AN: Heaps of gratitude to nauticalmass and solareclipses for holding my hand and their mad beta skillz.

This is going to be a slow journey, folks. Perhaps a chapter every few weeks, or so. Please be patient while I try to get my head back in the game. (08/18/2011)



Prologue: Pennsylvania, 1772

I spent my last day as a human in the most mundane ways possible.

My morning was spent helping the Smiths with their harvest influx. They had done extremely well this year, and my family owed them much. I worked in their fields—my labor was all that we could afford in repayment of the flour, milk, and eggs which they provided us with when we couldn't provide for ourselves.

I was jealous of their bounty. Our farm hadn't been as fortunate this season. Father had tried to hide it from us, but I knew that he had made some bad decisions, and coupled with conditions out of our control—the late rains and extreme heat—our land hadn't been nearly as fertile as our neighbors'.

"Next year will be better," he said every time anyone alluded to our family's misfortune. "God willing," was my mother's constant response.

On my way to my now-daily hunt, I walked past the graveyard, small, yet significant. My grandparents, whom I'd never met, rested there, as did my sister and oldest brother. They both died when I was young, so my memories of them were fleeting and inconstant. There were flowers laid on the tiniest headstone. It was the newest addition and belonged to my unnamed sibling, born and died on the same day, slightly less than a year ago.

I imagined my father would be joining them soon. His health hadn't recovered from the previous winter's harshness, and his cough was as bad as ever. He wouldn't call for Doctor Roberts, more because we had nothing to give the man than out of actual necessity.

As I came across the fields, the sun hung dead center in the sky. My morning began when the sky was just turning gray, and after six hours in someone else's fields, I was headed into the woods, the only place where I could be myself.

The other night, I had fooled myself into thinking that Elizabeth Smith would care to sit with me at the church meeting. I had caught a glimpse of her on her family's porch a few nights ago, and her loveliness stopped me where I stood. But she knew even better than I that I had no future, at least not one that could support a wife or family.

I was the middle son and bitter that my inheritance would only be a third of my father's already limited property. Our small portion of land could barely support us, and once split again, it would be worthless; the parts less than the whole.

My family was so hard up for labor that there was never the possibility of apprenticeship for me, like there was for my youngest brother, Thomas. We needed the meager pittance of my toil for our own pitiful farm and for barter. As little as it was, it kept my family from starvation. I knew that once my father died, Thomas would probably be sent to another family, one that could afford to keep him.

Apprenticeship was a hard life, to be sure, but it was one that would teach him a skill beyond plowing a field. All I knew was how to lead a horse and hunt for my dinner. Nothing more than any self-respecting man ought to know, but without a decent parcel of land or any other proficiency, it was still not enough to feed and clothe a family.

The trees in the copse behind our property didn't care that I didn't know how to smithy, account, sell, or trade. They didn't cut me at meetings or turn from me as if I hadn't offered them my arm. Sometimes I felt like they were the only things that truly understood me. The oaks acted as my roots, my life, my foundation. I knew it some might think it sinful to ascribe God's qualities on them, but I also knew that their lives were as sacred as my own.

If I focused on Elizabeth, I knew that the only thing I'd be bringing home for supper would be an empty sack, so I ignored my hurts and got to the business of making my word my deed. We needed meat, and I was—once again—stepping into the role of provider for my family. I tried to stop the feelings of bitterness bubbling up inside me. They wouldn't help me in my task.

I thought I knew the woods better than my home, but in my musings, I'd wandered into a portion I'd never seen before. I heard my name being called and a throaty laugh, but I couldn't find the source. As I turned myself around in circles, looking for the stranger who knew my name, I became dizzy. Perhaps it was because I had finished my water hours ago or that I hadn't had a bite to eat since the mush Mama gave me this morning, but I needed to sit down. I collapsed next to a fallen log and took in my last breath . . .

I awoke some time later, alone and with a raw throat and a thirst that I couldn't sate. I could hear the birds in the trees and the creek that ran alongside my homestead, despite being miles away. I went in search of my family.

May God have mercy on their souls.