Little Hans, By Erika Tracy

y the time Little Hans came along, Greta’s mother was “just about babied out.” Greta wasn’t. She was perfectly happy to be the big sister for a change, and liked being the ninth of ten much better than the ninth of nine. Hans came along on her tenth birthday, and she thought he was the best birthday present ever. 

But her parents really were about babied out. Even though Greta giving bottles and changing diapers helped with the work, they weren’t sure how to pay for yet another child around the place. “We’ll just have to give him up for adoption,” Mother said.

Greta had just changed her little brother and was blotting pee from her hair at the time, but she tiptoed to the door of the baby’s room to listen with Hans against her shoulder for safekeeping. “Greta won’t stand for it,” her father said, and she felt a surge of relief.
“Maybe someone would want them both,” her mother said. “She’s a big help, after all.”

Greta hugged Little Hans. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “You aren’t going anywhere without me.” He didn’t seem terribly worried. He grabbed a handful of her hair and gurgled.

The next afternoon, her parents told her to pack for her aunt Brunhilde’s house. She’d never heard of Aunt Brunhilde before, but they were packing for Little Hans, so she put her clothes in a suitcase and wrapped her toothbrush in a paper towel. Car rides are always furthest when you don’t know where you’re going. Greta paid careful attention to all the turns and streets until they pulled up to a Victorian-style house and her mother chirped, “Here we are!”

There they were, and before she knew it, she and Little Hans were alone with Aunt Brunhilde, who looked like no relation to either of them on any side of the family. She was too old for an aunt, for a start, and nobody else in the family had such a startlingly hooked nose or such snaggly teeth. Still, when she tickled Little Hans he giggled, and that was a start as far as Greta was concerned.

“What a plump little duckling!” Aunt Brunhilde chuckled. “Almost good enough to eat!”

Little Hans giggled some more, waving his arms and legs happily. When Aunt Brunhilde made munching noises against the baby’s tummy, he whooped. Greta wasn’t as happy as he was. She’d never understood when grownups made jokes about eating up Little Hans.

At dinner, Little Hans was introduced to rice mush and took to it immediately. He liked the taste. He liked how it felt on his cheeks and chin and nose. He liked grabbing the shiny spoon Aunt Brunhilde used to feed him. Greta found herself well-stuffed with pepperoni pizza. Their aunt ate lightly and seemed to enjoy watching them. Then she showed them upstairs to Greta’s new room and Hans’s new nursery.

The changing table had a curved pad on top. Hans rolled over on it, chuckled, drooled, and rolled some more. “Look at you!” his aunt said. “Rolling like a little sausage on a warmer.”

He rolled onto his back and peed a great fountain. Greta reached for the roll of paper towels beside the wipes. “He likes to do that when he’s naked,” she explained.

“You may be in charge of changing him,” Aunt Brunhilde told her, blotting gray hairs with another towel.

“I usually am,” Greta admitted.

They settled in. Little Hans took to oatmeal, fruits, and pureed meat mush with enthusiasm. Greta discovered that she actually could get tired of hamburgers and pizza. Aunt Brunhilde bought them new clothes and dressed Hans herself, tickling him and buzzing her lips on his belly. He whooped with glee. “What a plump little lamb!” she said. “Almost good enough to eat!”

Greta thought of the cookbooks in the kitchen, bound in leather and shelved out of reach of even a nimble girl. Something about the joke was striking her as just a little scary. Too, she wondered what would happen when summer ended and she had to go back to school. She took care of Hans more than Aunt Brunhilde did.

Hans enjoyed mashing a baked sweet potato into goo as he sat at his high chair. Between squishes, Greta would catch his attention and spoon a little more baby food in, then try to pour in a little formula to wash it down. She usually ended up with orange mess up her arm from her little brother’s grabs, but he had a good time, so she did too. Aunt Brunhilde would just laugh and hand her a towel.

And then Aunt Brunhilde went out to the back yard and began to clean out the barbecue pit. Greta thought something cooked over an open fire would be a nice change from the endless parade of pizzas, fried chicken, and hamburgers; she felt fat. Maybe, she thought hopefully, they would roast some corn on the cob.

Aunt Brunhilde came in covered with ashes and soot. She washed her hands, then pinched Little Hans’s cheek. “Plump little piglet,” she told him. “Good enough to eat.”

Greta tried to decide if that could possibly mean what it sounded like it meant.

“Give him a good bath,” ordered Aunt Brunhilde. “Don’t bother dressing him again.”

Greta tended to do as she was told, but her worries made her drip anxious tears into the bath water no matter how much she told herself she was being silly. Hans splashed enough that those tears would never show on her cheeks. She didn’t think anyone would really eat her little brother, but at the same time, she thought maybe Aunt Brunhilde meant to.

When she brought Hans down to the kitchen, Aunt Brunhilde was making a barbecue sauce. There was nothing else on the counter. “What’s for supper?” Greta asked, trying to sound innocent and hoping the answer was something ordinary.

Aunt Brunhilde gave Hans another little pinch on his cheek. He wriggled away and fussed. “You haven’t figured it out? I thought you were such a bright little thing.”

Greta swallowed hard around a huge lump in her throat. “And are you going to eat me tonight, too?”

“Don’t be silly, a big girl like you!” Aunt Brunhilde laughed. “I’m saving you for company.”

Greta clutched Hans close in his bath towel. “I won’t let you cook my brother!”

Brunhilde bared her snaggly teeth. “And how do you plan to stop me? Taste this sauce. I think it’s a little sweet, myself.”

Greta found her mouth opening as the spoon approached. The sauce coated her tongue, and her arms released custody of her wiggling brother. She wasn’t just in the habit of obedience, she discovered; somehow she could do nothing but exactly what she was doing. “It’s good,” she said, although that wasn’t at all what she wanted to say.

Brunhilde went back to the yard, Greta following in dutiful, numb terror. The old woman put Hans on the picnic table and strapped him to a pole. “The coals look just right,” she remarked.

They did, if they had been for ribs or for steaks or for roasted marshmallows. Hans giggled as barbecue sauce was brushed lightly over his bare body. He giggled as the spit was hefted over the fire. Brunhilde flipped a switch somewhere, and the spit began to turn.

Hans liked the heat. He liked the rolling. He liked being naked. He chortled and squealed.

And he peed a great and mighty fountain all over the coals.

Steam billowed. Brunhilde swore, and Greta discovered suddenly that she was free of her curse of obedience. She grabbed Hans away, spit and all. The old woman she’d called aunt made a lunge for her. Greta felt something snag her heel, and a thud, and a scream. She put Hans on the picnic table and did something she’d been told to never, ever do. She grabbed up the lighter fluid and sprayed it onto what was left of the fire, aunt and all. Then, without looking or listening, she grabbed Hans up again and ran.

Remarkably, a little girl rushing down the sidewalk with a naked baby tied to a spit could find a policeman right away. Greta told him there’d been a horrible accident, and she’d panicked, and she wanted to go home. Hans let the world know that he’d had enough of being bare and drying barbecue sauce chafed. Lights flashed and sirens wailed. Almost before either of them knew what was happening, they were back home.

As Greta lay in her own bed that night, cuddling her well-washed little brother to sleep as though she’d never let go, she heard a lot of odd words drifting up from the living room below. “Insurance policy,” she heard, and “Good thing we insisted that Hans and Greta were named in her will as a term of the adoption.” She didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded like everything would be all right.

Biography: Erika Tracy is a longtime dog owner and new mother. Her first novella, "Half-Sick of Shadows," has been released by Shadowfire Press.


Wynne said...

Very cool-- a funny and scary take on the classic!


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