by Cris 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.