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“Fitch’s not so bad. He makes funny noises, grunts and snorts and stuff, when he’s working hard, but other than that he just shovels and hauls and mixes and pitches. I don’t see Dobbs much. I’m not sure what he does all day.”
Hansel’s last word faded into a yawn. He splashed some bubbles onto his knees, which stuck out several inches above the top of the copper tub. The tub was big enough for Gretel, but Hansel had grown about three inches in the last month and had to twist around like ivy to get his hair soaped and rinsed.
Gretel politely kept her eyes on her sewing, stitching up what must have been the hundredth tear in Hansel’s trousers in the last week. At least Anna did the washing—Gretel’s stomach did not prefer the daily smears of manure on homespun tweed. Her damp hair fell over her shoulder and she caught it in the rough thread and tightened the stitch down on the tufted end of a lock. Gretel pulled her hair free of her sewing and turned a little more toward the window where the afternoon sun allowed her to see easily. Usually she had to squint at Hansel’s pants in the dim light of a gas flame, but they were in to wash early because Madame had guests.
“You don’t need to do that. I have six other pairs of pants I can wear, and Madame says I can have whatever I want, I just have to say it.”
Since their arrival four weeks ago, Madame Avery had made it clear that Hansel was the favorite. She visited him in the stables, gave him more clothes than he could ever wear, and always made sure Hansel had what he wanted for dinner, even if it meant sending Dobbs three villages over to find fresh honeycomb or ripe apricots. Gretel witnessed most of this with her arms up to her elbows in dishwater, or from a window in the stair turret.
Glancing up from the needle and thread, Gretel grunted. “We don’t need anything from her.”
“She feeds us, gives us nice clothes, keeps us in the house—did you know Fitch and Dobbs sleep in the hay? Even in the winter?”
Gretel turned from her sewing, but Hansel cast his eyes down and blew absently at some bubbles.
“Hansel, we need to go home…Hansel!” Gretel scolded.
He looked up at her then, a strange pout pulling at his mouth. “I don’t want to go back, Gretel.”
She sucked in her breath, “What?”
“It’s not great here, but it’s much better than starving at Lilith’s. I don’t mind the hard work, either—I actually kind of like working with the horses, and Fitch and Dobbs are weird, but sort of nice…” he faded out at the look on his twin’s face.
Hansel was familiar with Gretel’s occasional rages and foot stomping demands. He was comfortable with Gretel taking charge and making their plans, but he had no idea what to say when tears welled up in Gretel’s dark blue eyes and she clutched his pants to her face and sobbed.
Afraid to make a sound, Hansel just stared at his sister while her shoulders shook and a thread of blood ran down one forearm from where the sewing needle dug into the soft palmy flesh below Gretel’s thumb. After a moment, Hansel recognized the form of a word in Gretel’s sobs.
Hansel gripped the rolled edge of the copper tub.
“Father’s gone, Gretel.”
At this she looked up, her cheeks flushed and streaked with tears.
“He’s gone because of us, Hansel, because he couldn’t watch us starve and do nothing.”
Hansel bit his lip. He had never argued about this with Gretel because before it would have made no difference in their lives why Father left. It just mattered that he had. For the first couple of years, they fed on the hope that he would return at any moment, his arms full of food and gold, but the last year had left Hansel doubtful and bitter.
“What kind of father leaves his children in the hands of a devil like Lilith, Gretel? I know the things she did to you, what she used you for. You didn’t want me to know, but you couldn’t hide all the bruises. I know you can’t sleep at night. What kind of father disappears for three years without sending a single letter, or any sign that he’s even alive?” Hansel’s anger animated him and water splashed in uneven puddles on the floor. “A dead man,” Hansel watched the effect of his words on his sister. Gretel didn’t move, tears still welling up from her eyelids and down her cheeks. “He left us, Gretel, and he’s not coming back.”
“We can’t stay here, Hansel. Something is wrong with this place,” Gretel argued quietly, desperately. “Madame Avery has guests every fortnight, always a father and son or a mother and a daughter. The other day I saw Anna push a pair of children into the kitchens, dirty little things with no parents in sight. Madame is wealthy, but she doesn’t seem the type for charity.”
“Why is any of that strange? Lilith had visitors.”
Gretel stared at her brother, her eyes wide at the memory of Madame’s conversation with Orlick the day arrived. “Do you ever see any of them leave?”
Hansel settled himself tightly inside the tub, as if proving to himself that he couldn’t be moved, not even be budged, against his will.
“I‘m not going anywhere, Gretel. I like it here. She feeds us, she clothes us. What more do you want?”
If he sides with them, I’m alone. Really alone. Hansel was her only friend, and she couldn’t believe that he was turning on her. Panicking, she flung his pants at his face as hard as she could, the bloody needle swinging from the half-stitched hole in the knee.
“Is it Orlick? That bastard who bought us? Do you want to stay for him?” Gretel stood close to the tub now, fists clenched rigidly by her sides. “Is it Anna? Or do you dream about Madame Avery at night?”
“Leave them out of this, Sister,” Hansel’s voice had a hard edge, deep with warning.
“No. They’re sucking you in, with every piece of jellied toast and fat sausage. They’re trying to make it so you won’t ever leave. Something bad’s gonna happen, I know it, Hansel. You can’t see it because you’re too worried about the next time Orlick will come to pet you and compliment your biceps.”
Hansel glared back at her. “You’re jealous, is that it? You can’t stand to have them like me, no matter how much it means to me. Did it ever occur to you that they might like you if you just shut up and played nice?”
Water splashed on Gretel’s face. Her brother stood at his full height, boosted a few inches by the tub, naked with water streaming quickly down his length and his face twisted in frustration.
Gretel stared at him, eyes wide and swollen with fresh tears. Her brother, her twin, who had always, in his innocent way, tried to protect her. He was abandoning her, on their side now.
She turned toward the window.
Father, where are you?
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