Gretel and Hansel
By Charity Tahmaseb
Hansel wanted to go back.
Even after endless weeks in a cage, even after Gretel scrubbed and swept and scoured for the witch, even after she pushed the frog-skinned crone into the oven, Hansel wanted to go back.
They stood at the edge of the forest, where the grass grew wild and sharp and brambles grabbed at their skin. The trees above reached their branches toward the ground as if they might scoop the two up and carry them away.
“She’s dead,” Gretel said to him.
Hansel stared into the woods.
“I killed her,” she added.
He shook his head, the movement so slow that at first, Gretel didn’t take its meaning.
“You didn’t kill her,” he said, his words as dead as the witch should’ve been. “She’s alive.”
Was she? Could she be? Gretel stretched her hands in front of her, palms skyward. These hands. They’d shoved from behind. They’d murdered. The crunch of bones, the sizzle of hair and flesh. The thick smoke that had filled her mouth and throat, the plumes laced with the stench of rancid meat.
No one could live through that. No one, perhaps, except a witch.
“Why do you want to go back?” she asked.
A smile lit his face, the same sort of look she’d seen their father cast toward their stepmother, the same look Millie gathered from men in the tavern. Although some men reserved that gaze for the pint of ale they held in their grip. When Hansel licked his lips, Gretel hoped he wouldn’t answer.
Every year, on the anniversary of their escape, Gretel would find Hansel at the edge of the forest. She’d stand with him while the sun dipped below the horizon, the slanting light flickering against the trees, shadows growing and leaping. The branches appeared to elongate as if beckoning them to step inside the wood.
When there was just enough light left to navigate home, Gretel would ask, “Why do you want to go back?”
Hansel never answered.
Every year, she took his hand—a limp, clammy thing—in her own, and tugged him from the edge. With each step, her legs ached. With each step, the urge to shove him toward the woods grew stronger.
Go! Run to her!
Only the feel of Hansel’s hand in hers kept her steady on the path home. But maybe she was wrong. Maybe they all were. Hansel lived as if his heart, his soul, still resided deep in the woods, in a gingerbread house. At odd times, she’d catch him licking his lips, and she knew. She’d tasted the sugar too. It had left both of them empty—she without her brother, he without his heart’s desire.
The year they turned sixteen, Gretel climbed the path to the woods only to find Hansel’s spot empty. Pulse fluttering in her throat, she bent low. Her fingers skimmed the dust trail. In the dim light, she barely made out a boot print. It was enough to go on.
Gretel scampered down the path, grabbed her cloak from the hook inside the cottage door, and raced back up the hill. Before she could catch her breath, before she could gather enough courage to venture inside the woods, a hand gripped her wrist.
“Stay back, girl. Don’t go after him.”
The voice was lilting, filled with sorrow and knowledge. Not her father, then. Gretel turned to confront Millie from the tavern.
“I have to go,” Gretel said. “He’s my brother.”
“Not anymore, he isn’t. He hasn’t been yours for a very long time.” Millie tugged on her wrist, a gentle, coaxing sort of thing that had Gretel stumbling forward. “It’s too late. Once the witch has you, she doesn’t let go.”
“Yes, she does.” She wrenched her wrist from Millie’s grip and held up her hands for the woman to see. “I did it once. I can do it again.”
Gretel pulled her cloak tightly around her and plunged into the forest.
Brambles wielded their thorns like daggers, their sharp points shredding her cloak. Branches grabbed at her hood. Eventually one plucked it from her head, the force choking her until she undid the drawstring.
On she ran until the woods opened onto a stream. The stream led to the gingerbread house. Gretel halted, letting the fringe of trees around the clearing conceal her.
The path to the house was covered with brittle, the air perfumed with spun sugar and melted chocolate. Even from this distance, desire churned in Gretel’s belly. Yes, she’d tasted the sugar. Yes, she’d thought of returning. But after that unbearable sweetness, the cream curdled in her mouth, the sugar scorched her tongue. She’d purged, not far from here, next to the stream while Hansel had continued to consume the treats as if they were the only thing that could sustain him.
The witch stood in the entryway to her house, but this was not the frog-skinned crone of Gretel’s memory. The witch glowed like spring itself, her skin the color of a pale crocus stem, her hair long and flowing, as white as lily of the valley and as soft as spun sugar.
Hansel lounged against the rail, a candied apple in his hands, the fruit so big and bright it seemed to throw off a glow into the night. The witch curved a finger beneath his chin, and with no more than that, urged him inside.
Gretel threw herself forward, but the rock-sugar fence that surrounded the house barred her way, new segments sprouting across each path she tried. She flung herself against the fence. A second later, she sprang back, her palms stinging. She turned her hands and watched the blood, black in the moonlight, drip between her fingers and onto the ground.
“I’ve failed him,” she said, out loud and to the forest, for every creature to witness.
“Whoo?” came the soft call of an owl.
“Me. I have. I have failed my brother.” Gretel studied her bloodstained hands. Certainly this was proof of that.
“Whoo.” The call came again, long and soft, a lullaby rather than an admonishment.
One by one, feathers dropped from the night sky, floating downward until they landed on Gretel’s palms. Each feather soaked up its share of blood before disintegrating. When a lone feather landed against her cheek, she sank to the forest floor and fell asleep.
The blaze woke her hours later, the gingerbread house lit with flames. The odor of burnt sugar and charred sweets filled her nose, her mouth, her throat, the stench so caustic it felt as if a noose had tightened around her neck.
“Hansel?” She called his name again and again, her cries too thin to cut through the thick smoke that billowed from the house. “Hansel?”
Near dawn, the fire burned itself out, the rock-sugar fence a slag that oozed its way through twigs and leaves. Only the witch’s oven remained, squat and low to the ground. It was from here a figure emerged, movements tentative as a newborn calf.
Gretel leaped across the slag and ran to her brother.
Hansel took her by the shoulders, his fingers thin and tight. “I had to go back. I had to be the one to kill her.” He shook her then as if that would help her understand. “Me, not you.”
His blond hair had turned ashen. If she brushed it from his eyes, Gretel thought it might crumble to dust against her fingertips. He reeked of burnt sugar and acrid smoke, but when she turned his palms up, they were clean and pink, like a child’s hands.
She took him by one of those hands and led him to the path that would take them home.
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