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Morgaine Chronicles

 

Morgaine and Gretchen 

 

 

 

THE WOODS IN BACK OF PAPA JOE'S HOUSE

It was a hazy, hot day in July. Behind the decaying Victorian farmhouse, the air above the knee-high grass shimmered and wavered in bright sunlight in a way that made the world a dreamy enchanted place and not quite real. Crickets, bees and cicadas droned high-pitched noteless music, ravens scolded loudly, and at the end of the meadow, stirred by an intermittent breeze, mysterious things moved in the shadowy woods. From the safety of an old tire that Papa Joe had tied to the branch of a lone oak, little Denise watched the waving somethings in among the forest gloom. As she swung slowly back and forth, she daydreamed stories about them and hummed low and tunelessly. Suddenly, to her surprise, a tiny man stepped out of the woods. At first she merely stared, not sure whether she should be frightened or not. Mommy warned her many times to be wary of strangers, but the man was shorter than her and dressed in funny clothes like the seven dwarves or Rumplestilskin from her book of fairy tales. From the shade of the trees, the dwarf returned her stare. (Denise had decided that he must be one of the seven dwarfs; he sort of resembled the picture of Grumpy in her book.) After a while he raised his hand and waved. Denise waved back, hopped off the tire and walked toward the funny-looking elf-like man. As she came near the dwarf, he took a step backward and vanished into the gloom. Denise ran toward the place where she had seen him, tripped on a gopher hole and fell, popped back up immediately and continued her waddley run. When she reached the exact spot where the little man had been, he was nowhere in sight. She called out to him, "Grumpy. Grumpy. Where are you?"

There was no reply except the raucous cawing of the ravens that she had heard before.

That night a terrible thunderstorm with loud booms of thunder and flashes of lightning crashed all about the old farmhouse. A hard rain rattled against the roof, the shutters banged and the wind howled when it was caught in odd corners. At bedtime, Denise asked Papa Joe to read a ghost story to her. She was a brave little girl who thought it deliciously shivery to hear tales of mysterious spirits and strange happenings on such a night. Mommy almost spoiled the fun by objecting, saying that she would have nightmares. In actuality it was Denise's mother, Maria Fabiano, who was frightened by storms and crossed herself at the mere mention of ghosts and spirits.

Papa Joe, Denise's grandfather, however, laughed in his deep-voiced way. "Oh c'mon, Maria, Denise ain't scared. Are you kid?"

"No, not all. Honest, Mommy," Denise replied hastily, her eyes going round at the thought of hearing a ghost story on such a night. Suddenly feeling a little chill, she pulled the comforter tight around her chin.

"Besides," Papa Joe said, "the one I have in mind ain't too scary."

Although Maria looked cross, she gave in and left the room, not wanting any part of ghost stories.

Papa Joe told the story of Rip Van Winkle, a favorite in the Hudson Valley of New York where they lived, since Washington Irving was a native son and the action took place locally in the Catskill Mountains. When he got to the part where Rip met the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men, Denise asked, "Are they bowling now? Is that what's making the thunder?"

"It could be. But I really think its the storm. You can tell that it's Henry Hudson bowling if you hear thunder in the mountains with no lightning and no rain."

Denise's eyes opened wide again. She hesitated before asking her next question. "What do they look like?"

"Who?"

"That Henry guy ... and his men. I mean their ghosts."

Papa Joe rubbed his bristly chin, which made a noise like sandpaper. "Well, uh ... they was kinda short and sorta stout ... chubby like, from drinking too much beer, y'know." He patted his own round tummy.

"Do they wear old-fashioned clothes like in fairy stories?"

"Yeah, wide collars, wide belts with big buckles on them, funny hats with buckles on them too and boots with curled up toes."

Denise grinned, knowing she knew a secret, something that Papa Joe probably didn't know. "I saw him today."

"Saw who?"

"Henry watchmacallit, the ghost in the story. Or maybe it was one of his men."

Papa Joe gave her that "are you joshing me" look. "Oh yeah. Where?"

"In the woods in back." She described the entire sequence of events and what the little man looked like through her eyes.

Papa Joe became stern and looked directly into her face in that way he had when he suspected her of lying. "Are you making this up, little one?"

"No Papa Joe. I really saw him." Tears welled up. Her grandfather was frightening her with his attitude. She wondered whether she had done something that she might be punished for.

When Papa Joe saw this in her face, he patted her cheek. "Hey, no reason to cry, honey. I believe you. Did he talk to you?"

"No, he dish-disappeared (she had trouble pronouncing the big word) when I went by the woods."

"I see." His expression changed to a worried frown. "One thing kiddo. You ain't been around here long, so I can't put any blame on what you did. But, from now on, don't go near the woods. Never. For no reason. Okay?" Denise nodded convincingly. "Uh, it's getting late, darling. Kiss me goodnight. I'll finish the story tomorrow night." He pecked her on the cheek. "Goodnight, kiddo. Pleasant dreams."

"Night-night, Papa."

Papa Joe doused the lights except for one plug-in night light and left the room. By this time the storm had abated. Although the rain that rattatated on the roof and the sound of water dripping from the eaves still disturbed the night, the booming was distant, and the flashes of lightning less often and less bright. Denise curled up in her blanket and wondered whether she would meet the little man again. She liked the story Papa Joe had read a lot.

***

The next day the weather was cooler, and the air crisp and crystal clear so that the mountains appeared green and fuzzy instead of the hazy blue they had the day before. After breakfast Denise hurried out into the backyard in hopes of seeing the little man again. The fact was that she was lonely. She and Mommy had moved in with Papa Joe from the city after Mommy and Daddy had a big fight in which Daddy had hit Mommy. She shivered every time she thought of it. It was awfully scary when adults quarreled, especially when they hit each other and threw things. She was glad Mommy had gotten away from Daddy, although she hoped he would come for a visit sometime, as long as he didn't drink so much that it made him crazy.

Papa Joe's house was way out in the country. Although it was not a farm, it was down a narrow, badly-paved road and surrounded by woods. The nearest neighbor was several hundred yards away. As a result, Denise had not made any friends. Mommy had assured her that she would meet nice kids in the fall when she started second grade. She looked forward to that time, but it seemed a long way off.

Denise sat on the homemade swing until lunch time, but the little man did not make an appearance. At times she saw things moving in the woods, but she supposed they were squirrels or other small animals, maybe even a deer. After lunch, she set up her small table on the back porch, brought out her dolls and had a tea party. She became so engrossed, especially since her dolls were so quarrelsome, that she forgot all about the little man.

That evening, as it was getting dark, Papa Joe took her out on the porch to watch the stars. He told her that if she saw a shooting star, she should make a wish, and it would surely come true. When they first went out, the sky was red and pink and beautiful. A fat rosy sun rested on top of the mountain in back of the house, like a beach ball. As the light faded and the sky turned purple, bright Venus jumped into view, followed a little at time by lots and lots of other stars. Papa Joe pointed out The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper and the North Star, Orion and The Milky Way. They were the only constellations he knew for sure. When the moon rose, he told her the name of some of its larger features and pointed out where the first astronauts had landed.

A light streaked across the middle of the sky.

"What was that, Papa?"

"A shooting star. Make a wish, darling."

Denise squished her eyes shut and wished hard that Daddy would change and be nicer to her and Mommy. "If I see another one, can I make another wish?"

"Of course. You get a wish for each shooting star."

This was the night of the Delta Aquariads meteor shower, so Denise made many wishes. On the second one, she wished to meet a good friend. On the third, she wished she could do magic like a magician she saw on television.

"Oh look, there's shooting stars in the woods too." She saw hundreds of tiny lights flashing on and off and moving about in the forest.

"What? Oh, I see. No honey, those aren't shooting stars. Those are fairies. They carry little lanterns."

Denise's heart filled with joy at the thought they she was seeing actual fairies. "Really, Papa."

"Sure." He tousled her hair and bounced her on his knee a couple of times.

After a while, he told her that it was getting late, and they had to go in. Once Denise was tucked into bed, he finished the story about Rip Van Winkle. While she waited for sleep to come, she wondered whether "Henry" (her name for the little man since she had heard about the ghost of Henry Hudson) would ask her to play ten pins with him and his men. She knew she wouldn't drink any magic beer though. She sure didn't want to sleep for twenty years.

***

Two days later she saw the little man again. Like the time before, it was a hot, humid day when the haze made everything at a distance blurry and unreal. Also, like the time before, when he appeared she was just sitting, not doing much. She called to him, "Henry, don't run away."

He didn't. He motioned for her to come by him.

Denise recalled that Papa Joe had warned her against going into the woods. But maybe he wouldn't mind if she just went by them and not into them. She walked slowly this time, keeping Henry in sight at all times so that he would not vanish. When she reached the little man, she asked, "Are you really Henry?" Now that she was close-up, she saw that his face was wrinkly like an old, old man, older even than Papa Joe.

The dwarf bowed comically. "You may call me that."

Not knowing what else to say, Denise said, "Do you live around here?"

He pointed into the woods. "Back there. Would you like to see?"

Denise peered in the direction he pointed, but saw nothing except layers of fallen leaves, trees, and a tangle of rotted logs, vines, weeds, and shrubs. She remembered Papa Joe's warning, but thought that it might be all right since she would be with an adult, the little man, who seemed nice. She nodded her head and followed him. As he led her deep into the forest, she gazed around. This was her first time in a real woods. It was nothing like the park near her parent's apartment in the city. The trees were close together, and all sorts of things were underfoot, thick leaves, stumps, broken branches, twigs and logs. The cicadas were real loud, and lots of birds and butterflies fluttered about. She saw little critters, bushy-tailed squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and tiny mice scurrying about in the underbrush. She even spotted a doe at a distance. "Oh look," she cried, but it bounded away. The shade was nice and cooling after the heat of the meadow although it made everything shadowy and mysterious.

After they had gone quite a way, Denise began worry. She glanced back the way they had come and hoped she would be able to find her way back. "Is your house very far?"

Henry turned and grinned at her. "That all depends." His voice was creaky and gravelly. "Some say that one cannot get where we are going. But someone like you only needs to take a few more steps." He turned and walked more rapidly. Although she wasn't sure what he meant, she hurried to keep up.

After a while the woods became quieter. The buzzing of cicadas had stopped, and there were no longer any bird songs. A white mist rose from the ground, obscuring the path. Out of the corner of her eye, Denise caught sight of strange creatures that, when she tried to look directly at them, vanished quite away. They seemed to be tiny flying people wearing no clothes and having wings like butterflies, animals with human faces that scurried up trees like squirrels, and little men and women in strange clothes like Henry's peeking from behind trees.

Finally she and Henry came to a small clearing in which stood a log cabin with a straw roof. Smoke drifted from its brick chimney. Outside, a couple of pigs in a muddy fenced-in area munched noisily from a trough and several chickens and goats wandered about.

Henry bowed in his funny way. "My humble home, my dear. Join me for lunch?"

Denise recalled seeing a movie about a little girl who lived in a palace, and how she would curtsy whenever the butler would announce mealtime, so she imitated her as best she could. "Thank you."

They entered Henry's crude home, which was as rustic inside as out. The floor was straw covered dirt. The furniture was badly made from twigs and branches. A huge bubbling cauldron hung on a hook in the hearth of the large fireplace. Henry waddled over to it, ladled out two bowls of the greenish liquid, placed them on the roughhewed table, sat on the backless bench and patted the seat next to him. "Sit down and have some soup, girlie."

Denise recalled that Rip Van Winkle had slept for twenty years after accepting the ghost's invitation to eat and drink. "No thank you. I'm not hungry. I think I'd better go home."

"Wait a couple minutes until my wife comes. She has a present for you. Oh, here she is now."

A little old woman, even smaller and more wrinkled than Henry, came through the door. She leaned on a walking stick carved from a knotted branch. Her other hand held something behind her back. "Hello, Denise."

"How do you know my name?"

"We heard you last night making wishes and want to grant them." Denise giggled a little bit. This was like the stories in her books. "But, you must wear this." She brought out the object from behind her back. It was a curious iron necklace with a five-pointed star pendant of the same material. "Put your head down."

Denise bowed her head so that the old woman could place the necklace around her neck. After she straightened, she picked up the star and examined it. It was carved with strange symbols. "Thank you kindly. Please show me the way home now."

"Surely. But remember, keep the charm with you at all times. Never let it out of your sight."

All at once Denise felt sleepy and yawned. The house seemed to spin and everything went black. When she woke up, she was lying at the edge of the woods, and it was getting dark. Mommy and Papa Joe ran toward her from the woods. Papa Joe swooped her up in his arms and carried her to the house. Meanwhile, Mommy was crying and yelling, "Jesus, Mary and saints, Denise. You had us scared to death. Where were you?"

Later when things calmed down, she told them how she had followed the little man into the woods. Papa Joe assured her mother that it was probably a dream. "What must've happened was that she got lost in the woods, tired herself out trying to find her way and fell asleep where we found her." He was so convincing that even Denise wondered whether she had dreamt the whole thing. But ... if it was a dream, where did the iron necklace with the star come from?

 

The Morgaine Series of E-books can be obtained at Renaissance Page Turner Editions On Page Turner Editions, click on Futures/Past SF/F/H and then on Fantasy. At other booksellers search on Author - Vadalma. Also available on Page Turner Editions and other booksellers, Raven Lenore, Psychic Investigator, a series featuring the character Raven Lenore from the Morgaine series.

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