Celeste stroked the pitted stone, her chilled fingers discovering lumps and patterns beneath the lichen that eyes could no longer make out. The granite held centuries of stories. So old. Yet, each year, the stone melted, threatening to return to its natural shape and lose all that history to the unrelenting wind and rain.
She raised her eyes from the cross to gaze out over the valley she’d driven through that morning. The low light of the autumn sun had tinted the world orange, the color of a warm fire, yet the bite in the air made her pull her sweater tighter around her middle. Had she done the right thing? Standing here among the ancient graves, she suddenly wasn’t sure. What had seemed like a first-rate idea in the expensive linens and polished wood of her London living room, now seemed ludicrous. Start a new life here? Amongst the sheep and stones? She was well past the age for adventure; she should be knitting booties for grandchildren, not taking over a parish in the cold of the Scottish Highlands. And yet, her reason for going had not changed; the only thing left for her in London now, was grief.
Tucking her fingers under her arms, she trudged back down the hill to the church. When she entered through the side-door, she started—someone was sitting in the front pew.
“Afternoon,” she called, her voice high and thin with surprise.
A young boy jumped up, his eyes wide and wild. Celeste caught her breath—his iris were as grey and ancient as the stones on the hillside.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you, young man,” she said, her voice unsteady. Almost before she could get out the words, the boy dashed down the aisle and disappeared through the archway to the front doors. She didn’t even hear them click closed.
She gripped a nearby pew, focusing on the solid feel of the wood under her hand. This was no way to start. Scared of a young boy. Scaring away a young boy.
“They probably won’t like you,” her American friend Margot had said when she’d told her about taking the ministry. “A woman vicar? In a big city, that flies–though, women vicars are still only about, what, one in seven?” Margot had laughed, her eyes bright with amusement. “ But you won’t be in London anymore; not by a long shot.”
Celeste had brushed aside her friend’s prediction, but now her stomach clenched. What if it was true? They’d hate her just because she was a woman. Sighing, she locked up the side-door then straightened the Bible on the pulpit before making her way through the dusk to her house. As she dug in her pocket for her door-key, someone called out to her from the gate.
“Evening, Vicar. Are ye finding everything you need?”
She turned and breathed with relief when she saw her landlady. “Yes, thank you, Mrs. Ainsley. I’ve just been to the church to get familiar with the place.” The other woman nodded, a soft smile on her face that made Celeste berate herself for thinking these folk would be unkind to her.
“Why dornt ye come over to my house for supper? We’re only having stew and brown bread, but at least ye willnae have to fire up your stove at this late hour.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Celeste pulled the key from the lock and met the other woman at the gate. “When I was at the church, I think I scared off one of the children. He looked…” Celeste paused, suddenly not sure how to describe the boy, “well, almost like a wild animal.” She laughed then, to cover her embarrassment. “You know how boys can be. I had one myself.”
Mrs. Ainsley held the gate open for her as they passed through. She glanced at Celeste, a brow raised. “Was he grey-eyed, with hair like a flaming briar patch?”
Celeste turned in surprise. “Yes! Exactly. Does he go often to the church?”
“I’d say so, Vicar. He’s always knocking about there.” They’d reached Mrs. Ainsely’s neat cottage, and Celeste slipped off her dirty shoes at the door.
“Do his parents not look after him?” she asked, glancing up at her host.
“No, that they dornt.” Mrs. Ainsley held open the door. “They died mair than two hundred years ago. As did he.” Celeste’s landlady smiled. “Welcome to Altnaharra, Vicar.” Now, come and have a nice dish of stew.”