“You look after Hansel!” my mother wheezed. “He’s plenty smart. He’s just…” A coughing storm. “….different.”
She died soon after. Then father married Bertha.
Bertha was rude to me, but horrid to Hansel. She screeched when he got tangled in the yarn-skeins of his thoughts, or flapped his stork-wing arms to calm down, or stared a little too long. When she called him defective, I slapped her.
Hansel was brilliant. Our father was a woodsman, but Hansel paid attention to all growing things. He suggested our farming neighbors stagger their planted rows. Their tiny plots nearly doubled their yields. Those neighbors sent carrots and onions in thanks.
That food carried us through one winter, but not the next. Then Bertha called us hopeless, ungrateful children who ate too much.
Father said nothing.
And they left us in the woods.
I gathered nuts and berries; Hansel watched the sun and worked out which direction we needed to go to return home.
Bertha barred the door.
And our father did nothing.
Hansel knew the way back to the nuts and berries. Those held us for a few days. I sharpened a stick, and, after a muddled hunt, slew a rabbit.
We had no knife to skin it.
“Sm-o-ke,” chanted Hansel.
I spotted the thin plume drifting skyward. Maybe we can find help, I thought.
We found our way to a fine-looking cottage. No one answered our knock. Then we spotted lettuces in the garden. We weren’t the kind of children to steal, but we were hungry. I decided to offer the rabbit as payment.
“Stop!” screeched a crone. She was leading a famished cow, and glaring at us.
I froze. Hansel flapped his arms; the beldam narrowed her eyes, and fell into a menacing crouch. I shrieked, “He’s just nervous!”
…but she lassoed him, just like the cow.
He hollered, and I did too; but the witch dragged Hansel into her cellar, with me clinging to him. Then she locked us in.
“What should we do, Hansel?”
“The rope hurts.”
In the kerfuffle, I had forgotten to untie him. I apologized, and tried to think. We had a good length of rope. There was one brave ray of light tumbling between the storm doors, and it landed on a rusted edge…
The hoe’s blade easily cut my rope in two. I knotted the longer piece across the stairs. I twined the other in a braid.
When the witch came downstairs, she came with a candle and shining knife in hand. She snorted at my rope strung across the stairs. She hunched to untie it.
She didn’t make any sound when I looped my noose around her neck.
We buried her amidst the greens.
Hansel and I made the cottage our own. We planted our garden in staggered rows. And we took in abandoned children – including some like Hansel – and unraveled the mysteries of plants.
Hansel and I have won the prize for the best lettuces, ten years running.
Linda McMullen’s short stories are currently available on Burningword (‘Aurora’), Typishly (‘The Announcement’), Panoply (‘Flavia’) and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters (‘Elaine’s Idyll’); other pieces are forthcoming from Enzo Publications, Allegory, and Palaver. She is also a wife, mother, and U.S. diplomat, currently home on a domestic rotation, but most often found in Africa or Southeast Asia.