My youngest son was excited to go out for a walk with his two older brothers alone for the first time. I gave my boys the conditions of that Saturday afternoon’s freedom as they scrambled to put on their winter coats, boots, gloves, and hats. They were to stay together, be home before sunset, and stay away from the shed if for any reason they were still out in the woods after dark.
My middle child froze for a moment and then scanned his older brother’s face to see if he caught him being scared. He had not. My oldest boy was lacing his boots and, without looking up, agreed aloud with an OK whose pitch ascended on the O and descended on the K. My youngest son looked up to at me with apprehension and asked why they should stay away from the shed.
I had not told him the story before, so I told him while he bundled up. A long time ago, all of the land around us as far as we could see belonged to one family. The farmer intended to cultivate all of the land; but his wife died giving birth to their second daughter, Anna. The farmer had more to do with less help than he had planned, so he only used a small portion of the land for crops and the rest of it remained a forest.
One January, after a few years had passed and Anna was about preschool age, a warm front moved in and chased the freezing air away. It was beautiful outside that day. Mary, the oldest girl, and Anna had been kept inside of the house by freezing temperatures for more than a month already that winter. They expected to be trapped inside the house for many more cold months, so they were excited to get out of it. Mary prepared a picnic basket and Anna prepared her doll.
That afternoon, the girls left the house for their picnic without telling their father. They walked past the fields and into the woods to eat their dinner among the trees. Since the day was so warm, the top of the ground had thawed and become muddy. They did not want to set their blanket down on mud. Mary told Anna that they would picnic by the creek where they could lay their blanket over large flat stones.
The girls guessed at the general direction of the creek and hiked through the leaves and mud on the forest floor to it. They eventually found the creek, but the section of the creek at which they first arrived was not rocky or dry. So, they walked along the side of the creek until they found a good dry spot. They set up their blanket, had dinner, and played by the creek for a while.
Mary noticed that it was getting dark. She gathered up their belongings as Anna told her doll about the animals found near the creek. Once she packed everything, she grabbed her little sister’s hand and scanned the woods for a path. She did not see one. She pulled her sister along the shore of the creek hoping to find a path back into the woods, but did not find one. Holding her little sister’s hand harder than she intended, Mary walked briskly up and down the edge of the woods trying to find a familiar landmark. Everything was unfamiliar to her. The girls were lost.
As Mary thought hard about what they should do, the sun set. The temperature dropped. The beautiful day that had welcomed them outdoors was abandoning them there. The wind started to blow. Mary guessed at the general direction of their home, took Anna’s cold little hand, and led them into the woods.
It was darker in the woods than at the creek. The sun was gone. The temperature’s drop accelerated. Despite their brisk pace, Mary and Anna were cold. The wind bit at their exposed skin. They began to trip over roots and other things they could not see on the forest floor.
The girls found a shed and went inside to get shelter from the wind. Anna shivered violently and began to cry. Mary cried too, but kept quiet. Anna thought they were close to home because of the shed, but Mary did not recognize it. Anna became desperate and tried to leave to find the way home. Mary had to pull her back into the shed and hold her tightly so she could not get out again. When Anna calmed down, Mary gave her whatever spare clothes she had on to help keep her warm. Thinking only of Anna, Mary wrapped her in the picnic blanket and held her tightly to both keep her warm and keep her from leaving the shelter of the shed.
A search party found the girls the next morning. Anna needed medical attention, but survived. Mary did not make it.
The story about the girls, as everyone tells it, was based on the way the sheriff had reconstructed and documented what happened.
The people who lived near the shed learned more. They found out that Mary’s ghost haunted the shed. On windy days, the doors swung back and forth; but on windy nights, they closed tightly on their own. Children avoided walking by the shed when it was cold and dark. Mary grabbed those that did not as they walk by, pulled them in, and held them inside of it all night like she held Anna.