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BROOK magic does not begin until you have passed the deep fishing-pool and traversed the reedy meadow where the flagroot loves to go swimming and the muskrats come to spice their midnight lunches with its pungent root and pile the broad flags for winter nests. You may, if you are alert, feel a touch of its witchery as you wind among the rocks and black alders of the level swamp beyond, for here the ostrich-feather fern lifts its regal plumes as high as your head, and if by any chance you duck under these you have been near the portals of a world where sorcery is rife, for fern seed has a mysterious power of its own, and the ferns of the alder swamp are decorations on the road to the realm of the witch-hazel, where all sorts of strange things may come to pass.
The ferns and the witch-hazel are themselves mysterious and promoters of mystery, and it is hard to tell which leads in waywardness and subornation of sorcery. The ferns are the lingering representatives of an elder world, -- a world that was old before the first pine dropped its cones or the leaves of the first deciduous tree fell on the first greensward. Their ways are not the ways of modern plant life.
Take the cinnamon fern, for instance, one of the commonest of our woods. It grows up each spring like a tender and succulent herb, to wither and die down in the fall as the grass does. But take a spade into the woods with you and try to transplant a good-sized cinnamon fern. You will fail, unless you have brought an axe along too, for the seemingly herbaceous plant has an underground trunk, sometimes two or three feet in diameter, almost as solid and firm in texture as that of a tree.
The fern shows no blossom to the world of butterfly or moth, no fruit for the delectation of fox or field mouse. The curious little dots growing along the margins of the leaves, which we call “fern seed” by courtesy, grow no fern when planted. They simply grow a little primitive leaf form which curiously imitates a blossom in its functions and produces a new fern.
But the witch-hazel is stranger yet in its ways. In the spring, when it should by all tokens of the plant world be putting out blossoms, it is busy growing nuts which are the product of last year's blossoms. Then in the late autumn, even November, you will find it in bloom, twisting yellow petal fingers in mourning at the fall of its own leaves.
Pluck one of the nuts of a midsummer evening and look it intently in the face. Note the little shrewd pig eyes of the witch far ingrown in it, the funny shrewish tip-tilted nose, the puffy cheeks and eyelids. See that slender horn in the forehead, the sure mark of the witch. No wonder that it has the name witch-hazel with such ways and such faces growing all over it at a time when most other trees and shrubs have but finished blossoming. But if you want further proof that this shrub harbors witches you need but to examine its oval, wavy-toothed leaves just at this time of the year and see the little conical red witch-caps hung on them. There need be but little doubt that, sitting under it at midnight of a full moon, you may see the witch faces detach themselves from the limbs, put on these red caps and sail off across the great yellow disk. That such things are not seen oftener is simply because people are dull and go to bed instead of sitting out under the witch-hazel at midnight of a full moon.
To be sure there are scientific men, gray-bearded entomologists, who will tell us that these little red caps are galls, the rearing-place of plant aphids, caused by the laying of the mother insect's egg within the tissue of the leaf, but one might as well believe that the witches hang their hats on the witch-hazel over night as to believe that the laying of a minute egg in the tissue of a leaf could cause the plant to grow a witch hat. No doubt these same wise men would explain to you that it is not possible to become invisible by sprinkling fern seed on your head during the dark of the moon and saying the right words, but did one of them ever try it?
It is appropriate that the witch-hazel should shade the portals through which the brook enters the glen at the foot of the pasture, for the path here enters you into a world of witchery where the glamour of the place will hold you long of a summer afternoon.
At the foot of the glen an ancient mill-dam once blocked the free passage of the water and a mill-wheel vexed its current. Now only the rude embankment remains with half-century old hickories and maples growing on it, arching in and shading the glen with their imbricated branches. No rust of millwheel, no trace of building remains, and the very tradition of the mill and its owners is gone. No one to-day knows whether it ground corn or sawed boards for the pioneer who built it, who laid the sill of its dam so firm and level that the wear of two centuries of swift water has not entirely obliterated it. At the very bottom of the glen it forms a shallow pool where brook magic and witch-hazel glamour shall show you many midsummer fantasies if you will but look for them.
It was in the glen that I found the first real relief from the heat of midday. The grasses of the sun-parched pasture had crisped under foot and broken off, so dry were they, all the way down to the sweet-flag meadow. Here the brook water keeps all growing things lush and green, but the glare of the sun is only the more intense. It follows you into the alder swamp, and you may sit under the arching fronds of the ostrich-plume ferns in vain.
But after you have scrambled through them and ducked under the mock benediction of the witch-hazel limbs that stretch above your head while the witch-hazel faces grin a cynical “Bless you, my child,” you feel that you are willing to take your chances with swamp witchery and brook magic. For in the glen cool waters crisp over cold stones and the breeze sighs up stream and fans you as you sit on the brink of the pool and lean your head against the ledge from whose crannies drip the fairy fronds of the rock fern.
These are but little fellows of our fern world, and the magic which distills from their fern seed is no doubt less potent than that from greater ferns, but added to the witch-hazel glamour it makes brook magic which will initiate you into many mysteries of the pasture world if you are but patient. Sitting there with the tiny brown spores of the rock fern dripping upon your shoulders with infinitesimal rattle, you seem to see more clearly the glen life and to know the meaning of many sounds hitherto only half understood.
Always there is the sleepy song which the brook sings to itself in summer, -- a song to which the warble of the vireo in the overhead leafage adds but a dreamy staccato. But if you listen through this you shall presently hear the water goblins grumbling to themselves in their abodes under flat stones. They are old and grumpy, these water goblins, and they never cease to mumble to themselves about their troubles.
Very likely they complain incessantly because they are hungry and the supply of demoiselle nymphs is running short. There are plenty of demoiselles, flitting back and forth across the pools on glittering black wings, which they fold closely to their iridescent green bodies when they light. They are such ladylike dragon-flies that it is no wonder that the name “demoiselle,” which French scientists with admirable gallantry have given them, has stuck. With all their ladylike short and modest flights and the saintly way in which they fold their wings when they light on some leaf beside the pool, a folding as of hands in prayer, the demoiselles are dragon-flies, and each prayer may well be for the soul of some midge or other wee insect captured in the short flight.
The true dragon-fly -- the one which rests with wings widespread -- hunts like a hawk, but the demoiselles seem to take their prey with a gentle grace and charm of manner which ought to make the midge's last moments his happiest ones. I always suspect them of folding him in a perfumed napkin and eating him with salad dressing and a spoon after they get back to their boudoir, but I cannot prove this any more than I can that it is really a water goblin that grumbles under the flat stone.
Many a time I have turned the stones over suddenly, but I never yet was quick enough to surprise the goblin. I have found him there, mind you, but never in his true shape. Always he has managed to transform himself into something different, -- perhaps into a spotted turtle or a grouchy horn-pout. I have even known him to turn into an ugly, many-legged hellgrammite worm, not having time to make the more reputable transformation. It is hard to catch a grumbling goblin asleep, especially in a pool below the witch-hazels, where the brook magic is strong.
It is easier to see the demoiselle nymphs. They are not very beautiful or seemingly very savory; and if the water goblins do eat them it is no wonder they grumble. You may have seen a hawk-like dragon-fly skimming about over an open pool dip in swallow fashion to the surface. These sudden and repeated dips are not for a bath -- nor yet for a drink. What you see is a female dragon-fly laying eggs which shall later hatch and become under-water nymphs, the larvae of the dragon-fly. But the demoiselles, still rightly named, do nothing so brazen as that. Instead, they pick out some nodding water weed, fold their wings a little more tightly to their iridescent bodies and crawl down it into the water. Here, in proper seclusion beneath the surface, they pierce the reed's stem with keen ovipositor and lay their eggs. Then they saunter forth again and discreetly eat more midges with salad dressing and a spoon.
If you look closely among the water weeds in the transparent water at the pool margin you may see the demoiselle nymphs crawling about, breathing through feathers in their tails, and scooping up food with a big shovel which sticks out under their chins. They show little traces of their coming beauty. It is the awkward age of the demoiselle, and I fancy each is right glad to do up the hair, get into long black skirts with iridescent green bodices, and join the afternoon tea flitters.
What the magic is in the brook, whereby these strange, awkward, crawling creatures, living beneath the water, some day crawl up the stem of a water weed, burst, stretch their wings and fly away the saintly and demure demoiselles of the pool, I do not know -- whether it be distilled from the witch-hazel by the summer sun, or whether it slips more mysteriously from beneath the breastplate of the spore of the polypody growing just above my head in the rock crevice. It must be the same magic whereby the many-legged, crawling hellgrammite worm, after living that sort of life sometimes for several years, one day crawls ashore, goes to sleep beneath a stone, and in another month wakes up and finds himself a Corydalis comuta, a three-inch-long bug with extraordinary wings and great horns, -- a bug that might well make one of those witches, met face to face on the moon's disk, shriek and fall off' her broomstick. If he can be that thing, changed from a hellgrammite worm, why can he not be a hellgrammite worm, changed from the water goblin which you can hear grumbling beneath the flat stone at the entrance to the pool beneath the witch-hazels?
The answer is to be found neither in the rhyme of the poet nor in the reason of the scientific man.
Musing on these things I suddenly sat up from my quiet seat beneath the rock ferns, for more magic yet was being displayed before my eyes. Over on the further side, in the shallow eddy, the pool was troubled a second, then there rose from it a wee sunfish, not more than three inches long, rose from it tail first and began balancing across the pool surface toward me, on his head. His tail quivered in the air, and I could see his freckles growing in the yellow transparency of his skin, yet, though I watched with wide eyes, he was two-thirds the way across the pool toward me before I noticed beneath him the tip of the nose and the wicked little dark eye of a water snake. At sight of him the demoiselles should have shrieked and flown away, but they made no move. I, however, indignant, arose, and seizing broken fragments of rock was about to lacerate him and loose his prey when I quite suddenly thought better of it. Had not I a few days before come down stream to the deep pool above and carried off a string of perch, sunfish, pouts, and an eel? Had not the water snake also a right to his dinner?
I dropped my rock fragments, but there was no longer pleasure in waiting to woo the demure coquetry of the demoiselles. The serpent had entered Eden and the man was driven forth. I lingered only long enough to see the grace and strength of the snake as he glided over the sill of the old dam, now black and sinuous, now giving me a glimpse of the vivid red of the under parts of his body, but always keeping his grip secure on the little sunfish whom he was taking away to luncheon with him.
I climbed out of the glen; glad to go for once, but at the top of the rock where the sunburnt pasture path begins again I was in for another shudder, for here the dragon had entered fairyland. He came, writhing his horrid length along the path, his scales shining in the sun, his great mouth gaping, and up near his abnormally great head two little impotent forelegs wriggling. Who wouldn't turn and run before such a creature as this? To be sure he was scarce three feet long, and his curiously mottled-brown back was that of the common adder, one of our harmless snakes, though he looks ugly enough to be stuffed with venom. But this great gaping head and the wriggling forelegs; never did flat-head adder have such a front as this!
My compassion for snakes that had a right to their dinner vanished before this creature. It is different when it seems as if you might be the dinner. Those forelegs beckoned, and how could I tell but, in this land of witch-hazel, fern seed, and brook magic, I might not shrink sufficiently to be taken in by that huge mouth in that misapplied head? Death were better, -- that is, death for the dragon, -- and I caught tip a jagged piece of the top of the glen and hurled it at him. It struck the beast fair amidships. The dragon whirled and writhed for a second or two and lay motionless, and behold! the head separated from the body and began to limp away. Then first was the spell broken and I saw clearly. It was simply a flat-head adder that had taken a good-sized garden toad for his dinner, had swallowed him whole as far as the forelegs, but failed to engulf these. It was the combination which made the dragon.
Somehow I haven't cared for the glen since. The early glamour of brook magic is pleasant, but I fear that, like the hasheesh of the Orient, its end is very bad dreams.
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