The woodcutter’s joy could not be lessened, not even as he listened to the horrifying tale his children related. They had come back to him. That was what mattered.
Still, how harrowing their time away had been could not be denied, and he listened intently as he chopped the meat for their homecoming stew.
There had been a witch in a house made of sweets. Children had been her favorite thing to eat, but his children---most especially his clever little girl---had outsmarted her. Now, it seemed, the woods were much safer. The witch was no more.
“It’s a pity our stepmother is not here to see us,” Gretel said.
At this, for the second time since his children’s return, the woodcutter frowned. The first had been when he delivered the news that their stepmother had died during their absence. Now, it was not long before this second frown turned to frustration. Why should they miss her? Was it not her fault that he had abandoned his precious children in the woods without stopping to recognize how important they were?
“Children,” he said, “you musn’t mourn your stepmother.”
“Why not?” Hansel asked. “Must we not show respect for all who have passed?”
The woodcutter smiled. His children were so good. He wondered how, in such hard times, he had managed to raise them so.
“In this case,” he said, “she has given us a greater gift in death than she ever could in life.”
“What do you mean, Papa?” asked Gretel.
The woodcutter didn’t answer, but finished chopping the last of the meat. His children, clever as they were, had not yet asked where it came from, and in times of famine such as these. The woodcutter did his best to hide a prideful smirk. How silly he had been! The solution to his hunger pains---at least for a while---had been under his nose the whole time. How easily he’d snuffed her out! How beautifully her flesh sliced! How delicious her fat smelled as it melted in the pot!
Yes, that was a lesson he’d finally learned. And now, sitting naively at the table before him were two more. He would share his meal with them tonight, but as soon as they slept…. And if he prepared them just right, kept them dry and cool, he reckoned he could make their sweet meat last for quite a while. Just the thought of it made his mouth water.
And as far as he could tell, all they knew was that their father was happy to have them back. How little they knew why! And even after their ordeal with a flesh-eating witch! Indeed, it seemed for all the lessons he had learned while they were away, they had learned nothing.
Written by Jdeschene