The Trees Have Tongues (Part 1 of 4)
Once upon a time, in a deep and gloomy forest, there lived an old woodcutter and his family. One morning, as the woodcutter sharpened his worn axe blade on a tired grindstone, a cold finger of air thrust its way through the woodshop’s crooked walls and tapped him on the shoulder. He dropped his tool to the rotted floor, barely missing his foot, and lowered his head. “The curse of it all,” he sighed. “Winter is approaching and I have but one axe blade left with which to harvest enough wood to supply the needs of the town and my family.” He lifted the axe from the floor and again set out to hone the bit to a fine edge. “Perhaps this year I will be able to buy each of my children a pair of shoes,” he muttered.
His heart grew heavy as he remembered last evening’s argument with Wymas, the ancient cobbler, who had stopped by the cottage for a visit and to bring him news from the town. The shoemaker had urged the old woodcutter accept a single pair of shoes to keep his children’s feet warm during the coming winter, but he had refused. “I pay for my wares, Wymas,” the woodcutter had insisted. “I shall make good after this season’s harvest. Mark my word.” Angry, he had sent the cobbler away without so much as a farewell.
As he laid the axe head against the grindstone, his children—two strapping young boys and three dainty girls—burst into the shack and danced around their father, lifting his spirits. Their voices rose with excitement, then they tumbled to the floor, giggling.
The old woodcutter set down the axe, crossed his arms and looked over his offspring. “Ah, children,” he said, allowing a slight smile to bloom under his generous red and gray beard. “What brings you out to greet such a poor excuse for a man on a despicable day such as this?”
“But, Papa,” trilled his youngest lass, Ella. “It is a lovely morning, not despicable. And we came out to see you.”
The old man’s smile lifted further. “Me?” he gasped, feigning surprise. He swept his daughter into his lap and burst into laughter. “Whatever would convince you to visit such a miserable codger such as myself?”
“Because we love you, Papa!” declared William, his eldest son, kissing his father on the cheek.
“That is right,” his youngest boy, Silas, added. “And because we wanted to see you before you left for the harvest.”
The woodcutter’s smile faded slightly. “Yes, yes, ‘tis true, my lad. Old Man Winter reminded me of that fact just a moment ago. He tapped me on the shoulder and told me to finish up my business, load the wagon and make haste into the woods.”
Nerida, his middling daughter, both in age and stature, shyly approached him. She curtseyed slightly and held out a cloth bundle.
The woodcutter accepted the gift with a grunt, folded back a corner and appraised the supply of boiled venison and potatoes. “Why, thank you, my fair Nerida.”
“I helped Mama prepare it for you, Papa,” she murmured, eyes searching the dusty floor. “Do you approve?”
“Of course I approve!” the woodcutter boomed. “Because it came from you, my forest lily, and from your enchanting mother.” He reached out and swept her into his lap as well, pressing both Ella and Nerida to his chest.
His eldest daughter, Fira, joined her sisters on her father’s lap. The old woodcutter did not protest despite the ache in his hips. “I will return in three days’ time,” he told his children. “Please be mindful of your mother and do as she requests.”
“Yes, Papa,” the children said.
“Now I must go and say goodbye to the most elegant flower of all.” The woodcutter groaned as he stood, shedding little girls like a molting gander. He grabbed his axe, donned his dusty fur cap and rambled from the shack with his five doting children marching in line behind him.
“Ah, Rhoswen,” the woodcutter sighed as he spied his wife standing on the threshold. “My most perfect bloom.”
“Sherrod, is it time?” she inquired.
He nodded. Sherrod’s spirit weighed heavily. “’Tis time. I must go.”
“If you must,” Rhoswen said, embracing him.
After kissing his wife, he loaded the wagon, hitched up the nag and drove it through the sagging gate. His family waved and Sherrod brushed away a tear as the weary horse led him into the great forest.
“You are not playing fair!” Ella cried, holding her hands out in front of her. She had followed the sound of jingling bells as William did his best to avoid being caught by his four blindfolded siblings. But instead of the bells getting any closer, the jingling grew muffled and then fell silent altogether. The earthy smell of the forest surrounding her family cottage had given way to an odor less pleasant. Ella suddenly felt ill. “Not fair,” she pouted. She tore off her blindfold and cast it to the forest floor. She gasped.
Mist as thick as the vapors rising from the bowels of Lesser Tortuous Swamp engulfed her. Not a breath of air stirred. Not a bird chirped, not a frog harrumphed. She was lost.
“William?” Ella called. Her voice thudded against the stillness like a ripe pumpkin against a moss-covered stone. “Fira? Nerida? Silas? Hello?”
Come, Ella. This way.
Ella froze. A chill crawled from the top of her scalp to the bottom of her bare feet as voices—many of them—spoke her name in the muffled silence. “Who … who is there?” she implored.
Follow us, my child. This way.
“But … who are you? How do you know my name?”
Come. This way.
Ella cocked her head in the direction of the whispery voices and her feet soon followed.
Yes, child. This way.
The voices moved ahead of her, drawing her through the oppressive gloom. As she obeyed, the air became less cloying, the light less frightening and the trees less threatening. By and by Ella began to recognize her surroundings, and soon she emerged from the woods into the comforting perimeter of her family’s homestead.
Upon reaching the threshold, she fainted.
Copyright ©2015 by David C. Hughes