Dear readers! I have no idea how many of you still visit this website. Now that the Chanson series is out and doing well, I apologize for not being faithful in updating this blog and will try to keep the site interesting and informative.
This entry is to introduce you to the new original fairy tale-based story I am writing, and will be publishing via Kindle. As many of you know, I love stories that include a spiritual, even supernatural component, so for my next novel-I am really taking the plunge! The new story will contain elements of a classic fairy tales, but also romance, redemption, magic, the supernatural-with a nod toward some of my favorite folk tales and legends.
I’m happy to say I created the cover design myself through a free photo editing site. This is just a mock-up. The final image will be done with photoshop-but this gives you the overall “feel” of my story.
The title of my next novel is Bride’s Veil~A haunted Fairy Tale. I am still working on the description, but I invite you to sample the first drafts of the prologue and the first 2 chapters. At some point I will probably have my son create another website under my author name where I can share future writing projects, but for now I will use this site to share. I would REALLY appreciate your feedback in the comments section because this story is an original, and I’d like to know if this idea sounds intriguing to you, and if it would be something you might want to read. I realize it has nothing to do with the Phantom, but there will be similar themes woven throughout it.
Please enjoy this preview of Bride’s Veil~A Haunted Fairy Tale:
Bride’s Veil~A Haunted Fairy Tale
By Paisley Swan Stewart
January 30, 2014
Current Day Pacific Northwest:
Nestled among the picturesque canyons and bluffs of the Columbia River Gorge, waterfalls cascade down moss and fern overgrown channels cut from solid rock, while the beautiful snow-charged Columbia River stretches out below, a mirror of cloud and sun, and the northwest’s changing seasons. Visitors often report a sense of deep magical energy about the area. They come from all over the world to explore its shady forested trails, wildflower meadows and majestic waterfalls, captivated by a hushed stillness that refreshes a body down to the soul.
The gorge’s colorful legends have been linked to the Indian tribes who originally inhabited the region; stories that remain a part of its historical backdrop to this day. However, immigrants who arrived from Scotland and Ireland to work the lumber mills, were so enamored by the gorge’s extraordinary beauty that they began to spin their own tales and superstitions about the area and its people. Back in the late 19th Century, as they settled the lumber town of Bridal Veil, (now little more than a ghost town), though they gradually lost their native brogue and blended in with northwestern life, they never fully abandoned the rich storytelling tradition that was integral to their culture.
There is some question as to how the town got its name. Legend has it that while traveling on the Columbia River, a passenger on a sternwheeler saw the falls and remarked that it looked like a “delicate, misty bride’s veil”. As the years went by people began to refer to this spot along the gorge as Bride’s Veil, but that is only one of many legends associated with the naming of this town and its mysterious falls.
There is another…
Witch of the Birch Wood
Golden haired Nessa Fitzgerald was seventeen when Malcomb asked her daddy for her hand in marriage. Nessa had worn her only church going dress that day, and everyone said she looked pretty with her waist-length hair tied back in a bright red ribbon. She had been proud to announce Malcomb to her brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They’d had a big feast that Sunday after church, where many of the town’s people had come to celebrate. It had been a typical Autumn day, with a cool drizzle and blue mist rising above the lush green canyons of the gorge. There had been high spirits all around, as guests clapped and stomped to the lively music of guitars and harmonicas. Long into the afternoon, when everyone had tired from too much food, whiskey and revelry, they lit the big stone fireplace, and Grandpa Ned picked up his fiddle and played one of the old songs. It was a song from a time and place across the sea that none of the children could remember, plaintive melodies that made you sad and happy at the same time.
After the festivities, Nessa and Malcomb sneaked off to the dense forest just as the setting sun spun Autumn leaves into gold. There, beside the creek where the waterfall rushed down into the ravine, she had received her very first kiss.
The wedding was to take place in April, so following the engagement party, Nessa and her ma got busy altering and redressing Ma’s wedding dress for the occasion. They were not as poor as some lumber folk, but still, there was no money for anything new. Nessa’s mother collected the trims and materials from clothes no longer worn to make the dress special for her daughter. A few snips of lace from an old petticoat, and a handful of white roses from Grandma’s church bonnet, were artfully pinned and stitched to make the most beautiful dress Nessa had ever seen.
In mid-March, as folk prepared their land for Spring planting, Malcomb and Nessa had gone for a hike in the forest, and as always, they traveled down the winding trail to the grotto behind Larch Creek Falls. Malcomb unfolded a blanket along the banks of the mossy green pool, and the two sat down side by side, gazing up at the rocky bluff where the water rushed cold from Larch Mountain. They laughed over the roaring echo of the falls, discussing their future, wondering how many kids they’d have. Nessa let him kiss her again and again, closing her eyes as he gently guided her down onto the blanket.
His eyes were bluer than the sky, his brown hair, dark and wispy across his forehead. Nessa knew her pa would paddle her hide if he caught them alone like that, but she didn’t care. They were engaged, the wedding only three months away, and Malcomb was the love of her life. She could feel his hands on her hips and the pressure of his body over top of hers as he kissed her dizzy. There was no fight in her to resist him now as she had done all the times before. A screech owl hooted from a rain drenched cedar tree, and the gorge’s dark green shadows thickened around them as she pulled him closer.
Two months later when Malcomb suddenly backed out of the engagement, folks couldn’t believe him capable of the betrayal. He and Nessa had known each other almost from the cradle, but nevertheless, he’d apparently been seeing another girl who lived down the road, even as his baby grew inside Nessa’s belly. Nessa’s pa had threatened to shoot Malcomb dead, but Malcomb was a keen hunter and knew every deer trail that crisscrossed those canyons. One night, as the story goes, he escaped from the gorge and up into the Hood River valley.
Nessa was inconsolable. As the child grew in her womb and the date her wedding should have fallen on came and went, she rarely left the curtained off quarters she shared with her three younger sisters at the back of the one room cabin. She ate barely enough food to keep a starling alive, and refused to go to church on Sundays. No amount of coaxing could convince her to socialize, and although her family was concerned for her health, they were more fretful of the bitterness that seemed to have crawled up into her eyes. She snapped at everyone and wore a constant scowl. She went about her chores dutifully, as any girl her age must, but rarely spoke a kind word and would leave the homestead at all hours of the day, telling no one where she had been.
Folks whispered that she had gone off alone through the dark woods, to the upper tier of the falls where a wise woman lived in a shack made out of a hollowed out old tree. Some said the woman was a witch who rarely mixed with good Christian folk, but others thought her merely a lonely old woman with a knowledge of herbs and mushrooms. Occasionally when fevers had come to the gorge, folks would secretly take the trail to the upper falls, seeking the wise woman’s potions. This of course, went against their Christian learning, but years ago at the height of a fever outbreak, when a child who was given the woman’s potions recovered, while a child who was merely prayed over died–the woman’s notoriety spread among the hill folk.
Nessa’s ma and pa, being strict Protestants, had forbidden their children to go anywhere near the upper falls where the wise woman lived. At one time Nessa had dismissed the stories, but now whenever she could get away, she began to secretly visit the witch, scheming to steal spells against the man who had broken her heart and deserted his unborn child. The old woman, seeing Nessa’s interest, took the girl on in exchange for mending and other chores she could no longer manage. She saw in Nessa someone who could learn her skills and carry on after she was gone. She did not view her work as witchcraft, but considered herself a healer. She had never been interested in the conjuring of spirits or spells that caused harm, but she had been taught them, and well she understood their unpredictable nature.
Nessa learned how to cure most fevers and how to heal fatal wounds. She learned the names of the wild herbs and roots that grew throughout the gorge, and had become skilled at mixing potions. All this she did behind her family’s back as she nursed a smoldering hatred against her lover and all men like him. One day after the old woman had nodded off in her rocker, Nessa stealthily explored the shack, looking through trunks and baskets for an old book the woman had once shown her. It was not a book merely of words, for although Nessa could read, she loved the strange images that showed how the ancient spells were performed. This was the dark magic Nessa craved, and over time she set each page to memory, jotting down the formulas and sketching the images in her own book when she returned home after those visits.
In the sixth month of Nessa’s pregnancy, she began to bleed and cramp, so she was moved to her ma and pa’s bed for the birthing. While the rest of the family waited for news, she struggled and muttered incoherently as her ma and Aunt Mary attended. Her pains went long into the night and another day–but the baby would not come. As the family gathered for prayer, Nessa begged her mother to send for the wise woman, but her father put his foot down, insisting that no devil worshiping witch would step foot in his Christian home. Aunt Mary often assisted in the birthing of babies, and sadly, she’d had enough experience to know that this baby would likely not survive. With only six months in the womb, the child was too early
Three days later on a blustery overcast morning, the Larch Creek Community Church held a funeral for Nessa’s child; a baby girl who had never drawn her first breath. Nessa’s pa had crafted a fine cross to mark the child’s resting place in the same little fenced plot of ground where his own mother had been laid to rest. While the family prayed and mourned their loss, Nessa stood with her hands folded tightly in front of her body, gazing unflinchingly ahead. The black veil that hung down over her face concealed the hard mouth and strangely dry eyes.
That same night as a masked full moon crested above Crown Point, while everyone else in the cabin slept, Nessa crept out of the double bed she shared with her younger sister. Careful not to wake her, she pulled a wooden box out from under the bed and set it down on a dresser. She opened the box and removed a leather pouch that contained a tin of mysterious powders, along with a lock of her dead baby’s fine dark hair, wrapped in a handkerchief. From the open box she also collected a black candle, matches, a raven feather, and a small piece of fabric cut from Malcomb’s favorite shirt. All of these items she placed in the pouch, then looped the cord over her head and around her neck.
With an eye on her sleeping sisters, she changed into her wedding gown as she murmured strange words in a voice that was not quite her own. She lifted the lid of a trunk and gathered up the white lace veil, then placed it on her head and down over her face, securing the combs into her hair. She tiptoed across the floor to the back door, crept outside and made her way to the little church yard. They had not yet filled the grave with dirt, as that morning there had been a downpour toward the end of the service. A board had been placed over the opening to protect the casket until the men could complete the burial when the weather cleared. As a light rain pelted her wedding gown, Nessa leaned over and pushed the board away from the grave’s opening. She gathered her skirts and knelt down in the wet dirt, bent over the grave and lifted the quilt-wrapped little body into her arms.
A phantom bride, she walked barefoot through the forest by the light of the black candle, with the hem of her wedding gown dragging over dead leaves and fallen pine needles as she wound her way down the narrow path. The moon glared through parting clouds as grayish mist rose up from the river and swirled around her. Soon she could hear the roar of the falls as she clutched the baby to her breast and ascended the trail to the upper tier, repeating the curse under her breath as her eyes glinted cold.
Anyone who had witnessed these strange events would have seen a young woman standing atop the highest cliff above Larch Creek falls. Her wedding gown torn and soiled, rustled in the wind as the lace bridal veil flared out around her. She had learned from the wise woman. She had studied and practiced the craft, but there was a wilder magic in that book of spells that the old woman herself had never mastered. This was a dark magic that required a dark heart. Magic whose power sprung from a thirst for blood and vengeance. It exacted a great cost–a price Nessa was prepared to pay.
She set the baby bundle gently on the ground and retrieved the ingredients for her ritual. She dripped black candle wax down the front of her white gown until the streaks resembled dark red blood. She removed the raven’s feather from her pouch, squatted down and drew a circle in the dirt around her feet, then gathered a few twigs and leaves into a pile. Candle in hand, as five pairs of glowing coon’s eyes blinked from the branches of the ancient fir, she lit the piece of cloth from Malcomb’s shirt, placed it on the pile of twigs, then singed the silky strands of her daughter’s hair in the flame, stone-faced as it turned to ash. Finally, she opened the tin and poured the powder over the fire, fanning it with the feather until it sparked and billowed into red, gold and green smoke.
The air around her sizzled and popped as she rose to her feet, rubbed the ashes between her hands and tore off the veil to be carried away by the wind. The veil fluttered, twisted, and spun with the downward surge of the great falls as Nessa smeared ash across her cheeks and forehead. Power pulsed in the forest’s heartbeat as the transformation commenced. Nessa grew taller. Her skin became as pale as birch bark, shimmering with silver iridescence as her waist-length hair suddenly turned glistening white and stood up on end like platinum fire! The eyes that had once been the color of hydrangea now glowed ruby red. Her fingers were changed into tree branch-like extremities, the nails to deadly talons. The wood came alive with baying wolves, ravens cawing, cackling coyotes and voices otherworldly, as she threw her head back and wailed like a woman giving birth. Nessa then raised her arms above her head in supplication and called forth the unseen watchers to accept her offering!
It was done. She and her daughter were now the sacrifice the elementals demanded. She tossed the candle and pouch aside, then picked up the dead child. Stepping to the very edge of the cliff, the child held tightly in her arms, she opened her mouth and spoke the final incantation that would, for all time, remain a curse on the head of any man, untrue and deceitful, cruel and unfaithful–any man who had broken a girl’s heart or deserted his child. As the first tears she had shed for her dead baby girl glinted down her silvery white face, she called upon the wood; upon the creatures of the wood, upon the wind and the water, and upon avenging spirits to stand guard and to exact just punishment against false lovers. She called out to her sister brides in the netherworlds, they who wandered between the veils, suspended betwixt heaven and earth. They, who had been betrayed and deceived by false lovers and had gone to their graves loveless and childless. She entreated them to sing and weep the siren’s song whenever an unfaithful man entered those woods, and to send him to his death.
When all these curses had been spoken, Nessa clutched the child to her breast and cried out Malcomb’s name one last time. Then closing her eyes, she stepped off the cliff and fell to her death in the frothing waters of Larch Creek. All that was ever found of her, were the remains of her tattered gown and the quilt that had wrapped the body of her baby girl.
In the weeks following the incident, the locals began to spin wild tales about the death of Nessa Fitzgerald. They became superstitious and leery of venturing into those woods, ever after thought to be haunted. A an unsavory howling noise could be heard in the trees, and some reported the sound of weeping. It was said that, when the moon shone full in the forest, Nessa’s face and bridal veil would appear in the rushing white falls.
It was rumored that for reasons never explained, a month after the tragedy, having heard about the deaths of Nessa and her early born child, Malcomb returned to the little village of Larch Creek. He was said to have made a pilgrimage into the woods to place a memorial of flowers in the creek..and to this day the village folk swear that he was never seen or heard from again.
Between the Veils
There was something magical about the atmosphere that clear September morning. Already, as one looked north from Crown Point, the tops of trees on the highest ridge were starting to turn red. Mist hung over the distant hills and valleys in gradient shades of blue, from dark indigo to pale gray. As with each early Autumn, farmers were clearing out blackberry vines and brush. One could see rising smoke from the burn off all across the Columbia River plateau, but there was no wind.
The village looked much the same as it had before the Fitzgerald girl had lost her baby and jumped to her death from the falls, but the people were not fooled by appearances. For them nothing would ever be the same. A profound change had come over the village. Children and women were no longer permitted to wander alone into the wood. Some of the men even avoided that particular part of the forest during hunting season.
There were tales of the woods being haunted by Nessa’s ghost. Moreover, five young men were known to have gone missing from those woods over the past twenty-two years–among them, Malcomb James, Nessa Fitzgerald’s notoriously unfaithful betrothed.
The men had formed a search party after each of the five disappearances, but there had never been a trace of any one of them. No hunting rifle or musket left behind. No clothing, or blood or bones, or evidence of violence. They were just…gone. People began to fear that a bear was preying on the town, or worse–a murderer.
There was never a gathering where the haunted wood was not discussed, its legend growing year by year until people no longer called Larch Creek Falls by its real name. Instead, they referred to that part of the forest as “Bride’s Veil” (on account of Nessa Fitzgerald’s watery apparition that was said to resemble a bride in her wedding veil.) There were testimonies of ‘spirits’ flitting between the trees, little glowing lights that dipped around conifers and deciduous species–then vanished the moment they were sighted. Others who, despite being warned about doing so, had ventured into the woods only to return ranting about voices, trees that appeared to ‘walk’, and a sense of dread–as if death itself were stalking that unholy ground.
The town’s folk, however, were hearty souls, so for the most part, life went on as one generation replaced another, old folks passed away, children grew up and babies were born.
On that particular morning, folks in the little village of Bridal Veil were preparing to greet the new pastor and his family, who were traveling all the way from Idaho. Pastor Sutton, who had shepherded the Bridal Veil Community Church for the past fifteen years, had left the pastorate two months prior to care for his ailing mother, thus the new pastor, his wife and five children would be moving into Pastor Sutton’s old cabin. The town folk were by nature, suspicious of outsiders, but in light of the strange goings on, they were in need of spiritual guidance.
“Ma, where should I put this?” shouted Will Wallace, as he hefted a basket of clothing from the back of the wagon. Dressed in overalls, a plaid shirt and pair of boots, Will was an attractive young man of seventeen with a head of curly brown hair and deep-set brown eyes. He had inherited his father’s handsome features and lanky build, and his mother’s sweet disposition. He was generally a responsible young man, but his love for adventure occasionally got him into trouble.
“Just set it on the porch, Will.” his mother replied over her shoulder, toting little Gillie on her hip. “We’ll figure out where it goes later.”
“Yes ma’am!” the boy answered, then continued with his chores.
Sylvia Wallace was what they called in those days ‘ a handsome woman’. At thirty-two years of age she was neither pretty nor plain, but something in between the two. She had a tall, stately build, was large-boned and a little thick around the middle from having given birth to five children; the youngest, a girl named Gillie, just three years old–and the oldest, Will, who had turned seventeen last July. Most of the time she wore her long black hair wrapped in a bun on top of her head, but at night when she took it down, it reached passed her waist. She favored the unusually pale complexion of her mother’s side, but the black hair was from her father’s people. The ‘black Irish’, they were called.
While Will and his brothers continued to unload the wagon, Sylvia sat down on a freshly cut tree stump and settled Gillie in her lap. It had been a long journey from Boise down to the Oregon territory, and she needed a moment to catch her breath. She wondered how things were progressing at the new church as she bounced Gillie on her lap. Sylvia was a little apprehensive of how the congregation would adjust to her husband’s leadership, but she had faith in his good nature to win them over.
She marveled at how different the gorge’s climate was from a mostly flat and dry Boise. Everything in the gorge was rain-drenched and cool. The forest floor was populated by bright green fern, whose curled fronds reminded one of insects. Wild mushrooms sprouted up from spongy black soil, rich with decaying leaves, needles and cones. Tree trunks and limbs were hung with an astonishing variety of moss species that grew in every shade of green. Sylvia found the low-hanging tree-branches and moist atmosphere, suffocating, but was determined to make a home for her family, despite her reservations.
“Are you my happy girl?” she said in a sing-song voice, as Gillie squirmed and giggled. “Yes, you are, Gillie girl! Mama’s happy little black-haired rose.”
“Gee mama happy!” Gillie answered in her limited vocabulary, as she reached out to touch her mother’s cheek.
“Gee” was the word she used for her own name, and Sylvia could not help but smile at her child’s attempt at conversation. The past three years had been a trial, but despite the toddler’s frailty, she was always such a joy to be around. She was small for her age, as the doctors had warned she would be, but most days one hardly noticed that she was ill. She could walk perfectly fine, but preferred to stay near her mother, unlike the boys, who at Gillie’s age, had been hard to keep up with. The doctors had advised that Gillie would tire out more easily than a normal child at play, so Sylvia was happy to carry her around on her hip as she managed the household chores and the family’s needs.
“Ah, Gillie…you are perfect the way you are!” Sylvia exclaimed, brushing the fine black bangs from Gillie’s bright blue eyes.
Gillie’s illness meant that Sylvia had less time with her boys, which was hardest on Daniel, who at six years of age, had not quite outgrown his need for a mama.
Just then a glint of sunlight peeked through the umbrella of trees, accentuating her little girl’s pale, nearly transparent complexion. At times like this, Gillie appeared as delicate as a robin’s egg, Sylvia observed with a sigh. Her gaze roamed across her daughter’s face, recalling the moment when she first laid eyes on her newborn. There was no joy upon viewing the tiny shriveled face and puny, sickly form–so different from the boys who had come into the world squalling, ruddy and ready for a fight. Gillie had made no sound, no cry or whimper. Her birth was followed by an unnatural silence as the doctor and nurses failed to offer the usual words of congratulations.
Hours later, her heart had sunk into despair when they said the child wouldn’t survive the night. But she did! When Gillie had made it through a week, they said she would not survive the month–she did. Then it was six months, then a year…she had outlived all their dour predictions! The latest prognosis came from a specialist who had grimly announced that Gillie would not reach her twelfth birthday.
“We’ll just see about that!” Sylvia spoke defiantly, then looking up through the trees she whispered a prayer, “I trust in you, dear Lord.”
“Well, we’d best get you down for your nap, honey.” said Sylvia, setting her daughter down to her feet, then taking her by the hand.
“How’s she doing, Ma?” asked Will as he carried a crate of pots and pans up onto the porch.
“She’s just fine, Will. I’m going to put her down for her nap, then start setting up the kitchen,” Sylvia replied, following Gillie as she toddled up the three steps to the wide front porch.
“Let me get rid of this, Ma, then I’ll put her down and you can have a rest.” Will suggested, depositing the crate on the kitchen floor.
“Very well, Will. I could use a nap before your pa get’s back from his meeting.” Sylvia leaned down to Gillie, “You go with your brother, Gillie. He’ll tuck you in for nappy-time.”
Gillie started to jump up and down with her arms outstretched, “Up, up, Will!” she squealed.
As Sylvia made her way to the new bedroom she would now share with her husband, Will scooped Gillie up into his arms. “You’re getting heavier, little bug!” he teased, as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Ma’s gonna have to stop giving you so many cookies!”
“Gee cookie!” she answered, pointing to the kitchen.
“You can have one after your nap!” replied Will in a cheerful voice, as he carried Gillie into the bedroom she shared with Donny and Danny.
Setting Gillie down in the bottom bunk-bed with her favorite blanket and her raggedy stuffed bunny, Will gave her a kiss on the cheek, closed the bedroom door and went back outside to finish unloading the wagon.
The Wallace family had now been settled in their Bridal Veil home for five months and were experiencing their first winter in the gorge. They had been accustomed to the dry-cold of Boise winters, where the mercury would regularly dip into the teens, and where snow was measured in feet–however, winter in the gorge was far more severe. It was nearly impossible to keep the biting chill from seeping into the cabin. Even with a blazing fire in the hearth at the center of the great-room, the family was forced to dress in layers of heavy clothing, as the east wind barreled through the gorge with freezing rain and ice pellets. They had never experienced the howling winds, and ice-coated tree-limbs that rattled around them. Blowing ice and snow managed to find its through invisible cracks and crevasses around the window frame and between the logs on the eastern side of the cabin, so the family tore up bits of cloth to stuff between the gaps. The region’s typical winter seldom skimmed below twenty-degrees, yet to the skin–the temperature felt like well below zero.
Having been shut up in the cabin for several days, when the weather finally broke, Patrick and Silvia decided to take their children out for some fresh air. They bundled up in their overcoats, caps, and gloves, and opening the cabin door, they gasped at the spectacular beauty left behind by the storm. The sky had cleared to a crystal blue dome overhead, and all around them, the afternoon sun shimmered through ice-laden trees.
With Silvia carrying Gillie, Patrick holding Danny’s hand, and the other three scouting out ahead, they hiked down the winding trail to Bride’s Falls, now frozen nearly solid, with a mere trickle of moving water encased between great sheaths of ice that clung to the cliffs and boulders above. The frozen falls glistened in startling shades of blue and deep aqua as sunlight and warming temperatures began to melt the topmost layer.
“Look at that, boys!” Patrick exclaimed, whistling thinly between his teeth. “Never seen anything like this in Boise, have we?”
“No, Pa!” the boys replied, craning their necks. “Nothing like this back home!”
“Oh, Pat, it is so beautiful!” Sylvia exclaimed. The blue ice is the color of our Gillie’s eyes!
Patrick sidled up alongside his wife and smiled down at his daughter’s face. Against the contrast of blue sky and ice, with her black hair and pale complexion, she reminded him of the Grimm brother’s Snow White.
“What do you think, Gillie?” he asked her, taking hold of her mittened hand. “Is it pretty here?”
“Snow, Papa!” Gillie squealed happily.
Patrick recalled how hard his wife had taken the news when they had first been told of Gillie’s illness. Both he and his wife and been scared to death of losing her, and had treated her like a piece of fine china, always protecting her; warning the boys that they must be gentle with their little sister. The family was a little more relaxed now, where Gillie was concerned. She still required special care, but Patrick and Sylvia were more inclined to let her enjoy as normal a childhood as possible.
Placing his arm around his wife’s shoulder, Patrick remarked, “I believe it is good–us moving here, Sylvia. I know it’s a big change, but I believe this is where God want’s us to be. It feels right…you know?”
Sylvia smiled up at her husband and nodded, “I had my doubts at first, Pat. But I’m starting to feel at home here too.”
The couple exchanged a kiss as the boys became antsy, rough-housing along the path.
“Pa, can I take the boys exploring?” Will asked, as red-headed seven-and-a-half year-old Donny hurled a snowball right in his face.
Laughing, Patrick replied, “Go head, but stay on the path and get back here when I call you!” Patrick warned his three older sons. “Will, I’m counting on you to look after your brothers.”
“Sure, Pa!” said Will, as he squared his shoulders and hiked his rifle strap up onto his shoulder, proud to take on adult responsibilities.
As the three older boys went off on their own, Patrick tilted his head back to survey the ice-sculpted beauty of the falls and questioned his youngest son, who had stayed behind, along with Sylvia and Gillie. “Do you see the lady’s face in the ice, Danny?”
The pastor pursed his lips in thought, mildly amused by the tales of the falls and its curious legends. He had quickly discovered that the townsfolk took those stories seriously, and he wondered how intelligent adults had been convinced that a ghostly bride and her maidens haunted those woods.
About a half mile off the main path and down the hill from the falls, hidden away in the thickest and darkest part of the forest, there stood a circle of white birch trees. Now shorn of their green leaves, their bare white branches dipped low to the ground under the weight of a thick layer of ice. A small lake shone in the center of the grove, iced over and frosted silver. As a cold mist rolled across the lake and swirled around the the birch, an eerie wind howled overhead. The atmosphere was gray, weighted and gloomy, for the surrounding tall cedars, spruce and pine, allowed in very little natural light. The sun was seldom seen in the birch grove, neither the light of stars. Only the moon’s cool twilight occasionally filtered into that gray world.
Suddenly, three boys poked their way through the heavy underbrush, their voices an excited whisper as they came upon the circle of birch. Their cheeks were red with the cold as they cautiously stooped behind a large evergreen shrub to survey the area.
“Where are we at?” Sean asked, leaning into his older brother’s ear.
“I don’t know,” whispered Will, looking up into the blank sky. “I’ve never seen this place before.”
Donny held onto his brother’s hand and began to sniff. “I don’t like it here, Will.”
“Me either!” agreed fourteen year old Sean. “Lets get out of here! This place gives me the creeps.”
“Yeah, Will,” Donny put in. “Pa’s gonna have your hide for dragging us off the trail!”
“Stop acting like such big babies!” Will scolded. “You stay here and wait for me if you want, but I’m gonna have a look around.”
As Will crept out from the brush and darted toward the shelter of a tall fir, the other two remained hidden in the bushes, their eyes fastened on their brother.
“What’s he doing?” Donny asked Sean, tugging on his coat sleeve.”
“Shhhhh!” Sean replied.
All at once, a shotgun went off in the back woods! The boys scrambled to their feet and called out for their brother. Will yanked the rifle down from his shoulder, turned and motioned for them to stay put, but spun back around when a second shot was fired. There was a great commotion in the underbrush as branches hissed and cracked. Will expected to see a hunter emerge from the wood, but instead, he watched in awe as a great elk leapt at least six feet high from out of the forest, rose up on it’s hind legs and bugled with an ear-shattering shriek. The beast was crowned by the largest rack he had ever seen. Will stood with his mouth gaping open as it galloped majestically across the lake, snow flying from beneath its feet as it bounded straight toward him. Suddenly, a third shot was fired, and Will could only stare in horror as the elk was brought down to its fore-legs, then tumbled over onto its side, forecasting a thunderous vibration through the ice. Squinting his eyes, Will searched for the hunter, ready to to shoot the man for bringing down this glorious creature–but there were no more shots and no hunter to be seen–only that beautiful fallen beast, lying on its side, its hind legs jerking violently. Stunned by the shooting, Will darted out from the ring of trees and ran onto the frozen lake. The elk snorted cold vapor and gasped for breath as a wide pool of dark blood seeped from underneath its body. Will had hunted with his pa plenty of times and had shot his share of deer, but something about this injured creature moved him to tears. He cautiously approached it, knelt down and bent low over its head, looking into the animal’s large eyes where he sensed a profound suffering. He knew the elk was done for, and the only thing to do was to put it out of its misery. He drew in several long breaths and rose to his feet. Slowly, he aimed the rifle, cocked the hammer and squeezed the trigger…but it wouldn’t budge. Taking a step backward, Will examined the gun. After a few moments of poking and prodding, trying to unlock the trigger, he announced, “It’s jammed!”
Will hooked the strap over his arm and glanced down at the elk as it fought for its life. He turned his head and urgently addressed his brothers, “Go get Pa now, Sean. My gun is jammed, so Pa’s gonna have to do it! Take Donny with you! I’ll stay here with the elk.”
Sean did as he was told, grabbed his younger brother’s hand and ran back into the forest, disappearing through the ring of white birch.
“It’s alright,” Will spoke soothingly to the elk. He knelt back down on the ice, careful not to touch it as it continued to thrash and snort pitifully. “My pa will be here soon.”
He rubbed his hands together nervously as the quiet of the grove began to unnerve him. A sinister presence hovered about the place as he raised his eyes and surveyed the stark, winter landscape. There was no sound or movement, not a branch creaked nor was there a breath of wind . He remained still for some moments, listening for the hoot of an owl or other natural sounds one would expect to hear in the woods…but the the gray silence was thick around him.
As he gazed up into the cold empty sky, wondering whether he should leave or stay, he was chilled to the bone when a peculiar noise drew his attention away from the elk. It was unlike anything he had ever heard; an unsettling combination of the cries of a weeping woman and a wounded animal. Perhaps it was an animal native only to this part of the country, in any case–he did not like the sound of it.
Through his peripheral vision, he spotted movement in the trees and huffed a shallow breath, holding his body very still. He thought perhaps the hunter had returned to claim his kill, but several minutes passed with no further sound or interruption. As Will continued to question who or what he had seen, the elk suddenly lifted its great head, then dropped it back down to the ice with a deep, guttural moan. Will hated leaving the elk to its suffering, but he sensed danger. He stretched to his feet and prepared to make his exit, then blinked his eyes in disbelief, for there, on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful dark-haired girl dressed in a long white gown. She carried a bouquet of pale roses, and stood very still, looking straight at him. Transparent white silk veiled her face and trailed down the back of her dress, but even from that distance, he could see the sorrow in her expression. Her eyes stared ahead from a visage of fragile beauty–then suddenly, she opened her mouth with a cry that shook him to his core.
“Free me!” pleaded the girl, her eyes glossy with tears. “I beg you…free me from this torment!”
He was struck by a sadness so profound that he feared it would kill him as she held her arms out before her, beckoning him to cross the lake. He knew he should wait for his pa. He knew also that he should not cross that lake, but he could not resist the girl’s sad eyes or the urgency of her message. Rising to his feet, Will closed his eyes and managed to take one step forward, but was stopped short as the voice of his father barked out from behind.
“Will, step back from the beast!” Patrick shouted.
After what had seemed like an hour or more, Patrick Wallace and the rest of his family emerged from the forest into the strange white wood. Wearing a stern expression, Patrick ordered his eldest son, “Move away from him slowly, Will…he might be dangerous!”
Shocked back to reality, Will observed that the girl had simply vanished. As if he had awakened from a dream, he turned again to the dying elk at his feet and was reminded of its grave suffering. After a few moments of collecting his thoughts, he released a deep breath then answered, “He’s hurt real bad, Pa!”
“It’s alright, Son,” said Patrick, kneeling down next to Will as the other four children and their mother remained back on the shore. “I’ll put him out of his misery. You go take care of your ma and the babies. It will be over quickly, Will. I promise.”
Forcing the pretty girl from his mind, Will looked up at his father’s face with undisguised admiration. Patrick Wallace hunted for food, never for sport, and Will could see the compassion in his eyes as the wounded elk continued to struggle. He knew his father would do the right thing, turned around and made his way to the shore.
Sylvia stood back at a safe distance , alert and protective over her children, with Gillie held tightly against her chest. Danny, Donny, and Sean, stayed close as she explained what had happened and why the elk must be put down. Donny wondered why they couldn’t bring him back to the cabin and make him a family pet, while Gillie laid her head on her mother’s shoulder, oblivious of the elk’s fate.
The moment Will turned his back to join his family, the shot rang loudly through the forest. Silence followed the gunshot as Patrick Wallace hiked his rifle strap over his shoulder and scuffed back across the lake.
“We just gonna leave him there, Pa?” Sean asked.
Patrick looked each of his sons in the eye and nodded his head, “I’m afraid so, for tonight,boys. It’ll be dark soon, and he’s much too heavy to drag off the ice, even with you boys helping out. We’ll hitch up the horses first thing in the morning and bring him back in the wagon.” he said, patting Will on the back, then added under his breath, “that is, if the wolves don’t get to him first.”
Will couldn’t bring himself to look at the dead elk. Bending his head down, he pulled the cap lower over his head and without a word, followed his father and brothers out of the birch wood.
Will had said nothing to his family about what he had seen in the woods, but that night he dreamt of the girl whose face and form would not leave his heart. When he awoke the next morning it was still dark, but a weak half-moon emitted dusty blue light through the window. He rose up out of bed and dressed quickly, grabbing his pistol and a lantern. Stepping quietly across the hardwoods, he kept an eye on his parent’s bedroom door as he left the cabin. He had to know the fate of the elk, but more importantly–he must see the girl again! He needed to know if she had been real or a hallucination, and if she was real, she was clearly in danger!. There was no doubt in his mind that those woods were haunted. He had felt the strange atmosphere from the moment they had stepped into the birch grove, but as he thought back on yesterday’s events–he felt no fear in connection with her.
The half-moon and accompanying starlight faded as the night sky slowly began to lighten. Will made his way down the snow-covered trail, lantern in hand and the pistol tucked inside his belt. A knot formed in his stomach as he contemplated the outcome of that journey, knowing only that he must somehow free the dark-haired girl from her torments.
The woods had been alive with the sound of night creatures on the way down to the falls, but the moment he stepped into the birch grove–again, the place was devoid of sound or movement. As he looked overhead he saw no stars, and the moon, clearly visible outside the grove, was no more than a white smudge behind gauzy gray clouds.
The snow crunched beneath his boots as he trudged out into the open, but suddenly, he came to a dead stop and his jaw dropped in shock. The elk was gone! With no thought for his safety, Will rushed out to where the elk had fallen and held the lantern over the exact location. Not only was the beast missing–there was no evidence that it had ever been there! Remains of the carcass would have been scattered about had the wolves gotten to it–but the ice was clean! No trail of blood or bones. Nothing!
He raised his eyes and shined the lantern through a wall of mist, trying figure out what had become of the animal’s body. How could it have simply vanished? And what of the girl? he questioned. There was no sign of her either, but he had seen her as clear as day, and he was determined to find her. He felt an uneasy chill edge up his spine as he parted the veil of mist and started out for the far shore.
Will was uncertain of what he was looking for as he scuffed across the frozen lake and arrived on the other side. There was no sign of life in any direction. Grabbing hold of the butt of his pistol, he set out to walk the perimeter of the lake.
Snow began to fall, light at first, but growing heavier by the moment, making it difficult to see. By now the sky had lightened to a dull gray, so Will stopped and set the lantern down. Spotting a well-traveled path that led through the birch and into the surrounding forest, he decided to explore in that direction, hoping to find the dark-haired girl. He’d gone no more than a few feet when an armed man appeared on the rise, about fifty yards ahead. Before he was seen, Will quickly dove into the brush and ducked his head low, not anxious to make this fellow’s acquaintance until he knew who he was and what he was doing there. Was he the one who had felled the elk? Did he live around those parts? He was certainly not a resident of Bridal Veil. Generally, Will would have greeted him and gone on about his business, but something about this man did not sit right with him.
As the man charged past his hiding place, Will turned just in time to see someone else coming down the path. The heavy snowfall made it difficult to make out who it was, but as they came nearer, Will saw that it was a female dressed in white. The breath caught in his throat, when at first he presumed it to be the the girl he had seen last night, for she was dressed in an identical gown and flowing white veil. However, as she came closer, he could see that she was clearly not the dark-haired beauty who had haunted his dreams. This girl had lighter hair, was larger of build, and taller. It made no sense that she was obviously in pursuit of the hunter, and Will observed, dumbfounded, as she seemed to float past him, her feet not even touching the ground! His gaze followed the action as the girl chased the hunter out onto the lake, then he whipped his head around as another girl, and then three or four more dressed identically, came rushing down the path from the forest. He hoped to see her among them…but she was not.
As he watched this unlikely drama unfold, the impossibility of what he had witnessed began to spook him. The cold ground beneath his feet was real. The snow pelting his face and jacket was real. It was not a dream–so he must be losing his mind. That was the only explanation that made sense. All at once, shrill voices invaded the odd silence of that grove as another group of young women came floating by, each one emitting the same loud weeping and wailing song he had heard yesterday. The song of the wailing women permeated the forest, voices so fraught with sorrow that one could not bear them! Will took note that these girls were all different, having varying shades of hair color and unique facial features. They were accompanied by tiny, bright lights that flitted through the trees and around the girls, lighting upon their faces and hair like glittering jewels.
As the girls continued their procession, he could sense the same intense sorrow he had felt from the dark-haired girl–but he sensed something else too. Something dark and angry–something violent.
Will poked his head up long enough to see that the entire lake had been surrounded by the girls in white, and there, at the center, stood the dazed hunter, a look of terror on his handsome features. He noticed for the first time, a dark coldness in the eyes of these women who looked upon the hunter with obvious hatred. Finally, as Will gazed across the circle, he spotted his dark-haired beauty! She waited with the others, her eyes seeming to stare into nothing. He wanted to call out to her, let her know that he had come to free her, but instead he remained hidden, looking for an opportunity to speak with her alone.
The hunter remained at the center of the lake, still and silent, then suddenly, the women in white turned their heads in Will’s direction! At first he thought they had seen him, and was relieved when it became clear that they were looking past him to something else. Will situated himself for an easier view and turned his head, curious to see for himself what had drawn the attention of the strange assembly.
There, at the top of the rise, was the magnificent elk that had been shot by the hunter! It stood ten-feet tall as it reared up on its hind legs and bugled a powerful call that echoed throughout the forest. Will had never seen such a beautiful beast! With a horned rack of eight tines to each antler, and a lush reddish neck-mane furring its broad chest–the beast postured regally. Remembering that with his own eyes he had seen the blood and had witnessed its suffering, Will could only stare in awe. Now, here it stood before him, alive!
He couldn’t grasp how it had gone from being dead one day, and then alive the next…but he was convinced that he was not mad after all. Something supernatural was going on here. A cold shiver knifed through him as the elk proceeded slowly down the path. Its head lifted high, it paused near Will’s hiding place, and he very nearly bit his tongue to keep from crying out as the beast turned its great-horned head to look directly down at him. With eyes that held intelligence and a subtle glint of red, the elk appeared to regard him kindly. Will felt small and insignificant under the beast’s uncanny gaze, and looked away.
He finally expelled the breath he had been holding in as the elk turned back onto the path and trotted down to the shore. The women separated their ranks as it passed through their circle and proceeded to the center of the ice, where the huntsman stood shaking in his boots, as white as a ghost. The little lights that had accompanied the women, now swarmed the elk in great numbers, whirring trails of light around its ears and antlers.
It looked to Will as if the elk was communicating with the huntsman, who lowered his head, then dropped to his knees in an attitude of supplication. The circle of women began to chant–softly at first–then growing louder and more shrill until their voices rose in unison, shaking icicles down from the trees! Their lovely female features suddenly transformed into burning eyes and sharp teeth, their white gowns into gray, ragged grave-clothes.
Will tried to make out what the women were saying, but the noise was too much for him, so he covered his ears and continued to observe what appeared to be some sort of ritual. Overhead, the sky took on a bloody hue–not romantic like a sunset, but ominous, turning the lake and forest an angry red. Tree branches began to resemble sharp, gnarled claws, and Will saw several pair of eyes, glowing in the deep woods, as all manner of creatures hissed and growled.
These strange events were happening so fast that Will’s thoughts were utterly disjointed. Yesterday he had gone on an ordinary hike with his family, and today he was privy to a supernatural world he had no idea even existed! Nothing made sense! What was this elk? The women in white seemed to worship it like some sort of king or god? And who was the hunter? Why was he being subjected to this dark gathering? Who were these women–were they even human? How had he gotten mixed up in these strange goings-on? He considered making his move to get out there and head back to his family, but fear had paralyzed him and made it difficult to come to a decision.
No. He would stay and see the outcome, then make his escape when the assembly disbanded. He would forget about the dark-haired girl. He would forget all he had seen and go back to the real world where there was a clear blue sky, Sunday dinners, and his family. Closing his eyes, Will made himself take deep, even breaths. He must remain calm so he could think clearly.
On and on the women wailed as the elk turned away from the huntsman and sauntered back to shore. It raised its head haughtily, and its eyes changed to red hot coals as it struck the ice with its front foot. Will watched, horrified, as small fissures appeared in the frozen lake, then expanded into wide cracks that worked their way toward the center.
Will began to feel sick to his stomach, knowing what was in store for this man and that there was nothing he could do to stop it. A gun was useless in world like this. He felt pressure in his ears, his vision began to blur and his heart raced. He blinked his eyes repeatedly to clear them, determined to hold himself together long enough to get out of there–but he wondered now if he ever would.
The elk reared up on its hind legs as the tiny lights twittered and chirped, spinning strings of light as fine as spider silk around its body. The elk then appeared to be melting–blurring, like a jar of water colors all swirled together. Its antlers vanished, and glowing white hair materialized in long silky strands that stood up on end like a crackling white fire. The bestial features began to change into the softer structure of a female face, having a human nose, mouth, and chin. Gone was the four-legged beast that had been the elk, and there in it’s place stood a terrifyingly beautiful woman dressed in a long white gown, whose skin shone like the silver scales of a fish, and whose eyes flashed like red gemstones. Those who encircled the lake bowed before her, as she opened her mouth to speak in a voice that chilled Will to his bones.
“You there, huntsman! Hear my words! You who have been unfaithful to your bride…you who have cared nothing for her fragile soul…and you who show no mercy! You have been tried by this court and have been found guilty! Therefore, I, Queen Vanessa hold you solely responsible for her death, a death you caused as surely as if you had shot her in the heart!”
“It was said she died of a fever–but that is a lie!” the witch bellowed bitterly “She died of a broken heart!! No heaven for her! No final reward for her suffering and loyalty. No children or grand children from her womb! You have doomed her to wander these forlorn shores, suspended between the veils of life and death for all eternity!”
“She died alone, shunned…with no family or loved ones to mourn her passing. We are now her family! These are her sisters, and I, Queen Vanessa–the witch of the birch wood, I am her mother! She is under my protection!”
“It is I, who lured you to this wood–and it is I who will make you pay for her death!”
Queen Vanessa, then raised her arm, pointed a taloned finger at the huntsman and proclaimed, “I now sentence you to death! You will join your treacherous brothers in the grave of a thousand human bones at the bottom of this lake…the gateway to hell!!”
The huntsman was seized by terror and pleaded for his life, but it was too late. In a matter of moments, as the bride-song reached an ear-shattering screech, there was a great roaring of ice and water, as large chunks of ice broke away. The huntsman was seen no more, and in the blink of an eye, the lake was again, frozen over.