If he could take illness from one and give it to another, it was the first he’d heard of it. He was young, and according to his sibling angels, peculiar. No one had mentioned this particular skill, but he had not yet met Brother Owl and knew nothing of his rules. He had no doubt that Grandfather Death, with his black robes and scythe, could do it. It was doubtful, however, that he would interfere in the work of a plague or death angel, nor would he approve of Billy Bob impersonating Brother Owl or interfering.
Her shoulders sagged and she sat down hard, burying her face in her hands. “There is no one, as you know too well! My husband died in battle with another band. His father and mother were killed by white raiders and my only sister was carried off by them. My band calls me cursed. My family is nearly gone. I have just One Tree.” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears in the firelight. “One of his uncles must take him in, even if they did not want the burden of a second wife and a nephew before. He was strong and smart before the White Man’s sickness took root in him.”
“You could bear more children,” Billy Bob said. She was young and attractive, by Comanche or Anglo standards. It was a mystery to him why she hadn’t found another husband. He looked her over again, and she felt the question in his gaze.
“Even were I not cursed, I am not good at wifely chores. My beadwork is bad. My jerky is hard. The hides I tan, not supple. I’m good at hunting, and at haggling with traders. And I am cursed. Only ghosts will live in my lodge, if One Tree dies. No one will miss me, Brother Owl.”
“Cursed? What kind of foolish talk is this?”
“Death follows me everywhere. No offense, Brother Owl, but you are a strong curse.” She turned back to One Tree, who called for her with a piteous little mewling sound.
Muttering under his breath, he slipped out of the wikkiup and went in search of more dung and perhaps a bit of wood. The night wind hit him like a wall of needles, pushing chill through his duster as though it were no more than shirtsleeves. He was glad for his superior night vision as he worked his way along the frozen bank. Only when his pockets were full of dung and his arms full of sticks and one fine bit of driftwood did he return to the wikkiup.
Arrowheart looked up from sharpening an arrowhead. “I’m almost out of shot,” she replied to his unasked question, her eyes flicking to her long gun against the wall, to his empty gun belt, and then back to her work. “I must go out at first light and shoot a fine rabbit,” she said, “and cook a fine stew so that One Tree may get well from it after I am gone.”
“Arrowheart.” He knelt beside her, wood tumbling from his arms. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“You can take him to his uncle. Oha Esi, my horse, will show you the way,” she continued, speaking over him, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Arrowheart.” He gave her a little shake. “It’s too late.”
She bowed her head over the arrow and whetstone in her lap, revealing nothing but the red painted part in her hair. Slowly, she turned her head towards the buffalo robe bed where her lifeless son lay. Brother Owl had spirited away the child while Billy Bob gathered fuel and Arrowheart worked.
“Get away!” she repeated, and then launched into a stream of Comanche that took him a moment to decipher.
“That’s as may be, ma’am, but I ain’t here for no child-stealing,” he replied. “I’m on my way to Osiah Hertzog’s. You probably know him, if you travel through these parts often. I need to stop for the night. The weather,” he said with a shrug, rolling eyes heavenward.
“Forgive me, Brother Owl. I didn’t recognize you,” the woman replied. “Take me instead. One Tree is still a babe yet, for all that he walks and talks. He doesn’t deserve to die so young. Don’t let the white man’s sickness take him from me.”
He stood over where she crouched, studying her for a long moment. Her buckskin dress was tattered along its hem and her buffalo robe thin in places. But even with tragedy upon her, she had twisted her fine dark hair into warrior’s braids and her dark almond eyes challenged his.
“I’m not Brother Owl. I’m William Robert Travis.”
She nodded. “You go in disguise. I understand. It’s not safe here since the whites came. Not even for you.” A cough followed by a thin cry sounded from the wikkiup, and she dove inside.
Leaving Bone to huddle with the woman’s horse hobbled on the lee side of the wikkiup, he followed. Nestled in another threadbare buffalo robe, was a child no more than three years old. He was covered with smallpox lesions, fever wracking his small body even as he shivered in the cold. His mother added a few more dung chips from her meager supply to the tiny fire and stroked the boy’s head.
The hut spoke of poverty and abandonment. Little food, few belongings. An old gun leaned against the wall, along with a nearly empty shot bag. Near it rested a cracked bow with a threadbare string. The dented tin pot near the fire was filled with water, not soup.
“How long has he been sick?” Billy Bob asked, squatting down beside her. The little boy on the makeshift bed looked up at him with bloodstained, unseeing eyes.
“Eleven days. Eleven days we have camped here by the Goo-al-pah.”
“He won’t make twelve,” Billy Bob said, forcing the words past the regret clogging his throat.
“Take me instead,” she repeated. “I am Paaka Pihi, Arrowheart, and I am not afraid to die for my son!”
Clearly not, Billy Bob thought, since she had stayed even as her band had deserted them with few supplies and no assistance. He moved to a spot near the entrance and sat down, looking up at her. Her face and hands and what he could see of her legs above her fur leggings were clear of lesions. Perhaps by some miracle she had escaped contracting the disease herself while nursing her sick child.
“I know you can do it, Brother Owl,” she said. “I have heard of it. You can take his illness, and give it to me.”
“Arrowheart, dear one. If I could, who would look after him when you die? Where would I find kin to take him in?” he countered, stalling for time.
February 1848, North Texas
Freezing rain made icy ropes of William Robert Travis’s horse’s mane and clotted the trail’s ruts in front of them. The Canadian River’s red water had a white crust along the banks, and stalactites of ice clung to every bush. He would not make Osiah Hertzog’s place before nightfall. There were Bone’s hooves to consider. There was no point risking a strained hock or worse. Bone snorted, as if to agree, her breath foggy puffs shooting from her nostrils. A cold camp wouldn’t do for either of them. He tugged on the reins and Bone delicately picked her way off the trail. Down by the water they might find a cut in the banks for shelter and dung to build a fire. Hertzog could wait until morning to meet his Maker.
He rode on into the twilight for a spell, the world gone white and silent around him. As far as he knew, an Angel of Death could not freeze to death himself, but the cold still seeped into his being. When he took on corporeal form, he was beholden to the laws of the mortal universe. It was inconvenient, but sometimes necessary for his mission. He belatedly regretted the trip in front of him. However much the dramatic act of riding in from the west might please Osiah Hertzog middle-aged and dying of pneumonia, he hadn’t needed to start some thirty miles away from the house.
Truth was, William Robert, Billy Bob to his friends, wanted to enjoy the mortal realm for a bit. He’d forgotten about the wretched weather of the High Plains in late winter. He could go incorporeal and rematerialize closer to Hertzog’s ranch, but he needed to conserve his energy in case Osiah ran. He thought it likely. The man didn’t seem ready to die quite yet.
Bone snorted again, this time in warning, and Billy Bob looked up from his reverie. A thin plume of smoke rose up ahead of them. A campfire, a mystery to be solved. Who would be desperate enough to camp here, at this time of year? Bone picked up his interest and increased to a trot, then ducked and shied as a rock flew past Billy Bob’s head.
“Get away!” Another rock, launched from a small, dark figure, punctuated the command.
In a cut in the bank, much like what he hoped to camp in, was a small brush hut. It was a wikkiup of the sort that local tribes used for shelter when the weather was too warm for a hide lodge. Only someone very poor or suicidal would try to camp in one in winter. The wikkiup’s resident scrabbled on hands and knees, searching for another missile to aim at Billy Bob’s head.
“Stand, Bone,” Billy Bob commanded, and slid out of the saddle with a sigh.
He didn’t want to deal with a suicide. It would only complicate his mission with Hertzog. The man was very ill. It would be no kindness to make him wait, and suicide by wikkiup might take quite a while, even with the bad weather. Wondering what fate and the Maker wanted of him, he strode forward, ignoring the volley of clods and small rocks, until he was close enough to reach out and touch her, but still she held her ground.
Mirriam took a sip of her tepid coffee as she watched yet another group of children and adults pass by her garden gate. Everyone had a sled in tow, a smile on their face and a carol on their lips. Her own smile drooped when she realized that they weren’t Christmas carolers. They went on by, minding their business and leaving her to hers, as they had all year long.
She pulled the heavy curtain over the frosty window panes and turned back to her computer. At first she didn’t want to rent a cottage in Westfarthing, in the middle of nowhere. Her doctor prevailed. The cleaner air would help her lungs heal. The slower pace would temper her type “a” personality. Her company allowed telecommuting.
Mirriam rarely spoke to a single soul other than the delivery boy and the mail carrier. The locals weren’t unfriendly. They just didn’t engage, other than the offhand, cheery greeting on the rare occasions when she ventured out. She didn’t mind all that much. Big blocks of data were always more alluring to her than human company.
The last of twilight came and went, unnoticed by Mirriam until she ran out of coffee. Though it was much too late for anyone to be abroad, she pulled back the curtain a sliver and peered out, something in her yearning for a glimpse. The well-trod path by her cottage contained only snow and starlight.
There was the consolation of reports to analyze, a new year of data just beginning to be born. Her life was predictable, regular, and safe. So what if it was a bit dull at times? She pushed back against a longing she didn’t fully understand and tried to focus on the present and only the present. As she stood impatiently by the old-fashioned drip pot, waiting for yet another carafe of barely drinkable brew, a scratching noise sounded at the kitchen door.
“Shoo!” Mirriam said. “I don’t do strays!” She pulled her ratty pink terry bathrobe tight, worn all day over her clothes as a charm against drafts. The scratching continued. Guilt twinged her over leaving any living creature out in the deep winter night. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to open the door just a crack.
“Please miss. I’m very lost,” said a tiny voice, not much more than a whisper of a wail above the wind.
Mirriam yanked open the door. On her back stoop was a frail girl, not more than ten years old, dressed in nothing but the tatters of an old flannel nightgown. Her feet were blue under the filth of the road.
“I’ll only stay for a little while, if that’s all right,” the girl said, looking up at her with luminous, pleading eyes.
“Yes of course!”
And then there was cocoa to make (bitter coffee abandoned) and muffins to toast over the fire. Mirriam had always wanted to toast muffins over the fire. The girl, who wouldn’t say her name, devoured most of them. It was very late, and the phone was out again. Surely it could wait until morning to call the proper authorities.
The girl wouldn’t get into the shower. They had to make paper boats to float before she got into the giant old clawfoot tub. Mirriam had thought about taking long soaks when she moved in, yet another thing she’d pushed off until “some day”. With the gas fire roaring and Mirriam’s leftover Christmas playlist on full from the computer in the other room, it felt like a party.
She couldn’t sleep on the sofa under the rattly old window, and neither could Mirriam, with her wheezy lungs and bad back. They climbed into the big old brass bed together The girl sang them to sleep with forgotten lullabies, the same as Mirriam’s mother knew. In the morning, Mirriam taught the girl how to untangle her curly hair and dressed her in a velvet dress that she found in the back of a drawer, abandoned by previous residents.
Over the following week, they played all over the house. They made too many cookies and drank too much cocoa. Paper dolls and popcorn strings decorated a very belated Christmas tree, a sad pink tinsel thing found in the cottage’s attic. They played games on Mirriam’s computer, even as her inbox filled with frantic messages from work.
It couldn’t last forever, Mirriam knew. The authorities must be notified. The girl had to be placed in a foster home. But first, surely, they could spend the day together watching movies. The girl looked healthier and more beautiful each day. Mirriam’s heart ached at the thought of her going, of her being returned to the family that had abused her and turned her out into the cold.
A pounding on the front door awoke her from where she lay napping on the sofa, the little girl curled up under a fake fur blanket at the other end. For a moment, Mirriam couldn’t work out what it meant. No one ever came to the front. No one ever came at all.
“Don’t open it!” the girl shrieked. “Don’t make me go!”
Mirriam had lost any words of reassurance. She opened her arms and the girl flung herself into them.
A key turned in the lock and Mrs. Allen, Mirriam’s landlady came in with a bang of slammed door.
“Ah, thank God. You’re alive! Your company called the police station since they haven’t heard from you since before Christmas. Don, he’s the police chief, asked me to check.” Mrs. Allen’s graying eyebrows disappeared under the edge of the red wooly scarf that she had wrapped around her head.
“What have we here? Oh no. No. It can’t be.” Mrs. Allen whipped a cell phone out of her pocket and dialed, then spoke in a rapid undertone, glancing furtively at the pair of them on the sofa. Finally she shoved her phone back into her pocket and nodded.
“We’ll get this sorted out in no time, don’t worry,” Mrs. Allen said.
The girl dove behind the sofa and broke into noisy sobs.
“I don’t want her to go!” Mirriam said. “I can take care of her, surely I can. She needs love, is all.”
“Look around you,” Mrs. Allen replied.
For the first time in days, she truly looked about the cottage. Dirty dishes piled around the little Christmas tree. Clothes and the remnants of the paper doll making mixed with muffin wrappers on the usually tidy floor. The dining table in its nook had been converted into a blanket fort using Mirriam’s best sheets. One edge finished in fine Irish lace drooped into a forgotten cup of cocoa.
Mrs. Allen dragged Mirriam into the kitchen with its sink piled high, then the bathroom, floor covered in damp towels. After reinstalling Mirriam on the sofa, she vanished just long enough to supply them both with a cup of strong tea.
“All right. I’ve let things get out of hand,” Mirriam admitted. “I’ve never had a child in the house before. I can learn.”
“This never happens to outsiders,” Mrs. Allen said. “The child is a deep child.”
“Well, yes, but I think that’s utterly normal for a child of her age. She’s growing into a young lady,” Mirriam replied.
“No, dear, not that sort of deep.” Mrs. Allen took a long sip of her tea. If we had known this would happen, we would have been on hand to help you with her.” She gestured towards the sofa. The girl’s wailing had ceased. “She’s fallen asleep. That’s a very good sign.”
“She’s ever so kind and funny and pretty and,” Mirriam paused, tears filling her eyes, “just wonderful!”
“Of course she is, dear. But you didn’t know how to manage her, and you’ve let her take charge. That won’t do.”
“I can learn!” Mirriam replied.
“You’ll have to. Most outsiders who move here, they don’t get anything. Once in a while, one might get a kitten. But a child, no, that’s never happened, not even to folks who marry in.”
The girl crept out from behind the sofa and stood next to Mirriam, sleepy and subdued.
“In you go, and no more nonsense, missy!” Mrs. Allen said, taking the girl’s hand from Mirriam’s.
The landlady led the girl to the closet door and opened it wide. Instead of its usual contents of coats and umbrellas, the door opened into a huge room. It looked like a Victorian nursery, dominated by a Christmas tree, full of playing children. The girl let out a happy cry and scampered in. The landlady closed the door.
Mirriam got up and cautiously opened the closet. It was once again nothing but closet.
“Where did she go?”
“She’s gone away, with the other deep children. We’ll get Ellen, she’s the local cleaning lady, to help you with your house tomorrow.”
“But she’ll be back?” Mirriam persisted. She peeked into the musty closet again, equal parts relieved and sad.
“Of course! Didn’t you see us all with ours? They must only stay from Midwinter night until 12th night. Past that, they get over-tired and out of control.”
Mirriam bristled, and opened her mouth to make an angry reply.
“Which is how you find yourself with a wrecked house and your employers calling the police to locate you,” Mrs. Allen said dryly. “No worries. Next year will be better. You can come out and play with us! We build snow forts, and sled, and go ice-skating, and there’s a big party in the parish hall. You must come. You’re one of us now.”
“Next year?” Mirriam thought of her half- formed plans to move to a cottage by the sea, or perhaps splurge on a Christmas cruise. Then she remembered the deep child’s happy face as they toasted muffins by the fire.
“You have a deep child. You belong to Westfarthing now,” Mrs. Allen said. She lifted a toast with her teacup, as if it were a cup of wassail.
December 2015, T.L. Ryder
Joe felt in no way competent to be at a death watch for a saint. All around him were monks, save for one lone nun, the saint’s sister. The monks chanted, prayer-beads clinking off minutes like a timer counting down towards the final bell. The nun provided palliative care, the futility of her nursing never creasing her brow with worry or sorrow. All were serene, except for Joe.
He had been at the monastery for only a month, a chance-traveled destination in a lifetime of pointless journeys to find enlightenment, or at least a better understanding of something. When he came to the saint’s monastery, he was downtrodden with all of it; the traveling, the seeking, the constant finding that he and others always came up short. He was beginning to suspect that there was no enlightenment, no peace, no understanding to be had, only futile travels from one illusory light to the next.
The saint wasn’t dying when Joe first arrived. Every day, the saint would hold court in the monastery’s beautiful garden, sitting in state cross-legged on his pillow in a wooden pavilion. Every path through the beds eventually led to the pavilion. All day, the monks tended the vegetables and flowers while they prayed. The seekers, the travelers, and the penitents wove through monks and paths like bees seeking honey.
Joe decided that he would rather weed. The monks lent him heavy work gloves, which he disdained, and a big straw hat, which he gratefully sat upon his balding pate. He weeded for days until, to his surprise, the saint called for him.
“What brings you to our garden?” The saint asked. His hands counted beads, a labor he stilled at Joe’s approach.
“I don’t even know,” Joe replied. “Maybe I want to know what I should do to be worthy.”
“Worthy of what?” The saint’s clear eyes were bored and amused as he looked over Joe.
“Worthy of. . . hell, I don’t know. Worthy of taking up space on this planet.”
“Ah.” The saint’s expression cleared. “Just breathe.”
With that, Joe thanked the saint and went back to weeding, feeling no more or less enlightened than before. But thereafter, whenever anyone asked him what he was doing at the monastery, be it monk or traveler, he always replied: “Breathing.” As the days went on, he found the act of breathing, really breathing, filled him with a peace he had never dreamed possible.
The saint called each of the monks to his bedside, whispered in their ears, and then sent them forth. One by one they were banished as Joe waited. A few of the monks gave him a sidelong glance as they departed, but most went with eyes meekly on the floor. Finally, there were none left but Joe and the nun, who withdrew to a far corner as the saint gestured Joe forward.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” the saint asked with a plaintive sigh, his old fingers were strong and cold on Joe’s wrist, but his focus was already beyond the room.
“Is there anything you regret?” Joe asked, then hung his head. He often blurted out most trite things at the worst times. He was a naif, a fool, never knowing what the question really was, never-mind the answer.
“Yes.” The old saints eyes twinkled with mischief. “I regret,” he paused, his gaze resting on the nun for a moment, “I regret not breathing more!” With a final wheeze, he expired.
Later that same day, Joe was astonished and appalled to learn that the saint had elected him the new head of the monastery. The new saint.
“Why me?” he asked the nun as she brought him a cup of cold, clear water. He sat in the pavilion, his seat not yet comfortable on the brand new cushion that the monks had brought him. Out in the garden, travelers and penitents were already working their way through, seeking answers he feared didn’t exist.
She smiled. “He said it was because you know how to breathe.”