I’m not a witch.
I don’t expect you to believe me, but I’m not. A witch, that is. Or, if I am a witch, I’m not an evil one. Not in the way you think. Not in the way you’ve been led to believe.
You’ve been fed lies.
A house made of gingerbread? If wind and rain didn’t raze it, field mice would eat me out of house and hearth. With luck, that is. This is bear country, you know?
Hansel’s the one who dubbed it Gingerbread House when he was little. He’s a ginger like me, though we aren’t blood. I briefly partnered with his daddy between wife number two (the one I didn’t know about) and wife number three (who I thanked for taking him off my hands). The man’s a charmer, but charm wears off. Fast.
You could say the child was abandoned. You’re expecting horror stories of poverty, addiction, and abuse, but it isn’t like that. Hansel’s dad is a happy drunk, the kind with benign smiles and empty eyes. A living ghost. Every woman who’s ever loved him has hungered for more. Starved from the wanting. The waiting. The hope. The disappointment.
It broke Hansel’s mom. She left without a trail. I don’t blame her. Not much.
When Hansel was a baby, his dad would call me at all hours. Beg. Show up at my doorstep. Hand me a crying child. Just for the night. For the week. For the month.
I told him he was too old for this. I told him I was too old for this. I told him I should report him to child protection services. I told him the child needed a grown up. I told him he needed to grow up already. I told him I wouldn’t do this anymore. I bought a crib, then a bed, then a swing, a bike, a desk.
I made a choice to be neither wife nor mother, but babies grow on you, you know? And there I was singing lullabies to the child of a weak man I briefly loved.
Too soon Hansel was old enough not to need a babysitter. Eight. Maybe nine. His absence hollowed me, seeped inside my hidden places filling them with rippling waves of grief. I know. That sounds dramatic. But it’s true. I taught myself to let go. Carry on.
Then one day Hansel shows up with Gretel, a suitcase, and the same face he used to make when he was three and wanted to lick the filling out of the Oreos and toss the rest.
Hansel and Gretel aren’t siblings, although they’ve been inseparable for most their lives. They’re friends. Likely more now, although nobody likes to think about it since they’re only fourteen and shouldn’t be making babies of their own. I’ve never said a word about it to Gretel, as it’s only Hansel that’s like family, but I gave him condoms. Told him to look up how to use them. I thought maybe it would shock him. Or maybe I just hoped I was wrong about them. But no. He nodded his thanks and stuffed the box under his bed. I refill it every so often.
I’m not a witch.
But it’s true that I make them work for their stay. And it’s true that she doesn’t like it much. But I’m old enough to remember a time when chores weren’t child labor, chores were just what people did. Little things: washing dishes, folding laundry, raking a yard, taking out trash, making beds, feeding chickens. You can’t move on to bigger things until you’ve mastered little ones.
And it’s true that I check their growth. Not flesh. That’s ridiculous. I’m a vegetarian. But I make sure they’re home before dark and check their rooms for pills and booze and make them show me their homework and grades and all the things I can’t access officially because I’m not a mother. Not a grandmother. Not a real guardian.
I know the girl wants to leave. She has little girl fantasies packaged in counterfeit grown-up glamour. I can’t make them stay.
I wish I could lock them up. I wish I could feed them certainties and truths until they’re so big and strong nobody would ever look through them, past them. I know that if I could do that, it would fill me up.
But I’m not a witch.