The house is derelict and crumbling now. Its sugar-pane windows stare blindly through the cataracts of cobwebs, and damp patches blossom like liver spots across its gingerbread gables. But Hansel's hand still trembles as he pushes open the twice-cooked door, which wobbles like a rotten tooth in its warped candy-cane frame.
The last time he saw the house he was glancing back over his shoulder as he and his sister fled into the trees, handfuls of snatched jewels heavy in their pockets, the smell of burning flesh coating their nostrils like black tar. She's dead. She's dead. She's dead, he kept repeating to himself, but he looked back regardless, fearing she'd be there in the doorway, the hag, magically unscathed, hurling curses after them as they escaped. And though there was no hag and no hurled curses, the hungry stare of her milky eyes have dogged him nightly in his dreams, and he wakes drenched in sweat that smells so horribly, horribly sweet.
The door swings shut behind him, and slowly the disturbed motes settle like a sprinkling of powdered sugar. His gorge rises at the smell of stale cinnamon and black treacle—a taste he once loved but can no longer stomach. Fighting down the urge to bolt, he inches forward, half anticipating some ghoulish familiar to jump out at him from behind one of the shadowy pieces of furniture—the looming pewter cupboard, the gnarled rocking chair—and grab him with strong bony fingers and trap him once again in a cage, he who once escaped, he who so foolishly has returned.
But where else could he have gone?
The future he and his sister dreamed of seemed so simple: a place of their own, where they could sell bread made the way their mother made it—pumpernickel, black and dense as blood sausage; sonnenblumenbrot, suffused with toasted sunflower seeds; soft, intricately knotted bretzel. But how quickly that dream had disappeared!—along with their jewels, which had, in the city's gambling houses, run through their father's fingers like water, his appetite for chance more ravenous even than the hag's for young flesh. Everything they'd once had, gone—their father, fled, leaving the two of them with nothing but his debts. And then Gretel, who had survived such horrors with him, taken in an instant by something so absurdly commonplace as a chill, skin ashen, her body racked with coughing, until she lay silent and still and he by her bedside alone, feeling like a helpless boy again.
When the bailiffs finally came to take what they were owed, he knew of only one place where he might avoid the certain madness of being locked in a debtor's cell.
He steels himself. He has seen the person he loved the most gutter and go cold, snuffed out before his eyes, seen his entire life crumble like a nodule of bread rolled absentmindedly between the fingers of someone pondering more important matters. This house cannot harm him.
He begins to move more easily even though the rooms get darker and darker the further in he goes. He pauses a moment and allows his eyes to adjust to the gloom, and then it comes at him, like a beast from the shadows—the great brick maw with the iron door: the oven; and there, in the corner, like a grinning skeleton, the cage.
He freezes and then begins to shudder; his vision narrows, and he sees nothing but the bars of that prison, forgetting for a moment on which side of the bars he is. He falls to his knees, frantically searching the floor for the chicken bone, which staved off death each day for so many days, and begins to weep when he cannot lay his hands on it.
A draught, like the tender touch of small fingers across his neck, jolts him to his senses. He is drenched with sweat, and the air in the house is damp and freezing, as chill as Gretel's cheek on the morning she failed to wake with the dawn.
Be brave, Hansel, he hears her whisper, stroking his hair through the bars of the cage when they were so very close to despair. We'll get out of this alive. I promise.
Something catches inside him, tugs on his viscera. He cannot—will not!—let her be wrong.
He moves almost without thinking, so that in a moment he has unbolted the oven door and swept the old hag's ashes to the ground; he has splintered the cage for wood and found tinder and flint in a tin box by the hearth, and before long, a welcome fire warms him.
He sweeps up the remains of the hag in an iron dustpan and takes them to the rear of the house, to a garden choked with weeds, where he casts them to the wind and they scatter into the trees like a flock of ghostly moths.
Before he turns to go inside, he thinks to himself how well-suited this garden would be for growing pumpkins and poppies, sunflowers and sesame; and the oven, too, perfect for coaxing even the most stubborn loaves to rise; how this house made of gingerbread could, if he dared, be somewhere he might build himself a new life, a happy life.
He reaches a hand to the eaves and breaks off a small corner of the house, which grows back again, pale and new, the magic mixed with the creamy, white mortar abiding still. He smiles, knowing that he will not go hungry tonight, nor for any night soon.
He puts the piece of gingerbread to his mouth; the warm spices dance on his tongue.