A meaty re-telling of the old fairy tale set in the not-too-distant future.
No child ever dared go as deep into the wood as we did the second time. I was terrified. My brother, ever hopeful and cunning in his way, left a trail of plastic beads for us to find our way home. Nobody ever found a use for plastic beads before, at least not since the time they were made long ago. They were sticky and disgusting and even the birds wouldn’t touch them. We made our way back to our shanty at the edge of the village. That night, just like before, we overheard mother and father having a dreadful conversation.
“It won’t come to that, Kate. We still have enough bread to last a week, and you know what happens then.”
“You’re a fool, a damned fool. We need food or the baby you put inside me will die. You either get rid of them tonight or I’ll take them into the shed and do your dirty business for you. ”
“You don’t have the heart. Just wait until Friday. The fruit seller wants Gretel. She’s pretty and almost of marriageable age, despite her bad leg. “
With this I had to cover my mouth because I gasped.
“Marriageable? She hasn’t broken her first blood. She probably won’t even get blood if she’s like half the girls who were born in this pit.”
“It’s not her fault she was born here.”
“It’s not mine either. And there is the matter of the boy.”
“Hans is a good boy. He can chop wood and he’s big and strong.”
“A big boy eats with a big boy appetite. He’ll fetch a good price if you sell him downriver.”
“I need him here.”
“He will be a plague to you in absence of the girl. Remember the way he was when she was sick with nosebleed fever?”
“Oh, enough of your nonsense, woman. I’ll sell them both on Friday to shut you up.”
Father was supposed to take us to market on Friday to do goddess knows what but instead he took us to the woods. He took me aside and said that he was going away to gather dead wood. Hans wanted to follow him but I knew he wasn’t actually going to gather wood. To my own shock, I did not feel sad as his hunched, brown clad figure disappeared over the hill. I knew it was the last time I would ever see him and I did not feel sad. I wonder if that makes me wicked?
Once he was gone, I asked Hansel about the bread father had given us.
“It’s okay, Gretel! We’ll find our way home! I couldn’t get anymore plastic beads, but I tore the bread into little pieces and scattered it along the way so we could get back to mother and father!”
“Oh, Hans. Birds have eaten the bread. You left a treat for them, I’m afraid.”
Hans realized immediately what he had done and he began to strike himself in the stomach with his own fist.
“Hans, stop it!”
Hans began to cry. I comforted him as we huddled together for warmth. The woods grew dark.
In three days, we found only a few berries to eat. We drank greedily from a crick, uncaring that the water came from the direction of the old nuclear reactor. We walked and walked, covering miles of ruined buildings half-submerged in thick forest loam and broken bits of old plastic things. Among the ruins of one, we found an entire room the size of a small cornfield of toys. We found a giant plush lion, the kind only seen in books as they went extinct hundreds of years ago. We found all sorts of gaily colored toy vehicles; trucks, cars, and airplanes. Hans loved the airplanes the most. Once upon a time, our ancestor supposedly flew in one because she was a duchess, however, I think father might have been telling us fibs to send us to sleep with sweet dreams. We also found a room cryptically marked EXIT that soldiers had used. We found broken bottles, needles, and wood only recently burned. We shuddered in fear and ran away from the place as fast as we could. You don’t mess with soldiers. They do horrible things to boys and girls.
Funny things happen when you starve. My tongue felt as if it was covered with fur. Poor Hans collapsed after seeing visions of bread soup. I wondered how father was doing? Mother’s baby was due any day now. If it was healthy, it could mean good things for them; ascension. I have never been healthy, only smart.
We got perilously close to the old nuclear power plant. Plants were growing in strange directions and trees were twisted and stunted. Even the sounds of the forest seemed wrong. We had no choice but to turn West.
If you go far enough west, you reach the great Missus River. The Missus is cruel. She eats even the most terrifying soldiers for breakfast. There is no way of crossing her unless you have a hot air balloon or are on the queen’s barge. My brother and I were not so blessed by the goddess, so he walked and I limped towards our dead end knowing it was such.
We smelled a delicious, heavy smell coming from the direction of the river. I had only eaten meat five times in my life and Hans only thrice. One only smelled meat smells coming from the great house in the village, where the blessed children dwelled. When the smell emanated from behind their high walls, it felt almost as if you were eating it.
“Don’t eat it! It could be poison!”
Hans gobbled it up quickly.
“I’m sorry, sister! I didn’t save any for you! You must be so hungry!”
My mouth watered.
“Hans, I’m more worried that you might die of poison! That sausage could be full of poison, left as a trap!”
“Look, there’s another one!”
Another post bore another sausage, freshly cooked and practically steaming.
“Sister, you eat it. My energy is returned! I could walk all the way home. There is no poison.”
“What if it is slow-acting poison, Hans? People don’t just leave sausages on posts.”
“You think too much. Please just eat it.”
He picked the sausage off the high post for me and I ate it. The juices squirted in my mouth, fresh and spicy. For the moment, I was in heaven. I felt my energy return like winter rain.
“Look, there’s more!”
We followed the trail. Every few feet, there was another small sausage on a post, just a bite-sized morsel. We found a quaint cottage that was much nicer than the shack where our family squatted. The fence was studded with mussel shells and each shell was filled with butter, garlic, breadcrumbs, and delicious meat paste. We went about the place picking the shells off the fence and slurping down their savory, oily contents, shooing away a few squirrels, knowing at any moment one of us would probably get shot. We were so hungry, we ceased to care. Along the stone pathway to the cottage door, we found tiny dishes of deep-fried pork in sweet sauces. We ate them by dumping the bowls into our mouths. The meat practically melted before traveling to our throats, it was so tender and well-seasoned.
A few chickens in the yard paid us no mind as we found miniature meat pies round the back of the cottage. We gently put them in our pockets, silently communicating to each other that we needed to leave before we were both killed.
We heard a rustling from inside the cottage. We ran towards a pig pen where a few pigs wallowed in mud – we had most likely eaten one or more of their relatives and we felt ashamed as we passed them.
A soft voice hailed us from the cottage. A little old man stood in the cottage’s doorway.
“Children, wait! Come inside and have more meat!”
We looked at each other.
“I’m just a lonely old man! My children have all died! I have far too much meat and no family to enjoy it.”
So that was how we came to live with the old man.
The old man was good to us at first. We had meat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I never ate bird’s eggs before, however we had these scrambled with butter from the sow’s milk I gathered each morning with thick strips of bacon. We ate pork sausage on buns for lunch with real ketchup and pork stew for dinner.
We did much hard work around the farm. We felt we were earning our keep. I found no disturbance at all in this for several weeks. Hans and I were almost growing fat from all the meat we ate.
One morning, I found Hans skewering the sausages I had made the previous night on the same posts that led us to the cottage in the first place.
“Hans, what are you doing?”
“Father says I must put these sausages out. He thinks there are new children coming down the forest path.”
“I told you not to call him that. We barely know him.”
“He treats me better than our real father. He doesn’t beat me, not even if I’m bad.”
“Hans, I know that but he isn’t our father.”
“He says if I leave the sausages, we’ll get a new brother or sister to share our food and help us with chores. Wouldn’t that be great?”
Hans continued to place the sausages. That night, just as predicted, two little boys wandered to the cottage, where we had left the same manner of delicious dishes that enticed us to live there. Unlike us, the boys who stumbled onto the property were fat, their round bellies unaffected by a few day’s wandering in the great wood.
The boys did not speak our language so I could not understand the words they tried to say to me. The old man didn’t speak their tongue either, so he just laughed, marveled at how fat they were, and encouraged them to eat. Girl, did they eat. They were clearly very rich, and rich people eat a lot, get very fat, and die young. They ate so much, one of them vomited all over the table, which of course I had to clean up. Perhaps it was because the older boy vomited that the old man told them to go sleep in the barn – I think they made him angry.
That night, my brother and I slept very hard. I think the old man put a drug in our beer.
In the morning, the boys were gone. I should have put it together when I went to the cupboard and found it full of fresh meat. I wanted to believe the old man bought a pig at market.
Hans found the hands a few days later while digging for potatoes. He showed them to me. The rich boy’s rings were still stuck on fat fingers. We knew we had to leave immediately but just as Hans was patting dirt over the hands, the old man yelled for us, screaming for help. Hans ran toward the house. I tried to stop him and he looked at me with a pained expression. After all, we didn’t know who killed the boys and buried their hands. We didn’t know whose meat was hanging in the cupboard.
Reluctantly, I followed Hans who swiftly disappeared inside the cottage door. When I got to the house, I could not find him or the old man anywhere.
“If you ever want to see your brother again,” the old man’s voice emanated as if by magic from above, “You’ll do as I say. Now wash the dishes.”
For two long days, I went on as if nothing had occurred. The old man instructed me from old cans with wires hung in the ceiling.
“Your brother is almost fat enough to eat. I need you to climb inside the furnace to light the pilot light. Once you light it, I will show myself and we will butcher your brother and eat him.”
The furnace was also the old man’s oven. There was no way I was going in there. The old man saw this coming – he was very clever – and he said that I would not be fed until I climbed inside.
I could not run away and leave my brother even though I feared he was dead. That evening, I decided it would be better to climb inside the oven to be cooked as was clearly the old man’s plan. With great resignation, I wrote my parents a letter I knew would never get to them and I opened the great furnace door and took one meager step inside.
The old man reappeared from the cellar and cackled as he locked me in. He thrust a torch in between the grates trying to light the pilot under my feet as I bellowed and wailed.
Suddenly, a shot rang out and the old man fell dead onto the floor beside the great iron furnace.
A voice called from the distance and I called back, screaming that I was trapped in the old man’s furnace. A woman burst into the door, her short hair slicked behind her ears and her gun still smoking in its sling across her back.
She freed me from the furnace. We found Hansel in a tiny cage in the cellar, which was a charnel house of children’s bones, heads, limbs, and old, rotten meat. My brother was badly frightened and dehydrated but otherwise unharmed.
Many years after the woman we would learn to call mother took us to live in the land across the river, Hansel still had awful nightmares about the cellar. Many nights he would wake, calling for father. Sometimes he would whimper and drool in his sleep, and I knew he was dreaming of sausages, thick brown stews, and standing rib roasts.
Unlike Hansel, I never missed meat, nor do I mind this land’s prohibition against using animals. We have a dish over here that is called the Crown Jewels because it sparkles with every color of the rainbow. I would eat it every day if I could.