by Holly Stacey
Wincing, Elda pulled hard on the cauldron handle to drag it from the fire. Her strength was slowly leaving her body just as the color had left her lovely wavy hair years ago. It wasn’t easy living alone, but she enjoyed it. She loved being in the center of her woods, familiar with every living thing around her. Once, many, many years ago, she lived with other people in a village. She was the youngest of twelve siblings, all of whom were constantly fighting over the pettiest of things. Back then, she really believed beauty came from mankind, but as she grew, she found people to be false and self-centered. So she left. And the only thing she took with her to the woods was her love of gingerbread, (which she fashioned her house with), her walking stick, and her cat, Peaches.
Peaches loved the woods too. She would frolic with the butterflies every summer and chase mice that would nibble on the floorboards in the winter. Unfortunately, cats don’t live as long as humans, and she passed away in her thirteenth year, leaving Elda feeling yet again lonely.
“Tut!” Elda said to the cauldron. Every so often she felt the need to exclaim something just to ease her frustration. It still didn’t budge, so she let it settle back down comfortably into the smouldering ashes.
“What are you doing?” a silvery voice from the door called. Elda smiled. She loved getting special visitors.
“I’m trying to get my cauldron out of the ashes,” said Elda, turning to greet her visitor. She picked up her skirts like a lady of the realm and strode as evenly as her old bones could to where Naia waited patiently at the door. Naia’s white mane sparkled in the morning sunlight, amazing since the cottage was built under a canopy of alder trees, but light always seemed to follow her.
“You’re getting too old to live by yourself,” Naia said, shaking her head slightly.
Elda chuckled and stroked Naia’s long nose. “Easy for a unicorn to say,” she said in a huff, “you’ll live forever!”
Naia chuckled musically then bent her head low to match Elda’s height. “I’ve some news,” she said earnestly. “Your niece and nephew-in-law are on their way to find you.”
Elda wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Villagers!”
“It’s worse than that. There has been a rumor spread among the villagers that an old witch living in the woods is a magician and can summon demons to spin gold. They think you’re doing this and have come for money.”
“Money! As if I’d touch the filthy stuff!”
“Elda,” Naia whispered. “Do be careful. I don’t like the look of these people, and I think they’ll try to trick you.”
Elda reached up and hugged Naia around her soft neck. “Thank you,” she whispered back. “I’ll be careful, and I definitely won’t tell them about you!”
Naia neighed and left, quietly galloping though the trees and meadow, her light hooves barely touching the soft ferns and moss below. Elda sighed as the unicorn faded from sight, and the area around the house faded back into its normal shade of the trees. “My relatives, huh?” she said and walked back to her comfortable wicker rocking chair to have a think.
* * * *
“Jack! Polly! Get in here now!” shouted their mother from the kitchen. They could see flour everywhere and knew better than to answer her. A whipping from the cane was loads better than a smacking with a rolling pin. They sneaked out the back door as quickly as they could.
“Gotcha!” Their father swept them up in one scoop and took them to the kitchen where their mother shot them a furious look.
“We’re going to look for your aunt in the woods today, children. I want you to look your worst, as if we’re really struggling, and she may give us some money.”
“But wood folk don’t have any money,” complained Jack. “They just smell bad and look ugly.”
“And she’ll curse us,” chimed in Polly. “We know she’s a witch!”
“Yes, she’s a witch,” said their father, “but she knows spells to make gold.”
Polly’s eyes shone with greed. “You mean she can give us whatever we want if we ask nicely?”
“If she wants to, the greedy old cow,” interrupted their mother.
“And if she doesn’t, we can wallop her, can’t we dad?” said Jack, brandishing his beating stick that he normally reserved for thumping rabbits.
“As I said, get ready so we can go, their mother said. “I’ve got some bread to take to her to sweeten up her disposition; old people are so cranky, you know.”
And so, the family set off into the woods, grumbling and complaining all the way. Jack cruelly crumbled the bread as they went, thinking the old woman would somehow die of starvation if she didn’t eat it. The birds of the forest happily flitted and pecked at the ground behind them, and Polly wondered if she shouldn’t go back for her sling shot, but only received a boxing of the ears when she asked.
* * * *
In her cottage, Elda stared into the embers of her fire. The cauldron still stubbornly sat in its place, refusing to budge, but that was the least of her problems now. She had unwanted guests on the way. A blackbird had hopped down through the window and told her an unpleasant family were loudly tromping their way through the underbrush, announcing to all their intentions of thievery. Elda looked around her little cozy cottage. She had nothing of value to the villagers, but she knew they would take little pity on the fact. They wanted money and would do all in their power to get at it, even if it meant harming her.
Stretching her sore bones, she pulled herself out of her comfy chair for the second time that day. There was something, she knew, that could deter this family. She wandered into the larder and looked at her dusty shelves. “Dust and dirt, grime and grit, disappear now as I spit,” she chanted. The shelves cleaned themselves like magic, and she chuckled. It was her favorite spell, seeing as she always spat when she spoke (it was one of those things that comes when your teeth go). There wasn’t much else she could do. Her magical abilities were limited to communicating with the woodland creatures and light housekeeping spells that were accidentally handed down to her when she took the cottage; a sort of owner’s manual. But she was determined to win this confrontation one way or another. She looked again in the larder and smiled. She had her idea.
* * * *
“Hello?” chirped Polly from the front door. Her mouth was full of gingerbread after eating the knocker. Crumbs littered her apron, and a blue smear found its way along her cheek when she bit into the icing.
“Just stomp inside and whack her,” whispered Jack urgently from her side.
“Shh!” She slapped him with the back of her hand.
“Hello?” she asked again, trying hard to sound sweet. There was no answer, but the door creaked open slightly to let them in.
Jack pushed his way past Polly and boldly stepped though the threshold. “It’s very tidy,” he said, wrinkling his nose. Not to be outdone, Polly thumped her brother in the shoulders, knocking him face first onto the dirt floor. A wonderful smell filled the house, and Polly followed the scents to the kitchen. There, on the wooden table, was the biggest feast they could have imagined: A huge nut roast, a cauldron of roasted potatoes, leek cakes, and in the center, to top it all off, was the biggest chocolate mousse Polly had ever seen.
“Food!” shouted Jack as he caught up with his sister. In no time, the gangly pair wolfed down the entire fare and fell fast asleep on the table.
A shadow emerged from the broom closet and chuckled. “Two down, two to go.” Elda opened the back door leading to her herb garden and waited for the children’s parents to emerge.
* * * *
“They should have been back by now,” said the father.
The mother hunched her shoulders and looked sour. “I still say what I said before, if they fail, we burn down the house. Sugar burns well I hear.”
“And so do witches,” finished her husband, “but we’d never find her loot in the ashes.”
“Come on,” she said at last, “let’s go after them.” They sneaked as quietly as they could through the underbrush, cursing at the soft moss that stained their soft buckskin shoes.
Elda watched them creeping around her precious herbs, a frown on her face. She knew how to capture these two, but did they really have to cause so much damage? Ah, well, she thought. That’s family for you. She chanted under her breath: “Ivy of mine, twine and twine, ‘round the legs of two rotten eggs.” They weren’t really rotten eggs, but the spell worked more on intent rather than literal words. The ivy sprang up from the ground and wrapped itself like a hydra around the two intruders.
“Help!” they cried, but all around them, they only heard the chuckling of the birds.
Elda still didn’t show herself. Instead, she set alight some Valerian incense, and the captors fell into a deep sleep.
“That was well done,” chimed a golden voice from the woods.
“Now I just need a way to get rid of them so they won’t come back,” mused Elda. “Any ideas?”
Naia gracefully stepped into view and smiled. “I have an idea,” she said. “Follow me.”
* * * *
“What happened?” groaned Jack, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. He looked around and saw he was in a darkened, damp little room. Beside him, Polly was still asleep. He whacked her on the stomach, and she promptly opened her eyes to protest. But no sound came from her, partly because Jack had knocked the breath from her, and partly because she was awed at what she saw.
“I know,” grumbled Jack, answering for his sister; “right back where we started from.” They were indeed, back in their own little room. Or at least, it looked like their old room. Together they stood up and opened the door.
“Mum? Dad?” they called out. “Where are you?” They heard a rustling sound from the basement and investigated.
“Oh!” exclaimed Polly when she saw her parents. Or, at least, what she thought were her parents. For inside the basement, things had changed. Instead of parents, there were two large bouncing kangaroos wearing torn fragments of their parents’ clothes.
Jack grinned. “You know,” he said to Polly, “we can make a lot of money with these two. People will pay hoards to watch them box.”
And so, the two greedy children took their parents on tour throughout the country, gave themselves the new stage names of Hansel and Gretel, and made a pretty penny with the traveling circus.They never again went to Elda’s cottage to look for gold, but they did think about her often.
1. Why did Elda leave the village to live in the woods?
2. What new did Naia bring Elda?
3. What did the children find in Elda’s cottage?
4. How did Elda capture the children’s parents?
5. What did the children do with their parents after they had been changed to kangaroos?