Hansel and Gretel Chapter 8

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Chapter 8
Days blurred into tubs of laundry, stacks of pies, and hours and hours of sweeping. Gretel even named the chamber pots after the days of the week so she wouldn’t lose all sense of time.

Tuesday was the day she did all the washing. Her arms ached from scrubbing all morning, though not as badly as they had the first few weeks at the mansion. It grew warmer as she climbed the stairs to Madame’s suite, lugging a basket of linens. Sweat gathered on her forehead and collected under her arms.

As she turned to go up another flight of stairs, she paused at the window. Three stories below her the stable yard was awash in the light from a warm fall afternoon. Hansel tugged on the reins of a skittish mare as he held her next to a matching bay. The horses pranced in full tack and saddles.

Gretel watched as Hansel wrestled with the mare then stroked her face. She rarely spoke to him now, the long days ending with one of them asleep before the other came in to bed. Still petting the horse, Hansel smiled at someone she couldn’t see.

“He’s happy here,” a smooth voice declared behind her.

“Madame,” Gretel turned, startled. “I did not hear you come down the stairs.”

“I did not want you to hear me coming down the stairs. You seemed content to watch out the window. Do you see him?”

Turning back to the window, Gretel watched as Hansel held the reins of both horses, talking now to someone just out of sight from her angle in the turret. “I see him.”

“What do you see?”

Shifting the basket from one hip to the other, Gretel squinted through the leaded pane. “I see a boy who needs to go home and wait for his father.”

“I see a boy who has found himself a home. You could be happy here, too, my dear.”

Gretel turned back to Madame. The older woman stood proudly in riding pants and jacket, a crop gently ‘patting’ against a gloved palm. “You mean I could be a puppet, like Anna? Bow ‘thank you’ and curtsy on command? Join the rest of your overgrown pets? No thank you.”

Madame’s lip turned up in a seductive smile. “What do you want, Gretel?”

The scene outside waved slightly through the glass as Gretel watched Hansel and the horses. Another figure entered the yard, wide shoulders and a neat, tapered waist.

Orlick. Gretel watched in silence as the older man walked over to Hansel and put a hand on her brother’s arm. Her hair stood up on her neck.

“Do you want to hear what they are saying? Open the window. The sound carries nicely up three floors, especially when there’s a breeze like today.”

Gretel looked at Madame, then set her basket down on a step and popped the latch and pushed the window open. A breeze tickled at Gretel’s hair and cooled the beads of sweat on her face and brought the sound of laughter up from the yard.

“I want to go home.”

A gloved hand smoothed Gretel’s braid down her shoulder. Gretel flinched as Madame touched her cheek. Even through the smooth leather, Gretel could see the gnarled finger joints.

“What did Lilith do to you, poor girl? Can you be happy anywhere?”

“I don’t want to be happy anywhere. I want to go home.”

The riding crop pushed into Gretel’s chest, inching her closer to the open window. Madame leaned in, red lips parting along crisp, white teeth.

“Dear girl,” she purred, “You would do well to learn the manners of a puppet. For your brother’s sake if not your own.” She leaned in so closely that her eyes filled Gretel’s vision. Gretel had thought they were black, but this close, she saw that they were green with flecks of dark gray.

Gretel curled her fingers on the crop and pushed it back toward Madame. Leaving her laundry, she pranced down the stairs as if her hands and feet were attached to strings, miming the motions of a marionette.

Down in the kitchen, Gretel watched from the doorway as Madame joined a young man on a horse and disappeared into the woods. The young man was about the same age as Hansel and her, with clothing and a horse nice enough to show that his family had money.

Anna called Gretel back into the house, and she obeyed reluctantly, still listening to the baying of hounds in the distance.

That night Orlick moved Hansel to his own room on a lower floor, larger, with a small library and a new wardrobe. When Gretel served Hansel his supper, he made a point to let her know he was still mad at her by ignoring her.

Later that night, after the rest of the household had eaten their supper and Gretel had washed all the dishes and swept the floor, she stood in the kitchen and stared at the oven in the wall. The deep black iron absorbed the light, a smooth metal bar with hooks glinting out through the glass.

Something to hang the puppet strings on, Gretel thought, or teeth inside a giant’s ugly mouth. She finished her sweeping and blew out the lantern.

She thought she was alone when she climbed the stairs to the attic room in the dark, but as she collapsed on her bed, she heard a key turn in the lock and soft steps recede slowly.

Gretel slept fitfully that night. In her dreams, Madame had invited her to go hunting, but as they wandered deeply into the forest, Madame disappeared and Gretel was lost…
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