By Kate Gough
Wrinkles sagging with weariness, Gretel June seated her crooked torso on the last clear surface in the house: a padded footstool. The world swam in complete and terrifying circles around her, and closing her eyes only made it worse. She felt a lump in her throat that had nothing whatsoever to do with her heart, and much more to do with her stomach. Everything swirled so fast!
Ancient, knotted hands cupped a steaming mug of hot liquid, which she blew on periodically, but never sipped. Gathering herself, she turned her head slowly toward the photo album lying open beside her. Dust lay thickly over it, as if it hadn’t been touched in years, but – as if by long-accustomed ritual – she went suddenly quite still, staring at the open page. She showed no inclination to turn it, or any sign of life at all for some time.
There on the left was her strong, sad-eyed father – and next to him little Hans, trying to heft one of father’s axes! . . .both dead now. Momentarily, a pinched-faced woman with thin limbs surfaced faintly beside them, then swirled and disappeared back into the fog. Mother. Hans was thin like mother. And smart. That’s what saved him back then. Gretel sighed, then wobbled on her footstool and gulped.
Last year, she’d visited the house. She’d begun to feel an attraction to the place she couldn’t shake, and the need to see it eventually overcame her. People often retrace their footsteps when family dies, she’d reasoned. She hadn’t expected much – a broken wreck most likely, or even all gone by now. How odd then, to find it pristine and beckoning! Like a fruit waiting to be plucked: all sparkling motes of sugar and bright, blaring notes of colour. . . So fast! Beautiful. Her stomach gargled, deep and long.
A noise outside distracted her and Gretel stood up with considerable difficulty, grasping at a broken branch propped nearby and leaning heavily. She stood swaying for a few moments like a wounded tree, then began moving tediously through the room (seemingly furnished with precariously stacked oddments) toward the little window in the front door. She twitched aside a corner of the curtain. Children! Coming out of the forest, picking my wild flowers and eating my herbs! Her nostrils flared, but she stayed hidden, leaning on the door as the world continued to swirl around her.
The quickening motion was unstoppable, gripping her head, her eyes, filling all the cells of her body with a circling, desert-dry wind. Mesmerised and on the verge of vomiting, Gretel felt the violent vertigo stirring the emptiness in her gut. Her insides yowled and tugged like an angry animal on a leash. Her eyes flicked toward the window again, sly little slits set in beds of wrinkles.
Suddenly, the two children saw the house. Their eyes grew lollipop wide, and they left their flowers for its candied walls, struck with an incurable ravening.
It was time.