Gretel: A retelling of Hansel & Gretel.

With Halloween quickly approaching, I thought it would be fun to share a short story I wrote several years ago. It’s not a sexy one, but I think you’ll still enjoy it. ❤

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It is forbidden to enter the forest outside our village; few have gone and none have returned. The woods beyond our house are deep and encrusted with thorns the size of daggers. Rumors have spread of something beyond the grove, of life beyond, but village leaders are quick to quash them, passing them off as lies. As the days grow old, our village grows weaker, hungrier. Each morning our stepmother sends us to pick flowers in the fields, while she and our father gorge themselves on the little food that remains. I have grown tired and weak.

I stare into the dark woodlands, searching for some sort of hope.
“Let’s go home, Gretel, it will be night soon.”
Hansel’s voice breaks my concentration.
“They wouldn’t miss us.” The statement rolls off my tongue with ease. I turn to Hansel, who stares back at me, his features in obvious confusion.
“Don’t start again, Gretel. Father loves us!” he exclaims.
“Loves us? What kind of father lets his woman fill herself while his children starve?”
“Come, Gretel,” he says as he extends his hand.

The day’s light is fleeting; soon the forest will be alive with the sounds of wolves howling and owls hooting into the night. My eyes trace up toward my brother’s face. The sun cascades a shadow against his hollow cheekbones giving him a ghostly appearance. Despite his stoic expression, I know Hansel is disappointed in father too.

I wrap my hand in his, the basket of flowers in the other.
“We could run away.”
I say nothing else hoping my words will sink in.

We walk down the grassy slope of the hill that leads towards home. From a distance, our father’s cottage looks ideal with its walls enveloped in green cinnamon vines and bright neon shades of morning glory. Smoke streams out from the chimney, and the smell of pork lingers in the air. I turn towards Hansel. I am shocked; pork is rarity within our village, which only the rich can afford such luxury. Hansel squeezes my hand in reassurance, but something inside me screams out something’s wrong.

Leona greets us at the door in a surprisingly well mood. It is strange compared to the dismal atmosphere she has accustomed us to. Our father sits at the supper table, his head in his hands; an untouched bowl of steaming soup sits in front of him.

The cottage looks different from when we left this morning. The windows are draped in shades of crimson satin, and a large Persian rug lies in front of the fireplace across the floor. On the fire spit sits a large hog roasting in the flames. I lick my lips at the site of fat dripping off of the pork. I can almost taste the warm, smoky flavor of it in my mouth.

Hansel is the first to speak.
“Father, what’s going on? Why is there a pig on the fire and new shades on the windows?”
The sound of Hansel’s voice stirs my father, but his eyes stay down at his hands. Leona’s voice fills the room.
“Your father and I have wonderful news for both of you,” she says, smiling.
The sight of her grin causes me uneasiness I feel my body pulling me towards the door. The need to escape surges through me, but Leona quickly blocks my way.
Hansel stares at her curiously.
“What is it stepmother?” He asks.
“Your father has found you work in the mines, and your sister a suitable husband.”
My mouth drops. Mines? Husband? The news hits me hard, nearly knocking me off balance. Our father is abandoning us, trading us for goods like some back alley deal.
In a hushed voice I ask, “Is it true, father?”
I watch his cheeks color in embarrassment, but still he says nothing. Hansel puts one arm around my shoulder.
“As you wish father,” he whispers, lowering his head.
Hansel’s words slice through me, but before the tears can flow, he grabs my hand and we head toward our room.
Several hours pass and the house sits eerily silent.

Hansel sits quietly on his bed as he carves a sparrow out of wood with his knife. He hasn’t said one word since earlier, but I think deep down inside he is also hoping to hear the knock of our father’s hand on our door.

Part of me wants to scream at Hansel for giving in so easily to Father and Leona’s wishes. The life of a miner is no life at all. It’s backbreaking work until the day you die. What kind of life could there be for me? I will be forced to marry a man I don’t know and worst yet, a man I don’t love. I can feel the panic rise in my chest. Tomorrow, I will lose my father and my brother. Tomorrow, I will be sent to a town I don’t know, with people I don’t love. Outside, the sound of wolves howling echoes in the wind.

Like them, I only wish to be free.

***

I am awoken from my dreamless sleep by cold hands shaking me.
“Gretel, get up!” Hansel says.
My eyes flap open my vision is still blurry from sleep.
“Hansel? What is it?”
“We’re leaving, pack your things.”
Suddenly I am wide-awake and sitting up in my bed.
“Where are we going?”
“Into the woodlands.”
I stare at Hansel in shock.
“Really?”
Hansel turns towards me as he ties his bootstraps.

“I’ve thought about what you said the other day near the entrance of the woods, and I’ve decided that I’d rather risk the unknown than work in the mines the rest of my life and never see my twin sister ever again.”

My delight at his words consumes me and I can’t help but smile. It sounds silly, but I often forget that Hansel and I are twins. We look and act nothing alike, where I lack patience, skills and definition he makes for threefold. His eyes are green and mine blue. His hair is blonde where mine is black. We are as night and day.

I nod in agreement. I watch as Hansel packs a loaf of bread in his satchel. The sight of it makes my stomach ache. Our refusal to eat the pork last night was a statement to our father that had gone unnoticed. It’s been two days since we’ve last eaten.

My stomach rumbles.
“As soon as we’ve made some distance we’ll stop and eat,” Hansel says.
He smiles as me weakly, I know he is hungry as well, but his statement fills me with relief, for now.

Outside, the air has chilled, and light rain has begun to fall. I shiver, partly cold and partly from anticipation. Hansel hands me one of Leona’s coats. I grimace at the smell of her perfume on me.

“It will keep you warm, Gretel,” he says as if reading my thoughts.

We walk up the grassy hills away from our home one last time. At the top, I turn to catch a glimpse of it once more. Against the backdrop of the rising sun, our home looks like a quaint cottage engulfed in vibrant hues of fuchsia and green.

Soon our father will wake to our empty beds.

Warm tears flow down my cheek, and I wipe them away with my sleeve. Deep down I know I shouldn’t cry, I should be strong like Hansel, but the tears come anyway. Hansel rests his hand on my shoulder.
“We need to go before they wake,” he says softly.
“I know,” I say, wiping again at my cheeks.
I force myself to turn away and we set off towards the woods.

As we stand at the threshold of the woods, I can’t help but notice how dark and ominous they seem despite the rising sun.

“Are you ready?” I ask, unsure of myself.

Hansel doesn’t answer. He simply pulls his knife from his waist belt, and together we enter the woods.

We walk for what seems like miles upon miles. Every tree, every stone, and every trail looks the same. My lips are chapped from the cold breeze, and my legs are weary from walking. Hansel tosses me a piece of bread, and I devour it in one gulp. It settles in my stomach like a brick.

Hansel stops abruptly, causing me to walk right into him.
Startled and confused I ask, “What’s wrong?”
“We’re walking in circles.”
“What do you mean?”
Hansel turns toward me and points up to a bird in the tree. “See that owl?”
I look more closely at it, waiting for it to give me some kind of clue.
“Yes…”
“It’s the same owl, on the same tree, and we’ve passed it now about six times.”
“What? Hansel, I’m sure there’s lots of owls in these woods.”
“Yes, but this owl is the same one I’ve seen over and over,” he says.
“You’re being silly, brother,” I laugh.

Suddenly, the owl lets out a hoot and shoots through the top of the trees, flying away to somewhere unknown. A rush of wind follows the bird’s direction, flowing through the trees, causing them to sway violently. Hard rainfall pours down from the grey clouds that loom above.

“We have to find shelter.” I scream, reaching out and grabbing Hansel’s hand as we run. Every inch of the forest around us looks the same.

We stop below a large oak tree just for a moment to catch our breath. Hansel tries to say something, but his voice is drowned out by the sound of the rainfall. Leona’s coat is soaked and heavy with water, making it harder to run. I slip it off, letting it fall to the ground. As I turn my attention back to Hansel, something catches my eye.

It’s a cottage. Off in the distance I can see the smoke coming from its chimney. I smile, overjoyed by the thought of shelter. I point towards it, and Hansel smiles in surprise. We spare no time and race off towards it. My lungs ache, but I don’t stop until it’s only a few feet away.

Hansel trails behind me and nearly knocks me over as he catches up.

The house is old and frail looking, but the scent of cinnamon and sugar seeping out is inviting. Is it possible that someone could live here? Life outside the village? In the woods?

Hansel steps closer and peers in through the fogged windows. Inside sits a feast of cookies, muffins, brownies, and sweet bread. It is sugar heaven. We lean our faces against the glass window, devouring the sweets with our eyes.

“Who do you think lives here?” I ask Hansel.

I watch as he stares into the darkness around us, searching for clues. I point to a hatchet that sits gleaming in the moonlight, embedded into an old tree trunk. The trunk sits rotting in the rain.

“A woodcutter?” Hansel suggests.
“Like Father, Perhaps?”

Our limbs quake, numb from the cold night. The sudden sound of the cottage door opening and the shrill of an old women’s voice startles us as it pierces the air.

“Who’s there?” She cries as she waves her lantern in front of her.
Hansel steps forward into her view.
“My sister and I have been traveling for miles. We need food and shelter, but only for the night.”

The old woman’s eyes scan from Hansel to me, and then into the darkness.
“Are you traveling alone?” She inquiries.
“Yes,” I reply.

Her question makes me uneasy.
She smiles, “Well, come in. You two must be freezing! Hurry along now. Come in, come in.”
She ushers us into her house. Adorned in old furniture and porcelain plates with drawings of cats.
The old woman is frail looking, with grey, wiry hair that sits beneath her bonnet, and withered hands that are thin to the bone.

“You both must be starving! Please, come sit and eat.” She sets plates on the kitchen table.

Hansel and I turn towards one another, shocked by her offer. The old woman continues to set utensils on the table with two glasses. She looks up for a moment and then smiles. I cringe slightly at the sight of her sharp, misshapen teeth.

“Don’t be shy, eat up.”

I stare down at the pile of sweets before me. Their aroma is intoxicating. Hansel picks up a piece of sweet bread and shoves it in his mouth. I watch as his face glows in pleasure at the taste of butter and sugar. I reach out for a muffin and peel away the wax paper surrounding it. As I bite in, my tongue tingles at the taste of small blueberries dancing in my mouth. The old woman comes over and pours a red liquid into our cups. Hansel picks up another piece of sweet bread and plunges it into his mouth. We repeat our cycle until our bellies are full and we can no longer take it. A wave of sleepiness washes over me as the old woman shows us to our rooms. Hansel is to sleep downstairs while I sleep upstairs in the guest room. In bed, I breathe easily at the thought of a brighter tomorrow, and soon my thoughts dissipate as I drift into sleep.

***

I wake to the sound of pans clanking against one another. My vision blurs into focus as I stare at the room around me. Light streams in from the window, and I am relieved to see that the weather is fair. I run downstairs to find the old woman standing over a boiling pot in the fire. Hansel is nowhere to be found. The old woman turns and beckons me to sit at the table.

“Where is my brother? I ask.
“Hansel? Oh he’s out cutting wood for the fire,” she explains.
After several hours and no sign of Hansel, I decide to look for him, but before I can go the old woman stops me.
“Gretel, would you mind grabbing that bag of flour for me.” She says as she points over to the walk-in pantry.
“Of course not.”

As I grab the bag of flour from the top shelf, the old woman closes the door. The lock clicks closing me inside. I am caught off guard by her movement and am left bewildered. Panic fills me as I pound on the door for her to let me out.

Outside I can hear her laughing as she sings, “tonight I will feast on your bones.”

Suddenly Hansel’s voice echoes through the cottage. I peek through the cracks of the pantry door. He stands at the doorway, his arms filled with wood. The old woman points toward the fireplace, and Hansel kneels down to place the wood in the fire. As he kneels, the old woman grabs a pan and approaches Hansel’s back.

“Hansel, watch out! I scream as I pound on the door.

Hansel turns his head slightly towards the pantry, and then the sound of the pan hitting his skull fills my ears. The old woman stands over Hansel as blood seeps out from the back of his head.

Hot tears slide down my face as I whimper at the sight of my brother’s crumpled body. The old woman turns and heads upstairs. Her footsteps creaked across the flood boards. I stare at the pantry around me looking for something to help me get out. My only option is the window. I grab a can from the shelves and propel it towards the window. The glass breaks instantly. I hear a shrill cry from the old woman as she makes her way through the house. She knows what I’m doing. I climb the shelves of the pantry and crawl through the window. The fall is short, but the force of my body hitting the ground is hard on my legs. I stagger toward the front of the cottage, peeking to make sure the old woman doesn’t see me. She wobbles down the stairs and toward the pantry. At the corner of my eye, I see the red hatchet still embedded in the rotting tree trunk. I run toward it and pull it from the trunk.

As I run back toward the cottage, I can see as the old woman opens the pantry door. She stares at the broken glass from the window. As she turns, I meet her gaze at the doorway. Her eerie smile is haunting as she advances toward me. I let the hatchet slide towards my fingers and lift it ready to strike her. Hansel’s body still lays crumpled on the floor, a pool of blood beneath him. The old women glances down toward Hansel and then back at me.

“He’ll make a wonderful beef stew,” She says as she licks her lips.

Rage fills me and as the old woman flings herself at me. I swing the hatchet. Warm blood sprays out as I make contact with her throat. Her screams are muffled by the gaping hole that’s replaced her vocal cords. Her death is quick, but not painless. I drive the hatchet into her head over and over until blood covers me like war paint.

I drop my weapon and reach out for Hansel. As I turn him over I realize he isn’t breathing. His cheeks have lost their warmth. I shake him, but it’s no use. The blow to the head was enough.

Today, I lost my brother.
I rise from the floor, hatchet in hand my cheeks stained with tears. I tell myself I will continue our journey for the two of us.

***

I buried him beneath a tree in the woods last night, and as I looked up into the night sky, I saw the same owl from two days ago staring down at me.
I smiled it was then that I knew that my brother is smiling down at me too.
My journey to the other side is still long, but I know I can make it.

I am the woodcutter’s daughter.

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