It was one of those countless Sunday afternoons in which the minute hand of the clock seemed not to be moving at all. I had finished all the possible things I could do: I had cleaned the apartment, I had done the washing up, I had eaten most of the snacks inside my cupboard; I felt like a desperate housewife. The television was turned on, but the volume was not enough loud to permit me to hear what the young woman on the screen was saying: for the umpteenth time images of a social war, probably in an Arabic state, passed in front of my eyes. My look run from the screen to the window, again and again: heavy drops of tiny rain were ticking on the pane, sliding along the transparent surface like a surfer does on the ocean. For a moment I had the impression that they were alive and they wanted to run away from something: they went on faster every minute more, they consumed themselves during the trip, and then they were gone. Disappeared, like a rabbit in the top hat of a magician. That thought about the magic reminded me of my grandmother: my parents were very strict, and when I was about eight years old she was the most important person of my life. I remembered that I used to spend the Sunday afternoon curled up on her knees, smelling her strong perfume of lavender and listening to the Grimms’ fairy tales. I stood up and I started looking for that book. After a few minutes I was back on my chair, holding it in my hands: it was covered by a layer of dust that I blew off. My fingers touched lightly the washed out colours on the cover, then they flipped through the pages grown dark over time: a stream of memories was passing through my mind, making me feel relaxed and safe. A title captured my attention: “Hansel and Gretel”. Then everything became blurry.
* * *
I woke up after I don’t know how much time exactly, feeling bewildered and dazed: my back was hurting like hell, and I was lying on mold and pebbles. Tall trees stood out against the sky, a cold and humid air was caressing my blonde, ruffled hair. The violet dress I was wearing was dirty and wet, my shoes consumed. I stood up feeling still confused, when suddenly I heard a voice that was calling my name.
“Gretel! Are you ok?”
“…Hansel? – my brother was staring at me: he was pale and he had deep shadows under his eyes – I’m… I’m hungry, I want to go back home!”
“I know, I am too. Don’t worry, we’re going to find the bread crumbs today: now that the sun has raised, we just have to walk a little bit more and to look carefully around us”
Suddenly I had clear memories stocked in my head.
“We’re looking for those bread crumbs from two days already! Birds have eaten them all, don’t you get it? We should have used white pebbles as we did the first time that daddy tried to abandon us into the woods!” teardrops of desperation were streaming down my face.
“It’s not daddy’s fault, it’s her new wife’s fault, and you should know it. Now stop crying and follow me” he replied, and started to walk deeper into the forest. His voice sounded steady, but his hands were shaking and his eyes were filled of fear.
We walked for an endless time, and every minute passed I had more difficulties to move my body: my feet were killing me, I was out of breath and it was so cold; but most of all, I was starving. I would have given everything for a little piece of bread and a glass of warm water. Then, a miracle happened.
Hansel stopped unexpectedly and I collided with him, risking to fall down on the ground.
“What’s the problem?” I asked him, but he was petrified, looking at something in front of him. I turned my head from his face to the direction his eyes were staring at, and I was not able to breath or speak anymore. A quite big cottage was located a few metres far from us, but the astonishing fact was that it was completely made of sweets: yummy gingerbread and soft cakes composed the outside walls of the building, the window panes were made of clear sugar, the roof was covered by dark chocolate and cookies. An intense smell of honey and fruits was fortifying my senses: that cottage was the sweetest sight ever.
As soon as we got over the initial shock, we run towards the cottage and we started to eat it frantically, with no shame: after a few minutes, our faces were completely covered by sugar and chocolate.
Suddenly I felt like I was being watched by someone, so I turned my head: I grasped Hansel’s arm and a little shout came out from my mouth. An old woman was standing a few metres far from us, leaned on the main door: she was wearing a dress as black as the dark and her eyes were fastened on me and my brother, even though her sight seemed to be kind of absent; deep wrinkles marked her face, and she was holding a walking stick made of wood, probably because her back was strongly bowed.
“Don’t be afraid children!” she said with a soft tone of voice, showing a fond smile.
Hansel turned to her: “Who are you?”
“I’m the owner of this lovely cottage. May I ask you the same question?”
“Oh! We’re so sorry madam! – I said embarrassed – We were starving and your home seemed to be so tasty…”
“Our names are Hansel and Gretel. We got lost into the woods two days ago, we’re looking for the way to go back to our daddy…”
“How old are you, Hansel?” she asked, her eyes were now shining for the interest.
“I’m ten years old, my sister is younger than me”
She laughed with malice, and added: “It’s too dangerous to spend the night in the forest: come inside, I have milk, pancakes, apples, nuts and other food for you. I also have soft beds where you can sleep, children. Don’t be shy, come inside!” she took our hands politely and she guided us into the cottage. The inside was not as beautiful as the outside, but it was warm and secure at least. The old woman prepared two beds for us, and I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, unaware of the danger I was into.
Suddenly I woke up because someone was shaking my body with violence, and I saw the old woman standing in front of me: a strange expression was painted on her face, and she grasped my arms, hurting me. I moaned.
“Shut up, you little naïve girl: go in the kitchen and cook something good for your brother! He’s locked in a cage, and I want him to become really fat so that he’ll be tasty when I’ll eat him”; her voice was now soaked with excitement, her eyes were filled with an impatient sight.
I could not believe what I had just heard; I turned to Hansel’s bed: it was empty.
Tears were streaming down my face: I had the temptation to scream and run away as far as possible, but I knew I could not leave my brother alone with that witch. I went to the kitchen and I saw my brother into the cage: he looked at me desperately, his eyes were watery. Near by a fire was burning into a big oven. What had we done to deserve all this?
“Don’t worry Gretel, everything’s going to be fine” he whispered, but his voice was trembling with fear. My crying went on harder, and I started to cook the dinner silently.
I completely lost the sense of time inside that house, working everyday from dawn to sunset: I had just a few hours to sleep during the night, and I kept on having terrible dreams of the witch eating Hansel in front of my eyes, while he’s screaming and begging me to help him. Moreover, I was not too far from dying of starvation: the terrible witch ordered me to cook rich and delicious dishes for my brother, but then I could only eat a little piece of bread or some scraps. Even if Hansel had food everyday, he was not in a better condition for sure. He was locked in that cage twenty four hours a day: his skin was dirty and he used to moan because his muscles were hurting. But, most of all, he was terrified by the witch and by his terrible destiny: he used not to sleep either, fearing that the witch could put him inside the oven while he was not awake. Anyway, there was a positive fact: we had discovered that the sight of the witch was weak and that, consequently, she could not see very well. Everyday she asked Hansel to let her touch his finger, so that she could understand how fat he was getting. Once I had cooked a chicken bone for my brother, and he used to held out the bone when the witch wanted to feel his finger. It worked for a while: she was always complaining about how thin he was, and she used to blame me and my way of cooking, but I didn’t care much about all those shouts of anger, even if they terrified me: I just wanted Hansel to be safe and alive as long as possible. Then, the day I feared the most arrived.
One morning I immediately noticed that the witch was more nervous than the past days: she had spent hours walking around the house without an apparent goal, and every time she was passing in front of Hansel’s cage she took a look at him with a strange sight. But I didn’t realise what her plan was until she came to me while I was cleaning the floor.
“Light the oven: I’m going to have a delicious roasted lunch today”
I stopped breathing for a few seconds, pure fear started to run trough my veins: a wicked smile was painted on her lips, her hands were shaking and all her muscles were stretched because of her agitation. She seemed to be excited, impatient and wishful at the same time. She also seemed to be tired of waiting. And, most of all, she seemed to be hungry.
I stood there petrified until she repeated the command one more time: I walked toward the oven step by step, as slow as possible. Terrible images were stocked in my mind: Hansel’s body completely burned, the witch’s teethes piercing his dead flesh, her pale skin completely covered by my brother’s blood. Hansel looked at me while I was opening the oven to light it up: his lower lip started to shake, his eyes were filled of terror. I realized that I was about to see Hansel die, and that I was going to leave this world in the same way. I had to do something. I had to save him and myself.
“Emm… I can’t tell if it is hot enough or not…” I said to the witch as soon as she entered in the room.
“Don’t waste my time and do what I said to you!”
“I’ve already lighted the oven! But I’m not sure that the temperature is hot enough …”
“You, useless girl! Get out of the way, and let me see myself!”
She moved me aside violently, and she put her head very close to the oven.
It was the moment I was waiting for: I run against her and I pushed her as strong as possible with no hesitation. She fell into the oven, and I slummed quickly the door.
Desperate shouts and a sense of physical pain filled the air, the perfume of apples, sugar and gingerbread was now soaked with a strong smell of burnt flesh.
Then, everything was silent.
* * *
I woke up suddenly: I was out of breath and my forehead was beaded with sweat. I looked around, confused: I was sited on the chair, it was not raining anymore outside the window and the television was turned on. The clock said it was six o clock’ in the evening: I had been sleeping for two hours. My hands were still holding the Brothers Grimm’s book, the page open on Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale. I closed it immediately with a convulsive movement, and I averted my eyes.
The television was still showing bloody images on the cold screen: my eyes were captured by its pictures and videos, so I stood there in silence and I found myself in a surreal state of apathy and indifference.
Those things were not something new, neither something original.
We start to be used to violence from our childhood, apparently.