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Hansel and Greta

The road ran past the shack. The wide space in front was littered with car parts and other scraps of metal. Behind the shack rose the forest—dark even in the light of noon.

Greta watched her father. The sun poured down onto the road, and her father was already drunk. His eyes were red, his face drawn and grey. He was dragging the fender of an old car across the yard, preparing to salvage whatever he could from the rusted scrap. She had heard her stepmother whispering fiercely to her father early that morning

The food’s nearly gone. Another few days and we’ll have nothing left

Greta could hear their voices from the alcove where she and her brother slept on old sacks.

No food; barely any water. Soon we’ll all starve. We need to do something.

Her father murmured a question.

Take them into the forest and leave them there,

whispered stepmother.

“They’re both worthless, especially the girl. If we could sell her in town, that would be something, but no man would buy such a skinny wretch.”

Greta didn’t need to hear any more. She looked over at her brother, his thin, pinched face gray in the dawn light.

Looking now at her father, the hunched and broken man who she had once admired, Greta only felt a dull disappointment. If he’d had any courage, things might be different. But she knew her father wouldn’t do anything to save them. He would keep listening to the poisonous lies of his wife, who manipulated and controlled him with sex. Greta had heard it often enough. It was a tiny shack.

Greta went to find her brother. She found Hansel about half a mile down the road, just coming out of the trees, sling in hand. He fell into step beside her on the dusty road.

"We need to run away", said Greta.

Stepmother is planning to abandon us in the forest to starve, so we need to leave.

Hansel looked up at his sister, tears starting in his eyes. “Where will we go?” he whispered.

“Far from here,” said Greta. “We’ll find some place we can live—someplace people won’t want to get rid of us.”

“Daddy’s sick,” said Hansel. “It’s not his fault.”

He had that stubborn look that meant he couldn’t be reasoned with. “Yes,” said Greta, carefully. “But he can’t do anything against her. We have to leave here—before stepmother decides to just kill us.”

Hansel nodded but said nothing. A tear trickled down his dirty cheek.

Greta knew they had to wait until nightfall. The day passed slowly. A man came along the road, driving a wagon hauled by an old steer, its ribs showing like hoops through its filthy Hide.

Stepmother came hurrying out of the shack at the sound of the approaching stranger. Greta watched as stepmother spoke to the man in the wagon, standing close beside the wheel. The man inspected the scrap metal, and father helped him load several flat sheets into his wagon. Then the man followed stepmother into the house—always part of the deal. He and stepmother emerged again in a quarter of an hour, then he returned to his cart and handed down two sacks—flour or rice, Greta wasn’t sure. Last he passed a bottle to father, then he moved off down the road.

It was a typical exchange, and Greta knew the routine well. There would be a pot full of something on the scrap-metal stove tonight, and her father would be drunk for the rest of the day. They could at least leave on full stomachs.

They ate well that night—a thick stir-about with meat. Hansel had got something with his sling in the forest—probably a snake or gopher, thought Greta. She didn’t want to know, but she wasn’t sure if she cared either.

"Tomorrow", said Stepmother, sweetly,

your father needs your help hauling scrap from a wreck in the forest.

“There’s enough places to gather scrap metal right around here,” said Greta. She knew what all this meant, but thought stepmother would be less suspicious if Greta at least questioned her.

“The stranger today told your father about it. It’s an abandoned train deep in the forest. There might be something still left to salvage. Your father needs to look at it before deciding what to do.”

That almost sounded plausible. Stepmother was manipulative and cruel, but she usually had no imagination whatsoever.

Greta glanced at her father once before going to her alcove with Hansel. She felt a twinge of regret, but not really. They were better off away from this place.

They crept out in the dead of night. Their departure was made easier by stepmother, who had decided to celebrate with several glasses from the bottle the stranger had left earlier that day. Greta led Hansel by the hand, out the door, not bothering to close it behind them. Perhaps wolves would eat the hag in her drunken sleep. The sister and brother vanished into the forest.

* * *

Greta and her brother spent many days in the forest. There wasn’t much difference between starving at home and starving in the forest, Greta thought. Hansel cried, and Greta tried to be patient with him. At least Hansel could catch small game for them to eat.

They came upon the little house one morning. They were stumbling through the trees, and the next moment, there it was—a neat little cottage in a clearing with a bake oven built on one side.

Half a dozen loaves of bread stood cooling on a rack outside the bake oven. They were covered in a cage to keep the birds away.

Greta’s hunger didn’t let her think. She headed toward the bread with the intent of stealing one of the loaves then fading back into the forest. But Hansel had other ideas.

Greta had lost sight of her brother as she reached for the wire cage, and she remembered him with a start as she heard a cry.

Leaving the bread, she raced around to the front of the cottage. There was Hansel, caught by the scruff of his jacket by a woman, who swung around as she spotted Greta. Greta stopped and stared. The woman held a shotgun.

Well, Well,

cackled the woman.

Look at the two pretty birds.

The woman was tall and thin as a rail. Her wiry black hair stood up all over her head, and her eyes were red from drinking, or perhaps madness. She began shoving Hansel before her, waving the shotgun at Greta.

“Round the back of the house,” she said, and Greta had to obey.

The woman made Greta lock her brother in a cage.

“Now, my pretty,” she said to Greta, “since you wanted to steal my bread, you can work for me.” And she prodded Greta ahead of her, back around the cottage to the front door.

The woman made Greta clean the cottage, while she sat in an old armchair by the door. She held the shotgun across her lap, and she nipped at a bottle as she watched Greta clean.

You’re a pretty slut,

said the old woman.

Perhaps Sadie will sell you to the bad men and keep the other little bird for herself.

She cackled.

“You don’t have to do that,” said Greta, scrubbing at the floor.

The old woman leaned over and spat. Then she drank again from the bottle. “But Sadie does,” she said. “If the bad men come, then Sadie needs something to trade. And a pretty little slut is just the thing.”

“Did the men hurt you?”

“Why does the little slut want to know?” The old woman glared at Greta out of her mad, red eyes.

Greta didn’t respond.

They tried to hurt Sadie—the bad men. They tried, but Sadie is too smart. Sadie always has a knife close to hand. She cut the ropes they tied her with, then she cut their throats while they slept. And they left Sadie a present—a little bird of her own. Sadie hated the little bird at first, but she began to like it after a while. Then it died.

“I’m sorry they hurt you,” said Greta, pausing in her cleaning. “But you don’t have to hurt us. We can help you.”

“But the little slut is helping. She will clean, then help Sadie with the oven.” The old woman cackled again. “Sluts are for selling and birds are for baking,” she said, in a sing-song voice.

The old woman let Greta stop in the afternoon. Greta choked down a heel of bread with a small cup of water. Then the woman prodded Greta again with the shotgun.

Time to get the oven ready,

she said.

Sadie has a little bird to bake.

Greta hauled and cut wood, starting the fire in the bottom of the bake oven. She could see now that the loaves of bread weren’t fresh at all. The woman only left them there as a way to trap strangers. Soon the fire beneath the oven was hot enough to scorch Greta’s face and take her breath.

“Now, check the oven,” said the old woman.

Greta looked at her, then at the door to the oven. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked.

“See if it’s hot enough for baking Sadie’s bird,” said the old woman. She jabbed the barrel of the shotgun into Greta’s side.

“How?” said Greta, wincing away.

“Stupid little slut!” cried the woman. “Like this.” And she pulled open the oven door.

* * *

In the days that followed, Greta wondered if she had done the right thing. The woman was mad—no question—but was she evil? Did she deserve what Greta had done to her? Greta checked the shotgun after she let Hansel out of the cage. It was old, and the action was broken—no shells in the chamber either. There might have been another way, but it hadn’t seemed like it at the time.

They buried what was left of the woman just inside the forest, next to a stone that Greta thought must mark another, smaller grave. Greta thought about knocking down the bake oven, but it was a perfectly fine oven. It would have been a waste.

Greta sifted the flour and sugar she found in the cottage, and she made bannock outside on a fire. Hansel went into the forest with his sling, and returned with a brace of birds. They ate well that day, and they decided to stay on in the cottage. It was livable—after they finished scrubbing and cleaning it, and afterward, Greta hauled out anything that belonged to the mad old woman and burned it in the yard.

They now had a place to stay. Greta stood by the fire in the yard, watching the cottage as the smoke curled into the sky. They would do well here. Perhaps they could have a little garden behind the cottage. Hansel could hunt, and who knew—they might even find a stray goat or cow. But they would need something to protect themselves from strangers first.

And maybe that’s how it began for the woman who now lay buried in the forest, thought Greta. Knowing that you couldn’t always protect yourself from strangers. Knowing that people who came through the forest were starving and probably dangerous: day after day, watching all the time until the solitude made her crazy—turning her into a fairy tale witch who lie in wait for children to catch and roast in her oven.

Hansel and Greta were happy enough in the cottage, until one day Hansel, feeling restless, left to find his fortune elsewhere. That left Greta alone. The days and months and years went by, and Greta lived there alone, a shotgun near to hand—one that she acquired from a stranger. He hadn’t asked for much. He had been a decent enough man, and she needed the gun.

Greta talked to herself, as there was no one else to talk to. And sometimes she could hear voices coming from the forest, voices that spoke of danger, of intruders, of something coming through the trees. And sometimes she did see something—or she thought she did. Sometimes it was a bent hag, shambling along through the shadows; and sometimes, Greta thought she caught sight of two frightened children, walking hand-in-hand, lost and hungry, and seeking shelter in a world that knew nothing of kindness or mercy.

William Thompson

William Thompson is totally blind, and he teaches children’s literature for MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, as well as Athabasca University, Canada’s largest online university. His creative work has appeared in Firewords Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Penmen Review, and Literary Orphans. He has also published scholarly pieces on J. K. Rowling and L. M. Montgomery.