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The Winter Wife: An Abenaki Folktale retold by Anne Eliot Crompton. Little, Brown and Company, 1975.

I came across this retelling of an Abenaki folktale at a library book sale when my kids were young. Library sales are a good place to stock your own library with children’s titles while on a limited budget. Of the many wonderful folktales from around the world, this is one of my favorites. The Abenaki are an Algonquian tribe of Maine and southern Quebec. Crompton’s retelling evocatively recreates the winter forest, its silence, its solitude. The pen and wash illustrations gently suggest the magical quality of the story.

A hunter lived alone in the winter woods, trapping furs to make his living and hunting for meat. One day, he came upon a young cow moose, who trotted away before he could act; but she turned and looked at him and seemed to see his loneliness before she disappeared into the forest. One evening soon after, when the hunter returned to his wigwam, a fire was burning. Food waited for him, but no one was there. The next night, the wigwam was again aglow with a fire and meat was cooking in his kettle. The third night, a fire was burning, supper was cooked, and a woman sat by the fire. She did not speak. Her brown eyes glowed.

For the rest of the winter, the woman stayed with him and became his wife. They were happy, even though she never spoke, this woman with the long, homely face and soft brown eyes. When spring came, the hunter gathered his furs and returned to his village. His wife spoke for the first time. “I will wait for you here.” He asked her to come to his village with him but she refused, saying “Do not marry another woman.”

In the fall, the hunter returned to the forest. His wife was there with a child, a newborn boy with his mother’s soft, brown eyes. The baby slid from his mother’s lap and walked. The hunter had never seen a newborn child walk. That winter was a happy one, and in the spring, the hunter again asked his wife to return to his village with him as he carried his furs. Again she refused, saying “Remember me. Do not marry another woman.”

Fall came again and the hunter returned to the forest. His wife waited by the fire. She had a second son on her lap. They spent the winter together happily. Again, in the spring the hunter asked his wife to help him carry his furs to the village. Again she refused. But this time, when he returned to the village, his old father urged him to marry the chief’s daughter, for his furs had made the hunter a rich man. So the chief’s daughter became his summer wife. She thought she was his only wife.

As the fall grew nearer, the hunter grew uneasy. His summer wife insisted on accompanying the hunter to the forest. When they drew near his camp, they say red light glowing through the wigwam walls. The summer wife ran ahead to the wigwam and found the winter wife inside with her two sons and a new baby daughter. The summer wife cried, “You never told me you had another wife.” The hunter looked down and answered, “I have no other wife.”

The winter wife left the wigwam, saying to the summer wife, “I leave you my children. You must be kind to them.” Then she vanished into the forest. The hunter spent the next days setting traps. At night he dreamed that the little girl woke her brothers. She whispered, “I cannot live here anymore. I want my mother.” “Come”, said the oldest boy, “we will find our mother.” In his dream, the hunter saw his children leave the wigwam. In the moonlight, their shapes changed and three young moose trotted away from the wigwam.

In the morning, the summer wife woke the hunter. “Your children are gone”, she said happily. The hunter jumped up, strapped on his snowshoes, and hurried away on the track of the three young moose. For three days, the hunter followed the moose tracks. At sunset he saw two young bull moose in a clearing. A fuzzy calf lay resting in the snow. Beyond her, a cow moose rose to her feet and looked at the hunter with soft, brown eyes. The hunter took off his snowshoes. He drove his ax into a maple tree. He walked up to the cow and touched her soft nose. “Forgive me, Winter Wife,” he said, “and let me stay with you forever.” The hunter’s head grew heavy with antlers. His shoulders humped. Strength flowed through four new legs.

Five moose drifted away together, moving like shadows into the darkening winter forest.

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