Authors: Eowyn Ivey
“Heat up a pan, dear,” she said over her shoulder to Mabel. “We’ll have some of this with dinner. Fresh like this, there’s nothing better than moose heart.”
Before Mabel could think or move, Esther had a cast-iron pan heating on the woodstove. “Hand me one of those onions, will you? I’ll cut one up to throw in the pan.”
The next hour was a blur to Mabel, her head swimming in the smell of frying meat and onions and the noise of boisterous talking. Someone must have mashed the boiled potatoes. Someone must have put out the bread and sliced carrots and opened a jar of onion relish. Before she understood all that had happened, they were crowded at the table, Garrett with his plate on his lap, and Mabel was cutting a piece of moose heart with a steak knife and taking her first bite.
“Tasty, isn’t it?” Esther asked.
Mabel nodded and chewed and tried not to think about the muscle contracting and beating inside a moose’s rib cage. She tasted seared flesh and blood like copper, and it wasn’t as awful as she had feared.
As the talk dwindled and everyone finished their meals, Esther looked across the table and said, “Weren’t you getting ready to tell me something? When George came busting through the door?”
“Oh, I can’t recall just now.”
“We were saying something about the fox…”
Mabel was flustered.
“I did mean to ask you… but it can wait until later,” she said.
“Oh, no one’s paying any attention. Out with it, then.” Esther waved impatiently. Mabel saw she was right, the men were telling hunting stories and oblivious to them.
“Well, I did mean to ask—do you know if there’s a little girl living anywhere near our place? A little blonde girl?”
“A little girl? Let me think. There are only a few families in the valley right now. Most of the homesteads are run by single men who struck out with gold and such. The Wrights have a couple of girls, but they’re redheads. Curly red hair, and cheeks like little apples. And they’re nowhere near here. They’re more the other side of us. Out your way here, well, there are a couple of Indian camps up the river, but they’re usually there only in the summer, when the salmon are running. And, of course, there’s not a single blonde among them.”
Esther rose and began gathering the dishes and stacking them on the table. The men paused in their conversation to hand her silverware and knives, but went back to their talk.
“The reason I ask,” Mabel said, leaning toward Esther and speaking quietly, “is we had a child on our place the other night. Jack got up in the middle of the night and he saw a girl run through the trees. The next morning—we had built this little snowman, well, a little snow girl, actually—and it was knocked over and the scarf and mittens were gone. It sounds silly, but I think the child must have done it. It’s not that I mind, really. I would have given them to her if she needed them so. I’m just worried she was lost or something. Imagine, a little girl out in the woods in winter like that.”
Esther stopped gathering the dishes and focused on Mabel. “Here, at your place, you’re saying? You saw a little blonde child just sprinting about?”
“Yes. Isn’t that odd?”
“You’re sure about that? Sure it wasn’t just an animal or something?”
“No, I’m certain. We even saw her tracks. Jack tried to follow them for a while, but they just went around and around in the woods. Then the other day I saw her, in the trees beyond the barn.”
“That’s the dardnest thing. I mean there’s the Wright girls, but that’s a good ten miles off, probably more…” Esther’s voice trailed off as she sat down. Then she looked across the table into Mabel’s eyes and smiled gently.
“I don’t mean to speak out of turn, Mabel, but this isn’t an easy place to get along. The winters are long, and sometimes it starts to get to you. Around here, they call it cabin fever. You get down in the dumps, everything’s off kilter and sometimes your mind starts playing tricks on you.” Esther reached across the table and put a hand over Mabel’s. “You start seeing things that you’re afraid of… or things you’ve always wished for.”
Mabel let Esther hold her hand for a moment, but then pulled away.
“No, you don’t understand. We saw her. And we both saw the tracks, and the mittens and scarf are gone.”
“Maybe it was an animal, or the wind. All sorts of explanations.”
The men had stopped talking. They were all looking at her.
“It’s true. Isn’t it, Jack? We saw her. In her little blue coat.”
Jack shifted in his chair and shrugged. “It could have been anything,” he said.
“No. No.” Mabel was angry. “It was a little girl. You saw her, too. And there were her footprints in the snow.”
“Well, maybe you could show us the tracks,” Esther said. “Garrett here is a good tracker. He’d be able to tell something.”
Mabel wanted to yell or cry, but she spoke each word carefully.
“The tracks are gone. The blizzard last week covered them all.”
“Blizzard? It hasn’t snowed in—” Esther stopped and pinched her lips together.
Mabel stood and took the dishes to the counter, glad to be free of the table. Jack avoided her eyes as he went to the woodstove and added another log. She busied herself with dessert—sourdough biscuits topped with Esther’s homemade jam. As Mabel worked, Esther came up behind her and gently squeezed her elbow. It was an expression of friendship and sympathy, but it left Mabel miserable.
Soon the cabin was again full of lighthearted talk about the seasons, working the land, and storing food for the winter. George and Esther had Jack and the boys laughing with their wild stories of ill-mannered black bears, outhouse pranks, and stubborn horses. No one talked about the little girl, or the footprints that had vanished in the snow.
Darkness settled around the cabin, and Mabel glanced out the window occasionally with the thought that she might see the child, but there was only her own reflection in the lamplight.
ack started with a biscuit, one of Mabel’s sourdough biscuits.
He had risen early to haul the meat home in the wagon, and after he’d hung it from a beam in the barn and put away the horse, he went in for lunch. When Mabel wasn’t watching, he slipped a biscuit in his pocket and told her he was going out to work in the barn. Instead he went to the edge of the woods.
It seemed wrong to bait a child this way. As a boy he had enticed deer and raccoons with morsels of food, and his long patience often paid off. He once had a doe take a carrot right from his fingers before it fled to the trees. He never forgot the moment, after what seemed like hours of crouching and waiting, when the doe bent her long neck down to him and took the carrot. He’d felt the touch of her soft muzzle on his fingers.
He dusted the snow from a stump and set the biscuit down, wondering if the same curiosity was driving him. The child was not a raccoon to bait and trap. He worried about her. He’d felt foolish to admit it in front of the Bensons, but the little girl had come again and again to their homestead, and he did not know what brought her. Maybe she was in need but too shy or too frightened to knock on their door. Perhaps she was lonely and sought only companionship, but maybe it was something more urgent. Shelter. Clothing. Food. Help of some kind. The thought preoccupied him, and so he reached out to her the only way he knew how. For the next several hours, Jack worked outdoors, stacking wood and shoveling paths. All the while he watched out of the corner of his eye, but the biscuit went untouched and the forest remained quiet.
The next morning, he saw where tracks approached the stump, wove this way and that where the girl must have hidden behind a spruce tree, a bush. The biscuit remained on the stump.
That evening, he searched the cabin, looking for other possible bait. He picked up tins and opened boxes until Mabel finally asked what he was up to.
“Nothing,” he mumbled, guilty with his lie. She would disapprove of his efforts, or make suggestions of her own, but he must do it his own way. As a youngster, he had never had a deer or wild bird come within reach when his friends were milling about.
More than that, talk of the child seemed to upset Mabel. She had some spirit these days and a brightness in her eyes that eased Jack’s heart. The time she spent with Esther was good. But whenever they discussed the little girl, she became agitated. He often caught her looking out the window.
The same traits that as a young woman had made her so alluring now made her seem unwell. She was imaginative and quietly independent, but over the years this had settled into a grave melancholy that worried him. Until he knew more about this little girl and her situation, he felt it best to keep it under his hat.
When the sourdough biscuit, bits of peppermint candy from town, even a piece of one of Mabel’s pies that Jack had pilfered, had all failed, he was at a loss for what to try next. He thought back to the scarf and mittens the girl had taken and wondered if she was cold and in need of more clothes. His brief glimpses of her made him doubt this. She seemed at home in the snow in her furs and wool.
Then, on a trip to town, he saw a miniature porcelain doll on a shelf in the general store. The doll had long, straight blond hair, not unlike the girl’s, and it wore the brightly colored dress of a European villager, perhaps Swedish or Dutch. It was too much money for something so frivolous, but he ignored his conscience, bought it on credit, and hid it in his coat pocket. When he got home, he found he couldn’t wait until the next morning, so although it was after dark, he took it with him when he went to feed and water the animals.
He brought the lantern from the barn and walked to the stump where the other offerings had gone untouched. He took the doll from his pocket. Maybe he and Mabel had truly lost their minds. Cabin fever—wasn’t that what Esther called it?
Jack raised his voice to the cold night and called out as gently as he could manage.
“This is for you. Are you out there?”
His voice was soft and croaky. He cleared his throat, and called out again.
“I don’t know if you’re out there or if you can hear me, but we want you to have this. Just something I picked up in town. Well, then, good night.”
He hoped he might see her, or hear a birdsong from the trees, but there was only the cold and dark. He shifted from one foot to the other, shoved a hand into his coat pocket, and at last turned his back, leaving the porcelain doll propped in the snow on the stump.
When he returned to the cabin, Mabel had warmed water on the stove for him to wash. Steam rose as she poured the water into a basin. Jack took off his shirt, put a towel over his shoulders, splashed water onto his face, and soaped up his beard. Behind him he could hear Mabel bustling in the kitchen.
“Oh,” she said quietly.
Jack brought his head up from the basin and wiped his face with the towel.
“What is it?”
“The window. Do you see?”
As they watched, thick frost unfurled in feathers and swirls across the glass, slowly spreading from the center toward the corners. Lacy white vines grew in twists and loops and icy flowers blossomed. Within seconds the window that had been clear glass was covered in patterns of overlaying frost like fine etching.
“Maybe it’s from the steam,” Mabel said in a near whisper. She pressed the palm of her hand against the glass, and her warm skin melted the ice. She curled a fist, rubbed a small circle in the center of the window, and looked through.
“Oh. Oh,” she gasped and leaned closer.
“What, Mabel? What is it?”
“It’s her.” She turned, her hand at her throat. “Her little face, right there in our window. She had fur all around her head, like a wild animal.”
“It’s her hat. Her marten hat, with the flaps tied under her chin.”
“But she’s there now. Go look.”
“She runs fast, even on the snow,” he said, but Mabel was handing him his boots and coat and opening the door.
When he stepped outside, his wet beard and hair stiffened with ice. He walked around the side of the cabin but saw only what he expected—snow and trees and night. The child was gone.