Escaping the hag’s house should’ve been the best thing to ever happen to us. The wealth we'd stolen from the dead witch was enough to keep us from starving while our neighbors turned skeletal and withered into their early graves. We ate porridge and bread instead of rats and each other, and the three of us were happy, but at night I still woke up soaked to the bone with sweat and tears.

"I'm so sorry my darlings," my father cried when we got home to him, but a year later his tune changed. "I said I was sorry," he'd grumble when I refused to hug him, or when he caught me staring. Our arguments always upset Hansel, until he left at seventeen to make a name for himself as a witch slayer in a time when witches were well-fed and sat two or three to a wood. "I've killed a witch before," he bragged. Everyone always forgot that I pushed the old woman into her own oven while he'd been fat and happy in a cage.

She never locked me up. Sometimes I even miss that evil old crone. I miss the brief hour of relief I felt when we found the house and realized we could live and be happy. I miss knowing that she needed us, that she wouldn't turn us out into the cold night like our father did. If it hadn't been for Hansel, I would have stayed there with her. I’ve dreamed of it every night since, and tonight would be no exception if I could sleep at all.

The wind is a ragged beast howling through our gutted house. Gone is Hansel's snoring. I haven't heard from him in months. Fate probably found him in a witch's belly, fifteen years delayed. Idiot. Father got sick and now he is in God's hands, as the priest at the village church told me when we buried him last night. I guess that now I'll never get a real apology.

There is no one left to be angry with, but I'm still burning. I think I left my heart in that oven.

I can’t sleep. The house is too quiet, the woods are too noisy, and there's a lump in my mattress the size of a potato. I roll out of bed and run outside. The wind catches the door and slams it open.

"Shut up!" I scream at the woods. An owl screeches on a low branch. I bend low, scoop up a rock, and pitch it at the obscene creature. I'm so angry I can't see, or hear, or stop myself. It takes off into the darkness and I follow, leaving no trail to lead me home.

Morning never comes. I lose the owl and am alone again. My stomach rumbles; I guess I forgot to eat today. I wander in circles, chewing my nails until they bleed. Finally, I catch the smell of baking cookies. I follow my nose, and there it is: the witch's house.

The trees sag to either side, creating a gaping doorway into a candy garden. The sky is a black, moonless blanket draped over the clearing with not even a star above to bear witness to my strange homecoming.

I had hoped to never see this place again. I had dreamed of finding it. I had wanted it destroyed, kept distant, brought close.

I stand at the edge, as still and silent as the trees. My heart is in my throat. It is smaller than I remember. When I was young, the candy cane rails stood a head above me, and I had to crane my neck back to see the striped shingles. I could only see through the low windows on tiptoes, and the lollipops in the garden were as long as my arm. The mint stones leading to the house had been a prime place to play a jumping game, leaping from one to the next. Now I simply walk across them and they're so brittle that they crunch underfoot.

I freeze in the doorway. Fear shivers up my spine. I hate it here, and yet... there is a sense of being welcome.

The door is a cookie that nothing in the woods has dared to nibble on in fifteen years. Is this the proof of lingering magic, or something more sinister? It isn't locked. None of the sugar even rubs off onto my fingertips when I push it open and peer inside.

"Come in, my dear." The witch's sharp voice shoots through my mind, nothing more than a memory that makes my knees shake. It's too dark in here. I feel my way to the window and grasp a fistful of licorice vine that has crept in and I yank it free. It's so dark outside that the now-empty window doesn't make a difference. My stomach begins to gnaw at me, so I bring a strip to my mouth. The first bite makes my stomach roil. The second makes me gag. I run outside and fling the blasted candy onto the ground where it twists around itself like intestines. It's so sweet it burns my mouth. There's a well at the edge of the property, and I remember it being full of normal water, so I go to it and drink straight from the bucket until it fills my stomach in a familiar way.

Why did I want to come here? The witch is as dead as my family and my sweet tooth is long gone. I laugh at myself. I was a fool to think there would be peace here. My anger still roars in my chest.

I walk along the tree line, but my entryway is gone. Brambles have grown thick around the property. They're growing so quickly that they writhe around each other like a nest of snakes. I run to the edge of the house and grab the hoe that the witch used to plant her jelly beans. By the time I return to the thicket it has grown above my head and is too thick to pierce with such a crude tool.

I wander back to the house. Even the furniture is made of candy. The single bed is pushed against the wall, and I can make out the silhouette of Hansel's cage in the corner. The wind was too loud at home. Here, it's too quiet. All I can hear is the rumbling of my stomach.

I stand and pace the room in the dark, growing hungrier. I slam my shin into the edge of the oven. Somehow, an ember still glows in the ashes when I crack it open. The witch is still in there. Of course. Where would she go, in this strange place where even scavengers won't venture?

I pull her femur out and strike it against the wall. It splinters into something sharp, a makeshift knife, and I take it out to the brambles. They've stopped growing. There's no sawing through them all, but I manage to cut off a good bit of dry wood. I take it inside and throw it onto the ashes. The damned thing roars to life without any nurturing. It wants to live. So do I.

The house is alight. The room is visible. It was the best and worst place of my childhood. I came to make peace, but now I think I might die here. My body hurts with hunger. It's a haunting pain, the ghost of something I once knew intimately.

I lay down in the witch's cotton candy bed. It's so airy I sink into it. I fall into a fitful sleep. Time passes, but the sun never rises, a detail I'd forgotten or hadn't had time to notice before.

The longer I wait, the angrier I become. I'm angry at my father for setting me on this path, angry at Hansel for abandoning me after I stuck by him, and angry at myself for falling back into this trap of a candy house. I sit in the dark, with nothing but the hungry fire for company, until my own name feels foreign on my tongue and I grow thin and hunched. I speak to myself, always only to myself. In a fit of hunger, I break the witch's bones to suck the marrow from them and then chew them down to nothing. As I eat what is left of my villain, I fall into raucous laughter. She intended to eat me. When I think of it I drink water and boil the brambles into hot tea.

Who knows how much time has passed? There is no marker here. After what could have been days or months, I wake to a sound.

A light, tinkling laugh like bells striking each other in the wind trickles into the house. I stick my head out the window and lean until I see two children perched on my steps. They're licking the railing and holding fistfuls of candy. A little dark-haired girl looks up at me through long sooty lashes. She's dirty and thin, but her cheeks are plump and rosy.

"Is this your house?" she asks around a mouthful of my door. Crumbs dust her shirt. My stomach rumbles. My voice is hoarse and thin when I answer. It crackles from age or disuse. If only my family could see me now, what they did to me.

"Yes, this house is mine. Come in, my dears. Let us all eat together. I too am hungry.”

July 24, 2020 13:24

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02:47 Jul 28, 2020

Love this. This is so clever and beautifully written. Great job. Looking forward to more of your stories


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02:30 Jul 28, 2020

A very well-knit and rounded story. The imagery is brilliant


Joy Rayner
16:30 Jul 28, 2020

Thanks so much!


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23:47 Jul 27, 2020

I liked how this came full circle! Well done.


Joy Rayner
00:40 Jul 28, 2020

Thankyou! 💕


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Kasey Krause
16:58 Jul 27, 2020

Great job, Joy! Loved it! You have such a talent for imagery.


Joy Rayner
18:26 Jul 27, 2020

Thanks so much darling!


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