The Story of Hansel and Gretel, Told From a Varying Distance

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Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Gretel, who lived with her brother, Hansel, and their mother and father in a small cabin at the mouth of the woods.

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Over the years from 1000 to 1500, the population of Europe grew from approximately 50 to nearly 100 million people. It is not known how old the story of Hansel and Gretel is or even whether it came from Europe originally. Once upon a time, there could have been 450 million people, none of whom were her, none of whom had dreamed of being her, and how many times were there besides?

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And still, this is her story, and still, I am her.

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The small family loved each other very much. Every day, the woodcutter would take the children out into the forest to cut wood, then return home with them in the evening where the mother would serve them a hearty soup.

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This is the shape of the world. The world is demanding, but it is kind. The world asks that you walk into the forest, that you take a load of sticks on your back even when you are tired and hot, that you be kind to your brother even when he’s annoying, that you listen to your father. But the world offers good, warm soup in the evening, and it laughs at your jokes which aren’t funny yet, and it tucks you in at night and tells you how loved you are.

The world is harsh, but it is never unfair.

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But hard times came to the small family. The father could not sell his wood for as much as he had once, and every night, the soup was thinner and thinner, and so was the conversation.

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And no one will tell me why. I ask why there is no food even though I’ve carried the wood, even though I ignored father’s yelling, even though I held Hansel when he cried, they will not tell me. They only tell me I’m being selfish, when I’m just asking, when I just want things to be like they’re meant to, when I’m just hungry, and they only look at each other with those grown-up eyes that I think mean they don’t understand it either.

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Different historians and economists provide different explanations for the crisis in what would be Germany at this time. Some attribute it to a centralizing of economic power, especially among the merchant class, with fewer and richer families gaining more control over the market. According to this theory, with less competition, this new elite was able to pay less to the relatively weaker rural producers who relied on them for a living. Other theories connect the crisis to the feudal system, and the need for German dukes to raise higher taxes to pay mercenary armies to protect themselves during the religious conflicts that raged across the country at that time. Still others point to increasing international trade undercutting home producers. What we can agree on is that this crisis, and the threat of another peasant rebellion, weighed heavily on the minds of the German nobility of that time. The crisis would eventually lead to urbanization as well as

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Suffering walks the countryside, followed closely by its companion, Death. Here, mothers clutch sickly children who will not live to see the next morning. Here, glassy eyes stare forward from people who have nothing left to do but wait until Death relieves them of the burden of their sallow flesh. Bones poke at skin and neighbor watches neighbor with suspicion. Pets have been returned to the wild or worse. Everything is desperation. Surely it behooves any man of Christian soul to act without

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“So what are you supposed to?” the woodcutter said to his wife late one night, while the children lay sleeping and the darkness seemed to swallow every word but didn’t. “Everyone knows what to do with a full stomach and a leg of ham in the shed, but now what? What do I do?” He paused and the night waited for him to go on, to say the part he didn’t want to say. “What do we do?” he said, finally, and his wife nodded because she understood.

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Something is wrong something is wrong something is wrong, and I have to pretend it isn’t, but it is.

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In the published edition of Children and Household Tales, the collection of German fairy tales by the famous Brothers Grimm, the two children in the story of Hansel and Gretel are put out into the wilderness by a wicked stepmother. However, in the pre-publication edition, which recorded the stories as they were told with fewer of the brothers’ edits, there was no stepmother. The children were put out by their real mother and father. The brothers considered this version too uncomfortable to share, even though the storytellers knew it. They knew it was true.

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Of course, you don’t speak about such a thing. You couldn’t speak about it. If you spoke about it, it would be possible, and such things weren’t possible. It wasn’t possible, but it would be easy. All you would have to do is take us into the forest, just like you do every day, and then leave us. The forest would do the unspeakable part. The forest would be the one who would decide and anyway, isn’t keeping us just leaving it to a bigger, darker forest? It wouldn’t be hard at all, not like it was hard to stretch meals for four mouths, to stay calm when we cried and acted up, to remember what it had been like to look at us and feel love rather than inconvenience. Monstrous things were supposed to be impossible and how could it really be monstrous if it was so easy?

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And so the idea grew, not in one parent or the other, but between them: in the glances they shared and the moments of silence where one of them ought to have spoken.

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Parents take care of children when they’re young. When children grow up, it’s their turn to take care of their parents. But long before that, a parent’s love is paid back a thousandfold just by seeing their children be themselves. That’s the magic of love. Every act of love is paid back twice: once when you love and once when they love you back.

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But if Hansel hadn’t wondered about it, should I talk to him about it? It was an awful idea, and I certainly couldn’t prove it. All I had was fear, little things Mom and Dad said, or didn’t say. The way Mom looked at us when she served food, or the way Dad stared off into the distance when Hansel argued. Maybe I was just being a silly, scared girl who couldn’t deal with the fact that times were hard, and Mom and Dad couldn’t always pretend they weren’t. What I really wanted was for my mother and father to tuck me in, to tell me it was all just a dream, that such things simply didn’t happen.

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The real trouble, you decided, was loneliness. If people were just watching you, if you could hear them whispering to each other every now and again, you’d know what to do. But in the dark, on your own, it wasn’t so clear. And you were alone, terribly alone. Even your wife was no company, not while she could still judge you, not while you still feared that you would let the idea slip again and this time she would stare in horror rather than understanding.

If you could just do it, get it over with, at least you’d finally have her to understand you.

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And one day, the children grow up and have children of their own, and those children put them through everything they put their parents through. And when they do, they finally understand. They understand all of it.

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No, I won’t believe it. I won’t let myself believe it. I don’t care what Hansel says. I don’t care what I’ve suspected, I won’t believe it. I will explain it any other way, because when you love someone you don’t believe they could do that. The world isn’t allowed to be like that. It isn’t allowed.

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But it is sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes even closing your eyes won’t keep it away. Anything can happen, sometimes.

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I won’t believe it, but I will eat my bread, and the crumbs will fall to the ground and it won’t be to leave a path, but the path will be there all the same, just in case.

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Because I don’t need to believe it; I know it. I know it, and I know how the world really works, and I won’t say it, but I will know it and I will eat my bread.

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The peasants and people of the land may be poor, but they are happy and industrious. Their arms are strong and the axes they use to cut down trees or the plows with which they till their fields fit into their hands like they belong. Anyone who has heard them sing a merry working song knows that this supposed famine has taken nothing from them. As long as they have their hands and the ground to work on and their families to work with them, they will rise happily from any crisis. They will survive.

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In the end, you did it. You forgot about stories, about princesses waiting to be saved and magical animals who come before things get desperate. You forgot about children and mothers and honest, hardworking peasants and you led them out into the forest. This is not a story being told; this is only happening. You led them far from the path and you excused yourself for one moment and you hadn’t done anything yet, had you? You could have gone back for them at any time, but the forest is large and quiet and you didn’t do it yet, no, not just yet. A small, hidden part of you waited, terrified for the moment when you would seize the dagger and become the villain once and for all, but that is not the story and the moment never came. You just kept walking, just kept putting off the decision to turn around for one more second. That’s the secret. You aren’t the villain; you just aren’t the hero yet, not yet, and by the time you were home it was too late, and when your wife asked you where the children were you didn’t answer, because that would be a story and this is only the real world. No, you said to yourself, I didn’t do anything. No, I did nothing.

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No, I didn’t do anything. No, I did nothing, say the birds who did not stop themselves from eating the breadcrumbs Gretel scattered behind her.

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No, I didn’t do anything. No, I did nothing, said the nobles who stand by and gather their wealth as hunger cuts away the world from its stories.

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No, I didn’t do anything. No, there was nothing to do, says the universe, which is beyond story, which does nothing, which is, which only is. It is not even true that I did nothing. The truth is nothing even happened.

This is what the universe would say, but it doesn’t. The truth is it doesn’t even speak at all.

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Here we are, in the forest, alone. There are no breadcrumbs and there are no more stories to trust in. Just trees and growing things and eyes in the branches. There is a sweet smell in the air, and I am afraid of it.

Somehow the world is large enough for this. Somehow the world is large enough for me to be so afraid, for my brother to cry so many tears, and for you to find it so easy. It is large enough that you will never know how much this hurts, but it will keep hurting all the same.

And yet, we will find a way in it.

So we’ll be free. We’ll keep going and we’ll find something else to trust in, or we won’t. We’ll learn to trust in each other. We’ll even trust ourselves, someday. We’ll live it all, from close up, from within ourselves. We will live, even when we can’t see other paths, even when we can’t see the end of our own path. We will live. We will.

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