by Lilly Tupa
And so we begin...
Dr. Shaw was used to this, but it didn’t dissuade him from attempting to enlighten his students anyway. His class was a senior elective, taken by a wide variety of students, ranging from generals looking for that extra credit to graduate, to AP kids, trying to pad out their GPAs. No matter the type of student, there were few who actually ever showed interest in what he taught.
The current year’s class fit with the trend for the most part, save the few cursory outliers. Verne and Faye Bunk were the two most glaring outliers he had ever had the pleasure to teach. They not only had as close to a perfect grade as Shaw made possible, but they went out of their way to participate in class. They lent him interesting volumes from their home library, emailed him relevant articles to topics they were learning about, and even regularly corrected him in class. He absolutely adored them.
Other teachers in his department and most in the remaining departments failed to share his same admiration of them. They found the Bunk twins unsettling, and would voice this opinion in the work room whenever the chance arose. It is possibly this very fact which led to his inclination towards them. Shaw was never one to lean toward the ordinary.
From what little gossip Dr. Shaw did listen to, he gathered that it wasn’t the Bunk twins together which was off-putting, but instead only Faye when she was alone. Verne was a golden boy around the school, Faye was not so adored. When she was with her brother, Faye was humorous, intelligent, amiable even. When Faye was without Verne it seemed as though she was an entirely different person. On her best solitary days she held a generally uninviting aura around her. On her worst she lashed out towards students and even threatened violence towards staff. Somehow this was when Dr. Shaw found her most endearing.
This morning was one in which the Bunk twins were indeed separated, but the missing link wasn’t Verne. He was present in class, eagerly writing down each word about poets that came out of Shaw’s mouth. It was Faye who was absent from her seat next to the window. Seeing one without the other was always unnerving, though seeing Verne alone was more so. At least when it was just Faye one could be aware of whatever terrible thing it was that she was doing.
“Uh, Dr. Shaw?” He was brought out of his train of thought by a student. “Could you repeat that please? What you said about Frost’s poem?” The asker was none other than Verne Bunk. Not surprised in the least, Dr. Shaw obliged his request.
“As I have said a moments ago, Robert Frost was from California, San Francisco actually, but arguably his most famous work is not thought to have been set here. The Road Not Taken was started while Frost was staying in England with his family. Though the poem holds no canonical setting, and is often praised for this universal feeling, it is thought that he may have had the Gloucestershire Wilds in mind while writing it.” He looked at the clock only to note that he had gone on about poets for far too long.
“Alright, enough about Frost for one day. Fortunately for some of you we start a new unit today. By the way I will have your tests on early Bellemere politicians completely graded and in the gradebook on Thursday. If only all of you did as well as Verne did on it, then it would take me less time to do so.” Verne turned bright red and pushed himself back in his seat to avoid the stares of his classmates. Shaw took great amusement in this. “Today we start a favorite of mine, local lore and mythos.” Students were always entranced with the promise of the supernatural. Nearly all residents within 50 miles had heard of the strange happenings of Bellemere. Chances were each student in the room had their own stories of things going bump in the night.
Sure enough, as soon as Shaw paused a slew of hands flew up into the air, though they were only a courtesy. No one waited to be called on and a slowly rising cacophony of questions rang through the air.
“Will we talk about the Gilded Wood?”
“What about the Elderidge?”
“Did you see the news about the missing tourist from last year?”
“Last night I swear there was an Elderidge outside my window!” Dr. Shaw let the voices overlap each other until the students had seemingly had their fill.
“Alright, alright, settle down. This unit is consistently a favorite of students of mine so I understand your excitement. Tell me, by show of hands, how many of you have heard the tale of the Gilded Wood?” Every hand shot back up and Shaw nodded, reciting the verse that children had been told to spook them at bedtime for generations. “Many fear to enter/ The fabled Gilded Wood/ For few seem to exit/ Where one truly should,” Students across the room could be seen mouthing along with their teacher.
“Now, sure you’ve all heard the first stanza, but how many of you have heard the full poem?” Hands slowly fell as confused faces washed over them all. Soon only two remained. Unsurprisingly Verne’s hand stayed up, but so did that of Korella Yashar, another of Shaw’s, and Bellemere’s, top students. A rare case of a student who quite genuinely loved to learn. Korella was seldom seen without a book under her arm and a pencil tucked gently into her hijab. Shaw looked at her with a new appreciation. He had expected Verne to be familiar with the full work, but few of his pupils over the years had even known more existed.
“Korella, would you mind?” She looked up at him from her copiously scribbled in notebook. She then gave him a grim look and nodded.
“Many fear to enter/ The fabled Gilded Wood/ For few seem to exit/ Where one truly should./ The trees are always watching/ They never shut their eyes/ Remember this while running/ There is nowhere you can hide./ The greatest threat to man/ Is the one they cannot see/ The Elderidge will ask you for your life/ And take your soul for free.” A hush fell over the room. The only audible sound being the ever-present whir of the air conditioning, running even in late April.
“I’m sorry sir, that’s not the verse,” Korella’s gaze snapped to Verne, who spoke from three seats away. Dr. Shaw’s eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Please, Verne, be my guest then, and enlighten us on the actual ending,” Shaw said to him.
Verne repeated the first part of the verse as Korella did, but his version differed greatly to her’s. “Many fear to enter/ the fabled Gilded Wood/ where few seem to exit/ where one truly should./ The trees are always blooming/ They never shed their leaves/ remember this while walking/ the path that winds and weaves./ The greatest gift to man/ is one that is hidden from view/ The Elderidge will ask you for your hand/ and show you the world anew.”
Shaw’s face lit up. He couldn’t have planned the turn of events better himself.
“Dr. Shaw, I know what I’m talking about, that poem has been passed through my family for generations—” Korella began.
“So has mine—” Verne interrupted her. Shaw intervened before the two could get too heated.
“In this case, you’re both right.” Korella and Verne’s mouths closed and they both turned to look at Dr. Shaw in confusion. “When talking about the Elderidge there are always differing opinions. Tell me, how many of you were taught to keep iron on you at all times, to check the bells next to your beds before sleeping, to never give your name to strangers who ask it?” Fewer than half the students hesitantly raised their hands. Those who did could be seen fiddling with rings and necklaces and charms hidden away in deeply lined pockets.
“And how many of you were told to leave the last bit of drink in your cups, the remaining raspberries on the bush, to keep your windows open just a crack at night?” The remaining students put up their hands with less reluctance than the previous group. “Chances are you all know who leans either way. Which parents prefer you don’t speak of the fair folk in their households. This polarity on the subject is nothing new in Bellemere. The debate over the Elderidge dates back past the founding of the town.
“I told Korella and Verne that they were both correct. This wasn't a placation. There are two full versions of the poem that you all know. the initial stanza was written before the settlers discovery of the Elderidge. Those that came in from the east coast first stumbled upon what we now refer to as the Gilded Wood. From the beginning people were disappearing and they took note of that. They feared the trees and the implications of witchcraft behind them. At that point the wood was much larger, there were no fences or carefully lined trails marking the safe zones. One of the first ordinances of Bellemere was to section off the most dangerous parts of the forest, the areas from which people did not always return. When the group of settlers first decided on this particular land their count was 68 strong. A very large number for the time. At the end of the first year the population was down to 43 people, not a ridiculous jump considering, but in records, only two official deaths were marked. The rest of the names simply were absent from the registry.”
Dr. Shaw continued on with his retelling of Bellmere’s history in a way that kept all of his students captivated. He wasn’t used to such a high percentage of them listening to him at one time, but he was glad of it. If his kids could take anything away from his class at the end of the year he hoped it would be this. The true history of the fair folk in their town. Every year Shaw told this unit the same way with a neutral connotation so that his students could make their own decisions of the Elderidge but it was hard to do. In order to tell it completely unbiased he had to pull himself back from the story. Put himself on autopilot. That’s exactly what he did when telling the tale this time as well. He got himself started, but once he was sure he knew where he was going he turned himself off.
When Shaw finished speaking the classroom reached a decibel it had yet to the entire year. Everyone was in a frenzy, excited to finally learn something more interesting than who the 14th head of the Board of Education was (if you're curious, it was David Grant).
“Enough lecturing for today. Our unit project, due the day of the test three weeks from now, will be a group project.” Faces lit up at this announcement and then immediately fell again when Dr. Shaw finished his sentence. “An assigned group project.” Groans could be heard around the room. “Now I know how you all feel about assigned groups, that's why I’ve never forced it before, but I truly believe that it’s necessary for this particular unit. I need you all to have open minds inside of this classroom and anytime outside of school that you’re working on your projects. I will be assigning four groups of five to four different topics. I’ll give you all your groups today, but I won't assign topics until tomorrow. Your homework for tonight and over the weekend will be to learn your fellow group members upbringings in relation to the fair folk. I have worksheets I’ll pass out in a moment to assist you in this endeavor.
“Group one will consist of Derek, Emily, Brenden, Olivia, and Jenny. Are you all writing this down?” The students whose names were just called nodded ever so slightly. “Group two: T.J., Conner, Elle, Matthew, and Naomi, group three: Dani, Orin, Verne, Faye, and Korella, and group four: Orla, Anais, Lucas, Emre, and Leon.” Dr. Shaw finished reading from his list and then stood up to pass out the worksheets he had promised. Not everyone was ecstatic with their groups. Most students were indifferent, and very few seemed less than happy with the lot they had been thrown in with.
Verne could be seen sitting with the ever-present grin he had attached to his face. The only thing that could ever upset that boy was when people mistreated his sister, not that she couldn’t handle anything like that herself of course.
Deciding for him that Dr. Shaw was finished teaching, everyone stood up and gravitated towards the other members of their group, exchanging phone numbers, and names in some cases. Verne walked over to Orin Weizenbaum, his close friend of some years. Both boys were surprised they were put together. One of those lucky chances where the people you are thrown into a group with aren’t completely intolerable. Verne would have been content with any group he was put in, but Orin was a very anxious person.
The two exchanged a very boyish handshake and started conversing about the thing that had been on Orin’s mind all period.
“So where’s Faye?” Orin wasn’t as close to Faye as he was to Verne, but they were still friends and he was always concerned when she didn’t show up to school.
“At home, preparing the fires for Beltane. Speaking of, did your mom burn that white sage I gave to her for today?” Verne was always looking out for his friend’s families, even those who didn’t quite believe.
“You know her, anything for her favorite son, which should be me by the way, considering I’m her only actual son.”
“Sorry man, you know I don’t try to be better than you.” Verne winked and patted Orin’s shoulder good-naturedly. He then looked up and saw Dani deep in thought. He still needed her number, so he motioned to Orin that he’d be a minute and walked over to her desk. Before he could say anything, Verne saw what she was working on. It was a photorealistic recreation of what he recognized to be the Seilahdarach tree that resided at the heart of the Gilded Wood. He was taken aback at the sight. Not many people were brave enough to venture that far into the forest.
When Dani realized that Verne was standing in close proximity to her desk she hastily slammed her sketchbook shut and turned a barely noticeable shade of rosy pink.
“Do you always hover, or is it just something you do when you’re feeling rude?” It was now Verne’s turn to be embarrassed.
“I’m terribly sorry, I was just, I mean, your drawing, amazing, I mean, um, you’re really quite good.” Verne took a deep breath and cleared his throat to compose himself. “Hi, sorry, let me start over. I came over to get your phone number. I figured I’d make a groupchat for the five us so we could work on the homework easier.” Dani simply nodded and scribbled her number onto a piece of paper which she shoved in his hand.
Verne wasn’t particularly used to people being anything less than cordial to him, so he froze for a moment in a state of unrest. This lasted longer than he would like to admit. In the meantime Dani raised an eyebrow at him and willed him to leave with everything inside of her. Deciding that his best option was to walk away in any direction that led him away from that situation he flashed a tight-lipped grin, nodded once, sharply, and stalked away in a manner only ridiculously tall people could, or so Dani thought. While walking away the only thing on Verne’s mind her drawing. The uncanny way she captured perfectly the otherworldliness of the Seilahdarach. He thought that he’d have to ask her about it once they were more acquainted.
Korella could see Verne making his way over to her and she rolled her eyes in his direction. Verne wasn’t initially aware of where he was going, but he figured he could take the opportunity to chat to Korella until she completely shut down that train of thought.
“I already have your number Bunk, just put me in the groupchat and we can figure everything else out later.” Verne didn’t even have a chance to reach her when Korella directed the statement at him. Giving her the same grin and nod he did to Dani he careened back to where Orin resided, looking akin to a scolded puppy.
“Worksheets will be due Monday. If it’s easier for you all, you can compile a large background of each of you into one packet, as long as you all are aware of the information inside of it. I expect you all to be sufficiently learned on each of your peers by next week. Have a good weekend.” Dr. Shaw dismissed his students and with that the day’s final bell rang, releasing them to whatever teenage activities were next lined up in their schedules.