Once, in a land of snow and ice that never seemed to cease, there lived an innkeep’s daughter called Anya Gentlehands. She was fair of face, with thick blonde hair she bound in braids pinned at the back of her head, and a talent for listening to others.
“What good,” her father would ask to his tipsy patrons, the men and women of the village who would visit each night for ale and good cheer, “is a maiden who sits and listens? The floorboards need to be scrubbed! The mantle should be dusted!”
They all knew the answer, however, for Anya Gentlehands’ kind face and entreating manner were enough to convince even the hardest heart to sit and talk. Her presence in the public room would encourage a merry mood, and her soft manner helped many villagers with their troubles. And for each hour the villagers spent in the inn, her father reaped reward in the copper coins they paid him for his brew. He kept a scullery maid to keep the house, and Anya was never asked to do anything she didn’t care for.
Anya spent much of her time in thought and observation, keeping a keen eye on the people of her village, as well as those who came to visit and trade. The man she watched most often was a woodcutter from the next village over. He carried himself proudly and drew his brows together when he wanted something but couldn’t find the words to ask, and whenever he came to the inn, the laughter seemed that much louder. That he wore a thick, becoming beard and looked upon everyone with eyes that sparkled handsomely only added to his charm.
In short, Anya Gentlehands was in love.
So, she thought, was Claus the woodcutter, who always stopped at the inn when he came to sell his firewood in the village square. He brushed the ever-falling snow from his shoulders when he came in and headed straight to the proprietors to buy beer and give them his thanks for a warm hearth. That meant he always spoke with her father, and he always found a moment to ask after Anya and wish her good health.
“These winds always bring me colds,” he told her one night. “I hope you aren’t sneezing.”
Another time, weeks later, he admitted, “It’s lonely in my cottage, of course, but when I come here, I feel as though I have the whole world at my side.”
Anya began to long for his visits. When he stomped the snow off his boots at the entrance to the inn—and no one’s boots sounded quite so thick and heavy as his—she would dash into the kitchen and use the sheen of the wash-water as a looking glass. Quickly, she tucked back stray locks of hair, wiped sweat from her brow, and pinched her cheeks.
One night, when a blizzard overtook the usual gentle drifting snow, Claus stayed over at the inn. The reindeer would be snug in the barn, he was sure, and he would be snug in a rented room—just until the storm cleared enough to return home.
Few villagers ventured out of their own snug homes that night, fearing the blasts of icy wind and biting whirlwinds of snow, and Anya and Claus could sit by the fire without interruption. The innkeeper counted his stock and made lists of the items he’d need to buy when the skies calmed, and the scullery maid rested her aching fingers in the back of the building. With drifts of snow piling quickly against the walls outside, the room felt quiet and still as it rarely did, with only the crackle of the fire there to interrupt their discussions.
When their conversation—of reindeer meat’s relative value compared to bear—abated, Anya cleared her throat. Her soft hands folded in her lap, and she leaned forward, toward Claus.
“I think,” she informed him, her eyes wide and serious, “that I have fallen in love with you, Claus. Surely you could use a wife to keep you company on nights such as this.”
Claus’ eyes widened in return, and he sat still, as he rarely did. His own hands closed over his knees, and the bright flicker of the firelight glittered in his eyes. “But—I am only a woodcutter. You could have your choice of men.”
“I have made my choice. Do you not trust my word?”
“Your word has always been trustworthy.” He reached for her, and Anya’s heart leapt up from the place it slumbered in her ribcage. But he only took her hand from her lap, lifting it with his callused fingers. The rough hew of his skin caught against hers, sending a shiver down her back. “But I worry for your palms, Anya Gentlehands. A hand like this cannot keep a house. It deserves a house that can be kept for it.”
Anya snatched her hand back, the corners of her mouth slipping down toward her chin. A mix of hurt and indignation assailed her throat, tightening it until it burned. “We’ll see about that, Claus Woodcutter. Perhaps I should turn down your bed.”
After that, Claus stayed away for many weeks, and Anya supposed him embarrassed for them both. How foolish she had been, she admonished herself, for thinking that Claus would be so glad to have a spoiled wife! She could change that, though—she would not allow him to dismiss her as an untried girl.
In the time he was away, she went to Polya, the serving girl, and begged for her help. A weary maiden who spent her days scrubbing and polishing would never turn away help, and under her tutelage, Anya learned to keep the inn. In the process, the time it took dropped by hours, and Polya had time to see her own beau, a blacksmith’s apprentice whose bony elbows always seemed to stick out. The cost for Polya’s happiness and Anya’s newfound knowledge was small, by the latter’s reckoning: she lost only her soft white hands in the process.
“No longer Anya Gentlehands, are you?” the villagers teased, and Anya’s cheeks would flush as pink as her chapped fingers. “Are you looking to impress someone?”
“Shall I teach you next to cook?” asked Polya, and Anya gladly agreed, despite the way chopping onions made her sniffle.
She soon found that they weren’t her only adversaries in the kitchen. Irregularly shaped beets rolled away from her knife in terror, and once, she had to throw an entire bowl of chopped potatoes to the cows, because she had cut herself without knowing and bled all over them.
(“Only don’t feed them to pigs,” Polya warned, and Anya saw a new sparkle of amusement in her eyes. She had never heard Polya joke before. Perhaps she had been too tired. “They’ll catch a taste for blood from you, and then you’ll be in trouble.”)
(She had nightmares that night of pigs finding her in her bed and snuffling their snouts at her neck, but seeing Polya’s thin mouth smile had been worth it.)
When Claus did return, the villagers no longer laughed about little Anya Gentlehands fetching and carrying bowls of beet soup and potato dumplings. Her quick feet and rough hands had become part of the scenery of the inn, as much as her listening face. Claus, however, looked at amazement when Anya bounded over to him and reached for his hands with a pair that was pink from dishwater and rough from
“Anya Gentlehands,” he began, his brows drawing a furrow down his forehead.
“Come to my table,” she entreated him, shaking her head against any words he might add, “and try the herring I dressed this evening.”
He ate gladly, talking over the possibility of improving pine resin glue with a carpenter friend, while Anya listened to the apothecary spin a tale of woe involving two chickens and a misplaced tincture. When his friend left for the night, Anya returned to Claus and sat beside him.
“Did you enjoy the herring?” she asked, though she could guess the answer from his empty plate.
“A wife could cook you such things whenever you asked.”
“And I would not need to hand over copper pennies for the honour,” he agreed, and his hand covered hers. “But Anya Not-So-Gentlehands, I have so many responsibilities already. I cut wood for hours at a time and bring it to every village I can reach. I care for my reindeer, and I try to be a friend to everyone I meet. Do I have time for a wife?”
“I think you might,” she told him, and in his eyes, she was sure she saw agreement. It was marred by worry, but it was there.
Anya didn’t bring the subject up again that night, but in the morning, she visited her apothecary friend and asked all kinds of questions of him.
“How, Yarik, do you cure a fever? How do you keep reindeers’ ankles from swelling? What should every good wife keep in her pantry? Can cobwebs really stop bleeding, or is Polya telling stories?”
“Anya, Anya!” he cried, laughing, while he pounded together the ingredients for poultices for Lidiya and Stanislaus, the bakers who lived at the far end of the village square. “Your questions will ask me out of work. What do you need to know of a wife’s job, anyway?”
Anya smiled. “I promise to always buy my supplies from you. But Yarik, I need to prove myself to another. Surely you understand this.”
It was common knowledge that Yarik had spent the last year lovelorn over a milkmaid called Lena, and all his chasing hadn’t yet drawn the girl away from her dreams of a herd of cows all her own. It was more commonly known yet to Anya, for she had commiserated with Yarik over many bowls of porridge.
“Next, you’ll ask me what maladies are most common for a woodcutter!”
Kind though Yarik’s laughter was, Anya’s cheeks flushed, and she ducked her head. They had always been friends, she and Yarik, since they were little children struggling to sound out the words carved over the church door. Of all people, he would see where her gaze drifted.
“You are a monster, Yarik,” she told him, laughing as well. “I’ll tell Lena you torment poor girls for your own amusement.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” He struggled to look stern, and they both dissolved into uselessness when the door opened and the village priest strode in with his usual dour expression.
For all his teasing and complaints, Yarik told her everything she wished to know, and Anya ventured into the woods ringing the village, armed with knowledge and a heavy lantern. The best herbs, it seemed, were picked under moonlight, but Anya doubted it would be impressive to gather herbs of any type if she twisted her ankle in the process. A little light couldn’t hurt.
When the herbs were dry and good for grinding, she tied them with a bit of weathered string and sneaked them into Claus’ sleigh. One of the reindeer snorted at her, perhaps smelling her gift as she walked past, but Anya was confident it wouldn’t tell.
Claus solved the mystery of the bundle that very night, and no sooner than he had gone to his sleigh to begin the drive home, he strode back inside and headed straight for the kitchen.
Anya, who was slicing a potato, set down her knife. Inside her, she felt her stomach bubble with possibility. If he had returned so quickly, he was very happy—or very disappointed. Behind her, she heard footsteps and knew that Polya had decided to leave them alone.
What a good friend Polya was, she thought. She looked up at Claus and hoped the beet soup stain on her bodice wasn’t too obvious.
“Somebody,” Claus began, in a careful voice, “left me a gift. Do you know who that might have been, Anya Potato-Cutter?”
“I might.” Anya smoothed down her apron. “I would be more certain if I knew what you thought of it.”
“Oh, I liked it.” The smile Claus gave her was tinged with a strange sort of sadness. “But I wonder why someone might give it to me.”
Anya laughed with more confidence than she felt. “You said it yourself, Claus. You have so many responsibilities. A wife could help you manage them.”
“And make me responsible for a wife.”
“A woman is responsible for herself! Do you think Lidiya the baker’s wife sits around and waits for him to tell her what to do?” Everyone who walked into their bakery knew the sound of Lidiya’s loud, warm kitchen, which seemed to brighten the whole shop, no matter the temperature outside. She shouted orders to Stanislaus, who always hurried to follow them.
Claus spread his hands, shrugging. “I am a bachelor, and I never had a sister. I might not know enough about a wife to tell.”
“I think you have much to learn, Claus Lives-Alone.” Her voice was kind, round-syllabled, and she had to tell herself not to reach for his hands. “Don’t you want more than reindeer for companionship?”
“I do. You don’t know how much I would like a wife who knows cooking, cleaning, and reindeer-doctoring.” Claus crossed his arms before him, as if he, too, needed to keep himself from touching her. Surely, Anya thought, if he would only set his broad hands upon her shoulders, he would know they belonged there. “What I really want, though, is a wife who listens to everyone, and who always has kind words for them. I think I would be in love with her for the rest of my life and beyond.”
For a moment, Anya’s mouth would not open. She longed to pinch herself or push the dull edge of her knife against the back of her hand, just until she felt the pressure on her skin. Anything that would prove she was really awake would do. But Claus would see, and she wanted to be the certain, capable wife she knew she could be. “Then why don’t you ask such a girl?”
“Because…because…” Claus stumbled, and Anya’s heels wanted to lift off the ground of their own accord. He must see no reason, she thought. Nothing stands in our way! “Because I am only a poor woodcutter. I live with my reindeer, and I can offer little to such a woman. She would never have the luxuries of an innkeeper’s daughter, and I would be away from her so often, cutting wood and selling it for my living. It would never be fair to her.”
He turned away, his shoulders no longer proud.
Anya couldn’t let him leave—not for such a reason, not if it meant he would deny them both such happiness. She reached for his arm and felt its strength beneath her slender fingers. Beneath his heavy coat, she was sure it was warm. Around her, she was sure it would be powerful and gentle in equal measure.
But he shrugged her off, and she let him. Claus walked out into the night and called yo! so quietly that nobody but the reindeer heard him. Anya slipped out of the kitchen, gathered her apron up in her hands, and wept into it.
In the morning, she woke with new determination. One more try, she told herself. If he doesn’t believe me this time, I’ll be a spinster all my life. But I must try.
She laced up her warmest boots, the ones lined with rabbit fur, and nearly drowned herself in her father’s heavy coat. For gloves, however, she wore her own delicate pair, for she knew she would need use of her hands. From the blacksmith’s apprentice, she borrowed an axe, and she walked out into the forest.
After fifteen minutes of walking, Anya realized just what a foolhardy idea wading through deep snow in borrowed things might be. Already, she was growing tired; the coat was heavy on her shoulders, and its hem dragged along the sprawling white drifts. It was too late to turn back, however, so she pressed on.
After forty minutes, she found the little cottage that served as home for Claus and the reindeer. From there, she followed the slender, straight tracks of his sleigh until she came to a clearing large enough for a woodcutter and his animals to work. There, dressed in brown leather and fur, stood Claus. He sawed at a tree with a single-minded devotion evident even from a distance.
At the sight of him, Anya no longer minded the way her toes felt lumpy and stiff in her boots. She could convince him, and even if she couldn’t, she could beg a ride home in his sleigh. Either way, she would try her best.
Rather than call to him, she pushed quietly into the edge of the clearing and found a tree too thick for her to make any real progress in. It would be safer, surely, if she didn’t actually fell a pine several times taller than she.
Pulling the axe from where it was strapped to her back, Anya wound back and swung. The blade hit the trunk with a resounding thwack, the sound echoing in the quiet clearing. Claus would surely hear it and look up, but she wasn’t about to look his way. Wrenching the axe out of the tree, she swung again, and once more. Each hit made a satisfying noise, though one sent a little fall of powdery snow down over her.
“Anya Reckless! What are you doing out here?” Claus’ heavy footsteps were swallowed by the snow, but there was a quiet crunch under his boots as he came closer. “Did you walk from the inn?”
She set the axe down against the pine it had insulted with a few blows and turned to face him. “I’m here to cut wood, Claus Woodcutter.”
“Because a woodcutter’s wife is only alone if she doesn’t follow her husband on his travels.” She felt small in the forest, looking up at Claus like a bird staring at a mountain. It only made her more determined. “A woodcutter’s wife is only poor if she doesn’t want a woodcutter’s living.”
“A woodcutter’s wife must work hard,” he warned, his face unreadable.
“Do I not work hard, Claus?”
“She must make sacrifices.”
“I walked here from the inn. I can’t feel my toes. Isn’t that a sacrifice?”
“Her husband might not be handsome, the way she is beautiful.” The words felt warm as they reached her. “He might not be everything she wants.”
“He is. A woodcutter’s wife would listen to him and see everything good inside his heart.” It felt too distant to talk this way. She was too cold for such games. “Oh, Claus, do you love me or not?”
Claus sighed, and with the breath seemed to flee all the walls keeping his expression from her. He was soft-eyed and unsure whether he wanted to smile or frown, looking at her like she could be an angel come to him in disguise. He seemed astounded, and an answer took time to reach his mouth. “More than I love sunlight.”
“Do you want me to be your wife?”
“More than I want a warm fire.”
“Then marry me, Claus.” She took the large, awkward steps necessary to close the space between them and wrapped her arms around him. “If you love me and want to marry me, and you decide not to, after all this, I’ll never forgive you.”
She felt Claus laugh before she heard it. It seemed to shake through him, as deep and filling as soup on a cold night. His thick arms slid around her and pulled her closer yet. When she looked up at him, he bent his head and kissed her as no one ever had before.
Anya would sacrifice all the warm toes in the world, if only she could be kissed like that every day of her life.
They were married three weeks later, and three villages’ worth of guests packed into the church. When they drove away in his sleigh, Anya covered one of Claus’ hands in hers and squeezed it. “I feel like we’re about to go on an adventure.”
“An adventure?” Claus let go of the reins with that hand and turned it so he could squeeze back. “Walking miles and miles in the snow wasn’t adventure enough for you?”
“I am a woodcutter’s wife.” Anya straightened up next to him, pretending to preen. “We seem to find adventures wherever we go.”
So they lived, and they are still alive, if they haven’t died yet.