Gretel’s Challenge

Gretel sat at the bar, nursing bruised knuckles and a beer. The witch had won again. The thought echoed in Gretel’s mind like a malignant mantra.

“You look sad.”

The voice came from the stool to Gretel’s right. She looked over, and then down. A little girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, with bright, tigerish eyes and smooth brown pigtails, looked up at her.

The girl smiled, revealing a row of tiny white teeth except for a pinkish gap where a front tooth should be. “Maybe I can help,” she said.

Gretel snorted. She sneered down at the girl, several beers and many years worth of bile welling up at the offer. “Get lost, Dwarf,” she said. She drained the rest of her beer. Before she could signal for another, a fresh mug was sliding toward her. Gretel caught it. Cold foam slopped over her hand. A welcome pain ignited at the contact of alcohol on the split skin of her knuckles. A familiar warm numbness swept through the rest of her body as she gulped down half of the beer.

“I’m not a dwarf,” the girl said. Her tone was informative, rather than offended. “My mother is a dwarf. I am of a typical height — for my age.”

Gretel looked back down at the girl. She split and swam in Gretel’s vision, but there was a false note in her statement. Gretel followed the note through the river of her own blurry thoughts. “Your mother is a mermaid,” she corrected. The double vision faded enough for Gretel to be able to see the girl’s cheeks pinken.

The girl acknowledged the hit with a nod. “My birth mother is a mermaid. My adoptive mother is a dwarf.”

The girl’s quiet dignity chafed against Gretel’s conscience. Her words had been not been meant kindly. She opened her mouth to apologize, but a huge belch escaped instead. The girl’s bangs fluttered against her forehead and her eyes widened. Gretel swallowed her apology and turned back to her beer.

“Really, I’m good at helping,” the girl said. “I help a lot of folk.”

The vibration in the word folk rippled in Gretel’s brain. She turned to look at the girl again. Her tiger eyes glowed with that unshakable confidence of all little girls who had met many challenges but hadn’t yet been defeated. Once again, Gretel wrestled with her conscience before speaking. She lost, again. “My brother was eaten by a witch,” she said. “How would you like to help with that?”

To her relief, she was unable to register the girl’s response because the copious amounts of alcohol she’d consumed finally hit the sweet spot in her brain. She slid off the stool and crumpled gracelessly on a floor varnished with blood, sweat, and drool — a decent amount of which had once belonged to Gretel.

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