Saturday, January 14, 2012

a day of idle stitches

Birchthorn: Chapter 3

I turned my head towards the Library and started my march, passing the tables of produce carts and ignoring the waves and calls of neighbors as I passed through the village trade center, eyes dead-locked on the two-story house in town Ronald had turned into his workshops and lending house. If Goff was there (and he very well couldn't be, being a market day) he could tell me what he knew about the song, share all the verse and lyrics. Something told me—as certain as convent folk are told by the Lord—that the mystery of Birchthorn was in the music. And so I was on a mission to understanding the mystery, collecting the forgotten verses through any attempt of scavenging I could muster. I was completely drowning in my own thoughts as I moved from the freight depot and onto Main Street. I passed two young boys, Trent and Caden playing in the high branches of a sturdy oak that overlooked the train tracks. "Where are you going, Anna?" Trent yelled from thirty feet above my head.

"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.

Catch up on the story:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

whose hard cider?

passing afternoon

There are times that walk from you like some passing afternoon
Summer warmed the open window of her honeymoon
And she chose a yard to burn but the ground remembers her
Wooden spoons, her children stir her Bougainvillea blooms

There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made
And she's chosen to believe in the hymns her mother sings
Sunday pulls its children from their piles of fallen leaves

There are sailing ships that pass all our bodies in the grass
Springtime calls her children 'till she let's them go at last
And she's chosen where to be, though she's lost her wedding ring
Somewhere near her misplaced jar of Bougainvillea seeds

There are things we can't recall, blind as night that finds us all
Winter tucks her children in, her fragile china dolls
But my hands remember hers, rolling 'round the shaded ferns
Naked arms, her secrets still like songs I'd never learned

There are names across the sea, only now I do believe
Sometimes, with the windows closed, she'll sit and think of me
But she'll mend his tattered clothes and they'll kiss as if they know
A baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone

-Iron & Wine

afternoon practice

Gibson and I are still beginners, still at the very start of our training as shepherd and sheepdog. It's not a race for us and I am treating it as a lifelong education of a farmer and farm dog. I don't know if we'll ever see the trial field together, but when the weather turns better we'll get back to lessons on a regular basis. Today I wanted to give him a brush up, so we went out in the 18-degree waning light of the afternoon. Our work today was a flurry of excitement, as Gibson had not been out with the sheep in weeks. The frozen ground cut his paws, but he didn't even notice. When we came inside I washed them carefully, gave him some water, and he is now asleep in his crate. I'm getting back to my craft, and the audiobook, and will hopefully come back tonight with Chapter 3 of Birchthorn. I didn't get the amount of $300 for the chapter, and I am not waiting to reach that amount to keep it going. I love writing it, and as long as someone donates something, that means someone loves reading it. That is good enough for me.

Animals. Work. Words. Craft.

A fine practice.

cold coming in...

Cold is coming, below zero temperatures tonight. I made sure all the animals got some extra feed, clean warm bedding, and plenty of water. I'm not worried about anyone but the Freedom Rangers, who were not intended to be raised in January in New York, for certain. But the structure Steve, Molly, and I built out of hay bales withstood the 40 MPH winds that ripped down the mountain last night and it is holding steady around fifty degrees inside the 18 inch-thick walls. I think the birds, all of them bulking up and covered in red feathers, will be okay though. I say that with 80% confidence, I might lose a few. This will be a true test of our best intentions.

The farmer is spending this day bouncing from a chapter of Birchthorn (hoping to post it later today if the goal is met), some practice embroidery work of a crow, and outdoor chores. It is cold, and on the weekends I do more of everything but in shorter spurts. For example: I just got in from cleaning out all of the rabbit cages and filling them with fresh hay and straw, clean and dry. While in the barn I also feed the pigs a big bowl of food scraps and grain and dumped half a bale of hay into their pen so Kevin could rip it apart and roll around on it to itch his back and chew up the grass. Jasper watches all of this with frustration. Everyone seems to get more grain than him.

Going to head into town soon to do some errands and stop at Battenkill books to sign some more copies of Barnheart with Gibson. Then once the feed, groceries, and such are unloaded I'll be tucking in with some more embroidery work (totally winging it, no pun intended) and more of my audiobook binge. A reader suggested Dies the Fire, by S.M. Stirling and I am listening to the whole thing being read to me while I sit by the woodstove and sew. It is a wonderful way to warm cold feet and plan monster stories. Not a bad way to spend a below zero night.

I swear a fat cat sleeping on an armchair makes the place warmer...

monsters and emails

George is a force to be reckoned with. 22 pounds of Feline Demands who has decided this farm house is his, was always his, and everyone else just has to deal with it. He has cornered, scratched, and hissed at every dog in the house and now walks from the laundry room (his and Lilly's original apartment) and struts across the kitchen to drink out of the dogs' water bowl and then into the living room to sleep on the dumpy armchair I inherited with the house. This morning he leapt up into bed where Gibson and I were sleeping (Gibson, mind you, is terrified of this compact monster) and as the cat got closer and closer, rumbling like a stalling dumptruck stuck inside a microwave, Gibson curled up closer and closer to me. It was like that last scene in JAWS were Quint is slowly eaten off the boat.. That's what Gib was picturing anyway, and as George padded closer Gibson ended up curled up around my head with his neck resting over mine, whimpering.

So I was up.

Early Saturday morning here. The first fire is lit in the living room stove and soon I will head out to feed the farm. When I return there's breakfast and more writing to sink into. This weekend has light plans but tomorrow I am going to join an embroidery group in Albany to learn the traditional stitches and skills. My current definition of embroidery is "drawing with thread" and there is no sense to it, just sewing in pictures and words however it happens to appear. This group is a little more organized and trained in the older tapestry and traditional aspects of this craft. I am thrilled to make some new friends.

Perhaps because of Barnheart I have been getting a lot more email than usual, and I honestly can't keep up with it. If I don't reply, please do not feel discouraged or brushed-off. Or if I reply swiftly either. I am just not used to the level of correspondence on top of all the other goings on here at the farm. I am doing my level best, but I might not get to them all.

More Birchthorn soon. I have attached a photo of Lilly.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gordon Ramsay is coming to town!

The Cambridge Hotel, the place many of you stay when visiting CAF from out of town, is going to be taken over by Gordon Ramsay for his series "Hotel Hell" which, I think, means he goes to historic hotels around the area and takes over the menu. Big doings for this little burg. Read the story here!

birchthorn on my mind

Spent two hours on the phone last night talking with my friend Raven about Birchthorn, telling her the story, asking if she wanted to be in it. We ended up weaving a new character, angle, and complicated back story I would have never thought of! I spent the whole time on the phone with her listening to her character's world (which she crafted up) as Roslyn Bishop, apothecary and her husband Robert Bishop, traveling spiritualist. We sat in our living rooms, states apart with a bottle of wine at each home, laughing and talking about an imaginary world. Both of us chucked our televisions recently. Having a living story and personal character to conjure was more fun than anything on cable.

Anyway, you'll get to meet her, her greenhouse, and tamed squirrel Shadowtail in the next chapter when the story pot is full again. Right now it needs about $260 to rustle up another chapter, and as I expected, it will take a while to get their! But I thank all of you pitching in a dollar or two and cheering the fiction on.

Raven and I talked a lot about the monster, and what it is or should be. I told her I had a gut feeling about this beast and she had her own guesses about what Birchthorn is. You'll all find out more as the story moves forward, and so will I.

settling in to farmlife

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

two bleeding huskies...

No, I am not worried about the cats.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You're Invited to the BARNHEART Launch Party!

There's going to be a Launch party and poster giveaway at Battenkill Books right here in Cambridge on January 22. It's a Sunday, and the event starts at 4PM. I'll be doing some reading from the book, talking, and doing a Q&A. Jon Katz is being kind enough to introduce me. Storey Publishing is also giving away 50 posters of the cover art too, to folks who come to the event. Come support a grand little bookstore, meet Gibson, ask questions and enjoy hearing the latest goings on at Cold Antler Farm. It'll be a big time!

For more information visit battenkillbooks.com

P.S. You can order signed copies of Barnheart, Made From Scratch, and Chick Days any time from Connie down at BKB.

too compassionate?

The other day a man was standing by my vehicle, looking at my dogs panting in the car and told me he was ready to call the police on me for animal abuse. I had been inside a grocery store for exactly ten minutes, the windows were open. And yes, Jazz and Annie were in fact panting and the sun was out. I explained to him that we just got back from the dog park and these two older dogs tend to pant a lot more than they used too, but it wasn't from the car heat, it was from playing less than 15 minutes ago for over an hour. I was only gone ten minutes and was getting a lecture because it looked like I was a deadbeat. The man didn't believe that the owner drove 30 minutes from her home so her usually-leashed huskies could run at will in a safe fence and socialize in a dog park. He told me he had already called the police. I drove away so angry my knuckles were white on the wheel.

A few years ago when I was renting in Vermont, a neighbor accused me of animal abuse because she didn't understand any of my methods of animal husbandry. She thought the deep bedding in the goat pen was "me being too lazy to clean it out" and I was cruel to keep rabbits in cages, dogs in crates, and I was poisoning the well water with the chicken poo in the yard from twenty chickens. She called animal control on me and when the officer came to inspect the farm he shook his head at my neighbor, telling me if all animals were as well tended as mine his line of work wouldn't be needed.

I think Joel Salatin put it best in his recent book Folks, This Aint Normal. An entire chapter “A Cat is a Cow is a Chicken is My Aunt” is dedicated to the recent abnormality of ridiculous levels of anthropomorphism mixed with a general agricultural ignorance. I run into this constantly, both on the blog and in real life. I never worry about leaving Gibson in the truck in Washington County, as ride-along dogs are common as ticks, but in Vermont I worry someone will be standing there writing a note on my door. I always want to laugh, because if they knew what a farm dog goes through in a usual day....5 minutes in a car with a cracked window is a joke. There's a good chance by the time I got to Manchester Gibson has cut himself on a sharp briar in the woods, got burrs in tail feathers, faced a horned sheep head on and barely avoided her headbutt, ran till he was ready to collapse, got covered in mud....and loved every minute of it. Waiting in the car isn't always comfortable, but its more boring to him than dangerous.

Compassion is good. Animal abuse is bad. These are things we can all agree on, but when righteousness and ignorance hit you full force is makes you very, very tired. Just because an animal isn't in a situation you would want to be in means it is being abused. Just because an animal isn't constantly comfortable (I am rarely comfortable and have yet to be accused of self-human-abuse) doesn't make it a victim. I am all for animal welfare and practice it constantly, but comparing our comfort level to livestock is silly.

crusty bread, son!

This is the easiest bread recipe I can offer you. Easier than the highly popular no-knead dutch oven recipes, and anyone can do it, even if you never, ever baked bread from scratch before. You don't need anything but a mixing bowl, flour, water, salt and active dry yeast and some sort of round bakeware to let it rise and bake in. It is an overnight, no-knead rise, so it's not insta-bread, but for about 5 minutes of effort before work you can have amazing fresh crusty bread every night for dinner. This is an adaption from the No-Knead recipe features in the NYtimes a while back.

Easy Crusty Bread

1. Pour a cup and a half of hot (not boiling) water into a mixing bowl and add a teaspoon of active dry yeast. Let it set for 5 minutes and if when you return the cloudy water is cloudy and there is an active foam bubbling on the top, your yeast is activated and you are ready for step 2.

2. Mix in 3 cups of flour (do not use all wheat flour, it won't rise. If you want wheat bread use half wheat and half white) a cup at a time into the yeasty warm water. Add a teaspoon of salt and mix it in as well while you turn the water into a sticky, even paste free of clumps.

3. now cover it with a cloth and leave it alone at room temperature for 8-12 hours.

4. When you return after your day at work, or after a night of sleep, check the bread dough. It should be bubbly and expanded in size. It is ready!

5. Sprinkle flour on your table and take out the whole doughy mass. Fold it over itself a few times and make it into a ball. You'll need flour on your hands to stop it from sticking. Now gently place the ball in your bowl again and let it rise back up for another hour or two.

6. Twenty minutes before you bake, turn the oven to 450 degrees and put your baking apparatus in at the same time you start the pre-heating. It could be a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, Pyrex cake pan -whatever, but it has to heat up with the oven.

7. When it is heated to 450, take it out and place your ball of dough in it. It doesn't matter if it loses it's shape, it'll bake even.


8. Bake at 450 till the bread is browned, about 30-45 minutes. Keep an eye on it.

9. When it is done, take it out and let it cool before slicing, at least half an hour. Enjoy!

they're getting big, boss!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Birchthorn: Chapter 2

The next morning Lara raced over with cousin Meredith Robertson, double mounted on Lara's big bay Quarter Horse, Pit. At 16 hands the stallion was stunning. His black mane shedding a dusting of snow, cold air puffing from his wide nostrils as he trotted in from their canter up the swings of the mountain road.

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!

birchthorn is alive!

I am just twenty dollars short of our chapter goal, I think the surge of initial excitement made the $300 mark so fast! I don't expect to reach that goal every time this swiftly, but as for today I would say you can expect a second chapter for certain, and soon!

I'll keep the story going long as readers are willing to support it, and I must admit, it is so much fun going home to characters and plot as much as it is to animals and the farm. Birchthorn is alive!

How do you picture the beast? What do you think it really is?
(I know and I'm not telling!)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

...and the seed winners are!

Winner of the seed packages from Annie's are...

Sue Steeves
Miss Peach
thisbountifulbackyard
Vanessa Williams
lemoineau

Email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com to claim your prize.
I will put you in touch with Annie's!

the coons have arrived

This regal beast is George. Lilly, his ginger-colored sister is still hiding behind the washing machine. They are in the mudroom with their litter boxes, food, and cat tree —away from the dogs for now. Thought they could use their own apartment suite while getting used to the place. In a few days I'll slowly introduce them to the wolves, but I think it'll be a while before we all get along.

I'm not worried about the cats though, they are huge! George is a portly Winston Churchill character and Lilly isn't any meek being either. I've never lived with cats this large...Here's to life with tigers.

Birchthorn: Chapter 1

The snow was so thick and came upon the forest road so fast, that the lanterns blew out from the angry wind that delivered it. One was hit to the ground and the globe smashed into a rock with a clatter as biting as the air around it. Sur, the small Haflinger pulling the shoddy farm wagon, stopped and lifted his two front hooves a foot off the ground, slamming them down with a concerned whinny. He shook out his flaxen mane, pressed his ear against his head and stared at the world he could see with blinders on. Other horses would have bolted at such a sudden fuss in the weather and glass. Yet that was the extent of his fit, and for that I was grateful. We were but three miles from the farmhouse, stranded in a blinding squall. Had he tore off into the night I would be without horse and cart in a storm. People have died in weather far better, far closer to home. Being alone without my rig was an unspeakable terror to my already pounding heart.

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!