Han stopped at the tree line with a tankard and a big beer stein, sipping a few pints in silence. Mama had been corralling Gretel all day, and Gret’s patience was wearing thin. He left the empty tankard in the grass and dug at a pouch of waystones at his breaches. Sipping the stein, he wandered away from the cottage dropping them sporadically.
At Grand-mama’s Gretel had Mama’s full attention, who varied between disciplining and fawning on her; Hansel hadn’t the heart nor will to tame her like Mama did, and left them to it when he could.
She was usually better behaved after their trek home, but Grand-mama had loaded Gret’s purse with pastries when she refused fresh rybread. She nibbled them through the meadow, and gobbled down the rest just outside town.
Now she teetered off the edge of the back stoop chasing moths by torch light. The backdoor creaked as Mama pushed her nose out, her eyes peered down the dusky mudway then darted over Gretel’s joyous antics.
“Han-sel!” Mama sneered, “Get her away from the torchfire! Your father would–”
“AHIIEAA BUT-TER FLY-IES MAMA!” Gretel squealed as she stampeded over. Han sat on the stoop right underneath, watching Gretel scramble up his mother’s torso.
“Han-sel! Hansel! Get Gretel before your father arrives!” Too late Han reached up as another moth flew by, Mama could barely hold her as Gretel leapt after it. Hansel reached to catch Gretel and they were left on the porch as Mama slipped back inside.
Agatha retreated to the hearthfire, cock-a-leekie was bubbling weakly in the stock pot and oatcakes were cooking on baking stones. The hearthfire lit the room when the pot was aside, but while she cooked the shadows frolicked aimlessly in the corners. In the pantry she fumbled behind fresh goat’s milk and empty tins for a sack of sugar, setting most of it aside for pudding she sprinkled the rest over wet oatcakes. As she flipped them the front door groaned lazily and she looked up to see Irving leaning in the doorway.
His hand clenched the brass handle as he leaned on the door—blinking slowly he held her gaze with one wide-eye from across the room. After a few moments an eyelid slowly fell over his blue iris,
“…Irving?” she whispered hesitantly. “Irrrviiinnng… ” she called again and he jerked out of the archway with a grunt.
“Where is my boy?” Frowning at Agatha he lurched forward a step as Han opened the backdoor for Gretel. Irving’s red face lit up as the torchlight poured through the shadows.
“There he is! Co’mere boy!”
Han smiled back at his father. “Papa! We’ve been waiting for you.”
Mama had plopped Gretel down at the table and Han grabbed the soup bowls from the cupboard.
“Why isn’t she doing the serving? If I’m feeding her she’ll need to start earning it.” Mama dropped a thick oatcake into each full bowl of soup, “Do you hear me Agatha? Play time doesn’t last forever.” Mama split the rest of the soup between two bowls and broke the last oatcake in half for her and Gretel. The room lit up as she pushed the pot out of the hearth, and she reached for firewood. “Let Han stoke the fire and come feed your daughter if you’re gonna.”
Papa grinned proudly as Han tossed a few logs on the hearthfire, but finally seemed to notice his dinner, “Agatha? Agatha. What is this? Is this enough gruel for a growin’ boy? Han get yerself a pint and bring me another one too, I can tell I’ll need it.”
Han poured thick ale as his mother mewed, “Myn lynkyng, the rice is sitting by the hearth and there’s milk and cane ready on the pantry. As soon as the logs heat up I’ll make rice puddin’—”
“–byda, BYDA! pppffffPPPPPUUUUUDDDDIINNN! DiiNNN! DIIIINNNGGGG! pppPPPPffftttuuuuudddddDINNNNNNG!!!” Gretel screeched, and Papa’s face turned red.
“Agatha! Get. That. Girl. Under control!”
Mama had leapt to restrain Gretel, who was squirming out of her chair.
“Babe! Eat and I’ll make puddin’, “she pleaded.
Papa fumed as Gretel squealed.
Mama was watching Papa as she sang, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold,” and Han joined in with, “peas porridge in the pot nine days old…”
Gretel smiled and tried best she could, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old!”
But now Papa was raving, he stood up from the table to holler at Mama,
“… and I’m tired sick of you favoring that girl, Lemman! No food on the table and you think it’s a good time to start singin’?!” Papa swept a thick arm across the table and the dishes went flying through the hearth.
His sister started sobbing as Mama pleaded, “Leof, we have no other food!”
“And who’s fault is that you fat sow?! You been feeding that bastard brat and eating the rest yerself, don’t deny it!”
“The children, Irving!”
Papa spit and sneered, “Who’s children?! Who’s girl is that, my sweet lemmen? TELL ME!”
“Han! Hansel! Take Gretel back to the meadow for a while.”
“Mama?” Hansel questioned, she was dragging his bawling sister from her seat.
She pushed them out the back door as Papa lurched toward them, “’Tis dangerous here!” Her hand was on the door handle when she was jerked backwards, they were stunned as it slammed shut.
Han drug Gretel down the road by torchlight. He dropped glowing waystones as they veered off through the trees, but upon reaching the meadow they wandered closer to where it met the road again. Without dinner, another trek exhausted him, and left Gretel wailing in a boney pile under a big tree.
Han left the torch in a throng of roots and slumped down behind her. Gretel was born blue eyed and blonde, though it lasted hardly more than a half year. When her hair turned dark chestnut, Han was still too young to pay mind, but his Papa’s mates taunted him…
Scooping her up he stroked her brown hair and remembered Papa insisting she wasn’t his sister. A few moments later Gret looked up at him with big brown eyes staring into his pale blue, listening to the hymn of the forest they nodded off together.
A jarring voice jerked Han from his doze, “Boy! Yes dear, you come here. Quickly now, I insist.”
Squinting at the faded torchlight, Han obediently shifted Gretel to the trunk of the tree and approached a grand coach, “Yes, M’lady?”
An elegant grey haired woman looked on from the window, she considered him shrewdly before speaking again, “And just what are you two sprites doing here in the twilight, hmmm?”
Han rubbed the sand from his eyes while he considered, “Well, M’lady we were lost. We went round and round before settling down to wait for sunrise.”
“Lost? On the road just outside town? Yes child, I’m sure you must’ve been.” In the darkness Han’s eyes wearily met hers. “Well never mind that boy, you’ll come back with me. Get the girl, don’t tarry, or I may change my mind.”
Gretel slept soundly as he bailed her into his arms again, and the coach driver had dropped down to loose the stairs and hold the door, fastening up the window as Hansel climbed in. Her ladyship sat astutely in the candle light, and though she was not particularly pleasant, she wasn’t quite sour either—she seemed bored with them already. Han perched in the lavish cabin with Gret clutched to his chest.
They were a mess, at odds with the coach and mismatched to each other. Her ladyship glanced between them, then over the sweat and filth cloaking them. “You’re the Baudry boy,” she presumed, “and that must be little Grettel.”
“Yes M’lady,” he said duly.
“Don’t you know ’tis dangerous to wander the forest in the dark?”
The governess seemed content with that and Han leaned back in his seat, “I have cousins just north of the meadow, you’re lucky I crossed you before they did, they’re far too fond of children.” Hansel dozed a little as she chatted at him, he jerked back awake as they passed the torches outside town and offered directions to their cottage. Slowing to a halt, Han saw Mama running down the front steps, she hardly noticed the approaching coach until Han yanked down his window to call out. Startled, she approached hastily as the carriage stopped.
“Hansel! Where have you been?”
She reached for Han’s face through the window and gasped at Gretal in his lap. “Hansel, is she alright? Where is your father?”
“Yes Mama—I don’t know where Papa is.”
Mama glanced toward the back of the cabin, “Lady Odecre! My apologies M’lady–”
The coach driver jumped down to attend them, and Mama stepped out of his way in surprise. He smiled warmly and opened the door reaching for Gretel. Han hesitated as the driver’s lanky arms pulled at her, but he passed her off to Mama and waited on Han as he stepped from the coach.
Exhausted, Han looked up at his mother, “Where is Papa?”
She hesitated, and started, “Go inside now Han, its late and—”
“Mistress Baudry! I’ll have a word with you,”
Gretel awakened and stared at the grand carriage in front of her, Han glanced towards home… It was starting to rain. He decided he’d given his piece for the day and left Gretel to fend for his mother.
Agatha approached the cabin window again, almost on tiptoe, “Yes M’Lady?”
The governess peered from the shadowy cabin, ambling over Agatha’s swollen features, “Mister Baudry’s affections I’m sure?” Agatha jerked Gretel to one hip and touched her face lightly, “Every pleasure has its punishment, child,” she said coolly. “And Little Lady Folet has finally roused from her sweet slumber, how lovely.”
Gretel frowned into the darkness and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.
“Tell me child, where were you going? Where is Mister Baudry?”
“Aah, I, he—” Agatha stammered, “Myn Lykyng ran off through the Ilsenstein to search for the children, I sent them to the meadow to—”
“Hide, hmmm?” Lady Odacres interjected.
Agatha caught her breath, “My Lady?”
“I saw a familiar drunkard rambling on the road—he seemed to be looking for something. The driver might’ve stopped for him if we hadn’t already retrieved your children. I was telling them of my cousins north of the meadow. Morgwese is of an age with you–” the governess seemed to notice the rain, “Dear girl, tuck Lady Folet into bed and we’ll ride and chat for a while…”
“Well, I, my chil—”
“You sent your children to wander the Ilsenstein forest, surely you can leave them safely in their beds a while? Thine lykyng,” the governess sneered, “won’t find his way until morning, I assure you.”
Agatha realized it wasn’t a request and she turned on her heel towards the door. The corners of the governess’s lips turned upward slightly as Gretel pouted back at her.
In her roost, the harpier hovered by the hearthfire, “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d…” red wine boiled sullenly in the cauldron. “Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d,” she lurched toward the crowded pantry with light steps, “’tis time.”
Reaching a scaly, taloned hand through the venoms and poison, she fingered the labels and held her head to the side to see. Her back curved under her tattered shawl, even more than her usual hunch as she strained for the lower shelves. Browsing delicately, one eye leered through jars and bottles of all sizes, until she spied a golden goop among liver and other entrails. “‘Tis time.”
She held the jar up to her other eye; the label read honey.
” Hansel! Hansel! Get up Hansel!”
Gretel was sitting up in bed next to him, chewing on rybread.
Han looked up irritably. Mama was standing in the window looking down the lane.
“Hansel, you need to find your father.”
It was barely noon. He glared at her but she wasn’t looking. “Why?! What then? He’ll come on his own anyway! And then what? This is your fault! You find him–you whore.”
Gretel started wailing behind him—exasperated, he didn’t wait for Mama’s reaction. He reached for Gretel, shocked and bawling at his eruption. Holding her tightly he glared at his mother over Gret’s shoulder, who stared blankly back.
“I’m taking Gretel to Grand-mama’s. Find your father and bring him home.”
The coach passed the sunlit window and Mama glanced out and closed the curtain. “We have to go now Han, quickly, say goodbye!”
His eyes watered as his mother lifted Gretel away, she screeched at once but he let her go. Shrieking, she reached for Hansel like she reached for moths days before, though Mama held her tightly and scowled at Hansel.
“Hansel,” Gretel said sweetly, “we will see you soon. You’ll be right here won’t you?”
Han gritted his teeth and smiled at his sister. “Gretel… go with Mama, I’ll be right here. It’s okay, shhhh… give me a big hug! Sshhhh…” He patted her back and kissed her forehead, kissed her cheeks and then all over her little red face. He gave her a big grin and glanced at Mama, “I have a surprise for you sweeting… but you have to go with Mama for a little while! Do you love me? ”
“yheAAH-haaha!” giggled Gretel.
“Okay, give me a kiss and be good for Mama, promise?”
“mMHHH-yheAAH!” She sealed it with a smooch and Mama called her from outside. The same coach driver helped them into Lady Odecre’s carriage and Han watched them ride deeper into town, instead of towards the Ilsenstein. He decided the old crone hadn’t been very pleasant at all, wished he’d lied to her as well as he did to Gretel.
“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,” the hag crouched over the cauldron to skim off honeyed scum as it rose. “Whool of bat, and tongue of dog…” the broth foamed as she added various innards, and a dusty cat wandered in dragging an owl. “Oh Ginger, I knew you’d come to your senses.” Catching him by the scruff she tugged the bird from him and ripped it almost in two, “… lizard’s leg, and owlets wing—for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble!”
Han followed the tree line by the road out of town, he had several pints before he left and brought a goatskin and a tankard for company. Again he veered off the road leaving the empty tankard at the tree-line, this time looking for waystones instead of dropping them. They were spread only twenty or thirty feet apart but the ale crocked him and the path seemed to curve and zigzag more than necessary.
Eventually he saw Papa lumbering back in his direction. Han hadn’t sobered any as he nursed the goatskin through the woods, and his eyes narrowed drunkenly at Papa’s other hand. In a rage Hansel charged and screamed as he shoved him, “SHE. IS. MY. SIIIISSSSSTTTTTEEEEEERRR! Do you hear me?! MY DAMNED SISTER!”
Irving stood stunned, and Hansel kept shoving, “Hey, hey, HEY, HEY, HEY! CHRIST WHAT IS THIS?! What’s wrong with you boy?”
Hansel rushed him again but Papa was ready for him, grabbing him in a bear hug he lifted Han and swung him around, “Now alright, ALRIGHT! Why didn’t ya say somethin’ boy? I didn’t know you were any fond of her, though I can’t imagine why you’d bother with the little brat…”
Han was incredulous, “UGH?!” He went limp with exasperation but wrenched away when Papa put him down. He stumbled off a bit, and circled Papa the best he could in his condition.
“Are you…? You’re crocked! Bwaha-haha!” Papa burst into joyful chuckles as Han tripped over a root.
“She’s driving you to drink already boy, huh? Well, you ought to get used to it anyway, now’s as good a time than any. You can keep your little pet if it means that much to you, I won’t object. I haven’t managed to be rid of her yet so I suppose I won’t be!”
“It’s too late!” he hollered. “Mama is leaving her with Grand-mama.”
Papa guffawed again, “Well thats hardly an emergency son! We’re out here anyway we might as well run after ’em.”
Speechless, Han followed Papa towards the road, as they started out of the trees Han saw the coach riding by, “There they are, let’s go!”
“Hold on now! We’re all goin’ to the same place and we’ll get there in our own time.”
Hansel barely heard him as he ran off, Papa yelled after him then followed suit. They went only a few hundred feet as the coach neared the meadow and slowed down.
“I said hold on there! They’ll think we’re after them, co’mere.” Papa pulled him back into the trees as they snuck closer. The coach stopped and a robed figure approached from the meadow, Mama and Gretel emerged, and the robed figure bounded off through the meadow, with the girls following behind.
The hagwitch stirred in all sorts of spices, ginger and cinnamon, cardamom, clove. A tablespoon each of nutmeg and white pepper, and a handful of caraway seed. It boiled while she covered a pitcher with cheese cloth. She then set the cauldron aside; towering and hunched she stood, her long straight hair was thin at best, though it fell across her cheeks as she worked to ladle her concoction from the cauldron. Over her beak nose, she stared with one beady eye as she worked. Her crocheted shawl covered a plume of feathers that malted around the dwelling, but were mostly caught in a red silk blouse tucked into layers of velvet skirts.
“Well, she’s yer sister, go on up and knock.”
They had followed the girls north to a large bungalow. It was round and red like a barn house under a thatched roof, and had a large chicken coop tucked into the trees. It looked welcoming in the setting sun, with a cobblestone path to the front door. Still riding out the ale, Han didn’t see a reason not to visit. He agreed wordlessly and loped up the walkway to rap on the door.
“Oh! We have another visitor!” Morgwese gasped. She raced to the door and threw it open for Han, who stumbled back in surprise. “Oh! Hello, hello, hello! Welcome! Please, come in, come in!”
She left Han to shut the door behind him and was off back through the house. He followed past a dusty sitting room lit dimly by candlelight, behind a grand floral rug there was a small fireplace, and a large, ornate birdcage hanging in front of the closed drapes. A luxurious pink sofa sat on the far wall next to a dark archway—Han heard his sister giggle and followed the light spilling into the hallway to the kitchen.
“Oh see! He’s here! Come in, come in, we made rice pudding!”
His mother glared, “Hansel! What are you doing here?!”
“I thought you were taking Gret to Grand-mama’s…” mumbled Hansel,
“I couldn’t tell you where I was taking her, it’s not safe!”
Morgwese watched them all ecstatically, “Oh! Oh, oh, oh! Is this your son?! He’s lovely!” She had Mama’s frame and fair skin, but with black wavy hair to the waist of her plush navy gown. Beautiful, though her every feature seemed enormous—she smiled as wide as her jawline, her nose seemed overgrown under her brown freckles, and deep blue eyes threatened to spill off her face.
“Papa… Papa says she can come home now… its okay,” he managed.
“Han? Han are you drunk? Christ he’s drunk! What have you been up to?!”
“Oh he’ll be fine! Aunt Gene made Hipocras last night, we simply must join her!”
His mother pursed her lips but decided that she had bigger things on her plate. Morgwese tossed Gretel in the air, only to dance off with her giggling, “We’ll have a celebration, and we’ll toast to new-found neighbors and my new sweet sister!”
After a few glasses Agatha retreated with Morgwese to tell Gretel’s tale, they sat under a velvet canopy as Agatha sobbed.
“Oh sweet neighbor, don’t cry…” she slipped a finger under Agatha’s chin, “Everything will be alright, you’ll see!” she kissed her solidly on the lips and Agatha kissed back. They embraced each other wildly, as they kissed Agatha grew hungrier but Morgwese seemed weaker. Soon it seemed that Agatha tried to draw the breath right out of her, and Morgwese fell back unto the pillows.
Agatha leaned over her curiously before crawling down to examine herself in the mirror. Twirling around in linen skirts she tried to examine herself from every angle. Leaving the body motionless on the bed, she slinked through the sitting room to find Gretel asleep in a chair by the fire, and Hansel stretched out on the sofa.
Creeping out the front door, she bounded across the yard to the roost. “Gene? Aunt Gene? It’s done! Come see, I’m beautiful!”
As she walked in the hagwitch set the cauldron off the fire and Morgwese posed and twirled in Agatha’s body.
“Don’t get too attached sweeting, you’re always beautiful and I’ll be needing that soon…”
“Oh aunty, it’s wonderful, like getting a new dress!”
“But where are the children?”
“They’re sleeping next to the furnace, come along and we’ll wake them!”
He opened his eyes and saw Mama through the bars of the bird cage, smiling brightly she put a finger to her lips. “Mama?” she giggled and bounded over to the couch where Morgwese was lying, stroked her hair gently and came back to the window to pull the drapes.
Only the drapes didn’t open, instead the rug turned in the middle of the room, draping over a large hut that rose underneath it. Gretel ran in just then.
“Oh, oh, oh! That is not for you sweet sister, let’s go watch the stars!”
Irving watched the big bird bitch follow his wife into the farmhouse a few hours ago and didn’t like it one bit. He didn’t like hearing that damn girl giggling again either, he hoped he’d be rid of her. After that there was silence, and resolved to find out what was going on.
The porch wasn’t lit but there was a glow from the window, he approached and heard strange singing and flashes coming from inside. Without any better ideas he cracked the door, hoping they’d be too busy to notice. Strange smoke poured out as he creeped into the hall, it came from a huge furnace in the middle of the room.
The hag was walking from the furnace cackling when Irving charged her, knocking her squalling back in and slamming the door. She spewed curses as the furnace spewed sparks and the musty drapes caught fire above Hansel’s cage—spreading quickly spread down the drapes, while Irving fiddled with the lock. Clouds from the furnace filled the bottom of the room while smoke from the fire filled the top, while Han screamed for Gretel Irving decided they both might be better off if he left him in the cage.
“Hold on boy! This is gonna hurt a bit!”
Backing up for a running start, he rammed the cage like he rammed the hagwitch, and they burst though the flaming window to the outside. The cage went tumbling towards the meadow and Irving ran after it in the darkness. He found the cage broken under a tree, with Hansel bloodied inside. He was breathing, though, and he opened his eyes as Irving pulled him out.
“Where are they?!”
“I didn’t have time son, they could’ve been in there but if so it’s too late…”
Hansel screamed and threw his feet, then groaned loudly in pain, “Take me back! We have to find them!”
With Papa’s help, Hansel limped back to the farmhouse clinging to his father’s shoulders. They circled a few times, peering into the roost and through trees, calling for Gretel and Mama. Finally Papa left him in the grass to make a lap on his own, and while the house smoldered at his back heard his sister’s laughter.
He turned to see his sister teetering on top of a small hill, pointing at the flames.
“Greeettttteeeeeeellll!” he called until she saw him.
She smiled and clapped, took a step toward him before they heard his mother’s voice in the distance, “Come along sweet sister! We’re going home now!”
Cackling together, they disappeared in down the hill towards the moonlight.
Tabatha Mathis is a Floridian who is perpetually late and cannot follow instructions. From her home base in Tampa, she spends her time trolling Joseph Devon and the rest of the arena staff with her insubordination. This comes from her gypsy nature, which includes playing with fire hoops, dancing way to late into the night, and being friendly with far too many abandoned cats. Instead of gypsy curses, she is more likely to hack your computer and steal your nude / feline photos.