In Emulation of Gretel

Where had the time gone?

Edmund sat on his mother’s weathered iron bench under the white oak tree he and Alma exchanged their vows under so many years before. Icicles clung to barren limbs that trembled in the frigid air, reaching toward the brightness of the full moon, dominating a black sky. A split-rail fence lay silhouetted against a row of cedar trees, boughs heavy with snow, which stood sentinel over the stream chiseled through Edmund’s forty acres of wintry landscape.

“It’s so beautiful in the moonlight, isn’t it dear?” A nippy wind tousled Edmund’s white hair and settled into his bones. He sprinkled a little kerosene from the tin can near his feet onto the half-drenched logs smoldering in the fire pit. They caught, and he held his hands out to the soothing warmth.

The preacher’s words were faint in his memory, as fragile as his recollection of how ravishing Alma looked in her flowing white wedding dress, the scent of her hair like lilacs. Alma had always wanted a winter wedding; she considered it a magical experience, pristine and pure like the snow. She’d envisioned pixies slinking from behind dogwood trunks to witness the simple affair, crouching in awe as if afraid to intrude.

“Spent many an evening here when we were first married, gazing up at the stars and listening to the water churning over the rocks just down the hill, we did. Time crept up on me, didn’t it? Too late to make up for the wasted years.” A pang of guilt filled Edmund at the thought. He vowed to spend what little time remained with her.

“You always did love the outdoors, Edmund.” The wind eddied in the hollows of Alma’s shawl. Edmund felt a chill as he pulled it snug around her shoulders. “I guess it’s one of the reasons I married you.”

“Mother loved it here first.” Edmund’s shoulders slumped forward, and his gaze dropped to the ground as a sigh escaped him. It was her special place, a little bit of paradise amid the stark hardwoods -— a place where she had once sat, smiling with her deep blue eyes while telling him she’d never leave him like Daddy did.

He ran his fingers over the fancy scrollwork in the antique iron of the bench, summoning memories of being tossed like a rag doll in a dryer, thrown from the shattered windshield of his mother’s old Chevrolet coupe — the roof and wheels swapped places after she skidded on black ice, tumbling over and over. He heard his mother screaming as flames from the twisted wreckage licked at the ice on the dirt road beneath. He was found by his grandfather and the sheriff forty minutes later, half frozen to death, staring into the flames, only a few feet from the wreck. His first foray into the killing power of fire. “She and Grandpa used to bring me here on warm summer days before she died.”

“You’ll see your mother again someday, dear, don’t you fret.” Alma’s words, the same words spoken by ghosts of his past, random faces flickering through his memory, ripped at his heart. He saw his mother’s closed casket in his mind. Peach, orange, and white blooms drooping on metal stands, as cold as the steel of her coffin, nauseating him with their sickly sweet scent. They were flowers, certainly, but they were the wrong kind of flowers, not like the Bittercress, Blue Flax, and King’s Crown growing wild in the woods she so loved. In the spring, daisies had blossomed over the secret depths of her grave, where she was sealed off from him, forever down in the cold, damp earth.

Blustery wind sighed through the treetops, making them sway. A crow cawed somewhere deep in the woods, the moon peeking through gray clouds heavy with snow.  Edmund poked at the embers with a stick, and the smoking logs burst into flames.

“I knew there was something different about you the first time I saw you strolling down the sidewalk in your pink dress with your blond hair and blue eyes…a natural beauty. You were so pretty. I knew you were fond of Calvin Letts, but I guess love really is blind. You must’ve loved me a little to have married me. Maybe you glimpsed the emptiness within me, the yearning for attention.”

“I married you out of love, you old coot. Looking back, I wish that mother had been able to attend the wedding. What happened to her was a real shame.” 

“She wasn’t deserving of your love, just an old bag full of hatred. Didn’t like me from the time I set foot in your front door. Staggered onto the stoop with a Gin and Tonic in her hand the first night I took you out. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and as I recall you prepared a nice roasted chicken dinner that night as well. We’d just returned from that new Hitchcock movie, The Birds. March of 1963, remember? Your mother staggered onto the stoop, balled her fists up in my face, and told me that as far as she was concerned, I could just get on a Greyhound bus and hightail it to wherever the hell it was I came from. Had her mind set on you marrying Calvin Letts, who was already halfway through that doctors’ college. Calvin in the medical arts, and you in the culinary arts. And, of course, both of you dabbling in the black arts.”

Edmund gazed into the flickering flames and thought about Alma’s mother, Ruby, who had a habit of getting plastered and smoking in bed. A month after Edmund began dating Alma, he slid Ruby’s window up on smooth tracks, while she lay passed out in her blue nightgown, a cigarette burned down to a nub between her fingertips. A cat had yowled on the fence a few houses down, startling him.

Old witch. You aren’t deserving of Alma’s love, Edmund had thought. And I won’t share her with you anymore. But now she’ll know what I went through, how loss feels on the inside. What it’s like to know you’re never coming back to her.

A pack of matches rested on her cigarettes.

Grandpa liked to play with matches.

Multiple crude burn scars still pocked Edmund’s forearms to prove it. After Edmund’s mother died, Grandpa’s personality changed. Or maybe he’d been that way all along, the darker realms of his thoughts banished while he had an object for his love…no matter how tainted his love might be. Maybe he couldn’t handle the loss of his daughter, couldn’t quite stomach the sight of Edmund, who was the living image of Elaine.

Edmund reached over and lifted the matches from Ruby’s nightstand.

He struck one match and held it to the others. The pack of matches flared to life with a ffffttt! His face was hot, sizzling, and he felt his jaw clench. He passed the flaming match heads along the sheets with one deft movement, much the same way Grandpa had jammed searing matches into Edmund’s left ear one night, Grandpa’s last night. The sheets soaked up the fire like a wick, turning black. He stared into hot brightness, remembering Grandpa’s head-over-heels tumble down the stairwell, his spinal cord snapping like a piece of kindling.

He scowled as thoughts of Grandpa, Ruby, and Calvin Letts churned in his head, along with a superstition Grandpa mentioned during one of his drunken spells about soldiers lighting cigarettes.

He chanted under his breath: Three on a match…three on a match…

Flames climbed the covers in a square of ever-heightening spires, reminiscent of Grandpa’s pine casket lurching toward the crematorium chamber. Ruby awoke writhing, choking on the pungent smoke that billowed from the bed. Edmund stood, his eyes stinging, mesmerized by fire and heat. Her final whimpers of pain filled his world.

He murmured to himself, the same words he’d used while scattering Grandpa’s ashes over the cold-flowing waters of the creek, “I’m not sure whether hell exists or not so I made sure you burned, didn’t I?”

Footsteps pattered up the hallway. He slipped into the moonless night as Alma rushed screaming down the hallway to dial the fire department.

An owl hooted somewhere nearby, bringing Edmund out of his trance. He craned his neck upward to take in the white stars, faint against the brightness of the moon. “For fifty years I’ve loved you, Alma. You brought out my best side. I believed you loved me too, deep down, and that no one would ever take that love away. Not until the night I drove home a day early from the farmers’ conference.”  Edmund paused, cold breezes whirling around his ankles. The fire popped, sowing red sparks to the wind.

“It was the chickens that tipped me off. Chickens that kept disappearing with every night of the full moon. Marked the dates in my Farmer’s Almanac. First time was right after we were married, in January. Full Wolf Moon. Indians named it after hungry wolves howling outside their villages. A few months later, the chicken dinners started. Every time there was a full moon, you’d set out a platter of fried chicken for supper the next day. Took me almost a year to figure it out. I sometimes wonder what Pastor Ingleton would’ve said if he’d known just exactly what it was he was eating the night you invited him over for dinner.”

Edmund smiled at Alma, smug.

“So, I came on home the night of the Full Cold Moon. That’s December. I saw Calvin Letts through the frost on the kitchen window. Saw you two kissing, and him with his hand down your blouse. I didn’t see any black candles clustered around that cutting board you two were using for an altar, nor even a few inverted crucifixes. And neither of you were dressed in black. But the sacrifice…I looked in, expecting to see my prize laying hen, Bertie, flopping around back and forth over that cutting board with her blood smeared all over your faces.”

Edmund placed his elbows on his knees and stared into the fire.

“I didn’t expect to see a newborn baby, our baby, and the dagger that skewered it, a dagger with more squiggles and curves in it than State Road 12. I can’t say I was really surprised about Calvin being there. What with all the rumors about you two, and the cuckolded husband circulating behind my back. Afterward, everyone let the rumors fly about you and Calvin up and leaving town together, but they didn’t even guess…and I never remarried. I suppose it’s like they say, true love never dies. What’s the other saying? Something about being someone’s first love is great, but to be their last is beyond perfection?”

Tears trickled down his cheeks.

“I genuinely love you, Alma. You were venturesome, and I wouldn’t have been able to stand the disappointment in your eyes if I’d ever tried to change you. But these old eyes have seen too much hurting and love taken away from me in my life. I had to make sure I was your last love.”

Edmund studied the black sockets of her dirt-encrusted skull. Alma remained silent.

“Well, it’s getting late, dear.” Edmund stood up, arthritis slowing his movements. “I wish I could’ve done right by you, a proper funeral and all, but I couldn’t stand the thought of you being locked deep away from me in a coffin. A natural burial fit right in with our love of the outdoors, anyway.”

His gnarled old hands gripped the shovel.

“Edmund…Can you see to the fire? It’s so cold down here.”                          

The fire…

Edmund stood propped on the shovel, remembering.

“I stood there outside the window, quivering, and heard you telling Calvin it was nippy and would he please go get some more logs for the fireplace. Heh! He came strutting out in the yard all puffed up like a banty rooster. I wonder what was going through his mind when he opened the door to the woodshed and I stepped out of the shadows with an axe in my hand. I guess you didn’t think me bringing his arm in with the firewood was amusing, my own little contribution to the sacrifice.  I must’ve gone a little bit crazy, because I was laughing to beat the band, and you just started screaming, screaming…!”

“My head was pounding and I was shouting and you wouldn’t stop screaming. So I shoved you toward the fireplace. I married the fox who liked to get in the henhouse, but you married a monster, and …”

Edmund’s eyes gleamed.

“…I guess I just wanted to see what happened when Gretel popped the witch into the oven.”

His throat muscles constricted, the corners of his closed eyes prickling with tears.

 “Come to bed, sweetie.” Alma’s skull rested on the edge of the grave. Her dark sockets watched him, her dingy teeth smiling in the firelight. Her hands, once tender in his own as he placed the diamond band on her finger, now splayed white bone, seemed to beckon to him. “I’ve got something that will make it all better.”

The can, really just an old soup can with the label torn off, was in his palm, though he had no memory of lifting it from its resting place beside the bench. Kerosene sloshed on his flannel shirt and tattered pants. Edmund stumbled into the fire.

Red embers threw their feeble glow into the darkness as tendrils of blue flames licked at his pant’s cuffs. They were old, like Edmund himself, and caught immediately. Fire coursed up his clothes in yellow torrents, scorching his legs, his chest, his face.

Pork. Smells just like barbecue pork, he thought, but hollered instead, beating at the flames with the scorched meat of his palms. He lurched forward, blinded, and went sprawling into the grave. Grains of rich, dark soil pattered down, coating him like the brilliant white snowflakes beginning to drift down in flurries from the indifferent sky.

He lie there, too weakened to move. Frigid air settled in around him.

An hour later, a coyote howled. The wind was gusting now. He was shivering, and couldn’t feel his fingers. He placed his arm around Alma’s skull, bringing it close.

The last thing Edmund saw before the cold took him was Pastor Ingleton standing at the foot of the grave. He looked much the same as he did that cold winter day some fifty years before—when Alma said, ‘I do,’ in a dress as white as the snow coating the minister’s bald pate. Pastor Ingleton, the eater of chicken sacrificed to the devil, who’d been dead for going on some ten years now, wasn’t smiling.

He opened a small book in his hands and began to read aloud.

“Ashes to ashes…”