My breath emerges like a fog and then dissipates. I pull my coat closer as the train trundles down the track. I recede into myself and avert all eyes. The Revolution stole many things from us: first it was our churches, then it was our books, then it was our trust for our neighbors. They dismantled our culture bit by bit until nothing bound us together. Nothing could come before the State.
I exhale again, too soon! Do they keep the train cold so they can count hurried breaths as a sign of subversion? His breaths come quickly! A sign of a guilty conscience!
I need to check the faces around me. It consumes me. I keep my head stationary and dart my eyes around the train. I am not betrayed. I take in a slow, deep breath and will myself to calm down. I stare forward and allow the rhythmic clanking to lull me into a meditation. As thoughts come, I fan them away.
The train whistles, and I step onto the platform. I’ve never been out this far. The remote landscape, so far from prying eyes, is comforting. The forest that surrounds the station is vast and dormant. Leafless trees spread out in every direction. I wait for the train to pass, and when I am confidently in solitude, I step on the grass. The hard winter ground does not give underfoot. I retrieve a tiny compass concealed in an inner pocket and hold it upwards toward the late afternoon sun. I follow it northeast, into the woods.
A narrow footpath guides my travel. Decaying leaves crunch beneath my boots as twisted trees steal the remaining sunlight. Their branches cast strange shadows on the world. Scurrying wildlife reveal themselves only by sound, leaving my imagination to draw the picture. I am glad that the train had gone, lest I be tempted to retreat. Unless I find shelter in the woods, I will wait until morning on the isolated platform. I walk forward.
North, northeast into the trees
Tread until you find the creek
Don’t turn around
But follow it down
Cross a log that links two grounds.
The sun sets, along with my spirits. The prospect of sleeping alone in these woods becomes a very real possibility that I don’t want to ponder. I am weary by the time I reach the log, but seeing it renews me. I stretch my arms outward and shuffle to the other side. In the clearing, a decrepit gray house reveals itself. I hold my hand over my heart and release my fears to the forest. There will be shelter tonight.
As I approach, I see a woman peering out of a grimy window. She stares at me for a time, then, as if satisfied with my appearance, opens a series of locks.
I look upon her with a start. Everything about her is gray: skin, clothing, hair. A mat of tangled frizz is being held aloft by some unseen static charge.
“Don’t stand there in the cold,” she says, fanning her hands to shoo me in. “Come in!”
I oblige. I am grateful for the refuge even if the house is dark and sparsely furnished; a table, a single chair and a hay mattress. My bed will likely be the floor.
I extend my hand. “Hello, I am Dmitri Dalinsky.”
“I’ve been expecting you. Gretel Ann Hansel,” she says, shaking vigorously.
“Are you German?” I ask her, pondering the origin of her name.
“Ha!” she laughs, boisterous. “Ha! Course not! I suspect you’d like supper?”
I nod, “If you have any.”
She thrusts a revolver into my hand. “Fetch us a rabbit, will you?”
When I return, there is a pot of stew on the hearth. She skins my contribution and adds it to the cauldron.
We are silent until we’ve had our fill. She lets out a loud, unapologetic burp, and says, “I know you didn’t come for my cooking. What brings you here?”
I recite the words precisely as I have been instructed.
A brother and sister,
Kind and good
Have been forsaken
To the woods.
“Ah, I have been waiting a long time to tell what I know.” She begins, “Once upon a time…”
She becomes another person as she tells the tale. Color returns to her cheeks. She is animated, and fervent, casting her hands around for dramatic effect. I am spellbound. I sit motionless, attending to her every gesture. By the time she says, “happily ever after,” I am emotionally exhausted.
She cradles me toward her like a child to his mother’s bosom. I don’t protest.
“So, you’ve never heard a story before?” she asks me.
“Not like that,” I say. “Never like that.”
I am so spent, that even the hard wooden floor doesn’t hinder my slumber. My sleep is heavy and dream laden, and…colorful?
When the morning comes, I am better for having listened, but the old woman is less than she was. Giving me her story has drained her. She does her best to conceal it, but she is even more gray than before.
She offers a weary smile and says, “Time is not on my side. Let’s start again. Once upon a time.”
“Once upon a time,” I repeat.
“With more feeling,” she tells me. “The introduction is an invitation, a seduction.”
“Once upon a time,” I say, mirroring her hand movements.
The next morning, I know the story, every line, every hand gesture, by rote. I'm alone.
That night, I take the vacated bed. I will now be known as Hansel Ingretal.
Although I alone am custodian of this truth, I am part of a great network of subversives keeping our collective stories alive. Until the day there is again a knock at this door, I will hunt and eat heartily to keep up my strength.
As I live, so does this story.
Carrie Houghton is a teacher/librarian who resides in suburban Maryland. Her family encourages her writing because it is far less noisy than her other hobby of playing guitar while singing poorly. This is her first published work.
You can find her on Twitter @HoughtonCarrie
The Storyteller is a Fiction War Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @thepootphotographer