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Into The Forest

River West is a writer, parent, and inveterate night owl who loves writing the strange and unexpected across many genres. She has no pets, but at least half a dozen geckos live in her house. Or maybe she lives in their house. She enjoys coffee, walking, music, and silence. She can be found online at riverweststories.com.

He needles their stepmother, echoes her words and mimics her walk, unravels her yarn and says the cat did it, even crumbles his thin shaving of the last bread into a mess on the table though his stomach gripes and yawns with hunger like everyone else's. Gretel sees her stepmother's face when he looks up from the crumbs, smiling, and her heart sinks. They're going into the forest again.
"Don't torment her," she says to Hansel. "She's hungry."
He shrugs. He knows Gretel would never go by choice into the dark forest, so he keeps getting them both sent away.
Last time he led her through the forest all day and night, through clearings and trees dense as bristle, looking round with eyes as quick as a bird's. He was searching for something, hour after hour, and only faintness drove him at last to follow the trail of pebbles he'd laid home.
Sure enough, next day the stepmother takes them into the forest "to cut wood." For the sake of peace, Gretel goes to sleep by the fire as she's told, and conjures a few tears when she wakes and Hansel tells her the birds ate the breadcrumb trail he left.
"Don't cry," he says, but his face is alive with a wicked joy. He is as wild at heart as the beasts of the forest, and he is glad to be lost out here. Maybe that's all he's been looking for--a place to make his den or his nest, and live under the sun and rain and forget he ever had a human soul.
They roam about the whole night and the next day, eating berries and drinking from leaves, growing colder and hungrier and hardly resting. This time, Gretel thinks, they may lay down in the forest and never get up.
But the next day they come to a clearing where the light is all gold and green, and in it stands a cottage made of sugar and flour. Inside there is a witch, but Gretel knows by looking at her she is weakening--her skin is dry and drooping, and her eyes are dull. A good meal will see her right, she says, but she barely has the strength to shut Hansel in the cage for fattening, and Gretel carries water and wood and sweeps only out of kindness. The witch dozes half the day in her frowsy bed.
"Is this what you wanted?" she asks Hansel one night, as she sits by his cage. "Was it worth it?"
"When we kill her," Hansel says, "we'll have the cottage, and all her power, and never go hungry or be pushed around again." His face, lit by firelight and striped with shadows from the bars of the cage, is curiously peaceful.
But Gretel, leaning back in the creaking rocking chair, sees no need to do anything at all. The witch is quiet. Her brother is caged. The forest is vast. The cottage is already hers.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 12th, 2022

Author Comments

Lately I've been trying to write short short stories. I think fairy tale retellings can work very well at this length because the reader already knows what's going to happen, so a flash piece can take a sideways look at an old story. It was fun to write from Gretel's perspective. Like most lovers of fairy tales, probably, I always wonder what the quiet characters are thinking.

- River West
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