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Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Forest Child...a fairy tale...story and art work (C) Diana Heyne 2014


       Once there was a very old woman who lived alone with her cats and a few milk goats at the edge of a great, dark wood. She was happy for the most part with the company of her animals and the creatures and plants of the forest, yet sometimes, especially on long winter nights before the fire, she longed for another human life to share the hours.
       One evening the sky grew full of dark clouds and the wind fierce, building in strength until it howled around the eaves all night with such force that the woman despaired of her cottage standing. Finally, despite the wind and her worries, she nodded off in her chair before the hearth with a cat curled on her lap and others perched close around her.
       She awoke to a morning of bright sunlight and gentle breezes as unlike the night before as a day could be. When she stepped outside to draw water at the well she looked first to her roof of thatch and saw it had miraculously survived almost intact. Then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, something like a small flag flapping white in the breeze, high up on a branch of an ancient oak. The old woman fetched her thatching ladder and climbed to the lowest branches of the tree. The cats watched, unblinking, as the woman made her way from limb to limb, agile as a mountain goat despite her great age. At last she was able to reach out and grasp what she now saw was a child’s christening gown of lace and fine linen, embroidered with tiny seed pearls and gold thread.
       Later that same day the old woman sat before the fire examining the exquisite needle work of the gown and wondering from whence such a fine thing had blown, for surely the storm had dropped it in passing. A plan began to form in her mind…
       The setting sun found her at the edge of an ancient circle of upright stones that had stood on a nearby hilltop since time out of mind. The old woman stretched the gown out over the central altar stone and regarded her work. She had fashioned a doll of sorts, of twigs and feathers and moss, and a songbird’s nest with two speckled eggs in the place where the heart should beat. She gave a sigh of satisfaction and leaving it there on the stone, turned homeward in the sun’s last rays.
        The next day was overcast and quiet, with a nippy chill in the air. The old woman milked her goats and fed the cats, banked the fire and then took out her sewing things. She commenced to fashion a small dress of patches, for that was all the material she had. As she pieced and embroidered she hummed under her breath, an odd tune that was quite low but still there. The intervals were ancient and strange and where she had learned the melody she really couldn’t say.
       The woman had once more nodded off before the fire, her sewing still in her lap, when a faint scratching noise disturbed her. She blinked sleepily at the cats dozing quietly on the hearth and heard the sound again, now stronger than before. It seemed suddenly to come from everywhere and nowhere. The woman reluctantly stood and with some misgiving made her way to the cottage door. Opening the door a crack, she saw nothing, and so swung it wider. There on the stone step before her was a tiny girl, clad in the familiar christening gown. The child stood upright as no babe of her age should and looked the old woman directly in the eye. Before the woman could think what to do, the infant had scuttled around her skirts and into the cottage.
       The cats, who had observed all this from a distance, suddenly scattered to the far corners and up into the rafters where they remained long into the evening, despite the old woman’s coaxing.
       The days after the child’s arrival were, for the old woman, short on sleep and long on staying the mischief that seemed to hang like a cloud over the tiny form. At times the infant appeared to receive an almost cruel pleasure in chasing the cats, who had now taken to sleeping out of reach on the beams. The old woman missed them twining about her ankles when she arose in the morning or curling in warmth on her lap before the fire at night. But now the little child was there in their place and she, the old woman, had wished it so. And if the babe delivered a few punches of her tiny fists to the nanny goats’ pregnant bellies, or pulled an unwary cat’s tail, the old woman knew it was her duty and privilege as a foster mother to teach the girl kindness instead.
       The child grew alarmingly fast and seemed almost constantly hungry. The old woman spent much of her time preparing milk and porridge in an attempt to fill the child’s belly and stop the fretful crying that came more and more frequently. One night the child seemed especially restless and when the old woman bent over her bed she found the child with a fever, perhaps brought on by teething. The old woman gently parted the sleeping infant’s lips and sought to have a look at her gums. As the old woman’s finger touched her mouth the child’s eyes flashed abruptly open. Then she bit down with a surprising strength and her victim felt the painful grip of a full set of small, sharp teeth embedded in her finger. She cried out and tried to pull away but the child held fast and began to suck at the finger with a ferocity that froze the woman in alarm. The child’s eyes seemed to wax larger and larger and the old woman found looking in them like tumbling headlong down a bottomless well. Then the infant gasped and the old woman was snapped back to reality, freeing her finger at the same moment with a quick twist.
     The woman did her best to forget the strange incident although it was more than a week before her finger healed properly. The child continued to grow and eat by day and by night until the old woman feared there would soon be nothing but empty shelves staring back at her from the larder. At last she decided that the beautiful christening dress would surely fetch a good price from the clothing merchants in the nearest town and she prepared to be ready for travel when the next market day arrived.
       One early morning not long after, the old woman dressed the child in the patchwork gown and swung her gently up into a backpack lined with moss and the scraps of an old felt blanket. For once the child slept quietly, all the long walk into the market town. They arrived before noon and the woman wandered for a little while around the stalls, searching for a friendly face amongst the merchants who bought and sold garments. Most of them offered far too little, a few others gave her suspicious glares and asked where the likes of her had come by a thing of such beauty. At last she came to a stall run by a young man and his wife. The young wife spread the christening dress out carefully on a scrap of fabric to preserve its pristine whiteness. They both seemed attentive, even kind, as they examined the gown closely, turning it this way and that in the clear sunlight.
       As the husband and wife put their heads together to confer, the old woman heard a muffled gasp behind her and turned to see an elegantly attired lady and her attendant standing with their eyes fastened on the gown. Both wore looks of pain and mingled horror. As the lady shifted her focus to the old woman, she grew angry. 
       “ Wretched thief! How did you come by this gown?” Her maid tried vainly to calm her but the woman became more hysterical by the moment. The old woman felt her heart lurch but gathered her courage to speak as if her life depended upon it, which, in her experience, was quite likely.
       “Good madam, please hear me. This gown was blown to my forest home by the great storm a fortnight ago. I found it snagged on the branch of an oak near my door with no clue from whence it came. I only sought to sell it to buy extra milk and meal for my poor hungry foster child.” At that the old woman turned back the corner of her pack to reveal the sleeping infant’s face and the angry noblewoman collapsed into a senseless heap in her servant’s arms.
       Later, at the inn where the three women adjourned, the noblewoman recounted a tragic tale that had now reached a strange and miraculous turning. She had recognized the gown as her own needlework, lovingly made for her infant daughter, a child whom she now held joyfully in her arms. But the old woman waxed increasingly uneasy as the tale unfolded and decided it wise to keep her own tale untold, at least in part.
       While the child’s father was away surveying his lands in a distant county, the little one had managed to wriggle free of her nurse’s arms and fall head first to the castle’s stone floor. The child appeared to die instantly from the sharp blow to her small skull. That night the grief stricken mother sat in her private chapel beside the still form of her only child, who was laid out before the altar in her best gown. Although the distraught young woman had refused the offers of servants and friends alike to sit with her or take a turn at watch, finally she nodded in her chair.  She was awakened by an unearthly roaring and a wind that seemed to rip the air from her lungs. As she looked up, dazed, a corner of the chapel roof appeared to peel away, revealing an oddly luminous sky. Then, with a sickening thud, something heavy hit her from behind and she remembered nothing until she awoke in her bed the next morning. Her head throbbed and her left arm lay bound up, limp and useless. She begged her serving women to take her back to the chapel but their wide eyes and barely disguised horror left no doubt something was gravely amiss.
       In mid afternoon when they left her briefly alone she managed to stagger down the corridor, supporting herself against the walls. When at last she came to the open chapel door, her mind refused to accept what she saw. Where last night a tiny body had rested in its shroud, sunlight poured in through an open roof onto the bare stone floor.
          The lady paused for a moment in her story and passed her hand over her face. The old woman shuddered involuntarily, imagining the horror of the scenes described. At last she spoke, choosing her words with care, “Madam, I have attended babes ill with some great wound or fever that slipped into a sleep so deep it left little to show they still lived. Perhaps your daughter was one of these. By some great good fortune the storm, rather than causing her harm, restored her to waking life.”
       The young woman hugged the child closer to her and bestowed a radiant smile on the old woman. “It is nothing short of a miracle! And we have you to thank for bringing her back to us! Of course when my husband returns we will see you amply rewarded with a house and land…”
         “Madam, I assure you, reuniting mother and child is reward enough.” The old woman had begun to fidget slightly.
          “Well,” the lady smiled, “at least take this small token today and then we shall see…” Her serving woman loosened a heavy pouch from beneath her gown and handed it to the other woman. “And now you must excuse us as we are overcome by the events of this day and must return directly home.”
       Although the old woman was secretly relieved and just as anxious to depart, she was all courtesy. “Of course, my lady. You must both rest. Take all my good wishes with you”
        The old woman watched for a moment as the small party walked away in the direction of the castle walls, the child snuggled against her mother’s shoulder. Just before they passed out of sight the old woman saw the child lift her head and smile at her, revealing a full set of tiny, sharp, white teeth. Then she buried her face in the curve of her mother’s smooth neck and was lost from view.

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