Lars nodded. “Then, we crush the heads an’ scoop the remaining soft meat from the bone.” His large iron hat resembled a cauldron with horns; in the center was an emblem that read, “Somnia Comendenti.” He clasped his hands, popping the knuckles protruding from the base of his thumbs. Flashing a smile, Lars cleared his throat and posed a question I couldn’t understand, but I nodded anyway, and his eyes curiously widened. “Well’en com’n, boy-o. The caverns sleep, the wraiths weep, but when it wakes, the wraiths will take.” Lars’s large eyes and gnarled fangs glistened in the lamplight.
I stood from our spot along the underground stream, holding the camera close to my chest; if I didn’t catch it, I’d never believe it. “So, what do you do with the meat?” I ducked, avoiding the sharp stalactite pointing down from the rocky ceiling.
“We mostly resell to butche’s. Most of us don’t dare eat the flesh o’ man; those who ‘ave, never recover their faculties. We use the proceeds to blend in wit’ ye’s.” Lars’s small frame and thick feet made it possible for him to nimbly traverse the cave floor as a cat does a living room. “Iffin’ we look human, an’ run necessary business, no one questions us; even if they’re buyin’ the flesh of their own youngen’ from our stores.”
Lars chuckled. “Aye, fascinatin’ he says- All the more reason I’ve taken a likin’ to ye, Mr. W. Imagination and curiosity are the mark of genius and wisdom.” He paused and cautiously stuck a hand back. A low, painful weep rhythmically bellowed through the damp chamber. “We best sit tight for a spell,” Lars whispered. He stood back against the cool wall of earth and jagged stone.
Following his lead, I pressed my back against the cavern and sat down, listening to the weeping. My chest began to tighten as I felt eight massive, furry fingers crawl down the side of my face and on to my chest. I tried to keep calm, but the fear slowly consumed me. Several fingers stopped above my navel and around my stomach, while the others rested at my collar. A large palm between them inhaled and exhaled; in that moment, I realized the massive hand was something much more sinister. My eyes gradually glanced down at an assortment of reflective orbs and mandibles the size of a hand-knife. Low hisses and the clicking of teeth accompanied the distant crying. Before my panic got the better of me, the cave dwelling arachnid was crushed on my cowl, and my mouth was forcefully smothered.
“Yer’ warmth is attractin’ ’em from the ceilin’. Best you stand. Sorry for tarnishin’ yer garb.”
I smiled and shrugged as Lars helped me up. I placed by hand on the lamp’s key, gently lowering the kerosene. “You can see, right?”
“Better than you know, boy-o. Even now, the ghosts of my brethren eye us.”
“Where are they?” I shivered, intently avoiding the cavern walls.
“Somethings are better left unsaid, lest ye wish to tarnish yer’ knickers, laddie.” Lars gradually inched forward as the weeping grew faint. He let out a sigh of relief. “We’re clear.”
I sighed and chuckled. “Should we-”
“Waaaaagh!” echoed through the grotto as we heard men shriek and dogs bark. Gun fire and ricochets boomed simultaneously.
“Darn fools. S’pose we weren’t the only ones ‘ere. My wager is on them bein’ human.”
“I could’ve told you that,” I responded raising the kerosene. We paused at the intersection between four paths: the one behind house and three ahead. Smoke, soot, and gunpowder wafted from the tunnel to the right.
I nodded. We walked for a spell before I heard what I’d been searching for. “If this is it, you stand to make a whole lot of money, Lars.”
Lars chuckled. “I know. Dun’ it bother ye just a wee bit?”
“Some men have traveled their whole lives for this; I don’t think I can put a premium on this discovery. Those children aren’t mine; the scuttlebutt is that my colleague keeps my wife warm when I’m on venturing on my fortnight-long expeditions. I cannot give them to you in a condition of use, but their children, like my wife and colleague, are simple and of very little consequence. The two of them are plump and should fetch a handsome penny.” I stopped. “Is tha-Is that it?”
Lars nodded. “Aye, ’tis. Any who, long as I can continue livin’ in peace, it don’t bother me none whatchya do, boy-o. S’pose you’ll be usin’ it for yer’self ‘en, huh?”
“To free myself. Forever.” I smiled when we reached the fountain. Fairies hummed and butterflies drunkenly danced over and around the stone structure. They stared at me indifferently and continued about their business. I pull out my camera and set it on a tripod. “Lars, do you mind?” I waved at him.
I drank from the fountain and Lars ran over, and I snapped our picture.
“It’s been about a month since then. And, I’ve been fattening up our trade,” I say tucking Hansel in.
Gretel smiles at me and giggles. “More, dad, more!”
“No, you kids need your sleep. Tomorrow’s a long day. If you behave, you’ll meet Lars. I promise.”
Hansel laughs. “And then he’ll eat us, right, Papa? What will you tell people when we’re gone?”
I frizz the innocent idiot’s hair. “That’s right… son,” I respond setting my camera on it’s tripod. “I’ll tell em you ran off into the woods and witch got you. Now smile, I want to preserve this moment for the rest of my life.”