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Burned House

An itinerant musician tends to keep odd hours and make strange friends. In my teens and early twenties, I used to play in backwater coffeehouses around suburban and rural Massachusetts. I lived in the historic town of Sudbury only a brisk walk from Longfellow's Wayside Inn and a Grist Mill, schoolhouse, and chapel of the same vintage. Just over the line in Marlboro was an old fashioned country store that catered to the tourist trade generated by these sites. My friend Lee Swanson was the proprieter.

Lee was also a collector and purveyer of antiques. His private collection (like his private life) tended to center on the occult. Lee was something of a scholar of local history as well. It was he, for instance, who told me that an ancient tree that I discovered in the woods had once been the object of considerable spiritual significance to the local Indians in colonial times.

The tree was alive, but just barely. Standing in the center of a large circular clearing near the crest of a small hill, it had been supported with cables and its immense cavities filled with cement, but no effort will keep a tree whole beyond a certain point, and that point had been reached many years ago. It had made me sad to see the tree in such a state. I had a feeling that much else had perished along with this ancient thing: generations of people whose lives did not include intruders from across the big wateers; their ways, practices, beliefs.

So it was the Lee and I made a nocturnal pilgrimage to the tree. The night was moonless, but we carried no torches. Lee is one of the few people I know who see as well as I do at night and has no fear the woods at night. We went on foot as was fitting.

What had been a place of sorrow by day became a site of power by night. The very air tingled even when still, and when it moved, it danced and sang as if in an ancient ritual. We both stood very still, awed by the majesty of the tree by starlight.

Our spirits soared as we headed back to the store for tea and talk. Lee told me a story of a stagecoach that had disappeared on the road we took back at the beginning of the eighteenth century along with its goods and passengers, never to be seen again. As he spoke, I saw dim lights through the trees and when I turned to look closer, I could make out the outline of windows in the distance lit only by a flickery light, probably from a fireplace, I supposed. I thought it odd that no lights were on, and commented on it to Lee.

He looked at me with astonishment. "You can really see that?" he asked. The next week he showed me what remained of the foundation of the house that had stood there but had burned to the ground in the aftermath of an Indian massacre.
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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