The smell of gingerbread makes me sick to my stomach.
When I was young, no more than ten years old, I used to love sweets. Chocolates, cakes, pies, tarts, puddings, brittles, taffies - I coveted sugary treats like these, hungered for them even though the instances in which I managed a taste of sweetness were few and far between, limited mostly to holidays, Christmas and birthdays, and other special occasions. It had always been a dream of mine to be able to indulge in sweets whenever I chose, to live in a house of gingerbread with a fence of peppermint candies and a roof of chocolate bark, but I had learned at a young age that dreams like these simply could not be a reality for me. My family was poor, a fact which had haunted us off and on throughout the years - my father was a woodcutter, one of the few in the village, and while he had a kind heart and an enormous amount of love for his family, for my older brother, Hansel, and me, he also possessed a great love of alcohol. His addiction came and went like tides; sometimes it seemed that he was trying to drag himself out of it, to be better for his family, and for a brief time things would brighten around us. Food would be plenty, work for my father enough that he earned reasonable wages, and we'd all breathe easily without the weight of our struggles on our shoulders. But we had learned that times like these would come and go, and they never lasted, for soon father would, in celebration of our happiness, purchase another bottle and he'd slip once more, dragging us down with him. The money he'd made during the good times would be spent on alcohol, and once again we'd find ourselves struggling, cupboards almost bare.
My father was strong, but his addiction was stronger. I knew this from a young age, and but I could not judge him for it. He loved my brother and me more than anything in the world - we were his pride, his joy, his sun and moon, and he tried so very hard to make us happy, even in the darkest of times. He loved to tell us grand stories, to make up silly jokes just to hear our laughter, and whenever he was sober he'd tuck us into bed and kiss our foreheads and tell us how much he loved us. I held tightly to these words when he slipped away from us again, repeated them in my head like a mantra, and I tried to understand. He was not always pleased with himself for what he did; I could tell his own addiction frustrated him, and that he seemed to struggle to escape it, but I didn't know how I could help. I was just a child, so I did my best to simply do as I was told, to make him proud, to be a good daughter. I eagerly learned how to cook and clean when my mother desired assistance, making my chores a game to keep myself occupied and my imagination strong, just as my father wanted. I left glasses of water by his elbow when he fell asleep after drinking, tried to take care of him even if he never knew it. I did what I could, and I told myself it was enough.
Still, every time Hansel and I went with father to sell the wood he'd cut to shop owners to fuel their ovens, we'd stand at the window of the confectionery and stare longingly upon the brightly colored treats, mouths watering, savoring the smell of sugar and chocolate that drifted from the shop's front door, and we'd wish things were different. I voiced my desires only once in barely more than a whisper, hand resting on the glass of the window just beside a tray of peppermints: "I wish father would stop drinking." Hansel hadn't replied, and I never spoke of it again, though the thought frequently drifted across my mind, especially as we stood there, separated from the sweets by a thin sheet of glass. We had never tried many of these candies, but I liked to imagine what they would taste like - perhaps this one would taste like the tangy berries Hansel and I gathered at the edge of the wood. Maybe those ones would melt in my mouth and coat my tongue in rich sweetness like I'd never known before. Maybe one day I'd get a chance to try them, but when father finished his business, he'd take my hand and together we'd pretend nothing was wrong - I'd pretend not to feel disappointed, and he'd pretend not to notice that I really was. This was the facade we maintained, the life we lived. Sometimes happy, often humble, but not without its disappointments.
Mother grew ill when I was seven, and there was nothing we could do to make her well again. She tried to put on a brave face for Hansel and me, but we all knew she was wasting away. My father's good spirit was enough for the village doctor to try to help, but it seemed he could do little save to ease her misery just a little and give her a quiet end. She died while we were sleeping, and before we woke my father had taken her body away. I'm thankful for this, in a way; we never saw her eerily still, we never saw her empty eyes or felt her frightfully cold skin. She would be forever alive in our memories, warm and soft and loving, even long after she was gone. We mourned, of course; she was buried beneath her favorite oak tree, and we struggled to find some sort of new normal in our lives, a way for us to get by without her. There was so much she had done for our family, so much we now had to make up for, and I tried to do what I could, but I was only a child. I could only take so much. I could not be her, and father couldn't act as both parents to us, especially when he fell off the wagon again. We limped along, survived, and we held tightly to each other, more so than ever before. We would get by - we always did.
Things changed for us once more when father found a new wife, a stepmother for Hansel and me. He said she would help us cope, that she would be a new mother for us - perhaps she wouldn't be the same as our mother, but she could still look after us and love us. I hoped it would be true, wanted a mother figure in my life again so badly, but it didn't take long for me to realize that, while I had to call her mother, she would never be anything like my mother. She was harsh and cold, seeming to care very little for Hansel and me, and it was a mystery to me as to why she married our father in the first place. She nagged us endlessly about chores, nagged father about expenses and work and his tendency to drink. Nothing ever seemed good enough for her; even when we completed tasks exactly to her specifications, she found some small flaw in our work to pick apart. I tried to be positive, to keep my chin up, because that was what we always did in my family. Things got hard and we tried to smile through it, tried to be thankful for the things we had. I counted my blessings on my fingertips as I drifted off to sleep:
1. A roof over our heads.
2. A loving family. (I never thought of her when I pictured this; my father and my brother were more family than her.)
3. Fire in the stove.
4. Bread in the cupboard.
5. Hope for the future. For there was always hope somewhere.
Then, one day, father fell back into his old ways. Hansel and I had become used to his ups and downs and the way they changed our family, but our stepmother was not - and she refused to live with it. In some small way, I was grateful for the pressure she put on my father, but it was her reaction to the other consequences that came with his addiction that drove me from trying to find reasons to like her to hating her outright. When money got tight and the cupboards were bare, she lashed out at Hansel and me as though we were to blame. We were a burden to her, dead weight, and when things didn't improve as quickly as she would have liked, she decided to take drastic measures. While our father slept one morning, she handed Hansel and me each a basket and a bit of bread, and she sent us out into the woods to collect berries, promising that our father would follow and find us soon. Hansel, clever as he was, broke his bread into crumbs and scattered them behind us so our father would know where we went, and when we got hungry we split my bread for lunch. We gathered what berries we could find, wandering and playing along the way, unaware of the horrors that could have befallen us had we been faced with a wolf in those woods - we knew nothing of the struggles between men and wolf, only that we should act respectfully if we found any of them in the forest, and this, we thought, would be enough. We didn't know of the little girl in the red hood who was also in the woods, consumed by the last of the great wolves. The forest to us was a living, thriving home, and we loved it.
But as morning turned to afternoon, afternoon to evening, I began to fear that father would not find us. We tried to retrace our steps, to find our trail of crumbs, but the crows and forest animals had gotten to them first, and we couldn't find our way home. I was terrified of the darkening forest, the lengthening shadows, and I clung to Hansel with tears in my eyes. Father would find us, Hansel promised me as we huddled at the base of a tree, hiding ourselves as best we could beneath its tangled roots. Father would find us and tomorrow we would go home. We ate the berries we had picked, now more focused on getting home than on avoiding our stepmother's anger. If she was cross with us, we could pick more berries, this time leaving the house with our father instead of by ourselves.
Perhaps he searched. Perhaps he called for us, screamed our names into the trees. Perhaps the crows laughed from their perches in the branches, for they had destroyed our path home. We would never know. We slept restlessly in our nest of roots and woke the next morning with hearts fluttering in fear and stomachs growling with hunger, knowing we had to find our way home. The forest that seemed welcoming before now scared me, and all I wanted was the warm, safe four walls that I had grown up with, the comforts of home. But as we wandered, the woods seemed to only increase in strangeness, and we were so turned around and confused that home seemed so very horribly far away, an almost impossible goal in the distance. The stories of terrifying creatures in the woods seemed all the more real - I stayed close to Hansel, for though he was only a few years my senior, he made me feel safe.
We'd been wandering for what seemed like hours, weak and dizzy with hunger, when we first caught the scent of gingerbread on the wind. My heart raced in my chest - could we have found home? Our stepmother had never made gingerbread, but perhaps she had thought it would make a nice surprise for us when we returned from the woods. Our pace sped up as we followed the scent through the forest, eventually reaching a clearing. There, settled in the morning sunlight, was an image straight from one of my dreams: a cottage made of gingerbread, decorated with gumdrops and frosting and other sweets, with a little candy cane fence running all the way around it. The roof tiles were made of chocolate squares, and the little wafer cookies forming a path to the front door. Hansel and I stood and stared in awe for a few moments, entranced, before hunger overwhelmed us - in moments we had reached the window ledge, and had broken off a few crumbs to taste. It was real gingerbread, the sort our mother had made for Christmas, and it was the most delicious thing we had ever tasted. We couldn't help ourselves; we were so very hungry and the candies were so tasty...we lost ourselves in the sweetness, and the world around us seemed to fall away as we gorged ourselves on the treats.
A voice broke us from our reverie, and we turned to find an old woman smiling at us from the front door. I was horrified - we hadn't stopped to think that anyone could be living in the house, we'd simply descended upon it like vultures. Still, somehow she didn't seem upset, which was at once a relief and unnerving, and she invited us into our house to enjoy some treats she had just made. Berry tarts, they turned out to be - still ravenous, we consumed them, trying our best to be as polite as possible, but so hungry and eager for more sweets that it was difficult. As we ate these, she began placing other treats on the table - pudding, pies, cakes, bowls of smaller candies, and we, without thinking, continued to eat and eat and eat until we felt as though we were going to burst. The witch watched us with some sort of satisfaction, but it wasn't until I went over the memory, trying to puzzle out where we had gone wrong, that I realized this. In the moment, I was thankful, grateful, and thought she was simply a kind old woman. She was sweet, asking us questions and calling us "dear," "darling," "love," names we hadn't heard since our mother had died. For a brief moment, we were very happy.
And then that moment was gone. The change in the woman was instantaneous, as she suddenly seized Hansel's arm and dragged him to a corner of her cottage. With a wave of her hand, a cage appeared, hidden before by magic, and she tossed him in, locking it with a heavy iron padlock. I screamed, tears coming to my eyes, and began to scramble out of my seat, but she was upon me in moments, mumbling a spell that settled over me like morning dew, making my thoughts fuzzy and strange to me. This much I knew: I was to do her bidding, and I was to make more cakes. Hansel screamed and rattled the bars of his cage, and I wanted so desperately to help him, but my body wouldn't let me, my hands moving of their own accord as I began to bake, tears streaming down my cheeks. I could see the old woman now for what she truly was - a witch, one of the ones we'd heard horrible stories about. It was common knowledge in the village that there were terrible monsters in the woods, and the witches were the ones who most often preyed on lost children. It was said that consuming the heart of a child would keep a witch young for a time and that those corrupted by dark magic became addicted to regaining their youth, and though I didn't know if this was true or not, I knew I didn't want my brother to fall victim to any sort of horror that this witch had in store for us. We had to do something, had to escape before she grew tired of us.
"Enough tears, my dear - you'll water down the dough."
I tried to fight the spell as best I could. It was difficult at first, the magic tightly binding me to her will, and I struggled to do anything the witch did not desire of me. When she told me to bake, I baked - even the recipes I did not know suddenly seemed to come easily to me, and my fingers hardly fumbled, even when they always had before. My hands seemed to work on their own, though I fought against the witch's will as hard as I could, horrified by the lack of power I now possessed even over my own body. After hours of baking, tears of frustration and horror on my cheeks, I managed to regain control of my hands for just a few moments, long enough to overturn a bowl of pie filling, spilling the sickeningly sweet berry mixture across the floor. For a brief moment, I felt relieved, exhilarated - I knew now I could fight the spell, overcome it, if only for a short moment. But maybe I could do more in time. My relief faded was soon brought to an end by a sharp slap across my face, sending me sprawling backwards, tears springing into my eyes instantly. I heard Hansel shouting, but that seemed to do little more than make the witch angry, if only for a moment. Her anger was a strange thing that burst through the room in searing flashes, then melted away like spun sugar, and she was back to being sweet again. Though I cared little about the physical abuse so long as it bought my brother time, I knew I couldn't push her too far. She was still so much more powerful than us, and she could all too easily decide she was through with us and decide to finish us off. I limited my rebellion to smaller things, and played more extreme slips off as mistakes. Clumsiness.
Days passed. Hansel was forced to eat for most of the day, sleeping curled up on the floor of his cage, shivering. I was no better off; I could eat only what I stole when the witch wasn't looking, and I curled up on the sacks of flower at night, though I slept very little. Time was ticking away, and we didn't know how much longer we'd last in the witch's house before she finally decided to finish us off. We were walking on eggshells, terrified, and yet every new day seemed to bring new fragments of hope. Every night as the witch slept, I'd crawl to Hansel's cage and we'd hold tightly to each other through the bars of his cage and whisper to each other, trying to come up with some sort of plan. On the third day, as we were collecting our observations, we reached a new conclusion about the witch: her eyesight was much worse than she made it out to be. She wanted to seem all powerful, without weakness, but her fingers often fumbled to find things on the table and the few times she'd sought answers in recipe books she'd screeched at me for watching her, then drew the book close to her face. The next morning we tested this theory, with Hansel extending an old chicken bone in place of his finger when she asked to feel how plump he'd grown, and though she cried out in frustration and Hansel and I held our breath, she seemed not to have noticed the switch. My heart fluttered in my chest. I almost felt as though we had a chance now.
As the days passed, I began to notice something else as well. The witch's spell, though powerful to begin with, was fading, as though it was being forced out of my mind by something else. Where my thoughts had once been clouded by her will, I found myself able to think more clearly, and it was much easier to act against her. But what didn't make sense was why - witch's spells didn't simply wear off like this. There was no process of expiration, they either existed or they didn't. Though I knew precious little of magic, this simply didn't make sense. And besides that was the tingling in her fingers, the warmth in her chest, nestled beside her heart. It was strange, unfamiliar, and though it scared me, I said nothing, not even to my own brother. I held this feeling inside, felt it growing, and every night as I lay on the flour bags, I'd close my eyes and feel it there, at once comforting and unnerving.
She grew tired of us on the fifth day. We could feel the change in the atmosphere even before she announced that she could wait no longer, the shift from the tension of waiting to somehow knowing that our time had come to an end - she was hungry, and she no longer cared if Hansel was plump as she had wanted before. She would consume him one way or another, then I would no longer have a purpose in her kitchen. What she would do with me was a mystery, but I was no longer concerned for myself; I knew the danger I was in, had accepted it days before, but I knew I couldn't let her eat my brother. I had to do something - and quickly. I could still feel her spell inside me, but its grip on my mind was slipping - I could very nearly act as I desired, and she was nearly powerless to stop me. She swept into the room that morning in the grandest mood I'd ever seen her in, and announced that the oven was to be made ready, grinning at Hansel like some predatory creature teasing her helpless prey. My heart was beating in my throat as I moved to the oven, hands shaking, mind reeling as I tried to put together some semblance of a plan, anything that could free us from our sickly sweet prison. It came to me as I started the fire in the oven, the heat washing over my face in burning waves - I knew not if flames could kill a witch, but it could certainly slow her down long enough for my brother and me to escape. And the oven doors were heavy and had a strong lock on them...could I truly do what I was thinking of? Was I strong enough? I had never wished such harm on anyone before. I had never dreamed of such horrible things. But I was not the same as I was before. The witch's cottage changed me, and I was ready to run. I wished Hansel and I had never seen this place, that we'd never wandered so far into the woods, but we had. And now it was time for us to go.
With a shaking voice, I asked her to check if the oven was hot enough, and she sneered at me, hissing that I was a stupid little girl, utterly useless, and she leaned through the oven doors. With every ounce of my strength, I threw myself against her back, and she fell forward into the coals with a great shriek of pain and surprise. Hansel cried out from behind me, horrified, but I hardly heard - my hands, shaking hard, moved to heave the oven doors closed and secure the lock. The smell of bubbling flesh and burning sugar swept over us, and the witch's screams were deafening, terrifying. She pounded on the oven doors, but they wouldn't budge an inch - she was, for now, trapped. I tried to shut out the sounds of her frantic search for an escape as I raced to Hansel's cage and began to tug on the lock, frightened tears welling up in my eyes. I wouldn't leave without my brother. Not after everything we'd seen, not after what I'd done. As panic set in and a sob broke through my lips, I felt the warmth in my chest well up again, this time stronger than ever, and with a great flash of white light, the lock fell, broken, into my hands. I didn't stop to think about what had just happened; I pulled the cage open and threw my arms around my brother, sobbing into his shoulder as he clung to me for just a brief moment. We were almost done. We were almost free.
But the witch was not through with us. We could hear her moving in the oven, shrieking now in anger instead of pain, regrouping and preparing a new tactic. I shuddered at the thought of what she'd look like now, burned beyond recognition and furious, but still very much alive. She would kill me the instant she laid eyes on me - we had to run. And run we did - we burst through the front door of the cottage, choking on the smell of burning flesh and gingerbread, feet pounding the forest floor, arms pumping beside us, peeking over our shoulders every so often. My vision was blurred by tears, and I didn't care where I was going so long as I got away from her, from the sugar-coated nightmare Hansel and I had just endured. But it wasn't over just yet. We hadn't gotten very far into the trees when we heard a great explosion behind us as the oven burst open in a flash of dark magic and flames and the angry, scorched witch was freed, screaming curses to the sky. "RUN, GRETEL! RUN!" Hansel cried, and I did - I ran harder and faster than I ever had before. I ran until the sounds of flames and the smell of smoke and the screaming of the witch were far behind me, then I ran til the hush of the forest swallowed me up. I didn't stop until my legs were too weak to carry me any further and I collapsed on the forest floor, weeping, struggling to breathe between sobs.
It was then that I realized Hansel was no longer with me. I could have sworn he'd been there before, could have sworn I'd heard his heavy breaths and footsteps beside me, but I was utterly alone there in the forest. My panic was renewed tenfold - I screamed for him, my voice echoing through the trees and returning back to me, but there was no response. Not the cry of a bird, not the rattling of branches, not a sound. Again and again I called for him until his name was more sob than syllables and my voice was fading from overuse and exhaustion. I pulled my knees tightly to my chest, feeling so small and terrified, still shaking violently. I just wanted to go home - I wanted my brother and my father, I wanted the comforts of our home, I wanted all the struggles we'd learned to cope with. I wouldn't be a burden on my stepmother, I would do exactly what I was told. I just wanted to be safe.
An unfamiliar hum of energy, of magic, drew me out of my own mind, and, with a gasp, I raised my head. A path of white light led through the forest, disappearing into the trees in the distance, a path drawn by the magic I held inside me. At first, I was wary, unsure of how I could have cast such a spell - then I remembered my wish to be safe. Could my magic lead me to some sort of safety? I would not be led astray again - I'd learned my lesson about appearances and deceit. But this path was not drawn by someone else, and though I didn't know how I'd created it, I knew it had come from me. Pushing myself back up onto my shaking legs, I followed it, hoping it would lead me back home or to my brother...
It didn't lead to any sort of previous comfort, though it did lead to some sort of safety. The path led to the portal, the portal led to New York, and I was swept away into a new life. The portal's magic made me older, what some would call "grown up", but it didn't snuff out the magic contained in my body, nor did it silence the remains of the witch's spell over me. She held no control over me, but still sometimes I could hear her in my mind, her sickly sweet tone bringing tears to my eyes, hands closing into fists at my sides. I still hear the screaming and see the flames in my dreams - still can't stand the smell of freshly baked sweets. Such a shame, you could say - I'm a very talented baker. I got a job at a small book shop, and every day when the shop becomes quiet I read. I've read a thousand fairytales, spellbooks, fantasy novels, and I try to understand the magic that's woken within me. But, most of all, I'm looking for my brother, for only he will understand the things I've seen and the things I've done. Maybe he'll know how to heal.