She defeated the hag and released her brother, but the sweets had fermented in his belly, and he wanted more. He ate the house from the fondant walls to the spun-sugar window panes, devouring it down to the last gummy-gum-drop. When there was nothing left to gobble, he turned to the cooked body in the oven.
Try some, he said, holding a swollen chunk of braised belly to her trembling lips. You must be hungry.
No, brother. No.
The bitch didn’t feed you. Now she will. Come.
It tastes good. Sweet. Sugary. Would I lie to you?
He fed her the meat, still pink and warm, like her mother would when she was a babe. Then he wiped her chin with his tongue, where blood dribbled.
Mustn’t let anything go to waste, he said. Smacked his full lips.
We’ll never speak of this, she promised. Because I love you.
And out of love, she never complained when she woke at night to him chewing on her wrist or her ankle, though she did weep, quietly, so that his gnashing teeth on her flesh went undisturbed.
A girl is born inside high walls with even higher fences, so high that she cannot even see beyond the yard. But she can hear. The repetition of bells from the ice-cream man is utter temptation. In a moment of thoughtlessness, she climbs the fence as high as she can, precariously balanced on her tiptoes, and furiously waves a dollar. She receives a purple popsicle for her troubles, and from the moment the cold, sweet ice hits her tongue she is hooked. It flutters through her synapses like a distorted butterfly, pollinating the senses, dilating her eyes, making her wild and happy. Repeat is craved.
She remains in the womb of her mother’s house for years, hacking several times a day with blunt scissors at an umbilical cord of quelling affection that binds her to this place of cheap Majolica knockoffs and watered down Chanel No. 5. The matriarch is a whale who sits in a bathtub mixed with her piss and the wine spilled from her cup and drooled from her lips. The woman hates her fair daughter’s lambent-gold hair and spritely body, but she has little else, and so bleats her love like a death-knell while the girl covers her ears and hacks all the harder.
When she is seventeen, the girl slices into the heart of the cord. She shrinks away from the guilt that floods her bedroom floor like stale merlot. Her mother yowls in the bathroom, but the girl has already left.
She stamps the surgeons general’s warning on her forehead and trades dollars and coin for sweets over the counter, under the counter, around the counter and through. When she runs out of money she requests from strangers, and when they run low on freebies, she plays dress-up.
A bra of lace and bone shields what little she has, and pushes into maturity what nature failed to nurture. Reading the crude graffiti and advertisements that clutter the city walls, she learns where children are formed – not, as mother said, from sugar and spice – then thinks, Hell, I can do that. Later, a confectioner who likes the curve of her ass tells her to spread her thighs and let him see her Georgia O’Keeffe. He wants to make it into real art. Mix the watercolor, spread the paint.
When he pushes his narrow member into her she licks a cherry sucker and closes her eyes to block out everything but the sugary syrup and saliva dissolving down her throat. He finishes fast, and he has to tell her that it’s done. She hadn’t noticed, too busy with her lolly.
He gives her different brightly colored sweets after each time. Each with a different purpose, each evoking a different feeling. Each making the ache of want fester and spread.
The best candy is the newest. It is whispered about and dealt under the mosquito-infested lamp lights. They call it gingerbread, because it’s just as warm and sugary as anything out of grandma’s oven. She has to have the gingerbread. Her confectioner says it is hard to find, and explains to her the economics of candy. The market worships and vomits at the altar of Adam Smith while an invisible hand keeps the supply low and the price high, he says.
Fuck that, she says.
A man with thick glasses and a beard finds her on a park bench. He sits beside her and tells her he’s been chosen by the Dee-vine to come and save the D-amned, though he used to be one of the latter back in the bad old days. She has not seen a clean man in a long time. She tells him he looks like an apathetic angel, sans wings.
What does that say on your arm? he asks. He means the tattoos she carved with a razor and pen-ink the night before while the candy made her slobber. It seeps still, black and red.
And that. On the other.
He nods slowly.
Where I’m from. Where I’m going.
Which is which?
He gives her papers about a place where she can go and clean the sugar from her veins. Too much sugar, he tells her, makes your bones weak. She needs something savory on her, something that will stick.
They got Kool-Aid there? she asks.
Though no longer a child, she has not put away childish thoughts. When her confectioner, who once said he loved her in a generous moment, offers to get her gingerbread to warm her toes and fingers, she squeals and lets him warm her belly without being coddled, all the while babbling like fat on the fire.
It is passed out at a house, a gingerbread house, for all the boys and girls. When the two arrive, there is a skeleton standing outside the house. She blinks, and the skeleton is a woman. The bone-woman begs to be let into the gingerbread house too, but the confectioner chases the woman off.
Trash, he says. Worse. Old trash.
She blows a bubble with her gum.
The people inside the house are varied; suits who abandon their blazers to fit in only to be given away by their button downs, the candy-junkies with leather faces and gaping, smiling mouths. The suits are visitors to an exotic land, and stand in the corner, observing the natives. The natives, with candy residue lining their lips, are relaxed. They wear colors and apply liberal amounts of hair gel. Most of them are smoking already and, since her confectioner is paying for her, they offer her one from their own packs.
She laughs and spits out her wad of gum. Then she pulls out a pack of candy cigs and puts one in her mouth. They clap at her sense of the vintage.
They pass it out like communion. The more devout bow their heads, while others shove their greedy hands out and snap their fingers in impatience. The gingerbread itself is a small, brown ball. They say it is a weed, but not entirely organic. It is a little oily and she thinks it is melting in her hand, but her confectioner tells her this is just her imagination. There is a soft aroma from the thing, pleasant and not, like an overripe fig about to turn.
How? she asks.
Masticate, they say. Then swallow.
It is warm. Like summer bursting in her and spreading like molasses. It might be like love, but it is not only like the physical love of her confectioner, or the smothering love of her mother, but something else entirely. It soothes. At times she feels like she is being flung through a tunnel and that makes her feel ill and empty, but there is always something at the other side that fills her up.
Ah. This is it. This is what she has been looking for. Like a homecoming to a place she had dreamed into reality, where the streetlamps are striped candy-canes and the rivers run with soda-pop.
When she wakes, she does not remember where she is. Bodies are piled on top of her, as in a massive grave. She claws her way out from under a fat woman whose arm she was using as a pillow. Her confectioner is nowhere to be seen, but she does not mind. She does not love him, and he will come back when he wants her.
A few steps from the house and then she is half bent, vomiting yellow bile. She thinks she can see a piece of the gingerbread only half digested amongst the juices. She picks it up and wipes it off on her jeans. She pockets it. It can be eaten later.
Outside, a wraith of bones and flesh grabs her arms. She blinks, and it is a woman.
You’ve got it, the woman says. Give it to me.
Give you what?
But she knows what the woman wants. The gingerbread. She tries to shake her arm away, but the woman latches on and will not be dislodged.
The woman has blunt teeth, and she bites into the girl’s arm, right over ZION. The spit and blood mingle in a dark, humid place, and both of them moan. The wraith-woman sucks her dry, and then leaves her on the ground.
She gets to her feet, stumbling at the loss of blood. She feels her back pockets for a candy cigarette, and pulls out the papers from the bearded angel. The picture is of a halfway house with a smiling sun and people with plastered grins holding hands. Get Clean. Flush the Bad Out. God Loves You. Yes, You. She thinks about going there.
She goes there. Or starts to. With each step she feels weaker and ill. The pocketed gingerbread is hurriedly taken out and placed on her tongue, where she allows it to dissolve. Soon, warmth spreads through her to where the woman left her open and raw. Her arm has begun to rash in a bright, ugly red, and darkens to blue and then black. Warmth elevates to heat, and moves from her arm, intensifying at the place where the primordial cord was cut and where the gingerbread slithers down towards. From there it shimmers and bursts, exploding with glee in her womb. Her body trembles, then shakes. In the next moment, she is sizzling.
She opens her arms wide: Take me in, world. Consume me.
She is resplendent, and then she is gone.
A boy rides his bike through his neighborhood. He sees a puddle of something strange and stops to look. It’s a little oily, but not unpleasant looking. Like chocolate melted in the sun. It smells nice, too. Just like mole sauce over chicken.
He sticks his finger in. Brings it to his lips.