I feel like I need to write this down, in case I die and never find my sister, or for some reason I decide to forget. This will probably sound like fiction and in a lot of ways, it is but all of it is true – every word. Things started simply enough. I was born to a very poor family, in a world far from this one. The village was small but surrounded by legend and superstitions. Never stray from the paths I was told but for the most part, that was impossible for us – I was the son of a woodcutter and we had no choice but to venture deep, searching for the right place to cut down trees and keep a sustainable crop.
I can’t remember much from those early years, besides wanting to follow my dad around and being lonely. Some part of me understood they probably couldn’t afford another child, but when my Ma fell pregnant again and my baby sister was born – I couldn’t have been happier.
I loved her from the first moment I peered into her eyes, eagerly leaning over my mother’s arm to get a look. From that day on I vowed to be the best big brother in the whole world – a pretty intense task, but I was determined to stay true. Gretel deserved nothing less. I would always be there for her, I would always protect her, she’d always know she was loved.
As we grew, I began to notice that while we were poor, but happy, a dark cloud hung over the family. Father liked his drink, a little too much. It frightened me, I hated it but I didn’t hate him for it. He was a kind man, good, fair and just and I wanted to be just like him – without the alcohol abuse. I tried to keep my mother and sister from it as best I could.
I hid father’s bottles and put a blanket over his shoulders when he fell asleep in odd places. It wasn’t much, but back then it seemed like enough. In the hours when he was awake and I was old enough to help, I followed him like a shadow. I was going to learn his trade even if it killed me, but not just because I wanted to mirror him. It was in case he messed up and couldn’t provide for the family, injured himself or revealed his drinking problem. In my spare time I took offcuts of wood and shaped them with whatever old tools I could find, teaching myself how to carve, learning which way to place the grain and select perfect pieces so it didn’t split and ruin.
There was no hiding that we were poor. Gretel and I would often walk by stores in the village centre and imagine what it would be like to have fine clothes, or eat expensive candies. Toys existed in our imagination if we couldn’t make them, so I took to making animals from wood and gave them to Gretel as presents. Life wasn’t perfect but it was our life and we made it the best we possibly could. It was good, full of laughter and happiness – until mother died.
I didn’t think it would happen, I prayed it wouldn’t but when she became sick, nothing we did helped. I hate myself for thinking about us, more than her, when we knew she was beyond the point of no return. I worried about Gretel, how she would take things and father – there was no one to say I told you so to, except myself, when his obsession with drink worsened after her passing. I was nine at the time. I had to make most of the arrangements for her funeral myself. I did my best to bury my grief, purging the image of her pale unmoving face from my mind. I didn’t want to have seen her that way but Father needed help and there was no way in hell I was going to ask Greta. It’s something I’ve never told her – Sis if you find this somehow, I’m sorry, I was just trying to keep you safe.
I visited the Oak we buried Mother underneath, almost every day and asked her to help from wherever she was but I knew that this wasn’t a fairy tale. We weren’t going to get a brand new, kind, loving and caring Mother to replace our old one. We weren’t suddenly going to be elevated in status, things remained much the same, though tinged with grief until Dad found a new wife. I hated her from the moment we met, I was angry at him for trying to replace what we’d lost, angry that I had to cover for him, that he wouldn’t try harder, that he couldn’t see the woman he’d fallen in love with wasn’t everything he’d hoped. It wasn’t his fault and I’ve tried not to carry the negativity but it’s hard to let the thoughts go sometimes.
I smiled in her presence, acted as amicably as I could. There was no reason for me to rock the boat, besides being selfish and I refused to do that. I kept my feelings to myself, brooded in silence, threw axes at stumps when no one was looking and poured my attention into carving and my sister. Our step-mother’s criticisms soon bounced off my skin, but each left a scar. I wanted her to be a good mother, I wanted her to love Greta, to be there for her and repair the broken bond that hung over the old Oak tree. That woman disappointed me and I’ll never forgive her for it.
When the cupboards started to go bare for a mountain of reasons, she blamed us . I don’t know if Father noticed what was happening, or if he condoned her actions – he was probably too drunk to care – maybe I’ll never know but I’ll never forget how I felt when she sent us into the woods alone. Something in my gut screamed that this was wrong, Father wouldn’t follow us as she’d promised but I had to believe that this wasn’t some cruel joke. He’d be here soon, so I suggested we crumble some bread for him to find his way to us as we ventured off to pick berries.
We played and messed around as kids do, not ignorant of the stories that were told about the wood but perhaps dismissive. We’d venture into them so many times before, it was almost like it welcomed us, it knew us and it wouldn’t hurt us. Morning became night and still, no one had come to find us, no voices called our names through the trees and I knew Gretel was worried. I was worried too but I hid it for her sake. We tried to follow the crumbs back home but found the animals of the wood had eaten them and we were lost. Completely and utterly lost.
As we settled in for the night, at the base of a tree, huddled together like baby birds. I promised Greta father would find us in the morning and we’d go home. He never did and we only seemed to get lost further. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what our step-mother wanted all along, for us to just disappear like we never existed. I couldn’t banish the vision of her and my father dining together, filled with joy that they had two less mouths to feed and could now afford a reasonable existence – if his drinking didn’t drag them down first.
I knew it was unfair to think like that but I couldn’t help it, and I still can’t. I kept Gretel close as we walked, determined to protect her no matter the cost. When I first smelt gingerbread wafting through the air I thought I had gone mad. I stared at Gretel and she seemed to smell it too, so we wasted no time in bolting toward it, starving and desperate. When the trees began to clear, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in front of us like some insane dream, was a house made of gingerbread and decorated with all manner of candies.
We gorged ourselves on the house, stuffing everything into our mouths that we could find. I wasn’t worried about the reasoning, I was just a kid, lost, afraid and starving – it seemed like heaven. We were about to find out it was hell. The old woman who owned the house was kind and didn’t seem to mind the fact we were just, eating her home and everything else she put in front of us. I should have known better, I blame myself for not seeing the signs. I was too lost in my fleeting happiness to worry. It all came crashing down in one horrible moment. The woman grabbed my arm and dragged me to a corner of her cottage in the blink of an eye. A cage appeared out of nowhere and she threw me in, locking the door with an iron padlock and magic. I remember the loud click it made as the mechanism snapped into place, spelling my doom.
She cursed my sister to do her bidding, forcing Gretel to make all manner of sweets and cakes for me to consume. She wanted me to get fat so she could eat me – I had heard stories of her kind before, witches that lurked in the woods and ate children’s hearts to keep their power and youth. If she ate me, what then? Would she go for my sister? I couldn’t let that happen. I rattled the bars of my cage and screamed, and screamed but Gretel wouldn’t stop baking, she couldn’t. I still had my will, so I refused to eat whatever was put in front of me, or I forced it back up. This made the witch incredibly mad and frustrated, I wouldn’t gain weight like that so she cursed me too. I felt her claw into my head and mess things up, her crooked fingers tugged like spider webs and I was powerless to stop her. When she was done, all I wanted to do was eat and I couldn’t stop myself.
I tried. I tried with everything I was, at times I even resisted but in the end, my fingers seemed to find their way to my mouth of their own accord. They stuffed food inside and my jaw betrayed me further, chewing and swallowing. She’d have her meal, one way or another. For days, I sat in that cage, terrified, shivering on the cold metal floor and feeling sick to my stomach but helpless to do anything. My only solace was that Gretel came down from her makeshift bed every night to hold me through the bars of my cage. We whispered about escape and a plan. The Witch couldn’t see as well as she made out so I decided to test this theory with a chicken bone, presenting it to her instead of my finger when she asked to check how fat I’d gotten.
I held my breath as she pinched the bone with her crooked fingers. I just about jumped out of my skin as she shrieked I was a disaster. I hadn’t gotten as plump as she wanted. Around the fifth day, she no longer cared how much weight I’d gained, she was going to eat me regardless. I can remember how I felt very clearly, I knew she couldn’t see well so I constantly stole glances at Gretel, trying to tell her with my eyes that everything was going to be okay. We’d get out of this and go home, kick our nasty stepmother out, who probably intended for us to be eaten by the wolves of the wood who broke the treaty with our people – and be happy with our father. I had to believe that was going to happen. We didn’t have anything else. If things went wrong I didn’t care what happened to me, just that Gretel was alright.
I watched her prepare the oven that was meant to be my grave and tried to push all thoughts about burning alive out of my mind. I had to be brave, I had to squash down my fear and be ready to act. The trigger for our escape came when Gretel asked the witch to check if the oven was hot enough. Of course the old hag called her stupid and useless, shuffling over to take a look. I’ll never forget what my sister did next. I couldn’t help but scream as I watched her shove the Witch into the open oven and shut the door. Shrieking filled my ears and the smell of burning flesh mixed with scorched sugar crawled up my nose and wouldn’t let go. I wish I could forget it, but that scene will be seared into my mind until the day I die.
I screamed for Gretel and she rushed to my side to try and open the lock to my prison. I shouted in panic, realising there was no key, the Witch used magic – I was doomed. I felt my heart sink and terror grip me whole as I pondered the horror of going down in flames with her, the boiling sugar sinking into my skin. I couldn’t take my eyes off the oven all the while, worried that the Witch would crawl out after us, melted and cackling, on her deformed hands and knees. I knew I was peering over edge of sheer panic, but a blinding flash grounded me and the lock burst open. I didn’t have time to think about what happened. I grabbed my sister tight and sobbed into her shoulder as she held me but our reunion was cut short by the sound of the hag wailing with anger, instead of pain.
We did the only thing we thought we could do.
We ran as fast as our feet would take us, into the wood. A huge explosion, coming from the house, only made us fly faster – it was the Witch. She’d burst out of the oven and into the sky, cackling curses and threats. I screamed at Gretel and we charged without a care into the dark trees.
I don’t know when I lost her, but suddenly I was alone. Losing sight of Gretel made my fear coalesce into a sharp resolve to find her. Despite the danger, I shouted her name, desperately, until my throat was raw. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t find her. Sobbing and maddened without her, I stumbled blindly. She was gone and accepting that reality was one of the worst moments of my life. The further I went, the more sinister and darker the forest became, like it was turning against me. Things lurked in the dark so I sprinted once more, determined to get through this and make sure Gretel was alright. I kept going, until my lungs gave out and I fell to my knees on the forest floor. Chest heaving, I briefly shut my eyes.
When I opened them again, the Witch was there – right in front of me. Her skin was bubbled and burnt, bleeding and slick with singed sugar. Her eyes bore holes through my soul. She loomed over me, pointing a deformed finger and I backed away in terror, hitting the trunk of a tree with a thud. She approached me with a supernatural grace, spitting foul words. I had never been more afraid in my life. The candy cottage was nothing compared to this, being face to face with my tormentor, nothing but open air between us. I didn’t know magic, I had no idea how to defend against it.
I was going to die without seeing Gretel ever again.
I groped the trunk behind me for something – anything and I found it in my panic – a small dried branch. Without thinking I broke it off and lunged for her face on reflex, sticking the ragged end into her exposed eye-socket, wiggling it for good measure. She howled in pain, groping at her destroyed eye and I darted under her legs. I didn’t think about where I was going, just that I had to get away from her as far as I possibly could.
I felt like I ran for days, in truth I have no idea how long. At some point, delirious and traumatized I found my way to the portal, tripping and falling through, scared, beaten and paranoid. I swear I saw the witch follow after me, only to disappear into the night.
I'm not free of her. Her curse still haunts me and I hate food because of it, but I know one thing. I'll find my sister again, I know she's out there, somewhere.