Feedback: Yes, thank you.
Spoilers: Through the end of the series
Distribution: The Blackberry Patch and . If you're interested, please let me know.
Summary: During the horcrux hunt, the trio passes time by having Hermione tell Muggle fairy tales. On this particular night, Ron requests Hansel and Gretel. Ninth in a series of Muggle fairy tales retold.
Author's Note 1: I always use details from multiple different versions of the fairy tales, although all the details are in one or another real retellings. However, for anyone curious about the original versions, I often use the website Sur La Lune for their annotated fairy tales or Andrew Lang's Color Fairy series of books as a refresher.
Author's Note 2: Hermione's little revelation towards the end about the original casting of the Hansel and Gretel opera written by Englebert Humperdink is, in fact, true. Check Wikipedia if you don't believe her!
Disclaimer: All characters are owned by J. K. Rowling, a wonderful author whose characters I have borrowed for a completely profit-free flight of fancy. Kindly do not sue me, please, as I am terrified of you. Thank you.
Hansel and Gr-(eat-Now-I'm-Hungry)-etel
For one brief moment, Harry thought his head was going to split into a thousand pieces like one of Percy Weasley's thin-bottomed cauldrons. Instead, he managed to keep his blood pressure under admirable control and only growled, "Shut it, Ron."
"Have you thought about writing those two words on a piece of parchment and just waving it around repeatedly?" Hermione asked coldly. "It'd save your vocal cords loads of overuse."
"Ha bloody ha," Ron said from his position on the old couch at the center of their tent.
For a long moment everything was quiet, with Harry staring at Hermione's copy of Beedle and Hermione knitting a new pair of mittens as the cold weather was starting to loom nearer. Unfortunately, just as the edgy mood was beginning to disappear, Ron's stomach growled so loudly that there was no way for any of them to pretend they didn't hear it.
"Sorry," he muttered in embarrassment. "I can't help it. Even when I keep my mouth closed, my rotten tum has to complain."
Hermione put her knitting away in her workbag and gave a sad sigh, and Harry felt his own anger ebbing away into a morose sulkiness instead. They'd been eating very light for the last three days. The last time they'd had a real meal was Sunday when Ron had managed to nab a shepherd's pie that someone had left to cool on an open windowsill. He vaguely remembered that Hermione had said something about feeling guilty over stealing someone else's dinner, but Harry had been far too busy relishing hot potatoes and carrots to pay much attention. Still, all they'd managed since then were some apples from an orchard near one town and a few kitchen scraps taken from dustbins. Half the clothes Hermione had packed for them in her little evening bag hung ridiculously loose on them now.
"Hermione?" Ron asked tentatively. "You wouldn't know any other of those mad stories Muggles tell their kids that happen to have food in it again, would you?"
"You really want to hear about food?" Hermione said, raising an eyebrow. "Won't that just make it worse?"
"Not possible," Ron said firmly. "At this point I just want to remember that food exists; otherwise, I'm going to start eating the tent."
Hermione giggled a little at this, and Harry gave her a surprised look.
"What's so funny?" Harry asked.
"Oh, it's just that there really is sort of a story about that," Hermione said, pulling her chair over to its customary position for when she was being their storyteller.
"Someone eats a tent?" Ron asked, and his interest was mirrored by Harry who found that he felt much less hungry when he could think of all the weirdly wonderful stories that the Dursleys had carefully guarded him from throughout his childhood.
"Not quite, but close," Hermione said, then paused. "Are you absolutely sure that hearing about food is really what you want?"
"I got through Small Purple Beach Hat, didn't I?" Ron said defensively.
"That's Little Red Riding Hood," Hermione said, and her expression said she didn't believe for a moment that he'd really thought that was the name of the story. "All right, then. Once…"
"…upon a time," Ron said, sitting up a little straighter. "Right?"
"Yes," Hermione said, and Harry could see her steeling herself for another rough one. "Deep in the woods there lived a woodcutter, his wife, and their two children."
Ron looked skeptically at Harry.
"Come off it!" he said. "No way!"
Hermione looked at him in complete confusion.
"What's so odd about that?" she asked.
"Well, for one thing, there's never a brother and a sister in these things," Ron said seriously. "They're all either only children or they've got step-sisters, but never a regular old brother or sister."
Hermione pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"You know, at least in the ones I've told you so far, you're right," Hermione said. "I suppose that the idea of keeping the main character isolated from an extended family unit tends to increase the ratio of possible danger from outside forces as there would be less of a support system to fall back on and use as a means of fending off the antagonist outside of extraordinary means."
"Yeah, maybe," Ron said sagely, but he shot Harry a look that suggested Hermione might as well be speaking Mermish. "And another thing: both parents are alive. No, wait; is one of them just about to die?"
"No," Hermione said.
"See? This is weird for one of these stories. And on top of that the fellow's a woodcutter and lives in a forest. That makes sense! Now if he'd been a woodcutter and lived on a boat in the middle of the ocean, that would have been more normal for these things," Ron said, nodding firmly.
"Well, neither of Rapunzel's parents died," Hermione said tentatively.
"No, but they lit out pretty quick after dead old Dad swapped his kid for a head of lettuce," Ron said indignantly. "Same thing. So, what are the kids' names?"
"Hansel and Gretel. Actually, that's also the name of the story," Hermione said.
Ron tipped his head and considered these two.
"On a sliding scale, with Jack from the crazy story about the runner beans and the idiot giant on the normal end and Ashyweeper on the other, that only rates about a two for strange names," he said.
"Maybe a 2.5," Harry said, and Ron conceded the half point to him with a gracious bow of the head.
"Anyway, the woodcutter was very poor," Hermione said.
"Why?" Ron asked.
"What do you mean 'why'?" asked Hermione.
"Why was he poor? He's a woodcutter. He lives in a forest. It's not like he suddenly ran out of trees… or did he?" Ron asked.
"No, he didn't run out of trees because then he wouldn't be living in a forest anymore, would he," Hermione said through gritted teeth. "Did I say the woodcutter lived in a barren, deforested wasteland?"
"No," Ron said, taking her question at face value. "Hey, maybe the rest of the people he was selling wood to decided to get their wood from some other woodcutter who was undercutting this one's prices! Or maybe the other people started to cut their own wood so they didn't need his wood. I mean, they must live near the forest too. Rather lazy, buying wood from some bloke down the way rather than swinging an ax themselves, right?"
"Ron," Harry said. "I think you're overthinking this."
"Actually, there are some serious economic overtones to the whole story, so it's possible that it is, at least in part, a critique of the destruction of cottage industry and its effect on local small economies," Hermione said, tipping her head sideways and squinting as though she were trying to see the connection. "That's a very interesting question."
Ron smoothed his hair back proudly and gave Harry a superior look. Harry, in turn, tossed a cushion at his head.
"Well, all that's really beside the point because regardless of the socio-economic situation in the area, the main thing for the story is that the woodcutter is very, very poor," Hermione said.
"Okay, fine, they're poor," Ron said. "So what happens then?"
"One night, as Hansel, who was the older of the two, and his sister Gretel were lying awake with hunger pains…," Hermione started.
"I can sympathize," Ron said miserably.
"…they overheard their parents talking," Hermione said.
"Too bad they didn't have Extendable Ears. Would have made it a lot easier," Ron said. "So, what'd they hear?"
"The mother was telling the father that they simply didn't have enough food left for all four of them or else they would starve," Hermione said, then put on a high-pitched voice for the mother. "'Why, husband, we shall be dead in only a few days if I must try to feed all of us! There is only one thing left to do. We must take the children far out into the woods and leave them there for the wild beasts so that we may survive.'"
"That hideous!" Ron said, really angry. "What kind of a mother would let her kids starve so she could have a bit more bacon!"
"A rotten one," Harry said. "This is another one who makes Aunt Petunia look like Mum of the Year."
"Are you sure this isn't one of those stepmothers who turns out to be a witch?" Ron said suspiciously.
"No, this is their mother," Hermione assured him. "Normally you're right and the villains are stepmothers, which unfortunately has turned out to be a pretty persistent stereotype, but some folklore scholars think that originally the stories with stepmothers in them really were about mothers. The public just became so horrified by the idea that a mother could do some of those things to her own child that they were turned into stepmothers to soften the effect. I think there might be one or two versions of Hansel and Gretel that have her as a stepmother, but usually she's their birth mother."
"So what did the father do when his wife casually mentioned she wanted to off her own kids by leaving them to die in the forest?" Ron said.
"He argued with her for a while, but eventually he gave in and agreed," Hermione said.
"Now there's moral fortitude for you," Ron said. "What a louse. So what'd poor Hansel and Gretel the eavesdroppers do?"
"Hansel was, thankfully, a very clever boy, and after he comforted Gretel and got her to stop crying, he waited until his parents were sound asleep, and then crept out of bed, out the front door, and into the garden. There were lots of tiny white pebbles there, glowing in the moonlight, and he filled his pockets with as many of the little rocks as he could and then went back inside and slept until morning," she said.
"I don't get it," he said. "He finds out his mum and dad want to kill him and his little sister, so he starts a rock collection? Oh, wait, is he going to use the pebbles to stone them?"
"No, Ronald, he is not going to stone them with the pebbles," Hermione said with a long-suffering sigh. "I think patricide and matricide is where these stories draw the line."
"It's nice to know at least there is a line," Harry said, wrinkling his nose.
"The next morning, the parents shook their children awake and told them they were all going into the forest that day to chop wood. The mother gave Hansel and Gretel each a small bit of bread, which Gretel put in her apron pocket, and then the four of them left to go deep into the woods," Hermione said.
"Why'd she give them bread?" Ron asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.
"I suppose so they'd have something to eat and not cause a fuss," Hermione said. "On the other hand, it could be an attempt to calm a guilty conscience. After all, the parents aren't actually killing the children directly, so if she gives them something to eat, they aren't responsible for them starving to death in the woods, while at the same time they aren't specifically calling wild animals to come and kill them. It sort of protects her from directly spilling family blood, and there are loads of taboos on that in the old stories."
"Yeah, she and her husband are just dumping them in the middle of nowhere and hoping they get eaten," Ron said in a falsely nonchalant voice. "No harm, no foul on the kiddies get gobbled up by rampaging cockatrices or summat."
"I agree it's a rotten thing to do," Hermione said. "Anyway, they'd only gone a little way before Hansel stopped and was staring back at the house. 'What are you doing, you lazy boy!' asked the mother, and he said, 'Oh, I am only stopping to wave goodbye to my little white kitten who is sitting on the chimney.'"
"He had a kitten?" Ron asked.
"No," Hermione said, "and the mother was very angry at him, saying that the white spot on the chimney was only a bit of sunlight and to keep moving."
"Poor kid's barking mad," Ron said, shaking his head. "I don't blame him, really, what with the homicidal parents and the lack of food and all."
"It is an odd little detail, but all the stories put it in. Perhaps the white kitten is a symbol of innocence and home, and it waving goodbye could suggest the end of that innocence," Hermione said thoughtfully, pausing for a moment before going on. "Anyway, though, Hansel was just telling a story to cover what he was really doing."
"Which was?" Harry asked.
"Dropping one of the little white pebbles on the ground to mark the way home," Hermione said, smiling broadly. "See, I told you he was a smart boy!"
Ron gave Harry a significant look, and then cleared his throat.
"I still don't get it," he said simply.
"Oh, you'll see. The mother and father took Hansel and Gretel far into the woods, not realizing that Hansel was dropping little white rocks at intervals the whole way. Then they built them a fire and said, 'You stay here and have your bread, then rest. We will be chopping wood not far off and will come back for you when we are done.'"
"Dirty liars," Ron growled. "Poor kids. So what'd they do?"
"Well, Hansel thought that as long as he could hear the sound of the father's ax, he'd know their parents hadn't abandoned them. He was hoping they might change their minds. After a while, he fell asleep along with his little sister, listening to the clattering noise of what he thought was the ax. But really, his father had tied a big branch to a nearby dead tree, and in the high wind the branch clattered against the tree, mimicking the sound of the ax," Hermione explained.
"This is just deeply, deeply wrong," Harry said. "Bad enough sticking your kids out there to die, but being all clever about it is even worse."
"When Hansel woke up, it was dark outside, and Gretel had begun to cry once more. 'Wait,' he said. 'When the moon comes up, we will find our way home.' Sure enough, the bright full moon rose above the trees, and then…"
"…they were eaten by a werewolf," Ron suggested.
"They were not!" Hermione said indignantly. "No, the little white pebbles glowed brightly in the moonlight, and Hansel and Gretel were able to follow them back to their little cottage."
"You're telling me that in the middle of a forest, at night, with all sorts of wild animals running about, these two little kids were able to pick out tiny white pebbles on the ground, which was probably littered with all kinds of stuff, using only moonlight, and find their way back home?" Ron said, his mouth gaping.
"Yes," Hermione said, folding her arms defiantly as though daring him to find anything wrong with the story.
"Okay, so Hansel and Gretel turn out to be pint-sized tracking experts," Harry said. "What happens when they get back home?"
"Well, their father was quite pleased to see them as his conscience had been bothering him, but the mother said, 'Oh, you naughty, naughty children! Getting lost in the forest like that! We searched and searched but couldn't find you!'" Hermione said.
"Bit over the top there, isn't she?" Ron said, shaking his head. "I mean, how thick does she think her kids are?"
"Things went well for a little bit, but soon the woodcutter's family had almost no food left at all once again. Hansel and Gretel could hear their parents arguing in bed again one night a month later, and sure enough, the mother once again convinced the husband that their best course of action was to strand their children in the forest even deeper this time," Hermione said.
"Wait, wait, wait," Ron said, interrupting her. "They actually ended up doing alright for a while? After she convinced him that they were all going to starve unless they ditched their children? What, the woodcutting business had a mini economic boom or something and crashed again inside of a month?"
"I don't know," Hermione said, shrugging. "It's just part of the story."
"Nice to know the father learned so much from the first time this happened," Harry said, snorting disdainfully.
"Yeah, his conscience must have really pinched him good," Ron agreed. "Okay, so what do the kids do?"
"Little Gretel cried bitterly, but Hansel told her, 'Don't worry. God will protect us,' and then he got up to get more little white stones from the garden," she said.
"Well, if it worked once, why not again, mad as it is," he said.
"But it didn't work. The mother had locked the door and Hansel couldn't reach it, so he climbed back into bed and tried to think of another idea until he fell asleep," Hermione said.
"He couldn't reach the lock on the door? How old is he, five?" Ron said, staring at her.
"Well, pretty small, I'd guess," Hermione said, taking his question seriously. "Actually, given that it's a forest cottage, most likely it was a sliding bolt instead of an actual lock, and those could be pretty heavy, so maybe he was just too weak to draw back the bolt."
"Another possible fire catastrophe," Ron said. "Just like Lettuceheadgirl. Her mum locks her in a tower she can't get out of, and if there'd been a fire, she'd have burned up, and in this house the parents make it so the kids can't get out if they have to. All these stories are massive fire traps, I'm telling you!"
"Considering they wanted the kids dead anyway, it's not really such a puzzle," Harry said. "Kind of like how the Dursleys made a point of not teaching me to swim so that maybe someday I might accidentally drown on my own."
"Blimey, Harry," Ron said, giving him a sympathetic look. "They really are a couple of right tossers, aren't they?"
"Took you this long to catch on?" Harry said with a laugh.
"Sometimes it takes Ron a very, very long time to catch on to things right in front of his nose," Hermione grumbled under her breath so quietly that Harry was quite sure she hadn't intended anyone else to hear. "In any case, Hansel couldn't get the pebbles, and the next morning when the mother woke them and gave them each a much smaller piece of bread than before, Hansel took them and hid them in his pocket."
"Bread?" Ron said, raising an eyebrow. "He's not seriously thinking of what I think he's thinking of, is he?"
"What do you think he's thinking of?" Harry asked.
"I think he's thinking of something so ridiculous that I think he can't be thinking of what I'm thinking he's thinking," Ron said, without mussing a hair.
"You think so?" Harry said.
"I think so," Ron said.
Hermione looked at both of them, then started staring off in to space for a moment.
"What?" Harry asked.
"Nothing," she said, shaking her head as she snapped back to herself. "I was just trying to diagram that sentence mentally. Sorry. Habit."
"And now I'm thinking she thinks too much," Ron said quietly to Harry.
"In any case, as they left that morning, Hansel turned back towards the house again. 'What are you doing, lazy boy?' asked the mother. 'I'm waving goodbye to my little white bird up on the chimney,' he said. Of course, there was no white bird there, only a reflection from the sunlight, and the mother said that he mustn't dawdle over silly things," Hermione said.
"Yeah, that's right," Ron said firmly. "No dawdling, Hansel. Hurry up so we can abandon you to your death. Step lively there!"
Harry laughed a bit, but really, this was one very dark fairy tale.
"Meanwhile, Hansel was secretly tearing the bread into bits and leaving pieces of it on the trail to mark their way home," Hermione said.
"That's what I was thinking he was thinking," Ron said, shaking his head. "Hansel isn't exactly a brain trust, is he?"
"Really, Ron! He's only a little boy, and what else was he supposed to do," Hermione said defensively. "He was doing the best he could with what he had!"
"By feeding their last remaining crusts of bread to the bloody birds? That's a laugh, that is," Ron said, turning rather red with anger.
"I don't really think there's anything funny about it! And what would you have done, if you're so clever?" Hermione challenged him.
"Hmm. Let's think," Ron said in pretended puzzlement. "How about throw a fit, whack the horrid mother over the head with the handy ax, grab Gretel and head for civilization and the police?"
"Yes, because a small child is so likely to overpower two grown adults carrying a sharp weapon," Hermione said. "I don't think so."
"Fine, fine," Harry interposed, sensing a real fight brewing. "We'll give Hansel the benefit of the doubt. He's a kid and was scared and trying to find his way home and he panicked. It's at least understandable."
A tense moment followed with his two friends glaring at one another rather too intensely, and for a second Harry wasn't quite sure if they were about to start yelling at one another or possibly start snogging passionately, but eventually Ron blinked.
"Okay. I'll cut the kid a break," Ron said. "Go on, Hermione."
She still looked rather upset, and Harry wasn't sure she'd actually continue.
"Really. Please?" Ron asked, throwing in a somewhat hopeful, lop-sided smile.
Hermione sighed melodramatically, but Harry noticed she'd turned a bit pink.
"If you like," she said, clearing her throat before continuing. "The parents brought the children very, very deep into the forest, turning around many times on their tracks, leading them in circles so that they were completely lost, then made the fire again, telling them to rest, and the father fixed another branch to a dead trunk, though Hansel was wise to the trick this time. Still, both children had walked so long and so far that they couldn't help falling asleep."
"That probably didn't end well," Ron said.
"When night fell, Hansel and Gretel both woke to find themselves alone and the fire gone cold. In vain Hansel looked for the fallen breadcrumbs, but the birds had eaten them all," Hermione said.
"Duh," Ron whispered to Harry, who swallowed an explosion of laughter with great difficulty.
"Hansel and Gretel did not know the way home, but they began to walk anyway. All through the night and the next day they walked, stopping only to rest when they became too weak, but they never saw anything that looked familiar," Hermione said.
"How big is this forest anyway?" Ron asked.
"Well, in the old days forest covered a large part of Northern Europe, so it could have been the size of a small country, I suppose," Hermione said.
"Okay, they're justifiably lost," Ron said.
"I'm glad you approve," Hermione said icily. "Another night passed and morning came, and in all that time they hadn't had a bite to eat. Hansel and Gretel were both about to give up hope when they saw a little white bird sitting in front of them, quite unafraid."
"It didn't happen to be waving goodbye from the top of a chimney, did it?" Ron asked.
"No, but it did hop to another branch, then another, twittering happily as though it wanted the children to follow it, and they did," Hermione said.
"Probably one of the birds that ate Hansel's breadcrumbs feeling guilty about it," Ron said, but Hermione tipped her head to one side.
"Actually, if you're right, which you might be, this would be the first character to show not only remorse but a will to fix what it's done wrong in the story. Interesting, actually, especially as the wild beasts haven't eaten the children. In fact, it's possible the story is leaning towards the idea of humans acting inhumanely and animals behaving with kindness, not unlike some of Aesop's beast fables," Hermione said thoughtfully.
"Huh?" Ron said.
"Yes, well, anyway, the children followed the bird into a clearing, and what they saw there amazed them," Hermione said.
"What? Their own cottage and their dear kiddie-killing mum and dad?" Ron said.
"No, it wasn't their own cottage at all. Instead, it was a house made entirely of food!" Hermione said.
Ron and Harry both blinked.
"Well done, little white bird!" Ron said approvingly. "We could do with one of those around here. Hey, Harry, if you ever happen to see a white animal moving through the forest that wants you to follow it, be sure to do it, right?"
"I'll try to remember that if that unlikely event should ever occur, Ron," Harry said, laughing at the idea, though quietly he started to wonder whether the bird in the story didn't sound a bit like a patronus.
"So, what was it like, Hermione?" Ron asked eagerly, leaning forward. "Don't spare the details."
"In the older versions of the story, the walls of the house are made of bread and the roof is made of cakes, and the windows are all transparent sugar-candy," Hermione said. "Some of the newer versions have the house made of gingerbread instead, though, and covered in little sweets and biscuits and bars of chocolate with a fence of peppermint sticks and shrubbery of spun sugar candy and… well, Muggles like to make gingerbread houses like that around Christmastime."
Harry was pretty sure he'd actually spotted a trace of drool in the corner of Hermione's mouth, and his own was watering rather a lot, but Ron's face was nearly frightening.
"That," he said, stopping to take a deep breath, "that sounds deeply excellent. And this was a real house, so it was really big?"
"Exactly," Hermione said.
"Whoever built that thing should be given a humanitarian award and made Prime Minister for life," Ron said. "Absolutely bloody brilliant!"
"As you might expect, the children reacted… well, much like Ron did, and they immediately set about eating the house," Hermione said. "Hansel began with one of the cakes on the roof, and Gretel sucked on a piece of candy broken from the windowpane."
"Not sure that was the best way to go about it," Harry said, frowning. "I mean, it might have been better to knock first. More polite, anyway."
"Harry, if we happen upon a house made out of Honeyduke's best stuff in the middle of a clearing the next time we set up camp? Be forewarned. I'm eating it and asking questions later," Ron said.
"Actually, Harry was quite right, for suddenly the children heard someone inside say, 'Nibble, nibble, like a mouse, who is eating up my house?'" Hermione said in a squeaky, old lady voice.
"Okay, I admit it, that doesn't look good," Ron said, "but at the same time, you don't build your house out of food unless you expect someone to stop and eat it!"
"You're more right than you know," Hermione said in an ominous voice. "Hansel and Gretel were frightened at first, but they were so hungry they only said, 'Tis the tempest wild, the storm's own child!' and kept breaking off bits of the house."
"Nice that in the middle of nearly starving to death and then be interrupted in destroying someone's house that they had the presence of mind to not only lie, but lie in a rhyming couplet," Harry snickered.
"I'm guessing that didn't fool the owner," Ron said.
"You're right. The front door opened and out hobbled a little old lady," Hermione said. "She asked the children what they were doing there, and they explained everything that had happened. The old lady took them inside and gave them a proper dinner."
"Which was?" Ron said, hanging on her every word.
"Oh, different stories say different things. Some say roast turkey, others pancakes with butter and apples and walnuts, and others say she just fed them more sweets from her house," Hermione said.
"I love this story," Ron said dreamily. "I'm having all of those when we finally get the last horcrux."
"I think I'll settle for roast beef and treacle tart," Harry said. "What about you, Hermione?"
Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, then said, in a nearly reverent whisper, "Baked ham with potatoes and strawberry trifle. And chocolate! Honeyduke's, about five pounds of it."
"See, I knew you were human," Ron said, patting her arm for perhaps a moment too long.
"In any case, the old woman then made up two soft, white beds for the children, complete with feather pillows and warm quilts, and they went straight to sleep," Hermione said.
"See, now that's how a story is supposed to end," Ron said enthusiastically. "The kids get taken in by a nice old lady in a house made of sweets and go to sleep and live happily ever after, right?"
"Wrong," Hermione said, shaking her head. "In fact, things didn't turn out like that at all."
Hermione hesitated for a moment as though considering whether or not to continue.
"What's the matter?" Harry asked.
"It's just sort of unpleasant, really. You remember how frightened the Muggles were of the witch in Rapunzel, yes?" she said.
"Yeah," Ron said, shrugging. "They're a bit daft about magic. No offense," he added quickly.
"None taken," Hermione said. "You see, Muggles tend to think of witches as being old, ugly, evil women who are capable of the very worst sorts of things."
"Well, that's stupid," Ron said. "I mean, Mum might get a bit cranky now and again, but evil is a bit much."
"Think more of Bellatrix," Hermione said bitterly, "only ancient and disgusting looking. That's their image of a typical witch."
Ron shuddered, but Harry had heard the Dursleys go on often enough about the horrors of magic and witches and wizards in general that it was no real surprise to him.
"Okay so… how does that relate to the story?" Ron asked.
"The old woman was a witch," Hermione said. "As soon as the children were asleep, she picked up Hansel and locked him in a giant bird cage, and then roughly shook Gretel awake and made her start bringing in wood for the fire and cooking."
"Why?" Ron asked.
"Gretel asked the same question, and the witch told her it was because she was planning to feed Hansel until he was fat, then eat him," Hermione said.
Harry and Ron glanced at each other.
"She's going to eat the kid?" Ron asked as though he was hoping he'd misunderstood.
Hermione nodded. "Yes, that's why she'd built the house in the first place: to lure children so she could cook and eat them."
"You know, just when I think these stories can't get more twisted," Ron said, shaking his head. "I like where I ended it better."
"For weeks, Gretel cried, but the witch compelled her to do whatever she told her to do, cooking and cleaning and giving food to Hansel while Gretel got next to nothing," Hermione said.
"Compelled her, eh?" Ron said, nodding thoughtfully. "Sounds like some Muggle got a taste of the Imperius curse at some point, doesn't it?"
"Possibly," Hermione said as though she were weighing the idea. "If the writer of the story had run into a dark witch or wizard, it certainly explains the prejudice in the story."
"So Gretel keeps fattening up her own brother. Then what?" Ron asked.
"The children were brighter than you might think, for they realized the witch had a weakness. Her eyesight was very poor. You see, in these stories, witches always have red eyes, and because of that they can't see very well," Hermione explained.
"Red eyes?" Harry said, suddenly paying more attention. "Doesn't that sound like Volde—"
"Don't say the name!" Ron said quickly.
"It's only a name, Ron," Harry said, rather annoyed.
"Yeah, but it makes me nervous and just… please don't, alright?" he said.
"Fine, but it does sound like him, doesn't it?" Harry said, turning to Hermione.
Hermione looked uncomfortable, but nodded.
"These stories… they do get some bits right sometimes, don't they," Harry said, shuddering.
"Yeah, usually the most unpleasant ones," Ron said. "Anyway, how'd the old bat being mostly blind play into it?"
"Well, each day the witch made Hansel poke his finger through the bars of his cage to feel whether he was getting fatter, but instead he would put out an old chicken bone so that she thought he was really as skinny as ever in spite of all the food disappearing," Hermione explained.
"Now, see, that's clever," Ron said, smiling broadly.
"It really was," Hermione agreed. "However, eventually the witch was so frustrated that Hansel wouldn't gain any weight at all that she decided to cook him anyway, skinny or fat."
"Oh, well, that's a problem," Ron said, his smile fading. "What happened?"
"The witch told Gretel to prepare the oven. Then she told Gretel to check whether it was hot enough by sticking her head inside, but Gretel realized that what she really wanted to do was kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and throw Gretel in the oven too. Gretel proved to be just as clever as her brother, though, and said, 'Please, I don't know how to check the oven. Would you show me how?'" said Hermione.
"I think I know where this is going," Ron said, going a bit pale.
"Probably," Hermione said. "The witch said, 'You stupid little goose! It's perfectly easy! Any fool could do it. Just watch me.' With that, the old witch stuck her head in the oven, and Gretel gave her a shove, throwing her inside, then bolted the oven door behind her. The witch screamed terribly…"
"…no kidding," Ron said to Harry.
"…and died in horrible agony," Hermione finished.
"Tell me the kids didn't eat her?" Ron said imploringly. "Really, because that would just be too much."
"No, they didn't eat her," Hermione said, grimacing.
"Well, that's something at least," Ron said. "So what did they do now that the witch was a charcoal briquette?"
"Gretel ran to Hansel's cage and broke the lock, and they were free. They searched the house and found all sorts of jewels and pearls and gold coins stuffed into every nook and cranny. Gretel filled her apron with treasure, and Hansel filled his pockets, and then they went back into the forest to find their way home," Hermione said.
"Where they promptly died of hunger," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "Why not either stay in the nice, edible house without their crazy parents and live out their days comfortably or else at least bring some food instead of only the treasure?"
Hermione looked rather taken aback.
"I… I don't know," she admitted. "I can understand not wanting to stay in the witch's house because, really, if you'd just nearly been eaten there, I'm sure the memories wouldn't be pleasant, but you're right, Ron. It certainly suggests the children are being greedy about the money rather than taking what would keep them safe. And the story never really talks about that, either."
Ron looked extremely pleased with himself.
"Anyway, the white bird came back, and the children decided to follow it again," Hermione said.
"Because that turned out so well last time, what with nearly being eaten by a cannibalistic crazy person," Ron said.
"Good point," Hermione said shrugging, "but this time things faired better, and the bird brought them to the edge of lake where there was a very large duck. 'Will you take us across the lake?' asked Gretel, and the duck agreed. 'Come, Gretel, sit on the duck's back with me,' Hansel said, but Gretel said, 'No, together we should be too heavy a load. You go first, and then I shall follow.'"
"That was nice of her," Ron said. "Good to see that killing and baking the witch hasn't left her with big, gaping moral scars. So, let me guess, the duck takes Hansel across and in the meantime Gretel is eaten by wolves?"
"No," Hermione said.
"Blast Ended Skrewts?"
"No!" Hermione nearly screamed in frustration. "The duck set Hansel on the shore, came back for Gretel, and delivered her safely to the other side as well! Then the children thanked the duck and she swam away."
"Kind of anti-climatic," Ron said critically. "Really, though, you can't top the oven scene, I suppose, so why try."
"The children realized that they now recognized this part of the forest, and they quickly found their way home again," Hermione said.
"Back to their loving, homicidal parents," Ron said, groaning.
"Not exactly," Hermione said. "In the meantime, the mother had died, and the father was thrilled to see his children alive again."
"Wait. The mother just happened to die at the same time as the witch?" Ron asked.
"Mm-hmm," Hermione said.
"Is there any chance… could they have been the same person at all?" Ron suggested.
"Well, it's not clearly stated, but sometimes in the opera based on the fairy tale, the same singer plays both the mother and the witch, so it's possible," Hermione said.
"Seriously?" Ron said.
"Seriously," Hermione said, smiling proudly. "The mother's not really evil in that version, though. In any case, the father was very happy, and even happier when Gretel and Hansel pulled out handfuls of jewels and pearls and gold, meaning they would never be poor again."
"And they all lived happily ever after, since the father never had a reason to dump his children in the middle of the woods again," Ron said, then looked at her uncertainly. "Right?"
"Right," she said, but she hesitated for a moment, then said, "do you want to know something really, really odd?"
"What?" Ron and Harry asked together.
"In the original cast of the Hansel and Gretel opera, the witch was played by a performer named, well… you aren't going to believe this."
"Hermine Finck," Hermione said, wincing. "Quite a coincidence, isn't it?"
Harry and Ron exchanged glances.
"Not planning on cooking us in the middle of the night, are you?" Harry teased her.
"I think I can restrain myself," she said wryly.
"Wouldn't get much of a meal, anyway," Ron said. "We're pretty much skin and bones as it is. Still, I can't help thinking of Mum and Dad. I never really thought about how, well, you know, with so many of us, and how they always never have quite enough money… it could be a lot worse."
Harry punched his shoulder sympathetically. The Weasleys might be poor, but he was absolutely sure that Arthur and Molly would rather die than see anything happen to their children. Ron was more fortunate than he knew.
"Maybe we'll have better luck tomorrow," Hermione said. "There's supposed to be a festival going on in the next town. We should be able to pick up something there if we're careful."
"No gingerbread, though," Ron said. "I think I've lost my appetite for that for a good long while."
They laughed and turned in for the night, at least hopeful that tomorrow things might be a little less lean. That night, though, Harry had dreams of Voldemort's red eyes, staring at him in the darkness, waiting in the shadows of the forest.