SOME OF THE younger leads gasp at the mention of the name. Step-kids, mostly, who spent their formative years trying to escape the clutches of a Wicked Mother or Father. A girl in pigtails and a blue check dress like a tablecloth starts crying. I can’t be sure from this distance, but I think she had a run in with one of the Wicked Witches. That explains the black furry goat legs, at least.
‘I’m looking for brave souls,’ says SB, stifling a yawn. ‘Volunteers to venture into the Dark and bring Gretel back to us.’
Every Jack in the front row shoots up his hand. SB smiles down at them, like a dog looking at a litter of eager puppies.
‘Or,’ she says, her lids almost closed, ‘to kill her.’
The Jack hands shoot down again. Baby sits forward on his haunches. ‘Now she’s talking,’ he says. A Secret shoots us a glance, tapping the barrel of his gun.
‘First,’ she says, ‘someone who knows Gretel very well would like to say a few words.’
A pair of Secrets lead in a young guy. He looks away with the fairies. Actually, he probably is.
‘Hansel?’ SB taps a gloved finger on the side of the podium. The guy slurs his head in her direction, his eyeballs taking a few seconds to follow. ‘Tell us about your sister, please.’
He looks like she’s just asked him to recite all of the thousand-and-one tales from memory. He swallows, looking out over us. I feel sorry for the schmuck. If the fairies have been at him, we probably all look like magic rainbow unicorns covered with moondust.
‘Gretel…’ His voice is far, far away. ‘She’s always been …’ His eyes wander up to the chandelier.
‘Unpredictable,’ finishes SB. ‘Disobedient.’
‘… a good girl.’ It’s like the guy didn’t hear her. A smile spreads across his face like the sun coming out. ‘She … she saved me, once.’
‘I’ve never believed their version of things,’ whispers Baby. ‘I reckon they ate that old woman’s house and made the whole story about the oven up to cover their tracks.’
The Secret has his gun pointed at us now. I nudge Baby in the ribs. He growls but takes the hint.
‘All that was a very long time ago,’ says SB. ‘Please tell us all about Gretel now, Hansel.’
His eyes are scanning left and right, like he’s reading an autocue. ‘She changed. Grew distant from me. One morning, I even found her reading one of the Forbidden Books.’
Struwwelpeter’s hair shudders like a breeze is blowing through it. He’s a living Cautionary Tale; I’ve never understood why SB lets them in. They never learn.
Not like me, of course. I learned my lesson a looooong time ago. I remember talking to Blue about it, trying to persuade her. She refused at first, telling me that’s not what my father would have wanted. And how being real wasn’t all talking teapots and cuddly woodland creatures; I had to expect the good and the bad.
I insisted though. I showed her, rolling up my sleeve. Pointed at the skin, sagging like a burst balloon. My body was making up for lost time, aging me like a dead tree. I was lucky if I had a month left, maybe two.
I pleaded with her. Told her I was sure. My nose didn’t move an inch. I wasn’t lying, she could see that.
So Blue agreed. She shifted to a deep sad navy colour, then tapped me on the head with her wand.
And turned me back.
Back into wood.