Chapter One: Summer Days, Winter Nights
Great, dark maples slouched around the house like old relatives waiting to die. A twisted uncle, a bereaved aunt—each bent low with the weight of responsibility, of untold sins in their spiny branches. The saplings below their ring of influence grasped for patches of sunlight, but only shadows lived long in this forest. Beyond these trees, others stretched their limbs, and beyond those, more and more of the same.
As far as one could see or travel in a day, or a month, or a year, there was nothing but trees. No houses blemished the pure, natural state of things. There were only narrow fox and deer paths without people to walk them. Some diverged, others wended into the underbrush. None made a difference.
Things that skulked, and preyed and slunk made their homes there. The wild animals that lived in the dark wood made their abodes in fallen logs and leaf nests tucked into hollow knotholes.
Wolves stalked the woods as well. Muskrats and mink, porcupines and polecats skittered before the tread of brown bears and wild cats. Foxes, red squirrels, and black masked raccoons scuttled into dens that smelled rank of damp earth. Deer roamed on wobbly knee, alert and poised like dancers. They feared neither the hunter’s gun nor heavy human traffic. Their fur clad cousins, the elk trumpeted lonely mating calls. Birds perched on branch and stick to observe, to call, to cry. It was a wild place, these woods—without the intrusion of people. It had stood for centuries without a human breaking into its living room and defecating on the deep green of its carpet. Wild men passed through, true enough, but they knew enough not to stay.
They told stories about the wood. Warned of its evil gloom—how those shadows could corrupt the pure of heart. Tales tumbled from the mouths of wives, weevilled into the ears of their children, stout pioneers shivered over pints of beer in public houses when swearing these stories God’s truth. No one but fools would pass their time or picnic long in these dark woods. One would be deemed insane to try it.
The forest forgave the humans their little trespasses. An occasional intrusion was overlooked. Too much havoc and its mysteries might be exposed. It was a solitary and harsh, brooding wood. Slow to act and patient. And, if any one dared to ask, that is how the forest pictured itself.
It was unhappy, too, this forest. Its edges threatened by the encroachment of people. It worried for the day when humans would invade. It waited for the inevitable axe and tractor to clear and trim and cut its jagged borders. Humans nibbled its edges, consumed its life in timber for houses and towns and fences. Up until now the forest had done away with foreign things. It guarded its secrets. Like a miser counting tax exemptions, it meticulously valued the gain of this thicket, the loss of that pine.
And yet, something had slipped in. Something itched the forest in a place it could not scratch. It whimpered and wailed its discomfort to the sky and stars beyond. It bemoaned the intrusion of one pioneer family. One would someday turn to two and two would give way to four and seven and tens and hundreds after. If the humans stayed, all within would suffer. The wild would be tamed, the animals threatened with extinction, the berry and flower harvested. Borders would be drawn. Yes, that would happen soon.
The forest could wait. Old and patient it stood watching for centuries when only the painted ones, asking for pardon with each snapped branch and dug up root, a prayer on their lips for each downed hawk or squab or deer, moved through its expanse to hunt or gather. Yes, it could wait and watch. If it paid attention it could avoid colonization. If it was clever enough, it could uncover ways once secret and obscure to force a human family to leave. And if they would not leave it would find a way to change them. The guardian, too, would protect the forest boundaries. And if this one proved ineffective, there would be others. There were always others.
All had not been lost. There was yet time. So with each setting and rising moon one small pioneer family of four remained insignificant and unimportant, dwelling in the dark wood.
They had come uninvited from the east. They alighted from the carriage of the morning sun. They had come seeking something unspeakable, unfathomable—something perched on the silent lips of falcons and goshawks. They had first arrived as two grown animals masked head to hoof in cloth, holding a yowling, squirming infant. Within mere months, there was another member of the brood. She had been born out of season in the wood.
Already the humans were budding.
The shrubs gossiped to the vines, and the vines spoke candidly with the trees. They whispered in the curl of their leaves: these are only the first—soon doom will raze our slow and steady woodland traditions.
It must not be, said the trees.
It may not be so, said the shrubs.
It has already happened, said the vines.
We will watch and wait, said the forest. We will judge them for their grace and let the sky bear witness, said the dark wood. All the wild creatures shivered, their soft skin rippling like the west wind through prairie grass. They hid themselves away like children playing the old game—waiting to be found. Our secrets will keep, they chanted. Our secrets will keep, they growled.
The scarlet morning bloodied the dark woods.
As far as the little girl could see, her world was tree, thicket, and grove. As much as she knew, there was one lone pioneer house in the forest. Here she lived with her mother and her father and her brother, Will. A wagon had cut a rut in the path before the front door. The tracks twisted out of sight into the dark of the woods, where the animals lived, but the little girl did not know where the trail went, or what might be waiting for her at the end of it.
The little girl was named Helena, and she called her father Pa, and her mother Ma.
Pioneer life was difficult. No one had consulted Helena whether or not she would like to live apart from civilization in the middle of a great and dark wood. Fate did not ask her, like an aunt pouring high tea, if she would like to make due with one lump or two. Helena was riddled with lumps.
As a pioneer girl convention simply expected her to lift her raven-haired head high, stick out her upper lip, and deal with the horrors of her surroundings. No running water except the cold stream half a mile from the house, no plumbing but the outhouse and a dubious corncob for wiping, no easy-bake oven, no cell phone but a tin can and string, no computer but her own poorly working, pre-adolescent brain. Hers was a sobering and hard life. Full of growling stomachs, growling parents, growling livestock, and growling wolves.
Helena often lay awake in her trundle bed and listened to the chorus of wolves howl under her window. They kept her company. Their songs were wild and strange and made her uneasy. Even without the wolves slobbering outside, the trees creaked like arthritic grandparents, and whispered with dusky breath a sound that would make Helena’s skin crawl.
Helena knew that she would make a hearty meal for any hungry wolf. She had a good imagination that painted pictures in vibrant colors of what lurked whispering or gibbering in the dark.
Her Pa had a gun, of course. He was no fool. What, with Injuns and bears and wolves to contend with, it was a wonder that he chose to sleep with an arm around his wife instead of the butt of his rifle. Everyone back in those days had guns. Grandpaps shot at squirrels, granddams shot at the town hatters, wives and husbands shot at each other, while children played in sand boxes and shot at kittens treed by neighborhood dogs. Most missed their mark, being terrible shots. Aiming took practice, which was out of fashion in those days. But nevertheless guns were the one-eyed king. People preferred to use them over learning the proper etiquette of which fork to use for salad, or how many times to fold a napkin. If any argument arose, the barrel of a Winchester quelled it quicker than a muskrat sneeze.
One summer night, the kind when the air is wet, Helena bravely rose from bed, careful not to disturb her sleeping brother, and tiptoed to the little attic window so that she might observe the wolves in their nocturnal play.
There were three of them cavorting on the lawn. Shaggy dogs, they pointed their muzzles to the sky and howled. She imagined they were a family—like Pa and Ma and her brother, Will, before she had been born. Like her family, they all had green eyes.
Helena considered the wolves hers somehow. In moments of fancy she invited them to tea with her dolls, but they always declined, out of necessity and previous obligation, no doubt. Had they thumbs, the wolves would have written letters regretting their absence from the frivolity. This did not upset Helena in the least. Pioneer life was a busy one. There was the caretaking of land and animal, the foraging and hunting for food. It left little free time—the days and nights packed.
Helena had pets, too. Although her Ma did not approve, she named the family cow Mary, the horse Jehovah, and her black and white patched cat she named Pook.
Pook liked catching birds and clambering over Ma’s spinning wheel. He slept on Helena’s head whenever she lay down. When he was not underfoot, he liked to squat before the hearth, spread his back legs in a wide V-shape, and clean himself in public. As gifts, he would leave half-chewed bird heads and gnawed rodent corpses on Helena’s pillow.
Her brother had a dog once, named Black Joe, but the terrier went mad and Pa had to shoot it.
It is a hard and cold thing to do: to kill those who trust you, those whom you love most. But pioneer folk like Helena’s family got used to hardship. They were a hard people. Thick skinned and thick headed, you or I might say.
They were also no nonsense folks, pioneers. The men chewed tobacco because they liked the taste and their women made their own clothes because they had no taste. They were ingenious and clever when tribulations or problems arose, but superstitious to a fault and disliked change. It was a simple, if not rewarding life—if you lived long enough to reap it, what with the wolves and the manual labor and all.
Helena’s house was not comfortable by our standards today. It was a mere two stories tall. Upstairs there was one large room, like an attic, and you had to stoop to avoid hitting your head against the slanted eaves and blacking out. Helena saw her father do this on many occasions and so she learned at an early age to hunch.
The attic was where she and her brother slept in their homemade trundle bed. Pa had a penchant for whittling. With his penknife he’d whittle all through the day if he had his druthers—which he didn’t since there were many chores to finish. Whenever he found a spare minute, he’d whittle blocks of oak and call them birds, or whittle blocks of ash and call them bison. He’d whittle porcupines from Ma’s spare sewing kit, and whittle polar bears from the potato bin. He’d whittle beavers from spare hats and whittle dormice and tree frogs from apples. None of them looked right, and they only had vague resemblances to lumpy fauna, but keeping his hands busy seemed to put a grin on Pa’s face. Ma was more pragmatic. She thought whittling kept a man from his prayers. Perhaps that was the truth. Whenever she brought the subject up, Pa dropped his whittling knife, lifted his hands to heaven and called out God’s name as if he’d sat naked on a gorse bush. Some nights Helena and Will were sent to their bed so Pa and Ma could fight. These were only verbal tussles, rarely resulting in anything but a lot of cussing and utensil throwing. The loft was a safe place to be when a hurled spoon could scar a slow-moving child.
Both Will and Helena had only a single pillow. Two would have been tempting the sin of consolation. Their mattress was stuffed with straw, and the duck feathers that were used as padding pricked their heads when they lay down. Gaps and holes in the loft let in the cold air, kept in the heat, and allowed rain and snow to moisten the bed sheets. When rain drummed on the roof, Helena inevitably got drenched. Inside there was no room to run, or jump, or engage in horseplay.
Downstairs, the living room was a moderate room that had two windows with glass in the panes, and two doors, a front one and a back. This room also held the hearth or fireplace that Ma used as a stove, and, sitting across from it, in the corner, was the spinning wheel and butter churn. Pa kept his fiddle on the mantle with a jar of his pennies and the whittled figure of a tiny wooden horse. It looked more like a lump of turtle to Helena. If she concentrated, she could sometimes imagine the dark lump to be a desk with two ears. But this was painful to do and gave her a migraine headache.
There was a table, four chairs and a footstool in the room, too.
Her parents kept a tidy but small bedroom. Helena was not allowed to go in there lest she go blind, her Ma said, and so she had even less room inside in which to play.
Outside was a different matter. There was plenty of space. All around the house Pa had built a crooked railing. He had chosen the limbs of ancient trees to shape the posts and length of the fence. He notched the posts with his axe, and set the beams horizontally to keep the wild animals at bay. Most scaled over it, or dug under. It was an ineffectual barrier, but marked human territory so that the forest knew Pa did not intend to take more land than he was begrudgingly given.
In the front yard was a dirt road rutted with wagon tracks, and an apple tree.
One early August morning Helena opened the front door and was shocked to see a dead deer hanging by its antlers from the branches of the apple tree. Pa shot it that morning because it was starving and wanted to eat the apples that fell wormy on the ground.
Easy pickings, Pa had said. He spent the whole day cleaning the carcass and preparing the venison, but Helena and her family never managed to eat it.
That night while the dead deer dangled like an ornament from the apple tree, Helena’s wolf pack must have smelled the meat drying. The wolves degenerated into a canine frenzy and gobbled the family’s catch. In the morning there was nothing left of the deer carcass but its spinal cord and ribcage turning in the boughs like a nursery mobile.
Pa shot a squirrel instead, and the family ate that with a few potatoes Ma had found somewhere out back. Will enjoyed gnawing at the furry tail, then putting it on his head and calling out that he was Davy Crockett. But Helena picked at her food gingerly. She pushed it around her plate because she said the meat had a nutty flavor.
Behind the house was a chopping block where Pa chopped wood for the stove. A well-trodden path led to the paddock and barn. Mary the cow lived in the barn with Jehovah the horse and Melissa the family’s Belgian mare. Sometimes, if the deer left an apple uneaten, Helena would feed Melissa the treat. She would take the whole thing into her thick mouth, including Helena’s fingers, and gum the fruit until it fell in frothy pools at her hooves. The sweet mess attracted flies that clotted the barn in droves.
Snuffles the pig had lived in the barn too, until recently, when wolves ate him. Pa had recognized the pig’s panic snort and leapt out of bed instantly, almost as if he expected this very tragedy. He snatched his rifle and ran out the back door barefooted.
Helena woke, too, at the commotion thinking that the house was on fire. She heard the gun go off once, twice, then thrice. For a long moment there was no other sound. The forest remained quiet as if it were drawing in an arduous breath.
When Pa trudged back inside his shoulders sagged. He reported to Ma what had transpired.
“The wolves got Snuffles,” he said.
Ma cupped her hands over her face and held back a terrible sob.
Helena sympathized. She, too, was looking forward to having bacon with her morning eggs.
Behind the house, next to the barn, Ma grew her vegetable garden. Sometimes in the morning there were hoof-prints among the beans and budding cabbages. These prints led to little chewed nubs of half devoured carrots and peppers. The deer never touched the rutabagas, which Helena despised. Ma also grew potatoes and leeks, and beets. She had tried to grow beefsteak tomatoes once, but for some reason the wolves had devoured these, too.
In the morning after the tomato attack Helena had opened the back door to find there was nothing left of the tomatoes but a scraggly vine and a spray of yellow seeds. When Helena trudged back inside her shoulders sagged. She told her Ma about the poor tomatoes. Ma rolled her eyes and scratched her bottom. Uncharacteristically, instead of being upset, Ma cooked the rutabaga into some sort of tasteless, inedible pancake.
For a treat Ma would braid garlic flowers and hang the bundles up in the attic window. Sometimes Helena woke in the middle of the night and said she couldn’t breathe because of the strong acrid smell.
“It keeps us safe,” Ma would say—but never explained to Helena from what.
In the fall Ma would harvest pumpkins and squash, and salted fish. These she stored in wooden barrels in the pantry, or she pickled the food to make a relish. It was important for a pioneer family to preserve food so that they would last through winter. In those olden days it was not possible to skip down to the refrigerator and gorge yourself on a midnight snack.
Helena and her family were thin and wiry people. They had a hungry look to them. Pa was strong enough to wrestle a pair of oxen. Even though he would undoubtedly lose, he could give those oxen a good thrashing before he finally went down. Even Helena, herself, was sturdy from foraging. She would hunt for dark sweet berries in shadowy briar patches that grew near the river. If there were no berries to be found she chewed on pebbles and rocks to keep her moderately satisfied.
In those pioneer days it was an eat-or-be-eaten existence. It was never quite clear if you were going to shake a man’s hand or bite it.
One summer day Helena ran into a baby bear while picking raspberries along the riverbank. Pa was nearby fishing for sole, and Helena had left his side to forage.
The bear was stout and, much like a pioneer, looking for a meal to help tide him over during the long coming winter months. The bear thought Helena might make a tasty midday snack and rose, a full three feet tall, on its hind legs to maul her.
Luckily, Pa—suspecting such an event—had followed Helena with his rifle. As the animal reared up, and lumbered to hug his daughter, he shot the baby bear squarely between its big liquid-brown eyes.
Helena gathered two bushels full of raspberries that day, and helped Ma prepare the jam to spread on her weekly toast. All winter when they ate raspberry preserves Helena would act out the bear incident until Pa made her stand in one of the corners with her hand covered in honey to reflect.
“We gotta live in this forest,” Pa explained. It would do no good to mock it.
Pa learned the children good, he said. Sometimes when Pa unfastened his suspenders and hung them over the bedpost before climbing in with Ma for the night, he would strut around the bare floorboards in the dark and congratulate himself for doing a fine job of parenting. “No one’s died today,” he said. “Least none we care about anyway.”
Ma rolled over and tried to smother herself with her goose-feathered pillow. She bit her lip, sometimes until it bled. Somehow this consoled her when the forest seemed to edge its way into the corners of her grace. Ma could endure, but for how long? No one clapped her on the shoulder and told her what golden pancakes she had summoned from the blackened iron of a hot pan. No one praised her when she darned socks or salted fish. A pioneer woman’s life was devoid of compliment. Truth be told, a pioneer man’s life was the same, only that it did not stop Pa from eking out some praise, at least from himself once in a while, strutting in the dark proudly in his union suit.
The little house in the woods was usually bursting with good food stored away for winter. Helena sometimes hid strips of meat under her pillow. Pa cured it in the cramped and tiny smokehouse attached to the barn.
Once Will found her special store of meat and gobbled it up, greedily like a starving wolf. He had devoured most of Helena’s stash without tasting or chewing it when she caught him. He called her rude names, and then scampered away before she could punch him. He was sick the next day and would not get out of bed for a whole week. He complained of a great pain in his side.
Pa told him to ignore the pain, the way a pioneer boy should. Will tried, but kept collapsing during his chores. In the end Pa had to take Will to Doc Hannigan’s office—all the way into town, which was a day’s ride to the east. Will stayed there over night and came back the next day to the little house with a long scar on his belly.
Helena threw the rest of her hidden meat to the ravenous wolves, but they just nibbled the edges, leaving scraps for the quail and shrew to pick at.
When Will felt better, he and Helena played Injuns in the woods near their cabin. Will was always the savage and Helena played his victim. Will pretended to be the notorious Injun, Red Jack. Most Injuns, lonely pioneer women gossiped, were lascivious and relished tying pale ladies up for sport. Red Jack was fictional, but Will conjured him up in one great expression of creativity from which he never recovered. Once, after Red Jack captured Helena and bound her to a tree trunk, Will cut Helena’s longest braid clean off with his hatchet.
Helena screamed so loudly at the top of her shrill voice that Pa came running out of the woods waving his rifle, expecting to find a whole tribe of wild men to shoot. He sniffed around, disappointed to find Will the source of the trouble.
Startled and trying to avoid the inevitable switch, Will ran off into the woods screaming. He caught his leg in one of Pa’s smaller bear traps. Pa was especially angry when he had to drive the boy back into town to stay another night at Doc Hannigan’s place.
“That’s twice this month,” Pa shouted downstairs behind the door to the room where Helena was not allowed to go. “I ain’t made of nickels!”
When the weather got worse and snow threatened to fall, the doors and windows of the little house were tightly clamped shut. Ma and Pa stuffed the cracks in the window frames with cloth. This did not keep out the cold, but the family felt proud facing nature’s adversity with human ingenuity. Helena spent her time shivering near the stove, rubbing her hands over, and over again, on her apron to thaw them. When it was this cold, Pook would climb up on Helena’s shoulders and curl on her head to keep warm. At night the family gathered before the fire to listen to Pa tell stories.
“Once upon a time,” Pa said. “There was an ugly witch who lived in a dark wood.”
Helena and Will leaned their elbows on their knees and propped up their sleepy heads. Ma sat at her spinning wheel and combed the yarn.
“This witch was a particularly nasty witch, with a wart and a pointy black hat. She hated children, in particular.”
Will said, “Why did she hate children?”
Pa gave a strange glance at Ma, who shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Children would wander about in her woods and trample her poison ivy. They would eat the candy siding off her wainscoting. That would make anyone mad enough to hate children. And so the witch would put a spell on any boy or girl who came wandering by, lost in the deep wood. Her house, like most witches’ houses, was built from peppermint and sour drops, and the chimney was made from horehound. She also had a pet that was her familiar.”
“What’s a familiar?” Will wanted to know.
“A familiar is…kind-er like a…pet for a witch,” Ma said sewing.
“But not just any ordinary pet—it’s really a soul that’s been damned to Hell!”
Pa grimaced apologetically. “Heck, I mean…and takes the form of many animals.”
“Like what kind of animals?” Helena wanted to know.
Ma smiled and shifted her weight at the wheel.
Pa rubbed the side of his nose and cleared his throat. “Why, I expect a witch would most likely keep a cat. A cat like old Pook, there.”
“Not old Pook!” Helena said, shifting the cat from her head to her lap.
“Most likely,” Pa said. He crossed his arms and looked smug.
“How can I tell if Pook is a witch’s familiar?” asked Helena.
“Well,” Pa sniffed. “I suppose you’d have to see if the cat burns.”
“Why?” Will wanted to know.
Helena’s eyes grew wide as she held the cat protectively in her lap.
“Well, I reckon that…if the cat is really a witch’s familiar, it’s…familiar with the flames of…heck. So fire wouldn’t bother it.”
Ma smiled and continued to spin her thread.
“Gee,” Will said.
Helena clutched Pook, who was trying to squirm away. Little voices began chatting in Helena’s tiny head. She stood slowly and took a step closer to the fire. The little voices encouraged her. We must know for sure, they said.
Before anyone could stop her, Helena tossed Pook into the firebox. She had not meant to immolate Pook. She only wanted to see if the cat was indeed a witch’s familiar.
There was a great howl and hissing like water sprinkled on a hot iron, and the cat, with its tail alight, skittered from the coals and bounded about the room, setting furniture on fire.
“Get the water bucket! Get the bucket!” Pa ordered, standing.
Will leapt to his feet, slapped his fists against his head, and cried.
Ma tumbled backwards over her spinning wheel, grabbed the bucket by the door by some miracle providence, and drenched the frightened cat with cold water.
Pook yowled pitifully and long, his tail blackened and singed. He ran and hid under Pa and Ma’s bed. He disappeared for three days, and Helena could not go fish him out because he was hiding in the room she was forbidden to visit. She had not intended to hurt her favorite cat. She only meant to expose him perhaps as a witch’s familiar and in league with the devil.
“No more stories, Landon,” Ma scolded. “You’ve frightened the children!”
Pa grimaced. He looked like he had bitten into a particularly sour lemon.
Outside, somewhere in the cold yard, the family heard a wolf howl. The moon rose full over the tops of the trees.
Through all this, Helena stared without a word into the crackling flames. She thought about the eyes of the wolves that circled the little house in the woods at night. How very like her family they seemed.
High on the ridge more wolves gathered at the entrance to their den—a shallow rock cave that smelled of gristle and rotting scraps of meat. Bones from various prey—some suspiciously pioneer shaped—lay strewn before the dimly lit entrance. The forest had come to a decision of sorts and it dispatched the wolves to alert the guardian.
The trapper woke from unsettling dreams, unable to push the high-pitched whines from his attention. He rolled over, scratched himself, and then slithered from the mound of pelts and furs that comprised his bed. He blinked his gummy eyes at the pack. They spoke to him without words. They used the forest voice known only to those initiated to hear it. The guardian cocked his shaggy head and listened.
There is a weakness in the humans, the forest said. They may be turned. They might be changed. They may be useful tools against others of their kind. Contact must be made and, as always, the woods would be watching.
The guardian grew still. The stink of an early autumn wafted on the wind. He licked his red, red lips and planned for the change of season. The silvery moon slid into view from behind a curtain of clouds. He watched with care and grew impatient at last to begin.