Elizabeth Knox

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Brothers and Sisters: A Grimm tale

I wrote this for a Grimm’s fairytale Bicentenary event. It was published in Sport Magazine in 2012, and I think it deserves another outing.


photo 2Stargazer is running the meeting. He unlocks the room and puts a fresh bag in the coffee machine. Hansel arrives with muffins.

Stargazer is a pretty smug fellow. Things worked out for him and his brothers. He likes to say, ‘We had a dust-up but not a bust-up.’ He also likes to say that no princess can replace your brothers (but never ‘Bros before hos’ because even he can’t be sure princesses won’t be present).

When  people start arriving there are some familiar faces. The two ugly, limping women. And Hansel of course, his fat fingers still fidgeting over the muffins. Hansel blames his bad relationship with food on ‘what happened’. He still dreams about being force-fed, and complains about how long he was in the cage before his sister acted to save him.

There are a couple of eldest brothers, going thin on top, anxiously checking their phones, and only reluctantly turning them off. There’s a Chinese guy with old horn-player’s cheeks. He’s new.

Before they sit down, Stargazer has them move the chairs into a wider circle to make room for the sad-faced boy in the big orthopaedic boot, and another one who is wearing his bulky coat like a cape and constantly reaching one hand into its pocket to get at the trailmix he has stashed there.

But, before long, they’re all settled. Stargazer welcomes everyone. He spreads his hands and asks who’d like to start. Of course it’s the ugly sisters. These two have been coming for quite a while and they’re not gradually getting themselves to a better place. They’re just finding refinements for their cause for complaint.

‘So,’ thinks Stargazer, to whom nothing should surprise since he can count the birds in their nests at the tops of tall trees, ‘So— now it’s all their mother’s fault.’

One sister is saying, ‘It would be so much better for us if we hadn’t completely alienated little Ashputtel. But oh no, being stepmother of the Queen wasn’t good enough for Mother.’

‘Cutting off her nose to spite her face,’ says her sister. And the oldest and ugliest draws her brows together and looks pointedly at her sibling’s open-toed sandals. ‘More like cutting off a toe to spite someone else’s foot.’ The younger sister makes a noise of protest. Her disabilities are less visible—it was a heel she lost, not a toe—so she has to make more of a song, if not a dance about it.

‘It isn’t your stepsister or your mother who is the problem. It’s those damn fairies,’ says Briar Rose.

‘Or witches,’ says someone else.

Stargazer tries to think how to lead the discussion away from witches and fairies. He reminds everyone how unproductive it is to blame fairies and witches for family problems—and unlucky, since both can hear themselves being maligned from leagues away.

The Chinese Satchmo is shaking his loose jowls. Stargazer feels he should ask the man what he has to say, but when the man moves he gives off a dank fishy smell, like the seafloor. Stargazer has a strong suspicion that the fellow doesn’t quite belong, and that something alarming will happen if he does open his mouth.

‘It’s promises that are the problem!’ shrieks the funny little man, jumping up and down on his chair. He does that a lot. ‘Bargains and promises. They want them. Then they can never keep them.’

‘But who are they?’ says Stargazer, very wisely.

‘There is no They,’ says Rose Red, who’s a bit of a teacher’s pet, and only—she says—in the group because she’s mildly peeved that it was her sister who got the original Bear Prince while she had to make do with his far less husky brother.

The little man’s eyes pop. He fumes. Rose Red smirks at him—he’s just like a dwarf she knew once, and teasing him makes her quite nostalgic.

However, the room has already taken up the idea. ‘Yes, it’s the promises,’ says the boy in the coat-cape.

‘It’s breaking them,’ argues the sad-faced lad in the orthopaedic boot.

‘No, it’s keeping them,’ says the boy in the cape. ‘And being the youngest.’

‘Oh don’t give me that!’ snaps an elder brother. ‘I stayed home and looked after my father, who would weep every day about how hard he’d been on my youngest brother Heimdel, and meanwhile the whole world, and a princess, jumped into Heimdel’s lap!’

The other elder brother chimes in: ‘It’s easy for the youngest. He sets out last. He learns from our mistakes. Just once someone should send out the youngest first!’

The little man is still dancing about on top of his chair shouting about cheats.

‘Please sit down, Timothy, Ichabod, Benjamin, Jeremiah,’ says Stargazer.

‘That’s not my name,’ the little man gloats—but he resumes his seat. ‘Wretches all!’ he mutters. ‘Women! They’d rather marry the nasty cove who locks them in a tower and makes them spin straw into gold, than show any regard for the fellow who saves their bacon.’

‘With those promises there are always too many rules,’ says the former Goose Girl, now the Queen. She’s an only child so by rights shouldn’t be in the group at all—but her claim is that she saw her maidservant as a sister and just can’t get over the identity theft. ‘It’s terrible not being able to tell your own story.’

‘Or having no one around anymore who remembers your story,’ says the sad boy in the orthopaedic boot. ‘If only the town burghers had kept their promise to that man who came with this flute and vacuumed up all the rats. Then I would never have been left alone at the stone door in the mountain after all my playmates danced away inside—my playmates, who were like brothers to me.’

‘But things got so much better for me when I broke my promise and told my story,’ says the former Goose Girl.

‘You have to remember that abusers are always trying to get you to keep their secrets,’ says Stargazer, a routine observation. Then he sees a space for speechmaking. ‘But let’s think about these promises. What is a promise? A promise can help us not have to make further decisions on one subject. We know what our course will be with the promise. A promise is a way of imagining ourselves in the future, and making a pact with our future selves. Promises can give us a sense of identity . . .’

‘Promises can give us bupkis!’ says the little man, steam coming out of his ears.

‘My sister promised,’ says the young man wearing his coat as a cape. His eyes are on the former Goose Girl. ‘My sister kept silent. Even when she was on the gallows she kept her mouth shut and went on knitting her nettle shirts.’ He brushes the birdseed off his fingers and unfastens the button on the cape. He unfurls his single white wing. ‘This is the result of promises. And of being the youngest.’

There is a silence in the room. People hold their breath—the Chinese trumpet player continues to hold whatever it is he has in his mouth.

Finally, Stargazer says, very politely, ‘I’m sorry, but the Hans Christian Andersen group is in the church across the square.’



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