It was not long before I asked the forgotten question, "What was that song that you and the Peddler were whistling? I've heard you whistle that tune before ..."
"You have, lad?"
"You whistle it on the porch at night, after I've gone to bed. Jus' before you light your pipe."
"I do?" He paused for a bit and made that sideways scrunch he always did. I took it to mean that he was considering a thought with an extra measure of thinking and remembering and imagining. "I suppose I do."
I respectfully waited awhile for his answer.
He did finally get to it. "Saint Brendan's Lullaby."
Now that I finally had my answer, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the answer would have left with more. And then without asking, the Old Man sang. And as he sang, the fire of the lanterns joined in.
"Call to me, Ireland, across the seas,
Beckon me home, if the good Lord please.
Still the dark waters and rally the wind,
Bring me home, Saint Brendan, to my kith and kin.
Sail on, brave sailor, sail on tonight,
Sail on to your dreams all through the night."
We sang it over and over, maybe twenty times over. As we did, the night seemed to fade a little further away, leaving us alone for awhile.
As we cleared the top of Sussex Hill, we first caught sight of the Provonost Bridge. A quaint little bridge no more than twenty strides or so, made of brick foundation, lattice wood sides, and a cedar shingled roof. Provonost was the Frenchman from whose sawmill's waterwheel flowed this nosiy brook of a stream. I thought it deserved a better name than it had inherited ... the Sawmill Brook.
I should have been faithful in my searching, but it was Granddad who made first sighting. "See there. The campfire the Peddler had mentioned. Up there ... by the sawmill. On the far side of the bridge ... that's right ... up there."
Partially hidden by the beams and timbers of the open frame structure, I finally found the campfire. Crossing the bridge was but a moment of dry wood beneath our feet. Immediately upon crossing, without a word of direction, my Grandfather turned us off the path, upward along what must have been trail now hidden beneath the snow.
It was a rather straight climb, easier than I had imagined. The campfire grew larger until it revealed a smoky silohuette of what appeared to be a woman, the shape of broad skirts led me to conclude. It was a woman. She answered our greeting that also served as our friendly signal that peaceful strangers were approaching her fire. "Come and share my fire, cold pilgrims. I have coffee and stew, both still brewing."
The campfire had been a sizeable blaze but one could tell that by now it had passed its prime. Our lanterns seemed to dim almost to nothing in the face of the campfire's light. Lesser lights need the darkness to enlarge their flame; greater lights don't much care if the darkness is there or not.
She was a handsome lady in her rugged, backwoods way. Her freckled comlexion matched well the copper red hair that peeked out of the black wool parka that framed her face and wrapped her shoulders and draped her short stature into folds upon the sawdust and snow mixed beneath our fett. The fire warmed her features with flickering shadows. But it was her voice hat enchanted ... it sounded like old roses would sound in the late afternoon of summer.
"Where did you begin your journey, fair lady?"
"I came from the far side of the war, from a village called Three Bears, near the mouth of the Frazier. Nearly three months i have travelled and my time is near."
I thought the question, "Time for what?" But my grandfather chose not to ask the question. I sensed he knew something I had not yet come to know.
She told of her husband who died in the war's early days and three sons who had followed in his steps as the war kept on. Now she was alone, all her kin had gone on. So she journeyed her miles by day and made her campfires by night. There came a point when my Granddad suggested that I might search for wood up amongst the ruins of the mill. His eyes urged to me to believe that I should.
Taking the lantern I left them by the fire, they grew close together, sharing words that were meant only for old souls to share. -- the words that come from both ends of forever.
The sawmill was far less a relic than I was led to believe. There appeared to be fresh sawdust. Among the beams, long stretches of wide leather belts rolled around pulley after pulley. On the saws half-milled trees were still waiting for the next pass by of the industrial- sized blade, a wicked tooth wheel of heartless steel.
"Do you know the story of the Frenchman and his mill?"
I thought it was me who asked the question, but the words kept rising with the smoke of the lantern.
The Old Man in the Oak was still with me and I realized that for him, this sawmill must have felt like Judgment Day.
I did answer though ... "No. I do not know the story .. should I?"
We sat on a woodpile, maybe twelve boards high. I had the lantern take a seat beside me.