Pip, Short for Pipsqueak
They roasted the last chestnut the night Papa left home.
He sat in his chair in front of the fireplace with Nibs and Nan tucked in on either side. Mama knitted in her chair across from him, her foot rocking Baby Finny asleep in the cradle.
The three older children sprawled on the floor. The glow of the fire flickered over their faces. Will, with his injured leg, stared silently into the flames. Kit lay beside him, whittling his newest carving.
Pip was the one with her head in a book.
Pip was always the one with her head in a book.
"Better look sharp, Pip," Papa warned in his deep voice as he cracked the warm chestnut open, "or the greedy beggars you call your brothers and sisters won't leave you a crumb."
"When is a mouse a bookworm?" said Kit. "When her name is Pip."
"Pip's a worm. Pip's a worm," chanted Nibs and Nan, and giggled.
Pip looked up at her father and smiled. He was the one who had named her Pip, short for Pipsqueak, when she was born.
"You were so small we made a nest for you in a teacup," he told her, again and again because she never got tired of hearing it. "We thought we had lost you until we heard a tiny squeak and saw two huge brown eyes looking up at us."
Pip was still small. She was quiet, too. It used to be that she was sometimes lonely in the midst of her boisterous family. She felt as if no one saw, or heard, her. Then, one day, Papa said, "You may not speak in a big voice, Pip, but I hear you, loud and clear."
Pip never felt lonely again.
"It's all right," she told him now. "I don't like chestnuts that much."
Papa knew she didn't mean it. Everyone in the family loved the dense meat of the glossy nuts. They were a special treat. But there had been so few of them this winter. So little food of any kind.
Pip would be glad to give her share to Will if it would help bring his old smile back.
"Nonsense," Papa said. He held the shell with the meat cut into equal pieces out to her. "There's plenty to go around."
Pip took a morsel and held it up to her nose. The rich smell made her empty stomach grumble. She tucked it into her pocket for later.
Papa looked around at his family, his kind face wreathed in a reassuring smile. "I'll be home in two days with more food than you've ever seen," he said. "Three days at the most. We'll have a Christmas feast. Invite everyone we know."
"Hip, hip, hooray!" squealed Nibs and Nan.
Papa tickled them, making them shriek with delight. Then Mama took them off to bed. Soon it was Pip's bedtime, too.
"Your brother may need your help finding food while I'm gone," Papa said as he tucked the blankets snugly around her. "This snow is giving his leg a devil of a time."
I can't! Pip wanted to cry. You have to be strong and brave to find food! I'm afraid!
She longed to ask Papa about the spots of blood she had seen dotting his paws when he came home from digging for food in the deep snow that had covered the woods for weeks.
And about the stories she had heard of the hungry animals roaming through the trees, stealing any food you were lucky enough to find.
The look she saw in her father's eyes stopped her.
"Don't worry, Papa," she said. She patted his huge paw with her tiny one. "If Will can't do it, I can."
"I know you can, my girl," Papa said. He kissed her and stood up. "You can do anything in the world."
Pip clutched at a corner of his jacket. Papa was like a tall and gentle giant. Her very own gentle giant, who kept her safe.
"Three days at the most?" she asked.
"Three days at the most," he promised.