A Father's Weakness, By Olivia Arieti

Perhaps, the woodcutter belonged to a fairy tale, but his actions were selfishly human. As a matter of fact, he was desperate and full of remorse for he had purposely led his children, Hansel and Gretel, in the depth of the woods and abandoned them. He did it because he was weak. Even if he was a woodcutter with such strong arms to chop the trunks of the highest trees, he was afraid of his wife. He was scared to face her hassle, her threats. The woman, besides being greedy and selfish, was terribly jealous of the children. She was their stepmother and wanted the woodcutter’s heart all for herself. When food started to become scarce, she found the right excuse to send the children away. The man acquiesced. Henceforth he woke up every night and saw his first wife’s face crying and exhorting him to go and look for Hansel and Gretel. He would get up, also annoyed by his second wife’s snoring, open the window and look out at the starry night. But the stars weren’t shining for him any longer. They were displeased with him. A sharp pain would seize his heart and tears fall down his hardened face. Full of shame, the woodcutter began hating himself and the woman lying in his bed.

 In the meantime, the children were wandering through the hostile woods. They were wounded, deeply hurt by their father’s behaviour. “How could he?” they both went on asking without finding a reasonable answer. Gretel kept crying, Hansel tried to comfort her. Even if they had heard the cruel woman threaten the poor woodcutter and shut the bedroom door, they still could not understand why their father had been so weak. He had done what no father should ever do. The dangers were many, loneliness and a feeling of abandonment were the greatest. Besides, the forest was full of hungry wolves that at night came out, looking for food. They both felt very sorry for themselves and thought of their mother, so caring and beautiful. Unfortunately, she had left them too early.

With all these thoughts, Hansel and Gretel ended up on a bright green glade where a little gingerbread cottage appeared. It looked so pretty and warm and they were so exhausted that they wondered if they had reached Paradise, where their beloved mommy was living now. She must have found out of her husband’s misbehaviour and somehow had called for them. That was certainly her home. Perhaps, they were entering a dream that was going to last forever in that little house, far from the cruelty of life, where only their mother’s love dwelt. It was the last drop of innocence that in children amazingly goes on existing, even in the hardest and most frightening circumstances. They were a bit surprised that no birds, squirrels or rabbits gathered around the cottage: all was still and quiet. Nothing could stop them, however. Brother and sister were only eager for their mother’s big big hug. They had to enter the dream.

Sadly, all expectations faded: an ugly witch was waiting for them, who the children immediately recognised as their cruel stepmother! As a matter of fact, the woman, tired of her husband’s moans and tears, of his sleepless nights, one day when he was out in the woods, went to the nearby pond and caught as many toads and water snakes as necessary to prepare a magic potion that would turn her into a horrible witch. Her plan was to kill Hansel and Gretel. Only then she would be the sole keeper of the woodcutter’s heart. Nothing could have made her happier than seeing her little prey enter the gingerbread cottage.

For quite a few days the old hag had been eating nothing but snakes, rats and toads as all witches do. She wanted something tastier, soft and chubby for the few teeth she had left. So instead of poisoning the children with an apple, she decided to eat them up. The problem was that they were too skinny. Therefore, she locked Hansel in a cage and resolved to wait till he would get fatter. In the meanwhile, Gretel would do all the housework. The children trembled on hearing her plans and were scared to death. They had become smart though, for sorrow had sharpened their wit. Hansel found a little bone which he showed the old witch every time she asked for his finger. Fortunately, while preparing the venomous potion, the stepmother had turned blind and could not discern his finger from the bone.

At home, the woodcutter was almost relieved for his wife’s absence and his secret hope was that she might had left forever. Perhaps, she had got lost in the woods and a big wolf had eaten her up. He couldn’t help his bad feelings against her. If ever he should find his children still alive, he would ask to be forgiven. That’s what his first wife told him to do in his last dream. She was crying more desperately than usual. He felt her tears on his pillow. The man realised that Hansel and Gretel were in great danger. He hurriedly shut his cottage door and set forth in search of them. He took along his axe just in case he should chop up some wolf or who knows…

The evil witch was getting hungrier and hungrier and decided to waste no more time. She would eat the children at once. Perhaps, she foresaw the woodcutter’s axe moving closer or simply was devoured by her own voracity. She ordered Gretel to light the oven. Now it was Hansel’s turn to cry. He huddled in a little corner of his cage as to become invisible. Gretel was so desperate that when the witch moved over to the oven to check if it was hot enough, the girl pushed her in and shut the oven door. Survival was essential. Then she ran to her brother’s cage and freed him. They both hugged and fled into the woods. Should they try and find their way home? They hadn’t answered the question yet when they saw the woodcutter running towards them. He took their hands and fell on his knees, pleading forgiveness. Hansel and Gretel looked at each other. Distrust had replaced ingenuity. Their happiness and love for their father, however, made them overcome that somehow unfamiliar feeling and they threw their arms around his neck. Forgiveness was granted.
 The woodcutter never remarried but now his dreams were haunted by the wicked witch, still claiming his heart. He knew that only his first wife could free him, when she too had forgiven him. One night the man felt a deep pain as if his heart had been torn out of his chest. He feared that the cruel woman had taken it away and lost his senses. Unexpectedly, when he woke up, he found himself beside the lovely mother of Hansel and Gretel. She had forgiven her husband and wanted to stay with him. From then on, mother and father looked down on their beloved children together.
Olivia Arieti is a U.S. citizen and a high school English teacher living in Italy with her family. She has had some plays published by Brooklyn Publishers, Desert Road Publishing, USA, Lazy Bee Scripts, UK, as well as others produced in NYC. Her poems appeared in Women In Judaism, The Wanderlust Review, Poetica Magazine, Eye On Life, VWA: Poems For Haiti. Her piece of fiction, “Grandpa’s Toscano” will be published in The Smoking Poet’s next issue.



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