Jenny Bitner’s “Hansel & Me” updates an old fairy tale as a fanciful and occasionally feverish yarn: Two step-siblings wander through a forest known to be the home of a cannibalistic witch. Hungry, cold, abandoned by their sybarite parents, the pair fantasize about food, sex and serial killers — until all their fantasies come to life within a fabulous house made of candy.
About his illustration, Fabulist house artist Adam Myers notes: “For me, at some point they ceased to be walking through the woods; instead I imagined them wandering amid abandoned factories and mills on the outskirts of some down-on-its-luck Midwestern city.”
This morning our father, the logger, sent us deep into the woods to find mushrooms. He told us that we were looking for morel mushrooms, but he didn’t tell us what they looked like. He just said to bring them home. We didn’t ask any questions. He has a temper.
So we walk further and further but we don’t find them and we know what is going on. We are not fools. Our parents have been itching to get rid of us ever since they met at the country line dance.
Your mother is what my mother, who is now dead, would call a floozy or a two-bit whore. My father is crazy about fucking her. They send us outside to play and don’t call us until after dark, and if we come home early, the door is locked.
I am afraid that they have sent us here to be eaten by the witch. I have heard the stories from everyone in town that there is a woman in the forest who was previously called a witch. My English teacher says we are not supposed to use the term witch anymore because it’s derogatory. Your mother just calls her an old whore. I’ve heard she looks like a vulture, and she eats children, and she does whatever she wants, and she dances naked at night, and she has sex with men who go there. If she likes them she lets them live. If she doesn’t she kills them.
I have to admit I am very impressed by the witch. I like the fact that she dances naked. I like her killing the lovers. I wouldn’t even mind if she killed some children, but not us. Maybe our father went there and had sex with her, I think. Maybe she didn’t like him, but instead of killing him, he promised to send her two children.
This is the way I think. This is my dark mind. You have more level thoughts. You have logical thoughts. We share a certain hunger. We share a certain intimacy based on hunger. I know that you are alive and you know that I am alive.
We know that being alive is not such a certain thing, so we would do anything to stay that way. That is our pact.
We walk all day deeper and deeper, and instead of talking about the fact that we are in danger, we talk about food. We have been hungry for a long time. It’s our favorite game.
We talk about mashed potatoes with deep pools of butter, foie gras, caviar and filet mingon. We talk about the kind of pastries that we read about in a book once called petit fours. I’m not sure what those pastries are, but in the book they provided such pleasure for the girl and boy who were eating them, the kind of pleasure only food and a few other things can provide.
Sometimes we describe food to each other for hours. In our house, we eat only turnips, Wonder bread, cheese whiz and ring bologna. Our diet is limited and therefore our imagination is unlimited.
You are an attractive boy. I saw that when you first moved in. Me, I’m not much of a looker, but you are sort of a boy-god—the kind of child that many men in the trailer park want to be a big brother to. Your have light, curly hair like a cherubim and long eyelashes like a girl. If you weren’t my stepbrother I would be in love with you. Maybe I am in love with you anyway.
“What should we have for lunch?” I ask. We are sitting under a tree and taking a break from our fruitless hunting.
“We’ll have lamb with plum sauce, Camembert cheese with blackberry pie and red wine,” you say.
I have never tasted any of these foods except blackberry pie, and that was at Denny’s after grandma’s funeral, and I don’t think it was the best.
“No,” I say, “let’s have lobster thermidor, sautéed escargot, cauliflower soup with white truffle oil and warm chocolate pudding.” I have been studying old cooking magazines to impress you with culinary terminology.
All day we have been leaving a path of bread, just in case. Held in my hands all day, the bread becomes sticky and dirty.
When my real mother was still alive, she would drive me past the Stroehman bread bakery, where we always stopped and sniffed the air to catch the yeasty smell of the bread loaves, sometimes catching a glance of them through the factory window, lying next to each other, row after row of small white bodies on endless metal trays. Being with my mother at such a time was special. Eating bread in the presence of one’s mother is a very important thing. Now that my mother is dead, I have no one to eat bread in front of who matters.
You are hungry and I give you some bread that I have kept in my hand all day — Wonder bread pressed into the shape of my fingers. You eat it.
We look for the mushrooms all day but we don’t find them. In my pocket, I keep a piece of my dead mother’s nightgown. I take it out and smell it from time to time, but I have sniffed it so often that I can’t tell if it still has her smell or I am imagining it. I remember how I sat on her lap, and she made me rice pudding from scratch and combed my hair, her fingers tickling my neck, making me feel like I was so light I might float away.
At dark we try to kill a rabbit. You throw a rock at it and it runs away. Instead we find a turtle. You brought some matches and we build a fire. We cook the turtle on a stick over the fire. The turtle is still alive when we start to cook it. It withdraws into its shell at first, but then when it realizes the danger, it tries to escape. I can’t stand to watch it struggle. I think how horrible it must be to be cooked alive in your own shell — to have your own body turned into the oven that bakes you; there is no way out and going deeper inside only makes it worse.
I only eat berries. You say maybe you’ll want some in the morning. You save some of the turtle for me in case I’m hungry later. I don’t know then that in the morning, starving, I will cram the cold turtle into my mouth and chew and chew on the cold, rubbery flesh. It will taste wonderful.
As it gets dark, I become scared and see a woman with an axe in the shadows of the leaves. I believe the woman with the axe is real.
“No,” you say, “it’s not real.” You have a way of separating hallucination from reality that is comforting to me— a way of separating the two like the wheat from the chaff. You are my winnower.
“Are you afraid?” you ask me, your voice comforting.
“Yes,” I say, “but I’m always afraid. Why do you think they sent us here?” I always ask you things that I know.
“So they could be free,” you say.
I like the way you say it. When you say it that way it doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe my father does love me some, but just loves her more. Maybe he is setting me free too. But really I think he is an asshole.
“But we’re children,” I say.
“Exactly,” you say, “my mother never wanted to have children. I was an accident. She tells me that sometimes when I got on her nerves. She just wants to be alone with Phil.”
Phil is my father. You have refused to call him father, of course. I never thought of him as much of a looker, but she is all over him.
“Yes,” I say, “they just want to have sex and listen to country music.”
“And smoke joints.”
“I should be sad, but I just feel scared,” I say. Now that it is dark, the game is over. Maybe a bear will come and maul us, or a mad killer who waits for children, or more likely we will starve. And there is still the witch to consider.
“I hate them both,” you say.
“Me too,” I say, but really I do not feel hate so much as a terrible, terrible sickness. Sometimes I wish I could be as angry as you. It seems to protect you like a shield the badness bounces off of. “What do you think will happen to us?” I ask.
“They think we’ll die, but we won’t.”
Yes, I think. We won’t. Somehow the fact that we have said it makes me feel a sense of relief, as if, now, admitting what we are up against, we have a chance.
We do things in the dark. It isn’t exactly sex, but your press your body against me so there is no room between our bodies and you put your hands between my legs, but you don’t move them. You just press against me, and it soothes me.
I whisper, “Will you always be here?”
“Yes,” you say.
Even though we are miserable, I am less miserable with you.
Tonight I dream only of the bread that I put on the path, and each scrap of dry bread is rising again like yeasty dough and baking itself into a full, warm loaf of bread. We scoop them all up and put them in our baskets. Like the bellies of babies, we can’t resist smelling each one.
If you weren’t my stepbrother, I would want to marry you.
I think that somewhere the witch is waiting for us. She is mixing potions in her woodland hut. Sometimes she is the creature seen by small children when they think about nasty things. She is what we shouldn’t be doing and she is waiting for us in the forest. I’ve heard she eats small children and then grinds their bones up into powder to put on her cereal. She loves the chunky legs of toddlers with whipped, mashed potatoes and dill on the side. Maybe she sees us now.
In the morning, we anticipate seeing the witch, but instead we find a house that is empty. The house is made of candy and we start eating it, our hands full of sticky chocolate siding with raspberries, marshmallow cobblestones, peanut butter steps and peppermint windowpanes. Trying for a moment of forethought, I say, “Should we be eating someone else’s house?”
“It’s candy” you say —always the one with the right answer. “It’s meant to be eaten.” Candy does seem by its definition intent on being eaten, but in this case it is also a building material. In any case, physical hunger and our childish natures win out.
Later the witch comes home and is angry with us. “This is a gross destruction of private property.” She says. “You’ll have to pay with your lives.”
We identify her as a witch because she is old and ugly. She is not someone who we will burn at the stake. We will not torture her to find out her pact with Satan. That has been done in the past. I know about that from my English teacher, who seems to love talking about what she calls the The Burning Times. She says the witch is a scapegoat for men’s fear of women.
But this is a real witch and there is real reason for fear.
After the first night, I realize that the witch does not want to kill me. She only wants to kill you.
She tells me that men are the real problem and that she will groom me to be a witch like her. I pretend that I have turned on you and am in love with the witch. Her name is Evelyn. All of the time I am plotting how to kill Evelyn.
I mend her nightgowns for her. I clean the house for her. I wash her underwear, which have the foul smell of old folk’s urine. She puts you in a cage where you are supposed to grow fat like a lamb. She has the key to your cage in a locket around her neck; she’s so old-fashioned. I can’t figure out how to get it. I wish that I could Google it — escape, witch, forest — but she doesn’t even have the Internet.
She preens over me and tells me how pretty I am. She combs my hair and I feel her old, scaly fingers running over my scalp and touching the skin on my neck and shoulders. It makes me shudder. I don’t know if she wants to eat me or make love with me. It all feels the same.
My job is to fatten you up. I cook meals for you and feed them to you, but when she leaves you make yourself throw-up into a yellow Tupperware container and I take it outside. I dig holes in the yard and bury your vomit. I uncover many bones. Some of them look human.
One day when she returns from one of her trips, she decides that it’s time to eat you. She is preparing the oven to put you in it. What will I do if she kills you? I need to act now. I need to be brave.
I tell her that the flue in the oven is stuck and that I can’t get the heat that I need to bake you. She puts her head into the oven to see and I push her from behind. She struggles with me, but I am stronger.
She turns towards me and she looks more vulnerable than expected. More like an old woman than a witch, with her body bent over and her hair turned gray and a beet stain on the front of her dress. I push nonetheless. I push and think of you. She fights back, but she is old and I am young and strong.
Of course, as you’ve been told, the smell of human flesh burning is horrible. I did what I had to do. She might have been misunderstood. Perhaps I should have tried harder to love her so she would change inside.
But you are saved and we push our children’s bodies together. We gorge ourselves on the house and I run my hands through your sticky, lollypop hair. You put your candied lips against mine. You put your gummy worm tongue in my mouth. Our parents have killed us; the witch is dead, what’s there to lose? Your hands running up my dress. I touch you and lick your eyelids. We have sex like we think the men and women do.
After that day we see that we can’t go back home and we can’t be together. It would be too complicated and we just want to forget everything that happened. I’m taken away by child protective services and adopted by a gay couple. We have a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They don’t ask me about my childhood and I don’t ask them if they’re really sure they’ll stay together forever and ever. We never eat Wonder Bread and I finally got to taste truffle oil.
And you? I don’t know where you go. We learned from our childhood that there is no looking back, the trail is already gone. I heard you lied about your age and got a job at the bread factory. Sometimes when I am eating a piece of bread, I imagine that you were the one who baked it, sealed it, or, at the very least, loaded the pallets onto the truck.
Jenny Bitner’s fiction has been published in Mississippi Review, The Sun, Fence, Corium and PANK. Her story “The Pamphleteer” was selected by Dave Eggers for Best American Nonrequired Reading and incorporated into an opera by The Paul Bailey Ensemble. Her nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, To-Do List, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and Men’s Health. She organized Irrational Exuberance, a cross-genre series combining music, visual art, writing, performance art and lectures, and a literary reading series, The Basement Reading Series. Pine Press published a chapbook of her poetry entitled Mother. She has finished a novel, Here Is a Game We Can Play, and is seeking a publisher. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia.