Hansel and Gretel and Hansel and Gretel
Twice upon a time, a poor woodcutter's first of two wives had two sets of identical twins. First came Hansel and Hansel. One Hansel was named after the poor woodcutter's father, Hansel; the other Hansel was named after the poor woodcutter's grandfather, Hansel.
About 2 years later came Gretel and Gretel. Gretel was named after the poor woodcutter's mother, Gretel; and Gretel was named after the poor woodcutter's two sisters, Gretel and Gretel.
And it came to be that a terrible famine befell those who lived near the forest, and Hansel's, Hansel's, Gretel's, and Gretel's mother died of double pneumonia due to her heart complications from beri beri. The remaining five of the household tried as best they could, but times grew doubly tough.
One day, the poor woodcutter came home with a surprise announcement. He had met someone who wasn't named Hansel or Gretel, but who was called Lisha. Unlike their fair mother, Gretel, Lisha was, first--dark of hair and had a ruddy complexion; and second, again unlike their fair mother, Lisha was alive.
But Lisha was a cruel and petty stepmother, just two criteria away from wicked, according to the Grimm-Göttingen Wickedness & Loathsome scoring system.
...until one day, when criteria fell like double-dog dares.
Lisha began questioning why she had combined her own meager resources with a household of five others during an unrelenting famine, and simple arithmetic gave her the answer. Imagine what they had now, she reasoned, divided by two rather than by six! Although she had not been properly schooled in ratio-and-proportion, she intuited that there would be more for her and her poor woodcutter husband. Half for her, at least; and half for him. Maybe.
"Janus," she called, for that was the poor woodcutter's name. "Open up the fingers of your right hand." He readily obeyed, for Lisha was not someone to be kept waiting. She eyed the poor man's fingernails whittled down to the nailbeds under them. No wonder, she thought to herself, I won't let him put his hands on me. "Now your second hand, please."
"My left?" he asked, to confirm, for he had well-learned to be careful not to make any move without a guarantee he was doing everything perfectly and to her liking." She nodded but thought very judgmental thoughts.
She grabbed his right hand. "See all these fingers?"
"Of course," Janus answered.
"If all of us here--you, me, Hansel, and Gretel--"
"Yes, and Gretel...were to want to eat fingers and we divided up your fingers, there wouldn't be enough fingers to go around."
He thought for a moment. "What about the other hand?" he asked.
"That's us," she answered sharply.
He thought again, regarded his left hand, and began counting in his head. "There are," he said hesitantly, tentatively, "six of us." She grabbed his left hand firmly.
"That's not the point, buffoon!" She picked out two fingers on that hand and gave him a challenging look. "Get it?"
He didn't. She grabbed the first finger on the "us" hand.
"One, right?" she asked. He nodded. She grabbed a second finger. "Two, right?" He seemed perplexed. "Right?" she asked again. "You can count to two, too, can't you? The point is, my poor imbecile Janus, is that two eating five fingers is a lot better than five."
"Or six," he corrected her, then quickly regretted it.
"Yes!" she screamed angrily. "Exactly. What an intellect! I married a genius."
"That was a good game, my love," he said, hoping to defuse the animus.
"Oh, fie! It wasn't a game. It was a parable. An allegory. It was symbolic."
"Of what?" he asked.
"Of just you and me eating more than what six would have to eat."
"Fingers?" he asked, bewildered.
"Anything, idiot!" She paused, unfurrowed her angry brow, and then smiled, beguiling him like she always could. "You and brains," she mused, "the twain shall never meet." Now she looked him in his two eyes. "Just you and me in the household, Janus. No one else. More for you and more for me. I am tired of being hungry.
A realization slowly crept on his face from his eyes downward. "Our children," he said.
"Your children," she said. "And it's gotten to the point that some pruning is needed here or we're all going starve as surely as the next winter will come." She waited for his response, but she lost patience. "How the deuce are we gonna have enough to eat with all these children alive," she blurted.
"Around. I meant around."
"I may be simple, but I see your plan. You have a black heart, Lisha."
"No," she said, "just a hungry one. And your love is not enough for it." She chortled when she said the word "love." "The children are thin, but they're fine children. Many folks would love to have children like ours." Now she whispered emphatically. "We can thin out the herd a bit, y'know. Get rid of one Hansel and Gretel or two Hansels or the pair of Gretels. Or the whole lot. The options are many."
"My children," he cried.
"We can get them back after a while. Take them to the forest. I have kinsfolk there who will find them and feed them and take care of them. Even so, it's easy to make more children." Janus allowed his hunger to cross a red line, and she knew it. "In any event, it's either them or me." Now the gauntlet had been thrown.
"You have kin there?
"I believe I do."
"And we should just drop our children off and hope for the best? Is that really a good plan?"
"Just temporary. Take heart, the children will be found."
"Not drop all of them off, right?" he asked timidly.
"Sure. Some of them's a good start."
Hansel and Hansel had heard every word through the thin wall that separated the two rooms of their meager dwelling, in spite of being bedecked generously with woodcut ornamentations.
"We've got to tell Gretel and Gretel," Hansel told Hansel.
"Yes," agreed Hansel. "I've never heard of kinsfolk in the forest.
The parental scheming went on into the night, and each of the two sets of twins took turns listening while the others doubled up, pretending to sleep. Once the plans seemed to gel, they whispered counter-schemes, wrenches for the works, anti-machinations, and sabotage, subterfuge, and duplicity. In the end, however, hunger superseded all their conniving, and they fell asleep hopelessly like they did every night.
It would be a fortnight before Lisha felt the timing was right. The snow had finally melted, and the outside environs would be less cruel for what had been planned. That's when Janus prepared the empty wagon and instructed Hansel and Gretel to join him on the ride through the forest where he had planned on felling some trees.
"You've never needed us before," said Hansel.
"Yes, father. Why this time?" asked Gretel.
"What about me?" asked Hansel.
"And me?" asked Gretel.
"You two will have your turn," Lisha explained.
"To help Papa?" asked Hansel.
"Yes," Lisha answered.
"We want to help him now, with Hansel and Gretel," Gretel complained. "He'll have twice the help," she added.
"Maybe," Lisha said, "but I only had enough provisions for them. I wouldn't want you to go hungry."
"You mean we have food for us to eat here, instead?" Hansel asked.
"Then why not pack it for us to go with them now?" Gretel asked.
At this point, Lisha beat them both with a stick and they complained no more. Lisha just wasn't clever enough to disguise her plan that they would be backup if the nefarious delivery of Hansel and Gretel to the wicked witch went awry.
It should be noted that Janus knew nothing of a wicked witch. His understanding was that he could drop off Hansel and Gretel and promise to return a little later, but never return until Lisha felt their fortunes had turned enough to allow it. He depended on Lisha's assurance that some kind of forest kin she claimed to have would take them on during their time of need. Of course, she knew better. She knew all about the witch of the forest.
By the time the day was half over, Janus was already on his way back, without the children with whom he had begun.
"Hello, children," the wicked witch of the forest soon was greeting Hansel and Gretel. She could smell children easily from her unique house in the forest.
"Hello," said Hansel.
"Hello," said Gretel. "Who are you?"
"My name is Twila," she answered. "What are your names?"
"Hansel," answered Hansel.
"Gretel," answered Gretel.
"God is gracious," said Twila to Hansel. And to Gretel, "A beautiful pearl you are." Hansel knew God had been doubly gracious with him and his brother; Gretel knew beautiful pearls sometimes come by the pair.
Hansel counted the bumps on Twila's crooked nose. Gretel counted the hairs on her unsightly chin wart. They were somewhat familiar with the Grimm-Göttingen Wickedness & Loathsome scoring system and couldn't really remember if only two bumps or two hairs met the criteria. Lisha had had one each.
"Hungry?" the wicked witch asked.
She had said the magic word, the one thing that could cause all reason to escape the higher executive centers of their famished brains. From then, they were duly hypnotized, temptation wafting toward them from Twila's gingerbread house with candy trimmings. For they could smell sweets easily from anywhere.
Hansel ran up the path toward the smell. Greta raced him. Twila cackled.
At the house, Hansel and Greta began deconstruction and salvage operations, hog-bellying every edible edifice esculent. They ate and ate until they slipped into a sugar coma. Twila smiled, for she would eat like a queen that night!
She had a double oven, a construction she had invented for such purposes, for often children came in pairs or even more. She kept the ovens burning, each plume of cooked remnants coalescing into a common chimney stack.
She walked the groggy Hansel into the kitchen, where the bottom oven was open. Before he could resist, in he was shoved, the door slamming shut. The screams ended quickly enough, and Twila turned her attention to child number two.
Gretel was snoring quietly when Twila awoke her.
"Huh?" she mumbled.
"Come to bed, honey," she offered and led her into the kitchen.
"This isn't the bedroom," Gretel said meekly. "It sure smells good in here. What are you cooking?" she asked.
"Would you like to see, child?" Twila responded. She walked Gretel toward the ovens and opened the top one, which was a little too high for her to peek inside. Twila herself was very tall and had no trouble opening its door. "Here, use this stepstool," Twila offered.
She placed the stepstool in front of the ovens, and Gretel stepped up to the top step. Still, she needed tiptoes, which she eagerly engaged. With Gretel teetering precariously, a simple push was all that was needed.
"They do it every time," Twila hacked a laugh, as she threw the bolt that sealed the door. The screams ended quickly enough.
Indeed, Twila ate like a queen that evening. She even went back for seconds!
Back at the poor woodcutter's thatched dwelling, Lisha wasn't satisfied. Even with two less mouths to feed, she realized she'd still leave the table hungry. She looked at Hansel and Gretel. Then she turned to Janus.
"Janus," she said with a wink, "did you drop off Hansel and Gretel with their kinsfolk?"
"We have kin?" asked Hansel.
"We have kin?" asked Gretel.
"Yes," Lisha answered. "Hansel and Gretel are visiting them right now. I believe they have lots of food, too."
"Really?" asked stupid Janus, but Lisha kicked his shin under the table. "Oh!" he said.
"Oh, yes," Lisha answered. "They are very wealthy. They eat a fatted pig every night." Hansel and Gretel marveled. A fatted pig. Every night. Heaven.
"Say," Lisha offered." Janus looked at her severely. His look was answered by another swift kick. "Would you two like to visit them, too?"
"Yes!" said Hansel.
"Oh, yes!" said Gretel.
"What do you think, Janus?" Lisha asked her husband.
"Oh, my love, I don't know."
"I know," Lisha said sternly as she regarded her barren table, settling the matter.
The next morning Lisha could hardly contain herself, knowing she would be dividing the day's provisions by two now instead of by six or even four.
And it turned out that Hansel and Gretel were dropped off by their papa at the same spot he had dropped off Hansel and Gretel. And it turned out that Twila had smelled their telltale pheromones all the way from her gingerbread cottage. She immediately made out for the spot.
When she saw Hansel and Gretel, she started and took a double-take. After all, weren't these the same two she had cooked up and eaten? Whatever this evil magic was it was doubly deviling.
"What are your names, children?" she asked hesitantly.
"Hansel," answered Hansel.
"Gretel," answered Gretel.
Twila gulped. If she was seeing double before, now she was hearing double. This was impossible, she knew. The Hansel and Gretel from the night before were leftovers now, fodder for opportunivores. She looked like she had seen a ghost.
These are ghouls, she thought, as a panic began accreting in her mind; each time the names Hansel and Gretel earwormed through her head, the panic doubled. Wraiths. Furies, here to dispense justice. Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel...
"Why so unsettled, kindly woman?" Hansel asked.
A trick question, Twila realized. They either want me to confess my crime or deny it with punishable dishonesty. This is the way the gods trick you into condemning yourself. She turned and ran, shrieking.
"What have we done?" asked Gretel.
"I don't know, sister. Perhaps we should follow her."
"We'll have to run, brother. But let's. We can't have troubled her so and then allowed her to escape whatever this torment is, unrequited."
They ran down a well-worn footpath until they came upon a house made of gingerbread, and whose finish "carpentry" was of candy. Twila's torment and the children's altruism were quickly converted into the calories they consumed so vehemently. For they were even hungrier than the Hansel and Gretel from the day before.
The witch knew demons were nibbling on her home. Previous temptation for wayward children who ended up on her table, it was now sustenance for the very ones who were here to condemn her and send her to her rightful reward in Hell. She grew another hair on her chin wart.
Hansel's and Gretel's hyperglycemia rendered satiety, finally, when they remembered their mission. Hansel began knocking.
"Be gone, ghouls! Fly, Furies!" Twila called out. Greta found the door open and peeked in. When Twila saw her, she screamed.
"No, no!" shouted Gretel back at her. "Don't be alarmed!"
Goodwill that rots as quickly as it is uttered, Twila thought. They mean to seize me and bring me to the seated jurors of Gehenna. Of the abyss, the inferno, Perdition.
She ran into the kitchen, where both oven doors were still open from the night before. The fires in them still burned, for Twila used them to heat her home. Hansel and Gretel followed her. She backed away from them, facing them the whole time.
"Have mercy, phantoms! Spare me, demons!" she continued distancing herself until she tripped back over the stepstool that had doomed Gretel the night before. In she went, backward, heels-over-head, and the force of her thud on the grille snapped the door closed fast.
Hansel and Gretel were dumbfounded.
"What have we done?" asked Gretel.
"This tragedy, we caused, confessed Hansel.
"We must run home and tell Papa and mother and Hansel and Gretel," Gretel said.
That's when they heard the door in the other room creak open. They looked at each other. They weighed the options for how they would explain this.
"Twila!" someone called. Hansel and Gretel looked at each other saucer-eyed.
A woman came through the door. It was Twila! A chill ran down two young spines simultaneously.
"It's you!" Gretel cried. Hansel took her under his shoulder.
"Where is she!" the woman shouted.
"Wh- Wh- Who?" Hansel stuttered.
"Twila," the woman answered.
"But that's you," Gretel shrieked.
The woman cackled. "You think so, do you?"
"Twila, twice spun, that's me, if you insist, ha! Yes."
"Her ghost!" said Hansel.
"Her spirit here to vex us so," agreed Greta.
She realized that looking just like her identical twin had spooked the children fatally. The top oven door was still open, and she considered which one to push in first. They really had nowhere to run.