portion of the artwork for Faith Shearin's short story

Like Gretel
Faith Shearin

The Widow Jane makes comparisons though her psychiatrist has warned her that these will only lead to unhappiness. For instance, Jane compares her life to the lives of her friends who still live in the country of marriage where promises have been made, and furniture gathers dust, and each word or gesture is ripe with meaning; she compares her body to the bodies of other women; then, she compares her body to the bodies of serpents and squirrels; Jane compares before to after; she compares whiskers to antlers; she compares winter stars to summer stars; she compares compasses to clocks and caves to houses; Jane compares Hansel to Gretel. She wonders what Hansel would have done without Gretel’s pebbles and bread. She wonders: Was Hansel stupid? Or was he just young? Jane thinks of the early explorers who got lost, believing they had arrived in one place when they had, in fact, arrived in another: Christopher Columbus who mistook the Caribbean islands for China, John Cabot who thought Newfoundland was someplace in Asia.

Just before the first anniversary of her the death of her husband, Max, Jane slips away to an artist’s colony where she hopes to work on a series of photographs documenting his absence: his empty shirts and shoes, the shadow of a branch falling over his abandoned desk chair, his backpack wilted against a bedroom wall. Jane drives her son, Sam, to college in Boston, watches him climb the stairs to his sophomore year: his hair unruly, a guitar slung over one shoulder; then, she continues: over hills, past farmhouses, to an old estate in New York where she will spend a month living in a stone mansion with 20 other artists: playwrights, composers, painters, novelists; there will be a dinner bell and a cocktail hour; there will be portraits of unsmiling ancestors and unlit corridors and fishing nets meant for catching bats instead of fish; there will be paintings of the mansion’s former inhabitants, squinting into the future. The mansion will be too vast to heat: September its last month in operation before it is closed for winter, the walls cold. Jane’s room will be called Mountain View, but a forest will have risen during the century since the room was named, so there will be no view of the mountains; it will contain a desk, a carved mahogany bed, and a fainting couch; the couch will be long, as if fainting makes people taller.

Deep in the forest of the estate, Jane visits a studio where she is hanging her photos and considering them from different angles; each artist at the colony has received a bedroom in the mansion and a modern studio that resembles a yurt. The forest around her studio, where Jane goes walking, reminds her of the forests in fairy tales: the one where Snow White was released by a huntsman at twilight, her dress torn by fear, the one where Gretel’s father abandoned her beside a fire because his new wife didn’t want to share her food, the one the twelve dancing princesses descended to when they danced all night in a kingdom beneath their bedroom floor: their hair undone, their narrow shoes worn away. It is like the forest that grows wild and tall around Sleeping Beauty’s castle while she spends a century sleeping; Jane notices a graveyard in the forest where the family that owned the estate buried their four children, all of whom died in early childhood, their painted eyes watching Jane from portraits in the mansion hallways where they are trapped inside gilded frames.

Jane’s dining life revolves around a medieval table in a dim wooden room with maroon carpeting. It is at this table that Jane finds she has lost the ability to converse; she cannot remember the names of books or authors, cannot recall the plots of films, cannot tell stories about her family since these might lead to questions about Max; being a widow, she realizes, has left her mute and stupid, so she sits over her pink grapefruit in the mornings, and pork roasts in the evenings, listening to the other artists discuss travel and teaching posts and articles in The New Yorker. One night she stays up late, in the drinking room, and plays a parlor game in which she must draw the name of a celebrity out of a hat and convey the identity of this person with gestures instead of words; she draws the name Jimmy Carter and finds herself enacting peanut farming while her team shrugs and looks confused. Jane’s face grows hot as she pretends to rake the carpeting and harvest peanuts; afterwards, sleepless in her bed, her windows blown open by a midnight wind, she decides she is not suited to parlor games.

Jane compares her photographs to the works of the two other photography fellows who are both male and had recent exhibits at the Smithsonian; she compares the sound of cars passing at the edge of the estate to the sound of loneliness; she compares ghosts to statues; Jane compares the land formations left behind by the ice age—box canyons, steep ravines, fjords—with the landscapes inside herself; Jane has been given a lavish dressing room and, when she is combing her hair in front of its oval mirror, she imagines all the women the mirror has watched combing their hair, each one bent over the finite acres of her life.

* * *

Jane’s old college boyfriend, Caleb, visits her at the artist’s colony; he looks just as he did in college—blue eyes, tall and thin—only now his hair is white instead of black. The colony strictly forbids overnight guests so he takes Jane away to an Airbnb in the college town nearby. Jane finds she can speak again when she sees Caleb; they float down a river together in a canoe. Ever since Max died Jane has been thinking about the lost geography of marriage: its perimeters and vistas, its history and longitudes; she has been thinking about the fights she and Max had during their final five years, about the way they would sometimes find themselves lost in a blizzard of words. At dinner, on one of her first nights, a pale-bearded artist tells Jane about the photographs he took in a remote village in China that practices walking marriages; in these relationships, he explains, men appear on the doorsteps of women and are invited in or turned away; walking marriages can last a single night or persist for years; the babies, if there are any, belong to the women; men help their sisters raise another man’s children; Jane tells Caleb about walking marriages as they ease their canoe through the river’s shallows, the current urging them toward some distant shore; Caleb, a lifelong bachelor, listens.

“I saw the photos,” Jane tells Caleb, “and let’s just say the people in this village are easy on the eyes.”

“Because a man is being selected without regard to his earning potential,” Caleb says.

“You can’t really fail at a walking marriage,” Jane says. “There are no promises, no dowries, no mothers-in-law.”

“Why call it marriage?” Caleb asks.

Jane and Caleb dip their paddles into the river which moves in only one direction and the river hurries; it insists.

* * *

When they were young Caleb made a sketch of Jane, by lantern light, while she reclined in his bed; this was on a winter night, and Jane lay under a white sheet with her eyes closed, her breasts exposed; the sketch survived a dozen moves over 30 years, survived a robbery, a fire, a flood. The third time Jane saw Caleb, after Max died, he brought it out of his closet where it had been folded into darkness; Jane saw the contours of her youth traced by his hand, saw the outline of the pillows where they once dreamed. Somewhere in that past Caleb walked away to a future full of other women, and staircases, and furniture he fashioned from trees, and Jane ran away with Max, and seasons passed over both of them: light opening and closing like a door. There was a night in the deep past, in college, when Jane had been a passenger in a car with Caleb and Max: Caleb driving, Max beside him; the three of them had slipped over a bridge, to an Italian restaurant with wine and a Wurlitzer. Jane remembered looking out her window at the Connecticut river, remembered knowing that Max would marry her and Caleb would vanish but she did not know he would find her again at 49, after Max’s obituary was published, while her doorstep was still littered with death certificates and baskets of fruit. Once, in a forest, Caleb began naming trees; he showed Jane a hickory and a copper beech, a cedar of Lebanon and a white pine; in his mind, Caleb fashioned trees into staircases, cabins, trunks, bed frames. For Jane the forest remained unnamed; when she walked in one she did not imagine what she would make but what she might lose; she felt small and hushed as if she were inside a cathedral.

* * *

Jane has increasing trouble eating the food at the colony, her morning oatmeal grows gelatinous in her bowl; her lunchbox full of cold noodles and salads sits unopened on her studio table. Jane misses the things she once cooked for her husband and son: mashed potatoes, pastas with parmesan cheese, biscuits with jam, scrambled eggs with cheese; she misses ripe peaches and avocados, peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, chicken soup. One day, after opening a hat box of photographs taken when she and Max and Sam were a young family and walking together on a glittering beach, Jane begins to shiver; by late afternoon she is ill and drives herself to a clinic in the college town beyond the mansion where students like her son are embarking on their adult lives; Jane watches them striding across lawns, their eyes fixed on something ahead, in the middle distance.

* * *

The clinic doctor diagnoses a urinary tract infection and sends Jane back to the mansion with a pack of antibiotics; she has missed dinner but the cook has left a covered plate for her in the basement refrigerator; Jane pads through the abandoned corridors of the mansion; she passes the piano room where a folk singer performed the night before, her hair tied up in braids; she holds onto the railing of the stairs Truman Capote once slid down, after cocktails, climbs past the room where Sylvia Plath wrote the poems described by one reviewer as being full of raisins. Until her fever breaks Jane lies on the fainting couch, watching night seep through her curtains; she feels close to Max when she is sick, the veil between them growing thin; she thinks of Max alone in the last hotel room of his life, at a business conference, with a strange ache in his chest.

* * *

Sitting in her studio, sepia images of Max’s backpack and bicycle tacked to her walls, Jane finds she is consumed by dread; she worries the doctors have given her the wrong antibiotic and she will erupt in hives; she worries she will die suddenly, like Max, and leave Sam orphaned; she remembers calling Sam in his freshman dorm to tell him his father would not live through the night, remembers the small animal noise Sam made with his throat. Jane worries she will misuse the rest of her life, worries she will never have the concentration to finish reading a novel, will never have the appetite necessary to consume a complete meal; she worries her way into the forest where she passes the fence of a racetrack; she is aware of dark horses moving in stalls. The forest shelters a car wrecked sometime in the 1970s; Jane passes a circular ice house, a fountain where blue water spills over alabaster statues; she slips through a garden of roses with thorns that remind her of talons. In a clearing beyond the library she finds a series of thin, blue-gray tombstones with etchings of angel’s wings; when she kneels down, she notices little messages etched at the base of each, half sunk in earth, one still legible: “Remember friend as you walk by/ as you are now so once was I/ As I am now you will surely be/ Prepare thyself to follow me.” Jane remembers finding Max in that Colorado hospital: down a snowy corridor, his long eyelashes dark against his cheeks; she remembers the machines beeping around him, the polished, windowless night. Even as she left his dead body behind, under a sheet, part of her followed him into his drafty afterlife. On her way back to her studio, Jane gets lost in the forest; she mistakes one path for another and finds herself walking too close to the sound of the highway; Jane thinks of Gretel dropping breadcrumbs in the moonlight; she compares herself to Hansel; she thinks of Sleeping Beauty turning over in a century of dreams, of Red Riding Hood, with her picnic basket, pausing on a bridge to speak to a wolf.

* * *

It is evening when Jane emerges into an open field near the mansion and she is late for dinner; other artists have been dispatched to look for her and she is embarrassed when they find her walking through the high grass, among adirondack chairs, pretends she lost track of time. At dinner the woman beside Jane is describing a residency in a distant country full of stray cats; she explains how she rescued a one-eyed cat thick with fleas, then went to a pharmacy to buy a flea remedy with her dictionary of basic words and said “pussy lice,” which caused everyone in the pharmacy to laugh; Jane finds herself thinking of the distance between words and meaning; she imagines the one-eyed cat scratching.

* * *

The night before she leaves the colony, Jane opens her studio so the other artists can look at her work; Jane compares her photographs to the photos of Diane Arbus or Sally Mann; she compares them to the drawings of grade school children and the ancient paintings of hands found on cave walls in France. Jane compares the topography of widowhood with the features of wifedom; she remembers intimacies, music, pets. Jane remembers all the married living rooms and museums and parks, the bedroom arranged for two, all the places where she said we instead of I. She thinks of the married neighborhoods with their porch swings and garages and formal dining rooms, of the country where she is no longer a citizen. She watches the other artists walking through the forest to her studio: the forest with its canopies and predators, its trees instructed by light, its trees sending quiet messages to one another through roots, through soil; Jane compares getting lost in the forest to getting lost in her empty house: underbrush, thorns, poison ivy, vines; she compares the dead to the living, the ethereal to the terrestrial, thinks of the portrait of a young, unsmiling woman that sometimes slips from her bedroom wall in the mansion at night, its frame landing heavily in the dark. Jane thinks the dead are deaf but not blind; she experiences widow time as an ocean: tidal, swollen, moody, deep. On this last night at the colony, Jane walks the starless corridors, ascends to the floor above hers where rooms stand empty, their desks like winter lakes; when she returns to her own room, she finds a bat flying low over her bed, its wings dark with confusion. Jane opens the windows and doors, chases the bat with a net from her closet; her half-packed suitcase is balanced on the fainting couch. Jane thinks the bat has mistaken her bedroom for a cave; she chases it onto her balcony where she can see the forest rustling, obscuring the mountains beyond; she compares mountains to valleys and life to death; she compares teeth to gravestones; Jane thinks of Red Riding Hood whose grandmother was also a wolf; she remembers Goldilocks breaking into a house designed by bears: a human intruder, speaking only in comparisons. Jane does not want to leave the artist’s colony and she does not want to stay. When she goes home, she will be lost like Gretel after the birds ate her trail, like the ancient mariners who navigated using geometry and astronomy and lunar distances; she compares the Northwest Passage to the life of Henry Hudson; she compares the Caribbean to the coast of China.

Faith Shearin’s Comments

I began working on this story the year after my husband died suddenly of a heart attack. I felt lost and thought often of Gretel, confused in the forest; I thought of the early explorers who were disoriented at sea. Like the widow in the story, I began making comparisons; as a poet I have often used similes and metaphors the way Gretel used her pebbles. My stories about Jane were a way of fashioning a trail through the moonlight.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020