It was the first of Spring when lonely little Juliette began writing letters to herself and placing them under mossy rocks and in the rotten crowns of dead tree trunks and in the intermingling branches of the forest bordering her family’s farm. These letters were often simple of nature and pretty of hand. They said things like “Have a splendid day,” or “May the sun shine be bright in your heart, and the shade be cool on your head,” which was a popular saying in the village. She would even write, most indulgently, “Rainbows above and flowers below, grow nothing but love in all that you sow.” These messages this fair-haired girl wrote in whatever little spare time was afforded to her between chores, for the girl desperately longed for a playmate of her own.
And then, on the morning of March 32nd, while going to fetch these letters she wrote to herself (just after milking the cows and just before feeding the chickens), Juliette found that someone had taken her letters she had written and had replaced them with letters in a strange, scratchy hand. She was shocked, and delightedly so, but also confused, for in each answer there was but just one little riddle that, once woven together, meant so much more:
“Where the birch trees seem to lurch
and the owls pause in poise to perch,
come find me beneath the old oak tree,
for there you will see what games may be.”
Juliette knew of this old oak tree among the birches. It was but a five minute walk from where she presently stood. She started toward the spot at once, but then hesitated, thinking of all of the dreary chores she had left to do before breakfast and how angry her parents would be if she skirted them. Nonetheless, the desire for a playmate won out in her hopping heart and so she walked deeper into the forest, seeking the old oak tree among the white-skinned birches.
When she arrived at the oak tree she saw a little boy of her own size and age, but strange of feature. He had light green skin, like the leaves of saplings, and green hair with tendrils growing around his temples, gemmed with berries only birds may eat. A thin layer of pollen coated his hair and shoulders like dandruff. He wore leaves and moss around his waist. As she came closer she found that he smelled of a forest after a generous rainfall.
“Hello,” she said. She sneezed, then laughed. “My name is Juliette.” She did a little curtsy, lifting the frills of her dress. “What’s your name?”
The boy smiled, showing teeth bucked like a rabbit’s, and bowed.
“One name is as any name the same,
but Ghillie Dhu is the name I presently claim.”
“Ghillie Dhu?” Juliette said. “I like that name. May I call you Ghill?”
“My filly may what a silly sally do
for it is as lovely to say Ghill as Ghillie Dhu.”
Juliette thought on this for a moment, then smiled as it dawned on her that he had given her permission to call him what she wanted. He was all rhyme and mirth, she thought happily.
“I am nine years old. How old are you?”
Ghillie Dhu’s tawny fawn ears twitched, as if in amusement to hear such childish questions.
“As old as the forest and as constant as the hills,
young as Sunday’s rest and as wandering as the rills.”
“You look like you’re nine, too,” Juliette said, helpfully. “Do you like to play games?”
The young boy dressed in moss and leaves and poison berries smiled.
“Oh yes, I must confess
that I like best the games that test.”
Juliette’s rounded brow creased innocently and she put her fists on her hips, squinting one eye in confusion. “What kind of games do you like?”
“Like a squirrel whirling in a world of leaves
I play my games, whether it pleases or it grieves.”
Juliette did not want to understand the particulars of the statement, only that Ghillie Dhu wanted to play games, which was a sufficient enough reason to be overjoyed.
“Oh, I always wanted someone to play with!” she cried in glee. “All I have on the farm are cows and chickens and they are no fun at all!”
“Then a game we will play,” Ghillie Dhu said, “unto the darkening of the day,
come what may, whether you will or will it not to stay.”
He held up a letter in a hand mottled like a fawn’s hide. The letter looked just like the ones in Juliette’s hands.
“What’s that?” Juliette asked.
“The game at hand,” he said, “in my hand,
but yours at your command.”
“What’s a letter got to do with any game?”
Ghillie Dhu grinned, pointed at his own temple— wreathed in poison berries—and then in some wayward direction.
“As a church sermoned by a roguish unseelie elf, I’ve done gone and lost me’self.”
“Lost yourself? How can you lose yourself?”
The boy in moss and leaves and poisoned berries shook his head, scattering pollen in a gentle shower.
“That is neither here nor there, land nor sea nor air.”
“Fine,” Juliette huffed, becoming impatient. “What am I supposed to do with the letter, then?”
“If ye’ will be my friend tonight, then take this letter and set me right.”
He held the letter out to Juliette and she took it without hesitation. She was about to open it when the forest boy quickly snatched it away.
“Nay, bonnie lass, ye shall never read
this important letter of mine to mine, ye heed?”
Juliette frowned, flabbergasted, but, wanting so desperately to play this mysterious game, nodded after a moment of consideration. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t read it.” She took it carefully as he held it out to her this time.
The little forest boy grinned again, the rabbit whiskers on his cheeks fanning out. He nodded, shaking pollen everywhere in a cloud that made Juliette sneeze again.
“Gladdened to my heart, I am, that ye are game
for the game of all games, known by the Huntigowk name.”
The word struck Juliette as strange and unfamiliar, and ultimately as gibberish. But since she thought most old children’s games had gibberish names, it seemed a very appropriate name. Furthermore, she liked it, even if she didn’t know how to play or what the rules were. She asked about these, and Ghillie Dhu answered.
“Of rules, there be many, and yet none be at all,
as to how ye play, may well ask why hatchlings must fall.”
“That’s rather vague,” Juliette said. Yet, she just shrugged and was happy to have a game to play, and a playmate to play it with.
“Now ye must go to where the waters willn’t flow
and there ye will find me, whom ye yet know and don’t know.”
This said, a sudden breeze snaked its way through the trees and, upon touching the little boy, dissolved him to nothing more than leaves and moss and berries and pollen, all settled onto the forest floor as if they always had been thereon strewn.
“Where the waters won’t flow?” Juliette pondered aloud, then sneezed. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “But it isn’t Winter now. None of the creeks are frozen! Even the ponds move because of the wind.”
She looked down at the moss and its thick mane. A frog crawled across it, dark green and large. In its mouth was a mouse, still struggling while half-swallowed. With one final jerk of its head, the frog engulfed the mouse and sat contented.
“The bog!” Juliet exclaimed with sudden revelation. “That’s what he meant!”
The bog was a few miles away, yet Juliette walked the trek quickly, without a single thought of her farm or family falling behind her and the playful clutter of the forest. She had a playmate now, and a game, and she was devoted to these two things singlemindedly. She did not stop to ask the weeping washerwoman why she cried at the waterfall. Nor did she dare walk near that strange horse with its goggling eyes and wet mane. Nor did she aid the man of bones in finding his sharp teeth. She cared for little else except the game. She did not even care that it was nearly lunchtime when she finally arrived at the bog and saw her playmate knee-deep in the peat. Nor did she care that behind him arched a perfectly rounded hill that stretched from one side of the bog to the other, partially submerged in the peat and duckweed and lilypads like the corpulent belly of some dead bog giant.
The little boy in the bog said, “Who goes there with so little care?”
“You know me,” she said, smiling. “I am your Juliette.”
“What a dare for someone so fair to travel so far!
Or is it a snare that puts ye where ye are?”
“I saw no snared rabbits,” she said, blinking away her perplexity. “I have a letter for you.”
She walked to the edge of the peat, grabbed hold of a leaning elm with one hand, and outstretched the other to pass the letter to the boy in the bog. He took it and she pulled herself back upright again, and just in the nick of time, too, for the elm was upended from the fickle soil from which it grew and fell over into the bog with a sigh. She dropped the letters he had given her earlier and they, too, fell into the bog. The bog swallowed all.
“Oh fiddlesticks!” she said, and instantly slapped her hand to her moue of a mouth, lest her mother and father suddenly appear and flog her good for swearing.
“Those letters are of no material matter,” said the boy, watching the other letters sink,
“for the message of concern is in this, the latter.”
The boy in the bog unfolded and read the letter, nodded (dislodging a snail from his ear), then quickly folded the letter again.
Meanwhile Juliette looked at Ghillie Dhu for the first time with eyes unclouded by excitement or exhaustion. She saw that he was different. He was shorter and squatter, and fatter, too, like a frog, and bowlegged. His eyes bulged from their sockets as if engorged with putrid water, and he was darker of hair and of skin than he was near the oak tree. Much of his wet, slimy skin was now patched in morassy vegetation. He looked as young, but as he grinned his opossum teeth at her there ran wrinkles in his dark, moss-mottled skin. Around him was wrapped a clingy wet robe of lichen and toadstools. Snails and earthworms writhed in his hair. His tongue, so very long and pink, dangled from his impishly round face with its toady jowls. When he spoke his voice was guttural and resonant.
“Me dear sprightly elf, ” he said, “I must have plumb forgotten me self
for I was going by some other name on some other shelf.”
The little girl wiped her muddy hands on her frock and frills. “And what name would that be?”
“If it pleases, while in this swampy muck,
I shall be that age-old adage, Puck.”
“Puck?” Juliette said, trying not to stare at him. “As you say, Puck. I have two names, too. Juliet Fooley. What is next in our game?”
Puck Ghillie Dhu hobbled forward through the peat and handed the letter to Juliette Fooley. The bog did not slosh or ripple as his rotund body waded through it, but remained solidly flat and undisturbed beneath its heavy decay.
He handed the letter over to her and she took it, trying not to gag on his rotten stench.
“Go ye’ to where the crowned rivals joust
in the courtyard where they are out to oust.”
Juliette pondered this oblique riddle, then gasped when Puck abruptly sunk beneath the peat, the vegetation spreading thin across the bog as if he never was.
“Courtyard and crowns?” Juliette said, confused. “Am I to seek Arthur and his knights of Camelot, or some fairy knights in the company of Queen Mab?”
As if in answer to Juliette’s question there rose from amidst that thick layer of decaying vegetation a small skull, peeking through as if in a game of hide and go seek. In its hollow eye sockets there squirmed nightcrawlers entangled violently with one another. The fawn did not mind, for its days of minding were far behind it.
“The glade!” Juliette cried, as if struck with a giddy spell. “Where the bucks fight!”
Away she hurried at once, for the deer glade was very far and she had to make haste if she was to pass the bog and arrive there before suppertime. Unlike lunch and breakfast, Juliette did not forget supper, for she was sorely famished by now, as her stomach was eager to remind her. Yet, she told herself she need not worry about supper, for it would be always waiting for her, warm and welcoming upon the fireplace when she should return. And as for chores, well, it would do no harm to neglect the farm one day in a year. Her parents might flog her, but she thought it would be punishment received with little regret, especially after this delightful escapade.
Juliette sang to herself as she went. She felt like singing, for she was happy and because it distracted her from the hunger in her belly.
“A turn of the stick, a burn of the wick,
a spurn of the prick, and learn to be strict.”
She slowed her hasty pace and ceased her singing. A new scene opened within the woods. She saw a beautiful maiden whose lily-white arms cradled a rusted suit of armor. Within the armor a shriveled man lay, blind with love. In a field of flowers they sat, and the maiden sang to the armor, much more than to the man, and the man lay in both ecstacy and agony that he should be built of mortal stuff. Behind them there was heaped a flower-tangled pile of ancient armor leaning against one another, some bodied with bones and some with dust; all long since rusted.
Further along, where the forest motes danced in the beams of light, Juliet heard flutes piping and bells ringing and felt the sting of acorns thrown from above. Her eyes skittered from bole to bower to bough, spotting only flickers of diaphanous wings in infrequent sunlight.
“Nary a fairy was ever merry,” Juliette recited, then continued on.
The sun was nearer to the horizon as the trees parted to reveal the hoof-stomped glade. The wind breathed harder and colder, teasing her with its dreadful promises. Shadows stretched long and deepened while mists rose from their cold mouths. Dappled grass glistened as if gilded, then cooled dark in the gloaming’s gloom.
Like sheep the mists herded themselves around her, expecting feed. She kept to her heading and came to the clearing. Once there, in the glade, she saw her friend, Puck Ghillie Dhu. She called out to him and he turned, raking the overhanging branches with his antlers.
“Ye address me as a familiar while masked as a stranger,” he said,
“Present yourself, heart to hart, lest you seek danger.”
“I am ever your Juliette,” Juliette said, still somewhat winded from the long hike and the deep hunger. “I am playing a game with you, Puck Ghillie Dhu, and have brought this letter as you told me to.”
The boy walked toward her on hoofed legs like a deer’s, nor was he truly a boy now. Nearing her, his shadow showed how much he had grown since last they met, for it unfurled itself over her from his new height like a banner upon a turret. He was barrel-chested and had forearms as thick as a goat’s thigh. She handed him the letter and waited as he read it. She looked at him, and admired him, even if he scared her a little now with his size and his features.
Sharp antlers jutted out of his head, felted at the base and with sandy brown bone branching outward and upward. Big honey-locust thorns were tangled in his hair. He smelled heavily of animal sweat and dung and musk and wore about his waist a kilt of prickly weeds and nettles and barbs. On his fingertips were hawkish talons, crimson-stained, and his tail was that of a polecat, and his dark brown skin was ruffled and scarred with many fights. A curly tuft of hair dangled from his chin, nettles and catkins tangled in the tresses. Her eyes watered as she stood near him; her eyelids stung and swelled. Still, she had a playmate to play a game with, and that was all that mattered to her as the sun slunk away beneath the Western side of the forest. Now the sky was bleeding like a cut hide hung up next to a fireplace to dry. The red liquids ran fast, then blackened.
“I had forgotten me name,” he said, “and me birth claim,
but with this little dame I will make full on the promise of the game.”
He smiled, and his teeth were those of a wildcat’s.
“I don’t know if I can play much longer,” Juliette said, her stomach rumbling. “I am hungry.”
The boy—that was not a boy—just smiled. Juliette grew uneasy. His eyes were eyes as black as a stag’s, and as impassive.
“Can we finish playing tomorrow?”
“But ye have come nearly to the end,” he said,
“and never need worry beyond tomorrow’s bend.”
“As I am known as Pan, and Puck and Ghillie Dhu,
know ye now that I speak to ye true.”
He returned the letter to Juliette and Juliette stared down at it. There was a little cut on her hand now, made by one of his talons, dripping droplets as red as the sunset. He spoke with a voice hoarse and thick, not at all mellifluous as it was when she first met him.
“Where the earth yawns satisfied in its appetite
the womb welcomes all to sleep through endless night.”
Pan stretched down on all fours, then, and went galloping away, twisting upon himself and tearing himself apart unto a multitude of animals that fled and paid chase to one another, this way and that.
Juliette watched the animals disappear into the woods. She then rubbed her aching belly and found it hard to concentrate, or to even remember what the riddle was. Her eyes stung, her nose was red with sneezing, and she was sore all over; especially her feet. She had walked so long, today.
Just when she was about to turn back and head home— hungry and frustrated with herself— she saw something. It was a snake slithering along the glade. A young rabbit was in its mouth. The snake carried its prey toward a small cairn Juliette had not noticed before. It slid on its belly with all of the patience that a certain meal provided, then slunk beneath the stacked rock edifice.
“The cave,” Juliette said quietly.
It was that time that good children should be in bed and that bad children could be misled. Juliette started to feel drowsy. The fatigue of the day, and the hunger, and the game all settled upon her like many heavy quilts weighing her down and begging her to sleep. Yet, she pushed on, spurred by the excitement of the game and its nearing end. She told herself she could sleep afterward, perhaps even lingering in bed tomorrow morning and neglecting her chores again. After all, she had neglected her chores today and the world did not fall to ruin. What did it matter that the chickens were not fed or the cows went unmilked? She pressed on, deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the cave.
A terrible wind came from the East that was not a wind. Juliette heard it before she felt it, and so felt it in her heart and blood before she could feel it on her skin. It was a choral moan of lost souls. Icemelt quivered in her heart and flowed through her veins. She knew the sound of the Sluagh, for she had heard it the night her grandfather died. Her mother and father had fought it from taking her grandfather’s soul the only way they knew how: by closing the windows and doors to their home while the elderly man died in his bed. The Sluagh was a terrible thing to hear, and even worse to behold. As it slithered through the air, seeking Juliette in her quest for her newfound friend, she saw its multitude of spirits all openmouthed with moaning and pain. So many faces in a breeze— like a murder of crows tumbling over each other in a violent eddy. It encircled her for a whirl, as if in anticipation, and then, seeking dead or dying prey elsewhere, left her to her game.
The cave yawned wide before her, blacker than night above. He saw her long before she saw him. He was staring at her as she walked toward him, his hairy back to her and his neck twisted around backwards, like an owl’s. His yellow-lobed eyes burned wildly in the twilit darkness of the forest. The look on his face made her stop walking, halting her like a rabbit halts before the fox. She could not move, save for her eyes which darted up and down him like squirrels up and down a tree . An ursine mane of fur ran from his head to his tail. He was grinning, and the wolfish fangs gleamed between the retracting gums. The pelts and hides hanging around him stank, and many of them were hairless and pink and wet with scarlet. They had human faces that moaned wide and silently.
“I…I have a letter for you,” Juliette said.
He looked stretched, like a shadow at dusk, gangly and lithe, elm-limbed from joint to joint, and his gaunt stomach was riddled with trenches of ribs. Withered to waste by Winter he was, and yet he had a fierce power as he stood outside the cave, welcoming her within that darkened womb of the earth. He seemed to fill up the cave, its inner darkness, and then the outer darkness of the darkening sky.
With a clawed paw he took the letter from Juliette, glanced down at it as if he knew what it said before looking at it, and then returned it to Juliette. The cave seemed to expand and contract behind him, and Juliette quavered.
“What now?” she asked. “Is the game finished?”
His voice was a low growl, like a beast wanting blood.
“Down has come the life-giving sun,” he said,
“as the shadows darken and bleed and run
here to there, from horizon to horizon,
and so, yes, our little game is done.”
“It’s over?” Juliette said, surprised. “Who won?”
The beastly man stretched taller, looming high— as high as the night beyond the cave.
Juliette gasped. “So…you won?” she whispered, barely above her breath.
He grinned down at Juliette, showing his wolfish fangs and his burning eyes. He said nothing.
“Ghillie Dhu,” Juliette mumbled.
He said nothing, but loomed larger.
“Ghillie Dhu?” she asked, pleaded.
He said nothing, but loomed larger still.
He said nothing, but loomed larger and branched out all around her.
“Oh my dear foolish little one,” said the cave, “with each of those names I am done,
for now I am but Far Darrig, which all good children shun.”
“Far Darrig,” Juliette said. The name was familiar, though she could not remember from where or what. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve heard your name before. From a nursery rhyme, I think.”
He only grinned more widely, and loomed more largely.
“How did it go?” she asked aloud. She then remembered:
“‘Hey bonnie girl, which way is home?
(Red Man wants to skip along too)
Hey bonnie girl, why do you roam?
(Red Man wants to shadow you)
My bonnie girl, you know better
than to let the Red Man get his cape wetter
by dipping it in the ink of you,
so beware of Far Darrig and his letter.”
Far Darrig, she thought.
The Red Man.
Juliette turned and fled. He did not chase her. He did not have to. He was all around her. He was the forest and the earth and the cave and the swamp. He was the eyes in the darkness that watched her run, and the creatures that scattered before her. She was in his slowly yawning jaws all along. She was lost in the woods, and the woods was his gullet.
Clouds had stolen over the starry sky casually, like a hunter sure of his quarry, and now Juliette could not tell which way she had come. In the last wink of moonlight, she opened the letter and read what it said.
“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”
She collapsed on the ground, weeping.
His voice spoke all around her, in the rustle of leaves and the howl of wolves, and every other sound that haunts the wilderness.
“By the game ye have willingly bet
I shall have ye, my Juliette.”
“I want to go home,” she whimpered.
“Had you stayed you would not have strayed,” he said. “The unbridled wild is no place for a child.”
“Please let me go!” she moaned. “My parents will be worried.”
“Nay, vanish such thoughts from your foolish head
for even now a changeling sleeps in your bed.”
Juliette pulled at her hair desperately, weeping. “My parents will know the difference!”
“A difference, indeed, and one most welcome too,
for the changeling is a good child, unlike you.”
“I am not bad,” she said, trembling among the dead leaves. “I just wanted to play today! I wanted to play with a friend! I wanted to have fun in the woods, away from the village and the farm and everyone telling me what to do!”
“In the woods there is much fun to be had,
but by whom is the question, little girl gone bad.”
Far Darrig opened his mouth wide all around her. It was as a cave fanged with trees and tongued with a bog and as black and bottomless as the night sky. Juliette ran again, but it did no good. Wherever she ran, she ran toward the giant mouth. It was as inescapable as the wide, woeful wilderness and its ancient shadows were always eager for feast and for fun.
Juliette awoke in the woods. She sat up, shivering, and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around she saw through the trees that it was yet morning. The morning mists were a herd of sheep rummaging across the forest floor. Juliette stood up and saw that she was still dressed in her night gown. She must have went sleepwalking, she told herself, as she was apt to do from time to time.
“All a nightmare?” she said to herself.
The tittering of a bird unnerved her and so she quickly stood and returned to the path leading toward home…
…toward home and its endless chores and boredom and her desperate need for a playmate.
As she turned, however, her eyes alighted on a little figure in a red coat and cap hobbling away into the far-flung mists. It turned and watched her, waiting with a sharp grin on its wizened boy’s face. He gestured for her to follow.
She did not.