They go to the village afterward, and no one will have them.
No one will even talk to them; obviously they both look a complete mess, but they can't be so terrifying that the women hide their babies and the men glare like they're glaring, can they?
Gretel tells her brother to stay by her side the first time, where their aunt and their aunt's husband bar the door against them. The second time, with their father's father and his wife, Gretel asks that Hansel maybe go off and play somewhere.
"Let him say no to me," she says, "if he says no."
Except that Hansel is stubborn and he says he's feeling sick and dizzy and doesn't want to be alone right then. That's when she decides that there's no real difference between his eleven and her twelve, and makes Hansel knock to get in.
Their grandfather is just as stubborn and they get almost a full week before they're put back out again; not Grandpapa's doing, not with the faces of people who won't come out to see them but will hang in the windows. It's not quite as bad as being drummed out of town, and Gretel makes the decision that they're not going to try their luck with cousins because they're just not.
"It's fine," Hansel says, when they get to the spot where the houses stop and the fields begin, where the forest looms on ahead of them filled with real monsters and stories full of wicked things.
Gretel doesn't say anything. Her hems are weighted down with muck and damp and she decides she'll steal a pair pants or two the next village they get to. Sulking works for now.
"We'll make our own way," Hansel continues. He can't stand the quiet when it's just them, and he turns around toward the village and shouts the same words back at the handful of people who've come out to gawk at them leaving. "WE'LL MAKE OUR OWN WAY!"
Gretel can't find their house on the way from the village, and their parents don't want them anyway, or at least that's what Hansel's decided. He screams it at her after twenty minutes going back and forth over whether they should try and go home. After half an hour of her little brother haring off in another direction she's winded from chasing him and ready — almost ready, more than ready — to accept Hansel's giving up on their family.
She starts yelling after him, looking for evidence of where he might have torn through the woods, leaves he'd disturbed and branches he'd broken on his way to wherever he thinks he's going, and there's really nothing much to go on. Gretel curses, and screams out into the forest without any words because she doesn't have any.
And then she gets some. She doesn't need Hansel thinking she's been attacked or dragged off by a bear or something worse, some worse thing and, and, and.
"DAMN YOU, HANSEL," is what comes out of her mouth.
Her face stings red with the force of it; their mother would have made her eat soap for speaking like that. Her mother had said she was to mind her words, mind the intent behind her word, and she doesn't even know what that means. But she feels her skin prickle and hears the birds and squirrels and insects go quiet as death, feels her breath sharp in her lungs and down her throat.
She says, small, "Hansel, I didn't mean it. Just come back. COME BACK!"
After that it's just his name, over and over and over again until she's hoarse, and then for longer still until she doesn't have any voice left at all.
The sun's gone done without her noticing it, and she curls up with her knees to her chest and a broad tree trunk to her back, and she can't keep from crying anymore. It's summer, the tear tracks wouldn't freeze, but they almost burn going down, and then they do on her cheeks and her hand when she dashes them away. How will she explain ... except there's no one left to explain to. Because she's just lost her brother and all she feels is rock in her guts at having nothing else. It's not long until cold creeps into night and makes her shake and her sobs fall back down into sniffles.
Gretel tries to comb out her hair with her fingers she finds twigs and leaves caught up there and flinches away.
She hasn't run into or through anything today.
Gretel sleeps that way, but it's in fits because there's no one watching, because she's never spent a night alone in all the memory of her life. She wakes before dawn and isn't hungry, isn't thirsty, can't feel when all the dread has bled out of her. She rubs the crust of dried snot off her nose with the heel of her hand, brushes it off on her skirt, and hopes, prays, that Hansel is smart enough to look for a stream and a river after it and a town beyond that because that's where Gretel decides she's going.
Among the things she does not find on that trip, things that the world reserves 'til later: penitents on their way to Jerusalem; a church half falling-over with its single occupant, a vagabond who used to live inside the parish borders; and a hound gone rabid she shoots before she has the chance to determine whether it's enchanted or just plain sick.
Gretel doesn't have a gun yet; the knife she took from her step-grandmama's cupboard is scarcely sharp enough to call a blade.
On this trip she dirties her shoes in mud that dries and flakes off cleanly as if it weren't ever there. She shies away from a great swooping owl on her second night alone, larger than any bird has any right to be; on the third she drinks the water from the clear, cold stream she finds until she thinks her stomach might just pop. She crosses herself when she remembers her papa looking dubious over taking her along hunting with him and Hansel, because if blessings are real and true, that's the realest and truest she has. Gretel knows tracking and remembers it in more than flashes now that she has a target and a prey, smaller and swifter and smarter than any boar she got with her bow, lying on the limb of a big sycamore a day's walk past the farm.
Upstream doesn't turn up much; the only signs of game in the area being the dung left behind by some predator, wolves maybe. Gretel decides she's not going to think about wolves. Downstream's better: there's a swath of mud along each bank without many leaves, and boot prints that could belong to either of them or another child their age. The day comes out wet and gray, not really raining so much as misting with excessive enthusiasm. Gretel squishes her way along the riverbank, drinking when she feels her voice crackle in her throat.
When she's not yelling, she listens, and it's like the forest itself tells her which way to go when the stream forks. Gretel follows the smaller branch even though everything her papa ever told her says follow the bigger one. The dried-mud crusty lump she finds at the end of the fourth day, scary-still and almost looking like a piece of a broken tree or a boulder, turns out to be her brother.
His head hangs limp on his neck but he's still breathing, his cheeks are sunken and his hands and feet bare and blue-bruised. Gretel doesn't know what to do except beg him to wake up, shake him until his eyes flutter open, where his pupils are different sizes, and there Gretel has no idea what she should do except make him drink as much water as he can stand and put him by a fire and strip down to her petticoats so she can cover Hansel up with her skirt.
She cries the night through — the last time that happens. They don't leave one another's sight for a year, and Gretel agrees (if it's the only way he won't run off again she'll take it) to stop talking about their family.
"We're the only family we've got," Hansel says four towns later, handing over a pair of pants he's filched from a clothesline while Gretel had stood watch.
They've heard rumors about a gunsmith not far from here looking to train up a couple of apprentices.