Gretel didn’t know how long the animals howled. She and Lily couldn’t stay awake any longer. The attic was so dark, she carried the lantern to their beds and didn’t turn it down until she tucked Lily in and crawled under her own blanket. She woke once during the night to the sound of wings fluttering past the window. The room was so pitch-black, she had to look for the tiny glow of light from the lantern on the box beside her bed. Even then, she could see nothing else. The deep blackness sucked the light away inches outside the glass globe. Gretel didn’t wake again until she heard Frau Hilda’s voice screaming up to them.
“Lazy creatures! Do you know what time it is? You should have been up and moving hours ago.”
Gretel blinked. “But it’s still dark!”
If it was morning, no sunlight greeted them.
“Of course, it’s dark, dolt. The clouds have blocked the sun. But it’s nearly nine o’clock. Only princesses get to sleep so late. Get dressed and hurry to the barn.”
Gretel had to turn up the wick on the lantern so that she and Lily could see to dress. How could it possibly be nine in the morning and still be this black?
Lily grabbed the back of Gretel’s dress to follow her down the steep steps while Gretel held the lantern in front of them. The fireplace was lit in the great room, and every lamp was flickering, but the room was mired in murkiness.
“Are you sure it’s day time?” Lily asked as they put on their coats and stepped outside. It was darker than night. Even the white snow was smothered in shadows.
“It must be,” Gretel said. “Frau Hilda said so.”
“Frau Hilda tells lies,” Lily said.
“No, she doesn’t.”
Lily’s face pinched in concentration. “All right, maybe she doesn’t tell lies, but she doesn’t exactly tell the truth either.”
Gretel nodded. She knew what Lily meant. Frau Hilda had a knack of making things seem different from what they really were. It wasn’t anything she said. It was more about what she didn’t say.
“Maybe she sent us out here in the dark so that one of the wild animals could eat us,” Lily said.
The girls made their way down the path that led to the barn.
“Frau Hilda’s too lazy and spoiled to get rid of free help,” said Gretel. “Who’d do all of the chores that she doesn’t like?”
“Exactly. If she didn’t have us, she’d have to milk the goats and gather the eggs herself.”
“And wash the clothes and mend them.”
Gretel nodded. She raised the lantern a little higher so that they could see a little better. “And what does Frau Hilda have to do for us?”
Lily responded in a singsong voice. “She keeps a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.”
“No more food than she has to,” Gretel said.
“And she makes you one new dress each spring and a wool dress for winter, then gives me your old dresses,” said Lily.
“See?” asked Gretel. “Who could she hire for two dresses and a pair of shoes each year, plus the scraps left in the kitchen? I think we’re safe.”
Lily sighed. The barn had to be in front of them, but they couldn’t see it. All they could do was follow the path. “When I grow up, I’m going to marry a rich husband and have everything I want.”
“Be careful,” Gretel warned. “Frau Hilda always says that she married Herr Gustav because he was a man of action. Look where it got her.”
The door to the barn loomed before them. Gretel pushed up the wooden bar that locked them and shoved the doors with her shoulder. When the doors parted, the girls entered the deeper darkness of the barn.
Rusty bleated from the back stalls. The three other goats joined her.
“Poor things,” Gretel said. “They must be scared. They heard all of the wild animals last night, and the bear already killed all of the sheep. Now, there’s no light.”
Lily went to the black goat in the last stall. She petted its face and talked softly to it. “I hope the bear hates goat meat.”
“I think the bear hates Herr Gustav,” said Gretel.
“Maybe if he goes into the woods to hunt it again, the bear will eat him.”
The girls laughed in unison. They hadn’t laughed this often in a long time…maybe since their mother died. But things were so crazy lately that it made some of their usual worries and fears seem silly.
They fed the goats, then pulled up the stools to milk them. When they finished, their pails were far from full. When they went to the chicken coop, they scattered feed in the trough. The hens didn’t come, but clucked nervously. Not one had laid an egg. Neither had the ducks.
The girls carted their meager offerings to the kitchen.
“The hens won’t lay without sunlight,” Herr Gustav said.
“The goats won’t make much milk either,” Frau Hilda added.
They all looked out the window at the thick layers of clouds that blotted any brightness from the sky.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Herr Gustav said. “The animals have cursed us.”
“They’re just animals,” Frau Hilda said, correcting him. But she didn’t sound very convinced.