Birchthorn: Chapter 2
From my view at the sheep shed on the hill I could hear Pit's shod hooves before I saw them, the clacking across the frozen ice and stones in the road was such a foreign sound if jostled me from my place on the hill by my favorite ram, Sal. I was leaning against the old boy on the soft dry straw of the shed, reading a copy of Pride and Prejudice so dog-eared and batted from mud and rainwater it was read more by memory than by sight. Adam always said the real owners of Ironale farm were not he and I, but Austen and Anvil. He understood the true rulers of this little realm were, but he named the farm after his two favorite things instead: blacksmithing and wort spirits. I kept the farm's name after he was gone. It sounded stronger than it was. It made me feel safe.
Yet there was no feeling of safety when I saw the dark brown haze of Pit and his passengers. I called Anvil back from his position in the far pasture and grabbed my crook. The black dog came running like a jack rabbit, but walked quietly by my side while I used the crook as a steadying cane down the snow-covered steepness. I yelled out to them, tucking the book into my thick leather belt behind my back. "What's the matter? What's the word?" I was concerned they had seen the same thing I had the night before, but the fact they were alive proved that they hadn't. I searched their eyes and the back of Pit for fear and sweat. They seemed tussled but not terrified. They swiftly walked Pit to the stone wall that made the gate for the entrance of my freehold. Meredith dismounted first, using the stones as a step ladder from the tall animal. Her brown wool cloak held tight around her neck by her hand. She was visiting Cambridge from Maryland, near the capital. She thought a quiet holiday in the countryside would do her good. But the look in her young eyes was not ease. She was white as a ghost between her blond locks and I wondered if perhaps they did see the monster, at a distance in field. I didn't know much about Meredith, but I did know she worked in a large hospital as a volunteer and was no stranger to gruesome sights. Lara seemed slightly more composed but still worried. She leaped down from Pit and quickly tied his reins to the hitch post by the front gate, The word IRONALE across it in twisted black wrought.
"We had planned to surprise you this morning by showing up with a thermos of coffee, cinnamon cakes, and this..." Lara pulled a hefty sack with a whale printed on it, the holy word SALT in thick type. "We thought we'd offer to rub those sides down with you and get the hams and bellies ready to smoke. But when we saw what happened down the road, I told my boy to pick up the pace and then as we passed the smashed pumpkins and bones...we started to run here."
Bones? I didn't know what to say, or if I should say anything at all. Admitting I was chased by a folk song monster the night before and gave up seventy pounds of their sow out of blind fear didn't seem appropriate. I asked them what she saw that caused such a ruckus on this fine morning. I tried to smile.
"Anna Caldwell, do you think we made up this tale? We were riding in the same tracks your pony cart left, laughing and enjoying this sunny morning when, as if your cart had been lifted off the ground into the sky, the tracks just stopped. And not just blown over by windrows or snowfall, but stopped clean. You could've set a book up in the straight edge of that track...."
I just stared at them.
"So we looked around, and felt somewhat ill all of a sudden, like as if someone put a curse on that very piece of ground. Then I looked ahead and the forest was just clean and pure as if no one had traveled it in a hundred years. We trotted on and then smashed pumpkins covered the ground and around the smashlings there wasn't a print or track of deer. Can you imagine that? So we kept on and the perfect corpse of pig bones lay right there, every rib and shoulder looking like you dipped the sow in acid. But the bones were black, like they were burned, but not a drop of fat or sprinkling of ash. Just a perfect pile of black bones in snow without a track. So we ran here with purpose. And if you don't tell us what happened we'll take you back their ourselves and show you."
I listened to this, my head heard all the words, but my mind couldn't take them all in.
"Anna? ANNA? Are you okay?"
The last things I heard before I fainted was the cry of Meredith as she reached out to grab my tartan. And as the world slowly dimmed into black another verse of the old song carried me into a nightmare.
...The weather, he owns it. The forest his mare.
Thunder and wild winds are his only true lair.
He can not be drowned or burned in a fire
And all that he devours gone dark as a pyre...
The beast known as Birchthorn is watching us
Yes Birchthorn is watching tonight...
When I came to, I was on my own kitchen floor. I didn't understand why I wasn't touching the wood and realized Meredith's heavy cloak was acting as a carpet. Lara handed me a glass of water from the stone crock at the counter.
"Anna. What just happened to you?"
I squinted at the sun shooting through the dirty windows. Who had time to clean windows? I thought this as I sat up, rubbing my temples. Meredith handed me a bottle of whiskey and I gladly accepted it. Lara shot her a look as if she didn't approve and Meredith whooshed it away with a hand wave and pointed at my face. "She needs it more than I did a bit ago! At least when I saw the black bones I didn't faint!"
Lara smiled, Meredith did too, and I felt more comfort than I had in days. The events of last night were so horrifying they didn't seem real once I was inside the farmhouse with locked doors and a loaded shotgun. I had thrown Sur into the stable with all his tack on and nailed a board across the barn door. The chickens and sheep stared at me from their roosts and hillside shelters, they had already been fed before I left the farm and didn't understand the fray at all. I waited for hours to hear banging on the wall and howls of the storm following me home, but they never came. Eventually, pure exhaustion took me over and I fell asleep sitting up in a chair, Anvil's head on my lap.
I knocked back a few fingers of whiskey and stood up, handing Meredith her beautiful cloak. It was rare I felt envy, but a riding cloak that warm in such a winter was a treasure.
"I'm sorry, I fainted. I've been out in this rare sun too long. It's made me daffy. Working for two and all, keeping this place afloat. I just got overwhelmed there for a moment"
"What happened on your ride home last night?"
I tried to think, and came up with a half truth of a response.
"I was riding back with Sur, calm and steady as a broody hen, when a squall of snow came out of nowhere. Covered the road in an instant, scared Sur all up. A globe off the cart's front crashed and broke and it scared Sur to the point of bolting. The pumpkins and pork flew off the cart in the breakaway and I'm sure the scavengers picked that meat clean in no time. Probably why no deer touched that squash..." I was actually scaring myself with the confidence I felt in the lie. I had never held anything back from Lara, she'd been my closest friend since Adam and I bought the farm four years earlier. She was the first person to introduce herself, offered to take us for a tour of the town's seed factory and proper rail station. She showed us the grand Rice Mansion and Cambridge Hotel, sweeping over the bustling downtown freight depot like a emperor over his people. Now I was, for some unspeakable reason, protecting the beast just to keep the illusion of my sanity in check. "You must have seen the spoils from the cargo and storm." My voice trailed off.
Lara crossed her arms. "And then you butchered and burned a pig before trotting home?"
"Frostbite." I said it like as if another voice had my throat. I coughed. "Frostbite, is all. the leftover flesh from the wolves and ravens went black, just like ours does on such nights, laying in the snow like that."
Meredith nodded, Lara cocked her head and looked at me as if something wasn't right in my tone. But she didn't press on. Strange things happened around here and sometimes it was better for all parties to accept the most logical story and go on with life. She grabbed the bottle of whiskey out of my hands, kicked back a dram, and then set it on the table.
"Okay ladies. We still have pork to salt and my coffee is getting cold." she grinned and slapped the bag of salt on the table. I didn't have the heart to tell her the other half of the pig was still in the cart.
After the pork was butchered, salted, and piece set into the barrel smoker behind the house—I agreed to join them for a trip into town. Since Pit was still wound from their ride (stallions always seem wound) I offered to drive Sur the three miles south to town proper. I said I was planning on heading into town anyway and Sur was already tacked up in the barn. Another lie.
We headed into town for the usual rounds. This was the main market day at the Freight Depot. All sorts of good would be on display in boxes that couldn't be delivered to merchants. It was usually second-quality stuff. Flowers with shoddy petals and stems, good for drying but not pretty enough for the dinner table. Leather with pock marks and barbed-wire tears, bruised fruits and wilted vegetables. I knew all the yardmen by first name, as many of them did business with Adam when his smithing shop was around the corner. I was eyeing a round of questionable cheddar when Meredith asked if there was a bookstore in town?
"Yes, over there." I said, flailing the wheel of cheese in the direction of Main Street. "Next to the hotel." She nodded and headed off that way and Lara was a few yards to my left, trying to haggle down a bolt of muslin. I tried to keep an air of calm around me, but my head was reeling. I was certain of what I saw, and the verses of the old song kept coming together. I had lied to friends with utter confidence, as if I was in service to Birchthorn himself, and yet I didn't even know what Birchthorn even was? All I knew was what the few memorized verses of the song told me, and if memory served me well enough, even the full song didn't explain what Birchthorn was or why he came and left this valley? While mindlessly piling cheese in small cairns on the table tops, I tried to remember where and when I heard that tune so many Octobers ago?
Goff. It was Ronald Goff, the librarian and chair caner. He kept books in his front of shop and his workshop was out back. The man was older now, in his seventies, but he always opened the library part of his home on Halloween night to tell legends and stories of the Battenkill valley. He had a fiddle and a strange old German zither and he played the zither while his wife played the fiddle and told stories to us while we sat cross-legged on the floor gnawing candied apples and swilling sweet cider. If he still knew the song, still had those lyrics written down, I might be able to understand what was going on. Any clue, any hint at all of what was happening in these winter woods and to my mind would be a sense of peace.
I dropped my cheese and hustled across town....
So there you have it chapter 2. Delivered as promised upon the story pot being full. Thank you to everyone who donated towards this goal, as it is such an amazing help to the farm and so much fun to craft. I hope you are enjoying it, a little intrigued, too. I am having fun welcoming you readers into the tale, making you part of this fictional version of Cambridge soaked-in-folklore in the early 20th century. And when the donation pot is full again, I will spin more of this yarn for all who want to know what happens next!
Dear Trent, you and your brother will be in the story soon! Promise!