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.