They cried out like little doves, their mouths open and pink and bare.
“Please don’t leave us!”
Their wails started to tear at the edges of her heart, but she had no choice. It was either wait and starve and appease their surface level fears, or put her soft white cheek to the bitter cold and look for something to fill their stomachs. There had to be something out there, because here, they had already boiled all the spare leather shoes and they had already consumed their small house plants and eaten the cinnamon dust that had settled on in their cabinets. There was nothing else. Nothing else they could close their eyes and pretend was food, there just wasn’t anything else to hold on to, and no one was coming to save them. It was them and the relentless snow. Three little bodies in the vastness of a small forest clearing that was just big enough for a small wood cabin and a vegetable garden that had long ago been buried in white. It was so beautiful outside, clean as a cold cloud, silent as death. Each bough was covered in a line of white, but it was a cold beauty, an unforgiving beauty that had no remorse for their hunger, it would not cry for their frozen bodies. It wouldn’t even notice, and then, more snow would come, covering them up like a gravedigger. So she had to go. She had to forage while she still had a little bit of strength in her muscles, while she could still walk into the snow and have a chance of coming back. Another couple of days and it might be too late. She looked at them, tears streaking down their pale cheeks.
“I have to go, you need to eat. We can’t wait for the snow to melt, I have to go now.”
She looked out the window into the nearly solid white landscape. Her body was motionless as she imagined herself out there, snow prickling at her soft thighs as she stepped through mound after powdery mound. And then, in a sudden burst of energy that assaulted her stillness, she went to the musty closet to grab her boots and her thick socks and her mittens. In the drawer by the closet was her scarf and woolen hat and she put them on with a stoic face and a thin lipped half-smile.
“Please don’t go, who will tend the fire when you are out?”
“You’ll just have to do it, you’ll have to learn as you go. Remember, we went over this, just put small pieces of wood on when the fire is small and when it’s blazing hot, you can put in the larger logs. If the fire turns to small coals, do not smother it with a large piece of wood. It’s very important to match the pace of the fire. Understand?”
She gestured to the stacked wood by the front door.
“There’s an ax over there, next to the pile, if you need to cut some smaller pieces, just make sure not to cut a finger off if you try it.”
She smiled at her little boys. They looked at each other, both wondering if they would manage to keep the house warm while she was gone. They were desperately hungry, and they were aware of their urgent need for food, but they didn’t want her to leave. They walked arm in arm to the hearth and sat on the warm stones by its base.
“Okay now,” she said pulling on her coat, “I’m going to go, I don’t think I’ll see many animals out today, but I’m going to look, even if I have to stay out there til dark, we can’t go on like this.”
The boys looked at her, again, they cried like little doves.
One spoke up, “Can’t we wait a little longer? Maybe the snow will stop falling soon.”
“No, we’ll be skeletons by the time the sun comes out and turns this all to water. It’s the worst storm I’ve ever seen. Maybe there’ll be a deer out…they need to eat too. Everyone needs to eat. Or maybe I can find some Douglas fir and take some of their tips, at least we could make a nice tea from them.”
The boys looked at each other, they didn’t really like the sour tea their mother made. She opened the door and a terrible wind filled with echoes and chills entered the room, it danced with the flames of their hearth and threatened to smother it with its cold whip. One boy immediately turned his attention to the flames, adding a couple of small pieces of wood to the relentless red mouth.
“Here you go,” he said, “you can eat this.”
“Okay, I’m going.”
They watched her take her first step into the snow.