By Vicky MacKenzie
A cold wind rushes through the town, overturning litter bins and setting stray dogs howling; it lifts roof tiles and hurls branches into the air, a ballet of tree limbs performing impossible lifts and jumps. Men stagger to the bookies, to the pub, battling the wind's brute strength that shoves at them like an old adversary. A lot of men round here are out of work: this is a mining town, but the mines were closed 10 years ago. Move away or go on benefits, that was the choice we were given. My family had lived here for four generations, where would we go? Besides, there were no jobs anywhere, so I stayed.
The rain comes, a streaming sky, dark with its burden of water. Gutters flow, pools form around drains, and one night the river bursts its banks, flooding both roads out of town. The old and infirm stay indoors, the school closes, and children disappear from view, huddling at home, half-pleased, half-afraid. The phone lines are down and the gas and electric are off, so there’s no news or reassurance.
Birds suffocate in the gusts; they get caught in hedges like plastic bags, wings still flapping in the wind. Thin pink earthworms inch across my kitchen window. This is no ordinary storm. The wind strengthens: the shops close, even the pubs. There's nothing to do but stay inside.
Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the wind dies down, the rain stops. We go out to assess the damage. Fences and sheds are flung across gardens like playing cards, lampposts are bent double, and a thick brown sludge coats the ground where the flood waters have retreated. The railway line is just a chasm and the main roads are blocked by landslips. Now the sun shines and the fields beyond the houses glitter and steam, but it's too late, the harvest has failed. Workers bring in potatoes the size of radishes, radishes the size of peas, peas the size of poppy seeds. There's a black blight smeared over the soft fruit and the wheat is thin and spindly in the puddled earth.
At first there's food in the shops, but it vanishes fast — people are stockpiling and nothing can get through from out of town. I'm sure the government will airlift supplies to us soon, but we don't know if it's just our town that's been affected, or if the whole country is running out of food. They can't have just forgotten us.
Two weeks pass: there’s still no gas or electricity, no phone or internet connection. We have no news, no deliveries, and I'm wondering how long we've got left. Distrust and bad feeling swirl around the town like autumn leaves, unsettling us, and turning friends and neighbours into enemies. We move into the attic — me, my two children and my wife Lucy. There's not much space but somehow it feels safer than the rest of the house. I've reinforced the roof from the inside and put sturdy locks on the hatch door. Who knows what people are capable of?
I bring food supplies up here, I've been saving stuff in case of a situation like this. I remember the Protect and Survive leaflets from the 1970s. We knew the advice was pointless — we weren’t going to get through a nuclear attack with a bit of corrugated iron and a few tins of soup, but we might get through this, whatever 'this' is. I’ve collected tinned fruit and vegetables, dried peas and beans, rice, powdered milk. Also, boxes of matches, candles, two camping stoves, blankets, wind-up torches and barrels of water. A first-aid kit and enough pills to end it all too, if it comes to that.
Lucy and I occasionally go out to talk to folk and see what's happening, but I won't let the kids out. We're getting through the food quicker than I thought and Lucy blames me for not stockpiling enough, but at least I put away something. Other families have nothing. I start rationing what we eat and Lucy grumbles more. I wish we had some meat, a can of tuna would do. Drowned rats float down the street, piling up around doorsteps, and they’re almost tempting, the bloated bodies like plump, juicy flesh. And then the children start to disappear.
It's hard to know when it began, I hadn't seen them for weeks anyway. Suddenly there are mothers crying in the streets, calling out the names of their missing sons and daughters, putting up hand-made posters. The police station has closed so people organise their own search parties, going out in small groups, even at night, breaking into the derelict colliery, prising open old mine shafts, and scanning waste ground and river banks with their torches. There's talk of everyone having to open their home to a search team, or face a raid if they refuse.
And there are rumours, all kinds of rumours. Some say there's a child-murderer on the loose, others that parents are killing their own children to save them from a slow death by starvation. Or worse, that they’re eating their children to save themselves. There's a blight, not just on the fruit, but on the heart of folk.
My children are safe, of course. My precious bairns. Hansel's a good lad, handsome in his own way, but he has his head in the clouds. He's good with his hands but his step-mother Lucy says he'll never amount to much. His sister Gretel is devoted to him, she's as sweet as her late mother and just as bonnie. She never complains about staying in the attic or not having enough to eat, she just smiles like she's remembering the taste of sugar and the thought's enough to keep her happy.
Our tinned food is finished, there are only dried peas left. Things are getting desperate now. I read that during the war people ate grass — they got down on their knees and cropped it like animals in a meadow, but it wasn't enough, they died of hunger anyway. Man can't live on grass alone, he's a meat-eater, with canines to prove it. People are foraging in the forest that presses against the edge of the town, but there's nothing left to gather. No sloes or damsons, no fat-hen or wild sorrel, no amber-coloured chanterelles nestling in the leaf litter. Only cushions of moss to squeeze the rainwater from and strips of bark to chew on.
Hunger is a rodent, gnawing the flesh from my bones.
There used to be wild goats in the forest, but we never see them now, they’ve become wise to us. Yet Hansel has a way with animals. If anyone could coax them to him, get near enough to slip a wee halter round their necks, he'd be the one. Lucy whispers this to the town councillors, and now I’m summoned to explain why I've been hiding my children and declare anything else I'm hiding.
I go to a meeting and tell them everything. Folk are angry that I had a store of food, and even angrier when they find out it's almost gone. At the meeting it's decided that Hansel is the town's only hope, he must go into the forest and only return when he has a dozen wild goats roped behind him. The forest is known as the Great Dark Place. It's the best place for astronomers to spy on the celestial bodies spinning around us, but it's also the best place to get yourself murdered at night. Hansel looks like he's trying not to greet. He's only 14 but he's as tall and muscular as a full-grown man. Then Gretel stands up from the crowd (I don't know how she got there, I could have sworn I'd locked her in the attic) and insists that if Hansel is going into the forest then she's going too.
I jump to my feet, say I refuse to let her go, but Lucy pulls me down. She tells everyone that it's an excellent idea, Gretel will be useful to Hansel, she can help halter and lead the goats. Lucy convinces everyone at the meeting that Gretel should accompany Hansel into the forest; my objections are over-ruled. My Gretel. She's only 12, I can't let her go. But I don't have a choice. Tonight Hansel and Gretel are going into the Great Dark Place.
© Vicky MacKenzie, 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.