It was a cold, miserable January. In the tiny cottage, they constantly had a fire going and wore so many layers it was sometimes hard to move. It snowed so much that some days they didn’t bother leaving home, as it would be too much work to shovel free the doorway. Luckily they had plenty of firewood stored inside, Edward had made sure of that before he had made the long trek to the nearby village, just after Christmas. They hadn’t seen or heard from him since. Nellie suspected he would be stuck in the village until the worst of the snowstorms had passed, but there was no way of telling when that would be. She was alone with the children until then, and they were so isolated sometimes it seemed like they could have been the only people left in the world.
Every morning, Nellie went to the pantry to look at the food they had left. There wasn’t much, some canned fruit, dried meat, bags of flour and barley, dried herbs, and a few tiny onions and potatoes. Every day, she tried to make some sort of meal for her family. But as the days passed and she ran out of options, they started to have stew again and again. Plain stew with chunks of tough meat, barley, and herbs. Sometimes Albert, the oldest son, would try to go hunting with little success. Nellie wasn’t sure what to do.
On the first of February, she had an idea. She sent Clara, Ethel and Walter to go play in the barn, where they would have room to run around. She sent Albert out hunting. She filled a pot with snow and set it to melt on the stove. She cut up one onion and one potato, sprinkled them with herbs and dropped them into the pot along with some barley. She made sure the fire was stable before bundling up and heading outside.
That evening they had a delicious stew with fresh meat. When Clara, Ethel and Walter asked where Albert was, Nellie explained that he had gone to the village to meet up with their father and help him make the trip home. She told the children that Albert had managed to kill a deer before he left, and they would have plenty of food to last until the snow storms passed.
But the food didn’t last as long as Nellie thought and she had to come up with something else to feed her children. She left Ethel and Walter with instructions to tend to the fire, and she took Clara down to the lake to try ice fishing.
It was dark when Nellie returned to the cottage. She was soaking wet and sobbing. It took quite a while for her to calm down enough to tell Ethel and Walter what had happened. They had had no luck ice fishing, but Clara had seen a rabbit and accidentally chased it onto the ice. She had fallen through and been quickly pulled away. Finally, Nellie collected herself enough to get up and make dinner. It was stew.
They ate well for a while. Nellie used what was left of the dried meat and went out every day to find more rabbits. But eventually that source of food ran out as well, and Nellie was forced to get creative again. She told Ethel and Walter to go search the woods for more food while she tried to cobble something together with the food they had left.
Walter came back around noon with a handful of shrivelled berries. When the sun set and there was no sign of Ethel, Nellie went out searching for her. She looked for hours but couldn’t find her daughter. She returned to the house distraught, just as she had been when Clara went missing. It was lucky, however, that she had found a deer which had died in the woods, and she managed to make some food for herself and Walter.
When the weather finally started to get better, Edward made his way home. He had been trying to find ways home, knowing that his family didn’t have enough food, but the snow storms had been too bad. When the little cottage came into view, Edward was relieved to see smoke coming from the chimney.
The snow was still deep around the cottage. He used his snowshoes as make-shift shovels to clear the doorway. The wood was stiff and frozen, and he threw all of his weight against it until it swung open and he almost tumbled into the cottage. There, sitting on her rocking chair, was Nellie. She was holding a bundle of blankets, and Edward could see a small hand sticking out of the folds.
“Walter?” he asked. He felt like his heart was freezing.
Nellie nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I tried to save him.”
Edward glanced around the room, looking for his other children. “Al and the girls?”
“In the barn.”
Edward ran outside. He didn’t put his snowshoes back on, but waded through the deep snow as quickly as he could. At the bar, he reached for the key he wore on a leather cord around his neck. Nellie had the only other key. He unlocked the door and had to force it open like he had the cottage’s door. He froze.
His children weren’t inside. At least not how he’d expected. There were bones spread out on the work table, stripped clean of any remaining fresh. In a daze, Edward walked closer to the table. Some of the bones had been sawed through, and they were all covered in knife marks.
Edward looked up. On the shelf were three heads, dried and frozen. Edward quickly looked away, his whole body shaking with horror.
Nellie had tried to save Walter.
Edward grabbed the largest knife on the table, and walked back to the cottage.