Four Nights Found by Ryan Shane Lopez

From Grimm’s "Hansel and Gretel" and Christ’s Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Weeds, and Parable of the Sheep and Goats

Once, a kind father lived on the edge of a great wood with his two children, Jon Jon and Maggie. When they were old enough, he sent them out on their own to gather firewood. Maggie did not want to enter the wood because she feared the witch who lived there.

“Don’t be such a silly sally,” teased her brother. “Everyone knows so long as we stick to the path, the witch can do us no harm.”

“But what if night should fall,” said Maggie, “and we lose the path?”

“Be not afraid, my darlings,” said Father.

Then, he brought out his special chest which was locked with seven locks, opened it, and pulled out a small sack of seed, which he gave to his daughter.

“Scatter this seed along the path as you go,” he told her, “and it will leave a trail you can follow back to my doorstep.”

“But each seed is smaller than a grain of sand,” Jon Jon protested. “How are we to see some measly seeds in the dark?”

“Have a bit of faith, my son,” said Father. “I give you no ordinary gift. These are magic lilies, which spring up in a day and whose blossoms are so white they glow by the moonlight.”

This comforted the children and they did as their father commanded them.

Now, it so happened that on a low branch outside the kitchen window, one of the witch’s magpies had been eavesdropping. The witch herself could not come near the father’s house, for it was shielded by powerful magic, but she often sent her forest pets to spy on him. The witch had lived in this wood since its oaks were only saplings and she laid claim to everything that grew or set foot within its borders. Many dark and wicked creatures dwelt there and they must come whenever she called them and do whatever she commanded. Ever since the father had moved there, she had hated him and all those forest creatures who had befriended him. Always, she was seeking a way to drive him from her wood.

In fact, the children had met this witch once before, though they never would have guessed it. Their father had taken them to town in the wagon after the last spring thaw and had given them each a penny to buy themselves a sweet bun. On their return journey, they met a gray-headed beggar woman at the edge of the wood. She was plain, but not terribly ugly. She was not all skin and bones nor deathly pale and she had not a single wart. When she called out for alms, she had a pleasant song in her voice, but also a scratchiness that caused her to cough. Jon Jon only stared at her from the wagon as he gobbled up his treat, but Maggie tugged on Father’s sleeve. When he stopped the wagon, she hopped down and went to the woman. Seeing the patches in her dress, Maggie offered the woman her scarf and, seeing she had nothing to eat, offered her a drink of water and also the sweet bun which she had dreamed of all the long winter. Ever since, the witch had kept a close eye on this brother and sister, the boy because he would be easy to deceive and the girl because kindhearted children always tasted so much sweeter.

When the magpie brought news of the children gathering firewood and scattering the magic seed along the path as they went, the witch summoned a large tiding of magpies which she sent out to follow behind the children and devour the seed. Some seed, however, the birds could not reach because it fell between the rocks. So, the witch cast a spell which stripped off the leaves and peeled back the branches of the surrounding trees. Without shade, the scorching sun withered away the sprigs before they could bloom. Other seed the birds could not reach because it fell among the briars. When those sprouts sprang up, the witch cursed the briars and they coiled themselves around the tiny sprigs and choked them out.

Yet, despite the witch’s schemes, a few seeds fell on good soil, took root, and sprang up in an hour's time. Their sprigs blossomed into flowers as large as your hand and as white as a swan. By the time the sun sank behind the trees, the children had gathered all the firewood their little arms could hold and they followed the glowing white lilies back to their father’s doorstep.

Next morning, the witch spoke a hundred and one hexes against the full grown lilies, but could do them no harm. So, wicked and crafty as she was, she planted weeds around them that grew up fast and became so tall and so thick, they hid the white lilies from view.

A good rabbit who had witnessed this treachery went straight to the father to warn him.

“Say the word,” offered the rabbit, “and my people will dig up every last blade of the witch’s weeds and throw them into the fire.”

“No,” answered the father, “lest you dig up the white flowers also and my dear children have no way back to me in the darkness?”

When the firewood had been nearly all burned up, the man sent his two children into the wood a second time. Knowing the white lilies would light the way home, Jon Jon saw no reason to hurry and played while his sister worked. When the sun touched the treetops, Maggie urged her brother to return home with her, reminding him that even their father’s disciple would be gentler than the witch’s hospitality. But Jon Jon dared not return empty handed. So, Maggie helped him gather his share, but by the time they had finished, darkness had filled every corner of the wood.

They looked, but found no white lilies anywhere in sight.

“Don’t worry,” said Maggie. “Our father will not forsake us.”

Then, the children piled their firewood together and, holding hands, they walked around it in circles, each one wider than the last, until on the seventh circle they spotted through a thick clump of weeds the faint glow of a lily. Jon Jon picked the lily and used its dim light to find the path, which they followed until they saw the glow of a second lily. This one, they did not pick. Each time they began to believe they had strayed from the path, they would spot another lily, but not until they had almost trampled it. The morning sun was peeking between the trees when they finally saw their cottage and their father running out to meet them. They feared he would beat them, but he smothered them with kisses and gave them hot porridge and a warm bath.

The children rested all that day, but on the morrow, their father said they must go out to retrieve the firewood they’d left behind. So, a third time, the brother and sister entered the wood. They followed the path as far as they dared, yet they could not find the pile of wood, I suspect, because the witch’s minions had scattered it. The children began their work anew and, this time, they both gathered swiftly. They were finished and on their way home well before dark.

The witch’s schemes had now been twice frustrated and she had grown more determined than ever to capture this pair of morsels. Knowing the boy loved his pastries, she picked up a stone, turned it into a fresh, hot sweet bun, and left it beside the path. When Jon Jon saw the bread, he dropped his firewood and ran to eat it.

“Don’t stop,” warned Maggie. “Remember the delicious porridge Father cooked us when we were naughty. Imagine what he will feed us when he sees what fine work we’ve done.”

“Why wait,” said Jon Jon, “when we have such a tasty treat at our feet? We’ve worked hard and have a long walk ahead.”

He took a bite, then offered some to his sister. When she saw it was fresh and hot and good for regaining her strength, Maggie took a bite also.

“Look,” said Jon Jon, pointing into the wood. “There is another.”

Seeing a second sweet bun a few feet from the path, Maggie dropped her firewood and ran to eat it. Then, Jon Jon ran past her to eat a third which he’d spotted. They continued in this manner, spotting one sweet bun after another and gobbling them up as fast as they could. Before the children realized it, darkness had filled the spaces between the trees and they were lost.

“Don’t worry,” said Maggie. “Our father will not forsake us.”

Again, they tried holding hands and walking in circles again, but they could not find a single white lily. They were exhausted and, despite all they’d eaten, hungrier than they could remember being in all their lives. After walking 40 circles, it began to snow. The poor children sat down and cried themselves to sleep.

When the darkness grew thick and his children had not returned, the father called to himself the rabbits of the wood and gave to them the seed from the chest with seven locks.

“Go out from here, each in a different direction, and search the whole wood,” he said to them. “As you go, scatter this seed, so that each of you will leave a trail of glowing lilies leading back to my doorstep, that wherever my dear children are they may find a way home.”

And the rabbits did as he commanded.

The children woke early next morning to find themselves quite warm, for rabbits were huddled close on every side of them. They also saw, beginning at their feet, a trail of white lilies popping through the fresh snow. Despite all the sweet buns they had eaten the night before, their little bellies moaned and ached so they thought of nothing but food. Jon Jon tried to snatch up a rabbit to eat, but they scattered and hid themselves in the brush. Then, Maggie scolded her brother, for the rabbits of this wood had always been faithful friends of their father.

The children rose to follow the trail of lilies through the wood. Along the way, they caught the scent of boiling stew and spied, through a clearing in the trees, a little cottage with a thin column of smoke rising from its stone chimney. Jon Jon wanted to knock on the door and ask for some food. Maggie did not like the look of the cottage, but she also longed for a meal to fill her belly and a fire to warm her bones. So, she said they should first go quietly and peek through the open window to see who lived there.

Through the window, they saw a decrepit old woman stirring a large pot which hung in the fireplace. The children at once knew her to be the witch by her black cauldron and the gibberish she mumbled over it. They saw also a rabbit sitting in a cage which hung from the ceiling. The witch had caught the poor creature while it was planting lilies during the night.

“Let us leave this place,” whispered Jon Jon, “and quick.”

“But she means to cook that poor rabbit,” whispered Maggie. “We must try to help it.”

The rabbit, having spotted the children at the window, whispered for them to run for their lives, but their father had not yet taught them to understand the tongues of woodland animals.

The witch had her back to them as she stirred and muttered her enchantments, so Maggie crept in through the window. But as soon as she was inside the witch’s cottage, the bread in her belly turned back into stones and she fell to the floor like a sack of flour. The witch spun around and began hobbling toward her, still mumbling her gibberish. Jon Jon reached in the window and did his best to pull his sister up, but she was too heavy. So he climbed inside to try hoisting her up and the bread in his belly turned to stone also. He fell to the floor and groaned, but did not move for fear he would burst wide open.

Mumbling louder than before, the witch grabbed each child by an ear and spoke a spell over them to bind them to her property. Then, she spoke another spell and they vomited up all of the stones. When their bellies were empty, she dragged them to the pens out back where she kept her livestock. She threw Jon Jon in among the goats and Maggie among the sheep.

“Finally,” said the witch. “Tonight I shall have a feast like this wood has not seen for a century. You, my boy, will be my main course, and you, my pretty, will be my dessert.”

With that, she called her magpies and sent them throughout the whole wood to summon all the dark and wicked creatures to feast with her at midnight. Then, she began her preparations.

Now, the rabbits had watched all this from the brush and as soon as they’d heard the witch’s plan, they went to fetch the children’s father. But they moved slowly and stealthily, for at the witch’s summons all the dark and wicked creatures of the wood were crawling out of their caves and shadows and they would kill or torture any rabbit they could catch.

Meanwhile, Maggie was more tired and hungry than she had known a little girl could be. She was also much afraid of the witch, but she did not despair.

“Our father will not forsake us,” she told herself.

She spoke to the sheep, asking if they knew where she might find her brother. They led her to a hole in the fence where she could see into the goat pen. Inside were goats so fat they could not walk, but rolled on their swollen bellies. She spotted her brother on his knees, eating from a trough and snarling viciously at any goat who came near. Three times, she called to him before he stuffed his pockets with the food he’d been eating and came over to the hole in the fence. His face looked fuller and his clothes tighter than when they had parted.

“Jon Jon,” she said, “come with me into the sheep pen. They are good sheep and when the witch comes to cook us, they will hide us.”

“That’s no use,” said Jon Jon. “We’re bound to this property. Come with me into the goat pen where there are troughs overflowing with the sweetest candies you’ve ever tasted.”

He ate some candy from his hand as he spoke and Maggie fancied his cheeks were growing fatter with every bite. The treats were brightly colored and glossy and sweet smelling. The witch had not given Maggie anything to eat, claiming that good girls are a delicacy and a little gluttony would only spoil the flavor. So when her brother held out a candy for her to taste, Maggie would have taken it, if not for the sheep. They stepped between the children and knocked the candy to the ground. This made Jon Jon so furious that he reached through the fence and began to tear out the sheep’s wool by the handful.

“Jon Jon!” cried Maggie. “Can’t you see? Just like the sweet buns that turned to stone in our bellies, these candies have bewitched you!”

“What if they have?” hissed Jon Jon. “If this is my last day to live, I’d rather spend it enjoying delicious treats than cowering behind sheep.”

He ate another candy and his stomach grew so fat that a button popped off of his trousers. Seeing he loved his treats more than her, Maggie left him.

Throughout the day, Maggie watched the arrival of ghouls and goblins and ogres and hags and all other manner of foul creatures. They chopped down trees and made a great table which was so large they had to put it outdoors. They dug pits in the ground and lit roaring fires. As her fourth and final night in the wood began, so did the slaughter. When they came for the goats, Maggie buried her face in a sheeps’ neck so she would not see. As they sliced and skinned and chopped, she stuffed her ears with wool so she would not hear. When the feast commenced at midnight, the goat pen was empty.

“Oh, why has our father forsaken us?” cried Maggie.

She threw her arms around a sheep and wept bitterly, for her poor brother and for herself, but most of all for her father, who would be alone from now on and would never know what became of his dear children.

Meanwhile, the witch’s guests ate and drank and laughed and sang to their hearts’ content. Soon, they began to fall asleep, one by one, for the witch had drugged their goblets. They would each want a taste of the good little girl, but she intended to have this sweetie all to herself. When the last of the fiends lay unconscious on the table, she went to claim her prize.

All afternoon, the witch had taunted the miserable girl with suggestions for how to best prepare her. Bake her in a pie? Squash her into pudding? Or maybe boil her into a jam? How long since she’d tasted a fresh good-girl jam! But now, tired from cooking all day, the witch decided to eat the girl raw. She stripped her and smothered her with butter and was just about to take her first bite when an arrow sailed out of the darkness and lodged in her right eye.

The witch fell dead.

In an instant, Maggie’s father appeared at her side and the good rabbits clustered around her feet. They had found him and brought him to her rescue.

The witch’s death freed Maggie of her bond, so her father sent her home straight away, but he stayed behind to finish some business. It was an ugly business and his daughter had already seen too many horrors for one night. So Maggie left, but not before freeing the rabbit from his cage, as well as the sheep who had shown her such kindness.

Accompanied by her animal friends, Maggie followed the glowing white lilies all the way to her father’s doorstep. But the father did not start home until he had put an arrow through the eye of every last one of the foul creatures who slept at the witch’s table. The sun was high before he returned home again and found his daughter fast asleep by the hearth. When she woke and saw Jon Jon was not with her father, she knew her brother was lost forever. But the father and daughter lived a long, happy life together. In time, Maggie learned to speak with the woodland creatures and she would wander the wood, day or night, without fear. So long as there was moonlight, she knew the glowing lily blossoms would guide her home.


Ryan Shane Lopez is an English teacher with an MFA in fiction from Texas State University. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Hypnopomp, Deep Overstock, Porter House Review, Lunate, Fudoki, Patheos, Bodega, and The Bookends Review. He lives in Texas with his wife, Hannah, and their two daughters.

Author's note

My first attempt at blending a classic fairy tale with a Christian parable was a kind of happy accident. In fall of 2018, during an MFA workshop with the amazing Karen Russell, I was assigned a short ghost story. I’ve personally never cared for ghost stories, so I immediately began to brainstorm a unique angle on the prompt. Considering my characteristic spiritual influences, I found myself leaning toward a demon possession story. This brought to mind the Parable of the Empty House, that odd cautionary tale of a demon who is cast out only to return with a gang of seven demon buddies. Some free associative leaps landed me on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Dwarves. That was the light bulb moment: What if instead of dwarves, Snow White stumbled upon seven demons? From there, my creative neurons began firing on all cylinders. In less than a month, "Party of Eight" appeared in issue 6 of Hypnopomp. Later, I decided to test out more fairy tale/parable mash ups and began systematically working through which ones might make the most intriguing combinations, including nearly all of the parables and both famous and lesser-known fairy tales, such as Jack and the Bean Stalk, Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Pied Piper, Hans-My-Hedgehog, and Puss-In-Boots. As much as I enjoyed writing this series, I feared the first piece had been a fluke and I would never find another journal willing to publish one of these niche little chimeras. "Four Nights Found" (Hansel and Gretel meets the Parable of the Sower and others) is now my sixth retelling to be published and I'm delighted it's found a home with Carmina.