The Girl in the Glade

Deep in the woods is a glade. In the center of the glade stands an old wishing well, its stone sides partly in ruins, as if the elements themselves have subtly connected to conspire against the well’s wishes. Buried in a corner deep within is a small hoard of stones that resembles a jeweler’s working stock. The bounty includes gemstones, cameos, crystal scent bottles and pressed flowers of every hue. Something else hovers, something  hidden, something old, something as mysterious as the wondrous cache. Collectors of magical stones are not to know how strange or unexpected the find, how wondrous the lethal precision, not till the gut turning feeling, a sudden deadly attack of speeded up intensity that explodes the mystery, and by then it is too late.

It is said the collection was excavated once by a young girl using a pickaxe. She was not to know what harbored within, not then. The custom in her family was to well dress her maravilloso find every summer with the choicest of flowers, in the well dressing adornment manner of a charmed wunderkammer.

During the night when strange forces emerge from the heart of a forest including dark shapes which bore through the marbled sheen of the sleeper’s eyeballs, Nola took ill. It seemed sudden. Of late she had been feeling poorly, having discovered the dead corpses of twelve blackbirds lying in a circle on the fringe of the glade. No one noticed how sick she looked, least of all I. Certainly not Mother, sunk to her eyebrows in her daily chores of cooking, cleaning, running to market, feeding three horses and a brood of geese, and clearing the lofty forest foliage encroaching upon our section of the glade. But, that wasn’t all. There were we two semi-grown-into adulthood forest brats in tow, uncontrollable at worst, floating retards at best. Did not make us safer. In a lot of different ways a great deal was going on in our lives that summer, things we couldn’t share, things no mother would understand.

While Nola grieved over her horrifying find, picking the blackbirds gingerly one by one to place in little flower lined boxes, black plume like smoke coiled out from each, like ascending tentacles, and a soft tweet was heard, as if the birds were waiting, watching, their round beady black eyes communicating in the shade. Calling out to Nola I ran as fast as my legs would carry me away from the tweet, while the smoke spread and widened, far and near, across the glade, down the wishing well, into the forest canopy.

That was the summer I had followed Miken to the forest pathway, passing   through thick tangled vines and bushes that ran between the wooded knolls. Miken was our new neighbor. We had met him in the woods. Mother didn’t know. I saw Miken lead Nola one evening to his secret door, the one behind the shed, the one concealed from all   prowling eyes. Although we lived on a kind of farm, and Miken in a nearby cabin, which we were not to know till later, his was the kind of extreme existence that grew out of   living in nature, no heat, no electricity, no running water, no human being, just forest animals to slaughter, and mangled trees, and stones. Nola was entranced. The door was a secret panel of sorts, similar to the one he said he had in a remote cabin in the marshlands bordering New Hempel and Enol. We vaguely knew of those forbidden lands, the strange  mixture of things that came from those parts. How he transported his partially built cabin to our glade we did not know. His half complete cabin was out-of-bounds to anyone, except himself. Keep out, and stay out. Those were the house rules, according to Miken.

What transpired behind the door I don’t rightly know. What I know is that Miken had no business disrupting our routine enchantment in the glade, with his maddening territorial sounds–a stone clock that tweeted distressingly, his compulsive collection of dead things, odds and ends, stashed untidily in the strangest places, mostly, behind the secret shed. Later I would learn this was the clock with a stone base, where he would routinely crucify blackbirds to match the hours. He called it his clockwork taxidermy restored. If his disgusting finds and collection had piqued my interest, as they did Nola’s, filling her head with strange voices, clouding her eyes with smoky visions, perhaps her outcome might have been different. He deliberately got in our way.

“There is poison among us,” Miken would croon like one in a trance, looking pointedly at me, while chanting incantations in a bizarre language I had not heard before. Anguished beyond repair at being excluded, wonderstruck by what he knew, I would make good my escape. Not Nola, all growing up, trapped by his charms, by whatever   surreptitious entity she saw resurrected in Miken, or the lure of the glade, or the demonically possessed trees, waving maniacally their thick branches at her, tethered as she was to all things in nature. We knew he meant his volumes of crap souvenirs, fun and entertaining to him, hidden behind the secret trap door. We never knew he also meant our wondrous wishing well, Nola’s and mine.

Whatever Nola saw or found, caused her to go downhill. She succumbed. Her decline was rapid. Gone was the former Nola I knew of old, roaming the woodlands in  focused concentration, searching the forest floor, circling the glade each summer, trapping spotted lantern-flies, catching newts, dragonflies and bugs that seemed   otherworldly and absolutely enormous at that time. We would weave the most fanciful fairy gowns out of wildflower, stonecrop, allium, lupin, foxgloves, combining feverfew, snapdragons, yarrow and sweet peas, then brandishing our colorful creations at damsel flies, at wasps, at menacing Miken enraged with our antics, while chasing otters to the outer edge of the pond, deep in the forest. Her mood grew pensive and reflective. She had   changed before my very eyes, I could tell.

The woods which was our only protection, which was our forever fairytale home, critical to us, our livelihood, our lives–the most magical place you can ever imagine, of stony paths and pristine plants, had remotely changed. Our forest, where we had chased winged fairies and woodland creatures was gone. The Nola that could restore it had fled. Each summer when we had lived in two worlds – the real and the imaginary, till the unhappy day Nola crossed the line into Miken’s world behind the panel door, did not exist. At the mouth of the very same woods and glade, in the presence of the very same sounds and sights—fishing, tracking, hunting, chasing, climbing trees, dressing up our wishing well, yet, how different was Miken in outlook, and how helpless with the betrayal of lassitude had she turned.

Miken never stopped. He raved on and on about stones, his stones, the stone clock, stone caves to stone dwellings, stone ruins to stone castles, our wishing well ringed with broken stones. His was the vision of indefiniteness. He seemed roused by stones. What he meant were building stones–granite, rocks, basalt, limestone, his weird   haphazard collection. He believed humanity came out of stone caves. He perceived history as linear, that man progressed from stone age to metal and steel, yet lived by the mysterious forces locked in stone structures. There was no end to what he saw. They all ran counter to our find of stones in the wunderkammer, our wishing well.

“It is recorded in The Book of the Dead. Just look at us, look at you, look at me, we’re passing entities–we all came from stones, we return to stone, no exceptions, some   of us to grade quality stones, is all the difference,” he would yell at the two of us, Nola and I, terrorizing us with his divine sounding predications, his meteor crater moissanite experience, designed to make us feel like pawns on the stone plinth he had fashioned into a grotesque chess game, where he set traps for unsuspecting woodland animals—hedgehogs, raccoons, demonizing the magic of our summertime make-believe realms.

“Well, what do you know?” I would yell back, horrified at my own brazen behavior, a bad habit of etiquette, as Mother would ingrain in the both of us, whenever we snarled like a pair of quarterbacks at one another.

Miken would let out a prolonged guttural laugh, his face suffused with pleasure,   turning red with the effort of his bellow, like a bloodied decapitated head with no body to match.

“Not! N-O-T!” Nola would loudly whisper, losing breath, completely beguiled,   helpless to his stone onslaught, plagued by her own distressing nightmares. “My stones   are not of yours. They defy being made. They are of the earth.” Unfortunately her weak protests fell on deaf ears. The scenery of her life never changed. Her torpor took a further dip. “Arousing evil,” Miken would retaliate. I had stropped trying to interpret what lay  beyond her words, whether she meant those stones in our wishing well, the ones Miken   knew nothing of. She could be precise when she spoke of her stones. Too sure and too   precise for her own good. Poor Nola!

In a trice without warning she had flashed him her impossible to ignore treasures in purples, reds, greens and blues. The wind howled around us in bursts, the air filled with shrill cries of birds, susurrus of a million starlings, the trees swayed grotesquely, everything in touch with everything else. The stones fit snugly in the palm of her small  hand, adding to their luster. And yet, through the accuracy of that moment, I smelt the sense of something dire, something coming, something hidden below or behind it all.

“What a collection!” I had murmured in awe, applauding her fevered exertion that scorching hot day when she put axe to her wishing well and disappeared through a hole in the ground. I could not help myself but loudly voice the same. The wonder that lay in those shimmers transported me to the day we had first discovered them, Nola and I, on our usual hike through the glade.

It’s true, she had her best moments when she could turn generous, to match Miken’s weird self-aggrandizement theories, that stones turned to life, that lands lost   beneath the sea were plentifully sprinkled with dark and dim stone castles and stone deities, that immortality was acquired from stone. Through the wonder I remained  paralyzed, in shock, that she chose to share the magic of our private wunderkammer. My disembodied thoughts floated far away to that magical day.

It is said great revelations of nature never fail to impress. So it was with me, living the alarming experience, contriving to keep my balance, concerned by the   significance of the find in the old wishing well. With the spell of the glade broken, Nola’s stones turned out to be actual magic stones, rich with the energy buried deep in the earth,   bubbled up like incomprehensible hidden tumors in her magic wishing well. Guaranteed,  some were over two thousand years, out of all proportion to the life of the wishing well, covered in compost of bracken and dead leaves, which banded the stones their weird   striations, little particles of breath left along their grain by fairies. The patterns of inclusions, subtle and balanced, enhanced their effects. There was something curious about the collection, an almost deathlike mysticism wrapped around the sheen of each, of old and new.

A gathering of strange thoughts swarmed through my mind at the eeriness of the misshapen well structure built around the buried stones. Where had they come from?   Who had buried them? Unceasingly, this one query lodged itself in me. My mind filled with stories of legends and hauntings, of spirits and stone gods, of New Hempel and Enol. Had they roamed the glade? My ears filled with the cries of impaled blackbirds, multitudinous patterings on stone clocks, bludgeoned heads of gutted elks on stone plinths, their massive antlers twisted around swaying tree branches. My sight dimmed over towering plumes of black smoke hovering stationary like lenticular clouds, although no mountains in our glade existed. There was no forward motion wind either.

Nola was unfazed. Through it all it was as if she belonged to another realm, in a world we could not touch or feel, impelled to stop at nothing, propelled by mysterious forces to go further out, no matter her lack of power. It’s impossible how intensely her inner spirit of oracle moonbeams lay trapped within the gemstones hoard.

While boosting obsidian’s chakras and iridescent moonstone’s magical energies, little did Nola realize that her blue calcite involved shamans and seers, and could not be brought back to life with a wave of blue forget-me-nots. Or, that her sea-green amazonite carried vibrations of potent anxiety no celadon-hued hydrangeas could stimulate. Or, that her turquoise malachite carried wispy veins of copper, no amulet of blue daisies could deflect. Or, that her beautifully scripted Pictionary, traced on a slab of glazed marble, could not flow smooth and mellifluous forever, no matter how sweet their etymology or   how many pink peonies attached to the runes.

I only saw the columns of black smoke belched from the bodies of the twelve little blackbirds, spreading far and wide in a disappearing trail from the wishing well in   the glade, into the edge of the forest where the tree line was the densest. At least the persistent tweeting had stopped. No explanation how or why. I don’t recall walking around the well so I could see deep inside the earth. But, I must have. I don’t recall crawling into our overnight tent, overpowered by her staggering well flowering care of her find. But, I must have. In summer the sun comes up very quickly. And the day is bright. I should have anticipated the change that would come over Miken.

By morning Miken was in our glade. He pooh-poohed all of Nola’s wondrous treasure trove of captivating gemstones, making a mockery of their shapes, their wealth of matching flowers, the resident deities in her wishing well, her loving care at well dressing, her concealed connection to the love-inspired mystical spirits of the well buried deep in the earth, shared with none but myself. So disbelieving was he with the mad ravings of her feverish hallucinations. So stimulated was she with the joy of color, shape, and energy, I was stunned when she opened up her entire wunderkammer as an offering to the evil eye of our unfathomable neighbor. But the state of her mind was beyond caring. And his, beyond direction.

Treacherously, to Miken, these glitters were reputedly mere synthetic gemstones, unreal, fake, did not exist, except in Nola’s sickness infested head, except to scribes of the afterlife sounding judgment calls, accidentally created by Italian monks and Hindoo priests practicing alchemy.

“So says The Book of the Dead. They are not real stones, you transformation witches of the glade, you practitioners of incantation occult,” he swore, gesticulating wildly, waving his blackbird feathers, intimately linked with his stone circle, his delusional posturing moment snagging his right ankle on a sharp rock hidden in the tangled creepers and bushes. He was far from done.

“The minerals in them hold no real magic, no known power. The spells in them depict no known vitality. The disintegration in them serves no known preservation.   Watch mine come alive, stone—the power that dances in the blood of toads, the power that perseveres in the decay of fungus—the dead things that cling to stone, faster than feathers, weighing no more than a feather.” His wild laughter raised an unpleasant echo through the crowd of trees. Once again we were alone, and he was gone, insanely clinging to his multiple stone entities and their revelations, I had nothing more to say.

The thundering wind brought a passing shower and we were soon soaked. I  dreaded the approach of night, disturbed by our eerie neighbor’s obsession with stones as living entities. The sudden rain’s booming notes on the fronds and fringes of trees broke the oppressive heat. In my mind’s eye I watched our absurd and childish rituals of summers ago fade into nothingness, the care we lavished in well flowering our precious wishing well and its magical buried contents. The elemental forces of insidious presences talking through the stones like primitive gods was disquieting, and unknown to me. While Miken’s prognostications were too puzzling and confounding to me, I feared what it would do to Nola. And it did. Her imperturbable spirit frightened me.

The summer that I grew up was the summer of our disintegration as a family. There are things I would like to say out loud, the sounds, the sights, my insights, my fancies which came from the clumps of bushes near the forest’s edge, my non-human wings encounter, not fairies, I swear, but wings that hovered at the brink of the stone wishing well, dead spirits of the ancient realms, the solitude that marked the glade when I first felt dread, the unintelligibility of unknown worlds residing within stones, the abruptness of Miken’s sudden arrival in our midst, to our fairyland home, our glade, my ceaseless vigil for Nola, night and day, day and night, summer and winter, and many summers after—at the well.

Nola was returned to the very place we knew she loved—forever tethered to her precious stones she had discovered few summers ago with such passion. Under the pendulum sun of summer, now bright, now cloudy, now storming, we scattered her ashes. They would lie for keeps at the bottom of her stone wishing well. Her intimate  wunderkammer deep in the woods, would cover her masterpieces of nature with leaf litter, heirloom flowers and plants heaped to the very top, away from prying eyes. She would always live amongst us in floral notes of every fragrance.

Overly optimistic of all wonders of the earth, she had at once fingered in hysterics of delight a death-cap toadstone. She had seen what we had not seen—a deathcap mushroom mysteriously lodged in the outward grown flesh of the toad. Palpating the hard lobulated mass without hesitation or fear, that rarest of gemstones had been convincingly plucked by her from the exposed indented forehead skin of a poison toad that fatal day she had followed Miken behind the secret door. How long the toad had stayed concealed in our wishing well we would never know. The strange connection Miken had made with this particular toad I could not say. How long the tuberosity had taken to acquire ripe readiness was a secret she would carry with her to her outer spaces. How our hidden resident of the wishing well had reached Miken’s secret shed was equally a mystery. All I knew was the harsh reality, a web of entanglement which made the gemstone hers and hers alone.

It was Nola’s natural instinct to steer towards a gemstone wonder, no matter its size, shape or hue, or that it was lodged on a poison toad, whose forehead spotty skin was   sprouting with the deadly deathcaps on which the gemstone precariously clung. We found a series of puffy puncture wounds, likely blisters, running up her right arm, the day we dressed her for burial. But by then it was too late.

In the first days of summer I’ll be waiting for you in our glade, Nola.

Rekha Valliappan