The woodcutter is at a loss. Gretel, not quite fifteen, is cavorting with lycanthropic girls, stumbling home in the dim hours of morning, reeking of urine and musk, tufts of gray fur stuck in her lip gloss, eyes manic and bright. He is sure she’s on something. A kit from Walgreens would confirm, but he doesn’t want to accuse and risk those nails tracking down his arms again.
He can make this better, he’s certain. Whatever she needs, he’ll provide. Money’s no object thanks to the witch’s bounty of gems recovered from the cottage his children narrowly escaped.
He tries not to think of those dark days. Famine, death of his first wife, Hannah, his children’s cries. It was the Second Mother, evil disguised in the sway of soft hips, exquisite curve of alabaster spine insisted, “Take them into the forest and lose them or we’ll all starve.”
Gretel was four when they came upon the witch. When she and Hansel returned, he brought his children for evaluation at St. Anthony’s Hospital for Lost Souls where they predicted trouble in Hansel’s future, yes. He was a menu item; one doesn’t just get over that. His daughter reported no memory of the abduction, but doctors cautioned, “This is a coping mechanism. In time, those memories will emerge.”
He’d hoped whatever she had experienced, hidden deep in her brain, would dull like a fresh pink scar’s silvery fade. And for years the memories stayed tucked away. Then, when she was seven he caught her at play in the sitting room, sun slanting through panes, and in a scratchy, low voice he heard Barbie tell Skipper, “Check the oven, dearie.”
A few weeks later a tea party. He’d tried to peek in on her preparations but she shooed him away, “No Father. Mustn’t spoil the surprise.” Promptly at four o’clock she presented him with an invitation, swirly lettering on bright pink construction paper. You Are Cordially Invited to Tea at Princess Sweet Pea’s Palace.
In her room a small table dressed with two miniature teacups, teapot at center. He scrunched himself up and Gretel presented a plate adorned with tiny dolly hands arranged as flower petals, and one lithe, tan Barbie leg its stem.
“Gretel,” he said, “what is this game?”
And his daughter, one finger twirling a curly cue pigtail, said, “The witch called it ‘meat tea.’ ”
He threw himself into making amends. Used their fortune to give his children the best the Rhineland has to offer: mansion in Sherwood’s Landing, prep schools, summers in the Moselle Valley. And look at Hansel now, well medicated and freshly matriculated at University of Heidelberg. Anorexia defeated. Crippling anxiety relieved.
Gretel, another story. Every night he stares out the window as she climbs onto the front of the stringy-haired she-wolf’s bike, ivory bones dangling from handlebars, its engine throaty and deep. The animal, arms coated in charcoal fuzz, climbs behind Gretel, buries her snout in his daughter’s neck and then howls.
These monsters are too much.
He’s heard how on the full moon one bite on soft skin transforms its victim. Bones crack, morph, gray fuzz down the back first sign of infection followed by cravings for raw flesh. He checks his
daughter’s body as she sleeps. No hair, no teeth marks visible. The cat still hanging around.
Time is of the essence and so when the moon’s yellow face waxes low in the inky sky, he puts his foot down, “Grounded. No more fiends.”
At first a growl, gleam of spit on incisors, but then a softening, a calm he hasn’t seen in months smoothing the tired lines around her eyes. She nods. “As you wish,” and goes to bed.
The next morning he awakes to coffee brewing, ham sizzling, eggs and scones.
“Look father, the feast I made,” she says, shy smile.
Every day Gretel at the stove, pulling cakes from the oven. Table groaning under the weight of Lebkuchen, hasenpfeffer, spicy Stollen. Red velvet cupcakes stuffed with cream cheese. Gingerbread, dumplings, sweet bread pudding.
“You spoil me, Gretel,” he says.
“I’ve been such a brat,” she says. “It’s the least I can do.”
Three months pass and the woodcutter can’t fit into his jeans. Holds up a palm, passes on the stollen, butterkuchen and wurst.
She grips his hand in hers, massages each finger.
That evening the din of motorcycles wakes him from dreams. Pulling the curtains back he spies his daughter, red cape fluttering as the horde flies into the night.
He cannot have this. Will not tolerate Gretel’s disobedience. He follows at a safe distance in his Audi.
In the elbow of a wide curve he sees a cluster of bikes abandoned. He spots the orange glow, firefly cinders alight in the pines. Finds the path and treads cautiously toward the blaze. Howls erupt and he rests a hand on scratchy bark, brushes sweat off his brow.
Laughter cuts through trees. Gretel. He continues on until he feels the heat on his face. Flames engulf the meadow, illuminate shadowy limbs contorted in lupine ecstasy. Over the fire a huge black cauldron. In the midst of the revelry his daughter, feverish cheeks, clothing torn and hanging from her frame expose luminous skin. She straddles the animal and its paws cover her breasts.
He stumbles into the dense brush, makes his way stealthily to hide in wait behind a stand of pines where his daughter has come to rest on the devil’s lap, the one who grips her waist when she drives the metal contraption.
He sees his chance when the wolf walks to a steaming barrel and pulls out a ladle, takes a long swig.
“Gretel,” the woodcutter hisses from the copse of trees. “Gretel.”
Her head swings around. Eyes widen in recognition and she smiles.
He gestures for her to meet him in the safety of the brush. With a glance at the lycan she joins him, her face a blank envelope.
“Let’s go home love,” he pleads. “It’s not too late. This is no place for a girl.”
He touches her bare shoulder. She flinches.
“I was hoping you’d come, Father. Such a good Daddy now.”
She circles him, cape swirling about pale legs.
“We must make haste,” he says, quick glance in the wolf’s direction.
“You led your children into the forest, your own flesh and blood, to die.”
“What?” he says.
“It was you,” she says, “I remember. You led us into the forest and never came back. Do you deny it?”
His face is contorted, anguished, but Gretel feels nothing. Even when he nods and says, “Yes,” and sobs, “I’m so sorry,” she feels nothing, only hunger, gnawing.
Her hand darts out, grabs his wrist, stronger than he anticipated. She pats his cheek. “You were so skinny, just like Hansel, but fattened right up.”
Gretel throws her head back in a howl long and mournful. The lycanthropes freeze and then join in as the woodworker claps hands over ears.
Three of the animals jog over, paws grazing the ground, and the woodcutter trembles as a sharp wind blows through his overcoat.
She signals for them to grab his arms and he struggles as she leads them to the bonfire where embers dance in the night. She gestures toward the pot.
The girls are strong but it takes four to wrestle him over the pot’s lip. He’s heavy. Grown fat. Juicy.
It’s been so long since she’s tasted flesh.
“How could you eat your dear Father?” he sobs as the she-wolves push him into the cauldron.
The stringy-haired one wraps a paw around Gretel’s waist, nuzzles the fuzz emerging on her cheek.
“What do you think I ate, Father,” she murmurs, “all those days alone with a witch in the woods?”
Jackie Cummins is a second-year MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University, and an Assistant Editor at Mid-American Review. Jackie earned her BA in English from Cleveland State University, and her focus is fiction. Her work has appeared previously in Mixed Fruit Magazine.
Photo: Caryn Drexl, “Gush”