Chapter 1--Frau Hilda's
The first hint of dawn broke the darkness of the attic bedroom. Gretel woke. “Lily, get up. We have to start our chores.”
Lily groaned and pulled her wool blanket closer. The attic was cold. The chimney of the stone cottage ran through its center, but the stones gave only enough warmth to keep the cramped space from freezing.
“I want to stay under my blankets.” Lily’s breath turned to white mist as she spoke.
“You know Frau Hilda’s rule. If we’re too sick to work, we’re too sick to eat.” Gretel scurried from her feather bed and hurried into her clothes. “The first rays of sun will be over the horizon soon. Gustav will be angry if we’re late getting to the barn.”
Lily pushed herself to her feet and ran to pull on her wool dress and heavy socks. Shivering, she followed her older sister down he wooden steps that led to the front room of the farmer’s cottage.
The girls crept across the wooden floor to the kitchen, pulled on their coats, scarves, and mittens, then stepped out the backdoor into the cold winter morning. A wind swept over the snowy ground. Gretel pulled her coat closer, leaning into the gusts. She went halfway down the path to the barn until she stopped so suddenly that Lily bumped into her.
“What is it?” Lil peeked around her sister to look.
The fence in front of the barnyard lay splintered on the ground. The heavy oak barn doors swung open, hanging loosely on bent hinges. Worst, the bloody carcasses of sheep were strewn across the barn’s dirt floor.
Gretel took a few more steps forward. She glanced into the stalls on the far side of the barn. The goats bleated, ready to be milked. The horse neighed and pawed the ground nervously. Gretel ran outside and circled behind the barn. Chickens clucked from the wooden nests protected by its stone wall. If the chickens were safe, the ducks were probably all right, too.
“We have to wake Herr Gustav.” Gretel started to the house. “Then we can milk the goasts.”
The girls retraced their steps.
“He’s not going to be happy,” Lily whimpered. “He’s going to be mad at us.”
The girls had learned from experience that when anything went wrong on the farm, they were always to blame.
Gretel wrapped an arm around her sister. “We’ll probably be punished. Maybe for a long time. He’ll be really angry this time. But at least we have a roof over our heads.”
They’d heard that phrase from the time of their father’s death. First, their mother said it when she worked long hours at the bakery to care for them. Then when she got so sick that she coughed up blood and died, they heard it from the Schlegels when the farmer and his wife agreed to give them room and board in exchange for help on the farm.
“It’s a hard life,” Frau Hilda often told them, “but no one said we should have it easy.”
The hard work didn’t bother the girls. Their parents were poor, and they’d done their best to help their mother with the chores. But the Schlegels not only gave them every tedious task to do, but they were never pleased with their work. Either Frau Hilda insisted that they were lazy and didn’t do enough or Herr Gustav swore that their work was only mediocre.
The girls entered the house and knocked on the closed bedroom door of the farmer and his wife.
“What is it?” Herr Gustav barked. “It’s not even light yet.”
“The bear!” Gretel called. “It knocked down the barn door. There are dead sheep.”
Curses came from the far side of the door. Feet stomped across the room and the door was flung wide. “Show me,” Herr Gustav growled, buttoning his shirt as he followed the girls through the cottage.
The farmer grabbed his coat off the hook at the kitchen door and shoved ahead of the girls into the yard. He, too, stopped at the sight in front of him. “Demon beast!” he said. “Stronger than a dozen men. The barn doors should have kept anything out. He’s not a normal bear. He’s sent from the underworld to torment us.”
The girls hugged each other, frightened by his words.
“Don’t just stand there, lazy creatures. The goats still need to be milked. Get busy.”
The girls skirted the pool of blood at the barn’s entrance and inched to the stables that held the goats.
“There are eggs to be gathered, too,” the farmer yelled. “And a fire to be started in the stove, water to be pumped, and a kettle to be put on. The later you start your chores, the longer your work day.”
The girls didn’t need to hear more.
“He’s too angry to punish us,” Lily whispered as they grabbed their stools and began milking.
“If we don’t make any noise and keep busy, maybe he’ll forget about us,” Gretel said.
After they set the milk inside the kitchen door, they hurried to collect the hen and duck eggs. As they walked to the chicken coop behind the stone barn, they saw giant paw prints in the snow that led to the barn and back again to the woods.
Flat fields surrounded the farmyard, but gave way to hills in the distance. The hills peaked into stony slopes and steep cliffs. Trees were scattered at the base of the hills, growing thicker halfway up. The trees got thicker until they clumped together into a dark, tangled forest.
“Look how big the tracks are.” Gretel pointed.
Lily shivered. “Papa always said that there were dangerous animals in the woods.”
“Don’t be silly,” Gretel told her. “There’s nothing that would bother that bear. He must be huge.”
“Not right now. But he will be again soon.”
Lily looked at the tracks. “Does the bear only come out at night?”
“So far. He killed Farmer Hebbel’s cow three nights ago, and Farmer Kleist’s workhorse a week before that. I heard Frau Hilda talking to her husband while we cleaned the kitchen one night.”
“The bear doesn’t eat people, does it?” Lily rubbed her arms.
Gretel grew serious in thought. “Not yet. But he’s awfully hungry. Who knows what will happen when he gets hungry and there’s a person around?”
Lily finished collecting eggs in a hurry. “I’d rather spend as much time inside as we can.”
“So would I.” Gretel tugged her coat tighter. “It’s so cold. Maybe that’s why the bear came.”
But the girls were wrong. And they’d learn that over supper that evening.