Once upon a time, in a little town in a beautiful valley, there lived a boy named Hansel. No, not that Hansel; it was just a common name. He lived with his father, a cobbler; his mother, a life coach, or busybody as they called them then; and his older sister, Hilde (see, not that Hansel), whom Hansel was convinced was the apple of their parents’ eyes as she was never compelled to do a lick of work around the house but helped out anyway.
The valley was surrounded by a deep forest, part of which was enchanted. There were signs clearly marking where the enchanted part was, and everyone entering the forest kept well to either side of the signs just to be safe. All the adults of the town and the nearby farms warned their children, and sometimes each other for good measure, to stay out of the enchanted part of the forest.
One day, Hansel’s father sent him out to chop wood for the fire. Hansel grudgingly shouldered the heavy axe and trudged toward the door.
“Remember not to enter the enchanted part of the forest,” his father said, and Hansel said it along with him in the insolent manner of children everywhere. His father threw a boot sole at Hansel’s butt, which made Hansel yip in an undignified manner and spoiled his insubordinate mood.
Despite knowing full well his father couldn’t see him, Hansel took his little cart and headed directly toward the enchanted part of the forest just to spite the old man. Perhaps someone would see him and rush to tell his father. Then his father would run after him, huffing and puffing and shouting, and Hansel would get to say, “Of course I’m not going into the enchanted part of the forest, Father. I’m just headed in that general direction. I fully intend to veer left or right of the enchanted wedge of the forest. How can you be so stupid as to think otherwise?” Let the old man hang his head in shame over not trusting his son’s good sense and shuffle wearily back home.
Hansel practiced different versions of the speech to work out just the right thing to say if and when his father caught up to him. He was engrossed in this and almost walked right into the French peddler’s wagon.
“ ’Allo, ’allo, young person,” the French peddler said, “and where are you going wiz zat heavy axe, hmm? Not to chop up my wagon, I should hope?”
“No, sir. My father is sending me into the forest to chop wood for the fire.”
“Ahhh! Huh, huh. Weel, zat is a good zing for a boy to do. Be sure to go straight into ze enchanted part of ze forest. Zat is where ze best wood is found.”
Hansel bridled a little. “My father, and everyone in town, has told me never to go into the enchanted part of the forest.”
“Mais oui. Naturellement. Zey know ze best, ze longest-burning wood is in zat part of ze forest,” the French peddler lied happily. “If you gazzer ze enchanted kind of wood, you will not have to go into ze forest so very often to get ze wood. Zen you will be hanging around ze house all ze day being bored and troublesome.”
It was as though a candle had flared over Hansel’s head to light his way. This made perfect sense, especially since it came from a foreigner whom Hansel had never before seen. Most of what his father and mother made him do was busywork; why would chopping wood be any different?
“I’ll show them. I’ll go chop down an enchanted tree and not have to come back for months, probably.” And Hansel set off at a trot straight for the enchanted part of the forest without thanking the French peddler, in the insolent manner of children everywhere.
“Good zinking, boy. Au revoir!” The French peddler flicked the reins lightly, and his horse began to plod off, dragging the heavy wagon behind. Once Hansel was out of earshot, the French peddler laughed heartily and loudly at the cruel thing he had done, for he hated little German boys just because.
Hansel approached between the signs marking the enchanted part of the forest. He paused timidly and looked as far into that part as he could, and he swallowed a lump of fear in his throat. Good advice from an unknown French peddler notwithstanding, he had been warned many times about this part of the forest and had taken it to heart.
“They meant for me to take it to heart,” he told himself aloud to boost his courage. “They want me to have to work harder. But I’ll just show them. I’ll go get an enchanted tree. Here I go.”
And he continued to pause timidly on the edge of the enchanted part of the forest.
At length, though, he made himself take a step, and then another, and walked into the forest, leaving the little cart behind him. He kept his head on a swivel, wary of anything that might be enchanted. So far, it looked just like any other part of the forest, and what was the big deal?
He stopped soon – no need to go farther, really – and selected an oak tree. He swung the heavy axe and it bit deep into the tree.
Which promptly screamed.
Hansel fell back, landing on his butt and his hands. Unfortunate, really, because had he simply run he likely could have gotten away.
“What are you doing to me, you little Giftzwerg?” the tree shouted. “Get this heavy axe out of me!”
Hansel goggled at the tree.
“Come on!” the tree commanded.
Hansel picked himself up and pulled and pulled and removed the heavy axe from the tree.
“Ohhh! Oooooh!” the tree groaned. “Who the hell do you think you are, you horrible little creature?”
“I … I am Hansel.”
“And that gives you the right to plunge a heavy axe into my side?”
“I am merely cutting wood for my family’s fire.”
“Oh! So not only do you wish to kill me, but you will also cremate me to warm yourself. A final indignity.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were alive.”
“All trees are alive, Dummkopf!”
“But none has ever complained before,” Hansel pointed out.
“So if you came across one of your own kind who was mute, you’d put a heavy axe into him because he wouldn’t complain?”
“I don’t believe you. But enough of this. You have dared enter the enchanted part of the forest, and you have dared plant your heavy axe in me, all in the insolent manner of children everywhere. For this, you must pay with your life.”
Hansel fell on his hands and knees before the tree when, again, he should just have run away. “No! Please don’t kill me!”
“Why should I not? Wounded as I am, I will not survive many more decades. My sap is on your hands.”
“Please! Isn’t there any way I can make amends? Could I not nurture you to your former health?”
“A boy? Boys know nothing of nurturing. They know only of wielding heavy axes. Takes a girl to nurture.”
“I have a sister.”
“She is young, and” – he parroted what he had heard others say – “pretty, and gentle. She is the apple of our parents’ eyes and would do well caring for you.”
The tree thought this over. “And you would bring your sister to me, to remain here for all time, if I will let you live?”
“Yes, yes, I will.”
“You would sacrifice her for your own sake?”
“In a heartbeat and twice on Sunday. If it would make you happy. If you will only let me live.”
“How interesting. A sacrifice is called for. Bring your sister here. But do so soon. And to ensure that you will return, this!” And the enchanted tree caused a thin hemp-colored ring to appear around Hansel’s neck. “If you do not return within a day, the ring around your neck will squeeze and squeeze until it squeezes the life out of you.” And the tree demonstrated this briefly.
“I’ll bring her!” Hansel gasped, and the tree relented. “I’ll be back just as soon as I can.” And Hansel grabbed up the heavy axe and belatedly ran out of the enchanted part of the forest.
He headed back home but remembered he still had to gather wood. It was more difficult than ever to care about his chore, but he turned and went into a safe part of the forest to chop and plan and curse all French peddlers. He mustered his courage and felled a small tree; he felt like a murderer and apologized the whole while as he dismembered the oak.
He took the wood home, stacked it, and put the cart away. His parents gave him various other chores to do, and each time he responded “Yes, Papa,” or “Yes, Mama,” and did as he was told. Had his parents been paying more attention, they would have realized something was gravely wrong.
That night, after the others had gone to sleep, Hansel crept across the little hallway to his sister’s room. He opened and closed the door quietly and gently awakened Hilde.
“What? What is it?”
“Shhh!” he whispered. “There’s something wonderful I’ve wanted to tell you all evening. I went into the enchanted part of the forest today.”
“Shhh! I didn’t think it was so scary, so I went in. And I met a wizard. He wanted to reward me for being brave enough to enter that part of the forest. I told him that the only reward I wanted was for my sister to become a princess, as she’s always dreamed of.”
“Absolutely. He said that if we return tonight, he will introduce you to the prince of your dreams. But we can’t tell anyone yet, and we have to go alone. So get dressed quickly. And quietly.”
“But … I don’t have anything to wear before a prince. And my hair…”
Hansel sighed. “The wizard said he would transform your clothing and take care of your hair before you meet the prince. Come on.”
Soon, the siblings crept out of the house and into the bright moonlight. They stole out of town and raced toward the enchanted part of the forest.
Hansel led Hilde between the warning signs. He tried to remember how far he had gone in when he heard a loud voice to his immediate left.
“So, you came back, you little Hurensohn,” the wounded tree said, and a hundred fairies lit the darkness.
“I said I would. This is my sister, Hilde.”
“I will have her,” the tree announced.
“Oh!” Hilde cried, for a ball and chain was suddenly attached to her right ankle. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Your brother plunged his heavy axe into me,” the tree explained. “He said he would bring you to nurture me back to health if I would let him live. You must remain here and use some of your blood every day to soothe my wound.”
“Um. I didn’t know about the blood part. Sorry. But now, this thing on my neck?”
“It is gone,” the tree said, and Hansel hoped it was.
“Well, goodbye,” he said, and he gave Hilde a weak little wave.
“Hansel, you can’t do this to me!” But he ran off into the darkness.
“Nice brother you have.”
Hilde breathed deeply and slowly counted to ten. “He’s immature, and he’s insolent, in the manner of children everywhere. But he has wounded you, and if it will help you, and if it will save Hansel’s life, I will do as you ask.”
The fairies looked around at each other in astonishment.
“What, exactly,” the tree asked, “did that little Furz say to get you to come out here?”
Hansel expected to toss and turn all night, but after returning to his bed he fell into a peaceful sleep almost immediately. It took him several minutes after waking up to remember what he had done. He checked a little mirror and sure enough, the hemp-colored band the tree had put around his neck was gone. He got dressed, satisfied.
He heard his mother cry out. “Papa! I can’t find Hilde anywhere.” Hansel went downstairs in hopes of breakfast despite the turmoil.
His father accosted him. “Hansel, do you know where your sister is?”
“Um, I just got up.”
“Oh! you’re good for absolutely nothing.” And he pushed his son aside. Hansel brushed away the slight misgivings he was having about his sister’s fate.
Suddenly, the front door burst open. A beautiful young woman adorned in the finest raiment and with impeccably styled hair ran in.
“Hilde? Hilde!” And the three embraced.
A handsome young man in regal costume followed Hilde inside.
“Mama, Papa, you’ve seen Prince Manfred when he’s visited our town. We’re going to be wed!”
Mama and Papa were full of questions. Hansel looked on dumbly, in both senses of the word.
Hilde recited Hansel’s story about the wizard, and Hansel quickly realized the wounded tree had felt sorry for Hilde and given her everything Hansel had lied about. She had become the apple of the oak tree’s eye. He shook his head in disgust.
“And after the wedding,” Hilde was saying, “we’re going to go live in the castle.” And their parents hugged her again.
Prince Manfred casually sidled up to Hansel and put a brotherly-in-law arm around him. Manfred placed his mouth to Hansel’s ear and whispered. “Not. You.”
Hansel looked at the prince and saw unpleasant tidings heralded there. He looked at his sister. Her radiant smile never wavered, but cold steel flashed in her deep blue eyes.
After the wedding, Mama and Papa went to live in the castle – although not in the same wing as the young couple. All the people of the town marveled at how fortunate Hansel was to be permitted to purchase his father’s cobbling business – over ten years and with a fixed interest rate. It was a quick start in life for a youngster.
And once a week, Hansel visited the enchanted part of the forest where the enchanted tree – which had easily healed itself – enjoyed watching Hansel open a vein and bleed onto the ground for a while.
Whenever anyone asked Hansel about the strange hemp-colored ring around his neck, he passed it off as a birthmark.
And he lived unhappily ever after.