Gretel, the Third
Once there was a small girl with dark hair and a narrow face named Gretel. She lived with Mother and Father in a small hut beside the Forest. She helped Father plant the barley and Mother bake the bread.
One day she wandered into the Forest, looking for moon moths. In the darkness, she could see at least ten softly glowing, amber eyes. Stop staring, something whispered. Run home. And she did, pumping her short legs as fast as she could. She had scary dreams for days.
But she got over it soon enough, and her dreams were once again populated by birds and butterflies. She was loved. And she was happy.
Gretel aged, and so did her parents. Gretel’s features grew sharp, Mother’s belly grew rounded, and Father’s nose grew bulbous and red.
Mother needed her rest, and Father needed his medicine, so Gretel tended the fields, and ground the barley into flour, and milked the goats, and went into the Forest to gather firewood. And the Forest watched her with a hundred orange eyes, each one a tiny, flickering flame. At first, it was frightening, but it quickly became merely unsettling: a prickle of gooseflesh here, a freak summer chill there.
And Gretel really didn’t mind. Or, at least, not that much, because she was loved. And she was needed. And she was happy. Mostly.
The day after Gretel turned eight, Mother gave birth to a yellow-haired baby boy with cheeks like plums. She named him Hansel. “It’s a miracle!” Mother crowed. “A strong son to see me through my dotage.” Gretel scowled. Wasn’t she doing a good job? Weren’t her elderly parents still well fed and robust for persons of such an advanced age?
But Gretel didn’t dwell on the slight. She loved her baby brother, and she worked harder than ever to make sure Mother had enough food to nurse him.
She was tired. And she was needed. And she was happy enough.
When the Lean Times came and food grew scarce, Mother asked Gretel to give Hansel half of her food. And she did, gladly. A few days later, Father asked her to let Hansel take her space by the fire. “Of course,” she said, “I love my brother.”
A few weeks later, Mother asked Gretel to give Hansel all of her food. “But what will I live on?” asked Gretel, her stomach gurgling loudly.
Mother shrugged. “You can live on love, and anything extra you can gather in the Forest.”
Whenever Gretel went to pick berries, Hansel would follow her and, in his toddler lisp, demand his share. She always gave him half. The Forest watched them eat, its eyes now more red than orange, and Gretel worried. Mother always said the Forest is guarded by Dark witches, and offers nothing for free.
She loved, but she was not happy, and her face grew thin like a blade.
To be continued.