The Woodcutter's Sons
One summer, near noon on the longest day of the year, a woodcutter noticed a vine of poison oak growing up the side of a young tree. He cut through the finger-thick vine, careful not to mar the bark of the slender ash on which it grew, and the next day when the leaves of the ivy had dried and curled he pulled its grasping tendrils from the tree’s side.
That evening as he stacked wood under the eaves of his small cottage he saw a shape moving at the edge of the clearing. A young woman with copper-green hair stood between the trees, naked where the light of the evening touched her. There were dark freckles on her yellow-white skin.
“My father the ash has seen you save his youngest son this day,” she said. Her voice rose and fell with the breeze that tossed the leaves above. “He would grant you a boon.”
The man stared.
“Is there nothing you desire? Do not fear my father thinks ill of you because you are a hewer of wood.”
“Lady,” he finally said, finding his voice. “I desire many things.”
She smiled. “I know a bower beneath the willows. My sisters will say nothing, and my father will not see.”
He shook his head. “My sons. They are twins, and they were born not a week past in the cottage behind me. I would that when the woods spoke, they would speak clearly to them.”
Her smile faded, but her eyes grew bright. “Do you know what you ask?”
“I do.” He motioned to where the tops of the trees danced in a wind from the sea. Smoke curled slowly from the cottage chimney. “I have heard your whispers my whole life. I hear your voices every day. But I know not what you say. I would that my sons understood.”
She sighed. “It may bring pain.”
He waited for perhaps as long as it took to draw three breaths, and then she nodded slowly. “It has been done, and it will be so. Your sons will hear our words clearly.”
The man waited again, and when she said nothing further he moved a pace to the left. She vanished-- or rather what had been her form became only the curve of a birch trunk mottled with shadow.
Time passed, and the woodcutter’s sons grew. When they cried, whispers outside the cottage windows would quiet them. In the summers they stared upward with wide, unblinking eyes. When autumn came they would moan softly at night, and when they began to speak their words came slow and soft, especially in the winters.
The woodcutter, who had seen many strange things in the forest, never spoke to his wife of his words with the birch-woman, nor did he tell his sons. The winter their mother died, the sons laid evergreen boughs on her grave. In the spring they walked the forest paths with their father felling trees and shaping them to be sold or stacked and cured.
In time the woodcutter grew in the certainty that his wish for his sons had been granted. They would speak of wolves down from the hills before any heard their howls, and they knew of fire in the forests beyond the mountain when there were no winds to bring the scent of smoke. They learned the paths of the forest better than their father, though he had been raised in its shadows, and they could find their way through the sea of trees in the middle of nights when the stars were lost and the woodcutter himself would have wandered hopelessly. When they joined their father in his work, they would sometimes tell him to leave untouched a tree he had planned to fell or take one that he would have passed.
“You cannot hear them, father?” the first of his sons asked one day. His hair was a shade redder than blonde, and he often spoke for his brother as well. “They moan when your ax touches their skin. We know you must do your work, but we can’t abide their cries.”
The man nodded slowly. “What would you have me do?”
“Dead wood is fine for burning,” the second son said slowly, “but we can’t craft it. There are places where the forest is thick, and the trees vie for light. Were we to take from there, perhaps the voice of the one that fell would be drowned by those that remained and were glad to be out of its shadow.”
“Show me,” the father said, and they began to take their wood from deep in the forest where the trees were thickest.
After a time his sons came to him again.
“We cannot shape the wood, father,” the first son said. “We know you must carve the wood with awl and chisel and that you see stories in the grain, but we know those stories for true. You do not hear their voices.”
“I do,” said the father.
“But you don’t know what they say. For us, we are carving and cutting flesh that has spoken to us of rain and sun and sleep.”
“Imagine a man in the village,” the second son said. His eyes were still as wide as they had been as a child. “Like the old balladeer who sings by the fire each market day. Suppose when he died we were to shape his flesh into ornaments, chip weapons or staves from his bones, and in those bones we saw all the stories he had sung.”
Then the woodcutter grieved, for he realized his wish for them meant his sons could not remain with him in the forest.
“I cannot make you do,” he said to them, “what you cannot do. I fear I have given you a difficult gift.” And he told them then of the birch-woman and the young ash tree and the ivy.
“We knew that no one else heard as we did,” said the first son. “We did not know why.”
“What will you do? I have nothing to leave you but my tools, which you cannot use. And I have nothing to teach you but a trade you cannot ply.”
The trees whispered around them, and for a time there was silence.
“I will take the harp you carved me,” said the second son finally, and he smiled. “The one mother strung and taught me to play. I’ll go into the cities and sing the songs I have learned. And along the way it may be that I will visit other forests and learn new songs.”
Then the woodcutter embraced his son and gave him his best cloak for the road, and the trees above the path bent in sorrow as his son walked from the forest alone.
When the second son was gone the first said to his father, “I will go to the ships, and I will sail where the voices are of wind and sea and are wordless to me.” And the first son embraced his father, and the woodcutter gave him his second-best cloak and his boots of hide sealed against the snow. The trees again were bent in sadness, and the woodcutter remained in the forest.
The years passed and the woodcutter hewed and shaped the trees. He listened to the whispers that passed endlessly in the branches above his head and wondered of what they spoke.
After many years, when the snows had come and gone perhaps a dozen times on the grave of their mother, the sons returned to the cottage of the woodcutter. The first came in a gilded carriage with the daughter of a duchess, tall and stately as an oak. He wore a cloak of ermine and rings on his fingers. He had found his fortune on the seas, and he wished to bring his father to live in a manor overlooking the harbor where his ships were wintered.
The second son was not rich, but he wore clothes of a foreign cut and told of cities far to the east and the west, of torch-lit evenings playing ballads in the gardens of princes, and of a woman slender as a poplar who waited in a fishing village to the north. He wanted his father to return with him to a city where they would live together and craft instruments.
“My sons,” said the father, “I had feared my wish for you was a burden and my gift a hardship.” They sat together in the warmth of the cottage, and the trees seemed to crowd about to listen. “Yet I have no desire to leave this forest and see the wide spaces of the world. I have dwelt my life in the shadow of its branches, and I could not abide to be beyond the sound of their voices, though I know not what they say.”
At this the two sons went to the windows of the cottage and stared out toward the eaves of the forest where the lowering sun sent shafts among the branches. They stood together for a long time without speaking.
“The voices of this wood are deep,” the first said finally. “On the sea the voices are wild, and I was forced to learn what they said without knowing their words. But every ship is haunted by the ghost of trees, and so I knew the strength of each beam. I knew what wind would snap the mast and when rot was in the planks. I knew ships,” he said, “and I learned the sea, and so the gift you gave was for me a great gift indeed.”
“And for me,” said the second son, “though my brother sought to be free of the speech of the wood, I walked among trees and studied their tongue, teaching myself to speak it for men. So it was I made a name in the cities. I have been to many forests, but the sweetest songs are indeed sung here.”
Then he took his harp and played, and the woodcutter felt he had at last learned something of what the trees spoke of on soft mornings of cool fog and evenings of low moons. And the first son took chests from his carriage and showed conches and corals and salt-stained maps, and the father felt something of the memories of trees floated to the sea and fashioned to sail.
Once more the sons asked him to come with them but he would not. In time they left him, though they promised to return.
That summer on the longest day of the year--though the old woodcutter still felt the pains of winter in his bones--he found a vine as thick as his wrist growing up the side of a great ash deep within the forest. He cut through it, though his hands were not as steady as they once were, and he grazed the bark of the tree. The next day, when the leaves of the ivy were dried and withered, he pulled it from the tree and burned it behind his cottage. Then he took pitch and dressed the wound his ax had made.
In the evening, though his eyes were dim, he saw the woman of the birch standing in the shadows beside his woodpile.
“You are old now, woodcutter,” she said, and though her voice was as he remembered, her hair was thicker and her skin darker. “It is a shame you sons of flesh grow old so much more swiftly than we daughters of soil.”
The old man said nothing.
“You have again done a service to my father the ash, and he wishes once more to grant a boon. Think well on what you ask this time, for I see your first has taken your sons far from you.” She stretched her arms over her head as a breeze passed through her fingers. “Perhaps a simpler wish. I know many bowers now, and the nights in the forest are long.”
The old man smiled and leaned on his ax.
“You are good to me, daughter of the forest,” he finally said, “and your father is a good king. Wrong you are though to say my first wish was ill. It is true my sons have left the voices of this forest, but they have gone far and have seen many things.”
The trees around them sighed.
“I would ask a boon, fair one,” he continued. “I ask that my son’s sons, and their sons, and their sons after them for as long as men walk in the shadow of trees, would know your voices and the words you speak.”
The birch bowed her head. “It will bring pain,” she said.
“Many things do.”
“And what of you?” The sunlight was bright on her skin.
“I will die soon,” the woodcutter said. “And as you have said, my sons are far. When I do I will lie there beside you, and I ask that you cover my bones and keep them from the rain.”
She nodded and smiled again, this time as an autumn day, and her tears fell around the woodcutter like yellowed pages from a book.
When the woodcutter’s sons returned once again to the forest, now with their own sons, they found the cottage empty and the ashes in the hearth at least a season cold. They knew then, for the trees spoke of their father’s passing, and they left flowers at the foot of a silent birch.
Stephen Case teaches astronomy and the history of science by day and by (cloudy) nights he writes, reads, and reviews science fiction and fantasy. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Shimmer, among others. His novel, First Fleet, is published by Axiomatic Publishing and available on Amazon.