The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

This was the first real story I ever wrote. Took me darn near seven years, too. I started it in 1994. I think I was scared of the subject matter. As any reasonable person would be.

GRETEL

by Holly Messinger

2001
all rights reserved

I

Gretel watched the water pail descend, her hip braced against the cold stone lip of the well. It was mid-morning, but the forest canopy was so thick that the sun only penetrated it at noon. The moss beneath her feet was damp, and a mist hovered over the water at the bottom of the well. She wondered how deep it was. Deep enough to break her neck if she fell in? Certainly deep enough to drown in. She didn't like the thought of a cold watery death any better than she liked the thought of being roasted alive.

She hauled up the pail and emptied it into the bucket at her feet. Sometimes on clear mornings she could see smoke rising over the hills to the east of the forest. There were people living there. If she had simply walked away, she might have made it. Might. There was no way of knowing what the old woman might do. Maybe nothing. But there was still Hansel.

Gretel drew up another pail of water and added it to the bucket at her feet. She picked it up in both hands and started back up the path to the little house.

She could smell chocolate and candied fruit even before she saw it. The sweet smell had grown cloying over the weeks, although it no longer made her want to retch when the old woman boiled up kettle after kettle of sugar glaze to patch her house back together. The birds were attracted to the gingerbread roof, and one of Gretel's chores was to clear away their little dead corpses after they had been poisoned by the evil sweets. The recipes for the high, sloping roof were different from the ones that formed the walls and windows and trim, which were within easy reach of the ground. The old woman didn't want to poison the children who came to visit, but she would sit on her porch and cackle with glee as birds and squirrels toppled off the roof into the yard, twitching in agony until they died.

Gretel had been thinking about that bottle of poison lately. The old woman kept it locked in her cabinet along with a lot of other mysterious bottles and boxes and scrolls. A few drops of that thick yellow oil in a batch of cake would kill an entire flock of birds. A few drops in a cup of broth should be enough for her and Hansel both. It was much quicker than being roasted alive. Or drowning.

There was another smell in the air this morning: the smell of wood smoke, lots of it, and hot metal. It filled Gretel with apprehension. She had reached the clearing where the little house sat, and out of habit she passed around to the back where Hansel was.

The back yard of the house sank into a natural bowl in the land, flanked on either side by a semi-circle of tall, wide trees. Sunlight rarely struck full in the bowl, and the ground back here was rock and lichens with little tufts of sick-looking grass crippling around the edges. It was unfortunate that no visitor could see this yard from the front, as even a lost and hungry child might have run screaming away from the cottage, despite the lure of the sweets. The yard was ringed around with a fence made of bones, some of them animal, some human.

In the center of the yard were two tall iron poles driven deep into the ground, each as thick around as Gretel's two hands could reach. A third pole was thrust through eyes at the top of the other two, and this third pole had turning-handles on either end, and a long, pointed iron hook hanging from its middle. Gretel always skirted well around the edges of the yard, rather than walk near that giant spit. She had seen the old woman heft a yearling pig, thrashing and squealing, in her arms and drive that hook through its hind leg, hanging it head-down before she slit its throat.

The pigs were in a pen at the shallowest edge of the bowl, where they could root around in the trees and get at wild acorns and apples. They thrashed and squealed when they heard Gretel coming, because she had to slop them. They were mean and wild-looking creatures, only domesticated as long as their fence held firm, and Gretel was afraid of them.

Opposite the pigpen was the oven. It was nearly as big as the house, and had three chambers: the closed oven, for baking bread, the open racks for roasting fresh meat, and the smokehouse for curing. Both the open rack and the smokehouse were large enough to hang an entire deer or pig inside, and stoking all three chambers needed the wood of an entire tree. It was from this that the smoke smell issued. The air around and above the grill shimmered with heat. Gretel stopped for a moment at the edge of the yard, staring at the oven with a knot of worry between her eyebrows. She had spent three weeks trapped in this nightmare, and the only other time she had seen that oven stoked up hot was the morning when they butchered the pig.

"Gretel!" Hansel was calling to her, his pale face pressed against the bars of his cage. There were three of the squat black cages against the back wall of the cottage. They were slightly shorter than Gretel's head; she was twelve but small for her age. Hansel was a tall and gangly fourteen; even lying on the ground he could not completely stretch out inside his confinement. The cages were a dense, solid, sooty-looking black metal, with only a row of bars and a slit across the front, perhaps a hand span in height. Once, when she was very small, a band of gypsy performers had passed through Gretel’s village, and they had had a young bear in a cage much like these. The bear had no teeth and his fur was falling out in patches, and he performed a little shuffling dance on a leash when they took him out of his cage and whipped him. Gretel had cried for two days after seeing that poor bear.

Gretel glanced at the iron hook in the middle of the yard and thought again of the poison bottle in the locked cabinet. Then she walked over and dropped to her knees beside the door of Hansel's cage.

"What's going on?" Hansel asked. "Why did she fire up the oven?"

She was the old woman, of course. They didn't know her name. "I don't know," Gretel replied, and paused before adding, "I think she's planning to butcher today. She had me fetch water twice already."

"Butcher what?" Hansel asked in a low voice.

Gretel didn't answer. More pigs, probably. But she didn't want to guess. She and Hansel had argued it around and around in whispers; neither really believed that anyone could eat another human being. It was such a sin it could not even be considered. But there were the bones on the fence . . .

"Girl!" The old woman's shriek rose like a sharp chill wind, and Gretel spun around quickly, hefting up the water bucket and trotting to the kitchen door. She cringed as she had to pass by the old woman, and caught her toe on the threshold. She stumbled into the too-warm kitchen, sloshing water on the floor.

"Clumsy!" the old woman said, and spat at the girl. "Cleant up and dish me breakfast before it burn. Quick! Quick! Have to work fast if we gettin the meat up by nightfall."

Meat. Gretel limped silently toward the fireplace and used the fire iron to lift the lid off the kettle of porridge on the hearth. It was boiling, so she stirred it and ladled a generous helping into a bowl. The hot cereal slopped over the back of her hand and she yelped, dropping the bowl onto the hearth, where it smashed.

"Clumsy! Worthless brat!" The old woman’s knuckled descended with a solid thud on the side of Gretel’s head, knocking her into the table. Gretel caught herself and froze stiff in terror, staring down the length of a butcher knife being waved under her nose. "Listen to me!" the old woman snarled. "You worken for your keep, Schatze, or I cuttin off your lazy fingers an wear them for a necklace, hear you me? Do you hear?"

Petrified, Gretel managed to nod. The old woman grabbed her by the collar and threw her to the floor. "Now clean that up and go fillit the woodbin. Quick! Quick!"

Gretel wiped up the mess and collected the bits of broken crockery in an old towel. The old woman dished up a fresh bowl of porridge, added molasses and hobbled with it to her rocking chair, her gait uneven because of the lame leg. She set down the bowl and blew on it absentmindedly; picked up her whetstone and drew the butcher knife against it so hard and fast that sparks flew between her hands. Swallowing, Gretel asked, "What are we going to butcher?"

The old woman began to cackle, rocking in her chair. "Fine meat," she said. "Fine sweet meat. Sweet, sweet, meat, oh yea, Schatze." Abruptly the old woman turned and flung the knife past Gretel's head. Gretel ducked and heard the knife hit the wall with a metallic tang; escaped out the door with the old woman's shrieks following her. "Git! Git! Wood! Quick, quick!"

Gretel ran all the way to the woodpile and stopped, leaning hard on the pile with her heart in her throat. Dear God, she thought. Dear God. I cannot go back in there if she's going to do what I think she means to do.

Splinters caught in her hand from the rough wood and she felt a kind of cold numbness settle over her like an old friend. I might be wrong, she told herself. I just might. I can't leave Hansel alone.

Her legs felt like rubber and she gathered up a few puny sticks of wood, turning the corner too close as she passed around the edge of the pile. Something caught her toe and she tripped, catching herself on the other foot quick enough not to fall, but not quick enough to hang onto the wood. The sticks pummeled to the ground. Gretel picked up the axe, whose handle she had tripped over, and leaned it against the side of the house before collecting her wood and going back inside.

The old woman was not in the kitchen when Gretel returned, but she went on trudging wood until the box was full. The old woman was still nowhere to be seen. She was not out in the yard, and the kitchen was empty. Gretel only hesitated a second. She slid over to the cabinet on the wall, shot a quick, guilty look around her, and with one finger pulled at the doors on the little cabinet. They were held together with a padlock, but they pulled open a finger’s-width or so. Nearly faint with terror, Gretel tried to slip her hand between the doors and the bottom shelf. It could fit, but only flat. Even if she could get her hand around the bottle, she wouldn’t be able to slide it out again.

A thump and a wail from across the room made her jump. She jerked her hand out, scraping her knuckles raw in her haste, and whirled around. The room and the doorway were empty, but Gretel could hear a faint thumping, creaking sound, coupled with whimpers and a sound like growling. Another sharp cry sounded, followed by the unmistakable crack of a slap. It was from the direction of the old woman’s bedroom.

Gretel had only been in that room once, on the night they arrived, when the old woman had taken them in, fed them her sweet and strange-tasting food, tucked them drugged and snoring into her big feather bed . . .

A distinct whining came from behind the door now, the keening of a small child trying not to cry out loud. And a deep, rhythmic grunting, like the pigs in the trough, greedy and lustful. The ropes under the big bed began to squeak steadily now, as if someone were jumping on the bed.

What in heaven’s name–? Bewildered, and filled with dread for some reason she couldn’t name, Gretel eased closer to the bedroom door, saw that it was open a crack. The old woman crouched on the bed, skirts hiked up around pale, hairy, corded shanks. Both grasping claws were sunk deep into the arms and shoulders of what appeared to be a boy. A naked, dirty boy, too small and too fat to be Hansel, with a fat, dirty face screwed up in pain and terror, streaks of blood streaming from his nose and tears cutting paths through the grime. The witch’s eyes also were tightly shut, the yellow teeth bared, the naked hips thrusting repeatedly as though trying to flog or impale the body of the child beneath––

Gretel jumped away from the door with a gasp, both hands covering her face, shutting her eyes tightly as though to deny both the image and her sudden understanding. She was only twelve, and innocent, but she had grown up on a farm. A billy goat crouched and grunted in just that way, covering a nanny. Gretel knew what a goat’s watering-spout looked like. But that had to mean the witch––

The grunting and squealing was wild and frightening, rising to a fever pitch. Gretel turned away from the doorway and clapped her hands over her ears, running for the backyard. She tripped across the threshold and sprawled in the dank dust of the yard, skinning her palms and ripping a fold of her skirt from the waistband. Panting, she gathered her feet and staggered the remaining few yards to Hansel’s cage, clutching at the bars as though they would save her from drowning.

“Gretel! What’s wrong? What’s happening?”

“She––“ Gretel began, and stopped, knowing that wasn’t right, confused. “There’s a boy here,” she bleated. “Another boy. A little boy. In the bedroom. With the witch. He’s–– he’s–– Hansel, the witch is a man.

“What?”

“I saw her––him––on the bed. I think the witch was rutting on the boy.” Gretel used the farmer’s word for mating animals because she didn’t know another other name for it.

Hansel’s eyes widened. “What?”

“I think so!” Gretel described what she had seen, and Hansel’s face grew grave.

“Buggering,” he said. “That’s what it’s called when a man does it to a boy. The Romans used to do it. That was why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s very wicked.”

Gretel nodded, frightened but trying to look wise. Hansel knew things and thought about things. He could even read, a little.

“Where did the boy come from?” Hansel asked. “Did someone come to the house last night?”

Gretel shook her head, slowly. “I didn’t hear.” She slept in the kitchen, on the rug before the hearth. She collapsed exhausted every night and slept like a dead thing until morning. Had the bedroom door been closed that morning when the witch kicked her awake? She thought it had. “It must’ve been last night. Or this morning as I was fetching water. Oh! Hansel, that must be why she lit the oven! She was sharpening the butcher knife this morning when I––“

“Holy Mother,” Hansel croaked, staring over her shoulder.

Gretel turned. The witch strode across the yard, long skirts flapping around bony shins, bony hands curled around the ankles of the little naked fat boy, who hung limp down the witch’s back like a haunch of venison. The witch went straight to the iron spit in the center of the yard, swung the boy off his back, and lifted him by the ankles, which were tied together, to catch the tether of the feet over the hook on the spit. The little fat boy hung there, looking remarkably like a yearling pig but not thrashing and squealing. His eyes only showed the whites, and his tongue protruded. The witch drew the big butcher knife from the folds of its skirts.

“No!” Gretel shrieked, and then clapped both fists over her mouth as though to hold back the cry, too late.

The witch plunged the knife into the boy’s throat just below the ear, and made a swift ripping motion, opening a clean gash across to the other ear. Red sheeted down, dribbling in a steady stream into the dirt below. Behind her, Gretel heard Hansel retching into the straw, but she only sat and stared, transfixed by the strange transformation of the witch. The back was still bent and twisted, one shoulder higher than the other and the neck arched out like a vulture’s, but the hands were long and powerful. Underneath the dirty headwrap and gray fringe of hair and hairy brows, the eyes were sharp and cruel and yet serene, like the eyes of a wolf. The witch smiled as it gazed at the kill. It swiveled that long neck around and looked straight at Gretel, and lifted the knife and drew the flat of the blade across its tongue, smearing a red smile.

“Git moving, girl,” the witch said, still smiling that wolf’s smile. “Water’s boilet. Havet work fast, to gettin the meat up by nightfall.”

Gretel never knew how she got through that day. The witch did the actual butchering, opening up the guts and removing the offal and setting aside the good bits, but Gretel had to take the bung and the hands and the scalp to the pigs, and gather the heart and liver and kidneys in a roasting pan, to go in the oven, and collect the head and bits of fat in a drippings pan to go in the big kettle, to make headcheese.

Just a pig, Gretel said to herself, again and again. Just a pig. The smell of blood coated the back of her throat, seared in by wood smoke.

By nightfall the carcass was completely dismantled and the meat hung up in the smokehouse to cure. The house smelled of onions and the brown, rich odor of roasting liver. The old woman––who wasn’t a woman at all, but Gretel couldn’t begin to think about this without feeling she was going to vomit––hummed as it shuffled around the kitchen, stirring and banking and tasting.

“Sweet,” the witch cackled, licking its fingers. A yellow wolf’s eye slid slyly toward Gretel. “Have a taste.”

But Gretel only turned her face away and kept her eyes on the potatoes she was slicing. The witch tittered and tottered across the floor, and Gretel heard the lock click in the cabinet on the wall. She stole a glance over her shoulder to watch the witch put away the pepper box and take down a large brown glass flask from the top shelf, before relocking the cabinet and dropping the key, on its silver chain, back down into the depths of its shapeless bosom. How could it have a bosom? Gretel wondered. It didn’t have a woman’s shape any more than it had a man’s. The wrists and ankles and neck were bony and corded, but the body was thick and lumpy, like a wad of dough that hadn’t yet risen. Gretel suddenly remembered the sight of the witch’s naked, hairy arse and she flushed, her lip curling in distaste.

“Whatha matter, girl? Not hungry?” the witch asked, settling into the rocker by the table. It pulled a cork from the brown flask with its teeth, then took a quick, slurping pull. Gretel could see from the corner of her eye; the witch sat only a couple of paces away, just beyond arm’s reach. “Ain’t you gin to feed that brother o’yours?”

“He’s sick,” Gretel said, speaking into the pan of potatoes. “He threw up this morning.”

“Huh,” the witch said. “But you wern’.”

No. Gretel hadn’t. She didn’t know why. Perhaps because the shock of seeing the buggery had mercifully numbed her to everything else.

“I saw you looken,” the witch said. Slurp. “You wunna skeerd. Did’a make yer little twiddle tickle?”

Gretel hunched her shoulders, not completely understanding what the witch was saying, but recognizing the insidious note in its voice, a dank and slimy meaning that would worm its way into her memory, hibernating until understanding bloomed to feed it, and it could begin to spread rot through her brain.

“That brother o’yours,” the witch said. “Why you taken so good care o’him? Why you not taken off an leave him?”

Gretel leveled out the potatoes in the pan with her hand. She shrugged with one shoulder.

A loud crack on the tabletop made her jump. The witch had smacked its palm down flat, and glared at her with a baleful eye. “Answer me back, girl. Why you not leaven him?”

“He- he’s my brother,” Gretel said. “He takes care of me.”

The witch sat back in the rocker. Slurped another pull from the bottle. Gretel could smell the liquor as the witch said, “He take care o’you at night?”

Gretel didn’t know what that might mean. She and Hansel had always slept in a loft above the main room of their family’s cabin, in a bed of straw and woolen blankets. When she was younger, she had been afraid of the dark, but Hansel, always older and wise, with a memory that allowed him to remember any tale or song he heard even once, had whispered to her and told her about the spirits in the woods, and how they would grant people wishes in dreams. “He used to,” she said.

“Hrrmph.” Slurp. “He tell you he gin marry you?”

Gretel frowned, puzzled. “No.” Although Mother Berthe had suggested to Father that Gretel might be betrothed. She was old enough, Mother Berthe said. But Father had had no money for a dowry. Nor had he had any money to buy an apprenticeship for Hansel, although Hansel had badly wanted to go and learn the printer’s trade from Herr Heimann. He had been fascinated by the machinery and all the tiny bits of wood with letters carved on them. Hansel had been disappointed, but Gretel had been secretly glad not to be betrothed to anyone. The thought of having to leave Father and Hansel to live with some other man had frightened her. She thought now that it could not have been so bad.

“My brother was gin marry me,” the witch said gruffly. “He say so. He say he come back and taken me ‘way from Mother. But he not come back. Mother say he left cause o’ me bein curst.” Slurp. “She beat me for bein devil spawn.”

“Mother Berthe beat me, too,” Gretel said, before she thought to stop herself.

The witch nodded as though this was not surprising. The bristling lips parted in an appalling grin, but it quickly faded. “Put them taters in the pot. Then take them rags outen back to burn.”

Gretel turned in the direction of the witch’s pointing finger. She spied a bundle of cloth near the woodbin: brightly colored cloth, with shiny bits on it. It jingled faintly as she picked it up. Curious, but not daring to dawdle, she took it into the back yard and went to the oven, opening its heavy iron door and holding up the garments––for that was what they were––in the hot yellow light so she could see them.

They were clearly the clothes from the little boy. They were so small that Gretel gave a little sob, as fresh horror and grief rushed in on her: he couldn’t have been more than four or five. The clothes were brightly colored wool felt, and heavily embroidered, with shiny beads and flashy metal bits sewn into the needlework. Out of the nightmare of the day Gretel’s mind lifted a single detail: the boy had had black hair, and his skin had been brown, far darker than hers or Hansel’s.

She wadded the clothes and tossed them into the oven, then closed the door. She gathered her skirts close around her thighs and scuttled across the yard to Hansel’s cage. It was a square black void against the wall of the house, but she knew where it was in relation to the back door and she could hear Hansel rustling in the straw. As she drew closer she smelled the waste and vomit that Hansel pushed out through a slit in the floor.

“Hansel,” she hissed, and his face appeared like a pale round moon in the cage’s barred window.

“I don’t want anything,” he said. “And you shouldn’t eat anything, either. You can’t know what she’s been feeding us all this time. How do we know where that sausage came from?”

“Hansel, that boy–– that boy was a Gypsy. And he was little. Not like us. He couldn’t have been more than five.”

Hansel merely looked at her. The sun was gone but the moon was coming up, and she could see his eyes well enough to read the expression in them. He looked dull and tired, like an old man.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “It’s fall. The Gypsies always come close to town for the winter. They don’t go into town, but they camp in the woods close to the roads. And a little kinder like that couldn’t walk far.”

Hansel blinked, and something of his old expression came back into his face. “We must be near a road,” he said, completing the thought for her.

II

Gretel went out to fetch the water one morning, and there was frost on the ground. She ran and shivered, barefoot, came back with teeth chattering.

“Close the door,” the witch snapped at her.

Gretel closed it. She filled the kettle and put it on the hook over the fire, and stood close to the hearth until her fingers and nose and toes felt thawed. The witch took no notice of her, only swung another layer of wool around its shoulders and went out into the yard.

Out of habit, Gretel glanced at the cabinet on the wall, but as usual it was closed and firmly locked. It had been nearly three weeks since the little boy was killed, and the witch had not once made a mistake, even when drunk. It never left Gretel alone in the house with that cabinet unlocked. It was as if the witch could read Gretel’s mind.

She and Hansel had argued around and around a great deal about the plan, and whether it was more sinful to take a life or to take one’s own life. But Gretel pointed out very reasonably that if they poisoned themselves, they would be just as dead as if the witch killed them, and the witch would still be alive to murder other children. Hansel had reluctantly agreed.

It made little difference, though, because Gretel still couldn’t get to the bottle of poison, whatever she intended to do with it. The witch hadn’t even bothered to make another batch of hard-cake to go on the roof, because it was late enough in the fall that there were no birds to eat it. Gretel wore herself out trying to think of away to break into the cabinet, or steal the key from around the witch’s neck as it slept. Once or twice, in the dark night while the witch snorted and grunted in the next room and Gretel lay in a feverish half-sleep, she imagined herself plunging the butcher knife into the witch’s throat, as the witch had done to the boy. But each time she had seen the witch’s eyes opening, the clawed hands grasping at her, the yellow teeth parting to bite, and she shook herself out of the waking dream with a violent shudder.

So she didn’t know what to do, except endure. Hansel was no help. He talked little, and ate less every day. Gretel had eaten no meat since the boy was killed, since she couldn’t be sure what was pork and what wasn’t. But she took plenty of potatoes, bread, turnips and cheese. The witch didn’t stint her any food, although it often cackled at the way Gretel would turn her face away from the meat. Gretel couldn’t imagine ever eating meat again.

The witch had noticed Hansel not eating, also. Four days ago it had spotted the refuse that Hansel pushed out of his cage and seen that most of it was uneaten food. It had bellowed at Gretel for an explanation. Gretel said honestly that Hansel had not wanted to eat since the last butchering.

That made the witch scowl and mutter. That afternoon it baked up a whole pan of cinnamon strudel and tried to cajole Hansel with it, but he refused. The witch had thrown the crock of strudel at Gretel and left a hand-sized bruise on her hip.

The witch came back in the door, letting in a puff of cold air and the smell of green wood smoke. Gretel swung the hissing kettle off the fire and made tea, dumping in honey and pushing it to the corner of the table beside the witch’s rocking chair.

The witch caught Gretel’s wrist before she could retreat. Gretel stiffened, barely containing her reflex to jerk away, but the grip was merely firm, not bruising. The witch sank into its rocker and bared yellow teeth in a ghastly parody of a grin. “How old you be?” it asked, stroking Gretel’s palm open with its other hand. “Ten? Eleven?”

“Twelve,” Gretel said.

“You got ha sweetheart, Schatze?”

“What?” Gretel blurted. “No!”

“No, no. No, no. Twelve year old an’ no sweetheart. Hmm.” The witch reached for Gretel’s cheek. She cringed, but the witch only seemed to tickle behind Gretel’s ear, and as the claw pulled back, there was a gold coin pinched between two knobby fingers. “Well, looka there! Maybe thasa somethin to buy yer own husband. Stead o'that brother o'yourn.”

Gretel blinked.

“Goin, take it,” the witch said. It pressed the coin into Gretel’s palm and released her. “Now go fetch sommore water.” It waved Gretel away with one hand and picked up the mug of tea with the other.

Gretel backed away, her mouth open. She’d only once before in her life seen gold, and she’d never been given money of her own, in any amount.

The witch slurped and banged the mug down on the table. “Well, git on, then! Water, girl! Git! Wood, too! Move!”

Gretel scurried, grabbed the water bucket on her way out and hastened up the trail to the well. Her feet quickly grew cold, but she barely noticed. A gold sovereign! That could not only pay her dowry, but it could pay for Hansel's apprenticeship and his guild fees until he was a Master. Her whole family could eat off that coin for a year. She could buy shoes and a new dress and a new Bible and Hansel could teach her to read and Father could buy a new mule…

She reached the well and drew up water twice, filling the bucket, her head spinning with the possibilities of money. It was an enormous sum. And the witch had simply given it away! Was the witch that wealthy? A miser, perhaps, hoarding away gold and other riches? Why give it to her? As wages? A present? For a dowry, it had said. Did that mean the witch intended for Gretel to marry? Did that mean it would let her go?

Silly goose, she said to herself. She picked up the bucket and started back to the house. You could leave yourself. Take your money and find the road, beg a ride and go into the nearest town….

But without Hansel. Dawning realization made her steps slow. She opened her palm and stared down at the gold piece in her hand. The witch had paid her for Hansel.

Suddenly frightened, Gretel quickened to a skipping run, the bucket sloshing water on her legs. Thawing frost made the dirt trail slippery, and her feet nearly went out from under her as she skidded to a stop at the edge of the clearing.

Hansel’s cage stood open and empty.

Gretel dropped the water bucket and ran for the back door, expecting to find it locked but it wasn’t. She fell against it and fell through it and closed it; heard a crash from the back bedroom and froze, poised on her toes, gazing wild-eyed around the room and seeing two things at once.

The bedroom door was closed.

And the cabinet door was open a crack.

Something in Gretel went very still and cold, and for a moment she felt as if she was standing outside of her body. She watched herself walk toward the cabinet, stretch up on her toes and snatch the little glass bottle from the middle shelf. She shoved it into the front of her apron and took two steps forward to the boiling kettle of porridge on the fire grate. She had a spoon in one hand and the molasses jar in the other when the bedroom door opened and the witch stepped out and looked at her suspiciously.

“What you up to?” the witch asked, closing the door quickly behind itself.

“Just checking the porridge,” Gretel said. “Do you want molasses or honey this morning?”

“Lasses is fine,” the witch said.

Cold, calm, every inch of her skin feeling crawly as though she had developed eyes all over, Gretel sensed the witch watching her. She stirred and poured, and when she heard the witch move to the cabinet and the little doors bang together, Gretel pulled the bottle from her apron, uncapped it with one hand and dripped several clear drops into the waiting bowl. She looked down at it in dismay. Clear! It was supposed to be yellow. Had she grabbed the wrong bottle? Behind her, the key clicked in the lock. Gretel stuffed the bottle back out of sight and spooned porridge into the bowl, stirring to mix in the potion.

“Yer brother’s sick,” the witch said, as Gretel set the bowl before its place at the rocking chair.

“He is?” Gretel said, not sure she believed this, but not having to feign her concern. “Where is he?”

“In yon bed,” the witch said, jerking its head toward the door. The yellow wolf’s eyes watched her carefully. “I give him some medicine. He sleepin.”

Gretel stepped back out of arm’s reach and wrung her hands together. “Can I see him?”

“You haint brought the wood in yet.” The witch picked up a spoon and began to slurp at the porridge, though its eyes never left her.

Gretel swallowed at the same time as the witch’s first mouthful. Did the porridge taste strange? How quickly would it work? Was it the wrong bottle, and if it was, what potion was the witch eating?

“Well? Don’ stand there collectin flies! Git the wood in, girl!”

So Gretel trudged outside, collected an armload of wood, and began to fill the bin beside the fireplace. She worked as slowly as she dared, while the witch slurped and scraped up the last of the porridge, all the way to the bottom of the bowl, apparently without noticing anything amiss.

How long? Gretel wondered. What was that stuff? What if it was only medicine?

The witch stood up and swiped a sleeve across its mouth. “Wash those up,” it said, indicating the dishes. It took the shawl from the hook beside the door and went outside.

Gretel darted for the bedroom door. The knob turned easily and she fell through into the little room. Hansel lay draped across the bed in his ragged pants and shirt and vest, his poor thin bare ankles hanging off the end of the bed. Gretel ran to him and shook him by the shoulders, calling his name, but Hansel only muttered, his eyelids fluttering, his face slack and somewhat flushed as though he lay in a deep feverish sleep.

Gretel sat back on her heels and sobbed, flopping Hansel’s arm about in frustration. Medicine, indeed! This evil sleep came from one of the witch’s potions, probably the same thing she had fed them on the night they arrived.

The back door creaked open and Gretel shot to her feet, dashed for the doorway and the main room, but the witch moved faster. It caught Gretel in the doorway and threw her across the room. Gretel tripped over the hearth and nearly fell into the fire, but caught herself on the kettle hook.

“What you be at, there?” the witch demanded. “Playing naughty with yer brother while he be sleep?”

“What did you do to him?” Gretel cried.

“I give him some medicine so he don’t get all stiff in his britches, you bad thing. I seen you out there tryin to tease him. I know what girls do. You leave him to me, hear? You just a little thing, you find a man for yourself.”

Gretel recoiled from the accusations and the ugly images they conjured. “He’s my brother!” she shouted. “Why can’t you let us go! I don’t want your filthy gold, I just want to leave here!”

“Goan, then!” the witch snatched up a broom and swung it at Gretel, but she ducked and ran for the back door. The witch pursued her as far as the back steps and stopped, shaking her weapon. “Keep yourself outen here, Schatze, or I peel your hide offen you!”

The witch slammed the back door. Gretel stood in the yard, her toes curling in the mud, looking around wildly for a sign of what to do next. Clearly the potion wasn’t the poison she’d thought, or else it wasn’t working. Her eye landed on the cages, the pigpen, the woodpile, and the oven, which was smoking. She stared at it for a moment. The oven was lit; the witch had Hansel in the bedroom. She didn’t have much time. But what could she do? The witch was so much bigger and stronger. Gretel knew she couldn’t fight the witch, but maybe she could stop it from cooking Hansel.

Gretel ran to the oven. The smokehouse door was as tall as her head, but she wrapped the tail of her apron around the heavy iron latch and levered it up. Inside, the fire roared up from the fresh influx of air. The wood was stacked in a pyre, throwing off vicious heat. Gretel looked around but there was no fire iron in sight. She spied the axe leaning against the woodpile and fetched it.

It was almost too heavy for her to lift, but she hefted it up anyway and slung it up and over in an arc, the way Father did, dropping the head into the pyre in the oven. An explosion of sparks shot up and the pyre broke apart, partially burned logs collapsing in on each other. Scorching hot air belched out through the opening and Gretel cried out as the skin of her arms scalded. She yanked the axe out with both hands and dragged it away, panting. The biggest log had fallen forward and lay half out of the smokehouse door in the yard, still burning.

A crash sounded from the side of the house as the back door was flung open. The witch stood in the doorway, both hands braced on the jamb, head hanging at the end of the long vulture’s neck.

“What you do to me, girl?” the witch grunted, its voice much lower than usual. It came down one step, then the next, putting too much weight on the bandy leg and half-falling, catching itself on the top edge of the nearest cage. “What you feed to granny?”

Gretel stared. The witch glared at her, head swinging side to side, yellow predator’s eyes traveling from the top of Gretel’s head to the axe in her hands, and to the open door of the smokehouse. “What you doing there?” the witch said, hobbling a few drunken steps in Gretel’s direction. It gave its head a shake, seeming to have trouble keeping its eyes open. “Give back from there, you––“

“Stay away!” Gretel cried, raising the axe like a spear in front of her. It was the sleeping potion. I gave it the sleeping medicine, but not enough. “Don’t you come near me!”

“Give it over, bitch!” the witch snarled, and dived at her.

Gretel stepped aside and heaved with the axe. The witch was considerably slowed, and off balance, but Gretel could only lift the axe as high as her waist. The blade collided with the witch’s thigh and bound up in the dirty skirts. The witch howled and doubled over, and Gretel slipped in the frost-slicked mud, went down hard on one hip and one elbow. The medicine bottle bounced out of her bodice into the mud. Gretel grabbed for it, her fingers closing around it just as the witch’s hard hand closed on the back of her neck.

“Thief!” The witch gasped, shaking Gretel like a dog shakes a rat. The glass bottle slipped from Gretel’s grasp and smashed on one of the flagstones. “You dosed me, you faithless child! How you can turn on me? How?”

“Let me go!” Gretel twisted violently and caused the witch to stagger, the heavy drugged weight of its arms bearing down on Gretel’s neck. Gretel slipped and went down again, this time with the witch on top of her. Gretel gasped and kicked, but the witch held her down with its weight and scrabbled in the mud with one hand for the axe.

“No!” Gretel shrieked.

“Hold still, damn you!”

“No!” Gretel flailed for a handhold, tried to turn over, and her hand landed on something hard and cutting. She seized it and stabbed at the witch’s face with the broken edge of the bottle.

A horrible howl battered Gretel’s ears. The witch reared back, both hands reaching for its left eye, and Gretel scrabbled backwards on all fours. Keening, the witch staggered upright, wheeling about blindly, slipping and stumbling through the mud toward the house but veering toward the oven instead.

Gretel crawled toward the axe, levered herself up with it and hefted it up in both hands. The witch was within arm’s reach of the oven, panting, casting out with one arm because it could feel the heat and knew it was there but couldn’t see to avoid it.

“Girl! Girl! Where you be? Help granny, Schatze, help me!”

Gretel swung the axe with all her might. It clove into the witch’s side with a sound like a gourd splitting open. The witch screamed and pitched toward the oven, tripped over the burning log on the grass and fell through the smokehouse door.

“Aaaaaiii! Klaus, Klaus I’m burning Klaus––“

Gretel dropped the axe and leapt for the door. She slammed it, but it crunched against one of the witch’s ankles and wouldn’t shut; Gretel slammed it again and again, crying, palms burning, lungs searing with smoke, ears blistering with the howls that emerged from the oven. Suddenly the door banged completely shut. The latch fell into place and Gretel fell over backwards, staring open-mouthed at the door as it vibrated and thudded from the frantic blows pounding it on the inside.

It was quite a long time before the screaming stopped.

III

The horses’ harnesses were hung all over with bells and bits of flashing that sang and rang and brought the villagers out of their doors and around from their gardens to watch the Gypsy wagon pass down the street. Gretel sat up very straight on the high perch beside Raul and looked down at her neighbors. Clara Niemann looked so envious.

“This be the place then?” Raul asked, driving with one hand, his elbow resting on the knee of his dirty red trousers.

She nodded. “Just at the bend in the road, there.”

“You really didn’t have to bring us this far,” Hansel said, on Raul’s other side.

“No harm,” Raul said. He spit a bulls-eye stream of tobacco juice between the horses’ hooves. “It’s not far out of my way, and you babes is fair knackered. The wife would’ve striped my hide if I’d let you walk into town. They be camped still when I get back.”

“This is it,” Hansel said.

Gretel leaned forward to look around Raul, into the familiar front yard. The flagstones that led from the door to the porch looked dirty, and the whole house had a shabby, tired appearance compared to the witch’s tidy little cottage.

Hansel jumped down from the wagon, the pack on his back chiming like church bells as the coins inside were jostled. Raul climbed down after, and reached up to lift Gretel to the ground. “Well, here you be, Missy. Safe and sound.”

“Thank you,” Gretel said, laying her hand on Raul’s brightly embroidered cuff. From her pocket she drew the gold coin the witch had given her. “Will you take this?”

Raul’s black eyebrows lifted in surprise, then his moustaches split in a wide grin. “Well, the wife’d stripe my hide if I didn’t!” He kissed Gretel’s hand, then shook hands with Hansel before climbing nimbly back up to the driver’s seat on top of the wagon. He tipped his hat to them. “Luck, babes!”

He snapped the reins and the horses stepped into a smart trot, carrying him jingling away. Over the merry sound, Gretel heard another, shriller, less pleasant cry.

“Husband! Johannes!”

Gretel turned, reaching automatically for Hansel’s hand, and saw Mother Berthe standing in the open doorway, holding a basket of greens. Her eyes were narrow and her mouth was wide, as usual. “Johannes! Come quick! Your children are returned!”

The rhythmic sound of chopping, which was so familiar Gretel had not even noticed it, stopped abruptly. A moment later, Father came running up the path from behind the house. His eyes flew open when he saw them standing at the gate.

“My children!” Father cried.

A moment later Gretel was in his arms. He smelled so warm and familiar, of leather and smoke and green, growing things. His big, rough hand cradled the back of her head and then stood her back so he could look at her. He kissed her on the forehead, then Hansel. “My children,” he said again and again. “My Greta. And my big boy Hans. I knew you would come back to me.” He sounded as though he would weep, but his eyes brimmed over with smiling.

Mother Berthe neither wept nor smiled.

But her eyes widened when Hansel emptied his pack, and Gretel her apron, on the kitchen table. Even Father’s face grew awed and still at the sight of all that gold. He looked almost frightened. “But where did this come from?”

“We found it,” Hansel said. “Buried under an oak tree.”

It was the story they had agreed upon, and Gretel spoke her line, “Do you think it belonged to a goblin, Father?”

“That’s foolish talk,” Mother Berthe said quickly. “Likely it was stolen from good honest folk and hidden there by the robbers. It is quite fitting it should come back to those who would earn it.”

“Yes,” Father said slowly. “But we must be careful to spend it frugally, so as not to attract attention to our good fortune, lest others seek to steal it a second time.”

There was silence around the table for a long moment after that. Gretel and Hansel looked at each other and did not need to speak to renew their vow of silence. Mother Berthe sent a sharp glance at her husband, but for once he did not lower his gaze. He looked back at her, thoughtfully, until she was the one who looked away.

That homecoming was everything Gretel could have wished. There was bread and cheese and small beer for supper, along with rabbit gravy to dunk the bread in. Even Hansel ate the small bits of meat in the dripping, since they knew the food was wholesome.

And when it grew dark, and the fire was banked for the night, Gretel was able to climb up to her bed of straw in the loft and nestle down with Hansel at her back, feeling warm and safe and cared for. She was dozing, not quite dreaming but not quite awake either, hovering on the edge of a deeper sleep when out in the darkness a wolf howled, startlingly near the house.

She jolted all the way awake, hearing for a moment the dying howl of the witch, amplified by the brick-lined cavern of the oven. Then the sound died away, and her heart began to slow, and the gentle sounds of Hansel’s breathing touched her ears and she remembered she was home.

And Mother Berthe was whispering in the big bed below. “…old enough now… seen the way she spoke to that Gypsy. A Gypsy!”

Father shushed her gently, but of course Mother Berthe could not be shushed when she did not want to be shushed.

“But listen: we have the money for a dowry now… that Liesl girl is betrothed…”

Father said something, low but sharp, and their voices fell silent. But Gretel lay awake, staring at the pattern of firelight on the ceiling. So Mother Berthe wanted Gretel to marry. Even with all the newfound wealth, she wanted her stepchildren gone. Gretel supposed, with an insight she had not had before, that Mother Berthe disliked having another female in the house. Especially another female who was nearly old enough to marry. Strange that Gretel had learned this from the witch, who had not really been a female at all.

But that wasn’t the only thing Gretel had learned from the witch. She had learned she could protect herself, if she had to. And how.

Gretel touched the cool glass bottle under her pillow, just once to reassure herself it was there. Then she fell easily asleep.

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