The old witch was nearly blind. Her eyes were glazed over with milky clouds and when she squinted her face twisted like a wizened grape left too long in the sun. In the weeks that she lived in the forest, Gretel found many reasons to be grateful for the witch's blindness. Her first reason was Hansel.
After throwing Hansel into the cage in the basement, the witch had shoved a screaming, kicking Gretel into a small, windowless room. The girl cried herself to sleep, shivering in the dark. She dreamed of a huge fire burning in the woods. She could hear her parents' voices, calling for her from the darkness. She wanted to run to them but she couldn't bear to leave the warm, brightly burning fire. When she woke up, the witch was staring down at her.
"Well, girl, it is time for you to earn your keep. Go wash your face and fetch some water for breakfast. We have a bit of work to do to get food ready for your brother." Every morning, the hag would check on poor Hansel, caged out in the stable. Every morning, as Hansel held out his skeletal offering, Gretel was sure that this would be the day that the trick failed. This would be the day that the witch ate Hansel. Every morning, the trick worked and Gretel breathed a silent sigh of relief as they left her brother behind, alive.
After the ghastly ritual of checking on Hansel, the day became much more pleasant. The chores that the old witch set out for Gretel were no more than she had always done at home. She gathered eggs from the henhouse while the witch did repairs on the gingerbread house. In the back of the stable were two giant ovens. One was always heated, baking gingerbread, and every day the witch would mutter spells to keep the walls sturdy and the chocolate and cream that decorated the windows and roof from melting.
Gretel also helped to tend the small kitchen garden in the morning, weeding and watering the various herbs and vegetables. At mid-day, the witch would give her a thick chunk of bread and cheese. Then the indoor chores started, cleaning the small cottage and cooking supper.
Every few days, a dead animal would appear on their doorstep and the witch would make Gretel help butcher it. Fur and feathers were set aside—Gretel wondered if the witch ever sold them at the market as the girl's own father and brother would have done. The blood, bone, and innards went into separate jars, which the hag would put away in her workroom. Then Gretel would cook the meat, making stew or roast according to recipes she found while reading in the evenings. Her own family had never had fresh meat and she savored the taste. The old witch always complained about the texture of the meat and sent longing glances towards the door.
The first evening, after all the chores were done and supper was eaten, the witch asked Gretel to read out loud to her. The girl was terrified by this request. A poor woodcutter's daughter had few opportunities to learn to read. She wondered if this failure would make the hag lock her into the cage with Hansel—or would she do something worse? The girl cringed against the wall, stammering out her inability.
The witch's eyes narrowed and, grumbling under her breath, she shuffled over to a set of shelves in her workroom and pulled down some books. For the next few nights, the witch taught Gretel to recognize common words on sight and how to sound out longer words. Gretel wondered some times if the witch had also cast a spell to help her learn, since reading came so remarkably easy to the girl. Soon, Gretel was reading everything from plays and poetry to travelogues and cookbooks in the candlelit cottage.
Her dreams were full of memories of Hansel. Her brother, brave and adventurous, who had always protected her. He drove off the village bullies who laughed at her patched clothing and worn shoes. He made friends with the neighbor's dog and made the huge beast stop barking at Gretel every time she walked past it. He shared his food when she was so hungry she couldn't bear the emptiness of her stomach.
When she woke, Gretel would remind herself that Hansel was still a boy and could be as cruel as any of them. She would think of the time he had tied tin cans to a cat's tail and chased it through the village with the older boys. The time he pushed her into the millpond and the day he put a garden snake into her bed. Hansel wasn't perfect. And the witch wasn't hurting him, not really, Gretel whispered to herself.
One day, the witch was mixing a potion in the kitchen while Gretel washed the floor. The girl watched as the hag squinted her eyes and frowned at the text, then rubbed her hand over her forehead tiredly. Shyly, Gretel offered to read the recipe aloud to the old woman. The witch glared at her suspiciously, but eventually nodded and handed the book to her. When the potion was done, the hag smiled at the girl and for a moment, she looked like a proud grandmother.
That afternoon, a deer was delivered to the doorstep of the gingerbread cottage. The old woman showed Gretel how to skin the large animal and prepare the meat. Supper was the most amazing meal Gretel had ever eaten.
She dreamed of the deer that night. She was skinning the deer again, slowly tearing strips of hide of the meat, mouth watering at the smell of cooking venison. Looking down as she lifted up the rest of the hide, she found a bloody Hansel curled up in the deer's gut.
After that day, the witch started to teach Gretel other things—small charms and hodgepodges. Gretel learned the spell that protected the chocolate lining the gingerbread house and the one that kept the strange cottage hidden from hunters and woodsmen while letting in children. When she worked in the garden, the witch would tell her the names, natures, and uses of the different herbs that they carefully tended.
Except for the daily visits to Hansel, Gretel's days started to feel normal. In truth, everything felt better than normal. Normal was listening to her stomach growl while staring at the small bit of bread and moldy cheese on her plate at dinner. In the gingerbread house, Gretel went to bed every night with a full belly—and in the morning she had extra bread to feed to the few birds who hung around the edge of the clearing. Normal was scrubbing floors on sore knees while her stepmother berated her. In the gingerbread house, the witch introduced her to fascinating books and wondrous enchantments, and was always ready to praise any accomplishment.
So, understandably, Gretel sometimes slipped into daydreams that her parents had apprenticed her to the witch. She told herself that one day she would have a little cottage herself and she would sell charms and simples at the village market. She tried her best to forget about Hansel's situation and when she couldn't, she told herself that living with the old woman and having all the rich food and sweets he could ask for was much better than starving in the woods, cage or no cage.
In her head, Gretel started calling the witch "Grandmother."
One night, after a pleasant day of interesting lessons and light chores, Gretel dreamt that she and the witch sat down to a feast. A long table stretched out in front of, laden with covered dishes, and her mouth watered at the delicious scents that filled the air. She uncovered one platter eagerly to find Hansel's disembodied head, glazed and stuffed with an apple in his open mouth. Gretel wanted to scream in horror, but instead she laughed and pressed her knife into his throat, cooing to the smiling witch about the tenderness of the meat.
It was only a few days after that dream that Hansel's trick finally failed. The witch bypassed the finger-bone to grab his wrist and then cackled gleefully. With a quick spell, Hansel's cage was lifted out of the basement and to the back of the house. The hag bustled about, setting up the oven, while Gretel watched numbly. After a while, the witch asked Gretel to check the temperature of the oven.
Gretel looked at her brother—at his pale, haggard face—and then back at the witch. She squeezed her eyes shut and mumbled that she didn't know how to check the temperature. The witch had never shown her.
The witch glared at her and pushed the girl towards the oven, saying that she would show the silly child then. Curtly, she pulled down the oven door, and stuck her head into the glowing red opening. Gretel was looking at Hansel, images from her dream assaulting her mind, and, without another thought, she pushed the old woman into the oven and shut the door. Trembling, she opened Hansel's cage and the two of them ran into the woods. At the edge of the clearing, Gretel turned around for one last look at the now crumbling gingerbread house. Hansel grabbed her hand and led his weeping sister back into the forest.
For the rest of her life, Gretel had nightmares about burning. Once in while, she would also dream about cutting into soft, tender meat, and she craved the sweet taste her mind imagined.