The war had closed much of the city, cut off many of the smaller towns. Unable to trace his usual routes, the hat merchant headed into the mountains to try his luck. His father, before he died, had circled a small mountain village on his map, had noted that the trading was good but the trip took two difficult days. Indeed, the snaking road narrowed fast, and the bridge was down to splinters so his horse had to wade to the knees.
Near sunset of the first day, long after the road had turned to an overgrown path, the merchant passed a plain young woman milking a cow. She asked him into her farmhouse for bread and brandy but never turned her back on him. She didn’t turn her back to cut the bread, to call for her mother, to find a glass. He imagined she’d met her share of passing soldiers who wanted more than drink.
Her widowed mother asked if he’d stay the night. In exchange for the food, the bed, the oats, he let her pick a hat from his bags. She chose one made of thick red felt and told him he shouldn’t bother with the village. “They have all they need,” she said. “You won’t do well there.” She looked him up and down as if he were something to eat. She said, “Your hats are lovely.”
In the morning, he rode four more desolate hours and arrived finally in the heart of the village, where women skittered in and out of shops and children played in the streets. He set up his wares on the green under a tree, and the children dared one another to come near. Then they’d giggle and scream and flee. Eventually they grew bolder, stayed close to poke his horse with sticks.