Hungry Women

Life is not a folktale but I still wish some curses could be lifted.

Hungry Women

My Breakfast Can Take You Quite Far series will continue later this week. I just wanted to insert this piece before I published it. It's about the struggle I went through to write the series. Why not publish it after the series is finished? Well.

The first least important reason: I am afraid of publishing the next piece in my
Breakfast series. I wanted to buy myself some more time before facing it. Which is not courageous or good of me, but it is true. I run this site alone, and that is just fine, but it makes me feel pretty exposed sometimes. So when I am going to publish something scary, I sometimes need a minute to screw my courage to the sticking place.

The second most important reason:
in the wake of more layoffs in the writing industry, I think it's vital to be honest about how difficult writing can be on the mind and heart. Not for everyone, but for many. It's such a labor. I hope we support our writers even though our investor overlords do not.

love, meg

Reader support protects Pocket Observatory from the whims of shareholder capitalism. You can make a one-time donation here.

When I was little, my grandmother read me stories from a worn copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The book had a frayed blue fabric cover and illustrations heavy with oranges and browns. I thought the book was as old as the stories, but it was probably only as old as my mother. I couldn’t sleep the night she read me Hansel and Gretel 

The story is older than the Grimm’s version. It’s a variation of a primeval story about children outsmarting their ogre captor. Ogres are creatures that eat men and children. Sometimes, they look like monsters. In this version of the story, they look like hungry women. - The Mother and the Witch in the Woods. 

It’s a time of famine.  Hansel and Gretel’s mother is tired of going hungry so that she can feed her children. She tells their father, The Woodcutter, to take their children into the dark forest and abandon them there. 

The Mother doesn’t know she is in a folktale. She doesn’t know that the famine has been created by the storyteller to prove her scarcity. And when her husband obeys her, she doesn’t know that his compliance is written to prove that men are vulnerable to being controlled by their wives. She goes to bed that night, sure she will not go to bed hungry again. 

Hansel hears his mother’s instructions. After everyone is asleep, he sneaks out of the house and fills his pockets with pebbles. As he and Gretel followed their father into the forest, Hansel softly drops one pebble after another. Left alone in the dark, the children wait for the moonlight to hit the pebbles before following the trail back home. 

The Mother is furious when they return. She tells The Woodcutter to try again tomorrow. He must take the children deeper into the woods and abandon them again. Before her children leave, The Mother makes sure there are no pebbles in their pockets. When she discovers a piece of bread in the folds of Hansel’s clothes, she lets him keep it. It will be the last time she shares her bread with him. 

Hansel’s desire to return home is greater than his hunger. He does not eat the bread. Instead,  he drops one breadcrumb after another, as the children follow The Woodcutterdeeper and deeper into the forest. Left alone in the dark again, they wait for the moonlight to show them the way. But when the light hits the forest floor, there is no trail. The birds in the forest have eaten up their breadcrumbs. 

The children wander for days. The overstory grows so thick, they can no longer look up to see if it is day or night. The hunger claws from the insideand the darkness claws from the outside. Hansel and Gretel are ready to become ribbons on the forest floor. But then they come upon a clearing, where sunlight dismisses the darkness. 

In the clearing, there is a gingerbread house with candy lintels. Too hungry to be cautious, the children fall upon the home, gnawing on frosted shingles and sugared sills. As they eat, an old woman opens the cookie-cutter door and calls out, her voice thick like syrup, “Oh, my darlings. Come inside. I have beds for you, softer than that frosting. And food for you, sweeter than that shingle.” 

Hansel and Gretel don’t know they are in a folktale. They don’t know that in folktales a mysterious woman offering you food is as likely to be a curse as a blessing. And so they follow her inside. They eat and sleep, safe at last. Except, well, of course, they are not safe at all. 

Hansel wakes up in a cage. The old woman is The Witch. The Witch tells him she will fatten him up and eat him. Hungry women are dangerous to little boys. The Witch forces Gretel into servitude. Hungry women enlist little girls who, if they are allowed to grow up, may become hungry women too. 

Hansel is clever. He prolongs his life by pretending to stay thin, no matter how much the witch feeds him. The witch has poor eyesight. Every time she pokes at him to see how fat he’s gotten, he holds out a bone he found in the cage. Finally, too hungry to wait any longer, The Witch decides she’ll eat both children to make up for the boy’s skinniness. She stokes the fire in the oven. 

When the flames have grown, the witch asks Gretel to check the oven’s temperature. Gretel is clever. She knows that when she leans over the hot oven, the witch will push her in. So she pretends she does not understand the witch’s instructions. 

The witch doesn’t know she is in a folktale. She doesn’t know she’s an ogre who built a gingerbread house just to be killed within it. So she leans over the oven to show Gretel how to feel the heat.  Gretel moves, pushing the witch into the oven and closing it sharply. The children escape with the witch’s treasure as she smolders. 

The children are led home by a swan. Perhaps the creature is trying to make up for the birds who ate the breadcrumbs. The children are met at home by their overjoyed father. The Mother died while they were away. No one ever explains how. Perhaps she choked on her extra portion of bread. Rich with the witch’s treasure, and free from hungry women, the father and children live in peace and plenty. 

When my grandmother finished the story,  she pursed her lips. It was a bit darker than she remembered. I assured her I was fine. It was just a story. But I stayed up late fretting. I didn’t have parents that would abandon me in a forest. I knew witches weren’t real. 

But I often felt lost and rarely knew how to find my way out of being lost. Thirty years later, I’d learn my permanent state of disorientation is a result of the way my brain developed. But as a child I thought it was proof I wasn’t clever. Only clever children survive dark forests and hungry women. I knew I’d never be able to outsmart a witch. So I had to know how to get out of the forest before coming upon her cottage. 

That night, I tried to save myself by imagining a better way to leave a trail. Breadcrumbs were out, no m+ms like in E.T. (Edit! Riley just read this, shook his head, and said, "E.T. follows Reese's Pieces, Meg." OMG! He is right. I'm going to goar- tell my five-yeold self right now.) Really, nothing tempting to any kind of forest animal. What could I keep in my pockets so I didn’t stay lost?

Maybe a lump of playdoh. I could tear off bits and roll them into tiny balls I dropped while being forced into the forest. Or broken bits of crayon? Or my friend had a bin of mismatched barbie shoes from her older sisters. If I was taken from her house, I could fill both my pockets with plastic pumps. That seemed like a good plan.

I fell asleep, imagining the moonlight falling on pink, red, purple and see-through sparkle high heels, leading me home. 

As I got older, the shadows in the Hansel and Gretel story shifted. I learned to recognize the misogyny in the tale. It makes women with appetites into monsters, warning that the young ones enthrall, usually with sex, and the old ones trick, usually with food. Even as I recognized that hungry women are patriarchal constructions, I became afraid of becoming one. 

As Gretel grew, her feet and legs lengthening, her breasts budding, I wonder if she became afraid of becoming a hungry woman too. Did she wake one morning and feel the hunger clawing up from inside of her? We don’t want to hurt anyone. I wonder if she looked out her bedroom window and into the forest, seeing it differently. There are worse things than being lost in the trees. 

Home isn’t always safe. Did The Woodcutter know he was in a folktale? Perhaps, he wrote this folktale himself. How did The Mother die, after all? In some versions of the story, The Mother is already dead. The Stepmother sends The Woodcutter into the woods with the children. How did The Woodcutter’s first wife die? Who was this guy? 

Maybe Gretel went into the forest one last time before The Woodcutter could accuse her of being a hungry woman. If so, she’d see me there. A shadow in the shadows. The forest is a middlespace, where I needn’t become anything. I try to find my way between the trees while remaining within them. 

Instead of Barbie shoes or breadcrumbs, I keep ideas in the shape of words in my pocket. I sow the ground with them: before me, behind me, to the side. Only some of them germinate. 

I follow the ones that sprout, they usually bear something that will sustain me. I pluck their fruit as I follow them deeper into the woods. On very good days, I fill my mouth and my stomach and still leave behind enough words to return to someday, if I am ever in need. On those days, I wonder if hungry women just need bigger pockets. 

But it’s not really that simple, is it? Keeping my pockets full takes a lot of work. Thinking, researching, synthesizing, writing, deleting, deleting, thinking, deleting, writing. But it seems improbable that I understand everything at work here.

After all, I am still not clever enough to escape a hungry woman, even if she's myself. How do my pockets fill with objects that grow beyond my own measure? It’s a question that exposes the fear I’ve carried with me into the forest. 

In some folktales, people are rescued from famine by the appearance of a magic mill. A magic mill will produce sustenance from little, or nothing at all. In times of abundance, I imagine I was bequeathed a magic mill from one of my foremothers, maybe the one with the pursed lips or the one with the curls. It churns inside of me, filling my pockets so that I never become a hungry woman. 

Sometimes though, I reach into my pocket and can only grasp the same invasive idea, over and over again. I drop these words on the ground too. What else would I do with them? I throw them behind me, before me, and to my side. They all sprout into things with toothed leaves and heart-shaped blooms. My eyes down, I follow them, circling the same ground, over and over again. Crushed under my feet, they smell like garlic. Crushed between my teeth, they taste bitter.

I sow and stamp and think I must smell and taste like the words I am planting. Our teeth get sharper. Our hearts bloom brighter. We choke out the understory. Creatures scamper. Trees fall. When I look up from my work, I realize I’ve worn a clearing in the woods. The kind that lets sunlight reach sugared sills. This circle is more frightening than any wooded shadow.

My pockets grow heavy and I continue sowing and circling. I remember the magic mill is sometimes a curse. 

The ocean used to be made of fresh water. A sailor could draw a sweet, cool drink from it as he sailed across it.

One day, a man stole a magic mill from his brother. Captain of a ship, he took the mill with him when he set sail the next day. His third night at sea, dinner lacked savor. He had the magic mill brought to the table. He ordered it to make salt. The man was delighted when the mill began producing gorgeous salt crystals.

But even after it made enough salt for the entire voyage, the mill kept grinding. He begged it to stop. But the man had never learned the magic words that stopped the magic mill. 

The table filled with salt. Then the Captain’s quarters. Then the lower decks. And the upper decks. Then the mouths and ears of the men who could not escape its flow. The men clinging to the rigging would soon have mouths and ears filled with water. The weight of the salt became too much and the ship sank.

The mill kept making salt as the ship fell to the bottom of the sea. It is still there, churning out salt thousands of years later. And so now the sea is salty. And a sailor can be surrounded by the ocean and still die of thirst. 

After I left Subtack, I felt tired and afraid. I tried to write my way into knowing where to go next. Typing dozens of drafts and thousands of words. But the words kept sprouting toothed leaves. By February, I’d been circling the same clearing for five weeks by February. It had been so long since I’d produced anything but woody, bitter stems. I can feel their splinters stuck in my teeth.

I tried to walk out of my circle, but it was closed tight. I am not clever and never know how to trick it into letting me go.  Riley asked if I should take a break and try again in a week or two. But I couldn’t stop. I turned back to my computer, typed the same words again, and tried to ignore the slight clawing inside my belly.

One day, after dropping my daughter off at school, I went to work at the library. I hoped the setting would do for me what I could not do for myself. A library is a little like a sacred grove, with its books organized in understories and overstories and little paths leading to understanding and questions, which are often the same thing. I hoped sitting between stacks of books would help restore me to my trees. 

It’s a sweet library, with a coffee shop where you can use the microwave for free. The microwave sits on a stand that also holds compostable plates, napkins, utensils, and a little basket with packets of salt and pepper. All for free. A little shrine to hospitality. 

Riley often packs my lunch when I go to work at the library. Not all men are The Woodcutter. This man meets me in the woods with food. The first time I used the microwave, he’d packed me day-old lasagna. I heated it up and sprinkled it with salt from a little salt packet I pulled from the little basket. The first bite made me cry for reasons I can’t really explain except to say: Life is not a folktale, but there are some moments that feel like magic. 

The library is not mine, which is part of what makes it sacred. Libraries are some of the last shared spaces in American life. People who are not welcome in other places - parents with small children, people experiencing homelessness, seniors, people in the middle of mental health crises, freelance writers (hi), asylum seekers - can gather at the library. This means that in many cities with too few services, librarians have become stand-in social workers. 

Over the past year, I’ve watched librarians de-escalate panic attacks, provide translation services, teach people how apply for housing vouchers, recommend beach reads, and give away cups of tea to people who promised they’d bring money next time. I feel lucky to be a part of the ecosystem. 

I wrote in the fiction section. By lunchtime, I was still stuck in the clearing. I moved into the coffee shop, sitting at the table closest to the microwave. I would eat my freshly warmed meal, sprinkled with salt which is a crystal, which is special. I would open my laptop and write words that led me out of the clearing. I would leave the library lost in the woods again.

I opened my lunch. Riley packed me some beef stew. I put it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. Got my salt and pepper. A spoon. A napkin. I was not becoming a hungry woman. Everything would be okay. 

I’d put the stew in for too long. It was still bubbling when I brought it back to my seat. I hadn’t taken a bite yet when a woman one table over called out to me. I’d noticed her earlier, writing in three notebooks and scrolling on two screens.

The notebooks were stacked on top of one another. She’d write swiftly in one and then, at a cue I couldn’t see or hear, she’d pull the notebook out from her pen and slide it under the pile. She scrolled, nodded, scrolled, and her pen moved across the paper, paper, paper, air briefly during the notebook exchange, and the paper again.

She had a concentration I recognized as being a sign of engrossed understanding, a mental health episode, or a mixture of both. Why not both? It can be both. I think, she must have full pockets too.

And I did not like what that might mean or could mean or must mean. She was older than me, by maybe twenty years, with long wavy hair, and quick pointing hands. She leaned over the table between us, 

“What are you eating for lunch? Is that some kind of stew? I should be healthy like you. I should eat balanced meals. I wouldn’t eat so much if I was eating good food! But look at me! Today, all I’ve eaten is chips!” 

She held out a Party Size Cheetos bag to prove her point. I smiled and said something like, “I eat plenty of bad food, too.”I turned back to my computer, tying to look friendly but too busy to chat. It’s a pose I’ve never struck convincingly. 

The woman got up and closed the distance between us, still talking, until she stood over me. She was telling me about how much she loves Cheetos even though she is very allergic to the MSG in them,

 “…gives me a headache for three days. So when I eat them, I eat until I am so sick I won’t eat them again for months.”

I looked up at her, tried to smile, and almost said, 

It’s a xenophobic legend you know? That MSG causes headaches. Not that I am accusing you personally of xenophobia. I don’t know you! You may not know how the MSG and headaches thing is tied to racism. But the things we believe can lead to real physical symptoms. So understanding that “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” is really just an anti-Chinese myth might help free you from your fear of MSG and then free you from headaches!

But none of that is normal to say to a stranger who may or may not be in the grips of a manic episode. And she wasn’t seeking a cure. And I didn’t want to talk any more than I had to. So I mumbled something about headaches being the worst. Then looked back down at my computer.

My lunch was no longer bubbling but I felt nervous about eating in front of the woman. I waited for her to leave.  But she kept talking, and her voice seemed just a little louder, and I couldn’t remember what I’d been writing. When I looked up again, she’d pulled two plates from the microwave stand and placed them on my table, 

“Here, you can have two plates of Cheetos so I don’t eat all of them. I am so hungry I could eat the whole bag. But then I’ll just be hungrier and eat more. I need to eat good food instead. You can eat two plates, though, because,” she laughed, pointing at my stomach, “you don’t seem to eat enough.”

Why was this hungry woman here, in this corner of these woods? Why was she pushing me to eat her food? Why was she so close to me? Why couldn’t I just politely say no thank you, get up and walk away? I felt hot and panicked and embarrassed that I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.  

The woman held open the Party Size bag and poured a neat pile of Cheetos onto each plate.She moved with care, without spilling or touching one chip. but I was struggling to be grateful. I didn’t want the chips. I didn’t want to talk. And I didn’t want to think about how I was reacting to this woman.

She was giving me two whole plates of Cheetos, which is many things but is neither cruel nor a crime. Why couldn’t I just say thank you and eat a chip? The answer exists somewhere in my childhood, where I learned about the way food can bind and enchant and damn.

She was still talking. Now about how Ernest Hemingway spent far too much time describing macaroni and cheese in one of his books, she couldn’t remember the name of it, but it’s the one with macaroni and cheese. I haven’t read Hemingway recently enough, or closely enough, to know if there’s a book where he spent an inordinate amount of time describing macaroni and cheese. 

I nodded and smiled and gently pushed the Cheetos to the side of my computer, “as a treat for when I finally finish my work!” I hoped this was a hint that I needed to be left alone. But she didn’t take it. And I thought, in a place that is either above or below my panic, 

Hemingway would’ve been writing about homemade macaroni and cheese, probably. But it’s interesting to think about how these Cheetos, macaroni and cheese and Hemingway are linked by war. Hemingway as a person and writer was created by war, especially World War I. In 1916, James Kraft created a processed cheese that could be stored for a long time at warm temperatures. The military bought so much of the stuff during WWI, it basically funded the Kraft  Cheese empire.

In WWII, the military wanted more ways to process and store perishable food. Kraft was among many who figured out how to dehydrate cheese and turn it into a powder. When the war ended, the government owned a huge surplus of powdered foods, including powdered cheese. They sold it at a discount to food manufacturers who created new products to use up the cheese powder. That’s how we got Cheetos! And Kraft Mac and Cheese! And a lot of the convenience foods that families increasingly relied on in the following decades as more women entered the workforce. 

And it’s kind of fascinating right? That Hemingways’ work is often read as using war to explore masculinity and his female characters to explore emasculation and food to explore primal experiences. But one of the real byproducts of the wars he wrote about was a food innovation that some women used to liberate themselves from their traditional roles in the home?

I think about saying all of that. But her voice is so loud and I can’t find mine. She pushed the plates back in front of me again before turning to a librarian who’d been heating something in the microwave. She told him about the chips, Hemingway, macaroni and cheese. I felt ashamed of my response to her as I listened to him ask questions and provide answers.

She just wanted to share her food with me. I can’t bring myself to eat my lunch. I screw the lid back on the container and put it away. There is a clawing in my stomach but the soup won’t help. I wonder if hungry women go mad because everyone treats them like they’re crazy.

Maybe The Mother sent her children into the woods because she was trying to save them from The Woodcutter. Maybe she thought they’d have a better chance at survival in the forest. She didn't know The Witch was there. Maybe she left her life once she felt sure the children weren’t coming back. 

Maybe The Witch was once just a woman, who built a house with sugared sills because she was taught women are supposed to be sweet. But she’d been left with nothing but holes in her teeth and syrup on her breath and a spell in her throat. Maybe she’d woken up one morning, with a clawing in her belly. Maybe The Witch was as clever as she’d ever been when she leaned over that oven. Maybe she knew, or maybe she hoped, she’d be pushed into the fire. Maybe…

The woman’s voice got a little louder, she was holding the librarian’s arm, “I am trying to give you some very good advice.” 

The librarian pivoted as he reassured her and the woman’s back was to me for the first time. I didn’t hear what led to the escalation. The scene made me weep, for reasons I can’t really explain except to say: Life is not a folktale but I wish some curses could be lifted. I swept up my computer andbackpack and walked away quickly. 

I was hidden in the poetry section before I realized I'd left the two plates of Cheetos. I worry about what the woman thought when she turned around and saw her offering so casually disregarded. What kind of witch doesn’t accept a couple of plates of chips?

I circled the clearing for another week, thinking of that woman and her notebooks and screens. What is the difference between a woman who types all day and cannot write anything and a woman who cannot seem to keep herself from writing everything?

I am not sure I can see one. It’s then, I think, that I realize I must have been a hungry woman before I ever entered the woods. What else do you call a woman who must feed all day, even when her only harvest leaves splinters in her mouth? I carry the clawing with me, wherever I go.

And then one day, I reached into my pocket and felt a new shape. I threw it on the ground and watched it bear new fruit. My pockets are now heavy with ideas that connect to one another and led me out of the circle. I don’t know why. Hormones or synapses or magic mill or muse or tilt of the earth. All seem equally probable and improbable.

I am back amongst the trees, with these things I’ve thrown on the earth, watching them grow, feeding off them, and wondering if I am too trusting as I follow them deeper into the woods. I cannot stop myself, but I also do not try.

I am not in a folk tale. So there’s no happily ever after or lesson here. Except, maybe

When a hungry woman offers you two plates of war-born chips you should offer her some warm stew in return.