Felton and the Wolf: Preface
Preface (which, like all prefaces, may be skipped)
I would call what follows a fairy tale, for it is full of the things of fairies, the ancient and wonderful things: beautiful places of pasture and wood, journeys through the changing of the seasons, and what some would call magic--though mystery is a more apt title. But alas, the world is not full of beauty alone, but also of dark tidings and brooding creatures that live in dark places. And each side, each aspect of the light and dark, the joyful and the sorrowful, the wondrous and the terrible, hold each other together in a delicate balance, the dark making the beautiful more lovely and the beautiful revealing how deep the darkness goes.
And yet, this story starts out fair enough: for it was a golden autumnal day. The sun had reached her midday throne and was sliding over to the west, filling the hills and valleys with the wonderful foreboding of dusk and coming evening. Warm orange and golden light rustled through the leaves and branches and rested wearily on the woods and meadows. The air grew still, and the great trees all seemed to sleep.
Birchwood Valley was at all times a place of rest and quiet solitude, but never moreso than after the coming of Old-Gold Autumn. Within the Valley, inhabitants referred to the seasons with proper names, thinking of them as personalities who wandered the earth in solitude (as with autumn and winter) or with a festive throng (as with spring and summer), always returning at their proper times to bring the changing of sun and season. Indeed, many older Birchwoodians would leap at the chance to sit down with you and explain proper-like the time when, while wandering in the woods—just for the sake of wandering--they happened to come upon Sir Gray Longbeard, Bringer of Winter, or his brother, Father Christmas, or perhaps another figure whom we humans have nearly forgotten and would scarcely recognize even if they walked about right in front of us. Then they’d wink and smile, and you might even believe them.
All the dales and hollows of the valley, the woodland and the streams, breathed deeply with the sigh of one who lies down for a long, much-needed rest. The squirrels and birds were busy gathering nuts and foods for the winter, and if one tried to speak to them, they would interrupt abruptly but not rudely, “Can’t discuss it now, must be off, much work still to do.” Yet even they, for all their bustle, would stop their work in the afternoons to watch the sun fade away over the west, just as a man will take one last gaze up towards the twinkling stars before retiring to bed.
Birchwood Valley, as it was in the days of our story, anyway, was a large vale nestled between two small ranges of mountains which spread southward in a wide “V” shape. The northern border, from which The River flowed, was rolling hills which resembled the tops of many eggs piled neatly next to one another. Thus, it was called “the Yolks.” No one lived there except some old raccoon monks who maintained a small monastery. Running southward, The River squeaked through and over the beaver dams, sped through Fenny’s Flume, and made its way, with many a bend and turn through thickets and pastures, to reach the cobblestone bridge, which effectively marked the center of the valley. To the northwest lay the farm districts and to the southwest, Yarnton Town.
The farm districts were composed of large sweeps of land, lain one on top of the other in meadows and orchards which fell away into a long holler of lowland woods and forests before rising again on the foothills of the western range. There at the Valley’s Western edge and beneath the mountains were the orchards, which produced the best harvest of the valley. What autumnal marvels they bore! Deep red apples, scarcely able to fit in one paw, gigantic pumpkins, cranberries fit for bursting, and squashes as big as an elephant’s ear--almost as big, anyway.
Families delighted in making the long trip from Yartnon Town to the orchards during October and November to taste the wonders of the generous earth. Over the bridge and through the woods they would go, laughing and singing, stopping occasionally to romp in places where the wind had piled up heaps of leaves. And at night they would return home to transform the harvest fruits into all types of treats: pumpkin pies, cinnamon apples and turnovers, cranberry cobbler, fruit doughnuts. Each night, the town parson would wander the streets around dusk and check in on his parishioners so that he could rest well-assured that his sheep were well-tended. These “check-ins” generally culminated with the parson making a toast at the family table before tucking into a generously laid larder. There was a hospitality, a kindredness of spirit, you might say, between the Birchwoodians. Many inhabitants bemoaned with sincere concern the loss of this art in “the outside world,” with its growing concern for factories and machines. But, truth be told, they thought little of the outside world, so far away it seemed.
To the west of the orchards lay the road and bridge towards Yarnton Town. After passing the farmlands, it ran east with nary a bend right up to the large gate and guardhouse (which was a silly name for the building, for it had no guards, and the gate had no key!). The town lay in a uneven grid of neatly divided markets and cottages. There were stores of all kinds: booksellers and bankers, blacksmiths and bakers, and some that did not start with “b,” as well. There was the Olde Yarnton Town Tavern, located in the Birchwood Inn, where many gathered to discuss what news there was and to toast the health of the Governor. “To the Governor! To the Governor!” they yelled for hours (once they had taken down a few barrels of ale).
On some nights, a crowd of Birchwoodians would sit enthralled around a table, pints in hand, lilting trails of pipe-smoke that rested on their heads like laurel wreaths, faces lit up at marked intervals by the glowing embers of a happy pipe, as one of the town’s best raconteurs wove into words the tales that had been told since any one could remember. They would listen to the story of the Golden Ship and the grand epic of the Battle of the Four Bridges. And on dreary nights, they would sit deathly pale as an old Birchwoodian told of the goblins and trolls who walked the wild woods. They would gulp and grin, spellbound, as the tale of Artie Squishell’s vanishing at the hands of the Black Toad was re-told over and over, always with the slightest variations depending on the teller. Or they would squirm uneasily as the legend of the Strawberry Ridge Rider was recounted once again. Many night-time riders who lived “over the ridge” found their hearts beating faster, their paws growing clammy as they rode home after an earful of that awful tale. Lurking shadows on the roadside made them wary in the lonely woodlands and the miles which separated them from a warm bed and a crackling fire. Yet morning always brings victory over the midnight witching, and the same journeyman terrified the night before would laugh at himself and his foolishness. One could scarcely fear anything when the beauty of the Valley was revealed in full morning light.
…Now then, that will have to serve us as a sort of beginning to our story. As I said, it was a late October afternoon, and only a sunset and a sunrise until The Great Pumpkin Festival. Ah, there is no season like autumn, and no month like October! So full of life and hope, despite winter’s impending storm. It was the most celebrated month in the valley, and the greatest festival of the year was less than one turn of the globe away.