By Alexandra Seidel
Hans had the distinct feeling that this Christmas would be special. He couldn’t exactly say why this was so, perhaps because the gingerbread house tasted especially good this year. He looked over to his sister Gretel who was just heating up the oven.
“You have this brooding look on your face again, haven’t you?” she asked without turning to look at him. Her golden hair caught the twinkle of the fire and for a moment it shone almost red.
“So what if I do?” Hans retorted.
“Come now, Hänsel. Why don’t you walk it off? The woods are big and chances are that you will find us something delectable to eat. I mean, It’s Christmas tomorrow and apart from the gingerbread and those skinny rabbits I snared… well, I just think it would be nice to have a decent meal on Christmas, don’t you?”
Hänsel. Nobody ever called him that these days except his sister.
Gretel turned her head to him and fixed him with a bottle green stare. Hans sighed. She was certainly right. It had been so many years since old grandmother Hexe went into the oven. And it had been Christmas then too, and a previously unparalleled feast, if a little tough. Yes, whenever Hans thought of grandmother Hexe, he would remember how tough she was to deal with the two of them on her own. It hadn’t really been a surprise that her time in the oven hadn’t changed that.
“I think you’re right,” Hans said, staring back at his sister with eyes just as green as hers.
She tilted her head and smirked. “You want me to make some bread crumbs for you, brother?”
This made both of them laugh, loud and clear, like cawing ravens over a fresh corpse.
“No, I know my way,” Hans said finally.
He left Gretel to deal with the oven and set off for the woods. The snowfall this year had been heavy and soon his legs vanished into the white up to his shins. He walked around aimlessly for a while and let his thoughts drift. His breath misted in front of his eyes and the cold bit his face. After a good hour of walking he saw something red brushing the corner of his vision. He turned his head and there it was again. A flash of red bobbing up and down through the snow dunes close to the common path, the path the more cautious folk used when venturing into the woods. Hans moved to check it out. As he stepped onto the snow-laden path, he recognized Little Red Riding Hood who had virtually no chance to move through the snow but hopping about. She was carrying her wicker basket with strong wine and fresh cake in it.
“Hey kid,” Hans greeted the girl, raising one gloved hand as he did so. “Out to visit your granny?”
“Yes sir,” replied the little girl in red. The snow was covering her to the waist. Two big blue eyes looked at him intently. “Are you by any chance the wolf?”
“No kid. Why you askin’?”
“Oh, well, we were just playing dress-up, you see, and I’m afraid the wolf took one of my glass slippers…but anyway. If you aren’t the wolf, I’ll just head straight to granny’s place. She always waits for her wine, you know. And maybe I’ll meet the wolf on the way.”
“You do that kid. But if you wanna take some advice, you shouldn’t play dress-up with wolves.”
“Why not, sir?”
Hans sighed. “It’s the hair. You’ll never get it out of the clothes again, let alone the smell.”
Riding Hood nodded and was off in her bobbing gait. Hans shook his head. Young people! Had he ever been like this?
Hans soon left the common path as he had no reason to be cautious. So close to Christmas, a horde of weird folk was around. There was this one person, a midget actually, who danced around a fire stark naked, singing: ‘Wie gut, dass niemand weiss, dass ich Rumpelstilzchen heiss!’ And only around the next oak Hans saw a girl in her nightgown, calling at the stars to fall down on her as golden coins (it did seem a useful ability, but in Hans’s mind, hypothermia was a clear drawback). There were more midgets, seven actually, carrying a glass coffin with a dead person in it. Hans contemplated asking them if they would sell him the body but thought better of it. There was no way of knowing how long she had been dead and such things could easily cause diarrhea.
Hans saw a couple of hobbits quarreling over a golden ring, but they seemed to be entirely in the wrong place. He ran into at least two witches, and both tried to sell him poisoned fruit. Being raised by a witch in a gingerbread house himself though, he didn’t fall for it for a second. The strangest encounter of the day was perhaps the frog whom he almost stepped on in the high snow. He heard the croaking when his foot was already coming down and managed to change the direction of his step only by almost falling over. The frog looked rather like a toad, also very much like he was freezing to death. What a stupid frog, Hans thought, to be croaking around in the woods this time of year.
It was almost dusk when he spotted them in a clearing. He knew instantly that Gretel would like them. He was sure that he did. One was a fawn and the other a rabbit. The rabbit did seem pretty much as skinny as the ones Gretel had already snared, but the fawn looked fat enough to make up for that.
Hans stepped into the clearing and cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”
The fawn turned towards him. “Yes?” it said with huge eyes. “How can we help you?” and after a moment, “You are not a hunter, are you? Because if you are, we won’t help you at all.”
Hans smiled. This was almost too easy. At least grandmother Hexe had put up a fight.
“No, I’m not a hunter. My name is Hans. Who are you two?”
The fawn bowed slightly and the rabbit’s ears dropped a fraction. “I’m Bambi and this is Thumper.”
“Well, nice to meet you Bambi and Thumper. And I really am in need of your help.”
“Oh, what is it?” the rabbit asked excitedly.
“Well, my poor sister is not very well. She is so very feverish and I fear this might be her last Christmas. Now, a few years ago, our parents died in an, ah, unfortunate accident. Please, will you two not pretend to be them? My dear sister is too far gone already, she will just be happy to be with our parents again and she won’t notice the difference, I’m sure.” After a pause he did what he hoped was close to the look of a hungry, abandoned and rain-soaked kitten and added, “please.”
Bambi had tears in his eyes already, and the rabbit seemed sympathetic enough too. “We’ll help you, of course we’ll help you,” said Bambi.
“Yeah, right! Show us the way, Hans, and quick!” added the rabbit.
And that was what Hans did. When things needed doing he had never been one much for dallying. And Gretel was waiting with a cozy, hot, but as of yet empty oven. Gretel didn’t like being kept waiting.
They reached the gingerbread house in good time. Gretel had lit only few lights, likely as not expecting him to use some ruse or other and preparing for the most common one. She was a fabulous actress when it came down to it, she was, his sister.
“We’re here,” said Hans.
“Oh, what a nice house,” Bambi said to Thumper as Hans led them inside.
As expected, Gretel was lying under a thick blanket, close to the oven. This would be child’s play, Hans thought.
And it was. The whole thing went down like this; Bambi and Thumper moved to stand beside Gretel’s bed. Hans took care that the oven was to their backs, and while Gretel was doing a fabulous death act, Hans opened the oven. When he winked at his sister, she jumped up from beneath her covers, lithe as a panther in a moonless night, and shoved both the rabbit and the fawn over to the oven. Hans didn’t look it, but all the gingerbread had made him quite strong and he had no trouble gripping the fawn by the neck and the rabbit by the ears and tossing them into the oven one after the other. Gretel stood there for a moment, smiling. The hot, hot fire washed over her hair and for a moment it looked red, just like her eyes which twinkled with the fire’s glow. Hans thought that he probably looked much the same. It was Gretel who slammed the oven shut.
“Well, Hänsel,” she said in a husky voice, “haven’t you found us just the feast! This will be a Christmas to remember.”
Before he could answer, somebody knocked on the door.
Gretel looked annoyed. “Who is it?” she shouted.
“It is me, grandmamma,” came a badly disguised voice from the outside, “your dear Little Red Riding Hood. I come to bring you…” but Gretel was already at the door, golden hair flying around her head like a shroud.
“Look, you punk! Wrong house! This is the gingerbread house. Gingerbread! Are you too dumb to tell! The almonds on the roof should be a dead giveaway. Riding Hood’s granny lives that way,” she pointed over to the hunter’s abode, “not here. Now get lost and stop bothering us! It’s Christmas after all, the most beautiful time of the year and nobody here wants to be bothered with the likes of you, going from door to door looking for food. And don’t leave that silly glass slipper on our doorstep!”
“But it’s cold and…” the wolf said in the tiniest voice with his tail between his legs.
“Grow some fur!” and Gretel slammed the door in his snout.
From the window, Hans saw the wolf slouching off into the hunter’s direction. It made him smile. Gretel adjusted the coals in the oven to make sure the tender meat wouldn’t get burned. Indeed, Hans thought, to himself, a special Christmas which would see quite a change to their… ah… gingerbread diet.
[This story first appeared in Danse Macabre]