Bloodlines and Survival by Jeremy Hepler

A story involving my family has grown tentacles over the years that have choked out many truths about us.

“A blessed miracle that she’s alive,” I’ve heard some people say as they pass by my house.

“I can’t believe that the prey bested the hunter. God must be strong with that family,” the religious fanatics claim.

“Yeah, the witch misjudged the heart and smarts of that woman there,” others whisper with hand-covered mouths.

And though some of the legend is accurate, I promise you this—the witch was herself hunted and God was nowhere to be found at the time. And yes, she was burned, but not because of a misjudgment and not before her sweet-smelling flesh was torn into tiny pieces.

My family’s story is not one of just revenge…or irony…or miracles.

It’s a story of bloodlines and survival.

I was lying on a makeshift straw mattress, my back pressed up firm against Hansel’s, our empty stomachs growling in unison, when our step-mother Norma first proposed her idea to Father. A cool draft carried her words into our ears.

“She’s slow anyway,” she insisted in the adjacent room. “Worthless and dumb.”

Hansel’s back muscles tensed up as Norma continued her plea to Father.

“And that boy…that damn boy is growing too fast these days. He eats all the time. We’ll all die before winter even starts at this rate. You know something needs to change, Harold.”

It felt like an eternity before Father responded.

“They’re children, Norma, my flesh and blood. I can’t hurt them.”

“You won’t have any flesh left if we keep them around and neither will they. We need to do away with them. We can use their flesh to get us through this winter. We have no other option. We can always replace children, but we can’t replace ourselves.”

Father remained silent.

“Besides, they’re too young to survive without us, and we can no longer survive with them around.”

I could not see their faces, but I like to believe that my father at least looked distraught at her idea. I often imagined his eyes glazed over with pain in that moment, but I knew it probably wasn’t so. His care-taking abilities had diminished after Mother’s suicide a year earlier, and then stopped altogether after his marriage to Norma. He looked blank and soulless, lumbering around the house for months without a hint of hope or desire. He never spoke again that night.

“Fine,” Norma said, her metallic tone laced with anger at his non-response, “it’s a bit heartless I know. We’ll just lead them into the forest tomorrow and leave them then. If they survive, they survive on their own, and if they don’t then they don’t, but either way, we’ll be rid of them and we’ll survive. All right?”

I turned over and Hansel had craned his neck in my direction, his elongated nose flaring and his eyes filled with mute fury. Anger had been festering somewhere below the surface of his hazel eyes ever since Mother’s death.

“Don’t you worry, Gretch. I’ll take care of you,” Hansel whispered after a deep breath.

“What’ll we do Hansel? She wants us dead.”

He grazed his calloused hand across my cheek, brushing away the threads of greasy hair concealing my face.

“What if we leave them tonight? Save them the hassle of abandoning us. We don’t need them, Gretch. Ever since Mother died Father’s given us no real love. And now he married that woman who’s determined to destroy us.”

“No, Hans. No. We can’t leave Father. She’s done something to him. I just know it. We have to help him. We have to come back home for him.”

Hans grunted in frustration before assuring me that he’d find a way to get us back home.

I rolled back over and scooted up against him, squeezed my eyes tight, and sighed. I tried to envision Mother’s soothing smile, tried to inhale a trace of her lavender scent. But I smelled Norma’s tart breath instead. I saw her boney, outthrust chin bobbing up and down in my head as she screamed out in a flurry of spits: “You’re slow, worthless, and dumb. Slow. Worthless. Dumb. Slow. Worthless. Dumb.”

She called me slow and dumb, but I’m far from slow or dumb. If I were slow, then why was I the first one to notice changes in the forest? Changes around our cottage that paralleled changes in my dearest brother Hansel.

Norma certainly didn’t notice that the roaches and spiders no longer fought for our mattress space on the cold floor. That the crows no longer cawed from the gloomy treetops overhead. That our white cat, Mother’s cat, Cloud, had vanished. That the paint had fallen off our house. That the roof was blowing away with the wind. That our vegetables in the garden stopped growing a good two months before winter. And neither her or Father ever mentioned the ominous, nauseating odor that had saturated the area around the house and seemed to follow us everywhere.

I didn’t know exactly what was happening around us, but I was smart enough to know that all forms of life were trying to elude our company.

And so was Hansel.

He’d spend all day alone in the eerily silent woods.

“Exploring and hunting,” he said when I asked where he’d been all day.

He no longer joked around with me or laughed at my tricks…or cried.

He stayed silent at the dinner table every evening, his brow ever-furrowed, his gaze distant and penetrating.

But below his hardening exterior, somewhere deep in his eyes, I could still sense his love for me and me alone. I knew his change wasn’t about me. It was something inside of him.

Fate, kismet, destiny, whatever you want to call it, followed us into the woods the following morning. It didn’t rear its head until later that night.

Norma woke us at dawn.

“Get up you lazy snots,” Norma belted out, stomping her foot on the floor. “You shouldn’t be sleeping together like that anyway. It’s not proper. You’re brother and sister.”

As we exited the house, Hansel grasped my hand. He placed a white stone in it, and when I gave him a quizzical glance, he simpered and patted a pocket on his pants.

Without words I knew his plan. That’s the type of bond we always had. We were connected by an invisible glue that could stretch a thousand miles without snapping in two. He planned on leaving a trail of white stones behind us so we could find our way back home.

“Get a move on kids. We haven’t got all day,” Norma yelled, breaking our silent conversation.

We continued through the forest for hours, Father turning this way and that, pointing his cocked bow and arrow toward the trees, Norma nervously ordering him about, “Over there, no, over there.”

We never saw anything.

In fact, the only thing resembling life in the forest was a whiney fall breeze that whipped through the golden leaves dangling in the vine-encumbered trees overhead. The leaves rustled always just ahead of us it seemed, warning the forest that we were approaching.

Hansel lagged behind, dropping stones along the path as he saw fit. I tried to keep Father and Norma occupied with worthless questions.

“Where are all the birds? What’s that smell? What’s Father doing?”

Every question urged Norma to look further up ahead and she began walking faster and faster until we were practically marching like an army of ants encroaching on a bloated corpse. She never answered any of my questions. She never glanced back at Hansel.

Around noon the sun began peaking through the scattered clouds and we sat down to have some bread for lunch. Father built a fire for us.

“Here’s your bread,” Norma said tossing a piece to Hansel and me. Father took off, meandering through the copse of trees with bow and arrow pointed skyward.

“Now I’m going to chop some firewood while your Father’s hunting. You kids keep the fire going and we’ll come for you when we’re ready to go home.”

As Norma sauntered off, Hansel turned and threw a chunk of his bread, hitting her in the backside. She stopped and violently threw us a glare. She gasped, turned away, and marched into the forest calling for Father. Hansel angled his face toward me and winked.

We started eating our bread, mocking Norma’s look and laughing the entire time. Then at some point in the afternoon a sudden rush of fatigue and warmth surged through both of us like a bolt of lightning. We both fell asleep.

I awoke hours later. Hansel was gone, but up in the night sky was our fateful helper—the gigantic, piss-yellow full moon. It looked down on me like an insane eye trying to convey some strange message.

I stood up and held my hands over the burning coals still aglow in the fire. I heard Hansel call out from the seething vortex of the black night. His voice sounded deep and scruffy, echoing deep into the woods.

“Gretch, come on, follow my voice, I’ll lead us home.”

“Hans, I can’t see you. Where are you?”

“Don’t worry. I’m over here. Just follow my voice. I’ll stay ahead of you in case of danger. Don’t worry. We’ll get home all right.”

His reassurance and guidance seemed to strengthen my legs.

I followed his commands all night through the maze of trees. We reached the back of the house just as the sun began seeping through the trees on the east horizon. Hansel emerged from the shadows and crept up beside me.

“I told you that I’d get you back, didn’t I?”

He threw his arm over my shoulder and pulled me to his chest. In the distance Father’s grunting and Norma’s cries of passion stabbed through the crisp morning air. I looked up at Hansel trying to block out their moans, trying not to picture Norma’s squat, depleted body gyrating on my lifeless Father.

“Thanks Hansel, but how could you see the stones? It was so dark. I couldn’t see a thing once we were deep in the woods.”

“Don’t you worry about that. We’re back now. Let’s go inside and lie down like nothing happened. They won’t hear us come in right now.”

We tiptoed inside and lay down on the floor where our mattress had been the night before. The wooden floor was frigid, and I couldn’t sleep. I lay there pondering how Hansel had found his way back. His pockets were empty. He hadn’t recovered the rocks. Puzzled, I rolled over and asked him again.

“How’d you get us back, Hans? The rocks were—”

“I followed the rock path I left. Now hush up and get some rest. We’re going to have to deal with Norma real soon. Get some rest.”

I told him goodnight and rolled back over, snuggling up against him as usual. I knew he was lying to me, but at that point I let it go. I felt exhausted and just glad to be home.

Glad to be with him.

The next four weeks crept by in a haze of misery not unlike most of the year before it. Food remained a luxury only indulged in every other day, and love was nonexistent.

The horrified look frozen on Norma’s face after finding us back in the house made me smile. Hansel stepped in front of me when she came into the room that morning, crossed his arms over his chest and looked into her with his newly acquired death-stare.

Intimidating her. I loved it.

“Why did you stay so long in the woods? We thought that you didn’t want to come home,” Norma stammered in a hushed tone, averting her eyes from Hansel’s.

She stormed out of the room in a huff and went to tell Father. He never greeted us or responded to our arrival. Hansel hugged me and headed into the forest.

Every night for the next four weeks we lay on the floor, our backs glued together, listening to Norma complain about our return and re-plot our demise. She wanted to take us deeper into the forest this time and abandon us again.

Every night Hansel pleaded with me to leave with him.

“Gretch, they’ll never keep us. If we keep coming back, she’ll eventually kill us whether she has Father’s consent or not. I’ll take care of you. I promise.”

“I know you would Hans, but we can’t leave Father behind. She’s controlling him. The same way she poisoned us with that bread, she’s doing something to him too. He used to be different, remember?”

“He did. That was a long time ago when Mother was alive. He’ll never see in us what you want him to see. He’ll never be what you want him to be.”

I rolled over and began massaging Hansel’s back. His shoulders had grown so broad, and his muscles had thickened.

“Where could we go anyway? We couldn’t survive out there. We need shelter. Winter’s starting.”

Hansel never tried to sway me after that. He knew that I’d never agree. Over the next few weeks, he stopped coming home on most nights.

Those were the longest, coldest nights of my life. Alone on the wooden floor, staring out the window at the dark forest praying he’d show up to hold me. He had become my hearts compass in a world spinning out of control around me.

Norma woke me before sunrise one morning and demanded to know where Hansel was. He walked into the room just as she raised her hand to slap me for not revealing where he was. He grabbed her by the wrist and slung her around.

She wriggled free, fell back onto the floor, and crab-walked out of the room.

“We’re going into the woods today. Get outside,” she screeched as Hansel smiled at me.

It was time for round two.

They led us in the opposite direction than they had the first time. A cold breeze led the way through the thick trees again, but the first week of winter had removed the last of the golden leaves from the trees. The empty, twisted branches silently swayed like giant fingers guiding us onward.

Hansel lagged behind as he had the last time. I never questioned how he’d get us back.

People of the forest to this day say that he dropped bread crumbs, but we had no bread that day until sunset. Norma and Father said that they were going to chop firewood and that they’d be back to get us later. Then they gave us each a piece of bread and disappeared into the dense forest.

Hansel devoured his bread immediately, gulping it down in one huge swallow. I looked at mine.

“They’re probably poisoned, Hans. Remember last time? Maybe we shouldn’t eat them.”

“Just eat it,” he said. “At least we’ll get some food in our bellies for our hike tonight, and we’ll get some solid rest. You’ll need it. It’s winter. The cold will be excruciating tonight.”

I ate the bread. Twenty minutes later we lay back to back on a bed of leaves that Hans had put together for us. We drifted into dreams.

I dreamed that Hansel and I exited the forest hand in hand, walking out into a vast plain smothered with lavender flowers. Mother stood in the middle of the field with open arms, her blue skirt and long brown hair swirling in the wind.

When I woke up Hansel sat perched on a log by the fire. My movement seemed to strike a chord of paranoia in him. He jerked his head toward me. His eyes were burning with thought and despair.

“We won’t have much luck tonight, Gretch,” he said. “There won’t be a full moon to light our path for a few days yet, and the clouds are thick anyway. We should’ve delayed this. I didn’t think it through. I didn’t think it through.”

His head drooped downward, convicted. I walked up behind him and threw my arms around his chest.

“It’ll work out, Hans. If we stay together, we’ll survive.”

He didn’t say another word for three days. We sat in silence and kept the fire going for warmth. He kept me close to him at night. We ate a few nuts Hansel had collected and sipped the morning dew from cupped leaves on the forest floor. The woods stayed silent all day long. Everything had left. Mother had left. Father had left.

But Hansel never left.

On the third morning his demeanor changed.

“Tonight’s a full moon, Gretch. The clouds are diminishing. I’ll be able to get us out of here.” He cut his eyes at me. They were filled with sincerity. “I promise that I’ll get you to shelter.”

We took off into the forest once the moon became visible overhead. Hansel stayed out of sight like before, making noises, grunts and scruffy sighs mostly, guiding me through the dark woods. Around sunrise, Hansel, tired and covered with sweat, emerged from the shadows and pointed directly ahead of us.

“The house is over that hill. We’re almost safe.”

Once atop the hill I knew Hansel had made a mistake or had lied to me. The house twenty yards ahead was far too beautiful to be ours. Yellow trim highlighted the pale blue panels. A sweet smell wafted from an open window. A warm light seemed to welcome us toward the open door.

“Where are we Hansel?”

“I don’t know. But it’s a house. A shelter. Let’s take a look.” Our eyes met and I knew that he’d been there before.

We tiptoed toward the house, darting from tree to bush as fast as we could. My stomach growled, enticed by the sweet sugary scent around the house. Water filled my mouth and teased my quivering tongue.

“Stay here. I’m going to go take a closer look,” Hansel said, patting my back.

Crouched low, he slithered toward the open window and rose up to peek through. Just as his head rose above the lower window seal, a loud clap sent him sluicing down the side of the house and around the corner.

A plump woman dressed in a black and yellow dress emerged in the doorway. A square-rimmed hat adorned her head, grey and yellow curls falling from beneath it. She whacked the doorframe with a gnarled cane. Her eyes, even from a distance, were pale white, almost translucent.

She raised her jagged nose to the air and inhaled.

“Little girl? It’s okay. You can come out. I know you’re there. Come out.”

My empty bowels fluttered as fear eased my blood flow to a sluggish ebb. The woman began walking down the porch, using her cane for guidance, moving directly toward me with determination and command.

“Little girl? I won’t hurt you.” She stopped and took in another breath of air through her gaping nostrils. “You can bring your dog in as well.”

I glanced to the corner where Hansel had hidden, but I didn’t see him. The woman continued walking right for me. Her sweet scent itched at my senses. I lunged out from behind the tree in front of her.

“Hi,” I said, holding my hands behind my back and tilting my head to the side.

“Well, hello there. Are you lost, little girl?”

“No!” Hansel yelled leaping out from the side of the house. “We’re not lost.”

“Well, well,” the woman”s nostril’s flared, “a little boy, too. Your brother?”

Hansel gave me a severe stare. Not intimidating, but cautious.

“Yes,” I answered, “he’s my brother.”

The woman invited us in with a toothy smile, the first of those I’d seen on an adult since Mother.

Inside the house, a warm sensation crept over my body. I instantly relaxed. Hansel looked a little less rigid than usual, but the woman’s seductiveness didn’t dominate him the way it did me.

She had two couches, both stuffed with a soft, billowy substance that I’d never felt the likes of. The kitchen table was covered with pies, meats, vegetables, cookies, cakes, and many foods I had never seen before. Pleasant music played in the background. Soft fur tickled and warmed my bare feet on the floor.

We ate for hours. I ate until I puked and then ate some more. Stuffed, I fell asleep next to Hansel on one of the couches. He never smiled. And the woman never spoke to us. She simply served us cup after cup of warm milk while we ate.

I woke the next morning in a soupy confusion, alone on the couch. I tried to sit up, but I was unable to move. A metal collar anchored to a pole beside the couch limited my mobility. My hands were tied behind my back with a leather strap, my ankles shackled with a makeshift chain and lock.

“Hansel! Hansel!” I screamed out for my brother, but there was no answer. The woman stumbled into the room using the wall to guide her.

“Hush, dear. Your brother’s fine. He’s in another room asleep.”

In the background I heard Hansel’s muffled cries.

“Why did you do this, lady? Why?”

A cold cackle flew across the room as the woman’s mouth gaped open in laughter. “I’m no woman,” she hissed, stopping the laughter. “I’m a witch, you stupid little girl. Norma’s sister.”

I began to wail for Hansel and my dead Mother intermittently until the witch approached me and in one swift arc, knocked me unconscious with her huge, bony knuckles.

I awoke in the same position on the couch. I wasn’t sure if an hour or a day had passed. Blood had run from my forehead and nose and crusted onto my face. I sat in my own urine for two days before the witch came into the room with a warm cup of milk for me.

She told me that I needed to cook for and feed my brother who was locked up in the next room or else she’d kill him.

“And don’t even think about escaping once I undo some of your chains. I put a poison in yours and your brother’s milk that will make you blind if you look at the sun. Not to mention that your skin will start to stretch and peel itself off of your bones.” She lowered herself to my level and placed her nose up against my forehead. Her breath singed my nostrils. “So don’t try anything if you want to keep your brother and yourself alive.”

I did what she said. I was young and weak and I’d have done anything to keep Hansel alive.

I slept in a dark closet during the day. I cooked for and fed Hansel during the night hours. That was the only time I was allowed to see him. He was caged up in a small wire box in the kitchen. We were not allowed to speak to one another. But like always, we had conversations every time our eyes locked. I knew that Hansel had a plan. His eyes told me to stay patient and stay cooperative.

Days turned into weeks and before long the moon was growing full again. Hansel’s eyes stayed fixed on it every night while I fed him.

Despite the witch’s efforts, Hansel never gained weight. I assume that she’d been trying to fatten him up so she could have him to eat through the winter. It’d be hard for her to catch any more kids until spring.

The witch woke me after sunset on the night the moon would be full.

She spoke with a sense of urgency. “Get up. It’s a full moon tonight. We have to cook Hansel tonight for the magic recipe to work. I need you to go see if the oven’s hot.”

My heart sank. I didn’t know what to do. I could only hope that Hansel did. The witch shoved me into the kitchen with her cane. I reached into the oven when she slapped me across the back. It was smoldering. Hansel was hunkered low in the corner, still hogtied, but out of his cage. He stared out the window behind me.

“It’s not hot enough,” I told the witch. “Maybe we should wait another day.”

Hansel spun his gaze to me. “No, Gretch. Let the old crotch do it. Fuck her. Let her cook me. I’d rather not stay here.”

The witch grabbed the back of my neck and slammed it down onto the grate in the oven. She looked back at Hansel for a response. He remained silent. My skin began to melt through the slits and splash onto the bottom of the large oven. I tried to scream, but the noise never reached my vocal chords before I blacked out from the pain.

I found myself tethered to a wooden chair next to the oven when I came to. Hansel still lay in the corner, his face purpling, his teeth gritted, his stare fierce.

“Good, you’re awake. I didn’t want to kill him without you watching,” the witch whispered into my ear. I struggled to get loose. The knots were too tight.

The witch walked over to Hansel and kicked him in the gut with her brass-buckled boot and glanced at me. I tried to show no emotion, but tears began streaming down my cheeks, much to her liking.

She pulled him upright and dragged him over to the oven. As he stood in front of the oven, he looked down at me and slowly shook his head. He then looked out the window behind me, and a grin eased across his angular cheeks.

I turned and saw a full moon glistening in the distance.

I turned back around saw Hansel’s eyes turn from hazel to beet red. Hairs sprouted up all over his body, covering him from head to toe, pushing his loose clothing farther away from his body. He shot six or seven inches into the air, his arms and legs thickening, his nose and cheeks protruding outward. He raised his hands, and the shackles holding him fell to the ground. He wrung his growing claws to the witch’s attention. She stumbled backwards, tripping over her own feet.

“What the…you’re one of the forest wolves…I should’ve known…the smell of a dog…”

That’s all I heard before Hansel leapt onto her, growling in anger, slashing away in furious anger. Blood splattered across the walls as tiny chunks of the fat witch stuck to every surface in the room. He roared as he slashed open her chest. A black stone dropped from behind her rib cage and rolled to a stop at my feet.

Her blood hit my cheeks and ran into the corner of my mouth. It tasted sweet.

In less than thirty seconds the witch’s body was reduced to a heap of unrecognizable flesh.

Hansel turned and looked into my eyes. Somewhere behind the red, behind the fury, I knew my brother was still there—no matter how distant, he was in there. He turned back toward his prey and let out a piercing howl. He then walked toward me, his hairs going flaccid and then standing on end, flaccid then standing on end, with each heave of his chest. He cut my bindings off, jumped through the window, and disappeared into the night.

I was never scared of him. I knew that he’d never hurt me. Ever.

I cleaned up what remained of the witch, bones and all, piled her into the oven and burned her. I saved the black, hardened heart for last. I seared it in a frying pan before dicing it up and casting it into the oven.

Afterwards I sat down and ate some of the witch’s food, gathered up all of her items that I wanted to keep and sat by the window waiting for Hansel to return.

I knew that he’d planned this the entire time. Probably been planning it for months. I knew that he’d return for me.

I forgot about the witch’s spell and fell asleep by the window that night. I awoke the next morning when the sunlight began scorching my left arm and cheek, blistering them over instantly.

Hansel returned that evening.

“Well, I told you that I’d get you shelter so we could live on our own. I’ll always take care of you, Gretch,” was all he said before collapsing into my arms. We didn’t speak of the witch’s death until many years later.

When he woke I told him that I couldn’t stay there. I still wanted to go home. We had to help Father now that we knew Norma was probably a witch. Hansel looked up at me when I said this.

“I’ll take you home if that’s what you want, but I must tell you that—”

I cut him off there by gently placing my hand over his mouth. I knew the answer. His eyes said it all. The glue between us was that strong. He’d killed Father and Norma the night before. He’d killed everyone who’d hurt me. Everyone who’d hurt us.

We returned home, traveling by shade and night to avoid going blind, and began living in our old house again. I never asked him what he’d done to Father and Norma or how he’d killed them.

We told the story of my killing the witch to any travelers that we saw in the forest and the story spread quickly. We said that I shoved the witch in the oven and that we lived happily ever after. I had to protect Hansel from being hunted as an animal himself.

Over the years Hansel and I grew closer and closer and eventually we had a child. And just before our son Julian turned thirteen, he began to change like Hansel had. Hansel then came to me and told me that he was there the day of Mother’s suicide.

She’d told him that her Father had been a forest wolf. He’d been lynched by a mob of paranoid forest folk right before her very eyes when she was only six years old. And once she knew that Hansel had inherited the trait, she couldn’t live with herself for doing that to him. She told him his legacy and then took her own life. He still blames himself to this day.

He took Julian out into the forest to live with him. To learn the ways of the wolf. To learn how to control the beast within him. To preserve and spread our bloodline.

I know that they still come around and check on me. Some nights when I come out of the shadows and cobwebs of my house and sit on my porch under the full moon, I can smell the acrid odor that used to permeate our house drift closer and closer. The birds will stop chirping. My plants begin to droop.

Then howls, two of them, sing in unison, and I feel a cool relief overtake my body. I know that Hansel stays at a distance to protect me.

I love my family and am proud of them. I am proud of our survival. I am not ashamed and wish to hide the truth no longer.

Jeremy Hepler currently works as an editor for Lullaby Hearse horror magazine. He lives in Amarillo, TX with his beautiful, expectant wife Tricia. His publishing credits include having poems, short stories, and essays accepted at many small press and anthology markets.

Image: Undine by Arthur Rackham.