Dark and Deep
by Holli Mintzer
The wind slaps at me as soon as I open the door. It's bitter cold in the predawn grayness,
especially after the warmth of the cabin, but Mama's been out hunting and she always leaves the
meat outside the door. It keeps best in the cold.
It's a deer this time, or most of one, what's left after Mama takes her share. She's skinned it
neatly for us, jointed and cleaned it and bled it off, and it steams a little in the dry cold air. I
heave a haunch of venison onto my shoulder, turn, and duck back through the door into the
J.R.'s still sleeping, just a lump of quilts unmoving in the big bed. She needs the sleep.
Mama would have said, once, that J.R.'s growing and needs the rest for her bones to stretch. My
bones are all done stretching, so I wake up early.
Some of the venison goes into the stewpot; some gets cut into strips, to dry on the rack in front
of the fire. The rest will go into the cold cellar, to keep until spring.
By the time I'm done with the venison, J.R. is stirring. Once she's up and dressed, teeth cleaned
and hair braided, I send her out to check the curse nets. She grumbles, though it's been her job
every morning for going on three years now. I promise her hot porridge by the time she's done,
and that gets her moving.
The porridge doesn't take long, and I find myself with a moment to steal before J.R. comes back.
I pull a book off Mama's shelf, and sit down to read.
The book falls open to my favorite poem, the way it always does. I smooth a hand over the faded
page, my eyes trailing over the words. Before I get very far, though, the door swings open and
J.R. tromps back in, trailing snow over the floor. And then the day is started, and there's too
much to do, and I have no time for poetry.
There's wood to chop and food to cook and venison to carry to the cold cellar; there's J.R.'s
lessons and my own; and there's laundry and sewing and darning and spinning. There's spells to
make up, of course, and a new curse net to weave. Installing it in the high bare branches of the
oak outside the house takes up precious hours.
It's a long day, and we don't see Mama at all. By the time the light is fading I'm bone tired, and
J.R. is yawning. The two of us change into our nightdresses, brush out our hair, and climb under
the heap of old quilts that Mama made for us, once upon a time. I'm half-asleep before I hear the
heavy tread on the porch, and the knock-knock-knock at the door.
Mama doesn't come in, of course, but the knock is enough. She's all right. Reassured, I fall
asleep between one breath and the next.
The next day goes similar, and the next. It's the deepest part of winter, and J.R.'s and my world
narrows to the cabin and the few yards clear of snow around it. Sometimes we bicker, the way
sisters do, but this is our third winter on our own, and we're pretty well used to it. After a
particularly nasty fight, one that leaves J.R. in tears, I use some of our precious store of bought
flour to bake her a little cake, filling it with jam we put up last summer. She takes it for the peace
offering it is, and I don't turn her down when she offers me a bite.