The nightmare house is derelict and silent now. Its sugar-pane windows stare blindly through cataracts of cobwebs, damp patches blossoming like liver spots across its crumbling gables. No one home. But my hand still trembles as I push open the door, which wobbles like a rotten tooth in its warped candy-cane frame.
The last time I saw the house was over my shoulder as my sister and I fled into the trees, our pockets bulging with snatched jewels, the stench of burning flesh coating our nostrils like black tar. The hag’s dying wail seared through our ears as we ran. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead, I told myself. But I still glanced back, fearing she’d be framed in the doorway, magically unscathed and hurling curses at our backs as we ran. No hag. No spitting curses. But the hungry stare of her milky eyes still haunts my dreams, jerking me awake drenched in sweat that smells so horribly, sickly sweet.
The door swings shut behind me; slowly the dancing motes of dust settle like a sprinkling of powdered sugar. My gorge rises at the scent of stale cinnamon and black treacle — a taste I once loved but can no longer stomach. Fighting down the urge to bolt, I inch forward, half dreading some ghoulish figure to jump out at me from behind the furniture — the looming pewter cupboard, the gnarled rocking chair — snatch me up with strong bony fingers and trap me once more behind strong wooden bars. I who once escaped, I who so foolishly have returned.
But where else could I have gone?
The future my sister and I dreamed of seemed so simple: a place of our own, where we could sell bread made our mother’s way — pumpernickel, black and dense as blood sausage; sonnenblumenbrot topped with sunflower seeds; soft intricately-knotted bretzel. But how quickly that dream had vanished! — along with our jewels, which poured like water through our father’s fingers in the city’s gambling dens, his appetite for chance even more ravenous than the hag’s for young tender flesh. Everything we’d once had, gone; our father fled, leaving the two of us with nothing but his debts. And then Gretel, who had survived such horrors alongside me, taken in an instant by something so absurdly commonplace as a chill, her body racked with coughing until she lay still and silent. I wept by her cold bedside alone, like a helpless boy again.
When the bailiffs finally came to take what they were owed, I knew of only one place where I might avoid the certain madness of being locked away in a debtor’s cell.
I steel myself. I’ve seen the person I loved most snuffed out before my eyes, my entire life crumble like a morsel of bread rolled absentmindedly between the fingers, devoured by the ravenous birds.
This house cannot harm me. Nothing but old ghosts and whispering shadows.
The further in I creep, the darker the rooms become. I pause to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom, and then it looms out at me like a beast from the shadows — the great brick maw with its rusty iron door: the oven.
And there, in the corner, like a grinning wooden skeleton…
Blood hisses through my ears; I’m shaking, shivering as I see nothing but the narrow bars of that hellish prison. I crumple to my knees, frantically scrabbling for the chicken bone which had staved off death each day for so many precious days. Tears well up; I can’t find it. It’s gone.
A draught, like the tender brush of small fingers across my neck, jolts me back into reality. I’m drenched with sweat, the damp indoor air as chill as Gretel’s cheek on the morning she never woke with the dawn.
Be brave, Hansel, she’d whispered, stroking my hair through the bars of the cage when we were so close to gnawing despair. We’ll get out of this alive. Together. I promise.
Something clenches inside me, clawing at my heartstrings. I cannot — will not! — let her be wrong.
I move almost without thinking; unbolting the oven door, sweeping the old hag’s ashes to the floor; I take up the hatchet and reduce the cage to splintered matchwood. Tinder and flint from a tin box on the hearth, and soon a welcome fire warms my face. I sweep up the hag’s remains into an iron dustpan and carry it out to a garden choked with weeds. As I cast them to the wind, they scatter into the trees like ghostly moths.
How well-suited this garden would be for growing pumpkins and poppies, sunflowers and sesame? The oven too, perfect for coaxing even the most stubborn loaves to rise; how this gingerbread house could, if I dared, be somewhere I could build myself a new life.
A happy life.
I reach out a hand and break off a small corner of the roof eave, which grows back pale and new, magic mixed with creamy white mortar. Buttercream frosting. I smile. I won’t go hungry tonight, nor for any night soon.
I lift the piece of gingerbread to my mouth; the warm spices dance on my tongue. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Cloves.
A whisper-kiss of air on my brow, the gentle brush of a sister’s lips. I close my eyes.
Be brave, Hansel. Live for me.
‘I will,’ I promise.
About the Author:
Tom Burton is a Devon public-sector worker. He is currently finishing his first anthology of short fiction, and rescues novels from the scrapheap into charity shops in his spare time. His work has featured in Spillwords Press.