The first person I saved was a dog.
My mother thought he was dead, but he was too young to die, just born, still wet and glossy, beautiful really, but not breathing.
“Take him away,” she said, sliding him into my cupped hands.
Her voice was cold. Perhaps that was why it shook a little.
But I knew her better than that.
Maisie, curved around her three living pups as they poked blindly toward her milk, watched me with aching eyes.
I could feel how much she hurt, too.
“What should I do with him?” I asked.
“Bury him far beyond the well.” My mother turned to tidy the bedding straw. It was as red as Christmas. We’d all had a hard night. But it had been hardest for the last of the pups. The one in my hands.
I cradled him close against my chest as if I had two hearts but only one of them beating, then carried him away from the woodshed, into the pale spill of morning light. Past the cabin, toward the well and a grave waiting beyond it.
But then I stopped.
And there, on the cabin’s broad granite step: a wooden pail brimming with cold water, waiting to be useful.
I didn’t know what was about to happen, but a little flicker in my chest flamed at the sight of that water full of green and blue from the tree, the sky overhead. Calm. Simple. It spoke to me with a voice louder than my mother’s as she stood at the door of the woodshed, bloody straw bundled in her arms, and said, “Go on then, Ellie.”
But I didn’t go on then.
The flicker, the flame, the voice all tugged me toward the bucket, where I plunged the baby dog deep into the cold, cold water and held him there until I felt him suddenly lurch and struggle.
“Ellie! What are you doing?” my mother said, dropping the straw and rushing toward me.
But she stopped and stared when I lifted the dripping, squirming pup and pulled him back against my chest.
“He’s not dead,” I said, smiling. “Not dead at all.”
Which made my mother smile, too, for just a moment.
“Then he’s yours,” she said, turning back for the straw. “See that you keep him that way.”
I didn’t know if she meant that I should keep him alive or keep him mine, but I intended to do both.
I sat on the step and dried the pup on my shirttail, roughing up his slick pelt, which made him breathe harder— which made me breathe harder, too, a series of sighs, as if we’d both been starved for air.
Then I took him back to Maisie, who lifted her head and watched as I wedged him between the other pups and showed him the teat meant for him.
When Maisie laid her head back down again, she sighed, too.
The pups all looked mostly the same. Dark. Perfect. One of them had a white forepaw. Another was bigger than the rest. Another, some color in his coat. And my boy had some brindle, too, and a white tip to his tail, as if it were a brush he’d dipped in paint. So that set him apart.
But I didn’t need a marker.
I was sure that I would know him again in an instant. And I was sure that he would know me.
“I’ll have to think of a name for you,” I told him as he began to gulp down his new life.
And I did just that all through my morning chores.
While I pulled winter grass from the potato patch, I decided against Shadow (though he was dark and it suited him).
I thought of Possum (because he hadn’t really been dead, not really) as I bundled the grass and set it aside for the cows.
I considered Boy (which he was) and Beauty (which he also was) as I weeded early spinach come up from autumn seed.
I thought about Tipper (for that white tip) as I bundled kindling.
And finally— while I stowed the wood in the bin by the big kitchen stove— chose Quiet.
My little brother, Samuel, said, “I like that,” as we ate a breakfast of dried blueberries, fire-black potatoes, and milk still udder-warm.
“It’s a heartbeat name.”
My mother said, “A what?”
“A heartbeat name. You know: two parts. Ba-bum. Ba-bum.”
And I liked that.
Esther said, “Quiet’s a dumb name.” But she was my big sister and thought everything I did was dumb. “He’ll wander off somewhere and you’ll go yelling ‘Quiet!’ at the top of your lungs.” She shook her head. “Dumb.”
But I disagreed, though I did think that Quiet was an odd name. Which was all right with me.
I myself was odd in many ways, and I liked other things that were odd. Questions worth answering. Like the ones that would soon lead me to Star Peak, to a boy who could make a knife sing, to a hag named Cate, and the other elses I came to know during that strange time. Some of them good. Some of them bad. All of them tied to the flame that burned more brightly than ever on the day when Quiet was born.