then I can have my mirrors back?” She looked hopefully up at the cook.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” said the Cook, glowering down.
“Very well! I suppose I haven’t been a good stepmother, so I’ll do my best to be a better one to dear little Snow White.”
“And what?” cried the Queen.
“It will be hard acting like a stepmother if all you’re doing is looking in the mirror.”
“I’ll keep my mirrors in my room,” sulked the queen.
The old cook could see she wasn’t going to get much better than that, so she let it be. She called for a footman, who escorted the Queen into the forest and to the house of the Seven Dwarfs. There, in front of all the dwarfs, the huntsman, and the footman, the Queen apologized to Rocky.
Rocky stood awhile, and then she said. “You should know that it was me hiding behind your mirror yesterday. It wasn’t your mirror talking. It was me. I wanted to play a trick on you. I’m sorry, too.”
The dwarfs and the two men held their breaths as they watched the little Princess and the tall Queen, who looked hard at one another.
“Well,” said the Queen, finally, “if you promise not to do anything of the sort again, I will do my best as your stepmother.”
Rocky gave a reluctant grin. “All right,” she said, and taking her stepmother’s hand, she led her back to the castle.
There was a great feast that night, and the seven dwarfs were invited to stay at the castle. The King smiled absently as he greeted everyone, but he wasn’t sure what had happened that day. And since finding out would have meant taking an interest, he didn’t bother.
Rocky and her stepmother sat side by side at the great table, while the seven dwarfs drank and made merry around them. “We’ll have to do something about your father, next,” said the Queen.
And Rocky nodded her head. “Good idea,” she said.