A Little Less Conversation, A Little Putrefaction, Please
“I still think you should have pushed her in the stove.” Grendel wasn’t over it.
“Well, I’m not here to meet your every expectation,” Hansel grumbled.
“Just the opposite,” Grendel grumbled back.
The monster was still limping very slightly, but he wasn’t singing about Nantucket anymore.
The forest cooled as night approached. Hansel sincerely hoped they’d get to Aunt Linda’s before the season turned to constant rain. Looking through Grendel’s pack for dinner didn’t make him feel any more excited to be on the trail for weeks. There were some new apples Grendel had foraged, but Hansel really wanted pizza or a hamburger, neither of which were squashed in the bottom of the pack.
The fire took the chill out of the night.
Grendel poked his own foot. “My toe seems better, what did she do?”
“She took the bullet out and shoved a bunch of stuff in your bullet hole.”
“She did what?” The monster rose, ready to storm back to the witch’s house.
“She put herbs and garlic in your bullet hole.”
“Oh, bullet hole. That’s okay, I guess.”
They ate a sparse meal of granola bar crumbs and apples, and Hansel felt sorry for himself. If they didn’t stop with the meeting and eating, it would take months to get through the forest. He curled up under his dog blanket, listening to his stomach growl and missing his can of beans. He knew he was being a beanie weenie over it, but they’d been through a lot together. He let out a cloud of remembrance, prompting Grendel to wave his claws in front of his face and move further away. Hansel’s maudlin mood expanded.
“Thanks for not eating me.”
“Keep talking and we’ll see.”
Hansel stopped talking. Sleep came in a haze of pork and dreams.
Grendel was pretty hungover the next day, and the conversation as they hiked through the trees was brief and grunty. The terrain was getting more difficult. They found some late blackberries, small and sour, but edible. The underbrush gave way to boulders and the angle tilted uphill. The mix of deciduous and evergreen trees changed to mostly evergreens, and they were shorter and further apart. The leafy, lush smell of the fall woods gave way to a cleaner smell of clay and pines.
“CRACK! Ooof.” The sound was behind them in the trees. Baba Yaga’s knives were heavy in Hansel’s hoody pocket. As expected, she wasn’t honoring their agreement.
“You think she thinks we won’t notice that?” he whispered to Grendel.
“I think we should disabuse her of the notion,” Grendel whispered back.
Hansel cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “BABA YAGA! WE CAN HEAR YOU! SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR CLEAVER!”
The woods were completely silent. Unnaturally, unnervingly silent. Hansel didn’t think that was a great improvement.
“This is weird. Why didn’t she just attack us last night?” Hansel asked.
Grendel shrugged. “Maybe it took her that long to catch up with us.”
“She can fly. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, excuse me, maybe I thought I was hallucinating that.”
“You were pretty out of it. She acted like she knew you.”
“No, she knew my mother. They had a fight over a man and my mom won. Ta-da.” Grendel pointed at himself. “Pretty sure Baba Yaga ate my dad when Mom wasn’t looking. I don’t remember him, but everybody said I took after him.”
Hansel didn’t want to talk about dads, so he just nodded. He took out the knife roll and pulled out a nice cleaver with a hickory handle. Hansel used a large, pointy rock to cleave the cleaver, surprised at its easy cleavage, and shoved it into a prominent cleft. He didn’t expect the warning to work, but maybe she’d keep her distance if the hostages showed up mangled to death every now and then.
They had a stroke of luck when they hit a primitive road, speeding the story up a bit. Two nights and many miles later, Grendel had recovered from his involuntary bender. The elevation was getting challenging, both in lack of oxygen and steep climbs. Forest Service signs covered in dust informed them of some improbably named destinations like “Limpy Creek” and the “Gifford Pinchot National Forest.” Hansel felt very far away from home.
“Look at that,” Hansel said at one. It announced the “Crowley Irish Pioneer Cemetery” one mile ahead. “Who would drag people all the way out here to bury them?”
“Who cares why? Let’s go see it!” This was the most enthusiasm Grendel had shown since his GnaGna gnaw. His eyes sparkled with excitement.
“But what about Aunt Linda? Aren’t we kind of in a hurry? What if Baba Yaga catches up?”
Grendel pouted over his fangs, which was something to see and reminded Hansel just how big and pointy those fangs were. “We have been doing everything you want. Well, I want to do this.”
“We are doing what I want because you ate my sister.”
“Well, I ate my fiancée, too, everybody’s sad, so what? It’s not going to make any difference if we take the road less traveled.”
Hansel thought it might make all the difference, but he didn’t know that. At least dead people were predictable, lying there and doing absolutely nothing. Hansel shrugged. Might as well go to the boring, completely safe, no surprises at all cemetery at dusk and let the monster look at headstones and monuments.