Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forest Fable

The little girl awoke in the deep dark forest. I could tell you that she was pretty and blond, or homely and mousy, or black and sassy but none of those details are relevant. Your imagination must suffice. She was adorable in her way, with bright eyes and two braided pigtails, and a blue pinafore dress that was mildly soiled from her having been lying on the deep humus of the forest floor. Her tiny feet were bare and she sat for a while wiggling her toes in the leaf litter until a big red centipede ran over her left foot.

Then she leapt to her feet with a shriek and a shudder and climbed up on the exposed roots of a big maple tree. Most of the trees were white pine, with a scattering of beech and maple and the occasional oak. It is the sort of forest one finds where mountains are giving way to foot-hills, and the evergreens of the high altitudes are mingled with the deciduous trees of the valleys. This is also good country for finding hungry wolves and bears. The girl was just old enough to remember hearing warnings in school about going into the dense dark wood alone. So she stood trembling, knees slightly bent, balancing on the massive root, gripping with both tiny hands the trunk of the maple tree for several minutes before she looked more carefully at her surroundings.

The sun was still high over the trees, and the little girl could see blue jays and robins flitting from branch to branch in the leafy canopy high overhead. She remembered that blue-jays often follow big hungry animals and screech at them, alerting the forest citizens that a predator is among them. The birds were making their regular noises, so it was possible that no danger was close by…there was a deer path just to her right, thickly upholstered with soft aged pine needles, so she padded off down the path looking for some clue as to how she ended up alone in the dark wood with no shoes.

Though the sun was still bright, the silence and dim depths of the forest began to play a soft marimba glissando of fear up and down her spine. The occasional bee buzzing past her head caused her to duck and swat and spin around more vigorously than she might have in a manicured garden with flagstone walks and the comforting nearby presence of a house. She hurried a little bit and began looking frequently behind to see whether something might be following, say, out of sight just behind the curve of the path. So it was that, looking behind, the little girl caught her small toe in a rootlet and fell face down on a rough old pine log. She was nursing her skinned hand when she noticed that the birds had all gone silent. In fact, she could see a little warbler sitting absolutely still in a bush not a meter away, its eyes glistening with hidden emotion.

The little girl looked ahead on the path. Two enormous wolves stood side by side, huge shoulders shaggy with winter fur in mid-shed, yellow eyes watchful. Was that a trickle of saliva dripping from the horrible jaws? The wolves did not move, did not take their baleful yellow eyes off of the tender, tasty girl on the ground before them. She sat on the soft pine needle tuff, her heart in her mouth, too terrified to think even of the harm that surely attended the whim of the dire wolves. The wolves’ attention shifted to a point beyond where the girl was sitting. Reluctantly the girl turned her head away from the hulking beasts and glistening fangs to follow their gaze. Behind her, about three meters away, stood a small furry red bear.

The bear stood up on its hind legs, waved paws equipped with the deadliest-looking needle-sharp black claws and uttered a surprisingly deep and resonant roar. The two wolves blinked, turned silently and vanished into the underbrush alongside the path. The red bear dropped back to all fours and stalked, stiff-legged toward the wild-eyed little girl sitting by the old pine log. The bear snuffled busily all around the log even to the feet of the terrified little girl. As the girl was preparing to be the bear’s dinner, the bear stood once more on its hind legs, twisted sideways and grew up, up, up into the forest canopy to become a gigantic man with red hair and red beard. He was dressed in a sleeveless vest of red fur and trousers of the same material and he carried a spear the length of his body with a deadly-looking point of white crystal.

“I do not think the dire wolves will be bothering you tonight,” he boomed in a pleasant baritone. “Are you injured?”

“I - I skinned my hand….”

His enormous freckled hand reached down from an impossible height and gently turned her little hand as he bent to examine the bruised palm.

“There is a clearing nearby with a stream running through it,” he suggested. “You could wash the dirt and bark out of the scrapes on your hand.”

The red-haired giant led the way through the forest, treading noisily with much snapping of twigs, until the two came to a very pleasant sunlit meadow full of blue and yellow wild-flowers and tall grass. The hum of bees visiting the flowers was not so menacing here as it had seemed in the dim green of the dense forest. The sun was bright in a pale blue sky, and a delightful breeze wafted through the meadow so that the flowers nodded and danced in the sun.

The giant stopped near a large flat rock.

“Here is the stream,” he said, pointing with the butt of his spear. “The water is very cold, but you can wash your hands if you are quick.”

She knelt in the sand at the edge of the stream and dipped her hands in the flowing water. The cold water did feel very nice on her skinned palm, When the little girl had cleaned her wound, she went and sat with the giant on the flat rock. After the cold water, the sun-warmed boulder was very pleasant. She felt out nooks and crannies in the warm stone with her toes. Bird song rippled out of the trees and across the meadow.

“Would you like a snack?” asked the giant. Without waiting for a reply, he reached into his vest and pulled out a flat object wrapped in muslin. It was several slices of home-baked bread, buttered and carefully wrapped face-to-face to keep the butter from smearing. The two sat side-by-side on the flat warm rock and chewed their bread in silence.

“Why are you being so nice?” asked the girl, munching the fresh bread gratefully. “People say giants are mean and selfish.”

The giant shrugged, like a land-slide on a mountain.

“Once I had a daughter,” he rumbled softly. “She and I used to have picnics in the forest. I miss those chats. Children have a different way of looking at the world.”

“Did she go somewhere?”

The giant sighed, a melancholy wind through the tree-tops.

“She grew up,” he said. “She lived a long life, had children, and got old, and died, long ago.”

“She got old and died?” asked the girl, bewildered. “But you are not old….”

“I am very old,” sighed the giant. “I live long, very long. My curse, not growing old. ”

"Why is it that you are sometimes a small, red bear," asked the little girl, eyeing the giant carefully. The two sat sharing the bread and gazing at the meadow.

The great red-haired giant shrugged his massive freckled shoulders again and picked up a stick to draw in the sand at his feet.

"What letter is this?" he asked.

"M," replied the little girl promptly.

The giant wrote again beside the M.

""What letter is this?" he asked.

"W," replied the little girl, after a pause. "But you have written it funny."

"Yeah," agreed the giant, "the points are curvy, because it's an upside-down 'M'. See? And if I write it sideways…"

"Number '3'!" replied the girl.

"A lot of magic is like that," said the giant soberly. "It depends on who is looking and from where. If I were to take the number three and turn it so you could only see the right side of it, what would you see?"

The little girl thought for a minute,

"Just a straight line?" she ventured.

The giant laughed with delight.

"Yes!" he boomed, filling the forest with laughter. "or some might see the number '1'."

"So I see a kindly giant because it is me seeing you now ," said the girl thoughtfully, "but a taller person worried about bears might see me sitting beside a red bear."

"Exactly so," nodded the giant, sombre again. "One must be careful in these woods not to get stuck with pointy things, given that most people in the woods ARE worried about bears. It is most inconvenient."

"Are you really both a red-haired giant and a small red bear," asked the little girl, crossing her eyes to see whether she could see him as both, " or are you something else? And you just look like these different things?"

"You mean, could I really be the number '1'?" the giant was amused, “That is an excellent question”

"Yes," said the giant finally after a period of silent reflection. "I am something else. I am a forest guardian. My true aspect is sort of like a spider in a web.."

"Ew…" said the little girl drawing back ever so slightly.

"but I am NOT really a spider," he continued as the little girl relaxed, "it is just that magic shines out from me and tells me, the same way a fly landing on a spider web warns the spider, when a person of a particular type comes into the forest."

"Like me?" the girl was becoming apprehensive.

"Yes, especially like you." sighed the giant with mild regret. "I have been on the watch for you ever since you blighted the apple orchards at the three valley gap.”

“That’s a mean thing to say!” cried the little girl, her eyes brimming with sudden tears. “I did no such thing!”

“Oh but you did,” replied the giant, gravely. “And worse, I imagine, on your way up-river. News travels slowly when the birds are on their way north. But your signature is all over the apple-blight.”

“Do you mean to say that I am also something different from what you see?” asked the girl, her eyes flashing indignantly.

“Oh, yes,” nodded the red-haired giant. “Everyone is something other than what we see. Some very nice people with whom one might frequently have a friendly conversation can be horrible monsters with a cellar full of human heads.”

“UGH!” cried the girl, with genuine horror.

“Or,” continued the giant, “others, like the troll of the hollow tree by the cross-roads, are hideous to look at (unless one is also a troll) but perform selfless acts of constructive kindness. Everyone has an aspect that cannot easily be discerned. Even sweet little girls who mysteriously find themselves in the green dark forest. I have been enjoying sitting in the sun and having a snack with a small girl-child, but that is only the form you took when you first entered my forest, a sort of instinctive protective colouration."

"But I don't remember being something else," protested the girl. "I've always been who I am."

"Do you remember the winter of the blue snow, in the Clear Mountains?" asked the giant idly.

"Do I ever!" responded the girl fervently. "I nearly froze my toes in the great blizzard before I found the cave!"

"That was 10000 years ago," smiled the giant. “And yet, here you are, apparently no more than eight years old. You remember that, because it happened to you, but your protective instinct forces you to remember mostly only that you are a little girl lost in the forest. In reality you are an elemental, an immortal creature with a rapacious hatred for all that lives."

"But I remember going to school! I remember my mother and father! My mama kissed me good-night just last…" her voice trailed off uncertainly.

"Well, it is possible that at one time you had parents who loved you," replied the giant sadly. "But immortal creatures eventually become estranged from normal life. Their loved ones die, again and again over the centuries, and eventually immortals either create a bulwark against normal human emotion or they go kind of crazy or they become angry and destructive to all they touch."

"Hold on!" replied the girl crossly. "That’s silly! If I can't die, why do I hide from other supernatural creatures by becoming a little girl?? Surely I would have nothing to fear!?"

"There are worse things than death," said the giant. "Most elementals resist being trapped for all eternity, even in the nicest traps."

Instantly the girl leapt to her feet and ran pell-mell to the edge of the clearing, exiting down a deer path only to immediately re-enter the clearing via an opening on the opposite side. She uttered a shocking obscenity and twisted in on herself to become a ferret racing across the meadow. The ferret dived down a ground-hog hole and reappeared out of thin air, falling toward the greensward. The ferret spread out like a pancake and became a merlin hawk. The hawk winged up and away toward the trees ringing the meadow, only to reappear in the air on the other side of the meadow. After rapidly crossing the skies of the meadow several times, the hawk uttered a piercing scream and dissolved into a whirlwind of snow and ash. The whirlwind sprouted arms and legs composed of vortices of dry bones and rotting wood. The creature of death advanced menacingly on the red-haired giant. The clearing was immediately encased in ice and the blue sky was replaced with a grey overcast from which sleet fell in blinding sheets.

The giant smiled gently through the frost caking his red beard, leaning casually on the shaft of the crystal spear.

"My webs are very strong," he chuckled, although he did not sound amused or happy. "You might eventually escape, but time passes differently in here than it does outside. By the time you DO escape, the world will be very old indeed, and long past any harm you can do to it."

The whirlwind resolved again into a forlorn little girl with braids and a rather soiled pinafore. The sun came out in a soft blue sky and the snow and ice melted rapidly away to reveal a carpet of wildflowers. Birdsong echoed from the woods beyond.

"So long as you maintain your chameleon form," continued the giant in a rather severe tone, "the sun will shine, the birds will sing, the posies will kiss your bare toesies. The fruit trees will even bear fruit that will taste sweet and fresh every time you choose to indulge. As soon as you take your elemental form, winter will return and bring famine as it has wherever you have settled your curse upon the earth. Your choice…."

The giant stood erect, twisted sideways and inside out, shrinking and compacting into a small furry red bear. The bear ambled to a gap between two oak trees, two remarkably similar oak trees, two identical oak trees and squeezed between them. The last glimpse of the bear was its black snout as it turned to look back, as if to confirm that the prisoner was still in the trap. Then the two trees merged into one with an audible snap! And, except for the occasional wintry temper tantrum, eternal spring reigned in the clearing in the deep green wood.


  1. Me too . . . but reading this much teeny-weeny script on a screen fairly puts me off buying a Kindle!