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The endless forest, p.1
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       The Endless Forest, p.1

           Sara Donati
 
The Endless Forest


  ALSO BY SARA DONATI

  Into the Wilderness

  Dawn on a Distant Shore

  Lake in the Clouds

  Fire Along the Sky

  Queen of Swords

  This is dedicated to the ones I love: Bill and Elisabeth.

  And to you too. I’ve enjoyed your company on

  this long journey from 1792 to 1824.

  I hope to see you again soon.

  Characters

  ADDITIONAL CHARACTERS

  Martha Kuick Kirby, the daughter of Jemima Southern Kuick and Liam Kirby (deceased); Nathaniel’s ward

  Calista (Callie) Wilde, farmer, daughter of Nicholas and Dolly Wilde, both deceased; Nathaniel’s ward, owner of the apple orchards

  Levi Fiddler, manumitted slave, manager of the orchard

  Curiosity Freeman, landholder, manumitted slave resident in Paradise; her surviving grown children also resident in Paradise

  Daisy Hench, Curiosity’s daughter, and her husband Joshua Hench, blacksmith; their adult children and grandchildren

  Jemima Southern Kuick Wilde Focht, once of Paradise; Hamish Focht, her husband; Jemima’s son, Nicholas Wilde Jr.

  Lorena Webb and Harper Washington, two of the Fochts’ servants

  Charlie and Becca LeBlanc, innkeepers

  Tobias Mayfair, Quaker, shopkeeper and owner of the trading post; his son John Mayfair, farmer and part-time attorney

  PROLOGUE

  A Word with Curiosity

  LATE WINTER 1823

  Well now, look who’s finally come round to call. Just yesterday I was wondering to Hannah if maybe you lost your way. But here you are, jumped right out my mind to stand in front of me.

  It’s been a long time. Early summer in the year ’15, when Hannah and Jennet and everybody come back from New Orleans, you was here then as I recall. And wan’t that a fine day? The Lord our God be praised. We have had a run of good luck that started right there, yes we have.

  Did you go away again before Hawkeye come home? Ahuh, I thought me so. Now that’s a shame. Was he a sight, walking up the road on a fine October afternoon? Like he was just coming in from checking his trap lines. Oh, and the stories. The things he saw in the West, my. Oh, yes, he was the same Hawkeye as ever was. Cleareyed, like a boy of twenty in his mind at least. He died just after the new year, went to sleep and never woke up. Hawkeye never did like a fuss.

  Scoot a little closer, I can hear your teeth chattering. The spring has got a chill of its own, don’t it? But we got us a good fire. Ain’t nothing like apple wood with a couple seasons on it. Sweet-smelling, but it got a backbone.

  I bet you surprised to see me. You was thinking I’d be down to the graveyard next to my Galileo, the good Lord rest his soul. Most are, at my age. You know how old I am? Now’s a purely dumb question. Of course you do. I will confess, I am proud of myself for getting this far. Come November I will be ninety full years on this earth, and I got ever tooth God gave me, haven’t lost a one. I am up at first light, and I mostly tend my own garden. I can still catch a baby when needs must. Caught my fifth great-grandchild last summer, a sturdy little boy called Almanzo after his granddaddy. How many women can say as much? When I am feeling poorly, don’t I got a doctor right here in the house?

  These years have been good to our Hannah, my Lord yes. And high time too. Her and Ben just as sweet on each other as they ever was. Hmmm? Well a course they got children. Two healthy young people keeping house together, man and wife, children will come along.

  You don’t think I’ma tell you everything right off, do you? Some things you got to go find out your own self. Ain’t that why you come?

  Elizabeth and Nathaniel right there where you saw them last, just up this road a ways, the place that folks used to call the Judge’s. Now mostly you hear it called Uphill House, and this place folks call Downhill House. Because folks just can’t keep straight who belongs where.

  You’ll see, Paradise has changed a lot and mostly for the good, the Lord in heaven be praised. This place is filled to busting with new faces, Quaker almost ever one. Good folks, hardworking and fair-minded for the most part, though they like to keep to themselves. They know the land too. We got barley and wheat and corn and flax, so much that come harvest time, they got to tote it all out to Johnstown and sell it there.

  I expect you’ll get a shock when you see all the new houses and such Ethan decided we couldn’t do without. When Leo and me got here in ’61 there was maybe six cabins all together down by Half-Moon Lake, most just one room. Now we got an inn and a tavern and real houses like you see in Albany and Johnstown, all neat and proper. Some even got those little white fences around the garden couldn’t keep a rabbit out.

  These last few years have been prosperous for just about ever-body. Good weather and bountiful harvests, the good Lord be praised.

  You got a question sitting on your tongue like a stray hair. Let me guess, you are trying to think how to ask about Daniel. I should have told you right off—it’s a long time you been waiting and wondering is he alive or dead. My, if you could see your face.

  Daniel ain’t dead, far from it. But I cain’t say he healed, neither. Those first few years was hard but little by little he come back to himself. I myself think it was teaching school got him through. These days seem like the pain mostly leave him be, but it is hard to know. He don’t like to talk about it. Yes, he is still a bachelor, and maybe you are thinking he’ll stay that way. What young woman wants a one-armed schoolteacher lives way out on the frontier? But I’ll tell you true, the day he finds hisself a bride—and that day is coming—there will be weeping and a-wailing you can hear all the way to Johnstown and beyond. He could have his pick right here in Paradise, but he’s waiting for something. Or somebody.

  Now I said enough. You will just have to go find out for yourself about everybody else, Jennet and Luke and Lily and her Simon, the folks up at Lake in the Clouds, all those people you wanting to know about. There’s enough going on to keep you busy for a good long time.

  Don’t you worry, you can come back here and set with me whenever you got questions. I ain’t going nowhere for a while yet. Galileo fuss at me now and then in my dreams, wanting to know why am I taking so long to cross over?

  I say, you Galileo, be patient! Don’t be fussing at me when I still got work to do. I got some stories to tell. Stories I kept to myself, maybe too long. I was always thinking, not yet, not now, and while I was hesitating time run off on me.

  Mayhap I was waiting for you to tell what I know. We’ll find out, soon enough.

  1

  Letters

  ELIZABETH BONNER TO HER DAUGHTER LILY BALLENTYNE

  4th day of August 1823

  Dear Daughter,

  This letter is overdue, I know. I hope you forgive me when you learn that I have held it back in order to share good news. Yesterday your sister Hannah was delivered of a healthy son. Both mother and child are in good health and spirits.

  Your nephews Henry and John are beside themselves with joy, but the girls were disappointed. When Ben brought them in to see Hannah and meet their new brother, Amelie patted her mother on the shoulder in a consoling manner. Eliza told her to never mind, the next one was sure to be a girl.

  It was all Curiosity and I could do not to laugh aloud.

  It is my impression that Hannah is finished with childbearing. She said to me not so long ago that five healthy children are more than enough, though she believes Ben would cheerfully continue until they were overrun like the old woman who lived in a shoe.

  You are wondering what name they have given to this newest Savard, but I have promised Birdie that she could be the one to tell.

  There is quite a bit of news that will interest you. Now that Blue-Jay is
remarried and settled at Lake in the Clouds we were all hoping for a peaceful autumn, but Gabriel has declared his intention to marry Annie straight away.

  I must admit that I am concerned. Annie was to go to Albany to study at Mrs. Burrough’s School next month. It is my sincere belief that she deserves that opportunity, but it must be her decision. My concern right now is making it clear to Gabriel that he must be guided by her in this. And they are so very young.

  Daniel is in good health and seems to have less difficulty with his arm of late, but then it is hard to know exactly. You know your twin, and will not be surprised to hear that he cloaks his feelings much of the time, and we see less of him than we would like. If it were not for his responsibilities as a teacher I suspect he would follow Robbie MacLachlan’s example and be content to live alone, far from any settlement. But he is the teacher, and a good one. Birdie finds him very strict in the classroom, but she does not claim that he is unfair.

  In the village we Bonners continue as the main topic of conversation. Blue-Jay’s marriage and now the promise of Gabriel’s is of unending interest. Missy Parker—pardon me, I mean Missy O’Brien as of this winter past. I said the other day that I can never remember that she married Baldy O’Brien, and Curiosity laughed, and said that Missy must want to forget that herself.

  So Missy came into the trading post while I was looking at fabric, and she told Mrs. Mayfair that the Bonners were reaping their reward for keeping such close quarters with Indians. Gabriel would be giving Mrs. Elizabeth Middleton Bonner red-skinned grandchildren and just how would she like that? Then she turned around and saw me standing there and she hopped in place, like a very plump rabbit.

  I plan to have a discussion with Mrs. O’Brien. It is unacceptable for her to speak so, when any one of Hannah’s children—my grandchildren—might be close enough to hear.

  Other friends are mostly well. Martha is still in Manhattan and it seems unlikely that she will ever come back here to stay. Apparently there is now a young man who calls on her. Young Callie has had more than her share of trouble. This past season she lost almost her whole crop, for the second year in a row. The season was wet, and apples are prone to rot. With Levi’s help she presses just enough applejack to survive from one harvest to the next.

  Now I will pass this letter over to Birdie. Your father and I, your sisters and brothers, we all send you and Simon our love and affection.

  Your mother

  Elizabeth Middleton Bonner

  Dear sister and good brother:

  Hannah and Ben have named their new son Simon. Is that not good news? Now that we have a young Simon, you must come home so old Simon can see his namesake. It would be the polite thing to do, and you know how much Ma likes it when we do the polite thing.

  Some things that Ma should have writ: When I complained that if Gabriel got married and moved out of the house I’d be alone, our fine brother said that is what comes of being an After-Thought and Da said, I would call Birdie our Best Idea. So you see, if you and Simon were to come home that would be a great comfort to me.

  I have finished my nine-patch quilt. I am sure I had to pick out every seam at least three times. If I never hold a needle again it will be far too soon, but Curiosity was talking about buttonholes just yesterday and giving me a look I did not like at all. I have come to think of it as her Woe-unto-thee-Birdie look. Last week Daniel showed me how to balance a knife on the palm and how to grip it properly, the first steps toward accurate throwing.

  I have very little room, but Curiosity wants me to tell you that she tried her hand at that paste receipt you sent, but she fears she got it wrong. It took a prodigious amount of butter to get it down her gullet.

  Your loving little sister

  Curiosity-called-Birdie

  30 September 1823

  Dear Ma and Da, dear Everyone,

  I write under separate cover to congratulate my sister Hannah and her Ben on the birth of a healthy son. Simon was very honored to learn that he now has a namesake.

  We are just back from a long walk in gardens at the Villa Borghese, and now I sit down to share with you the decision we have reached after many days of discussion. Simon paces the room while I write and so I will take pity on him and put down our news in plain words, as my father and mother will approve.

  It is time for us to come home. It is six years this month since we left on our travels. I have done what I set out to do and more, and we are both homesick. Your coordinated siege by post has brought me to surrender, although I will miss Birdie’s letters especially.

  To be very clear, I cannot promise that we will settle in Paradise permanently. Some part of this decision will depend on Luke’s interests in Canada and what role Simon may play there. I can say that we have every intention of spending at least a full year with you, and we hope much longer.

  We have had a letter from Ethan with the news that there is a new house in the village near his own, one that he would like us to have for as long as we require. This means we will not have to turn Mr. and Mrs. Lefroy out from our place, something we are loath to do. And so all the pieces have come together. We plan to sail as soon as we can sell this house and settle other business matters. If all goes well we will be home before the spring thaw. Then we can sit together by the kitchen fire and tell our stories to each other. Now that the decision is made I wish I could grow wings and fly to you.

  When we have booked passage I will write again with the particulars. With all our love and affection we remain your good-son & devoted daughter

  Simon and Lily Ballentyne

  2

  Daniel Bonner wakes in the deepest hour of the night with the sure knowledge that something is not right.

  First he takes stock of his oldest and best-known adversary. In his mind he follows the pain as it moves from its cave deep in his shoulder to slide inch by inch down his left arm. At times Daniel thinks he can hear the nerves snapping and hissing, but just now it only flexes and turns, a big cat sleeping in the shade. If he stays very quiet and relaxed, the pain might settle and sleep come back for him. Three or four hours, if he is lucky. He thinks about sleep as another man thinks about a lover, with a pure yearning.

  But there is something wrong, and so he sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed to listen. The bed ropes squeak and the banked fire hisses to itself. From the main room, the faint tick of the clock on the mantel. There is a sound he doesn’t hear, one that worries him. His nights echo with the sound of Bounder’s wheezing hitch, the sound of an old dog struggling toward another day. Bounder is utterly quiet, and somehow Daniel knows without going to look that the dog is dead.

  Now he realizes what it is that woke him: a dripping sound, from outside. From the eaves.

  It is the first week in April. Three feet of snow would be no surprise, but the sound of running water is unexpected. Daniel goes to the window and opens the shutter. The thaw has a smell all its own, and it is thick in the air.

  There is a figure standing outside, a dark shape against the coming dawn. A large man, strongly built. He has a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. What light there is picks up a glint of his scalp, shaved clean but for a topknot that still gleams yellow, though Throws-Far is a full sixty-six years old. Born to Yankees in the village of Paradise, Throws-Far is nevertheless Mohawk in blood and marrow. Since he came back to Paradise he often roams the mountain at night; Daniel has the idea he is trying to find his boy-self, the person he was before he took his rightful place among the Turtle clan.

  “Throws-Far,” Daniel calls out to him in Kahnyen’kehàka. “Why do you stand in the not-yet-light?”

  The dark shape shifts and bends, arms extended to the sky. The voice that answers is deep and sure. “The Snow Eater is come. He brings the hundred-year water with him.”

  A rain had begun to fall, as soft and sweet as new milk.

  “The Snow Eater is come,” Throws-Far says again. “And I go.”

  The old man has been talking about
leaving Paradise for a long time. About his wish to see his own children, who live far to the northwest on the other side of the great lakes. That he would pick up so suddenly, that things might change with a simple shift in the wind, this is not at all surprising. He doesn’t think like a white man.

  In Kahnyen’kehàka Daniel calls to him. “Be well.”

  Throws-Far raises a hand, and then he walks away into the rain.

  In the light of the fire Daniel dresses, not to teach school, though this should be a normal day, but in lined leggings, a heavy flannel hunting shirt, and winter moccasins. Sudden thaw and rain together promise trouble.

  The ground is still frozen and it will take more time than he has to see Bounder properly buried. He picks the dog up, the slack body already unfamiliar, and lays him in the root cellar. Birdie will want to help bury Bounder.

  His knives are laid out on a linen cloth where he left them, along with whetstones and files, oils and soaps. They gleam dully in the firelight, like a mouth full of crooked teeth. He puts small knives into loops inside the cuffs of each moccasin, another, larger and double-sided, in a sheath on his left hip. Two short-handled hatchets, one he inherited from his grandfather and the other made to his specifications, he tucks under the wide belt to lie along his spine.

  Today or tomorrow or the day after, his sister will come home. His twin, who has been gone very long, who he has missed every day. She is coming with her husband, but not quite soon enough. The hundred-year rain has beat them home.

  3

  When the clock in the hall struck seven, Birdie roused herself out of bed, dressed in the dark very quietly so as not to wake her nieces, and went downstairs to Curiosity Freeman’s kitchen. She might have slept another half hour but for excitement: by Birdie’s calculations, her parents and sister Lily and good-brother Simon should have been back from the city three days ago. They would surely be home today.

 
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