Oil lamps lit the kitchen, flickering off the white walls and dark wood cabinets. The warm oven chased away cold drafts that crept in through the cracks of the door and windows. The girls buttered and floured the cake pans and waited for Frau Hilda to pour the batter. Frau Hilda slipped the cake pans into the oven while the girls pumped water and boiled it on the stove to wash the bowls and spoons. When they were finished, Frau Hilda said, “Up to bed with you. The cake will be much too fine for little orphan girls, and you have chores to do in the morning. You’ve been underfoot long enough. Go to sleep.”
Lily looked longingly at the oven and inhaled the sweet, rich aroma of the cake until Gretel pushed her toward the stairs that led to their tiny loft.
“Did Mother ever bake us a cake?” Lily asked her sister once they were in their room.
“Each year, on our birthday,” Gretel said. “But you were too young to remember.”
“How old was I when Mother died?” Lily asked.
Gretel sighed and went to the small, round window at the top end of the attic. She carried a small wooden crate that she used as a table and placed it on the floor to stand on. It made her high enough, she could look out at the fields. A full moon lit the snow-covered ground and she saw Rusty tied to a heavy stake in the meadow. Lily came to join her, standing on tiptoe to see.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she complained.
“We’ve lived with the Schlegels for three years,” Gretel said. “You were five when Mother died.” Gretel didn’t like to think about her mother’s illness, the terrible coughing that racked her body and the rainy day that the villagers lowered her wooden coffin into the ground.
“How old were you?” Lily asked.
“Seven.” Gretel remembered that awful day all too well. Aunt Nelly had told each girl to grab a handful of dirt to toss on the coffin. Then the men began to fill the hole, throwing shovelfuls of earth on the wooden box. Gretel wanted to stay and watch, but Aunt Nelly pulled her and Lily away. “We have business to attend to.”
“Your mother asked Uncle Martin and me to take you in, to give you a home, but we can barely keep a roof over our own heads.”
Gretel frowned, trying to understand. Her uncle Martin owned the bakery where her mother had worked before she became too ill. Once a day, while Mother lay coughing in her bed, Gretel’s Aunt Nelly came to their room with two loaves of bread, one for their mother and one for the girls.
“Mother worked for you,” Gretel said. “Lily and I would work hard, too.”
Aunt Nelly sighed. “I have two sons of my own. They’ll be all the help we need. But don’t worry. I’ve found someone who will care for you. Mind you, though, Frau Schlegel doesn’t run a charity ward. She’ll expect you to earn your board and keep.” And she marched the girls out of town to the farm at the edge of the forest and gave them to Frau Hilda. “You’re in her care now,” she warned them. “Your mother asked everyone in town to take you in, but no one could help. Now, do your best.”
That was three years ago. Three hard years.
“Do you think we were lucky Frau Hilda took us in?” Lily asked Gretel.
“We were lucky when Mother and Father were alive. Now we have to do our best to keep a roof over our heads.”
Lily thought about that. She looked at the frost coating the edge of the attic window and drew a narrow candle with her finger. “So Mother baked five cakes for me?” Lily asked, her voice wistful and sad.
Gretel put a hand on Lily’s shoulder. “Mother and Father were poor, but they loved us very much. Father carved little wooden figures for us to play with and gave them to us as surprises. And Mother would make fritters and dust them with sugar for special treats.”
Lily blinked and wiped a hand across her eyes. Gretel had to blink back tears, too. But she was too old to cry. Tears were for children. She was old enough to know that life was hard, but you had to endure. She shivered and pulled her blanket off the bed and wrapped it around herself and Lily: then they stood looking out the window again.
The moon was nearly a perfect circle and shone brightly on the snowy ground below. Lily leaned her head against Gretel’s shoulder, and soon her breathing was smooth and even. Gretel knew that she should go to bed and sleep, too. But she couldn’t. She’d be tired in the morning, and her chores would be doubly hard, but she was too worried to rest. Still, she must have nodded off, because a shout jerked her awake. It woke Lily, too.
“Wake up, man! The wind’s shifted. He has your scent.”
The girls watched as a bear lumbered across the clearing, running so fast that Otto Gerhard could hardly spring to his feet and fire his gun before the beast was upon him. Otto screamed in pain. “Help me!”
A shot came from a man on his left. The bear’s body spasmed when the bullet hit, and the beast staggered back a few steps. Then another shot rang out from a hunter on its right. The bear shook its great, furry head, took four more steps, then fell to the ground.
Some of the men ran to help Otto. Gustav and a few others ran to look at the bear. Their voices were raised as they shouted to one another, loud enough to carry in the crisp winter air, so that the girls could hear.
“This can’t be the bear we were after. It’s too small. Not nearly big enough to rip the doors off the barn.”
“It must be a young bear. Maybe a cub.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Gustav said. “One less bear is one more blessing for us.”
“What if its mother is the killer bear? Won’t she be mad?”
“Who cares? If we can kill one bear, we can kill every bear,” Gustav boasted.
Three men helped Otto to his feet and began to drag him toward the house. His left leg hung limply, his foot dragging in the snow, leaving a dark trail in the white blanket that covered the earth.
“I’ll go fetch the doctor,” Hans Ulbricht said. “The bear bit Otto’s shoulder and scratched right through his leather coat.”
“The fool should have fired sooner,” Gustav complained. “Now he won’t be fit for work until he heals.”
One of the men laughed. “You know what your wife will say. If he’s too sick to work, he’s too sick to eat.”
The others laughed with him as they dragged Otto into the house. But the man was wrong. Otto would never work again.