The True Story of Hans and Gretel: A Short Retelling (5362 words)

Stones on the road. Pebbles on the path. That was my idea, you know, not his. Though he was the one who managed to fill his pockets. I had to distract the wicked witch while he was at it. It was a collaboration.

Not that it helped much. Our stepmother only took us out there again the second time and then we couldn’t get anything but bread crumbs. The birds took those, of course, I told him they would.

We never stood a chance.

What most people don’t know, it’s not usually told in the story, was that we weren’t quite as young as the story says. He was fifteen and I was seventeen. We knew our way through the woods, you know, but that part of the forest is enchanted. It lures you in deeper and deeper unless you have something you can keep your focus on.

Of course the wicked stepmom had some sort of a compass so she never got lost. I did try to steel it from her, but she was having none of that.

Can’t believe dad was so desperate that he fell for her. Unbelievably gullible, and unforgivably stupid, or maybe he never cared as much as we thought? Who knows… it’s his problem I guess, he was left stuck with her anyway and surely the likes of them get what’s coming to them? That’s on him, not us. I’m baring a grudge, so sue me.

We were stuck in the woods and even for teenagers the woods can be a pretty scary place. I can admit that what I most wanted was Bry’s moonshine. It wouldn’t have helped us find our way home, quite the contrary actually, but it would have made the woods less scary and a lot more fun.

Hans laughed when I said it, but he agreed. He and his buddies were quite familiar with Bry’s moonshine, in fact I don’t think it’s the only thing of Bry’s Hans was familiar with. But we didn’t have any moonshine, all we had were two rotten sandwiches and some water in a skin. It was bad.

The forest looked quite ordinary. The trees appeared to be ordinary trees, but everyone knew that when you turned your back on them the paths changed and those paths in front of you led you astray at the blink of an eye. You can’t choose your path, because you can never know where it leads or will lead in the next second. It’s the forest that chooses the path for you. The pebbles helped to keep the focus right, the pebbles laid out kept the focus and the enchantment was temporarily broken, or that was the theory. In any case, we were screwed.

I was the big sister, ever since my mother died it had been my job to make sure my brother survived. Our father may have been marked as the good guy in the books, but he was a drunk and a looser and did very little to make sure we survived from day to day. I mean, put two and two together will you? What kind of a father would allow someone to take his children into the forest to die because there wasn’t enough food in the house? He was never a good guy, in fact our lives became momentarily better when he started seeing the wicked witch. She was a stern idiot of a woman, but she did make sure we ate while we were in her house. She just didn’t want us in the house.

And lack of food? Sure, my father was a drunk and didn’t have a lot of money, but she didn’t lead us into the forest because there wasn’t enough food. She did it because she thought he would become a better man without being constantly reminded of his dead wife I think. I’m sure she didn’t want to be reminded of her either.

No, there were other reasons she could have wanted us gone too. Sometimes though, I think that she knew something we didn’t. Sometimes I think that maybe she did it to safe our lives. It’s a bit far fetched, but dad was pretty psyched to have someone like her look his way. He started dressing up and he even drank a little less. I sometimes heard whispers in the night, when they thought we were sleeping and sometimes it seemed like father was the one who wanted us gone. Maybe he wanted to revel in the new, young wife and not be reminded of the kids who were old enough to start taking care of themselves.

I remember him swinging the axe once and though she didn’t actually walk into his path as he raged towards my brother, she did stop him with the calm, cold tone of her voice.

So yeah, I do think that she was misrepresented a bit, though I do think she could have just thrown us out on our way instead of bringing us into the enchanted forest. She was a bit of a bitch, just not quite the bitch she’s been painted out to be.

We walked in the forest for a long time. It was both sad and depressing. The same curves again and again as if we were forever walking the exact same part of the path. We ate berries by the side of the road, there were blackberries and raspberries. We tried to save the water, but the situation was pretty hopeless.

And you know what happened next? It wasn’t quite as the story tells it. It’s been a long time, I get that and we haven’t made much of an effort to tell the story as it was. And this is where you wonder why exactly you get  to learn about the story at all? I’ll tell you, but not right now.

The thing in the forest wasn’t a witch. I mean, a witch is a woman with magical powers? This creature didn’t have magical powers in itself, but it was made of some dark, evil magic. It was a demon the forest conjured up to save us. It makes no sense, I know, but that’s the bloody truth as I see it.

The house gave us hope at first. That much is true.

It wasn’t made of cookies or candy, it wasn’t a house made of gingerbread. You see in the old days the word Ginger meant power or wealth. Gingerbread houses were a symbol of wealth, you made one around the new year to wish wealth into the house. The house we saw was a bloody mansion. A house with giant glass windows, marble walls, a fountain in the yard outside, golden chandeliers and crystal vases. We called it the Gingerbread House immediately and we did run towards it. Not to eat from the windows. I mean, come on! But because we were sure that whoever lived there was rich enough to have food and we hoped they were kind enough to feed us and maybe wise enough to lead us out of the enchanted forest.

The house was like nothing we had ever seen. Magic light came out of the chandeliers, there were moving images in the paintings on the walls. There was a closet in the kitchen that kept things magically cold and a stove where you could push a button and the hot-plate got warm. There was so much magic in that house that it took us weeks to figure it all out. But it didn’t seem to be the inhabitants doing, it seemed to belong to the forest or the house itself – I’m not sure.

The inhabitant of the house. I guess I can’t avoid speaking of it forever. I call it it – I do because I don’t actually know the gender of the being – it wasn’t exactly what I’d call human. It was a humanoid though and though it had a dangling thing between its legs (I know, too much information, but it rarely wore any clothes and I’m trying to tell you the extent of the horror we experienced) but I still got the feeling it was a she and being who I am I’ll call it a she for future reference, it feels awkward calling it an it.

It had a skeletal head, you could see there having been meat on the bones once upon a time and the body had more muscle on it, but you could see the white eye sockets and somehow it, I’m sorry she, appeared to be glaring at you none the less. The body was in splinters and the dangling thing between its, sorry again, HER feet was limp all the time but it did look like a you-know-what.

SHE (ha!) did have tits though, big ones and the nipples sometimes leaked a dark liquid. Hans used to call it acid milk. He said it tasted good and for a LONG time I was willing to take his word for it, though he was of a different mind then. It was beyond grotesque, but she caught him almost right away. She won him over in a way that chilled me to the bones. 

We were standing outside the house when we first saw her. The wind was blowing so I could hear the soft sound of the leaves and the branches made. The forrest did, however, not come all the way up to the house. There was a large green lawn all around it, well kept too and rose bushes by the side of the wall. It was all very cozy.

She opened the door before we knocked. We hadn’t exactly conjured up the courage to do so. We knew the forest could be hazardous, not just lead you into an eternal route where the only food you found were a few berries here and there, but other things as well. We had heard the stories.

So we were weary and we didn’t exactly jump with joy when we saw the creature. I mean she was hideous, more grotesque than I can explain and she had horns on her head.

I really did think she was the devil at first. We’d heard descriptions of him the few times we went to church and she didn’t seem too far from those, though somewhat different. The horns were bigger, antlers if you will, stuck on the skeletal head, big as those of a deer. She had some trouble moving around in her strange house with the soft furniture and white surfaces, but she managed.

I guess today you’d call it modern living, Scandinavian design perhaps that’s the term? I’m no expert but at the time it was all very weird. She came up to us and appeared to be sniffing, lifting her skeletal head up into the air and we heard a strange, gurgling sniffing sound. Then she wiggled slightly, her saggy breasts wabbling slowly and she spoke to us.

I don’t quite understand how voice came out of her skeletal mouth, magic was what it was, but there was a voice – a hard, gurgling one, a sound that belonged in hell or in a pit of some sort, but we understood her.

She welcomed us inside as if there was nothing at all extraordinary about her. And you know what got to us mostly? The reason we didn’t actually run away from her screaming?

We were so hungry we couldn’t think straight. It took hours before I realized that the way I saw her was actually the way she looked and not just a figment of my imagination. She welcomed us to her kitchen and she brought out meat, sausages, milk, cheese, newly baked bread, potatoes and everything we could possibly want to eat.

She didn’t sit down, but she watched us eat. She leaned up towards the kitchen window and though she didn’t say much what she did say calmed us somewhat. Because no matter what she looked like she did sound a bit normal at first.

Does that make sense? I guess not, I guess you had to be there. Maybe she cast a spell on us? Maybe it was the hunger and the gratefulness that our bellies were finally full. She asked us to stay and told us that the house had every comfort imaginable. We would be happy there, she said.

Yeah, that’s what we were. Happy. Good lord. Starvation would have been preferable to her bloody appetite.

I got chores to do. The man-child didn’t of course, as was custom back then. He lay around watching the movable paintings, television – I learned the word later -, while I cleaned floors, made sure the animals were fed and did everything she told me to.

I think she liked me. Maybe that’s why what happened happened?

She didn’t like my brother very much, but she had her eyes set on him and he was lazy. He loved it there and they sometimes sat up late at night and watched together while I was too tired to stay awake and slept in my bed.

We got one bedroom each. There were a lot of rooms and I chose a rather large room with a queen sized bed and soft morning sun. I woke up a lot sooner than they did each morning and always fell asleep hours before they even contemplated bed.

I don’t know exactly what went on between her and my brother. I don’t know how it started. Maybe it was a spell he was under. Maybe he was mad. Maybe it was something else. All I know is that one night I got up to pee. I’d had a lot to drink before bed and so I got up, slumbrous and went to the bathroom.

I had to walk past the living room to get there. I know they weren’t expecting me, because they would have gone somewhere else to do what they were doing. I do think the spell was delicate and that she had no other way of feeding him enough of her disgusting acid milk. She didn’t want to raise his awareness so she made him nurse as they sat in the couch and  watched. He seemed semi-unaware that he was doing it.

She didn’t see me. I stood behind the couch, completely disgusted at what I saw.

I mean, it’s hard to explain what it was like living with that creature at all. She looked like nothing any human being has ever been used to seeing and we were there, having contact with her constantly but I swear you don’t get used to the way she looked. It didn’t get comfortable or normal.

And there he was suckling on her tit, the black liquid running down his cheek as he glared at the images on the screen. I don’t know what it was he was watching. I was afraid to look. I just scuttled back to my bedroom and spent the night in horror, trying to think of something to do about this. Trying to imagine a way out of this, because I realized then that there was something in the making, that she was up to something I wasn’t aware of.

And my brother? He wasn’t just getting dull and apathetic, he was getting fat as well. The way she held her meat-saggy hands on his belly as he nursed? I still shiver at the thought and it’s been a VERY long time. I hate to think what else she did to him, but thankfully he never remembered much from those nights.

I tried to act as if nothing had happened, but I was seventeen and I was completely disgusted. I had a very hard time keeping up appearances, but I did my best. I got up the morning after, tired as hell after a sleepless night and I tried to do everything I usually did. I tried to act like I had in the past, but it was hard.

Either she knew I had seen what they did, or she noticed that I was behaving differently. I don’t know. But she soon started to terrorize me.

Hans was oblivious of it. He seemed to be in his own world, it was almost as if he thought she was his mother reincarnate and that we would live happily ever after right there with her.

She and I had no secrets it seemed, immediately I was indoctrinated into her ways and I can admit that it was even worse than I initially thought.

She cornered me in the outhouses behind the mansion. There were stables, a barn, a coop and a cowshed. She had taught me the way with the animals, though I had known how to take care of the animals she had some machines that I had never seen before and so she had taught me how to handle those.

I was in the coop when she cornered me.

I thought she was going to kill me, but I guess I should have realized that she wouldn’t get rid of her slave unless she absolutely had to. She hated taking care of the animals, but she needed the farm to work.

She grinned at me. How does a skeleton grin? I don’t know, but there was raising of the jaws and her protruding mouth seemed to indicate a grin. I may have read something into the situation that wasn’t there but you can’t blame me for that. The situation was pretty dire.

She came to me and she put her bony hand on my shoulder.

“Gretel,” she purred, “I believe we have something to say to each other”. She started like she was conducting some sort of job interview or interrogating a prisoner, which I guess I was. She held me with her hand and forced me to look at her. Looking into the soulless eyes of the witch was frightening and infuriating at the same time. You could read nothing in them, she was completely empty as if she was dead already, and yet she was here, ruling us.

“I am an old creature,” she said, “I’ve survived in this forest for a long time, living on the bones and on the meat of those who get lost and come through. You and your brother aren’t the first. You are fortunate though, because my last helper just past away. She lived to be over two hundred years old I believe, you see I have gifts to give to those who help me. And I want you to help me. Your brother is weak and he will be ready for culling in a short while, but I’d like to keep you as my helper. It would require you to become a bit callus, I admit that, but it’s worth the effort. I promise.”

I shook my head in bewilderment.

“You are grotesque,” I mumbled, “I saw him suckling your…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

The creature laughed, it was a harsh, gurgling, quiet laugh. Then she shook me, it wasn’t a mean gesture but as if she wanted to wake me up.

“And little girl,” she then said, “had I chosen you to be my first victim you would have suckled from something else, I’m sure,” and at that she laughed again.

I was already at the brim of desperation and the image of what she just said came to me in a harsh, unrelenting picture I still haven’t been able to get out of my head. The thought revolted me so that I hurled my breakfast at her feet.

She pushed me away in a harsh gesture and told me to get a hold of myself. It was almost pleasant to see her react to my disgust in that way. As if my disgust at what she had implied offended her somehow. It wasn’t exactly the fact that she was both male and female, that thought I actually found a bit cool, but the idea that what disgusted me the most would be her way of getting to me, that got to me. She had means of keeping us completely nauseated.

I hiccuped something and I actually told her that I would contemplate her offer. What else could I do? If I didn’t she would do to me what she had already done to my brother and then what hope of salvation would there be?

I told her I would think about it. She kept me under strong observation though and I don’t know if she slipped me something. I felt a bit mellow the next few days. I didn’t find her as grotesque and I was actually contemplating her offer.

I would live a very long time if I helped her. But my brother would die.

And I was afraid that there was nothing I could do to save him, but I had been taking care of him since I was very little – how could I stop now? Still I thought about it.

I stopped drinking the milk in the fridge and only drank liquid I thought were safe from her. Milk that I had brought in myself and not lost sight of, things like that. I don’t know if it was that, or what, but I started seeing a bit clearer.

I tried talking to my brother, but Hans was completely out of it. He was completely unaware of what was happening at night and to be honest I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I had seen. I just warned him not to eat so much, that she might have an ulterior motive. And I tried to tell him to stay away from the acid milk she left in the kitchen for him.

He just snorted at that and called her a little old lady and a gentle soul, no matter what she looked like. It was impossible to lift the veil she had cast over his eyes. He was lost.

I figured I had three alternatives. I could go along with her proposal, which didn’t seem appealing at ALL. I could try to kill her or I could get my brother and we could try and make a run for it.

I did suspect that the forest wouldn’t allow that though. We had been on the brink of death last time and it wouldn’t let go of us again, I was sure of that. We had to solve this thing with the monster in the “Gingerbread” house. It was that or dying.

And so I decided to lure her until I figured out a way to kill her. I knew that I might not succeed and I also knew that if I did succeed I might be too late saving my brother anyway. But I had to try. He was my little brother.

We were in the kitchen one evening when she cornered me and told me she needed to talk to me. She sent my brother to the living room where he started to watch his evening shows and she sat me down, handed me a glass of milk and told me to drink up.

I didn’t say anything but stared at her.

“Tonight’s the night,” she said, “it’s due or die for you. Tonight you choose what you want to become, who you want to be. You can either help me, and I suspect you’ll need this to sustain yourself mentally if you are going to do so. Or you go up against me and you end up like your brother, suckling for weeks, fattening yourself into oblivion and then …,” she didn’t finish her sentence but stared at me, stern, cold, dead eyes. Or the lack of eyes, how do I describe her impossible stare?

I just nodded my head and stared at the milk in front of me. I was terrified that if I drank the milk I would become a mindless slave to her will. I would do exactly what she wanted me to do and I wouldn’t be able to think for myself. On the other hand if I didn’t drink the milk I was afraid she would see it as a sign that I had defied her and that I wasn’t going to help.

So I told her I would help her, but that I wasn’t thirsty.

She told me to drink, that I needed the mental strength the milk gave me but I refused. “I will do this in my right mind or not at all,” I said.

It was a risk, but she seemed confident that she could keep me under control. I was just a seventeen year old girl remember and she had all the powers and the knowledge.

There was a cauldron in the attic. A big black heavy thing that stood in the dark room. I had never been up there before, but it was like walking into another world climbing those stairs. The house suddenly seemed different, old and worn and from a completely different era entirely. It was an awful place, the attic – a dark place that seemed to be far underground though I had climbed quite a few steep steps to get there.

I filled the cauldron with water and lit underneath it as she had told me to. It was large and I threw in a large jar of herbs and spices that she had given me. The smell was delicious.

My hands were shaking violently as I climbed down the stairs again. My brother was still watching, completely oblivious about what was happening around him.

I went to find the monster. I don’t know when the idea woke up in my head, it wasn’t a conscious thought really but something lurked in me and I knew I had to talk to her.

She was in the garden picking more herbs from the greenery in the back. I approached  her and I told her she needed to show me how to light the cauldron.

She got angry then. So angry that I thought she would kill me there and then.

“Stupid idiot,” she shouted and the sight of her bones clacking together in her anger almost made me giddy with excitement. “You can’t do anything can you? How am I supposed to keep you as helper if you can’t even make that work?”

“But if you show me…,” I whispered, the fear was very real.

She snorted and took me by the hair, dragging me through the garden, into the house and right past my oblivious brother, she pulled so hard that large chunks of hair came out of my head and I was afraid she would leave me bold. Then she pulled me up the stairs and I just managed to follow her close enough to keep what was left of my hair.

She noticed that there was fire under the cauldron, still she dragged me towards it. I do think she was going to throw me into it, realizing that I was defying her. She didn’t care if I wasn’t “ready”.

I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know where the strength came from. As she was about to drag me, kicking and screaming, by the hair towards the cauldron I managed to gather strength. She was going to lift me and throw me over and I knew that once I was inside the cauldron it would be impossible for me to get out. The water was already boiling.

I just hoped that the same laws of magic applied to her.

And so I pulled back, pulling loose a LOT of my long blond hair. I threw myself on the floor underneath her and I took a hold of her bony feet as she stood there with her back to the cauldron and I lifted her up.

I guess some extra power kicked in as I did this because I was able to lift her up and make sure she fell backwards into the pot, head first.

She screamed and when her head hit the boiling water the sound turned to a hissing screech. I pushed, making sure that every bit of her ended in the cauldron. Every ounce of her foul smelling body was in there and she fit.

I watched her boil for a long time. Or until there was absolutely nothing left of her. The smell was awful.

I don’t know why I did what I did next. I know that the logical thing would have been to go down from the attic and maybe try to find our way out of the house and out of the forest. Maybe with the foe of the Gingerbread house gone we would be let out again? Maybe, maybe not.

What I did was drink from the soup that was cooking in the cauldron.

It was the most disgusting brew I ever tasted in my life, but I filled a bowl and I brought some of it to my brother.

Hans drank it all and when he was finished he looked at me and asked me what had happened. His eyes were clear and he looked like himself again. It was a miracle, I thought. Because I really feared that the spell he had been under wouldn’t die with her, but the brew did the trick.

He hugged me and for a while there was a look in his eye, a look I thought meant that he was just realizing what he had been doing all those late nights. For a moment I thought he would start hurling and that would be the start of his mental decline. 

But he looked me in the eyes and he was silent for a while, he looked green but he didn’t start to hurl and I felt him connect with me, he found strength with me and then he smiled and I could see his memories falling into the sea of his subconsciousness and vanish far under the surface.

We chose not to leave the house. We chose to stay in it. We live here and we do get the occasional houseguest.

Some of them have heard our story and left. The story has been cast back to us through various magic’s the house has to offer and we don’t try to change the tale. The general gist of it is correct and with a certain artistic license it’s our story told with glee, and though the tale is grotesque it is still censored, leaving out the gory details that neither me nor my brother would like revealed.

I’ve told you this, not to set the records straight, you see, but as late warning. You see, if you find yourself wandering the enchanted forest you shouldn’t visit the Gingerbread house. You really shouldn’t have. It’s a powerhouse, a dangerous house you shouldn’t have approached. We live here, me and my brother. We have for a long time now and we resisted the house for a long time, but then our bodies started to deteriorate, can you see my antlers growing?  The glee in the visitors eyes turns hostile at some point and our wills to continue to live became too strong.

We did let most of them go, most of them, sometimes they even stayed a while, but occasionally we do fire up the cauldron and the acid milk runs in our veins now. We are two and they can choose who to suckle. It’s all in good fun and nobody suffers needlessly. They aren’t conscious when we put them in the cauldron.

I miss my blond hair though and my soft skin. Maybe if we up our dosage the fairness will come back?

Maybe, or maybe this house spoils and corrupts everything it touches. Maybe there is no going back and the strength I felt that night came from the house and its will to renew itself.

Forever, or for as long as our love of each other and of life lasts, we will live in the enchanted forest. There are no bread crumbs to follow, no pebbles to seek, there’s only this house, the visitors, the cauldron and this heavy decision each time.

You are what you eat, remember?

© Eygló 2016

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