Older brother cut a hole center of a pink-flowered quilt.
“Zip up yer coat. Put yer head through.”
She dropped the old naked doll dancing in her hands.
“Hold still.” He tied the loose material round her waist with twine.
Cut holes at the shoulders.
Guided her little arms through.
A ragged hem he sliced above her denim ankles.
“Where we goin?”
“Ya know where.”
“Yes.” He grunted while trying to pack too much foot into too little boot.
“But it’s been—” She put a dirty finger to her gaunt face and cocked those yellowed eyes up to the low tin ceiling. “How many it’s been?”
“Ten.” He spoke absently, tying his boots and reaching for the broken zipper on his coat. “Ten days.”
“I know it.”
“Get yer hat and mittens.”
He checked the knots on his fishing pole and loaded one of the last three shells in the shotgun and peered through a crack in the plywood for a long time before fighting snowdrift with shoulder into bright crackling cold.
Didn’t notice his lungs burning until she started coughing. He paced a circle round the shack, eyes searching. Rabbit tracks and birdie feet.
“Good-good.” He cleared off the flattened aluminum trashcan leaning near the door. “Get on.”
Tethered himself to the dozen feet of dog chain bolted to the upturned bottom of the can.
“Here.” He handed over the shotgun and pole. Heels together to cradle the stock and handle, she rested them over a shoulder.
“Remember,” putting a burlap-wrapped hand to his lips, “shh.”
“Like a mouse?” She wrinkled her nose and bared her brown top teeth.
Slow and sure, the two-legged steamer trudged into midday through unending hummock and hollow of sparkling powder. Depths, ankle to waist, in concert with tree cover.
“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.” He whispered his way, stopping to eye the little lifeboat floating behind. She waved. He listened, hoping most for silence on the wind, and the strength for another twenty steps.
Wood smoke: not flesh; not petrol. House the edge of the forest vacant these past years. He stood on a knee-high stump and closed one eye. Orange brick spouting lazy cotton plume.
Whispered to himself “Go around.” But he knew what that meant.
“To the fishies?”
“Yeah. We have to go around.”
“Someone’s in the house.”
Her look of terror gave him prickly sweats. Opened his coat and took her hand. “Prolly just a hunter resting up. But we’re extra careful. Right?”
He brushed snow out the sled and off her back and squeezed her hand.
“Maybe it papa.”
He looked at the house for a long while, then at the girl. And going back to the stump and squinting at the shimmering roof he swore.
Sun wasn’t quite overhead. Time enough to make the stream and home before dark. If they didn’t go around. Still he balanced on the remnants of what must have been a grand oak. She hummed quietly, but above that the groans of his own belly folding in on itself. Tried to figure how many bowls of soup a lost hunter might supply. Even a decent trout was only good for a couple days.
“No.” He shook his head so hard he lost balance and had to jump down. Leaned against the stump and mouthed abomination. Dad said they’d never, no matter how bad things got. But he was gone.
An hour? Two? They were now north of noon. His legs burned, back ached. Sat panting on the front of the sled, threadbare boots jutting from the tree line.
Windows still boarded. No tracks from this side. Tattered dress flitted on the clothesline. Flowers bleached away.
He whispered Mama.
After a good rest, he got up and took the gun and checked the breach for the shell he could not afford to waste on a drifter.
“You can walk now. Stay right behind.”
They quick-stepped across the yard and rested against the crumbling pressboard and crept to the porch.
Drag marks, splashed crimson and pink. Door open a crack and swaying. White panels smeared red all around the knob. Tug on the back of his coat. He spun around with the rifle raised.
Her eyes never left the path. “I wanna go home.”
Big woods emptiness dropped away. Only hearts and icy creak of frozen step and fog of breath before them.
Empty front room glowed with daylight.
Trail across gray carpet dried the color of brown brick.
On the white kitchen linoleum, body of a large doe, snowy tail lit among camel fur.
Stink of wet dog and urine.
Rest of the house was dark as the door would allow but he could see silhouettes of feet, one bare, in the dining room archway.
Dull firelight shadows swayed. Ankle a swollen mess.
He aimed and waited.
She tugged again on his coat. “Help him.”
He tried to remember the last time he tasted venison stew.
“What if him’s bad?” he said, mocking the girl.
“But what if him’s not?”
The wind picked up and slammed the door, blinding them.
He leaned the gun against a wall and unwrapped his hands and knelt. “Get a pot from the kitchen. Fill it with snow.”
She stared into one room, then the other.
“Hurry hurry.” He waited until she was outside and slid a knife from his pocket and opened the blade. Walked the corner where three rooms met. Deer at his left, naked foot his right. He listened, first to winter’s breath against the house, to his own, and to the stranger’s.
On the returning whisper, the word, “Son?”