THE NEXT morning I took the train into Galham to attend a lecture on Latin Poetry. I can’t say I retained much of it, but I did notice getting a few odd looks from the other students who lived in Bralston. I did my best to ignore the looks, but when, on the train after the Lecture, one of them happened to sit nearby, I felt inclined to cause some havoc by saying I’d noticed the looks they gave. Rumours were nothing new among the student body; I even helped spread a few, if I thought them to be interesting, or not particularly harmful in nature; I never took them personally when they involved me.
His name was Joseph, but he went by the name Brandon, for some reason I never could figure out. His middle name was Edward, which ruled out my only reasonable explanation. I stood up, walked over to him, and sat down. He turned a little red, but turned fantastically so after I made known the purpose of my sitting down next to him.
“Brandon,” I said, “I’ve noticed a distinct lack of rumours lately. Have you heard any good ones?”
He blushed some more, but smiled. Awkwardly, but genuinely.
“You know, William,” He said, “I have heard a few. None about you, no; but of the company you keep, many.”
“The Company I keep?” I asked, “I keep hardly any!”
He laughed, and so did I.
“But people have seen you with a girl recently. In town. Bridget, I think? She’s been the focus of more than a few odd rumours since she moved to town. But even more have sprung up since you two have started to be seen together.”
There was a pause, like he expected a remark on my part. But I had nothing to say.
“I’m surprised, honestly, that you haven’t heard any of them. A few are quite spectacular. Out of the realm of rumours, and into the realm of mythology, almost!” he laughed abruptly and continued “People know your fascinations in odd things to be harmless; but a stranger like her, interested in apparently similar things, is decidedly a concern. And I don’t know if there is any truth to it, but Elizabeth Hammond claims to have seen a girl in the forest, equipped with mask and white dress, frolicking quite horribly around, and making odd shrieks and grunts. Naturally, everyone assumed it to be Bridget.”
There was a silence. It was a bit too long for my taste, but at length, he continued.
“And William, people are saying she’s a witch. Of course, I don’t think anyone truly believes it literally. It isn’t the seventeen-hundreds anymore, after all. But people are doubtlessly weary of her; the poor girl,” he sighed, and, paying mind to politeness, continued, “If you like her so well, she can’t be bad.”
The rest of the train-ride was spent mostly in telling Brandon of Bridget’s exceptional character, and imploring him to disregard any similar rumours until speaking with me. We got off the train, shook hands, and parted.
It still being before noon, I headed to a farm-stand near the center of town to buy some fruit. The stand was a rickety old thing, built over fifty years ago mostly of scraps of Oak harvested from a nearby lumber-yard. It was four-sided, with the saleswoman standing in the center. One side consisted entirely of pears, plums, and peaches; one of carrots, burdock, parsnips, and broccoli; one of all sorts of lettuces; and the last was filled to the brim with bundles of lavender, rosemary, sage, and every other spice I could think of. There was also a seperate large bin filled with apples. It always excited me to no end to eat things grown in Bralston; and needless to say I enjoyed browsing for the better part of thirty minutes. At last I picked up a few peaches and put them into a paper bag, along with a sprig of lavender (which I adore the smell of), and an apple; I paid the woman and started walking down the road towards home. In the distance I saw a figure with a familiar gait turning down a side road; I sped my walk toward it.
As I got to the side road myself and turned down it, I could see, being a little closer than before, that the figure was, as I had suspected, Bridget. She had stopped along the side of the road and was picking the flowers from some wild plants, when I hallooed. She jumped perceptively, but smiled when she saw it was me. I spied a dry grassy opening a few meters off of the road, and told her it could be a nice place to relax for a moment. So we pushed our way through some short brambles and briars, and sat down among the soft tufts of grass, with the bees buzzing dreamily, and the butterflies fluttering drunkenly about.
She had a black cloth bag with her, and inside were some of the wild plants she’d picked. I asked her what they were, and she listed them off one by one, while showing them to me.
“Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow, Catnip, Goldenrod, Bloodroot, and Blue Vervain. I’ve been walking since six this morning looking for them all. “
“And what do you plan to do with them? Or is it enough just to have them?”
“I really don’t know, William— I was thinking that, maybe, I should dry them and make them into tea, or something. I really haven’t decided. It’d be a shame not to use them though! They’re so beautiful, perhaps I should hang them around my room.”
She had a look on her face I’d already come to know well; when she got excited, she started to better resemble a child than the fully grown woman that she was. She smiles, and giggles, and her eyes become so full of life. It’s an uncanny transformation; one which I’ve not seen equaled by any other. The oddest things could set her into such a mood. These wild plants being quite a good example.
I leaned back into the grass until I was lying down entirely, and closed my eyes.
Bridget was musing quietly next to me; pouring out the thoughts as they came to her. She had a talent for it; and I had a complimentary talent for listening.
“I always wondered, as a child, why some leaves were green, but other plants could have maroon leaves; and some plants are almost entirely white. There’s a small plant around here called the Indian’s Pipe that’s entirely white. It’s a ghostly thing. Apparently it doesn’t photosynthesize, but instead steals energy from surrounding plants and fungi. I found a small group of them growing under a thick canopy of trees over by Maidenhead; I was so entranced by them. Oh William, you have no idea how enchanting they are! I’ll show you soon, no doubt. We’ll go walking, on a quest to find them. And we will find them, certainly. When I first saw them, I thought they may be phosphourescent; you know, glowing in the dark. I fancied they may be a satisfactory explanation for the long history of Will’o’the’wisp sightings in the area; glowing ghostly plants, frightening the ignorant! but no, they do not glow in the dark. But then, I’d love to see a Will’o’the’wisp for myself; I’ve never felt I could trust the experience of another for something so mystical. Always my mind would search for the fault in their thinking; for the clue that points to the possible explanations; ignoring entirely the possibility that this person may not be mistaken or ignorant, and that they may have really seen something unknown. My God, unknown! How beautiful that word is. And the idea of it. Experiencing the unexperienced. The very thought makes my body tingle with the electricity of inspiration.”
Throughout this soliloquy, I had been staring toward the road, watching with interest every time someone passed by. A woman walking an Alsatian; a balding man, applying sun-block as he walked; a group of four young girls, teasing one another about a boy named Robert, as they braided daisies. I was smiling in the most innocent way I could imagine; it was the smile you don’t even realize is there, or quite why it is there.
My mind started to drift back to my childhood. Blowing the fur from dandelions; squeezing the center of cone-flowers to feel the prickly pressure against my hand; running around in the cemetery playing tag, just before the Sun disappeared below the horizon; rolling down steep hills. These were so vivid, I’d forgotten where I was, and even that I was. As I came back to reality, I looked to Bridget, who was still continuing on with her thoughtful ramblings.
“It was really interesting. Putting on the mask made me feel like someone else entirely. I am sorry I ran off like that; something about the mood of the scene made it seem necessary. It’s all a bit of a blur, I’ll admit. I’d gotten it into my head to drink a tall glass of wine before heading into the woods; it made it feel infinitely more mystical, and I swear to you, I’ve never felt so close to nature as I did that day. I didn’t head back to my house until well after dark, in fact, I enjoyed it so much. But once the wine had worn off, and I realized how dark it was, it suddenly became oppressive and terrifying. I jumped at every snap of a twig, and at every yip of a creature. There’s nothing to fear, really, in the New England woods, and yet that thought made no difference to my tired nerves. I was really panicking at one point. I was running out, toward the road, as fast as I could; but I tripped over a fallen tree and scraped my arm on a rock that was sticking out of the ground. My knuckles were raw from banging against bark and branches. I was having quite a fit by the time I got to the road. I frightened quite to death a man who was walking his Husky. The dog saw me before he did, and started to do a sort of howling cry of sympathy; this sound set off coyotes in the distance, yipping and howling. The man was trying to pull the dog in the direction from where they came, but he was refusing to move an inch. I took a step toward him, at which point he jumped; but, seeing that I was nothing threatening, he quickly redeemed himself with a blush and a sigh, and asked me what I was doing out so late at night, let alone in the woods. I lied, and told him I had gotten lost, and had only then managed to retrace my steps back to the road. He told me to be more careful, and walked me to the end of the street.”
My mind instantly flew to the rumours about her. I made a sound, as if to interject; but I laughed at my own tendency toward flights of fancy, and waved her on to continue, but that was all she had to say. She stood up, and I stood up; we crossed the brambles once more; and she went her way, and I went mine.