A/N: Okay, this one needs a warning label. I wanted to write about a really taboo and raw topic that I would normally shy away from; this is what came of it. So a heads up: the following story deals with one of the ugliest and most disgusting facets of human society. Don't read it if you can't handle it. *peers into the crowd* Mmk, all the weak-stomached and/or immature people gone? Good, do proceed then.
One is dead, and one will die tonight. The sky is dark as a bat's shadowed belly and thorns burrow sharply into my flesh between my ankles and my mud-smeared boots. Nonetheless, I'll find that filthy place, that house of horrors. Even if I lose my way, I'll find it. I was lost the first time, after all. Lost in the woods eight years ago, holding Gretel's hand.
Twigs crunch and snap beneath my weight like mosquitoes eaten by fire flames. I push aside a branch and march on, possessed. Hatred bubbles in my heart and in my eagerness I imagine the cracking spindles to be bones. Old, brittle bones breaking in my hands. She cannot have enough of them to satisfy me. Oh, but I will do other things to her. Horrible, horrible things, as are her due.
If ever a woman deserved death, then she is one.
A clearing admits a little moonlight. It washes grey over the slender petals of a single flower, tangled among a mess of weeds, and I remember. I remember another time, another night as pale as this one. I remember everything.
"I – I don – don't w-want to g-go!" Gretel choked between sobs, burying her face in the ratty brown quilt at the foot of Mother's bed.
At a loss, I stood in the doorway and watched. Mother's face was pale and drawn, her hair damp with sweat; she could barely breathe. She looked the way Father had looked, before an angel took him away from us, on the cold day when Mother had cried and held me close and whispered, "You're the man now, Hansel. You have to be brave, and look after your sister." But at that moment, watching my mother weakly reach out shaking fingers to stroke Gretel's hair, I wasn't brave, and I didn't feel like a man.
"Shh…my love…shh," and she looked at me. "Hansel, take…your sister…follow the path into town and find…Aunt Helen."
Uncertain and unwilling to leave, I asked, "What shall I tell her, Mother?"
She stared at me with water lining the bottom of her eyelids for a long, long moment, then closed her eyes and turned away. "Tell her…that an angel is taking care of me."
I was afraid. I wanted to ask if it was the same angel as before – Father's angel – but she opened her eyes and darted them at Gretel, telling me not to speak. Trying not to shake, I walked to the bedside and kissed her forehead. Her eyes seemed to say, be brave, Hansel, look after your sister.
Gently, I coaxed Gretel away from the bed. I told her where we were going, and that an angel would look after Mother while we were gone. She still didn't want to go. She tried to take the flower from the vase on Mother's bedside table, but Mother wouldn't let her because she'd coughed on it. I took Gretel's hand and led her out of the room, out of the house, into the woods.
Finding the path was not difficult; I'd been to see Aunt Helen many times before. For half an hour we walked in sunlight patterned with shivering shadows. We didn't speak, though Gretel whimpered about the flower now and again. Then, when I least expected it, she broke away from me and dashed off the path, into the deeper shadows. I followed her.
Being two years older, I would have caught her right away, if she hadn't turned into a thicker clump of brush. I couldn't see her, but I did my best to follow her by sound, calling after her to stop and come back. When I finally caught up, I found her kneeling in a patch of white flowers that looked similar to the one she'd left behind in the vase. Seeing me, she carefully picked one and took my hand, pacified.
But the path was gone, and I couldn't find it again. Gretel followed me around for hours as I looked for it, clutching her flower as though it were our mother watching over us. Finally, I decided to try to find the town without the path, and we set off in the direction I guessed it must be.
Late afternoon was filtering down to us through tree branches when we came upon a clearing. In the center was a small, moldy looking house. The brown paint was peeling off the walls. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast, and Gretel mused, "It looks like gingerbread." In truth, it did not look like gingerbread at all, though it smelled like it; the scent wafted over to us from an open kitchen window.
Foolishly, I suggested we knock on the door. Perhaps the occupant could tell us where the path was, or even give us something to eat. Gretel didn't object.
The instant the door opened I realized my mistake. The crone who scowled down at us wasn't tall, but to an eight year old she could have been a giantess. Wisps of straw-like, greasy gray hair escaped from the tight bun behind her head, sharp whiskers dotted her chin, and a long, jagged scar ran from the right side of her nose to the bottom of her ear. Her skewed black eyes took on an uncanny, disturbing glint as she swiftly looked us over.
Still holding Gretel's hand, I turned and started to run away, but the crone moved faster than most women her age, clamping claw-like fingers onto Gretel's shoulder in an unshakable grip. I felt my sister's fingers jerk out of my grasp and stopped, turning my head to look back. The witch snatched at me, but I dodged her and flung myself headlong into the tangled mess of bushes at the clearing's edge, panting. I heard the woman curse; I heard Gretel screaming for me, but I couldn't move. Through the leaves I watched her being pulled into the house, and heard the door lock with a cold snap.
Night had fallen before I dared to move again. All I wanted was to get as far away from the woman as possible – but not without Gretel. I noticed weak candlelight spilling from a single high window. Very carefully, I climbed the woodpile stacked against the wall, and peeked in.
It was a narrow, dirty room, with a narrow, dirty bed, in the middle of which Gretel had curled herself into a tight ball like a pill bug. I could see that she was shaking. Quietly, I eased the window open and climbed through it, using a dresser to get safely to the ground again.
"Gretel," I whispered, lightly shaking her bruised shoulder. She cringed at the touch and curled into an even tighter ball, whimpering. I tried again. "Gretel?"
This time she opened her eyes and stared at me. She looked hunted.
"Come on, let's go. Out the window," I urged, but she didn't budge. Nothing I said could move her. She only stared at me with the same terrified look. Warily eyeing the closed door, I knelt beside the bed. "Are you alright?" No response. "Gretel, answer me, what did she do to you?"
Shivering, Gretel buried her head in her arms again and breathed, "She took it away."
"What did she take away?"
"The flower," she raised her head again and held her hand out to me, palm up. A long red streak like a burn mark cut across her pale skin where the stem had been yanked out of her fingers. "She took away my flower."
I tried to persuade her that everything would be alright, that she could find another flower. But she only shook her head and cried, as if it had been the only one in the world she could ever have. Eventually she moved her arms to hug me, but her legs were tightly crossed and she refused to stand up. All night long she clung to my neck and cried, and I couldn't bring myself to leave her when morning rose over the windowsill. That was how the witch found us, when she finally unlocked the door.
Not once in all the time we spent there did the crone let us outside. During the day she set me to work cleaning the floor or polishing silver or mending little things like pot handles. Gretel, on the other hand, wasn't old enough to help with many chores. She'd sit at the table or in a corner all day long with some paints the witch had given her, drawing flowers. Every day before dinner the woman would collect the pages and throw them in the fire to heat the rickety oven. Gretel would watch them burn with a faraway look in her eyes.
At night she locked each of us in a narrow room with a high window. The dressers were gone, now that she knew we could use them to escape. The worst night for me was the first time I heard her go to Gretel. Through the wall there came my sister's voice alternately screaming, sobbing, begging her to stop. In all my life I had never felt so utterly helpless. I yelled at the witch to leave her alone until my voice was hoarse, tried in vain to break the lock on my door, smashed my fists repeatedly against the coarse dividing wall until they bled, all to no avail. Gretel and I both cried ourselves to sleep, that night.
When, on the other hand, she came to me, I fought back. I kicked and scratched and even bit her a few times. The only thing that made me stop was her collection of threats regarding Gretel. Once she hissed that if I didn't behave, she'd chop my sister into pieces and cook her in tomorrow's stew, then force me to eat every last bite of it. I believed her.
To this day I'm not sure exactly how long she held us hostage in that dank cottage, but one morning a man came knocking on the door. The old crone would have hidden us away, but he'd already seen Gretel through the window. He explained that he was searching for two children of our descriptions, who were supposed to have gotten lost in the woods – their mother had passed away a couple weeks ago, and their aunt was looking for them. The woman grudgingly handed us over and he thanked her profusely for taking such good care of us, then led us away into the forest.
I tried to tell the man about her, about what she'd done to us, but he refused to believe me. "You should be grateful that she took you in, boy, or you'd be dead by now, eaten alive by wild beasts, no doubt." Gretel walked along silently behind us, no emotion in her face, staring at all the flowers we passed, but never touching them.
Aunt Helen took us in without complaint. She wasn't rich by any means, and Gretel and I shared a room for a few years, until her older children moved out. Helen loved us for our mother's sake, and slowly I began to overcome what had happened at the witch's house.
Not so with Gretel. Every night in her sleep she would scream and protest as the witch raped her in her dreams. In the beginning, Aunt Helen would come upstairs in her nightcap with a candle and try to comfort her, but eventually it became too much, and then there was only me. Years passed. Gretel gradually became more and more withdrawn. Despite our nagging, she refused to go out in public. I was the only person she'd talk to…then she'd only say a few words to me…then she wouldn't talk at all. Her skin became pale and her cheekbones jutted from her face like outstretched bird wings, even though I made a point of feeding her myself. Every time I looked at her, she'd be wrapped in a black shawl, staring vacantly at the wall, lost in thought. Lost.
Then this morning I woke up and found her missing. I searched the house, but she wasn't in it, and I feared the worst. Various parties set out to find her and I went with them, sifting through the town the way rain sifts through clouds.
But mine wasn't the group that found her. Around noon, a somber troop of men returned from the river with a drenched black shawl. It had to have been suicide, they said, though they couldn't imagine why.
No, no one could possibly imagine why.
Shoving through a few final branches, I step into the clearing. The house is there, even more dilapidated than before, a dark silhouette in the moonlight, sheltering Gretel's true murderer. For a moment I consider burning her alive…but no, that would be letting her off too easy. I'll thread her with rapiers like a voodoo doll, gag her with her own hair, rip her long, yellow fingernails from her flesh and bludgeon her eyes with them, make her scream ten times louder than Gretel ever did. Then I'll burn her alive.
Softly, I approach the door. As much as I'd like to just kick it in and sink my dagger into her stomach, I'm not going to risk letting her escape through a window. Carefully, I try the knob.
It turns without a squeak.
Raising an eyebrow at her carelessness, I ease the molding panel open and go in. It's like walking into hell. Cursed memories fling themselves at me, fueling my rage as I pass through the kitchen into the hallway. At the end of the passage I see her bedroom. She isn't in it.
Frowning, I turn and start warily back down the hall. The door to my old bedroom is closed. I open it. Empty.
The only other room in the house is Gretel's. It disgusts me, to think of her in there, but at the same time I console myself: revenge will be that much sweeter. I notice a paintbrush lying on the floor and angrily sweep it aside. Glowering, I kick the door open and look around. There is nothing there.
Nothing but witch-blood flowers, drying on the wall.
Much thanks to not sure yet, Aimee Raven, icytigerwarrior, princess cheezeball, and Death's Counterfeit for commenting on the last chapter. I love you guys =) *hugs*