Everyone had an agenda, and was it really only coincidence that they all came together in the same village nestled in the ancient Taconic Mountains? Completely involved with their own pursuits, the visitors were unaware of older agendas within the dying town and on the ridges of the brooding mountain with its secrets, dark mysteries, and the seemingly ageless Boudine Sisters.
And if the result could sometimes be laced with humor and absurdity, it was always tempered by this truth: sometimes, deep in the heart of the New England mountains, something is going on, something at once lighter than air and darker than starless night.
Spring came slowly to Bakers Mountain. Black Brook was swelled with melted snow while at the same time as much as a foot of snow still lingered on the north slopes and in the dells and gullies where the sun was an infrequent visitor. A bank of mist hung above the stream where the warmer air mixed with the crusty snow and the pockets of ice that remained along the banks. But the melodic two-note spring song of the chickadees had already replaced the winter lisp as the small birds flitted in search of food from tree to tree through the woods.
Ariel Boudine listened with pleasure to the sounds of the water and the birds as she walked along the stream in the early morning light. She knelt to touch one of the purple trilliums, those secretive harbinger of Spring, that push their way up between the rocky crevices. If it had been a white trillium, Ariel might have picked it to bring back to the cabin. But the purple ones, for all their beauty, had an unpleasant smell. Oddly enough, the leafy green plant called skunk cabbage that also appeared now along the stream, had little odor in comparison.
Ariel continued to watch for white trillium because she longed to bring some color into their austere cabin. She had gone into the swamp lower down the mountain at the beginning of the winter to gather cranberries. She had brought back enough to make sauces and juice, with enough left over to dry and hang in bundles on the walls. But they were faded now. Still, Ariel knew it would not be long till the showy wild geraniums would throw out their petals in the small clearings all over the mountain. They were Tara’s favorite wild flower. And soon after, Black Brook would be warm enough for Tara to immerse herself for hours in its dark waters. Tara had seldom wanted to leave the cabin over the winter.
Ariel had little trouble keeping Tara comfortable. She was not in great pain, and a daily dose of willow bark tea had generally been enough to keep any pain at bay. If she was restless at night, there was valerian or lavender to take her back into her dreams. Were those dreams strange or different now that Tara was in the final stages? Ariel would watch her in the evening in the firelight that made Tara’s eyes shine as though giving off a light of their own. It seemed she never blinked and she would respond only when Ariel would sit beside her and rest her hand on her arm as she spoke to her. Tara seemed empty somehow and it was up to Ariel to shape their days. Even at night, Tara seemed to want sleep as little as she wanted food or even conversation, and Ariel would lead her to bed finally and massage Tara’s body long and gently with a mixture of witch hazel and sage, staying with her until sleep finally came. Yet even in sleep, Tara’s breathing remained shallow and rapid and she might awaken later with drenching night sweats.
When Ariel was sure Tara was asleep she would leave the bed and sit by the south window on those nights when the moonbeams fell across the floor and the snow outside came alive with dancing jewel-like pinpoints of light. She would breath deeply and let the stillness wash over her sadness and apprehension. Because Tara was fading—dying some would say—and perhaps both terms were equally true. They might not have another winter together and so, as Ariel sat by the window, the snow became as much a thing of bitter melancholy as of beauty. Sometimes Ariel could smell the lingering scent of the lavender oil on her hands and reluctantly remember how Tara’s ribs and hipbones were feeling more prominent as time went on and her lithe firm body was gradually feeling more like a breakable toy beneath Ariel’s massaging hands. Even with her feather-light touch, Ariel knew Tara sometimes felt pain, but doubtless the comfort of touch outweighed this; at least Ariel hoped it did.
Determined to dispel these dark night thoughts, Ariel left the trillium where it was and left the stream, walking a short distance through the woods to the grove of handsome sugar maples. Ariel had put in more taps than usual this year, fashioned from hollowed
out elderberry branches. Tara’s waning appetite could still be tempted by sweetness and Ariel was determined there would be enough maple syrup for whatever time was left. This early in the morning, no sap was running yet into the hanging buckets. But with the promise of a sunny warm day ahead, Ariel would be back later to collect the sweet watery sap. Without Tara to help, Ariel had found it wearying work to gather the prodigious amounts of wood necessary to boil down the sap into syrup and sugar. She took one of the buckets that had a small amount of sap in it from yesterday’s run. Bending forward she poured the watery liquid into her thick jet-black hair, knowing as the Indians had, that it is the finest hair and scalp wash that nature offers. She shook out the excess moisture and pushed her hair back. Trickles of moisture rolled down the back of her neck and refreshed her.
On her way back to the cabin, Ariel stopped at the bridge. This bridge was a special place for the Boudines because they had built it themselves from some fine ash trees that grew along the bank. At first it had been a simple affair of long logs across the stream, with short split pieces fastened between them for the walkway. But as time went on they added rails along the sides and then a roof thatched with slabs of birch bark. Finally they had added benches in the middle of the bridge where they could sit and let Black Brook swirl and race beneath them, until after a while it would feel like they themselves were in motion, rushing upstream toward the source of these healing waters.
Now, in the Spring runoff, the water leaped up toward the ash logs and sometimes threw fine spray up onto the walkway. By Summer it would have a gentler but still substantial flow. Upstream a ways from the cabin, they had piled rocks across the water, slowing it down enough to form a wide deep pool, where cress would grow abundantly for their salads. Beyond the floating beds of cress was the high falls that plunged into a deep pool below. This was where they bathed and swam. Soon Tara would be spending hours in the water each day; Ariel prayed it would rejuvenate her as it had the year before...not completely of course...but...
Ariel walked out onto the bridge, feeling the spray wash over her feet. Along the banks, the vibrant green of the skunk cabbage contrasted garishly against the gray and brown of the rocks. Soon there would be pussy willows for the taking when there was time to search them out in the swamp. She hoped Tara might be well enough for them to go together as they always had.
A gust of wind blew down the stream bed and Ariel’s hair whipped across her face. Absently she brushed it aside but not before she had seen a few strands of gray that were just beginning to fleck her black tresses. It might have been those barely visible flecks of gray that led people to surmise that Ariel was the older of the two sisters. It wasn’t true, but the mistake was understandable because pale, strawberry-blonde Tara had such a childlike quality that had remained unchanged. Tara was the tawny deer; Ariel the somber raven. But it was Tara who was dying...or fading...or departing. Yet Ariel felt a stubborn refusal to believe this might be their last Spring together. She would find a way, and she kicked defiantly at a clump of last year’s dead leaves that had been deposited on the bridge by the racing stream beneath her.
Across the bridge and up on a small knoll set back in the trees, smoke curled lazily from the chimney of their cabin and the delicious scent of birch logs incensed the air. Bluejays were already cackling in the nearby trees, preparing to swoop down with a squabbling din as they would battle over the crumbs and seeds the sisters scattered by the front porch each morning. When the jays departed, purple finches, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches would quietly scavenge for what was left. Ariel admired their cabin from a distance with its split cedar siding giving a pleasing, wavy appearance. The corner posts stood as straight and true as they ever had and their enormous woodpile nestled cozily under the overhanging roof on the south side of the cabin where it would catch the most of the weak winter sun.
The cabin was much like Randle Marsh’s cabin down near the foot of the mountain. That was understandable; the sisters had mercifully helped him build it many years ago. When he first came to the mountain, Randle’s first attempt at cabin building had been
moderately to severely pathetic. It began to leak in short order and to lean precariously shortly after that. His outhouse was a better effort and would have been quite serviceable for the purpose had he not constructed it practically on top of two very lively anthills.
Yet none of this deterred Randle who was determined to make Bakers Mountain his home and who would treat it with love and reverence his entire life. The Boudine sisters soon understood this as they often watched him pass nearby in his long rambles through the woods. He passed near their cabin any number of times without imposing on their privacy. A couple of times they had even allowed him to see them. When he did, he tipped his hat, said “good morning,” and discreetly went on his way. It was this wonderful discretion that led the sisters to travel down the mountain almost every day for a month and a half to give Randle a hand building a fine new cabin. They had a lovely bonfire one evening with Randle as they burned down the infested outhouse and drank wild grape wine together. When they replaced the outhouse, they showed him how to construct gutters that would guide rainwater into suspended barrels and from there into an honest-to-god flush toilet. After that, they met more often and they taught him other things that had stood him in good stead during his long life on the mountain. He in turn had given them good company and made them laugh with his gentle humor and sometimes bumbling ways. Folks in Cedar Falls became aware of this strange alliance and were hardly surprised.
“Odd folk will sure as shootin’ find one another and no mistake,” Emma Bailey once commented, even before the events that had led to the demise of her Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which, by the way, ran about a hundred and fifty dollars. But now Randle was older and illness had entered his body. He did not get out and about as much these days, and of course with Tara as she was, neither did the sisters.
Again a gust of wind came from the south, a harbinger of rain later in the day. Ariel caught at her hair as it blew across her face and again she curiously noted the flecks of gray. How long had it been like that? Their bathing pool below the falls, or else the windows of their cabin served as their only mirrors, and of course
they showed no color. She let her hair go and shivered slightly, whether from the wind or from the vague disquiet she always felt now, a disquiet that sometimes threatened to well up into fear. Was it anxiety about going back into the cabin, to be reminded again what was happening to Tara? Or was it the knowledge that the same must happen to herself one day, when she too would be called to enter into the full moon mists?
She left the bridge reluctantly and decided that, smelly or not, she would gather a large handful of the purple trilliums before returning to the cabin. It was time to welcome Spring; time to rouse Tara as best she could; time to banish these stray disturbing thoughts that hovered around her as unwelcome visitors.
Inside the cabin, Tara was wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the wicker couch in front of the fire, a cup of tea in her small hands. Ariel walked over and placed a trillium in Tara’s hair above her left ear. Tara laughed as Ariel’s cool hand tickled her ear and then tossed the rest of the flowers into the air, some falling on Tara and others sailing out across the floor. Ariel sat close to Tara and together they shared the mint tea as they watched the fire dance on the fragrant birch logs. Sparks spit noisily off the logs and disappeared lazily up the chimney.
Ariel watched to make sure Tara was drinking the tea, and then abruptly asked, “Do I seem older to you, Tara?”
“How do you mean?”
“My face...my face...my hair...my...everything. Outside this morning, I could see the gray in my hair again, as if I am seeing something that was apart from myself. It wasn’t the first time of course, but this time I became cold all over and afraid.”
Tara reached up playfully and curled a strand of Ariel’s dark hair around her finger. “You can hardly see it; it’s just a touch of dawn coming into your tresses of night. You should welcome it like the dawn.”
Ariel tried to share Tara’s lightness but failed and looked away again. Outside the jays continued to battle noisily for crumbs beyond the front porch. Tara reached out again for Ariel’s hand to regain her attention.
“Time runs differently here in this place we live and in this life we lead. But time finally touches even us. Does that frighten you? You’ve always known it.”
Ariel felt suddenly small and vain. “I’m sorry. How can I be speaking of my stupid hair? I don’t know why I did...forgive me.”
Tara smiled. “It is because you must now look ahead, beyond me, and you are feeling sad and guilty that you already are.”
Ariel looked down again at her hands but after a moment faced Tara’s bright eyes again. “It’s just that if you really are...fading...and if I am to grow old already, then I can’t help wondering if I am ever to have another companion. Perhaps your departure is to be the end of it.”
“Of course not, dear one. What we are and what we do must continue, and it will. Why would it end now? Just because a Spring day finds you with your hair changing? The world changes all around us daily, does it not?”
Ariel felt stung. “You see me as small and foolish.”
“No, I find you frightened as all living creatures are from time to time. Do you forget that long ago I was in the place you are now?”
Ariel nodded. “Do you remember the one who was before me? We never speak of her.”
Tara did not answer right away, and for the first time this morning, she looked away herself. The birds were gone now and the morning had become very still. Only the muffled sound of Black Brook could be heard and even the fire was silent as it had burned down to shimmering embers.
“I remember her now only in dreams. And I see other faces as well. I believe they are the others who have dwelt here long before us. Do you never have dreams such as those?”
Tara hesitated and then squeezed Ariel’s hand. “There is more. Lately I’ve dreamed of one who has never come into my dreams before.”
Ariel caught her breath and her own voice sounded far away to her when she spoke. “Do you believe this is the face of the one to come after you?”
Tara nodded. “And I wonder sometimes if she dreams of me. Or of you and of this place. I feel her moving toward us even now, though she would not know this yet.”
Ariel felt a chill pass through her body and she instinctively pressed in closer to Tara who was deliciously warm beneath her blanket. Emotions and memories flooded in on her. They were silent together for long minutes. Finally Ariel rose and placed two pieces of split birch onto the embers.
Without looking back she said, “I wish I had dreams like you. If I dream, I don’t remember them.”
“Perhaps your time of dreaming is yet to come.” “I would wish to dream of you when it happens.” “I would want that also.”
Ariel nodded, her wet eyes still on the fire where the highly flammable birch bark was already blazing merrily, brighter even than the sunlight slanting in through the window. Spring was here, Ariel thought, and Tara still lingered on the mountain. And soon there would be fresh medicines sprouting up in the forest and swamps. If Tara was fading, perhaps the time of lingering could be prolonged. As much as Tara was the mistress of dreams and memories, Ariel was the keeper of the mountain’s bounty and the mountain’s secrets. Perhaps she had yet to find them all. She would try harder. She moved in closer against the warmth of Tara’s body.