Ella found herself wrapped in a wool blanket, a cup of warm milk sitting on the table in front of her. She picked it up and sipped it.
“Think hard, my love,” her mother cooed, stroking Ella’s arm. “Tell me again. Who led you back to the cottage?”
Ella’s brothers and sisters stood behind their mother, grim-faced. None spoke.
“I do not know, Mama,” Ella mumbled. “All I heard was voices, many of them, speaking as one, leading me home.” The frightened girl looked down at her twiddling fingers. “They were quite kind.”
“Voices. Hmm.” Mama turned to Ella’s brothers and sisters. “And you? You heard nothing?”
“No, Mama,” Silas offered. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” The other children nodded.
Mama rose. “Very well.” She smoothed the front of her dress and adjusted her bonnet. The expression on her face remained stoic. “Please stay close to the cottage until your father returns. We will discuss this at length then.”
“Yes, Mother,” the children answered.
Ella did not hear the voices again for three more days.
“Papa! Papa!” the children screamed. “Papa is home!”
The old woodcutter shoved open the cottage door, allowing a gale of frigid air to rush in behind the warmth of his beaming smile. Sherrod stepped inside, secured the bolt, knelt down, and spread his welcoming arms. All five of the children tumbled into his embrace, kissing his thick beard and ruddy forehead until his wife stepped in to receive her husband’s affections.
After the family had settled in and had broken bread, Rhoswen took her husband’s hand in hers and looked into his afflicted eyes. “What is it?” she asked. “Something troubles you.”
Her gaze elevated Sherrod’s heavy heart, her touch even more. “The yield,” he chuffed. “The forest is not giving up its dead as easily as before. I had to take a few of the others.”
“But, Sherrod!” his wife exclaimed. “You know you must not. It is forbidden.”
Sherrod lowered his eyes and stared at the table top. The burden of the half-filled bowls sitting in front of the children and the ten filthy bare feet swinging under their chairs crushed his soul. He slumped. “Yes, Rhoswen, I know full well the edict of the land. But the forest has left me no choice.”
Rhoswen dropped his hand. “Husband—”
“BAH!” Sherrod pounded the table with his fist. “I must go out again. We will die if I do not.” He sighed. “I am growing old, wife. And tired. The forest has left me no choice.”
“But the forest has taken care of your family from the first breath,” Rhoswen protested. “You have always been the one who fervently tells the ancient stories, helping everyone believe even in the most desperate of times. Why are you now filled with such worry and torment?”
The woodcutter pushed his bowl away, rose from the table and threw his coat over his shoulders. “The stories,” he growled, “they are rubbish, fairy tales made up to bring hope and laughter to those who are childish enough to believe such things.”
“But Sherrod. Those are your family’s stories. You do not believe them anymore?”
Sherrod stared into his wife’s emerald eyes. “Do you believe them anymore?” As he turned to leave, he heard the birdlike voice of his youngest daughter call out to him. Her warble brought a spark of joy to his smoldering thoughts. “Yes, Ella?” he replied.
“Papa, I think the trees spoke to me,” Ella whispered.
“The trees?” Sherrod said. He glanced at Rhoswen, then back to Ella. “Tell me, lass, how do you know this?”
“Well, Papa …” Ella hesitated.
William nodded to his sister. “Go on, Ella, tell Papa what happened.”
“Yes,” Rhoswen urged. “Tell him.”
Ella took a deep breath and told Sherrod about the game of Jingles, describing how she had gotten lost and, with the help of the whispering voices, had found her way home.
A great wave of tiredness swept over the woodcutter. “It is the stories, is it not? The ones I tell on cold winter’s nights around the fire?”
“But, Papa, I heard them,” Ella pleaded. “They are not just stories. They are real.”
Sherrod sighed, stared at his wisp of a daughter, with eyes like her mother’s and cheeks as red as a sunset over a meadow. She was tiny, so innocent. He shook his head. “It is only your imagination,” he muttered. “You possess a good one, indeed.” He turned and stomped off to his bed, where he immediately fell asleep, completely deaf to Ella’s sobs.
Ella watched from behind the trunk of a great pine as her father hitched the horse to the wagon, took up his axe and coaxed the swaybacked nag through the gate into the gloom beyond. As soon as she knew Papa was well on his way into the forest, she rushed off, as fast as she could, in the opposite direction. Her bare feet padded softly on the damp carpet of fallen pine needles and curled yellow leaves. Still upset from the night before, she had avoided him all day, not even kissing him goodbye.
Sobbing, Ella ran, hardly noticing the cold spilling into the woods as the wind crescendoed from a gentle moan to a great roar. Twilight descended, and soon the wind blew away the last remnants of familiarity as she penetrated into the heart of the unknown.
“He believed me not!” she yelled at the trees. “Not even for a moment.” Sleet fell, pelting her hood lightly at first, then rushing down in great torrents, stinging her hands. The cold had worked its way into her bones and she could no longer feel her toes. But she crashed headlong through the thickening underbrush anyway, pushing deeper and deeper into … nowhere. Winded, she fell to her knees, her hopes crumbling with her.
Copyright ©2015 by David C. Hughes