Great Depression folktale of a mysterious forest creature protecting a widow and her family from the frightening depths of Tennessee logging country. Written by John W. Hammer, III.
A FOREWORD TO THE READER:
The story was written to be a new age, unpredictable fable containing twists both factual and fictional. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which part(s) to believe.
I cannot take full credit for this story. This bit of backwoods folklore was dictated to me my persons unknown. On a lone, 5 week, summer, road trip touring eastern North America, I stopped by a friend’s home in Knoxville, Tennessee. As I lay in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, a whisper like voice told me the tale I now to tell you. Although I am not sure, I believe the voice belongs to the benevolent ghost of the actual Forest Princess.
My mother and father were both scholarly people hailing from totally opposite lineages. My father was Scotch-Irish and my mother was American Indian and French Canadian. The first childhood memories I can recall is in 1935 living in New York City. I was only 5 years of age but can still recall the difficult times. My father was educated at Harvard Business School and had previously worked on Wall Street as an advisor to New York’s’ elite. The stock market crash that began the Great Depression displaced him from his aforementioned career. When my parents met in 1929, he was teaching finance at New York University. His parents had just passed away 1 year apart from each other in 1924. He was the younger of 2 children and his older sister had been committed to Bellevue 12 years ago. My mother was an intelligent and attractive, young student whose parents were killed in a house fire. She was reared in an orphanage from the age of 2 and placed all her energies into her schooling. She had just declined a secretarial career abroad due to her desire to finish her education in the biology. Her true love was the study of botany and she had several unsuccessful attempts to become vegetarian. Prior to their informal meeting they locked stares many times around the campus grounds. What seemed a chance meeting on a park bench was not chance at all as my father latter confided. It seems my mother’s love for warm, roasted peanuts led her to the same vendor day after day when classes ended. My father despised peanuts. However, he habitual frequented the area where he often saw my mother. He made time with her by sharing a bag of warm roasted peanuts. After just a few dates, he finally proposed and she accepted without hesitation. My father and mother married in June 1930. I was born almost a year later in the summer of 1931. My mother said that after they married my father never ate peanuts again.
Their love for each other was apparent to me even as a child. Their emotional support for each other spilled over to their rearing of me. I was happy and content. The financial strife that was common to the Depression era was not felt in our home. My father knew we were luckier than most people. It pained him to no end to watch his friends and former business associates become common beggars on the street. His colleagues’ families were destroyed by the Depression. Lives were ruined he said “all by the deficits of and simple arrangement of numbers.” Numbers had ruled his life for so long and brought him so much success. Many times my father would see his friends on the street, give them handouts and then invite their entire family over for dinner. He felt a new bittersweet relationship with a career teaching finance. He stared day after day at his students and their hungry minds soaking up his words like sponges. He wondered, as he saw his friends’ lives deteriorate, if what he was teaching was the truth. Had his entire life been a sham? My father had read a thesis once by some doomsayer intern. The thesis debunked the entire science of our economic system at in it predicted a scenario such as our current Great Depression. Slowly, his heart was jaded by the career that had served him well. His enthusiasm for teaching began to lessen. My mother preached my fathers kind hearted generosity would be the death of him. Her prediction slowly began to take shape. He cancelled classes and many times never showed for classes which astonished his coworkers. He began to squander our family’s savings on charities, soup kitchens and gave a sizeable fortune to help keep old friends from losing their homes. My mother never really seemed to worry. With my fathers good financial sense she felt confident he knew what he was doing, until that day. She received a call from the bank asking for my father. After telling the bank he was not home, they informed her all of their accounts were now in serious jeopardy. To make matters worse, the bank would foreclose on the house in one week if they did not pay 7 outstanding promissory notes.
My father did not come home that night. Mother made a few phone call enquiries to no avail. He had stayed out several times before helping old friends move after being evicted and then helping them find new living quarters.
The next morning my mother acted normal preparing breakfast as usual. Father had still not returned when there was a slight commotion outside the front door. We stared at the door both of us fully expecting my father to come in disheveled from a night of moving furniture as he had so many times. Instead of the door opening, there were 3, light, precisely timed taps on the door. My mother instructed me to finish my breakfast as she got up to see who it could be. I saw a man in an official looking blue uniform. I heard my mother say “yes” and then she closed the door to shield me further from her conversation. The police informed my mother her husband had been murdered. Killed by the very people he had stopped to befriend. According to my father’s former colleague, he was at a roughneck soup kitchen in the Bowery. He had reached in his wallet to give his friend some money when several hoodlums asked for money too. He gave them money without complaint, for them it was not enough. They attacked him from behind, stabbed him in the back then stole his wallet and car. My mother’s prophecy had come true. My father’s generosity was the death of him and the beginning of our new life.
My mother acted normal as ever over the next few days. She held her emotions intact. I heard her cry, late at night in the blackness and loneliness of her room when she thought I was asleep. I never her saw her cry in front of me. She explained to me that my father’s goodness on earth had afforded him a better place in Heaven where he was needed as one of God’s angels. She did not wish ill the people who murdered him. She did not become bitter towards the world as most people might. Instead, we prayed together and asked God to forgive the people who took my father from us.
Two days after his death, the police returned our car, albeit in worse shape then ever. With our threatened eviction looming over our heads, my mother tried desperately to work something out with the banks. It was a fruitless task. The negative responses from our creditors did not sway her upbeat attitude. Luckily, my father had a meager burial policy in good standing which allowed us to give him a decent funeral. Unfortunately, there was not enough to help us with the other financial woes. But in an upbeat attitude my mother said “We did manage to repair our car!”
We had just two days left before the bank foreclosed. The second to last day in our home my mother made yard sale signs. She managed to sell all of our furniture, most of our clothes and even her wedding ring for pennies of the original cost. That night we prayed for a miracle. The sum of the all items sold could not touch the massive debt my father had acquired.
The next morning a smart looking banker, with round glasses, came to our door. He spoke briefly with my mother and they seemed to agree on something. My mother had been informed that the sale from the house would cover most of our outstanding debt although we would still be left with nothing.
As we packed our few remaining items, I could tell my mother’s desperation began to mount and her faith and fortitude were now being tested. By this time tomorrow, we would not have a roof over our heads or know where our next meal would come from.
As we placed a few cherished items in paper bags, I heard the mail slot squeak open. I would usually run with enthusiasm to check the mail but today I paced myself expecting only more bad news.
The mailman had folded a package to a half of its original size to get it through the slot. The package dropped with the thud of something heavy before I could catch it. There it lay at my feet. I waited a few seconds to bend over and pick it up fearful the back of my head would be deluged by torrents of more mail. There was none. I sighed deeply and picked it up. It was addressed to my father. I assumed it would not be good news. I then debated whether or not to give it to my mother. Could she really take anymore? Before I could decide, she poked her head around the wall from the dinning room. I walked over to her and handed her the package. She studied it briefly and opened it with abandoned leisure. She took out what looked to be legal briefs similar to what my father had brought home so many times before. I waited quietly as she read. I was getting ready to console her when the desperation of our situation would finally sink in. She read on and on for what seemed like hours. As she would finish reading each page, she would pause, glance at me and then start reading the next. Unbeknownst to me, I watched her as a solution to our troubles formulated in her mind. She put down the documents, looked at me and said “Our prayers have been answered!”
I had often heard my parents speak of an escape plan by moving to the country. As they watched their friends lives deteriorate around them, my father could not help but think the same fate would one day be at our door step. My mother had always aspired to grow her own vegetables from her own garden and pursue fully a vegetarian lifestyle. My father dreamed of simple life of “living off the land”. My mother had not realized until now that my father had taken their dreams seriously. My father had invested in 350 acres of prime timber land in the Appalachian Mountain range of eastern Tennessee prior to my birth. Before his death, he was attempting to sell that land to pull us out of debt. The package was a rejection letter from The Appalachian Timber Company stating timber prices were down and at present and that they had more supply than demand. The package also contained a land survey which described the types of timber found on the property, the soil consistency and the description of an old farm house in a state of disrepair. That farm house was to be our new home.
We loaded our car with needed items like canned foods, water, warm clothes, blankets and tools belonging to my father. My mother packed her collection of botanical books and a few essential documents she felt may later be of importance. Lastly, she loaded up pictures of her and father then placed me in the seat next to her. She took a deep sigh and drove us away into the unknown. I looked back several times hoping to spot a glimpse of a playmate. I saw no one. I watched her intently as we headed south and out of the city. I think I wondered if she had gone completely mad. I could tell the only things holding back her tears were her concerns for my well being and a fear of what was to come.
I fell asleep soon and woke up when we stopped for gas. My mother had packed many non-perishables to keep us on the journey. Dry cereal, peanut butter and warm pop were the staples of our travel diet. My mother tried to turn every moment of our trip into a lesson. Our first overnight stop was Harrisburg Pennsylvania. She looked up local lure and stories of early explorers and read them to me until I would fall sound asleep. To save money for gas and possible mechanical problems, we slept in the car with the windows cracked open allowing a slight breeze. When I would awake before her, I would always find myself nestled closely to her frail frame for shared warmth along with a curious brown, paper bag. We would always receive strange stares from locals when we stopped for gas and other needed items. A woman and young child alone on a desolate roadway was not a common sight.
I recall another stop to see the Cumberland Gap. My mother was reading to me as I tried to drift into sleep when we heard a scuffle behind the car. I began to rise up and peer into the darkness. In a barely audible whisper, my mother instructed me to lay still and keep quiet. She reached for that curious, brown, paper bag and was opening it when we heard the noise again only louder and closer than before. She realized the rear doors to our car were locked but that the front doors were not. In a swift swooping motion, she sat me on the floorboard of the car, pounced from her seat with her arms outstretched like a bird in flight and then simultaneously locked both front doors. Out from the darkness appeared two human forms. Both forms tested the car door handles and peered into us through the steamed glass. My mother jolted from the rear seat and into the driver seat where she fumbled to find the car keys. We heard the two intruders talking with each other and laughing through the glass windows. A muffled male voice questioned us about having a “good time”. The roar of our car engine cut them off in mid sentence. My mother sped off and drove until daylight. When I awoke we were parked in front of large building. There was snow on the ground and my mother was looking through her purse. I heard the sound of a distant steam engine getting close real fast. The building was a train depot and this was to be the end of the line for our travel by car.
Our car engine had died in the night, thankfully, many miles from where we had almost been accosted. After I awoke, my mother had had quite the busy morning. She sold our broken down car for a fair price, purchased two train tickets and some secondhand backpacks. We quickly gathered what we could from the car packing only what my mother deemed essential and then ran to the train platform. Inside the train car, the conductor stared at us like we were painted purple. Except for us, the train’s passengers were all men in various types of attire. Most were bearded and had on flannel shirts with bright orange, wool hunting hats. A few had on military uniforms and some wore animal skins as if boasting trophies killed with their bare hands. One man wore a suit coat and tie and another wore a hat filled with bright colored fishing lures of many different sizes. Each of their eyes passed over us with an immediate curiosity that quickly faded as the train pulled from station. I stared at our family car until it became a tiny spec in the distance. The car, the train station and our past lives soon disappeared altogether blocked by the thick West Virginia underbrush.
The woodstove in the back of the train kept us barely warm. I heard the men speak of the weather and how it was so unusual to get a snowfall this close to the end of spring. My mother fixed our usual peanut butter sandwiches and offered me milk to wash it down. The conductor was offering hot coffee to the passengers and when he arrived at our seats my mother gladly accepted although she had never really cared for coffee before. She could tell I was cold and gave me some of her coffee first adding milk and sugar making it more palatable for my 6 year old likings. I remember how grownup I felt to be on a train, traveling and drinking coffee. It seemed my mother was now taking advantage of every option that came our way to help us both prepare for the rough road and limited options that lay ahead.
I believe that was the first time my mother actually got to sleep so far on our trip. Be it out of pure exhaustion, the rocking of train or not having to both navigate and drive, she slept hard. She woke up in the middle of the night to find me staring out at the moonlit snow on the hills and ever changing forest shadows. She told me she was going to find the lavatory and looked around to get her bearings in the dark train. I pointed out where it was. She seemed so amazed. I told her I had tried to wake her earlier, but could not. I had slipped by her and found the bathroom on my own. She smiled both slyly and proudly at me and excused herself. I turned again to the window and watched as we slowly pulled into the next station. I knew we were close but that we still had many more miles ahead.
By the time we had arrived at our intended destination, we had exhausted our food supply. I had my fill of coffee and cereal and we both desperately needed baths and real beds. We got off the train in the town of Bristol, Tennessee, population 1020, now plus two. The train exchanged just a few passengers who boarded and quickly took our vacated seats. Even the air on the station platform was fresh considering the stale and gamey air inside the train car.
Flowers of yellow and purple greeted us outside the station. The sky was a deep blue and the trees were a green I had never seen before. It was a quaint town with one general store, one post office and one bank. All three were contained in one small building. A saloon, which looked to be straight out of the old west, stood at one corner. There were horse driven carriages, oxen and a large, red truck which resembled a fire truck without all the shiny chrome and bells found in New York. There were other train cars filled with huge timber waiting quietly to be hauled off to mill. My mother took a deep breath of the fresh spring air and mimicking her exact actions I did the same. Our lives seemed so pitiful before, that even this desolate town had all the promise of a better tomorrow.
I noticed other women and children now although they did not seem to notice us. I wondered why we did not stand out now like before on the train. I then saw a reflection of my mother and me in a store window. Our faces looked worn and our clothes dirty. We fit right in with the other locals. Somewhere between here and New York we had lost our look of big city sophisticates.
My mother gathered our belongings from the station platform and spoke with the ticket attendant. He agreed to watch our meager items which freed us to explore our new town. Our first stop was the post office. We went in and spoke to the man at the counter. My mother asked the exact whereabouts of our new home from its address on the timber documents. The postman explained that though this was indeed the nearest town to our property, it was by no means the end of her journey. Our new home was still another 50 miles away. To make matters worse, it was not accessible by train. Although we had made it as far as possible by train, only logging trails actually went that far back into the dense Appalachian bush. My mother was devastated. She once again tried to keep up hope. She knew that whatever tomorrow would bring, we could not get much further without at least one good nights rest. She posed one last question to the postman. She asked about lodging. Luckily, there was a place behind the saloon. He told her “it’s just an old flop house of sorts, but now is mostly used by fly fishermen and game hunters up from Atlanta.” She thanked him for his help and we left to gather our things from the train depot.
We walked to our new lodging, checked in, bathed and slept till the next morning. The next morning I was awakened by hunger like I had never felt before. My stomach felt like it was on fire eating itself for lack of food. We went downstairs and ate a breakfast that put the biggest men to shame. We ate like it would be our last meal. When we finished eating we ordered more food to take to our room. The glares we got from the other patrons I will never forget. Our sullen faces must have advertised all the pain we had recently been through and foretold of all our troubles yet to come. Even though we had money to pay for our food, the owner told us our bill was already paid for by a concerned patron. My mother, who was so used to giving charity instead of receiving, scanned the room in one quick glance and slight bow of the head as if to say thank you to the watchful eyes of our anonymous gracious friend. We gathered our packaged food and took it back to the room. We lay down again and slept straight through till morning. When I awoke, my mother had us packed and ready for the day.
While I had been sleeping, my mother had been to the town store for provisions, maps, camping equipment and more non-perishables to sustain us. She packed seeds of all varieties including tomatoes, summer squash, lettuce, carrots and the like. She also had packed a little something extra. She had brought my fathers old war pistol from home in that brown paper bag she had kept so near. She had never fired a weapon before. When she took it out of the bag at the local store to have it fitted for bullets, the man at the counter could tell she did not know one end of a pistol from another. After a brief lesson, and one pitifully deceased coffee can later, my mother had a new found confidence.
She arranged for us to travel part way back to camp with some transient loggers that had arrived in town with us by train. Their camp was 5 miles or so from our new home. My mother had also made arrangements with the town post office. Mail was only delivered once a month to the logging camp and she would have to go there to pick it up. She arranged through the loggers local purser office to have her mail sent to their camp even though she really had no one to contact. She did this under the guise that her husband would be able to contact her. She wanted to give people the impression someone knew where we were and would be checking on us.
Evening came and went and the loggers prepared to leave Bristol. They too bought provisions that could not be made or recycled in the deep woods. My mother loaded up our supplies on the huge ox drawn wagon. The four lumberjacks that came into town from camp did not return with us. Their three month shift had now ended and there replacements would now drive the ox, wagon, my mother and I back to camp. It was now just us and the two new loggers that set off into the wilderness. While my mother’s predicament would have most people in tears, I had seen her fortitude strengthen daily.
The flickering lights of the town slowly disappeared behind us leaving no sign that there was a civilization there just through the woods. The road to our new home quickly turned into a trail and the trail quickly became rough. Several times in the night, the loggers had to stop, get out and fix wagon wheels, bridles and straps. The mosquitoes were not as bad as one of the lumberjacks had predicted. I watched the stars above dance back and forth through the trees as I was jostled to and fro in the wagon bed. I listened as nocturnal animals called to each other in their mystical playground. I thought how wonderful it would be to know what they were saying to each other.
Even on that bumpy ride, I had fallen asleep in my mother’s bosom. She had stayed vigilant through the night one lumberjack later confided to me. When I awoke, she was fast asleep with the warm morning sun beaming onto her face with the wet evaporating mist rising slowly around her in a ghostly aura.
We stopped later that afternoon at a cabin owned by the lumber company. The cabin was sort of a half way point. Here we were able to rest, cook some hot food and wash up in a freezing brook. The oxen were traded out for fresh oxen left a couple of nights prior by the other 4 lumber jacks who had gone into town on leave.
The old caretaker of the cabin looked quite natural alone in the woods except when he saw us. From the startled look on his face, it seemed the old timer had not seen the opposite sex since his birth 100 years ago. He looked so surprised in fact that it took him several attempts at rubbing his eyes before he believed what they showed him.
He was polite though quite a mess. His beard was uneven and was almost down to his stomach. He smelled of old leather and manure. My mother made quick use of the woodstove for us all and cooked up a grand breakfast with provisions brought in from town. The old man ate like it was Thanksgiving. She later cut the old mans hair and treated him like her own kin. He praised my mother for her kindness and talent. He finally asked the question I know he had wondered since he first saw us. What were we doing this deep in the Tennessee wilderness? My mother explained she had planned to homestead the old farm house found by the surveyors hired by her husband. She maintained her deception regarding my father coming soon to join us. She did not need to explain that white lie to me. I knew that we were quite vulnerable here and easy prey to anyone with malicious notions.
The three men seemed quite alarmed regarding our intent to stay alone in the forest for such a long time. My mother sent me outside to play for a bit as the men began to warn her of the dangers that awaited us. My mother knew that bears were indigenous to these parts as well as wolves, coyote, wild boars and the occasional Cherokee Indian. After listening to the men’s stories and snickering, my mother decided not to humor them anymore. “Anyway” she said, “I have a gun and I am ready to use it if need be.” And with that, the conversation was ended.
Night came and everyone began the weary task of readying for the early morning trip to continue on our way. Another day of uncomfortable travel came and went without episode. We camped the next night at another babbling creek. By late afternoon, one of the lumberjacks told us we had reached the edge of our property. This was the end of our journey by wagon. We gathered our belongings, thanked the two men and set off on a poorly marked trail. The two men said their goodbyes and apologized for not being able to take us to our farmhouse personally. According to the men, their boss was quite upset the last time their schedule fell behind. In these hard times, neither could afford to be let go. My mother said she understood more then they could possibly know. Lastly, we were told to keep to the trail and not to stray. We promised we would and set off into the woods.
The thick underbrush quickly drowned out the comforting sound of the oxen and wagon. We were now totally alone.
Dusk was coming in fast and the trail became dense with briars and unrelenting underbrush. Night fell and we lit the oil lamps to help guide our way. My mother held me close and did all she could to make sure we were still headed in the right direction. We soon could no longer make out the trail. Before we ventured too far off, we decided to make camp in a clearing and start off in the morning. My mother collected old wood for a fire. The fire lit up the clearing with a warm cozy glow. She could tell I was becoming a little apprehensive as the nocturnal animals began their nightly serenades. To comfort me, she spoke of the time we had gone camping in upstate New York. Later, she warmed some canned beans and spread blankets on the ground. She set another blanket up over us as a lean-to and told me stories until I fell asleep.
We both awoke to a loud sound in the bushes and cold, dead fire. My mother scoured for her gun and shot it twice in the air. Something very large ran out through the brush, passed our makeshift camp and went off into the pitch black night. Whatever had visited us was very heavy. It shook the ground around us as it ran. My mother stayed up the rest of the night with me in one arm and her gun in the other.
The next morning she did not cook breakfast. We packed at the first sign of light and made our way back onto the trail which followed a brook. As we walked, I had the feeling we were being watched. Could it be the men from the lumber camp making sure we were ok? Was it a large bear stalking his next meal? I put it out of my mind. I know my mother felt it to.
At last we headed upon another clearing with lots of overgrown brush. There was a white building set right in the middle. It was our new “old” home. My mother called out as we walked up on the property. She loudly announced our arrival fully not expecting to hear an answer. She then peaked into the open door and looked inside. She was greeted by moldy furniture, cobwebs and a stench that would revolt a skunk. The bright noon day sun illuminated the house’s interior by way of large holes in the roof acting like a skylights. We both walked inside like we were walking on field littered with landmines. The wooden floor creaked beneath our weight. We heard the sound of small animals scuffling away from their home that we had now arrived to claim. We placed our bags on the couch and I, out of force of habit, closed the front door behind us. My mother turned to me and smiled gladly as if to say she was happy that I had not left my manners in New York. She looked around and said “Let’s hope this is the worst of it”. She slowly began to explore our home with me clinging at her backside. She walked forward keeping one hand on my head and the other intercepting any oncoming cobwebs.
The house was square shaped. A large den was the first room we had entered. The next room was both a dining area and a kitchen complete with a large wood oven stove and a small eating table with two chairs. There was dark, cramped hallway leading off from the kitchen behind the den. The hallway led to two small bedrooms complete with beds, a dresser and a closet. At the end of the hall was a door leading to a basement and a makeshift root cellar. The root cellar was very dark and very cold. It reminded me of a cave. The feeling of being watched was stronger than ever down there. There was a stench of musty, rotten eggs. We both heard muffled noises from the darkness and my mother ushered me back up the slimy basement stairs and back towards the kitchen. We heard something very large moving beneath the floor below us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something huge and hairy bolt up and out from the cellar storm doors into the yard. We saw a large brown form move swiftly towards the protective foliage of the dense forest and disappear. My mother quickly gathered her gun, hammer, nails and any loose lumber she could put her hand on. She first secured the door to the basement and then every loose window or door that she found. Whatever was in the basement did not come back that night.
The kitchen was a disaster but she did what she could to make it feel like home. Our first week in our new quarters was more like camping out as we slept in the den on the floor. We had pulled all the furniture outside to let the spring sun irradiate away the mold and mildew. Sweeping, scrubbing and polishing took up most of my first months in Tennessee. Mother kept busy by cutting firewood, starting her garden or by patching the holes in the roof. We laundered our clothes in the creek that ran along side of the house. The creek provided us with drinking water, which we boiled first. There was time for fun as well. Each afternoon, we retired to the creek and swam, waded, splashed around and enjoyed its cold embrace. Sometimes we tried to fish but we were rarely ever successful.
Summer gave way to autumn and autumn to winter. The colors of foliage were like nothing I had seen before or since. The house was finally almost like new. The fireplace in the den was almost constantly burning to keep us warm. There was a morning frost on the lawn every day and my mother said it was the first signs of a very cold winter. She spent her fall mornings splitting firewood, tending her garden and stocking the root cellar. Her evening was spent schooling me in the arts, reading, science and math. I wanted to help her with the heavier chores but she refused. “Children back in New York are back in school and just being here in the wilderness is no excuse for you not to be in school. You will not be in the wilderness here forever. One day you will want venture out onto the world and when you do, you will need the education I give you now” mother said. “Go and study”.
As we became more comfortable in our surroundings, my mother let me wander farther and farther away from home and into the forest. At first, I could pick berries at the forest edge. Then, I was going into the forest picking up firewood. Soon, she allowed me to go the creek and wash our clothes, fish or swim as the creek was only 4 feet in its deepest spot. That is where I felt the feeling of being watched again stronger than before. I had never really shaken the feeling of being watched. The feeling had changed from a feeling of uneasiness to a feeling of warm comfort. I knew I was not being watched but, more so, watched over.
One day she decided to bake a pie with all the berries I had picked. She placed it on the kitchen window sill to cool while we went for a swim. We returned at dusk, hungry and looking forward to a tasty treat. My mother stopped cold a few feet from the house. The pie was not where she left it. She sighed deeply and assumed she would find the pie scattered on the kitchen floor all her efforts thwarted by an adventurous raccoon. Inside there was no evidence of our pie. There were no blueberries scattered on the floor. There was no empty pie pan to be found. It looked like someone picked the pie up from the sill and walked off. An act no animal could do. My mother quickly ran to her gun and made a quick look in and around our house for the culprit. She found nothing. She bolted the doors and windows and started a fire. She read me my lessons for the next day by firelight, something she had never done before. I knew she did this to get her mind off the evening’s events and help ease both our minds. We fell asleep in front of the fire and awoke to a few smoldering ashes in the early morning.
It was now daylight and my mother made preparations for breakfast. She was at the kitchen sink when she saw it. At the edge of the forest, her shiny pie pan stood at the edge of the thicket. She grabbed her gun and went out the back door. She marched to the forest edge like a woman on a mission. She bent down slowly, picked up her pan and backed slowly toward the open kitchen door with her gun in one hand and her pie pan in the other. I could tell mother was now more concerned than ever, although she continued that day as usual doing her chores readying us for the cold winter ahead.
We had been in our home for almost 5 months now and our store bought supplies were running exhausted. My mother began to pack for a trip into town before the cold weather became too treacherous when there was a knock on the door. As expected, my mother jolted for her gun atop the mantle. Could this stranger at the door be the mysterious pie thief? My mother loaded her gun as the knock came again. She asked who it was full well realizing we knew no one here. She slowly opened the door revealing one of the loggers who befriended us on our trip from town. My mother invited him in and offered him the last of our coffee. She kept her gun close making it no secret to our guest. I thought; “our first visitor at our new home!” I was delighted and my mother, obviously, on guard.
His name was Jeff Meriwether and he had stopped to see if were ok. He had left camp 2 days early to see if we would need supplies on their way back in to camp. My mother agreed readily and thanked him for thinking of us. She made out a list of coffee, tea, candles, flour, lamp oil and such. She gave him the few dollars she had. He turned to leave and said “Oh, I almost forgot! I have some mail that was delivered to our camp. You never told us your name so we assumed it belonged to you. Are you F.Q. Addison?” My mother nodded yes, smiled and apologized for her former rudeness. She said “My name is Francine. My maiden name is Quincy and my married name Addison.” He chuckled under his breath and said that “the joke at the lumber camp is that the F.Q. stood for Forest Queen.” I peered from behind my mother. Jeff looked down at me and said “Oh and You. You must be the Forest Princess!” I grinned from ear to ear. That is what Jeff would call me from then on. The titles of Forest Queen and the Forest Princess seemed to make everything magical in our tiny corner of the world.
Jeff set off but before he left asked to speak to my mother privately. She tasked me with cleaning up the dishes and went outside with him. James warned my mother that a very large bear had killed several oxen at his camp. He was headed back to town early to purchase more oxen. Several loggers had been out to kill the bear but to no avail. It had eluded them at every turn. The bear was rumored to be an escaped grizzly that had recently killed some hunters just west of our property. Jeff warned my mother that once a grizzly tastes human blood it hungers for more. My mother thanked Jeff and promised she would be careful and told him to do the same. My mother wondered if she should have mentioned the pie incident. Certainly that was no bear or was it?
It would be another week and a half before Jeff would return with our supplies. My mother had baked several more pies in appreciation and a new exchange of baked goods bartering was born. Jeff accepted readily and told my mother the loggers had worked out a plan to check on us every two months as that is now when they changed shifts. My mother thanked him and marked on the calendar when his next visit would be. He beckoned my mother out of earshot of me and told her more grizzly news. The bear had attacked two more hunters killing one. There had been reports of a third attack on horses belonging to a farmer. The last attack was just 5 miles west of us and had happened last week.
The next day we awoke to the first deep snowfall of season. My mother picked all the ripe vegetables she could from her garden and placed them in the root cellar. She went out to gather wood with an ax in one hand and her gun in the other. It snowed all day and into the night. The next morning revealed snow that was at least one foot deep with no relief in sight. The snow was accompanied by thunder which was a real rarity. We stayed indoors for most of that week until the snow had melted. The air was still bitterly cold slicing through our clothes easily when we did venture outside. Instead of going to the creek for water, we took buckets of snow and melted them on the stove. We were becoming quite self sufficient in our little forest paradise.
We slept a lot that first winter for there was little else to do. My mother schooled me often. I soon grew weary of the subjects she taught. She had not brought much in the way of reading materials as food items and clothes were by far more important.
Months turned into seasons and seasons passed into years. In the summer of 1941 I was 11 years old. I had turned into quite the woodsman. I could cut wood on my own, start a fire, sweep out the flue and practically find my way around the hills and forest blindfolded. I knew many different types of plants and trees. I knew which plants were edible and which were not. I could mend and wash my own clothes as well. We had lived peaceably with nature for almost 6 years. The loggers came every two months as promised. Sometimes we went to town with them. The infamous grizzly never bothered us. My mother began to order books fit more for my age. She spoke several times about moving to town or back to larger city. We never did. War loomed over the rest of the world. Newspaper reports made city life seem more difficult than our present circumstances. Mother decided we were better off where we were for now and she was right. This summer would turn out to be the most wondrous of my life.
I had gone down to the creek alone to wash clothes, fish and bathe. I turned and saw a brown, furry animal leap into the thick brush. I heard a grunt and the sound of twigs break under its shifting weight. I could not see the actual animal but I felt its presence. I knew it had not gone far. I quietly put down my laundry and walked backwards naked from the creek keeping my eye on the bushes where the animal had disappeared. I rounded the bend in the clearing and when I got sight of the house I began to run for it. At home, I told my mother what had happened. She grabbed her pistol and headed down to the creek. She returned 5 minutes later with the abandoned laundry in hand. “Whatever you saw is gone now” she said. We quickly hung the laundry up on the line and went inside.
At dusk that night, my mother was again standing at the kitchen window when she saw a huge, hairy animal in the clearing. The sun was setting behind it revealing a towering silhouette. She could also see it walked upright. Its face resembled gorillas she had seen in zoos. Its hair was lighter on its head than on the rest of its body. It swayed back and forth in a nervous motion pacing right on the edge of the forest. Later, we heard horrific cries which sounded like a mixture of someone in excruciating pain or air raid siren. The sound was so distressing my mother actually got up and peered outside briefly looking to help whatever pitiful thing was responsible for the noise.
The next morning we found huge human like foot prints near the edge of the forest. There were dozens of huge humanlike footprints. We knew now we were not dealing with a bear. Whatever this creature was, we felt it meant us no harm. We had lived quietly in its domain for years now without incident. Why would it start behaving like this now? What was it trying to tell us?
The next visit by our lumber jack friends my mother asked Jeff about the creature. He said we had seen “Old Yellow Top”. Apparently, there were stories passed on from Indians about huge, hairy ape like creatures that walked upright. For years, Indians lived side by side with the creatures sharing their hunting grounds. For the most part, the creatures had been benevolent. However, they had been known to attack humans when provoked. Jeff said he had never seen Yellow Top but many other lumber jacks had. He felt that the increase in sightings related to humans invading their territory. “Either way”, he said, “I don’t think you need to worry.” Regardless what Jeff had told her, she worried. She wanted to find a sure way we could live peaceably with this creature. She said goodbye to Jeff and wished him well.
The morning after my mother and I both went to the creek. My mother had buried her gun deep in the clothes basket just in case. We washed and bathed without incident. We still had the distinct feeling of being watched. We finished up and walked home for dessert. There were still two pies left over from my mother’s recent barter with James. We each had a slice and left another slice on the kitchen window sill where a whole pie had disappeared from before. Then, we went to bed.
Not surprisingly, the new morning revealed the pie had been taken from the sill. On the ground outside the kitchen window, huge footprints were left in the soggy ground by our new friend. Each night, we left small snacks and treats on the sill a piece offering of sorts. Each morning they would be gone. Although our diet was mostly vegetarian, Jeff would occasionally bring us bacon and ham. Mother would not impose her beliefs on me and cooked me meat when I wished. One night I left a bit of ham on the sill. The next day it was still there. My mother found this quite curious. So, the next night we did the same. Again, the ham was not touched. The third night we left both ham and pie. The morning proved what my mom had believed all along. Yellow Top was both gentle, intelligent and appeared to be vegetarian as only the ham slice remained.
Every night for the next few years, we left snacks for our new pet. Sometimes we would see Yellow Top picking berries, right across from us in the berry patch or drinking from the creek while we bathed. He appeared to be quite a gentle soul. A few times at night we would hear his lonesome, bloodcurdling cry but we were not scared.
At the age of 14, I was starting to become a woman. World War II updates were almost a constant on the battery powered radio Jeff had given us. We listened nightly to speeches by the President and Churchill. As we sat by the fire, I longed to be part of the exciting world outside of my own.
Mother had begun to act differently when Jeff was expected. She would always tidy the house, fix up her hair and put on a dress. She was lonely for company besides mine. I did not blame her. Newspapers, when we got them, showed pictures of all the handsome airmen and sailors bravely going off to war to protect the country. How I desperately desired be in a big city and to go to a dance where the big bands played. I longed so for excitement. Little did I realize, though, I was about to get more than my share.
It was a hot summer afternoon. I was picking berries as I usually did when I felt that odd feeling of being watched. This was not the usual feeling that came with old Yellow Top. This was a feeling of being stalked by a predator. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I knew I was in serious jeopardy. I slowly turned and looked into the thicket. There standing about 9 feet tall was a huge, grizzly bear. His snout was up sniffing the wind. He stopped and fell to all fours which shook the ground beneath my feet. He roared out a growl that resonated to my innards. I felt all the color leave my face as fear set in. I was running for the house when I began to feel dizzy and nauseated. I tripped on my own basket of berries and fell with a thud into the grass. I was about to faint. With all the energy I could muster, I screamed for my mother. The grizzly dove at my naked left leg. I felt his moist, hot breath on my calf. I screamed again for my mother and thought “so this is how I will die!” My mother came out of the kitchen door. She was empty handed. Of all the times she had packed that pistol, she failed at a time like this. She stood frozen and helpless less then 50 feet away. I felt a sharp pain and heard ripping sounds come from my leg. The grizzly had clawed my calf in effort to keep his meal from squirming away. Out from the underbrush, I saw another figure in motion. The grizzly paid the moving figure no mind as it bent down to take the life from my defenseless body. As quickly as the grizzly subdued me, he was subdued himself. Yellow Top had come to my rescue. He dove out of the brush and ran headlong into the bear’s right side. In one blow he completely knocked the grizzly off balance and freed me from its grip. My mother used this opportunity to pull me from harms way. Yellow Top and the grizzly fought fiercely. Fur, hair and saliva flew in all directions. Guttural sounds came from both animals and occasionally high pitch cries of pain mixed with deep ominous moans. My mother inspected my leg realizing it was more of a deep puncture and not a tearing bite. She placed me on the floor of the kitchen and ran to get her gun. The two forest beasts were still fighting when she found her pistol. They were rolling on the ground now. Their coats of fur matched each others so perfectly it was difficult for my mother to tell the difference between the two. She shot twice into the air hoping it would break up the fight. It didn’t. The fighting continued for another minute or so before my mother felt she had a good shot at the grizzly. She shot the bear in the hind quarters and it cried out in pain. The bear ran off into the woods painting and leaving a red trail of blood on the green grass. There on the ground lay Yellow Top. He stared at my mother and moaned in pain. It seemed his injuries were more serious then the bears. My mother walked slowly over to the huge hairy creature and knelt beside him as dusk encroached quickly from the east. His eyes rolled back in his head. His breathing grew shallow and a dark night enveloped our tiny corner of the world.
Over the next few hours, my mother had dressed my wounds and did the same for Yellow Top. The creature remained unconscious throughout the make shift medical procedure but my mother still took no chances. She had her gun in her waist pocket the whole time. She told me it was for the grizzly, if he returned. I knew, if need be, she could use the gun on Yellow Top if he became a threat.
Hours later Yellow Top was still breathing and unconscious. We tried pulling him closer to the house for fear the grizzly would return. It was no use. He weighed entirely too much. My mother checked on him and me throughout the night. In the early dawn, she went out to see how Yellow Top was doing. He was gone.
Over the next week, we left whole pies on the sill. They were always still there the next morning. My mother no longer allowed me go to the creek or berry bush alone. We went together.
Soon after, Jeff came up to the house one evening on horseback. He and mother talked privately for awhile. Jeff’s son, Christopher, had been hurt in the war and now was on his way home to Bristol. Christopher’s mother died in childbirth. He had no one to look after him. His injuries had been serious and his complete recovery would take some time. He asked my mother if she would be interested in letting him stay here and looking after him for a fee. Jeff then could visit often and still work. My mother was more then willing. “However” she said, “I must tell you about the events that transpired over the last couple weeks.” Jeff listened to my mother’s tail of Yellow Top and the grizzly. He was astonished. Mother inquired if anyone had seen the grizzly or Yellow Top since. Jeff replied he had not heard of any new stories of either. They spoke at length and both agreed that what had happened was rare and could never happen again. Jeff left for Bristol to pick up his son and supplies and would return after the town’s doctor examined his son.
As we peeled potatoes for supper the next evening, we heard noises from the front of the house. It was too soon for Jeff to have returned. This was the first time ever my mother instructed me to grab her gun. We looked through the open window and saw Yellow Top standing there. He had another creature with him. The other creature was similar to him yet half his size. Yellow Top swayed back and forth in his usual gait. The smaller creature stood close behind Yellow Top. My mother went outside instructing me to stay inside. I gazed through the window fascinated with the events I beheld. Something was not right. Yellow Top was gravely ill, bleeding and smelled more horrid than I remembered from previous encounters. Gangrene had set in.
Yellow Top kept pushing his younger counterpart towards my mother. The smaller creature kept returning back to Yellow Top’s side. Mother and I looked at each other at the same time. We knew then we had mislabeled our hairy friend. Yellow Top was a female and this was her child. Its hair and coat seemed newer than Yellow Tops’. There was even a light colored crown of golden hair atop its head. With the help of the remaining sun and lamplight from the farmhouse, we could see what appeared to breasts on both creatures. Both Yellow Top and her child were female. Just like mother and me. Here alone in the southern wilds stood the four of us. All of us strange and different from each other in everyway, yet still so very much alike. I knew that we were so blessed to be part of this special event. I knew that no where else in the entire world could there be a meeting such as ours. We felt the magic of that moment and knew it was something to cherish forever. What must have been only minutes passed like years. The magic of the moment was broken as Yellow Top fell first to her knees then backwards with a loud thud. At that moment everything became clear. Yellow Top was dying and she wanted us to look after her daughter.
We spent that night in the front of our house. Our yard became a makeshift hospital suite. Yellow Top had collapsed where she had stood and had lost consciousness. Her daughter refused to leave her side. My mother fixed snacks and pies which we knew Yellow Top would enjoy if she woke. There was little else we could do. We had finally coerced her weeping child to partake of a few snacks. In the early morning before sunrise, her daughter began to eat some rancid peanut butter cup cookies we had thrown out in the yard for the raccoons many nights before. She preferred peanut buttercup cookies over pies. That is how she became known to us from then on, as Buttercup. In the morning light, we lay there watching her eat. With the dawn rising in the east, we fell victim to sleep deprivation and nodded off. At noon my mother woke me up, Yellow Top was gone. Butter Cup appeared to be wailing at the outside corner of the farmhouse. Mother and I knew now that Yellow Top went off in the forest to die alone as animals do. We would never see her again.
My mother and I were both a mess. We were full of blood, sweat and fur. We looked like we too had been through a war. I imagined for a second that this must be a daily occurrence for the brave sailors and soldiers fighting overseas. Even though for me this was only one night, it was a night I would never forget. I asked my mother “How could men, like Jeff’s son Christopher, live through this day after day?” “Jeff and Christopher!” we both exclaimed! They were expected soon! What would they say? What would they do when they saw Buttercup? How could we hide a four foot hairy creature from them? We debated about what we should do. The answer was clear. Yellow Top had entrusted us with something special and we would not let her down. After all, she gave her life to save me from the grizzly. But my mother’s promise to Jeff, how could she manage to keep both? There was only one solution.
The remainder of the day we cleaned out the root cellar and kept a vigilant eye on Buttercup. She never strayed far from us. She stayed close to the creek and close to berry patch. Somehow, I believe Buttercup knew her mother’s wish was that she remains her with us, for awhile at least. Yellow Top knew here she would be safe from the escaped grizzly.
Late that night we finished with the cellar. We brought an old mattress down, buckets of fresh water and laid out some berries to make her more comfortable. My mother led Buttercup by the hand down into the root cellar from the storm windows outside. The creature followed willingly. We sat there with her in the lamplight for an hour or so, and then my mother said it was time for bed. We closed the storm cellar doors and went back inside the house through the basement. I turned and saw Buttercup lay down on her mattress as soon as we were halfway upstairs.
I lay in bed that night and tossed restlessly from side to side. I could not sleep. All I thought about was Buttercup in that cold, dark cellar alone. I heard her whimpers echoing up from the stone basement floor. I got up from my bed, lit an oil lamp and made my way to the cellar. As I got closer to basement stairs the crying got louder. I made my way down the stairs and over to where we had made Buttercups bed. She was not there. I held up the lamp and called her name out in the darkness. The whimpering grew louder still. I found her in the corner, curled up like a big ball of fur. If I had not known she where down there, I would never have found her. Her coat blended in with the darkness perfectly. “No wonder”, I thought, “how easy it is for this creatures to elude man”. I reached out to her and stroked her back. I reached for her hairy hand a led her back over to the comfort of the mattress. I lay there with her. We both fell sound asleep.
I will never forget my mother’s look on her face when she found us the next day. She was both upset and proud. There I was curled up and sleeping next to a completely wild animal without any protection whatsoever. No gun. No stick. No weapon of any kind. If it had not been for the loving and trusting way I was reared, I would never have had the confidence to allow my concern for this pitiful beast to surpass my fear of the unknown. After all, she was just another of God’s creatures. Yet for me, it felt the natural thing to do just as it had been for my father to take in and care for the less fortunate.
The following day brought Jeff and his son. My mother and I debated over the best way handle both our new housemates. There was no way to hide Buttercup, she would only get bigger. So, my mother took Jeff aside and asked him take a walk down to the creek while his son waited inside. I was with Buttercup at the creek. During the walk from the farmhouse, my mother filled Jeff in on the recent events. He had not fully believed my mother’s story about Yellow Top fighting off the grizzly. He later confided that he believed we had mistaken Yellow Top for just another territorial bear. When he rounded the underbrush that hid the creek from our farmhouse, his jaw dropped. Buttercup momentarily looked up at Jeff and then continued her attempts at irritating an unlucky trout. He stared at her in utter amazement. It wasn’t until a full 15 minutes later that he acknowledged my presence at all.
Jeff had planned to return to camp that night but now he insisted on staying at the farmhouse a few more days. He said he did not believe Yellow Top was dead and feared she might come back for Buttercup and worse yet that Yellow Top might be rabid or some other such nonsense. I still had not met Christopher. I had taken Buttercup to the cellar and was reading her a book when mother called me upstairs. He was sitting in a chair next to the fire. Jeff was outside cutting wood for us. Christopher was frail looking for a boy of 18. He was pale and had bandaged upper extremities. His right cheek was bandaged too and he wore white patch over his right eye. He extended another infirmed body part, his right hand as a courtesy. I worried I might hurt him if I squeezed too hard. My usual, firm, country girl handshake turned more into a dainty curtsy. My mother left us alone to get acquainted and went to get us a bedtime snack. I was full of questions about the war, but considering his awful condition I decided it wasn’t yet proper. His left eye gave off a hint of blue. Beneath his wool cap and bandages poked out a few strands of blond hair. Jeff had bought cards, dominoes and board games for Christopher’s amusement while he rehabilitated. We started up a game of gin rummy. We played games non-stop over the next few hours. My mother and Jeff spoke quietly at the kitchen table. They glanced over at us from time to time watching our new friendship blossom.
Yellow Top never returned as Jeff had thought and he finally had to get back to his job. Mother and he thought it best to keep Buttercup a secret from Christopher a while longer until he got used to his new surroundings. “When the time was right” mother told Jeff, she would introduce the two.
I was torn between my two new playmates. I tried to spend equal time with both. Christopher made extraordinary progress with his recovery. He told us the doctor said he may never see again and to leave his wounded eye patched. He was stubborn. He used his patch only at night and soon left it off all the time. He soon began to go outside more and more. On several occasions he would come surprise me down at the creek. I would always know when he was coming, as Buttercup would go hide in the brush right before Christopher showed himself.
On one particular night, I could hide Buttercup no more. Christopher stood at the window many a night and marveled at the hundreds of glowing fireflies. I went outside with a mason jar to catch some to bring inside for his amusement. He used this time to go down to the cellar, where we had asked several times not to go. We used the excuse, “It is dark and slippery down there. You may fall and re-injure yourself.” This time our excuse did not work. I heard a shrill scream from the house along with a loud bang. There was another cry. A cry I had not heard since Yellow Top had disappeared. I knew instantly Christopher had found Buttercup or visa versa. Buttercup burst up and outside from the cellar’s storm doors and leaped into the thick underbrush. I ran inside to find Christopher at the hearth with a fire poker in his trembling hand. My mother was at his side. It took us almost half the night to calm him. We told him of our interesting tale. He listened with an awed disbelief. Finally, as hard as he tried, he could not disprove what he had seen with his own eye.
I stayed with Christopher while mother went outside to look for Buttercup. Buttercup did not return that night or for several nights after. We left pies on the sill and they eventually began to disappear like before. Sometimes, we would see her in the berry patch or fishing by the creek. We were able to coax her to the cellar a few times but she seemed to prefer staying in the comfort of her own forest home. Our sightings of her grew less and less. Although I often felt her presence watching over me in the woods as her mother did before her.
Four more years passed. The war was over and I had become a woman. Christopher had healed better then the army doctors had predicted. The only signs of his injury that remain were a facial scar and slight limp. For a year now, he worked with his father in the logging camp. Now it was just me and my mother again, alone in the forest.
I had developed a fondness for Christopher when he was with us. He was now all I ever thought about. We had always joked with each other about getting married and moving to a big city. We sometimes played house when we were younger. For me, I wished, it was not make believe. I hoped he felt the same.
Jeff and Christopher always spent holidays with us. They would bring us gifts bought from Bristol. Gifts like dresses with fancy lace and succulent hams. It was a joyous time. This Christmas Christopher bought something different. He had “worked hard over the past year” he said and “I saved up some money to move to a big city like we had talked of.” “But,” he stuttered, “I want you to come with me, as my wife.” I was filled with joy like never before. I accepted, my mother cried and we married in Bristol later the next week. After the wedding, we moved to Atlanta straightaway. Christopher’s foreman had helped him get a job at textile mill that contracted with their company. There was no time for a honeymoon.
Jeff and my mother stayed on in their forest kingdom that they had grown to love so much. He continued to log timber and checked in on my mother often. I did ask her to move with us. She refused. I knew she had feelings for Jeff but repressed them.
Five years had passed since Christopher and I had moved away. We had a daughter there and named her Ellen. Ellen was not born a well-child as she suffered from asthma. We planned to visit our parents many times but Christopher’s job and Ellen’s poor health made it difficult. Mother and I wrote to each other every month of our good intentions to see each other soon. I kept her updated with Ellen’s progress. I often found myself asking about Buttercup. Unfortunately, her whereabouts were unknown. She had not seen Buttercup for many years. Mother would always try and cheer me up with the image of Buttercup rearing her children and all the difficulties that entails along the way.
One month, mother’s letter never came. I hoped it had just gotten lost in the mail, so I waited. The next month it was the same, no letter. I knew what it meant. Christopher and I left the next day on the first train north.
We made it to Bristol two days later. The road to the camp was now completely graveled as my mother had mentioned to me in her letters. Although we had fully expected to hire horses to get to the farmhouse, we managed to hitch a ride on a logging truck belonging to Christopher’s former employer. The truck cut our usual 2 day trip to barely a half day. We found the trail to the farmhouse easily and three of us started out on foot. We reached my old home at dusk. To my amazement, there were lamplights still burning in the windows. I did not fully know what to expect. On the trip up, I had prepared our daughter as best as I could for the necessary task that my lie ahead. Had all my worry been in vain? Would my mother rush out the front door and greet us? I called out to her. No one answered. The three of us walked through the house exploring each room. I felt a cozy, warm feeling of peace and comfort like never before as wandered through the old farmhouse. I felt my mother’s presence in each room. As I rounded the corner of each room and entered the next, I fully expected to find her tending to her chores. But my mother was not inside. Through the kitchen window by the berry bush, I saw a small gathering of people in the dim light of evening. As we walked into the backyard, a male figure with his hat in one hand turned and looked at us. It was Jeff. He had a candle in his other hand as did two other fellow elderly loggers. This was my mother’s funeral. My daughter Ellen would never get to meet her grandmother.
We stayed on a few days at the farmhouse. We gathered items that were dear to me and my mother and packed them for our journey home. Jeff stayed with us and visited with his granddaughter. They were very much alike. He spent those few nights at the fire telling Ellen stories of my mother. I thought to myself how odd it was that Jeff seemed so comfortable in my mother’s home. I knew that their affection for each other had grown much stronger after I moved away. It was a comfort in a way, helping me not to feel too guilty about leaving my mother alone. Now I knew she was not alone after all. She had yearned, just as badly as I, for the love of another. She just did not want me to harbor any ill feelings towards Jeff as a replacement for my father. Jeff referred to my mother has his Forest Queen in stories to Ellen. I knew now my mother and he had been lovers.
Later that night after Ellen was in bed, Jeff handed me a letter addressed to me in my mother’s handwriting. She explained to me her relationship and how she knew from the moment I met Christopher that we would marry. She and Jeff moved in together almost immediately after I had left home. She apologized for not being able to give me all the conventional things most children have growing up. But she said “You have gotten something much, much better.”
The next day was the most beautiful spring day I had ever seen before or since. There were butterflies everywhere. The sky was a deep blue and the air was crisp like a winter morning. Flowers bloomed dotting the landscape a bright yellow and purple. The blueberries were so big it was like they were daring someone to pick them. And Ellen, like me not to long ago, answered that dare. I watched her in the berry patch from the kitchen window as my mother had done me. I watched her for what seemed to be hours. A lone tear ran down my cheek. It was a tear of both happiness and longing for yesterday. I thought how wonderful it would be if the hairy figure of Buttercup peaked out from the bushes. Could Ellen understand such an austere creature at her tender age if Buttercup did show? Would their meeting condemn Ellen to a lifetime of fear and nightmares for years to come? Or would it inspire her with respect, wonder and amazement for the mysterious, different and unknown? Alas, my worries were for not, Buttercup never appeared.
Later that morning, Ellen stumbled on our old fishing poles. She had never gone fishing before but had heard us speak of it many times and she knew exactly what she had found. She begged me with all the enthusiasm of a child that I take her fishing. We fished for a couple hours, caught only four small fish and released what we caught.
We left before noon hitchhiking on the next lumber truck headed towards civilization. The town of Bristol, Tennessee had grown up much in my absence. I could not believe I failed to notice all the new commercial shops, hotel chains and eateries that had sprung up when we first arrived. I assumed I was too preoccupied with thoughts about what I would find at the farmhouse to notice any new changes.
Our train pulled in the station on time. A few passengers scurried out of the train car and then the conductor ushered us on. The train car was already filled with people from previous stops and we had trouble finding seats together. We finally found three empty spots allowing Ellen to sit next to me and Christopher to face us. Two gentlemen in fishing attire sat across the aisle from us. They were talking quietly at first. Their conversation quickly increased in volume as the younger of the two attempted to get his point across to his elder. It was difficult for us not to eavesdrop. The younger man stated in a matter of fact voice, “I saw it I tell you, plain as day! It was in the creek fishing just like me except using its hands not a fishing pole! It was at least 9 feet tall and covered in hair like an ape! And the bigger one had a halo of light brown hair on its head! The big one held the paw of the little one like, well.., like, it was its own kid!”
I heard snickering and then a loud, hearty, belly laugh from his skeptical companion. Christopher and I looked at each other. We knew exactly what the man had seen. Ellen looked up at us fervently as if she knew we were hiding something from her. In a matter of fact voice she asked us, “What are those men talking about?” Christopher looked at Ellen and smiled. He responded in a hushed voice, “They are speaking about an old friend of the Forest Princess.” Ellen looked at me for an explanation. She had heard her father call me the Forest Princess many times before. The look of wonder in her eyes told me she was indeed now ready to hear the tale of my strange, gentle giant. With Ellen nestling her head on my shoulders accompanied with the knowledge that Buttercup was alive and well, I was suddenly enveloped with the comforting feeling akin to being “watched over” while in the forest. At this moment, everything was right in my world.
The scenery in the window zipped by as brisk, quickening flicks of light. The conductor went through the train collecting tickets. The conversation of the other passengers was slowly drowned out by the sounds of the metal rails clicking, clacking and grinding beneath us. As the train picked up speed whisking us towards home, I quietly told Ellen the story of Buttercup and the Forest Princess.