At the edge of a great forest there once lived a poor woodcutter. He could scarcely manage to feed his wife and his two children, Hansel and Gretel, and this made him miserable. The day came when there was nothing left to eat in their house but one loaf of bread, and he grew terribly anxious.
His wife said to him that evening as they lay in bed, Listen, Husband, there is something you must do if we are not all to starve. Early in the morning, take the two children, give them what little bread we have, and lead them into the forest. Build a fire for them, and while it is burning, go away and leave them there alone. For a long time the man could not reconcile himself to his wife's plan, but she would give him no peace until he finally agreed.
The children had heard everything the mother had said, and Gretel began to cry. Hush, Hansel whispered. It will be all right. I have an idea. Then he got up as quietly as he could, put on his jacked, and went outside. White pebbles on the ground glistened in the moonlight. Hansel carefully gathered them up and stuffed the pocket of his jacket with as many as would go in. Then he went back inside, lay down beside his sister, and fell asleep.
Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, the parents came and awakened the children. To each one they gave a little piece of bread. Gretel took both pieces and put them under her apron because her brothers pocket was filled with pebbles. Then they all set out on the path into the forest. While they were walking along, Hansel often stood still and peered back at their house. His father saied, Why are you always stopping and looking back?
Oh, Hansel replied. I am looking at my white kitten, who is sitting on the roof and wants to say good-bye to me. Secretly, however, each time he gazed back, Hansel dropped one of the small white pebbles on the path.
The boys mother said, Just get going! Thats not your kitten. It is the morning sun shining on the chimney. But Hansel kept gazing back and each time he did, he let another stone fall.
And so they went on walking a long time, until they were in the midst of a great forest.
There they stopped and gathered firewood. Their father lit a huge fire, and when it was burning brightly their mother said, Rest a while now, children. Your father and I are going off to cut wood. Wait here by the fire until we come back.
The children sat by the fire and ate their bread. They waited until nightfall, but their parents did not return. When it grew very dark, Gretel began to cry; but Hansel said to her, Wait just a little longer, until the moon is up.
And when the moon was up, the white pebbles gleamed in the moonlight and showed them the way. Hansel took Gretel's hand, and together they walked all through the night.
In the morning they reached home. Their father rejoiced to see them, for he had not been happy about what he had done. But their mother was angry.
Not long after, again there was almost nothing to eat in the house. And again, after going to bed, the children heard their mother tell their father that he must take them into the forest, deeper than they had gone before. And again Gretel began to cry. And again Hansel got up very quietly to go out and gather pebbles. But when he got to the door, he found that his mother had locked it. Hansel, too, grew sad and could not comfort his little sister.
Early in the morning, before daybreak, they all got up, and each of the children was given a small piece of bread. As they walked along, Hansel often paused and gazed back. His father asked, My boy, why are you always stopping and peering back at the house?
Oh, answered Hansel, I am looking at my little pigeon, who is perched on the roof and wants to say good-bye to me. Secretly, however, he had crumbled up his bit of bread, and each time he turned around, he would drop a crumb on the path.
His mother said Just keep going! Thats not your little pigeon. It is the morning sun striking the chimney. But Hansel kept glancing back and each time he did, he dropped another crumb. And when they had come ever deeper into the forest, to where it was thickest, they stopped. Their father built a huge fire. Their mother told them to rest and wait while they went off to chop wood. As they sat by the fire, Gretel gave half her bread to Hansel, for her brother had strewn all of his along the path. They waited until evening, but no one came to fetch them.
"Never mind," said Hansel to Gretel; "you'll see we'll find a way out;" but all the same they did not. They wandered about the whole night, and the next day, from morning till evening, but they could not find a path out of the wood. They were very hungry, too, for they had nothing to eat but a few berries they found growing on the ground. And at last they were so tired that their legs refused to carry them any longer, so they lay down under a tree and fell fast asleep.
On the third morning after they had left their father's house they set about their wandering again, but only got deeper and deeper into the wood, and now they felt that if help did not come to them soon they must perish. At midday they saw a beautiful little snow-white bird sitting on a branch, which sang so sweetly that they stopped still and listened to it. And when its song was finished it flapped its wings and flew on in front of them.
They followed it and came to a little house, on the roof f which it perched; and when they came quite near they saw that the cottage was made of bread and roofed with cakes, while the window was made of transparent sugar.
The children were so happy to see it that they ran up to it, Hansel to the spongy roof and Gretel to the sparkling panes of the window. And they ate greedily. Hansel was devouring a huge chunk of the roof and Gretel was pushing out yet another windowpane when they heard a thin voice call out from inside:
Nibble, nibble, nubble! Who gnaws my house to rubble?
The children were so frightened that they let fall what they had in their hands.
Just then, a gnarled old woman came gliding out the door. When she caught sight of the hungry children she wagged her head and said, Oh, you poor little things, come along with me! Theres plenty to eat inside the house.
I'll take good care of you. And she took them both by the hand, led them inside her house, and served them a fine dinner. Then she made up their bed and the tired children lay down and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, before Hansel & Gretel were awake, the old woman crept up to their bedside. As she watched the two of them sleeping so sweetly, she thought to herself, Now theres a tasty morsel for you! And she lifted Hansel up and carried him outside and locked him up in a little stall, as if he were a piglet. Then she went back inside and shook Gretel awake, yelling, Get up, you lazy girl! Go out to the well and draw water and then get to work and make something good to eat! Your brother is in that stall over there. First we are going to fatten him up, and when he is fat I will eat him.
Gretel was terrified of the old woman and had to do as she was told. Every day she brought Hansel water and lots of good food to eat; she herself got nothing but crayfish shells. And each day the old woman went to Hansel's stall and told him to stick out one of his fingers so she could feel if he were growing plump. And each day Hansel held out a bone instead of a finger, and the old woman, whose eyes were dim, couldn't see it; and thinking it was Hansel's finger, wondered why he fattened so slowly.
One evening, after four weeks had gone by and it still seemed that Hansel was growing no fatter, the old woman said to Gretel, Now, be quick about it, go out and fetch water to fill the cauldron. Tomorrow morning, whether or not your little brother is fat, I am going to cook him and eat him. While you are getting the water, I will be kneading dough. Well bake bread while he's cooking.
Early in the morning, when Gretel got up to light a fire under the cauldron full of water, the bread was already in the oven. And the old woman called out to Gretel, Come over here right now! It smells as if the bread will soon be done. My eyes are weak; I want you to look and see if the bread is turning a golden brown. If you can't see in far enough, then get on this board and Ill push you in. Theres plenty of room in the oven. Once you're inside you can take a good look.
Now the old woman really meant to leave Gretel in the oven to roast. But Gretel could tell what the woman had in mind and said to her, Im not quite sure how to go about it. Could you show me? If you get on the board, Ill push you in.
And the little old woman sat on the board and Gretel pushed her into the oven as far as she could. Then she slammed the door and fastened its iron bolt. Inside the oven, the old witch screamed and howled. And while Gretel was running away, the old witch burned to ashes.
Gretel ran directly to Hansel's stall and let him out. She told him what she had done, and the happy children hugged and kissed one another.
One last time whey went back inside the witchs house. Everywhere they looked were precious gems and sparkling jewels. They took all they could carry with them and set off for home. They walked and walked, and at last they woods began to look familiar.
When they arrived home, their father wept with joy to see them. Their mother had died, he told them. Every day that they were gone had been filled with sadness.