ruined farmhouse

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Witches Woods 
Beverly, MA 

In the town of Beverly, Massachusetts is a large wooded conservation area officially called Beverly Commons, but which has also been know for many years as Witches Woods. The story most currently told about the name is that Giles Corey supposedly hid out in these woods while trying to escape from the Salem witch trials. I’m not sure how true that story is. Giles Corey was quite elderly when he was accused of witchcraft and it wasn’t easy to get from Salem Village to Beverly back in the 1600s. Still, it’s a good story. Even better stories about Witches Woods can be found in Caroline Howard King’s When I Lived in Salem, 1822 -1866. This book, which is a collection of reminiscences about daily life on the North Shore in the early 19th century, is fascinating. 

Do you want to know what people ate for dessert in 1836? 

Marlborough pudding and cranberry pie, of course. What happened to a woman if she fell asleep during the interminable Sunday church services? A church official called the Tidy Man (aka the Tithing Man) would tickle her awake with a fox-tail mounted on a pole. Drowsy men weren’t treated so gently – they were whacked back into consciousness with a wooden knob mounted on the other end. Caroline Howard King’s family owned a summer home in Beverly called Thisselwood, which abutted Witches Woods. She doesn’t mention any stories about witches, but does write about some other spooky occurrences happening in the area. Thisselwood, from the Harvard University Library.

According to her book, the locals believed that a headless ghost wandered through the woods. Although they were reluctant to speak of him, many had seem him walking forlornly among the trees carrying his head under his arm. No one knew what tragedy had led him to this doom. Caroline King and her family jokingly named him Heady, but Caroline didn’t laugh on late night carriage rides through the woods. She was quite afraid of seeing Heady. She never did see the decapitated ghost, but had instead another odd experience in Witches Woods. One summer morning in 1841 Caroline (who was nineteen at the time) set off for a stroll in Witches Woods with her nine-year old cousin Nony and a maid named Lucy Anne. After walking for while the group decided to have a snack and rest under some hemlock trees a short distance from the path. When they were done eating they walked back to the path – but it wasn’t there. 

Despite searching in all directions no path could be seen at all. It was if it had vanished. Caroline and her companions wandered through the woods for hours, but somehow always came back to the exact same spot. They could hear the ocean and knew they weren’t far from home but were unable to get there. Trying one last time to find the path they stumbled upon a clearing in the woods, in the middle of which stood the remains of a long-abandoned house: a chimney, a cellar-hole, and a stone stoop with an enormous lilac bush growing next to it. This ruin, Caroline knew, was called by her neighbors the Homestead, and was shunned and said to be haunted. A path led from the clearing up a small hill, and the group decided to follow it. From the top of the hill they had a view over the woods, and could see nearby at the foot of the hill a cozy farmhouse with smoke rising from the chimney. The house had a broad stone stoop, and as they watched a woman came outside and scattered feed for the chickens. Excitedly, Lucy Anne ran down towards the house to ask for directions home. Caroline and her cousin waited, and waited, and finally a dejected Lucy Anne returned. No matter how many times she had walked around the hill she couldn’t find the farmhouse. 

In fact, all she saw were “hateful solemn old pine trees.” However, she had found a dry stream bed which they followed out of the woods to the beach and eventually home to Thisselwood. The writer James Russell Lowell was staying with the King family at the time. Lowell claimed he had the second sight and had seen a ghost at Elmwood, his family’s estate in Cambridge (now the home of Harvard University’s president), so he set off into the woods determined to find the haunted farm. He never found either the abandoned ruin or the elusive farmhouse (which was clearly a ghostly image of the ruin as it formerly appeared). What would have happened if he or Lucy Anne actually had found the house and asked the farm wife (if that’s what she was) for directions? What if they went inside for a drink of water or a bite to eat?

“Here, this will get us out of the worst of it,” Hawke felt daunted when he shouldered open the dilapidated door only to find most of the roof missing on the ruined farmhouse.

“The walls will cut the wind,” Fenris grunted, hobbling past. “That will help.”

Hawke echoed the grunt and moved forward to help the elf, who shrugged off the assisting hands and lowered himself, slowly, to the ground, propped against one of the more stable walls. Outside the wind howled and shrieked, but if Hawke listened carefully he thought he could still hear the shouts of their pursuers.  

“They’re too close. If I start a fire, they’ll see the smoke.”

The elf only nodded and shifted into a more comfortable position, injured leg stretched out in front of him. He was pale from blood loss and pain, lips bluish from the cold. Hawke lowered himself slowly beside him, and could see the snowflakes that still kissed his lashes.

“I thought…the winters weren’t supposed to be so bad…until you ventured further south,” the elf said wryly.

“Oh, this? This is nothing. In Lothering we wouldn’t even pause tilling the fiends for something like this.”

“Heh,” Fenris’s laugh was nothing more than a short bark, eyes closing as his hand slipped down to his leg. “That bad, was it? I don’t envy you, then.”

“Your leg…”

“I only need to rest a moment.”

“I told you not to pull the arrow out.”

“I broke the head off first,” said the elf, belligerent.

As if that made it all right. Hawke grunted and met him frown for frown. Fenris was the first to look away, letting his head fall back against the wall and closing his eyes.

It had been a cold winter, but the blizzard that had risen up while Hawke and his friends were on the trail of some smugglers had been unexpected all the same. What started as a few soft flakes had rapidly became a wall of blinding white. Hawke had quickly lost friends and foes alike in the sudden storm, and had he not had the luck to quite literally stumble into Fenris he might have been alone still. Unfortunately, the elf had been both injured and surrounded by enemies at the time.

Kaffas,” Fenris hissed at last, softly. “You’re going to have to heal it, aren’t you?”

“Is it your first time? I’ll be gentle.”

One green eye opened. “Ass.”

Hawke snorted, and Fenris’s lips quirked in amusement before his eye closed again.

“Just – take care.”

“I’ll have to,” Hawke said. “I’m rubbish at healing.”

“You do know how to inspire confidence in a man.”