By Viven Jones
It had been a year. A year since what started with little games of Hide and Seek, stretched into anxiety, only made worse by discovering the children next door, across the lane, on the farms, were all playing too. And were all still hidden. And as the parents grew frantic, pacing the lanes and fields, looking in sheds and stables, their sleeping babies and toddlers joined their brothers and sisters in some inexplicable way. The minute the parents turned their backs a sudden chill fingered their spines and they knew when they looked, the cot would be empty. Only the fact that all the children were gone stopped an explosion of suspicion among the villagers. As it was dark looks and thoughts focussed on the woodcutter and his wife who, alone in their world, had their children safe since they lived at the edge of the sprawling forest a mile from the stricken village.
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months some villagers sought comfort in the church, others in the tavern but all glared at the woodcutter's wife when she brought firewood to the market and refused to buy from her. Every market day it got worse. What started with muttering amongst themselves moved to shouting as she passed, then barging her into the mud, scattering her load and finally they threw stones. When she got back to her cottage, grazed and bloody, the woodcutter shouted at her for selling no wood and the children cried because they were hungry. Every week it got worse. The woodcutter cut huge bundles of firewood so his wife's back was bent under her load when she set off for the market, but the villagers were merciless. They beat her and scattered her load and called her 'witch' and 'devil' and drove her home to where her husband shouted and her children cried. In her misery she turned her face to the wall, faded away to a scrap of despair and, in a month, died. The children cried even louder.
One day a stranger came by the cottage, limping a little, asking to rest a while. The woodcutter was at work so only the children were there. Though they had been told not to leave the cottage they were intrigued by their visitor, who smiled and beckoned to them. She carried a purse-string bag which she opened and reached into, opening her palm to show a handful of bright sweets and barley sugars. So the children crept nearer, eyes wide open at the prospect of eating something other than bread and nettle soup. The stranger smiled and they went to her. When the woodcutter came home he found them all a chatter in the garden and though he tried to feel angry, he felt glad to see his children smile after so long, so he smiled too and bent to look at the stranger's ankle. Whilst he bound it she said softly, 'What delicious children you have — I just love children.'
Soon, a little crazy for lack of love and a mother for the children, he married the stranger. These were happy days, there was cheese as well as bread and shining apples to eat and the excitement of the purse-string bag. On the wedding day the children stayed at home for fear of inflaming the villagers, happy to eat gingerbread from the purse-string bag which never seemed empty of sweet things. Those who came to the church to hurl insults and stones froze in their tracks when the woodcutter's new wife turned her gaze upon them. She said nothing, pushing her husband's protective arm away. She walked among them unmolested. One by one the villagers came to the woodcutter and asked if he had any firewood to sell them, all the while staring into her eyes. They even asked after the children. 'The children are quite well, getting fat even.' she answered for him.
So the months passed. In the village work and domestic life went on minus the treble thrill of children's voices. The small acts of play, scratching the pigs' backs, jumping the puddles after rain, making flower chains were absent from the daily round. Work seemed heavier with no child to teach, no songs to pass on. Even the fertile women faded and the young men wrestled each other instead of buffing up their appearance for a chat with the young women. The priest told them they must be a wicked crowd to have drawn this curse upon themselves, but his child was gone too, so all he could do was offer up increasingly desperate prayers.
In the forest, things also changed. The new step-mother seemed to stiffen and grow cool as the days passed. There were whole days when the purse-string bag did not appear and instead, tasks were allocated to the children as soon as the woodcutter left for work. The little girl was made to carry buckets of water from the spring to the cottage and scrub the stone floor. More than once the bucket somehow up-ended itself before she started, so she would have to make another trip to the spring. The little boy was made to stack wood on the dry side of the cottage, hour after hour. Sometimes the stacks inexplicably fell down. His step-mother drew close from time to time and pinched his arm. 'My, you are plump.' she whispered. 'Lovely!' The children did not smile so often and were so tired they went to their beds before their father came home and were often too sleepy to hear what their stepmother whispered to him over supper.
Very soon, cheese and apples disappeared from the mealtimes, the bread was smaller, the soup weaker. When the woodcutter complained the stepmother pointed at the children's plates and rubbed her own stomach in hunger. Although the little girl collected nuts from the forest to share with her brother, and he raided the bird's nests for eggs, these things only lasted a short while and they knew not to go further into the forest for fear of being lost.
Some of the villagers began to play a private game, just a few at first, and those who did feeling a little guilty. They persuaded a small woman among them to wear a missing child's clothes and to speak in a high voice, to appear suddenly among them, to play and sing and be welcomed with tears and hugs. They called her by the missing child's name and though the evening ended in tears — collapse almost for the child's mother — when she went home, they looked among themselves for other small people to persuade. Soon there were six substitutes shared among an increasing crowd of participants and the gatherings were happening every night. The priest was not happy with what he heard of these happenings but the sight of children, even at a distance, skipping and chasing in the lanes touched his heart too. One of the substitutes, a very tiny man who could seem about nine years old if you didn't look at his face too closely, decided he liked the attention and community he was having as a child much better than he liked his work as a lone rabbit-catcher. So he asked if any of the families would like to have him as their permanent child. Perhaps for a small sum for the strain of perpetual pretence. He was the first. A month later, all six of the substitute children were attached to the better-off families. They took to their new roles with enthusiasm, being loved and fed, so much better than they had as inconspicuous adults, so much so, that the tall, fat and less well-off villagers were roused to jealousy. They, who had to stick at their hard, repetitive tasks all the harder since the labour of the six was no longer available, ceased to see their lost children in the substitutes and saw only parasitical cheats and privileged owners. The priest didn't know which way to turn — his head told him the fakery was foolish but his heart was warmed by the children's presence. He did not like division in the village.
Then one morning, bored by bullying the children, their stepmother decided to go to market and torment the villagers instead. As she approached she could not believe her eyes. Lined all along the bank of the stream were laughing children, playing with toy boats made with twigs with feathers whilst their smiling parents stood in a loose curve around them. She felt black acid in her stomach as she watched. Then she noticed a second slightly furtive curve of people a little further off, watching. The evil in her sensed the envy in them. She moved closer and listened to their mutterings, measuring their potential for trouble. Now that she was closer to the children she could see that they were not children. Weeks of pretending had turned some of them into compelling actors but close scrutiny revealed the adult features, close listening reveal the strained falsetto voices, and unless they were careful, their movements took on the weight of the adults they were. She smiled. Then she whispered to one of the outer group. He whispered to the person nearest to him and she to the person next to her. The buzz passed along the line and reached the end. At a nod from the stepmother the whole line raised its voice and began to run towards the children, running through the startled parents and reaching the children who had started to look around at the noise. They shrieked in oddly adult voices as they were seized and thrown into the stream. The parents, seeing what was happening, ran forward too howling in outrage. Some leapt into the water to rescue a child, others grabbed the attackers and there began a fearful struggle between the haves and have-nots that left them bloody and exhausted on the bank. The stepmother kept her distance and laughed, most of all enjoying the sight of the wet and miserable children who now no longer looked remotely like children, trying to drag themselves out of the mud.
She laughed all the way back to the cottage and, that night, whispered long and persuasively to the woodcutter. She showed him the larder whose shelves were empty but for a half a dry loaf and a smear of butter. He could see there was not enough for a meal for four people. He wept, but he agreed with his wife's suggestion. 'They are delicious children — dear husband — someone will take them in.' And because he could think of no other way to feed his children, he agreed to take them into the forest next day.
© Vivien Jones, unless we say otherwise
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted in the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.