As Hansel stepped out of the woods and into the clearing, he was surprised to find the cottage dark. No lights shown from the windows and he could discern no smoke coming out of the chimney. He paused for a moment in the gathering shadows and then he half-walked, half-ran the remaining stretch of snow to the front door. He took a deep breath, gathering his courage, before turning the knob and stepping into the unexpected gloom.
His eyes roamed about the room, taking in the cottage: the kitchen table sat empty, something indiscernible dumped on the floor, a kitchen chair laid on its side near the fireplace and only weak embers burned on the hearth. Hansel took a few steps into the room, squinting in the twilight. He stepped on something that crunched under his boots. He squatted and fingered the floor blindly. A cloud of lavender wafted up, filling his nostrils. He stood and turned toward the cots on the far side of the cottage. His gaze fell on Gretel sitting on the floor with her head resting on the edge of her bed.
“Gretel,” he whispered. “Gretel? What’s wrong? What’s happened.”
Only silence. Fumbling at the mantle, Hansel found a candle and lit the wick in the embers of the fire. He crept to where his sister sat and lowered himself to his knees. “Gretel?” he repeated softly. Slowly she turned and looked toward him. She kept her eyes averted, focusing on the candle in his hands instead.
In its wavering glow, Hansel saw her tear streaked face, eyes swollen from crying. Seeing the concern etched in his face only renewed Gretel’s grief and she buried her face in her arms, turning away from Hansel. With a sigh, he stood and went about lighting the candles, chasing the darkness out of the cottage. Keeping an eye on his sister, he set to stoking the fire, adding wood to the coals and encouraging the welcome warmth of the flames. Once their home was light and warm again, he returned to Gretel’s side, coaxing her off the floor and onto her bed.
“Please talk to me. What happened? Are you hurt?”
Gretel shook her head. They sat knee to knee in silence, listening to the fire pop and crackle. Finally, Gretel opened her hands and revealed the broken hummingbird. Hansel looked at the pieces, perplexed, wrinkling his brow. “This? This is what happened? You broke the bird? That’s all?” His voice was hard, a sharper edge to his words than he usually used with his sister. Gretel’s head snapped up, her eyes wide. She had heard the iciness in his tone; fresh tears stung her eyes.
“Yes. My bird. My bird that Father made me. You were always jealous of that bird, so you’re probably pleased that it’s shattered.” She felt angry and raw. She didn’t care if her words wounded. She wanted someone else to feel the pain she was feeling. “But you wouldn’t understand because you don’t have feelings. How could you be friends with Father if you actually felt anything? You should hate him.”
“Hate him? The same father that carved your precious bird? How is it that you can hate him and yet cherish his gift? Answer me that. And how can you accuse me of being hard-hearted? I have done nothing but care for you these past nine years.” Hansel stood, clenching his fists. “I have listened to your cruel words concerning Father and I have held my tongue, aching for you to forgive, aching to be a family again, aching for you to soften your heart. You have no idea the pain I have suffered waiting for you to be gracious to Father. And now this? Grief over a bird? Your hard-heartedness has to end, Gretel. It’s time. You have to forgive Father ... for all our sakes.”
Hansel seemed to deflate then, all the fire going out of him with his final plea. With slumped shoulders, he shook his head. “I can’t keep guarding you and enduring this fracture in our family. I’m sorry that you hurt, but you can’t harbor this heartache any longer.” He dropped into his chair, rested his elbows on his knees and buried his head in his hands. Under his breath she heard him utter, “Waters lacking forgiveness poison the soil of friendship ... and family.”
Gretel sat stunned for several minutes, watching the flicker of the fire. She clutched the bird, feeling the sharp wood cutting into her hands, much like the truth had cut into her heart. Hansel was right, of course, but she struggled with what she knew to be true and with what her heart felt. It was easier to feed her anger than to forgive. Easier to stay here in her comfortable darkness than to step out into the light.