"Please," Gretel said, grating out the word that was evidently beyond Hansel's ability to utter when asking her for anything.
She closed her eyes and counted to ten. "I haven't moved the water well once today, so I'm certain you can still find it."
"But it's your job to fetch it for me."
She was elbow deep in kneading bread for supper. It was mid-morning, but if she didn't start early, it would never be done on time. She often wondered how her step-mother had done it all, what with the washing and cleaning and preparing three square meals a day. But then, Father had helped her with the chores in addition to his own job of chopping wood. And her step-mother had never waited on any of them hand and foot, not like what was required of Gretel.
But her step-mother was gone, dead--Gretel often wondered where Father had buried her--making her the Lady of the House. She'd soon realized that being The Lady of the House was nothing more than a fancy title for servant. Just like she'd been for the witch who'd kidnapped both she and Hansel. Gretel had done all of the cooking and cleaning and whatever else the evil woman had demanded of her, while Hansel had eaten to his heart's content, fattening up as a delicacy for the witch.
It wasn't as if Father couldn't afford to hire someone to do all of the things that Gretel hated to do, what with the gold coins she and Hansel had found after she'd killed the witch. She'd even suggested it. But Father had hidden the coins, never used even one to make their lives a little easier. He believed in hard work and thought it was important for her to learn her duties for when she married. Like that was ever going to happen because moving from one man's house to another wasn't her idea of a bright future. She wanted her freedom and she wanted the coins--she'd earned them, after all. She only needed to be patient a while longer until she was of age.
She wiped her hands on her apron, grabbed a bucket by the door, and went to the well, muttering words that she'd learned from the witch. Words that would get her mouth washed out with soap if Father ever heard her. When she returned, Hansel hadn't moved from his spot and mud still dripped onto the floor.
She sighed, put the bucket down on the counter, dipped in a cup, then slammed it down in front of him. The water sloshed over onto the table, a little landing on his lap.
"Father will punish you for that," he spat.
But Father had yet to ever scold her. He'd never said much of anything, even to her step-mother who'd whined and complained all of the time.
Supper was a quiet affair, had been since her step-mother had died. Gretel didn't like the quiet.
She cleared her throat to get Father's attention. "I cleaned the floors again today. Hansel muddied them up when he came in from the fields. I expect the two of you to remove your boots before you enter the cottage from now on."
Her eyes were lowered when she spoke, but now she eyed them both, determination building in her gut.
Hansel sat with his mouth hanging open. Father didn't say a word, but his face was awfully pale.
The next day, Father and Hansel's shoes were lined up nice and neat on the porch and they ate with their socks on.
Gretel had decided to sleep in. Waking up with the rooster's crow had never been her idea of a good night's rest. But a banging on her door woke her from her sweet dreams. Dreams of ventures into town to visit Mr. Halden's book shop, just like when she'd been little and Mother, her real mother, used to take her. Father had never taken Gretel to Mr. Halden's, even though she'd begged him to after Mother had died suddenly--she'd often wondered where Father had Mother buried. She knew he didn't approve of her wasting time and hard earned money on books, especially when there was so much work to be done.
The banging got louder, and she sat up, closed her eyes, and counted to ten. "What?" she ground out through clenched teeth.
Hansel opened the door. "I'm hungry. Where is breakfast?"
"If you go and search under the hens, I'm sure you'll find it. Now let me sleep."
"It's not my job to cook breakfast. And what about biscuits? You can't find those under a hen." His voice was shrill and whiny. It was the voice of a near man used to getting his way. The way most men sounded, she was sure.
Then she remembered the mornings when her step-mother hadn't made breakfast. She'd suffered from headaches that were sometimes so severe she'd be in bed for a whole day.
"Hansel," she said, her voice soft and shaky. "My head aches something awful. You and Father will have to fend for yourselves today as I can't even manage lifting up from the pillow.
He frowned, probably wondering how to light the stove so that he could get his stomach filled. His stomach never seemed to fill, anymore.
"We'll manage, I guess," he grumbled, then shut the door softly behind him.
Her step-mother had been a genius.
Gretel was taking a stroll in the small garden behind the house when she noticed a piece of cloth sticking out of the flower beds. As she got closer, she realized that the cloth had the same design and color of the apron her step-mother had worn every day for as long as she could remember. Gretel grabbed a shovel and began to dig until she found a body. It was nothing but bones in a dress, and the skull was cracked open as if an axe had split it in two, just like the logs Father and Hansel made every day.
At the soft creaking sound of twigs snapping underfoot, she turned to see Father, an axe draped from his hand and a look of sadness upon his face. No words were said. Then he raised the axe and began to lower it with such force that Gretel shut her eyes tight.
"Where's breakfast, I'm hungry," Hansel said, sitting at the table with his muddy shoes on.
Gretel sighed. Father was gone. He'd tried to kill her, just as he'd killed before. But he'd slipped and fallen on top of her step-mother's bones. On top of the axe that had impaled him.
Gretel had reburied her step-mother in the flower beds, the secret well hidden, then wrapped her Father in the sheet off of the big bed in his room.
"His heart stopped beating," she'd told Hansel. Father had been old, after all. They'd buried him in the back yard, then went back to the cottage for a supper that Hansel had expected her to make. He was the man of the house now, he'd said. Which evidently meant that she was at his mercy.
She looked at the sink filled with dishes from the supper she'd prepared last night, then looked to Hansel.
She'd told him before they ate that if she were to continue to cook, then it would be his job to wash up afterwards. She grabbed the apron that hung from a nail on the wall and dropped it at his feet. "Get it yourself."
His eyes were wide. "Where are you going?"
She grabbed the book she'd gotten at Mr. Halden's bookshop--she'd visited the day before her Father had died, left straight after breakfast, not even asking for permission--then opened the screen door to go outside.
"I'm going to sit under the large oak tree at the edge of the property and read." And there wasn't a thing Hansel could do about it.
Although she kept her Father's axe handy, just in case.