A short story by Manelle Oliphant
The day started out like any other. I broke my fast in the dim light of dawn and headed into the forest with my cart in tow. Throughout the morning I chopped a large tree, which had been my project during the previous few days. It’s wood only filled my cart halfway. I had a few hours before the market closed and wanted enough wood to sell, as well as keep my own family warm. So, I wandered southward instead of toward town. I’d never been that direction, but the trees looked old. Experience told me older trees meant more fallen branches, and I looked forward to an easy afternoon of work.
As I traveled, the trees grew larger. The occasional bits of sun breaking through the forest canopy echoed off the plants below and gave the whole scene a green glow. The fresh smell of wildflowers hung in the air. Squirrels, deer, and rabbits watched me without fear. There were no predatory animals among them. There were many birds as well. They flitted through the trees singing. I never saw a fallen branch or log. The lack of forest litter had me second-guessing my decision to go that way, but the forest looked so old. I reasoned I’d find what I needed before long. I felt safe there and wanted to linger. I pulled out my lunch and made myself comfortable on a tree’s root.
While I ate I took a closer look at the forest around me. There were still no fallen leaves or dead branches, and the day was wearing on. I realized if I was going to have enough wood by the day’s end I’d have to start from scratch. I looked around at the huge straight trunks. Most of these trees were too big for me to harvest alone. In the distance though, I saw a smaller tree. I could chop it down on my own, and still fill my cart for the next few days.
I pulled my cart over to its base. I examined the tree and the surrounding area with my well-trained eye. I saw where to hit, and how the tree would fall. With the plan in place, I raised my ax.
A strong wind blew in circles around me and the bird’s chirped louder. I heard the chatter of other animals too. I lowered my ax. The animals silenced and the wind calmed. The hush after such commotion made the forest feel hollow. I shuttered but raised my ax again. The animals’ chatter started up at a greater volume than before and a gust of wind blew me against the tree. I shook my head to clear it. Feeling spooked I resolved to leave. As I leaned to pick up my ax from where I’d dropped it, another blast of wind slammed my head against the trunk.
When I woke, I lay on the mossy ground. My head swam as I sat up. I rolled to hands and knees and looked around. An eerie red light had replaced the dancing green one from before, and a thick fog rolled over the ground. Deer, raccoons, rabbits, and every kind of forest beast stood in a circle around me. I saw with dismay wolves, bears, and other predatory animals stood next to their gentler counterparts. I used the tree to help me stand.
“Woodcutter,” said a clear voice from behind me, “why do you enter my forest and attempt to break the pact I made with humans in eons past?”
I turned around. A beautiful woman sat before me on an ancient stone throne. She seemed larger than life; her dark hair fell wild, and branches grew from her head. She looked exactly as the forest queen is described in all our stories. She even held the staff of life with an unbroken egg affixed to its top. Powerful forces emanated from it, giving the forest life.
I flung myself at her feet. “Great Lady, I ask your pardon and plead ignorance. I did not know you protected this part of the forest.”
“All the signs were there for you to see. I even commanded my wolves and bears to leave you alone. They could have eaten you, but I bid them not, as I felt you respected the forest and it’s kind.”
“I’m sorry. In my thoughts for my family’s welfare, I neglected to see the signs. My only thought was for the food and warmth more wood could provide.”
She stared down at me. “I know humans often make mistakes. I also know you use wood to survive in your mortal bodies. That is why you are allowed your own portion of forest to do with what you will, but you may not mar the trees in my realm. Many years have made them wise and removing them from this world would be an irreversible mistake. Today you may go, but if you enter my woods a second time you will not live to come out.”
I nodded. “Thank you, I understand.”
As I spoke a soft breeze put me back to sleep. I woke up in a more familiar part of the forest. Pine needles littered the ground and the air felt crisp and empty, unlike the cozy feel of the air in the queen’s realm. My belongings sat next to me. I fingered the bump where I’d hit my head and groaned. A headache already pounded in my brain. The sun set as I trudged home, and told my wife what had happened.
She examined the bump on my head. “Do you think it was a dream?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll never head into that part of the forest again.”
Since then I am more careful how I get my wood. I seek the ground harder for trees and branches felled by nature. Sometimes, when I pay attention, the wind blows me one way or another. When I follow it, I always find what I am looking for. I believe it’s the Forest Queen helping me keep my family fed, and protecting her forest at the same time.