Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Grethel. Their father, a modern wood-cutter, was a card-carrying member of the Alternative for Deutschland. His wife was a housewife who sat at the kitchen table swiping through mainstream news. The wood-cutter stroked his mustache disapprovingly at this.
His wife liked her pork sausages served without garnish and beef served still bleeding with the veal at the window, lowing. His wife was voluptuous and blood-splattered and so he loved her. She wasn’t opposed to humoring him when he huffed in angry with chopped wood set pretentiously upon his back. She would even turn her head in his direction — eyes kept onscreen — as he railed on about the Pakistani shops that were beginning to open up with alarming regularity in East Germany. Our modern wood-cutter was a supporter of women’s rights, and he provided a space for their independent political thought in his house and shop. Indeed, his modern views were one of the reasons that he disliked the perspiring Pakistanis and Syrians. Islamics who cannonballed into unsuspecting hamlets; their hands clasped tightly over their womens’ mouths.
One day, after removing the axe’s blade from the trunk of a tree he looked at his children. They were bending low under the weight of the piles of wood on their backs. Their father, however, thought that they bent because they were fat and because they were poor and because they looked longingly out of their bedroom’s window instead of playing outside.
“Are you lying to your father, children?” he asked. Hansel looked at his father from underneath his bundle.
“But we haven’t said anything father,” pleaded his son.
The wood-cutter looked at him but said nothing. He saw his children’s lies in the position of their bodies under the piles of wood. They would never strike the belly of a tree with an axe. They were planning to leave him one day and scamper on into a city like Zürich with their voluptuous step-mother. The children looked at their despondent father who now dragged his axe behind him rather than standing it up on his shoulder. Hansel turned to his sister but she was glaring at him.
“Do not speak to Father, Hansel, only carry your wood,” she whispered as she brushed his shoulder with hers under her bundle.
The woodshed was decorated with all kinds of woodwork: clocks; wagon-wheels; side tables; wooden horses, and ducks meticulously arranged. The father removed the parts of the tree from his children’s backs. He put the pieces in the section of the woodshed where the last tree used to rest.
“Hansel bring me that duck,” the wood-cutter ordered his son.
Hansel dutifully went to the shelf and brought a wooden duck back to his father. The wood-cutter ran his muscular fingers over the smooth finish of the duck, staring at his son. He held the duck to Hansel’s face, trying to smile at him with his eyes. Its wood stain was meant to say to Hansel that there was no longer a Zürich, or a Bonn, or a Copenhagen. There were only Lidls and Lav’Azzas and more and more a distinct smell of couscous and uncombed beards. The world — the shine in the duck’s varnish said — was just as small beyond the woods as it was in front of them, in their village without charm, which allowed no resting stop for coach buses. Theirs was a world of wood, of imperfect lines, and dirty, muscular fingers. It was one last hurrah for the biodiversity of culture. But Hansel could not yet fully understand the language of wood stain and so he did not know which facial expression to return to his father. As for Grethel — who was loved less by the wood-cutter — she rubbed the sap onto the green wounds of the tree. The wood-cutter became angry and, duck in hand, chased his fat and lovely children to their room.
Grethel stared at what was left of the evening in her bedroom window. In the navy quarter of the sky stars began to shine. She dreamt that somewhere in such an evening there would be hennin-wearing princesses slumped over drafting tables or blowing kerchiefs out of condominium windows. She could not exclude, however, images of them being held by their ankles out of their castle windows, slapped against the mossy brick by the Ghanians or Nigerians. This, her father warned, happened to hardheaded, porcelain girls who unfurled from their fathers’ embrace and broke themselves apart onto the pelican mouths of the migrants. But her father was stupid. She knew this was one of the many nightmares he tried to stuff into her backpack but it was one which she refused to carry. She wanted to see the world for herself and not through his stale breath. She wanted to know what her step-mother knew. Although it would make no sense to ask her, tight-lipped as she was, screens beaming onto her face as she sprawled out over an armchair. She tucked her brother in before climbing the bunkbed’s ladder.
“Wake up children!” whispered the wood-cutter’s wife in the dead of night. Hansel and Grethel peered through the darkness in search of their step-mother’s face.
“I bought you train tickets to Berlin! You can spend the entire day there! Go to museums, go to plays, see the world! I’ve packed you cookies! Hurry! Hurry before your father comes home!”
The wood-cutter’s wife led the confused children to the front door and pushed them through their groggy questions into the back of a waiting taxi. She waved them off down the early morning road while preparing the story for her husband. He’d be stumbling back in the next few hours with a mind heavy-laden with Hofbräu and a back wrapped in the plausibly deniable salute of the Alternative für Deutschland flag. Even with his mind spotty he would never allow his children to go to the city. He thought, rightly, that museums had an agenda, and the plays of the day could not be funded by the arts council unless they mentioned something about diversity. Not the diversity that was inherent in Germanic languages and cultures, of course, but the darker ones, darker-haired kinds, all the varieties of darkness.
The wood-cutter’s children got off the train at Hbf station. Grethel couldn’t suppress her small-town smile as she led her intimidated brother through the indoor daylight to the trains to Alexanderplatz. After a grating ride they exited the station into the urban afternoon. The people were crowds and the pigeons aggressive and they fought their way through both of them.
“Hansel, let us find a bakery so that we may orient ourselves and charge our phones,” said Grethel. They entered through a clean glass door and were immediately surrounding by every type of pastry, treat, and bread.
“Oh Grethel, this is marvelous!” cried Hansel already propping himself up onto the stool and taking the cookies from his pocket.
“There is no outside food here.” A slender mulatto wearing an apron towered over the boy and pointed to a sign above the register.
Hansel sat still, as did Grethel, without a word. They sat affixed to the man’s curly brown hair. A female customer brushed the tall mulatto away and explained to the children that they could not eat their cookies in the shop. Noticing Grethel’s dress and Hansel’s ruddy appearance she took pity on the out-of-town children and bought them each an eclair. Before they could express their gratitude the woman pushed through the glass door and exited to the street. They were left staring at the mulatto who had long lost interest and was cleaning a table in the back. Grethel was the first to snap out of it. She rummaged through her pockets to find the instructions her step-mother gave to her. Looking over them she became frustrated.
“Hansel, let us not follow the instructions of our step-mother. Instead, let us explore only the area around this station. This city is a museum! This is our city! Let us forget the maps and explore the tricks and trades of the square. This way we shall be able to save some money and be near enough to the train that will take us home.”
Hansel, apprehensive, did not want to depart from his step-mother’s instructions to explore a place and way of life he knew nothing about. Still, he was happy to hear his sister advise to stay near the station. He thought that in any case it would be wise to register his concern now, so as to reign in any of her future impulses.
“But what if we get lost and what if we cannot find our way home? We shall be lost forever Grethel!”
“Do not be a bumpkin! We have our cellphones and we can ask shop-owners or police where the train station is if we lose our way. And we shall not lose our way as there are signs on every street and there are information booths,” Grethel chided.
Somewhat satisfied, Hansel followed his brave, smiling sister over the cardboard and the bacteria on the curb outside of the bakery. They followed their Maps app in search of the Tourist Information center that was a 19 minute walk away.
As they navigated further into the city they found that the cement was beginning to lose its gloss and the conversations their lilt. There were people wrapped in blankets, some in hijabs, speaking amongst themselves against walls. Some had cardboard signs tied around their necks. Hansel tugged at his sister’s sleeve.
“Let us take the shortcut,” Grethel thought aloud. She was careful not to appear lost or frightened or to look around as if she was not familiar with her surroundings. Her phone slipped back into her pocket. It was only useful for directions in a clean Berlin — not cardboard Germany.
“But Grethel we will get lost,” Hansel pleaded.
“Be quiet! Do not worry. We will simply go down the nearest street. The roads do not wind here, we will be moving parallel to our initial route,” replied his sister. She did not want to let her brother know that they had no choice. A Syrian was standing in the middle of the street blocking the way from which they came. She saw him in the reflection of an opening glass door. She gave Hansel a stern enough look and he followed worriedly, nearly stepping on his sister’s bumpkin frock.
“Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.” An Ivorian with several handbags around his neck offered the children a golden-toothed smile. He held out his hand to Grethel but Hansel was quick to protect his sister. The Ivorian only pretended to be kind. He was in reality a swindler who lay in wait for tourists so that he might pressure them into buying counterfeit merchandise. The children, wisely, ran away. They ran until they found themselves in the heart of the cardboard forest. Hansel could no longer recognize street, there was only bacteria water and cardboard. Even the signs lost their German and were scrawled over in Arabic. Hansel’s lips began to quiver and his sister drew him to her. She could spare him no attention, however, as her mind was racing to find a way out of the tarpaulin quarter without pulling out their expensive phones.
Meanwhile their father, sobered, was complaining forcefully to his wife. He was worried about his poor children who knew only of the things that wood-cutting could provide. It was foolish, he said, if not wicked to give his children up to that world of loose women and unaccountable men. The wood-cutter had long lost the adventurous spirit of his father and his father’s fathers. Those men were men. Men who when their country called on them went to tug Namibia back from the natives. These father’s fathers guarded their homesteads with yellow beards gritty with resolve and Mausers peering into a dark punctuated by the yelps of warriors. These men built streets and soaked them with the flogged blood of those who would destroy them. They pressed the elaborately braided native hair into acceptable forms and stuffed bosom and thigh further into servant costumes. Men in whose hands gleamed that untraveled world whose margin faded forever and forever as it suffocated. But they were more than explorers they were builders of outpost nations. Countries from whence come these marauding blacks now practiced in hiding their tribal marks in makeup- and their insolence in open-thighed, sunny German. His father’s father of course, all modern German wood-cutters were reminded, was also alive during the unenlightened period. Although he was not there he was forced to be ashamed of this and fated to carry his shame publicly in the same wheelbarrows that once held papiermarks. He was angry at always having to be ashamed, at being presumed to be ashamed, and to perform contrition at the drop of a foreign dime. In any case since that misunderstood time the world was seeping with cannibals and serial killers on just as industrial a scale. Cambodia? Rwanda? Congo? Why was it only on Teuton skin that the mark of Cain was indelible? It was almost a testament to cultural superiority that they could be civil enough to be ashamed. But at the moment he wasn’t ashamed. In fact he was right. He was shouting, civilly, with his wife.
Hansel and Grethel found themselves in the evening quarters of Berlin’s late afternoon. A dim alley where only lettuce and tomatoes were sold, and Turkish coffee pots.
“Now all is over with us,” said Hansel, weeping bitter tears.
Grethel, brave as she tried to appear, was also concerned. She knew now that they were in a place where the Maps app could not find them; where tourists peep in from main street intersections and turn quickly away. This was a section AfD swore it could eradicate. It was the no-go zone, the haunt of three-card tricksters, designer bag hucksters and the aggressive homeless. Hansel wished the bakery woman would appear again or even the Ivorian but he was somewhere in the pink of alley evening, cursing at them, weighed down with pursues and perfume bottles. For now the dark and curly-haired witches began encroaching upon their space. Heavyset forms thrust cabbage and all manner of meats and beans at one another. Young girls with disembodied scalps of red, wiry hair in their fists sat between the legs of large women whose faces were bleached with toothpaste. And all turned to them with their yellowing eyes. Paused over their baskets of cashews, over bare feet atop dirty suitcases, and stared at them with their yellowing eyes. In a better world their father would come charging in on his steed, his horse rearing as he lanced through the dinghy spillover of Hades. But he was somewhere mouthing off to an uninterested and worldly woman. Hansel wept.
“How do we get out of the forest now?”
“Just wait a little. Pretend as if you are used to the eyes searching your body and I will shout that I forgot my wallet in the shop,” whispered the steel-faced Grethel. But it was not to be. The migrants held onto their arms and legs and carried them screaming off into a cauldron. The witches with hair extensions still in their arms and wizards with their trades boiled Hansel and Grethel into a thick borscht. The migrants did this to all of Europe’s children and then swarmed over the cities and towns like termites, removing things from museums and peddling them on the street. Then all anxiety was at an end and they, the replaced Europeans, lived together in perfect happiness. My tale is done, there runs a mouse, leave him alone.
Yannick Marshall's poems have appeared in several literary magazines including Wasafiri, Brittle Paper, Black Renaissance/Renaissance noire and small axe salon. He teaches Africana Studies in Geneva, NY.