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Sweat pooled in every crevice of Hansel’s skin as he lifted yet another stone and carried to the masons at the wall. His muscles ached with fatigue and his heart burned with anger: a boiling, frothy sensation that pulled his mouth into a grimace as he forced himself to keep it in. The last time his temper had erupted, he’d tried to burn down one of the king’s stables. He was caught, of course, and given a choice of five years of unpaid labor or the gallows. In most matters, Hansel was no coward, never one to flee pain or hardship. His one weakness, however, was his fear of death, a fear that was demanded of him by the Church.
The only thing more powerful than the king in Hansel’s world was the Church, that fiery institution that sucked its tithe from the peasants like a mosquito sucking blood. Heaven existed to give meaning to earthly toils, a treasure that peasants could carry in their hearts as they lived out their miserable lives. But hell was the Church’s most coveted weapon. The threat of eternal suffering was enough to keep the convoluted violence of medieval feudalism on the brink between order and anarchy; it was certainly enough to instill a fear of death deep within Hansel’s very being.
So he’d opted for the years of slavery. But, oh, it was unfair! Last year, the king raised taxes on the already over-burdened peasantry. When winter came, Hansel’s sister starved to death; Hansel barely survived himself. The night Gretel died, Hansel had run through the snow with a torch in hand. He made it just inside the great stone walls of the castle before he was spotted by the guards. Just before he was seized and brought before the king, Hansel had hurled his flame in the direction of the stable. It landed in a snow bank, going out with a sharp hiss.
Now, as he carried out the first year of his punishment, not a day went by that he did not think of Gretel and their childhood together. He recalled with crystal clarity the time they’d wandered into the forest and found the house made of candy belonging to the carnivorous witch. They’d tricked her into her own oven and listened with horror to her dying screams. Then, they gathered up as much candy as their arms would carry and ran home, following the trail of breadcrumbs Gretel had been smart enough to leave behind. When they returned for more candy, the house had vanished.
Hansel’s eyes grew glossy with overflowing anger and grief. He pressed his lips into a hard line and pushed through the remainder of the day. When the oncoming darkness made the work impossible, the long line of men, stooped and broken, filed into the castle and down into the squalid gloom of the dungeon. The thought of one more night in the rat infested prison was unbearable to Hansel. At that moment, he could not imagine a hell more terrible than the life he was currently living. He made up his mind to escape, wracking his brain for a plan as he neared the castle walls.
Just before he reached the gate, an idea hit him: he would feign his own death! Hansel clutched at his heart and fell to the ground gasping for air. He twitched a few times for good measure, then lay still with closed eyes and held breath.
“Another one?!” grunted a guard, giving a solid kick to Hansel’s side, “That makes three deaths in two days.”
“They’re dropping like flies. What do we do with the body?” said another.
“Nothing right now,” said the first guard, “We’ll leave it there ‘til morning. I got a wife and kids to get home to.”
Hansel waited until he heard the creak of the drawbridge as it was raised for the night, then he got to his feet and ran off into the night, not knowing or caring where he was going. He ran blindly and stopped when he could take no more, head swimming and lungs heaving. When he got his bearings and looked around, he found himself in the middle of a forest, trees reaching their long fingers far above his head into the starry sky. Shadows played on all sides of him and the calls of hidden nocturnal creatures reverberated in his ears.
Slowly, Hansel became aware of a watery light filtering through the branches to his left. But when he looked at it directly, the light disappeared. He walked in the direction of the light, always keeping it in the corner of his vision. As he drew near the source, Hansel saw that it was a gathering of fairies dancing in the air, their wings blurring as they kept themselves aloft. Their garments seemed to be woven by spiders; their gossamer threads shimmered with the light emitting from the fairies themselves as they whirled and dived through the air.
Hansel had heard tales of the fairies and knew that they were unpredictable and lethal when provoked. He took a step back, intending to flee, but a twig snapped beneath his foot. The dance came to an abrupt halt as the fairies turned to glare at him. Hansel put his hands up in surrender and opened his mouth to apologize, but the fairies swarmed around him, lifting him into the air. One moment, Hansel was soaring above the forest, the next moment he was skimming over an ocean. He had never before seen the ocean, and he laughed as the waves crashed below him. He closed his eyes to shield them from the salty sting, and when he opened them he was standing in a great hall before a fairy on a golden throne.
This fairy was different than the others, more regal in manner. Her smooth black hair was threaded with wildflowers and coiled around her head; her cobwebby garb was laced with gold. Her skin was pale with a slight bluish tinge and her eyes were a bright green. Hansel knelt to the ground instinctively.
“Hansel,” she said, and her voice was strong and soft, like silk, “I am the fairy queen. I know you. I know that you have nothing to live for, yet you fear death. I can cure you of both troubles. You see, we fairies thrive on stories; stories are what feed our immortality. But all we have to tell are our own stories. We need more, Hansel, we need human stories.
“What I’m offering you is this: we make you immortal and give your life meaning. In return, you give us the stories we crave. If you accept, you will travel the world collecting stories, stories of your own experiences and those of anyone you encounter. Forever is a very long time, Hansel, you can take on myriads of identities. You may share the stories with your fellow humans, but you must also give them to us, the fairies.”
The fairy queen grew silent, letting Hansel contemplate her proposal. Heaven had never been a viable possibility for him as his faith was inconsistent at best, and he and Gretel had committed murder when they killed that witch all those years ago. In his mind, the two options were eternity as a wandering bard or a brief and meaningless period of life followed by eternity in hell. The former he viewed as a lonely yet peaceful existence, while hell looked something like the life of servitude he’d so recently run away from.
“Yes,” said Hansel, looking directly at the fairy queen, “I accept your offer.”
The spells the fairies performed on Hansel lasted until dawn. When the first rays of the morning sun fell upon the ground, the fairies vanished and Hansel found himself lying in a clearing on the forest floor. He got to his feet, feeling lithe and strong. The ache in his muscles and the hunger pains that had plagued him the day before were gone. He walked through the forest all day, arriving at a small cottage by nightfall.
The family inside had just sat down to their meager supper when they heard the knock on the door. The mother opened the door and saw Hansel, disheveled and young, holding his hat in his hands.
“Please,” said Hansel, “I have lost my way in the woods. Could you direct me to an inn?”
“Come in, dear,” said the woman, “There’s no inn for miles. Stay with us for the night.”
Hansel smiled at the children sitting around the low wooden table and said, “I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you in return for your kindness. Nothing, that is, except for fairy tales.”
Thus Hansel began his journey, walking from place to place, spreading the stories he gathers along the way. Every so often, he contacts the fairies and gives them more of his tales. Perhaps you have heard some of them. He is still alive, for stories live on as long as there is someone to tell them and someone to listen.