If you want to catch up on the previous chapters, go the the Hansel and Gretel Page.
If you’ve read this far, you should sign up for my quarterly newsletter.
“Hold it more like this,” Anna shifted the tray in Gretel’s hands so it balanced evenly. The house mistress had a faint accent and a soft manner. With all the business of managing the Madame’s vast estate, Anna never rushed anything, as if she felt she had all the time in the world.
“Thank you,” Gretel watched the sunlight reflect off of the silver tea pitcher and the bone-white porcelain cups as she stepped gingerly on the first step. Madame entertained a mother and daughter in her chambers upstairs ‘for a more intimate discussion’, and Gretel was learning the finer points of serving the afternoon tea.
Climbing the stairs took longer than Gretel would have thought, but her cups and saucers sat still on the tray and she had not spilled a single drop of cream. The doors to Madame’s suite stood open. Afternoon sunlight poured through windows twice as tall as Fitch and Dobbs, pushing at the heavy drapes that had been pulled aside for the late fall day. Madame stretched on a divan before the fireplace, layers of lace and velvet cascading to the floor. A middle aged woman wearing a simpler yellow dress and a matching hat with feathers sat stiffly upright in a chair by a round table, her daughter twitching uncomfortably beside her in a matching dress.
They look like a pair of lemon candies, Gretel thought as she set the tray on the table. “Anything else, Madame?” she showed off her new curtsy. The Madame was more generous when Gretel played the part of the obedient puppet, so Gretel humored her.
“Gretel, my dear girl, don’t you just love their matching gowns? Such a bright, cheerful color. I think you would look divine in such a dress.”
Gretel caught the hint of mockery in the Madame’s voice, but from the proud smile of the mother, Gretel could tell that she did not. Maybe the yellow hat interfered with her wits.
“Yes,” Madame purred, “divine. You can go now, Gretel.”
The daughter shyly stirred her tea and sugar as Gretel passed by the table.
“Oh, and Gretel?”
She turned back.
“Please close the doors.”
As she pulled them closed, she caught the Madame looking at the girl in the yellow dress, a strange emotion in her dark eyes. Gretel thought she looked almost…hungry.
Down in the kitchens Anna stoked a fire in the large oven. The gigantic metal locker fascinated Gretel, and she watched as the house mistress slowly and deliberately fed the growing flames with a stack of seasoned firewood. When a substantial blaze filled the oven, Anna closed the heavy door and tightened the latch.
“Oh,” she faltered, pressing a hand to her chest, “I did not hear you come down.”
“The Madame wanted to have her tea with her guests privately, I suppose. You know, the mother and daughter lollipops.”
“Yes, well, her ladyship likes things her way,” Anna glanced around the kitchen.
Gretel followed her eyes around the room. “Are you expecting someone?”
“No,” Anna’s eyes tightened. “Now you may go out for the day. No more chores. I’ll take care of whatever Madame needs.”
Gretel motioned toward the oven. “Won’t you need help with what you’re cooking in there?”
“I’ll get help from Dobbs.” Anna turned back to watch the flames through the window of the giant oven.
It was then that Gretel caught Anna’s reflection in the glass. For a heartbeat, haggard wrinkles dragged Anna’s cheeks to her chin, the flesh thin and ghostly against the oven’s growing flames. Her eyes sunk into her head and a few rotted teeth clung to her gums as she caught Gretel’s reflection behind her own.
Anna turned to face her again. “Go play, dear girl, while you can.”
She ran out of the kitchen door and stumbled toward the stables, panic stretching and pinching the edges of her vision. Her twin sat on a bale of hay just inside the open stable door, enjoying the afternoon sunshine with a picnic basket.
Breathless, Gretel tripped and fell at Hansel’s knees.
“Gretel, my dear,” the voice was not her brother’s. Deeper, with the faint hint of an accent. “Are you okay?”
Gretel stood and stumbled back from the haybale.
“Hey, Gretel, have some chicken,” Hansel held out a half-eaten leg. “Orlick brought me some lunch. It’s really good, and there’s plenty of it.”
Strings of meat clung to the bone and juice dripped from Hansel’s fingers. Gretel shook her head, “Hansel, we have to get out of here. The oven, her reflection—“
“Now dear girl,” Orlick approached, “you seem upset.”
“Gretel, play nice…” Hansel’s voice seemed distant as she stared at the older man.
Gretel backed away from Orlick, her eyes wide, then bumped into something hard. Dobbs’ ugly face peered down, his shadow crawling over her.
Straw and dirt kicked up in a cloud as she passed the stables and headed for the trees. She needed to hide, find the town, and get as far away as she could, even without Hansel. The air cooled under the fall canopy but did not soothe Gretel’s burning lungs. She kept a dead run, jumping over deadfall and ignoring the sharp bite of thorns.
Her ankle caught a root, and she tumbled hard down a slope. She finally slid to a stop at the bottom of a shallow pit, her landing softened by uneven, shifting ground. Spitting dirt, she wanted to lay quietly for a minute and catch her breath, but she heard heavy footsteps getting closer and she scrambled to climb up the far side of the slope. Her hands and feet rolled and slipped, and the harder she tried to climb out, the more she slid back down. Gretel curled her fingers around something smooth and hard, and brought it up, hoping to drive it into the dirt and use it for purchase. As she swung it in front of her, she recognized the ridges and shaft of a bone.
A human bone.
Stunned, Gretel looked around her. Bones and skulls filled the pit, their uneven contours tumbled together in a mass of grayish white. In the shadows of the trees, Gretel looked closely at a set of hand bones, traces of dried blood streaking through the joints.
Large hands gripped her shoulders and hauled her out of the pit of bones. She grunted and kicked as she was thrown over Dobbs’ shoulder, screaming all the way back to the mansion. Dobbs kept an even, determined pace all the way up to the attic bedroom where Orlick waited with the key.
The worst of it was that when she passed by him, Hansel gave her an angry glare, then shook his head and turned away from her.
If you like this story, tell a friend! This story has been revised and published. To see what I did with it, click on the biz card below.