670-or-so years ago, the Florentine poet Giovanni Boccaccio composed the Decameron – set during the greatest pandemic in recorded history, the Black Death. In it, a group of friends flee a plague-ridden city and hole up together in the countryside, telling stories to pass the time.
During our own pandemic, we have been discouraged from fleeing our cities; that risks spreading disease into rural communities with poorer resources. But we need community and stories when we are “sheltering in place”, and the brilliant Daisy Black came up with an idea for a modern Decameron – 100 stories over ten days, recorded on video by authors all over the world.
I was honoured that Daisy included one of my stories. I wrote and recorded it in a hectic hour, which I hope is not too obvious from the video but which I think is worth noting, because it’s a true part of our lives now. For some of us, facing social isolation alone, the daunting stretch of weeks is best faced with making time for hobbies and sleep. For some of us, caring commitments means that the days feel fuller than ever before, and the idea of weeks with no relief of outside socialising is also daunting in quite a different way. I hope these stories will help.
I am sharing the video here, but as it is not captioned, I also include the text of the story. I have a relatively spare prose style anyway, but this is even sparer, as it’s intended to be listened to rather than read. But however you consume it, I hope you enjoy it, and that you watch some of the other stories too.
Once upon a time in a land far away, but not so very far from you that you couldn’t find it on a map, there lived a family: a girl, a boy and their father. They had a stepmother, too, but they didn’t like to include her in their calculation of family.
The family lived in a deep dark wood, far from city or town. They had been there for a long time, ever since the children’s mother died. The first year the children remembered was peaceful. Their father had a stock of food in the larder of the cabin, and he let them play all day.
At the end of the first year, their supply of food dwindled, and their father left them for a day and a night. After that he returned from the city not with supplies, but with Clare, who brought with her two chickens and a whole stock of seeds.
“She’s not your mother,” their father told them, “but she’ll do.”
The children were not very happy to share their father with a stranger; but he seemed happier, and Clare taught them how to care for the chickens and how to sow the seeds, harvesting first quick-growing lettuces and later potatoes and garlic and cabbage. So they ate, and if they were not happy, they were busy enough and full enough to not quite notice.
But then a wet season came and spoiled the greens, and rot set into the potatoes. When one hen gave up laying their father killed it for its meat; Clare cried all day, and was different after that.
The children grew to hate their stepmother, because she snapped at them every day, and each night their portion of supper grew smaller and smaller. “Give them some more,” their father would encourage, and Clare always said there was none to give. The children didn’t notice that their father never offered them his own plate, or that Clare’s portion was as small as their own. It is easy not to notice things when the noticing will mean you realise yourself unloved.
One day the little boy, Hansel, went out with his father to the river to look for fish. When they came back once again empty-handed, his sister Gretel was nowhere to be seen. Clare told him she was sure the silly girl would find her own way home, and made him go to bed. Hansel lay awake in the dark, worrying for his big sister, and so when Clare came to him at midnight she found him wide-eyed and staring.
Go out, she told him, and follow the trail of breadcrumbs your sister has left for you – and if you come back I’ll chop you up and put you in the pot for supper, because I’m so hungry I could scream. Hansel could believe it of Clare, with her sharp eyes and her sharper tongue, and so he put on his coat and shoes and ran out in the moonlight. As he would never see Clare again, he would never know that it was his father who had joked, night after night, about eating the children, until Clare believed it might not be a joke at all, and that she had given Gretel the bread to leave a trail of crumbs for her brother to find. It was not enough kindness, you might say; she ought to have taken the children herself. Fear can blunt kindness, is all I can say to that.
Hansel followed the trail of breadcrumbs in the moonlight for a long time, until clouds scudded over the moon and he got tired and lost the way; or perhaps he just ate the breadcrumbs, because he was a little boy and he was hungry, and it is so easy to get lost when you are alone. He walked for a long time, crying for his sister, and at last fell down into a sleep in the cold and dark.
When he woke up he found a most marvellous sight: a house made of gingerbread, frosted with icing and dressed with comfits. How could there be such a thing in the world, when he was so hungry? He crept up to the sugarpane window and peeped inside, but the house seemed empty of people, though the shelves and tables inside all heaved with breads and cakes and biscuits. A joyful sort of anger seized him then, and he smashed a fist through the wall and ate until he felt sick, then kicked and kicked at the house until the front wall shattered, and hit the front door with a stick until the icing flaked off in great sheets and shattered on the ground.
He was screaming when the witch found him, and she screamed too, at the mess he had made of her house and at the wildness in his eyes. She put him in a cage in the kitchen, and went back to baking; she baked and baked and baked every day, sucking the woods dry of magic to fuel her oven and fill her stores.
In the meantime Gretel had already found the house; her own anger was a more controlled thing than her brother’s, something small and sour that she could suck on like a comfit, and she was more cautious besides; so she had merely nibbled on the roof and crept into the cellar, damp with syrup sponges, until she knew what she faced.
She heard her brother roaring, and the clink of the cage; she crept up the stairs of the cellar and peeked through the marchpane door, and seizing her courage rushed out and pushed the witch into her oven and shut it tight.
But the oven was not lit yet, and the witch banged and banged on the sugar window, begging to be let out.
“Why do you have so much food?” asked Gretel, rather than upbraiding her for locking up her brother; that part did not seem so strange to her, having grown up the way she had.
“I am just hungry,” said the witch. “I have always been so hungry,” and although she must have been a hundred years old, for a moment her face through the glass looked so much like Gretel’s that the little girl felt sick and faint.
“Don’t let her out,” said Hansel through the bars of his cage; he had already managed to chew himself halfway through. But Gretel was a little older and a little wiser than her brother, and knew that if she left the witch in the oven she would one day take her place. So instead she opened the door, and helped the old woman out.
I should like to say they all lived happily ever after, but life is more difficult than that. But Hansel helped the witch mend her broken wall and door, and she started letting them take bread and cakes out of the house: first one loaf, then two, then a dozen or more, and take them into the city to sell. What they did after that I cannot tell you, because they passed out of the woods and so out of my sight: but I think they had more good days than bad, and there is some sweetness in that.