When we were young we were inseparable, Hansel and I. It was only he who our stepmother asked to gather from the woods, for she was heavy with a child she was sure would be a son, and her husband’s first boy was more threat to her babe’s someday inheritance than a girl-child. I went with him, in my naïveté; and it was no loss to her that both might die.
It did give me some pleasure that her own get was female after all, but she still had the last laugh: it inherited anyway.
I built a tower because the witch had lived in a cottage. I made it of stone, imposing and unwelcoming, because hers had been enticing. I cultivated a garden and ate mostly greens, raw and fresh, because she gorged on sweets and flesh—I tried to forget whose. I avoided the folk because she had always been luring.
None of this mattered.
We stayed in the village at first, and tried not to let the distance between us grow too big. But the fact was that was that he had screamed, and I had slain the witch. And folk talked; and what they said was that it takes a witch to kill one.
Hansel was near a man by then: he could leave, make his way as a soldier, reinvent a life. I was near a woman: there were no such options open to me.
So Hansel left, and I became the witch.
I didn’t take her as a baby. I didn’t bargain for her or trap anyone. I wanted a child, but I didn’t take one. She came to me.
I heard her crying from my window as dark fell, wrenching cries that drew me down the stairs against my will. The night was too cold for a child to be left in the garden; she could not have been two, and her home was not near, for no one wished to be near to me. As I carried her up the stairs she clung to me with chubby little-girl hands. It was years since anyone had allowed me near enough to touch, and trusting and young she held me close and would not let me put her down.
And, too, I longed for a child. I knew my own chance was past even if I could have found a man who would have the witch for his wife. I had known a long time that that love would never be mine—but this love I could not help wishing for nonetheless. So understand when I say: it was the hardest thing, but still I swore that I would take her home again. As I was never taken home.
The next morning her parents did not come, nor the one after. Finally after four days a sister came for her, and left without a word to bring back the parents. It transpired her mother had been in labour, and the little one had run; that a son was born at last, after five to-be-dowried girls, much to their delight; and that the little girl shied away from her kin, and clung to me.
It was not I who refused to give her back. It was she who refused to be given.
I never heard from Hansel, after the wars, and thought he must have died. But it seems not; it seems he drew honour and the king’s attention; it seems he married a princess. It seems he did well for himself. I would never have begrudged him that.
I mind, though, that his son is a dunce. I mind that he tried to sneak my girl away, as if I would have denied her a happiness I never had. I mind that there is no way, now, for me to explain to him who I am, or who I was.
I mind that Gretel’s fate will stay a mystery, lost in time, and the old woman who raised the prince’s beautiful bride will always be known as witch.