The trees watched. They had been watching for the Druid while he slept deep inside the bowels of an Ancient One, Elder Hemlock. The tree and man went into a deep sleep to last two hundred and sixty years. The trees had been the Druids eyes and ears. Over the years one had fallen to lightening, another to wind, and others to the woodsman’s axe, but not before they had passed on the Druid’s request to their seeds, embedded this trust in the unformed cells of trees yet to grow. Planted by nuthatches here and there and there and there, the ones that went uneaten sprouted and grew, carrying the sacred trust onward. The fallen ones crumbled into the mycelial network feeding the fungi with their knowing, implanted it into the roots and hearts of the bloodroot and trillium, so that with time all beings held this petition deep within, a living thing within. When some fallen trees were burned as firewood they released their knowing to the flames to carry on as smoke into the embrace of air and into the breath of everything, and so Everything waited, waited and watched, scented and tasted; even the house the woodsman built, the very logs stood vigil, sending out their gleanings on pathways unseen by the ordinary eye.
The Druid had asked the trees to waken him upon the coming and recently they had done as requested. Heron, Kingfisher, Woodpecker, Sparrow, and Cardinal had gathered and knocked at Hemlock, singing and chirping, twittering to open. Now Grandmother Moon shone with pumpkin fullness, and Hemlock creaked at the caress of her beams, revealing the cradle in which the man lay sleeping. Moonlight flared up inside with orange flickering beams, kindling him to rise again. It was time. Everything had determined it to be so. High up on the slopes a boy walked, his feet light on Earth, speaking the language of birds, listening to the rustling leaves, the gurgles of fresh water flowing over rocks and stones and into his mouth sang while he sipped to quench his thirst with their sweetness. This boy was the one the Druid sought in the woods of Painter Mountain, named by the settlers in their lilting speech after the big cat, the catamount, the mountain lion, the Panther; only it came out sounding like ‘painter’ and that had stuck over the centuries.
The Druid had come from the old country to this new land. He had been initiated in the ways of his people, in the ways of belonging, two hundred and eighty years before he began his journey across the briny watery womb of Ocean to the new country with the settlers. The settlers, whose Druid he was, were a small community. They were watched by the tribes that inhabited the new country with caution and curiosity until the two were made known to each other under the guidance of their Old One, their Shaman, who had spoken with Wind, seen with the eyes of Cat, listened with Coyote, felt with the crawling of Snail and given the people he served the signal to go ahead. To trust the newcomers. To show themselves. They had eaten and drunk of wild raspberries, the juicy taste delighting their mouths, then gone ahead and done so. Eventually they merged; out of this union something new emerged. Out of this newness, the Druid and the Shaman had foretold, one would eventually come who would be imbued with both ways and other ways too. The Druid had chosen to wait for this one to come, to enter the druid sleep until it came to pass. The Shaman had gone on into the big dream instead.
Now the Druid awoke with a sense of purpose and anticipation. He uncurled his stiff body and began rubbing his bones back to life. The branches and vines brushed him down until thoroughly invigorated he climbed out of the cradle where Hemlock had given him a resting place. He stood before the trees below Grandmother Moon’s shining light, where he raised his arms up and began an invocation that ended with thanks. Then he reached into the cavity and drew forth his staff, setting off in the direction the trees urged him to go. All around him Everything pressed him on with a sense of immediacy, and so he sped toward the boy as though with winged feet.
Whispering Wind walked down the driveway with Sally and Suzy Sullivan. They were headed to their stand, where they hoped to sell hot apple cider and gingerbread cookies to passersby. The three skipped along in the brisk air and set out their wares on the roadside table. The girls chattered merrily and kept an eye out for squirrels, ever hopeful to befriend one with the promise of nuts. Wind squatted by the creek and moved rocks and stones to play music with the water. After a time the three sat together and looked at the road. They began making mud pies and throwing them at one another. It wasn’t long before a car was heard winding its way up the road. The three watched it pass without stopping for cider or cookies. They drank the cider and ate up all the cookies then resumed mud pie whumping one another and laughing. Their play got wilder and muddier until all you could see of them was gleaming eyes shining from shambling mud glops. They collapsed on the bank and suddenly Wind looked at the girls.
“Let’s mud whump the cars!” he said with glee, white teeth shining in his dirty face.
“No way! We’ll get into such trouble!” replied Sally.
“Oooooo!” said Suzy, “Yes, let’s do!”
She and Wind moved the stand away and attended to the work of making mud balls. Eventually Sally joined them.
“But I’m not throwing any.” she stated primly.
Some time later a truck was heard coming down the road. They ducked behind fallen logs, mud balls at the ready, and as the tail passed by, Whump! Mud splattered on the rear end and the children looked at each other with flushed faces and glowing eyes.
“Wow! That was fun, let’s do it again!” squealed Suzy.
They lay in wait until a few more unsuspecting vehicles came slowly down the road. Whump, whump, whump! They were getting bolder now, tossing two mud balls at a time and not just at the rear ends, but the sides too. A line of four came up the bend, a truck, followed by a shining black car, another truck, and a mini van. Splat splat, mud ball hit the truck. Splat splat splat splatter, mud balls hit the shining black car on the door, on the window, on the windscreen, and the car came to a squealing halt!! The truck and mini van behind it came to a stop as well.
The driver’s door to the black car opened and a woman came flying out, her black hair pulled back in a tight bun, her black eyes flashing dangerously. She had on spiky heeled black boots with pointed toes, a flowing black skirt, a black blouse with a black belt tied around the waist, and her black cloak was flapping around her like a pair of wings. She strode right over to where the children were hiding!!
“You think that’s funny??!” she screamed at the children, “I’ll show you funny and then let’s see whether you’ll laugh or not!”
She pulled a slender black stick out of the belt around her waist, spoke a quick word, and jabbed Suzy Sullivan in the shoulder. The other two children ducked. The truck and mini van began honking.
“Hey, lady! You gonna move your car sometime soon or what, I don’t have all day!” the man in the mini-van called out from his open window; two children could be heard giggling. The man in the truck had his head on his hand and seemed to be taking a nap.
The woman cackled and got back in her car, tires squealing as she drove away, her malicious laughter trailing on the air behind her.
“Now go play in the mud where you belong!” she shrieked with one last parting jibe.
The other vehicles went on their way and the children looked at one another in silent shock.
“Where’s Suzy?” asked Wind.
They looked around calling for the girl and Sally squealed as a muddy toad leapt onto her foot. She bent down and picked it up, looked into the white eyes of her sister staring at her from in the toads head, and gave a scream of horror!
“Oh no! Oh no no no!” she cried.
Fat tears rolled out of the toad’s eyes. Whispering Wind peered at it with alarm.
“Wholy shmoly!” he gasped, “Is that, is that Suzy?”
The two sat down speechless for a while.
“We’re in trouble,” Wind stated slowly, “Big trouble. What in the world are we going to do?”
Sally Sullivan didn’t answer, she was crying with the toad and crooning, rubbing the chubby little body, bathing the mud off with her tears.
“Come on, let’s take her to Sugar Plum,” he said.
Sally wiped her eyes with a muddy hand and picked the toad up and up the driveway they all went.
“What do you suppose she’ll say?” Sally wondered.
“I don’t know, but she knows a lot about other places, like Hobjolia and where the imps live, and I’m sure she knows magic because all the places she knows are magical, soooo she must have some idea of what we can do for Suzy.”
“Hmm, I wonder if it’ll involve blood?” said Sally.
“Blood, mud, something special of Suzys, fire, toadstools, and toad lily, and whatever Suzys favorite flower is, that’s my guess . . . what’s her favorite flower Sally?”
“I don’t really know Wind, she absolutely loves chocolate covered ginger root though . . . let’s ask her.”
Sally addressed the toad riding on her shoulder.
“Hey Suzy, what’s your favorite flower?”
The toad blinked and hopped about. Sally put her on the ground where she leaped toward a stand of husks and stalks and seedpods. The children looked around and accounted for what grew there in the summer. The toad listened to them and hopped about in earnest when they said mint.
“Must be mint!” they said, and the toad she leaped onto Wind’s foot emphatically. He picked her up and they walked along to Sugar Plums.
When they reached her house they noticed the door was ajar and they could hear heated words being exchanged inside.
“Shh!” Wind cautioned and they stopped.
“Wait here Sally, something odd’s going on, I’ve never heard Sugar Plum sound like this before, she might be in trouble!”
He passed the toad to Sally and snuck off stealthily upwind around the cottage to see if he could get a look inside. He crouched under a window by the room where he could hear the argument and chanced a quick peek inside.
“Who in the world is that man? I’ve never seen him before,” he thought.
He ducked down immediately after and held his breath, easing into a crouch, with his eyes shut loosely and began to press into the wall gently. He breathed effortlessly again and opened his ears as wide as he could.
“He’s not the one, I’m telling you there’s something . . . “ Sugar Plum was insisting.
“My dear are you intimating that Everything has got it wrong? I was awoken as requested at the slightest sign of his coming, there can be no doubt . . .”
“You always were so terribly arrogant!! Everything has not got it wrong, it’s you who are not interpreting things rightly, you’ve been gone too long and are rushing this Jonas!!”
There was a brief silence and then, “What do you propose we do?” followed by a long silence.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? Eavesdropping are we?” came the amused voice of the man from behind Wind a few moments later, Sugar Plum was right at his heels.
“Umm, well yes, I heard voices and thought you might be in danger Sugar Plum,” said Wind, blushing beet red, “I thought I’d get a feel for what I was up against, uhhm, before rescuing you, you know, if need be.”
The man chuckled, “Ah! A Knight in Waiting, I see, and pray tell what were you going to do should your Lady have been in danger?”
Wind shrugged, “I don’t know but something would have come to me if she was.”
“Well come on inside Wind, this is Jonas, Jonas this is Whispering Wind,” Sugar Plum introduced them.
The two shook hands and Wind called out to Sally to join them. He introduced the girl to Jonas as they went inside, explaining about the toad. Jonas’s eyebrows went arching up like twin umbrellas above his eyes and Sugar Plum sighed.
“So you see,” he finished, “We thought you might have some idea of how to turn her back, she can’t stay like this forever, I mean look at her!”
Sugar Plum looked at the children sternly for a moment, surprising them. She was usually amused by their antics. She reached out and gently cupped the toad in her hands, passing her to Jonas. He felt the toads warty body, peered into the bleary eyes, muttered a few words and stood silently awhile with Suzy’s pulsing toad form.
Then Jonas cleared his throat and spoke in a gravelly voice, to Wind it sounded like grit rubbing against rocks, a slight chipping away sound, rough yet rhythmic and not quite barren despite the absence of dirt, like the places Joe Pye grew out of cool crevices and nooks and crannys leaking spring water down onto the road. He’d been lost in his reverie and tuned in to what Jonas was saying. Sounded as though he knew how to help Suzy.
“It could be dangerous terrain, but that’s where you have to go to find the way back for Suzy. She has to go with you. Tonight. The two of you. While the moon is still in her fullness.”
Jonas and Sugar Plum exchanged glances.
“Alright! I’m ready whenever you are,” said Wind with excitement, ever present to adventure.
“Not so fast boy, we have some preparations to make so go back home and return here at twilight,” said Jonas, “We’ll make ready for your arrival.”
Whispering Wind and Sally walked back to their respective homes, agreeing to meet at the appointed hour. He and Night Sky split locust to feed the woodstove, the boy deep in thought about the day’s events. They carried the wood into the house and filled the woodbox, then sat down to bowls of stew and warm bread with butter for supper. The boy was quiet while he ate and afterward he whistled a tune while he pulled on his jacket, hat, and boots, preparing himself for the trek back to Sugar Plums.
“I’m headed to Sugar Plum’s for the evening, be back in a while,” he told his parents while strapping on his backpack, “She’s got a friend visiting, an old man called Jonas, we’re going to have a small gathering by moonlight.”
Willow looked at her son and fetched her staff and gave it to him.
“Take it along,” she said, “And remember Willa Willa Willa when you use it alright?”
He nodded and thanked her, then headed out the door into the embrace of the darkening sky waiting for him. Inky indigo, the moon was plump between the skeletal arms of trees reaching up toward the stars peeking out and winking at him. It was too bright for a full sequinning of stars, their light dim within the glow emanating from Grandmother Moon, yet some were still visible. He spotted Aries in a line of dots, shining with ferocity. Before he knew it he was at Sugar Plums, where she and the old man were waiting for him outside by a fire within a circle of stones. Presently Sally emerged from the trail and joined them.
“Place Suzy out where she can be with us,” Sugar Plum instructed.
Sally retrieved her from a pocket and placed her on Whispering Wind’s shoulder, giving her a kiss. The five held hands and made a circle with Sugar Plum and Jonas. The next thing he knew the two elders of began an incantation, feeding herbs to the fire, and then a door opened up within the flames.
“You must enter this together and fetch back what you find,” said the old man.
“What will it be?” Wind asked.
“You’ll know, now go,” was the reply.
Wind shook off the sudden feeling of fear that slithered up his spine. What could there be to be afraid of, he wondered, besides he had his mother’s staff and was in good company. Thus fortified he stepped through the portal with the toad riding along on his shoulder.
The last thing he heard was Sugar Plum saying, “Are you quite sure about this Jonas?”
Then everything around him deepened to black. The sky was murky above and he was standing in a field where nothing grew. The land was rough and lumpy, fractured black rocks covered the ground. There was nothing in sight except the smoking glowing top of a volcano in the distance, simmering as though on a low heat. The sky above it was orange and red, molten hues melting in a hazy swirl of smog. He adjusted his vision by shutting his eyes and rolling his neck for a few minutes, then opened them with a keener sight than before. Where was he to go? He went forward, trudging along for what felt like miles until he could see the silhouettes of trees. Split and fissured trees. Burnt yet still, standing sideways, leaning against one another, broken, fallen, charred. He walked toward them and saw a flag flying ahead. It was a white flag with a great serpent intertwined on it in the shape of an eight, its open mouth reaching from the cloth where it was embroidered in golden threads toward him. He walked toward the flag now and as he got closer he became aware of bodies lying on the ground. Everywhere there were bodies, strewn upon one another in this barren place devoid of life. Where had he come to? It seemed to be a battlefield. He could make out armor on the lifeless forms, weapons lay about scattered and shattered. The faces were twisted and splattered with the rusty remains of dried blood, the air hung heavy with the smell of iron. Some of the breastplates had the serpent etched into the metal, others had crosses, and all were huddled together limb and head and trunks intertwined.
He tore his eyes from the wreckage and found them drawn to the lone figure of a man in the midst of it. Dark haired and dark eyed, his countenance was troubled. He appeared plagued by something indiscernible, torment carved into his face. He wore black lace up boots, a soot-blackened coat unbuttoned to reveal a black tshirt underneath. A gold serpent was printed on the front of his shirt matching the one on the flag. He carried a long sword in one hand. In his other hand was a broken guitar. By his feet lay a shield, dented and cracked, also depicting the serpent. He saw Wind approaching and blinked, a slight expression of puzzlement marking his face. Wind stood in front of the man silently. They stared into one another’s eyes, reflective pools of light in a dark place.
“It’s brutal out there,” the man stated flatly, “I thought I’d make music, spark some beauty into the midst of it all, then the strings to my guitar broke and a woman appeared. Gave me this sword and pushed me through a door. I ended up here, in this latest piece of hell. So I sang, a song of springs and leaves, dolphins at play in azure seas, the pulsing trail of dragonflies in flight, stars streaking through the milky way, hummingbirds brightening up the day, but they were deaf, had rocks in their ears and kept tearing at one another until this is all that remained. This wreckage in this devoid place. I’m tired of standing here, here take it.”
The man held the sword toward him.
Wind stared at it and shook his head.
“She gave it to you, it’s yours,” he said.
“Look I don’t know what to do with this thing, it’s not my style if you know what I mean. It looks more like it suits you, take it!” the man pressed.
“If you focus on it carefully, maybe you’ll know what to do with it?” Wind volunteered the suggestion optimistically.
The man gritted his teeth and glanced at the sword he still held, at the serpent coiled around the hilt. It appeared to be writhing with a life all its own. Its head was on the pommel, mouth open and moving. Something urged him to lift it, hold it by his ear and to his surprise it spoke in hissing tones, then it settled back into the hilt and was still. He examined the blade and saw it was engraved with runes. He rubbed his fingertips over them, over the scales, along the blades edge. Then in the blink of an eye he knew what he had to do. He turned to Whispering Wind.
“I need your backpack,” he said to the boy.
“Happy to oblige!” came the cheery reply and he passed his backpack to the man, who set it on the ground.
“Now I need the staff,” the man gestured excitedly.
Wind passed that over too and watched as the now animated dark haired man, eyes shining, stuck his mother’s staff into the unzipped top. The man shut his eyes and ground the staff into the bottom of the pack.
Whispering Wind, at precisely the same moment, said Willa Willa Willa decisively. He heard a crunching swooshing sound, the pack trembled and swelled, then it was still and dust swirled out the top. They sneezed and the man pulled the staff out. Spilling out the top were grains. He picked up the pack and circled the boy with grain. Whispering Wind put the toad down, and she too was tucked into a bed of grain. Then he watched the man as he walked all around the land, over every millimiter, scattering the kernels over the fallen until they were blanketed and covered. He finished by covering his guitar, then went to where the center of this labyrinth made of bodies was and plunged the end of Willow’s staff into the parched earth. He took the hilt of the sword between both his hands. The serpent began to move and wind its way off the sword and around his muscular arms, binding them together in a resolute clasp. He lifted the sword up above his head, shut his eyes, and spoke the words the serpent had hissed to him. Sang the song carved in runes along the blade. The sword came to life, the runes glowed incandescently blue before leaping off the blades and whooshhh!! A bright flare and the sky was filled with pure light that rained down in droplets that touched each and every seed scattered below, leaping from one to the other, one to the other, then splashing the trees and branches and twigs, finally onto the toad’s body, which sucked all the light into itself, and disappeared in a blinding flash along with the sword. Suzy Sullivan stood where the toad had been looking dazed and confused. The field began to shimmer and shift, the seeds all sprouting and greening rapidly until a waving meadow greeted them and birds, butterflies, grasshoppers, and bees began to fly out of the tall grasses and take to the air, winging away toward the trees. The sound of birds and buzzing made trilling music. A little later the scent of nectar from peonies in full bloom wafted up their noses and they filled their lungs deeply. Leaves began to uncurl on the trees, everywhere it was fresh and alive. Somewhere an elephant was heard to bellow, caladiums smiled at the world, and the taste of salt water could be felt on the tongue. The serpent slithered off the man and into the grasses that swallowed its trail. Wind looked at the man’s arm and saw the imprint of scales fading into his skin.
The man picked up his guitar. It was unbroken and whole once again. He plucked the strings and played with Everything alive, joining in their song. When the song was over, Suzy and Whispering Wind found their faces wet with tears, the whole world had gone quiet.
“Do you know a way out of here kid?” the man asked.
“I do and I’m not called kid, I’m Whispering Wind. You can call me Wind if you’d like. How about you?”
“I go by Raven, though most folks call me Ray. Lead the way, I’m ready to leave this place, go where you came through if that’s alright?”
Wind beckoned to him to follow as he took Suzy’s hand in his and led them back to the door. They entered and were back by the fire, where Jonas and Sugar Plum waited with Sally, who squealed and squeezed her sister with joy. Sugar Plum hugged the children.
“Well where is it?” Jonas asked, “Did you bring it back?”
Wind motioned to the man behind him.
“He’s all that remained, so I brought him back with me,” he said.
Jonas fixed Whispering Wind with a searching gaze then scrutinized the man standing beside him. He circled the man and sniffed the air, touched his hair, his garments, but when he went to touch the guitar the man drew away and scowled.
“That’s enough,” he said, “I’ll be on my way now if you’ll direct me toward a highway.”
“Stay awhile,” said Jonas, “There’s things we must talk about, then afterward I’ll guide you to the highway. There is a place that’s been waiting for you, a place of great beauty and magic, a place of song and story, will you come to this place with me?”
The man strummed his guitar strings with his eyes closed. He breathed deeply under Grandmother Moon’s radiant smile. When he was done he looked out with sparkling eyes and nodded.
“Just for a while,” he said.
“But of course!” Jonas responded, “Only for as long as you want.”
Sugar Plum brought out warm cider and gingerbread cookies, and the six of them sat around the fire sharing story until the embers died down. Then the children headed to their homes, Jonas and Ray disappeared into the forest, and Sugar Plum put another log and some kindling on the embers and sang softly for a little bit longer.