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.
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.