Birchthorn: Chapter 1
I jumped off the cart and clasped both doeskin reins in one hand, placing a flat palm of my other on the length of his nose. I whispered for him to be calm. He picked up his feet a few times, walking in place while he blew, but otherwise returned to the steady animal I knew. When Sur was calm enough, I went back to my leather shoulder bag under the unimpressive farm shop bench seat. Inside (among other things) were some matches, twine, lampwicks, and oil. It didn't take long to relight the left-side lamp, but it was barely enough glow to see the head of my horse in this weather. The storm seemed to be gathering. In the dim light around the left side of the cart I found a good long staff of maple and grabbed a handkerchief from a back skirt pocket. I soaked the rag in the lamp oil and tied it to the end of the staff, lighting it from the bravely turning torch on the cart. It exploded in flame and Sur craned his head around to see what force of nature brought light back to the path again. I tied it to the bench seat and let it burn a few feet above my head. In this wind no ash would burn me, and I just hoped it would last till we trotted home to the farm...
I jumped back onto the wagon bench, and wrapped a the wool blanket back around my legs. My feet were freezing, the wool socks below my slouch leather riding boots soaked with sweat from loading the cart. I had driven the six miles on back roads to the Thomason's farm. There Lara and her father helped me load up two sides of pork and a load of winter squash they owed in barter for some logging Sur and I had did at their home last weekend. My Thomason had a fine pair of quarter horses at his farm for saddle and carriage, but preferred not to use his only mode of transportation for rough forest work. "One casts a shoe or goes lame and this farm is done in." He said, and we shook on the barter. Sur was my only horse, but he had worked hard his entire life and was surefooted as an Alpine Buckling. All that aside, I needed the silver.
I thought it would be a quick and gentle ride. These were roads both Sur and I knew as well as our own farm's pastures, but the weather change came so quickly it seemed as if someone had just cursed our travel. We were in a new and strange place without recourse. Turning back seemed foolish when we were halfway between the Thomason's and home. So, ever onward, I clicked and asked Sur to step up easy. Under my breath I muttered "Fortune favors the brave..."
I cursed that I had not brought my dog along. He would have been a comfort next to me on the bench, and could see things in the forest neither horse or woman ever could. My imagination wandered to tales and songs I heard of as a child, of a beast that once roamed the wild places where the stone walls and hedges stopped. You can't help but sink into myth on nights like these.
I wanted him to trot but he refused. I suppose it was for the best. Sometimes horses are more sensible than their drivers. At a brisk walk we moved across the gently sloping road- all thick forests of pine and birch on both sides. The only light around us was the yellow glow, like a locomotive campfire hovering above us. It crackled and hissed as the wet wood itself started to burn, and I prayed we could at least make it to the open fields at the base of our mountain before it was gone to darkness.
I pulled the leather hat by the large brim over my knit hat and wrapped the scarf around my head a few times tighter. My skirt was a heavy wool and I was grateful for that as well. I wore it over my canvas trousers more as an attached blanket than out of respect for looking like a proper lady, as I was anything but. I used to be seen as an upstanding woman, but ever since I took on the farm alone I had become an outcast and thing of pity to eyes behind shelves in the mercantile. I couldn't blame them, I suppose. A young woman living alone on a sheepfarm in the upper Hudson Valley was a rarity, and certainly not in my original plans, but it was where I had landed so I dug in. The man I was engaged to died from that Spanish Flu when he demanded taking our best lambs to the city on a barge heading down the Hudson last summer. He said he knew people were sick there, but since all the other farmer's had refused to bring their meat into the city the price they could fetch could build a new stable for that horse I had been dreaming of. He promised he would be careful, and he promised he would not shake a hand or walk into a single home or tavern. He made his handsome deal and then returned with a fever and cold hands. He was dead three weeks later.
So I was alone on our six acres with a flock of sheep, collies, and this pony I'd bought cheap at auction with some of the money left from the last lambs New York City surely would ever see from this farm. Sur's full name was Surcoat, because "that was all he was good for" was what the auctioneer taunted as he was brought out the rib and limping ghost into the ring as foddertrot for stew and leather. I bought him so cheap I could have bought a roll of butcher paper and twine instead. I treated him like a sheep till he healed and was ready to train again. Now the auctioneer calls him the same respectable moniker I call him when I pass his home in town, Sur. He deserves it.
Yet no matter how steady a horse it does not have the eye of a dog, and I wished my large black sheepdog Anvil was beside. Dark as cast iron and tougher than any ram that might charge him, Anvil was a beast to be reckoned with. I felt stronger beside him and on this awful night he could have me singing instead of darting my eyes and praying into the wind.
Sur could feel the tension in the reins and walked even more cautiously, slowing our trip home. All I could think of was the fireplace in the kitchen and the dutch oven of rabbit stew on the rack and how far away they seemed as the wind grew colder, more biting at my cheek. "Com'on gelding" I whispered, and tried to be more confident as I snapped the reins, lifted my voice and asked for a trot. The haflinger picked up his pace and I started to ease as I noticed the snow starting to calm, leaving as quickly as it came. Fresh white powder covered the trees and more fell gently all around us as the torch went out above my head. Through the cleared path I could now see the opening in the trees and a hint of the full moon. My spirits raised I gave a small cheer and a weight slipped off my shoulders like an sack of grain.
Just ahead, just where I could barely see well beyond the yellow circle of light, an animal dashed across the white road. It was large as a bear, fast as a horse, and black as the sky. Sur stopped dead in his gait, ears shot up and forward. My head shot up too as I tried to see where the animal went. "it couldn't have been..." I whispered to myself, now watching Sur with the intensity of a predator. Sur looked into the forest where the animal was, eyes unblinking, staring at a single point not twenty yards away. I could see nothing, but didn't understand why the horse trapped in harness and cart, was acting calm as if someone had walked by with a bucket of oats while he was tied to a post. My heart was slamming into my ribcage as I put legend and reality together. Words from an old, local, fiddle ballad played in my mind.
...The cattle won't low and the lambs will not gasp
But when he is near them their heartbeats won't last
They never show fear, he won't let them cry
Trapped silently in his eyes right before they die...
The beast known as Birchthorn is watching them
Yes Birchthorn is watching tonight...
The song played, verse after verse in my mind as I stared at the pony in the cart. An animal the size of a shorthorn just raced across the night and Sur had been more terrified by broken glass. I stopped breathing. I listened. I slowly turned my head to the place where the equine gaze laid.
It was nearly impossible to see the dark forest, or to see what crouched amongst a field stone fence. Guttural and low growls, as grating as a mill grinding corn, shot through my body. Sur just stared, calm as a colt nursing in spring. I suddenly felt grateful I still had wet and cold feet under my blanket. If this was what I thought it was, if this was the monster long considered gone from folksong and legend, we had about three minutes to regard this world before both of us were nothing more than another verse at next Halloween's balefire dance.
I was done staring. "STEP UP AND HIKE!" I shouted to Sur as I slapped the reins and kicked towards his rear at the same time. The horse now broken from his spell tore off as if he just remembered what a hundred-thousand generations of herd animals knew before him. He dug his hooves into the ground, the cart nearly flipping over on its side at the turns that lead to the opening into the woods. He cried out as he ran, and I turned my head to see if we were being chased. Behind us a black blur of fur seemed to glide at us, like a banshee. Jutting from it's circle of black, arms as thick as trunks and claws gripping into the ground behind me were all I could see. It was silent now, silent as death and it scared me more than the growls I heard in the dark. It gained on us. Each clawing of the earth towards our cart seemed to pull the road closer to him. I screamed to Sur, "HOME HOME HOMMEEE!" And used the reins as a whip to slap his hindquarters before I released the reins entirely. Now just two miles from the farm I had to trust him to flee to the safest place he ever knew. As the cart jutted and crashed over potholes and limbs, skittered around corners at a breakneck gallop, I crawled over the bench to where the pumpkins and sides of pork resided. Soon as I got to the back of the cart Sur hit a small sapling downed from the wind and the entire contents of the back of the cart flew into the air, pumpkins falling back into the snow, pork sliding off the sides. I nearly slid off myself, but grabbed the leg of the bench as my body swung off the side. I swear I felt hot breath on it as bare boot leather flew through the air. I looked back to see an animal unlike anything I had ever witnessed loping beside just to our side. I wanted to stare, to take in the beast for what it was, but the chaos of the cart's cargo, the falling snow, the terror of it all forced me to act, not study. Inspired by a wish to see daylight, I swung my body back onto the cart and pushed my back against the wagon's bench. Using both feet I kicked a side of pork right into the road and watched as the black blur of hair and sound descended on it. I didn't know if I had seconds or sanctuary, so I climbed to the bench, regained hold of the reins and slapped them hard as I could, forcing Sur to reach farther and sweat heavier than he had in the few months we knew each other. Home was just around these switchbacks, and I was being tailed by a monster I once believed only lived in music and bedtime stories.
No one would believe me. I knew this as I watched the water fly off Sur's neck as we raced up the mountain, past the lights of neighbor's candles and fires. I didn't let him slow down, and I didn't dare let go of my held breath until we were within eye shot of the flock, Anvil racing down the hill to welcome back the animals he knew so well. I screamed at him to come to the wagon as it slowed to a trot and he jumped over the side-rail fences and slammed into me as he did so. I held his coat like a child hugging a father back from war. "You're sleeping inside tonight. No arguments". Anvil looked up at me with yellow eyes, concerned as a dog can look about a woman wrapped up in sheep hair.
As my dog stared at me, as my horse opened his mouth to pant and blow, as the stars started to come out of the cloud-covered sky, revealing the full moon and sheep on the mountain pasture—I could only think of the question I asked my father when I first heard the song of the beast on Hallow's night long ago. "Why do they call the monster Birchthorn, papa? Birch trees aren't supposed to have thorns?" My father stared into my eyes, and with a stare not unlike Anvil's, he put a hand on my frail shoulder and replied;
"And these forests aren't supposed to have monsters, darling."
That was the first chapter of Birchthorn. It's an online novel I'd like to write right here on this blog. Using an idea of several other fiction writers, the way Birchthorn will work is this: I write a chapter, and then the blog readers who want to hear the next bit of the story, make a small donation to the blog, a few dollars or so. When we hit $300 in donations, the story continues. So every chapter is a community-supported story, a way to help pay the bills for me, and a way to get an entirely original story for you.
Now, here is the kicker. I am going to create this novel using names and people from the Cold Antler Farm community! this is our story, you will be characters and parts of the tale. I used Lara so far, thinking of how she fell asleep by the Bun Baker the last night of Antlerstock this year, and how that sense of comfort is what the cart-driver felt so far away from as the beast followed the cart through the woods. You can bet that many more of you will show up in this early-20th century tale of a small farming community's dealings with a monster of legend. It will be family friendly, but spooky. I hope you will join me for the ride. I already have plans for an ex-seat weaver out there (wink wink).
So to keep the story going, make a donation with the donate button under the blog. And this is, of course, voluntary. No one has to pay anything, and no one will be asked to ever pay to read this blog. But when a reader suggested this idea to me, it felt like a blessing and answered prayer. She wrote, "your work is valuable and you are a writer." And I read that over a few times. Since most of my writing is for free, on this blog, I never see it as a thing of value, just something I do. But perhaps a novel is a different approach, and through comments, feedback, and this community we can create a work of fiction about real farm skills and life, with names and faces we know, and have a fun time doing it!
It won't be perfect. You are helping create a manuscript, not a finished piece. I will have to keep going back to fix things and correct mistakes but you can help there too, if a plot goes astray or I explained harnessing a horse the wrong way. We can all make this happen, and who knows what will come of it. Maybe Birchthorn will become a real book? If that's the case, it'll be even more exciting to see this on;ine community of urban and rural readers and homesteaders become a world of fiction, farming, monsters and myth for the ages!
If no one likes this idea, the story will simply go away, and no one is worse for the wear. But I hope you want to hear more, because I certainly want to write more!