June 1, 2019

Good, Better, Best

by Rachel Rodman


“And the story—the new story: amended and inverted—was written into her skin.”

—1—

“Wolf!” cried the little pig, “Let me come in!”

She stood… this time… not before a cottage in storybook land, but rather before an apartment in 1908 Vienna.

And the pig, herself, was—possibly—not precisely a pig, but a construct, built of paper, with the parameters of her existence encoded upon it in ink. And with a dusting of magic, on top of that—a light layer of misdirection—which made her seem mostly human.

And the Wolf, somewhere behind that door, was, to a certain way of thinking, not a Wolf… but rather a young man, brooding and pitiable, and still somewhat shy of nineteen.

But the pig did not think in caveats.

Only in story.

And the story—the new story: amended and inverted—was written into her skin.

Instructions, in her skin.

(“Let me come in!” she oink-snarled, and rapped at the door with her hooves.)

Urgency and imminence.

In her skin.

(“Let me come in!” she huffed and puffed.)

The Imperative…

…In her skin.

(“Let me come in!”)

…And then the Wolf opened the door, just a little…

Through the slit, their eyes met… one wolfy eye first, then a second, as he let the door swing wider… and the Wolf drew in his own breath, riveted.

For there was something about her…

…an inexplicable luminosity…

So striking…

(And what, he thought—anyway… what, he thought—breathlessly—does a wolf have to fear from a pig?)

So the Wolf let her in.

And she killed him.

Killed him, strangled him, with a length of straw. With a yellow-white fiber, freshly fallen from a farm cart, which she had procured from a road just outside the city. Drew it back, a line of light wire against his throat, until his eyes bulged.

“Warum? Warum?” wheezed the Wolf, when she paused: once, twice, to incrementally relax her grip upon the fiber. “Warum?”

“Because you are the Wolf,” she shriek-oinked. And her ink bubbled and flared, so hot that the paper that composed her practically ignited. “Because you are the Wolf.”

Later, she danced upon the corpse. Danced and danced, hoof by hoof by hoof by hoof. Until what remained at her feet was only a jelly, a stain. And she spat, Oink, Oink, into the smear of it: the gore and shattered bones.

As she oinked, she felt the world and the future, rippling and altering around her: brighter and happier.

Done.

But…

When she exited the apartment, luminously human-like in her hat and overcoat, and with the blood mostly dabbed away, the pig paused.

For there, shuffling warily up the hallway, a question in his eyes, was… and she snatched clumsily amid the ripples, to apprehend that identity… the Wolf’s roommate.

…August Kubizek…

Around August, there were also ripples. But these ripples were quite bitter. August would be incarcerated for the Wolf’s murder; there would be no other suspects. And even after, long after, deep into his sentence, the trauma of this day would persist. What lay behind this door would haunt him: blood in his dreams; blood, too, when he was awake, and all the anguish that attends the violent loss of a friend.

For just a moment, the pig felt a little cold.

“Entschuldigung,” the pig said softly. She shuffled her feet–the whisper of a curtsy. Then, with an awkward little hop, she pressed a small and not-terribly-well-considered touch of her snout against August’s cheek: not quite a kiss—for whatever comfort, anyway, that that could ever be worth—and August drew back, astonished.

“Wer bist du?” August asked, just so softly.

But the pig slipped away, hurrying down the hallway. So August turned back to the door, thoroughly unnerved, and ever so slightly bewitched.

And, when his absentminded knock went unanswered, he reached, dazedly, into his pocket, to withdraw his key.

Out of the building, and through the streets, the pig fled. At the outskirts of Vienna, she threw off her disguise and dropped to all fours, faster and faster and faster. Then, once she had attained an improbable speed, she slipped, with a little grunt, into a space that—to a certain way of thinking—wasn’t there, and into a forest, where no man had ever been, where the sun rose in the west and set in the east, and where the great oaks shrank, shrank, down to saplings, and smaller still, and were swallowed up entirely by dirt, and then ceased to be.

“Chinny-chin-chin!” she sang, for hope and for triumph. And for life, life, life.

—2—

What the first little pig had done would serve. But the same text was also imprinted into the second pig’s skin. So, when his turn came—and it must come, for so ran the inexorable logic of the story—he was compelled to do one cleverer.

This pig pressed into a different section of the forest, deeper and darker. And, when he emerged, it was late autumn, in a different place, and at an earlier time: Braunau am Inn, 1888.

Here, at the village outskirts, he dilated his nostrils, searching, Snort, Snort, Snort, until at last he discovered it: black and pungent, inside the crumbling stump of a tree—a rot that grew on wood.

A rot that contained… power.

To distill that power, the pig availed himself of the equipment in a chemist’s shop—breaking in quietly, after night had fallen, to minimize the likelihood of attracting notice.

What remained, as pure as he could make it, once the final layer of ethanol had evaporated, was a small cluster of potent crystals, glittering pink under the rays of his candle.

An abortifacient.

At dawn, at the market, he purchased more quotidian supplies: meat and vegetables; spices and cooking equipment. Then he retreated to the town outskirts for the better part of a morning, chopping and stirring over a wood-fed fire.

In the afternoon, plausibly arrayed as a cook, he slipped into the Wirtshaus, where the Wolf’s mother occasionally—and today, in particular—would come for lunch.

At her table, bowing, he presented the bowl of soup, appetizingly scented.

Once again: there were ripples everywhere. And, as Klara set the spoon down into her soup, this pig, cleverer than his sister, felt their imminence.

Nearly all of the ripples were exquisite. Cataclysmic. And yet…

…and here the pig flinched…

And yet…

Those about Klara were otherwise.

This time, the pig knew, the blood would be intimate and localized; it would emerge secretly, clot by clot, invisible to everyone.

(Almost everyone.)

Klara had already lost children. Tomorrow, when the cramping started, she would try to push the pieces back into herself, while keening an impossible commandment: “Live!” And she would wallow on the floor like that, weeping and clawing at herself, until her husband’s pity—which was decidedly finite—ran out, and he would drag her to her feet, hissing that she was “disgusting.”

In the months that followed, Klara, already unstable, would withdraw—or, rather: descend—into herself: deeper into brooding, deeper into darkness.

“Entschuldigung,” murmured the pig softly, ostensibly in reference to some superficiality—a slight imperfection in the way the table had been arrayed.

But there was an unmistakable poignancy to it, all the same, and Klara, startled, looked up sharply.

The pig, though, kept his eyes mild and dark: meeting her gaze, even as he did not quite meet it.

So Klara looked away. And she lifted her spoon, extracting a careful portion of the soup, and cooled it just briefly in the air. She was quite hungry, after all; for weeks—between, at least, the bouts of nausea—she had been so hungry. And so, after placing that first spoonful to her lips, she proceeded to eat voraciously.

She noted, of course, though only in passing, the unusual residue of… Something… which the pig’s spices had not entirely been able to mask. But it was, she thought—to the degree that she even thought about it—simply a part of the exceptionalness of this new condition—the odd overtone, which had been imparted to everything, coating her tongue, as it coated her mind: the strange and radiant experience of harboring Life.

The pig, forgotten, slipped away. On his way out, through the side door, he was the object of an unpleasantly inquisitive glance from the Wirtshaus’ proprietor. But the pig walked quickly and with purpose, too fast for anyone to follow, even if they had been determined to—and no one harbored any such determination.

At the edge of the town, the pig dropped his disguise, and ran on and on, four-legged, until he reached the forest of the shrinking trees, where his sister was—or had gone—or would be. And he proceeded beneath the shadow of those leaves, which, in a certain sense, were not there: leaves through which a strange wind whispered; leaves that contracted, smaller and smaller, and were converted, artfully, into juvenile nubs, before their stems proceeded to absorb them.

“Chinny-chin-chin!” he sang to celebrate the alteration of everything—all of the tragedy and darkness that the world would never know.

—3—

What her two siblings had done—either would have been well enough. But the same imperative was also written into the skin of the third little pig. And she was cleverer still.

So, when it was her turn, she descended into the same forest, deeper yet, and emerged a few months earlier than her brother had, on a warm evening in mid-August, 1888.

At the outskirts of Braunau am Inn, she collected a square of brick from the crumbling wreck of an abandoned house.

The brick was jagged and broken—imperfect, to a certain way of thinking. But, for the pig’s purpose—and she oinked admiringly—nothing could be better suited.

So the pig carried it with her, in the folds of her elegant human gown, until she reached the center of the town, where there was a depression—the depression—in the cobblestones, and here she positioned it carefully, so that only the tip protruded, shrouded by the shadows that were cast by the shop just beside.

Against the wall of that shop she leaned, even deeper, inside the cool of those same shadows, waiting.

Then, in a moment, there he was: the Wolf’s father, Alois, proceeding apace, down the cobblestones, lost in thoughts of a mounting urgency.

And, going hurriedly, he caught just the tip of his foot, mid-stride, on the corner of the brick. It was a solid, jarring bump, which jostled—slightly, ever-so-slightly—the entire lower half of his body.

Including—critically—his testicles.

From out of these shadows, the pig trotted lightly, and presented a congenial hoof, carefully muffled by cloth, so that it seemed like a hand. And, steadied by the pig’s kindness, the Wolf’s father merely lurched slightly to the side, and did not really fall.

“Entschuldigung,” murmured the pig.

Alois was startled. And embarrassed. But he acknowledged the pig’s assistance, anyway: a brisk nod, if not quite a friendly one.

Again, there were ripples, shuddering and transformative. And the third pig, cleverest of them all, perceived them with perfect clarity:

Alois would continue toward home. And after that brief interruption, occasioned by the stumble, the narrative of desire would continued to play in his mind… ever so slightly heightened by his encounter with the stranger.

And, when he got there, to Klara, and to bed, he would exorcise his flusterment, releasing the semen that had been jostled by the stumble.

This time, a particular sperm, its position altered, would emerge too soon. It would strive and die, in a superficially successful, but ultimately useless quest to reach the tube—empty and still egg-less—that extended from ovary to womb.

And, after many more beats, another sperm, more fortuitously positioned, would instead encounter an egg—the egg—and initiate, this time, another kind of child:

A son. But a son of a different stamp: neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. And one who, in a historical sense, would be profoundly anonymous and utterly forgettable.

This child would resemble the Wolf, in the way that siblings often do. The same hair. The same skin. The same unsettling eyes. Yet: he would be an Instead Sibling, a person formed from the very same egg; the sort of sibling, that is, who could only preclude his brother, and never coexist with him.

(…beautiful ripples…

…tsunamic ripples…

…altering everything…)

And now, Alois—who could no longer, in any sense, be characterized as the Wolf’s father, but only as Alois—disengaged from the pig, with a grimace of wounded dignity, and proceeded on his way.

And the pig—the third and final and cleverest pig (for, in every version of the story—and this part never changes—there are exactly and only three)—retrieved the brick from the cobblestones, so that it would inconvenience no one else, and then hurried back, just as she had come, shadow by shadow, until she had returned to the abandoned house. There she let the brick fall, and her costume and her front legs, too, and thereafter, four-legged, she went faster and faster and faster, until she entered that wood that wasn’t, where the leaves leaped abruptly from the ground, before spiraling upwards, elegant and slow, and adhering to the branches. And whose autumnal colors, perching there, were diluted, gradually and beautifully, to green.

“Chinny-chin-chin,” she sang.

And, outside the forest, the sun brightened, over Europe and the world, to something better and to something different.

—0—

“Time a upon Once,” whispered the girl. For she had taken, gradually, to speaking like that: high and breathy and backwards and only to herself, in the months since she had entered the camp.

When she had been younger, her storybook magic had been whimsical. With it, she had caused her family’s ducks to hatch inexplicably ungainly young, which grew up—amusingly and wonderfully—to be beautiful swans. And she had laid an enchantment upon a little lamb, so that it had followed her, always, wherever she went.

But, in the camp, everything had become different. Here, she had retained one of her storybooks, somehow—unnoticed and unconfiscated—and that had been its own kind of magic. And the play had continued, in a way, serious and grim, and marshaled against terrible things: labor and cold; hunger and sickness; tragedy and ash.

Play, inverted. Play, distorted. And, everything: Backwards.

In it, with her sisters, she had plotted different strains of mayhem, all of which, in retrospect, had been horrifically naive.

With them, she had conjured elves, who entered the guards’ barracks, secretly, in the night, to dismantle their shoes, rather than to make them new ones.

But it made no difference, of course. For new shoes could be ordered, if you are a guard. Or—worse—appropriated.

At her sisters’ urging, too, she had conjured gingerbread-like men, who did not run away, but, rather, attacked the guards, as soldiers do; who would cry, not: You can’t catch me!, but rather:

“You can’t defeat me!”

But the guards merely shot them, and her men fell apart, in dough, crumbs spewing like blood, tearing like paper. (Shot them, like foxes would, if foxes had carried pistols.)

Or burned them up, in the ovens: dough and paper.

Ovens, for men…

And when her first sister died, and her second, too, was killed… when both of her sisters—her Sisters—were dead, she began to think, in real earnest, now…in deep and terrible earnest, about…

Backwards. And to speak, increasingly, her sisters’ names… Backwards.

Inverted like that, the syllables were harsh. And they seemed to her increasingly, the longer she repeated them, like an incantation of dark magic. A very dark magic, reminiscent of the way in which one might summon spirits. Or create golems, living, out of dead.

Backwards.

Because—she realized it, with a shiver, which played inside of her grief: Backwards could also mean Unmaking.

And, more than that: That was what real magic was.

In her dreams, increasingly, she saw a forest—a great, dark forest—composed of subsiding branches and shrinking trunks.

And, during the day, when her dreams were more lucid, she would think, in a new way, on that Name, from the radio, before the camp, and now, Heil, Heil, on everyone’s lips: the distant Führer.

So she made Jack first, ripping out a page from his story, and folding him out of paper. “Kill the Ogre!” she told him, and wrote it, hands trembling, into the fibers that would compose his skin: “Kill the Ogre! Kill the Ogre!” again and again.

“Kill the Troll!” she commanded the Billy Goats Gruff, shaping their pages—1, 2, 3—with greater care than before. “Kill the troll! Kill the troll!” she wrote, in still more emphatic ink.

But they all failed, all of them, despite her directions… they, and all the others, too; they all returned to her: bewildered and lost and tremulous and disappointed, with bloodless hands, or gore-less hooves.

“The forest is too dark,” they said, with their paper-flesh lips.

“The forest is too strange.”

And: “I could not find the way.”

So she unfolded them gently, night after night, almost silent in the darkness: just a crinkle of paper, in the imperfect privacy of her cot… down and down again, dismantling their shapes, and flattening them back into pages.

…unmaking, unmaking…

…but not Unmaking…

Until the storybook had been almost entirely dismantled, nearly all of the pages torn out, and what remained were… pigs. Pigs, who occupied a curious, in-between category…one that she had imagined, at first, might be less amenable to her magic: creatures who had hooves, but chewed no cud.

And yet, and yet—and she caught her breath, just then, as she considered the matter in another sense—this… this difference, this lack of category, made them, perhaps, inverted beings; animals without a place, who could go, perhaps, where others could not go…

Backwards.

“Kill the Wolf! Kill the Wolf! Kill the Wolf!” she wrote into their skins, using an ink made of ash and mud. And of blood, her own blood, too, which she could not spare, not really, in order to darken the words: so that they would remain there, for long enough, and there would be no mistaking. She could not see the forest, not exactly. Only dream it. So she curled, shivering on her cot, and then—then, as she slept—she saw them, but only dimly, receding and receding, in a smear of trees…

…and back again, after some timeless interval; her eyelids fluttering, as she sensed their return: her golem storybook creatures, oinking softly to her, at the side of her cot–one set of hooves, covered in blood, though the others were clean. And announcing, triumphantly: Chinny-chin-chin.

So she held them close, flesh against paper-flesh, whispers passing between them: “Time a upon Once,” until at last they slept, curled together, on the narrow gray bedding. And, as they slept, as they all slept—as everything slept—she smoothed them against her, like blankets, flattening the crinkles and folds, and she sensed, too, the inks lift, and the inks’ pigments unmix, and return, in part, to her: blood of her blood.

Because that is what Unmaking means.

To wake up, to wake up…

…warm and elsewhere, in a bed that was not hers…and yet it was.

No golems. No paper.

But a sound of voices—of laughter—in another room. And a glimpse of a calendar, across the room: familiar, and yet also not familiar, and the view from the window of the falling snow.

A winter—another sort of winter—in 1944.

And her sisters… Sisters, in their nightgowns… peeking their faces through the door frame, before skittering playfully across the room.

“Wake up! Wake up!” they cried. For hadn’t she, they accused, been a “Sleepyhead” that morning? And a “Lug-a-bed?”…And hadn’t she slept long enough?

They called her name, too, her real name—teasing and warm. And she called theirs, voice cracking.

Called their names…

Forwards.

And there was another moment, just one more moment, after that, as she pushed back the covers, legs exposed to the morning air, and her feet upon the rug… and a final flutter, as the magic settled, and the gulf closed, and the imperatives of the new reality set in… and for a moment, just a moment, though the memory itself had faded, the faintest intimation of its consequence remained, flickering in her head and heart: an immense and incomprehensible happiness.

* * *


About the Author

Rachel Rodman (www.rachelrodman.com) writes fairy tales, food poetry, and popular science. Her work has appeared at Fireside FictionDaily Science FictionExpanded Horizons, and elsewhere.

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