The old woman peered past the red geraniums in her deep front window at the figure lingering in the moon-white snow at the gate. In the gloom of the late winter afternoon, Hennie Comfort did not recognize the woman, who stood like a curious bird, her head cocked to one side as she looked at the fence, then the front door, and back at the fence again. Hennie watched, thinking it odd that anyone would wait there, mute as the snow itself. Why would a body stand in the cold when she could come inside by the stove?
Hennie had gone to the window to read her letter in the winter light, because the heavy snow had weighted down the wires, causing the electric to go out. It was too dark inside now to read, although Hennie knew the words wouldn’t be any different from what they were when she read the letter at the post office that morning.
For years, Mae had urged her to move out of the high country. This time, she’d made it plain that if Hennie insisted on another winter on the earth’s backbone, Mae would come to Middle Swan herself and pack up her mother and take her below, to Fort Madison on the eastern edge of Iowa. Mae was a loving daughter, but she was as stubborn as Hennie. “You can spend your summers in Middle Swan, Mom, but I insist that from now on, you live with us during the winters. What if you slipped on the ice and broke your leg? You could freeze to death before somebody found you.”
Mae was right, Hennie admitted to herself. If she fell, the snow would cover her up, and nobody would know where she was until she melted out in the spring. It was foolhardy for a person as old as she was to stay another winter on the Swan River. Besides, it was selfish of her to let Mae worry, and Hennie was always sensible of the feelings of others. But Lordy, she didn’t want to live on the Mississippi.
Hennie set the letter on the table and returned to the window to look at the woman, covered now in white flakes. She’d be frozen solid as a fence post if she didn’t move soon. So the old woman opened the door and walked into the snow in her stout shoes, her hands tucked into her sleeves. “Hello to you,” she called.
The stranger looked up, startled, a little frightened. She was a new-made woman, not much more than a girl, and Hennie had never seen her before. “Oh!” the stranger said, clasping and unclasping her bare hands, which despite the poor light, Hennie could see were red and chapped. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but I was wondering how much?”
“How much for what?”
“A prayer.” The girl tightened the triangle of plaid wool scarf that covered her head before she thrust her hands into the pockets of her thin coat.
Hennie was confused for a moment, and then realizing what had confounded the girl, she laughed. “That sign’s been there so long, I forget about it.”
“It says, Prayers For Sale. I’m asking how much do you charge, and is it more if you’re in need than if you’re wanting just a little favor? Do sinners pay more than the righteous? And what if the Lord doesn’t answer? Do you get your money back?” The girl asked all this in a rush, as if she didn’t want to forget any of the questions she had pondered as she stood frozen-still in the cold.
“That sign’s older than God’s old dog.”
“How come you to sell prayers?”
“The sign says so. I’ve seen it three times now. I came back because of it,” the girl persisted. “I can pay, if that’s what you’re thinking. I can pay.”
Hennie chuckled. “That sign’s a story. I’ll tell it to you if you’ll come inside.”
“I’ve got a nickel. Is that enough for a prayer?”
“Lordy, are you needing one? No money will buy a prayer, I tell you, but I’ll give you one for free, if you’re in need of it.” Hennie put her arms tight around herself to squeeze out the cold, for she had gone into the storm without her coat.
“I need it. I do.”
“Just you come inside then and tell me why.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to get home and fix Dick’s supper. But I’d be obliged to you if you’d say a prayer—a prayer for Sweet Baby Effie, sweet baby that was, that is. Maybe you could ask that wherever she is, she’s not taken with the cold—I never knew it to be so cold–but just any words will do.”
“I’ll ask it,” Hennie said, turning and gesturing toward the house, but the girl wouldn’t follow. Instead, she took a step backward.
“I thank you,” she said, carefully laying her nickel on the cross-piece of the fence. Then she turned and fled. Rubbing her arms now against the cold, Hennie watched until the little thing disappeared into the storm. Then she picked up the five-cent-piece and went inside, placing the coin in a mite box that she kept for Bonnie Harvey to take to church. Hennie herself didn’t attend services, hadn’t in a long time.
As she sat down in a kitchen chair, Hennie picked up the letter but instead of holding it up to the window to read again, she pondered the young girl. Something about her was familiar, although Hennie was sure she’d never seen her before. It might have been the way she said her words, which told Hennie she was from the South. Or perhaps it was because the girl was new in Middle Swan and appeared to be not a day older than Hennie herself when she’d arrived long years before.
Hennie looked out the window again, but there was no sign of the girl returning, no sign that she’d even been there, in fact. The old woman wondered why the girl wanted a prayer; she seemed to have a powerful desire for one. Well, Hennie knew the need for prayer in her life, and she would do what she could. So slowly, she knelt on her old knees beside the chair, clasped her hands together, and asked God to keep Sweet Baby Effie warm. Then she mumbled, “Now, Lord, there’s a girl, a poor girl, by the looks of her, that’s needing your help—and maybe mine, too. I’d like it right well if you could tell me what to do.” She paused and added, “And I’d be grateful if you’d find a way short of dying to keep me from moving in with Mae.”