There's a forest next to Gretel's family's apartment.
When she and Hansel were very little, their mother had often taken them camping there, in the summer. The forest was protected, built to help prevent the winter avalanches that had killed so many people in the past, which meant that not even people like Gretel's father, who was someone important in forestry and agriculture, could have it chopped down.
Gretel's mother used to laugh that she knew every single stone in the forest, and that she'd never get lost as long as she could use them to navigate her way back home. Gretel had fancied that her mother might almost have been a wood spirit, she was so happy and alive. But it was in the forest that Gretel had first noticed that her mother's step was slowing, that her laughter didn't ring out quite as loud as it should. After that, the forest no longer seemed like a safe and private place for just her and her family, but a dark and dangerous one.
Sometimes, late at night, when Gretel is too sad and tired and scared to sleep, she gazes out her window and watches the forest’s trees gently sway in the almost-darkness. On the really bad nights, the forest seems to be watching her back.
Her mother’s death causes Gretel’s family to shatter.
The family knew it was coming, had known it for far too long, had had to watch as the circles under her mother's eyes grew darker and her cheeks grew more hollow. They should have been able to mourn, properly, together, to console each other in their mutual loss, and then they should have been able to start rebuilding their lives, together.
Instead, her father buries himself in his work, at first coming home so late and leaving so early that his children never see him, and then seldom bothering to come home at all. Gretel takes over the cooking, and the cleaning, and Hansel the laundry, and once a week their father’s secretary pays their bills for him so that children don’t have to worry about it. Perhaps their teachers wonder why they never stay after school to play handball or football, and perhaps the workers in the supermarket wonder why these kids do all their grocery shopping themselves, but at the end of the day, their father is a prominent and well-respected businessman, and who is anyone to question his decisions?
Sometimes Gretel just sits in her mother's old armchair and cries until she runs out of tears, and then she'll fall into a kind of dream, where her father comes home and tells her how much he loves her, and then all three of them talk about how good things used to be, and decide to start planning for the good things that are yet to come.
It's not a happy ending that Gretel wants. It's a happy beginning.
One day Gretel's father brings home a new wife. Her name is Gisel, and she seems just as horrified to see Gretel as Gretel is to see her. Gretel screams at her father, that he's just trying to replace her mother, that if he thinks it's that easy then he must be going to replace his children, too. That she can just kill herself if that would be more convenient for him. He tries to argue with her, but she won't let him, storming off to her room and staring out at the forest which is now looking more tempting than dangerous.
She doesn't leave her room again until late that night, meaning to help herself to a slice of the rich torte in the fridge. Instead, she overhears her new step-mother talking to her father. Her step-mother, it seems, never wanted children, and certainly doesn't want a child as difficult and angry as Gretel seems to be. Gretel wants to fling herself at Gisel, to yell and swear all over again, but a better plan presents itself. She retires to her room, where Hansel joins her. He has a backpack in his hand
- Let’s go, he says. We know our way through the forest, well enough. And they don’t want us here.
- We’ll find our way by the stones, Gretel agrees.
They leave at dawn, and they do OK, at first, following a half-remembered trail that their mother had once lead them down, meaning to pitch their tents in a half-remembered clearing. But the day is darker than they were expecting, and there’s a chill in the air which is all wrong for this time for year. And when a fog rises up all around them, turning the trees into damp grey ghosts, they promptly lose themselves, and each other.
When the fog lifts, Gretel finds herself in a clearing she doesn't recognise. And she'd definitely remember the clearing, because right in the middle of it is a house made of gingerbread.
She doesn't want to believe it, not just because it should be impossible for any gingerbread building to survive outside, in this weather, but because it is almost a perfect replica of the gingerbread house that her mother would make, every year, every Christmas, before her illness. It quite simply shouldn’t exist - and yet, there it is, familiar, sturdy, and - when she finally gives in and nibbles on a wall - delicious.
Inside the house is Hansel, in a cage.
Night is falling when Gretel and Hansel stumble out of the forest. Their father is overjoyed to see them, and to Gretel's surprise so is Gisel. They have to give a statement to the police, of course, but Gretel's story is such a jumble of witches and gingerbread and cages and swans that the police reach their own conclusions in the end: the children were obviously kidnapped, their brains now addled by the drugs their captors fed them. How they'd managed to escape God only knew, although the girl's story of pushing someone in the oven - perhaps there was something in that?
They’d never know for sure.
Life doesn't return to normal.
Gretel’s father begins to work from home, and while he says that it’s more convenient, with the apartment now set up with wireless and everything, Gretel suspects there’s more to it than that, because she sometimes wakes up screaming about cannibals and when she does, her father is there to hold her until she feels calm and safe again.
Gretel can’t help but resent Gisel, at first, even though she’s forgiven her for not knowing her new husband had children. Then, slowly, she allows herself to notice that Gisel doesn’t want to take her mother’s place. And it’s Gisel who makes Gretel and Hansel and their father sit down one night and finally talk about their mother. Really, as step-mothers go, she’s not so bad.
There’s still nights when Gretel can’t sleep, when she gazes out her window at the forest and feels it looking back at her. She refuses to let it intimidate her. Despite its best efforts – or maybe, even, because of them – Gretel has her happy beginning.