Once upon a time, in a village not far from here, a beautiful young girl was accused by the townspeople of brazenness and witchcraft, and sentenced to be hanged.

On the eve of her execution, the pretty one fled to the mountains. She found a gingerbread house and hid in it. The townspeople forgot the scandal in time and went about their business. But now and again a fellow walking past the gingerbread house might feel a pair of eyes studying him through the window, and look up: sure enough,the wicked, smiling eyes of the long-forgotten beauty would meet his gaze through the window of the gingerbread house. A fellow would sometimes tip his hat and continue about his business, or try to.

More often than not, he wouldn’t.

It’s hot in here, thick-between-a-woman’s-legs hot in the gingerbread house, and smells as sweet. The lady’s a gumdrop, a lollipop. She’s standing at the end of a trail of cinnamon kisses, which you follow, tongue wagging, on your hands and knees to get to her, her dog, her bitch, her pretty little pet you are. She runs her claws through your hair and coaxes you further and further into the gingerbread house. She mutters like a crone beneath her breath, chants rhythmically and sweetly the further you get into the house.

She tastes like gingerbread, too.

When a man went missing, the townspeople sent up after him. They, too, occasionally believed they saw eyes gazing out from behind the panes of the window. But before they looked again, the eyes would shut, the candles and lanterns in the house would flicker to darkness, and the villagers were left in the dark, cold woods, with no solutions. They would say, Must have been a pack of wolves, and begin the slow trek back to the village, shaking their heads.

But the eyes behind the windowpane would haunt them in their sleep.

It’s hot in here, piping-cauldron hot: the lady over there is a goddamn blast furnace.

She opens her legs; you climb into her cauldron and cook. A slow simmer at first, a rhythmic pattern of heat in which you bounce, grinning. She turns you, then, into the proverbial toad, the frog on the Bunsen burner, and turns it up, degree by degree. Hot, hot and hotter, you bounce and grin and bounce grin and finally wail: she takes off your scalded, thin skin. She glazes you.

She throws you in the oven and cooks you.

Sometimes a man, and sometimes even a woman, would wake up at midnight and go walking, looking out for those memory-burning eyes, and be lost to the woods forever. Again, there was the cycle of search parties, and the city fathers decreed the missing torn apart by wolves.

The old women of the village were silent on this matter for years, until no one believed in witches anymore or paid attention to old women, and the ladies were safe from hanging.

They said the missing were not dead. They said the missing merely returned to village as the lady’s familiars, changed, unrecognizeable to the townspeople, unable to speak their old tongues. They would point to a kitten by the heart and say, That could be the fellow got lost in the woods last week, straight-faced, and the townspeople, for their part, would laugh.

The old women knew why, and did not know how they knew why, the kitten by the hearth was purring.

The gingerbread house is hot, so hot, you will leave it a supernova. You will leave it a black hole. Your blood will run at thousand-degree temperatures; you’ll burn every hand you shake after you leave the gingerbread house.

You may not leave the gingerbread house after all: you may burst into flames like a haystack, light up the night, and be reduced to rubbish in the morning. You may leave the house a ball of bouncing light. You may leave it as billion-year-old stardust.

But you will not leave it unchanged.

And so in this way many men (and some of the women) of the village were lost and never returned, but the trail past the gingerbread house did not grow over. The fellows went off to chop wood, to hunt, or merely for an afternoon hike, and were lost to the woods forever. Underneath the official story — which was always about wolves, though wolves had not lived in the woods above the village for years and years — there were stories of a house in which men and women were ensnared and enslaved by a long-lost village beauty, who made them her pets. There were stories of a house in which men were cooked and their bones eaten like peppermint sticks. There were stories of a house in which, through a torturous alchemy, men and women were transformed into pure heat and light.

And the stories always ended thus, as good stories do: They lived happily ever after.

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