Three weeks to the day after I buried my youngest child, and several days after I buried my oldest—a young woman who would never become older—someone knocked at my door.
I rolled off my sleeping mat to my feet but made no move to answer the knock. It was pitch-dark outside, and the only reason anyone knocked at my door in the middle of the night was because someone was ill. All of my knowledge of herb lore and healing had not been able to save my wife or my children. If someone was ill, they were better off without me.
“I can hear you,” said my da’s voice gruffly. “Let me in.”
Another day, before the death of my family, I would have been surprised. It had been a long time since I’d heard my father’s voice. But my da, he’d always known when I was in trouble. That insight had outlasted my childhood.
I was beyond caring about anything, expected or unexpected. Being used to doing what he asked, I opened the door and stepped back.
The man standing outside entered quickly, careful not to lose the heat of the evening’s fire. The hearth in the center of my home was banked and covered for the night, and I wouldn’t fuel it again until the morning. With the door shut, the room was too dark to see because the window openings were also covered against the cold night air.
I did not see how he did it because there was no sound of striking flint, but he lit the tallow candle. He had always kept a candle on the ledge, just inside the door, where one of the rocks that formed the walls of the house stuck out. After he had gone and left the hut to me, I found it practical to leave one there as well.
In that dim but useful light, he pulled down the hood of his tattered cloak, and I saw his lined face, which looked older and more weather-beaten than when I’d last seen him, a dozen or more seasons ago.
His hair was threaded through with hoary gray, and his beard was an unfamiliar snow-white. He moved with a limp that he hadn’t had the last time I’d seen him, but other than that he looked good for an old man. He set down the big pack he carried on his back and the leather bag that held his pipes. He shrugged off his outerwear and hung it up beside the door where my da had always hung such things.
“The crows told me that you needed me,” he said to my silence.
He seldom spoke of uncanny things, my da, and only to the family—which was down to just me, as my younger brother had died four years ago of a wasting sickness. But Da was better at predicting things and knowing things than the hedge witch who held sway in our village. He also had an easier time lighting fires or candles than any other person I knew, wet wood, poor tinder, or untrimmed wick—it didn’t matter to him.
“I don’t know how you can help,” I told him, my voice harsh from lack of use. “They are all dead. My wife, my children.”
He looked down, and I knew that it wasn’t news to him, that the crows—or whatever magic had spoken to him—had told him about their deaths.
“Well, then,” he said, “it was time for me to come.” He looked up and met my eyes, and I could see the worry in his face. “Though I thought that I ran ahead of trouble, not behind.”
The words should have sent a chill down my spine, but I foolishly believed that the worst thing that could happen to me already had.
“How long are you staying?” I asked.
He tilted his head as if he heard something that I did not. “For the winter,” he told me at last, and I tried not to feel relief that I would not be alone. I tried not to feel anything but grief. My family deserved my grief—and I, who had failed to save them, did not deserve to feel relief.
It was a harsh winter, as if nature herself mourned with me. My da, he didn’t get in the way of my grieving, but he did make sure I got up every morning and did the things that were needful to get through the day. He didn’t push, just watched me until I did the right thing. A man worked, and he tended those things that needed tending—I knew those lessons from my childhood. He wasn’t a man people gainsaid, and that was as true of me as it was the rest of the village.
People came by to greet him. Some of the attention was because he’d been respected and liked, but more was because he could be coaxed to play for them. Music wasn’t uncommon in our village, most folk sang and played a little drum or pipe. But most folk didn’t sing like my da. When my mother died, no one had been surprised when he’d taken back to traveling, singing for his room and board, as he’d been doing when he first met her.
People brought him a little of whatever they had to pay for his music, and between that and the medicine I traded in barter, we had enough for winter stores even though I hadn’t put things back as I usually did. I hadn’t been worried about whether there was enough food to eat or enough wood to burn.
I hadn’t worried about myself because I’d have as soon joined my little family in their cold graves. With my da here, that route now smacked of cowardice—and if I forgot that sometimes, my da’s cool gaze reminded me.
It felt odd, though, not to have someone to take care of; for so long I had been the head of the family. I was not in the habit of worrying about my da: he wasn’t the kind of person who needed anyone to fuss over him. He’d survived his childhood—not that he’d spoken of it to me beyond that it had been rough. But my ma, she’d known whatever it had been, and it had sparked fierce pride tinged with sorrow and tenderness. I knew only that he’d left his home while still a stripling boy. He had traveled and thrived in a world hostile to strangers.
He was tough, and it gave him confidence that had backed down my ma’s folk when they objected to her marrying a man from outside the village. He was smart—and more than that, he was wise. When he spoke on village matters, which he didn’t do often, the villagers listened to him.
He’d survived traveling the world after my mother’s death—and he was still lit with the joy that made my home warmer than the logs on the hearth, though the chill left by the death of my little ones and their ma was deep.
My da, he could survive anything, and his example forced me to do the same. Even when I didn’t want to.