The winter children came just after the first snowfall. He never saw them. Only heard their breathing mixed with the shrill whine of an ice storm. Heard their footfalls on the thick layer of snow, so powdery it cracked with the weight of their bodies, like eggshells.
She had heard them the first time. His wife. In bed with the fever that would eventually take her, stop her heart and end it. The snow had fallen in record numbers that year, with drifts up to the roof against the house. He had to dig himself a passage from the front door. It took two days. He dug a path as far as the shed, the garage where he kept his truck in the winter. But it was impossible to get out, the snow too high, and they were stuck. She knew early on that she would not make it to the spring.
"Someone's out there," she'd said, the first time she heard them. "At the backdoor."
"It's just the wind," he told her, wiping her brow.
"I hear it. A child. Can't you hear?"
He could not. He listened. Walked to the window and strained his neck, waited for some sign of life to rise above the wind. But he heard nothing. When the winds died down, it was only the wolves, several miles away, faint but piercing in the night.
"Can you see them?" She asked. "Blue eyes. Perhaps a girl."
"Just rest now," he told her, patting her hand. She breathed deep and drifted off to sleep.
He didn't hear them himself until after she was gone. The next year, an early September snow. Just a dusting, but enough to cover the ground and bring the chill of winter. He knew he didn't have much time left to prepare. Before, when it had been the two of them, they split the duties. He checked the structure of the house, readied it for the cold, stocked the firewood. She inventoried the cellar, checked the food supply. They would make one large run to town, the hour-long drive, and stock up as best they could. Then, they would settle in a wait for the snow to come.
He was exhausted that first year after she'd died. He'd slept long hours through most of the winter. Struggled to prepare the garden when the snow began to melt. The crop was weak, not half of what it had been the previous year, with her. When the early snow came, he hadn't even made the trip to town.
He was at his truck when he heard them. At first it was nothing, just a breeze rustling trees.
He was at his truck when he heard them. At first it was nothing, just a breeze rustling trees. The wind picked up a flurry of snow, glistening white flakes catching the sunlight. But then he heard the breathing. High, shallow breaths of small bodies. He grabbed his shotgun from the passenger seat. He looked around. Nothing. Then, whispers. A conversation. Slight laughter even. He took off in the direction of the noise. Twenty feet into the woods, a flash at the corner of his eye. Movement. He turned quickly but they were gone.
He heard them almost daily. Sometimes more often. Morning, night, it didn't matter. What did they want, he often wondered. He tried leaving food out, but they never took it. Any time the snow broke, he went out into the woods, looked for tracks, some sign of them. They were always a step ahead, just flashes in the periphery. How many of them could there be? Where had they come from? Lost children could never make it this far. There were no neighbors, not for miles. He didn't understand it.
Once they had been lying in bed under thick blankets, wrapped in the warmth of each other's nakedness. The first winter they'd been married. Her head pressed into his shoulder, her hair just tickling his chin.
"Could you shoot a child if it was life or death?" she'd asked him. She played this game sometimes, challenging him with absurd and confusing questions. Her mind worked much faster than his. She was always lost in some thought, he could see it in her gaze—a little cloudy. But this question, the violence of it, he was surprised.
"I don't know," he said, reaching up to stretch. He held her a little tighter then.
"What if it was my life?"
He was quiet for moment, ponderous. "Things will never come to that."
Sometimes, when he closed his eyes he could picture a child, a girl, down on all fours, gliding between the trees in the same ghostly way as the rest of her pack.
One afternoon, he'd pushed 50 yards from the cabin on snowshoe. That's when he spotted the wolf tracks. He'd heard them many times, seen them at a distance on summer hunts when he'd gone farther into the woods, but never this close. The children brought them here, brought them closer. He imagined them riding on the thin gray backs, arms around the necks. Or running alongside them. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes he could picture a child, a girl, down on all fours, gliding between the trees in the same ghostly way as the rest of her pack. She would rip the raw meat of a kill with her teeth, blood at the corners of her mouth. The winter children were not, could not be, fully human.
The next fall he set traps. He dug out the ground in a few places, covered the holes with thickly woven branches. Chopped down ferns, which grew six feet tall at the height of summer, and covered the spots. The branches would hold, even under the weight of the snow. It would take footfalls to cave them in. He checked them daily as far into winter as he could. Until the snow piled too high. In the spring, the traps had been unburied and destroyed. He never heard them in the spring or summer—never when the weather warmed. The children had outsmarted him again.
"Are you happy?" she'd asked him once, ten years into their marriage. He was chopping firewood. She liked to watch him, to stand in her cream-colored wool sweater with a mug of tea in both hands. One for him when he was done.
"Are you?" he asked her, resting the head of the axe against the stump and leaning against it. "This is a hard life."
"I love you." She smiled and took a few steps to hand him his mug.
"And you." He said, taking a drink. It was earthy and robust, made with herbs from her garden.
"But what about children?" She asked.
They'd talked about this before. They'd tried for years but they had been unable. She went to a doctor in Anchorage. Hundreds of miles away. Nothing to be done.
He never quite knew what to say. He'd wanted to bring a child into the world, to teach him how to live. This had been the best life the man had ever known. He wanted to share it. But he'd learned that sharing it with her had been enough.
"We have everything we need," he told her, and he put his arm around her.
"I know," she said.
The snow fell early again that third winter after she'd gone. But lightly. He woke each morning expecting it to have blanketed the ground, accumulated enough that he'd have to dig himself out, but the heaviness hadn't come. If there was ever a chance to find them, it would be now. He spent days hiking as far as he could in order to make it back to the cabin before the cold settled in at night. He marked trees with an X, cut into the bark. He would walk the entire perimeter of his property, as far out as possible. There had to be a sign. Somewhere in the woods.
One day, mid-afternoon, the sun already setting, he heard the snap of a branch. Too quiet to be a moose or something larger, but too loud to be a swift paw. He ducked low behind a large trunk, and peered into the direction of the sound—several yards to the west. There it was again, the whispers, the laughter. Was it a taunt? A sign of their invincibility? They were telling him that he would never catch them. They were a part of this place, above and beyond him. His throat constricted and a heat creeped up his neck, into his ears and cheeks.
He had to see it for himself. He had to know they were real. The whispers filled his ears like static. It was almost painful. He pulled his shotgun from his pack and aimed it in the direction of the noise. He settled into the weight of the gun, took a deep breath, and fired.
"The Inuit," she'd said, when the fever had broken a little, a false calm before she went to sleep and never woke again.
"What?" he'd asked her as he brought her a glass of water.
"The Inuit," she said again. She grasped his arm and pulled herself up a little. "Their children. Thrown in the sea or left out to die in the cold."
She must have had a fever dream. "It's okay," he said. "Just rest."
"Listen," she said, a hiss between her teeth. The forcefulness startled him. "Infanticide," she said. "To spare them."
"I've heard the stories," he nodded. He'd always found it beyond cruel, an impossible act. But harsh winters and starvation brought out a lot in people. The cold could make you desperate, violent even. He'd felt it a time or two.
"I'm sorry," she said then, and the corners of her eyes glistened with tears.
"I don't understand."
"I had to." She said in a stilted voice, almost a sob. "This life. Too hard."
"The baby," she said. "I killed her before she was born."
"The baby," she said. "I killed her before she was born."
He didn't move right away. He stayed knelt, gun up, eyes never moving from the spot. The whispers had stopped. The woods were silent. He'd scared them away. He'd scared everything away. He stood and replaced his gun in his pack. He would follow the line of sight for a while, just in case he hit something. An animal. He'd never taken a shot without a clear eye on something before. He believed in a clean kill.
He'd only gotten a few yards when he saw it. Discoloration in the snow. Red and bright. His throat caught as he took a few steps closer. The heat of it had melted the cold and the blood sank and flowed into the powder like a bandage bled through. No carcass. He looked around for a trail of blood, tracks in the snow, some indication of what he'd hit. There were none. Nothing outside of this spot. He looked down again. The pool of blood centered in an indentation in the snow. The shape was familiar. He thought of a night many years ago, with her. The first snowfall at the cabin, their new home. It had snowed for three days straight. Thick and dense. Deep. She'd run out into the night in just her boots and thermals. No coat. She'd spread her arms and legs and had fallen backward. She moved her limbs in wide arches.
"Help me up," she'd said. He leaned down and pulled her to her feet. The impression she left looked like a body at a crime scene, but with wings.
"Our first snow angel," she'd said.
He looked at the depression again. Arms and legs outspread. Red center. Purposeful—the heart of it. His stomach turned. He dropped to his knees and retched onto the blood and snow. After a few moments he sat up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, blinked away the salty burn in his eyes. Then, he got to his feet. He kicked snow over the place where he'd gotten sick, over the whole of the impression. When this wasn't enough to cover it, he bent over and threw clumps of snow with his fists. Then, he smoothed the pile over with the toe of his boot. It almost looked fresh. Nearly undisturbed. He stared for a few seconds longer, then turned back in the direction he'd come, back to his empty cabin. The woods remained silent in his wake, so that all he could hear was the soft crunching of snow.
Stephanie Harper received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction in July 2012. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, HerStories, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. Her debut poetry collection, Sermon Series, is forthcoming September 2017 with Finishing Line Press. Harper lives in Denver, CO.