By Tyler Omoth
A heavy blanket of snow illuminated the night while cold flakes pecked at Sara Ann’s chapped cheeks. As she took another deep breath, her ears winced at the broken silence. Alarm bells shrieked through the night. The bells should have startled birds from their night’s resting places, but there were few birds left.
They’ve found the fires in the storage rooms already, she thought.
Shivering continuously now, she trudged through the drifts, limping heavily and ducking black, low-hanging branches. The heavy sled she dragged behind her left a noticeable trail but she knew it would be deeply buried by the storm in moments. This was the heaviest snowfall of an already brutal winter. Deer, wild birds, and even livestock died off in the first month. Survival was the only goal and choices needed to be made.
Choices were made.
Sara Ann grunted as she heaved on the sled. She had loaded it as full as she dared for the ten-mile trek back to New Hampton, the village of her parents. Now, at the halfway point, she looked back over her shoulder and saw the glow of Cloverdale burning. The smoke curled in wisps upwards, dancing with the stars.
At the top of a small knoll, Sara Ann stopped to rest for a minute. She squatted down and grabbed a fistful of snow. She rubbed it on her rope-burned wrists. She tried, but couldn’t shake the image of the Cloverdale town leader, her husband, staring at her, devoid of emotion, as they bound her for The Pruning.
“Take pride in this,” he said. “The sick, old, and weak must give their lives so the rest can survive the winter. Difficult choices have to be made.”
She looked down at her left leg, twisted at the foot, limp and nearly useless. Trim off the useless to let the strong flourish. She stopped rubbing her wrists and tossed the snow back to the ground.
Before she could stand up, Sara Ann sensed movement. A shadow, just slightly darker than the blanket of blackness that enveloped most of the forest moved again. Slowly, she raised her head.
Less than eight feet away, a lone wolf watched her. Dark grey with tired eyes, the wolf took a wary step closer. Sara Ann noticed the wolf’s sorrowful bearing and how snowflakes coated each eyelash.
“Hello,” she said. “I bet you’re hungry.” Sara Ann, still kneeling, carefully reached behind her, feeling on the sled for her pouch. She’s alone. If there were a pack, I’d be dead by now. But she isn’t alone in her den. She found the pouch and opened it. Pulling out a small portion of dried meat, she held it out.
The wolf’s nose lifted as the breeze carried the scent of food to her. Her lip curled, ready to attack, if necessary, to win the prize.
Sara Ann tossed the meat to her. “Have it, but I can spare no more,” she said. “That will buy you and yours a day or two. Perhaps the weather, or your luck, will change by then.”
The wolf snatched up the meat, not eating it, but carrying it off deep into the woods. As she stood, Sara Ann put her hand on her own mid-section, feeling the slight swell that would grow bigger in the coming months.
She hoisted the sled rope over her shoulder and limped forward again. She continued on for hours, her body moving forward long after her conscious thoughts had shut down. As the night faded into another day of grey skies cascading white, she arrived at the gates of New Hampton. Cold, frost-bitten on her fingers, and exhausted, she collapsed in a heap outside the gate. The last thing she heard before darkness was the squeal of the gate hinge she’d told her father to oil years ago.
When Sara Ann next opened her eyes, she was in a warm bed in a cabin. Her eyes drifted to where a man sat upright in a chair, watching her sternly. He rose to his feet.
“Daughter,” the man said. “It concerns me to see you here like this. That sled has enough grain, flour, and dried meats to feed a small village for nearly a month.”
“I know,” she replied. “It is for New Hampton.”
“You know we are not like Cloverdale!” her father’s voice was stern and offended. “We ration. We prepare. Hard winters do not sneak up on us like a fat goose for slaughter!”
“So you have enough for the rest of winter?” she asked. “This winter?”
He sighed, rubbing his temples with his hands. “No. We do not. Even we couldn’t expect this.”
He raised his head at the word he hadn’t heard in over a decade. He reached for her.
Sara Ann looked up at her father. “They’ve begun The Pruning.” When her eyes met his, her eyes dropped to her misshapen, twisted foot.
“What? No,” he said, stammering a little. “That tradition is barbaric and you are the town leader’s wife!”
She nodded and wiped away another tear. Her father, seeing the rope marks on her wrists, reached out, touching each mark tenderly.
“My god, Sara Ann. I’m so sorry. I would have never sent you.”
“I know!” She looked him in the eye. “Father, I know.”
“That food you brought is a prayer answered. New Hampton can make it to spring now. Even a late thaw. But, how on Earth can Cloverdale survive?”
Sara Ann gazed out the window, seeing familiar faces walking along the streets where she grew up. She saw men unloading her sled into the town storage. She looked back at her father and shook her head.
“Choices were made.”