Gretel Wises Up
Go back? Hansel, we have no home.
Remember when we went back the first time
following the shining stones you'd scattered
on the forest floor? I saw Mother's face
when she opened the door, and my heart quailed.
Oh, Father loved us, but he'd do whatever she told him.
Remember how she'd yell at him to beat us,
and he'd cut a switch, take us out back, and flail
at the linden tree? We'd scream and moan
and sometimes laugh so hard we'd have real
tears in our eyes when we went inside.
I should have thought of that when we heard
his axe chopping and chopping as the forest
closed around us. And remember our little sister
who never was? "Stillborn," Mother said,
but I know I heard a cry and then a silence
loud as our empty bowls. And still
we went back, following those pebbles
that gleamed like baby teeth in the moonlight.
And the second time — when you scattered bread crumbs.
We should have known we weren't the only hungry ones
in the woods. I saw gleaming eyes beyond our little fire
that night. The witch was hungry too, her house the bait
of a gigantic trap. She fed on our fear while she fattened
you up. To make me feed you in your cage!
But you were cagey too, and I was finally growing wise.
I was hopeful at first, remembering
how my pebbles had gleamed like silver
in the moonlight, showing us the way.
I thought we'd always be able to go home.
I didn't expect the locked door, the birds eating my crumbs,
the trackless forest, or being penned like an animal
behind the witch's house. At night I'd suck on the bone
I used to trick her, and it comforted me —
I'd managed to stay alive another day.
Gretel comforted me too. She told me her fear
served her at first, making her slow and stupid.
She'd stumble or drop things, and the witch would curse
or cuff her, but Gretel watched and learned.
She knew where the witch kept her jewels,
memorized her routines. The old woman watched
Gretel when she brought me food or cleared away
my dirty dishes, but she came alone to empty
my slop bucket, and I could slip her some food.
She'd whisper words of encouragement that I'd repeat
to myself at night as I sucked on that bone.
The day came — as I knew it would — when the witch said,
"I can't wait any longer to fatten you up, boy."
She had Gretel haul water and put the cauldron on.
I could hear her weeping and pleading, and my hope fled.
I heard a howl followed by a silence
and I smelled the odor of burning flesh.
I howled too, grieving for Gretel
but suddenly she was at the pen, opening
the gate, and we were free and light as birds.
I was ready to fly, but she pulled me into
the witch's house and made me stuff my pockets
with jewels and pearls while she filled her apron.
I wanted to go home, but Gretel said, Why?
They left us to starve or be eaten in the forest.
But they were starving too, I said, and Father didn't want to.
Want or not, she said, he did what Mother told him,
but maybe with the jewels, it will be all right.
So we went back, and Father wept
to see us, but Mother scolded us
for staying away so long. She took
our jewels and locked them up
in a chest high out of our reach.
I know — the stories say she was dead by then,
but the truth is Gretel told her she'd learned
to bake bread and offered to make some.
She punched the bread down as if it were the witch,
and when it rose, it reminded me of hope.
Then Gretel said the oven temperature needed
to be just right and asked our mother
to climb in and check it.
Now bread turns to ashes in my mouth.
About the Author: Nan Fry's poems have appeared in a wide variety of publications including Poet Lore, Beltway, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, The Wallace Stevens Journal, The Faery Reel, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, and Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast. She is the author of two collections, Relearning the Dark and Say What I Am Called. She lives and writes in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2005 by Nan Fry. The poems may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.