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THE DREAM BEFORE

by

Matthew Flaming

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well and they're living in Berlin. She is working in a bar; he spends his days in an office shuffling papers and pens. As night falls they sit together in their shabby apartment, drinking and playing gin.

She says: "Hansel, I don't know who I am anymore."

And he says: "Gretel, I know you like I know myself."

And both of them feel their lives are small and unimportant, lost in the teeming immensity of the city. To both, although neither will admit it, their adult bodies and the adult world and the gray Berlin sky overhead seem more confining and alien than the cage where he was once imprisoned.

On the weekends they walk to the park and watch the puppet shows. Standing behind the children in the dark, they see their story in miniature on the stage - and for a moment they feel solid and connected to the world. Afterward though, they walk home in silence, each time a little emptier than before.

After work Hansel sits in the Potsdamer Platz feeding crumbs to the pigeons. He watches the flutter of gray wings and tries to forget the past. He tells himself that he is a fool: because there is no reason for any of this, the discontent and estrangement that shadow his days. He has, both of them have, a good life now. They have escaped. But even now on certain nights when he cannot sleep, he finds himself wandering the streets, his hat pulled low over his face. For hours, sometimes in the rain, he lets his steps be directed by the most haphazard of signs - a pair of dropped bottle-caps, white cobblestones, the shift of traffic lights from green to red. At these times he walks without destination, each random turning an act of self-effacement. And each time, against his will, he arrives at the same place.

Gretel notices these nights when Hansel vanishes and stays out late. And Hansel knows that sometimes Gretel creeps out of her bed and disappears for hours as well - but neither asks the other where they've been. Both fear that if the silence is broken they will be forced to reveal their own secret, and so maintain their pact of mutual oblivion.

Then one night as he is walking alone, Hansel sees Gretel. As always his wanderings have led him to a poor neighborhood in the old Soviet part of the city, to a certain decrepit apartment building amid narrow streets that smell of boiled cabbage and decay. He rounds a corner and sees sister duck through the doorway: her head is bowed, wrapped in a shawl, but as she glances over her shoulder he recognizes her face. His heart pounding he hides in an alcove, dizzy with anticipation and dread. He waits, and waits, and then follows her inside.

He climbs a flight of creaking stairs to a dingy hallway carpeted in threadbare red. Although he has been to this place more times than he will admit even to himself, now it seems foreign and freighted with danger. His palms slick with sweat, he stops outside a certain apartment and listens, trying not to breathe. The murmur of low voices, the sound of something being dropped inside

He imagines what he will see if he opens the door: the hag in her leather corset, the rusting steel, the piles of chicken bones on the floor. This is what he has hoped for, each of his wandering nights - a convergence that the laws of desire tell him can only happen by chance.

But still, now he hesitates with his hand on the latch: and though he longsto enter, he finds that he cannot. With a sudden certainty he realizes thatalready it's too late - that the fairy-tale has ended, and nostalgia cannotbear reality's weight. Slowly, his heart breaking, he turns and walks away.And silently, for a final time, he murmurs farewell to the wicked witch.

Thanks to Laurie Anderson for the first paragraph of this story (paraphrased from Strange Angels, Warner Bros, 1989), as well as its inspiration.






ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Matthew Flaming lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. His short fiction and critical essays have appeared, among other places, in Literary Potpourri, the Timber Creek Review, and Identity Theory. For money, he works in the software industry; his home on the web is www.matthewflaming.com








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