I walked back through town as fast as I could without drawing too much attention to myself. The meeting with Mrs. Bishop had rattled me, and between that and the wind that started to blow across Main Street I was starting to physically shake. My teeth chattered and my hands felt numb. Grabbing the tartan shawl draped loosely from my shoulders I pulled it tighter and reclasped the brooch that held it in place. Everything felt colder after seeing that cane. “You kept yourself together while a monster chased your horse in a snowstorm. You can keep yourself together now,” I whispered with decision. After a few long breaths matched with a slower pace my heart rate slowed and I approached the familiarity of the Depot. I took refuge for what it was: normal, everyday activity. It was the medicine I sought. All those folks bustling around bins of old fruit and vegetables and bolts of cloth reminded me that this was what life was like. Snow beasts, black feet, and mysterious canes were imposing forces - not a usual circumstance of life in the Valley. Having the peace of mind was enough consolation for the now.
As I approached closer to the town’s market I saw Lara and gave her a weak wave, letting her know she was still in my periphery. Lara glanced in recognition quickly but was lost in a bin of onions, search for ones without green shoots sprouting from the tips. Without looking up she shared,
“You might want to check of you horse. He’s acting up and scared a young girl with her mother when they passed by.”
Lara knew horses and her tone treated it as such but not everyone was used to a thousand pounds of flesh and bone stomping his feet and throwing his head up and down. I could see him from the market’s edge and jogged over to see what the fuss was about. Sir was not himself and part of me was relieved. At least if he was acting it up it wasn’t the curse of Birchthorn and therefore possible to remedy. That relief was quickly replaced with concern. Sir’s eyes were white and his head continued to pull at the hitching post, trying to free himself by pulling it from the ground if need be. A large group of market goers had collected in a semi circle around the big show as I made my way to his large golden head. I grabbed for his halter and his large, white eyes, turned to me and glinted with recognition. I put a hand to his nose and asked him to be quiet and his blew out heavy breaths as his feet changed from stomping to pawing. When Sir seemed calm enough to focus my attention elsewhere I asked the older teenager closest to me if he had seen what caused the fuss? He shrugged and pointed towards the two boys in the oak tree. They had devilish grins on their faces but lacked ammunition, as all the acorns had dropped months before. I yelled up at the two, asking if they were the reason my horse nearly ran off into a crowded market? They looked sheepish and shrugged. I was staring daggers at them when a little girl in a long, blonde, braid interrupted our confrontation. She was dressed well for the weather in tall lace boots and a heavy wool coat. Had I been her age in this valley, it was what I would have worn to church on Christmas Day, but she was here on the edge of a weekday market? She tugged at my shawl.
“Ma’am, Ma’am… It wasn’t their faults. They were trying to hit me with marble and instead they hit your horse.”
My head turned back and I looked up at those boys like a red-tailed hawk.
“Is this true? Trent? Caden?”
Trent shrugged. You could tell he was more pleased at having scared the girl by means of unplanned equine hissy fit than he was repentant at the thought of hurting a little girl. They shimmied down from their high branch and stood at the base of the tree, brushing bits of bark and ice from their clothes. They stood, and stared, but would not come closer.
“Is it true?” I demanded.
Trent nodded without taking their eyes off the six-year-old beside me. Caden didn’t seem to have the ability to nod at the moment and stared, backing away slowly and pulling on his brother’s sleeve. They turned and ran. They weren’t about to lie to an adult but they also weren’t about to stick around and explain themselves.
I turned to the little girl and stooped to meet her eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked, trying to see if she was hurt at all. She nodded fast and looked past me up at Sir, who was now blowing hard again and staring at her with the same wariness as the boys. If it wasn’t for the halter and post I had a feeling he would have gladly torn off with them.
“Can you tell me why they acted like that?”
The little girl’s eyes slowly turned to mine from Sir’s without blinking. They were very dark, brown enough to look black in low light. It was an uneasy look that let me understand the unease of the boys and horse, but didn’t concern me at all. It felt like a pair of coyotes having a conversation while the rabbits ran into the grass. She kept staring and then replied with the ease of certainty you’d expect if you asked her what C-A-T spelled.
“Because they think I’m the reason the monster is here.”
She then blinked, a deliberate and slow action, and then returned her stare to Sir, who was now looking away and shivering a bit in harness.
“What do you mean, monster?”
While still staring at the horse she continued in her plain voice, calm as summer pond water.
“They think I’m the reason that the Song Monster is here again. My parents and I moved here from New York City last week and since I have been walking past the farm their mother works at, they said the horses have been acting strange. Horses always act strange around me….” She drifted, trying to reach out and touch Sir’s golden hair and I gently took her hand from the slow grab and took her other hand in my mine. Holding them there, I looked her right in the eyes and gave them a small squeeze. She looked back at me, locked me in. “I don’t want to hurt anything. It just happens when I…”
A serious looking woman in equally respectable clothing interrupted us. She reached down for the girl’s shoulder and pulled her back from my hands. I was so taken by the intrusion I let out a quick gasp, not realizing I had been holding my breath.
“This is my niece. What on earth were you doing with her?” The woman hissed through gritted teeth.
I stood up and out a hand on Sir, and was about to explain she and some boys had scared my horse when the girl interrupted.
“It’s okay Miss Frances. She told the bad boys who tried to throw a marble at me to stop. She was nice to me.”
Miss Frances softened at this, nodding to herself assuredly while looking over the girl. She seemed to be making sure she was in one solid piece without any ripped clothes or bleeding wounds before turning back to me.
“I apologize for my rudeness. I get protective of Anise.” She reached out to shake my hand. I took it and felt a weak grip that seemed to expect a kiss on a ring instead of a farmer’s grasp. Frances recoiled a bit and fixed her red hair under her ridiculous hat. It had a fake bird made of peacock feathers pinned to it. “Thank you for scolding those ruffians. I’m Frances McGregor. My husband and I have moved into the house on Union, near the Mansion.”
“Anna Caldwell, sheep farmer from just outside town. Your little girl was just talking to me about her nerves and horses…”
Frances scoffed at this and turned the girl back around to face her, bending over her instead of lowering to a stoop she reprimanded her for “causing another stirrup”. I felt far from comfortable but needed to hear the rest of Anise’s explanation.
“No apology needed, Ma’am…” I mumbled, then looked back to the child, “What did you mean about scaring horses, Anise? What were you about to say?”
At that Miss Frances grabbed the girl’s hand and started pulling her aside and back along the rows of depot market bins. Anise looked back at me a last time before her aunt tore her away. I couldn’t make out what the woman was saying but it seemed to include “dreadful animals” and something about glue always being on store shelves for a reason. I watched them leave through the market crowd, crossed my arms and furrowed my brow. With the boys gone, the strange little girl a recent memory, and a nervous horse just starting to regain his composer behind me I felt a little strange myself. A day ago my biggest concern was salting pork and getting enough money together to carry me through to spring. But now the world had gone dark and strange, with every person I chanced to meet only thickening the mystery.
“Anna?” I heard Lara call. I kept staring into the crowd, hoping the little girl would run back and whisper in my ear. Coyote secrets. I could keep them.