When I think of those many nights sitting at the tiny wizened feet of my equally tiny, wizened grandmother, I think of those stories she told us. I think of what went through my mind as each story got told and retold. I remembered the lessons each story was meant to impart, and I remember wondering why it was that these central figures were such outcasts. If one were to study my reasons closely (and please don’t), perhaps it was my way of always sticking out from the crowd. Physically, I was as different from my family as I could be. But emotionally, and historically, I will always be a part of them. I will always be a part of that culture that brought us these stories.
However, it is my difference that is stubborn enough to bring to you these versions of those stories of long ago. (And may my little grandma forgive me for taking such liberties. I’d like to think she would be pleased to know she was this inspirational when trying to get us to behave! :> )
This man had not put up too much of a fight. Perhaps he had never been brave. When his thumb cracked and the blood spurted from his hands where the digit had been removed, the scream was high pitched, drawn out until it faded into the distance, absorbed by the thick swath of trees surrounding us.
I had seen him night after night, deer carcasses piled high on his horse as he shot and killed his way through to where I lived. I also saw him early in the evenings around the edge of the same forest before he left for hunting. The girl he rolled in the high bushes with was not his wife. I had seen his wife, a sad young creature with a belly fully bloated with another child, and two already wailing around her. The girl he was playing with was pleasingly plump and pretty, well-fed – probably by the deer that he kept killing in my forest. The rage bubbled over again…
He was a bad man. He deserved this. I pulled his other thumb as he lay crumpled in a heap where he had been reduced to a feverish, trembling fool.
I was angry. This was my home; this forest was mine to care for. He was killing my animals, taking more than he should. He was not a good man.
He had followed my trap, seeking the deer that I showed him day after day. There was a herd that obeyed me, standing around still waiting for the shots, knowing that they could save the other deer. The law of the land was to take, but only what was needed. He took so much that the rest of the hunters kept having to go deeper and deeper into the forest, beyond my realm and watch. Some got lost, and if that happened, families would go hungry. This one man was stealing from them.
My rule in the forest could not let that happen.
I don’t know why I cared, when all I wanted was to break every single one of those villagers. I wanted to twist their ankles until they fell and crawled, unable to walk normally. I wanted to do so many things to them. At night I would sometimes get into their pastures, riding their horses till they foamed at the mouth. Sometimes those horses had to be left alone for weeks – weeks that meant crops would be carried on villagers’ backs. I pulled clothing from their lines – serves them right. Who leaves their laundry out at night?
But the rules of the forest meant that I had to go right back to the darkened forest, watching and minding the animals and the trees. I had to protect them for them.
Perhaps because at one time, long ago, I was one of them.
For the longest time, I only ever knew the dark; I only ever knew the smell of damp earth and wet leaves, and the occasional gust of smoke that would signal my one meal a day. At some point, my eyes had gotten accustomed to the poor light. A few rays often seeped into the dark cave where I spent my days, and they reminded me that the day was carrying on around me.
In the dark, I could see my feet: four toes, and a pointy nub next to them. The pointy nub moved when I tried wiggling, but it was not a toe. It was just there. My gait was unsteady as I tried to take steps around my earthen prison. Planting them sideways helped, and that became my saving grace.
My hands also had stumps next to the four fingers that dangled from the palm. The one meal I ate a day was not enough to keep me full sometimes, so I spent many days catching worms as they poked their heads out of the earth, swallowing them quickly so that I could not taste their fat, squelchy, wriggling bodies. These four-fingered hands had learned to dig and grab, ensuring that I ate and lived. I don’t know why I wanted to live, but every day I woke up from where I lay on the dirt floor was another day I wanted to go out. I always wanted to see the sunshine.
The first day I didn’t smell the smoke – the first day I was not fed, I thought they forgot me. The second day there was nothing either. I was constantly hungry, but I knew not to come out. Before I came into the cave, into its dark, dank tunnels – things had happened. By the third day, I was starving – the worms were not fat, nor were they plentiful. I had to eat something, and food had to be outside. Maybe something happened to them. Maybe it was time to step out.
When I finally came out of the tunnels, I was weakened from hunger. I had waited and waited, until the hunger was all I felt every waking moment. When sleep refused to come because the gnawing pain ate at me from the inside, I left the darkened tunnels for the outside.
But the heat and brightness of the sunshine was too much. I was blinded. Everything looked blurred, faint at the edges, and the pain in my head was nearly too much. I ran back to my safe tunnel, waiting for the sun to go away.
When the shadows stole across the entrance to my cave, I tried again. The icy cool of the trees that surrounded us was a relief after the stinging waves of heat that burned earlier. My gait was strong from stumbling in the tunnels, so I nearly ran out in the flat pathway. My bare feet didn’t even feel the stones on the path. Tall trees grew thickly outside my home, and I walked in the darkening shadows seeking them.
Everything was different, and even to my dark-accustomed eyes, I felt as if things were out of place.
It felt as if I had walked around and searched for a long time before I saw the house. There was no light to ward off the incoming night, and there was no smoke where food would have been cooking.
There was no-one inside, and the door had opened easily. I found bits of food, and ignoring the mold and flies, I ate what I could, stretching out on the floor right by the door to sleep afterwards.
I woke up to the sounds of scratching and sniffing, and stayed still on the floor, not moving as the sounds grew nearer. Somehow, I fell asleep even in the face of the sounds, and when I finally awoke, it was because the rays of light coming in the window were playing a pattern on my face. I was dizzy, and the fleeting memories of a dream teased the edges of my mind. As I tried to grasp what it meant, another wave of darkness washed over me and I slept again.
I saw her in my mind’s eye. She glowed in a long white dress as she held me in her arms. I saw myself being held by her: small, already hunched over. My gnarled digits curled around the dark lock of hair that strayed from her forehead. She was my mother – I felt it; I believed it. Touching her warmed me; I greedily wanted more, but she held me firm. She did not speak, but I got her message. As I watched her face, I saw what she wanted, felt what she saw and wanted, and deep inside me, in a part that had been hidden in a dank, musty cave, I felt a strength take root. I woke up when the sun had passed high above the little house. I no longer feared the heat and my eyes clearly saw every detail of my surroundings. I searched the hut for what I could use, and with a small bundle on my back, I walked back to my cave. It was my home and it was where I belonged. When I was not caring for the forest where innocent animals lived, where plants gave life, and birds chirped their messages, I would be in the home where my parents hid me.
After the villagers had seen my difference, and believing me to be a monster, my parents had fearfully stolen into the night, heading deep into the forest where my cries, their cries, and our difference could not be heard or seen.
I had left him in the bushes where he had tumbled and rolled with his sweetheart many times. I had surrounded him with the flowers that grew outside my cave – their perfume was intoxicating – so much so he would not awake for days. I hid behind giant leaves and awaited her.
The first night passed without incident, but the second night lured her in. The smell of the flowers was too much to resist. When she saw what lay underneath the wilting flowers, her screams brought many villagers to see what lay at her feet.
I stole away further into my web of trees and shrubs, listening to the exclamations of disbelief. I also saw the looks that were sent her way, and as the moments passed, accusations began. What had been shared in my dream was true – when the villagers took on a mentality, it was hard to shake it off.
Satisfied that I had taken care of two problems, I went back to my cave to sleep the sleep of the untroubled.
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