From the author: With all the interest in fairy tales and lately HANSEL & GRETEL, I read this essay from SyFy with great interest. And I remembered my own take on this fairy tale, an example of a flawed story that sold to a decent market anyway. https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-dark-history-behind-hansel-and-gretel?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hanselandgretel&utm_term=paid&utm_content=link_ad&fbclid=IwAR2Q7JbQqww1yulVVRaHCLJGmcw5EFMR7WP7aiFpom-38d7nY5UdG7HrVv4
Dario the woodsman struggled to dress. Three years since he lost his hand, all his clothes modified without buttons or ties by his wife, and he still spent too long each morning sliding into his pants and shrugging into his shirt.
His wife, Deirdre, sat on the chest at the end of the bed, only half-dressed herself. She knew better than to offer assistance. He slung the suspenders over his shoulder.
His stomach rumbled. He led his wife downstairs to the kitchen. The hearth was unlit and scrupulously clean. She hadn’t even laid up the kindling. He kicked over the log box. Nothing fell out.
“We have no wood,” she said.
He grunted and sat at his table.
She put a mug of water in front of him and a dried apple.
“The pantry is empty,” she said. “I’ll dig up some roots today but there’s no wood for fire to cook them.”
He stared at her. She met his gaze without flinching. She had once been beautiful, plump and vivid. Now she was a pale thin shadow. Only her eyes glowed with vigor and recriminations.
“Bring back some wood to keep your family warm,” she said.
He pointed to the master chair, his chair, at the table head. “Burn that.”
He stomped out the house, slamming the heavy door behind him. The dull chunk of wood against wood reverberated, breaking the morning and shocking the birds to stillness, except for a raven high above who shrieked at him.
Five years ago he’d married the prettiest woman in three counties. She loved him, she said. She smiled a lot and laughed and sang about cheerful maidens and rowdy men. All that had gone with his hand. She still kept the house neat as a pin. She cared for his first wife’s children, she cared for him. But she no longer smiled.
His breath plumed white in the frosty air. The change of season caught him by surprise. He was missing the best lumbering time, the best opportunities for work with other lumberjacks. Not that anyone would hire him.
He kicked at a stump. The path outside his house led towards town in one direction and towards the river in the opposite. He set out across the meadow, away from either path, he decided, and away from home.
Most of the wood he passed was owned by the king. Not that the king would ever notice one or two missing trees, or if he did, discover who had taken them. Dario shook his head. He couldn’t afford to think like a thief. One minute you’re cutting the King’s wood, imagining you’ve gotten away with it. The next minute, you’ve lost a hand.
It didn’t matter how far he had to travel, he decided. Tonight he’d come home with firewood and stove wood. They’d suffer from the greenness, burning sap smoked terribly, but they’d be warm. And have cooked food.
Movement at his foot startled him out of his day dream. A plump white rabbit hopped past him.
A little extra for the stewpot, he thought. He followed slowly, easing the axe from his shoulder.
It should have been an easy throw. He’d won contests even after losing his hand. But somehow when the blade bit into the earth the rabbit was gone.
He pulled up the axe. A sprinkle of rabbit droppings lay on the ground. Perhaps he’d nicked the creature and it had run off. Or disappeared down a hole.
The disappearance happened at the edge of a copse of woods. Dario examined the dense stand and frowned. No lumberjack signs marked off the wood, no fancy writs declaring this wood forbidden. Still, the white wood was too inviting. Someone must have claimed it before now. His frown deepened. He had never seen such trees before, stark white and leafless, standing in disciplined rows. The trunks looked healthy enough, like stripped pine splashed with whitewash. He decided that they would do.
He wiped his forehead and glanced up at the morning sky. A raven spun in the air like a child’s toy. The bird arrowed toward the copse of white woods then wheeled in midair, screeching. It dove at Dario. Sharp black wing feathers sliced across his chest.
“Making fun of me, are you?” He brushed his vest, not slashed open after all. “Yes, creatures of the earth and air are safe from me today. I am after wood and only wood will do.”
He shouldered his axe again. The pristine wood awaited him. He set foot amongst the roots.
A spasm of vertigo overtook him. He put out his hand to catch his balance against a tree but touched nothing. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell in a heap.
With his eyes closed he absorbed the eerie silence. Had a veil fallen over the wood? He opened his eyes.
The stand of trees gleamed white. The grass, which tickled his hand like normal grass when he touched it, showed relentlessly white with no shadings. Nothing sparkled. This was not a winter solstice. The wood appeared as if some malign magic had drained away all of nature’s colors. The sky above lowered with close white clouds. He raised his right arm and looked at his remaining hand. His own skin seemed muted and pale. Would he turn white himself if he stayed long enough?
He was a simple man. He didn’t allow himself to consider that the wood, clearly unnatural and possibly enchanted, might turn away the bite of his axe, or might respond to the cutting in some horrible manner. He was an honest man so he had to admit these thoughts lurked at the back of his mind. He pushed the shadows down, hefted his axe, and swung.
The tree felled as if it were a normal tree. True, its descent was almost silent, as if its brothers had stepped aside for it, and true, it bled a green-tinged crystalline sap. Unusual.
Dario trimmed off the tree’s crown. Then he lopped off the branches. The trunk lay naked as he rested and drank water. No creatures had made their homes in the tree, he realized. Nothing had scurried away, no sparrows, no squirrels, no snakes or rats, no ants or pill bugs. The white wood was innocent of forest vermin.
He set his water skin aside. One more, he thought. He could drag two logs home.
The sun was gone but the moon not yet risen when he dragged the long trunks into his yard. The curious vertigo had left him when he left the wood. It must be enchanted, he decided. He would not cut there again. But for now, he had warmth and cook fire for his family. Perhaps he could sell one of the trunks, perhaps he could buy his wife a new skirt, his children some toys.
His house was dark. No smoke belched from the chimney. His own fault, he knew, that the load of wood would remedy. But his wife did not come out to greet him. He did not hear his children’s voices.
Ingrates, he thought. They don’t appreciate how hard I work.
He unbound the logs. A few minutes’ work with his axe and he chopped enough lengths of wood for the night. I’ll finish tomorrow. A bath with heated water would be a fitting reward for the day’s work.
He opened his door, anticipating the comforts of home.
A candle guttered on the table. Its yellow light illuminated the face of a woman he’d never seen before.
The woman sat in the master chair. A fleeting thought – his wife hadn’t burned it – then his attention riveted to the woman. She was not beautiful. She inspired fear in him, and awe. He stood with his hand on the door for a full minute, staring at her. She wore a black dress, richly embroidered with silver, and jewels lined her perfectly-styled hair.
She smiled at him. Her eyes were reddened with tears.
A whimper broke the spell. Deirdre stood near him, her hands clasped under her apron.
He cleared his throat. “Wife, who is our guest?”
His wife whimpered again.
The woman at the table laughed. There was nothing wrong with the sound. In fact, Dario heard brooks burbling in the humor of her laugh. Still, the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
“Don’t bother her with questions she can’t answer. Give her those marvelous logs and bid her warm the hearth. I admit to feeling chill.”
He gave the bundle of wood to Deirdre. She struggled to set the fire. The logs held no moss and the bark wouldn’t strip for kindling. She set a long match to the bare wood then jumped back with a cry.
“Burned me!” she said. “The fire is hungry.”
“Feed it wood, not your flesh,” he snapped.
She dipped her head. “Yes.”
The woman smacked the table to get his attention.
“You need to pay me for those trees you stole.”
“I did not know they were your trees,” he said. “And I never stole. I did what a woodsman does, cutting wood for a fire.”
“I posted boundaries. Those that fly and those that leap knew they could never enter. You ignored the boundary. You entered my wood carelessly and cut my trees.”
He stammered. Did she know about his crime? Of course she did, everybody did. But he was blameless this time. He was certain.
“Do you think to take advantage of me because of my past misfortune? There was no boundary!” He remembered the rabbit that disappeared and the raven that flew at him as if to discourage him. He took a deep breath.
“Do you want the wood? Is that why you’re here? Pay me for my work, then. Otherwise, you are welcome to enjoy some warmth with us here but then you must go.”
“You will pay me for those trees. They were mine. They aren’t yours until you pay.”
“I don’t have any money,” he said. “I have nothing of interest to you!”
The woman, though seated, grew in size until she overwhelmed the room. Her shadow threatened to snuff out the tiny candle-light.
“You dare much, woodsman. You dare to steal my trees. You dare to guess what might interest me. Few have dared so much and lived to tell it. But you, woodsman, own two things of interest to me. I will have them and your debt to me will be settled.”
Dario frowned. He owned so little anymore. He glanced around the barren great room. His family stood near the blazing hearth, silent. No carpet, no mirror. Sold long since. No sturdy lamp or delicate vase. Nothing that she’d want to collect. Unless she meant his livelihood.
He cried out, “My axe? But I only have one.”
Her laugh was not kind. “What would I do with that clumsy tool? No, woodsman, you have taken the flesh of my forest. I will take the flesh of your home.
“You have two children. They will do to pay for the wood.”
Deirdre shoved the children into a corner and stood in front of them. Dario hefted his axe and loomed over the table.
“Let’s say I just cut you into a million pieces of kindling and put paid to the account.”
The woman laughed, high and insane like a hyena. “You cannot.” She waved her hand, a minor gesture.
All the strength drained from Dario’s limbs. He could no longer hold the immense weight of the axe. It slid through his hands and thudded to the floor. He slumped against the table.
The woman leaned towards him.
“Don’t try to stop me, woodsman, or you’ll lose your other hand. And I’ll still have your children.”
The woman stood in front of Deirdre.
“Give way, wife,” she said. “They never were your children. Now they are mine.”
Deirdre sprang on the woman, fists swinging. The woman stepped aside. Deirdre sprawled full length on the floor. Nonetheless she kicked out with her booted feet. One blow connected with the woman’s ankle.
The woman growled.
“You are as pitiful at protecting these children as you were at caring for them. Bethany, Paul, to me.”
The children, dazed and silent, put their hands in hers. She turned to leave.
“Don’t fret, good wife, woodsman. The white wood you’ve cut will adequately compensate you for these two.
“But don’t try the white woods again. You don’t have any more children to trade. Though it’s possible your wife could interest me.”
Deirdre cringed away.
The woman laughed again. And like that she was gone, along with the children, without even a flicker of a breeze.
Dario crawled to where his wife lay sobbing in front of the hearth. He swept her into his arms. At first she hit at him but he didn’t feel the blows. She stopped hitting. After a long while she stopped sobbing.
“She was right, I never liked them. I never wanted them. I did care for them. You never had reason to complain. But how can wood repay us for the loss of the children?”
“I don’t know.” He stared at the flames dancing in the hearth. Enough wood for a few days’ warmth. How was that a fair trade?
Something glinted in the ashes. Puzzled, he leaned close. A crystalline stone reflected the firelight. As he watched, another dropped from the glowing log. He grabbed the blackened fire poker and stirred the ashes. A full dozen stones lay in the hearth.
“Fetch more wood,” he said.
The wife struggled to her knees, slow as a grandmother.
“I don’t want stones, I want the children!”
“Fetch more wood!” he shouted.
She flinched. In a moment she snatched her woolen shawl from the peg by the door and slipped outside.
They worked all night, stoking the fire in the hearth. Dario cut the trunks into logs, the logs into chunks. Deirdre chipped kindling with her small ax and loaded the wood into the fire. Stones fell silently from the ember-rich wood.
“This is the last of it,” Dario said. He gave her a short bit of wood. She tossed it into the hearth. The flames danced.
The house was indecently warm. They both sweated into their loosened clothing. The fire died away as the sun rose. Deirdre sat at the table with the stones piled in front of her.
“We must rescue the children!” she said.
“I didn’t think you loved my children so much,” he rumbled.
“I love you.” She gazed up at him. Her tears glistened more brightly than the emeralds. “And you love them.”
He touched her hand, his callused fingers squeezing.
“I have a plan. These are emeralds. I’ll give her the emeralds,” Dario said. “They’re worth more than two scrawny children. They’d buy her a dozen hard-working servants. She’ll give them back. Be sure of it.”
“I’m sure of nothing,” Deirdre said. “You weren’t here when she arrived. One moment the children were eating their radishes and I was teaching them the counting song. The next moment she was there. Just standing there. She didn’t knock on the door or even yet come through it.
“She is a witch. She must be.”
Dario said, “Of course she’s a witch. Doesn’t mean she won’t barter for the return of Bethany and Paul. I’ll be back with them.”
Deirdre gasped out, “I’m going too.”
“No, you’re not. You’ll wait until I return with the children. Anyway, you’d be of no use. You can’t fight her.”
Deirdre stuck out her chin. “I kicked her in the leg and hurt her last night while you lay in a swoon on the table. I can fight her, as much or more than you. Anyway, you might need an extra hand.”
His missing hand itched. He almost slapped her. “Insolence! When did you….” He stopped. She was right.
“Eat some bread and some soup,” she said. “You need your strength. I’ll be right back.”
He was amazed that she’d taken time to cook a meal, but then, she’d always taken care of him. The sweet stench of the burning wood had kept the good scents of food from his nose but now he remembered his hunger. He plowed through the food.
Deirdre returned wearing trousers. She had her hand ax stuffed through the belt.
He studied her.
“No,” he said. He went to her and knelt on the floor. He pulled up the leg of her trouser and stuffed it into the cuff of her boot.
“Wear it like this,” he said. “Keeps the burrs and creatures from crawling up your leg.”
He leaned back on his heels. “Thank you.”
She smiled. “Do you have the emeralds?”
He showed her the deerskin bag. “We’re ready.”
She got the last bit of bread from the table and tucked it into her pocket.
“Yes, we are.”
He slung his axe over his shoulder and opened the door for her.
“We aren’t going to lose,” he said.
“We are going to our deaths,” she replied. “We are fighting a witch.”
He touched her shoulder. She looked up at him. He kissed her.
“Even a witch has weaknesses,” he said. “She can’t touch iron.” He hefted his axe. “Iron can touch her!”
Dario led her onto the path through the meadow. He didn’t look around to make sure she kept up. The day was lovely, warm but cool enough that the walk did not exhaust them. Creatures stirred in the forest along the path, birds danced high above, and the sky was blamelessly blue.
Ahead of them was the white wood.
“Here,” Dario said, “is where I entered the wood yesterday. But something’s different.” He pressed against the trunk of the nearest tree. “They weren’t this close together!”
The tree shivered against him. He pushed, then turned sideways and shoved through the gap in the trunks. “It’s like they’re trying to keep me out!”
Deirdre said, “They’re her trees, they don’t want us in.” She pulled her hand ax from her belt and looked at the tree. “Move aside.”
The tree stopped moving. Dario watched her from beyond the screen of tree trunks.
She approached the tree and said, “Move aside!” She hacked at the tree with her ax. A small gash spewed green-tinted sap. The trees shrunk away from her.
She joined Dario. “Well?”
“Well.” He turned and led her deeper into the wood.
He counted the trees as they passed. Normally he would notch a path, but this was not a normal forest. A count would have to do to find their way back out the other side.
They stumbled over roots. The tree limbs took sly swipes at them. Deirdre threatened another tree with her ax. At one point they fell together in a small pit of crisp white grass.
Yet they were heartened.
“The trees wouldn’t fight so hard if we weren’t on the right path,” Deirdre said.
“We must be getting close,” Dario agreed.
The house when they found it was as fantastic and horrible as their imaginations had conjured. The roof was polished green stone, the walls glass and blood-colored wood. The house rested on blocks of white wood. A ramp led to the enormous front door rather than proper stairs.
And brambles grew around the house’s foundation, thorny vines that writhed and slithered. They guarded the doorway ramp. They saw Deirdre and Dario and drew up in hissing formation.
“Use your axe,” Deirdre said.
Dario stood and pulled his axe to his side. He walked to the ramp and tried his wife’s words.
“Stand aside,” he said.
The brambles only writhed and shook.
“Have it your way,” he shrugged. He swung his axe. The brambles fell before it.
“Get inside!” he panted. “Get the children! I’ll be done here very soon.”
Deirdre eased behind him on the ramp.
“Cut the roots,” she said. “It’s the only way to kill vines.”
She darted up to the door. Behind her Dario fought the brambles. He leapt from the ramp and chopped into the ground by the house’s foundation.
The door was locked. She considered using her ax, but the door looked too solid, the lock too strong. She edged up to the window and peeked in. Nothing moved inside the house’s great room. She continued around the outside, peering into windows, until she found the kitchen.
Nothing moved here either, but her children slept on a feather-stuffed mattress inside a wooden cage against the wall. She almost banged on the window to rouse them, then realized she didn’t want to alert the witch as well. She crept to the kitchen door.
It was unlocked. In fact it opened easily when she pushed on it.
She fell on her knees in front of the cage.
“Bethany! Paul! Wake up!” She tried to whisper but excitement raised her voice. “Wake up! I’ll take you home.” She reached through the bars and shook the children.
Paul roused first. He rubbed his eyes. Then he poked at Bethany.
The little girl sat up.
Deirdre said, “What? I’m here to bring you home.” She pulled on the cage’s door. It was firmly latched.
“We don’t want to go.”
“She feeds us.”
“She doesn’t make us do chores.”
Deirdre was astonished. “But she keeps you in a cage!”
Bethany took a deep breath. “Mistress! Mistress! Come quick!”
Paul added his shouts to his sister’s.
Deirdre swung her ax down on the cage latch. It didn’t yield. She put the blade between the cage and the door and pushed, hoping to lever the cage open.
The children screamed.
Dario stormed through the kitchen door, shouting. “What’s happening? Are you all right?”
At the same moment, the witch appeared. She laughed, clapping her hands with glee.
“Oh, you’re all here! This is wonderful!” She waved a hand at Dario. “Sit!” He fell into a chair. The witch looked at the children. “Peace,” she whispered. The children quieted. Then witch waved at Deirdre who grasped the metal head of her ax. “Sit!” Deirdre sat on the floor.
“I think some hot cider is in order,” she said. She plucked a clay kettle from the stove and poured frothy spiced cider into two mugs. The children accepted the drinks and sat in their cage, slurping.
The woman examined the cage door. “Not too much damage. I don’t really need to keep them locked up, of course. They won’t go back home. But it wouldn’t do to have them running around my house like spoiled puppies.”
The woman sat at her table across from Dario. “Now. Why have you come to disturb my home? Wasn’t our agreement last night satisfactory?”
Dario said, “No, it wasn’t. We’ve come to get our children.”
“Truly? And what do you have to bargain with?” The woman’s eyes gleamed and a smile played around her lips. As if she knew.
“The emeralds,” Deirdre said from her place on the floor.
“The emeralds,” Dario said. He pulled out the deerskin bag and flung it onto the table. “You could buy a dozen hard-working servants with what’s in that bag!”
“I could,” the woman said, “but I want your children. I told you. Your flesh for my flesh.” She picked up the bag. Her eyes widened. She pulled it open and upended it.
Nothing came out.
“Did you think to trick me?” she said.
Dario stared in horror. “No! It was stuffed with those stones from your wood.” He shook his head. “The bag was full. I swear it.”
“It’s not full now.” The woman poked her finger through a hole in the bottom. “They must have fled. You are not the first to try and bargain with me, but you are the first to fail so badly at it. Now what shall I do about you?”
The woman laughed. “I suppose I could have you cut down more trees. Two more. Yes.” She grinned.
“That’s been your plan all along,” Dario said. “You’re a witch, you can’t use iron. You’d never be able to get the emeralds. Unless someone helped you, and why would someone help you out of kindness?” He tried to push himself up from the table. His arms were weak but his legs were weaker. He fell back into the chair.
Deirdre spoke up. “You have us to help you get the emeralds. What do you want with the children?”
The woman laughed. “I keep telling you. They’re now my flesh. They’ll replace the two you stole. They’ve already begun the process. Two weeks and they’ll be ready. Children, show this wife your hands.”
Bethany and Paul obediently showed their hands to Deirdre. The fingernails had gone stark white.
“Oh!” Deirdre cried. “Oh, oh, oh! You’re turning them into trees?”
The woman nodded. “Flesh of my flesh,” she said.
Dario fought the exhaustion that encased his body. He stood up and grabbed his axe.
“Then I shall cut you into kindling, like the wood you are!” he roared.
The witch wove her hands in a gesture larger than any she’d used yet. Dario froze.
Deirdre screamed. She flung her ax at the witch. It sliced into the witch’s side. She lurched against the table.
“You dare!” she whispered.
Dario blinked his eyes as if awakening from a spell. He swung his axe.
The woman felled easily, like a tree. Green-tinged crystalline blood flew from her veins. In moments, the woodsman had cut off her crown and trimmed her limbs. Her body was covered with hacked-up clothing, but where her flesh would have shown was only the carved wood of a statue. Dario stood over her, panting.
“The stove,” Deirdre said. “Wood burns.”
Dario nodded. He filled the stove with bits of the wooden woman. He fumbled one-handed with the matches. Deirdre pushed him aside.
She struck the match and flame leapt onto the wooden woman. Within moments flames blazed.
“Get the children,” Dario said.
“I can’t, the cage is locked,” she said.
He used his axe and the cage opened. The children sat frozen.
“Get them!” he shouted. Flame escaped from the stove and chewed on the table and the chair where he’d sat. They didn’t have long.
Deirdre grasped the children, pulled them from the cage. She hauled them to their feet. They stood, eyes unfocused. She grabbed their hands and ran for the door.
The house shook. They fled to the yard, as far away from the house as they could get without entering the white wood. The house burned hot and bright. Red flames consumed the walls. Yellow sparks flew from the roof. The family watched the solid structure turn into char and embers.
They didn’t see the white wood disappear.
In the place of the ranks of white trunks stood a normal wood, gnarled trunks and limbs reaching down from pines and oaks and maples. Dario hugged Deirdre with his good arm.
“We’re safe,” he said.
The children cried. Deirdre hugged them and they hugged her back.
“What happened?” Paul said. “I don’t remember anything except that a strange woman took us from you!”
“What happened?” Bethany said. “How did we get here?” She looked at her hands. “I can’t feel my fingers!”
Deirdre saw that the child’s fingers were still stone white. She shared a dismayed glance with Dario. Then she lied.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “They’ll be back to normal before you know it!” She hugged the girl again.
“How are we going to get home?” Deirdre said to her husband.
He smiled. “The white woods may have gone, but the emeralds remained. Look!” He pointed to a wide willow tree. An emerald sparkled at its base.
“The children have the best eyesight. Find the path, Bethany. Paul, pick up the emeralds as we go.”
They walked into the forest. But they weren’t the only ones returning. A flock of ravens watched them and swarmed after them. Before they had gone ten feet, the ravens had descended on the trail and swallowed every emerald. One brave bird even plucked the first emerald from Paul’s hand.
“We are going to be lost in the forest.” Deirdre didn’t want to walk any further.
“Yes,” Dario said.
“We still don’t have any wood or any money,” she said.
“True,” Dario replied.
“Our children are permanently marked by that witch,” she said.
“Maybe. Unless they grow out of it,” Dario said.
“Why are you so happy?” Deirdre stamped her foot into the forest’s thick bed of leaves and moss.
He couldn’t deny that he smiled. “Because I have my family,” he said. “And because I can bring us some meat for the stewpot.” He threw his axe. It whirled between the tree limbs and lopped off the heads of five ravens. The birds tumbled to the ground.
“What do you suppose is inside?” And he smiled again.
This story originally appeared in Beyond Centauri, also Re-Enchant (Pole-To-Pole Press).