Hansel and Gretel
We lost mother and father three days ago. We slept overlong in the comfort of a greyfern thicket, that was all. Hansel insists she meant us to stay there, mother I mean. It’s nonsense of course. She would never.
“Gretel,” he hisses at me from the cover of a log, fallen near a stream. I’m sure we’ve crossed this stream before. “Come on Gretel. It was nothing, just a startled deer.”
“Hansel, I am hungry,” I say. “Can we not search for more food?” As if in reply my stomach growls painfully.
“My love, we can, we can,” he says. He is always so patient with me. “We need to cross this stream, I think I recognise this clearing, no I am sure of it.”
I get to my feet and follow him. The clear waters of the brook are a gentle relief from the stifling heat under the canopy of the forest. Hansel is across at a run, I know not where he finds the energy. The hunger is painful, we have not eaten now for three days.
“I do know this clearing,” Hansel says dejectedly. “We slept here two nights ago. We are lost forever Gretel, lost! That woman! She meant for this to happen! I told you she wanted us dead!”
“Peace brother,” I say putting my arm around his shoulders. His sobs rock me backwards and forwards. “I am sure all of this is just an honest mistake.”
“Yes,” he says quietly. “And then I will have it from her.”
“What ever do you mean Hansel?” I say.
“You were asleep sister,” he says. “I heard mother and father talking. They meant to take us out here and leave us. Father said no, but the bitch insisted.”
“Hansel!” I shout. “Do not speak like that!”
“Like what?” he rounds on me, staring into my soul with eyes of fire. “Why do you think I took those pebbles the first night? They tried it and failed, because I was wise enough to lay us a trail home! That woman knew though, she worked it our. She locked the room, Gretel! She never locks the room! I did what I could with the bread but…” his arms, raised in the passion of his deliver drop lifelessly to his sides.
“What of father?” I say, he talks much sense. “He would never allow this to happen.”
“No,” he replies. “I do not know. She holds some power over him. I have seen him perform the most starnge things when she wills it. Gretel, we must find our way home. I think she means our father ill too.”
We find the evidence of our last visit, and choose a different path out of the clearing. The sun is almost setting when I smell the sweet smell of woodsmoke.
“Hansel,” I say stopping him with my hand.
“Gretel, look,” he points to a gap in the trees. “Is that… Gingercake?”
We run, heedless of the danger, laughing, jumping. Bursting out of the thicket we are greeted with a sight from a dream. It is a house, much like our own, a simple woodsman’s house, but where ours is sturdily built from logs of elm and thatch, this house is different. Its walls are layered gingercake and stollen, fruitloaf and sweetbuns. The roof is shingled with sweet biscuits of a thousand hues, plumcakes and pastries.
We descend on it like crows to a hanged man. I tear off a piece of stollen from the wall, Hansel reaches up and plucks a plumcake from the roof. We gorge ourselves, our faces are sticky and shiny with the sugar and syrup. More and more we stuff our mouths until we are both replete.
“Good, good,” I start, Hansel leaps up, a stick in his hand. “Peace children, peace.”
Before us stands an ancient hag, the crags and creases in her face give her the impression of a mountainside come alive. She is bent over almost double, her hands and fingers a knotty mess of knobbles and lumps. She wears a neat homespun dress and napron.
“Oh children, but you are half starved,” she says, the crow’s feet deepen at the sides of her rheumy eyes. “Come inside for some broth.”
We follow, not speaking. I feel no compunction to do other than she says. Hansel drops his stick and follows her in. Inside the house is as unlike the exterior as cheese is to charcoal. There is a narrow cot, a table with a single chair and a wood fired stove. No decorations or adornments. Or indeed, any sign of broth.
“Sit,” she beckons me. I take the chair. I have nothing I need to say, I am tired from the food. I begin to nod off. The old lady looks familiar to me in some way. I cannot place it.
As I sit dozing, in and out of a fitful sleep. I catch images. Hansel is sat on the floor. The hag is at the stove. She is near Hansel now, feeding his from a large metal spoon. He says nothing. I catch patches of her monologue.
“…make you fat…fat is flavour…always bad children…damned Prince and his taxes…need to eat somehow…yes, eat child…soon you will be fat enough to eat…”
My eyes snap open at this. Hansel is trussed upon the floor, like a suckling pig. The hag is stoking the fire under the stove. I cast my eyes about the room. Our room. Our home. The hag is no hag at all, but mother. Near the woodpile lie bones, and a skull, a man’s skull. It was all a glamour! Father!
I collect myself and stalk, as quietly as I can towards the stove. Hansel snores contentedly. Mother hums a lullaby.
She opens the door to the oven.
“Is it ready? Is it time?” she says to herself.
I leap forwards, hitting her backside with my shoulder as hard as my body will allow. She stumbles head first into the open oven.
“No!” she cries. “Noooooo!”
I quickly slam closed the door and clamp down the latch. She pounds on the door, screaming “Murder! Murder!” getting weaker and weaker.
Hansel is awake. He looks at me with those incandescent eyes, laughing darkly.