Books were a very important part of my childhood. TV had not been invented so we learned from books and listening to the radio. And…
[Author’s note. This story is adapted from a chapter of a children’s book, The Goblin Harp, that I’ve been working on for several years. It’s set just about as far away from the Santa Monica Mountains as possible, in coastal Maine, where my family used to go for vacation when I was a child, only this is a slightly different Maine, one with maybe just a bit more magic in it..]
The children picked a perfect Saturday afternoon in early October to explore the path that led through the woods back to Raven Farm.
“Mom and Dad said that we’re going to keep the name ‘Raven Farm,’ even though there aren’t any more Ravens there, except for the feathered flappy kind,” Kate told the others. “We had a family conference on the phone last night and everyone agreed.”
“Gran will like that,” Emma said. “She was just saying how glad old Abigail Raven would be to know that you are taking care of her house and love it the way she did.”
They ended up taking Kevin and Jenny with them on the hike. Evan grumbled a bit but Kate didn’t mind. Kevin was usually good company, and Jenny was responsible in addition to being extremely nice.
“When you have as many brothers and sisters as we do you like to get away sometimes,” Evan complained. “Especially from the little kids. They’ll just get tired and whine.”
“I’m the youngest in my family,” the usually cheerful Jason said with unusual vehemence. “I know just what it’s like to be left behind and I hate it. Let them come.”
In the end Evan, outnumbered, gave in.
Old Mrs. McLeod gave them directions on the path. “I used to walk there almost every day, or Abigail would use it to come visit me,” she said.
The track led away from the McLeod Farm through a young grove of maples and aspen, bright with scarlet and golden leaves. “This was all farmland once,” Evan said. “The woods have only grown up in the past 30 years or so. It’s amazing how fast the trees come back. Dad says all of the stone fences all over New England were for pastures and to keep the sheep and cows out of the crops, and now it’s all forest again.”
They crossed a stream on a small stone bridge and entered the shade of a spruce wood, where they had to clamber over a low stone wall.
“This is the old farm boundary.” Evan said.
The spruces gave way to hemlocks. The trees were bigger here, and the woods darker. “I’ve only explored a little bit beyond this bend before,” Evan confided, “but I’m pretty sure this is the path that to Raven Farm. We used to go with Gran before her knees started to give her trouble, remember, Em?”
“I remember the spruce wood,” his sister said. “but not hemlocks, and not that the trees were this big, which is weird because mostly things look smaller when you haven’t seen them in a long time, not bigger. I remember the trail going straight through the woods. “I think we needed to go the other way when we reached the wall. Are you sure we’re going the right way, Evan?
“Of course I am,” Evan replied.
The path continued into deep forest. There was no undergrowth here, only the occasional clump of ferns and thick, vivid green moss. Their footsteps were almost silent on the carpet of hemlock needles underfoot. They didn’t see a single living thing, but Jason pulled a strand of long white hair off of a branch by the path.
“There must be horses here,” he said. “I wonder who they belong to?”
“I’ve never seen any horses around here,” Emma said. “It’s really long, isn’t it? That’s the kind they make violin bows with.”
“Maybe it’s from a unicorn,” Jenny suggested. “This is a perfect place for one.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Evan replied. “Nobody believes in unicorns.”
“I read that the early European explorers believed there were unicorns in the woods here,” Kate said. “And other things people don’t believe in very much any more, too. What was that bit from Shakespeare your dad quoted the other day about ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy?’”
Evan gave a snort but dropped the subject. They walked on in silence. The path disappeared into a network of smaller trails, but Evan continued to lead the way with confidence. The trees changed to spruce again and grew thicker and smaller. The route Evan chose for them began to grow boggy. The evergreens gave way to red maples. They had to pick their way through sphagnum moss and around small ponds and a labyrinth of tiny streams. The younger children were starting to be tired but didn’t want to say so since they had begged to come along.
“What’s that sound?” Evan asked. “I never heard a bird like that before.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Emma said. “Just more running water somewhere ahead.”
“I don’t hear anything, either,” Jason started to say, but Evan was drifting away from the path, a look of rapt concentration on his face. “It’s like music,” he said, “but not any kind of music I ever heard before.” He began to walk faster, following the sound that only he could hear.
“Evan, come back,” Jenny called, dismayed. “We need to go home. It’s getting late.”
“Just go on without me,” Evan said. The other children looked at each other.
“He’ll get lost,” Jason said.
“He always does,” Emma sighed.
They followed him. The sound of water grew louder.
“I think I hear it, too, now,” Jason said.
Kate also thought she heard something—a faint, musical murmur. It sounded a little bit like bees humming and was barely louder than the gentle flow of the water, but as she listened she could almost see the sound like a web of music that wrapped around the listener in a subtle net, pulling gently. She began to feel uneasy.
There was a clearing full of sunlight ahead. It held a pool with pure white waterlilies, miraculously still in full bloom despite the autumn chill in the air. All around the water grew willows and red maples, blazing gold and crimson. Maple leaves lay thick underfoot. A breeze stirred the trees, bringing the sweet fragrance of the lilies mixed with the rank earthy scent of pond water and willow roots. Dragonflies darted, amber and blue, like living jewels. The air was filled with a sudden flurry of willow leaves, yellow and silver. The children gazed, astonished at the beauty, as the humming music enfolded them with a sound as golden as the falling leaves.
Evan, still in the lead, took another step forward and disappeared. One moment he was in front of them, the next he was gone.
Jason and Emma raced forward. “Evan!” They cried together.
“Wait!” shouted Kate, several things belatedly slipping into place in her mind despite a growing sense of panic. She grabbed for her friends, catching at their jackets.
They stopped abruptly, clutching at each other while they struggled to keep from falling. What appeared to be solid ground ahead of them was actually an inlet of the pond camouflaged with a thick layer of fallen leaves.
“I can’t see Evan,” Emma cried. “Something’s wrong.” She began to cry. “Maybe he hit his head or something.”
Just then, Evan’s head popped out of the water. He was sputtering and coughing. Jason grabbed a fallen branch. “Hang on to me,” he shouted to the others, extending the branch towards Evan. “I don’t want to fall in, too.”
Evan seized hold of the branch. The water wasn’t deep, but the mud on the bottom was thick and filled with a tangle of tough strong water weeds and he struggled to find his footing. The younger children began to cry.
“Kevin, do you remember Dad’s favorite sea chanty?” Kate called to her brother. “Can you sing it with me? Now! As loud as you can!”
Way haul away, we’re bound for better weather,
Way haul, away, we’ll haul away Joe.”
Way haul away, we’ll haul away together
Way, haul away, we’ll haul away, Joe!
The sea chanty, once used by sailors to make the work of hauling rope easier, sounded absurd, loud and harsh in the quiet of the golden wood, but it drowned out the humming while the three older children worked together to pull Evan back to shore. He emerged covered in black mud from the waist down, and still gasping to catch his breath, but otherwise unharmed.
Once he was on solid ground again, they ran. Evan panting and coughing, Jason still carrying his branch. Kate and the younger children were too out of breath to sing, but the spell, if it was one, was broken.
“Must be an old beaver pond,” Evan gasped, between coughs. “I didn’t even see the water.”
“What did you see?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know,” Evan replied slowly. He sounded dazed. “It was like a dream. I heard the most amazing music, and then…I was in the water and the only music I could hear was you lot, if you could call that music. It sounded more like feeding time at the goat pen to me.”
“Let’s go home before you get pneumonia,” Emma said. “We can look for the farm path some other time. Kate and Jason and will just have to stick with the road for now.”
They didn’t talk about their adventure on the way home, they were too tired and wet.
The children revived themselves at the farm with cookies and hot cocoa. Mrs. McLeod, bogged down in a sea of farm-related paperwork, seemed completely unfazed by her son’s dunking and he escaped without so much as a scolding.
Kate, Kevin and Jason walked home along the road instead of through the woods as planned. They were still squelching in soggy shoes. Kevin trailed behind. He scuffed his feet in the fallen leaves underfoot, or detoured to walk on top of an old stone wall that paralleled the road. There was almost no traffic, and the only sound they could hear was the rush and sigh of drifting leaves and the distant chuckle of a raven.
“We had an adventure, Mom!” Kevin announced when they arrived home. “Evan fell into a pond that was all full of waterlilies, and then we had hot chocolate and walked home along the road.”
Allyson smiled at her son. “That really was an adventure,” she said. “It’s late for waterlilies, you’re lucky to have seen them blooming in October, but whatever inspired your friend to go swimming with them?”
“He thought he heard a bird singing and walked off the path to find it, only all we could hear was bees buzzing. There were leaves on the water so it didn’t look like part of the pond, and he stepped on them,” Kevin said. “And then we all sang ‘Haul Away Joe’ and pulled him out again.”
Their mother looked thoughtful. “It sounds just like a painting. Wait a moment, I’ll show you.”
She pulled a book out of an overcrowded bookcase and leafed through it. “Here it is.”
The picture showed a beautiful young man being pulled into a lily pond by seven pale young women with flowers in their flowing hair.
“There were lots of flowers just like that, but there weren’t any ladies in our pool,” Kevin said.
“They’re nymphs, water spirits,” his mother explained. “Waterlilies are named for them, their Latin name is Nymphaeaceae. Hylas, the boy in the picture, fell in love with a water nymph. In Greek mythology he was a companion of the hero Hercules and sailed with him on the ship Argo with Jason and the Argonauts. They went ashore in a place called Mysia, and Hylas went to get water at a nearby pool. He met the water-nymph there. She enchanted him and he forgot all about his friends and adventuring and stayed there with her. Hercules searched and searched but never found him and in the end the Argo sailed away and left him there, and for all anyone knows he’s still there. The story is from ancient Greece but this painting was made in 1896 by an English artist called John William Waterhouse.”
Kate stared at the painting, troubled.
“It’s a good thing our Jason grabbed that stick and we pulled Evan out then,” Kevin said. “Otherwise people might have been making paintings about what happened to him, too, someday.”
“Jason’s definitely a good person to have with you in an emergency.” Kate said. She hesitated, not sure how much to say about the incident. She didn’t want to get in trouble, but she knew it was much more serious than Kevin’s account made it seem. Her mother would not be talking so lightly about paintings if she knew. “It was really scary,” she said at last. “One minute Evan was there, the next, he was gone. He could have drowned if we weren’t there to help.”
“Just because something is in your backyard doesn’t mean it can’t be dangerous,” her mother said. “Falling into ponds is exactly the kind of thing people worry about when they warn you about being careful, and staying on the trail, and walking with a buddy and always letting someone know where you’re going. It’s a good thing your friend wasn’t out there alone, and I want you all to promise that you let someone know where you are going when you go for a hike, and always go with a friend. It’s a good idea to stay on dry land, too. OK?
That night, Kate could still hear that strange melody from the lily pond in her head. At last she sat down at the harp and tried to capture the notes. It eluded her, but she caught an echo of it, and as she played words came into her head. With much crossing out and rewriting she tried to put the notes and the words in her head on paper.
In the forest by the water
Where the sighing willows weep,
Far beneath the dark sweet waters,
Willow shadowed, silent, deep,
Dwell the daughters of the river
Weaving music in their sleep.
When the willow trees are golden
You may sometimes hear them sing
And their songs, like water flowing,
Through the wild woodlands ring
Like the winds of summer blowing,
Like the promise of bright spring.
In the forest, by the river,
in the autumn of the year,
when the willow leaves are falling
sirens singing you may hear.
Do not listen to their calling,
Do not dare to go too near,
Lest the sound of their sweet singing
Is the last sound that you hear.
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