As promised, here is my creepy little rendition of Hansel and Gretel. I started wondering if it was possible to redeem the stepmother, and, well….
“The children are sleeping,” Johannes said quietly, his shoulders a little slumped. With relief? Exhaustion? Margrethe could never be sure. But every night, he crept up the ladder to the loft to be certain, and every night he came to tell her that they slept.
Margrethe was combing her hair, as she always did in the evening. Thin and worn as she was, all her strength gone to the child growing within her, her long dark hair was all that was left of the beauty that had once drawn a young, widowed woodcutter’s eyes. It drew his eyes now, and she was silent for a moment, letting him watch. “I am afraid,” she said softly, when the moment was over.
Her husband turned away. She didn’t need to tell him what she feared. He denied it, but she knew he felt it too. “They are only children, Margrethe.”
“They hate me. Me, and the child.” She laid her hand on her stomach. “They blame me for their hunger.”
“Everyone is hungry. There is no food, no money…” He stared into the fire. A good fire they had, always, for the one thing they had in plenty was wood. If only wood could be eaten…
“We will all starve, if nothing changes. I and your child, as well as Hansel and Gretel.” She looked down at her hands. “If they were not here,” she whispered, “we might have enough.”
“They are my children,” Johannes said just as quietly. “They are a little strange, perhaps, but they are my children.”
“So is the child I bear,” she flared. “And they hate it, because it is also mine. Because they hate everything but themselves. I will not stay here with them, Johannes! Better I should go out in the forest to find a new place, or die alone, better that this child should die with me, unborn, than come into the world where they are!”
“What is this?” At last he turned to look at her, his worn, sun-browned face drawn out of its usual patient resignation by surprise. “Margrethe, they are only children. Where comes this?”
She swallowed hard, her hands trembling so that she almost dropped her comb. “I heard them talking today,” she whispered. “While I was baking, they came near the window, and I heard them. Gretel complained that she was hungry, and that the… the great cow had had more bread than she, at noon.” And so she had, a very little more… but she was twice Gretel’s size, and with child as well! Did they think she should starve her own babe for them?
“That is not – ”
“And then Hansel said that things would be better soon,” she continued quickly, wanting to get the horrible words out. “And Gretel asked him how, and he said that did she not know what came out of cows?”
“Milk?” Johannes ventured very quietly.
Margrethe shook her head convulsively, wrapping her arms around herself. “Veal,” she whispered. “And… and they laughed…”
Her husband came to her then, kneeling by her stool and putting his arms around her. “Hush,” he murmured, as she sobbed against his shoulder. “Hush, my love. All will be well.”
The next morning, as they ate their meager breakfast, he looked across the crude table at the twins. As always, they sat side by side, heads bowed over bowls more empty than full. “Hansel, Gretel, today you will come with me into the forest.”
They looked up, two pairs of round blue eyes that should have looked sweetly innocent and somehow never did fixing on his face. “Why, Father?” Hansel asked curiously. “You have always told us that the forest is too dangerous for us.”
“Today I will not go so far to cut wood as usual.” Johannes met his son’s eyes. “The place I have in mind is low and damp, and there may be white mushrooms, even this late in the year, or nuts. I cannot hunt for food while I cut wood, and the wood we must have. You are old enough now to take a part, and if you find mushrooms, your mother will stew them for us.”
“Our step-mother,” Gretel corrected, as she always did, and for one moment she stared venom at Margrethe before lowering her eyes to her bowl again.
“I like mushrooms,” Hansel said, holding his father’s eyes steadily. “Very well. We will come, Father, if you wish it.”
When Johannes returned that evening, he returned alone, and Margrethe slept soundly for the first time since she had found she was with child.
But in the morning, she was wakened by a soft sound, and opened her eyes to see Hansel and Gretel standing by the bed, gazing down at her with naked hatred in their eyes. “We know it was you,” Hansel whispered almost soundlessly.
“You and that,” Gretel whispered, glaring at the mound of her step-mother’s belly under the blankets. “Turning our father against us.”
“Hansel! Gretel!” Johannes had wakened while his wife cowered, paralyzed by terror, and he climbed out of bed and knelt to embrace the twins. “I hunted for you for so long, last night! Did you wander, or was it I? I must have searched a hundred hollows for you, and did not turn back until it was too dark to see my hand before my face.”
They hugged him back, looking over his shoulders at Margrethe. “We know you tried to find us, Father,” Hansel said, eyes on his step-mother.
“We know you love us,” Gretel added, her pretty pink-and-white face twisted with loathing that her father could not see.
For a week, Margrethe could not sleep. Giving the children her bread at noon helped, a little, but she could not give them her morning and evening meals without their father seeing it, and every hour her fear grew. The last night, she lay wide-awake and rigid with terror as a small finger crept over to the bed, and away again. She was still frozen at dawn, when Johannes woke and swore a frightened oath. Carefully laid on the pillow, inches from Margrethe’s head, was a small mouse. The mouse had been carefully, delicately disemboweled.
The next day, Johannes took the children into the forest with him again, promising them a chestnut tree not yet picked clean. Again he returned without them, and this time, though Margrethe waited, they did not return. A day passed, then two, a week, and she began to hope again. A month, and her baby was born, a healthy girl, and Johannes smiled for the first time since the twins had gone. Without them, there was just barely enough to eat, and slowly the future brightened.
Johannes lowered the bundle of wood to the ground outside the cottage. It was quiet… little Detje must be sleeping still. He would not wake her. Instead of calling out, he stood his axe by the door and opened it quietly.
Hansel and Gretel sat at the table, a great pile of silver money spread out before them, bright smiles on their small faces. Of Margrethe and Detje, there was no sign. “Father, we’ve come back!” Hansel said happily. “And look what we have!”
“There was a wicked witch in the wood, who captured us,” Gretel said, touching the silver money with a fingertip. “She was going to *eat* us. But we were too clever, and cooked her in her own oven.” She smiled, and the smile sent a chill down her father’s back. “And she has no more need of this, so we brought it back, and now we may be happy!”
“Indeed we may,” Johannes said, and though he had rather have kissed the Devil himself, he went over and kissed his son and daughter. “I have missed you both so, I have not even the heart to scold you for running away to be lost.”
As he straightened, he saw a strand of dark hair lying loose in the corner. The cradle was empty, but when he glanced at the fireplace, he glimpsed a burned, black thing too big to be a log, pushed to the back.
“And you will come away with us, won’t you, Father?” Hansel said quietly. “Before Margrethe comes back? She made you abandon us, we know it. But we have money now, and we can go away from her.”
“Indeed we can,” Johannes said, and for a wonder his voice sounded as it always did, weary and level. “Gretel must make up a bundle of all the bread that is left, and Hansel, you must go up to the loft and get the blankets, to take with us. I will go and fill up a water-bottle at the well, and wash myself, and then we can go.”
“Hurray!” Gretel clapped her hands, bouncing on her toes. “I will do it, father! And I have learned to cook, of the old woman – ”
“The witch,” Hansel corrected quickly.
“The witch, yes. And just you see what I can do!”
“I am sure I will,” Johannes said, going to the open door. Very quietly, he picked up his axe. “I will see what you have both learned to do, while you were gone.”
Then he closed the door.