When Gretel walked to the barn the next morning, the men were already gathering to go into the woods. Kurt Hoffman kept pacing back and forth and volunteered to help Gretel milk the goats.
“I have to have something to do,” he said. “This waiting is driving me mad. Where’s your sister? Doesn’t she usually help you?”
Gretel nodded. “But we went into town to the meeting last night, and when we came home, all of the sheep were dead. She was too upset to go to sleep, and she’s really tired this morning.”
Kurt smiled. “So you decided to be a nice sister and do all of the work yourself and let the little girl sleep?” He put a hand on Gretel’s shoulder. “I think that’s nice.”
She blinked. It had been so long since she’d gotten a compliment, she’d forgotten how good it made her feel.
“Well, this is perfect then,” Kurt said. “You’re short-handed, and I’m antsy, so I can help you do your chores and get rid of some of my energy.”
He was as good as his word. He helped milk and gather eggs, and he pumped water until the last man arrived for the big hunt. Gretel was so fond of him by then that she laid a hand on his arm. “Here. Take this.” She reached for the kitchen knife and cut off a strand of her long, blonde hair. She threaded the lock through the button hole of his winter coat and tied it in place. “The bear knows me. I think she likes me. Maybe this will help you.”
Kurt’s brows furrowed and he said, “Frau Hilda and Herr Gustav don’t care if I come back alive. You know that, don’t you? For them, it’s all about cutting as much wood as possible and making lots of money. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’m a steady worker. That’s the only reason Gustav keeps me on. You understand that I don’t want to kill the bear, don’t you? But if I don’t go with Gustav, he’ll let me go.”
Gretel smiled and nodded. “We all have to do what is necessary to survive. I think the bear knows that.”
“The bear?” Kurt frowned. “I want YOU to understand it.”
“I understand,” Gretel said. “My mother and father were very poor. We had to make choices that were never pleasant.”
Kurt grinned. “Good. You’re only a child, but I want you to know that I try to do the right thing.”
She patted the strand of hair on his coat. “If the bear finds you, show her this.”
Kurt nodded. “Wish me luck.”
“No, I like the bear. I don’t want her killed. She’s only defending her home and loved ones. But I do wish you a safe journey.”
“Good enough.” Kurt gave a quick nod. “She you later.” And he set off with the men who were finally ready to hunt the bear.
The rest of the day dragged on forever for Gretel. Lily didn’t wake until noon, but the moment she was up, Frau Hilda had more work for the two girls than they could do. She wanted the girls to walk to their neighbor’s and trade duck eggs for cow’s milk. The walk was cold and bitter with winds tearing across the fields with such force that the girls had to lean into them to make any headway. It took them a good two hours to make the journey; then when they returned to the warmth of Frau Hilda’s kitchen, she sent them to the summer kitchen to churn the milk into butter. The open porch on the back of the house only partially protected them from the wind.
“If it’s a little chilly, all the better,” Frau Hilda told them. “The butter will be sweet and firm.”
The girls sat close to the kitchen wall, pushing the wooden stick up and down in the churn.
“I hope the milk freezes,” Lily said. “I hope it turns to a rock, and Frau Hilda breaks a tooth when tries to bite it.”
For the first time ever, Gretel said, “I hope it all curdles. I hope she ends up with sour curds.”
Lily stared. Her older sister never complained and always made the best of their situation. “Are you all right, Gretel?” she asked.
Gretel gave the wooden stick a hard plunge. “I’m fine. It’s Frau Hilda who has a problem. Her heart must be a chunk of ice. She has no kindness, no warmth. She’s the meanest person I’ve ever met.”
“And we’ve met a lot of mean people, haven’t we?” Lily asked.
“More than I’d like to think about,” Gretel said. She remembered seeing her aunt and uncle at the town meeting. When she smiled at her aunt, the woman looked away. “This town deserves to have problems. It’s too selfish and cruel to be blessed by the bear.”
Lily took a deep breath and gave a huge sigh. “I’m so happy.”
Gretel glowered. “What do you have to be happy about?”
“I thought I was the only one who thought there must be nice people somewhere,” she said. “You always acted like everything that happened to us was all right, but it’s not, is it?”
Gretel shook her head. “We’re children. Somebody should care about us. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Good,” Lily said. “Then it’s all right if I hate Frau Hilda, isn’t it?”
“You can hate her all you want. I’ve hated her for a long time. Herr Gustav, too. They’re lazy, greedy pigs. And they treat us like slaves. But we can’t show how we feel.”
Lily’s short arms pumped up and down as she finished the butter. “Frau Hilda could be a witch if she knew how to fly on a broomstick.”
Gretel laughed, picking up the churn to carry it to the kitchen. “No, you’re much too unkind to witches. I think Frau Hilda would make witches look good.”
Laughing, they entered the kitchen. Frau Hilda placed her hands on her hips and glared at them. “And what’s so funny?”
“We were worried about the butter,” Gretel said. “It’s so cold, we didn’t want it to freeze.”
Her words immediately distracted the farmer’s wife. “Is it all right? You know how much Herr Gustav likes butter on his potatoes.”
But as soon as Frau Hilda was assured that the butter was fine, she gave Gretel and Lily the chore of making homemade noodles. “We have extra eggs. We might as well as use them.”
The girls giggled and talked as they mixed the eggs and flour together, added salt and water. As they rolled them thin and cut them into strips to hang on towels over the backs of chairs to dry, they made up silly, pretend stories of what they’d do if they were rich.
“I’d buy a closet full of fancy gowns,” Lily said. “And I’d wear pink on Monday, blue on Tuesday, and green on Wednesday. Thursday would be yellow, Friday red, and Saturday purple.”
“Purple?” Gretel scrunched her nose.
“And on Sunday, I’d wear gold and look like a fairy princess.”
Gretel curled a long noodle like a halo on top of Lily’s head. “All hail, Princess Lily.”
The girls broke into giggles, and Frau Hilda called to them again. They went into the great room where the farmer’s wife sat in front of the fireplace, doing needlework.
“So, you still have time for play? Then you must have time for one more chore.”
The girls looked at each other and tried to hide their smiles.
Frau Hilda was furious. “Peel the potatoes and pump the water to boil them!”
The girls scurried back to the kitchen, but for once, their chores were more like play, because they were in such silly moods. They laid the fire in the stove, started it ablaze so that it would be the right temperature when it was time to cook, and pumped the water into the deep saucepan. The potatoes were on the stove, boiling, when the men returned from the woods.
“Well?” asked Frau Hilda.
Herr Gustav spread his hands. “Nothing.”
“Karl and Martin shot at anything that moved,” Hans Ulbricht said, frowning at them. “The rest of us were more cautious. And a good thing, too. The bear waited for me to shoot at a wolf. When I missed, the bear charged me and I had to scamper up a tree to save my own hide. If Kurt hadn’t heard my cries and come to save me, the bear would have come up after me.”
“You saw the bear?” Gretel asked Kurt.
Frau Hilda frowned. “Children should be seen, not heard.”
But Kurt said, “Yes, and I do believe you helped save my life. The bear was standing on its hind legs, leaning against the tree that Hans was in when I came running into the clearing. The bear turned to look at me and growled. It charged straight at me, and my gun jammed. It wouldn’t fire. The bear was only a few feet away from me when I held up your lock of hair. The bear sniffed it, looked deep into my eyes, and turned around and left.”
“Is that what you showed the bear?” Hans asked.
“Yes, and it spared me. I’ll never go into the woods to hunt it again.”
Frau Hilda had heard enough. “A dozen men went into the woods today and no one shot anything?”
“I never SAW anything,” Gustav roared. “No one did, except Hans and his wolf. Karl and Martin shot every time a twig moved, but there were no animals. It was as if the forest was holding its breath. The trees were so thick, they could hide a hundred bears. No squirrels chattered. No birds sang. There wasn’t a noise.”
Frau Hilda sniffed. “And you call yourselves hunters.”
“We are hunters,” Gustav argued. “But the animals knew. At least, now the bear knows that we’re armed and mean business.”
“Yes.” Frau Hilda’s voice mocked him. “You showed her!”
Kurt shook his head. “The woods were different today. The animals waited and watched. We could feel their eyes following us. But they never made a move. Not a crack of a branch or the crackle of leaves. They were studying us.”
“What for?” asked Frau Hilda.
“I’m not sure.”