By Sara Levine
One day the old witch hobbled out of her gingerbread house and found a boy and girl standing at the lollipop gate, staring at the colored icing and the peppermint candies studding the window shutters. Hungry and dirty, they’d no doubt been wandering in the woods for days. Good, the witch thought, who was half-starved herself. She gave them a moment to take in her appearance: the red eyes, the bulbous nose, the hump. The girl shrunk a little. The boy’s attention was fixed on the house.
“What’s it made of?” he asked.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” she answered.
“Real sugar?” the girl replied. “Or corn syrup?”
“Children, you must be starving! Break off a piece of the window!”
But the children stood with their hands in their pockets.
“Pry a shingle from the roof,” she said. “Do you like marzipan?”
They shook their heads. They’d never tried it.
“Poor children! Come in, come in.”
She sat them down at her table and offered them pancakes, caramel apples, jelly doughnuts. They wouldn’t touch any of it. This one was bad for the heart, they explained; that was packed with calories; those looked good but weren’t what their stepmother called “growing food.”
“Do you eat this food yourself, Old Mother?” Gretel asked, her forehead creased with worry, as the witch brought out a nutmeg maple cream pie.
“Not very much,” she answered, thinking of the tender morsels children made. “But I make sweets for the children who pass through the forest.”
“They must have terrible teeth,” Hansel said.
Prig! thought the witch. Probably their muscles had been subjected to long, vigorous exercise, and their meat would be stringy and tough.
“My little ones, you’ve got to eat something.”
The children looked doubtfully around the cottage. “Do you have any purslane?” Hansel asked at last.
Oh, to hell with fattening them. She’d eat them as they were. You take what comes to you; you appreciate; you don’t complain.
“Children, go and sit on the bread paddle,” she said, “and tell me if the oven feels hot enough to put the bread in.”
They looked at her warily. “We never eat white flour,” the girl said. “It has a higher glycemic index…”
“All I’ve offered, and you won’t help me with one little chore?” the witch said.
“But we don’t know a thing about ovens,” Gretel said. “When you heat food over 116 degrees, you lose the nutrient value.”
“Actually,” Hansel said, “enzymes degrade at a temperature of 106 degrees. That’s why Stepmother prefers raw food.”
The witch rolled her eyes up to the meringue-covered ceiling. These awful, difficult children! She could bake them for an hour, and they’d still be tough.
“Listen,” she said, “if you round the house and head west you will come to a patch of blueberry bushes you can eat from.”
The children stood, their faces flooded with relief. They thanked the old woman and bounded out the cottage door.
Goodbye, tainted meat, the witch thought. Only after she closed her graham cracker door did she remember the ogre. His house was a mile from the berry patch, and he loved nothing more than to gobble up wandering children. He’d been a good neighbor these last three or four hundred years. Should she warn him about the meat? The witch had hobbled as far as the gumdrop doormat when she stopped herself. Probably she was over-reacting.
Brain, Child (Winter 2010)
Sara Levine is the author of the novel Treasure Island!!! and the short story collection Short Dark Oracles. You can read more about her at sara-levine.com.