As winter wrapped its icy blanket around the little house secluded on the Manitoba prairie, Emilie learned more about life on a prairie farm than she had ever dreamed possible. The next few days found her adapting to a life so at odds with her origins that at times she feared she must be dreaming. The harsh reality was that she would spend the winter in a cold drafty little house, miles from the nearest neighbor, without benefit of most of the comforts she had become accustomed to while living with the Tobers.
After that first morning she began badgering Karl about the frigid condition of the upstairs bedroom. She was determined to find a way to heat the shared room for the children’s sake, if not for her own.
Emilie learned very quickly that everything revolved around the wood stove. Without an efficiently running stove there was no heat, no water, and no food. As the snow fell faster and heavier, she struggled to learn the art of rousing a blazing fire early in the morning, and banking that same fire to smoldering coals at night.
Karl swallowed his temper time and again as he instructed her in the art of fire making. In his estimation this was one common chore she should have known prior to her arrival in his home.
“You have to open the damper, a fire needs air to get it going,” he explained again and again as she tried unsuccessfully to light the stove each morning.
“Emilie remember, without air you just get smoke.” He swore under his breath when her failed attempts resulted in the kitchen being filled with dense black smoke.
He’d start from the beginning again, showing her how to make kindling from pieces of bark and strips of wood shaved from the sides of the split logs. He showed her how to pile the kindling in the belly of the stove like one would build a Tee Pee, even though she had no idea what a “Tee Pee” was. When she finally constructed a perfect Tee Pee, he moved on to the next step without comment.
“Once you have a small fire going then pile more kindling on top, but use larger pieces, not the fine shredded stuff like before.”
Finally he instructed her when to place the split logs from the woodpile outside the door onto the fire. He showed her which way they should lay, and which way they should not; how many logs were too much; and how many were too little. He made her feed the fire all during the day and bank it every night, until he was satisfied that she could operate the stove just as efficiently as he.
He led her to the root cellar below his house, and showed her his winter store of potatoes, carrots, and turnips. They toured the meat house where a completely frozen side of beef hung suspended from the rafters. Three sturdy shelves across the back of the shed held packages of meat wrapped in brown paper, labeled and ready for use. He pulled one package off a shelf and displayed it as if it were a prize, “Each package is labeled - see this one’s a hind roast,” he boasted and she did not bother to enlighten him that she could not read even one of his English labels.
By the end of each day, they were barely speaking to each other. Karl - exhausted from repeating and explaining each instruction over and over again, and Emilie - heart sore from each failed attempt to impress her new employer.
Her only joy came from her time spent with the children. Raymond was more helpful than she could ever have imagined a small child to be, and Anne-Marie demanded only love, which Emilie quickly discovered she had an abundance of.
Four days after Emilie’s arrival Karl announced that it was time for him to venture to the mountains fifty miles away. He needed to cut their winter’s supply of firewood, and he needed to do it before the winter roads became impassable. Emily met this announcement with trepidation.
“You cannot possibly think of leaving so soon! There is still so much I do not know, so much I cannot do!” She quailed, even though she now realized that firewood was critical to their livelihood and survival.
“I don’t have a choice, if I don’t go now it will be too late. As it is, I’m already going much later than I normally would. I have arranged for Annie’s husband Fredrich, to come once a day to tend to the animals and do the outside chores. You know how to light a fire, so I know you won’t freeze; you know how to cook so I know you won’t starve, so what else is there? I have to go and that all there is to it!”
And that had been all there was to it. No amount of discussion would change Karl’s mind.
The day he was to depart, Emilie watched as he hauled a large duffel bag from his room, placed it on the kitchen table and made several trips back and forth from his bedroom filling it with thick socks, sweaters, extra gloves and scarves. Her apprehension grew as he haphazardly threw blankets, matches, and candles on top of his clothes.
Emilie packed a large box of food for his journey, all the while silently cursing her stubborn employer, and dreaming of excuses to prolong his leaving even further. The contents of her box included several loaves of bread, a jar of honey, dried coffee, beef stew left over from yesterdays dinner; a slab of cured bacon, a small bag of potatoes and a variety of cakes and cookies that she had already discovered Karl enjoyed as much as his children.
Emilie and the children stayed well out of his way as he put together the supplies that he would need for his solitary journey through the early-winter cold to his destination in the mountains. He would harness his two horses to a stone-boat - a contraption that resembled a giant sleigh but was actually no more than a hayrack with runners. Atop the platform he had constructed a little shanty, no larger than an outhouse. He would drive his team from inside the little building in relative comfort without being unduly exposed to the outside elements. When he pulled away from his yard, he would be leaving Emilie and his children virtually stranded, without any means of transportation, as the only horses he owned would be going with him.
Now, as he was almost ready to leave, she and the children watched Karl fasten the buckles of the duffel bag tightly, then lift the heavy bag off the table and place it on the floor beside his winter boots near the door. He returned to the table to get the box of food that Emilie had packed and added it to the rest of his belongings.
“Thanks for all the food. I should have more than enough to get me there and back without any problems.”
She merely nodded her head, and hugged the children standing at her side closer to her body.
“I should get to the mountains sometime tomorrow afternoon. I will stop at friends I know overnight, so I will be warm and dry for the night,” he might have been talking to himself for all the response he got from the three silent people waiting for him to leave.
Emilie clasped her hands around a shoulder of each child and tried to imagine how cold and tired he would be, standing as he would be for the entire journey. There was no heat and no bench in his little shanty on the sleigh. She wondered how one found the stamina to ride mile after mile across the frozen prairie without the comforts that until this very moment she had taken completely for granted.
“You will be careful, Karl?” she finally spoke, her voice almost a whisper as her fear of being left entirely alone for more than a few days surfaced once more. She could not take one more tragedy in her life, and she knew she would be no comfort to his children if he did not return safely.
Karl stilled his actions and regarded his housekeeper seriously. When was the last time he’d felt that his presence actually mattered to another human being other than his two small children? Not for a very long time, his silent answer surprised even himself. More than anything he wanted to tell her that he would return without fail, but he knew that danger lurked around many corners. To completely reassure her of his return would be foolhardy at best. She needed to be prepared for any eventuality, and his false assurances would not benefit her in this harsh world he lived in.
“I’ll be careful,” he answered her simply and sincerely. “You will be fine here with the children, I don’t have any doubt of that,” his calm deep voice did little to reassure, but his next words eased the tension around her heart somewhat. “I would not be leaving you alone if I did not trust that you and the children would be safe here at home,” he added quietly.
Emilie smiled faintly, “I will take good care of your children, Karl, . . . I promise you that.”
“I know that too . . .” he smiled and all of a sudden he was loathe to leave this cozy little home; his children, her . . . this woman whom up until just a few short days ago had been a complete stranger to him.
Emilie really wasn’t a stranger any more. It was impossible to live in such close quarters with someone and fail to notice certain things about them. Things like her love for children – she should have had children of her own clinging to those long full skirts she always wore. Her abilities as a homemaker – already his small house was feeling more like a home than it had in a very long time. There were nutritious meals on the table, cakes and cookies for him and the children. She had cleaned every room in the house except for his bedroom and suddenly his little abode had taken on a well cared-for appearance. Everywhere he looked he saw evidence of a woman’s touch - a doily on the table where only bare wood had shown before; blankets folded, beds made, pillows fluffed. As he stood before her preparing to say goodbye, he realized that in just a few short days, this small woman had become an important part of his and his children’s life.
“Bring the children down and use my room while I am gone. When I return we will make some changes and try to get more heat up to your room upstairs.”
Emilie’s smile lit her face. “Thank you Karl, I’m sure we will be more comfortable down here while you are gone.”
“Well I’d better be off,” Karl lowered to one knee before her and the children and reached across and lifted Anne-Marie up onto his knee. He cuddled the child close and gently kissed her pink cheek. “You be a good girl for Emilie, Anne-Marie.” The child remained silent, as he knew she would. Her big blue eyes saddened when he hugged her tightly and then released her back to the floor at Emilie’s feet.
He beckoned his son and instead of lifting him on to his knee like he had his sister, he placed him squarely in front of him and clasped a big hand on each of the boy’s small shoulders. He looked deeply in his son’s eyes. “You’re the man of the house now, Raymond,” the big hands squeezed gently. “I’m counting on you to look after Emilie and your sister. Do you think you can manage that, son?”
“I will, Dada.”
Karl rose from his crouched position and gently ruffled both small heads before he addressed Emilie.
“I’ll be no longer than a week. If I’m not home after a week, Fredrich will know what to do. He is a good man; you can rely on his help.”
She nodded silently and he turned to pull his warm sheepskin coat from the peg on the wall. He slipped his large body into it, donned a heavy wool cap scarf and gloves, and reached for the first of his belongings. When he straightened he witnessed the fear in Emilie’s eyes, and in an effort to comfort, he touched her shoulder briefly and then let his hand slide away.
“Auf Wiedersehen, Karl.”
He hoisted his heavy duffel bag over one shoulder, bent for the remaining of his belongings, then shouldering his way out of his front door left the warmth and security of his small prairie home.