I had to send them away. They were children not born of me; they came rushing out between some other woman’s legs, one right after the other, and I was told she lost so much of her liquid that, as soon as they squealed in the air, she had dried up, all broken apart, and pieces of her blew away with the gust of their father’s grief. I had not known her, being so young myself when she died, barely out of my first bleeding, that when I was invited to her funeral, as the whole village was, I looked at the fractured remains of her bones with the curious pity one has for a dead animal. I expressed the appropriate grief to the father, my eyes cast down and my lips trembling, but he must have seen something genuine in me, though there was none at all, and he asked my father if I would be a suitable replacement. My father hand hesitated to grant the blessing, but when a bag of coins found their way into his fingers, my father’s hand was firm.
It was not so bad, at first. The children would not suckle from my breasts, but I warmed milk from the goat and dripped it into their mouths until their skin stretched over their expanding bones. They grew fast: the boy, Hansel, with his greedy appetite, and the girl, Gretel, long and thin like a branch, but whose arms knocked the china from the table if she did not get her way. They loved me, I suppose, as much as their father did, though when they saw my belly begin to expand they huddled together and whispered. When the rain forgot to fall on our small garden and the ground cracked, our lone goat’s milk refused to be coaxed, and the four of us knew what would happen: a fifth would devastate us. Two of us would have to go. We would all starve if we remained together. I have not been taught numbers as men are, but even I know that three is less than five.
My grandmother once told me that once you go into the forest, you come back a changeling. Or you don’t come back at all.
Gretel was awake the night I decided. Our small house had only one room for sleeping, and so all of us dreamed together. I climbed above their father and massaged his neck and behind his ear, as he likes. I pressed his hands to my belly and rejoiced at what we had created. In his ear I whispered that I would not die with its birth, for I was made of stronger things than dust.
It was difficult, after we finished, to fall asleep, for that daughter who was mine but not mine stared at me all night, the moon reflecting off her dark eyes.
They cried, of course, the boy more than the girl – his emotions reflected his appetite, and he could keep neither in check. Their father cried as well when he held the door open, but I held my hand on my belly – my only bargaining chip – and he gave them a little bread and told them they were old enough to make their own way, though they were young, too young.
At night, I asked them to forgive me, though they were already gone.
* * *
I bore him my daughter and I did not die. She suckles from my breast and squirms and laughs with all the happiness of a small thing. I see myself in her, that bit of myself that did not have to choose. With so few mouths to beg, the goat returned to its milk. We are saved.
Their father weeps for them, though quietly, as he knows it upsets me and my daughter. I don’t voice what flows in my veins: I do not want them to come back, not my long-armed daughter nor my voracious son. If they come back, it is I who will pay the price for saving us, I who will pay the price for desiring my own daughter over them, I who will pay the price for making the difficult decision, though it was their father who held the door. After a few months, I suspect that they have died out there, and while I feel the ache of loss, I am also relieved that I will not suffer their retribution, even though they would be within their right.
* * *
One night, a little time before the birth of the new year, as I sit on the little landing with my daughter wrapped up against my breast, showing her snow for the first time, I see two figures make their way towards the house. Rather, I smell them first, the sickly stench of rotten sugar clings to them like a death. The boy is so big he makes the earth shake with each step, and the girl, tall and thin as she always was, had a red glint in her eye, and her teeth, when I they are near enough to see, are filed to uneven spikes.
They are almost upon me, and I hold my sweet baby daughter to my breast as I stand tall to receive them, these children that I have sacrificed to save my own, these children who are mine and not mine, these children who now sniff at my arms and neck, looking for the place to bite.
A. A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP). Her writing can be found in Indiana Review, The Southeast Review, The Missouri Review, Apex Magazine, and many others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief of Cartridge Lit. On twitter @aabalaskovits.