“It can’t be. It’s impossible.”
But his little sister dropped his hand and reached out towards the rich brown fence topped with a neat line of pearly white…
“Wait!” He snatched her hand away before she could touch. He held her cold fingers tight in his and squatted down to her level. “I know you’re hungry. But I just want look round first, to make sure it’s safe. OK?” She nodded and he stood and led her around the building, talking more to himself now than to her. “I mean, the thing is, why would anyone build an actual house out of gingerbread, here, in the middle of the forest? How is it even possible? What happens when it rains?”
The fence ran only along the front of the house, so they soon found themselves drawing nearer to the gingerbread walls. They avoided the brightly coloured candy path – it seemed wrong to tread on it with their worn and dirty shoes.
“Look!” his little sister said. “There are sugar flowers in the window boxes!”
“And the soil smells like chocolate!”
The walls were constructed of many small slabs of gingerbread, joined together with lines of white icing. The windows were translucent and pale golden – impossible to see through.
“Barley sugar!” declared his sister.
“Quite right!” he laughed, twirling her round. “However did you know that?”
“Papa used to buy it for us from the market, remember?”
That had been so long ago, he was surprised she could remember it herself.
Drainpipes of peppermint candy cane, roof-tiles of chocolate buttons, pink marshmallow bushes, a water-butt full of sparkling lemonade – it was all quite, quite perfect.
They arrived back round at the front of the house, inside the fence this time.
“So? Is it real?” She tugged at his hand. “Can we eat some now, Hansel? Please?”
He still wasn’t sure. It was too good to be true, wasn’t it? It had the crazy over-the-top quality of the kind of dream that takes you when you’re feverish. Nothing like the wishful thinking he had indulged in as they had wandered starving through the forest. Then he’d imagined some kind stranger offering to share their bread, or finding a cottage where someone would give them a bowl of soup or porridge and a bed for the night. If he had had the imagination to come up with a house made of food, he would have built it from bread and meat and cheese.
“We shouldn’t just take it though,” he said. “That would be stealing. Let’s see if anyone’s in first.”
The peppermint door knocker looked as though it would break if you actually used it, so he rapped on the gingerbread door instead. His knuckles made a muffled thud, not loud enough to alert anyone inside.
“Hello!” he called. “Is there anyone there?”
He waited a good long time for someone to answer, but when no one came, he turned to his sister. “OK, so we’ll eat, but you’ve got to let me try first in case it’s not good, and we can only take a little bit from any one place so we don’t spoil it.”
He led her back round to the back of the house and broke a small chunk of gingerbread and icing and chocolate button from the overhang of the roof. His stomach growled with anticipation and his little sister giggled.