The Thirteenth Hour
Disclaimer: Hansel and Gretel be not my creation.
Summary: Hansel and Gretel don't quite know what to think about their new stepmother, or why the village seems to fear the number thirteen. A classic fairytale retold in my own words.
There's a legend in my village, that on the thirteenth hour of the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month, the sky rains blood. Of course this is all highly illogical. Firstly, a phenomenon such as that is completely and utterly incapable of occurring. Secondly, such stories are spread and believed only by those daft old wives, like Mrs. Beispiel, who's still under the impression that the only cure for a cough is to hang upside down from the branches of a poplar tree until a rooster crows.
Twilight is coming to an end.
It's just light enough to make out faint shapes of the objects around you, but not see details. The trees are black against an almost electric blue sky, and the air is moist and cool. The leaves are rustling ever so softly as the wind brushes past them, and for a moment I find myself wondering just exactly what they're whispering to each other. There's magic in the air. I can smell it.
Or perhaps that's just Gretel's cooking.
My attention draws away from the inky heavens, littered with silver-moon sparkles, and focuses instead on our aunt's house. The aroma is too much for me to bear, and before I realize what's happening my feet are taking me back along that familiar garden path, paved with milky pebbles. Someone's lit the candles. It's probably Father. He's always had this fear of the dark. I don't understand why, though. It's completely irrational.
I pause for a moment outside my aunt's house, which is half shrouded in darkness. I suppose they've run out of candles again. Typical. The windows are open, wide like eyes, and stare right back at me. It's slightly unnerving, the way it looks so alive, but I give myself a shake and stalk forward. Now is not the time to be thinking of petty qualms.
Her floor is made of massive stone slabs, carved and carried from the north. My uncle works in a quarry there, and brings back the leftovers. He hasn't been home in two years. Frankly, I don't think my aunt cares very much. This way she gets to spend more time with us, and Mr. Mädchen, the locksmith. I've never spoken to Mr. Mädchen, but at a glance, he looks about as cultured as a cart stuck in a ditch.
I swing open the heavy front door, made from oak, and step into the light. Candles are everywhere. And so is the wax, I think grimly, wrinkling my nose. Though I suppose it will give us something to do later. Gretel and I are constantly picking the wax off furniture. Sometimes, Gretel collects enough to make a whole new candle. That way we don't have to keep visiting the candlestick maker, Mr. Ingelburg.
My aunt notices my somewhat distracted expression and pinches me as she stalks past, carrying a basket of freshly baked bread.
"You could help us set the table, Hansel," she says. It is a command disguised as a suggestion. To disobey would mean certain death…well, that or starving until tomorrow morning.
Father comes in from the back hugging a bundle of firewood to his chest. He smiles weakly at me, and I return the gesture. He's an old man – nearly forty – and his hair is starting to thin. It was once a bright red, but now is mixed liberally with silver.
"Give us a hand, Hansel," he says.
In the morning, Gretel and I make our way to Josef Krakhaus' home, a small shack by the river. His father is a fisherman – and a skilled one at that. He's also one of the kindest people I've ever met. On numerous occasions his family has given us fish while the rest of the village is starving. We've had poor harvests for about three seasons now. Little by little, the population of our mountain home diminishes. We're like flies, dropping dead when the weather gets too cold.
Our father works hard to support us. This is no easy task, especially since mother passed away three years ago, when Gretel and I were eight. Father is a woodcutter; to me this seems ironic as he is such a nervous man, one who is afraid of being alone in his own house, let alone a dark wood.
Josef spots us through a misted window and rushes out to greet us.
"Hansel!" he cries. "Gretel!"
"Hullo, Josef," I grin, clasping his hand in mine.
"Hello," he says to me. He then turns to Gretel and smiles. "Hello, Gretel. You're looking pretty today."
Gretel blushes and smiles shyly. I twitch. I hope Josef's intentions are pure. He may be my best friend, but at the end of the day, Gretel is still my sister. I shall pursue any man who wishes to court her, gut him, and use his innards as a fancy hat accessory.
I clear my throat noisily. Josef understands, and moves away from my sister, seemingly embarrassed.
"You'll never believe it, Hansel," he says once he recovers. "My uncle Rudolf is building us a treehouse!"
"Oh, how lovely!" exclaims Gretel.
Josef's uncle is no other than the notorious Mr. Mädchen, my aunt's lover. I pretend to be happy for him. There's no use being sour at times like this. The three of us then walk down the muddied path that leads away from his house and make our way to the river. It's a humid day, so we take off our shoes and dip our feet into the icy water. It's bliss.
Eventually, when our conversation has faded and we become too tired to speak, we sprawl across the rocks lining the bank and close our eyes. The gushing river lulls Gretel to sleep, and Josef and I become drowsy. Birds circle our heads and dip occasionally into rock pools to cool off. Even though it is a gray day, rays of silver sunlight permeate the clouds and give the whole area an ethereal atmosphere. I sigh. This is the life.
That is, of course, until we are rudely interrupted.
"Josef! Hansel! Gretel!"
Josef and I scramble to our feet, while Gretel stays fast asleep. Great, I think. It's Mr. Mädchen.
"Your father wants you," he says, jerking his head at me.
"Thank you," I tell him, secretly disgusted at the sweat stains under the arms of his shirt.
I wake Gretel, and we leave the woods.
The magic is lost.
…for the meanwhile.
"Children, I'd like you to meet Mrs. Mädchen."
For a moment we stare in awe at this massive woman, with a bosom as wide as the sky and a bottom as large as a bear. I look inquisitively at Mr. Mädchen and Josef's mother before she corrects the thought running through my head. His wife…?
"This is our sister, Children," she says. "Your aunt, Josef," she explains to her son, who is also meeting her for the first time.
Indeed, this appears to be true. The three of them, the three Mädchen siblings, have a similar build. They are all tall, rotund and blonde. Josef's mother has grey eyes like a mountain. The other two's are bluer, icier.
"Hello," says Mrs. Mädchen.
She sounds like a man, I think.
"Hello," we echo.
Her eyes linger over Gretel and I. She's wondering why we look so different. She's wondering why Gretel's hair is midnight-black, why her skin is the colour of parched earth, why her irises are the colour of dewed grass, glistening in the sun.
She's wondering why my hair is bright red, why my skin is as pale as the snow, and why my eyes are blue like the sky. She's wondering how we could ever be siblings. I feel Gretel shift uncomfortably under her rude and unyielding gaze, and cannot stop myself from instantly hating this massive woman.
I hate the way she looks at my sister, as if she's a piece of dirt.
There's a knock at the door – Mrs. Krakhaus answers it to find that it's our father, come to call us home for dinner.
He suddenly notices Mrs. Mädchen and jumps in surprise.
"O-oh!" he says. "I'm sorry, I d-didn't know you h-had c-c-company, Gustavf."
"Don't worry!" laughs Mr. Krakhaus. "This is just my brother and sister-in-law! Come meet them, Lukas."
They are introduced. My father, blushing like a schoolboy, plants a nervous kiss on the back of Mrs. Mädchen's hand. They talk, they laugh. Father breaks into a sweat, and then, like a child, stumbling over his words, he invites Mrs. Mädchen to join us for dinner.
Gretel's grip on my arm tightens. We both know this is a bad move.
This is how Mrs. Mädchen comes into our lives.
Unexpectedly, like a serpent emerging from beneath a field of posies.
Thought it might be interesting to see what I could make of this story. Reviews would be much welcomed.
Btw, "Mädchen" means "girl" in german! Ha ha!