Meanderings

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? 50?”

“Picture your ideal life…what does it look like?”

“What’s your goal for your….everything?”

“What do you mean you didn’t have your entire life planned out in crystalline detail and scheduled to the minute by the time you graduated kindergarten?”

Excuse me, I have to go lie down on the floor and have an existential meltdown; I don’t know if I’m having a second cup of coffee this morning and this failure of basic organizational planning skills may cause calamitous financial and structural ruin. It might also be known to cause cancer in the State of California, and I don’t know if that’s just California specifically or if I need to be concerned about this in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and I’m not caffeinated enough to deal with that level of responsibility this early in the morning.

“Art Is Always Political! Art Is About Passion And Deep Feelings And Grand World-Changing Insights! Anything Less Isn’t Art. (also, don’t expect to get paid for bringing meaning to the world, freeloader, get a real job)”

Can’t art just be for the sake of being? Why does it have to be load-bearing and responsible for the course of the world and all of history? Look, I’m a small, anxious mammal who can barely manage to be the god of my own immediate biosphere. I just want to share the random shiny things my magpie heart thought were neat, not be responsible for saving the world. Or destroying it, either, for that matter, because I guess that’s something else that artists are supposed to do?

“What do you DO?!?”

I…I don’t know? I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling a lot? I look out the window and watch the wind walk through the trees like a great, unseen being passing by the small, soft animals of the woods, uncaring of schedules or the shifting quicksand of societal expectations, and wish I had wings to fly alongside it, even for just a moment. Sometimes I make pictures with a paste made from water and crushed up rock powder, or string bits of glass or shiny stones together. Sometimes I scratch small tales onto a bit of bark that I found while following a moth down a moonlit road because they made me smile. Sometimes I keep them, and sometimes I leave them lying around for others to find, and hope they make them smile, too. Sometimes someone finds them and takes my offerings and goes on their way. Sometimes they pause and leave a piece of shiny metal or brightly dyed fabric that I can trade to someone else for food. Sometimes they tell others where the offerings are, and they come and see, and maybe also leave a bit of metal or cloth for me to trade for food.

Most of the time, though, I worry that I’m not really an artist because I don’t write Deep Social Commentary and my art isn’t about Big Important Feelings and I forget that I poured a second cup of coffee and now it’s sitting on the counter, cooled to that annoying temperature where it tastes like ashes and now I have to decide if I’m going to make another cup before I go stare at a blank piece of paper and hope that today is one of the days where I can ignore the voices that whisper and gibber in my ear that I’m Not Real Enough and should change my name and run away to be a cashier at a rest stop gas station in the middle of the night with the other ghosts and liminal creatures…

An Ambiguous Mood In Images

While in NH recently, I stopped by my old ocean stomping grounds and took some photos. There’s a story in this series somewhere, though I haven’t quite found it yet. The sound of the waves and the reeds creaking in the sea breeze overlays them, and they, too, are part of the story…

Road Lore: Rattlesack Road

Colored woodcut print of Rattlesack Road

Rattlesack Road cuts through a marsh in northeastern Massachusetts, not far from the coast. Folks who live near it will tell you to stay out of the marsh and to avoid the road that cuts across it between sunset and sunrise. Most won’t say much more than that it’s a bad road, and leave it at that, but if pressed, there are some who will tell you it’s because of old Rattlesack Jack, who the road is named for.

Some say Jack’s a ghost, the spirit of some farmer who died badly out in the marsh. Some say his is a stolen story, reskinned over an older Indigenous tale, or historical recollection twisted out of recognition (not uncommon in New England, sadly). Others say he’s an urban legend told to scare off tourists, since the road serves as a shortcut to a local beach and year-round residents aren’t keen on having every possible road blocked up with traffic. Others still say that he’s something someone brought with them from the Old Country that made itself at home. Personally, I’m inclined toward the last, myself, given how similar the stories are to old Irish or Scottish tales of boggarts and bogles.

Conflicting origins aside, the tales are always the same, and have been for as long as anyone can remember. Local historians have found references to him in journals that date back as far as the old Colonies. Tales of traveling through the marsh after dark and having a horse throw a shoe, or a car breaking down, and hearing sounds like bones being rattled and laughter, or seeing a short, heavy-built man with long, spindly arms and legs watching them from the trees while they changed a flat tire, grinning and shaking a leather bag whose contents made a disturbing rattling sound at them until they hurried away. Even in the days of cellphones and cell towers everywhere, signal’s notoriously hard to come by in the marsh, making it all but impossible to reliably call for assistance if one finds oneself broken down, despite strong connection at either end of the road.

There are also darker tales and a centuries-long record of abandoned horses, wagons, and cars whose owners are rarely found again that’s higher than it should be for a road as out of the way as Rattlesack Road.

The thing with boggarts is that they aren’t always dangerous, generally speaking. Capricious and something to be careful of, sure, but not that much of a threat. However, giving them names? They don’t like that, and that’s when they turn malicious and become dangerous, and that sounds an awful lot like Rattlesack Jack.

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Where Willow-Wrens Gather

O ne’er go down where the willow-wrens gather
So late on a midwinter’s eve
For wailin’ and weepin’ will follow down after
And ne’er you more shall be seen

-Folk rhyme of unknown origin

A little while back, on a rather foggy afternoon, I was driving down a back road on my way home when a flicker of movement caught my attention. I glanced at the trees, but didn’t see anything. Something told me to stop and check it out, but I was in a hurry so I ignored it. Still, it bugged me for the rest of the night. Something about it had seemed familiar, but in that way like when you’re trying to remember a dream, and I couldn’t pull the memory up. Eventually I decided that either I’d remember eventually or come across it again, and life went on.

The other day, on a different road, something else caught my attention; a small flutter of red among the winter-dead plants at the edge of a small marsh. This time, I pulled over to investigate. (I may have had to do a little light trespassing to get to it…nothing much, just a little dip through a fence onto some conservation land that was closed for the evening.) I was glad for the fact that it was really cold as it meant I wasn’t slogging through mud, though I could have done without the bone-gnawing edge of ice to the wind that cut through my gloves like they weren’t even there. But I digress…

I climbed through the fence and walked over to the edge of the water, boots crunching on the ice-coated grass, looking for the flash of red in the rapidly failing light until I found what I was looking for. To be honest, it was so small that I have no idea how I saw it from the road. On a tree branch there was a small object of grass and string, fluttering frantically in the breeze. While it was a very crudely done thing, clearly done by someone not entirely sure what they were doing, it was nonetheless recognizable as a very specific folk charm. Memory clicked into place, and I realized what was familiar about the thing I had seen the other week.

This was a willow-wren charm and, based on the colors, a warning that there were willow-wrens gathering in the area. No, not the normal little birds you’re probably thinking of. Willow-wrens are…something else. There’s almost nothing written about them, being an extremely obscure and almost entirely oral lore. I ran across them decades ago, but haven’t thought much about them in years. To say I was surprised to find this would be an understatement.

There’s very little known about willow-wrens or where they came from. Some say that they were originally a bastardization of will-o-wisp myths. Some say they’re based on some random event that happened that got twisted over the retellings. Others say they’re exactly what it says on the tin. There’s even a theory that they’re actually some sort of magical construct, though anyone with a half-ounce of respect for folklore and myth looks sideways at that one.

Willow-wrens are the same rough size and shape as a normal wren, but are said to have feathers of long, narrow, willow-like leaves. They’re never seen during the day, appearing just as the sun sets and are often described as having a faint bluish-green glow, similar to that of phosphorescent fungi (hence the suggestion of being a variant of will-o-wisp).

Tradition is that seeing a lone willow-wren is a kind of good luck, and hearing one call is an omen (of what, the stories don’t actually say, because that would be useful or something, I guess). Seeing a flock of them is Very Bad and you should be getting away from there as fast as you can possibly manage. (Again, what the Bad is is a point of contention and ranges from death, memory or dream theft, permanent bad luck, kidnapping, that sort of thing.) There’s a third theory that the willow-wrens are some kind of guardian spirits that protect a place, as well.

One of the fascinating things is that the use of physical charms has persisted into modern times, with very few changes, aside from purpose (some to ward against, some to call, some to warn people away). A willow-wren charm consists of three stalks of grain grasses (rye, barley, oat) braided and formed into a circle, tied at the top with a knotted or braided yellow or gold cord symbolizing the sun. This is consistent across all versions. Tied to the bottom of the charm, there are 3, 6, or 9 cords, each with a seed threaded onto it, though there’s conflicting stories about what type and how many seeds. Different colors denote different meanings (red for warning, blue for calling, silver or pale green to ward against, etc.). Types of seeds used include apple, squash, buckwheat, mustard, and others.

The one I found was, as I mentioned, extremely crudely done, being a single stalk of wild rye coiled and tied with unknotted thread and no seeds, but was still recognizable as a warning charm. Someone was trying to warn people that willow-wrens were seen flocking, and either was in a hurry or didn’t have all the information on how to construct the charm properly. The fact that it was there at all was strange enough, given the obscurity of willow-wren lore.

Stranger still was the fact that what I saw the other night was the right size, shape, and color to have been a willow-wren landing on a branch, watching as I drove by. I don’t know why the willow-wrens are gathering, or who the charm-maker was, but willow-wrens are being seen again, and that is always an omen. Of what, I can’t say. I suppose that we’ll have to wait and find out.

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On Finding Myself Standing Upon Author’s Ridge

It’s funny, when I left the house the other day in search of a roadside god or some other strange thing, the last place I expected to find myself was standing on a hilltop just before dusk, shivering in the thinnest sweater I own and a light scarf I’d dug out of the back of the truck against the mid-November wind, a battered leather bag with my travel notebook and pens in it slung over my shoulder, looking down at the gravestones of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and others.

When I left the house, I had some road snacks, my writing bag, and a vague idea of heading somewhere northeast-ish, since I rarely go that direction.  It was one of those rare November days where the sky is a bright, cloudless blue instead of overcast or raining, though the wind was still sharp-edged and cold.  Good driving weather.  I figured I could get a good two or three hours of questing in before dark and, if I was lucky, maybe find Something Interesting.

The thing about eastern Massachusetts is that it’s Old.  Sure, maybe it’s not old compared to other countries, but for the US, it’s one of the oldest places we have.  Other people read about the Revolutionary War, the Pilgrims, the Salem Witch Trials and all that, but we trip over the damned stuff all the time. I regularly drive down roads that famous people once rode horses down, yelling that the “British Are Coming!”, and pass signs proclaiming that some historical event happened or historical figure stopped for lunch there.  Those roads were also, in many cases, decided on by what direction someone’s damned cows decided to take regularly and everything else just sort of built up around them.  They’re twisting, winding, and heavily congested with traffic, because we pack a LOT of residents, commuters, and tourists into a small area of real estate.  There’s so much going on that it’s hard to hear the small, quiet things in all of that.  Which is why I typically head out towards the western parts of the state most of the time, away from it.

Still, something said to go that way, so I did.

I drove for a couple of hours, past yellowing post-harvest farmstand fields, through downtowns with their eclectic mix of old and new architecture and industry, meandering around with no purpose other than to see what I might see. I admired monuments and memories, and mused on the differences and similarities between small gods and genius loci.  I smiled at kids horsing around while walking home from school, and glowered at people who decided that they were going to take their half of the road from the middle, and the rest of us would just have to get out of their way.  I passed through several towns, yet another nameless driver on the roads.

I found nothing.  My thoughts turned inward, twisting in on themselves, and I started to wonder what the fuck I was doing out here, wandering aimlessly like one more lost cow, with delusions of making a living writing about…what?  Half-imagined feelings and things I saw from the corner of my eye that were probably just trees or abandoned old restaurant mascots, or a dog?  There was a stack of dishes so deep on the counter at home that it was going to take days to dig through, because I’m trying to maintain two households and failing at both, and what the hell was I doing?

I decided that it was time to go back and deal with the mountain of dishes.  Besides, it was getting late and the sun would be setting soon.  I turned onto a minor highway with a route number I knew would eventually lead me home.  I worked on trying to soothe my brain, but it was settling in for a good sulk, and to be honest, at the time I was having a hard time trying to come up with reasons that it was being unreasonable.  On a whim, I turned into an old cemetery that looked interesting, because I find them soothing and I needed to stretch my legs anyway.

It was probably one of the most beautiful old cemeteries I’ve seen, laid out in a way that spoke of deliberate planning to be both walkable and integrated with the land’s contours in a way most usually aren’t.  There were the remnants of old cobblestone paths, and benches to sit on, and massive old trees.  It was breathtakingly, heartachingly lovely, and I forgot about being unhappy in the face of its beauty and peacefulness. 

I’d been wandering around for about 10 minutes or so when I came across the back of a sign near one of the entrances.  Figuring it would probably tell me the name of the cemetery and exactly which town I was in, so I could come back when I had more time to poke around, I walked around it to see what it said.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember where I knew it from.  Maybe it sounded familiar because of the ghost story?  That didn’t feel right.  Then I noticed another sign nearby.  It was a state park sign, with a piece of paper under the glass, proclaiming “Graves of Interest” and a list of names.

Oh.  Right.  That’s why I recognized the name, and now I knew exactly where I was.  I checked the map, and made my way up to the top of the hill opposite the entrance, smiling with amusement.  No, more like giggling.

And so it was that I found myself on top of a hill, shivering in the chill that comes when the sun sets in New England this late in the year, looking at the graves of literary giants who, in their own ways, had forged paths of writing that also left the proverbial beaten path, on the day I came very close to giving up on writing.  Message received.

I may not have found what I thought I was looking for, but a small god of lost writers found me just the same, and I’m very glad that it did.

There Are Other Things Along The Roads

Sometimes I come across roadside gods and saints or their shrines that are of darker natures than the ones I generally write about, and I wonder if I should write about them or not. Gods of black ice and dead ends, gods that are not of the road, but of Other Things. Gaping maws that swallow the roads in ink-black voids. Decaying shrines that were there before the road came and may be there after it’s long since cracked and crumbled back to stone and tar. Shapes that watch from the hills and fields as I pass by, waiting to see if I will be careless enough to stop and leave the safety of my iron and steel truck. Things that shift and stretch across the sky in ways that clouds do not do. Shrines of pylon and wire that sing crackling, whining paeans, hymns that may once of been devoted to gods of fire and warmth, but have twisted over the eons to become something new.

Perhaps I will write about them. After all, they are there, beside the road, and it’s not a bad thing for others to be aware of them, I suppose.

Archiving The Unusual, Day 1

Archivist notes, 1 November, 2021

It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat difficult to begin the daunting task of organizing a formal archive of items and ephemera that have been stuffed willy-nilly in boxes and on shelves for decades, may have been left in the locations where they were found, or, in some cases, may not exactly exist as most generally understand them to.  Be that as it may, I’m working on doing so, as it has come time to start properly cataloguing and archiving the various cursed objects, liminal spaces, haunted flotsam, and other oddities that I encounter on a fairly regular basis, and to start taking better field notes, as it were.

Someday I suppose I’ll even have to figure out a proper title for the archive itself, but it’s only the first day of this project, after all, and I’ve got time.   In the meantime, I’ve got a pile of dusty old boxes to start going through and attempting to start sorting into something that makes some kind of reasonable sense.

This is going to take a lot of coffee.

M. C.

Cursed Objects And Raspberry Jam

Does anyone else ever wonder why you only ever hear about the evil cursed or haunted objects?  Like, why don’t we ever hear about the annoying or benevolent ones?  Or the ones where the curse/haunting has no real interaction with the living, as it were?  For example:

– A stuffed animal  where the curse is actually that a hyper-masculine jerk is cursed to inhabit the body of the World’s Most Adorable and Plushy stuffed teddy bear, Mr. Flufferkins, and be the Guest of Honor toy for endless children’s tea parties and dress-up games until he unlearns his toxic ideas and learns that feelings and silly childhood games are not only okay, but actually good.  He’s a very slow learner, however, and has been stuck in the bear for a Very Long Time.  He refuses to admit that he’s developing a sneaking fondness for fairy bread with raspberry jam or that, in the deepest depths of his cotton-stuffed heart, he’s been thinking that maybe spending eternity as a children’s toy might not be so bad.  After all, it’s much easier to simply be a teddy bear.

– A painting haunted by a long-dead grandmother who stays around to keep an eye on her descendants and doesn’t do anything more sinister than glare judgmentally at houseguests she thinks are unworthy of her family.

– A small gold locket that curses its wearer to forget about their steeping cups of tea.

I dunno, I just think it’s unfortunate that we only ever hear about the murder-dolls and evil rings and things.  There should be more awareness of the rest of them, and I think I might have a new project to embark on here…

“All mimsy were the borogoves…”

Every now and then, something reminds us of things that we had forgotten. For instance, earlier today someone mentioned their frustration with the lack of clarity on the meaning of the phrase “10-4!”. It can mean either “understood” or “yes” or both and which it is can vary depending on who you’re talking to.

Of course, this reminded me of CB radios…

Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, there was a span of time where owning a CB radio and talking to folks on them was really popular, and a lot of folks had them and would chat with whoever happened to be in range, usually in the middle of the night. Much like existing on social media now, usernames or “handles” were used. There was a whole CB subculture.

My mom was one of those people, and she went by Cheshire Cat. She’d usually talk to the long-haul truckers that went through the area we lived in, and she’d been doing it for so long that she developed several friendships with some of the guys passing through. Sometimes she’d let Tiny Me talk to them, and one of them, a guy who went by Papa Bear, gave me a handle of my own.

I was very proud of this (I was about 5 years old at the time, and things like having your Very Own CB Handle Bestowed Upon You By A Trucker Named Papa Bear are SUPER EXCITING when you’re 5).

The name he gave me? Cheshire Kitten.

Somehow I suspect this also explains a lot.

Yes, I smile every time I hear S.J. Tucker’s song “Cheshire Kitten” because of this.

By Forest, Field, and Old Side Road

A bit over a year ago, I went out for what would be my last road trip for a long time.  It was the beginning of lockdown and the end of the Before Times.  Some of the trip was morbid curiosity; I wanted to see what the world looked like without traffic and people everywhere.  It was, as expected, disconcerting and more than a little apocalyptic.  A lot of it though was, honestly, to say good-bye.  I didn’t know when I’d be back on the road again, if ever.  I didn’t know what the world would look like if I was able to be out there again, but I knew that whatever it was, it would never be the same.  Something was dying, and I needed to be there to witness and honor its passing.

It’s strange to be getting back out onto the roads again.  The last time I was off the road for this long was when I broke down in the Bridge God’s courtyard, and that was a long time ago, now.  My body has forgotten how to be behind the wheel for very long, and finding that almost Zen-like state where the truck becomes an extension of me is harder than it used to be.  I know it will return soon enough, but in the meantime, it’s hard not to wonder if this is the time that I just can’t get it back, that too much time has passed and I’ll never remember how to hear the Road sing again.

The world is different now, as well.  Places that I used to pass by all the time are gone now, doors and windows shuttered.  Others are still there, but changed.  Some places the changes are obvious; restaurants and coffee shops with outside tables on extended sidewalks or sections of parking lots, that sort of thing, while others are changed more in feeling.   They feel almost haunted, as if some intangible part of them died, and while they’re still going through the motions of being Places, there’s something that’s gone.

Still, there are other places that are…cozier…than they were before.  Like over the recent months the place drew closer to itself, remembered what it was, and found a kind of  strength from the remembering.  Places like this were where I passed the world’s Most Adorable (and socially distanced) Town Fair and a small farm that had decided to set up a stand with a sign for Free Food, because they knew how much people are struggling and this was what they could do to help.  I cried a little at that one, because it’s good to see people caring for, and taking care of, each other.

Of course, there are the places that haven’t changed and there’s a comfort in knowing that the area around the Quabbin is still Very Clearly Riddled With Terrible Fae Traps like the “Detour” sign directing people off the highway and down a narrow, tree-choked dirt road, or a “Help Wanted” sign at the end of another dirt road leading off into the woods, with nothing indicating the presence of an actual business of any kind… (Sadly I was on a time schedule on the way home at that point, or I’d have gleefully turned the truck down either or both of them to investigate, because that’s just the kind of dumbass I am.  Maybe next time.) 

Overall, it was a good drive and good way to start scraping the rust off.  Now that the seal has been broken, Wednesdays are officially designated weekly Road Days.  Even pulled together a nice collection of dishes and utensils specifically for eating Real Food while I’m out and about, instead of scarfing down a protein bar or having to stop at a fast food place.   My goal is to eventually get a small trailer with a bathroom/shower hookup, or an rv, so I can go on longer trips, but that’s a ways in the future yet.  For now, this is a good restart while I figure out the new protocols and get back in the swing of things.

Let’s see what’s down those little side roads, shall we?

(Your friendly Routewitch preparing to get back behind the wheel.)