The gift of the forest, a fox fairytale
Last year I started chatting with someone who was starting an online magazine focused on fine art photography. He sent me some photos and asked me to write a story around 2,ooo words. I actually thought the idea was brilliant, writing stories inspired from photos, but a few months later the magazine totally abandoned this idea and I was left with two stories: the one I’m posting today and another one about Cleopatra that I will post tomorrow.
This story, THE GIFT OF THE FOREST, was inspired by the photos of Alexandra Bochkareva. You can go to her IG @alexandra_bochkareva_arts and see the photos that were my inspiration: the red-headed girl and the fox (there’s a series of those), the freckled girl with a cage around her head, the girl submerged under water who looks very much dead but, obviously, isn’t. I find her photos very atmospheric, and I tried to capture some of that in the story. I’m really grateful that I came across these photos because otherwise I would have never written this story.
I exchanged a few emails with Alexandra, and I sent her the story as soon as it was finished. She told me she read it to her six-year-old daughter who loved it and thought it was just like a fairytale. Suffice it to say, my heart swelled out of my chest!!
I won’t be publishing this story with the original photos, but with photos of myself in some woods.
So here is the story:
The Woodsman walked slowly in the deepening gloom of the forest. In the quiet of the trees he could hear only his sadness. Then he heard a whimper. It was as plaintive as the melody of his suffering.
“Is anyone there?” the Woodsman called into the darkness, his unused voice wrenched from the depths of his sorrow.
His call was answered by a mewing. And in the deep shadows of an ancient tree the Woodsman caught a glimpse of fox red hair and green eyes.
“Noara,” he whispered.
Tears filled his eyes, and through the filter of sadness the Woodsman saw a baby girl.
The sun shone brightly on the forest and a gentle wind played through the trees on the morning of Noara’s fifteenth birthday. The Woodsman peered down at her. She had become a beautiful young girl with fox red hair and a spray of freckles across her fair skin. She slept with the pelt of a vixen wrapped around her neck, the vixen’s red hair mingling with her bright red curls as if in an embrace.
Noara opened her eyes.
“Happy birthday, my beautiful forest gift,” the Woodsman said. “You are a grown woman now. Soon you will leave the forest and me and venture to the city.”
Noara nuzzled the vixen’s red pelt. Her eyes shone with a peculiar glint, like animal eyes that shine in the night.
“Don’t be silly, papa. I will never leave the forest,” she said simply. Her words felt weighty, like the North wind bringing the first freeze of winter.
The Woodsman smiled. He was happy that she would never leave him because, over the last fifteen years, his beautiful red-headed daughter had become his heart, replacing the broken thing that had been in his chest before she entered his life. But at the same time an unexpected fear sprouted inside him, like an acorn taking root.
“What would you like to have for your birthday, my beautiful forest gift?” he asked, burying his fear deep.
“I want to know about my mother,” she said.
The Woodsman laughed uneasily. “Wouldn’t you rather have cake instead?”
“No. I want to know about my mother,” Noara said, and she buried her face into the vixen’s soft red pelt.
“Your mother was very beautiful,” he said, reaching out and touching Noara’s nose. “Like you.”
“Why did she die?” Noara asked.
He smiled but said nothing. Noara saw the sadness in his smile.
“A mother dying is the worst thing,” Noara said, almost dreamily.
The Woodsman nodded. “A mother dying is the worst thing in the whole world.”
“Am I not old enough to know about my mother, papa?” Noara asked, her eyes drifting toward the Woodsman’s room where she knew there was a locked box inside the cabinet beside his bed.
The Woodsman shook his head. The box was his past and would always remain locked.
When the first signs of winter descended from the high peaks, the Woodsman set out to the village for supplies.
“Don’t go into the forest alone while I’m away. The forest hides many dangers,” he told Noara before he left.
But the lure of the forest was too strong for Noara to resist, and as soon as the Woodsman was out of sight, she dove into the trees like a swimmer plunging into water. She walked the path she had walked with the Woodsman every morning when he went to check his game snares. Deep in the heart of the forest she heard a plaintive whimper. Curious, she crept to the edge of a clearing, pushed through the thickets, and found a vixen lying on her side. The wire of a snare was wound tight around her neck, cutting through her thick red fur. The vixen’s tongue was out, and her sharp white teeth had punctured the pink flesh, smearing blood on her snow-white muzzle. The vixen stared up at Noara through a green-golden eye.
Noara picked up a rock.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the vixen.
She raised the rock, but before she could bring it down on the vixen’s head, she heard a voice.
“What strange words you speak, sister. What is sorry?” the voice asked.
Noara looked around. There was no one near, except… She looked down into the vixen’s green-golden eyes.
“Why do you go around in that form, sister?” the vixen asked.
Noara staggered backward and put out her hands as if to push aside the vixen’s words.
“You could run quicker on all fours,” the vixen said.
“But I cannot run on all fours,” Noara answered. “I am a girl.”
“Why are you a girl, sister?” the vixen asked.
“Because that is who I have always been,” Noara answered. “I am the Woodsman’s daughter.”
“The Woodsman kills foxes. Will you kill me, sister?” the vixen asked, without rancor or recrimination.
Noara hesitated. “No,” she said.
She threw away the rock and carefully loosened the snare. The vixen sprang to her feet and bolted across the clearing, pausing only for an instant to look back at Noara.
When Noara returned to the Woodsman’s cabin, she didn’t say anything about releasing the vixen. And she didn’t join him when he went to check the snares the following morning or the morning after that. She brooded in her room, hugging the vixen pelt, as if the soft red fur could give her answers to the questions that were spinning in her head. On the third night a farmer arrived at the cabin seeking the Woodsman’s help. Before he left, the Woodsman warned Noara once more:
“Don’t go into the forest alone. The forest is no place for a girl at night.”
But as soon as he was gone, Noara became restless. The rough-hewn wooden walls began to feel like a cage, and what was once familiar began to feel oppressive. She went out into the growing dusk and quickly made her way to the high mountain meadow. There she sat on the soft grass and looked up at the foxfire playing in the night sky. A strange girl emerged from the trees and walked toward Noara.
“Hello, sister,” the strange girl greeted her.
Her hair was fox red, and she had a splash of freckles across her pale skin.
“You look just like me,” Noara said.
“Sisters often look alike,” the strange girl answered.
“I don’t have a sister,” Noara said.
“This is a strange form to choose, sister,” she said.
“I am not your sister,” Noara said.
“Then answer me this, sister: why did you free me from the Woodsman’s snare?” the strange girl asked. “The Woodsman would have killed me.”
“You are the vixen?” Noara asked.
“I am, just as you are my sister,” the strange girl said.
Noara shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “I am Noara and the Woodsman is my father.”
“The Woodsman killed our mother,” the strange girl said simply, without any anger.
“I don’t believe you,” Noara shouted, tears falling down her freckled cheeks. “I am Noara. The Woodsman is my father.”
Noara wiped her tears away and looked at the strange girl defiantly. “The Woodsman killed your mother. Do you hate him?” she asked.
“No, sister,” the strange girl answered. “How can I hate him for being true to his nature? But why have you forsaken your nature, sister? Why do you live in this human form? Why do you put yourself in a cage?”
Noara didn’t want to hear anymore. She fled. When she was back in the Woodsman’s cabin, she wrapped the vixen’s soft red pelt around her and cried.
Noara wiped away her tears, and carrying the vixen’s pelt, she ran to the cabinet in the Woodsman’s room and found the locked box that held the Woodsman’s secrets. She forced the lock.
Inside she found a stack of pictures.
There was a picture of the Woodsman. He was younger and he was wearing a suit. He wasn’t in the forest but in a city. Beside him was a beautiful woman with bright red hair.
“Mother,” Noara whispered.
She looked at picture after picture until she came to a picture of the Woodsman, the beautiful woman, and an infant. On the back of the picture was a single word: Noara.
“Me,” Noara breathed.
She looked at more pictures. There was a picture of a chubby toddler with her mother. On the back of the picture it said: Noara at three.
“Me and my mother,” Noara whispered. She was crying again.
She flipped through pictures of Noara getting older and older: Noara at five, Noara at eight, Noara at eleven, Noara at seventeen.
“Seventeen,” Noara whispered.
The last picture was of her and her mother. It was printed on thin yellowing paper. There was writing, but Noara couldn’t make sense of the words: accident, capsized, drowned, no survivors…
She was holding it in a trembling hand when the Woodsman found her.
“I told you never to open that box,” the Woodsman roared, angry like a bear.
Noara looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“Who am I?” she whispered, almost as if she was talking to herself.
The Woodsman’s anger melted away. “You are my beautiful forest gift,” he said, taking her in his comforting embrace.
But Noara pulled away from him, the vixen’s pelt clutched to her chest like a shield.
“Don’t lie to me. I am not your daughter. I am the vixen’s child.”
The Woodsman saw fire in her eyes and knew he couldn’t lie to her.
“You are my daughter and I am your father. When I found you, you needed me and I needed you. You were the gift of the forest.”
“You always said that a mother dying is the worst thing that can happen in the whole world, but you killed my mother,” Noara raged.
“I killed a fox,” the Woodsman said.
“You killed my mother and I will never forgive you, Woodsman,” Noara said, and she ran out into the night.
The Woodsman found Noara in the high mountain meadow beneath the foxfire. Her cheeks shone with spent tears.
“My beautiful forest gift, forgive me,” the Woodsman said.
Noara looked at him with the eyes of a fox. He killed her mother. He saved her. He raised her. He was what his nature was, nothing more, nothing less. He was the Woodsman.
The Woodsman saw the hate leave her fox eyes, and that was more painful to him than the hate itself.
“Noara, please don’t leave me,” he pleaded.
“I forgive you, papa,” Noara said.
Beneath the foxfire now stood only a fox with bright red hair and green eyes that held no hate or anger. The fox lifted her nose, her ears twitched, and with one last look toward the Woodsman, she walked away into the forest.
The Woodsman watched the fox walk to the edge of the clearing where another fox was waiting. Together they disappeared into the trees, and he was alone once more.