Below is my first entry in the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. See the original post here. The theme this year is folklore, and I’m very excited about that! I have decided to concentrate on the folklore of the Appalachian Mountains. My husband Doug then agreed to co-write with me, so this is a great project for us this year. We’ve decided to combine our names when we write together, so our pen name will be Bonnie Douglas. Below is a tale called “Will O’ The Wisps,” which combines Irish and Scottish folklore with Smoky Mountain legends from the U.S. Even though it’s Feb 1st, this is my January entry. I think that’s close enough.
WILL O’ THE WISPS
by Bonnie Douglas
I flipped through the notebook, fascinated. When I came to Granny’s Smoky Mountain cabin to pack up her possessions, I had hoped to find some history, and I did. I went through boxes of family pictures, newspapers dating back to the 1930s, and letters between Granny and Gramps when he was in World War II. But this notebook—simply laying in a drawer on her night table—was the most fascinating of all. Every inch of this old composition book was filled with notes, memories, recipes, and sketches.
I was interested in some of the remedies, using plants that grew right here on the land. Granny had sketched the plants in detail, and I knew I would go out looking for them. One page particularly fascinated me. She had used color—the only page in the book to do so. Bright fuzzy creatures—or were they lights—dotted the sky. Were they lightning bugs? At first I thought so, but the lettering underneath seemed to contradict that. In bold capitalization were the words DON’T FOLLOW THE WILL O’ WISPS!
Scoffing slightly, I chucked the notebook onto the “keep” pile. Granny had always been a bit “loopy,” and it got a lot worse after Gramps failed to come home from a day hike in the National Park just down the road. He was never found despite many searches by loved ones and the police.
Granny kept going, and would always tell me tales as we sat on the porch snapping beans for supper and for canning later. She definitely had the gift of gab. Her tales of the Wampus Cat and Mothman were usually enough to keep me out of the woods at night when I was a child, camping out in the yard. Even as a teenager I was hesitant to get too far out of sight of the house at night. I just chalked it up to my “city” upbringing, giving no credit to Granny’s stories or the chills that chased up and down my back at the sight of the bobbing lights in the thickly wooded hills.
Walking out of the bedroom, I called my fat little dachshund Daisy from her snuffling around the empty canning closet. “There’s nothing in there, you goofball! Come on we’ll go outside for a walk!”
Daisy knew that walks equaled treats, and charged out of the dusty closet, heading out the rickety doggie door and bounding down the old ramp that Gramps and I had built as fast her short legs could carry her. Gramps had always kept dogs, and while they had the run of the land all day, he was always careful to make sure they were safe at home well before nightfall in their pen up against the edge of the woods.
“You never know what them fool dogs will chase up, especially at night,” He always told me.
I knew he had had a soft spot for his pack of rowdy hounds, and I felt the same for my little city-dwelling dachshund. I knew she would be poorly suited to roaming these hills and hollers, as would I after so much time away. I had spent every summer here with my grandparents, my folks insisting it would be good for me to be here with all the relatives we never saw outside of this little mountain enclave. Summers were full of hunting bugs, lizards, turtles, and snakes, and chasing around the small garden plots with my cousins and whatever pack of strays Gramps had collected from the side of the road or other farmers.
The only time I ever saw Gramps lose his temper is when, on a “triple dog dare” from one of my cousins, I snuck out of the tent where we were “camping” in the front yard. I smiled as I thought back to that night. I had headed up to the small waterfall on the spring-fed branch that trickled by the house to fill up our canteen with “moon water” for some secret my cousins were giggling about.
“Bunch of crap, if you ask me.” My ten-year-old self had thrilled at the illicit, forbidden profanity, although I heard Granny use it a hundred times a day. I crept stealthily up the hill and had barely reached Gramps’ dog pen when the dogs, woken by my not as stealthy as I thought approach, raised a chorus of barks, yips, and howls that I knew would bring Gramps running. He investigated every creak, bark, or unexpected noise regardless of how deep into the night it was.
“Shush, you stupid mutts!” I had hissed as I hurried past the pen onto the well-worn path up to the waterfall. My little pocket flashlight flickered dimly, but the water of the branch seemed to glow in the moonlight as I stumbled across roots and rocks with the canteen clanking by my side.
I was less than ten yards onto the path when my light flickered and died. Sucking in a shivering breath, I pounded the cheap plastic flashlight against my leg, willing it to flicker back to life without success. Standing in the dark with chills chasing up and down my spine, I gave myself a little pep talk. “C’mon Carl, don’t be a baby! You know Granny just tells you those stories to keep you out of trouble.”
With my spine a little firmer, I had pressed on slowly up the suddenly unfamiliar path. “Everything sure looks different in the dark,” I muttered as I stumbled, tripping over another root. The trees seemed to edge in closer to the path. As my eyes adjusted, I could see what looked like big fireflies skimming around the trees, all through the woods. “Man, I’d sure like to catch one of those!” I thought as I turned off from beside the dimly glimmering branch and began to head up the steep hillside.
Faintly behind me, I heard my name called “Carl!”
Ignoring it I pressed forward, grabbing handfuls of roots to pull myself up the hillside.
“Carl!” echoed again up the hills, faintly as if something were smothering the sound.
Looking back over my shoulder I could see a bright stream of light shooting back and forth over the path I had abandoned.
“CARL!” This time the sound of my name shook me as if from a dream. I had heard my Gramps yell my name a million different ways but never with a sound like the fear I heard resonate in his call up the dark holler. Slithering down the muddy bank, I tried to shout back.
“Gramps” came out, barely a whisper. As I slid further down the bank, the trees seemed to move to hide me from the beam of light Gramps was swinging wildly around.
“CARL!” I heard more clearly as I struggled to stand up against a ropy mass of sticker thorns wrapped around my legs. Where had that come from? I didn’t remember passing through them on the way up. The thorns bit deeply into my flesh, and even through my blue jeans. They dug deep enough to draw a stream of blood and stain deeply into the tops of my white socks. Wrestling my way free, I finally managed to draw a breath and shout, “GRAMPS!”
Gramps’ flashlight picked me out of the shadowing trees, like a spotlight finding an escaped convict. Rushing through the woods, Gramps charged towards me, his bright light never leaving me. “Carl, don’t move! Stay still until I get there!”
After Gramps reached me, he had clucked softly as he carefully pulled the thorns from my legs. I gasped after each one but refused to cry. As soon as he was sure I was okay, he gave me an earful and a couple of wallops as he led me down the trail and back towards the house, my camping adventure over. “Moon water!” he scoffed. “Whoever heard of such a thing? Your cousins have been pulling your leg. Remember when they told you to go pet that hen that was walking with her chicks? What happened then?” They like a good joke, your cousins.”
Back in the present, I grinned as I remembered that old hen flying at my face. My cousins knew I wasn’t used to the country and never could resist poking fun. There may not have been such a thing as moon water, but it made a good memory. My mind flew back to the giant lightning bugs. I had never seen them such a size before or since. Were they lightning bugs? I didn’t ponder long before deciding to head in the same direction again. Why not head towards the “moon water?” Maybe I would see the lights again.
It was growing darker, but I had my flashlight with me. I also had Daisy, though, so I knew her short legs would only take her so far. I headed towards the waterfall, making sure to pay attention and look for thorns. I walked as carefully as I could while scanning the sky. There was no more dog pen and, sadly, no more Gramps. The night was deathly quiet save the chirping of crickets and the occasional tree frog. I remembered the lights I had seen that day and was more and more convinced that they were not lightning bugs. The colors had ranged from yellow to pink to green and blue, and they were larger, much larger, than the normal firefly. As I plodded along, I could hear the waterfall in the distance, but could see nothing unusual. The path was growing fainter, Daisy was slowing down, and I considered turning back. Whatever the lights had been, they probably didn’t exist anymore.
My tiny dachshund began to growl softly. She was a couch potato whose belly sometimes dragged the ground, but now she was on alert, woofing softly. “What do you hear, girl?” I asked, bending down to pet her. Instead of settling down, she darted forward, and with a speed I didn’t know she possessed, began to run up the hill. “Daisy!” I yelled, frantically trying to catch up with her. She would be no match for a coyote if there was one about. Her stout little body disappeared in the woods, but I ran after her, calling her name.
Suddenly a light appeared by the corner of my eye. Green in color, it was about ten times the size of a firefly. It flitted away and up the hill. Another light, pink this time, came from the opposite direction, zig-zagging through the sky before it disappeared. Several blue lights followed. Although I was fascinated, I was determined to find Daisy before I investigated this further. To my horror, I began to hear yelping at the top of the hill. Armed with only a walking stick, I rushed towards the sound, determined to fight off any predators who had hurt my dog.
The yelping stilled. I reached the top of the hill, sick at what I might find. I saw nothing at first, then a glowing light in the distance. Were there people up here? I ran towards the light, calling Daisy’s name.
I pulled up short when I saw her, tail wagging, but standing in the middle of what looked like a circle of mushrooms. They were no ordinary mushrooms, as they were all glowing brightly white. Darting back and forth over Daisy and the mushrooms were the mysterious, brilliantly colored lights. As I walked forward, I could see they were definitely not bugs. Their little faces were surrounded by waves of hair, and their thin bodies were held up by gossamer wings. They looked like beautiful little angels. I stood, transfixed, amazed at what I was seeing.
I found my voice, and croaked out “Daisy..” She turned towards me, tail still wagging, but didn’t move. Then I heard a tiny musical voice in my ear. One of the creatures—was it a fairy, a sprite, or something else—was speaking to me!
“Daisy has entered our fairy circle,” the voice said. The tiny form flew around my head. She had an abundance of red hair and green eyes in a pixie face. “She cannot leave without answering our riddle.”
“Riddle…” I stammered. “Who..what..who are you…?”
“Some might call us fairies, or sprites. The old woman who lived in the house below called us Will O’ Wisps,” she almost sang in her high, musical voice.
“That was my Granny,” I whispered.
“You are kin to Dorothy?” the tiny creature sang. “She is a noble woman.”
“She was,” I sighed, “But she’s gone now. Passed away.”
A tiny laugh sounded from the creature, somehow a blend of soft music and rushing water. “Nobody is ever really gone.”
Eyes narrowed against the sudden brightness of the wildly flickering creatures, I started towards Daisy, intending to grab her and run as far and as fast as I could back to the safety of the house. Before I could take more than half a step, the creature zoomed into my face, her gentle demeanor gone.
“Naughty, naughty,” she chirped, shaking a tiny finger in my face. “None may leave our circle without answering our riddle.”
Resisting the urge to swat the creature out of the air, I looked around the circle. There didn’t appear to be an opening anywhere, although I knew I had just walked into it. “Well, you can’t really expect a little dog to know the answer to any riddles. She’s just a dog after all.”
With a tinkling chuckle ,the creature zoomed in a loop, winding up right back in my face. “You’d be surprised what a little dog knows, although you may be correct. This one has a head full of fluff and speaks only of treats and warm beds.”
Zooming off to hover over my Daisy like a light bulb, the creature continued, “Of course we may be able to make a deal for the both of you. If you can answer three of our riddles we will allow you and your small friend to leave our circle unharmed.”
Pulling myself up straight with shock, I sputtered, “Well, that’s hardly fair! Three riddles in exchange for the two of us!” Laughing derisively, the fairy zoomed back into my face.
“Fair or not, that’s the bargain! It’s always been known to all who dwell here that man or beast, flower or tree, all that enter may not leave, unless we cede.”
Looking down at my happily wagging dachshund, I began to question not only my sanity but my commitment to Daisy. Sinking to the ground that was softly carpeted with springy moss, I sat cross-legged, put my head in my hands, and sighed, closing my eyes. My mind was whirling. I knew it had to be real, but what in the world had I stumbled into?
I muttered to myself, “I should have listened to Granny.” I suddenly felt a warm breeze and a scent I hadn’t smelled in too long. It was that smell of cut grass, wood smoke, and peppermint that seemed to follow Gramps wherever he went. Looking around I couldn’t see anything remotely human, but I swore I could almost feel his presence.
“Gramps? Are you here? How can you be here? You disappeared!” I croaked, scrambling awkwardly to my feet.
Whirling around wildly, the lights of the wisps pulsated, almost strobing in their intensity.
“Quiet you be! No help from thee!” shrieked the pixie. “We caught you fair!”
From the corner of my eye, I caught a faint glimmer and saw the shape of a man. Turning slowly so as not to lose sight of the faint image, my heart thudding, I whispered “Gramps?”
The shadow glimmered and strengthened slowly and I could hear his voice, barely a whisper. “It’s me, Boy. Trapped by those damned pixies.”
The flickering shadow approached and I could feel Gramps’ presence, and smell that scent I missed so badly. “Don’t trust them, Boy, they cheat,” he said, his voice harsh and hopeless. “Granny tried for years to bargain and riddle for me but never could wheedle me out of their clutches. The best she could do was get me here, close to home.”
Tears sprang to my eyes as I pictured my Granny, crouching outside this portal to who knows where, trying to free her beloved. “Gramps, I’m trapped now too! I’ve got no choice but to try.”
“Do your best Boy, I’ll do what I can to help but I’m almost gone now that Granny isn’t around to lend me her strength.
I squared my shoulders and puffed out a shuddering sigh. “Alright pixies, it’s a deal. Three riddles for me and mine.”
The lights whirled wilder and brighter, and a shriek filled the air, loud enough to make me cringe, and drawing a wild “Ark!” from a trembling Daisy.
“The bargain is made!” the fiery sprite danced in front of me. “Prepare yourself and let us see if you are smart as your Granny be!”
Smiling to myself, I knew I had this won. I had sat at the knee of some of the greatest riddlers and storytellers that the mountains ever made. Granny and all her kin had a way with words that made me wonder sometimes, and while I didn’t have that gift I did have a good memory. I could recall every riddle or story Granny and all my aunts and uncles had ever shared.
“Let’s do this then, pixie! I need to get home.”
The pixie flittered into my face again, causing me to flinch slightly “Proud you are and humbled you’ll be if can’t answer our riddles three.”
Rolling my eyes slightly at her penchant for rhyming, I sighed, “Let’s begin.”
The pixie swarm whirled faster and shot straight up into the air, and with a flash shining words appeared in the night sky. Squinting slightly against the brightness, I read,
Very thin, she grows each night
Many sailors seek her light
She lures them in with glowing face
But then is gone without a trace
A smile spread across my face as I answered, “The moon, of course.”
Again there was a whirl of fire and a shriek, and a spear of fire struck out and hit a nearby toadstool, instantly igniting it.
I heard a whisper from Gramps’ slowly wavering form, “Well done, Boy!”
“Thanks, Gramps!” I whispered back. Not wanting to draw this contest out any further than was necessary I drew another breath and, addressing the Pixie leader, said “Let’s go.”
The pixies swarmed and whirled again and with a brighter flash another riddle appeared in glowing letters hovering in the middle of the circle,
I come out every night without being fetched
I show you the way without a map
I am in motion without even moving
By day I am lost without being stolen
I smiled again, as this was almost too easy. “The Stars,” I said, a note of triumph evident in my voice.
The whirl of fire, a shriek, and another burning toadstool lit the ring around me with its glittering light.
“One more riddle and we’re done here, pixies! Let’s finish this!” I said, trembling despite myself.
Gramps’ shade drew closer, and I heard his thin whisper in my ear “Careful Boy, they are as proud as they are tricky. They’ll do their best to find a way to keep you here, don’t doubt.”
“Mind your manners, man child!” the pixie leader shouted, flitting into my face again. “We’ve kept your elder here, and not even your noble Dorothy could wheedle him free. One last riddle for you and yours, and then we shall see!”
The Pixies whirled even faster and higher than before, the flash of light an intense red so bright I was almost blinded. Spots swam in front of my eyes. I could feel Daisy huddled against my ankle, trembling. Reaching down, I grabbed her firmly, in anticipation of our walk to freedom. Blinking my eyes to clear the spots, I could see a fiery scrawl shimmering in the center of the circle,
My heart opens the door to a tree
When I reach the ground the answer you’ll see
Though it sounds absurd
I can fly like a bird
I could feel the answer tickling my brain, but it seemed just out of reach. Sweat breaking on my brow, I wracked my brain. I couldn’t recall ever hearing anything about doors or trees.
The Pixie leader swooped in close again, eying me angrily. “The answer and be quick! Time grows short.”
Sputtering and clutching Daisy even tighter, I closed my eyes. Suddenly I felt a calm wash over me, and like in a movie, I saw the maple seeds floating down from the tree that Granny had planted in front of the house when I was a child. That tree shaded the house and played host to many a squirrel and woodpecker, not to mention kids climbing into the waving branches.
Opening my eyes and looking around the circle I could see Gramps’ wavering shadow glimmering a bit brighter.
With a smile, I knew the answer and who had provided it. “A key!” I said, “A maple seed!”
The pixies swarmed around me angrily, plucking at my clothes and skin, and raising welts along my face and arms. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” they chanted gleefully. “There is only one answer, not two! You belong to us now, all three!”
I swatted them away and glared at the leader. “It was one answer and you know it. A maple seed is called a key! Let us go!”
She crossed her arms, fluttering in the air and not responding.
“If there are rules for this circle, let us go!” I demanded. “We broke the rules by entering the circle. You are breaking the rules by ignoring my correct answer. If there are consequences for breaking rules, then you must have to pay them too!”
She shook her tiny red mane, sparks flying off of her. “You offered two answers, not one. Your answer be wrong.”
“You lie,” I shouted. “If you don’t need to follow the rules, neither do I.” I grabbed Daisy and tried to move, but to no avail.
“The spell should be broken,” whispered Gramps. “You answered correctly. She’s doing something else to keep you here. I believe you broke the magic of the circle, at least for yourself.”
A whoosh sounded overhead, and a dark shadow swept by me. I looked around, confused.
“Let him GOOOO…”, a ghostly voice sounded. The voice was across from me now, and above. I looked slightly up and saw a brown owl, illuminated in the moonlight, with glowing eyes fixed on the pixie. I have no idea how I could understand him and figured it came from the magic of the fairy circle.
“Away with ye!,” she snapped, flying into his face.
“Release him now,” the owl ordered.
“Why should I?”
“You told a lie, Darenda, and insulted the Great Maple. This man’s answer was correct. The Maple knows her children are called by many names, and one of them is “key.” As you know, I live in her branches and do her bidding. She sent me to warn you.”
I wondered what a maple tree could do to this magical being, but I saw fear flash in the leader’s eyes. Apparently, she was called Darenda.
The owl hopped a bit on the branch. “Let him go or she will not release her elixir to you.”
The other pixies started flying about in alarm, their lights flashing. I did not know why this was such a threat. Was maple sap their main source of food, or of their magic?
I looked directly at the owl. “I had no idea the trees were listening.”
“The trees were here before us and will be here after we are gone. They know and hear many things. And the Great Maple feeds and shelters the creatures of the forest.” Again the owl directed his gaze at Darenda. “You know the penalty you must pay now. What is your decision?”
Darenda sulked, and sparks of green light began to sputter out of her thin form. She glared at me. “You and Daisy may go, but don’t come into our circle again.” A flash of red light burst forth, and a third mushroom ignited.
If owls could nod, this one did, and he flew away, presumably back to his leafy home.
I stepped out of the circle and turned back to Darenda. “What about Gramps!” I demanded.
Her green eyes blazed. “He owes a debt much greater than a riddle. He owes me a life.”
I turned to my grandfather’s shadowy figure. “A life?” What does she mean?” I asked.
If his gray form could turn grayer, it did. He slumped toward the ground, and I felt his sadness. He whimpered softly, and began his story.
“Many years ago, before you were born, I was walking in these woods. Granny and I had lived here a long time, and I knew these mountains well. I had no fears here, and no trouble walking around at night. As I was walking, I saw a light. It was green and dancing around in the air. It was much too big to be an insect. As I watched it, another one, blue, came in and hovered in the air above me. I did not know what could cause such a light. I’d heard stories of unexplained lights at Brown Mountain, but that’s over two hours away. I saw no cars or machinery that could cause these lights.”
“So it was them,” I said, gesturing at the horde of listening fairies.
Gramps nodded and continued. “Wanting to explore further, I picked up a branch and took a soft swing at it. I felt it catch something. It was then I realized it wasn’t just a light. The blue light flew into a bank, fell to the ground, and went out. I ran to it and found the form of a tiny woman, beautiful as can be. And she wasn’t moving. The air started to fill with brilliant colors, and then this one—he pointed at Darenda—started screaming that I killed her sister.
“That you did!” Darenda responded in a sob.
Gramps was sobbing too, but kept speaking. “I ran. There was no circle to keep me there. I didn’t know of fairy circles then. But they followed me, and that’s how Gran met them. She learned of my crime. I had killed a living thing—one of their sisters—Sapphire. They wanted justice and demanded my life.
“That is a fair return,” hissed Darenda, before Gramps continued.
“Gran insisted it was an accident, but they wanted payment. She bargained for years, with berries and concoctions she made from plants that grew all around. She battled them with riddles, too. Riddles that she taught you. All those years you visited us in the summer, she was bargaining for me. That’s why I kept a close eye on where you and your cousins went at night. But one day they trapped me in their circle. They can create them anywhere, and they tricked me into it. Gran eventually found me, answered their riddles, and bought me time, but they wanted a life. And mine was fading.”
Gramps gestured his skeletal arms. “Eventually Gran had to say I disappeared because so little remained. She came to this circle every day, begging for my freedom. But it was never granted.” When she stopped coming I knew she had passed. He sighed as only a shadow can, and I felt his gloom. “I won’t let you spend your life trying to get me released. Take Daisy and go.”
I hesitated, then picked Daisy up. “I’m going to take Daisy to the house, and then I’m coming back.” He nodded sadly, and I wondered why he didn’t object. “Will the circle still be here when I return?”
Darenda laughed. “The circle is wherever we want it to be.”
“Well, then I can’t leave. I can’t let my Gramps die.”
“Nobody’s ever really gone,” a soft and very familiar voice sounded behind me. I whirled around, startled, and began to tear up. I would never forget that voice.
“Gran!” She was younger than I ever knew her, and she glowed with a light that I could feel as well as see. I felt an immense peace pass over me. I knew she had died, but this was no ghost. She was more alive than ever.
“Dorothy!” Gramps’ voice was stronger than ever before, but he remained a shadow. “Oh how I’ve missed you, but why are you here? Nobody can save me.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. It’s time for you to come home.”
Darenda flew forward, emitting red sparks of rage. “He can’t go anywhere! He owes us a life.”
“His life on earth is over.” Gran did not appear angry as she looked at the furious sprite. “ Your debt is paid.”
Gran reached out a hand, and a thin, shadowy limb grasped hers. As she pulled him out of the circle, he transformed slowly, and the skeletal figure gradually became a much younger version of the Gramps I knew. Soon he was glowing, radiating happiness.
I looked at Darenda. Emerald tears were running down her face. “What about my sister!”
“She flies happily in a place with more magic than you can ever dream, and she is at a peace you don’t yet understand. Now you go.” Gran pointed at her. “Your power over my family is at an end.”
Darenda shot up into the air, followed by her brilliantly colored horde of sisters. She hovered there for a moment, and then called out, “The debt is paid!” They gathered above me in a circle of glorious color, then flew off like a flock of vibrant birds.
“Always be on the lookout for them, Carl. They could come back at any time.” And don’t let your dog or children run free during the night.”
Gran and Gramps smiled. “Have a beautiful life, Carl. We will see you soon, and will never be far away.”
As they walked away, I heard Gran’s voice softly in my ear “Tell them the story of the Will O’ Wisps,”
As I bid them farewell, I knew I was never leaving this place. I watched their lights fade into the mist, my heart bursting with happiness.
With Daisy beside me, I headed back to the cabin to unpack.
We combined fairies, pixies, will ‘o wisps, and sprites into one creature. We also added in the North Carolina legend of the Brown Mountain Lights. You can read more about the Brown Mountain Lights here. My uncle told us many stories of the wampus cat, so he is mentioned here as well. While researching, we found a legend that said the “owl guards the maple tree,” so the owl made an appearance here.
© Bonnie DeMoss