Daffodils and skulls
It's an eerie thing to come upon in the deep woods. Some would call it macabre. Others might find it spiritual or touching or even holy. For want of a better term, let's call it a shrine, though what it is a shrine to or for is a mystery.
Today, no path leads to it, not even a deer run. I've been led there twice by my wife, who discovered it by accident, and I think I'd still have trouble finding it again unaided. There's no sign that anyone takes care of it, and I'd be very surprised if the man who owns the land knows it's there, or if the people who manage his hundreds of acres for him have ever seen it.
Within a hundred yards of the shrine, a few foundation stones lie scattered in and about a kettle-hole, large granite boulders cut flat on one or two sides, as if someone had used the kettle-hole for a root cellar for a time. There are no other remnants of a structure. A 20-foot mountain laurel grows nearby, its lower branches stripped as high as deer can reach. Not native to Martha's Vineyard, a mountain laurel is not likely to grow up here without protection from deer - it could be a planting from a long-forgotten dooryard. Less than a quarter-mile away, a spring nearly choked with leaves flows from under a rock at the base of a hill. Willis Gifford once told me that when he was a boy (1910 or so), he used to drink from a spring in these woods, where there was a tin dipper on a rock. I could never find his spring and gave up looking years ago, but this could be it. No tin dipper, though.
The hints of long-abandoned inhabitation give the neighborhood a kind of eldritch atmosphere, but I'd guess the little shrine itself has been there only about 50 years, perhaps more, perhaps a bit less.
In the center of the shrine is a small statue of a dog, I think a Labrador retriever puppy, lying on its side with its head up and eyes alert. Slightly smaller than life-size, it appears to be cast concrete and may have originally been sold as a lawn ornament. It's a bit weathered, but it shows the detail of a well-executed piece of that genre. Wanting to respect the place and whoever made the shrine, I haven't disturbed it, and so I don't know if there are markings on the bottom of the statue to show who made it, or when, or why it is there.
Here's the eerie part. Around the statue there are two concentric circles of deer skulls, 18 in the outer circle and six in the inner, all facing outward. Inside the circles are piled antlers - it's impossible to count how many without disturbing them. I've paced the outer circle as seven and a half feet in diameter.
Outside the skulls there are clumps of daffodils. It was the daffodils that drew my wife to the shrine one spring as she was, as is her custom, bushwhacking through the woods on one of her rambles. Daffodils blooming in the deep woods far from any path called for an investigation. The daffodils also give a clue to the age of the shrine. If not thinned, daffodil bulbs multiply, crowding one another and producing clumps with many leaves but only a few flowers. The shrine's daffodils are badly crowded. It makes sense that they were single bulbs when the shrine was new.
In summer the shrine is completely obscured by the sweet fern that grows in that part of the woods. Searching in vain for the circle of skulls one summer, my wife looked down to find she was standing in it.
The whole spooky scene is full of mystery. Many years ago, someone went to a great deal of trouble. Who would have access to 24 deer skulls and several dozen antlers? Perhaps a poacher? Such occupations were not unknown 50 years ago. No hunter I know today would store so many skulls and antlers. Perhaps the shrine-builder asked his hunting friends to contribute a skull or two apiece one year.
But, given access to the materials, why would someone lug them a half-hour's walk deep into woods he does not own? (I am virtually certain that the owner of the land, whom I know, is not the shrine-builder and would not approve of it if he knew it was there.)
Then there is the statue of the dog. The simplest explanation for it is that it's a grave marker: someone buried a favorite hunting dog at the spot and constructed the shrine as a kind of tribute, or perhaps to offer companionship in whatever Elysian fields the dog was going to. But why such an elaborate grave? Why deer skulls? Why there and not in a more accessible place?
Perhaps there is nothing at all buried beneath the little statue. But like all mysterious symbols, the circle of skulls feeds the imagination. Perhaps there is buried some secret more sinister than the skeleton of a pet - a crime, a sin, a grief. In my head I've outlined whole novels based on this place. Maybe someday I'll write one down.
Dan Cabot lives in West Tisbury. He is a contributing editor to The Times. His Essays appear often on the OpEd Page.