An account by the Woodman, as provided by Richard Zwicker
Art by Shannon Legler
I am a woodman, by profession and constitution. I go into the darkness of the woods, choose large trees, and through the sweat of my arms and the sharpness of my axe, chop them into lengths that provide heat against the harsh winter. I am good at my job, which I attribute in part to my identification with trees. Though alive and a pillar of support to those that depend on them, trees possess a stolid, impenetrable quality and are surrounded by more complex creatures they can never understand.
My first wife was as beautiful as a new day. She was attracted to my rugged exterior and dependability. “I love the fact that you never surprise me,” she used to say. She was the personification of “happily ever after.” Much of life is unpredictable, however, and a mysterious illness struck her down. The country doctor called it something he could barely pronounce, which I think he made up on the spot. As the disease lurched to its final stages, my wife smiled, trembling, a bit twisted, but unmistakably in defiance. Her last words were, “There’s not always tomorrow.” She left me with two children, Hansel and Gretel, the ultimate optimistic act.
I had gotten this far in life by keeping my needs simple and met, but the loss of my spouse left me incomplete. When I wasn’t out chopping down trees, I tried to maintain my dead wife’s nurturing ways with my children. “Are you okay? How can I help? What would you like to do today?” These questions hung in the air like rainless clouds. Hansel and Gretel wanted answers, not questions, and that was beyond my expertise.
After I endured a suitable period of mourning, my neighbor, a shoemaker, said I should remarry. I thought that was funny, coming from someone whose wife had made nagging an art form. I asked him to explain his suggestion. “And please, don’t get all shoemaker on me. I’m just a simple woodman.”
“It’s not good to be alone,” he said.
“I have two kids.”
“Who have said barely a complete sentence between them since their mother died. We all have thoughts that need to be expressed. If we keep them inside, they devolve into nightmarish monologues. Before I got married, I wrote some of mine down. I could show them to you.”
“Solitary people think they can control these monologues, but they act as an illness, bending our spirit and pulling us in directions we should never go.” He noticed my eyes glazing over. “It’s like a tree choked off by vegetation, so instead of growing straight and true, it becomes gnarled and weird.”
That I could understand, though I thought it melodramatic. As time passed, other villagers added to the chorus of “You should marry a nice girl … soon.” I relented and quickly discovered that nearly everyone had a plain, unmarried friend with a great personality. None of them really jumped out at me though, and a few jumped away. Having been so lucky with my first marriage, I mistakenly considered myself a good judge of character. I ended up marrying a woman from outside the village. Her surface beauty masked a cruel and selfish soul. At first she pretended to be entranced by my biceps and to love Hansel and Gretel, but a drought brought out her true colors.
In our isolated village, everyone depended on the land. When the rain stopped and fields turned dry and brittle, choices had to be made. My patrons were forced to address their grumbling bellies, and then chopped their own wood. We suddenly had no means to feed ourselves. When we got down to our last loaf of bread, my second wife insisted we abandon our children in the forest, halving the number of mouths to feed. This seemed severe, and something my first wife would never have suggested.
When I hesitated, she added, “You think I want this? I love those children as if they were my own, but what difference does it make if we all starve? It’s like the trees. We sacrifice them to avoid freezing. So must the children go to stave off our starvation.”
I was unhappy, but one goes against logic at one’s peril.
Hansel must have heard us talking, however, and our first attempt failed. Never a great athlete, he waddled like a duck the entire walk into the forest. This was because he’d filled his pockets with white stones, dropping them to make a path to follow home. Prior to our second attempt to abandon the children, my wife gave Hansel a full body search. He carried nothing but two slices of bread. She led the way, pretending to fight back tears, while I brought up the rear. When we arrived at the deepest part of the forest, I handed my son all the crumbs that he’d dropped, telling him, “You’re going to need these.”
They didn’t return that night. We received a wave of sympathy from the villagers. I did not enlighten them about my part in their disappearance. People need their illusions.
The next few days, I scoured the forest. I don’t know if it was out of grief or because it was expected of me. The shoemaker offered to help, but he’d just had another apocalyptic argument with his wife, and I didn’t want to get too close. I also worried that if I found the children, my wife and I would be back in the same predicament.
I threw myself into my work, cutting up trees into firewood no one would buy. To entertain myself, I chopped in such a way that each tree fell within the outline of its shadow. I was that good. “Why are you punishing yourself?” the villagers asked, alarmed at my work ethic. I’d come up with a decent answer. “The forest took my children, so I will take it.”
Unfortunately, the drought persisted. We barely had enough food for two. My wife nagged me to find another line of work.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “We already have a shoemaker. Should I become a miller and grind all the corn we don’t have? Maybe I could become a scholar. As I’m poor, I’m already halfway there. Why don’t I just become a king and decree that I have three square meals a day?” I raised my ax. “Woman, I am a woodman.”
She could not accept this, and her nagging increased. What could I do? An oak can’t change into an apple tree just because it has a yen for cider. Then, just to make me look bad, she took in sewing to augment our meager income. Despite this, my health deteriorated, as did our relationship. A plant is only as good as its environment, and mine was poisoned by her anger.
One day while I was working, she grabbed my wide shoulders and spoke to me for the first time in days. “You are like the wild animals in the forest. There’s no reasoning with you.” She then walked away, or at least I thought she did. Instead, she must have watched me like a traveler warily eying an angry bear, because when I felled the tree I was working on, along with the crunch of broken branches, I heard a blood-curdling scream. I ran the length of the pine and found her crushed body under its mighty limb. That was my story anyway. In truth, I’d heard her final scream before I started on the tree.
I buried her in a garden in which she was the only plant. She always wanted to be the center of attention. The minister had little to work with during the funeral but managed to make the attendees think of their lost loved ones. I sympathized with those who passed through the condolence line. What do you say to someone who’s lost two wives and two children? There’s plenty of fish in the sea?
After the ceremony, the shoemaker came up to me and asked, “Was it really an accident?”
I looked him in the eye and said, “I did not intend to kill her with a fallen tree.”
With only one mouth to feed and no criticism, my health repaired. With renewed vigor, I wielded my axe, felling one tree after another, the firewood strewn like body parts. The kiss of sharp metal cutting wood rang in my head, culminating in a low groan, snapping branches, and the earthshaking release of a heavy thump. Hansel later told me those sounds led him and Gretel back to the cottage.
It took my children three weeks to escape the witch. Our reunion was theatric and blind. We embraced each other long and tight, trying to hold in what we’d never had. Neither Hansel nor Gretel blamed me for their abandonment, reserving their ire for their stepmother. They were young, and despite their traumatic experience with murder and the threat of cannibalism, or maybe because of it, they needed to trust. Though they came bearing the witch’s jewels and gems, I saw those gifts as ill begotten and insisted, if possible, we return them to their original owners. This proved impossible, however. None of them belonged to the poor inhabitants of our village. Nor could I use them as a buffer between us and poverty, as I didn’t know anyone who could afford to buy them.
The drought lifted, and I was able to sell firewood again. In addition, the jewelry gave me an idea. I discovered I had a knack for carving wooden figures. It has been my experience that people enjoy investing emotion into such things.
Time passed. My children began to bristle against what Hansel called my opaqueness. He lost the weight he’d gained at the witch’s house, which had made him an object of ridicule among his friends. One day he asked me to tell him again how his stepmother died. Afterward, he cast me a doubting look and said, “She never took any interest in your work. It’s odd that she was out in the forest.” I agreed.
In my free time I tried to teach my children what I knew, but like their stepmother, neither possessed interest in woodcraft. As their bodies developed, I felt I knew them less and less. Gretel began to dress immodestly and tie her long brown hair in a bandana. Hansel cut his hair short and developed an interest in alcohol. Both regularly vanished into the night, returning early morning. I worried, as it was not safe outside. On five different occasions, the bodies of travelers were found robbed and murdered in the forest. Next to each corpse lay a piece of gingerbread, giving birth to wild stories about the gingerbread killers.
In addition, notes were slipped under my door, with accusations such as, “I know you killed her” and “You tried to kill your children.”
One morning when I could not sleep, I dragged Hansel and Gretel out of bed and held the notes in front of their blank faces.
“Are these yours?”
“I can barely write,” Hansel said, not looking me in the eye.
“You woke me for that?” Gretel asked.
I let it go, wondering if the one thing I’d taught them was truth should be used judiciously.
An hour ago, the shoemaker came over to warn me that people were talking, and members of my second wife’s family–whom I’d never met–were in the village. They possessed a letter from their mayor demanding the exhumation of my second wife’s body. The shoemaker offered to help me go into hiding, but I couldn’t picture myself doing that. Everyone in the village had secrets. I could accuse four or five people of sacrificing their children. I had no doubt members of my second wife’s family and the mayor himself harbored darkness in their souls. Though my second wife would have taken steps to ensure her safety, I was more accepting. A tree does not run from the axe, nor lament its lot as firewood, house materials, or detritus in wake of a new road it will never see. It can only seek the sun.
The Woodman is a workaholic and single parent, in that order, who has trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Not to be confused with the woodman in “Snow White.”
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in Penumbra, Farstrider Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction, and other semi-pro markets.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Wood Man” is © 2017 Richard Zwicker
Art accompanying story is © Shannon Legler