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.

(If you liked what you just read, please toss a few coins at your mostly friendly resident word-witch to help keep her little monsters fed!)

Mad Molly Comes Hunting/Poor Lost Lamb

The other day, I woke up from a nap with a song in my head and was reminded of how I came across it and its story lying on the Road.  It was told to me by an old woman in a dead mill town one late autumn afternoon over glasses of homemade lemonade, after I asked her about the song I’d heard her singing while I stopped to stretch my legs.

* * * * *

“Hey ho, hie away home

Bread nor bones nor drippings has she none

Molly comes a-huntin’

Hie, hie away home

Poor lost lamb,

Hide away,

Hide from all the sorrow

On this dark day.”

(Obscure folk round to the tune of “Hey Ho Nobody Home/Ah Poor Bird”)

A long while back a trapper, a particularly bad-tempered man, lived up in the mountains with his wife, Molly, and their several children. One autumn, he got injured and was unable to leave his bed, leaving Molly to tend to him, the house, the children, and all the other things that needed doing.  The winter storms came early that year and, what with everything, the food got low too soon.  The trapper complained at her day in and day out for the house being too cold, and the soup being too thin, and how the children never stopped making noise while he was trying to sleep.

Well, one day poor Molly looked at her starving children, and at her ill-tempered husband, and made a decision.  She told her eldest to take the little ones out and see if they could find a bit more wood for the fire to warm their father’s bones, and when they were gone out of the house, she took a pillow and stopped her husband’s yelling once and for all.  When the children came back, she told them their poor father had gone to his great reward, and only the littlest ones cried.  Later, she had her eldest help her bring the body out to the old root cellar, and said that they’d bury him in the springtime.

The next morning, she told the children she was going hunting to see if she could catch a rabbit for them to eat, and she’d be back soon.  Well, old Molly, she went out and circled back out of sight of the house to that root cellar, took out a hunting knife, and brought some meat back home.  That night, the children went to bed with a bellyful of good, hot soup, and Molly breathed a sigh of relief.

The trapper hadn’t been a particularly large man, however, and the winter and being bedridden had made him thinner. It wasn’t long before the soup pot grew light on meat again, and the children’s faces grew pale.  One snowy evening, a lost stranger showed up on the doorstep, having seen the smoke from her chimney, and hoped to find a warm place to stay for the night.  Molly looked at her starving children, and at the stranger, and made another decision.

In the morning, the stranger was gone, and Molly told her children that when he’d moved on, he had left them some venison as a thank you for letting him in, and that night, the children went to bed with bellies full of good, hot soup again.

Meat doesn’t last forever, though, not with growing children in the house, and once more the soup grew thin and her children’s faces grew pale.  Molly looked at her starving children, and made another decision.

She pulled on her boots and her coat, and told the children she was going out hunting to see if she could find something for them to eat.  There were other folks living in the mountains, isolated from each other by the snow, and over that winter, more folks went missing, but Molly’s children didn’t get hungry again.

Eventually spring came, and the snow melted, and rumors went around about a wild animal or a demon hunting folks out in the mountains.  Some folks went round to all the cabins, checking on the families out on their own to see how bad things were.  When they turned up at Molly’s house, they found her fat-cheeked children and they found the root cellar and a pile of bones that didn’t come from any rabbit or deer, but they never did find Molly.  Someone found a relative to take the children in, and they all made sure that they never found out how she’d been feeding those kids all winter long.

Years after, when folks would go missing in the winter, it was said it was Molly that got them, and parents would keep their own children from wandering off into the mountains by telling them that if they strayed too far, Mad Molly would catch them to make her soup.

As far as I know, they still tell it, too.

(If you liked what you just read, please toss a few coins at your mostly friendly resident word-witch to help keep her little monsters fed!)

For Sale: Free Range Izbushka Eggs

It’s mid-October, late in the afternoon.  The day is warm and the sky is that piercing blue that only exists for a few brief weeks, contrasting beautifully against the red and orange leaves of the trees.  You pull into a small rest area to stretch your legs after several hours of driving, and to maybe get something to eat from the little attached diner.  The parking lot is pretty quiet, and it’s a nice day, so you decide to stop and eat at one of the picnic tables off to the side.  As you sit down, a flash of color catches your attention.

At a nearby table, a woman is sitting beside a plain brown woven basket filled with what looks to be brightly colored eggs, like the kind you see in the spring.  Beside the basket is a handwritten note stating that they are for sale.  There seems to be more writing, but you can’t quite make it out from where you sit.

The woman notices you looking, smiles pleasantly, and gestures that you are welcome to take a look.  You point at your food, and she nods.  After you finish eating and dispose of your trash in a nearby waste bin, you give in to your curiosity and approach her table.


Izbushka Eggs – $6 each

Free Range

Guaranteed to be mostly helpful.

 Not knowing what to make of this, you ask her what an Izbushka egg is.

She smiles and begins to tell you about hand-raised chicken-legged huts.  You blink nervously, trying to decide if you’re dealing with a Halloween prank, a local artist, or someone with some sort of mental health issues.  As surreptitiously as you can, you glance toward the rest area employees who are leaning against the side of the building on their break, and see that they don’t appear concerned at all, so you’re pretty sure that she’s probably fine.  Artist, most likely, then.  You relax somewhat and turn your attention back to her, as she tells you about her flock of rare breed izbushka (barely the size of a child’s dollhouse!), and how this particular breed is known especially for their gentle natures, brightly colored eggs, and high rate of beneficial laying, as opposed to most of the larger breeds, who are prone to being more aggressive and liable to lay harmful eggs.  Unfortunately, they do have a higher chance of laying neutral eggs, so you’re as likely to get a small roll of stickers or cute pencil erasers as you are magic rings or the like.

She asks if you’re interested in buying one or two and, after a moment’s hesitation, you decide “why not?”.  A little whimsy is good for the soul, and it’ll make a good story when you get home.  Besides, you’re pretty sure the rest area employees would have stepped in by now if she was any kind of threat or whatever.  You pull out your wallet, hand her some money, and select an egg from the basket.  Definitely feels like plastic, though it does have a somewhat odd texture that you can’t quite place.

You thank the woman, wish her a good day, and continue on down the road.

Later that night, tucked up in your hotel room, you pull the egg out of your bag.  You smile and open it, curious to see what you’ll find.

Inside the pale shell, surrounded by vaguely iridescent fluff of some kind (you think it feels like some kind of unspun fiber, like raw silk maybe, but you aren’t sure), is a small, gold-colored ring.  Must be a “magic” ring, you think, and chuckle at the silliness of it all.  You go to sleep, pleased with your day’s little side adventure.

It takes you some time to notice it, but whenever you have the ring with you you have strangely good luck finding parking spaces.  Always in the most convenient locations no matter how busy or crowded a parking area is.  You think of the strange woman at the rest stop and wonder.  You shrug, and tell yourself it’s just a coincidence – after all, magic rings and chicken-legged huts that lay eggs aren’t really real – but you also never leave home without the ring and you never have to struggle to find parking again.

(If you liked what you just read, please feel free to toss a few coins at your mostly friendly resident word-witch!)


Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters


Yaga turned on the tv and flopped backwards onto the reclining chair with a groan.  She’d been staring at bank and budget spreadsheets for hours, and desperately needed to turn her brain off for a bit.

She’d bought the old farmhouse at auction for practically pennies.  It had been empty for a couple of years after the previous owner passed away, and had needed a fair amount of repairs to make it livable again.  It had taken months to fix all of the things that had fallen to entropy and reclaim it from the spiders, even with Glatis and a couple of other Lurks helping, but eventually it had been turned into a habitable place again.  Unfortunately she’d spent the majority of her savings doing so, and recouping from it was taking longer than she’d hoped, no matter how frugal she was. Due to her rather unique circumstances it was almost impossible to hold down a “normal” job (monsters were not very good at understanding that they couldn’t just show up whenever they wanted), and after the Broom Closet Incident, it had become clear that she had to figure out a non-traditional path of acquiring a paycheck.  Sadly, freelance gigs for a folklorist who specialized in childhood monster lore and whose availability was erratic at best were hard to come by and didn’t pay as well as one might wish, which brought her to her nearly empty bank account.  She had to find a way to bring in more money on a reliable basis, or else she and the crew would be living in a camper.  Again.

A commercial, overflowing with images of tragic puppies and kittens came onto the tv screen, accompanied by a woman singing mournfully about salvation and angels, begging for people to rescue these poor, pitiful animals.

“Hah!  Easy for you.  Your strays are cute and cuddly and unlikely to give someone screaming nightmares or attempt to eat your houseguests!” she grumbled at the television.

“To be fair, that only happened the one time, and it was an honest mistake,” said a soft, hollow-sounding voice from the dark hallway.

“It was twice, and last I heard, great-aunt Cecilia is still in therapy for it,” she replied.

Glatis chuckled, a low, guttural sound that would have been deeply unnerving if it wasn’t so familiar, as he came into the room.  His shadow-black form made no sound as he crossed the ancient floorboards, despite being more than 6 feet tall, with claws that would intimidate a bear.  Glatis was a Lurk and had been her dearest friend since elementary school, following a rather unorthodox deal she had offered him regarding her status as a menu option.  He was also the reason she lived amicably with a houseful of Humanity’s childhood nightmares.

“Why are you snarking at the television?” he asked as he settled himself on the couch nearby.

Yaga groaned and dropped her head against the back of the chair.

“I need to figure out how to reliably come up with several hundred more dollars a month, and fast,” she replied.  “It’s a lot more expensive to run a house and several acres of land then the camper was.  At this rate, I’m going to have to hold a bake sale to keep the electricity on.”

“What is a bake sale, and would it help?” came a soft whisper from the shadows behind her.  One of the other Lurks, who called herself Marsalette, was tucked in the corner.  She’d joined them only a few months before, and was still learning about the human world.

“It’s where humans bake cookies and things and sell them for far less than the amount of work they put in, to fund charity things.  Sadly, it wouldn’t really, amusing as it would be to watch you lot try to be tragically adorable at the humans to convince them to buy lemon squares”, Yaga replied.  “You can come out and sit with us, you know.  It’s okay.”

“I know.  I’m comfortable here, though.  This house has nice shadows.”

Yaga shrugged amiably.  The three sat in comfortable silence for a while, watching the tv.  The pet adoption commercial played again in the rotation.  Glatis tapped a claw slowly on the wooden end table his arm rested on, thinking.

“There might be something to that idea,” he said, after a moment.

Yaga burst out laughing.  “You can’t be serious!  Leaving aside the fact that you lot aren’t exactly cute and fluffy by human standards, a number of you are legitimately some of our main predators!  There’s no way that I could talk people into giving me money to let you around their children.”

Glatis grinned broadly, the blue light from tv glittering on wickedly sharp teeth.  “I didn’t eat you when you were small.”
“Only because you couldn’t catch me,” she replied, sticking her tongue at him.  “So, what is this idea of yours?”

“While actual adoption wouldn’t work, aren’t there human organizations that offer symbolic adoptions and sponsorship programs in exchange for things like certificates, tote bags, and that sort of thing for wild animals?”

Yaga chewed on her thumbnail, thinking.  There were some major differences and practical concerns she could think of right off the bat. 

“There are, but doing something like that would require exposing the fact that you lot are, in fact, real and not just figments of overactive juvenile imaginations.  I don’t know that any of us are really up for that, do you?”

“Humans have a remarkable ability to ignore anything that doesn’t fit with their assumptions of how the world really is.  Most would assume you were simply creating some kind of interactive artwork and look no further. “

“Good point.”

She looked back at the tv, but wasn’t really paying attention to it anymore, still considering the idea.  Oddly enough, it did have merit, and Glatis was right that humans don’t like to acknowledge that the world is vastly weirder than they insist it should be.  A number of crowdsourcing and support options had sprung up online in recent years, and if she started small she could probably manage to come up with a cute design to put on tote bags and maybe stickers.  Maybe a monthly newsletter with stories about the general goings-on around the farmhouse?  She wondered if she could convince them to make little ornaments or something that could be periodically auctioned off?  She should get a notebook and start making a list of ideas….

She paused in her musing and looked over to see Glatis watching her curiously.
“It might not be a bake sale, but if we can pull this off,  we may be able to save the house  and not have to crowd back into the camper again, after all.  What do you all think about the name ‘Auntie Yaga’s Home for Wayward Monsters’…?”

(If you liked what you just read, please feel free to toss a few coins at your mostly friendly resident word-witch!)

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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Making Friends With Monsters: An Afternoon With Auntie Yaga

(At long last, the first installment of “Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters” is completed and ready to be shared.  I think I even tracked down all of the typoes, which of course means there are egregious ones hiding in plain site.  I hope you like it!)

A magazine page. At the top, a photo of a middle-aged woman with greying dark hair, sitting on a mildly worn clawfoot couch. She is somewhat heavy-set, dressed in a long batik-printed skirt and lightweight sage colored sweater, and is looking down at the floor toward her left boot.  The room is a typical old New England farmhouse; exposed beams and scuffed wooden floor covered with a large, multi-colored braided rug, modern pellet stove set into the old brick fireplace, floral print curtains that offset the faded blue-grey painted walls.  It’s a comfortable looking room, at first glance.

The lighting is somewhat dim, and the longer you look, the more you begin to notice that things aren’t quite what you initially thought.  The far corner beside the built-in bookcase has oddly distorted shadows, and something in the back of your mind nervously whispers that it is occupied, though you can see nothing definable.  The points of light on the evening-darkened window panes that you had dismissed as lamplight reflections look unnervingly like eyes looking back at you the more you look at them.  Your gaze is drawn back to the woman on the couch, or rather, to the shadows beneath it.

They are too thick for the amount of light in the room and as you try to see into them the darkness begins to resolve into something that sends a chill down your spine.  Deep in the shadow, you can just make out a pair of eyes shining a deep red and, worse, the faint glitter of too many barely concealed needle-sharp teeth.  An unnaturally long-fingered hand the color of lampblack and ending in stiletto-like claws is reaching out from underneath that couch and rests lightly on the woman’s foot and ankle, at which she is smiling fondly.  The scene is, overall, a blend of homey tranquility and deeply unsettling shadows in perfect balance with one another.  Something about it makes you sure that there are no camera or clever editing tricks involved.

Below the photo, in bold, black font, the headline reads:

Making Friends With Monsters: An Afternoon With Auntie Yaga, The Woman Behind The World’s Only Monster Outreach Program.written by R. Morganson

{Disclaimer: I’ll be straight; when I first set out to do this interview, I honestly thought that the whole thing was some kind of immersive performance art or something along those lines.  I was not expecting to find it to be exactly what it was presented as being. ~RM}

It was late in the September afternoon when I arrived at the entrance to Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters.  I had more than half expected it would be a grand and spooky Victorian mansion, perhaps with an ominous wrought iron gate covered in a bat motif, so it was  pleasant surprise to find a perfectly ordinary New England farmhouse, complete with a picturesque old horse pond in the large front yard and fenced around with neatly maintained fieldstone walls.  There was no gate at all, in fact, just a modest sign proclaiming the name of the organization, beneath which were hung two smaller signs.  The first stated that visitors are welcome by appointment only, the second that one should “Beware of Graswolves”.  The house itself was set back roughly an acre from the road, behind which the land slopes down toward the neighboring conservation forest.

There was a middle-aged woman sitting on a wooden patio chair on the wrap-around porch as I pulled up in front of the white and black-trimmed house.  Like the house, she looked nothing like my expectations. I was beginning to get the feeling that this was something I should get used to.  As I got out of my car, she came down the wide porch steps to meet me, and I got my first full look at the woman known as Auntie Yaga.

She’s about average height and looks to be in her mid-40s, with grey-green eyes and long grey-streaked dark hair that she was wearing pulled back into a simple braid.  She was dressed simply in an ankle length batik-printed skirt, lightweight sage green sweater, and laced-up brown boots.  What little jewelry she wore was equally simple.

“Not what you were picturing, huh” she said by way of greeting.  Sheepishly, I acknowledged that this was true.  She laughed, a warm, friendly sound.  “Don’t worry.  Almost everyone has the same thought the first time they come here.  It’s partly intentional” she explained.  “Since the majority of our residents tend to be a bit…intimidating…Glatis and I decided that it was best to make the rest of surroundings as comfortable and calming as we could.”

“Glatis is the co-founder, right?”  I asked as we walked up the stairs.

“He is.  He’s what we refer to as a Lurk.  He was originally the not-so-proverbial monster under the bed when I was young, but I got tired of being on the menu one day and decided to try and make friends with him.  It surprised him so much that it actually worked.  A couple of decades later, here we are, running a business together!” she laughed.

We were now at the front door, but instead of opening it, she stopped and her demeanor became very serious.

“Before I open this door, I need to ask you to be sure that you are okay with this interview being done the way you requested when we spoke on the phone.  If you aren’t, that’s fine, and we can stay out here on the porch, or we can reschedule and meet someplace that you feel more comfortable.  There’s no shame or judgment if you’ve changed your mind and would prefer not to.”

I told her that I was fine. (I was sure this was performance art, and I live for haunted houses at Halloween and all that, and so was eager to see what would happen when we got inside.  I was wildly incorrect in my assumptions.)  She looked at me appraisingly, with a hint of amusement, for a moment, then shrugged, opened the door, and went in.

How to describe that first moment inside the house?  Visually it is pure, cozy, New England charm; all wood accenting and warm, comfortable looking furnishings, the faint smell of freshly baked bread and dried lavender scenting the air.  It is the epitome of welcoming tranquility, and I was completely unprepared for the oppressive and almost overwhelming sense that something very, very dangerous was watching me from far too close by as soon as the door closed behind me.  Something was breathing, a soft, rasping sound that I hadn’t heard since childhood and had long-since forgotten, and I froze in panic.  I could feel my chest tightening as I instinctively started to hold my breath so as not to let the thing know I was there.  As I did so, I saw the large, misshapen figures in the too-solid shadows of the hallway and behind the doors.  A flicker of motion in the corner of my eye caught my attention, and as my eyes darted to look at it, an all-too-real tail of black fog slithered past the doorway of a room to my right. I felt my hands and feet flash cold with fear and go numb.  Every instinct was telling me to run screaming, and I started to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in coming to this house alone.  I felt like I was a little kid again, afraid of the shadows in the closet and begging my parents to leave the light on because Something Was In There.

Just when I thought I couldn’t control the urge to run, I heard Auntie Yaga say to no one that I could see “That’s enough, I think. I don’t think he’s quite as ready to see you all fully as he thought he was, and we do want him to actually like us, after all.  Thank you.”

Immediately, the shadowed figures receded, the feeling of being watched faded to almost, but not quite, nothing, and I was left feeling more than a little shaky.  It had only been seconds, but I felt like I had just run a marathon, and was exhausted.

“Looks like you’re a bit less prepared than you thought you’d be,” she said, handing me a warm mug of tea.  “Chamomile and mint, with a little bit of meadowfoam honey.  It tastes like marshmallows, a bit, and it’ll help your nerves.”  I’m not ashamed to admit that I was deeply grateful for that tea and swallowed almost half of it in one go.  She was right, it tasted like apples and marshmallows, and I felt better for its sweetness.

“What was that?” I asked, my voice only shaking a little as I shoved the voice that was still gibbering about the shapes in the shadows into the back of my mind.  It could freak out later. Right now, I had an interview to conduct.

“That, my dear, was a couple of million years of evolution informing you that several large predators that you couldn’t see or hear were standing near you, staring, reminding you that you are not the apex predator civilization has told you you are.  Congratulations!  You have a healthy survival instinct!  Surprising, given your decision to go into journalism”, she replied, her tone light and teasing on that last part.

Despite myself I laughed at that and, in doing so, felt almost normal again.

“Now, if you’re feeling better, shall we move out of the entryway and into the living room where the chairs are much more comfortable, and get to this interview you came here after?”

I followed her through a doorway into the next room, and sat in the chair she indicated.  I glanced around nervously, expecting more too-solid shadows, but it was a perfectly pleasant, unoccupied room, as far as I could tell.  I took out my recorder, took a deep breath and another sip of tea, and started recording.

So, the monsters under the bed are, in fact, real and your business partner is actually one of them.  Isn’t this dangerous?”

That’s not really the question you wanted to ask, is it?  No, now that you’ve discovered that this isn’t the Halloween Haunted House attraction that you assumed it was, nor am I just some crazy lady in the woods making up wild stories for attention, what you really want to know is if this is all a set-up for some horror movie-esque deal where I turn out to be a villain who unleashes a horde of mindless, ravenous beasts on the world.

The answer is yes, it is dangerous, but no more so than it is for folks who work with, say, wolves or sharks.  They’re monsters, true, but no, they are not mindless, and we have no plans to terrorize small towns in the night.  Our goal is simply to facilitate a better understanding between our various species for those who wish to learn other ways to coexist.

“My apologies.  I made assumptions I shouldn’t have, and that was rude.  So, how does this work? How did you decide to start a boarding house and outreach program for the monsters of childhood?”

In order to answer that, you need to know a few things;  First, the world really is much larger and a whole lot weirder than our “civilized” society has conditioned us to believe it is.  Yes, monsters are real, and yes, they do hunt us and eat us, if they can catch us.  Second, they are just as intelligent as you or I.  They are not the mindless beasts that horror movies have led us to believe them to be.  Third, that most of the types of monsters who come here don’t typically eat humans.  It’s not unheard of, mind you, but it’s not as common as people think.  What they do eat, is fear.  This is important to know because I was one of those kids who was afraid of pretty much everything in existence.  Don’t laugh!  I’m not kidding.  Scooby-do cartoons were too scary and gave me nightmares.  It was ridiculous.

As a result, I had the dubious honor of attracting more than one monster to the feast, as it were.  Glatis, who took up residence under my bed, and another Lurk who generally hung out in the closet or behind the doors, primarily, but I’d also regularly encounter others outside of our house.  It was exhausting.  Eventually, though, I got mad about it, and informed Glatis that I wanted to make a deal with him.  I’d done the math, and decided that he lived closer, thus the biggest threat, and so the one that I needed to win over to my cause.  He agreed to my offer.  I think he was so caught off guard that he agreed out of confusion, but he’ll never admit it.  After a while, he decided I was sort of adorable and ended up becoming my guardian monster.  Usually they move on once we start believing the adults that there’s nothing in the dark to be afraid of, since we’re no longer good food sources, but by that point we’d gotten attached to one another and he decided to stay around.

“You said that his kind of monster eats fear.  If you weren’t afraid of him, dare I ask what he was doing about meals?”

Who was he feeding off of, you mean?  Children can be cruel by nature, and a strange, solitary girl who claims to be friends with monsters has no shortage of bullies, nor does she see a problem with having those bullies learn to be afraid to torment her.  It’s a bit brutal, but let’s face it, kids are feral little creatures before we get civilization trained into us and child culture is a fascinating study in human development. Now? There’s still no shortage of terrible people who like to harm others, and fear is fear.

Before you ask, no, they were not feeding on you a few minutes ago.  The ones you encountered are all long-term residents of the Home, and the rules of hospitality are that friends are not food, after all.

“I have nieces and nephews.  I can see your point about little kids and the casual cruelty. Also, I appreciate not being on the lunch menu!  You had originally started the outreach program during college.  How did that happen?”

By accident, really.  It turns out that college campuses have an astonishing number of scared people on them, and so Lurks and other types of monsters are attracted to them.  It also turns out that folklore majors are less likely to freak out than most when they stumble across you outside in your bunny slippers, in the middle of the night, explaining to a monster why it needs to leave your roommate alone, regardless of how her anxiety disorder made her the equivalent of a walking plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  The Lurk was curious about the human who was under the protection of one of her kind and not afraid, and the other student was desperate to know more about the monsters, and somehow I found myself explaining each of them to the other, and me, and Glatis (who was also standing there, rolling his eyes), at 3 in the morning on the lawn.  It ended up not being the last time.

“Why folklore majors?”

Most already want folklore and fairy tales to be true, so it’s exciting when reality obliges and presents you with an honest-to-Grimm monster straight out of childhood nightmares.  Instinct makes you react like, well, much like you did, but they’re more likely to have their innate curiosity override it significantly faster than other people.

“What does a typical day look like here? I’m guessing it looks quite a bit different than it does elsewhere.”

To an extent, it’s not as different from a normal house as you would think. It starts a bit later than most, due to the majority of the residents being nocturnal, but that’s about it.  Get up, have coffee, take the Runalongs out for their daily run (there’s an old highway nearby that doesn’t get used much since the new one was put in a few decades back that’s good to take them down without causing accidents).  Come back, deal with any paperwork that needs attention, and the rest is mostly spent being available for the residents or host families, and dealing with any issues that may come up.

“Host families?”

Humans who wish to sponsor a resident who is interested in staying with other human families in a guardianship capacity.  Glatis and I accidentally became a kind of ambassadorial template for human/monster interactions spanning both communities.  There have always been a small percentage of monsters who are more inclined to view humans as something other than a mere food source, as well as humans whose fear of monsters is tempered by their curiosity about them.  We provide a way for both groups to interact with one another in a way that’s safe for each of them.  Most of the time, it’s a temporary arrangement, and our residents return here before going to stay with other families or exploring other options on engaging with humans.  It’s also not unheard of for a monster and a family to adopt one another, and the monster takes on the role of generational guardianship.  There are issues with integration, from time to time, but we have a fairly rigorous vetting process to minimize the chances of these occurring.

“One last question before we finish.   On the way in, the sign says “Beware of Graswolves”.  What is a “graswolf”?”

Graswolves are a subspecies of feldgeister.  They originated in central Europe, and live and hunt in fields with tall grass. Their cousins, kornwolves, are the real reason why people are afraid of cornfields, despite what a number of people on the Internet think.  There’s a small pack that lives on the property that ensures we don’t get trespassers. They’re smart enough to differentiate between guests, curiosity seekers, and actual threats, so they make an excellent security system.

                                                                               * * * * * * * * * *

After we wrapped up the formal part of the interview, Auntie Yaga allowed me to investigate the entry hall for theatrical tricks to try and explain what had happened when I had first arrived, and I found nothing.  I’d been too shaken up to remember to do it, initially, but as I could see the hall from where I’d sat, it was clear that no one could have tampered with the room during the interview without being seen.  Once I completed my search, I had the amazing opportunity to actually meet the co-founder, Glatis, and take photos with the residents that I had encountered on my arrival.  This second encounter was much easier on the second introduction, as I was more prepared and also allowed the introduction to follow the standard protocols, which I had originally, in my hubris, insisted be waived.

I could write entire novels about the rest of my experiences at Auntie Yaga’s Home For Wayward Monsters, but those are tales for another day.  If you have the opportunity to do so, however, I highly recommend taking the chance to meet them, and perhaps even sponsor a resident.

The Poppet Witch Speaks

I promised I’d start writing a bit longer bits about the poppets, so here we are, the first installment of the story, from the Poppet Witch herself.  I hope you like it!

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I’m told that, given recent happenings, I should start writing stuff down a bit more than usual.  Always was bad at it, and leaving a paper trail always seemed a bad idea, but something about “documentation” and “for the love of God, what if something happens to you?!?” and all that, so I guess I’ll give it a shot.  I ain’t gonna promise to be regular about it, though, and fair warning, there’s some things you can’t pay me enough to write down and others that ain’t no one’s business but my own, even if I’m dead before anyone reads it.

Haven’t kept a diary since I was a teenager, and I feel a bit ridiculous trying to do so now, but well, here we are.  Maybe if I pretend I’m writing someone a letter I’ll feel a bit less foolish about the whole thing.  Figure I should start at the beginning so the rest makes some kind of sense, while I’m at it.

Folks have lots of theories about what the poppets are and where they came from.  Souls of lost children, mine or someone else’s, are a particular favorite.  Stolen souls, in general, seem to be popular. Bargains with devils were made, they’re devils themselves, familiar spirits summoned to do mischief, that sort of thing.  Course, they’re all wrong,  but they do amuse me just the same.

No, I think I’m not going to write down what the truth is.  Folks need a little more mystery in their life.  The world’s getting too tame and besides, too much information is bad for you.

I must say, I didn’t expect them to get as advanced as they have been.  That’s been a nice little surprise.

So what are they?  What it says on the tin, more or less. They’re dolls of sticks and twine and scraps of cloth, mostly.  Whatever’s around that works.  Like those little corn husk dolls folks make, just, well….more.  I made the first one when I was out cleaning up the dead wood that’d come down in a storm a while back, and remembered making little dolls from flowers and things in my ma’s garden while I was little.  I wanted to see if I could remember how to do it.  Poor thing was rather rough and didn’t hold together well, but it was alright.  Or it was until the kitten decided it was a toy and it got chewed up and scattered around, at any rate.

Still, I’d like having it around and I wanted to see if I could do better, so I kept practicing and trying new things until I got it right.

Honestly, it was as much of a surprise to me as anyone else when the first one got it into its head to move.  Damned near threw it into the fire before I caught myself.

The thing a lot of folks don’t realize is that witchery is a sort of science.  It’s got different ways of seeing and doing things, but the main difference is what you’re working with, really.  Also the scientists take better notes, from what I hear. A big thing we’ve got in common, though, is neither of us are particularly good at leaving well enough alone when something gets our curiosity up.

That first one was years ago, now, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.  It was just a bit after dark, in late fall.  Day’d been pretty normal…I’d spent most of it dealing with getting the gardens set for winter and sold a few teas and things to the local folks, Himself was off doing his thing, as usual.  I was getting dinner ready, when I noticed that the cats were sitting quietly side by side instead of fighting, staring at something.  Figuring it was either a mouse or a bug, I went to take a look.  It wasn’t a mouse. It was one of the little dolls, standing in the middle of the living room floor, looking back at me.  When it tilted it’s head, I yelled and moved to grab it and toss it into the fireplace.  I stopped because it raised its hands in front of its face, like it was trying to protect itself, and well, it was obviously scared and well, I ain’t a monster.

After shooing the cats out of the room, I sat down on the floor so as not to spook it more than it already was (the poor thing was shaking so much I had a concern that it might actually rattle itself back into a pile of sticks, and that wouldn’t do at all), and started talking to it just like I would any scared critter, and waited to see what it would do.  After a bit, it stopped rattling, took a few halting steps closer, and looked at me like it was expecting me to do something.  So, I did the first thing I thought of.  I held out a hand, and it climbed up, sat down, and wrapped an arm around my thumb, for all the world like it was settling into its favorite chair.

Over the next weeks, it took to following me around, and would climb up onto a nearby shelf or look at me until I picked it up and put it where it pointed me to bring it so it could watch what was going on around the house.  I taught it to make different sounds in certain patterns for important things like “yes”, “no”, “help”, “please”, “thank you”, and all that.   It was a curious little thing, and seemed generally good-natured, though it had moments of oddly intense…staring, isn’t quite the right word, given it’s lack of actual eyes, but it’s close enough.  It would fix it’s attention on you so hard you’d almost swear you could feel it, and you weren’t sure what, exactly, it was thinking.

Not gonna lie, it was a bit unnerving at first, but we had a talk about it and got some ground rules sorted.

One day I found it in the work room, looking at the half-finished bits of others I’d been working on.  Hadn’t touched them since the night it walked itself into the living room, so it was the only one finished at the time.  It looked so sad it hurt to see, and I decided I needed to finish them and see about making it some others of its kind.

That’s a story for another day, though, and I’ve used up enough daylight writing this much for now.

Roadside Lore: “Softly Do These Languid Shadows Whisper”

I saw a ghost one night, years ago, and the memory of it has haunted me since.

 It was around midnight or so, in late autumn, at one of those big rest areas off the Maine Turnpike.  There was a woman standing by the big glass window, looking out. Even though it was late, that particular rest area is always pretty busy, but she was standing there, alone, a still figure in a pool of quiet amid the louder river of people, and no one seemed to see her but me.  

She wore a black chiffon party dress, patterned with fern green flowers and emerald beads that glittered slightly from the fluorescent lights overhead.  In one hand she held a pair black high heels dangling loosely from her fingertips, the strap to one clearly broken.  On her feet she wore a well-worn pair of brown hiking boots, and over her fancy dress she wore a faded, blue flannel shirt that was somewhat too big for her.  Something about the way she wore it made it clear that it had never belonged to anyone else, instead of something given to her by someone else to keep her warm.

Her hair was long and dark, and hung loose down her back, though it looked like it had been pinned up not long before.  At first glance, she looked young – maybe 22 or so – but was more likely past 30.  She had one of those faces that are hard to place ages to.  Not ageless, per se,  but more like Time wasn’t quite sure where she fit, if you know what I mean?

She seemed to be both gazing at her reflection, lost in thought and unaware of the discordance of her surroundings, and looking out into the darkness, past the parking lot lights, at some distant thing only she could see.  Her expression was a strange blend of emotions – sorrow, hope, resignation, determination – all at once.  It was like she was looking at her past and future at the same time and making up her mind about something.  It was a look to break your heart, because you knew there was a deep hurt behind it that hadn’t yet started to heal.

After a moment, she sighed, turned, and walked out, pausing on the concrete landing just outside the glass doors of the lobby.  As at the window, no one seemed to notice her as she passed them, or they, her.  She looked thoughtfully at the broken shoes in her hand for a moment, as if unsure of something, then placed them on top of the rubbish bin.  She stepped onto the pavement and walked out in the darkness beyond the lamplight, the handkerchief hem  of her skirt fluttering in the chill autumn breeze and wind from the nearby turnpike.  Another wandering ghost resting for a moment in the liminal space of a rest stop in the middle of the night before continuing on down the road.

The Problem With Poppets

“Once there was, and once there was not…”

That is how the old stories start, isn’t it?  Once there was, and once there was not a village far, far away,  just over that ridge there, that bordered a forest as old as time and older than sin, and in that forest was a little house the color of brick and old blood in which there lived a witch…

What?  Yes, dear, I know that’s a run-on sentence.  It’s an old woman’s right to ramble.  Hush, now,  and let your old Baba think.  Where was I?  Oh, right…

…in which there lived a witch…

As witches go, the villagers didn’t *think* she was a bad one, but they weren’t sure, and one can really never be too careful when dealing with uncertainties like that, can we?  After all, her house looked more or less normal, and she hadn’t actually eaten anyone, that they were aware of, and her cats seemed nice, as did the odd man who lived with her, but her garden had a tendency to grow things with berries that looked too much like eyes looking back at you, and fruits that were just a little too strangely colored to be quite right, and then there were the poppets….There was a rhyme about them, though no one knew where it came from.

“Poppet of bramble, branch, and twine

Face like moonlight, and voice of chime…”

Damn, I can’t remember the rest of it.  Something about flattering them and asking them not to steal things that were yours, like your name, or your shadow or something like that.  Don’t get old, kids, your memory gets to being fuzzy and you forget things at the most inopportune times…

The poppets were odd little things.  They should have been much more disturbing then they were, but they had a certain whimsical charm to them I’m told.  Well, at least as long as the sun was out and you knew there were other folks around.  I wouldn’t swear that they were as charming when the sun went down, and I don’t want to find out for sure.  Like the rhyme goes, they were odd little figures, human-like, cobbled together of sticks and bits of brambles and leaves, held together with fine twine, with heads of bleached linen and faces that were drawn onto the fabric.  The witch had placed them around the property, gathered in little groups in the trees and on the fences and you would swear they were watching you when walked by, whispering and chattering among themselves, with voices that sounded like those tiny little wind-chimes you see at the flower shops.  No one ever saw them move, but they were rarely where you saw them last, even if only a few moments had passed.

Some things it’s just best not to think about…

Some folks swore they heard the poppets chiming in the village in the middle of the night, but everyone knows that once the sun goes down, you’d best be indoors and you never look out the windows.  There are things out there in the dark that don’t need to be met, and it’s best to just  let some things be.

What was that, my dear?  Ah, yes.  So it is.  I’m sorry, my children, but I’m told that it’s time for your old Baba to take her old bones to bed.  It’s getting late, and you should run along home before the sun goes down.  Remember to close the curtains, and if you hear the chimes, it’s probably just those little metal chimes from the flower shop blowing around in the breeze…

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No, I have absolutely not been staring at the tangled vines outside the window, and thinking how much they looked like little people sometimes and wondering if I could remember how to make little dolls from sticks and string like I did when I was a kid.  Why do you ask?

(Toss a coin to your word-witch?)