July 22, 2014 at 10:52 am #1025
The day that would forever change the course of young Owen Greenwoodâ€™s life began like most. He awoke at dawn to the green-gold aura of sunlight shining through the trees and into his bedroom window. He sat up, still half inside a strange dream of an enormous emerald eye staring at him in the dark, and a whispered plea for freedom. When his head had cleared, he tilted his head and listened for the sounds of his father elsewhere in the cottage. As had become familiar, the elder Greenwood had already left to hunt in the Great Forest. Half a year ago, his fatherâ€™s absence would have alarmed Owen, but the recent scarcity of beast and fowl in this part of the Great Forest had forced the man to leave earlier and earlier as the days went by, to give him time to seek farther and farther. The boy did not expect him to return until after noon.
Owenâ€™s first impulse was to explore the vast forest that surrounded the Greenwood cottage. So seldom was he allowed to venture away from the house that he took every opportunity to do so. But there were chores to be done, and if they were not completed by the time his father returned, the man would think him lazy and ungrateful, and those were two things William Greenwood could not tolerate, particularly from his son. So Owen ran his fingers through his shaggy, wheat-colored hair, tugged on his shirt, trousers, and boots, and trudged outside. He picked up two wooden buckets and a long stick that lay just outside the door.
His first destination was the small river that ran north-to-south a hundred paces from the house; it did not escape the boyâ€™s attention that the surface of this river was slightly lower than it had been the day before, just as yesterday it had been shallower than the day before that, and so on for the past six months. At several spots along the riverâ€™s bank, Owenâ€™s father had pushed long wooden poles into the thick mud. Tied to them were fishing lines that stretched into the water. The boy checked every hook, but they were all empty save one, on which had been caught a silver fish far too small to consider eating. He pulled the still wiggling creature from the hook and dropped it into the slow current of the river.
â€œLive well, little one,â€ the boy murmured as he watched it dart through the water, â€œPerhaps someday when youâ€™re bigger youâ€™ll make a suitable dinner.â€
Next he checked the traps his father had sunk to the riverâ€™s bottom to ensnare shellfish. Aside from a few clumps of leaves and mud-laden sticks, they were empty. Owen sighed and shook his head. He lowered the dripping wooden cages back into the river and stood, wiping silt and water from his hands on the legs of his pants. One at a time, the boy filled the buckets with river water. He slipped the handles over the ends of the stick and then carefully hoisted the entire contraption across his shoulders and waddled clumsily back toward the house. Little waves of water leaped from the sides of the pails as Owenâ€™s shoulders swayed, but when he finally reached the cottage and set them on the ground, they were still mostly full. All the better, too; it was not a chore he was eager to repeat.
His next order of business was to tend the humble vegetable garden that grew on a small square of ground surrounded by a modest fence. This fence had become unnecessary for two reasons: first, because no animal with any interest in stealing vegetables had been anywhere near the house in months, and secondly, because all of the food-bearing plants had withered and died, and new ones refused to grow. Weeds and other inedible plants thrived, however, so the boy set to work removing them. As he worked, he looked about him. The forest was still and silent. So strange that it had stopped providing Owen and his father the sustenance they so greatly needed. It was as if these two humans had overstayed their welcome among the trees, and were now being asked to leave. The bustling life of the woods had been slowly drained, and with it the hopes of its only two human inhabitants. It was impossible to ignore, from the silence among the trees that was still so unfamiliar to the ever-deepening furrows in his fatherâ€™s troubled brow.
And speaking of the old man, Owen could hear him returning. It was far earlier than heâ€™d expected; the sun hadnâ€™t even climbed halfway up the sky yet. And yet William Greenwood came walking up the path towards the house, quiver and bow slung over his shoulders and not so much as a squirrel in his hands. He approached quietly, a distracted look on his face. He came around the corner of the house and beheld his son, on his knees with two fistfuls of weeds. His chest heaved a prolonged sigh and he squatted down beside the boy.
â€œLeave offa that,â€ he said quietly, putting a rough but gentle hand on his sonâ€™s back, â€œYa know as well as I that it ainâ€™t weeds whatâ€™s chokinâ€™ the garden. Itâ€™s somethinâ€™â€¦else.â€ Williamâ€™s voice trailed off as he gazed wonderingly through the trees.
â€œAll right, papa,â€ Owen whispered, letting the small green stalks fall from his hands, which he suddenly realized were shaking.
â€œListen, chap,â€ his father continued, setting his hunting weapons on the ground, â€œI reckon youâ€™re keen enough to see weâ€™ve run into a spot of trouble out here. Ainâ€™t a thing to eat within a dayâ€™s trip or more. Weâ€™ve saved a bit, but thatâ€™s been shrinkinâ€™ as fast as the river. We canâ€™t keep on as we have. Iâ€™d just as soon not rejoin our fellow man outside of the Great Forest, but Iâ€™d rather that than starve ya. But I wish to try somethinâ€™ else, first. Iâ€™ve gotten someâ€¦erâ€¦information that Iâ€™m planninâ€™ on usinâ€™, but Iâ€™ll have to leave for a while.â€
â€œLeave? For how long?â€ the boy blurted out.
â€œI canâ€™t say for sure, lad. No lessâ€™n a week Iâ€™d wager.â€
â€œA week!? No, let me come with you!â€
â€œIâ€™ll not put ye in harmâ€™s way, son. Best you stay here and mind the house.â€
“But what will I do!?,” Owen shouted angrily, tears stinging his eyes, “What am I supposed to do without you?”
“There’s enough food left in the pantry to last ye three weeks, if ye are sparin’. As fer what ta do, I say keep on as ye are. Mind yer chores. When they’re done, do as ye will, as long as ye stay close to the house and out of trouble.”
“And if you don’t return in three weeks? What then?” Hot tears welled up in Owen’s eyes as his voice raised at his father.
“If I ain’t back in two, you will pack all of the remainin’ food and head directly south of here until you are out of the forest. There you will find the town of Arbor. Mention my name and ye will be cared for until I arrive.”
“And what if you don’t arrive, father? What if you never come to get me? Am I to be an orphan? I have no family but you! I’ve never even spoken to another human in my life! I’m not ready to face the world without you! Please, pa, let me come with you.”
“It’s far too dangerous a trip, Owen. I don’t mind risking my own neck, but you’re too important to put into peril.”
“My mother would never have left me alone in the middle of this horrible forest! She would’ve taken me with her!,” the boy shouted, raising to his feet and slowly backing away from his father.
“Now wait, son,” William protested, “That’s not fair.”
“What’s not fair is you keeping me prisoner here while you go out on adventures without me!,” Owen screamed. He gave his stunned father a final, hateful look, then turned and fled into the house. William stood silently as he heard the slam of his son’s bedroom door. He let go of a heavy sigh and shook his head sadly. If only the boy knew the truth.
William stood and brushed the dirt from his pants. He paused a moment to look around the little plot of land he’d claimed in the name of the Greenwoods, hardly believing it had been only eight years past. It felt like several lifetimes ago when he had brought his infant son into the Great Forest to live their lives far from the ignorance and cruelty of other humans. And of course there was that other business…
But how could he tell any of that to his son? Owen’s temper and imagination were far too unbridled for him to be able to know the whole truth of his past. He was a good boy, prone to mischief, but full of love. William couldn’t blame him for wanting to explore the world beyond the trees, and knew the day would inevitably come, but…not yet. Not this way. There was still so much innocence in the boy’s face. William wasn’t ready to see it dashed away by fear and disappointment and experience. Someday the world would crease and scar that handsome little face, as it had his father’s. But there was still time for wonderment and discovery and laughter. There was still time for a childhood.
But there would be no time for either of them if he stood here pondering. William gently smacked himself on the cheek three times, ran his fingers through his hair, and went into the house. The silence from behind his son’s closed bedroom door was louder than if the boy had been banging about in there and singing at the top of his lungs. William packed light; not that he had much to bring with him. He threw a change of clothes, a hunting knife, a compass, and a few old coins into a leather satchel. He hadn’t used money in a long time, but he guessed that he’d need some where he was going. Next he opened the kitchen pantry and found a loaf of bread. He cut it in half, folded one half into a small linen napkin, and put it into the satchel also. With any luck, he’d find some game to kill and cook for himself on the road within the next few days. Finished packing, William walked up to Owen’s door and rapped lightly.
“Son, I’m going now,” he said quietly, “Will ye see her old pa off?”
He was answered by nothing save silence.
“Listen, Owen,” he continued, “This is a journey I must make for the good of both of us. Were ye a bit older, I’d surely take ya along. But ye’re not, and I cannot. If ye won’t come out and tell me farewell, then I’ll just say that I love ya. In fact, ye are the only thing in this world that I do love. I’ll be home soon.”
The boy sat with his back against the other side of his bedroom door, his knees pulled up to his chest and his eyes full of angry, guilty tears and kept his mouth shut. He wanted to run out and tell his father that he loved him and hug him goodbye, but the cold steel within him kept him frozen and stubborn right where he was. He heard his father sigh and the awkward shuffling of feet, and then the door slammed shut and he was alone.
Owen panicked, sobbing loudly, but stayed in place for a full five minutes until he could contain himself no more and ran from his room, already calling for his father. He staggered through the door of the cottage and out into the forest, now screaming in fear and loneliness, but the man had disappeared among the trees. The only reply to his cries was the soft breath of a summer breeze. He collapsed to his knees and swayed madly, crying and coughing violently into the emptiness of the forest. The silence gripped him in a harsh, strangling embrace.
Eventually he fell asleep in a tiny, muddy puddle of his own tears, and when he awoke the shadows pointed east instead of west. He picked himself up and trudged back into the cottage. The next ten days were a smear of repetition. He checked the traps and lines, fetched water, and weeded the garden. He ate only a little at a time, and always went to bed hungry and lonely. His usual yearning to explore was gone. Mostly he sat in his bed and read the same books he’d read for years, the ones his father had brought into the forest when Owen was a baby. And when he didn’t read, he tried to remember his mother.
This was impossible, of course. His father had told him that Mary had died two weeks after Owen was born, and never talked about her. But the boy still tried, and sometimes, when he was deep in his imagination, he saw flashes and flickers of what could be true memories of the woman who had given him life and then lost her own. Now, sitting against his propped up pillows in his bed, he wished as hard as he could that she was alive and with him, stroking his hair and singing to him softly. He was no longer angry with his father, but he was lonely and scared and that made him feel even younger than he was. He was much more accustomed to feeling older than he was. The old man had done the best he could as both father and mother to Owen, but there was something about the idea of a mother that left a hungry, aching hole in the boy’s heart. In the old stories William told his son, mothers were always beautiful, kind, and selfless, and it was their goodness that saved them. In that week and a half, Owen dreamed of his mother, and the purity that surely lay inside her that could have filled the brook with fish and the woods with deer, in those ancient fairy tales. The Great Forest would have rewarded their family for her mere existence. But she was gone, and no amount of magic could change that.
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