Hansel and Gretel did not sleep in the forest after escaping the witch because, as Gretel put it, “what are we, stupid?”
The forest held evil. Leaving the forest would be smart. Anything else would be stupid. Hansel saw and agreed with her reasoning, so together they staggered from the tangle of trees onto a narrow, beaten track that they hoped would lead to town. Any town.
It was slow going even after they’d come out of the woods because Hansel kept stopping to cast up his accounts along the roadside, dotting the trail behind them with the remnants of cake and cookies his stomach rejected. Gretel’s skin was tight and itchy where the witch’s blood had spattered her and she couldn’t stop scratching, but they walked all night, hand in hand, dragging each other onward until they saw the dim orange glow of firelight through the trees.
In the town square they knocked at the door of the biggest house they could find. “The nicer the house,” Gretel had reasoned, “the more important the person who lives there, and the more embarrassed they’d be to turn us away.”
Even then his sister had been ruthlessly pragmatic, relying not on peoples’ charity so much as their desire to appear charitable.
The house they chose belonged to Otto and Frieda Braun, an elderly couple whose own children had not lived to adulthood. As far as charity went, the Brauns’ sort was more or less genuine. Hansel could only imagine what they must have seen when they opened their door to two pale, filthy children teetering on the last raw reserves of energy they possessed, but the Brauns hadn’t hesitated. Gretel said “there was a witch . . .” and then Hansel pitched forward. He would have hit the floor but Otto caught him, bore him up, and led him inside. Frieda put an arm around Gretel and guided her in, too, and that was how they both came home.
A bath was poured and the children were poured into it. Frieda scrubbed them until they were raw and tingly all over, then wrapped them in sheets like newborn babies and put them to bed on a fresh straw tick in the second bedroom. The kids were asleep before she even put out the candle.
They slept that way all night, tangled together, Gretel’s exhalations matching Hansel’s every indrawn breath. They breathed each other in and out, alive, survived, safe and warm.
It was worth celebrating.
Otto and Frieda kept them. There were a few uncertain moments those first weeks, when the village gathered around and a few suggestions about the fate of the children were put forward. The priest knew of a good orphanage, a farmer wanted extra hands for his field, and a few other people were willing to take one of the siblings on as an apprentice.
One. But not both.
“We could run away,” Gretel suggested one night, as they huddled at the top of the staircase and listened to the Brauns host the latest discussion.
“If we have to,” Hansel agreed.
But fate intervened. The very next day, Hansel had his first attack. He got shaky and clammy and listless. It was only when Frieda poured sweet cider down his throat that he began to revive, and the physician summoned diagnosed him with the sugar sickness.
Most offers of apprenticeship dropped off, after that, as did the requests for able-bodied farmhands. Only the priest and one persistent dressmaker kept coming around, the former expressing pious concern for the children’s immortal souls, the latter, concern for Gretel’s fate without a trade.
“A woman must be provided with something to make herself appealing for marriage,” the dressmaker lectured. “Without a proper family name, she can only offer a trade of some sort, and the money she brings in from it.”
It was the dressmaker’s bad luck to phrase it that way, because Frieda Braun had been an orphan, and she remembered too well how few offers of marriage had been made.
“Is our family name improper?” she asked coldly. “Because our name is theirs, now.”
The dressmaker was not welcome after that. Only the priest kept visiting, and eventually even his visits became more matters of form, and a chance to sample the apple cake that the Braun family cook made so well. Finally, even he stopped suggesting that the siblings be taken away from the people who had taken them in.
Hansel and Gretel were home.
They had lived with Otto and Frieda almost a year when the couple’s only blood relatives, a nephew and his family, came to visit over Easter week. That would have been all right, except John Hasmanstorper and his wife Gerda brought their nine-year-old daughter Gretchen, a pestering creature with soft flaxen curls and a turned-up nose.
Gretchen was put in Hansel and Gretel’s bed. Hansel and Gretel, accustomed to sharing a bed with each other, had been optimistic about the arrangement—at first.
The first night, Gretchen tore the bedclothes away and kicked in her sleep. When Hansel tried to take back a corner of quilt, Gretchen woke and bit him.
It all went downhill from there.
The next morning she insisted that the bruised, sleep-deprived siblings play her favourite games, and when they tried to refuse, she burst into such sobbing, shrieking wails that Hansel suffered a mild bout of panic, the child’s cries reminded him so much of witch’s laughter.
Gretel, less prone to panic, smacked the little girl’s face and told her to shut up.
Gretchen liked being slapped even less than she liked being refused her choice of game. She ran to her parents, crying that Hansel and Gretel were trying to murder her.
“What is this?” Otto demanded, looking angrily into the stony faces of his charges. “You are hosting Gretchen! If she wants to play a game, you will play a game, and you will not be rude to her! Enough of this nonsense.”
Hansel and Gretel ducked their heads and murmured their apologies, coupled with promises to oblige their guest. That was all it took to turn Gretchen into a proper terror.
For the rest of the week she beleaguered them, ordering them around and warning them that since they were not really her family they had to do everything she said, because she had more right to be in that house than they did. It was only by sheer dint of his own desperation that Hansel was able to keep Gretel from ripping handfuls of those pretty yellow curls out by their roots: at his core he was terrified Gretchen was right, and Otto and Frieda would not hesitate to choose their grand-niece over the two witch-orphans they had taken in on a whim.
It all built to a head on Easter Sunday. The family attended church bright and early that morning, the children scrubbed to within an inch of their lives and laced into their Sunday best so tightly they could barely breathe. Hansel’s shoes were new and stiff, and he developed a small blister and limp by the time they reached the church. As soon as they were seated in the pew, he eased the shoes off to soothe his feet.
Gretchen, seeing Hansel nursing one stocking foot, stealthily slid her pointy little toe over and began to dig it into his blister. Hansel yelped in pain, and promptly suffered a cuff upside the head for speaking out in church. He bit his lip to hold in all further cries while Gretchen spent the rest of the service kicking him right on his blister, until it burst and he bled through his sock.
Gretel, with Frieda’s bulk blocking her from action during the service, watched the whole thing. Her hands curled into fists at about the fourth kick, and by the tenth, her whole face was a stony cast of murder perfectly planned.
Hansel forced his foot back into the new shoe at the end of the service. Leaning on Gretel’s shoulder for support, he hop-stepped home.
His sister saw him settled on a bench in the front hall, then marched upstairs and set on Gretchen in the bedroom, her fists flying, a goodly number of very adult curses spilling from her lips as she pummeled the soft pink cheeks and ripped at the yellow hair.
“Don’t ever touch my brother!” she screamed. “You touch my brother again and I will kill you!”
Gretchen screamed and sobbed beneath her until the adults had come running at a very un-Sunday pace to see who was being gutted under their very roof.
Gretchen’s parents and the Brauns alike had entirely taken the little girl’s part, and in an effort to defuse the situation, Otto and Frieda had told their wards to take a calming walk around the village. Gretel had been ready to protest on strength of Hansel’s foot alone, but Hansel had said no, he felt like a walk.
Liar Gretel’s eyes accused. He had looked away and said nothing, so his sister gave in, and they went out together.
“As if it’s our fault!” Gretel fumed, while they walked. “It’s nothing to do with us that their nephew’s got the most rotten kid in the whole world. I wish I’d broke her nose.”
Their trek, fuelled by Hansel’s nerves and Gretel’s anger, took them farther away from town and deeper into the wood than they usually went. When they both realized how the branches had drawn close to blot out the light, suddenly an afternoon with Gretchen didn’t seem the worst fate. They reached for each other’s hands, locked fingers firmly together, and retraced their steps as quickly as they could.
When they got home, they were met with surprise.
“Gretchen isn’t with you?” said Frieda. “She went out to find you when you left. The poor child wanted to make amends.”
“She never caught up with us,” Gretel shrugged, supremely unconcerned with Gretchen’s fate and transparently disbelieving that Gretchen had wanted to make anything but more trouble.
Even when night fell and the little girl had not returned, Gretel could not be bothered to pretend she cared.
“You should be a little scared,” Hansel whispered that evening. They had their bed to themselves again, just the two of them snuggled as close as they could. Gretel frowned , her face unusually well-lit for that time of night thanks to the search party’s torchlights burning beyond their window.
“Why should I be scared for that snot-nosed little bitch?” she huffed.
“Because it’s what everyone else is doing,” Hansel explained, “and when you don’t do what everybody else is doing . . . people notice.”
He was right, damn him. By Monday, word of Gretel’s attack on Gretchen had circulated through most of the town, and by Tuesday, Hansel was actively afraid of the way they were eyeing his sister.
“We’ve got to find her,” he decided. “It’s the only way they’ll know for sure you didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Gretel was still hesitant, mostly because she couldn’t believe people would suspect her on so little evidence. Gretchen, she pointed out, had been genuinely terrible, and nobody had believed them about that.
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Hansel, “and you know it. If they think you’re guilty, you might as well be. We have to find her.”
Bright and early Wednesday morning they took a coil of rope and two lengths of twine from the store room, and set out together. It was the simplest thing in the world, with the whole town out looking for the little girl, to join a search party as far as the edge of the woods and then break away on their own.
First they followed the route they had taken when they walked out Sunday afternoon, operating under the assumption that Gretchen had probably tried to follow them at the time. Then, at the spot where they had been scared enough to turn around, they looked for any clues that Gretchen had not walked back.
A ruffle from her pinafore, caught on a branch, pointed them in the right direction. After that it was a fairly simple matter to follow the prettiest, most tempting route through the forest. There was nothing so overtly crude as gingerbread and smooth white frosting, but all the same it was too perfect a path, designed to tempt children looking for just such a thing.
“Y’know,” Hansel reflected, “it’s kind of like being a mouse that’s got smart enough to recognize the cheese.”
The route, all sunshine and easy walking and butterflies, led to a cave ringed with wildflowers—the kind, Gretel snarked, that an insipid little snot-for-brains would not be able to resist gathering to make a daisy crown.
“Is that a thing?” Hansel marvelled. They did not touch the flowers, and gave the mouth of the cave a wide berth, but stepped back into the wood to gather enough dry branches to lay a fire. “Daisy crowns, I mean.”
“Mother used to make them for me sometimes. When I was little.” She cracked a branch over her knee. “I don’t like them anymore.”
With the branches built up to a nice pile around a stump of a tree still rooted in the ground, Hansel knelt to start the fire and Gretel approached the cave.
“Gretchen?” she spoke in sugar-sweet tones that made Hansel queasy. “Cousin Gretchen, are you in there?”
She stepped lighter than she usually did, made herself prettier, smaller, daintier than anything that was actually like her true self.
Made herself bait.
Hansel worked harder at the dry wood, anxious that Gretel need not keep up the deception a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.
“Cousin Gretchen!” Gretel’s petulant wail was like a creepy song. “Cousin Gretchen we’re all so worried about you . . .”
A soft rustle came from the cave. Gretel sucked in her breath and glanced back at her brother. A curl of smoke wafted up from the dry wood, and a bead of sweat hung off the tip of his nose. He made a gesture that meant keep it up, I got this so Gretel turned back to the cave, all bright smiles and eager welcome.
“Cousin Gretchen! Oh, dear cousin Gretchen, is that you?”
The beast that heaved out into view, all warts and scaly flesh and withered bare breasts, was like something from a child’s nightmare. Gretel kept smiling.
“I’m sorry,” she chirped, “it’s an honest mistake . . . you do remind me of her, though.”
The witch wheezed something that might have been a laugh. Gretel giggled, still bright and sweet, and took a careful step backward in the direction of Hansel’s fire.
“Although,” she mused, step back, step up, step back, “you are a little better looking, overall . . .”
The witch dove for her. Gretel leaped back—and the witch’s clawed foot caught on the thin cord strung across her path, tripping her and driving her heavily against the rooted tree stump in the middle of Hansel’s burgeoning flames.
“Now!” Gretel screamed, and Hansel tossed her one end of the rope they had brought. It was like a gruesome, deadly dance around the Maypole, the two running around, ducking and weaving, dodging each other with a mad, blind grace in their rush to bind the stunned beast. As they ran the fire caught, blazed, burning brighter and higher, licking at the witch’s feet. By the time they ran out of rope to bind her and tumbled away from the flames to land in a sweaty heap, brother and sister could recognize that screams of rage had changed to screams of death.
“Want . . . to check . . . the cave?” Hansel panted. Gretel shook her head.
“Naw. I want to watch her burn.”
So they held hands and watched the witch’s flesh flame and char. Only once she smelled distinctly like overdone beef did they turn from the stake and venture into the cave, where they found a dazed, glassy-eyed Gretchen imprisoned in a cage woven of willow twigs.
“Damn,” Gretel muttered, “she’s still alive.”
Hansel rested his chin on her shoulder. “Maybe we’ll be luckier next time,” he consoled. “Come on, sis; at least you’re off the hook for this one.”
Gretel nodded, reluctantly acknowledging the merit in Gretchen’s survival as it pertained to her own fate.
“Fine,” she sighed. “Let’s take her back to town.”
They had been welcomed with such joy, it staggered them. There had been food, music, and a celebration that lasted all night. Gretchen had slept through most of it, which as far as Hansel and Gretel were concerned, made it absolutely perfect.
It was amazing. A tingly, warm bewilderment of being unreservedly hailed. Welcomed. Wanted.
It was the kind of thing any lonely child could get used to.
“You know,” Gretel said that night, as they dressed for bed, “if we killed two witches, we could probably kill more.”
“What, now?” Hansel frowned. His sister rolled her eyes.
“Not now, dolt. But maybe someday.” She eyed Gretchen, snoring in the middle of their bed. “Ugh. I don’t want to deal with her tonight.”
She grabbed the little girl’s shoulder and rolled her onto the floor. Gretchen, worn out by her ordeal and still sleeping off the effects of witch candy, hit the ground with a thump but did not stir. Brother and sister crawled into bed and curled up together in the warm spot she’d left behind.
“So how would that work,” Hansel wondered, once he and Gretel had tucked each other in. “Killing witches, I mean.”
“Mmm.” Gretel snuggled close, inhaling him, reassuring herself he was still there, alive, at her side. “I dunno. But we should look into it. I think we’d be good at it. Who knows . . .” she yawned, settled deeper into the bed and felt sleep creeping close. “Maybe they’d even pay us for doing it.”
“You think so?” Hansel marvelled.
It seemed too easy: kill a witch, earn some money. None of the masters looking for apprentices had offered a career path half as straightforward or entertaining. Plus, if he and Gretel hunted witches together, that meant they could stay together forever if they wanted to.
Hansel wanted that very much.
“Hey sis,” he said, as hope bubbled bright inside him, “how would we get started with something like that?”
But Gretel didn’t answer.
She was already sound asleep.