gertrude rarely saw other human beings, but she talked to almost everything she did see - the sky, the clouds, the trees, the rocks and her sheep, and when she got close enough to it, the river. for the most part, only the river and a few of the sheep talked to her. a few mornings after her encounter with st james, she was standing on a ridge about a quarter of the way down the mountain, watching the sheep - who were unusually well-behaved - and talking to the clouds. the clouds almost never responded to her observations, so she looked around uncertainly when she heard a voice. sure enough, the voice had come not from the clouds but from a creature standing behind her, a little higher up the hill.
the creature looked like herself, a human, but with two wings of moderate size, reaching from its shoulders to its waist, and each about the width of the unwinged portion of its body.
"greetings," the creature addressed gertrude. "a beautiful morning, is it not?"
gertrude thought before replying, as she always did. "most mornings are like this."
"the sky is very blue."
"it usually is blue, except when it rains."
"allow me to introduce myself. i am jehudiel, the archangel. one of seven archangels in heaven."
"i am gertrude, a shepherdess. i am the only shepherdess in the valley."
"i am pleased to make your acquaintance, gertrude." the archangel moved a little further down the slope. he looked uncertainly at a couple of sheep who moved closer to him.
"they won't bite you." gertrude guided the inquisitive beasts away with her staff.
the angel looked around. "do you have a dog? some shepherds have dogs."
"i don't have one. the old woman had one. but he went away, when she did."
"i see. well, gertrude, the reason i came down here to talk to you - " he paused, but gertrude just stared at him.
" - the reason i came down here, i understand you had an encounter with a saint a few days ago. saint james, to be exact."
"they can be difficult sometimes, these saints."
"he put a curse on you."
gertrude thought about this. "he said something about walking the hills forever."
"indeed he did. and what did you think of that?"
"where else am i going to go?"
"not very talkative, are you?"
"i talk all the time."
the archangel looked around. "oh? to whom?"
"the sheep. the sky, the clouds, the rain, the trees. the old woman and the dog, even though they are gone."
"i see. well, gertrude, i have brought you some good news."
"yes. saint james's action has come to the attention of the holy mother."
"whoever she is."
" she can't rescind the curse of a saint - you understand that. but she has taken pity on you. that is what she does - takes pity on poor sinners, even pagans like yourself. what do you think of that?"
"nothing. i don't know who the holy mother is."
"the holy mother - think of her as a shepherdess like yourself. and poor sinners and pagans like you are her sheep."
"i am not a sheep, i am a shepherdess. those are the sheep over there. look, there is one of them wandering away now." gertrude called to it, and it stopped. she called to it again and it began to turn slowly to face her.
"you speak to it in its own language," observed the archangel.
"someday this whole valley will be filled with churches and cathedrals dedicated to the glory of the holy mother, and our lord and the holy saints. did not saint james tell you that?"
"yes. i think so."
"and then what will you do? will you join in the congregation?"
"i don't know."
"saint james put a spell on you, a spell which can not be broken. you will not be able to leave the valley. what do you think will happen?"
"whatever happens, happens."
"what an obdurate little pagan you are. tell me, what did you think when you saw me?"
gertrude stared at him.
"had you ever seen anything like me before? were you not filled with wonder, with amazement?"
"whatever happens, happens." gertrude looked back at the sheep. another one, a dark gray one, was wandering away and she called to it.
"do you not even want to know what mercy the holy mother proposed for you, what softening of the saint's curse?"
"you can tell me, if you like."
"do you want to stay in this valley forever?"
"why not? where would i go?"
"ungrateful little wretch! forget the holy mother! i put a second curse on you! stay in this valley, not until judgment day but until the end of judgment day! be the last soul on earth to be judged - the very last!"
and although the angel had wings, he did not use them to fly away, but faded away, leaving gertrude with her sheep.
darker clouds formed overhead, and a light rain began to fall. the sheep moved closer together. after a while the rain fell a little harder, and they moved down the slope.