The day after Hansel and Gretel returned from killing the witch who had held them captive and was planning to eat them, their father, the woodcutter, and their stepmother began quarrelling again.
After all, the kids’ return didn’t help to fill the larder with food, and, as the stepmother pointed out over and over, she still couldn’t afford a new dress or shoes.
“It’s nice that they’re back,” the father muttered, looking down at the floor.
“La, la,” said the stepmother, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “If you care more for those brats than for the fact that your wife – whom you swore to cherish and protect – is barefoot and in rags, not to mention in imminent danger of starving to death, why then...”
In the end the woodcutter gave in. “All right,” he said. “We’ll take them and dump them in the forest tomorrow...again.”
“I have my own ideas about that,” the woman thought to herself. “These brats have an unholy knack of finding their way out of the forest, so I’ll take care of this business myself.”
Now, Hansel and Gretel had, of course, by now trained themselves never to be without a pocket full of white pebbles each to mark the trail, so although they’d heard their parents squabbling, they were not unduly perturbed, and had a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, as always, the stepmother shook the children out of bed before dawn and ordered them to get ready to accompany her and their father to the forest. As always, Hansel dropped pebbles behind him as they walked deeper and deeper into the forest. But the stepmother, who was smarter than she looked, walked at the back of the group, and with her feet pushed the pebbles away from the path so that they could not be seen.
There was an old well by the side of the path, which had been abandoned so long that the creepers had broken down the wall around it, and the rope and pulley had rotted clean away. As the little group was walking past this well, the stepmother, who was also faster and stronger than she looked, stepped forward quickly, grabbed the children and dropped them both into it. It was a long, long way down, and their screams echoed quite satisfactorily as they fell, ending in an equally satisfactory splash.
Dusting her hands on her dress and whistling a merry tune, the stepmother took her husband by the ear and, so that he wouldn’t have any sudden impulse to try and rescue the children, dragged him home to help with the dinner.
The water at the bottom of the well was dank and clogged with slime, debris, and tangled weed. Hansel and Gretel were dragged down a long way by the weight of the pebbles in their pockets before they managed to tip them out and kick their way to the surface. Coughing and gasping, they clung to each other, treading water.
The sides of the well were so slippery with moss and slime that there was not a hope of them being able to climb up without help, and the circle of light high up seemed impossibly far. Hansel and Gretel both knew that they couldn’t survive long, and started weeping bitter tears of sorrow at their own stupidity in returning to their murderous parents when they could have gone anywhere else after murdering the old witch.
“Why are you crying?” a voice asked.
Hansel and Gretel stopped crying and looked round at the source of the voice. In the dim light at the bottom of the well, it was difficult to see clearly, but it seemed to be a tiny woman sitting on a leaf. She moved slightly and they saw that she had dragonfly wings on her back.
“Who are you?” Gretel, always more outgoing than her brother, asked.
“I’m the fairy Longlegs,” the creature replied. “And you are?”
“I’m Gretel, and he’s my brother Hansel,” the girl replied, coughing out some scummy green water.
The fairy Longlegs mulled this information over while she waited for the girl to stop coughing. “Why are you crying?” she repeated, in a tone of polite interest.
“Why?” Hansel said. “Because we’re going to drown to death, that’s why.”
“Drown? Oh dear. That’s bad, isn’t it. You don’t really want to drown, do you?”
“We don’t have a choice, do we?” Gretel said, and she and Hansel began sobbing again.
“A choice? Of course you have a choice. I mean, you could always come with me.”
“Come with you? Where?”
“Why, down to Fairyland.” The fairy Longlegs pointed down into the water with one shapely little hand. “Come with me. You won’t drown.” She stretched herself on her leaf, and the children saw for the first time that her legs were very long, thickly muscled, green and ended in webbed feet. “Take my hands, here, and dive down with me.” As soon as Hansel and Gretel had each taken one of her hands, she leaped into the air, dived into the water and swam straight down.
“Hold on to my hands tightly,” the fairy said. “Don’t let go, whatever you do, or you’re lost.”
It was a strange journey down into the darkness, holding on to the fairy’s hands. Somehow, Hansel and Gretel had no problem breathing, and they could even see around them dimly. The sides of the well vanished, and they were swimming down into a sunless sea deep below the ground. Strange fish, blind and ghostly white, glimmered in the darkness as they swam by, and half-glimpsed monsters writhed away into the darkness at their approach, tentacles twisting. And very far below them, they could see glowing patches of green light, which became more distinct as they descended, and slowly took the shape of huge pits dotting a great black plain.
Kicking easily with her muscular legs and webbed feet, the fairly Longlegs pulled the children down into one of the glowing green pits. The green light brightened, and they suddenly realised they were rising. A few moments later the fairy had pulled them out of the water and set them down beside an ornamental pool with a fountain in its centre.
For the first time the children had a good look at the fairy. She was very pretty, with her long red hair and skin like porcelain, and her shimmering dragonfly-wings. She hopped along before them down a path set with statues, chattering to them all the while.
“Welcome to Fairyland,” Longlegs said.
The sky of Fairyland was green, and the yellow sun blazed down on a series of fantastic castles and palaces, so high and delicately wrought that it seemed impossible that they shouldn’t collapse under their own weight. And among them, fairies of every shape and size flew, and ran, and galloped. Huge fairies the size of elephants, with horns on their heads, or tiny ones difficult to see with the naked eye, all came crowding round to look at the newcomers, and followed them down the path to where a distant hill rose like a cone from the landscape.
“You will have to present yourself to the Fairy King,” Longlegs said. “He’ll be extremely interested to meet you. I don’t believe he’s ever seen a human before with his own eyes.”
The Fairy King was on his throne at the top of the conical hill. He crawled ceaselessly all over the throne with his thousands of legs, his glittering jewelled body in constant motion, and his glowing red eyes examined the children with consuming interest.
“Welcome to Fairyland,” he said at last, after listening to the children tell their tale of woe. “We’re all very glad to see you – gladder than you can ever know.” He looked at Longlegs. “Surely we can give them a cottage of their own?”
“I know the very place,” the fairy acknowledged. “Come on, you two. It’s time to go to your new home.
“So you’re the ones who killed the old witch, are you?” the fairy continued, as she led them towards a darling little cottage set in the sweetest glade you could imagine. Roses on creepers climbed the walls, and little birds twittered and flitted around the neat thatched roof. “We knew that vile old creature well, and we’re all very excited to meet the brave children who killed her. You deserve some kind of reward.”
“What a lovely cottage!” Gretel said, clapping her hands. “Is it for us?”
“But someone lives there,” Hansel objected, pointing to the curl of smoke from the chimney and the pretty lace curtains at the windows.
“Yes, someone lives there,” the fairy Longlegs said. In a trice she changed into a lean old woman with a horrible, leering face. “I live there,” she said, grabbing the children by the shoulders with bony fingers that had a grip like steel, “and I’ll have you for dinner tonight.”
“Why?” cried out the children. “What have we done?”
“The witch you killed was my sister,” the old woman said. “It’s true she and I never got along, and you’ve done me a favour by putting an end to her, but she was still my sister. And I’m going to have you both for dinner, so there.”
So she took them into the cottage, and ate them with real appetite that evening. But she slaughtered them very humanely, without even a tiny little bit of torture; and she cooked them with extreme skill, turning them into gourmet dishes which she shared with the King of the Fairies and other prominent denizens of Fairyland. She was famous throughout Fairyland for her cooking, but seldom made the effort to turn out a meal like this. But, as she said, this was a special occasion.
After all, she had promised the children a reward, and she always kept her word, did the fairy Longlegs.
She was also famous throughout Fairyland for that.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011