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It would be an Indian summer in the old colonial farming community of Salmon Brook that year. I suppose it was fortunate I was blissfully unaware of what was to come. It was when the fields of the summer harvest lay bare that the unthinkable would happen. There would be the wet smell of fresh cut hay filling the air as well as the mingling aroma of tobacco fields laid bare of their crops. The large tobacco leaves would hang neatly from wooden poles to dry underneath white-sheeted tents. Tobacco, sweet and pungent, was a grown-up scent of intimacy and secret goings-on.
My best friend Garrett and I would sometimes sneak up behind the white-sheeted tents and listen. Giggles, laughter, and strange noises were familiar sounds to our ears as we listened. More than tobacco leaves nestled under the white-sheeted tents. Not far from the tobacco fields is a gnarled and very old apple orchard that looks like something out of a wicked fairy tale. Walking through its darkly gnarled wood was a rite-of-passage experience for anyone under the age of twelve. Beyond the ancient apple orchard was Canton Road. To this day, memories of Canton Road, where I grew up, float across my senses, but some memories will always be terrifying and grave.
I envision Canton Road’s tar paved darkness as it crosses over Salmon Brook, cuts through McLean’s forest preserve, wanders by old man Duncan’s farm, and the said-to-be-haunted Perry colonial homestead. Canton Road then weaves its way over-laying the swell of land occupied for ten thousand years by indigenous people like the Massaco Indians who were akin to the Algonquin tribes. Evidence of their inhabitation is still visible by those who know what to look for.
Spirit Pond is one of those places. There are still sightings by the locals of ghost warriors who drink from the cold dark waters of Spirit Pond and are not as rare a sighting as one would like to believe. Spirit Pond is a large spring fed body of water surrounded by ancient trees, tall reeds, and weeping willows. The pond’s cold dark water and deep recesses still hold untold secrets. Garrett and I wondered about those secrets. Secrets, we would soon learn, do not always stay buried. They sometimes exact a terrible vengeance on The People. “The People”, Garrett would say, “have forgotten the sins of the past that must be accounted for.”
Garrett was, what some would call, an intuitive. Others would say he was just plain crazy. He saw and felt things that other people didn’t. I always knew that about Garrett. He was also not your average looking teenager. He had the most unusual eyes. Garrett’s irises were crystal blue, like that of a glacier lake with inky-black spherical pupils that sparkled like black diamonds. It was impossible not to be mesmerized by Garrett’s eyes. He did not look at you; he looked into you. Garrett’s striking good-looks were crowned with hair the color of a Raven’s wings and accentuated his generous smile that could tease me with secrets he alone was privy.
Garrett and I were summer born under a Cancer Moon and just as likely to retreat, as Cancer personalities often do, into the place where we felt safest, into the lush green comfort of the forest. Garrett felt welcomed in the forest because he had a difficult time at home. Garrett and I would sometimes sit for hours under our favorite tree, reading to one another, usually a classic. We would share our favorite quotes and passages.
Garrett’s father, John Randall, died shortly before Garrett was born and not long after that, his mother, Lynn Randall married Michael Armond, my father’s brother. Perhaps, if Garrett had been born a girl, my Uncle Michael would have accepted Garrett with love, but that didn’t happen. Garrett grew up an outsider within his own home. I suppose that is why Garrett and I would often escape into the green darkness of the forest.
The beginning of summer was wet and muggy in Salmon Brook that year, unlike summers in the past when early summer was still full of spring. Normally, the sky would be a clear crisp blue and dogwoods would still be in bloom in a wondrous profusion of pink and white, as though adorned with fairy magic. It was a discomforting fact that this year was not like any other. It seemed to rain constantly forcing all of us to stay indoors, the last place we wanted to be. Garrett, felt the gloom of it more than I did.
I vividly remember the last day of school that year. My classmates looked forward to a summer of fun and freedom, but that wasn’t to be. With envy, we all agreed that the graduating class of Granby High was probably kicking up their heels and letting down their hair on the sugary white sands of a sunny Florida Beach.
One particular rainy morning, I was stuck indoors with my siblings: Ansel, Aubrey, and Alana, six, eight, and twelve years of age, respectively. My mother, Laurel Archambeau Armond, began her child naming with the first letter in the alphabet and never made it past A. The reiteration of the first letter of the alphabet was an embarrassment to me every time I had to introduce my brother and sisters. I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I did.
While my siblings sat at the kitchen table quibbling over a game of Fish, I went upstairs to my bedroom and stood at my window; the one facing my apple tree and the tarred surface of Canton Road. The dark storm clouds opened up again and poured down in heavy sheets of gray colored rain. It rained so hard it was difficult to see the gnarled and ancient apple tree through it. Defying being drenched with rain, I opened the window and breathed in the mineral scent of it until the deluge became a soft mist in the air.
My apple tree was my muse. Even though it was too old to produce apples, its dark green foliage was still abundant and beautiful. The apple tree, planted by the Helms family in 1840, gave shade to the grave of their daughter, Abigail, who died in childhood. Any sign of the grave has long since disappeared, but the apple tree still stood. It was hard to believe my apple tree has lived for more than 120 years, but it lives.
At my window, especially on days like this, I would make up a story and because of the rain, it began like this; the rain cloaked the ancient tree where the Indian maiden, who was lost in the dense forest, had hidden herself away from the marauding pirates who were trying to kidnap her for ransom. It was a conundrum. I could not conjure up an ending. Should I save the maiden or should she succumb to the forces of human nature?
As I was pondering how to continue my story, I saw a man run under my apple tree. He stopped and looked up at me as if caught in the act of something. There was menace in his dark eyes; in fact, his eyes and physical posture had the look of something predatory. A chill went down my spine. An ancient physical response took over. My nostrils flared, my heart beat wildly and I found myself trembling.
I quickly stepped back from the window. I felt threatened. It was instinctual. I decided not to tell my mother about the man. She would think I was just exaggerating. After all, it was only a moment and no one needed to know. There was no point in starting something because of the sudden appearance of this frightening stranger, this man. Still, I would come to regret not telling anyone, not even Garrett, what I had seen.
My father built the house on Canton Road where my family lived. Our red and white split-level home, bounded by the forest preserve and Canton Road, rested on land that held many secrets. The colonial settlement of Salmon Brook was different in a way that is difficult to explain.
Garrett believed Native Indian spirits haunted it. I believed the ancient forest, with all its terrible secrets of the past, had finally come calling; searching for justice of ills long forgotten. On the other hand, perhaps, it was because of The People that were now encroaching on a sacred land, a land that had finally seen enough.
Whatever the cause that bore the terrible things that were to come, Garrett felt it first. It was a perceptible change I soon became aware of too. Garrett and I suspected that ghosts of the past, now displaced, would not rest peacefully until amends were made. If we could make amends to the spirits in the forest, the ill wind of misfortunate would come to an end. What those amends were likely to be, we could only speculate. It would be up to us, we thought, to atone for their unhappiness.
Their unhappiness, we speculated, was caused by the destruction of several sacred places on the edges of the forest preserve. The construction of homes and businesses into these areas was destroying the equilibrium between past and present. My father was part of this destruction and hence, the problems he was now facing.
I saw the change in my father first. It was not as though he was ever a great father, although he loved us in his own narcissistic way; it was as though something had a hold of him. He became moody, sarcastic, and I saw meanness in him that had not been there before. He started drinking more often at the Old Fount Tavern after work. He would come home later and later with the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. He would head for the sofa without saying a word to any of us and stare at the gray rain beating hard against the large picture window, until he fell asleep. My mother would often say, “Anna, Don’t disturb your father, now, he needs his rest.”
We endured the rainy days as best we could as we waited for sunny days to return and after all it was summer, time to celebrate the freedom from school. It was on that first sunny morning after breakfast when my mother called to us from her old wingback chair, where she most often sat reading one historical novel after another.
“I do not want any of you to leave the house for any reason today”, said my mother, in her most commanding voice. Her delicate fingers and well-manicured nails, pointed her warning at us with a wave of her hand. Her finely featured face never left the page she was reading nor did she flash her Elizabeth Taylor violet eyes at us meanly.
“This means absolutely no playing outside until further notice”, she said, pointing her index finger in our direction. “Is that clear?”
We looked at each other with shocked expressions of dismay. It was obvious to me that something had gone terribly wrong. We were never told to stay in the house on a sunny day. It was too much for my mother’s nervous system to have all of us disturbing her quiet time.
Little Aubrey started to whimper. Her un-brushed blond hair fell across her petite face, hiding her bright blue eyes. Alana, slouching as usual, shrugged her slender shoulders, picked up the deck of cards and started shuffling. She was most like our mother, tall for her age, with violet eyes and hair as dark as midnight, but that is where the resemblance ended. Alana was not one to let much of anything bother her unless it involved her doing dishes or bed making. Ansel reacted with his mouth turned down at the corners and was about to cry.
“What kind of problem?” I asked, as I patted Ansel’s small shoulder.
Our mother raised her voice one octave, “A teenage girl, almost as old as you, Anna, has gone missing. Until they find her, everyone must stay at home. Am I understood?”
Ansel, his big brown eyes full of concern, asked a few anxious questions, “Gone missing why? Did she get lost?”
“Now, now, Ansel, it’s okay, nothing for you to worry about”, replied my mother, with a nervous wave of her hand. “I am sure she will be found soon. We are just being careful. Doesn’t mommy always tell you how important it is to be careful?”
“Yes, mom”, was the less than happy response from Ansel, Aubrey, and Alana. Ansel stomped his feet and stormed out of the kitchen, his baby soft blond curls bouncing up and down as he flounced away.
I said nothing, and thus I would not technically be telling a lie. To tell a lie was a very bad sin in my mother’s Roman Catholic eyes. I, for one, had no intention of staying locked up in the house for one more minute. Garrett and I already had a plan, but this new development was far more interesting. He would be meeting me at our secret hideout, anyway. I was good at sneaking away. Garrett was good at sleuthing. We would make a plan and find the missing girl.
Garrett and I felt sure the only place to go missing was here, in the green darkness of the forest. Our hideout was a small Rock Fall Cave near the rocky banks of Salmon Brook, hidden behind dense bramble. The small cave formed during the last ice age when large boulders settled along the banks of the once mighty Salmon River.
Inside the Rock Fall Cave, we discovered evidence of flints, charred rocks, and pieces of animal bones. The dark peaty earth within the cave was fine as silt and smelt of God’s creations, pungent, but pleasantly so, with the warmth that forms with continuing decay.
In historic times, this cave was a convenient shelter in times of need for the native Massaco Indians who were forced to relinquish their ancestral lands in 1680. The Massaco left an indubitable mark on the land and the land remembered them. I soon came to believe that Garrett possessed knowledge about the Massaco Indian way of life as though he had actually lived it. Garrett strongly believed in the spirits of the forest. I believed in Garrett.
I managed to sneak out of the house through the laundry room window, without a sound and easily disappeared among the tall bushes bordering our back yard leading to the woodlands. The sun-dappled forest carried the scent of pungent pine needles and ripe berries.
I hurried along Salmon Brook until I reached the cave that was hidden behind dense holly bushes. Garrett was already there.
“We must ask for guidance”, Garrett said, turning to me, his eyes soulful and solemn. “We must receive spiritual guidance from the powers that surround the sacredness of nature, Anna.”
Thus, we held hands, knelt, and bowed our heads. We prayed to the great spirits of the forest to guide us, give us aid, speak to us, and to grant us guardians to protect us from danger. I watched as Garrett’s Raven black hair fell across his face as he knelt on the dirt floor of our cave.
I watched how his lips formed the words of the Indian prayer he softly mouthed. I had of late, become fascinated by the shapely movements of his lips, especially when his tongue brushed them with moisture. He then raised his beautiful sun brown arms gracefully above him, as he called to the forest spirits:
“Grant us your aid Oh Great Spirits, help us find the little lost one of our tribe, for we are but unworthy seekers through the forest realm.”
As we finished the required pontification to assure our success in finding the lost girl, I crossed myself in the Catholic way and prayed to Saint Hubertus, Patron Saint of Hunters. Surely, I thought, two powerful Gods are better than one.
Our prayers must have worked, because there was a feeling of lightness in the Rock Fall Cave as we gathered our supplies, put our backpacks over our shoulders, and began our walk through the dark forest. Although a few clouds gathered later in the morning and blocked the rays of the sun, I felt a sudden peace and surety surround me. Garrett’s native knowledge of the forest would help guide our way.
“We will speak as little as possible and only at a whisper”, said Garrett. “Understood?”
“Of course”, I whispered back with a big smile.
“I’m just wondering, Anna, how did you manage to get out of the house? Lieutenant Drummond called our house this morning telling my parents to have all of us to stay indoors.”
With a sly smile and a look that said, I am quite capable, you know, I said, “Well, I left a note saying I was meeting you at the library and that I was old enough to make good decisions.” With a big Cheshire cat grin, I added, “and I left through the laundry room window.”
Garrett just smiled and shook his head, “you are going to get in big trouble one of these days, Anna.”
Garrett had prepared for our quest to find the missing girl in the forest. We knew what to prepare for most situations that we might encounter. I always brought two P&J sandwiches and two apples. Garrett brought candles, a flashlight and Spice Straws. The Spice Straw mixture was a concoction devised by Garrett to act as a deterrent if man or beast threatened us. The mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, and red pepper blown through the straw, causes sneezing, wheezing and watery eyes, giving the straw blowers just enough time to escape any danger, or so we believed.
As we walked, I watched the sun and clouds fight each other for space in the blue elliptical sky as we headed out toward the northwest and the deepest part of the forest preserve. The air was crisp, cool, and smelled like the freshly cut herbs my mother culled daily from her garden.
Garrett and I watched for something out of the ordinary; a snapped twig where there shouldn’t be one, displaced soil, or crunched leaves where footfalls had landed. We listened for sounds that should and shouldn’t be heard as we walked along in our faux moccasins. Garrett had long since developed a series of hand signals when even whispering was dangerous. A whisper in a forest is like a foghorn to a ship in stormy weather. Forest animals have acute hearing; after all, the forest can be a dangerous place for man or beast.
Our very breath was a scent that floated along air molecules into the nostrils of creatures of all kinds. I learned to breathe downward toward the forest floor where fine mulch would absorb the wet molecules of our breath. Scent, however, is a powerful way to gain knowledge about our surroundings and Garrett taught me how to breathe to catch the scent of water, animals, and danger.
We rubbed ourselves down with pine needles and earth to camouflage our scent in keeping with what we knew of Native lore. Garrett was a natural Indian. He did not have to learn these things. He was born this way and I followed in his path. I watched his every nuanced footfall, his sinewy muscles and tall lithe form as he moved with incredible grace through woodlands and meadows.
Garrett always carried a small sheathed knife in his pocket for cutting branches to make a fire if need be. Garrett would never intentionally hurt a living thing in the forest. The Salmon Brook Preserve had a small population of deer, bears, bobcats, coyotes, and the occasional Mountain Lion from up North. The only time there was real danger in the forest was when an unknown predator, a foreign scent, entered the forest causing the hierarchy to be challenged. That, of course, would be us.
As we made our way through the forest, only using our hand signals, we moved with agile, sure steps. We imagined we were White Tail deer like the Native Indians used to do. To be a part of the natural fauna, we had to think and travel as they did, without a sound.
We entered into a beautiful and lush grove of wild hazelnuts and flowering mountain laurel. Even I knew this grove would be a gathering place for herbivores and carnivores alike. The delicious hazelnuts and the sweet and succulent petals of the mountain laurel would be like honey to bees.
Garrett’s uplifted hand signal alerted me to a sudden danger. There, on the other side of a large Mountain Laurel bush, were the tall antlers and shiny brown eyes of a Stag Horn Deer.
Neither Garrett nor I moved a single millimeter of our bodies as this beautiful and very dangerous deer walked by us within a mere three feet between him and us. A Stag Horn Deer will normally charge an intruder and use its antlers to defend its territory. It either chose to ignore us or was so busy looking for hazelnuts and sweet tasting flowers petals, that he may not have perceived us as a threat.
Yet, perhaps its presence meant something else entirely. The Stag Horn deer, according to Native lore is a symbol of protection and strength to fight against whatever ominous force threatens. The Stag Horn Deer is also a dream omen, an otherworldly messenger that comes in the night to warn of danger. Garrett and I wondered if that was the reason, the fiercely territorial animal had not threatened us. As the large animal moved out of striking range, we silently moved through the forest hoping the Stag Horn Deer did not change its mind, dream omen or not.
An hour later, the sun had finally displaced the warring clouds. The golden warmth of the sun glistened on our skin. Ahead of us, Garrett saw one of our landmarks. A spring fed flow of water bubbled out of a rise in the land between ancient rocks and stones. The spring fed water, heaved up from underground rivers deep in the earth’s crust, allowed the current flow of water to come to the surface, from the distant past.
With our thirst now quenched, we then tread silently on soft sphagnum mosses and beds of decaying leaves. After a time, Garrett and I found a place to rest during the noontime heat under the shade of twin Birch trees and gazed up at the cloudless blue sky above us. A light breeze moved through the trees causing patterns of sunlight to dazzle and dance upon shimmering green leaves. We sat, awestruck by the beauty surrounding us. The forest was always an enchanted place to be, at least we imagined it to be.
A short time later, as we stood up to continue our trek, we set about placing our backpacks, made of rugged canvas, over our shoulders. I then noticed Garrett staring hard at something close by. I followed his gaze and saw two glittering silver-blue eyes staring out from behind one of the River Birch trees we had just been sitting under. The Red Fox rose up from its resting place and moved gracefully, silky fur glimmering in the sunlight, as it came to stand in front of the River Birches before us. It continued to stare at us, unblinking, as it pawed its forelimbs into the soft moss covered ground. Then, in the blink of an eye, it leapt from view and disappeared into a corpse of Hawthorns bushes.
Garrett slowly walked over to stand next to me. He whispered low into my ear, “The Red Fox is a messenger of danger, even death, but also acts as a guardian, a warning to be watchful, as watchful as a fox.”
He did not speak further. A look and a gesture was all Garrett and I usually needed to communicate. We moved on to our next landmark, walking deeper into the Preserve. The lay of the landform was now steep braes that sloped deeply and ascended to narrow craggy ridges. Walking was now knee walking. It means to walk with bent knees, almost crouching, until we crossed the ridges of several narrow escarpments.
The craggy escarpments were deep waves in the land created during the last ice age. They were also rich with arrowheads, old coins, and other artifacts that fell away during knee walking. Above us, we heard a cacophony of cawing from a clan of large Black Crows nesting atop a very tall and aged White Pine. Its knobby and twisted bare branches looked like something out of a malevolent Grimm’s fairy tale.
The Crows stared down at us, their sharp black eyes and hooked beaks gnawing worriedly as the sun beat down on their iridescent black wings. I stood stock still, looking up at the peculiar sight, silently wondering why they were so upset. Garrett grabbed my arm, forcing me to keep walking away from the strange occurrence. A worried look quickly passed across his face and he said nothing as he moved us along.
After a time, we entered a dark area of woodlands with tall chestnuts, white oaks, native pine, hemlock, maples and birch trees. On the forest floor, deep in soft pine needles, I saw delicate pink lady slippers and the jocular jack-in-the-boxes growing in the dark shade of a majestic White Oak. Nearby, I spotted the thin stalk and bulbous head of a Death Cap mushroom that had pushed its way up through the sphagnum moss under the cover of rotting oak leaves. Even starving omnivore muskrats would not eat this deadly mushroom.
Through the putrid decaying leaves, I watched the dark head of a poisonous Adder slip out of the leaves and slither around the deadly mushroom. Its red eyes were marked with narrow black pupils and black zigzag stripes across its light gray body. Both were warning signs to other hapless creatures. I was considering carefully the gruesome oddity of some of God’s creations, when Garrett touched my arm firmly.
Garrett’s eyes, now a dark blue crystal, looked into mine, his furrowed brow and the rigid set of his jaw told me something was very wrong. I felt fear and I froze, almost afraid to breathe. Garrett put a finger to my mouth to silence me. Then, Garrett, like some feral animal, slowly turned to the object of his concern. Every muscle in his body was tensing, as though he had caught sight of something terrible. I followed his line of sight. Whatever it was, was in deep shade, and created an odd, even alien form resting on a log.
The tall canopy of trees shaded the forest floor darkly making it difficult to see what Garrett found so disturbing. The buzz of insects, summer heat, and humidity under the oppressive shade was like walking through a rainforest. I pushed my damp hair away from my face with the back of my hand as I followed Garrett’s gaze to the large log. We were too far away from it to see what the alien form could be. Whatever it was, Garrett knew it was something unnatural. I became acutely aware that no birds were singing, no squirrels chatting, and except for the buzzing of insects; there was no sound at all, save for the fearful beating of my heart.
Number of pages: 264 (kindle count: 189)