Now in her late thirties, Gretel lives in a fashionable town house with her brother, Hansel. The house is built of red brick and has two bathrooms (his and hers, Gretel likes to say) and four bedrooms. Gretel uses one of the spare bedrooms as a storeroom. The other one is nominally a guest bedroom; in the ten years they’ve lived there, no one has ever stayed in it.
The town house is positioned on the outskirts of the same city the siblings grew up in. From the wide third floor balcony you can see the sprawl of the metropolis, its ugly grey towers rising beyond a brown belt of suburbia. The best views in their area are said to be of the Forest, a local attraction which is regularly featured in tourist brochures. Gretel and Hansel have agreed between themselves that they prefer the city’s predictable vistas to the Forest’s haunting and unknowable greenness.
For a living Gretel sells white goods, trading on the fame of her youth. She is the smiling poster-girl for fridges and washing machines, she pimps for dryers and dishwashers. And of course she sells ovens, a hundred different varieties and makes of oven: Westinghouses, Fisher & Paykels, Hillmarks, Sunbeams… She knows each oven’s specs by heart, and can reel them off like a savant counting primes. Customers are always impressed by her dedication.
Despite knowing everything about ovens, Gretel doesn’t cook. No one has ever taught her or her brother. It would be nice to think this omission is due to respect for the siblings’ famous history, but Gretel suspects that people simply forgot.
There are a lot of holes in Gretel’s knowledge of the world. These she fills with small hobbies like scrapbooking and calligraphy. Occasionally she reads the newspaper, but not with much interest. She has a computer that she uses for internet banking and filing her tax returns online, and her brother uses to disseminate his fat fetishist pornography.
It’s hard for Gretel to remember a time when Hansel wasn’t fat, although she knows that before the witch he was as slim as she was. She suspects the witch awakened something in her brother, a primal, obscene greed for sweets. All day he gorges himself on chocolates and candies, carelessly dropping their wrappers behind him as he manoeuvres his great bulk through the house.
Like breadcrumbs, Gretel often thinks, as she picks up after him.
Hansel uses a webcam to do sex stuff for the internet, fat sex stuff, eating and burping and rubbing the gross rolls of his body. “More of me to love,” he says.
Gretel finds it repulsive. Not his fat—which in a way she understands–but his shameless exploitation of it. It feels like a betrayal of their past.
“You sell ovens for a living,” Hansel reminds her.
Lately Gretel has been noticing problems with her memory. She knows her story—the official story—and if she concentrates hard she can picture the events playing out. Hansel in a cage, the witch leaning into the oven. But there’s always something off about her memories, something that’s not right. Sometimes it’s Hansel pushing the witch into the oven. Sometimes the witch has an extra, cat-slit eye in the centre of her forehead. Sometimes the witch has a video camera.
Sometimes Gretel thinks the witch might have been her mother.
The smell of meat cooking doesn’t upset her and she’s often felt it ought to, after what happened, after what she thinks happened. But instead she finds she quite likes the wafting, barbecue scents that occasionally drift into the garden from nextdoor, greasy sausages bursting fatly from their stretched-tight skins.
Once a month, Gretel goes to group counselling sessions in a nearby community centre. She can’t remember how or why she joined the group, but going has become part of her routine. The group has no name–it is referred to only as the group–and most evenings Gretel doesn’t talk, just sips black instant coffee out of a plastic cup and stares up at the dim fluorescent lights so she doesn’t have to meet anyone’s eyes.
The group’s members are all women and all dysfunctional in obvious, upsetting ways. One woman has a shaved head, and the skin at her nape is rippled with what looks like stretch marks. Another always arrives immaculately dressed–except for her feet, which are bare and almost black with dirt. There is one woman who comes each month and does nothing but cry, her purse clasped to her chest, her head bowed beneath the hood of her coat.
Quietly they tell their stories. In whispers, usually, like tales told on the comfortable laps of grandmothers.
“I don’t blame him for what he did,” says one woman. “I’d been asleep so long I might as well have been dead. But the pain, the pain of waking, that destroyed me. When I woke it was like surfacing from liquid and finding I couldn’t breathe.”
“I was too beautiful,” another admits, as if this is a terrible sin. “I encouraged her hate. I deserved it. When you are a teenager you think you are perfect. I wish I had shown more respect.”
The woman in the hood says, in a voice muffled by tears: “I don’t go out by myself any more.”
Gretel has never told her story. Not the full story, anyway, not about the witch, not about the aftermath. These women are like her in some ways, Gretel knows; but she also knows she doesn’t fit into the group. These women are victims, ground down by fate and tragedy. While Gretel is… well, Gretel is a victim too, of a sort, but at the same time she is something else, something stronger. Something more terrible.
Each month the group are meant to bring food to the counselling session to share around. One evening, the bare-footed woman brings out a container of freshly baked gingerbread biscuits. Her eyes meet Gretel’s a second after the container is opened, and her rosebud mouth twists into a grimace of realisation.
“My god,” she says, almost stuttering. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking…”
“No bother,” says Gretel. Because it’s not a bother at all. “Gingerbread is fine.”
And she eats three of them.
One night Gretel looks in her bathroom mirror and says to her reflection: “This is the face of a murderer.” She doesn’t know where the words have come from—they simply burst out of her, unbidden as a scream. This is the face of a murderer. It’s true, she supposes, but the face in the mirror is still just her face, the face she’s always had: blue eyes and a narrow mouth and pale, soft skin like cream.
“Do you remember what happened to us?” Gretel asks her brother the next morning, over breakfast.
“The witch,” says Gretel.
“No. I don’t. I don’t remember anything, except what I’ve read.” Hansel shrugs, scooping sugary cereal into his mouth. “I was a little kid, little kids don’t remember stuff.”
“You were eleven,” says Gretel.
“Sure, maybe. Why do you ask?”
“I’m having trouble remembering what’s real,” says Gretel.
Hansel’s expression is fatly patient. “What do you think is real?”
“Our parents left us in the Forest,” Gretel says. “Then I murdered a woman.”
“No. Don’t be silly. If you murdered someone you’d go to jail. Or a juvenile detention center. Wasn’t it self defence, anyway? I thought we were kidnapped.” Hansel frowns. “Anyway our parents didn’t abandon us in the Forest. They weren’t monsters. I think we just wandered off one day. Got lost. That’s it: we got lost in the forest, and then we were kidnapped, and then we ran away. That’s the realstory. The rest is all nonsense, a story we made up, a game we played.”
Gretel can’t tell if he’s lying to spare her feelings or lying because he thinks it’s the truth.
“It was years ago, Grets,” says Hansel, clearly tiring of the subject. “It’s the past, it’s done, it’s gone. Why don’t just you get over it?”
Get over it. Is it closure that she needs? Uncertain, Gretel researches childhood trauma on the internet. She has to confront her childhood demons, the web psychologists insist. It’s the only way to grow from the experience. She has to go back to the place it all happened.
The next day Gretel calls in sick–a mental health day, she explains–and drives to the Forest. It’s been over twenty years since she and Hansel escaped, and she’s surprised to recognise familiar landmarks. Here, at the fringe of the Forest, is a burnt out tree that must have been struck by lightning. Further on there are the remains of a wire fence. She spies a burnt out sign: Trespassers will be Prosecuted, possibly, but the words are too far gone to be certain.
She gets out of her car and enters the Forest. Two steps past the entrance and everything is suddenly dark and shadow; it’s as if a cloud has passed across the sun. The trees seem to shut behind her, a curtain closing, and she remembers this too, suddenly, a flash of deja-vu, a glimpse of her childhood. Only this time her brother isn’t around to allay her fears.
She follows the path, which is lightly gravelled and barely there in places, broken by the eruptions of tree roots or washed away by past storms. It’s dangerous, Gretel thinks crossly, picking her way through the Forest debris. Someone should come and put in a proper path—cement, for preference. Who could possibly consider this a tourist attraction…?
Then she realises that this can’t be the only entrance to the Forest. There must be other paths, nicer, cleaner, well-kept paths, complete with signposts and benches and tourist information plaques.
This one just happens to be her path.
She walks for hours. Eventually the path peters out and there’s nothing to guide her but her own memories. She pushes on, splashing through puddles and climbing over fallen, mossy rocks. Her jeans—never a good choice anyway for a walk like this—are soaked to the knee, and her once pristine sneakers are brown with mud. But Gretel feels fine, she feels never-better. She blows her blonde hair out of her eyes and keeps going.
Eventually, as dusk is beginning to fall, Gretel finds a clearing. It’s about fifty metres wide and at its centre is a rectangle of scorched earth. It’s in the shape of a very small house, a cottage, really, like the ones they used to build for servants in the olden days. Gretel inspects the ground for clues, but she can tell already that the fire happened a long time ago. Any remains have been blown away, or washed away, or eaten by Forest wildlife. She spots half a lollipop stick under some leaves, but that could have come from anywhere.
But what did she expect to find, anyway? she asks herself. Crumbs?
Gretel looks at the earth and looks at her hands and wonders: Did I do this?
Her life is unknowable and unreal and perhaps that’s for the best. Perhaps it’s easier to believe in a wicked, child-eating witch and a gingerbread house than think about what might have gone on in the Forest. The things she might have done.
Gretel is surprised to find that she has no trouble getting back to the path, and from the path to the road. She takes off her shoes and puts them in a plastic bag before getting in.
Before she drives away, she calls one of the women from her counselling group.
“Gretel? Is that you?”
“I have to ask,” Gretel says quickly, “but what happened to you? I mean, what happened really? Not the apple and the mirror but the—”
The woman is indignant. “My narcissistic step-mother kicked me out of the house and then tried to poison me.”
“Is that all?”
The woman hangs up.
On the road home, Gretel helps out at a crash scene. A family sedan has ploughed into a tree, its bonnet split in two like a giant hoof. A man and an older woman—a grandmother?—are in the front seat, crushed. In the back seat is a little boy, frightened but unhurt. Gretel waits with him for the ambulance and the police to arrive. The car smells like something burning, and she hopes it doesn’t explode the way they do on television.
Strangely the smell hints at a memory, but she pushes those thoughts out of her mind. She has gotten over it; everything is over. Here and now is Gretel’s ever after.
“You were in a crash,” she tells the boy. “When they ask you, that’s what you need to tell them.”
They hold hands until they see the flashing lights.