Laughing at Butterflies
by Donna Hole
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Rupert pulled off his hat and wiped rain from his forehead. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the woods damp and mushy. That fresh-flowers smell was still heavy in the air, and I had a feeling that meant the goblin child was still somewhere close by.
“Nah. Let’s just walk around a bit, see what we see,” he said, starting off towards the tree line. His steps were sure, as if he already knew where we were going. He took in a deep breath, seeming to savor the sweetly scented air.
I had explored the area before purchasing the property, and knew there was a knoll of sweet smelling cutleaf, wild bergamot, and foxgloves about half a mile away. Mushrooms dotted the landscape in rings around the oak trees. A refreshing walk: I intended to keep a clear path from the Inn once it opened. I took the lead, suddenly sure this was our destination.
“Jasper and Winona aren’t the only ones to say they’ve seen the Pukwudgies,” Rupert said. “I have a whole file cabinet full of strange sightings. One time I responded to a call about a woman trying to drown her kid in a tub of hot water. She said the fairies left a changeling inside the boy and she was trying to scare the entity out of his skin. Good thing the neighbors had been keeping an eye out for the kid. He was mentally unstable or something, took to wandering the neighborhood and causing all sorts of mischief.”
I stepped over a fallen tree branch and listened to the chirping birds. I’d heard the story, thought the woman was just overwhelmed with raising a disabled kid on her own. The neighbors didn’t like her, said she was a drug addict, roaming the streets at night, things always coming up missing from yards and storage sheds.
“Next you’ll be telling me you believe the Hairy Man is real,” I replied, chuckling nervously as my boot slipped on a mossy rock.
“Just saying I have a file of strange sightings. Yes, some of those are Bigfoot reports.” He was ahead of me again, stepping between two conifers blocking our path. He stopped at the edge of a shadowed meadow.
Sugar maples and red oaks loomed around the clearing, casting dark shadows across the northern side, where a six-foot mound of grass and flowers resided. I’d spent several afternoons up here lately; peace and contentment always filled me, despite the cold, dark air. I felt it was a magical place, but would never admit that to anyone. Except perhaps today, when so much strangeness had already occurred.
“I’ve been afraid to come here at night,” I admitted.
“Probably shouldn’t, especially not this time of year. Winter is transitioning to spring, the forest is reawakening with new life. Transitions are dangerous places.”
This was a side of Rupert I’d never suspected. I wanted to ask if he had any weird sightings of his own to add to his files, but just then the being that could be Mato appeared at the top of the mound. I say “appeared,” because I was staring directly at the place, one second it was clear, the next he was sitting there with his legs crossed, face propped in his hands. As if he’d been waiting for us to arrive.
The boy stood, stretched out his hands, and the tree branches swayed and drew back, letting in the warm sunlight. Rainbows danced on the petals of the wet flowers and blades of tall grass. The potpourri aroma filled my nostrils again. The air smelled fresher, crisper. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the scents. A tickling sensation on my hands and face caused me to giggle, and I opened my eyes to see several butterflies had landed on my exposed skin.
A giant swallowtail with red, blue and purple etchings on its wings was hovering inches from my nose. I stepped back in surprise, and instantly felt as if I was falling down a deep well.
I landed on my feet amidst a shower of pine needles and wet grass. Before I could move or assess my surroundings, a soft but commanding voice ordered me to stay still.
“Don’t move, mortal, or you shall be stuck here for a year and a day. Perhaps forever.”
Careful not to move my feet, I stared in awe at the vision in front of me. A beautiful, regal woman dressed in purple linen sat before me. Her white hair was crowned with a wreath of holly leaves. I could see no chair or throne, but it seemed to me she was seated. I wondered if I should kneel, but remembered her warning not to move.
“Where am I?”
What I could see of the perimeter was dark, only a glow around the woman provided any light. I sensed movement around me, but I was more curious than afraid.
“You have entered a sacred grove of the Tuatha De, a place where we are able to exit above ground at certain times of the year. The spring solstice approaches, a time we are most active in the mortal world.”
I shook my head, enchanted by her lyrical voice and ethereal beauty. Distant music filled my ears, and I had an overwhelming urge to track it down, to dance until my legs dropped from under me.
“You must resist the urge to join us, Gavin Walsh. I have need of you above.”
That comment stabled me. “Who are you, and what do you want from me?”
She smiled, brightening the room even further. Flashes of gold and green teased the edges of my vision. I kept my eyes forward with effort.
“I am Careen, Goddess-Mother, defender of youths, protector of children. What I need is to stop you from developing this land as you have planned.”
“And protector of the Pukwudgies?” I was thinking of all the stories I’d read of missing children and malicious tricksters; wondering how she could be protector and kidnapper both.
“They are also under my protection, mischievous as they are. They are a part of nature and are essential to the growth and protection of this forest.” She raised her delicate hand and the wrinkled creature that resembled Mato Keene scrambled into her lap.
“Even when they steal innocent children?” I was getting angry, but was still careful not to move my feet.
“Mato was not stolen.” Her fingers were busy weaving more flowers into his tangled hair. “He was more perceptive than most humans and frequently followed the Pukwudgies around the forest. One night, he followed one of the young creatures into this mound, and he refused to return to the world above. Over time he has learned our magic and has become one of their race.”
“How can he make such a choice on his own?”
“Enough,” she said with impatience.
Mato bared his teeth at me but calmed when Careen smoothed his hair and conjured a handful of berries, which she offered to him. Laughing, he scooped up the berries and disappeared with them.
“Our time grows short. You must return above. I sent Mato to lure you here to ask you not to continue with your plans to build on this site. This place is a sacred home to us.”
I thought over her request. I had invested all my savings into this venture, and to stop now would ruin me financially. I had other property investments still in the works, but none as profitable as the inn and farm would be.
“I don’t plan on ruining the land, or cutting down any of the forest. I would be very eco-friendly.”
“Our home would be overrun with tourists.”
“Naturalists,” I countered.
The music and smells were growing more enticing. I was losing the battle to keep my feet planted. I wanted to explore this underworld realm, experience its delights I’d read so much about. I could feel the magical beauty of this place coming alive around me. Visions of beautiful people and gardens danced just out of sight.
I lifted my foot to step towards the light surrounding Careen. I knew with certainty that she was concealing her world from me, and I wanted to see it all, experience it all, even at the risk of never returning to my own world. Then there was a strong grip on my wrist, and I felt myself yanked up through the same well of darkness I’d fallen into.
“Think on it, Gavin. I shall grant you a boon if you agree. I have no wish to be your enemy.”
Her comment followed me into the daylight. I stumbled as my feet hit solid ground, and the pressure released from my wrist. The light hurt my eyes for a moment, and a sneeze erupted from my nose and mouth. I wiped my face and noted that all the butterflies were gone.
“Sorry, Gavin,” Rupert said. “Looked like you were about to fall into that mud behind you.”
I looked over my shoulder. Inside the ring of mushrooms was a muddy mess, a sharp contrast from the rest of the clearing. I was surprised not to have noticed it before. The trees had closed in, making the place cold and shadowy again. There was no sign of Mato, or even a sense of the magic I’d felt when we first entered the clearing. A chill breeze was gathering, and I wished I’d worn my jacket this morning.
“Let’s get back and check on Claud and the others.”
He started back the way we came, but I hesitated. I could still hear music and laughter, taunting me to step back into the ring of mushrooms.
“Rupert, did you see—”
“Didn’t see nothing but you about to fall into the mud.” He didn’t stop, didn’t turn around as he spoke.
“Where’s Mato?” I hurried to catch up with him, crunching twigs and pine needles under my boots.
“Mato? Sure looked like him. But, how could that be? I don’t know who it was, but I do know I won’t be telling Winona Keene I saw her boy out here. Don’t need any more nonsense stirring up the tribe.”
I grabbed his shoulder to stop him, turn him around. “Something just happened out here, and you and I aren’t the only ones to see it. There’s Kattie, and Claud with his injuries. And Edwin will have the story in his morning paper even without the pictures.”
The Sherriff placed a hand on my shoulder, gently squeezed. A measure of his calmness seeped through his touch. “By now they are not sure what they saw, and Claud’s injuries aren’t as deep as they seemed. Just scratches and bad memories. I doubt he will be hanging out around here in the future. The place has a haunted feel to it, don’t you think?”
I stared past him to the woods, thinking just the opposite. It was beautiful here, and I always felt such contentment. Which is why I wanted to develop this area into a retreat. So much positive energy; the world needed more places like this.
“If you say so,” I said instead.
Rupert smiled and nodded. “I knew you’d understand.”
But I didn’t understand, not totally. Everything was changed, including Sheriff Rupert Hayes. I wondered just who he really was. I’d grown up with him. I’ve known him since he moved here with his family when he was eleven years old. Yet he never talked of his home prior to moving here.
“How do you know the others won’t remember what they saw?” It seemed a safe enough question.
“Even Jasper? Edwin? This story will be all either talks about for months.”
“And who listens to Edwin or Jasper’s rantings?”
We came out of the trees. The house was in the middle of a two-acre lot. I could still see the remnants of a corral and chicken coup. The visions of restoring this place were starting to fade.
“Why do they call this the Whistler place? I couldn’t find any mention in the old newspaper archives, and even the oldest ladies at the historical society don’t know.”
“Ah, that’s an old story, and I can’t believe I’m the only one who remembers it.” He pointed back to the trees. “Back before this land was cleared and the house built, there was a grove of elm trees. They were over a hundred feet tall and, when the wind would blow, it seemed to whistle through the branches. Drove a lot of the Natives nuts.
“The place was uninhabited for many years because of the whistling trees. Albrecht Wiltshyre still swore he could hear the whistling in the dead of night. One night, he found his wife outside with their first-born son. Said she was offering him to the trees to be silent. She said the Pukwudgies told her it was the only way to appease the ghost trees.”
I stumbled in a sink hole that didn’t trip Rupert as he walked directly in front of me. “How do you know this when I’ve lived here all my life and nobody’d told me that story?”
Rupert turned and walked backwards. “Albrecht is my great-great grandfather. He returned to Wales when he left here. The story has been circulating in my family ever since.”
I digested that as I looked around. Now I could see a few tree stumps poking through the grass. My imagination was playing tricks on me; I could almost hear the whistling, though the breeze was slight and the trees were long dead.
“Like I said, this place is haunted; full of bad luck. You should keep that in mind as you decide if you still want to build here.”
We were almost to the front door by now. Jasper’s old truck was gone, but the Sheriff’s cruiser was still parked behind Kattie’s station wagon. Deputy Tavers sat on the trunk, pen in hand and a pile of papers on top a file box.
“Thought I’d get started on the report.”
“Good use of your time,” Rupert agreed. “How they doing?”
“Kattie is wondering how she could have mistaken that piece of deadwood and some old clothes for the body of a child. Claud promises to stay out of the wild blackberry bushes.”
I stared at Deputy Tavers, my mind reeling with all that I’d experienced in the last few hours. Who were these two officers? Did they have some connection to the Tuatha De, or the Pukwudgies? Or was something bigger going on in this area?
Tavers winked at me, and I felt sure he had read my mind. “You’re still owed a favor, Gavin. Make the right choices here.”
He went back to his paperwork as if he hadn’t spoken. I glanced at Rupert, but he was already going into the house, whistling a disturbing tune.
A giant swallowtail fluttered past my face, and I turned to watch its colorful flight along the path to the meadow. Light spots dazzled behind my eyes, and I could still hear the faint laughter of something that resembled a child. The sound was taunting and unsettling.
I shook my head against a sudden thought that I did not want to share this place with anyone.
Copyright © 2017 by Donna Hole