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.)

A Life In Myth

Once there was, and once there was not, a young girl. She lived with her mother and father and an assortment of cats, and if they never lived in one place for very long, it was alright.  No matter where they lived, they were always surrounded by artists, musicians, actors, storytellers, magicians, and other misfit sorts of people.  It was a hard life, to be sure, for Society doesn’t like people who don’t fit into its neat little boxes or don’t have deep roots, but for all that, it was hers and she was happy in it.

Then, one terrible morning, her mother died, and with her, the way of life the girl had known.  Her father remarried and her step-family, while pleasant enough people, were very different from the people the girl had grown up around, and they didn’t understand why she was the way she was, nor she, them.  Soon enough, all of the people from her childhood were gone, as well.  When the last of the musicians drifted away and the house fell silent, the girl put her face in her hands and wept for all she had lost.  It would be the last time she did so for many, many years to come.

She learned to live like the Rooted People, or at least go through it’s motions, and pretend she didn’t desperately miss her old life.  She grew up and took a job she hated to her marrow because it was expected and made her father and step-mother happy, and if she dreamed of open roads and a life of stories and music and art, she didn’t say a word. 

She tried to escape from time to time, but it never worked.  She married briefly, but he was one of the Rooted People, and while he liked the idea of her world, he didn’t want to live in it.  When he decided that he didn’t want her living in it, either, she packed her things and her cats and left him behind.

She wandered for some time, trying to fit into the Rooted People’s world just enough to find her way again and build a life from what shattered pieces she still had, but the pieces were so old and fragile and the Rooted World still refused to accept her, Unrooted misfit that she was.  Eventually, she met someone who was neither one of the Rooted People nor the Unrooted People, but was something else in between.  He had no interest in living an Unrooted life for himself, but understood and accepted that she needed to and if he stayed home while she wandered in search of stories and songs, he didn’t try to stop her and she knew he would be there when she came home.  She unpacked her things and the cats found sunny spots to sleep in, and there was music of a kind and stories and actors and the freedom to be again, and she was mostly content.

There were still issues, though.  The Rooted World still didn’t want her and as she grew older, she grew tired of trying to fit into a world that had never done anything but reject her.  

One night, she took out the box she kept the chipped and faded shards of her old lives and held them in her hands.  She cast them onto a cloth to see what she might see, but no matter how hard she looked, or how many times she recast them, the only thing she could see for certain was that the pieces were simply too broken to ever be put back together again.  The girl put her face in her hands once more and wept for all she had lost and for so many years of pain and grief and loneliness until she had cried out every last tear she had in her.

When she was done, she washed her face, poured herself a mug of tea, and considered the pieces again.  She couldn’t piece them into anything that made sense, that much was clear, but maybe there was some other thing she might do.  She sipped her tea, thoughtfully.  She thought about her lives, the child she’d been, the sound of her mother singing while she painted, as her father played his guitar along with her, and the silence that came after her mother died.  She sighed deeply, and gazed into her tea.  As she watched the faint wisps of steam dance along the deep amber surface, she had An Idea.

She gathered up the broken pieces and, one by one, considered each carefully.  She discarded some and kept others and when she was done sorting them like millet from ashes, she put the pieces she’d chosen to keep into an old stone mortar and ground them into a fine powder.  She mixed this powder with seawater and rosewater and turned them into ink.

She couldn’t rebuild her broken life but, using the parts she loved most and the things she had learned over the years, she could write herself a new life, with all the fantastic stories she could think of or find.  It would be hard, for the Rooted People probably still wouldn’t understand, but that was fine, because she found that she no longer cared.  If they wouldn’t accept her no matter what she did or did not do, then their opinions didn’t matter.

She smiled, and began to write…

Dishwasher Souls, Goblin Markets, and Other Curiosities

I collect odd things.

No.  That’s not right.  I collect ephemeral, liminal things and interesting curiosities.

A dried (probably cursed) pomegranate in a small birdcage.  Several souls, carefully bottled and labeled after washing, stored in a velvet-lined box.  Flowers painted in moonlight.  Somewhere around there’s a star, wrapped in a scrap of silk.  Threads of rose and nettle. Ghosts, moth dreams, roadside gods…you get the idea.

I also collect unusual humans…a mixed media painter who makes amazing abstract art in soap; a soapmaker and herbalist who also creates beautiful jewelry and wall art out of wire and found objects; a professional muse…

Sometimes, I even collect places.  An empty rest area in Maine at 2:15 in the morning in late October.  A chimney with no house deep in the woods in mid-March.  A parking lot antique shop of abandoned amusement park paraphernalia run by retired carnies, only open when the stars are right. 

I don’t know what to do with this, to be honest.  I suspect that, in a different world, I’d have a table or shop tucked away in a corner of a bazaar or open-air market where I’d trade a story or curiosity for a coin or two, or have a little travelling wagon that would appear or disappear with the seasons for the same.

My little curiosities and ephemerals have a harder time in a world that has certain…

expectations

of how Things Are Supposed To Work and it doesn’t like strange little collectors and purveyors of art and other oddities like me.  We are messy and don’t fit into neat little boxes.

Still, I collect my curiosities, my cursed fruit and weird little monsters, and someday, hopefully, I’ll figure out how to share them the way that they need to be.

(I’ve been reexamining what had been October’s Market and wondering if I can get it back to what it was supposed to be, as it got very much lost in the weeds trying to figure out how to make it something that could exist in the “Real World”, and in the process forgot what it actually was.  The fact that we live in a capitalist hellscape that makes it exceptionally difficult to do what I want to do with it doesn’t help, and I need to find a way around that without losing it’s heart again.  I desperately miss my Market.)

Something Weird Is In The Woods

I was walking through the Woods one night, and saw a strange, pale creature walking along the road.   The Wood was silent as snowfall, despite being a clear, spring night, as if all the other creatures held still and quiet as it walked.  It nodded slowly as we passed one another, and continued on it’s way.  As it passed out of sight, the trees seemed to sigh and the Wood released the breath It had been holding, and the owls and chorus frogs began to call once more…

I have a suspicion that my new friend here may have other friends somewhere in the Woods, as well, and I am looking forward to meeting them.