A New England Folk Tale
Sarah D. Meiklejohn
Once upon a time, in a forest not so far away, I traveled to worlds most wondrous where my sisters and I slayed dragons and worked magic spells. I moved through old, gnarled grapevines to alternate dimensions where we prevented the end of the world by outsmarting an evil witch with a puddle. And though no one ever knew of our heroism, we celebrated together by dancing recklessly within the circles of faerie rings.
In the woods behind my childhood home, we four were always the heroes. We had all the answers. We were an unstoppable force for good.
But these woods are not always forgiving.
Adams, Massachusetts is a small town nestled beside lush mountains. In the autumn—particularly late September into early October—the trees sparkle like jewels along the rolling hills. The fall foliage reminds me, always, of the fantasy stories I was raised on. The vibrant colors recall dwarven treasure pilfered by a greedy, fire-breathing monster—beautiful and much-coveted.
I grew up in many different houses, but the place that always meant the most was the Farm. The Farm is an 1800s residence that began its life as an inn along an old stagecoach road up on the mountain. In the early 1900s, one of my ancestors decided to disassemble the inn and move it—painstakingly—by horse and carriage to the place where it now sits on a hill. I have often wondered why anyone would do such a thing; surely building a new house would have been easier. But whatever my great-great-grand-something’s motivations, the Farm has been my family’s homestead for several generations, and it is the place I most associate with the word home.
I never knew the Farm as an actual farm,; it stopped working around the time my grandfather joined the Navy and moved away. The moniker is only a remnant of a lost story where the parcel was larger and grander than it is now. The Farm’s six remaining acres lie along a winding back road, butted up against the Mount Greylock State Reservation. Mount Greylock’s impressive landscape includes part of the Appalachian Trail, and at 3,489 feet, its peak is the tallest point in Massachusetts. The woods of the mountain—and those between its base and the Farm—have always been an important part of my family’s story.
My uncle Tim is quite the outdoorsman. He has spent his life in the woods, as a forest ranger in New York and now as a logger felling trees in his home state. Once upon a time when I was a teenager, I asked Tim if we could hike Mount Greylock together and he agreed.
But I was—and am still—much slower than Tim, and so he miscalculated how far we could travel before the setting of the summer sun. Even the well-marked trails of Mount Greylock become very, very dark at dusk.
You cannot truly know darkness until you stand in the forest as the new moon ascends a clouded sky. There is a primal fear that stirs in your belly when the dense canopy overhead closes against the stars, enveloping you in the deep, inky blanket of evening. I have never known a person as at home in the woods as Tim, and I could still sense this creeping terror in him that night.
As we careened downhill through the bramble, forgoing the impossible-to-follow trail, the sound of coyotes further up the mountain awakened a sense of dread that made the flesh of my nape feel cool, even against the oppressive humidity of August. I imagined glowing eyes and gleaming teeth, poised in the shadows and waiting to devour us whole.
Tim was wearing a white shirt that reflected what little ambient light remained, but even still, I often lost sight of him against the increasing static of the trees. We cursed because neither of us had thought to bring a flashlight. At first, I had clutched the back of Tim’s shirt in my hands, so I wouldn’t lose him. “Don’t hold onto me,” he said, “If I fall into a trench or twist my ankle, I don’t want to take you with me.”
So I relied on my ears, honing in on the crunching of leaves beneath his feet as I followed behind him, sandwiched between Tim and the coydogs, fervently hoping he was as surefooted in the void of night as he had been in the daytime. Each tentative step seemed to stretch the corresponding moment into an hour. That night, I realized time has no meaning in the darkness; all that matters is whether your boots find solid ground.
We eventually made it off the mountain, landing on a road we knew could take us home if we wandered a little farther. The following day, Tim returned to the slope, retracing our course from the outlook we had hiked to. I did not accompany him, but he told me our path was easy to follow—a cacophony of man-made destruction through the brush and dead leaves.
He discovered that we had come mere inches from a steep cliff face and had very nearly plummeted a hundred feet into a gully where no one but the coyotes would have found us.
My reverence for the sacred space of evening is too great a deterrent for me to hike at night anymore. But when I think of that experience, there is something mystical about our path, pitched perfectly to the left of the gorge. Almost as though we were guided by a light we could not see.
There are probably many versions of this story where I am the villain; a wayward child stomping through the natural splendor around me with no regard for the sanctity of landscape. A rogue blazing a destructive path with little care for the snap of saplings or the trample of wildflowers.
But in my mind, I was an adventurer and a scientist, stripping fungi from the bark of rotting trees to keep in my strange collection under the porch. Storing samples so I could measure how quickly they grew and how different types fared under comparable circumstances. Sometimes I would put them in the sun to see how long before they shriveled into nothingness against the heat.
The puffballs were always my favorite; smooth, strange totems ten times the power of a dandelion. Good for wishes, but better suited for alchemy.
Once upon a time, I found giant puffballs in my grandmother’s garden. The largest of them was bigger than a gallon milk jug, and I stared in wonder at the cluster of massive fungi, wondering how such an incredible thing could exist anywhere, especially in my own yard where I could reach out and touch it.
But I wasn’t allowed to touch them, yet, because everyone had to see them first.
The cluster consisted of five or six giant puffballs, and as I stood watch over them—waiting for my father to return with my sisters and a camera—I nudged one of the smaller mushrooms gently with my toe. I watched, transfixed and elated, as smoke poured forth from the ball; tiny spores drifting away on the air like twisting fog. I imagined each microscopic spec had wings of its own as it fluttered beyond the trees, disappearing into the woods to begin a new life.
I jumped, startled and ashamed of being caught, and pleaded, “It was an accident!”
“It was not.”
My father was right, of course; it hadn’t been an accident, but then I never thought demolishing one of the puffballs on my own would make my sisters cry so hard. I hadn’t realized it was as important to them as it had been to me to watch it explode into magical seeds destined to float away like a thousand newly hatched spiders.
Sometimes, in our wonder to observe things, we think we can control the outcome, but that is seldom the case.
The problem with hurting someone’s feelings is, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to repair the small piece of your relationship torn away by the injury. And sisterhood is by nature often laden with a thousand tiny slashes in the fabric of the bond.
I cannot count the number of skinned knees and mosquito bites, but I can tell you the rush of jumping into the frigid water of early October, even though my mother told me not to. I can recount the epic cattail swamp sword battles of my youth, or recall the time my sister’s shoe was ripped off by a torrent of water and we raced to catch it before it was swallowed by the black hole where the stream disappeared beneath the road.
I used to imagine gnomes hidden in the roots of trees, and winged trolls lurking in the shadows of the highest branches. My sisters and I would invent mythologies and share them with one another, whispering in hushed voices so the mysterious creatures surrounding us wouldn’t catch us telling their secrets.
Tucked away in the woods of the Farm, there is a brook. It runs powerfully after the rain, but is more often a gentle drip against the scurry of squirrels and the chirping of crickets. To get to the brook, you must follow a narrow and overgrown path mostly hidden by old grapevines that produce useless fruit. At the end of the small trail, there is an enormous rock precariously perched over a shallow pool where the brook rests for a moment on its journey down the mountain.
Whenever I was overwhelmed by the shouting of my sisters or the fighting of my parents, I would sit on that rock and daydream or write. There is something otherworldly about spending time in the woods alone. Each crack of a branch prompts a rush of adrenaline; every persistent buzz of an unseen insect pierces your eardrums like a missile.
In the woods, I could be anything—a famous author penning my masterwork or an audacious explorer seeking treasure, a mystical wizard casting spells and communing with the fae. It was a place of unlimited peace tucked within the chaos of my world, and even though the branches above sometimes reminded me of witches’ fingers, I trusted their embrace would never be as cruel.
I live in Philadelphia, now. While there are many things I enjoy about the city, I find myself more than ever drawn to the inimitable tranquility of the woods. I spend hours each weekend traversing the paths of Wissahickon Valley Park, desperately chasing that feeling of wonder in nature from my childhood.
But there are always too many people on the trails, and so there is no peace to be found; you can even hear the cars racing down the highway just over the ridge. I have never found harmony the way I did on that rock by the brook, and the older I become, the more I think I never will.
When I was growing up, my grandmother used to tell me stories about the Quakers who first settled the area that would become the town of Adams. She would tell me that once upon a time, the Quakers refused to live too low in the valley because they believed evil spirits lurked in the mists that rose from the Hoosic River. I will never know whether those stories were true, but they hovered in my mind each time I watched the fog from the basin roll up the hill, creeping over the front fields and encroaching on the Farm in a menacing haze.
The section of the Hoosic River that runs through Adams is encased in an ugly concrete casket to prevent it from rising up and swallowing the town whole. The dull grey tomb of the snaking waterway is the only way I have ever known it, and I wonder what its majesty must have been like before it was tamed, when it flooded the earliest settlers out of their farms.
Adams was originally a mill town, pressing paper from the pulp of large trees harvested and floated downriver. Now the Mill is mostly empty apartments, and the trees are instead cut down so a Pfizer subsidiary called Specialty Minerals can mine lime from the mountain. When I was young, the hole in the forest was so small you could hardly see it, but now it is a gaping maw of too-bright white against the dense green conifers and brilliant maples.
Like those mythical winged beasts stealing gold and rubies, we humans have always been too greedy. Despite all the dragon-slaying practiced in my youth, I find it impossible to conquer the true beasts of this world. There are no defenses against the passage of time, not even magical ones.
My sisters and I spent much of our adolescence outdoors, racing through tall milkweed and catching lightning bugs in glass jars. Each summer, we would run barefoot through the forest and play in the brook, draping ourselves languidly over the smooth river stones.
The woods surrounding the Farm carry the scars of the sprawling homestead that once ran through them; rusted barbed wire poised for a sneak attack and low, crumbled stone walls that no longer keep animals in their proper place. If you walk far enough into the true and wild forest, you will find abandoned wells and empty foundations; the ghosts of dwellings long abandoned.
Through generations, pieces of the original property have been sold off in dull, square chunks when income was scarce. Slowly, as my family lost interest in the arduous work of cultivation, the Farm dwindled until it nearly died. I think sometimes the specters of this other life can still be found in the tree line, dancing through the dappled sunlight, just out of reach.
The Farm is no longer the same place I grew up in. The wonder I felt as a child has diminished to an invisible rustle in the clipped grass of fallow fields. The faeries have abandoned their rings to rot and the brook is smaller and less impressive than I remember it. My sisters and I are all adults, and the time for magic and adventure has long since waned.
The foundation and the front steps of the Farm are disintegrating. The shed behind the main house collapsed a decade ago and the original barn now appears to be charting the same course. When I look at the crumbling house on the hill, I cannot help envisioning those witch finger branches slowly closing around it, pulling the Farm into their clutches like a first-born baby promised to an enchantress in exchange for a spell.
Once upon a time, there was a farmhouse on a hill surrounded by mystical woods where my sisters and I slayed perilous beasts and defeated wicked sorcerers. I wonder if we had known the Farm would eventually fall into disrepair, whether we would have been more cautious with it. Children can be hard on a house, and we four were raucous in our abuse of its aged plaster walls and antique wooden staircases. If we had been more delicate, could we have saved it?
Maybe the Farm was always destined to fade back into the landscape, swallowed by the trees as if returning home to the warm embrace of the mountain.