Authors: Thomas Williams
For Ann and Peter
Once there was a family named Hemlock who lived, in another time, near the base of Cascom Mountain, a high bold mountain of hardwood trees, dark evergreens and granite crags. There were no other houses for a hundred miles of forests and meadows and swamps, lakes and rivers blue and unnamed where the swift animals lived in their ways, running and flying, and the slow animals blinked away their long years.
Tim Hemlock was a hunter, a maker of things, and a farmer; he and Eugenia had cleared the kitchen garden and their two small fields and held them open against the shadowing woods that always wanted to creep in, fill the openings with trunks and roof them with leaves. Tim was a silent, thoughtful man, kind enough to his family and to his animals, though at times he seemed to hear voices that made him sad and stern. He watched and listened a great deal, as a man must in the wilderness, but there was more to his watching and his silence than he ever told his family. He worked and cared for them, that they knew, but he would never tell them what he waited for, what he might hope to see in the shapes of the storm clouds over Cascom Mountain, or to hear in the voices of the wind.
In the Hemlocks’ log cabin, Jen, who was seven, was helping her mother with the big wooden butter churn, spelling her mother while the clabber was new and the crank easy to turn. Arn, who was nearly ten, was out in the cold storage cave dug into the hill behind the cabin, helping his father cut the venison jerky they would dry in long strips in the short-lived October sun. For it was fall, the time before the cold storms would come with the white hiss of snow over the mountain. They were preparing for the long dark season when the days would be short and the wind like knives, when their cow, Oka, and their ox, Brin, and the two goats and the pig would barely heat the small barn with their bodies. The barn was barer now, for their bull, who had been the brother of Brin, had wandered away from the pasture in the spring and never returned. And Oka’s calf had died at birth. In the cabin the fireplace would burn by day and ember by night, eating the precious cords of hardwood Arn and his father had stacked under the long eaves after Brin had hauled them from the woods on the iron-shod sledge.
In the kitchen Eugenia was singing, her long brown hair in braids Jen had woven, her blue eyes as clear as the October sky. She sang the butter song. Sometimes Jen sang along with her, but sometimes she just listened to her mother’s sweet voice as she sang:
“Out of night comes daylight,
Out of thin comes thick.
Oka knows how butter grows,
So turn the paddles quick.”
In the storage cave, on the thick maple table by the door, Arn’s knife sliced the dark red venison into long, thin ribbons. His father was quicker and his ribbons of meat thinner and longer, but his father told him he was doing well.
“You must be quick and careful with the gift the deer have given us,” he said. “Remember, we do nothing for the deer as we do for Oka and Brin, the pig and the goats. The deer feed themselves and nearly starve every winter, and we don’t help them at all, so their flesh is a gift to us.”
“Like the salmon in the river,” Arn said.
“Yes,” his father answered.
Now, the Hemlocks were all expecting the Traveler, who came once a year in his long canoe. Every once in a while Arn and Jen would stop what they were doing and look down into the valley to the river, wondering with excitement if they could see the Traveler’s canoe in the distance as he poled his way up the rapids to the last landing of all. Every October he brought them lead ingots for rifle balls, a twenty-pound keg of black powder, flint, needles, salt, oil, steel, iron dogs and strapping. If Tim Hemlock had had a good year of hunting and a good winter at the forge beside the barn (where Arn pumped the bellows for his father), and if Jen and Eugenia had a good winter making deerskin moccasins decorated with porcupine quills they cut into beads, bleached and dyed and strung on thread, there would be skins and fur, Tim Hemlock knives of steel and deer horn, and beautiful moccasins to trade. Then the Traveler would return to his canoe and bring them licorice, powdered chocolate, tea, and other things they enjoyed but didn’t really need.
So it happened that Jen, having taken her turn at the butter churn, went to the door thinking she might be the first to see the Traveler’s canoe on the blue river. As she opened the door she jumped back with a cry, for standing there, absolutely still, was a person, a small person all in brown, her brown deerskin dress touching the ground. It was an old, old woman, her hair thin and white, her old face as brown as her deerskin clothes. She didn’t speak or change her expression, she just stood there with her bright old eyes staring at Jen. Her face was covered with deep wrinkles that crisscrossed like the cracks in the mud of a dried pond. Between the wrinkles her skin was as smooth and shiny as dark wax. In her hands she held a basket woven of water reeds.
Jen’s mother had heard her cry and came quickly to the door. She was startled too, because the Hemlocks hadn’t had a visitor other than the Traveler for many years.
“Who are you?” Eugenia asked, but the old woman didn’t move or say a word. Only her brilliant old eyes moved from Jen to Eugenia, then into the open door of the cabin as if she were looking for someone else.
“Go tell your father,” Eugenia said to Jen, who made a wide circle around the old woman and ran to the storage cave where Arn and her father were working.
“There’s an old brown woman!” Jen said. She felt like crying, she was so upset. “At the door! She scared me!”
Quickly they all went to the cabin, and the children, who soon looked to their father, saw a strange expression on his face when he spoke to the old woman.
“Who are you?” he asked, yet his face was puzzled, as though he shouldn’t have had to ask the question at all. He seemed to be trying to remember.
When the old woman saw him she moved for the first time, nodding her head, then holding out her basket to him. He took the basket, still puzzled, and nodded his head three times. The old woman, her face as unchanging as wood, nodded three times in answer. And from that time forward, Tim Hemlock never again tried to say words to the old woman.
He handed the reed basket to Eugenia, then pointed to the cabin, made his hands into the shape of a roof, pointed to his heart, then to the old woman, and moved his hand in a slow sweep toward the door, bidding her to enter. She did, walking so smoothly it seemed she had no feet but glided over the ground. She went straight to the bench beside the fireplace and sat down, her worn and ragged deerskin skirt still covering her feet. Her hands were knobby; the brown fingers seemed to bend at the wrong places, the joints swollen and painful-looking. But with smooth motions she seemed to be speaking with them just the same. She cupped her two hands, pointed to the basket Eugenia held, then made one hand act as the cover of the basket, and opened this hand as she nodded. They all knew that Eugenia was to open the basket.
The children came up close to look. Inside the basket were various small objects, each wrapped carefully in a basswood leaf. First there were mushrooms, on top because they were fragile. There were corals, pink, white and light blue, morels that looked like brown sponges, puffballs of pure white that when sliced and fried would taste like meat, beefsteak mushrooms that looked like their name, and oysters because that is how they looked. And then there were some beautiful orange and yellow mushrooms the Hemlocks had never seen before and wouldn’t have dared to try if they had.
Beneath the mushrooms were perfect little birch-bark boxes fitting side by side. Eugenia took them out one by one and put them on the big oak table. On the top of each box was a picture of a plant cut into the birch bark, and inside each box was a different-colored powder, fine as flour. Arn, who liked to collect wild food, thought he recognized some of the plants in the pictures. There was goosefoot, arrowhead, roseroot, kinnikinic, glasswort, purslane and dock. But some of the plants he couldn’t recognize. One box, full of a fine brown powder, had on its cover a picture of a gracefully drooping human hand.
“She says they’re a gift for us,” Tim Hemlock said.
“But what are all those powders?” Eugenia asked.
“I don’t know, but they’re a gift, so we’ll put them on the shelf,” Tim Hemlock said, and they did. They put the little boxes on the shelf over the fireplace, where they would stay dry. The old woman never moved or said a word, but her eyes were bright.
In the following days they ate the mushrooms they knew were good to eat, but left the orange and yellow ones in their leaves on the shelf.
Days passed, and the old woman sat on the bench by the fireplace. She sat quietly, hardly moving, all day long. During the early morning hours before dawn and just after, she was gone, but then she returned to glide quietly to her place on the wooden bench. She ate very little and was no trouble, but after a week or more Eugenia began to get a little upset. She and Jen were out by the watering trough where Tim Hemlock and Arn were working, and she asked Tim Hemlock how long the old woman was going to stay.
“It isn’t that she’s a bother, but she looks at me all the time and it makes me nervous,” Eugenia said.
“And she smells funny,” Jen said. “She smells like sometimes when you’re taking a walk in the woods and there’s a warm sort of animal wave of air, and you don’t know where it came from.”
“If I could only
to her,” Eugenia said. “Who is she? What is she doing here?”
Eugenia asked because sometimes Tim Hemlock and the old woman did talk, with their hands, and no one else could follow their meanings beyond something simple like “Would you like some more soup?” which was easy enough to understand.
“I’m not sure who she is,” Tim Hemlock said slowly, the puzzled look on his face. “But I know we must let her stay.”
Later, when he and Arn and Jen were in the barn feeding the animals, Arn said, “How do you know how to talk to her, Dad?”
“I don’t know,” his father said. “My grandfather—your great-grandfather—Shem Hemlock, could talk that way. Once, when I was a boy, when I was about your age, Arn, and one of the Old People came by my father’s house, my father told me that. But he couldn’t do it. I don’t know how I know how to do it.”
“Is the old lady one of the Old People?” Jen asked. She was scratching the broad muzzle of Oka, the cow.
“She must be the last one, if she is,” Tim Hemlock said. “Were the Old People always old, like her?” Arn asked.
“No, it’s that they were here before us.”
“And they’re all gone?”
“Men have thought so for many years,” Tim Hemlock said, and the children, seeing their father’s thoughtful, silent mood come over him, said nothing more.
They had been told before about their grandfather, and of his farm many miles, hills and valleys away, how it had been destroyed by a great forest fire when their father was a young man. Their grandfather had moved back toward where the people all lived together, but their father had left the blackened farm and gone deeper into the wilderness. “I went deeper,” Tim Hemlock told them once. “Something called me to go deeper toward the mountain.”