Gretel’s Challenge Pt. 3

Gretel stared at the girl’s hand. She shook it slowly. “Gretel,” she said.

Aura beamed. “I know. I came here to see you.”

Gretel frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Aura nodded, as though she’d expected to hear that. “Sometimes when I hear a story, my ears itch. That’s how I know it’s true. And then I can Travel to where the story is happening.”

Gretel stared at the girl. “But how did you hear about my story?”

“Oh, it’s a famous fairy tale where I come from.”

Gretel frowned. “I’ve never met a fairy. Are you a fairy?”

Aura giggled. “No.” She stopped and thought about it. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Maybe that’s why I can Travel.” She frowned. “But I don’t have a wand. Or wings. So I don’t think so.” She thought for another moment. “I’d like to have wings,” she said.

Gretel shook her head. They’d gotten off track. “And your dwarf mother just lets you ‘travel’ wherever you want, any time you hear a story?”

Aura looked guilty. She leaned toward Gretel. “I’m not supposed to Travel without her,” she said, conspiratorially. “But she doesn’t like Adventures as much as me and sometimes my ears itch — SO — BAD!”

Gretel couldn’t help but laugh. It sounded rough and it only lasted a moment, but it surprised her. “So, what does the story you heard say about me?”

Aura took a breath. She tilted her head back, and her eyes focused on something inside herself. “Hansel and Gretel lived with their father and mother. They were very poor and the mother said that they should leave Hansel and Gretel in the forest. The father was sad but he agreed. But Hansel and Gretel heard this and left breadcrumbs so that they could find their way home. But the birds ate the breadcrumbs, so Hansel and Gretel couldn’t find their way home.”

While Aura paused for breath, Gretel stared at the girl. She was confused, and little hurt, by the blase recitation that sketched an outline of the horrors Gretel and her brother had endured.

Aura didn’t register Gretel’s distress. She continued with the story. “But they found a house made of gingerbread and candy with frosting everywhere and started eating it. A witch invited them inside. At first, she seemed nice but then she locked up Hansel and made Gretel cook him lots of food to make him fat and tasty for the witch.”

She stopped, looking up at Gretel. “Why did she want to eat Hansel if her house was made of cake and she had more food to make him fat?”

“Oh.” Gretel was startled by Aura’s question. It was one she’d asked herself, time and again, but had never found a satisfactory answer for. “Um. She was Bad, I guess,” she said. The answer only rang partially true, to her own ears.

Aura tilted her head, considering Gretel’s answer. She didn’t seem any more satisfied with the answer than Gretel, but she shrugged and took another breath. “The witch couldn’t see good,” Aura continued. “So when the witch would check to see if he was fat yet, he’d hold out a bone from the chicken Gretel had cooked for him, and it tricked the witch into thinking he wasn’t fat.

“But one day, the witch decided to eat him anyway. She told Gretel to check if the oven was hot enough but Gretel said she didn’t know how, so the witch checked instead. Gretel locked the witch in the oven and went and rescued Hansel. They stole lots of gold and stuff from the witch’s house and took it home. Their dad was so happy to see them and to be rich now, and their stepmother was dead.”

The story over, Aura stopped to catch her breath. Her gaze focused on Gretel again. “Sometimes the stories aren’t very true. I guess if the witch ate Hansel some stuff was wrong….?”

Gretel processed Aura’s version of the story. Gretel’s story. Her living nightmare. It almost didn’t sound that bad, at least, not in the cavalier way that Aura told it. Gretel supposed that if she and Hansel had made it back to their father with pockets stuffed with gold, maybe the cruelty of him having left them in the woods in the first place might have balanced out. But, the heaviness in her heart knew that wasn’t true.

She was foolish to have believed that her stepmother had loved them, and she and Hansel had been foolish to believe that a magical house made of candy and cake in the middle of the forest wasn’t too good to be true. They’d been foolish to trust that the witch just wanted to give them a warm place to sleep and a loving home to live in. But the part that hurt — really hurt — was their father allowing himself to be persuaded to abandon them. Twice.

And, yes, Gretel and Hansel had left rocks and then breadcrumbs to help them find their way home, but Gretel had secretly hoped that her father would follow those breadcrumbs and rescue them. But Gretel, who had followed those breadcrumbs every day for the past 9 years, every day since she’d escaped the witch, had never seen her father on the trail. This knowledge created an abscess in her heart.

This bitterness made her want to lash out at Aura, to tell her to grow up. To tell her that stories that started with parents who abandoned their children didn’t end well. Then she remembered that Aura had been adopted, and she bit her tongue. The girl seemed happy enough, ridiculously so. Maybe it hadn’t been stupid to believe that her stepmother should have been able to love her and Hansel.

She shoved the thought away, and stood. It didn’t matter. ‘Should’ wasn’t real. What was real was that Hansel was about the be eaten by a witch, and only Gretel could stop that from happening. She’d have to ditch the kid first, of course.

Greta’s Challenge Pt. 2

Gretel awoke. Her head rested on an old almanac, and the barkeep had laid his apron over her before retiring for the evening. Gretel rose, groaning as her muscles protested. The sky through the window was bright blue, and the birds screeching outside tweaked at her pounding headache. Gretel replaced the almanac on the bookcase, the apron on the hook by the door that led up to the barkeep’s apartment, and downed the shot of moonshine that had been left on the bar for her.

She clomped over to the door, her boots feeling heavy, but her head feeling lighter. She unlocked the door and opened it up. A bright smile greeted her.

“Ugh,” Gretel said, offended by such unabashed cheerfulness this early in the morning. The kid looked familiar. The hair was braided instead of pigtailed, and the poofy dress was a different color, but the sparkly red shoes and the tiger-ish amber eyes were the same as the brat who’d been sitting next to her the night before. “What do you want?” She was started to feel persecuted by the child’s persistent friendliness.

The girl’s smile widened. “I’m here to help you!”

The girl’s voice chirped sweetly like birdsong and was equally annoying. No, it was more annoying. At least the birds left Gretel alone. Gretel snorted. “Alright,” she said. She shut the door to the bar and brushed past the kid. She strode toward the woods at her usual pace.

The kid had to run and skip in order to keep up, but she didn’t seem to mind, much to Gretel’s irritation. About a mile into the woods, Gretel started following the breadcrumbs she and Hansel had left for their father, so many years ago. The trail was so familiar to her by now that though the trail wound intricately around ancient oak trees like a labyrinth, the crumbs were no longer necessary. Still, they were a comforting presence, and the longer Gretel followed the trail, the stronger and more determined she felt.

The crumbs led to an oak tree so huge and old that an archway had been carved through it. The archway rose several feet above Gretel’s head and more than an arm’s breadth wide, but the tree was so massive that the size of the opening in the middle of its trunk didn’t affect the sturdiness of its structure.

No matter the distastefulness of Gretel’s destination, passing through the tree felt like a head-to-toe hug. She walked out of the other side of the tree, her scalp still tingling pleasantly.

In her younger days, Gretel had attempted to bring people through the archway with her. Grown adults with axes of every size, shape, and sharpness who had pledged to help her rescue her brother. Every one of them had been able to pass through the archway, but had instantly lost track of Gretel once on the other side. Gretel had tried holding hands, piggybacking, and even chaining herself to these people, but every time, she’d ended up on the other side of the archway, alone.

She was so accustomed to the idea that nobody could pass through the archway with her that she’d mentally dismissed the child who had promised to help her. Therefore, she was startled, a few minutes later, by the sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs on the trail behind her. She turned, and for a moment wondered if she was dreaming. The little girl stopped skipping, and looked up at Gretel expectantly.

Gretel’s knees felt weak and she half-fell, have sat down on in the middle of the path. The girl followed Gretel’s lead, sitting down in front of Gretel and criss-crossing her legs.

“Who are you?” Gretel asked.

“I’m Aura,” the little girl said, holding out her hand.