How many lives can a man live?
How many tales can be told?
How many magics can be believed?
For Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, the answers to these questions would be both harder and more terrible than for usual men. The lives they led, not unlike others of their nation, were fraught with pain and loss, enough to turn them into hateful and cruel men. And the steps they took to survive, not those simple desires of farmers, laborers, or soldiers, were steps that led them to the way of the charlatan, feeding off the hopes of those people who could least afford it, villagers with lives as poor and painful as their own had been.
Perhaps things would not have been so, had Will not possessed such charm and industrial aptitude, nor Jake such imagination and storytelling flair. Perhaps a thousand different paths might have been trod by the brothers Grimm. But they were not. Will and Jake collected to them a pair of misfits as embittered and poor as themselves and carved out with their hands and their minds a means of preying off of others.
It was a cycle that proliferated, sending in the henchmen to learn of some myth or problem or any thing that was a weakness of some defenseless village, perpetrate it, and call in the brothers to perform, to name their sum, to dispatch the evil, to collect the moneys, and to celebrate with the people there. A trick repeated so many times their act was near foolproof, their props efficient and clever, their henchmen loyal and thankful.
But the shadows that lurk in men’s hearts threatened to divide one brother from another, as is the way of evil and wretchedness. Will philandered his way through the hearts of many maids throughout the land, cavorting in his role with a fervor unmatched by Jake, who kept to his books and his ale with a faithful, scholarly determination. Whenever anger or nervousness could have betrayed them, the other stepped in, and so they swindled, flirted, and drank their way about Germany’s countryside.
But stepping into the French-held territory was both their undoing and their victory. A last night of revelry mirrored a hundred others: Jake fell well into the ale with the old magistrate, speaking overmuch. Will found a lass for each arm, wooing them with a gentleman’s airs.
And Will sought their room with those maids on each arm, and Jake followed only when run through with delirium of liquor, making a bower of the cot as Will and the girls had taken the bed.
And no matter how drunk or weary or happy or anything he was, Jake slept only fitfully, still wearing his glasses, still wearing his clothes, unable to truly sleep unless in the fashion he and Will had long developed since their childhood hovel, back to back in the cold and wet nights. Without that solid warmth behind him, knowing Will was giving of himself to some other, Jake could not sleep, and mumbled his troubles incomprehensibly into the night.
And then came madmen and torture, French leaders and French employment. Slaves of their own charlatanism giving way to things that were not to be believed: walking trees, curses, Angelica the tanner, a dead-living queen in a tall and doorless tower reigning over the forest that stole girls for their youth and killed men for mere sport.
And what hatred grew up between them then! More fear than they’d ever known, the terror of the place and Will’s disbelief opposed to Jake’s desperate hope. His book, that collection of village myths and old wives’ tales became a bitter poison in Will’s eyes, an album of lies his brother too stupid to know false. Jake’s hope had been on the gloaming all his life, nearly snuffed out by Will’s firm logic, though nothing would ever truly sway him. And the moment that forest surrounded him, despair of magic was wiped out forever, and something near hatred set in when Will yet denied it.
What foibles and charades followed then! What is to be believed of men who wear wolves and dead-living queens five centuries old? Of family curses and entombed little girls? Of magic mirrors that show wishes and never truth? Of magic words and magic kisses?
Another kiss. And yes, Jake thought, how reasonable, another kiss.
But ‘Not you,’ Will had whispered with a dying man’s breath. Last words they would have been and Will named him, ‘Not you.’
And of course, Jake thought, how unreasonable. What magic was there, after all, between brothers?
And it was that old charm and imagination and ingenuity that served them so well in the end, no matter what the other would later say. Of ‘I didn’t believe you’s too little cannot be said, except to say they lied and they knew it.
I trusted you. I trust you.
I believed you. I believe you.
I loved you. I love you.
It’s true, of course. And there IS magic between brothers. And that night there was a greater celebration than the brothers had ever known. There was not only an inn or a hall devoted to their success, but the entire village was strung through all the night long with dancers holding hands and kicking their feet up in the old dust of an ancient town. And the children were back, the little girls, the wombs of the future and dreams of the past. There was so much that night to celebrate. The children returned, the queen vanquished, the French ousted, and the forest made a forest again, with no wolfmen nor ravens nor towers nor any magic other than the quiet kind that generally goes unnoticed in forests.
Will and Jake could truly enjoy themselves for the first time, and they pretended to fight over Angelica, who had never been so loved nor so gracious nor so beautiful. And Will danced with the pretty young women, and Jake drank overmuch, until it seemed that little had changed except that this time the victory was real.
And in the end, whether it was Jake’s overfondness for ale or Will’s subtle charm that called it up, or a true magic between brothers, it was at the end of that night when their tale came to its end.
The girls were long put to bed, the wine drank, the fires doused, and only the most persistent celebrants still chasing the last of the song and drink when Will and Jake had settled themselves in a broken bale of hay overlooking the burned edge of the forest.
Jake was still clutching an empty bottle, regretting perhaps that there was not a drop more to send him into the most comforting sleep he would be likely to find that night. “Magic beans,” he mourned, leaning into his brother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and the tears poured down his ashen cheeks, no longer flushed with alcohol but paled with regret and sorrow, the deeper sort that only a man who has been so luckless and so cruel and so brave can truly know.
And with those tears, the last of Will’s grudges and anger towards Jake were washed away. He flung an arm about Jake’s shoulders and pulled him in, saying, “All right, all right now, Jakob. Let those sorrys be the last. We’ll be done with it, with those magic beans. It was all so long ago, and we were but boys, and there was nothing to be done by either of us that would have changed things.”
“We became what we should have hated!” Jake mourned, his tears heavy and sobbing as he clutched at Will’s strong shoulder.
Will nodded and pulled something out from within his jacket.
“What do you have there, brother?”
“It’s our new employment, Jake.”
“It’s my book,” Jake said. “What do you mean?”
“You’re right, about what we became. We’ve lost two friends to it, and so much more. And we can never go back to it. So, we must go on, to something else. What you have here, in the pages of this book… I was wrong. It may be true or it may be false, but I think these stories have something between truth and fiction, and it should be our job to keep them and to record them, and to make sure they aren’t forgotten.”
Jake continued to weep and said nothing.
“Isn’t,” Will went on, more uncertain than he had been, “isn’t it what you want? I thought…”
“Oh it is!” Jake promised, trying to wipe his eyes behind his glasses. “It is,” he agreed, leaning in closer to Will’s scent and strength. His nose nuzzled in at the crook of Will’s neck and shoulder, his lips nearly brushing sweat-stained skin. “It is.”
The younger brother pulled away, less sober than he wished to be. “It is one of my wants, Will. Wilhelm. Wilhelm Grimm.”
“Why do you say my name? Why do you say my name like that, Jake?”
“Say the same, say my name the same.”
“Jake? Jacob. Jacob Grimm. Why? How drunk are you?” Will said.
“More than I should be, Wilhelm Grimm, my brother, who does not believe in magic kisses.”
“Believing doesn’t matter anymore.”
“You sound too grown up,” Jake wearily complained.
“We are grown up,” Will protested, hugging Jake close for a moment.
“But I believe,” Jake said. “I believe in magic. Who have you found for your bed tonight, Will?”
“No one. What do you care?”
“I can’t sleep. When you’re with them, those girls you find. I can’t sleep.”
“You’re too used to the life we’ve led, sleeping back to back for warmth.”
“Sleeping back to back for love, Will, that’s what it was. Are you sure you don’t believe in magic?”
They had mostly been looking out over the dark silhouette of the murdered wood, but now Jake peered through his distinctive glasses to his brother’s grim face.
Will looked back at him, at Jake’s sad and curious face, too handsome for his own good. “Jake? I’ll believe whatever you like.”
“Then believe in this,” Jake promised, leaning in, closing the gap that had grown smaller and smaller. He kissed his older brother with all the eagerness inspired by liquor and all the tenacity inspired by passionate love.
With so few responses to choose from, Will let Jake do as he would, and Will was pushed back into the straw, Jake moving over him and still kissing kissing kissing as though the end of the world was near and Jake determined to end his life well. Jake’s hands moved with tender toughness and pure vivacity, his body lean and tough. His kisses were electric fire and all the magic that Will refused to believe in.
Will wrapped his arms around that body and kissed those lips so warm and liquored. He licked at Jake’s mouth and moaned into it and embraced Jake in a way he’d never done before.
With a jackrabbit’s speed and fear, Jake jumped up and back, wild eyes shocked and bewildered behind oval lenses that reflected the last of the village’s fires. “Jake?”
“You’re… Will? Will, you’re supposed to hit a man when he does something like that.”
“But Jake, you kissed me!”
“And you kissed me back!”
“Why?” Will echoed. “You kissed me first!”
“Because I love you, Will, I love you with all my heart, and far more than a brother should.”
“And I love you, Jake.”
Jake frowned, his brows coming together in confusion. “But, the girls, the women, the flirting…”
“It was for fun,” Will told him. “In all my days I’ve never meant to hurt you.”
“Except when you hit me.”
“Except then,” Will agreed. “No more questions, Jake,” he demanded, pressing a hand against Jake’s too hot lips. “No more anything, tonight. I won’t find a bed with some woman. Not even Angelica if she would have me. Just you and me tonight.”
Jake’s vulnerability could be heard strung out in that one word, and seen in that one desperate glance.
Will grabbed his shoulders and coerced him to lie back in the pile of scratchy straw. “Let me kiss you once more, Jake, just so you know.”
“Once more? A hundred more,” Jake pleaded, parting his legs to let Will settle between them. “A thousand more,” he cried, pulling their bodies to lie flush together.
“A million,” Will pledged, ending the discourse with a promising kiss.
The brothers Grimm made a pact that night to follow their life of disappointment and petulance. They lay together in the hay, disbanding twenty years worth of hatred and fear. Jake’s hands were eager and demanding. Will’s were always gentle. They manifested their characters in opposition, learning from the other what they wanted for themselves. In moments before dawn, under the gloaming stars, Jake could be charming and manipulative, Will could be kind and loving and a little nervous, and together they could be more than brothers.
Clothes were only half stripped away before passionate cries rent the air and bodies met in the intimacy of lovers.
“Do you believe me?”
“I always did. In my heart.”
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