If you walk past the Beech and continue up the rocky and tree covered slope, you come to a cliff. It is a steep tumble of boulders bare of any trees or plants. I’ve climbed this. Some of the boulders are as large as automobiles. I have scrambled atop many that will move. It is disconcerting to have a stone weighing many tons rock, sway or tip under my weight. But I’ve never felt any would tumble down. The rocks are mostly set in their ways after settling in for thousands of years. Still, I am quite careful. I wouldn’t want a leg or arm to become wedged between a rock and a hard place. I’d likely never be found. At the top of the cliff is a table rock. Far below you are rewarded with a 180-degree panoramic view of the Maryland countryside. The Frederick Valley is still beautiful and pretty rural despite all the people drawn there to “live in the country.” To your left, you can see up to and maybe beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. To your right, you can imagine the Potomac River beyond Sugarloaf Mountain and Virginia on the other side. Looking further east, the view blurs after many, many miles. I’d like to imagine the Atlantic is just beyond my sight and far beyond that the Celtic coasts of Galicia, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isles. I have often felt, imagined perhaps, that in between those two coasts, at times, there is another land.
Perhaps Tir Nan Nog. Perhaps another place that is there but is known by very few and then only if it wants to be seen by those lucky ones.
West of the table rock on the cliff top are miles and miles of forestland set aside by the wise forefathers of this city and county. The watershed of Frederick Maryland. I have studied maps, and I believe if I walked cross-country due west from the Beech, it would be many, many miles before I came upon any sign of human habitation. I have explored the forest around and beyond my home many times but not enough. There are some rough trails out there and a few fire ponds, but mostly it is just wild forest. There are ridges and dales. I have found dark hollows where it seems the sun refuses to shine. They are damp and mossy. Dark trees rise from them stretching up, competing for the light far above. The bones of their dead ancestors lie strewn about propped on boulders or crossing one another like huge wet black and mossy green pickup sticks. Some of these hollows are hauntingly beautiful. Some…I have not ventured into. Some have a dark aura about them. Those, if I want to pass by them, I skirt around their perimeter until I can get to the other side.
I have had dreams. Many times. Dreams where the events no matter how unreal later seem to be alive and honest and make perfect sense. Sometimes in these dreams scenarios persist even upon waking. Worry or fear continue into consciousness.
“Did I really lose this?” “Did I really break that?” “Did I say such a thing?” “Was I so hateful?”
I had such a dream not long ago.
Or was it a dream?
I walked up the mountain. I passed the beautiful Beech. She did not speak. She did not acknowledge me. Was she somewhere else? Was she asleep?
I continued up the slope. I stepped over and round boulders and deadfalls. Up and up I walked. It was a dark moist day.
It was no day for climbing wet stone. I skirted the rocky cliff and, although the way is steep, was able to walk up and up and up. At the top of the ridge I continued west. I descended on the other side and had to climb down into a long wide wild glade. This depression was several hundred yards wide. The glade was walled on its eastern side as far north and south as I could see. Ahead it was level for quite a while. I followed paths I had not trod before. Not formal paths but ways round trees and promontories. I walked under the canopy of a mountain laurel garden. Many acres of the evergreen leaves formed a low canopy just a couple feet above my head. In the spring, this would be a lovely patch. The white sculpted laurel flowers with thin black lines create a blanket above the forest floor. I did not remember this grove. It was perhaps the largest I had walked through up here.
Wind was softly whistling in the canopy above, but on the forest floor it was calm. The forest often plays this song. You need to stop and listen. I have stepped outside on many an early evening and felt that there was not the slightest breeze. But if I stand still and hold my breath, I hear a soft sound far up and out in the forest beyond.
The sound is…well…if you purse your lips and exhale slowly through them with a soft “hum” from high in your diaphragm…that is what the forest sings sometimes if you are lucky enough to hear.
“I must return here in the spring. This will be a bower of white and dark green and the slim twisted red-brown trunks and branches of the low rhododendron. It is like a low forest within the wider forest,” I thought.
“I hope I can find it. I’ve not seen this before. I hope I can find it again.”
I got to the western edge of the glade and was met with a low jagged wall 12-20 feet up to the next plateau. I walked along it until I found a relatively easy spot to scale it. Then I was again nearly level with the parallel ridge back east behind the Beech.
I continued walking with no goal in mind. I wandered turning this way and that following ways that let me make progress, avoiding ways that were too difficult or threatened dead ends.
At some point, I did not know if I was going west or south or north. I’d gotten turned around. It was a very cloudy damp day, and I cast no shadow.
Then I came to two promontories. They stood like gates. Going above them would be an overhand climb. There appeared no easy way to the right or left. I dread backtracking. Something in me counts that as defeat. The only way forward was straight ahead. It was as if my path was set for me. I must go this way or turn back. After 50 or 60 paces between rock walls I came to a steep drop. I stopped and looked down. It was a black hollow about 40 feet deep. I could not see to its other side. Trees dead and living acted as a curtain blocking any view of what may be beyond. I could only look down.
There was nothing to do but to descend—gingerly. The rocks were wet and mossy. Between the rocks on the climb down the gaps were filled with leaves. I put a foot into one and my leg sank, sank rapidly and surprisingly, to just above my knee. I avoided the gaps from then on. I suspected some could be quite deep, and I could twist my leg; or worse get caught; my foot wedged between some unseen rocks below. I slipped and skidded down the rock-strewn slope until I was at the bottom of the hollow. My way was blocked by huge old deadfalls. Big wet black and barkless, these trees had fallen long ago but had not rotted. To the left and straight ahead were tangles that attempting to climb would make no sense. To my right were smaller fallen logs. It was the only way to go. I was able to step over these, and the way was no wider than a narrow footpath. I turned this way and that. Was I going north or west or…? I looked up and the sky was completely obscured by a thickly tangled canopy that rose from the floor of the black hollow. The light was diffuse and did not seem to come from the sky—wherever the sky was. Then I came to a small glen. A kind of horseshoe of tall irregular boulders defined it. There was no way to go but into the round space for when I turned I could not tell whence I’d come. The path had seemingly closed in behind. Trees and boulders and crisscrossing deadfalls I did not remember passing blocked my exit.
No. I did not want to enter the stone arc. I had never felt uncomfortable on these mountains before. I did not want to, but there was nothing to do but step forward into the space defined by shoulder high boulders.
There the ground was flat and stoneless. It was as if it was carpeted with glistening black chunks of rotting wood and bark. A wet thick dead carpet. I walked into the center of the space. When I turned, more boulders had appeared and closed the ring behind me. I was in a stone circle not unlike those I’d visited on the British Isles. But those had all been in bright grassy open spaces. This place was dark and oppressive. Somehow I was not surprised. But I was worried. There was now no way out. The boulders now seemed to nearly touch each other. They were tall and slick, and there seemed to be no handholds to grasp and pull myself up onto and eventually over them.
I turned round again and straight ahead I saw a tall wide black stump. I had not noticed that within the circle before. There was no fallen trunk, no tangle of fallen limbs and branches around it. It was a totem alone at the far end of the apex of the boulder-bordered circle. The ground was flat and bare within the circle.
I stepped forward a few paces and faced it. The old dead thing was concave at its center. Its shape was like a black shroud. Its sides were tall wings from the center of the totem curving forward like a black angel’s wings. I stared into the black space and sensed there was movement from inside the dead tree. A brow and nose and eyes began to emerge from the dead black wooden wall. I stood transfixed as more features emerged from the totem. A head and one forearm and then another. Shoulders and torso. And then a human-like figure stood a few paces before me. I felt it was smiling, but its “smile” was tightlipped, fixed, level—but somehow I knew it was smiling at me. Like a predator, it eyed me pleased with its prey. Its eyes were dead and stared at me with no animation. But they too were pleased to have me before them. Atop its head, thin twigs rose and were bound in a topknot like ragged shaggy hair. Its colors overall were gray and darkest green and black. Its shape was not thin nor was it stocky. It had once been a woman or of womankind. It hated me I could tell. I feared it deeply, but I had nowhere to fly. I knew could I not fight this thing. Yet somehow I felt I had not been brought here to be killed or captured.
Its mouth opened and words croaked out as if it had not spoken for…perhaps centuries. At first the words made no sense. The consonants were thick and throaty—like a raven’s but drier and deeper. But I knew it was casting insults and threats and curses at me.
“I cannot understand your taunts,” I spoke at it. It was not bravery but simply the only defense that came to me. “Why have you led me here?”
It smiled though the tight even lips did not move or open.
“I have not,” it croaked. “I have not been to this World before.”
Its words had echoes of accents I’d heard in Wales and Ireland. In pubs late at night when stories were being told before a log fire in tall deep broad hearths. In low ceilinged rooms hundreds of years old when the lights were low. When stories of old times were being told in languages I could not understand. But I could tell when the stories were not good tales of light living places.
“Why are you here in these mountains? I have never seen such a black hollow as this before. Nor have I ever sensed the shadows drawn around this place.”
It laughed though the lips did not move. It was not a pleasant laugh. It seemed to pain the creature. The dull dead eyes stayed fixed staring straight at me. I sensed it wanted to look into me, to find a way inside. To find a place in me it could taint and start a rot. A rot that once rooted could spread and blacken my heart so I would die and become a deadfall in this hollow.
“I can go anywhere where there is black damp forest darkness like this. I am welcomed. I came here because I wanted to see you. To meet you. I came today from Chiltern Wood where some trees have lost their souls and gone black hearted. It is one of my favorite places. There and elsewhere I have made some Beeches wicked. You thought they were all…”
“Why here? Why me?”
“Some things should stay hidden. I have worked hard for centuries to keep things hidden. We have worked hard. And you are trying to spoil things. And her. She is especially troubling. Men have not spoken with trees for many years. That connection was broken.”
I sensed movement and heard the creaking of dead wood all around me. I sensed the dead wood was closing in around the circle of boulders.
“And her. You have reawakened her after all these eons.”
“You took her? Her heart? Her mind?”
“That one?” she laughed dismissively. A taunting guttural croak like two pieces of ridged damp wood rubbing together.
“That one was ours already. YOU nearly took her. You did for a while. That got our attention. And then when you two took the seeds from a Mother Beech, we knew we must act. Taking the human one back was simple. It is the other that brought me here across time and the sea.”
In the distance I thought I heard a kind of voice…singing far out in the forest. It was so faint. Distant. Still, my heart lightened a bit.
It sounded like a long gentle lightly hummed exhalation between pursed lips.
The eyes of the creature before me widened fractionally. But they were still dead and flat.
Another voice breathed the same song unison from another direction. Another and another.
Soon a bit louder and closer there were hundreds of soft voices gently breathing from every direction. The air around me brightened. I looked up, and I could now see a little light through the thick canopy above me.
The chorus was all around now. Tens of thousands of soft exhalations. Even so it was just a whisper in the air.
Such a soft gentle song. There was no breeze, but I sensed the breath-song was starting to disperse whatever vapors had possessed this black glen.
Pinpricks of light appeared on the forest floor around me. Where they struck wisps of mist rose. It was as if light had never before struck the carpet of dead forest I stood upon. The black dampness began to dry here and there at its touch. This wisps rose and began to disperse a few feet above the ground
The pinpricks widened, and the hollow was becoming a dappled glen. The chiaroscuro confused the blackness. The witch or bitch or black soul began to step backward.
Still it looked at me with hate. Still it held some victory over me. It had bragged it had stolen one whom I had loved. But more light found its way through branches. A tiny ray of light struck the thing upon its thick woody muscular thigh. It shuddered, twitched much as a horse’s flesh when its flank is teased by discomfort. Another struck its shoulder and that twitched and shuddered. It backed until it touched the heart of the dead stump. It seemed to begin to melt back into it until all that showed was its flat lifeless smile and dead eyes surrounding its rotting nose.
Its voice croaked thickly and slowly as if its throat was hardening.
“Come visit the Old Lands. Perhaps we will cross paths again. Or perhaps you will stumble upon me at the end of some bad path. Maybe in Chiltern Wood. Perhaps another forest of my choosing. There I may tell you things you want to know…before. I…may…”
And then it was gone. The soft chorus of the forest continued its song.
The dappled glen brightened even more.
Bird song supplanted the forest whisper. A soft breath of a breeze came through and cleared the air all about me…
I turned and saw that a path had opened behind. The boulders were no longer in a circle. They were strewn all about as they are all over these mountains. The taller ones in front of me were toppled haphazardly where they had fallen thousands of years before.
I turned and began to walk away. The path was now a gentle incline up to the forest floor.
I heard a brittle brutal crack behind me, and when I turned the tall stump had split into many pieces. I saw it had become a reddish brown mound of soft rotted wood. Like a tree that has died many, many years before it was just a low pile of rotted wet sawdust. Any animal pawing into it searching for grubs would spread it flat.
Soon I stepped up and out of the depression. Light filtered through the forest. I saw my shadow and knew that it pointed east. I only needed to follow it, and I should sometime find a familiar spot. Or at worst I would find the ridge’s easternmost edge. I would look out on the vast valley below. From that perspective, I could ascertain if I should walk north or south.
I would eventually find my back, I hope before dark, past the Beech and to my home.