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Gretel, Grown

Cris Kenney lives in rural upstate New York and, when not writing, studies environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College. This has involved such activities as crawling into bear dens and trying not to get bitten by chipmunks (not at the same time). Cris can be found on Twitter at @cs_kenney.
Gretel is eleven now, and her brother is the only one who still calls her by that nickname. To her haunted, hollow father she is Margaret, always kept at arm's length. This is fine by her. She knows he still can't look at her without remembering what he did, which seems fair, since she still can't look at him without remembering what he did, either.
She still can't look at herself, in a mirror or a window or the village pond, without remembering what she did, too. She still has nightmares about slamming the oven door shut. She tells herself they are nightmares. When she smiles at the screams, and the heat of the oven laps at her face like a great dragon that loves and obeys her and her alone, she tells herself those are the worst nightmares of all.
She doesn't really believe it. She and Hansel are still alive because of what she did. The stash of jewels they found in the old witch's cottage paid for them and their father to move into the finest house in town, with enough left over that they will never go hungry again.
Gretel is twelve, and her father has a drink too many and boasts to half the town that his daughter once slew a witch who was fattening his son up for slaughter.
This is received with some skepticism. Gretel hears about it the next day, when she goes to the market to buy a leg of lamb and the seller cackles, "Make sure your brother don't eat too much, now."
That night, Hansel asks her in a cautious tone why she is staring so long into the fire. She is remembering the dragon's-breath heat of the oven, but she can't tell him so.
The next morning the merchant finds his stall a burnt-out shell.
Gretel is thirteen, and at night when she can't sleep she climbs out her window and up onto the roof of the house. She sits by the chimney, breathing in the remnants of smoke, and stares up at the twinkling stars, and imagines that the smoke is the breath of the dragon and the stars are its treasure hoard.
Her father has set some of the jewels aside. For her, he says, but what he means is for her dowry, because any future husband had better be well paid to deal with a girl who killed a witch when she was eight. Perhaps his drunken story wasn't believed (and did he ever tell the whole thing? Did he ever tell why she and Hansel were lost in the woods in the first place?) but it hasn't gone away, either.
The dragon coils its scaly neck around her shoulders and whispers, "If they knew I was part of the bargain, no sum in diamonds would be enough to make a husband take you."
"Maybe I should tell them," she whispers back, and she goes to sleep, there on the roof, with the dragon's smoky breath on the side of her face.
Gretel is fourteen, and the suitors have started turning up. There is the dowry, after all, and somewhere along the way she's started turning pretty despite her best efforts. She is polite to them all, but the dragon crouches behind her and watches over her shoulder.
Gretel is fifteen, and her father tells her that a local nobleman is coming to visit them. Not an especially rich one, but a nobleman all the same. "He is looking for a wife, Margaret, and he is apparently rather fascinated by the story about... about you."
Ah, so she is to be a novelty, something to be shown around at parties and remarked at, like some strange sculpture from foreign lands. The Girl... no, the Bride Who Burned a Witch. The Remarkable Witch-Slaying Wife. One corner of her mouth twitches upwards, and her father seems to take this as a good sign; he ducks his head and rests a hand on her shoulder. "I want only the best for you, you know," he says softly.
She wants the same. Somehow, though, she knows her father's vision of "best" won't include the dragon.
The fellow is some years older than Gretel is, but the general consensus seems to be that he is a good catch. No one asks her what she thinks; her father arranges things with a palpable air of relief that she'll soon be out from under his roof. She doesn't argue, because really, she'd be arguing with someone who once left her to die so he could save himself. What's a wedding next to that?
The wedding is at midwinter, in a chapel on the nobleman's estate. Gretel wonders if it is seven years to the day since her father led her and Hansel into the woods, but she suspects it probably isn't. It would be too pretty a coincidence.
She stands before the altar by her husband-to-be. He smiles at her, but all she can see are the candles set around the altar, burning bright, and their flames reflected in his eyes. The priest has stopped speaking, and the silence stretches out, and then she realizes he's asked her a question while she was lost watching the fire.
A question: "Do you, Margaret..."
Oh. Good. Now someone's asking her.
She reaches for the nearest candlestick. The dragon draws in a deep, deep breath, and opens its mouth to reply.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

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