When Hansel showed up so many weeks later, he claimed he and his sister had been taken by a witch. They had been led into the forest by their father, became lost, then, there she was, a witch in a candied house. At first, she had seemed like an ordinary woman, no different from their father and stepmother: not visibly a monster. She offered them something to eat and they, starving, accepted. What else should they have done? Before they could blink, Hansel was in a cage and his sister was in servitude to the witch. He was being fattened up. The witch planned to eat him.
But his sister was clever. She found a bone for him to hold, to push out through the bars for the witch to touch. Each time she felt it, she believed him still thin, not ready, yet, to slaughter.
But couldn’t she see it was a bone? we asked.
He thought about that. Everyone knows witches have poor vision, he finally claimed.
We didn’t know this. And even with poor vision, his story was hard to believe.
Still, we urged him to speak on. He was glistening and fat, not starved like the rest of us. We wanted to know why. And how it was he had managed to return home while his sister had not.
And then what? we asked.
The witch grew tired of waiting, Hansel claimed, and decided to cook his sister instead. But his sister was too clever for her and, by pretending stupidity, tricked the witch into the oven in her stead.
This too seemed hard to believe. How could a witch be so easily deceived?
And where is your sister now? we asked.
She did not want to come, Hansel claimed. She chose to remain in the witch’s house. It is her house now. When you kill a witch you become a witch. But when he saw our faces, he hastened to add: But she is a good witch, not a bad.
We asked him where this witch’s house was, but he merely shrugged. I found it once by accident and I could only find it again by accident.
A few hours later, he left us and returned to the house of his father, the woodcutter. For a few days we did not see him. When we did, he claimed his father and stepmother were gone, had fled in his and his sister’s absence. This seemed strange, since several of us had seen his father and stepmother in town just prior to Hansel’s arrival. But it proved true that, after Hansel’s return, we never saw them again.
In the weeks that followed, we searched for the house, the candied one. We were starving, all of us. We needed to find that house if we were to live.
We searched the forest up and down and high and low. We spoke to Hansel, begged him to help us find it. But when he came with us to search for it, we turned circles and did not go exactly anywhere at all.
It is an enchanted house, he claimed, and thus we cannot find it unless it means for itself to be found.
Some of us who searched the woods vanished and never returned. This worried us, but Hansel just nodded. They are with my sister now, he claimed. They want for naught.
We could sometimes convince ourselves to believe we were happy for them, but we were also miserable for ourselves. As winter wore on, we starved. We dug in the frozen ground for roots, found none. We boiled shoe leather and yellowed grasses in melted snow and tried to savor that. We grew even more wan, our skins hanging loose on our bones, our skulls threatening to push their way out into the open air.
But Hansel remained hale and healthy, ruddy, fleshy, as if he always had something on hand to eat. It is because of the witch, he claimed. She fed me so much trying to fatten me that even now I still have flesh to spare.
But that had been weeks ago. And yet he had grown no thinner.
And then came the day when one of us, Jacob by name, stumbled upon a hovel in the woods. The door was firmly shut and no smoke rose from the makeshift chimney. Jacob had tramped through the forest all night and he was lost. He had been with other children but had become separated from them, and now he was alone. Perhaps he had seen the hovel before and thought nothing of it—it was not, after all, a candied house. Nothing of this house could be eaten.
But now Jacob was alone and hungry and tired and lost. He wanted a moment out of the cold to gather himself before pressing on.
He knocked on the door and received no answer. The hovel was ramshackle and seemed abandoned, and so he pushed and pulled on the door until the latch gave and he tumbled in.
It had been lived in more recently that its outer appearance suggested. The inside was dusty, true, but not with the thick layer of dust that Bern had been expecting. It was tidy, or relatively so: everything was in order except that one chair had been broken to bits. That, and that something had stained some of the bricks at the base of the fireplace, originally grayish in color, a rusty brown. When he examined the poker and realized that it too was stained in the same way, and saw the bit of scalp and hair dried on the tip of it, he realized the brown was blood.
Perhaps a witch’s house after all, he thought.
He dropped the poker. His search for food became systematic and rapid. He opened the cupboards, but they were bare. He found a makeshift pantry, but this too was empty. There was no food hidden under the bed either—why would there be?—but he found instead two bundles of clothing, tightly rolled. When he unrolled the first, he found the rough homespun shift of a grown woman. The garment crackled as he unrolled it where blood had seeped through it and dried. There were, too, strands of long white hair scattered along the fabric, affixed by the blood.
The witch, he thought, for who else could it be? But where was the huge stove that Hansel’s sister had pushed her into? And judging from the stains on her garments, she had died not by burning but by quite different means. Why had Hansel lied about that?
And then he unrolled the second bundle and saw the yellow dress of a young girl, this too stained with blood, and torn too, from where the poker had struck, and Jacob thought he knew why Hansel had lied. And knew too what Hansel had found to eat.
We all have siblings. Hansel has a sister, or at least once had one. Jacob had a sibling too, a brother, Wilhelm. He told everything to this brother once, hours later, he had finally found his way out of the forest.
For a long time, Wilhelm remained silent. There was something in the way that he looked at Jacob that made the latter wonder if it had been wise to tell him. But then the look faded and his brother was just his brother again.
“What about the bones?” Wilhelm asked.
“Cracked,” said Jacob. “Sucked clean of their marrow and broken to bits and cast into the fire to burn.” He took from his pocket a handful of chips of brittle blackened bone. Staring at the little pile, his brother pondered further.
Later that day, when they knew Hansel to be out, they went to his house, the house that had belonged to his father before he had vanished, and forced their way in. They stirred the ashes of the fireplace and found the same charred chips of bone. They found, on the covered porch, wrapped in bleached rags, hunks of meat—but these could have belonged to swine, they told each other. Was it not possible that Hansel’s only sin was that he had hidden food from them?
Though, admittedly, that was sin enough.
It was only once they looked under the bed and found the two rolled bundles of clothing, one the outfit of a woodsman, the other that of a matron, both streaked brown with blood, that this became a story no longer possible to believe.
And so, leaving everything just as it had been, they came and shared the truth with us.
There was a young boy among us who did not have a brother, a boy who was an orphan now because his parents had given him their morsels to eat as well as his own, and in the end had died from it. He was the one of us who we judged to look the plumpest, the most delicious.
We sent him to walk near Hansel’s house, to wander as if lost, to pretend to cry, and then to knock on Hansel’s door.
“Well, hello,” said Hansel, when he opened the door. He smiled wide and bared his teeth. “Are you lost, little mouse?”
The boy nodded.
“And hungry too, I suppose?” said Hansel, and the boy nodded again.
“Come in, then,” he said. “Come in!” And with a flourish ushered the little boy inside.
As the door swung shut behind them we clambered down from the trees or pushed through the bushes or rose up from piles of dead leaves to sidle silent as ghosts toward the house. There we were, children with our faces pressed to windows. We watched as, inside, Hansel led the little boy to sit before the fire. Hansel kept one hand on him, resting lightly on his shoulder, and from time to time he licked his lips.
Jacob and his brother crept to the door. They found that Hansel, confident in his strength and speed and not wanting to alarm his prey, had left it unlatched.
We filed slowly in and watched from the darkness of the hall as Hansel removed a kettle from the fire and poured the boy a cup of tea. We watched as the boy’s head began to droop and, finally, the cup fell from his hands. He slumped in his chair and began to snore. And then Hansel turned to the fireplace and reached for the poker to strike him dead and make him into meat.
Only the poker wasn’t there.
We had it.
Once we had flensed and dressed him, we roasted him over the flames. We started eating when the pieces were almost too hot to hold, almost too hot to chew. We ate until our bellies were full and then, sated, we slept. Then we woke up and ate some more.
Finally we stretched languidly and gathered ourselves. We made our way back to town.
We ran the last hundred yards and arrived as if gasping for breath. We screamed until our parents came.
Come quick! we cried, as if panicked. By wolves, we claimed, a pack of them! And they have left almost nothing of him at all!
Even as we said this we were looking from parent to parent, from face to face, beginning to imagine our next meal.