The Catskills have nestled and protected my family for generations. In the clouds over our high valley, I see another set of mountains. Sky mountains, always changing. Sometimes they are near. They mist the ground and swirl about my skirts when I help bring in a harvest before a rain. At sunset they gather around the western horizon, shrouding it in a rose-tinted glow. Other times the clouds are distant, powerful, with their own thunderbolts and lightning. We watch them in awe.
My father, Justice Joshua Woods, says the ancient Greek people observed clouds like ours and created a world of gods and heroes. My grandfather, Daddy Asher, tells different stories. His are of Skyland. Of a woman who fell through a hole in the clouds with seeds in her pocket that started the world. My grandfather's people formed the first human paths through our mountains. But none lived here. To the Mohicans, the Catskills were sacred, a place for dreams and vision quests, not everyday dwelling. It was Daddy Asher's white ancestor, a Frenchman named DuBois, who brought his Indian wife here, where they became "the people of the woods." We carry that name still, Woods. I am Lily.
I was lost in the wondrous clouds that day at the dawning of my sixteenth summer in the year 1851. Another day, I might have noticed the stranger sooner, realized his sprightly tune was no bird's song. But I was so happy to be home again after my failed attempt to achieve higher learning. In my lap was the latest letter from my half sister,Jane. Though I'd lasted a scant three months at Mrs. Beech's myself, Jane wished me to join her as teacher at her school for free ladies and misses of color. She'd founded the school with the legacy her Scottish father had left her. She'd planted it among Mama's downriver Griffin relatives, much to their dismay.
I loved my sister as my life. She was as brave as our mountain cats with their cubs threatened. How else could she write her treatises against slavery and on behalf of hospital and asylum reform? She even spoke publicly at the women's rights convention three years ago in Seneca Falls. How was I to explain the terror that her request inspired in me? Already today I'd escaped the big-boned boys who were making my present life as a tutor a misery. I didn't want to persevere amid adversity as Jane insisted. I wanted to leave all meanness aside and lose myself in the glorious clouds.
"Your master will string you up by that fetching braid if he catches you storytelling the sky. Would you desire that now?"
I looked down at the battered green cap, dark curls escaping it. A current of fear rode through me. No. He was not one of those spiteful boys, this stranger. "Master?" I echoed him. One thing my family can't abide is masters of any stripe. "You must be lost, sir."
"'Sir,' is it? For the likes of me?" He pulled a small box out of his pack. "These new spectacles I'm delivering for the trader are yours, then, are they?"
I jumped down from the wall. The boy was near to a man, tall and lean, too lean for his frame. And handsome, with even teeth and eyes the shining green of the leafy maples around us. Both the cadence of his speech and his pale complexion named him Irish. I felt both dim-witted and plain beside him.
"Who'd the tradesman say the spectacles were for?" I managed to ask.
"Oh, a grand lady, says he. Which was the image of yourself as you sat on that high wall with the leisure time for grand contemplation of weighty thoughts, you understand? But now, close up ..."
"Close up?" I prompted.
"Well, no grand lady's got unmended stockings, I'm thinking. I'll look further to deliver the spectacles of this Ginny Rockwell, then."
I yanked at the striped cotton muslin of my gown, mortified. Howhad he seen the rip at my knee? Had my skirts flown up when I jumped off the stone wall? "Is there nothing but questions in you?" I asked, peeved now.
He cocked his head. "And who would like to know?"
That response made me smile, despite my piqued state. He laughed himself, causing distraction enough for me to snatch the small package from his hand. I kilted my skirts and ran up the hill toward Gran's place with it.
"Stop, thief!" he called out. "That's me calling card!"
I thought I'd lost him as I sprinted up the path toward the cabin nestled in the pines above our horse ring. I soon heard a language kin to my mother's Scottish lullabies. But his angry bursts were no lullabies.
I looked over the edge of the path. The stranger was climbing the red cliff face. He wasn't as fast as I would have expected, given the great length of his legs. I heard his coughing, then his stumble and slide. His coughing became splinted, pained. He wiped his mouth on a handkerchief. When he saw me, he shoved the cloth in his pocket.
"What are you stopping for?" he asked hoarsely, his chest heaving with effort. "Go on, deliver! Get you your favor from the lady of the house!"
I scrambled down until I landed beside him. "Are you sick?" I asked.
"No! Don't you be telling a body here that! I can work harder than any two men they have around this place!"
I'd provoked him enough to give me a straight-out answer, anyway.
"Men? Hired men, you mean?" I asked.
"Hired men surely! Are you daft from staring at those clouds so long?"
Questions again. And rudeness. I prayed for some of my mother's quiet tolerance, my father's forbearance. "They don't hire out here."
"Who takes care of the place? Who cleans the great hall, and grooms the horses?"
"We help each other with all."
"Yes. Four generations we are here and about the Sutherland place."
"We? You're a Sutherland?"
"No. That's the one name none of us carry. The Sutherlands lived here before us."
"What are you called?"
"Lily. Lily Woods."
"And your name," I asked, folding my arms, "if you can manage not to question your way out of it?"
"Hugh." He removed his battered cap. Pink splotches suffused his pale cheeks. "Miss."
"We're heading to my grandparents' cabin, up yonder, see? And we passed the--what did you call it? Great hall? It's where I live, with my mother, father, sister Jane when she's home resting from saving the world. Aunts and uncles and cousins live roundabout, and in town. We only hire out at planting and harvest. It's then my grandfather's soldier friends help."
"Soldiers?" His quick mind had picked up a link, I could see it. "From the second time you Yankees beat back the British? That war?"
"That's the one. Why?"
His eyes shone with hope, but he still answered my question with another one. "He's alive then, is Asher Woods?"
"Daddy Asher? He'd better be! Else we'd be visiting a ghost now."
"That's where we're going?"
"And if you please, Miss Woods, who is Ginny Rockwell?"
"That'd be my gran. Two of her names. She's Woods as well, like me, but her own daddy's name stuck so, even her husband calls her by it. Daddy Asher's her husband, and my grandfather. It's them you seek?"
"Maybe not, now. If there's no use for me." The hand that drifted protectively over the strap of his back satchel trembled. I heard the rattle in his breathing.
"You can give Gran her new spectacles from the tradesman, if it means all that much to you. I was only just teasing." I offered the box.
He snatched it away, as if I'd change my mind. "I ... I beg pardon for my manners, miss, and any untoward familiarity," he said formally, but almost biting out the words. He was the furthest thing from sorry, I decided. He was convinced I'd tricked him, somehow. And now helooked me between my eyes, not in them. I liked him better when he'd thought me a servant. I wanted to ask why I was 'miss' now, but his scowl was too fierce.
"I'll be on my way there, if it please you?" he said, standing.
"You don't have to please ... Hugh?" He swayed. Like a young aspen, with those long legs. And his curls shuddered like its leaves do in the slightest breeze. "When did you last eat?" I asked.
His dazed eyes sparked briefly. "Questions. There must be some Celt in you, then?"
His legs gave out from under him, and he fell to his knees. I reached out to steady him, but too late. He tumbled down the incline some twenty or thirty feet, until he landed in Batavia Creek. He wasn't moving. He was facedown in the water's flow.
I slid down the cliff face, and pulled his head from the cold water. He had suffered a bloody gash above the eye. He was pale towards blue, and still.
I called his name twice more before his eyelids even flickered. He blinked away the water, then took to coughing again. I helped him sit, then pulled off my red cloak, draping his shaking shoulders. The hacking finally stopped, but the dazed look in his eyes frightened me. Not green eyes, now; they'd turned the slate gray of the creek bed. Changeling eyes he had, like the folk in Mama's fairy books.
"Marcy?" he whispered.
"No, Lily. Lily Woods, remember?"
His eyes went back into his head, and he slumped over, like one of my younger cousins' dancing toys. I felt my mind freezing in panic. Then came splashing steps behind me. I looked up.
"You got you some trouble, Miss Lily?"
I was always happy to see Mr. North. He and his family and community of free colored people lived behind his small blacksmith shop on our side of the clove. Folks still whispered disapproval over my father inviting them to settle among us when the state of New York had declared them free of my Griffin relatives downriver, who'd held them in bondage. But most took advantage of Thomas North's fine workmanship and the washing and cleaning and barber duties his kin took on.
"Is he dead, sir?" I whispered.
Calmly, Mr. North placed the inside of his wrist close to Hugh'smouth. "No," he assured me. "Breathin's regular. The boy's still on God's earth." He smiled. "Your feet's as fleet as a deer's, Miss Lily. Best fetch your granddaddy whilst I look after him, you think?"
"Yes." Both his words and his calmness seemed to be entering my skin, fighting my panic, my numbness. I swaddled Hugh in my cloak.
"I'm going for help," I said at his ear.
The words brought no response, but Mr. North nodded.
I'd never got all the way to my grandparents' cabin on a run before that day. I stood heaving outside the door. Inside I heard the clatter of crockery and my gran's sprightly giggle. There came a lower voice, too, also in good humor. The lavender-colored curtain was pulled across the small front window. I knew what that meant: not to disturb them. Still, I pounded on the door. And I almost kept pounding into my grandfather's billowy shirt as he opened it. He took my hands in that gentle hold of his.
"Breathe easy, Lily, that's the way," he counseled as Gran tucked in his shirt and tied the laces of his trousers behind him. Her hair was undone, here in the middle of the day. They'd been spooning. My parents have a lavender curtain, too. All the married couples in the family do. They have to, with all the children about.
Gran and Daddy Asher stood over me, worry in their eyes. "Are you hurt, child?" Gran asked.
"No. But he is."
"None of ours. A stranger." I sought to clear that worry first. "I didn't know he was sick and teased him into running, and now he's head-bashed and fallen into the creek!"
"You tended him, Lily?"
"Oh, aye, Gran! As best I could. And Mr. North's looking over him now. He's got my cloak. It was all I could think to do once he was out of the water, and breathing."
Daddy Asher looked to Gran. "Put the kettle on, Ginny. We'll return directly."
We were but a foot outside when a bit of russet clothing came flying from the doorway.
"Asher! Your vest!" Gran commanded.
He caught it and, growling, yanked his arms through as we headedtoward the embankment. All was accomplished without breaking his sure, barefoot stride.
Now that my grandfather sprinted beside me, my burden lifted further. He smelled of his horses, and a little of Gran's vanilla and berry scent. Asher Woods was a builder--of houses and fields and family and a great line of horses that folks traveled from five states around to buy. He'd survived his ten-year indenture to the Chase family, a Blackfoot raid out west, and a rabid wolf attack in these mountains. Though Gran's Sutherland inheritance had seen that my father and his brothers were formally educated at Harvard and Columbia, truth to tell it was Daddy Asher's wisdom I admired most.
We reached the spot where I'd climbed the cliff. I nodded down to Mr. North and the still figure under my cloak. The blacksmith raised his arm in greeting. My grandfather returned it. Then he took my hand before we slid down the red cliff together.
"Dig your heels, Lily," his quiet voice instructed as he showed me how to slow our descent to the creek bed.
Our dust made the boy turn into the shadow of my cloak and cough. My grandfather knelt and lifted Hugh's head in his big, gentle hands. Daddy Asher's own breath caught in his throat then.
"Bon Dieu." He whispered one of his French blasphemies. "Quinn?"
"Hugh," I corrected. "He said his name is Hugh."
"Hugh Delaney," my grandfather said slowly.
"He didn't say what his--" I stopped when I realized that Hugh's eyelids were flickering open.
"Yes, sir," he murmured as Mr. North transferred his burden to Daddy Asher's strong arms. There between them, Hugh Delaney opened his eyes full. "Begone, Satan!" he yelled at Mr. North. When he saw who held him on the other side, he made a mad struggle to free himself from Daddy Asher. I saw my grandfather with Hugh's eyes then--a towering wilderness Indian savage, his long glossy hair flying back from his shoulders, his high cheekbones and almost pupilless eyes, lightened now, not with color but with mirth.
"Easy," he assured Hugh, "Mr. North ain't the devil. And I'm not going to scalp and eat you any more than I did your kinsman when I held him, years ago."