Hansel and Gretel and the cannibalistic witch

Hansel and Gretel and the cannibalistic witch
Hansel and Gretel by Banksy,
from Banksy’s Santa’s Ghetto,
an art gallery opening in Oxford Street.

Let me tell you a dream about deception and trickery, from an old story you already know, about two children who were very young, but already very smart.

A man cut down trees to make a living. He lived in a huge forest with his wife and two children – the boy was John, and the girl Margaret. They were poor and had very little food.

The father tossed and turned in his bed.

"What should we do? How can I feed my children?" he said.

His wife had a plan: "Tomorrow we lead them into the thickest part of the forest. We light a fire, go do our work, and leave them there alone."

"How could we leave our children alone to be ripped apart by wild animals?" he said.

"If we don’t, with not enough food, we all die," she said.

All night long he tossed, until they agreed.

Because of hunger, the children were not asleep, so they heard their mother’s plan. Margaret began to cry. John told her not to worry. He crept outside and saw small pebbles gleaming white under the moon like silver coins. He filled his pockets, and told his sister he had his own plan.

In the morning, the mother gave them bread. As they all walked into the forest, John kept looking back at the house.

"What are you looking at?" said his father.

"My white cat on the roof," said John.

"That’s not your cat, that’s the rising sun shining on the chimney," said the mother. But John had actually been secretly tossing pebbles onto the road.

They reached the middle of the forest. The father told the children to gather wood. A fire was lit, and the mother told them to rest while she and their father cut wood.

"When we’re done we’ll come back for you," she said.

The children lay by the fire and ate a little piece of bread. They heard the strokes of their father’s axe, so they knew he wasn’t too far away. But their father, to fool them, had fastened a branch to a tree, and the wind blew it back and forth so it sounded like axe-strokes.

The children fell asleep and woke up at night in the dark, alone.

Margaret began to cry. "How will we get out of this forest?" she said.

"Don’t worry, when the moon comes up we will follow the pebbles," said John.

And they did. They walked all night back home. The mother answered the door.

"Where have you been? We thought you were never coming back!" she said.

But still there was no food, and again the mother convinced the father to carry out her plan. (Because, of course, once you’ve given in, it’s hard not to give in the second time.)

And John again heard them planning, and went to pick up the pebbles. But this time the mother had locked the door.

In the morning, the mother gave them bread. As they all walked into the forest, John kept looking back at the house.

"What are you looking at?" said his father.

"My little white pigeon on the roof," said John.

"That’s not your pigeon, that’s the rising sun shining on the chimney," said the mother. But John had actually been squeezing together little balls of bread and secretly tossing them onto the road.

This time they went deeper into the forest. Again, a fire was lit, and the children slept. Again, their father and mother left them. Again, the children fell asleep and woke up at night in the dark. Again, Margaret began to cry.

"Don’t worry, when the moon comes up we will follow the little balls of bread," said John.

But they could not. Thousands of birds in the forest had eaten all the bread.

They walked all that night, and all the next night. They ate nothing but a few berries growing on the ground. They were lost and starving.

They had been in the forest for three nights, and every time they walked they seemed to be deeper into the forest.

At noon they saw a snow-white bird and listened to it singing a beautiful song. When it flew away, they followed the bird, which landed on the roof of a house.

They approached the house and when they got closer they saw it was made of bread and cake, and the windows were made of clear sugar.

John began to nibble on the roof, and Margaret broke off a piece of the sweet glass window to eat.

A soft voice came from inside: "Who is nibbling at my little house?"

They answered: "The wind, only the wind," and continued to eat.

When the door suddenly opened, an old woman on crutches appeared, and the children dropped their food.

"Children, you must be starving. Come inside. Come inside, nothing bad will happen to you," she said.

They went inside and she gave them a proper meal of pancakes with all kinds of syrup, and milk to drink. And they ate until they were full, and she led them to two very small beds where they fell deeply asleep.

Now you know the story – of course this old woman was not so kind, because she was a cannibal and a witch. She lured children with her house of bread and candy, overpowered them, and then cooked them and ate them, on a holiday she called her Day of Feasting.

This evil witch could not see very far. Her eyes were swollen red, but she had a keen sense of smell.

Early in the morning she watched them sleep, and seeing their little heads upon their pillows, she licked herself and said: "An exquisite mouthful of fat."

She grabbed up the sleeping John, dragged him outside to the barn and locked him in an empty stable secured with iron bars. He screamed, but nobody heard.

The witch went inside, smacked Margaret awake and told her: "Get up, you lazy, get water and cook some food. I’m going to fatten up your brother, and when he’s fat, I’m going to cook him and eat him."

Margaret cried, but there was no help.

Margaret became the witch’s slave. She had to cook food for John, but for herself she was allowed only scraps. The half-blind witch checked how fat John was by ordering him to hold out his finger so she could measure how plump he was getting. But he held out a chicken bone instead, and the witch was enraged – as the weeks went by he was never getting fat.

"Never mind if he’s fat or lean," she said, "Tomorrow I butcher him and eat his fat."

Margaret cried and the witch laughed.

"Nothing you can do will save him," she said.

The next morning, Margaret went outside where the large oven sat. The witch said she had already heated it. Flames were shooting out the sides.

"Open the door and see if the oven is hot enough," said the witch.

Now of course the witch intended to push Margaret into the oven, slam the door on her, and let her body bake. Margaret knew this. She was not stupid, yet she acted dumb.

"I don’t know how to get it open. How do I unlatch this door?" said Margaret.

"You stupid tot!" said the witch, "Look, you unlatch it like this. It’s big enough to crawl inside."

As the witch stood there with her head partway into the oven, Margaret ran to her and gave her a huge push, and the witch fell inside the oven. Margaret slammed the door closed and latched the iron bolt.

When Margaret ran away to rescue her brother, she only heard a bit of the horrible screaming as the witch was burnt to death.

When Margaret released her brother he flew like a bird out of a cage. They hugged each other and cried. Then they explored the witch’s house and found chests full of gold and silver and jewels in all the corners.

"Better than pebbles!" said John, and they both stuffed their pockets full.

They did not want to stay in the witch’s house one minute more, so they left. They walked for two hours away from the house, and came to a huge river.

"There’s no bridge and there’s no boat, but there’s a large white duck swimming towards us. Maybe she will help us," said Margaret.

And Margaret called to the duck, who swam to them. John grabbed onto the duck’s back, and told his sister to sit beside him.

"No, we must go across one at a time," said Margaret.

And so they did.

And then they walked some more, and things began to look more familiar to them, and then they began to run, because things began to look very familiar to them, and then they saw their house in the distance, and they rushed inside and saw their father and threw themselves around his neck.

The mother was nowhere to be seen. She was dead.

And the children kissed their father, who had not known one happy minute since they were gone, and they emptied their pockets of their rich gold and silver and jewels, and the family was together and happy and content.

And that’s how the story almost ends, where John and Margaret were fooled by evil, yet fooled evil in return.

And, by the way, the story actually ends with this –  if you see a mouse run out from behind the furniture, try to capture him and make his fur into a hat.

Thanks to SurLaLune Fairy Tales>>
The complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales at Project Gutenberg>>

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