Ignoring the sounds of sizzling and the smell of cooking flesh and the searing heat, she closed her eyes and cast her memory back to the day they came. Children. She had never had any particular need for them, but neither had she any particular objection to them. Not that anyone would believe so with her “peculiar” ways. She preferred her own company over that of others and found it curious that others looked upon such a preference with suspicion. She was still fond of the village in which she’d grown up, but she lived quite a ways outside of it, in the surrounding forest. She grew old in that forest, teaching herself a great many skills, among which was the art of enchantment, which she used mostly to create beauty. She fancied herself an artist, wielding her walking cane more like a paintbrush than a wand. But unlike a painter, she used artifice to make her art. And so it did not last long. Her cottage was the usual subject of her illusions. One summer, she enchanted it to appear like a palace, a marble palace with cream-colored satin curtains. Another time it was a villa near the sea. She cast a glamour that made the undulating grass in her garden appear like vast waters glittering under the sun. If she had any regrets about her solitary lifestyle, it was only that no one had seen some of her greatest handiworks.
One year, she struck upon an idea for her next endeavor while baking a batch of ginger cookies for the winter festival. Her baking was top notch, and earned her some accolades in (and some wages from) the village of her youth. She planned to fashion her cottage into a candy house. What was more, she would do it without artifice. It would all be real. All edible. She shared her idea with some of the villagers during the winter festival, but most only thought it would be a waste of time, effort, and good food. But such objections only gave her the idea of using her skill in enchantment for something other than illusion, for preservation.
She started the morning after returning from the festival by baking brown sugar cookies to be the walls and foundations. The front door she carved from a hunk of chocolate and the windows from rock candy. She assembled chairs and tables with peppermint sticks for legs and maple shortbread for the surfaces. The centerpiece of the front room was a cherry-chocolate cake couch adorned with red frosting flowers and fluffy cherry marshmallow pillows. Hand pumps in the kitchen delivered piping hot or crisp and cool apple cider. Even the garden was not spared. She made candy-flavored jellies shaped like tulips, which were set off by minty blades of grass and planted in crumbles of dark chocolate. The walkway to the house was a path of graham crackers lined by bricks of dome-shaped cinnamon donuts.
For the time being, she was confined to dwelling in a cramped closet in the back of the house and storing all of her regular belongings in a shed some ways away in another clearing. She wondered if she had gone too far. When she was finished with her work and looked upon the cake and candy house, she realized she had created a masterpiece. It was mid-winter, but the house stood in vivid defiance of the cold white world. She felt ridiculous and proud at the same time.
If only there were some contest for such things, she pondered. I would surely win the grand prize.
The thought gnawed at her. And though she herself strove to remain unnoticed in general, she longed for eyes filled with admiration and envy and awe to gaze upon what might have been her greatest creation. She resolved to visit the village and convince at least one person to come and see her candy house.
It had been raining the night before she was to set out and so she took longer preparing the house for her short absence and making sure she packed enough provisions and clothing to stay warm and dry on her journey. That is why she was still at home when they came. She spied them through the clear blue rock sugar window. Two children, looking cold, tired, and hungry. Their coats and scarves appeared dry but ragged. For fear they might see her and seek refuge, the old woman hid out of sight and peeked out of the window to watch as a slim young boy with butterscotch hair sniffed his way to the flower bed. He dipped a finger into the mud, brought it to his nose, and sniffed again. The rain had turned the garden’s chocolate flakes into fudge. Incredulous, the boy took a lick of the mud. His eyes widened. He plunged both hands into the fudge and began to slurp it up. The woman felt at once pleased that someone was delighting in her work, irritated at the rudeness of taking without asking, and sympathetic to the ravages of hunger.
The other child, her features softer than the boy’s but otherwise identical, stepped out of the wood. Her arms were wrapped around herself, and her jaw quivered. Without word or expression, she watched the boy gorge. Shivering, she turned her eyes toward the house.
The woman ducked farther out of sight, crouching in the shadow of a banana bread bookcase. In her nervousness, she banged the bookcase, and several phyllo books tumbled down in a flurry of flaky pages. There was a knock—actually more like a thud—on the chocolate door. Frozen by the fear and excitement of a wish come true (she had desperately wanted someone to see her house after all) the woman twiddled the fringe of her shawl with her knobby fingers.
“Is anyone home, please?”
The voice was smooth and sweet like golden syrup. Such politeness, too. She must have been just as hungry as the boy, but she had not yet touched the candy garden. Surely, she deserved a reward for her restraint. The woman remained hidden, debating whether or not to show herself.
“May my brother and I come in? It’s so cold and we’re a bit peckish.”
Peckish? The woman smiled and shook her head at herself. Come what may. She took a slow and quiet and deep breath as she walked to the door, and a quick one before she opened it. The girl gasped and flinched. And the chill air began to rush into the house.
“Don’t be afraid,” the woman said with a bit of a flinch herself. “Do come in.” The girl stepped into the cottage.
The boy followed the girl into the house, licking chocolate off his fingers and sparing no glance for the woman.
“My word!” he said, looking around. The woman closed the door and led them to the fireplace. From the kitchen, she brought them two mugs of steaming hot cider. From the cabinet, she fetched blankets woven from warm cotton candy.
“Say, how do you keep that door from melting when it gets warm?” the boy asked.
“Hush, Hansel! Let’s not be rude,” the girl loudly whispered.
The woman muffled a laugh. It was, after all, a good question. The children stared at her, wide-eyed and silent. They seemed afraid. Perhaps they found her stern. But it would be worse if she laughed. She did, after all, have quite the loud cackle, which is why she seldom let herself laugh out loud when in company.
She turned to the boy. “Hansel, is it?”
“And I’m Gretel,” the girl said with a curtsy. “Pleased to meet you.”
Hansel crossed his arms and grinned at the woman. “What’s your name, then? Missus…?”
This time the woman let herself chuckle. “I’m not sure I should give you my name,” she teased. “I’m afraid you might eat it.”
Gretel smirked at her brother. “We’ll just call you ‘madam.’”
The woman consented with a bewildered nod. It sounded far better than “old mum,” which is what the villagers called her. But these children were not from her village, or they would know of her. Where, she wondered, had they wandered from and how far? She would ask once they were at their ease.
“The door,” the old woman said, “like the other goodies you see around you, is enchanted.”
“Why, that’s fantastic, madam,” Hansel said, before nibbling into his blanket.
Gretel’s eyes twinkled as she swept her gaze across the front room. It settled on the earthen vase next to the hearth, the only item in that room that was not made of sweets.
“That jar is lovely,” she said, strolling toward it. She looked inside. “It’s empty.”
It seemed Gretel, unlike her brother, had an eye for more than just sweets. The jar was full of jewels that twinkled more brightly than Gretel’s eyes. A treasure in plain sight. But the woman had enchanted the jar to appear empty to all outsiders.
The woman sighed and said, “Nothing important.”
That night, the children told the woman all about their cruel stepmother’s plan to abandon them in the forest for being burdens in such impoverished times. Despite herself, the old woman clapped and cackled at Hansel’s clever plan of leaving a trail of flint chips to follow back home, much to Hansel’s pride and delight. She restrained herself from showing anger at their stepmother’s second and successful attempt to leave them. Hansel had not managed to gather any flint chips that second time and had been forced to crumble his meager piece of bread to make a trail. A trail that was quickly eaten by the birds and beasts in the forest, leaving the children lost and stranded until they found their way to her house. She could not in good conscience return them to their parents only to be abandoned again. She would keep them for the night and in the morning take them to the village. She was owed some favors. She’d hoped to call them in when she suffered dire times herself. But the children were in need now.
When it became dark, the children drowsed. They were exhausted and sated after a dinner of hot cider, sweet roasted chicken, and fried potatoes. Even children could not subsist on sweets alone, after all. Nor did they wish to. The woman offered them the choice of two strudel beds in a spare room, or sleeping on the floor beside the fire. They chose the fire, and she tucked them snugly into piles of warm woolen blankets. Their little heads sunk deep into the downy pillows she had brought in from the shed. Troubled by their story, the woman spent all night watching them sleep, unable to sleep herself. Gretel, cherub-faced and serene. Hansel, content, sucking on a thumb.
The next morning, the woman took extra pains to go about her work quietly to let them take their fill of sleep before she broke the news that they would have to travel again. Feeling a twinge of guilt, she planned a feast for breakfast. She began frying, scrambling, and pouching eggs, toasting honey bread, browning bacon and sausages, and building towers of pancakes—blueberry, strawberry, banana, and if anyone had a fancy, plain. It had been so long since she’d had a guest, let alone two. She had delighted in creating her house of sweets. But she had forgotten what a joy it was to cook and bake for company. Hansel was the first to wake, no doubt lured to the kitchen by the smell of breakfast. Rubbing an eye and scratching his head, he plunked into a chair and began scooping eggs into his mouth. On his right, the woman set a plate of pancakes dripping with just-melted butter and dark fragrant syrup. On his left, she set a plate heaped with steaming chunks of spiced sausage and smoky strips of bacon.
“Will you have cider or milk, Hansel?”
“Do you have strawberry milk?” Hansel asked through a mouthful of pancake-sausage.
The woman raised her brows. He was certainly at ease with wealth so soon after dearth. Where, she wondered, had he heard of strawberry milk? But what was the harm, after all. They would be eating rations of bread and cheese and dried meat for a few days during the journey.
“I may at that,” she said, and she mixed milk with some strawberry syrup and served it up to the ravenous boy.
Gretel glided into the kitchen then. She politely asked for a comb and some device to scrub her teeth. She timidly asked if she might bathe before eating breakfast and helped draw her own bath. Meantime, the woman rummaged through her closet and picked out clothes for the children from the trunk where she kept gifts for festival days. She always gave a pair of clothes, one for a young woman and one for a young man. They were a bit too big for the children. But they would fit well enough and were finer than they clothes they currently had on their backs. The woman lay the clothes down in the washroom as Gretel scrubbed her arms with a brush.
“I’d best go check on your brother, before he eats his fork and knife,” the woman said. When Gretel returned to the kitchen, clean and bright, smelling of pink roses, hair gleaming like pale yellow silk, and wearing that everyday green dress as if it were a royal gown, the woman nodded in approval. But a child is a child. Gretel ate as much as her brother did, with little more grace.
The woman was pleased that she’d made just enough to satisfy her little guests. She had packed while they ate and now decided to wait before she broke the news of their departure. Hansel and Gretel were so stuffed they couldn’t even lounge on the black forest couch, because its aroma made them groan. It was a bright but chilly day. The woman bundled the children up in coats and blankets and walked them outside. She told them they all must leave for the village where she would find someone to take care of them.
As she expected, the children protested. They wanted to stay in the house of chocolates and cakes. Of course they did.
“We’ve only just arrived after wandering for days,” Gretel implored. “Can’t we just have another night of good rest in your wonderful home? Please madam, have pity.”
Hansel said nothing, but he looked at the surrounding forest with a sad and quiet expression that swayed the old woman more than his sister’s words. She let them stay another night.
After several days of indulgence, the woman decided not to spoil the children or ruin their natural habits of good manners and politeness. She assigned Gretel to help her with the cooking and Hansel with the gardening. Since there was little room in the cottage and it wasn’t proper for the children to continue sleeping amidst the sticky sweets, the woman cleared the shed for Hansel and let Gretel take the closet the woman had slept in. The children didn’t like being separated, but the old woman knew it would teach each child to be self-sufficient, and perhaps make them fonder of each other. Before too long the winter was almost over. And when it was, the children could not argue that they were afraid of being stranded cold and alone. The forest paths would be clear, travel to the village faster, and the hearts of the villagers wider after their world thawed and melted in a warm spring sun.
But as spring grew closer, the children began bulging out of their clothes. When Gretel tore a few dresses despite repeated alterations, the old woman began limiting the girl’s portions and kept careful watch on her consumption of the candy house. The old woman had too much pride to dismantle the candy house. Though the children had seen and enjoyed it, she still hoped to invite the villagers there to marvel at it. As Hansel gulped down meat and cake, sporting pink morning mustaches from glassfuls of strawberry milk, Gretel pouted at her bland muffin and orange juice. Fearful that he might suffer the same restrictions, Hansel devised an ill-disguised scheme to escape it. He proposed that the old woman monitor his own plumpness by measuring the thickness of his finger, but whenever she came to check, he always presented a skinny old chicken bone for inspection. The practice puzzled the woman until she realized that the children thought her blind, just because she was old and used a walking cane. Suppressing a cackle, she would play along, declaring astonishment at Hansel’s slimness despite his growing appetite.
When spring arrived and the woman prepared to take the children into the village, Gretel objected again. This time it was because she wanted to slim down first. She claimed to feel embarrassment at letting herself indulge in gluttony. The old woman insisted that Gretel looked fine and healthy. But the girl seemed so miserable that the old woman relented. But she required that Gretel be ready in a month, for that was all the time she would allow before taking the children to the village.
A month later, Gretel was once again satisfied with how she fit into her dresses. The woman decided to reward Gretel by cooking a fantastic meal replete with her favorite dishes. A final meal before they were to part. Despite herself, she already missed the children. But it was no good to keep them in the forest alone with an old witch, an overabundance of sweets, no teachers to learn from, and no other children to play with. While Gretel was sweeping the floor that morning, the woman put her hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Gretel,” the woman said. “I won’t need your assistance in the kitchen tonight, for I shall have you and your brother for dinner.” She smiled and winked.
She rarely joined the children at dinner, nor had she ever announced dinner as an occasion before. But this final celebration, and the anticipation of having her time and her home to herself again, had made the old woman a bit giddy. Surely, the children would guess there was something special in store for them.
At noon, when the woman took a tray of fruit to Hansel’s shed, not wanting him to spoil his dinner, she heard whispers at the door. Gretel was inside talking to her brother.
“But, Hansel, what are we going to do?”
“Are you sure that’s what she said?”
“Yes, and she winked.”
“Winked? Diabolical. Oh, dear Gretel, don’t fret. We’ll think of some way to repay her in kind.”
The woman started. The children were working themselves up trying to think of a way to thank her. She could not recall the last time anyone had done anything special for her. She quietly backed away, realizing she might hear their plans. She could not remember the last time she been surprised by someone. She didn’t want to ruin it.
During the day, the children seemed nervous. The woman wanted to assure them that whatever their surprise was, she’d love it. Likely it might be something useless or hideous, but if they had made it, prepared it with thoughts of her, she would cherish it, whatever it was. She was distracted by the constant surges of bliss that moved through her. She focused on cooking dinner. But she could not help humming as she prepared the feast. She cast a charm to keep the aroma of Gretel’s favorite dessert from leaving the oven—half a dozen strawberry custard cakes. Gretel called them trifles, for she had never seen a real trifle. When the cakes were ready, the woman called Gretel into the house and asked the girl to peek into the oven to see if dinner was done.
“Be careful, it’s hot in there,” the old woman said, swinging open the oven door.
Gretel recoiled from a gust of heat, bending her head down to look inside. The woman waited for the expected cries of delight.
When they didn’t come, she said, “What’s wrong, Gretel?”
“I see nothing inside the oven, madam.” Her voice quivered as if her heart had broken.
The woman’s own heart seized up. Had something gone wrong? Were the cakes ruined? The woman stuck her head in the oven, squinting against a pulse of arid heat. She leaned farther into the oven and saw them sitting there, custard upon cake. That was strange. How could Gretel not have seen? Before she could rise, something struck her bottom with so much force that she lost her balance, dropped her cane, and tumbled into the oven.
“Gretel!” she screamed.
The metal rack charred the old woman’s dress and welted her knees. With a screech and slam, the oven door closed behind her. Globs of her sweat spattered onto the oven’s surface and sizzled into steamy fumes. She set her hands down on the rack, ignoring the bubbling and blistering of her palms, turned around, and crawled to the oven door, praying that Gretel was all right. Morbid images of the children’s cruel stepmother coming back to claim them, to sell them, to hurt them, tore through the old woman’s mind. She pushed against the oven door, searing her hands. Her hands recoiled. She moaned.
Past the smoke and the tears, through a crack in the oven, she saw shards of earthen pottery and glints of light on the floor. The pearls and gems that were her lifetime of wages, a portion of which she had intended to disenchant and give to the children as a final gift, an inheritance they had earned.
Two blurry figures swooped around the room, sweeping up those twinkling jewels until none were left. They could see the jewels. That meant they had broken the enchantment. They were no longer outsiders.
The woman closed her eyes and burned.
Copyright © 2013, by Nila L. Patel. All rights reserved.