Hannah’s parents would not let her go to town. It was barely a town anyway, Timmins. It was so far from Toronto that her friends would ask her, “Didja see Santa?” every time she came home. Timmins was essentially a crappy mall, a hospital, and a bus station. At eight, she hadn’t cared; at ten, she couldn’t go to town without an adult; at fourteen, she couldn’t go because —
“Hannah,” called her father. He stood by the woodpile, removing his mitts and pulling a hatchet from his belt loop. “Give me a hand?”
She went over and helped him lift the tarp that covered the kindling. It was birch kindling, the kind that smelled sharp and tangy when it burned, but the tarp had ripped overnight and now the wood was soaked and useless. Hannah looked up at the chimney stack that rose over the cabin. There was no smoke, but she could see waves of heat rising off the brick mouth. That meant the fire was burning well and they wouldn’t need kindling.
“We’ll need more kindling,” said her dad.
“Why? The fire’s already going. It hasn’t been out since we got here.”
Hannah’s father looked at her with his Learning Face. That was what her younger sister Kelli called it, the Learning Face. It was a seriously annoying face. “What if we need a fire outside, to smoke fish?” he said.
“What if we want to use the wood oven?”
“What if we need to make smoke signals?” said Hannah sarcastically.
“Hannah, don’t be smart,” said her father. “Look, I’m going to show you something.”
He dropped the tarp, hooked the hatchet onto his belt, and put his snowshoes back on, stuffing his mitts in his pocket. She could see the nametag, “G. Williams,” that was sewn inside of them; hers said “H. Williams.”
Hannah was already wearing her snowshoes, so she followed his wider tracks easily as he moved to the edge of the clearing where their cabin sat, past the tarpedover snowmobile and the SUV. They hadn’t brought the other vehicle; it was a car and would never have made it down the back roads to get here. Even in the summer, they always brought the four-wheel-drive vehicle. Her parents called this place “camp.” When she was younger, Hannah had fooled some of her friends by saying that she went “to camp” for almost every school vacation, but then stupid Kelli had blabbed and then everyone knew that it was just a cottage — a three-room, dingy cottage with an outhouse in the backyard, on the edge of a smelly pond.
They wended their way through the bush until they came to a little stand of poplar trees with a few frozen yellow leaves still clinging to them, almost hidden in the bigger, bushier arms of the blue spruce and waxy green hemlock. Her father looked up into the branches of the poplar. “These should work.” He reached up with one hand and grabbed a branch, and with the other he loosed his hatchet and chopped the branch off. He held up the iced-over poplar branch, and Hannah noticed the nicks on his red knuckles. Her dad loved to work outdoors without gloves. “Can you burn this?” he asked.
Hannah rolled her eyes. “No, it’s green wood. And it’s wet. I’m not ten, dad.”
“That’s right,” replied her father, “you’re fourteen going on forty. But sometimes you have to make do with less, right?”
He knelt down and placed the branch on the flat part of his snowshoe, holding it on its end with one hand. “In the winter, all wood is wet — on the outside.” With the other hand he brought up the hatchet and quickly made a series of downward motions on the sides of the branch until the bark bristled out like a skinny, grey-green porcupine.
“Instant kindling,” he said.
“Great. Is there an instant travelling stick, too, so I can go back home?”
“You never know out here,” he said. When he had his Learning Face on, Hannah knew, it was hard to get him to do anything but talk about the bush.
“I’m cold, and it’s lunchtime,” she said.
“Okay.” He stood and brushed the snow off his coat, turning his head to the line of clouds that were being pulled toward them by grey, pouting tendrils. “Smells like another storm, eh?”
Hannah let her breath out loudly, but didn’t reply.
They trooped back. The last two days had been warm and humid, but last night the temperature had dropped so quickly that the wet snow had chunked back into ice and broken through many of their tarps, and even Nook’s doghouse. Hannah and Kelli had spent all morning scraping ice and snow off the porch, the woodshed, the cars, the doghouses, and the outhouse steps to see what damage had been done. The snowmobile tarp was also ripped, and a chunk of falling ice had broken the gas line. Fixing it was tomorrow’s job. Hannah had volunteered for that one, mostly because it meant she could drive into town with her father to go to the hardware store.
They removed their snowshoes and propped them against the dogsled in the cold porch that separated the front door of the house from the elements. There were two more dogsleds behind the cabin, as well. The one on the porch was very small and was called a kicksled. The two behind the cabin were trail sleds, much longer and heavier.
Hannah’s dad put the green kindling in the big woodbox just outside the door. The box slid from the cold outer porch to the inside of the cabin, right through the wall. The opening was protected by a thick piece of yellow plastic that swung inward, like a doggy door.
When they went inside, Hannah slapped a sodden woodchip-covered glove onto the counter that separated the kitchen area from the rest of the main room and stooped to undo the laces of her boots. From the doorway to the bedroom she shared with her sister came Kelli’s voice. “Illegal manoeuvre! Illegal manoeuvre!”
“Calm down, dork,” said Hannah. “It’s just a glove.”
“Unacceptable use of outdoor clothing!” Kelli ran in, snatched the glove off the counter, clambered up a folding stepladder, and placed it neatly on the glove dryer that hung above the big pot-belly wood stove in the centre of the cabin.
“Kelli,” said their mother, “calm down. George,” she continued, “put some wood in the stove, please.”
Hannah’s dad took two pieces of maple from the woodbox, opened the belly of the wood stove, and put them in. Kelli’s exuberance had woken Sencha and Bogey from their napping spot by the couch, and the two house dogs ran over to greet Hannah and her father as though they had been gone for years. They kept a respectful distance from the hot cast-iron stove.
The two dogs were as opposite as could be. Sencha was a Dalmatian, but she had brown spots instead of black ones, and she shed on everything — pretty little white hairs that somehow corkscrewed into anything that wasn’t Teflon-coated. Her ears sat high on her head and she watched everything with bright hazel eyes, investigating every sound or movement, no matter how small, with her gaze or with her nose, depending on how comfortable she was. Hannah’s mom called her “Little Jane Austen.”
Bogey, on the other hand, was square and big and had two coats of thick fur: an oily outer layer of beautiful dark brown, and a dry underlay of rust-coloured kinks that kept him warm even when he jumped into the cold pond to chase tennis balls or ducks, or just because he was a Labrador retriever and needed to remind everyone of that fact.
“Bogey, get down!” said Hannah, pushing him away. The big dog dropped back to the floor, his tail still wagging. Hannah’s dad gave him some rough pats on his flanks, and the Lab nearly toppled him over, pressing into his legs like a cat. Sencha went back to her warm bed near the stove, lying down with an assortment of grumbles.
Kelli, still near the gloves, looked suspiciously at the bottoms of her sister’s legs. “Are your pants wet? You should go change.”
“You should shut up,” retorted Hannah. “The floor’s already wet from Lab slobber.”
“Ha-neul,” said her mother from the kitchen, “respect your sister.”
Kelli, safely behind the wood stove and out of sight of her mother, stuck her tongue out at Hannah.
“Let’s eat!” said her father, pulling out a chair from the kitchen table.
The table was so old and so ugly: the top was faded pink plastic with a terrible pattern of gold-speckled stars and rough metal edging. The chairs were a horrible flaky silver with plastic seats and no padding. Hannah hated the chairs, the table, and the ruined edges of all her sweaters from sitting at it.
“Set the table, girls,” said her mother.
“I’ve been outside helping with chores!” complained Hannah.
Her mother did not say anything, just kept stirring the large aluminum pot on the ancient propane stove in the kitchen. Kelli slipped from her chair. Sighing, so did Hannah.
Kelli smiled widely, wobbling under the weight of the heavy crockery. She loved it when everyone pitched in and did things together. She put down the stack of dishes and divvied them up, racing around the table to the far side and back again with a single plate each time.
“You’re gonna slip and fall,” said Hannah.
“Kelli, stop running,” scolded their mother. “Hannah, stop needling. George, we need salt and pepper.”
Hannah’s dad laughed and sprang up. “Probably not pepper, but I’ll get them both anyway.”
He got them and also grabbed the bread that sat under a tea towel — a sort of cornbread with eggs and bacon baked right into it. He broke the bread into big pieces with one egg in each, and put a piece on each plate. “I’m going to Jeb’s tomorrow,” he said as he added butter to the top of the egg. “The weather’s supposed to turn later this week, so I want to get over there before we’re stuck under another four feet of snow — that always makes us want to hibernate, eh, Mina?” He grinned at his wife.
“Maybe you should call first and make sure she’s ready for visitors,” she said.
Hannah’s dad grunted. “Scott’s there right now, and it looks like she’s getting better, so it should be fine.”
Scott and his sister Jeb and Hannah’s father had all grown up together in Timmins. When Jeb had decided to sell part of her land and build a new house much farther down the road, Hannah’s father had bought it — which was why they were now the proud owners of a shack in the middle of nowhere instead of a real cottage by a lake in Huntsville or Lake of Bays, like everyone else.