Siblings.

“I am hungry, Bruder,” the small girl whined as she clambered over mossy logs. “Can’t I share the bread?”

“I don’t have any bread.” The words tumbled to the ground where they were crunched with autumn leaves beneath four small feet.

Two blonde pigtails flicked from side-to-side. “But I saw you sneak a crust into your pocket while Steifmutter was looking away.”

He quickened his pace.

“Bruder, please?”

She whines like a mosquito, he thought. “I don’t have any bread.”

“What did you say? I can’t hear when you mumble.”

“I. Don’t have. Any bread.” The little girl stopped a second before her pigtails did.

“You ate it?” A shrill accusation. He could imagine her little mouth an indignant ‘O’ in her pretty face. Seconds of silence passed, then she sniffed.

The boy sighed.“I used it to make a path when Vater brought us here this morning,” he called back over his shoulder.

The girl began following again, skipping to catch up. “So we are following it home, ja?”

He fought the urge to run. He could just leave her here—he was fast enough to bolt—but he was not his father.

The boy stopped. “The birds have already eaten it, Kleine Schwester.” His head dropped like the setting winter sun, leaving nothing but cold dread.

“But you know where we are going, ja? You are taking us home?” Her trust stung worse than Stiefmutter’s face-slaps when she had caught him trying to sneak out for pebbles the night before.

“I… It will… we must keep moving.” He wiped his eyes with his tattered sleeve and took his sister’s hand in his own—her fingers were cold, and small. Perhaps, if we are lucky, we will not wake tomorrow morning.

They walked in silence for some time, the crunch-crunch of their feet interrupted only by the occasional growl of their hungry bellies.

“I think I hear water,” said the little boy. They listened for a moment before setting off in the direction from which the soft babble of a stream was coming, stumbling into a run as the sound grew louder.

They threw themselves onto the bank and scooped up handfuls of icy water to slurp. When they were done, the front of their shirts were spattered and their hands numb. The boy smiled at his sister—her face was wet and her pigtails clung to her cheeks. He looked away before she caught the uncertainty in his eyes. “If we follow this stream, we will find people.” He hoped it was true.

They stood and began to walk, not bothering to brush the leaf clutter clinging to their knees.

“Perhaps we will find a cottage with a nice old grossmutter. She might be baking bread and roasting meat and wishing for two little children to feed. Bruder, do you think we might find a grossmutter like that?”

He grunted an ambiguous answer, but his sister didn’t notice, she was already prattling on about the grandmother she was creating in her mind’s eye.

The boy tuned out, his thoughts involuntarily drawn to his memories of their mother. He couldn’t quite remember her face, but he could see her hands—they were rough, red and cracked from washing eight pairs of lederhosen and her own dirndl. Her belly was full and round—he remembered this because he could no longer sit on her lap for his evening milk. Instead he curled up under her arm and rested his head on the bump that was his little sister—his mother’s longed-for girl-child, and the baby whose passage into the world had taken his mother from him. Vater could barely look at the baby when she was born and had married Stiefmutter within a week so she could care for the babe and his seven boys while he took long walks into the forest to cut wood and forget. Their house always had a warm fire, but Hansel had not tasted milk since.

“Your pocket smells of bread.”

His sister’s voice summoned him back to the present. “What are you talking about?”

“I can smell bread. Your pocket smells like the crust you hid there.”

“I never put it in my pocket,” insisted the boy, but he could smell bread now too. Not bread exactly, but cake.

He did not need to manufacture the enthusiasm that was building in his chest. “There must be a house nearby. Perhaps that grossmutter is baking for us.”

The children began to run, barreling headfirst through low-hanging branches just in time to avoid the fallen logs over which they might have tripped. They were no longer holding hands, and the distance between them was growing steadily. The boy reached the clearing first and stopped dead—even his breath halted—until his sister barreled into him from behind.

“You nearly lost me,” she fumed. “I couldn’t see you and I was calling and calling….”

Whining mosquito!  “Look.” His eyes caught hers and drew a straight line between them to the magnificent sight off to his left. “Kleine Schwester, look.”

Her eyes followed his all the way to the spectacle that awaited them.

“Oh mein Gott…”

A blasphemous mosquito! “Don’t speak like that. Vater would beat you for that.” He choked on the image of his father, belt-in-hand, beating him for the same blasphemy. He shook the unwelcome image off. After all, what Christian man leaves his children in the forest? “Let’s go see if anyone is home.”

“Is this a dream, Bruder?”

“If it is, don’t wake me until I have tasted those walls. Are they made of cake?”

“I think so, it smells so, and the roof tiles look like gingerbread.”

A cracking underfoot made the children start and look down.

“Bruder…it looks like…” Before the boy could stop her, the girl had scooped up a shard of rock that had cracked from the brown path that led to the front door of the cottage. She popped it in her mouth. “It is…chocolate!” Her face melted with sheer joy.

The boy’s stomach growled, and he took the piece of paving stone and threw it in the bushes. “We must behave or the people will not want to help us.” His sister was eyeing the path and chewed at the corner of her mouth. He glowered at her, but his mouth was filled with the sweetest taste he could imagine—he had inadvertently licked his fingers. His resolve teetered.

The boy took hold of his sister’s hand and, with a loud cough to disguise the sound, smashed his heel into the path, breaking a paver into chunks. “Let’s go to the door. If they turn us away, grab whatever you can, and run.”

 

 

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