Into the Wilderness

Page 30


"My twin died at birth. So, my mother's people say that I am half of what I might have been."
It seemed to Elizabeth very important that she make the right response here, but what that might be was a mystery.
"I'm afraid I have a lot to learn," she started, slowly. "I don't really understand very much about the Kahnyen’keháka—" She paused, not sure of the pronunciation but loath to use the term Mohawk, as the child seemed to avoid it. Hannah grinned at her attempt, and Elizabeth went on, somewhat more at ease. "Or the Mahicans, or how they are related."
"The Mahicans ain't Six Nations," Hannah supplied, trying to be helpful, but making things all the more unclear. "They lived to the east, mostly below the lake."
"They live here now, with the Kahnyen’keháka?"
"No," said Hannah simply. "They are all gone now, or most of them. In the wars."
"We have things to learn from each other, then," Elizabeth said. "We should have stories at school about your people, but I don't know enough to tell them."
Hannah smiled, but she was not to be drawn into a promise about coming to Elizabeth's school.
"Grandmother doesn't think much of your kind of schooling," the little girl said, perhaps a little apologetically. "She says the white men don't seem any the smarter for it."
Elizabeth digested this in silence, surprising herself. Even a week ago she thought she would have had much to say, and perhaps in anger, but even simple things were now so complicated that she saw the wisdom of holding back with her opinion. Soon the opportunity to ask more questions had passed: they were walking uphill, and breathing became an issue. Elizabeth began to think that her idea of exercise had been rather a tame one. The lanes and walks around Oakmere at their very worst were no more than wet and muddy; even the walking holidays she had taken with her aunt had been docile by comparison.
Off the track, the snow had drifted up to Elizabeth's hips in some places, but the path they walked was wind scoured and well enough broken. Still, it was rough going, and Elizabeth's admiration for Hannah was considerable: she moved lightly and quickly while Elizabeth struggled along behind her with the basket Curiosity had packed so thoroughly. The freezing air burned in her lungs, while her fingers and toes, well wrapped in wool and leather and fur, still grew wooden with the cold.
They had been walking uphill for what seemed like more than an hour when the wind picked up and began to blow, and just as suddenly, the sunlight flickered and faded, the clouds deepening in color to a deep gray—green. Hannah paused to look up, and then back toward Elizabeth.
"A storm," Elizabeth said. "I hope it's not much farther."
"Lake in the Clouds," Hannah responded and gestured with her chin.
"Lake in the Clouds?"
"This place," Hannah explained. "The Kahnyen’keháka name for it."
The wooded ridge they had been following turned inward and then ended abruptly in a jumble of outcroppings, snowy evergreens, and granite slabs thrusting like splayed fingers out into the open air. This jutting shoulder of the mountain curved inward as if to protect the hidden glen Elizabeth now found before her.
A little breath of surprise and wonder left her in a warm rush. Roughly triangular in shape, the glen was about half a mile in length, and perhaps half a mile in breadth at the widest point. On one side cliffs rose up in a flat sheet of marbled gray rock; on the other, the mountain's shoulder dropped away into the precipice. At the far end of the glen, a stream fell thirty feet from a fissure high on the rock face. It cascaded in an icy rush over a clutch of boulders and then fell again into a gorge that ran the length of the glen to narrow and disappear in the forest. From where they stood, Elizabeth could see the waters boiling lazily in a deep pool encased in ribbons of ice.
On one side, the banks of the gorge were built of layers of stone slabs like steps, which leveled into a series of terraces at the broadest point of the vale. There, in a grove of beech, pine, and blue spruce, a log cabin stood with its front porch facing the waterfall. It was low and solid, built in an L—shape, its deep roof scalloped with snow and dripping thick fingers of ice. Smoke curled above two massive field stone chimneys; lamplight glowed warmly from cracks in the shutters.
Snow began to fall in thick waves, large flakes twirling in the last of the light, disappearing into the trees and melting into the rushing water. As if in response, the door of the cabin opened and cast a slanted rectangle of butter—yellow light into the growing dark.
* * *
He wasn't there; she sensed his absence as clearly as she took in woodsmoke, tallow candles, dried apples, roasting turkey, and the strong smells of animal skins, bear grease, and human beings. Elizabeth blinked at the brightness of firelight reflected in wood and the glowing colors of the room.
Hawkeye seemed to be everywhere at once, setting Hannah a series of quick chores, calling out questions, and making Elizabeth reacquainted with Chingachgook. The old man greeted Elizabeth cheerfully from his chair by the fire. Around his shoulders was a blanket woven in geometric patterns in red, white, and gray. Still a little breathless, Elizabeth accepted the chair across from him.
"The storm came up fast," Chingachgook said.
Hawkeye nodded. "Good thing you two made tracks."
Elizabeth held her hands out toward the fire and smiled at him. "I expect your stories are worth a bit of a walk."