By Anne Stormont
The decline had been rapid. Within a few years, Riversdale had gone from being a thriving farming community, populated by lively and growing families to being an unsettlingly quiet and barren place.
Now, the fields lay unploughed, withered and brown. Birds no longer sang in the sickly trees. The once, brightly whitewashed cottages with their red, pan-tiled roofs and pretty gardens stood neglected. Dark, paint-flaked windows, weeds choking and smothering the flower beds, children's toys abandoned in the undergrowth — all told the story.
But it was the empty school that made the starkest statement about what ailed Riversdale.
One fine spring afternoon, Gretel sat on the schoolyard wall. She often came here to sit and think. She would stare at the deserted building with its sad black windows. She would try to imagine the schoolyard full of children as she'd heard it had once been. But she couldn't. She had no idea what that would be like.
Her twin brother, Hansel, jumped along a grid of faded, numbered squares that had been painted on the playground's dusty surface. Gretel had once asked her mother about the grid of numbers. Her mother began to explain that it was a game, but she became too upset to finish the explanation and Gretel hadn’t asked again.
Over by the school gate, Gretel noticed that the woman was there again. The woman came every school day — every school day at three o'clock — and she waited. She waited until her husband came to fetch her back at four o’clock and she listened — listened to him explain once again — as he always did. And she listened, every time as if it was the first time, to her husband telling her that their son wasn’t in school, that he would never be in school, that he was gone, taken by the Helpers. And every time she cried — as if it was the first time.
Hansel and Gretel were taught at home by their mother. The teacher left when the last school age child had gone from the village. Gretel and her brother were babies at the time. It was the year after the river dried up and the crops didn't grow. It was the year the Helpers came.
Today, as she stared at the sad old building, Gretel wondered again what it would be like to go to school, what it would be like to be in a class full of other children her own age. She longed to be in a class full of other children. She longed to have other children, besides her brother, to play with. Hansel was all right — but he was a boy. He didn't want to play Gretel's games and he always seemed quite happy on his own. She wished she could have a group of friends — all girls her own age. Gretel did have one friend. She was called Lottie and she was the same age as Gretel. She was quite good company most of the time. She and Gretel talked a lot about all sorts of things. Lottie came for sleepovers and she was always there when it was Gretel's birthday. 'If only she was real,' thought Gretel.
Gretel had asked — begged — her mother to move the family to the town — to let her and Hansel go to the school there. After all, wasn't that where the Helpers had taken the other children — to Forestville — to the town? But her mother wouldn't talk about it, wouldn't consider it. She would only say that their father said it was a dreadful place and that he wouldn't allow it. He wouldn't even let Hansel and Gretel visit the town. They'd never been to Forestville — not once.
She'd also asked over and over again why the older children had gone. She'd overheard bits and pieces. Sometimes the grown-ups forgot she was there or thought she wasn't listening. She'd heard her mother and grandmother talking, or sometimes it was her mother and Marta, the woman from next door. And some nights, when she and Lottie couldn't sleep, Gretel would creep out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs and listen to her parents talking in the room below.
When Grandma and Mama talked about the arrival of the Helpers, Gretel would be sitting quietly reading and it was as if Grandma and Mama forgot she was there. They spoke of how the Helpers came after the river dried up. They came and they offered to help the families whose farms were wastelands and whose children were hungry. They gave the families money and said that they would take the children to Forestville and feed them and look after them and send them to school. In return the children could do a bit of work for the Helpers to earn their keep. Grandma would sniff, as if she was crying, and she would say, 'Those poor people. Those poor, poor people and their poor lost babies. They weren't to know they'd never see or hear from their darling children again.'
At other times Marta would come from next door. She and Gretel's mother would sit at the kitchen table, drinking tea and talking. Sometimes Marta would speak about 'my Peter'. And Gretel, playing a game with Lottie on the kitchen floor, would listen unnoticed. 'My lovely Peter,' Marta would say.'I miss him every day. I should never have trusted those horrible Helpers. But we didn't have enough food. We were so hungry. Our boy was so hungry. Our beautiful, beautiful boy …'
And then Marta would cry and sob and Mama would hug her and say, 'Sh, now,' like she did when Gretel was upset. 'One day they'll be back, you'll see. The Helpers promised to look after them while you couldn't — but soon they'll be back.'
One day Marta said to Mama, 'Everyone says you're so lucky. You're so lucky that your Hansel and Gretel were babies when they came for our children — and so lucky that their father could find work in the town.' Gretel thought Marta sounded cross. And after Marta left, Gretel thought she heard her mother crying.
Sometimes at night, as she sat on the stairs, Gretel heard her parents as they talked. Then, one night, they seemed to be arguing. Their voices were loud.
Both of them sounded angry.
'I hate it here,' Mama said.'And our neighbours hate us. They hate that we have still have our children and they don't. We should leave. We should live in Forestville.'
'No!' Papa shouted. 'Never, we will never live in that place.'
'But why not?' said Mama. 'Living here is no good for us. Our children need to go to school, to have friends. This place is dead. It's never going to recover.'
'No! Don't say that,' said Papa. 'The village will recover. One day we'll get our water back and it will be like it was before. Families will move here. The village will come back to life.'
'When?' Mama cried. 'When will that be? Next year? In five years, twenty years, when? It's all right for you - you get to go to Forestville every day. You're not stuck here — here in this desert — where no flowers grow, no birds sing, no children laugh.'
'Do you think I like going there?' asked Papa.
'I don't see why you wouldn't like it,' answered Mama. 'I don't see why you won't let me go there. I miss it. Why must it be you who gets all our provisions? I'd love to see the shops and the grand houses again. And our children — they would love to see the parks and the gardens. At least let the children go to school there. I know we'd miss them, but it would be better for them.'
'No! No!' Gretel jumped when Papa banged his hand on the table. She hugged Lottie tightly as she listened to Papa's words. 'It isn't safe. It's not like it was before — before they came — before the Helpers came. You've no idea — no idea of the evil they do.'
'What evil? What do they do?'
'I can't tell you. If I did, you would be in danger. They don't want people knowing the truth — knowing what it is they really do. But me and a few of the other men we've been investigating and soon, soon we'll know enough to prove what they've done — done to all of us. And when we do, then Riverdale will recover and the children will come home.'
'I don't understand,' said Mama.
'Please,' said Papa, his voice was quieter now. Gretel had to strain to hear his words. 'Please, my dearest, please trust me. Please, promise me you will keep our children safe here for a bit longer and soon all will be well.'
'I promise,' said Mama.
But it wasn't long after that night that Mama broke her promise.
Papa had arrived home from work early. Gretel was sitting at one end of the kitchen table drawing and Hansel was playing with his toy farmyard at the other end. Mama was preparing their evening meal. Papa almost fell into the kitchen he was in such a rush. He stumbled over to Mama, who looked very surprised, and hugged her. 'Come here, children,' he called, gasping to catch his breath as he beckoned to Hansel and Gretel.
The children ran to their father and he held them and Mama close.
'What is it?' Mama asked, looking scared. 'What's wrong? Why are you home so early?'
Papa let go of them and ran his hands through his hair. And now he looked scared too. Gretel wished that Lottie was with her.
'They found us out,' said Papa. 'The Helpers — they found out what me and the other men had discovered about them — about their business and the terrible things they have done — to this community — to our children. They'll come for us — me and the other men. They'll stop us from telling what we know — so we must go into hiding.'
'What do you mean? Where will you go? What about your job?' Mama was crying.
Papa put his arms around Mama. 'I can't go back to my job. The Helpers know where I work. It would be too dangerous. Me and the other men — we have a plan and a place to go where we think we will be safe until we can get to the authorities and tell them the truth about what is going on in Forestville. But I can't tell you more than that. If I did, you would be in danger too. You must wait here until this is over and I can come home.'
Hansel was crying. Gretel was determined not to. Their father embraced them both quickly and then he was gone.
At first their mother tried to keep things going as normal. But the longer their father was gone, the harder it got. The money ran out and, soon after, so did the food. Then, one morning as Hansel and Gretel shared the last slice of bread and their hungry Mama watched them, the Helpers arrived.
It didn't take them long to persuade Mama. They commented on how thin Hansel was and promised Mama he'd be fattened up. In fact, both the children would be fed and educated. In the afternoons they'd do some light work for the Helpers. The money they earned would be sent to Mama.
It didn't take Mama long to pack a little bag for the twins to take with them. The last children in Riversdale were leaving. Hansel and Gretel were going to Forestville.
© Anne Stormont, 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.