Hansel and Gretel

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    North of the Great Alps lies a land into which even the Romans, with their armed legions, feared to tread. They called the land Germania and left it to the barbarians. It was a dark and spooky land, covered with thick forests into which no sane man dared venture alone.

    Centuries later, after the barbarians had stormed through the tottering Imperium Romanum and brought it crashing down, civilization seeped into the region. The driving force behind that seepage, the Empireís heir, the Bride of Christ, sent her servants to bring a divine light into the wilderness. The flags of the barbarian kings, which had replaced the Romansí SPQR, were subsumed under the banner of the White Dove. But the darkness lay thick and heavy upon the land and the light penetrated slowly. As if moved by a malicious spirit, the forest resisted the light. Black Death came to the forestís aid and then departed. Civilization resumed its ponderous advance.

    It was a civilization built on the use of wood, copious quantities of wood. Wood for houses, wood for bridges, wood for boats and wagons, and wood to fuel the fires that made life possible in this cold land. Woodcutters were the legion that drove back the forest and opened the land to the light. In some areas, after a woodcutterís ministrations, light struck the ground for the first time in thousands of years.

    One such woodcutter lived on the edge of the forest, in a house surrounded by trees too big for him to fell and to cut up. Every day he went far into the forest to cut wood and every day he brought the wood out of the forest to take it to the nearby village to sell. Because he had to travel far into the forest to find trees that he could cut down, he could only bring a small amount of firewood out of the forest each day. He was a poor man as a result.

    But poor does not mean sad, as the King of All Kings taught. The woodcutter had a lovely wife and two healthy children, a boy and a girl, twins whom the woodcutter and his wife had named Hans and Greta. Of course, children are rarely called by the names that they are given in baptism. The sober names suitable to be worn by an immortal soul are tweaked to match the gay and carefree nature of children. So it was that Hans and Greta were more often called Hansel and Gretel. The familyís possessions were few and simple, but for all their poverty they were happy folk, for they enjoyed each otherís company.

    And never more so than at mealtimes, for food was plentiful and cheap and Mother set a well-laden table. Fresh bread they had and sausage too. Sauerkraut, pickled vegetables of all kinds. Cakes and sweets. All of the good fruits of the earth came to them in abundance.

    But one year the abundance was curtailed and famine came over the land like a darkness. In many homes the lights went out never to be relit. Food was scarce and costly when it could be had. Starvation came to sit at the woodcutterís table. Every evening the woodcutterís wife wept when she saw how little her husband brought home and when she heard him tell of their neighbors starving. To make matters worse, the woodcutter began to lose strength from lack of food. Every day he cut less wood to sell and soon could buy virtually no food at all.

    One night Hansel was awakened by the sound of something scratching on the shutters over the window in the little room where he and Gretel slept. He peered through a crack to see what was making the sound and thought he saw a white bird fly away in the moonlight. Before he could go back to bed he heard the sound of his mother weeping and he went to the door to listen, to hear what was bringing her such sorrow.

    "You must keep up your strength, my darling," she said to the woodcutter. "If you do not, then we shall all starve to death."

    "But the children need so much to eat," the woodcutter protested. "I donít want them to starve."

    The wife began to weep again. "Then use the last of your strength to make four coffins," she said, "for we are all going to die."

    "No," the woodcutter said, "I cannot accept that fate. Without someone who knows to find and cut wood, the village will fail and will have to be abandoned. We must survive."

    "Then," the wife said quietly between sobs, "we must rid ourselves of the children."

    "How?" the woodcutter asked. "I could not bear to kill them."

    "And I could not bear to see such a thing," the wife agreed. "We must lose them in the forest. We must all go into the forest tomorrow and there we shall contrive to lose them." At that she broke down and wept anew.

    After his parents had gone to bed and fallen asleep, Hansel snuck out of the house and gathered bright pebbles that he could see in the moonlight, He gathered enough to fill his pockets and then returned to his bed. But before he re-entered the house he thought he saw a white bird watching him from atop the chimney.

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    The next morning the whole family went into the forest together. The sun had only just begun to fill the land with light when the four of them, each carrying a little loaf of bread, left the little house at the edge of the forest. They had gone only a short distance when Hansel paused to see whether he should drop a pebble. His mother noticed and called to him.

    "Donít delay us, Hansel," she said. "What is it you are looking at?"

    "I thought I saw a white bird roosting on our house," Hansel said.

    "No," his mother said, "thatís merely the sunís light striking the chimney. Now come along!"

    So Hansel dropped a pebble and went to catch up with his family. As the foursome walked deeper into the forest Hansel would sneak glances back at each pebble he dropped and when he could see it no longer he would drop another pebble. After a time they came to a clearing and stopped. The woodcutter made a small fire and his wife admonished Hansel and Gretel to wait by it.

    "We will go and cut the wood," their mother said. "Then we will bring it back here so that we can all carry it back home."

    With that the woodcutter and his wife went into the forest and left Hansel and Gretel to wait in the clearing. Once they were out of the childrenís sight they made their way to an animal trail and trudged home, weeping bitter tears on the way.

    For a long time Hansel and Gretel waited. All day they waited because Hansel hoped that their parents would repent their decision and come back for them and because he didnít want to frighten Gretel. But when night fell he was obliged to tell Gretel the truth. Unwilling to believe such a thing, Gretel called for her parents. Only a howl came back in reply and both Hansel and Gretel were frightened, so much so that they did nothing more to break the silence and they allowed the fire to go out. Only when the light from the nearly full moon came into the forest did Hansel feel less afraid.

    "Come," he told Gretel. "We can find our own way back home. The moonís light will shine on the pebbles that I dropped and the pebbles will show us the way home."

    So they followed the trail that Hansel had marked. Walking slowly, they looked for pebbles shining in the moonís light and went from pebble to pebble until they came back to the little house on the edge of the forest. They entered the house and their parents were so glad to see them that they forgot why they had left the children in the forest and greeted them with hugs and kisses.

    The happiness did not last. It wilted like a flower deprived of water. The famine was still upon the land and the woodcutter had even less food than before.

    Again, late one night, Hansel heard the sound of something scratching on the shutters over the window in the little room where he and Gretel slept. He peered through a crack to see what was making the noise and thought he saw a white bird fly away in the moonlight. Before he could go back to bed he heard the sound of his mother weeping and he went to the door to listen, to hear what was bringing her such sorrow.

    "You must keep up your strength, my darling," she said to the woodcutter. "If you do not, then we shall all starve to death."

    "But the children need so much to eat," the woodcutter protested. "I donít want them to starve."

    His wife began to weep again. "Then use the last of your strength to make four coffins," she said, "for we are all going to die."

    "No," the woodcutter said, "I cannot accept that fate. Without someone who knows how to find and cut wood, the village will fail and will have to be abandoned. We must survive."

    "Then," his wife said quietly between sobs, "we must rid ourselves of the children. We must try again to lose them in the forest and this time we must succeed. We must all go into the forest tomorrow and there we shall contrive to lose them." At that she broke down and wept anew.

    Hansel went back to his bed. He remembered that he had laid a trail of bright pebbles into the forest and that he still had some pebbles in his pocket, so he did not worry that he and Gretel would be lost.

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    The next morning the whole family went into the forest together. The sun had only just begun to fill the land with light when the four of them, each carrying a little loaf of bread, left the little house on the edge of the forest. They had gone only a short distance when Hansel paused to look behind him to see whether his first pebble still lay where he had dropped it. His mother noticed and called to him.

    "Donít delay us, Hansel," she said. "What is it you are looking at?"

    "I thought I saw a white bird roosting on our house," Hansel said.

    "No," his mother said, "that is merely the sunís light striking the chimney. Now come along!"

    So Hansel, seeing that his first pebble was still in place, turned and went to catch up with his family. As the foursome walked deeper into the forest Hansel would look for each pebble he had dropped before. But soon he noticed that he could no longer see his pebbles; the woodcutter was taking them along a different path into the forest. He dropped the pebbles that he had left in his pocket, one by one as he had done before, to mark the new trail, but soon he ran out of pebbles altogether. He didnít know what to do.

    "Shouldnít we stop here?" he asked.

    "No," his father said. "We have to go further to find wood these days."

    Now Hansel was truly afraid. He believed that he and Gretel would be completely lost if they went much further. But then he remembered the little loaf of bread that he was carrying, remembered that the bread was as white as the pebbles, so he crumbled the bread in his pocket and then dropped the crumbs as he had dropped pebbles before. What Hansel did not see was that after he was out of sight of a crumb that he had dropped birds would land on the trail and eat it. After a time the family came to a clearing and stopped. The woodcutter made a small fire and his wife admonished Hansel and Gretel to wait by it.

    "We will go and cut the wood," their mother said. "Then we will bring it back here so that we can all carry it back home."

    With that the woodcutter and his wife went into the forest and left Hansel and Gretel to wait in the clearing. Once they were out of the childrenís sight they made their way to an animal trail and trudged home, weeping bitter tears on the way.

    For a long time Hansel and Gretel waited. All day they waited because Hansel hoped that their parents would repent their decision and come back for them and because he didnít want to frighten Gretel. But when night fell he was obliged to tell Gretel the truth. Unwilling to believe such a thing, Gretel called for her parents. Only a howl came back in reply and both Hansel and Gretel were frightened, so much so that they did nothing more to break the silence and they allowed the fire to go out. Only when the light from the full moon came into the forest did Hansel feel less afraid.

    "Come," he said to Gretel. "We can find our own way back home. The moonís light will shine on the crumbs that I dropped and the crumbs will show us the way home."

    But they could not find any of the crumbs that Hansel had dropped. Nothing shone white on the ground in the moonís light. Now Hansel was thoroughly frightened.

    "We must wait here," he told Gretel. "We must wait for the sun to come up before we try to find our way home."

    So they waited. They huddled together under a bush and waited for the sun to come up.

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    The sunís light trickled slowly into the forest. From where they sat Hansel and Gretel could not see so much as a patch of sky. The forest was silent but for the soft rush of the wind in the tops of the trees. When there was enough light to see, Hansel and Gretel set out to try to find the trail that would take them back home. Hansel knew which trail had brought them into the clearing where they had waited and he followed it boldly. But soon he saw other trails merge with it and split off from it, trails going off in all directions through the forest. He could not tell which of these trails they had followed the previous day. They were lost.

    All day they searched the trails for Hanselís pebbles or for other clues that people had passed recently, but they found only animal tracks. Uphill and downhill they trudged. All too soon light seeped out of the forest and darkness came. Again Hansel and Gretel took refuge under a bush. Before the last light faded Hansel thought that he saw a white bird perched in a tree watching him.

    The next morning, when light came again into the land. Hansel saw the bird again, still perched in the tree watching him. "I have seen that bird before," he told Gretel. "I saw it outside our house. If we follow it, it may lead us home."

    So they followed the bird as it flew from tree to tree. Through the forest it led them, over hills and through hollows. They never took their eyes off it, lest they lose sight of it. They talked gaily of how happy they would be when they saw their home again and of how happy their parents would be to see them again. All day they followed the bird. The dayís light was just beginning to fade when they came to a clearing and saw a house on one side of it. The bird had come to rest on the roof.

    "Itís not our house," Gretel said, "but perhaps the person who lives there can help us."

    They walked across the clearing toward the house, toward the door in the front of the house, when Hansel stopped and stared in amazement. He pointed at the house and Gretel saw too that the house was clad in shingles that looked like gingerbread. Quietly they snuck up to the house and Hansel broke off a small piece of one shingle and tasted it. It was gingerbread! And the windows! The little circular panes in the windows, they discovered, were solid sugar, like large, clear lollipops.

    Well, they didnít hesitate for so much as a heartbeat. Hansel broke two shingles off the house and gave one to Gretel. Then he pried two panes out of a window and gave one of those to Gretel as well. With a gingerbread shingle in one hand and a sugar pane in the other, each child was as happy as they had not been in months. They ate the gingerbread and licked the sugar, but suddenly they heard a womanís voice come from inside the house.

    "Do I hear a rat or mouse?" the voice queried. "Who is nibbling at my house?"

    "ĎTis merely the wind and nothing more," Hansel sang out in a low voice, "that shakes your shingles and rattles your door."

    They heard nothing more and resumed their feast. Suddenly the door opened and they heard the sound of a dog sniffing the air, short little sniffs coming in rapid succession. Then they saw a woman in a shiny black dress come hobbling out with the aid of a crutch. The woman had a long nose with wide nostrils and it was she who was sniffing the air. She had wide lips and her upper teeth protruded over her lower lip. Her bulging eyes had once had pupils as blue as the sky, but now the blue was almost completely covered by little clouds that made her almost completely blind. Her hair, half gray and half black, hung down her back almost to her waist. She sniffed the air again and turned toward Hansel and Gretel.

    "Who are you?" she asked. "And why are you eating my house?"

    "We are Hansel and Gretel," Hansel said in a trembling voice. "We have been lost in the forest for two days and we are very hungry."

    "Well, you donít have to eat me out of house and home," the woman said. "I have plenty of food inside. Come and I will feed you. Come along. No harm will befall you."

    Hansel and Gretel hesitated at first, but hunger pushed them and they followed the woman into the house. Inside the house the woman set before them pancakes with sugar and milk. She also gave them apples and nuts to eat, making sure that they ate their fill. By the time Hansel and Gretel finished eating night had fallen, so the woman showed them to a room in which two little beds covered in white linen and comforters awaited them. "Tomorrow we shall talk about whither you shall go hence," she told them. As they fell asleep the children felt as though they had entered Heaven.

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    The next morning Hansel was awakened by the sound of sniffing. Before he knew what was happening the woman grabbed him, pulled him out of bed, and dragged him to her own bedroom, where she locked him in a cage. Still sleepy, he looked around the room and saw thick books with dark covers, strange boxes piled in the corners, pictures of the most bizarre kind hung on the walls, pictures that didnít look like anything at all. And in the place where decent people would hang a crucifix, to remind them of the sacred goodness that truly belongs in the world, he saw the statue of a man with the legs and horns of a goat. Understanding came to Hansel then and fear shook him fully awake.

    "Run, Gretel!" he cried out. "Sheís a witch!"

    "Too late, little boy," the witch said with a cackling laugh. She came into the bedroom carrying a chain and Hansel saw that the chain was attached to a collar that was locked around Gretelís neck. A pair of keys dangled from the witchís belt. "Now, little girl," the witch said, "you will be my slave and clean my house. And you, little boy, will lie at ease in my cage and grow fat and soft. Little boys like to do that, yes." She pulled on the chain and dragged Gretel out of the bedroom. "Come," she said, "you have work to do and I have potions to brew."

    So Gretel was compelled to work and hard work it was for a little girl. She had to lift copious amounts of water from the deep well in heavy wooden buckets and then carry it into the house. She was obliged to carry firewood into the house and to maintain the fire in the large brick oven that had been built into one wall of the kitchen. At night, before she could rest from her dayís work, she was forced to make golden twine: she had to use tongs to pull a gold thread from a gold bar, then she was obliged to spin the thread into twine that she wound upon a large spindle. "With this gold twine," the witch told her, "we shall weave a fine gift for my master."

    Gretel was also forced to clean the witchís house, from attic to cellar, lifting and moving heavy objects in order to clean under and around them. Many of the objects were unfamiliar, things that only a witch would use in working her evil magic. Sometimes Gretel dared to look inside a box or a chest and would see fabulous jewels. But it was in the witchís cellar that Gretel saw the most frightening things of all. There she saw, hanging from the rafters like hams, the arms and legs of children. Then she knew that the witch intended to cook and eat Hansel and her.

    Of course, Gretel told Hansel of her discoveries when she brought the food that she was obliged to cook for him. They knew that they had to get away from the witch, but they could not think of how to do it. They tried to delay their fate for as long as possible in the hope that some opportunity of escape would come to them. Hansel found a hole in the wall behind his cage and through that hole he pushed the food that he had crumbled up after eating only enough to satisfy his hunger. During the day he could hear the birds coming and taking the crumbs, so he knew that the witch would not discover how he was avoiding becoming fat for her.

    At night the witch would come to Hansel. "Let me test you now, my succulent little boy," she would say. "Put out your finger through the bars so that I may feel how fat you have grown." Hansel was ready. He had kept a bone and a piece of skin from a chicken that Gretel had brought him and was the skin-covered bone that Hansel put out for the witch to feel. Every night the witch would sigh with disappointment and admonish Hansel to eat more, reminding him that she had plenty of food. Then the witch went to bed, but not to sleep soundly it seemed. Every night Hansel watched in horror as the witch lay in her bed and sniffed the air, licked her lips, then rubbed her belly and sighed as if enjoying a big meal. Even though the room was warm Hansel shivered and tears ran down his cheeks.

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    One night Hansel witnesses a living nightmare. It was the night of the new moon, when the world goes fully dark after sunset. Instead of testing Hansel as she had done on other nights, the witch came into her bedroom, took off her belt, which she tossed onto her bed with her crutch, and conducted a bizarre, eldritch ritual. She had bound up her hair, Hansel saw, and pulled the hood of her dress over it. Amulets dangled from her wrists, making soft clattering sounds as she moved. And she moved in the manner of someone half asleep, yet her eyes were fully open.

    She began by removing a small rug from the floor in the center of the room and draping it over a chair. Hansel saw that the part of the floor that had been under the rug bore a circle with other geometric designs inscribed within it, a pattern that had been scorched into the wood. Next the witch set her candlestands, each as tall as Hansel, on either side of the pattern and put large, thick, black candles on them. As she lit the candles she chanted words that Hansel did not understand. The words sounded harsh and foul, like the words that insects or snakes would utter, could such as they speak. As smoky red flames danced on the candlesí wicks the witch took her little statue of the Devil from its place in her shrine and set it in the middle of the pattern on the floor.

    She limped four paces back from the statue and stood with her hands crossed over each other below her waist. Once again German words flew from her mouth. "Reviled Lord," she said, "who art exiled from Heaven, feared be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom shall come and Thy will shall be done on Earth and then in Heaven. Give us this day our daily meat; and lade your grudges upon us so that we may lade them onto others. Lead us deep into temptation and deliver us unto Evil. For Thine shall forever be the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory that The Other has stolen from Thee. Let it ever be thus!"

    As the witch spoke her foul parody of the Lordís Prayer, the little statue grew larger, accompanied by a soft rushing, crackling sound. And as the statue grew to the size of a man it became transparent and began to writhe slowly as though made of flame. It seemed to come alive, to look at the witch in expectation.

    "I have received the graciously generous gift of two children," the witch reported and she bowed deeply to the Devil. She straightened up then and spread her arms wide, as though reaching to embrace the Devil. "My heart gallops all the more eagerly to Your service," she said. "This night the darkness lies deep on the land and many souls may be caught in Your net. Let me be the swift ship on which You surpass the fish; let the foul wind fill my sails!" The Devil seemed to point at the witch and nod.

    There came then a strange honking and the witchís dress billowed out like a sail full of wind. The room began to stink more intensely than anything that Hansel had ever smelled before. And the roomís odor was not improved by the deformed little man who stepped through the front of the witchís dress. The goblin came to the cage to peer at Hansel and Hansel cringed against the back of the cage. The shiny black fabric of the witchís dress shimmered again and again as more goblins and demons stepped through it and the witch wobbled a bit every time another vile creature entered the room. Then another goblin stepped into the room, coming through the back of the witchís dress, and the other goblins and demons in the room pointed at it and laughed hysterically. Even the Devil seemed amused. Hansel learned an important lesson about goblins and demons that night: those rude, ugly little creatures reek like Hell.

    Far into the night the witchís dress served as a portal through which foul things entered the world to scamper from the witchís bedroom on their evil errands. In addition to the stench, strange croakings and belchings, raucous laughter and Goblisch jabberings kept Hansel awake all night.

    Toward morning the Devilís minions began to return to the witch to pass back through her dress into the realm whence they came. Even before the first glow of dawn heralded the coming of the sun, the Devil shrank down into a statue once again. The witchís dress fell limp and the witch could move again. "Evil has been done!" the witch gloated, panting as though she had just run a great distance.

    She chanted more spells, still panting and thus making them sound even more foul than before, before she blew out the candles flanking the statue of the Devil. Tenderly, lovingly she picked up the statue and returned it to its place in its shrine, then she moved the candlestands to their places on either side of the shrine. Finally she laid the rug back over the pattern scorched into the floor and then she laid herself onto her bed and fell into a deep slumber that lasted most of the day.

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    Four weeks after the witch had captured Hansel and Gretel her patience crumbled under the weight of her desire. She had spent the whole of one night writhing in her bed, caught up in her air-sniffing, lip-smacking, belly-rubbing dream of devouring little boys. She had slept poorly as a result and thus woke up in an especially foul mood. She banged the door of Hanselís cage with her crutch. "Todayís the day," she said.

    She dragged Gretel into the kitchen and locked her chain to the iron door of the big brick oven. "Fire the oven!" the witch commanded. "Make it good and hot! Today we shall bake pies. Yes, delicious pies for my little friends."

    So Gretel loaded wood into the oven through the door and used an iron poker to push the wood to the rear of the oven. Brightly burned the flames and soon the wood was reduced to glowing coals. Even standing away from the oven, Gretel could feel the heat.

    The witch was satisfied that all was ready. She went to her bedroom and unlocked the cage. When she reached in and grabbed Hanselís arm she felt that he had become quite plump in spite of his efforts to stay thin. "Oh, you have been deceiving me!" the witch said. "Well, that only improves your flavor," she added, licking her lips. She tied Hansel up then and dragged him into the kitchen.

    When Gretel saw the witch bring Hansel into the kitchen she began to tremble and weep. She had almost forgotten what the witch intended to do with the two of them. "Dear God in Heaven," she said sobbing, "please help us."

    "Save you lamentations, little girl," the witch said. "There is no one to help you. No, the two of you have enjoyed my hospitality. Now you shall repay my kindness, you with your labor and the little boy with a fine meal." She turned to Hansel, sniffing out his location in the kitchen. "I have fattened you up," she said almost tenderly, "and now you shall fatten me up. Fair is fair, after all." She turned back to Gretel and said, "Sweep the ashes from the front of the oven to the rear by the embers!"

    Gretel looked into the oven and then said, "I canít. I canít reach far enough."

    "Nonsense," the witch said. "Just lean into the oven as far as you need to do the job."

    "I canít," Gretel insisted. "The opening is too narrow. I wonít fit."

    "Yes, you will," the witch snapped. "I can fit through that opening, so you certainly can."

    "No," Gretel said. "I canít fit through it and you certainly cannot. I can see that itís much too narrow."

    "Well, then, see this, you stupid little goose!" the witch shouted. She leaned forward and put her head by the opening. "Do you see how easily I would fit through the opening? Now do as I commanded!"

    Gretel said nothing. She leaped and shoved the witch as hard as she could and the witch fell headfirst into the oven. With a shriek of rage the witch tried to back out of the oven, but Gretel pushed her again. The witch clawed wildly in an effort to pull herself free, but her shoulders had gone into the opening and her arms were pinned. She kicked and squirmed, desperately trying to get back out of the oven, but to no avail: hard work had made Gretel strong; laziness had made the witch weak. Oh, how the witch wailed and howled! She called upon the Devil to save her, but her shrieks of pain garbled the spells and no help was forthcoming. Vile green and black smoke began to rise from the chimney. Gretel continued to push the witch little by little into the oven, pausing only to yank the keys off her belt and drop them onto the floor. Soon the witchís struggles weakened and then the witch went completely limp. Gretel pushed her all the way into the oven and then slammed the door shut.

    Gretel stood trembling and sobbing for a long moment. Then she picked up the keys to unlock the collar from around her neck. Once free, she untied Hansel and the two of them hugged and kissed each other and wept on each otherís shoulders. After a time, when their tears had stopped flowing, Gretel led Hansel into the witchís attic and showed him the chests full of jewels that she had found there while she was cleaning. Eagerly they filled their pockets and Gretel took the spindle of gold twine, then they left the little gingerbread house.

    "We must leave this place," Gretel said. "Itís not safe for us to be here."

    "But we are still lost," Hansel said. "How shall we know whither we must go?"

    Gretel took his hand and led him to the well. Behind the well she pointed to a path marked with stepping stones. "This was made for people," she said. "If we follow it, we may find good people who will help us find our way home."

    So they followed the path downhill through the forest. After a time they came to a wide river. The trail ended at the riverís bank and they could see the stepping stones continuing to mark the trail on the opposite shore, but there was no bridge, no sign that there had ever been one at that spot.

    "How shall we cross this river?" Gretel asked. "Surely there must be a way."

    Just then a white dove flew down from the trees, circled them, and then went to perch on a large bush.

    Hansel went toward the bush and shook his finger at the bird. "You led us to the witch," he said angrily.

    "Yes," Gretel said, "but we could have run away before she caught us and we would have found this trail."

    But Hansel only gave out a little cry that startled the bird into flight. He reached behind the bush and pulled out a small canoe made of leather stretched over a frame of wood. "This must be what the witch used whenever she wanted to cross the river," he said. "Now we can use it."

    "But itís only big enough for one of us," Gretel said.

    "Then you must use it," Hansel said. "Perhaps I can swim across the river."

    Then Gretel remembered the gold twine. She tied one end of the twine to the canoeís frame. "Now," she said, "you cross the river in the canoe and when you have reached the other side I will pull on the twine to bring the canoe back to me."

    So Hansel got into the canoe and paddled it across the river as Gretel let gold twine unspool from the spindle in her hands. When he was safely on the far side of the river, Hansel put the paddle back into the canoe and pushed the canoe back into the water so that Gretel could pull on the gold twine and bring the canoe back to her. Then Gretel wound the twine back onto the spindle, got into the canoe, and paddled it across the river. After pulling the canoe out of the water and putting it behind another bush, the children continued on their way along the path.

    They walked for what seemed like a very long time. The sun was halfway down the western sky when they came to a place where a thick hedge of bushes crossed their path. Carefully they approached the hedge and Hansel looked through the bushes. And beyond the bushes he saw a road. Joyously he and Gretel pushed through the bushes and danced in the road.

    "Now which way shall we go?" Gretel asked. "Which way is home?"

    "I donít know," Hansel said. "But it matters not. Either way we go, we will soon come to a village and the people there will help us find our own village." He turned to look toward the witchís house, guessed at how they had wandered in the forest, and pointed to his right. "Letís go that way," he said.

    So they went and they came soon to a place where the road went over a hill. As they approached the top of the hill they saw the steeple of a church on the other side. Higher they climbed with the road and by the time they reached the top of the hill they saw that the village below the hill was their very own. Quickly, happily they walked down the hill and as they did so several wagons passed them. They saw more wagons in the village, wagons piled high with food. The famine was over and Hansel and Gretel knew that they could go home for good.

    When they came to the little house on the edge of the forest they saw such happiness as they had never seen before. Hugs, kisses, and tears of joy were shared by all, even before the children spilled the jewels from their pockets and the gold twine onto the family table. "Oh, dear Hans and sweet Greta," their parents vowed, "never shall we lose you again." And they were true to their words.

    The very next day the woodcutter gave Hans an axe of his own and took him into the forest to show him how to find his way and never again become lost. And Greta, because of the strength she had gained, helped her mother and was a blessing upon the whole family. The family remained poor, but all four of them were happier than ever before.

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    And what of the gingerbread house deep in the forest, that frothing little blowhole of Hell? After Hans and Greta told their story to their priest and the priest filed his report, the bishop sent a team of priests to cleanse the site. There is a light that mere eyes cannot see and it was that light that the priests took with them into that dark place. It was that light that closed forever the doorway through which evil might enter the world. And thus it was that civilization grew and came deeper into the land where mighty Caesar once feared to tread.

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