Angela Hicks is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing programme in 2016 and was one of the storytellers for Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop 2017. She is currently working on her first novel.
They tour the house first, the lawyer’s curiosity getting the better of her. Greta wonders what she thinks of it; is it more kitsch than she imagined? More austere? There’s the sense that nobody ever enjoyed themselves here. The whole place is cold—the wood in the windows has warped and swelled so that they’re permanently jammed half-open, a legacy of the old woman’s passion for fresh air. Despite that, there’s a feeling of mustiness to the house; it’s evident that no one’s lived here since her disappearance.
With a sense of relief, they all troop back into the kitchen and the lawyer spreads the paperwork out across the oak top of the kitchen table, indicating the place where Greta and Harry need to sign.
‘If you and your brother initial these pages, and then date and sign here, here and here. These are the title deeds, then these ones are for the insurance; it’s not very much since the place is so old, but the previous owner took out policies against fire and flood damage and they’re still running.’
Previous owner, like they don’t all know who used to live here. No policy against theft, Greta notes. The Witch had her own way of dealing with thieves.
She looks around. The kitchen is much the same as the last time she was here, though now there’s a thin film of dust covering the surfaces. Everything’s in its place, and the Witch’s things are still here—her hat on the coat hook, her shoes by the back door, her cigarette lighter next to her keys on the shelf above the Aga, in the space between the dead spider plant and the cook books. The only real difference is the Aga itself. It ought to be lit—was always lit every single miserable day that Greta spent in this house. What a beautiful fire, as the Witch liked to say, hot enough to cook a person. It’s odd to sit here now and not feel the heat radiating from it.
But even stone cold dead, the oven still has the power to conjure up the past. The air around Greta feels too thick, too heavy. As she stares at it, her breath catches in her throat. The smell of wood smoke burns her nostrils.
She forces herself to turn away, to look towards the pantry door instead. Is it still full of food, she wonders. It always used to be crammed with so many cakes, biscuits and pastries that the door would barely shut. It always was shut though. And locked. The key is the large brass one from the bunch on the shelf. She opened it once, she recalls. Not worth the consequences.
‘And after all these are signed, the house is ours?’ Their father speaks up from the other side of the table. Greta jumps, startled; she’d forgotten he’s here. He hasn’t bothered to smarten up for this; he’s still dressed in his lumber jacket. His woodcutter’s axe is propped up against the back door.
‘Your children’s, yes,’ the lawyer nods. ‘Although you’ll be responsible for it for a few years yet since they’re both still minors. I know it’s taken a while getting it through the courts, but we got there in the end. We’ve managed to argue that the previous owner’s disappearance should be reclassified as a death in absentia—or in layman’s terms, she’s presumed dead. This allows her estate to be passed on. Since your children were living here for the last few years under her guardianship, we’ve successfully claimed that it should be inherited by them.’ The lawyer smiles at Greta and Harry. ‘I know that your father’s home is really too small for the three of you, but now you can live here again. Isn’t that wonderful?’
Greta smiles back awkwardly, trying to convey their supposed excitement at being back in this house without having to say anything. She doesn’t trust her own voice. She can’t explain, of course, that they can’t live here, not when they know what is buried under the basement floor.
‘You’re so lucky,’ continues the lawyer. ‘The forest location is beautiful, and this is such a lovely house, and so spacious.’
‘Yes,’ says Greta in as warm a manner as she can manage. It’s true—the house is large, even if the Witch didn’t allow Greta in most of it.
The lawyer offers some more pleasantries, gathers up the paperwork and drives away. After she’s gone, their father immediately makes himself at home; he gets a drink from the sitting room cabinet and goes upstairs. Greta hears him snoring loudly in one of the bedrooms. He always was a heavy sleeper. She panics that he won’t have taken his shoes off first, then remembers that such things don’t matter anymore.
She stands in the centre of the kitchen as the sun sinks behind the tree and wonders what happens next. A copy of the title deeds still lies on the table. She could finally go and sit on the leather sofa in the living room, or follow her father’s lead and tread mud into the Witch’s bedroom, or go up to the attic where Harry slept and where she was never allowed. But she can’t seem to move.
‘I thought we’d feel better.’ Harry walks into the kitchen behind her; he looks so small and pale in the moonlight.
‘I thought being here when she wasn’t would be—I don’t know—better somehow.’ He shivers.
Greta holds out her arms to him, and when he stumbles to her, she enfolds him in a hug. It’s easier than speaking. Because what answers does she have? He’s right, things should be different. She looks at the Aga again and tries to think of something comforting to say which won’t be an outright lie.
‘What do we do?’ her brother asks. His faith in her ability to sort this out is hard to bear. It’s the house, she thinks, this stupid Gingerbread Cottage with its fairy tale décor trapping the past, with all its secrets, all their memories, inside.
Her eyes slide past the Aga to their father’s axe. Is it despair she feels, or something else? She disentangles herself from her brother, picks up the axe and swings it at the table, burying the head in the centre of the deed papers. She pulls it out and swings again. The table’s old and sturdy; it takes a lot of blows before it buckles, but Greta’s strong and determined. The wood creaks and cracks as the axe repeatedly hacks into the once-smooth surface; fragments splinter off and the cut in the table top slowly widens into a gorge. Then, as the dark stone of the floor becomes visible through the middle of the table, the legs give out and with a shudder the whole thing collapses in on itself.
When she’s finished, Harry picks up the axe and attacks the kitchen chairs; Greta goes into the sitting room and comes back with her arms full of the Witch’s bottles of spirits, her stash of after-dinner sherry, the special-occasion port, the vodka and gin for her afternoon martinis. Greta made those for her; by the end she could produce an acceptable Vesper. Not perfect, never perfect, but an acceptable one which the Witch wouldn’t criticise too much. On her second trip, Greta fetches bourbon, amaretto, another bottle of gin and one of vermouth. She tips whiskey and vodka over the dismembered remains of the table, empties the other bottles across the kitchen floor. The smell of ethanol overpowers the other scents lingering in the kitchen.
She takes back the axe when Harry’s exhausted and squares up in front of the pantry door. Splinters fly across the room as she hacks away at it. She’s found her rhythm now; it doesn’t resist as long as the table.
Inside is just as magical as Greta remembered. The preservatives in the sugar-frosting of the cakes means that they have not aged and rotted. The airtight plastic boxes have protected other goodies from decay; shiny wrappers of the biscuits, bars and sweets glint in the darkness. Bunches of candy canes hang down from a hook designed to hold herbs. The smell—cinnamon, flour, lemon, nutmeg, freshly-baked dough—is enchanting. Greta chucks a bottle of absinthe through the hole in the door. It shatters among tins of gingerbread; green liquid drips onto the lower shelves.
‘What now?’ asks Harry when there’s no furniture left in the kitchen to smash up. Greta hesitates; they could start on another room, but she has momentum now and she’s ready for something new. She gathers up the empty bottles and takes a packet of dish cloths from under the sink. She tells her brother to get petrol from the garden shed. On the way out, she grabs the Witch’s lighter and locks the backdoor behind them.
Thirty feet from the house she squats down with the bottles and carefully soaks the dish rags in the last remnants of alcohol. When Harry brings the petrol, she adds a measure to each bottle and stuffs the damp cloths into the necks. It’s only when she flicks the lighter on that he realises what she’s intending to do.
‘Is Father still in there?’ asks Harry.
Greta pauses as she thinks about the woodcutter still asleep in the house. For a minute, she imagines going in and fetching him, imagines finally telling him about what it was like living here, living with her. All the things which were said, all the things which were done. She imagines passing on every poisonous sentence the Witch ever whispered to her, pouring out the bile and hate and terrible, terrible promises which the old woman made her and which she still half-believes even now.
Grow up. Nobody loves you. Nobody’s coming to save you. Your father left you in the middle of the woods. Alone. And scared. In the woods where there are monsters. Parents don’t do that, or not to children that they love anyway.
She twitches her head, trying to free herself of the Witch’s voice. She tries to imagine what would happen next. Would their father hug her, tell her he’s sorry, promise that everything will be alright from now on because he’s there and he will never ever leave them again?
Dream whatever dreams you like. Everyone’s abandoned you, forgotten about you. You’ll never get out of this house. You’re too weak. You’re nothing. Less than nothing. You’ll never save yourself and never save your brother. Give up.
‘But I got out,’ Greta whispers, ‘and I got Harry out.’
You’ll never be free of the past. Your father chose to leave you. You were his children and he left you. Never forget that.
‘Do you want me to go get him?’ she asks quietly.
In answer, Harry bends down, lights the first bottle and hands it to her.
When she throws it, the bottle misses the window and smashes against the wall of the house. Harry lights a second one. This time Greta takes more care with her aim, pulls her elbow back to a better angle. Practice makes perfect, as the Witch always said. It’ll be a beautiful fire.