We know the story. There wasn’t enough to eat. The children had been turned out to fend for themselves, and had, hungry, found a gingerbread house to snack on.
The gingerbread boys and girls outside the house were good advertising. The Witch had found a way not to be hungry. Fattening Hansel and Gretel, she planned to roast and eat them, but the children tricked her and pushed her into the oven, turning her into a cookie.
What we don’t know is this: as the Witch realized what was happening, she cried out. “This is wrong,” she said. “Witches turn children into cookies. Children don’t turn witches into cookies. It’s” – the Witch explained – “against the natural order.”
The Witch knew the meaning of her death.
And, sure enough, as the children left the Witch’s gingerbread house, the woods looked less foreboding. The path, as they followed the pebbles back, seemed less soft and yielding, the grass here and there turning into cobblestones, the cobblestones turning into pavement. By the time Hansel and Gretel reached their home, following the trail – crack vials with pastel colored tops, discarded pizza crusts, stale bagels – home was a brownstone on West 78th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Half a dozen cars passed, and an EMS van going fast in the opposite direction, its siren dopplering as it sped away.
Light snow drifted down. A plastic bag of garbage had been ripped open by feral cats – or rats. The stink of rotting food, thrown out by a restaurant at the end of the night, was subdued by the cold. The city lights erased the stars.
The Witch was dead. The world was material: logical, scientific, ordinary.
It was three days before Christmas. Their brownstone, like others on the block, had winking colored lights in the window. Inside, their Father and Step-Mother were anxiously awaiting them. They were late for the Metropolitan Opera’s annual production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, one of the family’s traditions.
At the opera, Hansel and Gretel and their parents sat, as usual, in the second row center. The same seats they had reserved year after year. They weren’t cheap, but it was worth it, the Step-Mother thought. This is after all how one makes sure that one’s children accumulate cultural capital. Gretel’s dress was from Nieman Marcus; Hansel’s suit was from Brooks, the Madison Avenue flagship store. Neither outfit was particularly comfortable.
When the curtain rose, the stage lights bathed Hansel and Gretel’s upturned faces with electric radiance.
The show passed the children as if it were a memory of something real, something that had happened to them in the past.
“Schweisterlein, hüt dich fein,” Hansel sang – Sister dear, O beware.
“Komm, Gretelchen! Zuckermadelchen! Sollst in den Backofen hucken, und nach den Lebkuchen gucken-” the Witch sang to Gretel. Peep in the oven, be steady, See if the gingerbread’s ready.
“Bin gar so dumm, nimm mir’s nicht krumm! Drum zeig mir eben… daß ich komme dran” sang Gretel– I’m so stupid, don’t be annoyed, I don’t know what to do, you’ll have to show me. “Kopf vorgebeugt, ‘s ist kinderleicht!” the Witch sang to Gretel. Just bend your head forward – here, I’ll show you, like this– It’s child’s play!
After Hansel and Gretel shoved the Witch into the oven, the two children sang, “Nun ist die Hexe tot, Mausetot! Nun ist geschwunden Angst und Not!/Nun ist die Ende der Graus, Hexergraus/Und boser Zauberspuk ist aus!” “Now the Witch is dead, stone dead! Now fear and want have disappeared!/Now the horror is ended/And the evil magic is over…”
As if guided by invisible hands, Hansel and Gretel left their seats in the orchestra and climbed onto the stage, joining the frozen children, the Gingerbread children who had been made into cookies. The Opera was running backwards, like a film threaded the wrong way round. “Witches turn kids into cookies,” the Witch said. “Kids don’t turn witches into cookies. It’s” – the Witch explained – “against the natural order.”
Hansel and Gretel hesitated. “Daß ich komme dran,” sang Gretel. I don’t know what to do. “Sister dear, O have a care!” sang Hansel.
“Just bend your head forward,” the Witch sang to Gretel “– here, I’ll show you, like this– It’s child’s play!”
As the Witch’s back was turned, the children ran out of the house.
The theater disappeared. The woods spread out, trees and bushes sprouting from what had been seats. The proscenium swelled to encompass the theater, the city. And the children who had been gingerbread, expensive products, Christmas delicacies put on display in shop windows, began to sing, began to ask to be wakened.