His mother carried him through the dark pine forest. The grey moon’s light barely penetrated through the needles above them as it rode the waves of the tree tops. His mother counted her steps as she marched, crushing dried leaves and needles under her tight-buckled boots. Her hot breath—caught by the cool night—blew back into her chin. Her crystal-blue eyes, cool like rainwater, strained to see through the endless pines, all cloaked in blackness.
There was a time when she would have wanted to be his mother. Back when she loved her husband.
The man she wed was a kind, handsome man, though grief and time had etched his face. Daniel Stacey was an arpenteur — a surveyor of the colonial lands—and he published a seasonal agricultural almanac. He was highly respected for his knowledge of New Jersey’s natural reservoir, which held the purest form of water in the colonies, even considering its tea-brown hue: a product of the cedar trees’ tannic acids.
Currently, he was traveling north, as counsel for the British Royal Governor of New Jersey. Left behind in Batsto Village, his wife was alone to care for their infant son: his first son by his second wife.
Mr. Stacey became a widower five years earlier, when his first wife died in childbirth, shortly following a fever. His daughter was stillborn. After that, he never quite smiled the way people remembered. As time passed he kept more and more to himself, preferring to spend his time at home reading, and writing the almanac.
His current wife, though much younger, helped orchestrate their marriage. A friend of her father’s, Mr. Stacey had visited her family’s home on three occasions two years after his family’s deaths. She planned for moments to be alone with him before other guests would enter the room. Later, she implored her father to discuss a marriage proposal with Mr. Stacey.
She enjoyed the financial stability his influential role provided him in the colony. And although Mr. Stacey was loving toward his young wife, after two years of marriage she began to wonder if she was solely a quickly prescribed remedy for his loneliness in Batsto Village. The parties had stopped, and the trips into Philadelphia became infrequent as Mr. Stacey came to desire a quiet life at home when he didn’t need to travel for the Governor. Yet she was the one often left behind in the small ironworks village. She was much too young for him, she realized now. And much too alive to wait while he visited the graves of his first family. Time did not eclipse his memory of them.
There was a young Englishman in Batsto who arrived after a disease spread in sheep herds throughout the middle colonies. Benjamin Goodhall was trained in the new animal sciences, employed by several dozen Batsto households to care for their horses. As much as he was appreciated for his expertise in animal husbandry, the women of Batsto also came to appreciate his charming appearance. He was a devilishly handsome man with a mischievous smile that would reveal two dimples in his cheeks. His dark blonde hair tousled out of his ponytail, after days of physical maneuvering several livestock.
It wasn’t long before her idle thoughts soon materialized into real trouble.
She employed him one morning to inspect her mare while her husband was traveling for the Governor. As Benjamin Goodhall sat on a haybale to clean his hands, she climbed into his lap and wrapped her legs around his waist. Their affair started with this seduction, and then quite quickly she found herself in his arms more often than in her husband’s.
She pursued him in her neighbors’ barns, at the edge of the forest, and even in her own home on occasions, escalating the risk of detection. Keeping their secret was torture for her. She would stare at him and watch him work, never wanting him to leave her sight.
His eyes were like brilliant sapphires, the closest thing she’d ever get to owning real jewels, and she yearned to be locked in his gaze forever. She trembled with rage when she caught other young women in the village looking at him, which was happening more often these days.
And while her husband was gentle, she could barely suffer through his touch.
Her pregnancy came at a time when both men were in Batsto. Benjamin stopped touching her once her belly was swollen, and so she spent her entire pregnancy miserable.
Shortly after she had given birth in March, Mr. Stacey took ill with fever and laid in bed sweating through bedsheets for three nights. She thought she’d find herself a widow by the end of the week. Mr. Stacey recovered, though he often complained of soreness under one rib and lack of appetite. Each time she’d catch sight of him take pause and grip his side, she thought she’d finally be rid of him. But she’d find him hours later: lifting and bouncing the boy in his arms, trying to make the child laugh.
Mr. Stacey resumed his travels for the Governor two months later. Finally, after months of pleading with her eyes whenever she’d catch sight of Benjamin inspecting the neighbors’ livestock or fishing on the bank of Batsto Lake, he came to the house under the guise of checking on the mare.
When he walked into the barn, he slipped his hands around her waist that was now flattened by a tightly laced strapless stay. He pulled her toward the corner of the stable, against the tall stacks of hay, and lifted up her dress. Once repulsed by her pregnancy, he now found he loved the changes in her breasts, full after birth, and her soft skin. He wove his fingers through her dark hair and pulled, throwing her head back to bury his face in her cleavage. With his warm mouth and tongue sliding over her, she forgot she had a child inside the house.
The problem at present was with the boy’s eyes. His eyes were not changing. They were like the deep blue lagoons written in tales from Columbus’s adventures. He was getting bigger each week, but the color of his eyes remained the same. Surely, she thought, her husband would know. The villagers would guess.
She was careful to slip into the neighboring barn undetected, though the village was particularly busy that morning—several men were mining bog ore from the river banks to take to the Iron Furnace.
She found Benjamin inside and when she told him she believed the boy to be his son, she was not prepared for his cold response.
“That boy is Daniel’s son,” he said, as he swiftly lifted a sheep from the neighbor’s herd before it could buck up at his face.
“But, you’ve seen him...” her voice pitched.
“No, not my child,” he said while inspecting the sheep's mouth. “I’m heading back to England in the spring. You’re staying here with your husband.”
“What?” She suddenly felt nauseous and faint. “When was this decided? We can come with you. Please!” Her eyes began to fill with tears.
“Have you gone mad?” he barked at her, finally looking into her eyes. “No, I’m not taking another man’s wife and child to England.”
“He has your eyes,” she knelt by his side and pulled at his shirt sleeve.
“No,” he said to her. “He has your eyes. You need to stay here and be a mother.”
She fought to contain hot tears from spilling as she marched home in the chilly October daylight. The leaves above Batsto were a golden yellow, but a few had dropped in the wind. She was just like autumn, she thought. Her best years are short-lived and she grows colder with each passing day.
The pine branches rose and fell with the gentle night wind. She walked among their stoic bodies, each tree standing guard for the next. The tips of their branches joining far above the earth. as if to shield it from the gazes of the stars.
Tonight, she was taking her newborn to the Mullica River. She realized she had not devised the plan completely. What was it to be? A vagrant forces entry into their home and kidnaps her son? Is she to wake the village, or not discover the child missing until morning?
It was the 13th of October. The Devil’s day. As she marched deeper into the forest, she looked down at the quiet child she was carrying close.
“You are a handsome devil,” she said to the child.
In the dizzying darkness of the pines, she heard rushing water. The meandering river opened up the forest, allowing moonlight to shine through. The crest of the current glittered on the black water like hundreds of magnificent dancers endlessly spinning with their partners across a ballroom floor.
She pulled her baby from her chest. She looked into his soft face, handsome enough to be either man’s child. He raised his eyes to the sky and in the steely grey moonlight his pupils retreated into the brilliant blue pools of his eyes. Her breath hit his face.
He was shivering. She felt nothing.
She looked out at the river pulsing through the earth. The glittering dancers seductively glided around the curves of the forest floor. The night was silent except for the water rolling in and around itself, and its rhythmic clapping at the rocks. She approached the bank holding the child. Her son was still looking up, fixated on his mother’s face. She had packed stones in her pocket.
Then there was a breath. Not her own. Deeper.
She felt it on her skin, alerting the tiny hairs on the back of her neck.
“Give us the boy,” a voice whispered from the dark.
No one was there.
Carried with the wind, “Give him to us,” resonated through the trees as if there was a choir whispering a hymn.
The mother stood motionless looking down at her son.
“You will take him?” she quietly asked, not taking her eyes off the boy. “We will be his home,” said the voice.
She didn’t have to answer. She had agreed with her heart.
She kept her gaze on the boy, who had started to squirm in her outstretched arms.
Those blue eyes that caused her such misery began to change under the moonlight. With each blink, the bright blue irises slowly filled with red, like someone pouring a glass of wine into an empty glass.
His brow jutted, partially hooding his once lively round eyes. The boy bucked in his mother’s grip as his chin stretched from his mouth and curved forward into a crescent moon.
His mother dropped him. He fell fast, but the earth bent with the force of his body, cradling him. She looked down at him with peculiar fascination as her son writhed and contorted into a new figure.
She said nothing. Having no desire to see her son’s fate, she turned away, and marched through the pines back towards the village.
The once-child gasped, but otherwise did not cry out as his body transformed on the forest floor.
As each second passed, his arms and legs grew meters long. His feet curled and clubbed, sprouting on each distorted ankle a cloven hoof. His fingers lengthened, extending his reach. The palms of his hands grew wide and strong enough to crush bones. Thumbs topped off with harpy talons.
Drawing deep breaths of the cool pine-scented air, his chest expanded wider and wider.
His shoulder blades split and out sprung brown leathery wings. The thick membranes flapped open between each of the five finger bones, stretching as far as an Albatross.
The boy was reintroduced to the woods as something else.
It’s advised to never walk into the Pine Barrens alone.
The trees and their shadows stand tall and long at attention as a silent army, part of the vast labyrinth of dense wood and brush. Once inside, a person is enveloped, then absorbed into the world of the ancient pines. The ground so quickly recovers that no footprint or mark appears to have ever touched it. The crisp, sweet fragrance of terpenes fills the air. Light vanishes and the deadened sound overtakes a man’s senses so that he doesn’t know east from west, north from south. What exists inside the pines protects it, too.
Less than a mile from where she left him, his mother no longer could hear the Mullica River. She heard nothing. She stopped.
Once again, she found herself straining to see through the darkness. Her hand reached out to the cracked bark of a tree. It lightly crumbed at her touch. Her glance caught one tall, slim shadow, only to be followed by an identical one behind it. She turned slightly to her left and continued.
Surely, this was the way, she assured herself.
Two days later, Daniel Stacey returned home to discover his wife and child were gone. Three exhaustive searches turned up no trace of mother and child.
Mr. Stacey, battered by grief over the loss of another family, died from pneumonia in midwinter. His neighbors buried him in Pleasant Mills Cemetery, beside the graves of his first wife and daughter.
Benjamin Goodhall returned to England in the spring. It’s rumored he married a widow five years his senior with three teenage children.
In Batsto Village, memory of the beautiful young mother and child was buried under seasons, war, and hardship—until one day, no one in the village could recall their names.