Birchthorn: Chapter 3
"Library!" I yelled without looking up, waving a hand in the air. "And what are you two doing up in a tree in winter?!" I tried to sound less occupied than I was.
"More of a challenge when they are cold and dead-like" was Trent's grinning response. He grinned from above. I wasn't worried about him any more than their mother was, buying extra storage potatoes at the depot. The boys could climb a hundred feet up in the summer if the trees offered the option. this was just a stretch of the legs. They lived on a dairy farm closer to town, near where the splendid Cambridge Fair was held, across from the McClellen Manor. Their father worked the dairy with the boys and their mother worked as the head trainer with the Manor's fine horses for extra income. She was a skilled carriage trainer, had taught me everything I knew. Before Ironale fell entirely into my hands I worked for her. I'd watched her boys grow up, on their farm and mine. Trent loved his father dearly, but had a special attachment to Uncle Adam, and was beginning his apprenticeship as a Blacksmith. Caden was more drawn to horses, fast horses in particular. He'd won the sprints at the fair every year since they allowed a 5-year-old to sign up in the youth class. He showed them, went home with ribbon and a sow. He named his first horse after that pig, too. Fair Pig. Not the grandest name for a Morgan mare, but there could be far worse.
Sur, hitched to a post off Main Street, watched me in silent concern as I passed him. His head and ears lifting as I quickly walked by. The Library was just a few blocks from the train station and surely I could be there and back before the girls even noticed I had gone? I was a town block away from the clatter of the station when then ballad of filled my ears. Someone was humming, muffled humming of the fiddle tune as if it was a dirge, slow and somber. Stopping dead in the street I turned to the direction of the music, just across the busy road. Carriages parted, and there, just off the sidewalk, the Apothecary Rosalyn was singing as she trimmed lavender and rosemary in the window of her shop.
Rosalyn Bishop was a newcomer to Cambridge. In her early thirties and always dressed in curious, elegant clothing. This morning she was in a pinstriped skirt out of the city magazines, but it was covered by a delicately embroidered canvas apron over a nearly pressed high-collared shirt. She wore a wide-brimmed black hat banded with a red ribbon and round spectacles. The plants she was tending grew behind glass all through the winter, (no mean feat for the Upper Hudson past the Solstice). As she trimmed stems with a long set of garden sheers, her lion's mane of golden hair fell around her face from a loose bun. If a lioness lived inside a spider's web, it would be Roslyn Bishop.
But perhaps that was an unfair character assessment? In truth, my current discomfort with the woman was not her ways but the fact that this strange outlander knew the tune of that song... The very same tune I had been told was only known to us farmers around the Battenkill? And If the humming wasn't enough to make me wary, the rumors that her husband conversed with the dead certainly did. He spent his professional time on trains south to Albany or north to Montreal. He traveled there and all points in-between, speaking with the spirits haunting those wealthy enough to still employ spiritualists. His high level peculiarity was matched equally in style. He wasn't a dandy, yet he was a dapper man. Always dressed smart in a crisp linen shirt and leather waistcoat. He kept a pocket-watch, derby hat, and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. His hair was odd though, always shoulder length and tied back in a tail. He was not out in the front of shop with his wife today, possibly out talking to ghosts...
"You're looking ridiculous out there, Miss..." She said to me, through the glass of her window without looking up from her work, "...standing there like a doe in October. You should stop staring and introduce yourself proper, or head on down the walk."
I headed across the street, which was mostly mud and wet snow. The smell of fresh horse manure was pungent in the streets. I walked up to the door, and stepped right through as if she owed me a huge debt. As I stepped inside I said, perhaps too loudly, "Anna. Anna Caldwe.." and was stopped short of my widow surname by the sound of ringing shop bells hitting dried bamboo stalks with a clammer. I looked up confused at the hollow sounds of tin and wood clanking together, unable to keep up my fervor and volume.
"That is exactly the kind of effect we aim to achieve, dear."
I recomposed myself while the wood rattled on the light chimes. "What were you just humming? What tune was that? "
Roslyn looked up over her glasses, not at all interested in the song question. Behind her the white walls of her shop seemed to make her seem larger, more powerful. A thousand glass bottles holding every flower, seed, and leaf that could grow from one woman's garden lined the walls. The white and glass made it look like a spider's eye under a microscope. "Hello there Anna Caldwell. Do you make a habit of staring at new townspeople, or is there something perched on my hat?" I smiled, sheepishly, but didn't lose my focus.
"I'm sorry about seeming rude, but that song you were humming? I haven't heard it since I was a little girl? I couldn't mistake it for anything else, can you tell me how you learned it? Do you know more of it?
The woman set down her sheers inside the large embroidered pocket in her apron. RPB was stitched on it surrounded by small stars in black thread. "Why don't you come back with me to the greenhouse and we'll get to know each other as neighbors? Don't you and your husband own that small sheep farm outside of town? I remember him from his conversations with Robert down at his shop. How is he?"
"He died. Last Year. Flu." Now it was Roslyn's turn to look sheepish. She seemed to awake at that reality though, as if she was back in the world again and out of her head and plants. Cambridge and the farmland around it was such a small town. How could she not know a man her husband used to talk with had died? Or was it in their lines of work—keeping plants and spirits going long after they should pass—death wasn't worth the ink the obituary was pressed with?
"I'm sorry, truly. Come back to the greenhouse."
"Isn't this your greenhouse?" I said, waving at the shop windows bursting with green life, and the rich smells of tea herbs and spices.
"It most certainly is not." She said, scoffing at the absurd comment, entirely insulted at the assumption.
I followed her past the shops front room, all lined with shelves and glass bottles holding every leaf and seed imaginable and through the black door marked, Land of the Living.
The contrast between the world was so shocking, I gasped out loud. Roslyn just smiled. the entire back of the Victorian shop had been transformed into a domed greenhouse. Instead of carpet or tile, I stepped onto granite walk stones between tufts of green grass. A white picket fence surrounded the entire first floor, for privacy, but besides that one minor piece of humility it was astounding. Like walking into June.
There were long rows of tables, hanging plants, and trees growing right out of the ground. The one edge of the rounded rectangular house was an older Oak tree, and the glass had been built right along and into the truck so half of the tree was indoors and the other, outside. A small red squirrel stared down at us from an indoor branch, eating a Sunflower seed from the ten-foot tall beasts lining the back fence. I half-expected a candy-filled cottage with a witch, or to wake up from another fainting spell in the front shop, but this was as real as the beast who chased me the night before. I circled, slowly, taking it all in. Seeing how the shop front was just that, and above it, two small rooms made an apartment kitchen and living room come bedroom looking over the greenhouse. The Bishops had completely altered their house and business into a fantasy. Something not even Jane Austen could have dreamt of her fictional characters doing. I smiled for the first time in days.
then I noticed something odd about the small glass panes that made up the bulk of the glass walls. Each one had a slightly faded image of a person, just barely visible as you turned your head in the light. Somber and serious looking men in jackets stared back at me, some old and bearded and some young as teenagers. All of them brandished weapons. I stared closer, confused, trying to angle my head into the sunlight better. I looked at another pain and noticed nothing but shapes on white. I pressed my face even closer, and went white where I stood, slamming my hands over my mouth so I would not scream. There in the glass were the black pig bones amongst split pumpkin rinds. I backed away slowly, visibly unsettled.
"Oh darling, it's not a ghost, it's just old photograph plates from the Civil War." She said, pointing back at the glass I just recoiled from. There were no bones at all, but a man in a faded gray jacket and slouch cap with a black, scrawny horse. It must be my mind getting to me. Was I going insane?
Roslyn explained: "When the war was finally over, these were set aside in warehouses, and the images faded to nothing but suggestions on the old glass. Greenhouses all over the country bought them up as cheap building material." She looked up at the now thousands of nearly-faded faces looking back. "But I like to think they watch over these plants, all these War dead. Robert thinks so too."
"There really is someone for everyone..." I said to myself, grasping at a honeysuckle.
"The Ballad of Birchthorn" She said, as plainly as sales tax.
I did not speak. I waited.
"The song? You asked me about the song? It's a folk song about a monster, from back when Cambridge was just a few wood-slatted clabboards with dirt roads. I heard it from my grandfather, who grew up here, well, just south of here where the Mohawks used to live. My grandfather was pure Mohawk, and before he was sent to an Indian School to forget that, he used to sing that song with the settler's children he knew. He said his people told them about the Watcher, and they named it Birchthorn and sang songs to tease it. I think this all happened just a few day's saddle ride south, like I said."
This was the most history I had ever learned about the ballad, and I must have lit up at the hint of understanding. Mohawks? Settlers? How much more was there to learn?
"Do you know the verses? The words?"
"You know, I don't. I just know the chorus bits, the Birchthorn is watching part? My grandfather used to dress up in deerskin pants and sing it to us at Pow Wows in the Hill Towns. He always sang it slow like that, scary. He said the pale children played it in the key of D major, but it was always to be sang in Dorian if you meant it. So I sing it low, like him. I'm not sure how it is sang up here, or even if it is? I grew up in the Berkshires, just moved back here because of your new train station and the cheap price of homes. Shame we had to pay for all of that house just to tear it down..." Her story trailed off. I tried to rein her back.
"Do you have a copy of it anywhere? In journals? Old letters?"
"Why are you so enamored with this song?" She asked, earnestly concerned. She also sounded grateful, as if my questions about something so mundane was the apex of politeness she had received in this town? I realized it might very well be, as most folks are probably far more concerned about the sanity of destroying a perfectly good home to build a glass house and marry a ghost interviewer.
"It's been on my mind." I coughed, now it was my turn to rein in, "I apologize. I'm Anna Caldwell," I put out my hand, "and it's nice to meet you. This place," I looked up as I spoke, a pair of (extinct?!) Carolina Parakeets flew across the false sky, "it's amazing, magical as hell. You must be proud." I sighed, looked around at the Eden I didn't even know was right beyond the 4-month old potatoes at the train station. "And I'm sorry I didn't get to meet Robert, perhaps when he gets back into town?"
Roslyn almost teared up behind her glasses, my suspicions about kind guests must have been spot on. She hid her gratitude well enough, and beamed back at me.
"You know, I think there was a copy of that tune up in one of my old diaries. Let's go upstairs and see if we can find it, eh? And if we can't, my uncle Ronald at the Library will know for certain."
I beamed back. In a town of monsters, spiritualists, hidden paradises, winter tree-climbers, and possibly insane shepherds...this was a bit of hope I could hold onto. We took the iron stair case up to their abode and a thousand dead men watched me as the red squirrel nickered in his tree.
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