I just wrapped up a new draft of Chapter 1, which I have decided to title ‘Skinned.’ I’m also considering the title of “Bloody Shoes” for the story, but I’ll consider that a working title for now.
Drafting is not my favorite part of the process. I like to revise. Working through “Hansel and Gretel” is somewhere between rewriting and revising since I’ve decided to mix it up more than just fixing sentences. A presenter at a conference once called revision ‘major surgery’. I’m in that mode for this story.
I do think my story line is in pretty good shape. I am looking further into my characters’ motivations and more of the backstory, which I will note as it plays into the chapters I’m showing you.
For this chapter, I worked in more dialogue and tried to focus on adding more of the dynamics between the twins and more of the context of their situation. Hansel thinks he’s the new man of the house and is taking care of Gretel, but Gretel has been tainted and sees herself as being the one who is protecting Hansel. By the end of the chapter, I introduced each of the players (Gretel, Hansel, Gunther, Lilith, Orlick) for the next three chapters except for Fitch and Dobbs, who will show up early in Chapter 2.
Because I’m posting the process on here, I found myself overthinking some of my drafting. I was tempted to go back into the chapter and add some more setting details and perspective details for Gretel’s point-of-view, but then I realized that the temptation was because I knew you would be reading it. So I forced myself to leave what I thought of for the next round to keep it all more genuine.
So far, this chapter has gone from 1,371 words to 2,090. Once I add a few more details, I predict it will be a little longer. I’ll talk about gauging word count for overall story length in a later blog post.
Here it is. What do you think compared to the first version?
Come out, you little bastard. Gretel held her breath. Her fingers hovered centimeters from the rat’s hole where she could see the whiskers inside, twitching.
The pink nose poked out and sniffed. Gretel exhaled slowly and pinched her lip beneath her teeth. Her knees hurt from kneeling on the stone floor, but it would be worth it once she caught the thieving little sucker.
Nothing like chewy tales and squishy little eyeballs to make the broth seem a little less like well water.
The head appeared, then half the body. Gretel tensed her shoulders, ready to snap her hand over the sleek rodent body.
Gretel jumped to her feet, her hands up in fists. After a pounding heartbeat, she recognized Hansel’s unruly black curls and scruffy grin. She dropped her fists and looked down at the hole in the base of the kitchen wall.
“Dammit, Hansel! I almost had a rat for the soup.” A frown pulled at her face and she crossed her arms. Her belly growled for added effect.
“Rats? Really, Gretel?” Hansel gave her an impish grin, his blue eyes bright above his cherub cheeks. Even as a teenager, Hansel had a round, innocent face. “We shouldn’t even have rats. Does the cat think it’s just another pet?”
How can he joke about food? Gretel’s stomach growled again and she hugged her folded arms more tightly over her belly. “We ate the cat.”
Hansel’s eyebrow shot up. “I thought we got another one.”
Gretel shrugged. “We ate that one, too.”
Reaching behind him, Hansel found a stool and sat one butt cheek on it. He leaned his elbow on the worn butcher block top of the kitchen island and shook his head. His other hand, Gretel finally noticed, held a thin stretch of rope weighed down by something behind him.
“Where have you been?” Gretel shifted her weight and frowned.
Hansel brushed a twig out of his hair and grinned as he pulled the rope from his shoulder and held out three skinned rabbits.
Meat. Gretel’s stomach cramped.
“Better than rat, huh?” Hansel squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest.
Gretel ran a finger over the first bluish-pink carcass. “Better than rat or cat or bat—”
“We’ve eaten bat?” Hansel screwed up his face.
She glanced at Hansel’s face. His cheeks had gone pale and he squirmed on the stool. Her baby brother, but only by a few minutes. Now, as they neared their sixteenth birthday, Hansel was a full head taller and getting a little too big for his britches.
“Not yet,” Gretel shook her head and stifled a grin. “I haven’t been able to catch one.”
The color returned to Hansel’s face and he laid the rabbits out on the butcher block. He lowered his voice. “Where’s Gunther?”
Gretel’s smile fell and a chill ran down her spine. Gunther was Lilith’s freakishly tall three-hundred-pound grunt who stuck around for no other reason than to torture the twins. Without him, Gretel would have no real reason to fear her stepmother. She gave Hansel a subtle nod before she shimmied past the large island to look out the single kitchen window. On tip-toe, she leaned as far as she could over the sink and scanned the yard until she found the giant henchman.
“He’s standing in my now never-going-to-be carrots.” She scowled, trying to judge from twenty feet away how far Gunther’s giant boots had sunk into the soft, newly planted soil.
Behind her, she heard Hansel moving around. “Do you think he can see us?” Her brother’s voice was still hushed.
She turned around and watched as Hansel stabbed two rabbits through with skewers. “Not unless those bug eyes have the ability to see through walls. But I’m starting to think he’s going blind. I swear he hasn’t blinked in at least three days.”
Hansel walked over and arranged the rabbits in the kitchen fireplace on each side of Gretel’s soup cauldron and added a couple stubby logs to the fire. When he turned back around, he wiped his brow with dirt-crusted fingers. “I’ve always just wondered if Gunther even has eyelids.”
Gretel looked at the rabbits in the fireplace, the flames licking at their bluish flesh, and her mouth watered. “Shouldn’t we chop them up for the soup?”
Shaking his head, Hansel’s lips pinched tight for a second before he answered. “These are for us. We’ll put the third one in the soup.” He untied the last carcass and pulled a small hunting knife from his belt and sliced off a leg.
“But if Lilith finds out—”
Hansel looked at her then, his face defiant, then his expression fell as he glanced toward the door that led to the dining room. He pointed the knife at Gretel. “I didn’t see her when I came in. She’s probably upstairs curling her hair.”
“But you came in the back door.” Gretel’s gut growled and tightened with worry. She glanced at the door that led into the kitchen from the back yard and the weeds that choked the gardens, then crept to the dining room door at the other end of the room and pushed it open a crack. Even though it was early evening, the summer sun still poured in the windows and splashed across the giant mahogany dining table. Dust floated in the light like miniature snowflakes.
There was no sign of their stepmother.
“I checked the front of the house before I came in,” Hansel said. “No sign of life.”
Gretel let the door swing back in its casing and walked back around the island where the steam from the boiling cauldron wrapped over her face. “No sign of life is good and all, but what if Lilith is one of the undead?” Gretel emphasized the last two syllables.
Hansel dropped chunks of rabbit in the boiling cauldron, the meat still on the bone. “Then she would want us to eat the rabbit. That way when she sucks our blood, we taste better.” He leaned close to her face and smacked his lips.
“Hansel,” Gretel scolded, pushing him away.
He wiped his knife on his pants and slid the blade back in the sheath on his belt. His hands settled on Gretel’s shoulders, hot from turning the spits. He leveled his eyes with hers. “You need to eat. You’re skin and bones. I didn’t go hunting so Lilith could fill out her new bustiers. I caught the rabbits so I could feed you, Sis.”
Gretel bit her lip. “But if she finds out—”
Hansel stood tall and wrapped Gretel in his arms. Her face pressed to his shirt, smeared with dirt and blood. Her brother smelled like the summer woods, like green and earth and dappled sunlight.
He took a deep breath. “I won’t let her whip you again. I promise, Gretel.”
Gretel shuddered as the ghosts of whip lashes ran down her back.
Holding her tighter, Hansel continued. “I let you down last time, but I know better now.”
You can protect me from whip lashes, Hansel, but you’ll never know what I’m really afraid of. Gretel pressed her face to her brother’s chest and closed her eyes. Getting whipped was easy; after the pain, it ended. When Gretel had turned fifteen, Lilith discovered other ways to keep her in line, ways that crawled in her head and fed her nightmares.
She sighed and pushed her way out of Hansel’s arms before she started to cry. As long as Hansel thought he was protecting her, Gretel figured he’d be safe from Lilith’s cruel desperation. And she needed that, needed Hansel to believe in good luck and happy endings.
Avoiding Hansel’s eyes, Gretel stepped around him and grabbed a ladle off a nail above the fireplace. “Thank you,” she said softly, stirring the soup.
Hansel reached around her and pulled the rabbits out of the flames, holding one out to her by the end of the skewer. “Rabbit a la Hansel.”
The meat steamed just below Gretel’s nose. She could smell the meat and the fat and every simmering cell in the rodent’s body. She dropped the ladle in the soup and snatched the seared meat from Hansel’s hand, burning her fingertips as she tore off a leg and took a bite.
Grease ran down her chin and her hands. She hadn’t eaten anything so good in at least six months, not since Lilith had taken her to the tavern in town shortly after her birthday for a celebration.
And other things.
But the rabbit made Gretel forget all of that for a moment. She sat on a stool, letting the grease drip down her forearms. Hansel sat across from her, devouring his own rabbit. Gretel watched him. His mop of dark hair was from their mother who died when they were born, but the blue eyes and round cheeks were from Father.
Father. Gretel dropped her eyes for a moment and chewed, counting the months that had passed since their father left to make his fortune on a merchant ship. Twenty-two. He was only supposed to be gone six.
“You’re thinking about him, aren’t you?” Hansel asked through a mouthful of meat.
Gretel met her brother’s eyes.
“He’s not coming home, Gretel.”
Anger bubbled in Gretel’s throat and she swallowed. Father had become Gretel’s final thread of hope, a thread strained very thin by her brother’s disbelief. It was hard to hold on to anything when even happy, innocent Hansel had given up.
But she wouldn’t, couldn’t give up hope on Father.
“He promised,” she said softly.
Hansel wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Yeah, well, he promised a lot of things, and then he left us.”
Gretel pulled a piece of meat from the rabbit’s ribs and sucked on the fat. She was full, but she would eat until her belly ached from it if there was food. She looked up at the window. The light had shifted to the low red of sunset.
It’s getting late. Gretel glanced at the cauldron of soup. The fire had burned down to a steady flame, and in the lull of silence between her and Hansel, she heard voices on the other side of the door to the dining room.
“Hansel!” she whispered as her brother’s head whipped toward the door and his eyes grew wide.
He put his finger to his lips. Gretel dropped the last of her rabbit on the butcher block and wiped her hands on her apron as she slid off her stool and followed Hansel to the dining room door. She crouched while he hovered above her and pushed the swinging door open a few inches.
Flames glowed at the tips of the candelabras, the light flickering against the drawn velvet drapes. Gretel couldn’t remember the last time every candle in the room had been lit, but it made the dusty dining room glimmer like a Christmas tree.
A handsome man stood on the far side of the dining table, oozing perfection. He wore a maroon velvet waistcoat, his starched dress shirt spilling white lace above the first button. Gold flashed on his fingers as he reached up to take Lilith’s hand for a kiss.
Lilith. Gretel glared at her stepmother’s back. Hansel was right. Lilith was upstairs curling her hair. Blond curls twisted over Lilith’s slender bare shoulder, the silken tresses clipped back by a silver butterfly that had belonged to Gretel’s mother. Bitch. She even throws our dead mother in our faces. Gripping her fingers around the door casing, Gretel fought the urge to run into the dining room and rip the clip from Lilith’s hair.
Lilith curtsied to the handsome man in the maroon velvet waistcoat. “Sir Orlick, so very nice to meet you. You are a little early. I haven’t had time to prepare the child.”
A man. At the house. Gretel’s heart pounded. She could only think of one reason Lilith would bring a man to the house.
Gretel wished Lilith would just use the whip. She swallowed and tugged on Hansel’s shirt, then backed away in a crouch, her bare feet silent on the stone floor.
Hansel didn’t even twitch. Gretel reached and tugged at his shirt again, but he was frozen, his eyes wide as he stared through the crack into the dining room.
Gretel’s gut clenched as she heard Orlick’s deep voice.
“Regardless, I am obligated to inspect the merchandise,” his voice was warm but firm. “Bring me the boy.”