Hard by a Great Forest

This week I was clearing out old files and found some of the poetry I wrote during grad school. If I recall, I began work on this poetic fragment, based on Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, shortly after attending a Fable Writing class taught by Arnošt Lustigwhile I was studying history and writing in Prague in the early 2000s. 

Arnošt was an amazing human, writer, and mentor, and I learned so much about how to tell a solid story from him. “Hard by a Great Forest” is unfinished and unedited, and it was written by a much younger, less experienced, less weary me. I like its spirit, which reminds me, like Arnošt often did: there are many ways to approach the same story.



If this were a fairy tale, instead of a

poem, Hansel and Gretel would be deep

in the forest. After dropping the last

white pebble that glittered so bright by the

moon’s light, and the last crumb of the last crust

of bread baked from the wood-cutter’s oven,

their little mouths would open red as

baby sparrows fresh cracked from their shells and

whimpering in hunger. They would look for home,

and not find it. Instead, a white bird would

lead them deeper, further into the dark.

A house of cakes, windowed in pure sugar,

inhabited by a godless witch, two beds

covered in fresh linen, a stable for

little boys, crab shells for little girls,

an oven for baking, but not for bread,

would wait in the clearing they were about

to enter. And the witch and her red eyes

that are nearly blind, and her nose, keen on

human scent like a beast, and her canine

mouth ready to feast on the burgeoning

flesh, would act only kindly at first to

these two. Later she would fatten the brother.

“…a dainty mouthful,” she would mutter and

plot her coming dinner, but Hansel would

stay thin as bone, and Gretel, sent to the

oven in his stead, would bake the old witch

herself. Then this girl would unlock the door

that her brother sat behind. Free as birds

they would fill their pockets and pinafores

with jewels and gems and call a white swan

to carry them back to the wood-cutter’s shed,

to an anxious father and to their plotting

mother’s graveside. For she would be dead.

Of what? The story would not tell, only

that the man and his children lived happy

and full on that day and forever more.


If this were a poem and not a fairy

tale, then the mother might be at the

center, how she suffered in hunger and

how that hunger squeezed at her, daily beat

at her, left dark bruises shaped like stages

of the moon on the fabric of her flesh,

and her body was really the sky and

the stars and the planets in it shone down

on the pebbles the children scattered by

the trunks of the trees in the woods, always

leading them home to hunger, their mother’s

empty oven. Maybe their taut stomachs,

gaunt faces, made them ghosts, and the journey

into the forest came after the children

were buried together in small graves by

the wood-cutter and his wife; the story,

she recited to herself every night as

she lay down, “Hard by a great forest dwelt

a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his

two children…” The empty oven belonged

to her and she would weave herself into

the plot, a villain at first, then a witch,

sometimes a white bird, sometimes a full moon

illuminating the thickets and swamps.


If this were a poem not strung together

by a fairy tale but hunger or

flight or death or family, the dark woods

might enter me—a tree stands tall in the

clearing under the bright stars and moon of

the black sky inside my body’s center.

A small white bird is perched in the branches,

despite my effort to write it away,

and it is singing out loud: a piece of bread

between two mouths, the naked cupboard shelves,

cold oven, trail of crumbs; the forest

once quiet, is filled with song, a thousand

hungry birds filling up their beaks with all

you leave behind.

Sarah R. Rodlund

Sarah is a writer and traveler.

One comment

  • I do love an if…but no…or possibly story, & this is so beautifully rendered.

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