01 Feb 18 Years in a Ginger-Bread Basement
Most kids have heard of Hansel and Gretel. Of that long walk they took through a dark forest where they shouldn’t have gone, and of that damn gingerbread house with it’s frosted roof and it’s dark secrets. I won’t go into a boring retelling of the parts everyone knows, instead I’ll talk about the bits that the children’s books couldn’t . Instead I’ll talk about me and my Mother.
Mother never really gave me a name in the traditional way, because she was a mother only in a loose sense of the word. Now that I’m old enough to think for myself I see that in her eyes, I was not her child, but her tool. Not something to cherish but rather something to help her get what she wanted, and what she wanted was roasted human flesh. I was her bait and her lure. My job for as long as I could remember was to go out into the Forest, find people, and get them to follow me back to Mother’s in any way I could.
Thinking back on it now, there was a certain fiendish cleverness in that. Most people would question a strange woman alone in the deep woods. But very few people question a innocent looking young child. Especially one that was as good an actor as I was.
As stomach turning as it might have been, when I was a boy my Mother was all I knew, and I like any child I craved her approval and affection, so I worked as hard as I could to get her what she wanted.
I had a praticed routine. Every time Mother sent me out into the Forest I would walk the trails, keeping an eye out for the tell-tale signs of other people. If I came upon a grown up, like someone out hunting or gathering herbs, I would start crying. When they approached, I would tell them I was lost and scared, and needed help finding my Mother. This worked nearly every time, if they asked me questions I couldn’t answer, I would go back to playing the hysterical child, and the questions would always stop.
If I ran into someone my age or younger, I would just go up to them and make friends. We would play games and be foolish as children often did, and when daylight turned into dusk, I would invite them back to Mother’s for supper. Not all of them accepted, as children are sometimes wiser than adults. But most of them did.
As terrible as it may sound, I always hoped to run into people my age when I went out hunting. Life at Mother’s was often bleak and lonely. I spent most of my time alone in the basement level of her sugar coated lair of murder and debauchery, huddled next to the furnace for warmth, using It’s dim light to read books she had long since grown bored of while I waited for her to pass me scraps of her meals to eat through a hole she had carved in the door, or to let me out so I could clean up and go hunting. Because of this, I was always over joyed for a chance to wander the woods and find friends to play with. Even if it was all pretend, I loved it dearly.
Mother loved to play pretend as well. Whenever I returned to the gingerbread house with someone she would always be waiting on the porch with the warmest, kindest smile spread across her pudgy face that she never showed when it was just the two of us. The kind of smile I imagined normal Mothers showed their children all the time. I knew it wasn’t real, that she was acting as much as I was, but I loved that warm smile of hers nevertheless, because it meant that I would get to live like a normal child that night, at least for awhile.
Once my part was done, Mother had a routine of her own. If I had brought her a grown up, she would run off the porch and scoop me up in a tender embrace and shower me with kisses. Telling me how worried she had been about me and chastising me for leaving her sight. She would then turn to the stranger I had brought with me, thank them for returning her beloved boy to her, and insist that they stay for dinner. With children my age, she was not as theatrical, but just as persuasive. After short introductions and small talk, she would tell us we were just in time for supper, and usher us into the exquisite dining room.
I’ve always believed that Mother commanded some kind of magic, if she didn’t, she was at the very least an artistic genius when it came to food. Every time I went into that dining room, a luscious banquet would be laid out on the table. Plates stacked high with frosted sweets of all kinds, pies, freshly baked loaves of bread, silver trays of succulent fruits, pitchers of Apple Cinder, and large pots of savory stew, and so many other things I never got to eat when we where alone.
Eating Mother’s fresh cooking was a necessary part of putting her victims at ease, and a reward for doing the task she had given me. This was the unspoken understanding between us. I always stuffed my face as much as I could those nights because I never knew when I’d be allowed to eat that way again, but I always made sure never to look at the oven while I did. I could never really bring myself to. It wasn’t the look of the thing that was terrifying, it was just a regular caste iron oven, though it was quite large. What made it terrifying is that I know what she did with it, I saw it in all my nightmares.
After dinner, we would go into the parlour and sit by the fireplace. Then mother would bring out the drinks and blankets, a strong smelling alcohol for the grown ups, and hot chocolate for the children. Once we were all settled, she would sing for us.
Mother’s voice was captivating beyond words. She was a true demon with the voice of an angel, and every song told a story.
Some stories were of brave knights and fierce dragons, others were of far off forgotten lands and powerful magic, but all of them were wonderful. I loved those stories as well, they made me forget about terror I lived with if only for a little while.
Inevitably, either through the power of Mother’s voice, something she had put in their drinks or maybe a combination of the two, the strangers I brought home would fall asleep, and the music would stop.
Mother’s face would turn hard and cold, and her black eyes would roam over our sleeping house guests like those of a lioness, calculating and appraising. She would sit on her chair like that, sometimes for hours, before she quietly got up with all the silent skill of an assassin and went into the kitchen to retrieve the axe.
I would always run back into the basement before she came back. Get as far away from her as I could and shrink into a corner while I covered my ears, trying to block out what I knew was coming. It never worked.
I always hurt the shrieks of sudden agony and confusion, the gurguling cries of the dying, and the wet thud of the axe as it chopped through flesh and splintered bone.
I would always stay like that until daybreak, the whole time hoping that whatever Mother was doing upstairs had satisfied her, and that she had forgotten all about me. She always did.
Life went on like that for years. Try as I might, I could not tell you how many people I brought home to die at Mother’s hands. Dozens at least, maybe even hundreds. I hate myself for it, but I cannot remember all their names or even their faces. They all blend together. The only two I can recall with absolute clarity are that brave and tenacious pair of twins that wandered into the dark part of the woods on the morning of my 18th birthday.
Life had been looking rather bleak for me for quite some time at that point. I was getting older and the ruse of the lost hysterical child was getting harder and harder to pull off. More often than not I had to improvise, for Mother never tolerated failure for long.
I was worried that my time was running short. I had caught Mother a few times in the months leading up to this day staring at me with that cold, appraising expression I’d seen her use on so many of her victims when she thought I wasn’t looking, and it filled me with icy dread.
What would she do to me if she thought I couldn’t do my job properly anymore? I knew it would be nothing good. I thought about running away, but had no idea where to go. The woods and the gingerbread house were all I knew.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to the realization that if I were to survive, I would have to kill her first. The thought made me sick because I wasn’t sure that I could do it alone.
Even in her later years, Mother was as fierce and imposing as she’d always been, and the thought of raising a hand to her turned my knees to jelly.
Doubt and fear had begun to infest my every waking moment, and on every opportunity she gave me, I began spending as much time away from the house as possible. I had been wandering the trails at the edge of the forest for nearly a full day when I first laid eyes on the twins.
The girl had stepped through the treeline first, the light of the twilight sun that peaked through the Forest canopy reflected off her golden hair giving it a soft glow that made her hard to miss. Her face was tense and she looked agitated, like she’d just walked away from an arguement.
She didn’t seem to have noticed me right off, so I spent a few moments thinking about how to approach her when a voice broke through the silent stillness of the forest.
“Gretel!” Gretel I’m sorry! Please come back! It’s dangerous to be out here alone!” It said.
The voice sounded like it came from a boy not much older than me. A moment later, a boy did step through the treeline, it was immedaitely obvious that the two were related. They looked like they were cut from the same cloth.
Both had shining blond hair and eyes that were a deep blue. The boy was a bit bulky, not like some of the other men I’d seen in my life, but it was clear he was no stranger to hard labor.
The girl by contrast was very thin, but carried herself with a confident grace I’ve not seen in anyone else since.
The two argued back and forth with each other for several minutes, apparently about the best way out of the forest without taking any notice of me.
As I watched them argue, an insane idea hit me. These two were what I needed to get rid of Mother. They were perfect. They were young enough to be the kind of victims she loved, but still old enough to help me overpower her when the time came.
It was brilliant, but I had no idea how to do it. How would I get them to help me? I couldn’t tell them outright, they’d just think I was crazy. I stood there puzzling with myself on the best way to approach them when the girl noticed me first.
“Hey, who are you?”
She had asked me in a startled and incredulous voice. I stood there dumbfounded and unsure how to answer. The boy whirled around and regarded me with a surprised expression before stepping defensively between me and his sister.
A tense quiet fell between all of us for several moments while I thought about what to say.
” I mean what’s your name.”
“I… don’t really have one.”
“What do mean? Everyone’s got a name.”
” What kind of person doesn’t know their own name?”
The boy chimed in, his voice thick with mistrust.
Things were already going badly, I decided I would have to stick to my usual routine for now, and come up with a plan as I went, whatever else happened, I needed these two to come back with me to Mother’s.
“Someone like me I guess”
“Well don’t you try anything funny, or I’ll put you to the ground.”
The boy warned, though it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself rather than me.
“Hansel!” The girl hissed in a scolding tone.
She was clearly the more diplomatic of the two. She brushed passed her brother and walked up to me with her hand extended in some gesture I didn’t recognize.
“I’m Gretel, and this is Hansel. It’s nice to meet you.”
My reply was a crude in hindsight.
“Yeah, you too.”
Gretel was quiet a moment, as if thinking of something. Her face then lit up as if she’d had an epiphany.
“Red” she said.
“Well I’ve got to call you something don’t I? I can’t just call you “boy” or “you” that’d be silly. So I’ll call you Red, after your hair.”
I absent-mindedly ran my hand through my hair as she said that. I was amazed at her profoundly simple proclamation. I’d never had a name before, that had always been something other people had, and just like that, I had one. Why hadn’t Mother ever named me if it was that easy?
“Yeah.. that works “
” Ok Red, it seems like we’re all lost out here so we’ll have to stick together. Why don’t we start from the beginning, where do you live?”
“With my Mother.”
” And where does she live?”
“In a house of Ginger-bread”
Hansel laughed aloud
” What a load of nonsense!”
“It’s true! I can show you!” I spat back indignantly
“I thought you were lost.”
” I am! But I know it’s not far!”
” Alright, alright you two, calm down. We need to help each other right now” said Gretel cutting in before asking a question of her own.
“Do you think your Mother would know the way out of the forest?”
I paused for a moment before answering.
“Yeah… I imagine she would”
“Then why don’t we find her first, and see if we can’t get her help?”
Hansel opened his mouth to object , but Gretel turned at shot him a glare, so he said nothing.
“Alright” i said quietly.
We spent the next hour or so talking and wandering the trails together, partly because I needed them to believe I was actually lost, and because I needed time to plan the inevitable confrontation with Mother.
Hansel said little during our stroll. He wore his distrust for me on his sleeve and I didn’t blame him for it, in fact I admired his sharp instincts. They would come in handy when it was time to do what had to be done.
Gretel on the other hand, was a regular chatter box. She talked excessively about anything that came to her mind from her favorite childhood games to how annoying her father was.
I thought her stories were charming because of how normal they were. Not at all like Mother’s stories. I could have listened to them for hours, but the grim reality that was clear to me was that I would need to take them to the house soon, or Mother might get suspicious.
I artfully guided them through the woods until the fimilar smoke from the gingerbread house’s chimney came into view before I stopped. I felt nauseous and my face had taken on the pale color of someone who was terrified. Gretel seemed to notice this because she stopped in her tracks.
For a moment I said nothing, though my expression said that I desperately wanted to tell her something. After I few moments, I looked between both the twins with a defeated expression and simply said
” When we get to the house, follow my lead, and don’t eat or drink anything she offers you.”
It sounded more ominous than I intended. The twins looked back and forth at each other, clearly off put by my instructions and sudden shift in mood, but they nodded in understanding. Without another word, we approached the house.
I’d seen it countless times before, but perhaps because of what I knew had to happen tonight, the innocent looking structure with it’s frosted roof and candy cane window frames seemed all the more sinister.
A single lantern hung by the door, casting a dim glow over the porch and rocking chair that sat to the right of the door, and like always Mother was sitting on the chair as we walked up. She wore a black dress, as was her custom on nights like that one. She smiled that kind liar’s smile of hers as we got closer. Like always, She was already in character.
” Oh goodness me, there you are child! How many times must I tell you never to wander off so close to dark! You’ll kill your Mother with worry!”
We’d acted out this exact scenario with each other countless times before, but I had been distracted that night, and the way she worded her greeting sent a chill down my spine. I told myself to act natural, that there was no way she could know about my plans, but that was easier said than done.
“I’m.. sorry Mother, I lost track of time because of my new friends.” I said nervously.
She nodded and looked over to Hansel and Gretel. The average person probably wouldn’t have been able to tell, but I knew my Mother well enough to know that she was very pleased with my catch of the day. She had a giddy spring in her step as she waved us over and ushered us into the house.
“Well come now, it’s freezing outside and supper is getting cold!”
I looked over to Hansel and Gretel, and it was clear that they didn’t know what to think. I gave them a look of caution and gestured for them to follow me inside. They reluctantly complied.
Inside I saw the feast Mother had prepared for us like she usually did, and took my seat at the table. Hansel and Gretel followed my lead and sat down but none of us started eating. Mother sat at the head of the table and it didn’t take long for her to notice.
“Go on dearies, help yourselves, no one goes hungry in this house.”
She said with a smirk as she passed the Apple Cinder over to Hansel.
“I’m not hungry” He said bluntly.
A look of annoyance passed over Mother’s face for a brief moment and she opened her mouth to respond, but Gretel cut her off.
” This house is amazing!” How did could you even make something like this? It’s simply marvelous!”
She blurted out. The appeal to her vanity made Mother smile, and not the false smile she wore for her victims, but a genuine one that was sly and catlike.
” Let me tell you all about it dearie!” She exclaimed gleefully.
Over the next few hours, that’s exactly what she did. I listened halfheartedly while they talked. Instead I sat at the table and looked around the kitchen trying to figure out where Mother kept the axe. I knew that wasn’t the only thing I could use as a weapon, but it would have the most reach, and when the time came, I would rather it were in my hands than hers.
“Why doesn’t your son have a name?”
Asked Hansel, interrupting Mother’s monologue. I almost gagged audibly at his question. No one ever questioned her like that. She turned to him with an incredulous look on her face.
“Your son, why hasn’t he got a name?”
For a few short seconds, the character of the kindly old lady she played so well fell away completely and she glanced over at me with cold, dead eyes that made my stomach sink.
” Did he tell you that dearie? That’s just his sense of humor, he’s a bit simple minded, always saying things he shouldn’t.”
“What’s his name then?”
“His name. If he’s got one then what is it?” Hansel pressed.
It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. For several moments that felt like eternity Mother said nothing, and then an icy smile spread across her face.
“I’ve had just about enough of you, you nosy little shit.”
“Mother…” I started to say as I stood up in my chair.
She yelled as she turned to me, her voice suddenly booming and furious.
“I KNEW YOU WOULD BETRAY ME SOONER OR LATER, UNGREATFUL LITTLE BASTARDS LIKE YOU ALWAYS DO!”
Suddenly, in a display of speed and strength that didn’t think was possible, even for her, she flipped the table over and wrapped her long, bony fingers around my throat before I could respond.
Time seemed to move in slow motion as I struggled and gasped for air while mother continued ranting as Hansel and Gretel looked on in dumbfounded horror.
“You think I don’t see your greedy little eyes looking for my axe? What do you think your going to do with it boy? Kill me? after all I’ve done for you?!”
She hissed in a low, venomous tone.
” I tire of these ridiclous games, and I tire of you boy! I curse you! May you never leave this forest alive and may the beasts and maggots of the earth feast on your wretched little bones!”
The whole house seemed to shake at her words. I could hear the crack of thunder from outside even though the sky had been clear a moment ago. My vision started to blur, darkness covered the edges of my sight and somewhere behind me, I could hear the sound of that terrible oven door as it opened and feel the sweltering heat of the flames that waited within.
I knew it was all over. I had resigned myself to the death I always knew I would have when the sound of Mother’s piercing scream snapped me out of my despair, and the feeling of air rushing back into my lungs as she dropped me brought me back to reality.
When I looked back up, I saw Mother’s face contorted in agony as she clawed at the kitchen knife now lodged in her shoulder. Behind her stood Gretel, who had tears streaming down her face. In the blink of an eye Mother whirled around and punched Gretel so hard in the temple I could hear the sickening sound of her skull cracking before she crumbled to the floor.
The sight caused Hansel to snap out of his stupifiyed state of horror and he lunged at Mother with all the rage of a man who’d seen his family gravely wounded. They both fell to the floor like a pair of vicious tigers. I’ve never felt so helpless before or since.
It’s been so many years since then, i couldn’t tell you how long I watched the two of them struggle with no idea what to do before clarity hit me like a lightning bolt, and I knew exactly what to do.I jumped up as quickly as I was able, grabbed an empty pan off the intact kitchen counter, and bashed my Mother across the head with it. Once. Twice. Three times. The sounds of the pan hitting her skull becoming duller and wetter with each swing, like a pumpkin squishing under too much pressure.
Before long, she stopped moving enough for Hansel to get out from under her where he had been pinned. When he was on his feet, I looked at him and said only one word that required no explanation.
Without another word between us, we worked together and dragged Mother’s hulking, groaning form over to the oven where she herself had taken so many others, and threw her in.
I still hear the scream she gave off in my dreams sometimes. It haunts me to this day. It tore through the house and blew out the windows. The whole structure seemed to shake at the sound, as if it were aware that it’s master was dying. We scrambled to carry Gretel’s wounded form out in time for the gingerbread house to crumble to the ground.
Once we were out of the house, I watched it crumble and rot before my eyes as relief watched over me. It was short lived however, chased away by Gretel’s pained groans. I turned to her and Hansel. He was desperately trying to keep her conscious. He turned to me with despair in his eyes.
“She needs help”
“I know the way out of the forest, come with me, we still have time to get her help!”
He didn’t ask me to explain why I suddenly knew my way around, didn’t ask for an explanation for anything. Just nodded in acknowledgement, and with Gretel in his arms, we both ran, ran until we could hardly breath then ran some more, until we reached the forest’s edge, the very edge of my world.
The trees began to thin and the lights of the town beyond the woods came into view, and I stopped in my tracks, for reasons I still can’t quite explain even now. Hansel might not have even noticed that I had stopped if I hadn’t called out to him.
He turned back, the look on his eyes saying everything his words could not.
“Thank you, for everything.”
He nodded, then turned and kept running far off into the distance, out of my sight.
It’s been many years since that night. I ended up returning to the house to find it completely destroyed. Almost as if it had never been there. All that remained was the oven. Perhaps out of a sense of duty, perhaps out of regret about the evil I was an accomplice to, or perhaps because of Mother’s old curse, I’ve kept watch over that oven of hers ever since. I haven’t seen the twins since that night.
Part of me wants to go find them, and see if they are alright. As sad as it may sound, they were the closest I’ve ever had to real friends in my life. I won’t leave the oven though. If nothing else, my 18 years in that gingerbread basement taught me was that Mother was a creature beyond my understanding, maybe even beyond human understanding. I’ll never know if she truly died that night, but I can make sure that no poor souls ever disturb her cursed bones. It’s the least I can do.
There is no moral to my story, no life lesson I can impart. In the end, all I can say is that I hope the twins are still out there somewhere, and that they lived long, happy lives filled with joy and kindness.
That thought keeps the nightmares away.