Oct/Nov 2006 Spotlight

How Gretel Met the Cannibal

by David Massengill

Photo by Jim Gourley

After their father and stepmother abandoned them in the forest to save money, Hansel and Gretel discovered a modern condominium concealed among a cluster of pines.

Gretel recognized this dwelling with mirrored walls from one of her stepmother's fashion magazines. "The building where the male lovers live!" She said. "Maybe we can visit with them." She hurdled the curving line of orchids that served as the home's only fence.

Hansel grabbed Gretel by her boyish, black locks and yanked her back from the yard's border. Their father had displayed similar violence last week, when Gretel had suggested he'd earn a greater amount of deutschmarks if he worked as something more contemporary than woodcutter.

"Do you disrespect our father so much that you delight over what disgusts him?" Hansel asked. He kicked one of the male lovers' mermen statues onto its side and said, "These are grown fellows who fondle each other as only a husband and wife should. They cannot create children on their own, so what place do young ones like us have in their household?"

Gretel agreed the male lovers' unorthodox flairs contrasted with her father's ancestral authority, yet she'd admired the bold way they sported women's pearls and African headdresses in the magazine photos. While her stepmother had bought the publication to seek this spring's expected colors and wipe perfume ads on her neck, Gretel employed it to imagine her otherworldly self, an androgynous being that accompanied the male lovers on a train trip out of the countryside, past Berlin, south of Europe, and across an ocean that glittered with sunlight in the shape of little smiles.

"It's raining," Hansel said. "We must find shelter, or we'll die of hunger, or exhaustion, or something worse."

For future protection, Gretel tied her hair into pigtails. She reluctantly took Hansel's outstretched arm and said, "But mein bruder, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to find the path back to our parents."

"You sound like you don't want to," Hansel said.

Gretel lowered her gaze and watched raindrops gradually erase their footprints. She'd sometimes wished rain could dissolve one completely.

"If you are not a member of a household then you are lost," Hansel told his sister. "And lost is a disgraceful way to be." He turned from Gretel and knocked his head against a tree trunk until he began to cry.

Gretel neared to comfort her brother, and to propose that perhaps they could construct their own home in the woods—a place that didn't require a mother and a father and a son and a daughter, but individuals whose only roles were to be unique.

Yet before Gretel could touch Hansel he shouted, "Look! The place where we'll recuperate!" He pointed through the thicket before them to a cottage set atop a hill as green as Astroturf. The roof was constructed of angel food cake with a blue frosting trim. Chocolate bars formed the frames of windows, and a mesh of red licorice made the front door.

Entering that door was a round, grandmotherly woman who only needed a cow, a beer stein, and a wedge of cheese to serve as an ideal photo op for a touring American. Gretel guessed that if she never escaped Bavaria she'd become this same type of crone.

"A woman of tradition," Hansel said with a grin. "We can nibble on her walls, and then she'll give us a true feast."

"Only children eat dessert before supper," Gretel said, scowling at this structure that to her looked like a heap of cheap Halloween candy. She felt as if she'd sprouted into adulthood during the days since her father and stepmother had left them napping on forest dirt. Even her body seemed as if it had advanced into something athletic and entirely her own.

Hansel grabbed Gretel by the wrist and pulled her into a tangle of dead branches and sneaky thorns. "You adored sweets when you were younger," he said. "Perhaps if you'd never switched into an insolent tomboy we'd still be at home, sharing Sunday stew with our father and stepmother. Now are you going to return to being my sister or will you continue your derangement?"

Gretel trailed Hansel into the thicket. She glanced back at the male lovers' mirrored house once more, and saw her reflection becoming thinner and shorter and distorted as she entered the shadows of the bush. Feeling the curling twigs scraping against her skin, Gretel recalled that unpleasant incident when her stepmother had prepared a bath for her.

The woman set down shampoo bottle and told Gretel, "You'll never grow a penis. I know you can leap over logs and climb boulders better than Hansel, but it's impossible for you to be a boy. I'm telling you this because your father and I think you've forgotten your place." Gretel's stepmother lifted her dress to reveal a mass of pubic hair and said, "This will be your one source of power. It's where all men want to enter and from which all babies emerge."

As soon as she began suckling the gumdrop that served as doorknob, Gretel knew she was trapped. Her actions would cause her to be either indebted and performing chores inside this cottage or back at her father's with a belly bloated by sugar and her stepmother shrilling "pregnancy test." Both endings were torturous.

"I thought I smelled a surprise!" a female said. "Aren't you like a charming character straight out of a folk tale!"

Gretel glanced up from her squatting position to see the old woman staring down at her. Gretel noticed that the woman's eyes were red, and her quick smile showed pointy teeth flecked with blood.

Understanding that she needed to practice caution, Gretel curtseyed for the old woman like the most lovable little girl in all of Germany.

Hansel scrambled toward them from the side porch, nodding none too politely at the old woman as he kept chewing a chunk of her windowsill.

"Nature can be quite cruel," the old woman said. "Surely you must be tired of letting the wind blow you about." She motioned for them to enter, and they walked into a kitchen with a microwave that could easily fit a corpse.

Gretel spotted a rib left in the darkness beneath the machine.


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