It wasn’t simple misfortune that the thirteenth daughter in the line came to be called Gretel.
The blame rested with a genealogy pop-up ad, and a frazzled mother. Six months pregnant, with two boys in grade school and the station wagon she’d sworn never to buy parked in the driveway, Gretel’s mother longed for distraction from sore legs and school bake sales. The ad on her phone screen—Find Your Fairytale Roots! above a photo of a wolf and a red cowl—promised deliciously absurd amusement.
She paid $19.99 and rifled through the ranks of her and her husband’s forbears, until she found, passed from great-great-greats down the line, a tale of children lost in the woods, and an old woman in a gingerbread house.
Bring back the magic! the site enticed. For only forty dollars more, she’d get the names of other descendants from her fairytale, and attend a themed reception. Free wine!
But the mother had no time for receptions and grapes made her sick, so she decided to bring back the magic another way.
She named her daughter Gretel, and until the girl turned thirteen, no one was the worse for it.
When the clock struck Gretel’s thirteenth birthday, she lay asleep between two magazines and a plush wolf. A doorway opened in her dreams, and she found herself tumbling through an old forest full of gnarled roots and spiky branches.
She landed in a clearing of seared grass, where fog coiled around old trees and obscured the moon. Cool wind whispered along her skin, and a wolf howled far in the night. She turned in place, the way we do in dreams, unable to run, though she wanted to.
A woman stood before her. Fog wrapped around the old bony shoulders like a smoky shawl, and the woman’s eyes were the color of campfire. She smelled like fire, too. Fire and something else … shortbread fresh out of the oven, and fried cinnamon dough.
“Do you look like her, little girl?”
The woman’s croon hid sharp undertones, like velvet draped over rusted nails.
“Who are you?” said Gretel. “Where am I?”
“Alive.” The woman smiled, and she sniffed the misty air, like she was smelling fresh baked cookies. “After all this time, alive at last. The thirteenth daughter in her line, bearing her name, on the thirteenth year of her birth … ”
“Whose name?” Gretel cringed as the woman ran a clawed, papery hand across her cheek. She turned to run, but thick woods surrounded her. The distant wolf howled again, making her jump, and the old woman cackled.
“The fanged beasts don’t wander my woods anymore.” Her mouth twisted into an ugly grimace. “They scared children, distracted them off the path to my house … . But you,” (the smile returned), “no wolf will turn you away, little girl. You’ll find your way to me today, no matter what.”
“I have to go home,” pleaded Gretel. “It’s my party soon! I have to help Mom make the cake.” A lie: Mom hated the smell of baked goods, so they always ordered from Crumbelievable.
“Everyone loves cake. All that sugar.” The old woman stepped closer, twigs crunching under her boot like old crackers. The smell of smoke grew stronger.
“Do you make good cakes, little girl? Do you decorate them with sugar flowers and leaves made from buttercream, and set hard candies on the edges? Do you pass your fingers through the frosting when you think no one’s looking?”
Gretel backed up until the branches of the forest threatened to swallow her.
“I like baking cakes,” said the old woman. “But I like what comes after cake even better.”
Gretel looked into her burning eyes. “What comes after cake?”
“My meal,” said the woman, and she bared long, sharp teeth.
Gretel didn’t think about the dream in daylight, though its memory lingered like the smell of campfire on clothes.
She opened her first present—a new phone that wasn’t just for calling home to be picked up, but that she could use to finally download all the apps everyone else had been using since sixth grade.
“There’s an app for emergencies,” clucked Mom. “Just press that red side button if you’re in danger.”
But Gretel never had emergencies, so she just added her friends on Discord and made a channel for picking music.
Everyone gathered by the pool by three. Her mother set up her birthday banner (Happy Birthday! Take the time to smell the flowers!), and her father made his famous breadcrumbs-and-ricotta pizza. Gretel snapped a thousand photos with her new phone, and as everyone sang happy birthday, she blew out thirteen candles on the cake and didn’t think twice about dipping a finger in the pink frosting. Crumbelievable had outdone themselves.
They’d all settled in to watch Thor in the den when Gretel went to the kitchen for more popcorn. She was swiping through photos on her phone as she walked, marking her favorites to upload later, when she noticed the smell of ginger. Odd: Mom hated ginger.
She rounded into the kitchen to find the woman from the forest standing by the stove.
“How did you like the cake, little girl?”
Gretel gaped. The old woman grinned and stepped closer. Flour stains and burn marks dotting her long frilly dress; she looked like a nightmare in a period nightgown.
“Did all that sugar and cream make you happy?”
“Mom!” cried Gretel. But Mom didn’t come. Instead, the kitchen began to change—the windows grew larger, moving lower, and the wallpaper was replaced with wooden paneling. The smell of ginger and campfire grew overpowering. When Gretel turned to run, she found that a large iron oven had replaced the door.
The old woman laughed, short wry bursts like corn popping inside a microwave.
“Children love sweets. But I love what comes after even more … ” Her skeletal hand reached out, nails gleaming. “Let’s see if you’re all nice and plump.”
The oven flared to life, bright red and moaning, and burning fingers wrapped around Gretel’s wrist.
“Do you look just like her, little girl?”
Gretel screamed—and she hit the red emergency button on her new phone.
A piercing howl bounced off the wooden walls, long and loud and angry. The screen flashed blinding red. The old woman stumbled and Gretel batted madly at the spindly arms restraining her as she scrambled away from the scorching oven—
The back door flew open and a familiar plump figure filled the doorway.
“Oh, what a surprise,” said Gretel’s mother. “We weren’t expecting you, Grandmother.”
The old woman snarled by the oven.
Mom pulled Gretel into a one-armed hug as the girl ran over, but even as she patted Gretel’s shoulder she kept smiling. “So wonderful to see you, Grandmother. Won’t you have some sweet tea with us? Gretel, get Grandmother a glass.”
“But Mom,” Gretel whispered, “she’s not—”
“Hush,” said Mom. “She’s a different Grandmother.”
The old woman sniffed the air. “You don’t smell like kin.”
“Must be the air purifier,” said Mom. “We have to use it because of the neighbors’ dogs. Do sit down. My, what a large oven you have.”
“Mom,” whispered Gretel, “she was in my dream—”
The old woman sat tentatively in a cushioned chair. “By blood and name,” she cawed, “the girl is mine to settle scores.” She squinted. “You don’t look like kin.”
“Must be the oven fumes,” said Mom, “making it hard to see us well.”
“My granddaughters always wear red, so I can recognize them with my bad eyes.”
“Mom,” murmured Gretel, “I think I know who she is.” And her mother said, “Hush,” in a loud growl that rolled off the new, smoke-stained walls.
“You don’t sound like kin,” snarled the old woman, jumping to her feet—
“Must be all these teeth,” said Mom—and she leapt across the kitchen in one move, a sudden flurry of fur and fangs and, opening a maw the size of a door, swallowed the old woman whole.
The oven vanished. The wooden walls turned back to old wallpaper, and the windows returned to their usual size. The smell of ginger was replaced by the faint whiff of wet dog that Mom always swore came from the neighbor’s poodles.
Mom burped and rubbed her aproned belly. “Well, how’s that for settling scores.” And she smiled, baring a row of big Invisaligned teeth.
That genealogy ad had been worth the money, after all.
Mom’s ancestors had wandered the woods for long generations, keeping children away from Grandmother’s house. Grandmother’s ilk lured them there, little girls in red capes prancing merrily along the path, pointing lost children to the gingerbread house. Food delivery, they called it. Grandmother was too old to wander out and find her own.
Mom’s ancestors had never managed to foil Grandmother. Eventually a pair of siblings came along and put an end to her, but she had a bad habit of clawing her way out of the nether. Sooner or later, she’d find a way back. Witches were always tethered to the bloodline of their enemies. Mom knew that.
What she hadn’t known, before the genealogy ad, was that sometimes the bloodlines of a witch’s enemies might find each other at a college party and settle down together.
It wasn’t simple misfortune that the thirteenth daughter in the line came to be called Gretel. She came by that name—and that bloodline—on her father’s side.
Mother had just made sure to stack the deck in their favor. She gave her daughter the gingerbread name and laid the trail of crumbs just right, so that this time, Grandmother would find her way to their house.
Delivery, after all, was so much easier.
M.A. Florin lives in New England with her partner and the dog who adopted them both. When she’s not researching or teaching, she likes to write speculative fiction inspired by her childhood in South-Eastern Europe, and the stories her foster parents used to tell. Her work has appeared in Write Ahead: The Future Looms, The Colored Lens, and others.