More of the Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

A simple walk by the river can turn into a journey to someplace special… all within walking distance of our backyards.

So I went for a walk again recently, on a trail that goes beside the Passaic River near my house.

green reflections in the passaic river

It’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk, especially in the evening, since the reflections in the river can be amazing.

water like glass

I always tell people that New Jersey isn’t called “The Garden State” for nothing – everywhere I go, I find nothing but lush green growth. (Newark and the bits near New York are the exception, of course.)

a narrow path through lush greenery

Even more amazing is how the setting sun lights up the green of the trees and undergrowth along the river. It’s almost like something out of a painting.

setting sun through the trees

This time I went a bit further than I normally do, and as usual, I was rewarded with beautiful scenes. You never know what might be around the next corner.

gold and green at sunset

Finally of course I had to turn back – the trail probably goes on, but I figure I can save that for another day.

evening reflections in the passaic river

No matter where you are, there’s always something special waiting, hidden, in the most unlikely or even ordinary of places – if you just take the time to look. Often these special places are right nearby, around corners we routinely ignore.

Wherever you are, or wherever you end up, I hope you take the time – once in a while, at least – to look around you, to turn down that path you always walk by, or that place you’ve always seen but never stopped at. Your curiosity will almost certainly be rewarded.

Happy (backyard) trails, everyone.

The Alley

She stood, gasping, in the middle of a pile of bloody corpses.

Dead. They were all dead, and she had killed them.

Her sword slipped slowly from her sweaty & trembling hands. Her chest heaved as she fought to control her breathing.

She’d killed them.

They’d certainly meant to kill her. They’d come at her suddenly, from the shadows of the alley on her left, but she’d seen them before, noticed their glances & subtle hand signs a few streets back, so she’d been ready.

Now, in this dark and narrow alley, the stones wet with fresh blood, the horrible reality of what she’d done, what her training had prepared her to do, sank into her mind like a cold, terrible nightmare.

For the first time, she’d killed – and not just one person, but half a dozen trained assassins – and she had done it all without so much as a scratch to herself.

Her mind spun as she stooped to pick up her blade, trying not to glance at the slashed bodies lying about her feet. Her training came back to her as she absently pulled a cloth from her pocket and wiped the blade before sheathing it.

She stepped gingerly around the bodies and the puddles of blood, and began to walk out of the alley. At first she could barely stand, her knees threatening to give out, but with each step away from that spot, her strength seemed to grow, and she walked quicker and quicker, before finally breaking into a run.

They were all dead… And she was alive.

That Special Kind of Dark

A strange little story which popped into my head one day while thinking about walking in the woods at night.

The night was dark; that special kind of dark that it gets when it’s really late – when even the nocturnal animals have gone to sleep – in the still, calm hours before dawn.

The stifling heat of the day was long gone; the air was cool now, almost to the point of being chilly, and neither the ground nor the rocks nor the trees had any more of their daytime heat to radiate. The world had that special stillness, holding its breath in anticipation of the start of the next day.

It was in this special darkness that she found herself; shaken, sore, and shivering slightly. The pain in her head had settled into a dull ache now, just enough to keep her awake and alert.

The sharp crack of twigs breaking under her feet seemed to reverberate throughout the entire forest each time she took another tentative step. Tired and stunned as she was, she still somehow found herself able to be thankful that she still had her shoes. Several times now her feet stubbed on protruding rocks, or stumbled into small dips in the uneven ground.

She rested for a moment, pressing her hand against the trunk of a tree to steady herself, but she’d hardly been still for more than a few seconds when the fear of being lost and alone surged back to the front of her awareness.

She fought her panic, gulping deep breaths to calm herself, refusing to give in to hysteria. Gritting her teeth, she took another step forward.

The darkness was oppressive – though she could see virtually nothing, her other senses seemed painfully alert. The sound of each step she took seemed to echo endlessly, turning into the sound of footsteps behind her, and several times she whirled around – only to see the same nothing behind her each time.

Each time a twig from a low branch touched her arm, she felt like a strong hand was trying to grab her, and she whirled to grasp back – only to find her hand clutching a thin and brittle twig.

Step by step she kept moving in this way, fearful for what lay ahead, terrified of what was behind.

But slowly – though she hardly noticed it at first, and then almost refused to believe it – dawn was creeping its way across the sky. Shapes began to resolve before her eyes – a tree here, a rock there. The world around her went from deep black, to deep blue, to pale gray, and finally to the colors of the normal waking world.

And when the suns first rays touched the tips of the trees, she thought she would go blind from the brightness – the golden glow of a thousand candles, all ignited at once.

With each passing moment, as daylight returned, the terror melted away – although not completely. Where was she? What had happened to her? At least now, in the warm light of day, these were questions that she could finally face.

She had passed through the dark night and made it into the light.

Now, she had hope.

The Old Man and the Forest

A short story that’s been floating around in my head recently about a strange old man who lives on the edge of a forest who might be more than he seems.

Although no one could quite remember exactly when the old man had moved into the house on the edge of town, by the forest, everyone seemed to agree that it was a long time ago.

Not that anyone would admit to paying much attention to the old man. He was a loner, an outsider, who lived in his run-down cottage under the eaves of the Old Forest, and most people tried their best to ignore the fact that he existed.

Oh, the children in town told stories, of course, as well as a few of the adults. They said if a child wandered into the forest during the day, he’d be lost forever, and if he was caught in the forest at night, the old man would find him and capture him. What happened to the captured children, nobody would say with certainty, but many variations on the story imagined a grisly end.

However, most adults regarded these stories as just old cautionary tales about the Old Forest that had become twisted and distorted with time and repeated retellings. Still, most adults did keep their distance from the old man, and nobody could remember his name.

***

His house – more of an old cottage, really – sat right up against the edge of the Old Forest, so much so that the moss which had once grown and spread all over the roof was now brown and dead from lack of sunlight.

It must have once been a quaint and pleasant cottage – perhaps made back before the village was settled – with a gently sloping straw-thatched roof that came down low on either side.

As for the old man himself, he kept mostly to himself, and was rarely seen in the village proper. On occasion he could be seen strolling along the dirt roads of the village at dusk, just after the sun had set – especially in the winter, when the sun set early.

He sometimes visited the village doctor and traded for some herbs and plants that he must have either grown himself or found in the forest. The villagers didn’t avoid him necessarily during these times, but nobody would approach him on purpose, and people looked the other way and avoided his gaze.

***

Dix, however, thought differently. He thought differently about a lot of things, actually, but he usually didn’t do or say anything to show it… except in this case.

Dix had always felt strangely curious about the old man, ever since he saw him when he was little. He remembered that night very clearly, though he was only 6 years old at the time. He’d been out late, playing in the big oak tree at the edge of his father’s fields. The tree was ancient and huge, with ample large branches, many of which hung low to the ground – perfect for climbing. Once you got up a bit in the tree, you had a clear view over all the surrounding fields, including over the neighbor’s field, and then the empty meadow, and then, tiny with distance, the old man’s house on the edge of the Old Forest.

That day he’d been playing in the tree, looking out at people working in the fields. He’d just watched the last few workers head in as dusk approached when he saw him – the old man, clearly visible now that the wheat had been cut, walking along a track beside the far edge of the field.

Dex remembered being riveted by the sight – he’d heard stories, of course, but he’d never seen the old man himself. Now though, he somehow sensed the inherent injustice of the stories as the old man walked with his long-legged stride along the track, his head down, his eyes watching the path before him in the dimming light.

And then, suddenly, the old man had stopped in his tracks and looked up – looked right up across the field and into the tree and seemingly right into Dex’s own eyes. Dex felt a surge of panic, of fear at being discovered, but only for a moment. In that next heartbeat, somehow, Dex saw right back into the old man’s eyes, saw the calm, quiet contemplation there, and knew with a certainty very unbecoming of one so young that this old man was not like what the stories told.

But before he could even blink, the moment had passed, and the old man was walking again, and Dex’s mother was calling for him to come inside.

Ever since then, Dex had tried to catch a glimpse of the old man again – but it wasn’t easy. But Dex kept at it, and several years later, when he was 12, he managed to catch a better look.

It was midsummer’s night, and the village was throwing its annual celebration. Dex took the opportunity to sneak out of the village and creep along some of the less-used tracks between fields, until he was near the Old Forest and the old man’s house.

Then he saw him – the old man, sitting quietly on the side of a small hillock, his back to the forest, looking out over the fields and towards the village.

Dex had wanted to come up to him, to talk to him and ask him questions – questions about who he was, why he lived alone, and whether he’d really seen him that day years ago – but on this night, something held him back.

It was something in the old man’s face, or perhaps just in his eyes, that kept Dex from disturbing him. He didn’t seem quite so old then, sitting in the grass under the purple sky, the first evening stars twinkling above him.

Dex stood there – for how long he was later never quite sure – and then slowly, as the deepening dusk spread across the sky, he turned around and walked quietly back into town.

Ever since then, Dex had tried to defend the old man whenever people spoke of him – which was rare, but still, word got around. He also tried to meet the old man again, waiting near the edge of town at dusk, or wandering the fields before dawn, but though he saw the old man from afar many times, he was never quite able to get close to him like that again.

People started to avoid Dex, or look the other way when he came by. He almost expected his parents to scold him for his behavior – though he was nearly an adult now himself – but they never brought the subject up again, and as Dex got older he thought he saw the signs of resignation in their eyes.

Eventually Dex reached his 17th year, and it was time for him to choose his future. Nobody seemed surprised when he announced that he was going to leave town and set out on his own rather than stay and help with the farm. Surprisingly, many people – including his parents – seemed almost relieved.

After packing what little belongings he had and slinging them on his back, he hugged his parents for the last time and set out on the road, heading out of the village.

He’d deliberately waited until sunset to head out, and as he plodded along out of town, dusk deepened around him. After he passed the last house on the long road that led north to the next town, he looked one last time behind him, and then swiftly jumped off the road and cut across one of the fields – heading straight for the old man’s cottage.

By the time he got there, dusk had passed and night was here in full, and for a moment he almost regretted his plan. The Old Forest loomed frighteningly close now, and all those old childhood ghost stories began to rise up again in his mind – but he stood his ground.

The stars were out now, as was a sliver of moon – casting a surprisingly bright light over the land, at least compared to the deep dark under the nearby trees.

He waited, listening to the sounds of the night – the occasional rustle of leaves in the distance as the night breeze fluttered its way through the forest, the haunting calls of the owls, or the mournful howls of wolves… and then, he saw him.

Plodding up around a bend in an old horse trail, the old man came, like a whisper on the wind, a barely visible gray shadow in the night, with just a hint of silver twinkling around his neck. At just a dozen paces away from Dex, he stopped and looked up.

Though it was far too dark for Dex to see it clearly, he was sure the old man was smiling, or if possible, grinning, as if he’d expected to see Dex here this night. And then, in the most surprising moment of his life, Dex heard the old man speak.

In a voice that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a man who looked half his age, the old man said, “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Standing up a big straighter than before, the old man swept quickly past Dex and to the door of his house, opening it wide and revealing a warm and welcoming light from within. “Well, come on inside,” he said, gesturing with his arm, “I’ve a lot to tell you, and the night is wearing on.”

With that, Dex seemed to feel himself break free of his awe, and he smiled and nodded, and stepped inside the house.

The Landscapes of my Youth

I had an active imagination when I was younger – I dreamed up elaborate histories for the fictional worlds that inhabited the landscapes around my childhood home. This is sort of a “description” of the world I’d imagined around my home, but it’s also partly a story of a single day – or maybe a single year.

I had an active imagination when I was younger – I dreamed up elaborate histories for the fictional worlds that inhabited the landscapes around my childhood home.

This is sort of a “description” of the world I’d imagined around my home, but it’s also partly a story of a single day – or maybe a single year.

This is typed up from a notebook where I jotted them down, so it’s a little rough. But it’s interesting, so I thought it might be worth sharing.

Enjoy.

Gomez: The Kingdom of the Elves, perched high atop a forested hillside – jutting out into the swamp.

With its flat top and steep sides, and the deep forest perched atop it – a reminder of the elder days where the elves lived in safety, hidden away from the prying eyes of men.

The Valley of the Pines – cut by the Great River – divides the elder forest from the younger forests to the north.

The Great River, which feeds into the swamp, which stretches for miles, eventually turning into a marsh of salt waters where it meets the sea.

The Great River tumbles its way down the valley from the mountains to the west, carving its way among the ancient stones, moss-grown pools where some say you can still see fairies playing in the summertime.

Deeper to the south, the forest continues to stretch through great folds in the land, carved east to west by some long-dry river – or perhaps by the rays of the very first sunrise.

Far to the southwest, the ruins of an ancient civilization. Overgrown now with trees, save for the few stone-paved areas that still stand warm in the sun, through time is wearing them thinner and thinner. Silt covers the once shiny stones, and grasses and small shrubs grow in what was once a bustling square.

The ruins are empty now, all but forgotten, even by the trees.

Further south – the great wasteland of the southern desert stretches across endless miles – impassible to all save the wind.

Pine trees and dense groves of pines mark holy places in the world – even if elves and men have forgotten them and no longer worship in the old ways.

To the West – the once great Western Forest now stands in ruin – an open plain of scrub grass and bushes. A blight years ago wiped out all the trees here. In between scraggly & thorny bushes, the remains of ancient forest temples still stand.

To the North – a younger forest grows, thin in places, for this is the home of men. In places there are great clearings – fields for the food of men.

Further north, the Icy Mountains – the White Mountains loom. Here is a land of ice and snow. Nothing lives here for long. Even the Sun seems somehow weaker the higher into the mountains one goes.

In the morning, at sunrise, the mountains in the West glow blood red in the summer… and sparkle like pearls in the winter.

Deep in the valleys a thick mist clings to the trees and the rocks, still whispering its sorrowful song.

The leaves – Golden in the Sunrise.

The air – the breeze from the Sea to the East: the Breath of the Sun.

The Midday sun bears down in summertime, but the forest remains dark and still and cool.

Evening is falling and the mountains in the West are a black silhouette against a deep red sky. The chill wind comes down from the mountains and twists its way among the trees and rocks – the rocks, now cold in shadow – the trees, now long shadows crisscrossing on the ground. The silence that falls upon the forest is so intense – none dare break it.

Night falls on the Deep Forest.

The elves move now in the moonlight – nothing more than the flickers of shadows to the eyes of men. Little else stirs – the forest at night is no place for mortals.

Even the rocks and trees seem filled with malice to the eyes of anyone brave – or foolish – enough to venture out into this deep dark.

This is the Landscape of my Youth.

In the middle of it all is the Green Tower, the meeting place of all the good peoples of the world – elves, men, and dwarves. An ancient structure, full of mystery – none know all its secrets. Whole sections of the tower – including the uppermost floors – remain sealed forever, their keys lost in the depths of time, but their doors built to outlast the ages.

As of late, the elves have retreated deeper into the Southern Forest. The swamp has grown, pushed by the force of the sea deeper inland. Soon, the Kingdom of Gomez may become an island among the swamp – which itself may become a great lake, as the land continues to sink.

The Great Waste to the South continues to move and shift its ever changing sands.

The fields of men seem ever more common.

And somewhere, hidden amongst it all, lies the secret to the Green Tower and the ruins of the world…