The Nightingale Catcher

Submitted into Contest #16 in response to: Write a story in which characters are warned not to go into the woods.... view prompt

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Mystery

           

Finding the witch’s house again should have been easy. Gretel kicked a dense layer of moldering leaves blanketing the primeval forest floor. Stupid, she thought. Should have accepted Hansel’s offer to draw map.  

A gray mouse scurried across the young woman’s sturdy hiking boot.

“Nibble, nibble, little mouse,” Gretel said and smiled–her usual good humor restored.

A chill autumn wind blew. Gretel shivered. She tucked her long, blond braid inside the fleece-lined jacket and turned up the collar. Damn, it’s cold. Her azure-blue eyes searched the shadowy, unfamiliar landscape. She had to find shelter before nightfall.

Shaken by the wind, ancient oak trees etched against the sunset’s fading yellows and golds swayed. The trembling, low-hanging branches reminded Gretel of grotesque witches bending over a bubbling cauldron.

 Gretel’s heart pounded. Witches work! She ran blindly as if chased by a ravenous beast, and tripped over a mossy, half-rotted log.

Gretel’s ankle twisted. “Damn it.” 

The injured woman hobbled on one foot to a nearby oak tree, pressed her back against the rough bark and slid down the trunk. She landed with a thud on the damp, leaf-littered ground.

Gretel rolled up her pant leg and gingerly probed the rapidly swelling ankle. Not broken, but I won’t be going any further tonight.

She unzipped the small pouch fastened around her waist and took out a granola energy bar and a bottle of spring water. Gretel was hungry, but nibbled like that mouse. She’d packed light; finding the witch’s house, she’d assured Hansel, would be a piece of cake. Yeah, right.

Gretel re-wrapped the remainder of the energy bar and unscrewed the cap on a plastic bottle of spring water. Was the house still standing?

The house was built of bread with clear, spun-sugar windows. Hansel and she-once upon a time-had walked the candy lined path hand in hand, and been greeted by the cooing of a white dove perched on the roof formed from chocolate cake.

Her brother Hansel, now an award-winning novelist, writes book of re imagined fairy tales. He described the witch’s house as made of gingerbread covered with sweets and sugarplums.

  Gretel laughed. So much for childhood memories.

A sound startled Gretel. What was that? Her nerves tingled. She’d been warned not to return to the Enchanted Forest. The frightened woman lifted  her head and peered into the tree’s canopy.

Two stout branches, swayed by the wind, rubbed against each other producing the sound of a hand-saw cutting wood.

 I’ve heard that sound before. Gretel’s nails dug into the palms of her hands.

Her brother’s sanguine version of the classic story of Hansel and Gretel spins a tale of the poignant reunion between the young brother and sister abandoned in the woods and their repentant father.

But Gretel had never forgotten her father’s duplicity.

Hansel and Gretel had huddled in a clearing beside a small fire. Their father had gone deep into the woods and lashed two tree limbs together. His young children, hearing the sound, thought their father nearby cutting firewood, and didn’t realize until nightfall he had abandoned them.

Gretel shoved the fallen leaves ringing the tree into a damp, earthy-smelling pile, curled in a tight ball, and tossing restlessly, waited for sleep.

                                                           #

Sunlight filtered through the trees. Gretel yawned, rubbed sleep from her eyes, and pressed on her ankle. The pain was slight, and the swelling had gone down. Time to get moving.

She polished off the remaining half of the energy bar, gulped a mouthful of water, and looked in the woods for a sturdy tree limb for use as a walking stick.

Which way? She gazed at the unfamiliar setting.

A white dove soared through the woods and landed on a nearby tree branch. Bright bird eyes stared at Gretel. “This way, this way,” the bird said.

Leaning on the walking stick, Gretel followed the dove. The bird circled back several times.

An hour later, Gretel pushed through a thicket of yew trees. The dove dipped its wings and glided to a landing on the cake-topped roof of the witch’s house.

That’s it! Gretel hesitated, blood pounding in her ears. She wasn’t ready to go inside, and she limped around to the back of the house.

Chiseled stones from the large outdoor oven lay in a ring on the weedy lawn like remains of a collapsed monolithic idol, and the rusted iron oven door poked through a tangle of weeds and dried, twisted vines. The barn door hung crookedly by the top hinge.

  A blazing fire had burned in the stone oven the morning Gretel pushed the witch into the hot oven, and bolted the iron door.

Got her. My first murder. Gretel leaned on the stick and recalled the stench of burning flesh, the witch’s screams. She had waited until the screams subsided before racing to the barn where Hansel was caged and force-fed for the cannibalistic witch’s All Hollow’s Eve feast.

Together, they had rushed from the stable into the house searching for the witch’s treasure.

Hansel had stuffed pearls and precious jewels into the pockets of his lederhosen, and Gretel filled her apron.

Their father had wept and begged forgiveness when Hansel and Gretel returned home. Their mother’s squinty eyes examined the witch’s treasure, and she had managed a weak smile.

Retrieving the remainder of the witch’s treasure was Gretel’s purpose for returning to the Enchanted Woods.

She was bankrupt. Hansel threatened withdrawing his financial support for her frivolous lifestyle.

“Sis, get a job. A college degree. A husband,” he had told her.

Gretel limped to the front of the house, climbed the creaking steps and peered in at the spun-sugar window pane.

“House’s empty,” said the dove from his perch on the roof. “No one’s lived here since the old witch burned to death.”

Gretel lifted the door latch. The room, dark, dank, and draped with grey cobwebs, smelled of rat droppings and mold.

The dove flew in and perched on the peeling fireplace mantel. “Too late if you’re after the treasure. The Nightingale Catcher stole everything.” The bird stroked a wing feather with his bill.

“Nightingale Catcher?” Gretel said and frowned.

The dove tilted hid grey head and looked at Gretel unblinkingly. “She’s a very, very wicked witch. Many an unsuspecting maiden has been lured into the Nightingale Catcher’s enchanted garden.

“What happens to them?”

“The fairest are never seen again. Story goes the Nightingale Catcher has transformed thousands into nightingales.”

“Thousands? What nonsense.”

The dove’s grey feathers ruffled. “You asked Blackie, the bartender, at the Tinderbox Pub to show you the secret passageway to Fairy Land’s Enchanted Forest, didn’t you?”

Gretel nodded.

  “You aren’t in the real world. Anything is possible here.”

Gretel reached for the branch she used for a cane. “Show me the way.”

The dove fluttered around Gretel’s head. “Oh, no, I’m not going near the Nightingale Catcher’s castle.”

“Well, the treasure’s there, you said. So, I’m going.”

  "Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” said the dove.

“How will I find the Nightingale Catcher’s castle?” Gretel opened the door.

“Listen for the sound of nightingales’ chipping,” said the dove and flew into the late afternoon sunshine.

#

The hunch-backed woman with a long, curved nose grazing her pointed chin leaned against the castle turret overlooking her enchanted garden. The wind whipped the skirt of her dark, flowing gown. The wicker birdcage in her gnarled hand swayed. Her thick, black eyebrows lifted and her eyes sparkled as the iron gate in the stone wall swung open.

A young woman, using a stick and limping slightly, walked along the winding path bordered with red asters and yellow chrysanthemums.

The Nightingale Catcher cackled. Another pretty birdie. For my collection.

Hanging in each cavernous room of the Nightingale Catcher’s castle were thousands of wicker bird cages. Each cage held a nightingale.

Every morning, and at dusk, the  caged birds twittered, chirped, and warbled. The forest and surrounding countryside rang with their melodies.

Gretel sat on a stone bench and watched the Koi swimming in a small oval pool. The setting sun reflected in the rippling water.

High, shrill chirps and low, tenor warblings floated from the castle windows. Gretel tilted her head.

Enchanted by the nightingales’ hypnotic chorus, she didn’t hear the Nightingale Catcher’s skirt rustling as the witch crept behind the stone bench and opened the wicker birdcage. 

November 22, 2019 19:31

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3 comments

Bree Kokiri
20:30 Dec 02, 2019

Lovely piece! I would have loved to read more about the nightingale catcher's story in place of the flashbacks, and would have loved to have more back story on how the Hansel and Gretel story ties into the Nightingale Catcher's! Keep up the great work!

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Kaysie Davis
23:04 Nov 27, 2019

Great story!! Really leaves you wanting more. I love that it is a continuation of the hansel and gretel story.

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Babbs Davis
03:44 Nov 28, 2019

Kaysie, Thanks for reading my story. Appreciate you comments. Barb

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