on some days it rained. on others the sun shone, but never too brightly.
gertrude took her sheep to market when it was time. the old woman who had sheared her sheep was no longer at the shearing station. a younger woman had taken her place. she looked at gertrude with suspicion.
"don't come down here too often, do you? mother anna has been gone for a goodly time, almost a year. i have never seen you before."
"i come down when it is time."
"i guess you do. this is not the best looking batch of sheep i have seen this week. but not the worst either. " the young woman looked sharply at gertrude. "you missed your chance. the lord sent his man over here not so long ago, buying up sheep for a great feast. you could have got a good price for some of these beauties then. too bad you missed it."
gertrude stared at the young woman. "but if i sold a sheep for a feast, then it could not give wool for next year, could it? "
the young woman laughed. "what an attitude! have you not had new lambs this year? new sheep for new wool? well, not so many, by the looks of this group. but , you have to look for opportunities when they arise, eh?"
gertrude did not quite grasp the young woman's meaning, and smiled politely.
"look here, you have not asked me what happened to mother anna, where she has gone."
"if you want to tell me, you may."
"she went to her eternal reward. do you know what that means?"
gertrude thought for a little while. "do you mean she died?"
"yes, she died - and her soul was taken by our lord and the blessed virgin to heaven - because she was one of the faithful."
gertrude remembered her encounters with the saint and with the archangel. some of the words the young woman was using were familiar. but she was not sure of their meaning, so she remained silent.
"but you are not a member of the faithful, are you? i have never seen you at congregation. unless you belong to another congregation, on the other side of the hill?"
"no, " gertrude replied. "i do not."
"who do you talk to, then, when you do not come down to the village?"
"to the sheep. and to the sky, and the clouds, and the rain and the grass."
"what a heathen!" cried the girl. " look at you - you dress in a sack, not even a ribbon in your hair - and even so, you are a heathen, with no hope or faith. do you not feel alone up there, in the wind and rain and fog?"
"no, i have the sheep. and i like the wind and the rain, as long as they are not too strong."
"ha! well - to business. i can give you five coins for the wool on these beasts. will that suit you?"
"mother anna would have given me six," gertrude replied. "why not shear them first, see what you get? they have nice thick wool, thicker than it looks. "
"are you a trickster, little heathen? do you think you can play your tricks on me? ha ha!" the girl laughed good-naturedly. "i am an older hand than you might think, and did not roll down the mountainside yesterday. i think i am being generous with five - i only offer you five that we can get off to a good start, eh?"
gertrude stared at her uncertainly.
"look here, do you have a dog? i see you did not bring one with you."
"not any more. the old woman had one. he ran away when she died."
"i see. would you like one? i can put you in the way of one. so i will give you five coins and a dog. surely you could use one."
"she is not full grown, but she is not a puppy either. you will have to train her yourself to look after the sheep - can you do that?"
"i can do that."
"very well, then. is it a bargain?"
gertrude hesitated. "yes, it is a bargain."
"good! i will get the dog after i shear our friends here. i suppose you want your coins now, eh, so you can get to the market? as you only come down here once a year."
"i can help you with the shearing if you have an extra pair of shears. it will make all go faster. i used to help the old woman."
"why, that is excellent. i am sure you will do better than my usual assistant." the girl looked at an inert lump on the ground about six yards away that gertrude had thought a pile of rags. "caesar! get up, i know you are not sleeping." she went over and kicked the lump, hard, and it turned into a big-boned lad of about thirteen years, who sat up bleary-eyed but without protesting, and gawked at the girl and gertrude.
"go find merlin and get one of those dogs he is giving away. get the half-grown female one he told me i could have. and give me your shears."
"yes, mistress," the lad answered in a sarcastic drawl. he glanced again at gertrude, with a trace of a leer. then he pulled a pair of shears from under the rags he had been lying on and handed them to the girl. after a tremendous face-splitting yawn he got up and moved away toward the center of the market.
"a worthless rascal," noted the girl, "but what can i do? i can find none better. many of the sturdier lads are moving away from the village, enlisting in this lord's army and that. some of the sharper lads are taking up preaching the gospel."
gertrude accepted these confidences with her usual imperturbability. the girl handed her the shears. they looked a little rusty.
"he doesn't keep them in the best condition, does he? but what can i do? he is getting almost too big to beat, and then i do not know what i shall do."
"these are good enough," gertrude replied.
"let us get to work then. my name is denise, by the way. what is yours?"
"well, gertrude, let us make quick work here, and you can get back up to your mountaintop in time for some good wind and rain - as that is your pleasure."
gertrude looked up at the sky. it was indeed getting dark.
denise continued to chatter as they set to work on the sheep.