I’m going to follow this up with Chapter 12 and lay this story to rest. For previous chapters, catch up by going to the Hansel and Gretel page.
Thanks for being fans!
Gretel peered through a narrow slot in a worn, scarred door.
“Take it!” Gretel hissed at her brother, shoving a tray of sweetbreads and butter through the slot.
“Why do you always have to ruin everything? Just get out of here, Gretel. Go home. You’ve wanted to leave since we got here.” Hansel moped in the corner of the tiny room. It must have been some kind of closet or pantry once, barely three paces across, with a barred window and chain with a lock.
Whatever it had once been, Gretel knew for certain Madame had been using it to fatten her ‘innocent’ children for a long time. Uneven stains discolored the floor and a faint odor of decomposing food echoed off the walls.
That morning Hansel had been out in the stables, pitching hay and enjoying the sunshine. Now, because of Gretel, he was on the dinner menu. I’ll make it right, Gretel promised her twin, I’ll get us home. Though she didn’t know how with Dobbs staring her down.
“We can’t get away if you’re too hungry to run. Just eat it, Hansel. I’ll get you out of this.”
Hansel turned his face to the stained wall and sat in silence.
“I will get you out, Hansel. I just need a little time,” Gretel waited a short moment for Hansel to respond before turning on her heel and rounding back into the kitchen where Anna huffed and puffed over a deep sink of steaming soap water.
Dobbs swept the floor and kept a close eye on Gretel. Anna pointed to a second sink full of hot water, piles of dishes waiting for Gretel to dip and scrub and rinse. She moved over to the sink and grabbed a plate, splashing it into the hot water while watching the flames in the oven.
Madame Avery stood next to the heavy iron door, flames licking at the small glass pane and playing with Madame’s horrific reflection. Dressed in her favorite black silk gown, she turned and looked at Gretel, smiling.
Everything faded except Madame, whose dark eyes and red lips stood out in stark relief against her pale, milk white skin. Gretel stared at her, her awareness of Anna and Dobbs tickling at the perimeter of her conscious awareness. Gretel was like a fish in a bowl, everything in the world swimming about her except the clarity of Madame’s terrible beauty. Gretel blinked at the reflection of flames glinting off of the small gold chain hung around Madame’s throat.
“Come here, child,” Madame beckoned with a gnarled finger. “Come. I’ll give you a preview of your brother’s death.”
Something tugged at Gretel’s gut, and her eyes passed between Madame and Dobbs. The giant ogre watched her closely, and Gretel thought she could even see a little drool. She crossed the kitchen slowly, her bare feet gripping the cut stone slabs of the kitchen floor.
“That’s it, Gretel. Come closer,” Madame reached for her hand and pulled her toward the open door of the oven, flames playing at the edges of Gretel’s vision.
“I wanted to wait, to watch him grow fat and content. But, well, you’re here.” Madame watched fear slowly settle on Gretel’s delicate features. “He’ll scream,” Madame laughed—warm, sultry, maniacal. “They always do, but it doesn’t last long. I don’t put them in until the flames are hot enough to melt them.”
Madame leaned in and kissed Gretel lightly on the forehead, like a mother might comfort her child. “Too bad you wasted your innocence. I would have liked to eat you, too.”
Gretel looked at the witch, dazed, her gaze glazing over Madame’s open mouth, Madame’s laughter ringing out of her throat, shoulders shaking with deadly mirth, the vial bouncing subtly in the grip of her ample cleavage.
With the flame reflecting in Madame’s dark eyes, all Gretel could think about was Lilith smiling as she watched Madame’s henchmen haul the twins to their arranged deaths, I’m not a witch…
Every detail of the kitchen snapped into focus so sharp they slammed Gretel’s senses. The high ring of clanking dishes, the singing of Anna’s hands rubbing crystal clean in the soapy water, the scraping of the straw broom on the stone flags of the floor, Madame’s excited breathing…
And the pop of the flames that burned so close that Gretel could lean in just a little more and kiss them.
Gretel looked at the lovely witch with a slow, satisfied smile.
Madame smiled back, uncertain.
Gretel snatched the delicate chain of gold that suspended the vial from Madame’s slender neck and tossed it into the heart of the oven.
Madame reached and grasped for the tiny bottle, letting out a soft ‘No’ as Gretel pushed her in. Madame screamed as the flames cut around her, a high pitched banshee’s wail that cut off shortly after Gretel closed and latched the oven door.
He’ll scream. They always do. Gretel watched as the flames settled back down. She was right.
The whole scene barely spanned the length of two heartbeats.
Gretel blinked at the kitchen. Anna and Dobbs stood suspended in shock, Anna’s mouth gaping slightly, her hand hovering with a dish brush dripping suds onto the floor. Dobbs’s grip on the broom slackened and the wooden handle fell clattering to the stone floor.
Gretel wiped her hands on her skirt. “She deserved that.”
Nothing. No one moved. The broom stayed stretched out on the stones and more suds dripped to the floor.
Gretel wrung her hands, “Well, then, I’ll just get Hansel and we’ll be going home. Um, do either of you happen to have the key to that little torture chamber?”
She glanced between the two. They remained frozen, eyes fixed on the oven door.
Gretel nodded and made her way toward the back of the kitchen, circling around a butcher block island to avoid Anna, and squeezing her belly button into her spine to slide against the wall past Dobbs.
Hansel crouched to look out of the slot in the door, one eye bulging as he pressed it hard to see who was coming.
“Gretel! Oh, dear sister, it’s you! I thought…I thought it was her, coming for me. I heard the screaming and thought that, well, that you were dead.” Hansel finished, breathless in his mix of panic and relief.
“I killed her, killed the witch. We have to get you out, Hansel. Get home, in case Father—” she stalled, and swallowed. “We have to get home.”
Hansel’s eyes fell to his shoes. “I’m sorry, Gretel, for saying that about Father. I’m sure he’ll come home, some day.”
“No,” Gretel replied softly, “you were right. He left us. Now it’s just you and me.” She looked at Hansel through the iron bars of the window. “Could I just hear one thing from you, Hansel?”
Hansel raised an eyebrow.
“Could I just hear you say that I was right?”
Hansel grinned, “You were right.”
She pulled on the lock. Heavy and thick, it was the size of her fist. Impossible. “I’ll be back. I have to find the key,” Gretel promised.
“Or an overgrown henchman with a large ax?” Hansel offered.
“Don’t be funny, Hansel. I don’t know how much time we have before Dobbs and Anna go crazy on us—”
Gretel dropped to the floor and spun around to see Dobbs raising a large ax above his head and down, down, down…
She screamed, Hansel screamed…and the ax landed heavily on the lock, breaking it and knocking it completely to the floor.
Dobbs rested the ax on its head and leaned it against the wall as he reached for Gretel with his other hand. She hesitated, then placed her hand in his, and her feet nearly came off the floor as he helped her to her feet. Hansel slid out behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.
Anna stood behind Dobbs, age quickly cutting lines into her face. She sagged and stooped, her hair fading to white. Hansel’s jaw dropped as she peered at them through sunken, beady eyes.
“Thank you, Gretel. For fifty years I served Madame’s madness, forced to be her loyal servant. I was never strong enough to do what you did, breaking the spell like that. There were others before you, too, who made me hopeful. But they all died, in the end.”
Gretel looked at Dobbs, “And you? And Fitch?”
Dobbs’s voice grated from long years of little use, but he croaked out, “We just thought the pay was good.”
The twins both nodded, then Hansel asked, “Orlick?”
“He’d been here nigh thirty years, my boy,” Anna offered.
“No,” Hansel corrected, “Where is Orlick now? Does he know?”
Anna and Dobbs exchanged glances. “Orlick was dispatched, this morning,” Anna’s voice was soft. “I’m sorry, dear boy. He was a good man. Always wanted to please.”
Hansel’s eyes darted from Anna to Dobbs to Anna, and rested there with a question, “Dispatched to where?”
Anna twisted her apron in her hands, “He was sent to find more like you. That was his job. The spell doesn’t reach that far, and if you’re not on the property when the spell is broken, well…that’s why none of the rest of us ever left.”
“You mean, he’s dead?”
Anna nodded. Hansel fell back against the wall and smothered his face in his hands, “What is this place? I thought I liked it here. I thought I wanted to stay.”
“A spell,” Anna explained simply, then she turned her eyes to Gretel. “According to ancient law, Madame Avery’s law, you are now the mistress of the house. You killed her. All of her property belongs to you.”
Gretel looked around. The ornate casings and tapestries were gone. The walls peeled rotting wood, rusty nails and staples twisting from the studs. Dust and daylight poured into the hallway when something shifted above them and a hole appeared.
“No, thank you. I just want to go home,” Gretel’s eyes teared at the last word.
Anna nodded, “Perhaps you would at least take a couple of horses? A purse of coins, some of Madame’s jewelry?”
Gretel nodded, “Whatever we can fit in the horses’ saddlebags. I don’t want it to slow us down.”
Check out how this chapter changed in the revised, published version.