The path began a turn to the right as we began the gradual descent, the maples turning with us, the mist giving way for some reason, the moonlight rising, the shadows making their first appearance. The maples were taking their shape, leafless etchings in wood against the blue-grey snow. I could see that the woods dropped off to my left into the unseen; the trees to my left were beginning to obscure the grey stones of the abbey, going further away.
I could Grandfather's red-checked wool coat, though the red had turned to light-starved grey. His felt hat seemed wider in the brim than I had remembered, his kakhi twill trousers were catching the little light there was. "The Old Man in the Oak, I surely must be able to see him now," I shouted within. I spun about, checking each compass point. There was no old man and the mist was nearly gone.
"He's gone on ahead," my Granddad spoke, answering the question that I had not yet asked. "Come on. We must not be late."
I hurried on, but I thought, "Late for what?"
Miller's Well lived its life in the middle of this path, at the place where the path from the abbey's front gate came to down to merge. It's stone wall circle stood waist-high, the slate roof that stood over it rose a good four foot higher. This was the water for the monks during the heat of the day, as they turned round and round and round and round the great stone gristmill for the grain, leaning against the long, wooden timber as if doing hours of humble penance for whatever sins Franciscan monks might ever do. I walked over to the split rail fence that bordered the field for the gristmill. In the cast of the moon, I could see that massive stones were still there, but the timber pole was gone. The mist was nearly gone now, and I noticed the stars were starting to return.
I heard a familiar sound, the long, slow scratch of my grandfather's match against his matchbox. The flame flashed bright for a second or two, almost an explosion of light in this thick night that my eyes had come to know. The flame then settled to its flicker, bending downward once, twice, three times, and then once more a fourth, into the bowl of tobacco at the end of his pipe. He always smoked Middleton's Cherry. And even now, when life is good, I can smell that heavenly smoke.
He was leaning against the stone well, feet crossed at the ankle, right arm folded across his chest. A momentary red glow, a puff of smoke blown upward, followed by a few words about how I was doing and that we best be pressing on.
But we lingered for awhile at the well, almost as if he were biding time.
Then he simply pushed away from the well and went on. And I followed in the draft of the cherry smoke.
It was not long after that, we probably could have counted the steps, we could see the covered bridge down the way, Willow's Bridge, not named for any willows trees leaning over the river, but for a lost, little girl who they say haunted these woods, looking forever for her folks who had travelled on without her. But let me correct the account ... it was not the bridge that we first saw, but the lanterns that were set along the railings of the bridge, four lanterns on each side.
They looked like globes of white gold suspended in the night.