Father has changed. I don't just mean the way he looks, all dressed in finery, paid for by the jewels we stole from the witch's house. I mean inside, something is...broken.
Hansel says Father feels bad, that we should forgive him. That it was all our mother's fault, the woman who raised us, maybe not given birth to us, but raised us from small babies, and then threw us out. She left us, left us in the woods, knowing she wasn't coming back.
Father did that too, though.
Hansel doesn't realize that while he was in the barn fattening up for the witch's meal, I was inside...talking to her.
"Eh, girl, and where are your parents again?" She loved to ask me that. "Threw you out like last week's refuse, they did. Kept the pigs, I bet. And the cows. But not you two."
She wasn't wrong about that. The pigs, the cow, the horse, and Hansel's cat and pigeon--although I haven't seen the pigeon around so I think they ate it.
"Father didn't want to," I said, defending him because I loved him.
"Didn't want to but he did it. At least your mother wanted to and carried through. I applaud that kind of wherewithal. But your father? " She spat. "Only cowards do things they know aren't right."
"He's not a coward!"
"And he'll come charging in here on his steed, swinging a sword at me any moment, eh? I'm shivering in my shoes, girl. Get a move on. Your brother needs his lunch."
And so it went.
But...was she wrong? Father did something he didn't want to do, and it wasn't as if it was a small thing like paying taxes when you barely had enough to live on, or selling off your daughter's puppy even though she loved it as much as your son loved his cat.
What he did was much worse: he left us to die.
And now he is spending our money, the money we earned--or at least the money we suffered for. There is so little left, gone so fast it seems as if he's thrown it out the window to let the four winds carry away.
I'm starting to understand why we never had enough to eat.
"Girl!" Father leans over the side of his armchair, and he looks for me but the drink is making his eyes weak.
I say nothing.
"Girl, where's this house you found the jewels in? There are probably more." He laughs, a strange, hollow sound. "More for the taking."
I skulk outside.
Hansel is sitting in the far field; I can barely make him out, his red shirt and the white cat draped over his shoulder giving him away. I run to him, sit down next to him, trying not to shiver.
"He's drunk again," I say.
Hansel just nods.
I reach over, pet his cat, who stretches her neck so I can get under her chin.
"There was a cat in the witch's barn," Hansel says quietly.
"The orange one?" I saw her a few times and then she disappeared.
"She was a nice cat." Hansel sounds funny, so I glance at him and see he is crying. "Didn't you wonder where I got the bone I used to fool the witch? The one that made her think my finger wasn't getting any fatter?"
I look down, and I wish I could feel something for him other than annoyance. It's not that I'm not sorry for the cat. I am. But I'm not sorry for Hansel. He was in his little pen, left alone, while I had to listen to the witch, had to clean her house, had to eat crayfish shells as my only meal even as I fixed him sumptuous feasts.
Feasts he could have chosen not to eat. I'd have gotten rid of them later. If he hadn't been such a glutton, he wouldn't have gained weight, and his finger wouldn't have gotten fat, and he wouldn't have needed to kill a nice little orange kitty just to cover up the fact that he had no self control.
Why should I feel bad for him?
He's just like our father.
I don't tell him that, though. Hansel is getting a temper on him, when he isn't crying over dead cats and lost birds.
Our father has a temper, too. I know this, but Hansel doesn't. Father doesn't raise a hand against Hansel. Hansel gets to stay outside and work the fields and be with his precious cat while I'm stuck inside, listening to father go on, all his big plans.
When we first got back, he wasn't this way. He was overjoyed, or so I thought.
Until I found the body. Buried shallow in the root cellar. Mother's favorite dress poking out just enough. I'm not sure why I did it, but I dug her up. Her head was bashed in. Not a little, not like she slipped and hit her head. More like a rock had come down over and over and over.
I could almost hear father yelling, "You made me. You made me."
The witch was right. He's a coward.
Hansel doesn't know. Hansel doesn't care. Father said Mother was dead, and my brother just shrugged and went on dangling a strand of her yarn in front of his cat.
I whisper, "He wants to go back to the witch's house."
"That'd be a good idea. Lots more to take--you saw how much. We should bring a wheelbarrow this time. Can bring more out that way, make less trips."
"I don't think it's a good idea." I'm trying this out on him, seeing how much there is left of the brother I adored, the brother I looked up to.
He turns on me, and his cat jumps down with a hiss. His temper flares quickly and then burns out, unlike Father, who holds on to his anger for dear life. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes. "No. We should go. Father is right."
I roll up my sleeve, show him a bruise on my arm. "Was Father right
It is a test for my brother; I hate that I feel compelled to give them.
His look changes. He touches my arm gently and murmurs, "What did he
I am happy he passes the test.
Hansel meets my eyes. "What can I do?"
That he doesn't know troubles me. That he's so much like Father saddens me. But at least he cares. Some part of him cares.
There's nothing he can do. But there is something I can.
I smile at him. "You're right. We should go to the witch's house." I don't tell him that I will skip ahead while they push their wheel barrows. That I will light a fire in the oven, get it going nice and strong.
The oven's plenty big enough for Father. No one will know anything. Not if Hansel and I tell the same story. I'll make sure Hansel knows what I expect of him.
And if Hansel fails that test, well, the oven's big enough for him, too.
BIO: Gerri Leen is celebrating the release of her first book, Life Without Crows, a collection of short stories published by Hadley Rille Books. You can read more of her stories in such places as: Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Return to Luna, Sniplits, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Footprints, Sails & Sorcery, and GlassFire. Gerri lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. Visit http://www.gerrileen.com to see what else she's been up to.