Continued

She shivered and came to. The room was very cold. She was alarmed to see how low the candle had burned: had she slept so long? She reached out and put her small work-worn hand on her father's. He was colder than she. She came out of her chair, stiff and awkward, and felt for his heart. Nothing: Death had come and gone. Now she was alone in the world.

The villagers buried him in the cemetery next to their plain white meeting house. They stood silent and respectful in the cold bright day as the Reverend Mr. Greene committed the departed soul to God; a few of them--women, mostly--glanced at the pale girl-child standing apart, staring at the pine coffin sunk in the newly dug grave. A strand of her curly brown hair had blown loose, whipping across her thin face. She seemed not to notice. She stood immobile, not joining in the prayer. They would have comforted her, for they were kindly people well acquainted with Death. But they were shy of her; they did not know her well.

She was not one of them. She and her father had arrived in late August, near harvest time, wandering down the mountain to this small settlement like two lost lams. And so, in a sense, they were.

The Reverend Isaac Palfrey had been a man of God, a man whose way to the next world was paved with sermons and prayers delivered in this; a man who paid no heed to the conditions of life on earth, so intent was he upon depicting the splendors of Heaven, the terrifying particulars of Hell; a man who ate when he was given food, who starved when he was denied it, and hardly knew the difference; who gratefully accepted shelter when given a roof, but did not care if that roof covered house or stable; a man, in short, who attended to the Lord's business while neglecting his own. His daughter shared his life. She grew; she learned her letters and numbers in snatches at schools in the towns and villages through which they passed; for the sake of her mother's memory she cared for her father as best she could. She helped in the kitchen to earn their keep in houses where they stayed; she mended their clothing, and washed them from time to time; she learned--very young--to know the moment in each place when they had outstayed their welcome and so must move on, eternal wanderers in the service of the Reverend's endless mission. They were never close, father and daughter, for the Reverend Palfrey was close only to God; but he was all she had, and so, when he died, she wept for a little time. Still, it was her other whom she mourned.

She stood now beside the open grave and watched the sexton shovel heavy clumps of earth upon the coffin. The wind blew faded leaves in thick swirling patterns across the rows of slate and granite tombstones. A month ago, the trees had been brilliant red and gold: God's yearly gift before the long white winter. She was glad that her father had lived to see the autumn color one last time. She said a small, private prayer for him then, and as she prayed he envisioned him entering the gates of Heaven. She was certain that he would be warmly welcomed by the Lord.

She did not sleep in a bed that night; she sat in the same chair, in the same room where her father had died. She dozed, waiting for the dawn. When the first pale light showed at the window she took her small hair trunk and crept downstairs. Stopping at the pantry, she wrapped a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese in her kerchief; quietly she unlatched the door and walked out of the house.

Mist filled the valley so that she could not see the end of the narrow street which bisected the village. The encircling mountains, too, were shrouded. But she knew these peaks and valleys, these isolated settlements; she had walked this country all her life. There were bears and wolves in the forests, and poisonous snakes underfoot, but she was not afraid. There were spirits who stalked the unwary traveler: the ghosts of Indians, of early settlers who died battling over the land; there were the tales of old women living in remote hamlets, who warned of mysterious vanishings, of certain paths and streams, certain hills and lowlands haunted by the restless souls who once had lived there. She feared none of these. Without hesitation she walked out of the village, up the mountain road past the scattered farms. The mist cleared rapidly. When she reached the top she paused to gaze at the panorama spread below: a valley, a few more houses, another mountain and yet another, taller, wilder, visible now in the first light of the sun.

She picked up her trunk and began to walk again.