Once upon a time, there were two little girls, who lived in a house in the middle of the woods with their father. One day, he went into town as usual, and came back with a wife. The wife did not like the daughters; the daughters did not particularly like her either. Still, they made an uneasy peace with her.
Until, one day, the cold came. It was a quick cold, but a biting one—and it killed every fresh crop, every growing field, every unprotected living thing it touched. There was no harvest—and no food.
Things got worse and worse. The larders emptied out, and the girls went to bed hungry every night. When Younger Sister cried from the pain in her stomach, Older Sister sang quiet songs to her, and wove stories of their true mother. Neither of them remembered her; but where there was no memory or truth to be had, fairytale was enough.
One morning, their father stirred them from their beds, and told them to follow him into the woods. They were going to gather firewood, he said—but before they left, the birds chirped to Younger Sister, “Take heed! Take heed! Fill your pockets with stones! Leave a trail!”
Younger Sister did so, and as their father led them deeper and deeper among the towering trees, she trailed the stones behind them, white and pearly against the dark loam of the forest floor. Then, she looked up—and their father was gone. They were lost. But Younger Sister found the trail of stones and guided them back to their cottage. Their father’s face was filled with mixed relief and shame, but they could see the fury in their stepmother’s face. The next morning, they were awoken even earlier, and herded out to the forest too fast to keep with them anything more than a crust of bread. Younger Sister crumbled it behind her to leave a trail; however, when once again, their father vanished and they were left alone in the forest, she turned behind her to see nothing but the birds eating the crumbs she’d left.
“Why do you betray me like this?” she cried. But it was too late. They were lost.
Older Sister closed her eyes. She turned in a circle, trying to feel the winds, the earth under her feet. Then she opened her eyes and took Younger Sister’s hand.
“What are we going to do?” Younger Sister asked.
Older Sister looked down at Younger Sister. They were all each other had left in the world. Even if they could make it back to their home, she realized, it wasn’t home any more. They were no longer welcome.
“Survive,” she said. She squeezed Younger Sister’s hands and strode into the dark.
There was nowhere else to go but forward.