I first saw it one morning in the mist on the lake, before the sun came up. I was up early to get the eggs from the hen house, enjoying the peace before the animals woke up and started crying for their breakfast. I’d taken a moment, egg basket on my arm, to look out over the mountains as they deepened toward winter. The trees on the yan side of the lake were starting to show their colors, and they were a sight to see through the mist rising up from the waters.
That was when I saw it, soft and green, floating just above the surface. The lake was glassy like a mirror, but the wanderlight didn’t show up in the water. It hovered there, like it was staring at me. I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and when I opened them, it was still there. Like it was waiting. Like it knew.
The rooster crowed from up by the house, scared me so I nearly dropped my eggs, and when I looked back, the wanderlight was gone and the golden fingers of dawn were just creeping through the mountain gap. I stood there for another minute, but it didn’t come back, and I couldn’t wait for it, not with so much to do and a wet cough in my throat.
I put the foxfire out of my mind until Pearline came calling two days later.
“Patience said she seen a devil dog in the woods three nights runnin’,” she said, settling down at my kitchen table as I poured her a cup of cider. “Said she saw it waitin’ at the bottom of the path goin’ up the White Hill.”
“Who would it be waitin’ for at the White Hill?” I poured my own cup of cider and sat down across from her. The warmth of it soothed my chest, made me feel like I could breathe again. “Everyone who lived up there died more’n ten years ago. There’s no one for it to take.”
“Maybe not,” Patience said, her pale blue eyes wide over the rim of her cup, shawl tucked closely around her shoulders. “Maybe someone–or some thing–survived the fire. You know my James said he heard someone followin’ him down the road when he was comin’ home from the lake last full moon.”
I shook my head but she reached out and grabbed my wrist.
“Emmerly, I mean it. I know you go out walkin’ in the woods some nights, and I know you ain’t feared nothin’ since you was knee high, but if there’s a devil dog huntin’ some soul on that hill, be careful it don’t take you by mistake.”
“I’ll be careful, Pearline,” I assured her, catching her hand in both my own. “But no ghost hound’s gonna catch my scent unless I want it to.”
I should have heeded her warning, and I knew it even then, but some of us have darker gifts than others, and I’ve always been a crossings-keeper. My momma told me when I was five years old that I had a gift for easing hard deaths, that I’ve the touch for helping souls find their steps across the river, and if there was a ghost hound waiting for three nights, then maybe someone was needing my gift.
I packed a basket with bread and apples and a bit of a tincture for pain and wrapped my momma’s blue shawl around my shoulders. A dark dress for a dark night, but with the soft scent of lilacs and roses that she’d worked from the dirt with her own hands. If I’d had the gift of crossings, she had the gift of birth. I missed her now that my own breath found it difficult to be born from my lungs if the nights grew cold enough.
The foxfire glowed from the edge of the lake as I approached, always moving when I got too close, as if it were leading me to the path. I didn’t need its guidance; I knew the steps to the White Hill, and I knew the beast who sat at its foot, waiting for me.
It was not looked on kindly to keep such close dealings with death, and I was glad that fear would likely keep my neighbors in their homes, close to their lanterns. A crossings-keeper had few friends, frightened as they were of the gift, afraid I’d ease them into the river before their time.
“Who needs my help?” I asked when I saw the familiar white shape, like a wolf but not as hungry-thin, a hum like bees in the distance hovering near it.
It stood on two legs, taller than a man, its face hidden in the shaggy, silky white fur. Its voice was like silver bells, deep and sweet, when it said, “I do. The summer has been long, Emmerly, and I’ve been lonely. Winter approaches, and the nights grow long enough for my journey.”
I stepped close, passing my hand over its smoke-shifting face, its eyes darker than the lake at midnight, its snout long and cold enough to burn me. But I am used to the sting of Death, and I do not fear it.
“My darling,” I said, and its eyes closed, the humming of bees growing louder as it leaned into my touch. “Come to the top of the hill with me and we will sit for the night. I’ve brought the apples you like.”
The creature floated beside me until we reached the burnt out remains of a stone house, fiddleheads and devilweed slowly pushing out of the wet leaves around it. Death sat beside me, and I reached into my basket and gave it my offering of apples.
It ate them all until only one was left, and that it held reverently, quiet, not speaking. Claws like shiny black rocks curled around the fruit, the red flesh slowly shimmering gray and then snowy white, like the creature’s fur.
It opened its palm, holding it out to me like a gift. “Take this, my friend,” the bell-voice said, scratching along my ears in silver tones. “And it will aid your own crossing when you are ready to come to me, some beloved winter far from now.”
I took the pale ghost apple and tucked it into my basket, next to my bread, and I held its clawed hand in both my own, leaning into its softness in the moonless night, feeling the heavy ache in my chest that had been my companion since the spring.
“Perhaps not so far,” I whispered, and the beast held me close, safe and strangely warm. “Not far at all.”