All the Hansels and All the Gretels

By Stephen Ornes

One day, I meet someone on the street who says she knows something about time, how it starts and stops, and how in the moment before a decision, reality is a fork. “When I make a decision,” she says, “I choose a path and forego all others.” She says she knows about parallax and quantum tunneling and simultaneity and of the infinitude of universes—and the infinitudes of that infinitude.   

I don’t run away, but I don’t give her any money and I keep my distance, just in case.

Hansel and Gretel, she tells me, hopscotch to their satisfying end like a lightning strike zig-zagging down from the clouds on invisible electric steps. Natural and forceful, but purposeful and somehow right. It’s the only way we can remember stories, she says, with pieces fitting together neatly and following the rules of behavior and decorum.

That’s not the only way the story happens, not in those other universes.

In one of the universes I don’t live in, the woodcutter makes plenty of dough and no one winds up in an oven. There’s one in which the man’s wife doesn’t die; or the children’s stepmother doesn’t hate children; or she does, but she seethes alone and never acts on it. Eventually, her bile consumes her from the inside out.

In one universe, far away from here, the cranky old woman never takes up residence in an old cottage, never decorates with gingerbread.

“Others are grisly,” the woman tells me. She talks about the one where a bear devours the abandoned children under a full moon. In another, the bear gobbles up Hansel, leaving Gretel to wander alone in madness, wondering Why me? And vice-versa. There’s one where the children are deranged, where they misunderstand the crone’s intentions. They’re tried for murder but hang themselves before the sentencing. There’s one, mostly like the original, where the old lady just can’t get the damn fire started and runs out of matches. Gretel runs for help, but then she can’t find the cottage again and never saves her brother, whom she left in the cage.

“Again with the mad wandering,” says the soapbox, street-level pseudophysicist as she shakes her mop of hair.

She says we’d never remember the damned siblings if they hadn’t won in the end. “Sure, sure,” she says, flapping her hands, as if she’s reciting something, “day to day, we devour the savory details and illogic of local news stories, devoid of sense, but those stories don’t stick. It’s only the ones with a sensical ending that we tell to our children, and they to theirs, and so on and so forth to the infinitudes of time.

“What’s the probability,” she rasps, bringing it home, “that the story happens the way you know it? It’s so close to zero that it might as well be zero.

“So there,” she says. “Your damned Hansel and Gretel is impossible. Gimme a dollar, already.”

Stephen Ornes has written about the mathematics of pizza slicing for New Scientist, wildly tilting exoplanets for Discover, and skin electronic systems for Science News for Kids. His non-science nonfiction has appeared in the New Haven Review, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Arcadia and One Story. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.