Birchthorn: Interlude One
He first noticed her away from the rest of the herd when chores started at dawn. He usually liked to have his morning work completed before Sun Up, but today had not allowed the habit. He had risen at the chimes of his brass alarm clock at 4:15, just as he had every morning since he took the farm over from his father after the war. He'd married his girl, had six children, and watched his family blossom here in the Battenkill Valley while he tended his beloved cow. The children were grown, and his dear wife had passed from the flu last winter when it spread through the county like wildfire. He truly believed it was the cows that saved him. That so many years outdoors among the rust, woods, blood, milk, and dung had build an immune system no sickness had touched since he laid in a hospital bed after the battle of Cold Harbor, so many lifetimes ago...
He got dressed in heavy wool and his favorite leather fur-lined cap and started the coffee while he fetched a lantern and lighting supplies from the cabinet. While lighting his favorite black lantern in the farmhouse's kitchen, he was thinking about how much he liked his oil light, how he hated the harsh gas lights of those new Colemans every other dairyman was raving about. He was startled out of his murmuring by a sudden and violent wind that shook the entire home, knocking cans off the shelf and rattling the windows. The fire in the kitchen's hearth spat and howled as the wind caused such a strong draw it shot up and filled the room with orange light. He spilled his metal tin of lamp oil, and sent an angry curse into the room. A torrent of snow screamed across his valley farm. He tried to go outside, but didn't make it five paces before he felt nearly lost in the white-out, chilled into his bones, and turned around and back towards the nearly-diminished light of his kitchen's fireplace. He had never seen such weather. It swallowed everything.
He crawled back inside and shut the door behind him panting, sliding to the floor. He then tried to listen to the farm in the storm. He couldn't hear anything but cloven air and angry branches breaking from the force. He prayed that the herd was near the barn, taking shelter in the sturdy walls his great grandfather built when this country was new. He remained on the floor, and let himself rest his eyes while it blew and fussed behind the 3 inches of maple that made his barrier. Without meaning to, he fell asleep, and when he awoke it was dawn and the farm seemed as unaffected as the stare of the Virgin mother statue outside his garden wall.
When he did start at his morning chores he was calmed at the site of his girls by the old red barn, near their feeders and water trough. He fed them fresh hay by the pitchfork, and noticed they all seemed more skittish than usual. Their eyes showing more of the white than he cared to see. As he pitched what his body could afford, slowly and with much strain, he raised his scratchy voice in a loud, "Home Girls! Home!" hoping to round up all the stragglers up near the tree line, probably taking shelter in the woods from the storm. All came down in their ambling, eager, way save for the brown heifer near the trees. It stood still. And as he called, watched, went about chores and heading inside for a bowl of oatmeal with butter and maple syrup, she remained standing.
And so now it was an hour since he first saw the girl on the hill, and he stood near his barn afraid. His son, who lived on the opposite end of his property—a mile away near the main road into town—would not be here to start morning milking with his sons for another hour. Mauren decided to investigate. He could not wait through the suspense, and if something was wrong he would need to know so to properly convey it to his son. He fetched his shotgun and a few medical supplies into a shoulder satchel and slowly started up the pasture.
Crows watched from high in the birch branches as Mauren slowly climbed the hill. He stopped twice, to look around as much as to catch his breath. Curious? There were no prints in the snow, no disruption at all on the entire hillside. Yet he could see the trails through the powder plainly on the other side of the barn where the cattle ate. he could follow them to places in the forest a half mile away. But not over here? This stretch of snow was virgin ground, save for the tracks he made behind him.
Now, just fifty feet from the heifer he could see she was dead. Dead and frozen where she stood. He had heard stories of this happening, but never saw such a thing in his own life nor knew anyone who had. As he gained on her his curiosity grew. She was, without a doubt, dead as a hammer but she had actually died mid-stride. Two hooves were off the ground reaching forward, and her face placid as a calf's. But something was odd about her front left foot. It was black. It seemed skinnier too? He stopped walking, not ten feet from the animal, and then looked harder. It was bone. The front hoof was nothing but black bone reaching out trying to step. It was clean as glass. No sign of blood, sinew, or skin? Then he noticed the same from the back left leg, planted firmly into 5 inches of snow but also nothing but black clean bones. As he stepped closer, he unintentionally held his breath. His heart pounding in his temples, his eyes wide and mouth agape.
As he turned the corner on the giant animal he clasped his hand into a fist and shoved it into his mouth to bite into it. An involuntary reaction he hadn't succumbed to since the first terrors of war when he was 18. The drastic lurch for his teeth made him drop his shotgun and cane and then didn't even flinch when the buckshot exploded into the dead cow in front of him. The side of the beast facing the forest was gone, save for the black skeleton, perfectly in place as if a surgeon had come in the night and sawed the animal in two. A perfect division right down the spine left one side flesh and the other just bone. It looked as through some how the animal was frozen, picked up, and dipped into deadly acids that perfectly consumed the flesh to the water's level, then lifted out and set back on the ground. The muscle and organs that had been spliced were frozen too, not a drop of blood or a single sick smell filled the air. The bones on the flesh side seemed white, normal. But the bones facing the old farmer were black as if charcoal. He composed himself, reached out to touch the bowl of the shoulder blade, expecting soot on his fingers, but recoiled back his hand at the shock of their metallic firmness. Never in his life had he seen such a sight. Not in books, or side shows, or even posters at the animal doctors' offices. This was abomination.
He reached a rattling hand into his coat pocket, searching for his rosary. He found it, solid ground at last, and started chanting through Hail Marys as he stared into the cavern of the heifer's ribs. Something caught the light, a flash of gold. He leaned forward, slowly, and saw that hanging from a black ribbon was a golden locket. He prayed louder, as if to scream sense into the moment, as if to tame the experience into understanding. As he shouted, HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE. OUR LORD IS WITH THEE.." He reached into the black ribcage to remove the small pendant from the bones. It came away gently. It looked identical to the last time he saw it. He could never forget the family heirloom. His wife was buried with last winter.
Shaking now, covered in cold sweat, Mauren took the locket into his cold hands and forced it open. If this really was his wife's jewelry their pictures taken in New York City in Central Park would be inside. His hands were clumsy, cracking, and starting to bleed from the cold but he persisted even through the shaking, his rosary dangling around the black ribbon in his hands. Inside on her side of the locket was his wife. She looked just as he remembered the photo, smiling under a flowering dogwood tree. Then he stopped his persistent prayer. Stood silent in the snow.
His photo was gone.
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Birchthorn is a work of community fiction, a story of the Battenkill Valley in 1919 dealing with a mysterious creature of local legend and song. Readers of the CAF farm blog are part of it, becoming characters, names of places, horses, and so forth. Reader comments and suggestions help move the plot along, and create the mystery. Each chapter is supported through donations to the "Story Pot" which is the donate button on this blog, on the right-hand side, under the heart image. If you like what you read, and want to read more, please throw in a dollar or two and leave a comment with your thoughts and ideas. If may become legend!