The Parents’ Conversation in “Hansel und Gretel”

By Clemens J. Setz
Translated by Susan Thorne

A poor woodcutter lived beside a great forest with his wife and his two children. The boy’s name was Hansel and the girl’s was Gretel. The woodcutter had very little to eat, and at a time when great hardship swept over the land, he could no longer even manage to bring home their daily bread. Now as he was pondering this at night, tossing in bed in his worry, he sighed and said to his wife, “What’s going to become of us? How can we feed our poor children if we don’t have enough for ourselves?”

“What?” his wife said, for he had awakened her from a dream.

“I said, ‘What’s going to become of us?’”

“What time is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Around midnight. I can’t sleep because I’m so worried about the children.”

“Oh, one way or another they’ll …,” his wife mumbled, trailing off, and she immediately fell asleep again.

Then the man began to cry. “I don’t earn a thing with my work,” he sobbed. “I’m a failure … you should have married somebody else.” This woke his wife up again. She sighed, sat up in bed, and let her husband lay his bearded face, big tears streaming down it, in her lap.

“Don’t worry,” she said, stroking the back of his head. “Everything will work out somehow. God certainly won’t leave us in difficulty.”

“God!” snorted the husband. “Don’t get started with God, he’s just a puff of wind in the sky that we can’t feel. He’s never done a thing for us.”

Somewhat at a loss, his wife continued stroking him. It got on her nerves when he was like this. It was true that they were all suffering from hunger, and the children were getting more and more weak and sickly, but in spite of this she wasn’t ready to share that complete despair that he fell into in times of crisis, or to accept it. She didn’t care to live in a world that offered no possible solution.

“Come on,” she said, “let’s go back to sleep. We can rack our brains about it early in the morning.”

“Early in the morning we might already be dead,” the husband said, and sobbed even harder. Nothing helped: she couldn’t calm him down. He was like a contrary child who refuses to go to sleep for fear of invisible creatures in a dark corner. So she gently turned him on his back and opened his nightshirt. The familiar smell of his work-worn body, mixed with the scent of freshly fallen trees, rose to her nostrils. She kissed him and tried to distract him from his dark thoughts by circling his navel with the tip of her tongue. She wasn’t sure how she came up with this idea. Somehow it seemed to her like a natural extension of his great hopelessness and despair. He let her do this, but after a while he started talking about the children again, how thin they were and how serious their whooping cough had sounded in the past several days. “They look like the dancing skeletons on that gruesome altarpiece in the forest chapel,” he said, and laid a shaking hand on his wife’s shoulder. Then he pulled her to him, and they rocked this way and that for a while, without a word. Little by little his gloominess was transmitted to her, as nearly always happened when she lay in his arms late at night, and she hated this feeling and tried to overcome it by moving faster and acting wild. She managed this for a bit, and then she began to cough. He was lying under her, staring at her with the melancholy eyes of an inexperienced boy. She rode him until her ankles hurt (hunger was taking a toll on her body, too). But the pain just seemed to her to confirm that she was on the right track. Then he started to moan again: about the poor children, about the famine, saying that he was a loser and she should go off and look for a new husband—it got to be too much for her, that whiny woodcutter’s face on the pillow below her, his boring talk and the way he lay there idly and let her work on him, as if none of it concerned him. She pressed very close to him—a pleasant drizzle spread through her body—and hissed into his ear: “You know what? You … you husband—I’ll tell you what we’ll do … ow! … Early tomorrow morning we’ll just take the children and … ah! … lead them into the woods, to the densest part … and we’ll make them a fire there … and then we’ll go do our work and leave them by themselves … and they won’t find the way back Ha! … home, and we’ll be rid of them, you miserable loser … otherwise all four of us will die … all of us will die … you damned weakling, you … you …” And she reared up, gripped by the sudden release: she gave a sharp, short cry and dissolved, a sinking battleship, a burning cathedral, an exploding diving bell on the sea floor—she grew quiet on his breast, slower and slower, panting, breathing. She burst into tears from sheer relief. The woodcutter had become quite still through all this; he had stopped crying and no longer thought about bemoaning his fate. He held his wife in his arms until she fell asleep.

“We’ll see,” he said, when he was sure she could no longer hear him. “We’ll see.”

Clemens J. Setz (b. 1962) is an Austrian writer of prose and poetry who is based in the city of Graz. His work inventively brings together elements of realism and the fantastic. Setz’s work has attracted significant recognition from the German-language literary community since the publication of his 2007 debut novel, Sons and Planets. Among other prestigious literary awards, he has been shortlisted twice for the German Book Prize for his novels Frequencies (2009) and Indigo (2015). In 2011 he received the Leipzig Book Fair’s fiction prize for the story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, from which this story is taken. Most recently he was awarded the William Raabe Prize in 2015 for his novel The hour between Woman and Guitar.

Susan Thorne translates German-language short prose works into English. Her translations of travel literature of Wolfgang Koeppen, Jurek Becker, and others appear in five volumes of the CityPick anthology series, and her short story, poetry, and drama translations have been published in Prism, Two Lines Online, No Man’s Land, Verfreundungseffekt, and ORIGINS. She is editor of No Man’s Land, an online journal of new German literature in English translation.