The witch was hungry.
She had been hungry for as long as she could remember. The centuries folded themselves over and over like the dough she was currently folding into a baked treat.
He had been seductive and she was seduced—at first by his presence, then by the power he wielded. Reluctantly, he taught her, whispering to her that he loved her, that she shouldn’t follow him down his path. “We will live together forever,” she breathed hotly into his ear. “We will want for nothing,” she mouthed against his neck.
“There is always a cost,” he warned between gasps.
Forever, it seemed, lasted another seven months, as she consumed his knowledge and, greedily, his very being, making him a part of her. It was then that the ache began. She dreaded her decisions. She was lost in her remorse, while she made the slow realization that she could not die, but was instead burdened with a powerful hunger. She would kill for a morsel. She would do worse. It was beyond desire—it was essential to her, an elemental need deep inside her. She fought the hunger over and over, convinced that she still retained a portion of her humanity, but in the end, still she consumed.
These poor, wretched things were orphans and would, most likely, die on the streets or by disease. She was, in essence, saving them. This way, she told herself in the mirror, at her never-aging, beautiful face, the children could live on forever, content, as part of her. She would never die, so why should they? It was a gift to them that she was freely giving.
Her home, deep in the forest, was like a flame for moths. Her magic ensured that lost children found her and were instantly comforted by the sweet confections she rested on the windowsills and pie shelves that lined the porch of her little home. Her magic ensured only children could see the house, so no parents or do-gooders inadvertently stumbled upon her home.
There were children in her wood, even now, wandering slowly, inexorably toward her little cottage. The ravens told her, whispering in her mind. Gooseflesh erupted across her body as her mouth tingled at the possibility of sating her hunger, if but for a while. She shook her excitement away. Her gift, after all, was a solemn one.
She smiled to herself anyway.
Out of her window, she saw the light slowly fading from the day and her hopes sank; the children would likely find her sometime during the night. They never showed in the middle of the day, ever. It seemed that the magic that led children to her intensified during the nights, when the children were tired and weary and more open to suggestion. She would hunger another night, it seemed, so she turned her attention back to her baking. Her oven was large—large enough to fit many large breads and, perhaps, a child or two. She shuddered at that thought, but smiled as the void deep in her belly trembled in anticipation. The gnawing inside her was growing, threatening to drive her mad. The only way to make it stop was slowly fumbling its way to her house.
The wait was so very maddening.
She woke to the sun streaming through her window. She sprung from the bed and ran to her door and peered out the tiny window and saw two small forms sleeping on her doorstep, curled together for warmth, their faces slack in sleep, completely serene. She smiled first because of the sweetness of the moment, then smiled wider when the crawling hunger inched its way back into her gut. Excitedly, she turned her attention to the food in her home, a simple way to comfort the children. She had shepherd’s pie and so much bread.
She slowly opened the door and the boy, who was perhaps a bit older than his sister, cracked one eye open and looked up at her. She wondered how long he’d stayed awake to watch over his sister. Or, if he had at all.
“Good morning,” she said quietly to the boy with the sweetest smile she could muster against the incessant churning of her belly. “What is your name?” she asked merrily.
“Hansel,” the boy said wearily. He nodded to the still-sleeping form next to him. “Her name is Gretel.” He paused, chewing on her name a bit, then added, “She’s my sister.”
She nodded then, smiling the smile of a full belly. She opened her door broadly, standing clear of the portal. “Come in,” she whispered. “You must be starving.” She saw a slight nervous tremble in his lip. She pointed toward the fire that burned warmly in her hearth. “Get warmed up and I’ll make you something good to eat.” Hansel looked down at his sister. “I will carry your sister near the fire so she can sleep warmly.” Her teeth felt like they were going to split her lips they were being pushed so far out. Her smile was giddy as she knew soon she would eat and be filled.
Oh, to be full. Being full was tantamount to any physical pleasure she had with any man in her long, long existence. She looked hungrily at the children as Hansel pulled the blanket she’d given him around his sister, making sure she was snug and warm. He kissed her lightly on her forehead, laid next to her, whispering words she couldn’t hear. Those were brotherly words meant for Gretel alone.
The witch sighed. Which one would be first? The thought immediately struck her as cruel, but that churning need in her belly silenced the thought, buried it deep beneath layers and need, as it always did.
There was a tickle at the corner of her eye and she touched it with her finger and she pulled back to find it wet. She tasted it, cringing at its saltiness. Her mouth contorted into a vicious frown. She had almost forgotten what her own tears tasted like, having long ago grown weary of shedding them. The centuries are lonely and her regrets were many.
“Why?” she found herself asking aloud.
Hansel stirred. “Why what, ma’am?” He blinked sleep from his eyes at sat up, looking at her.
So curious, she thought. “Please, call me Gretchen,” she said. It was a lie, of course. Her name held immense power and others could use that name against her, taking her power, so she made a studied effort to forget it, using many different false ones as the ages passed. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” she said, smiling warmly.
“I can’t sleep,” he said and looked at his sister, then back at the witch.
“I can help,” she said. She went to her kitchen area and grabbed a small phial of bluish liquid and poured it into a cup of milk. She swirled the mixture until no evidence of the liquid from the phial remained. Then, she walked it to Hansel. “Drink this.” She handed the cup to Hansel and he looked at it. “It’s milk. Milk has always helped me rest better.” He looked at her and his face said everything she needed to know. “You’re safe here. I won’t let anything happen to you.” She found that she very nearly meant it.
As morning broke, Gretel was the first to stir. She stared at the witch for a few moments, unblinking and brave, but then turned to her brother and shook him awake. Once they were up, they took immediate notice of the table filled with breads and meats. They looked at her, wide-eyed and she nodded. “It’s all for you,” she said, smiling. The children ate, filling their bellies and the witch found herself jealous to the point of violence.
Then, she noticed something peculiar: most children ate greedily and bickered at one another when their bellies were full, losing their needed bond once they believed rescue was found. But not these children.
Gretel sat at the table and pulled chunks of bread off hungrily, ignoring the knife on the table. She chewed chunks of the bread and drank heavily from the cup of water next to her, water dribbling from the corners of her mouth and onto the drab dress she was wearing. Her long, fair hair was wild and unkempt, spilling around her face, down the front of her shoulders, where it ended. The witch found herself touching the hair, gently sifting through its tangles, pulling all the hair behind Gretel’s neck, allowing it to fall over the chair back. She combed it with her fingers while Gretel continued to stuff herself as if she hadn’t eaten in ages. Gretel’s fingers were dirty, yet she sucked the dripping butter off them anyway. Gretel paused in her ravenous eating and looked up at the witch and gave her a half-smile—a weary, world-worn smile, but one full of a certain amount of relief. She gave her hair a final comb with her fingers, watching as speckles of dirt tumbled out onto the floor.
“Are you ok?” he asked Gretel. It was the first words, aside for the whispered ones from the previous night, the children had exchanged.
Gretchen smiled and reached out and touched Gretel’s long hair again. Hansel looked away from his sister and back to the breads on the table. He began eating earnestly, buttering bread and eating it slowly, occasionally putting pieces of bread into his coat pocket. The witch wondered at this, the boy’s utter reliance on himself to take care of him and his sister. His ability, even at this young age, to be determined to plan for the future was, at the very least, admirable. She wondered, for a moment, what their life was like before this moment. Did they come from a farming family? How long had they been orphaned? Had they suffered long lost in the woods? They looked hungry, but overall seemed healthy. Likely because of the boy’s stubbornness against losing, she thought to herself, smiling.
Every child that had darkened her door had been a mewling, whimpering mess by the time they arrived, desperate for care and attention. All children shook and heaved large sobs as they desperately pleaded for help, food, warmth, or love. Tears and snot stained their clothes and her furniture by the time her deed was done. They were helpless, like cattle, arriving to their end weakly and desperately. Most children almost readily accepted their end, seeing no other way out, accepting their lot in life with a solemnity that belied their age. It was the solemnity and acceptance of the damned, decrepit, pained, infirmed, or dying.
These children were somehow different. They didn’t need her. They happened upon her house deep in the wood, but they didn’t show up desperately pounding at her door, scraping and crying at it like it was the absolute last chance they had. No, these children took advantage of the shelter offered by her porch. They waited. They were patient. So unlike her, when she greedily took power and life from the man she loved—truly loved—and started her journey through the chaotic ages.
She had other lovers, yes, but the relationships were purely to fill a carnal void. More often than not, she would leave these lovers as husks after she drained them completely. They were merely a snack, like a pastry mid-day to last until evening meal. They were empty nourishment.
The children were unlike any who had ever soiled her furniture with their useless tears. The children who futilely believed all adults had their best interests in mind. These children took from her for the time they needed to, once again, be on their own. She thought about this and wondered if the world had changed so much to harden these children in such a way. There was little she required from the world and she knew not how the world changed outside her world from time to time. She simply existed, studying and learning, tucked into her little universe, like a small, but powerful astral body, pulling in smaller objects, consuming them ultimately, a dead star that had collapsed on itself.
“Can we have some more milk, please?” Gretel asked in her small, but steady voice.
“I told her you gave me some last night,” Hansel said, looking a little sheepish.
“Don’t worry,” Gretchen said, pouring some milk into two cups. She heard the softness in her voice and thought about her own mother in the vast chasm of time and how she died giving birth to her sister, taking her from her too soon. She wished she’d been strong like these children were, having no need for help, for assistance in survival. If she’d been stronger, she’d never have turned to her long-dead lover. She would never had started seeking answers from somewhere besides inside herself. She would never have—
“Why is everything here so old?” Gretel asked. Her eyes were roaming all across Gretchen’s little home, looking at the bottles and jars and trinkets that filled the shelves and walls. Her eyes grew wide and narrowed as she spotted different curiosities.
Gretchen looked where Gretel looked, trying to see the scene from her eyes, as she has seen the same thing for years and years and years. Her curiosity in the face of the unknown surprised her. “I suppose you’d call me old-fashioned,” she said. She found she was amused by her little joke.
“How long have you lived here?” Hansel chimed in.
“For far longer than you’ve been alive,” she responded. She was careful not to lie. It was important, for some reason, that these children not be lied to, that she choose her words carefully. Almost as if protecting them, she thought angrily.
Deep inside her belly, the growing emptiness made her nearly double over. She cursed herself. She was distracted, perhaps out of eternal loneliness and finding this new, curious breed of child. The children were eating the bread and drinking the milk, all of which was imbued with influences that should begin to make the children’s essences malleable, more easily removed from their physical bodies. It may require more time than usual, given the children’s toughness.
In the hours that followed, the children continued to fill their bellies. They eventually removed their coats, but kept them near the door and refused to allow Gretchen to wash them. Again, the thoughts of the other children she’d consumed over the years and their complete trust and comfort of any adult willing to provide them with their needs was ultimately their downfall. These children would, of course, be more challenging than any of those children. They were weak, but very filling. Gretel and Hansel, with their spirit and bravery would likely be a considerable feast. It might even be enough, she found herself thinking.
That evening, the children were full from their veritable feast of meats and breads and vegetables. They rubbed their bellies and licked their fingers and rested on the floor in front of the fireplace. They laid together, closely, as always, holding hands and whispering to each other, smiling occasionally. They made their hands into shapes in the light of the fire and acted out stories. Then, Gretchen could tell that they were growing weary, their eyelids becoming heavy. Hansel looked to her, sitting between them and the door, close enough to the fire to remain warm, close enough to the door to impede an escape. “Will you come tell us a story? Our mother used to before she—” he trailed off, looking at Gretel. Gretel smiled and rubbed his arm. “Before she died,” he finished.
She grinned, her teeth on edge, suddenly sensing, like any predator, a distinct change in her prey. She saw comfort, which was familiar, a thing she was used to, instead of this bravery and hardness. She saw weakness for the first time, a need they had for another person to affect some change in their path. It made the hunger she kept buried grow out of its prison, and she nearly drooled from the anticipation. “I think I know a few stories,” she said, walking toward them. The children parted, leaving a space for Gretchen between them. She stared at the gap for a moment, as if it were a true chasm, something she could fall into and never again gain purchase enough to escape. Nevertheless, she sat between them and began her story:
“Once upon a time, there was a young lady who was terribly in love,” she started, truly weaving the first story she’d ever told. “Her name was Eva and her lover was named Admus. They fell for each other and were eventually married under a beautiful copse of fir trees, on a soft floor of needles. They kissed, sealing their union as birds chirped and sang in the forest. They were very, very happy, indeed.” Gretchen paused for a second, suddenly aware of the weight on each side of her, as the children grew close for warmth, listening to her story. “One day, Eva discovered she was with a child and she told Admus and they held a celebration and invited the entire village. They were so in love and their love produced something beautiful.”
“Was it a boy or girl?” Gretel asked.
“Listen to the story and find out,” Gretchen said and kissed Gretel on her head, smoothing her hair with her hand. She jerked her head back when she realized what she did, as if Gretel’s head were a snake. “Where was I?”
“They were having a party for the baby,” Hansel said.
“So they were. There weren’t many children in the village, because many parents were unable to have children and because disease was so terrible, so this child was very special.
“One day, when Eva’s belly was round and full like a moon, she woke in the night to find her husband not beside her in bed as usual. She pushed herself out of bed and walked about the house, finding no sign of her husband. Then, she heard noises coming from the cellar beneath their house. She walked down the rock-hewn steps and her bare feet touched the cool, dusty floor at the bottom. Flickering light came from a room in the corner of the cellar, a small room that her husband used to sculpt small statues he sold in the village square. She approached and heard a soft cry from inside. Hurriedly, she moved to the entrance of the room and peered inside. What she saw made no sense. From her husband’s hands, a white fire was emanating, filling the dark room with light. In the light, she could see a small cage made into the earthen wall that contained two small faces, children she recognized as having died from the plague a few weeks ago.”
The children shifted where they lay, realizing that this bedtime story might be of the scary viariety. Gretchen looked into the fire, careful not to look at the children, and continued:
“Her husband looked at her, shock on his face. He dropped the fire from his hands onto the floor, where it burned on its own, like a tiny campfire. He ran to his wife and asked her to be calm, all the while she struggled and fought against him. He tried to explain that what he was doing was for his family, for their well-being, but she was hysterical. He pushed her to the floor and walked, this time with a blue fire coming from his hand, to the cage where the children waited. Still hysterical, she leapt in between her husband and the children. Caught off-balance, he fell, stumbling into her. He stood up, eyes wide, looking at his hands, begging for her to forgive him. For a few moments, she wasn’t sure what had happened, then she saw her belly was gone, her dress falling loosely around her empty middle.”
“What happened?” Hansel asked.
“Patience, Hansel,” she said. “Her husband had been a powerful warlock and had been using children as a way to ensure they had a healthy child. Their sacrifice was for the benefit of his family, he explained. It was necessary, he explained. His wife nodded through her tears, her mind racing. Then, she asked him for his gift. In her mind, she thought it might be a means to learn how to bring her baby back. Her sorrow led her to ask for something she was in no position to ask for. Her husband was easily swayed, both because her desperately sought forgiveness and because his wife was a convincing seductress.”
“What’s a seductress?” Both children asked in unison.
Gretchen twisted her lips. “Never mind that. Needless to say, the wife, driven by grief, was an astute learner, becoming an apt pupil quickly, realizing her potential much faster than her husband thought possible, until one day, he found he feared she was greater than him.
“He was right. His wife came to him one night and he likely knew it was his time. She placed her hand on his head and chest and absorbed his very being until not even his physical body remained. For a few moments, his thoughts sloshed around her head like water in a pot. She caught only brief flashes, but one thought came through clear: danger. She didn’t realize until much later that he was warning her that she was going to become like him.”
“Is that the end?” Hansel asked.
“In a way,” Gretchen said. “She never got what she wanted. She might be out there right now, still trying to get her baby back.”
“I feel bad for her,” Gretel said, nuzzling into Gretchen’s side.
“I do too,” Gretchen said back. “I think you should get some sleep,” she said and both children filled the void she left as she stood, bundling up together as usual. “Goodnight,” she said under her breath.
She tried to sleep, but she was awakened again and again by troubling dreams. She gave up and looked in on Hansel and Gretel, deep in sleep. They had already gained weight because of her imbued food. They looked happier this way, less gaunt and hard. More soft and child-like. The ache returned and she touched her stomach. She was still attractive, frozen in time like a bug caught in amber, but something inside her felt old and wasted. The ache intensified this feeling.
She went to her worktable and unlocked the drawer she kept tightly secured and pulled from it a large phial. She turned it over and over in her hands, occasionally glancing at the sleeping children. A small tear fell across her cheek and she ignored it, instead collecting it in the bottle. She brought to bottle up to her mouth and whispered words across it, in a language both ancient and long-dead. She closed her eyes and the phial glowed a milky green. Holding the phial up to her eyes, she saw the fluid’s smoky consistency, and wondered how much of her and how much of Admus was in there and how many children she damned to the phial by putting her essence in it. She found the lightness of her being a suitable justification. She smiled and placed the phial in the drawer, locking it. She placed the key around her neck and went to the large window beside her bed.
She laughed a little when she allowed what she’d just done to sink in, a laughter like after being frightened by a thunderstorm, where relief loosened all tension and laughter was the easiest way to vent what was inside. She looked out into the moonless night and saw fireflies bobbing in the air, blinking here and there like tiny stars. She remembered wanting to chase fireflies to place them in glass, believing as a group, the fireflies could light her path home or eliminate the shadows from her room at night. She realized this would never work later on and only saw them as a curiosity, a thing not to be marveled at, but reasoned out. Why did they shine brightly? It was the opposite of camouflage. It was waving a flag to all predators that they were ready and available to be consumed. She could only believe that they were poisonous in some way to predators, a meal not worth consuming. Their willingness to be devoured a clever way of warning predators to the inherent danger of a willing meal.
She went to bed then, and she slept soundly for the first time in centuries.
When she woke, the children still slept by the glowing embers of the fire. She stretched and breathed in the fresh morning air. Then, she turned her attention towards breakfast. This meal would be special for both she and the children. This would be the first meal in a new life. She glanced at the drawer and then back to the dough she was using to make bread. She smiled as she folded the dough, making it into a large roll, folding in berries for sweetness and, for the first time, she didn’t imbue it with anything but the berries. She placed the dough on the large wooden pan and carried it to her enormous oven. She opened it with one hand and gently placed it into the fire. She stood there for a second and felt the heat on her face, closing her eyes. Then, she was inside the oven, the metal grill burning her skin, searing through her flesh. She rolled across the massive metal grill as her hair burned, filling her nose with an acrid smell. She tried to scream, but the smoke from her very skin scorched her throat. She couldn’t escape the pain, no matter which way she writhed. She knew only pain and her skin burned and smoldered. She finally found her voice and screamed and he throat was filled with such heat that her mouth was scorched. Her skin was flaking off or peeling off, having become stuck to the metal grating, tearing away as she continued to thrash. The heat threatened her eyes, drawing the very moisture from them and as her eyes rolled in their sockets, she fixed on the tiny slit across the door of the oven and saw there two small pair of eyes staring at her. Hansel and Gretel leaned forward and then saw the children smile broadly, showing impossibly sharp teeth in impossibly wide mouths, holding her phial, her very essence. They were drooling, she saw before the fire took her eyes.
“Goodbye, Eva,” she heard them shout mockingly over her own screams.
The children continued sharing the phial, drinking deeply from it, as they watched the witch bake.
Jarrod Withers was born, raised, and currently resides in Kentucky. He desired to write because he had no talent for visual arts. He tries, instead, to create using words instead of pictures. He can be followed at his blog: www.idiomsandidiocy.com.
Photo: Rob Woodcox, “Colors Of The Wind pt. 5: Orange”