Where Willow-Wrens Gather

O ne’er go down where the willow-wrens gather
So late on a midwinter’s eve
For wailin’ and weepin’ will follow down after
And ne’er you more shall be seen

-Folk rhyme of unknown origin

A little while back, on a rather foggy afternoon, I was driving down a back road on my way home when a flicker of movement caught my attention. I glanced at the trees, but didn’t see anything. Something told me to stop and check it out, but I was in a hurry so I ignored it. Still, it bugged me for the rest of the night. Something about it had seemed familiar, but in that way like when you’re trying to remember a dream, and I couldn’t pull the memory up. Eventually I decided that either I’d remember eventually or come across it again, and life went on.

The other day, on a different road, something else caught my attention; a small flutter of red among the winter-dead plants at the edge of a small marsh. This time, I pulled over to investigate. (I may have had to do a little light trespassing to get to it…nothing much, just a little dip through a fence onto some conservation land that was closed for the evening.) I was glad for the fact that it was really cold as it meant I wasn’t slogging through mud, though I could have done without the bone-gnawing edge of ice to the wind that cut through my gloves like they weren’t even there. But I digress…

I climbed through the fence and walked over to the edge of the water, boots crunching on the ice-coated grass, looking for the flash of red in the rapidly failing light until I found what I was looking for. To be honest, it was so small that I have no idea how I saw it from the road. On a tree branch there was a small object of grass and string, fluttering frantically in the breeze. While it was a very crudely done thing, clearly done by someone not entirely sure what they were doing, it was nonetheless recognizable as a very specific folk charm. Memory clicked into place, and I realized what was familiar about the thing I had seen the other week.

This was a willow-wren charm and, based on the colors, a warning that there were willow-wrens gathering in the area. No, not the normal little birds you’re probably thinking of. Willow-wrens are…something else. There’s almost nothing written about them, being an extremely obscure and almost entirely oral lore. I ran across them decades ago, but haven’t thought much about them in years. To say I was surprised to find this would be an understatement.

There’s very little known about willow-wrens or where they came from. Some say that they were originally a bastardization of will-o-wisp myths. Some say they’re based on some random event that happened that got twisted over the retellings. Others say they’re exactly what it says on the tin. There’s even a theory that they’re actually some sort of magical construct, though anyone with a half-ounce of respect for folklore and myth looks sideways at that one.

Willow-wrens are the same rough size and shape as a normal wren, but are said to have feathers of long, narrow, willow-like leaves. They’re never seen during the day, appearing just as the sun sets and are often described as having a faint bluish-green glow, similar to that of phosphorescent fungi (hence the suggestion of being a variant of will-o-wisp).

Tradition is that seeing a lone willow-wren is a kind of good luck, and hearing one call is an omen (of what, the stories don’t actually say, because that would be useful or something, I guess). Seeing a flock of them is Very Bad and you should be getting away from there as fast as you can possibly manage. (Again, what the Bad is is a point of contention and ranges from death, memory or dream theft, permanent bad luck, kidnapping, that sort of thing.) There’s a third theory that the willow-wrens are some kind of guardian spirits that protect a place, as well.

One of the fascinating things is that the use of physical charms has persisted into modern times, with very few changes, aside from purpose (some to ward against, some to call, some to warn people away). A willow-wren charm consists of three stalks of grain grasses (rye, barley, oat) braided and formed into a circle, tied at the top with a knotted or braided yellow or gold cord symbolizing the sun. This is consistent across all versions. Tied to the bottom of the charm, there are 3, 6, or 9 cords, each with a seed threaded onto it, though there’s conflicting stories about what type and how many seeds. Different colors denote different meanings (red for warning, blue for calling, silver or pale green to ward against, etc.). Types of seeds used include apple, squash, buckwheat, mustard, and others.

The one I found was, as I mentioned, extremely crudely done, being a single stalk of wild rye coiled and tied with unknotted thread and no seeds, but was still recognizable as a warning charm. Someone was trying to warn people that willow-wrens were seen flocking, and either was in a hurry or didn’t have all the information on how to construct the charm properly. The fact that it was there at all was strange enough, given the obscurity of willow-wren lore.

Stranger still was the fact that what I saw the other night was the right size, shape, and color to have been a willow-wren landing on a branch, watching as I drove by. I don’t know why the willow-wrens are gathering, or who the charm-maker was, but willow-wrens are being seen again, and that is always an omen. Of what, I can’t say. I suppose that we’ll have to wait and find out.

(Like what you just read? Support your local word-witch via Ko-fi and toss a donation in the little hat or sign up to get new posts delivered directly to your inbox, as well as occasional “behind the scenes” snippets from the road and discounts on purchases when I have a piece of art to sell.)

On Finding Myself Standing Upon Author’s Ridge

It’s funny, when I left the house the other day in search of a roadside god or some other strange thing, the last place I expected to find myself was standing on a hilltop just before dusk, shivering in the thinnest sweater I own and a light scarf I’d dug out of the back of the truck against the mid-November wind, a battered leather bag with my travel notebook and pens in it slung over my shoulder, looking down at the gravestones of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and others.

When I left the house, I had some road snacks, my writing bag, and a vague idea of heading somewhere northeast-ish, since I rarely go that direction.  It was one of those rare November days where the sky is a bright, cloudless blue instead of overcast or raining, though the wind was still sharp-edged and cold.  Good driving weather.  I figured I could get a good two or three hours of questing in before dark and, if I was lucky, maybe find Something Interesting.

The thing about eastern Massachusetts is that it’s Old.  Sure, maybe it’s not old compared to other countries, but for the US, it’s one of the oldest places we have.  Other people read about the Revolutionary War, the Pilgrims, the Salem Witch Trials and all that, but we trip over the damned stuff all the time. I regularly drive down roads that famous people once rode horses down, yelling that the “British Are Coming!”, and pass signs proclaiming that some historical event happened or historical figure stopped for lunch there.  Those roads were also, in many cases, decided on by what direction someone’s damned cows decided to take regularly and everything else just sort of built up around them.  They’re twisting, winding, and heavily congested with traffic, because we pack a LOT of residents, commuters, and tourists into a small area of real estate.  There’s so much going on that it’s hard to hear the small, quiet things in all of that.  Which is why I typically head out towards the western parts of the state most of the time, away from it.

Still, something said to go that way, so I did.

I drove for a couple of hours, past yellowing post-harvest farmstand fields, through downtowns with their eclectic mix of old and new architecture and industry, meandering around with no purpose other than to see what I might see. I admired monuments and memories, and mused on the differences and similarities between small gods and genius loci.  I smiled at kids horsing around while walking home from school, and glowered at people who decided that they were going to take their half of the road from the middle, and the rest of us would just have to get out of their way.  I passed through several towns, yet another nameless driver on the roads.

I found nothing.  My thoughts turned inward, twisting in on themselves, and I started to wonder what the fuck I was doing out here, wandering aimlessly like one more lost cow, with delusions of making a living writing about…what?  Half-imagined feelings and things I saw from the corner of my eye that were probably just trees or abandoned old restaurant mascots, or a dog?  There was a stack of dishes so deep on the counter at home that it was going to take days to dig through, because I’m trying to maintain two households and failing at both, and what the hell was I doing?

I decided that it was time to go back and deal with the mountain of dishes.  Besides, it was getting late and the sun would be setting soon.  I turned onto a minor highway with a route number I knew would eventually lead me home.  I worked on trying to soothe my brain, but it was settling in for a good sulk, and to be honest, at the time I was having a hard time trying to come up with reasons that it was being unreasonable.  On a whim, I turned into an old cemetery that looked interesting, because I find them soothing and I needed to stretch my legs anyway.

It was probably one of the most beautiful old cemeteries I’ve seen, laid out in a way that spoke of deliberate planning to be both walkable and integrated with the land’s contours in a way most usually aren’t.  There were the remnants of old cobblestone paths, and benches to sit on, and massive old trees.  It was breathtakingly, heartachingly lovely, and I forgot about being unhappy in the face of its beauty and peacefulness. 

I’d been wandering around for about 10 minutes or so when I came across the back of a sign near one of the entrances.  Figuring it would probably tell me the name of the cemetery and exactly which town I was in, so I could come back when I had more time to poke around, I walked around it to see what it said.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember where I knew it from.  Maybe it sounded familiar because of the ghost story?  That didn’t feel right.  Then I noticed another sign nearby.  It was a state park sign, with a piece of paper under the glass, proclaiming “Graves of Interest” and a list of names.

Oh.  Right.  That’s why I recognized the name, and now I knew exactly where I was.  I checked the map, and made my way up to the top of the hill opposite the entrance, smiling with amusement.  No, more like giggling.

And so it was that I found myself on top of a hill, shivering in the chill that comes when the sun sets in New England this late in the year, looking at the graves of literary giants who, in their own ways, had forged paths of writing that also left the proverbial beaten path, on the day I came very close to giving up on writing.  Message received.

I may not have found what I thought I was looking for, but a small god of lost writers found me just the same, and I’m very glad that it did.

(Originally posted at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter. Patreon subscribers get to see posts 3 days before they open to the general public, and help me feed the cats and keep a roof over all of our heads.)

There Are Other Things Along The Roads

Sometimes I come across roadside gods and saints or their shrines that are of darker natures than the ones I generally write about, and I wonder if I should write about them or not. Gods of black ice and dead ends, gods that are not of the road, but of Other Things. Gaping maws that swallow the roads in ink-black voids. Decaying shrines that were there before the road came and may be there after it’s long since cracked and crumbled back to stone and tar. Shapes that watch from the hills and fields as I pass by, waiting to see if I will be careless enough to stop and leave the safety of my iron and steel truck. Things that shift and stretch across the sky in ways that clouds do not do. Shrines of pylon and wire that sing crackling, whining paeans, hymns that may once of been devoted to gods of fire and warmth, but have twisted over the eons to become something new.

Perhaps I will write about them. After all, they are there, beside the road, and it’s not a bad thing for others to be aware of them, I suppose.

(Originally posted at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter. Patreon subscribers get to see posts 3 days before they open to the general public, and help me feed the cats and keep a roof over all of our heads.)

Cursed Objects And Raspberry Jam

Does anyone else ever wonder why you only ever hear about the evil cursed or haunted objects?  Like, why don’t we ever hear about the annoying or benevolent ones?  Or the ones where the curse/haunting has no real interaction with the living, as it were?  For example:

– A stuffed animal  where the curse is actually that a hyper-masculine jerk is cursed to inhabit the body of the World’s Most Adorable and Plushy stuffed teddy bear, Mr. Flufferkins, and be the Guest of Honor toy for endless children’s tea parties and dress-up games until he unlearns his toxic ideas and learns that feelings and silly childhood games are not only okay, but actually good.  He’s a very slow learner, however, and has been stuck in the bear for a Very Long Time.  He refuses to admit that he’s developing a sneaking fondness for fairy bread with raspberry jam or that, in the deepest depths of his cotton-stuffed heart, he’s been thinking that maybe spending eternity as a children’s toy might not be so bad.  After all, it’s much easier to simply be a teddy bear.

– A painting haunted by a long-dead grandmother who stays around to keep an eye on her descendants and doesn’t do anything more sinister than glare judgmentally at houseguests she thinks are unworthy of her family.

– A small gold locket that curses its wearer to forget about their steeping cups of tea.

I dunno, I just think it’s unfortunate that we only ever hear about the murder-dolls and evil rings and things.  There should be more awareness of the rest of them, and I think I might have a new project to embark on here…

(Originally posted at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter. Patreon subscribers get to see posts 3 days before they open to the general public, and help me feed the cats and keep a roof over all of our heads.)

There Are Two Types Of People

The other day I decided to stop at an antique shop that I’ve been driving past a lot lately and check it out.  Poking around old antique shops is one of my comfort hobbies, and has been one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic.  On this particular day I *really* needed the happy brain chemical hit, so it seemed like a good time to grab a mask and wander in.  

It was a nice little place.  Small, well-lit and clearly well-dusted, filled with mostly beautiful old furniture and dishware, an unusual number of handmade witch dolls, and now that I think of it, a somewhat disturbing quantity of taxidermy.  Like, really.  I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me before.  It’s strange to realize just how very much the entire perimeter, near the ceiling line, was entirely lined by dozens upon dozens of taxidermied animal heads, and that it really didn’t register as anything particularly odd at the time…  Huh.

So that’s a thing, I guess?

Anyway, I was wandering around, looking at well-maintained writing desks, hutches, dining sets, and all that, when I turned a corner and came nearly eye to baleful eye with the most ragged and moth-eaten stuffed rabbit I have ever seen.  I stopped dead in my tracks and blurted out “That is the MOST cursed looking thing I have ever seen in my life!” to the old guy who ran the place, who was sitting on a bench nearby.  He laughed, and agreed.  I took a photo of it, because holy cats.

(A faded, bright yellow stuffed toy rabbit, missing large patches of fur, with a pale blue ribbon loosely tied around its neck, sits on an old olive green and brown antique sled. It has a single, unnervingly red eye.)

There’s only the one eye.  The other one is gone, probably sacrificed in exchange for some nefarious purposes.

Being me, I posted it on social media when I got home, and I have to say, I am deeply amused at the reactions to that thing.  It was a 50/50 split of “I NEED A YOUNG PRIEST AND AN OLD PRIEST!” and “Awwww, someone loved that bunny so much!”

There are two kinds of people.  Only one of them makes it out of the horror movie.

Which one are you?

(Originally posted at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter. Patreon subscribers get to see posts 3 days before they open to the general public, and help me feed the cats and keep a roof over all of our heads.)

By Forest, Field, and Old Side Road

A bit over a year ago, I went out for what would be my last road trip for a long time.  It was the beginning of lockdown and the end of the Before Times.  Some of the trip was morbid curiosity; I wanted to see what the world looked like without traffic and people everywhere.  It was, as expected, disconcerting and more than a little apocalyptic.  A lot of it though was, honestly, to say good-bye.  I didn’t know when I’d be back on the road again, if ever.  I didn’t know what the world would look like if I was able to be out there again, but I knew that whatever it was, it would never be the same.  Something was dying, and I needed to be there to witness and honor its passing.

It’s strange to be getting back out onto the roads again.  The last time I was off the road for this long was when I broke down in the Bridge God’s courtyard, and that was a long time ago, now.  My body has forgotten how to be behind the wheel for very long, and finding that almost Zen-like state where the truck becomes an extension of me is harder than it used to be.  I know it will return soon enough, but in the meantime, it’s hard not to wonder if this is the time that I just can’t get it back, that too much time has passed and I’ll never remember how to hear the Road sing again.

The world is different now, as well.  Places that I used to pass by all the time are gone now, doors and windows shuttered.  Others are still there, but changed.  Some places the changes are obvious; restaurants and coffee shops with outside tables on extended sidewalks or sections of parking lots, that sort of thing, while others are changed more in feeling.   They feel almost haunted, as if some intangible part of them died, and while they’re still going through the motions of being Places, there’s something that’s gone.

Still, there are other places that are…cozier…than they were before.  Like over the recent months the place drew closer to itself, remembered what it was, and found a kind of  strength from the remembering.  Places like this were where I passed the world’s Most Adorable (and socially distanced) Town Fair and a small farm that had decided to set up a stand with a sign for Free Food, because they knew how much people are struggling and this was what they could do to help.  I cried a little at that one, because it’s good to see people caring for, and taking care of, each other.

Of course, there are the places that haven’t changed and there’s a comfort in knowing that the area around the Quabbin is still Very Clearly Riddled With Terrible Fae Traps like the “Detour” sign directing people off the highway and down a narrow, tree-choked dirt road, or a “Help Wanted” sign at the end of another dirt road leading off into the woods, with nothing indicating the presence of an actual business of any kind… (Sadly I was on a time schedule on the way home at that point, or I’d have gleefully turned the truck down either or both of them to investigate, because that’s just the kind of dumbass I am.  Maybe next time.) 

Overall, it was a good drive and good way to start scraping the rust off.  Now that the seal has been broken, Wednesdays are officially designated weekly Road Days.  Even pulled together a nice collection of dishes and utensils specifically for eating Real Food while I’m out and about, instead of scarfing down a protein bar or having to stop at a fast food place.   My goal is to eventually get a small trailer with a bathroom/shower hookup, or an rv, so I can go on longer trips, but that’s a ways in the future yet.  For now, this is a good restart while I figure out the new protocols and get back in the swing of things.

Let’s see what’s down those little side roads, shall we?

(Your friendly Routewitch preparing to get back behind the wheel.)

(Originally posted at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter. Patreon subscribers get to see posts 3 days before they open to the general public, and help me feed the cats and keep a roof over all of our heads.)

In Which A Dream And The Shadow Of A Goblin/Fairy Market Begins To Take Shape

One of my ongoing major challenges for, well, honestly the last 20+ years, has been the endless quest to figure out how to sell my stuff with a shoestring budget and no consistent access to physical locales. I’ve done consignment, which is great, except for randomly jacking fees and the tendency for places to suddenly decide that they just don’t feel like handling consignments anymore effective immediately, leaving you scrambling or putting you out of business completely (guess what happened to my first jewelry business!). I don’t have the output volume or style for most craft fairs and art galleries, websites are expensive and require a lot of equipment and skills I neither have nor care to waste what little spoons I have focusing on, Etsy’s business practices are so abusive and predatory that I refuse to work with them anymore, etc., etc., etc…

This does make selling things A Problem.

Some years ago, a friend asked me how I would describe a fairy market and a goblin market, each in three words, and in doing so, accidentally planted the seed of October’s Market, which is both a little of each and nothing like either of them, and it has been growing and changing since. It got shelved a while ago, because to be honest, I lost sight of what it was supposed to be and I didn’t know how to fix it.

A couple of times recently, I’ve had dreams of sitting in a park under a big, fringed umbrella beside one of those old-fashioned market carts. The cart is small, and just big enough to hold a dozen or so pieces of art at a time, a few bits of jewelry, and a selection of cute-but-vaguely unsettling hand sewn stuffed wrens (it’s their little button eyes, I swear).

These things are all tied together.

I’ve been thinking about these things a lot lately, and I think I figured out a way to get it to work. See, I wander around a lot. I also carry a bag with art supplies and notebooks, because one never knows when one will need to pull over and draw at a scenic overlook, or spend some time writing on a riverbank. I’ve had people ask me about my art while I work, and if I have a website or way to purchase things without cash (seriously, almost nobody has cash on them these days), and I have to say no, and everyone loses.

Until now. After a lot of research and consideration, I’ve signed up with Square, which is a non-PayPal payment processor. If you’ve bought something at craft fairs, farmer’s markets, open studios, etc., where you swiped your card through a chip reader on a tablet or cell phone, you’ve encountered Square, and they’re a really solid, reputable company. I’ll be able to do things like include purchase buttons in my art posts, put things into the free online shop that comes with the account, and

*drum roll please*

I’ll have a secure, portable card reader that can process credit cards and contactless purchasing apps with me at all times, so I’ll be able to sell someone the piece they wanted to buy from me on the side of the road. (It’ll also allow me to set up a small table at farmers markets and whatnot, as well, once I feel more comfortable being around humans again.)

So, that happened. 😀

Naming-wise, I’m using October’s Market for the “shop” itself. It’s the sales portion of things currently, and while there’s a bigger, wider thing that October’s Market represents (like everything in my life, there’s a story to it), for now it’s just a little blanket or table on the side of the road, or in the park, or at the beach, with an artist and a small, ever changing collection of artwork, odd bits of jewelry and other trinkets, and a very small, not-remotely fancy online shop.

I’m not sure why, but I feel like this is going to work far better for me than anything else I’ve tried. I’m a bit more free-range than our society is built for, but this allows for that and I’m really looking forward to being able to take my work on the road.

Patchworks and Palimpsests: Stories Older Than Bones

Recently I was wandering down a rabbit hole of podcasts and folklore, and I got thinking…Mythically speaking, New England is really fucking *weird*.

What do I mean by this?

So, most places have a pretty distinctive story type associated with them that is best described as a patchwork quilt, various pieces  sewn together to form a coherent theme.  (For Reasons, mostly that I could write entire libraries on the subject, and for the sake of brevity am going to narrow the field, I’m going to stick with a superficial overview of just the US for now.)  For example, if you’re talking about the New Orleans region, the story fabric is full of ghosts and Voodoo and cypress swamps and is very much this rich tapestry woven of the history of the various cultures who have lived there.  Even if you don’t know that the story is set there, the elements and images are so strongly tied to it, that you know This Is A Story Of New Orleans And Its Environs.  The South is riddled with Civil War ghosts and haunted plantations and again, it’s all tied to the history of it’s peoples, to form a recognizable fabric.  Pacific Northwest, cryptids, the Midwest, LOTS of road ghosts, etc.

Appalachia, though, things start getting – interesting – which I’ll come back to in a minute.

New England is more like a collection of badly scraped palimpsests, held together with a bit of rodent-chewed twine, randomly fished out of a harbor or found in an abandoned cabin out in the woods, which somehow still manage to be recognizably New England Stories.  It shouldn’t work.  There shouldn’t be anything to tie them together, nor link them so notably to this specific region, yet here we are.

(If you’re unfamiliar with what a palimpsest is, it’s a manuscript page which the text has been scraped or washed off of so that it can be reused for a new document.  One of the reasons we have fewer medieval writings remaining than we should is because this was done fairly regularly, so a lot of things were lost to reuse the parchment or vellum, which were costly and difficult to produce.  It’s not uncommon to still be able to see the residual ink or paint from the previous documents underneath the newer writing.)

We’ve got our share of ghost stories, sure.  Mostly Revolutionary/Colonial Era, but there’s also pirates and haunted mills and rather more witches than were ever actually hung in Salem or anywhere else in the region.  We’ve got a surprising number of cryptids, but they aren’t well known, even in the places they’re from, aside from one lake monster up in Vermont.  We don’t really have a solid folklore Theme like other places with the amount of history we have.  Not like other places have.

Except we do.  What we have is the Land Itself and it is Alive and Haunted As Fucking Balls.

This is where I swing back to Appalachia.

See, Appalachia has a LOT of ghosts.  On the surface, they’re much like the ghosts elsewhere, tied to the history of immigration, racism, classism, and violences done there, but when you start to look into it, there’s a lot of those ghost stories that start with something else, and a lot of other stories that don’t have ghosts but they do have Other Things.

They start with the mountains and the land itself.  They start with stories of Things That Are Older Than Humanity, things that are darker and hungrier and wilder that don’t stay quiet and still.  Don’t go out at night, close the curtains and don’t look out the windows after dark, take care in the woods, be courteous to the stranger you meet out by the old abandoned mine or down the holler (the one whose voice doesn’t sound Quite Right, but it wouldn’t be polite to ask about), and no, that’s probably not really a deer, so best stay clear of it….

Interestingly, this is more or less the same thing that happens with New England.  The specifics change, because the histories are different, but the heart of it is the same. It all goes back to the land itself, and the land in these places is a little bit different than it is elsewhere.

There are two things that people often either forget or aren’t aware of.  One, that the Appalachian Mountains start down South, but they also run solidly through New England and up past Nova Scotia.  Two, that those mountains are far older than people think.  It’s easy to miss.  They’re small, as mountains go, worn smooth, and not particularly Exciting to look at.  Not like, say, the majestic cragginess that is the Rockies.  They’re..comfortable looking.

The Rocky Mountain range is, geologically speaking, pretty young.  It’s only between roughly 55-80 million years old; practically a toddler of a range.

The Appalachians, though, are approximately 480 million years old.  They once towered over the heart of Pangea itself, having been born along with it.  To quote a meme going around the internet, they are older than bones.  Those soft, rounded mountains are, very literally, part of a completely different land, relics of a place that ceased to exist before the lands we know of came to be.

Of course the land here is different. The land is older and wilder and hungrier.  This is why Appalachia tells the stories it does. This is what King knows about Maine, and Lovecraft knew about Massachusetts and New Hampshire and why their stories are the way they are, and why this is what people remember about us.

Our tales aren’t about the ghosts of teenage girls killed in car crashes trying to find their way home, or soldiers reenacting battles they died in, because we live in a place where we walk with ancient things from other lands, who never left, and who still watch us from the hollers and hills and the shores, and are older than bones and older than sin, and they Remember that we humans are the newcomers here.  Our mythological patterns reflect that we can still see the lines of them on the parchment clear as day, and know that if we aren’t careful, we, too, will be pulled deeper into the ink.

I don’t think they were necessarily the first, either.

It’s just my observation, though.  I could be wrong.  But I know what I’ve seen when I travel, and the things that I’ve seen in the place that I call home, and I don’t think I entirely am.

(Originally posted on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter.)

Of Unicorns and The Treachery Of Bullfrogs

A story for a dark winter’s night…

A long time ago, just yesterday…when I was just a wee little river nymph of maybe 10 or so, we lived in a little town (barely more than a village, really) in an old white house with black shutters, where my mother grew roses and lilies in the yard.  Behind the house, across a small road, there was a swamp where, I was convinced, a unicorn was known to visit…

Now, my mother tried to convince me that there was no such thing as unicorns, not really, but let’s be honest; when you’re the daughter of a witch and a river some things are just not to be believed.  A unicorn visited the swamp and that was that.  I just needed to wait long enough and I would see it.

I would go out into the swamp in the early morning before the mists were burned off by the sun, and in the evening as the last rays of daylight sank into the shadows, day after day, week after week, month after month, but still there was no sign  Yet my stubborn self persisted.

One day, after months of nothing but failure (though a developing appreciation for the sunrise and sunset) , I decided to try something different.  I went up the road to where a feral apple tree grew and I picked the best apples I could find, reasoning that unicorns were distantly related to horses and horses love apples so unicorns probably did too, but were likely more interested in wild apples instead of the boring ones from the market.  I stashed the apples where my mother wouldn’t find them (she didn’t approve of my habit of eating them, because they were probably full of worms and she didn’t believe that I could tell which ones had worms and which ones were fine, and besides, you can just cut the wormy bits off and the rest of the apple was fine and well, it was just easier to hide them) and went on about my day, secretly planning.

That night, when I went to bed, I pretended to fall asleep and, when I was certain that it was late enough for everyone else to be asleep, I quietly crept out of bed and, taking my stash of feral apples, snuck out of the house and out into the swamp.

It was a full moon that night, or near enough, and so I didn’t really need to carry a light to find my way through the small patch of woods and to the edges of the swamp.  It was so bright and beautiful, and it looked nothing like I was used to it looking, and it was wonderful.  I knew from all of my research that unicorns were drawn to singing and so I sang little songs to the water and the frogs and the summer night’s wind and watched the light play on the water while I sat on a small rock that was the perfect size and shape to sit comfortably on for hours.

The mosquitoes were, to be honest, more than a little annoying, but I was determined to ignore them.

I admit, I got a little bored after a while, and noticed that there were an awful lot of frogs around the water’s edge…green frogs, wood frogs,  pickerel frogs, tiny little peepers, and of course, great croaking bullfrogs. I fed  them some of the mosquitoes that were trying to eat me, because the circle of life is a beautiful thing and in the swamp sometimes it’s eat or be eaten, and I had Opinions about being on the menu.  Besides, it never hurts to have friends in watery places.

Then, after a small age, I heard a faint splash in the distance.  I stopped singing to listen, in case I was mistaken, but then it came again.  This was it.  I knew it.  As the sound drew closer, the frogs and crickets grew quiet, and so did I.  There was a Feeling in the air, like something magical approached.  I was as still and quiet as a mouse, and as I watched, I saw a faint glow shimmering through the grasses and water-logged trees.  It was here!  The unicorn!  Any moment it would step through the grass into view and I would see it in it’s pale, moonlit glory, and I would offer it one of my carefully chosen apples and it would accept my offering and eat it and I would be the first river nymph in generations to befriend a unicorn and…

*CROOOOAAK CROOOOAAK CROOOAAK*

There was a frantic splashing and the sound of hoofbeats running into the distance.  Angrily, I looked down at the edge of the water at the base of my rock and there I met the flat, bored gaze of the one who had chosen that, of all moments, to decide to announce TO A UNICORN that this bit of swamp was his.

A big, fat, bullfrog.  Unrepentant and shameless.  I HAD JUST FED HIM MOSQUITOES AND HE HAD BETRAYED ME.  I glared at him, and he just looked at me, unblinking.  I wished owls on him.  I wished herons and turtles and weasels on him.  He was unmoved by my wrath, treacherous thing that he was.  I threw an apple at him but he dodged and stared at me from a little further down the shore.

I knew that there was no chance of the unicorn returning again that night, and besides, it was getting early and I knew that the longer I stayed, the more likely it was that I would be caught and get in trouble for wandering off into the night.  Leaving the remaining apples for anyone else that might come by, I crept out of the swamp and snuck back into my bed before my absence was noticed.  

I tried a few more times, but never again did I hear the unicorn nor see the gentle glow of it’s horn, as it made its way through the swamp.

To this day, I still blame that frog for scaring it away.

Never trust bullfrogs.  They will always betray you, no matter how many mosquitoes you give them.

(Originally posted on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter.)

Crossroads, Clerics, and Roadside Lore.

At long last, I am free of the World’s Most Annoying Plague (there’s a head cold going around that’s basically all sinus drainage all the time) and am back on my bullshit again. 

Last weekend, while still down with said plague, I had a day where I was feeling well enough to start getting a bit stir-crazy from being stuck inside for days and, even though it was supposed to snow, I decided to go out anyway.  The road was calling and I needed to answer it.

Normally, a spontaneous drive mostly involves me pacing around the house for a couple of hours before realizing that I’m super restless and should probably grab a bottle of water, some snacks, and my keys and go for a drive.  This day was different.  There was a sense of, I don’t know, Fate or something behind the restlessness.  As if the Road was telling me that there was something I needed to see out there, and it would not be denied.  This was not to be a typical drive, but was one that I should approach as the routewitch that I am.  This required preparation and everything I brought with me was important, and as such it was important that each item be chosen with care, down to the drink that I brought with me.

As I stood before my tea selection, I considered the feeling that I was getting from the Road, and narrowed down to two options….blackberry-sage, or a chai blend from a company that no longer exists, called Crossroads.  I couldn’t figure out which was more appropriate, and so I consulted the dice.  The dice said that the Crossroads were the key, and so that was what I filled a travel mug with (it’s a chai made with lapsang and darjeeling, so it has a harsh, smoky finish…perfect for the message I was getting.), and went out on the Road.

There is a flat, steely kind of light to the world before a snowstorm, and a silence as loud as a warning. As the snow begins to fall, the powder skitters and slides across the pavement, ghostly as mist and shadow.  It is an eerie beauty.

As I drove and the snow fell and the light faded, I began to wonder why the Road had called me out onto the roadways, and if I had misunderstood what it had told me, but the pull remained strong, a whispered “wait and see” sighing through my soul.  I drove on, through the woods and the farmland and the towns slowly being blanketed in white, while the other travellers faded off the roadways to curl up by warm fires. 

Then, just at the edge of a small town, at a place where two roads crossed, I saw them; a small band of Juniper Monks, gathered along the edge of the road. 

No one knows for sure who, or even what, the Juniper Monks are. Often mistaken for burlap-wrapped evergreens (hence their name), they are rarely seen, and then only under specific conditions.  They appear in severe weather, generally snowstorms, but they have also been reported during heavy rains, as well.  Why they gather during these times is not known, and speculation ranges from harbinger to messenger to things more sinister in nature.  Most, however, believe that they are a kind of roadside guardian, appearing to warn travellers of dangers and protect them from harm.  Some carry talismans in their vehicles, tucked into glove compartments or hung from mirrors, to invoke their protection when venturing out in bad weather. Most go their whole lives without ever seeing them, and it is considered great fortune to encounter a band of them.  To be honest, I had believed that they were a myth, myself; a figment of the imagination, brought on by the dim light and swirling snow playing tricks on one’s eyes, but now, having seen them for myself, I can’t deny their existence.

Having seen the Monks, the Road signalled that I had seen what I had been called to see, and that it was time to go home.  I came to a roundabout, and returned back the way I had home, though the Monks were gone by the time I drove past the intersection again.

I’m thinking about acquiring a talisman to carry in the truck with me, as I often find myself out in inclement weather.  If I’m able to locate some, I’ll try to get some for others who may also wish to invoke the protection of the Juniper Monks for their own travels, as well.

(Originally posted on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/riversdaughter.)