Last year we invited our readers to write a short story based on Hansel and Gretel, in connection with a new production by Scottish Ballet. The standard was exceptional – but this tale by Caroline von Schmalensee was our clear winner
Saira has closed the shutters and drawn the curtains. She doesn’t want any of her neighbours to realise that she’s still up. The only light in the room comes from a thin taper on the kitchen table. It reflects off the smooth surface of the table that Leif made for her but leaves most of the room in darkness. It would be easier to pack in daytime, when there’s more light, but it’s safer at night.
Into each pack she puts a change of clothes and extra socks against cold nights. She adds useful things: a small knife, a flint and some tinder, a pot of grease and some twine for making traps. Lastly, she packs the food: bags of nuts, dried apples in rings, brown bread, some of last year’s cheese, now hard and salty. She names each item before putting it in, blessing it with good wishes like her mother did when she packed Saira’s trousseau.
The art of making bark backpacks was Saira’s dowry. Her family had worked with silver birch bark for generations and knew how to strip it in large sheets without killing the tree. Her mother taught her to cut bark into ribbons and weave them into sturdy, light and flexible objects, from backpacks like these to little coin purses. The packs smell sweetly of sap and feel warm and soft under her hands. She wove the packs double, to make them strong, and sewed the edges with bright amber birch roots to stop them from fraying. Only the straps are made from leather, inch-wide strips she secretly cut from the bull-skin bag she arrived with.
The day Saira arrived in Woodsmore was a day of light and bright colours. Leif and his family met her off the post chaise. The women covered her in garlands woven from wood shavings, and put carved ebony combs in her hair. The men gave her gifts of boxes and trinkets made from camphor and other fragrant woods. They were all beautiful. Woodsmore was rich then, when the world still had gold and food to trade for the exquisitely carved wood and cleverly fashioned carpentry they made.
As Leif’s parents and siblings milled about her, making a fuss and talking all at once, she’d noticed the twins standing apart, the only children there. They were holding hands and looking at her curiously. She walked to them and sunk down on her haunches. Her face was still pink with the excitement of the welcome and the air around her was scented by the garlands around her neck. She held her hands out to the children so as to make a circle of just the three of them.
“You must be Hansel,” she said and smiled at first the boy, then the girl, “and Gretel.” They were plump and golden, no more than five years old. “I am so pleased to meet you.”
She knew they’d be nervous about the woman coming to take their dead mother’s place.
“I hope we’ll be great friends,” she said and let her hands drop to her lap. “Would you like that?”
Gretel exchanged a glance with her brother and they nodded. Hansel thrust a clenched fist towards her and opened it to reveal four carved buttons. They were small, carved by tiny hands, and elegantly decorated with butterflies.
“Are they for me?” The boy nodded again, without a word, and nudged his sister. In Gretel’s hand was two washing pins, carved into the likeness of the girl and her brother.
“You made these?” Saira asked and looked at the children. “They are beautiful! How very clever you are.” She stood up, touched at the thought of the hours the children spent fashioning these gifts for her. She put them into the pocket of her pinafore and stroked the children’s hair. They took her hands and had been at her side ever since, silent but loving.
Her first summer in Woodsmore was wonderful. Their house was on the outskirts of the village, but she was never far from friendly neighbours and helpful relatives. The village was embraced by the wood, a caring mother that birthed the wood they traded for food. Sunlight brought out the sappy scent of fir and cedar. Young men and women laughed over their work; carvers sat outside until the light went away and the woodsmen, like Leif, were away for days finding and preparing the wood the others carved. Leif was a skilled woodsman and a good carpenter. Whenever she needed something he’d make it for her, and make it beautiful. His hands were clever and warm. The heat of them thrilled through her when they stood side by side, his arm around her, his hand resting on her hip.
Saira takes the taper from the kitchen table and walks into the larder. On the top shelf, where they kept pickled mushrooms and jams when they still had such things, is a large box. This is where she’s been hiding the children’s new clothes. It has taken months to secretly gather the materials, knit the hats, sew the coats and felt the leg warmers, when Leif was in the forest and the twins were asleep. She’s relieved that she got everything finished in time. She takes the box into the kitchen, opens it and lays out the clothes. Then she rests for a while, running a mental tally of what she’s prepared. A gust of wind sends ash into the grate and makes her shiver.
War came, that first autumn. Traders stopped coming: Woodsmore woodwork was not essential in a time of crisis. Saira’s sister-in-law told her not to worry; Woodsmore had survived hard times before. Something Saira had noticed in the summer but not allowed herself to think about became obvious as the village ran out of food and her neighbour’s faces took on a pinched look. Woodsmore did not cherish its children. Parents treated their offspring with a definite coldness. She’d first noticed it at a coming of age party for Leif’s niece. It was as if the adults suddenly relaxed around the girl. Her mother’s tone towards her changed and, for the first time, Saira saw her touch the young woman’s arm. It wasn’t just Leif’s family that was reserved, it was everyone. Her own behaviour towards Hansel and Gretel was considered slightly scandalous. In the first weeks she’d hugged them and kissed them as often as she could to make them feel comfortable around her. She’d hold their hands, sit them on her knee, talk to them. Leif explained that her intimacy with the children was unseemly and she adjusted her behaviour in public. But when Leif was in the woods, and no one could see, she continued being affectionate. It bore fruit. By the first winter, the twins would stroke her cheek or hug her when they were alone. They were happier, more boisterous children, despite the now constant hunger, but they still didn’t speak.
When spring came, Leif taught her to pick fir tree shoots to eat, and where to find juicy fern roots under the moss. Her sister-in-law taught her how to find bark grubs and how to use the bark itself to make a bitter flour that baked hard bread. She had a lot to learn. She’d never starved before. The village was quiet that summer, as milk cows were the only cattle to survive the winter. Even the dogs were gone.
It is time. Saira feels how late it is. She’s cold and bone tired. If she leaves it much later it will be morning and too late. Now the village is asleep and the forest quiet. Taper in hand, she goes to the children’s room and nudges open the door. She can hear their regular breathing and smell the slightly stale scent of hunger. Gretel’s long hair is tangled around her thin neck. Hansel’s is mussed and his cows-lick stands straight up, as it always does in the morning. The children are pale and thin with dark shadows under their eyes. She steps into the room. Gretel whimpers and sits up, her eyes large and dark. Without looking away from Saira she throws her pillow at Hansel to wake him. A second later he sits up too, the same haunted eyes fixed on her. Saira beckons them.
“Come, sweethearts, it’s time for you to go.” She turns and leaves without looking behind her, knowing that they will follow, hand in hand.
The second winter a pregnant woman, married only that summer, disappeared. The men searched the woods but couldn’t find her. At about the same time, women in the village started having problems in childbirth. The women survived, in most cases, but the infants didn’t. Saira, to her mixed sorrow and relief, could not get pregnant. It made her grow closer to Hansel and Gretel.
The third year didn’t bring peace either. Occasionally, a grey, thin trader would visit, trying to buy art for ashes. They never brought food. The young men left the village, one by one, to seek their fortune, and dinner, elsewhere. None came back. The village shrunk as people disappeared. The woods grew darker and denser with fewer woodsmen to keep after them. Saira no longer felt safe in Woodsmore. She felt besieged.
“Here,” she shows them the new clothes, “put those over your night things.” While they get dressed, she pours them each a cup of warm mint tea, saved in an earthen crock. “Drink this. It’ll warm you.”
Gretel takes the tea and Hansel holds up one of the packs. Saira nods.
“There’s one for each of you. I’ve packed what you need.” She feels warm tears run down her cheeks and wipes them away.
“Look at me,” she says, “a silly old woman.”
The twins put down their cups and come to hug her. She feels the warmth of their bodies, still so small, so vulnerable. She wants to keep them safe.
It wasn’t until this summer, the fourth year of war, that Saira understood what was happening. The village had survived famines before, but only by consuming itself. She noticed Leif’s eyes on the children, his growing distance from them and from her. There was no longer anyone in the village under the age of 16. Except the twins.
“Walk east,” Saira says. “Your father’s west of here, so don’t go there.”
She puts a compass into Hansel’s hand. “Straight east, about a week through the forest, there’s a town. Go there.”
She gives Gretel a letter. “Find the mayor, give him this. If it feels safe.”
Saira hunches down like she did that first time they met. Now the twins look down at her. They have grown but not as much as they should.
“If he wants you to come back here with him, say no. Stay away. Please, darlings?”
Hansel’s brow is furrowed in disagreement but Gretel nods. Saira tucks a stray strand of hair in under Gretel’s hat and strokes Hansel’s smooth cheek. She can only give them advice. All other words die in her throat, constricted by grief.
“Don’t go on the road and cover your tracks. Trust your instincts, not people.” She helps them on with the packs and puts out the taper before opening the back door.
For a second they just hold her hands, looking at her. Their faces float white in the darkness. Their clothes are made in greens and browns that she can’t see in the night.
“Be careful,” she whispers and lets go of their hands. They turn and run, quiet as fawns, into the forest.