The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.
Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.
Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.
“Greta? What is it, girl?”
The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.
“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”
“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”
Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”
Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.
“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”
Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”
Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”
The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.
“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”
Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”
Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”
“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”
Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.
Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm. He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.
“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”
Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.
Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”
“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”
“Hush, child. No more questions.”
After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.
“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.
“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”
“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”
“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”
“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”
But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.
“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.
The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.
When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”
Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.
Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.
“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”
Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”
“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.
Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.
Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”
Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.
Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.
“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”
The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”
The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.
“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”
Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”
“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”
Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”
“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”
“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”
Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.
Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…
Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”
Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.
“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”
Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”
“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”
“Nellie said she never arrived.”
Rosemary did not reply.
Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.
“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.
“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”
As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.
Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”
“And did they?”
Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”
“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”
Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”
“Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”
Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.
On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out