Birchthorn: Chapter 1
I jumped off the cart; clasping both the doeskin lines in one hand, and walked calmly to his head. I placed the flat palm of my free hand on the length of his nose and whispered to him. My head throbbed from but I tried to focus all my energy on the horse, watching for his nervous ears to twitch back to me. Eventually they did and I let out a small sigh. He was listening, a good sign. He picked up his feet a few times, walking in place while he blew, but otherwise returned to the steady animal I knew. When the horse was calm enough I went back to my cart. The wagon’s bench seat doubled as a storage box. I lifted the lid and fumbled around for the feeling of soft leather, my shoulder bag. Inside the bag (among other things) were some matches, twine, wicks, and oil. It didn't take long to relight the left lamp, but it offered barely enough glow to see the head of my horse. All I had gained was outlines. The britchened rump and the curve of Sir’s neck were suggestions, complicated suggestions at that. The snow had grown so fast and frozen it hit my cheeks like chaff. Along the sides of the road the heavy birches swayed as if they were hollow inside. White trees dancing amongst white snow in the dim light. I watched them, transfixed, and did not realize my world growing slowly quieter. It felt as if someone had pulled sound away from me as if it was a heavy thing dragged off. This was a quiet that didn’t belong. I watched the snow, the trees, the wind whip and slam into branch and earth but not a sound could be heard from the forest. Worried I had hit my head harder than I thought; I grabbed the long staff of maple lashed to the side of the cart. I heard the good wood knocking against the wagon as I worked its way loose from leather bindings. With the stick in my two hands I hit it hard again against the cart’s side and it rang out like a bell. It was the only sound in the woods.
Usually this stick is used to knock apples out of trees, check the depth of puddles, or shoo sheep out of the road but now it had a higher calling. I grabbed a handkerchief from a back skirt pocket and soaked it in all the spare lamp oil I had then tied it to the end of the staff. Lighting it from the bravely burning lantern on the cart it exploded into flame and Sir 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 got home.
I jumped back onto the wagon bench, and wrapped my old wool blanket back around my legs. My feet were freezing, the wool socks below my slouch leather riding boots soaked with sweat and slush from loading the cart. I had driven the six miles to the Thomason's farm. There Lara and her father helped me load up two sides of pork, a load of winter squash, and a bag of silver coins they owed in barter for heavy logging Sir and I had did at their home over the summer. Mr. Thomason had a fine pair of Morgans at his farm for saddle and carriage, but preferred not to use his only mode of transportation for rough work. We shook on the barter and the deal was struck. Sir was my only horse, but he had worked hard his entire life and was surefooted as an Alpine Buckling. My purse was heavy for the first time in weeks.
When I had left for the Thomason’s Farm a few flakes fell in the afternoon light and I trotted Sir along roads we both knew as well as our pastures. It was as pleasant as a winter day could be. The air was cold but not biting and the wind was calm. There was no sign of storm clouds and the sun shown on the harness leather. A recent snowstorm two days before had been tempered by this sunlight, too, turning the dirt roads into mild slush instead of ice. It seemed like the perfect time to pick up my payment. But I had spent too much time visiting after the cart was loaded and by the time I was ready to trot out of their lane the county skies had turned to blue dark. Clouds came heavy on our first mile home and by the time I had lost the lanterns I couldn’t see twenty feet ahead of the wagon. It was as though someone had cursed us. These familiar roads became a dangerous and strange place and we slowed to a grueling pace. Perhaps it was pride but turning back seemed foolish when we were already halfway home. Ever onward, I clicked and asked Sur to step up easy. Under my breath I muttered what my man used to say every time he was about to do something foolish; "Fortune favors the brave."
I cursed myself for not brining my dog along. He would have been a comfort next to me on the bench, and he could see things in the forest neither horse or woman ever could. As Sir and I slowly made our way through the torch-lit silent storm I tried to only think about home. I knew my stock was already in their barns and shelters. I wasn’t worried about the wood stove going out, as it was well stoked and keeping dinner warm. But the concern for my injured head, the quiet night, and the unease of the storm had my heart pounding and all I wanted was my bed. I felt like a child, scared and needing covers and warm milk. Fortune favors the brave? Hardly. Fortune favors the fortunate. I wrapped my cloak tighter around my body. All I could see was a circle of firelight around the wagon and the shadows started to play tricks on my eyes. The tall trucks of the maples and birches seemed to change in thickness as they swayed. To keep my sanity and keep the wagon steady I started telling myself stories. Childhood stories, for I felt like a child and how could I help but sink into myth on a night like this? My imagination wandered to tales and songs I was told long ago, of a beast that once roamed the wild places where the stonewalls and hedges stopped.
Every town has a tale, something they tell the children at night to mind their parents or stop tugging the cat’s tale. Around here the local monster goes by the name Birchthorn. He is never described in appearance, not in detail at least. That has given storytellers a lot of room for interpretation. Depending on who is telling the tale Birchthorn is giant black wolf, a dark catamount, a mad man, a ghost of an Indian Chieftain, or a red-eyed bull with the froth. Others gave him much more credibility – calling him a demon. They say he crawled out of the sinkholes south of town where the sulfur springs bubble. The stories are silly, and I shook my head as Sir slowly walked on. I had probably just exhausted myself or hit my head too hard. Monsters were not real. Hypothermia was.
Growing anxious, I clicked and kissed at Sir, asking him to move faster. I wanted him to trot but he refused, moving just slightly faster into a longer-strided walk. I suppose it was for the best. Sometimes horses are more sensible than their drivers. At a brisker we moved across the gently sloping road, thick forests of pine and birches 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 this 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 upstanding but ever since I took on the farm alone I had become an outcast, a thing of pity to eyes behind mercantile shelves. I couldn't blame them, I suppose. A woman living alone on a sheep farm 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 was gone. Last September when the Spanish Flu was hitting the east coast hard, he demanded taking our best lambs to the city on a barge heading down the Hudson. 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 sixty acres with a flock of sheep, collies, and this pony I'd bought cheap at auction. The only financial comfort I had was the money left from the last lambs New York City would ever see from this farm. But I had a good dog, my stock, a garden, books, and a horse that walked through storms….
Sir's official name was Surcoat, because "that was all he was good for" was what the auctioneer taunted as the pitiful animal was brought out into the ring. He was a thin, rib shown, limping ghost selling as foddertrot for poor man’s 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, giving him just pasture, water, and sunlight until he healed and was ready to train again. Now the auctioneer calls him the same respectable moniker I call him when I pass his house in town; Sir. 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 with me. Dark as cast iron and tougher than any ram that might charge him, Anvil was a creature 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. 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 silent wind grew colder. "Com'on gelding" I whispered, and tried to be more confident as I snapped the lines. He bought it, and picked up his pace into a trot as we left the tunnel of the forest road and entered a clearing of fields. Leaving the dark of the wood aided my calm and I started to ease up as I noticed the snow starting to taper, leaving us as quickly as it came. Fresh white powder covered the fallow land around and more flakes turned large and fluffy, gently falling all around us. The worst was behind us now and I lifted my head with a smile just as the torch went out above my head. I snapped by head to look up at it, staring daggers. It had burned true in the gusts but come calm it died out? I was out of oil and staring was all that could be done about it. I huffed, at least I was close to home. Light was on our side now anyway, a full moon breaking out from the fast-moving clouds. A weight slipped off my shoulders heavy as a sack of grain. We had made it through the worst of the ghostly storm, a story to tell the neighbors grandchildren some day. I had silver, a horse with four good feet, squash, meat, and nothing but an open field of moonlight and calm skies to carry us home.
An animal dashed across the whitened road. It was large as a bear, fast as a horse, and black as the sky. It was also entirely silent and my first thought was it was a shadow, but we were in a white open field. The only shadows were our own. Sir stopped dead in his gait, ears shot up and forward. My head shot up too as I tried to see where the animal went. Sir looked over to his left, into the edge forest several hundred yards away. If that was where the animal was it moved faster than any wolf I had ever known. Sir stared, his eyes unblinking, staring at a single point with such intensity I could see his large pupils dilate until his eyes seemed to turn completely black. He didn’t breath. He didn’t flinch. I could see nothing, but didn't understand why the horse trapped in harness and cart with a large animal in its sight 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 fiddle ballad played in my mind.
...The cattle won't low and the lambs will not gasp
But when he is near their heartbeats won't last
They never show fear, he won't let them cry
Trapped in his eyes right before they die...
The song played, verse after verse in my mind as I stared at Sir. This was impossible. An animal the size of a yearling steer just raced across the path and Sir 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 into the dark forest, or to see what crouched against the field stone fence that shared its border. Guttural and low growls, as grating as a mill grinding corn, shot through my body. They felt like there were inches from my face but the shoulders of the animal we watched was far away. Sir just kept staring, calm as a nursing colt. I felt grateful I still had wet and cold feet under my blanket because the misery of the numbness reminded me I was still alive, still in control of my own mind. If this was what I thought it was, if this was the monster 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 Hallow's balefire dance.
"STEP UP AND HIKE!" I shouted to Sir as I slapped the lines and kicked the wagon at the same time. The horse now broken from the 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 on the far side of the field. Our woods, the road home. He cried out as he ran, making a sound more like a humans moaning scream than anything equine. I turned back to see if we were being chased. Behind us a black blur of seemed to glide at us. It had happened upon us as fast as it had left us, no feet touching ground at first and then powerful long arms exploded from the mass of swirling fur. Jutting out from the circle of black, arms as thick as tree trunks and claws gripping into the ground behind me. It was entirely silent now, silent as the storm that fell before, and it scared me more than the growls I heard in the dark. I could not scream. I could not hear the harness leather or hooves beating into snow. It gained on us. Each long limb grasping closer with every step, but not from its speed. The black beast seemed to pull the road between us closer, causing illusion and confusion along with panic. I knew I had to look away and mouthed a parched silent scream, "HOME HOME HOMMEEE!" And used the lines as a whip to slap Sir’s hindquarters before I released the reins entirely. We were only a mile from home, and I had to trust that the horse would flee to the safest place he ever knew. As the cart swayed and crashed, Sir 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 Sir hit a hearty sapling downed from the wind and the entire contents 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 towards the black fur. I felt hot breath on my exposed calves, my boot flying off into the snow. I looked back to see what was no wolf, catamount, mad man or Indian Chief. It was an animal, yet unlike anything I had ever witnessed before or seen in books. There was black fur, and two empty holes were eyes might have been but seemed barren. If there was a snout, ears, or anything else it was lost to me. The animal moved too fast, loping beside the wagon now, arms as long as its body grasping at nothing as it seemed to hover again instead of touch the snow. 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 again, 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 up to the bench, regained hold of the lines and slapped them hard as I could, forcing Sir to reach farther than he ever had in the months we’ve known each other. We were nearly there. Home was just around these switchbacks, and I was being tailed by a monster I once believed only lived in bedtime stories.
No one would believe me. I knew this as I watched the sweat fly off Sir's neck as we raced up the mountain, past the lights of neighbor's windows. I didn't let him slow down, and I didn't dare let go of my held breath until we were within buckshot of the flock. Sir didn’t come to a stop until the entire wagon was in the barn, causing the sides of the wagon to break off from the slightly smaller doors. I didn’t care in the least, and climbed out of the wagon and fell to the ground. I didn’t have it in my to stand, my legs felt crippled. Anvil had seen the big show and raced down the hill to welcome back the animals he knew so well. I yelled at him to come to the wagon inside the barn and felt sweet relief at the sound of my voice, sound returning in general. Anvil slammed into me with decision and I held his coat like a scared child. "You're sleeping inside tonight. No arguments". Anvil looked up at me with yellow eyes, concerned as a dog can look.
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 pleasant sheep on the mountain pasture—I realized the storm had not hit here. No new snowfall covered the stones that lead to my front door. The animals seemed as calm as paintings. I held my dog, finally breaking down into tears and then sobs. I rocked there, back and forth beside Sir. I could feel the sweat of his belly falling on my exposed and bleeding arms as I buried my face in Anvil’s shoulders. I could only think of on thing clearly in the mess. The question I asked my father when I first heard the song of the beast as a child.
"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.”