No-one saw the old woman slowly open her rheumy eyes, glistening in the dim light of the single-roomed hovel. She lay on her side on a straw matress, a woolen blanket pulled tight around her shoulders.
She closed her eyes and heard the clucking of the hens outside, her grandaughter reprimanding children in the distance. Felt the rise and fall of her chest against the weight of the linen dress and woolen overdress she had not taken off for years. The thump of her heart in the darkness of her mind. She felt small, nested within herself as if in a tree. It was such a cumbersome effort to move the tree. Far easier to take wing in her thought, or hop from branch to branch in her memory, often settling on the days her husband was alive, as she did now. She missed him. A sigh came to her, a double breath which embraced the emptiness, and as it passed she felt the passionless horizon of her life in all directions, a vast black sky, unwelcoming. Her regular breath returned and she prepared herself for rising. Today was different, she had purpose. Today she would leave her family, and begin her final journey, on the Black Pilgrimage. She would no longer be a burden to them, and soon her soul would find release as she entered a final sleep from which she would never wake.
Slowly she rose to her feet, carefully drapped a thick woolen shawl over her shoulders, her widow’s cowl, and tucked a few thin whisps of grey hair under her wimpole. Some people aged well as if harboured from the wild visiscitudes of turmoil and strain, and others weathered like exposed crags, back bent, limbs ascance, skin creased and scored. Her’s was a life of sufferance. Though the old woman had lived a life of kindness and gentle attitude, she was wracked by regret and guilt. The early death of her mother birthed a bitter shadow which followed her every step in life. As the youngest she was cared for by her siblings until she was torn from them, barefoot until an adult, her only luck was marrying a frontiersman. Though gruff and showing little patience to the children or herself should they they ever demonstrate slackness, he loved her dearly to his end. The relentless vigour he needed to eek out a living in the Outer Reaches was the same uplifting enthusiasm he met all people including his children. And it was the same vital energy which made him fiercefully protective of her, even against herself. When she had lost her baby, it was he who had pulled her through her grief. His death had very nearly extinguished the flame of her own spirit, and a year hence her spirit had grown fainter and fainter until the motions of her body were pulled from her by routine: a spoonful of food shakely brought to her mouth not for hunger but because the spoon acted on her as it had done all her life, just as her hand was lifted to the latch and it was the door that made her pull it open.
As she shuffled out into the sunlight, her spirit rose. Tens of thousands of days encased her aged body, yet a tiny part of her felt as spritely as when she was born. It was this faint but undeminished light which would navigate the tidal force of the day ahead, would pull her free from her family ties, and set her on her final course. She had yearned for an ending for too long, eating less every day, weakening her body and mind until she had heard of the Black Pilgrimage and her soul had acknowledged the truth of it. So, when six pilgrims arrived the previous night, it had taken little to find the necessary resolve. The group would be leaving with two more pilgrims this day, and one of them would be old lady Myra.