Thursday, January 30, 2014

Chapter 2

From my view on top of the hill I could hear the pounding hooves before I saw the visitors. The clacking across the frozen ice jostled me from my morning break. I was lost in thought, mindlessly picking burdock off my favorite ram between chapters of a book. Morning chores were done and like all mornings they ended on this hillside, watching the flock for signs ill health or other fuss. When I was new to sheep I would stare at them like birds caught in a solarium. Now I just spend time with them. In the summer months I darn socks, mend shirts, or write notes while they amble about, but in the middle of winter it is books that spend time on the hill with me, hands too cold for nimble work. The old ram Sal and I kept each other warm in the tight shed, him chewing cud and I turning pages in the soft light of the open door. Sal tolerated a lot and let me lean against him on the soft dry straw, 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 The Anvil. Knowing that, he named the farm after his two favorite things anyway: blacksmithing and wort brew. I kept the farm's name after he was gone. It sounded stronger than it was and that made me feel safe.

I set down the book and watched the horse approach the low fieldstone wall that made the front gate of the humble white Colonial. The wall was in good repair but the house had seen better days. When I had time to be embarrassed about it I was, especially when guests arrived and I was reading books. Apprehension passed as I recognized the horse and riders. It was Lara and her cousin, Meredith Robertson. The two women were double mounted on Lara's beloved Morgan, Pit. At 16 hands the bay stallion was stunning and barely sweating from the six-mile journey. He shifted into a smooth trot as he regarded the low wall, deciding whether or not to jump it.

Yet there was no feeling of safety when I saw the dark brown haze of Pit and his passengers. I called Anvil back from the far pasture and grabbed my walking stick. The black dog came running like a jackrabbit then walked quietly by my side while I used the crook as a steadying agent down the snow-covered slide. I yelled out, "What's the matter? What's the word?" tucking the book into my thick leather belt behind my back. I made my way to the front gate, Anvil sat beside me, quietly watching everything. I was concerned they had seen the same thing I had the night before. They seemed tussled but not terrified as they walked Pit towards me. Meredith dismounted first, using the stones as a stepladder from the tall animal. Her brown wool cloak held tight around her neck by her now free hands. She was visiting Cambridge from Maryland, near the capital. She thought a quiet holiday in the countryside would do her good. But the look of her was not one of ease. She was white as a ghost between her blond locks and I wondered if perhaps they did see the monster. 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 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 were planning to rub those sides down 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….Then as we passed the smashed pumpkins and bones...we started to sprint 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 gilt 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. Until we noticed your wheel tracks stopped. As if your cart had been lifted off the ground into the sky. 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 stared at them. Trying to keep myself together. I set my shoulder blades closer together and lifted my chin a bit in reply. If the body seemed confident, perhaps the mind could be tricked.

"We stopped Pit and looked around from the saddle. We made a few circles in the snow, and I felt somewhat ill all of a sudden. 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 noticed bumps in the snow. Looking closer we saw they were smashed pumpkins and around the smashlings there wasn't a print or track of deer. Can you imagine? So we kept on and the perfect corpse of half a pig 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. Anna, it was a perfect pile of black bones in snow without a track. So we ran here with decision. And if you don't tell us what happened we'll take you back their ourselves and show you."

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 shawl. 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 his only true lair. He can not be drowned or burned in a fire And all that he devours gone dark as a pyre...

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 crock on the counter.

"Anna. What happened to you?"

I squinted at the sun shooting through the dirty windows. Who had time to clean windows? 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 waved it away and pointed at my face and smiled. "She needs it more than I do.”

Lara smiled 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 Sir 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 more fingers of whiskey and stood up, handing Meredith her beautiful cloak. It was rare I felt such envy, but a riding cloak that warm 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 Sir, calm and steady, when a squall of snow came out of nowhere. Covered the road in an instant, and blew out my carriage lights. That scared Sir all up. He bolted from the broken glass and wind. 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 rail station. She showed us the grand Rice Mansion and Cambridge Hotel, sweeping over the bustling downtown freight depot like an emperor over his people. For some unspeakable reason I was protecting the beast just to keep the illusion of 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, setting it down in the snow in perfect anatomical alignment before trotting home?"

"Frostbite." I retorted 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 would if we left our skin exposed in the cold all night…”

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 pieces 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 Sir the three miles south to town proper. I was planning on heading into town anyway. Another lie.

This was the main market day at the Freight Depot. The merchants were a mix of local farmers, craftsfolk, and businesses under banners and brightly decorated tables. They had good prices and were always up for barter and bargain but the real reason most folks came to Market Day was the Seconds. Goods pre-purchased and shipped to the city that did not sell were returned to their vendors for a refund. Instead of dragging home a bin of week-old melons they were sold dirt-cheap on Market Day. All sorts of good would be on display in boxes lacked the show of the local merchants but made up for their tatter in low price. Wooden boxes of flowers with shoddy petals and stems - good for drying but not pretty enough for the dinner table. Leather with pockmarks 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 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 in 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.

I turned my head towards the Library and started off, passing the tables of produce carts and ignoring the waves and calls of neighbors as I made my way through the village center, my eyes dead-locked on the two-story house just ahead. Ronald had turned the downstairs into a workshop and lived just above it, as most shopkeepers did in town. 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. Something told me that the mystery of Birchthorn was in the music. I was on a mission to understanding the mystery, collect the forgotten verses, and figure out what chased me in that snow storm. I was completely drowning in my own thoughts as I moved across 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 twenty 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 the middle winter?!" I tried to sound less preoccupied than I was.

"More of a challenge when they are cold and dead-like" was Trent's grinning response. He waved down at me. I wasn't worried about him any more than their mother was, who I saw buying potatoes from a bin moments before. The boys could climb a hundred feet up in the summer if the trees offered the option. This icy endeavor was just a stretch of the legs. They lived on a dairy farm closer to town. Their pastured butted up against the fields where the splendid Cambridge Fair was held, right across from the McClellan Manor. Their father worked the dairy with the boys and their mother worked as the head trainer with the Manor's fine horses. She was a skilled carriage driver and had taught me everything I knew. Before Ironale fell entirely into my hands I worked for her part time. 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 mare, but I suppose there could be worse.

Sir, 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 Ronald’s library was just a few blocks from the train station. 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 the ballad of filled my ears. Someone was humming. Humming the Ballad of Birchthorn 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 humming 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. It was covered by a delicately-embroidered canvas apron over a nearly pressed high-collared shirt. She wore round spectacles and a wide-brimmed black hat banded with red ribbon. 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 our valley? 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 the City 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 of 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 in the 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. I walked up to the door and stepped right through as if she owed me a favor. I said, perhaps too loudly, "Anna. Anna Caldwe.." and was stopped short of my widowed name 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 finally looked up over her glasses, not at all interested in the 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, 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, clearly insulted at the assumption. I followed her past the shops front room through the black door marked, Land of the Living. The contrast behind the door 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-cum-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 doings. I smiled for the first time in days.

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 rifles or pistols. I stared closer, confused, trying to angle my head into the sunlight better. I looked at another pane and noticed nothing but shapes on white. I cocked my head, convinced it was swirling. Roslyn seemed occupied with a fern and time slipped away from me. I pressed my face even closer, taking in the fogged glass with its swirls of white and foamed rippling. I went white where I stood, slamming my hands over my mouth so I would not scream. If I had it would have been more than loud enough to bring the entire greenhouse into shatters. There in the glass pane I had been mesmerized by were the black pig bones amongst split pumpkin rinds. I backed away slowly, visibly unsettled. I shook, unable to blink.

"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 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 the stress of the past few days getting to me. 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. All around the warm interior of this captive summer were the faces of dead men. Once I realized they were looking, ignoring them was impossible. Roslyn cooed, admirably "…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 mindlessly at a honeysuckle. Roslyn’s eyebrows raised at that and she smiled back at me.

"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. He grew up here, well, just south of here where the Mohawk tribes 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 but the story was older than the Mohawk People. It was the English settlers that named it Birchthorn and sang songs to tease it. I think this all happened just a few day's saddle ride south.”

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?"

"I don't, sadly. Just 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 meant to be sang in Dorian. So I sing it low, like him. I'm not sure how it is sung 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 property. 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 were the apex of politeness she had received in this town? It might very well be, as most folks are probably far more concerned about the sanity of destroying a perfectly good home, building a glass house, and marrying 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 just beyond the four-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 eyes seemed wet 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 staircase up to their abode and a thousand dead men watched me as the red squirrel nickered in his tree.

Chapter 1

The snow was so thick—and came upon the forest road so fast—that the two carriage lanterns blew out. One went dark with the cry of the wind and the other slammed into my forehead before falling to the ground. I cried out as the thick globe smashed into a rock. The combined sounds of broken glass and my yelp of pain was as biting as the air. Sir —the small Haflinger pulling our shoddy farm wagon—stopped with a jolt. His two front hooves lifting a foot off the ground in a concerned whinny. I could barely see him in this new darkness, and I was instantly unsettled by how much colder a blizzard is when the last flicker of lantern light had left. He shook his flaxen mane, pressed his ears against his head, and stared at the little of the world he could see with blinders on. Other horses would have bolted at such a sudden fuss, but not Sir. That crow hop was the extent of his fit and for that I was grateful. We were but three miles from the farmhouse, stranded in this blinding squall. Had he tore off into the night I’m not certain we’d survive a crash into a tree or being swallowed by a ditch. People have died in weather far better, far closer to their homes. The thought of being alone without my rig was an unspeakable thought in my already pounding heart.

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 Sir 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, but he was home watching te livestock - that was his place.

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 trunks 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 once bubbled. 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 walk 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 days later.

So I was alone on our sixty acres with a flock of sheep, a herding collie, 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. "Cm'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.”