A Circle of Birches: Chapter 1

The Port Blanc Woods had always been dense and dark, at least as long as anyone who lived in Pyramid Point could remember. The forest itself ran the ridge of the narrow Port Blanc Peninsula for nearly twenty miles, though in recent years the southernmost end of the forest had been thinned by developers from Lake Bakade. The villagers to the north tutted and fussed as massive virgin oaks and beeches were torn down to make way for new subdivisions and massive retirement homes, but in the end, the Port Blanc families typically left the mainlanders to their own devices. So long as the peninsula herself remained mostly unchanged by the shifting demographics of the region, the men and women of Pyramid Point and Whitefish Bay could not care less what fate befell anyone else. If those idiots from Lake Bakade wanted to call down darkness on themselves, that was their business.

Darkness it was that the townsfolk meddled with, the older folks of Port Blanc knew. Few villagers had ever ventured into the deep woods without good reason, warned away from the tangled wilderness by the whispers of old women and campfire stories passed down from teenagers to children for generations. There were things that lurked in the trees there, so local legend claimed, ancient, best-forgotten things that stalked the trembling hearts of all who passed near the boundary of the forest. Only the large, window-rich mansions of new arrivals encroached on the edge of the gnarled wilds. The old families — their blood as rich with the soil as the soil was rich with their blood — knew well enough to build their modest houses far from the forest, and guarded their farms and orchards with all manner of strange signs against the otherness beyond.

It was into one of the old families that Charlotte Wollard had been born. She’d mewled to life on a late November day with all the dignity a daughter of winter-hardened farmers was allowed. Lottie was a plain-looking girl, with weak, milky eyes that bulged ever so slightly from her pale face in a manner that made her look perpetually startled. Her ears hung just a touch too low on her narrow head, their tips peeking out from among thin strands of dishwater brown hair. The Wollard genes were strong in her, poor thing.

A girl of few words, Lottie hardly seemed to care what others thought of her. Perhaps that was the heart of folks’ morbid fascination with the young woman, though few would ever admit to it. She was quiet and reserved, blessed with an easy smile and a bright mind that brought her nothing but the torment of her peers. And her unusual habits only amplified their bullying.

Rather than spending her leisure time with the other village girls basking on the shores of Mission Bay, Lottie had a strange and singular obsession with the forest near her ancestral farm. Specifically, she was taken with the dark hollow of ancient oaks that dominated the northernmost stretch of the Port Blanc Woods. She was known to vanish into the wilderness for whole afternoons, though what precisely she was doing in those secret hours was anyone’s guess. And none gossiped about her as frequently or as maliciously as the women of the Stoneman family.

The Stonemans and Wollards had never gotten along — at least not since old Tobias Stoneman had accused Herbert Wollard of secretly moving the boundary line between their orchards in the dead of night back near the founding of Pyramid Point — and the bad blood between them had a way of festering and bubbling up in the most peculiar ways over the years. During the famine of 1862, it was the Stonemans who had seeded the Wollard farm with gypsy moth cocoons, or so the latter family claimed. And it was the Wollards in return, according to local legend, who’d put such a curse on the Stoneman’s cows that all their milk turned sour for nearly fifty years after. But such accusations were things of the distant past. By Lottie’s junior year of high school, the feud between the neighboring farms had mostly faded to petty gossip and unspoken disdain.

“That Wollard girl’s got a darkness in ‘er,” old Sarah Stoneman warned, wiping the sweat of a hot July afternoon from her wrinkled brow with an annoyed huff. She turned to face her granddaughters as they rinsed the sand from their swimsuits with a worn old hose, shrieking as the cold water splashed on their tanned skin. “You girls oughta steer clear of ‘er. No proper person hides away from the sun on a day like this.”

“I’ll bet she’s found a secret blackberry patch,” Ashley offered, her bright blue eyes brimming with excitement. She was the younger of the two, small and slight with dimples that put the angels to shame. “Yesterday, when I saw her down at the market, she had these dark stains on her shirt, like she’d been carrying a whole bunch of berries wrapped up in it. I asked her where she’d gotten them, but she just gave me a weird smile. I don’t know how you put up with her, Jill.”

“Right? Kyle thinks she’s been summoning demons or something,” her older sister Jill chirped, tossing her brightly patterned beach towel over a clothesline stretched between two trees. “A couple of the boys from school dared him to follow her into the woods, but he heard such horrible sounds from where she’d gone that he ran nearly all the way to Whitefish Bay. He said it sounded like an animal trying to speak or something. Super creepy.”

The family matron sighed. “Your Kyle Fletcher’s got less sense than a rabbit in a fox den,” she replied. “But in this case, he might not be far off. Them Wollards always struck me as the cultish sort. In any case, you’d best steer clear of that Lottie. It doesn’t do for Stonemans and Wollards to mix.”

Jill nodded solemnly, peeling a wet strand of blonde hair from the side of her face and tucking it behind her ear. “Of course, nana,” she muttered dismissively. “But Lottie’s in my class. I can’t exactly avoid her.”

Sarah frowned. “I’d best have a talk with your teacher, then, come fall, an’ tell ‘er not to seat you near ‘er. It can’t be helped. These newcomers never seem to understand our ways, nor do they try to. It’s bad enough my fool son sends you girls to that school. Back in my time, you’d both be wed off by now. What proper man’ll want a wife who cares more about ‘er studies than ‘er chores?”

Ashley pouted. “Nana, that’s whack. I don’t even want to get married!”

“Yeah,” Jill agreed, horrified. “Who says junk like that? See, this is why my friends don’t like to come over. Girls are supposed to have careers now, nana. It’s 1997, not the freaking Dark Ages.”

“An’ people wonder why the old ways are dyin’ off,” the elderly woman muttered. “My own blood, turnin’ their back on how things ought’a be. It’s a cursed shame.”

The girls looked at each other, rolling their eyes. Every conversation with their grandmother was like this. Over the years, they’d learned to humor her, if only to avoid further lectures. It was times like this that made them understand why so many of their peers had moved to Lake Bakade. In the bustling tourist town, no one cared who your family was, and people like Sarah Stoneman were rightly dismissed as relics of a more ignorant age. But the Stonemans, at least, were tied to their land in a way that only the other founding families truly understood. Though their apple orchards no longer brought in the profit they once did, Lake Michigan itself would completely freeze over before the Stonemans sold their property and moved to the city.

“Just please don’t yell at Mrs. Holland again,” Jill pleaded. “It’s so embarrassing when you interrupt study hall, and it just makes her mad. Last year, I basically never got permission to use the hall pass. She already hates me enough.”

Sarah sighed, waving her hand dismissively as she turned back to the farmhouse. She mumbled under her breath about respect, or the lack of it, as the screen door swung shut behind her.

Ashley turned to her sister, a wicked grin on her face. “Hey, speaking of Lottie…you wanna let the air out of her bike tires again?”

Jill laughed. “Get real, Ash. We can do better than that.” She shuffled to a rickety wooden table by the clothesline, where a hamper of fresh clothes waited. Jill slipped off her baby blue bikini and hung it on the line before digging in the basket for a dry outfit. Ashley’s green one-piece quickly joined Jill’s suit, lake water dripping from the fabric to baptize the crab grass beneath the clothesline.

“So,” the younger girl said, pulling a purple t-shirt over her head, “you got any ideas, or are you just shooting mine down again?”

Jill smirked as she pulled her damp hair out from under her collar. “You bet I do. I’ve been working on a prank for weeks, and it’s just about ready. That freak won’t ever see this one coming. But if we’re gonna pull it off, we’re gonna need help. Let’s go get lunch at the Fletcher’s and see if Kyle’s interested.” She tied her hair back with a simple elastic, her brown eyes watching Ashley carefully. “That is unless you’re chicken.”

“I’ll show you who’s chicken!” her sister protested, already hopping on her scooter. Jill rolled her eyes, nudging back the kickstand on her mountain bike. Sometimes, Ash just made things too easy.

As the girls raced away towards the Fletcher’s homestead, Sarah watched them through the kitchen window, her thin lips drawn in a tight line. She peeled potatoes distractedly, her gnarled old fingers trembling from some unconscious discontent that boiled up from within her memory like oil. The old woman winced as her peeler bit down on her hand, cursing under her breath as she held the bleeding flesh over the sink. The troubled thoughts that gnawed at the back of her mind receded, forgotten as she wrapped her hand in an old dish towel and shuffled off in search of her first aid kit.

A half-peeled yukon gold lay abandoned in the sink, flecked with spots of bright blood. The stains slowly leaked downwards, curving across the surface of the potato like serpents on their way to the drain. The pale, age-yellowed curtains that framed the sink fluttered slightly in the afternoon breeze, sending slight shadows dancing across the kitchen counter and the linoleum floor. All was silent, save the creaking of the weather vane atop the Stoneman’s barn and the faint melody of wind chimes on the back porch that the breeze carried in.

If Sarah Stoneman had known what the day would bring, perhaps she would have told the girls to stay home. But in the quiet calm of summer, it was hard to think that something foul was less than a breath away, or that the shift in the wind was anything more than the capricious nature of the bayside breeze.

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