Stories

The Old Man in the Woods - a short story

The forest was unusually quiet this morning walking with my black dog, Moe. Just the sound of a slight wind in the trees, the cries of birds, and the patter of Moe’s paws on the forest floor running here and there sniffing, and rushing after small animals. Those squirrels always seem faster than Moe and get the better of her. Off in the distance we heard the church bells toll eight of the clock. We were a little later than normal when we set out. A mist was rising in places, from last night’s rain. Cool, the humidity began to bead on my glasses. I stepped over piles of leaf litter and cones washed throughout the path in piles. Looking at the streams, they seemed excited, dancing over the rocks.

Coming between a couple of large boulders supporting tall, waving trees whose roots gripped like fingers to the rock, we saw an old man. The smoke from his small pipe drifted lazily upward as he sat on a rock. I noticed his clothing was somewhat unusual. The path led us to the man; as we approached, Moe a little wary but tail wagging, he looked up and smiled.

After a friendly greeting we began to talk.

“My wife will be along soon,” he said. “She's a wonderful woman. She loves dogs. She'll like this one.” The man scratched Moe's ear as she got closer to gingerly sniff his trousers. “Is she a mutt?”

I told him what I believed was Moe’s varied ancestry. We discussed that the day was quite beautiful despite the mist, maybe because of it and how this was such a nice place to wander. I asked how he had met his wife.

“She saved me, she did.”

I asked him, how?

“From a dragon,” he said and took a puff on his pipe, the smoke once more gently rising towards the branches drooping above us.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I sat down on a fallen tree and listened.

“We lived in a small cottage in a small town where we told stories to small children. Sometimes when it rained in the summer, we would come here and we'd dance beneath the showering clouds and dripping trees. Too old for that now, I think.”

I smiled.

“We grew together,” he said. “Aged together, and joked about each other farting. Her’s were sweeter than mine, and she always let me know! We always held hands, except when we were cooking together, or reading. Sometimes we'd write poems to each other and hide them so we'd find them later. It was more than once when I hid mine too well and would have to unhide them.”

I couldn't help but laugh at this. I turned about to see between the branches. There was still no sign of the man’s wife.I wondered at what type of person she was. They were obviously happy together. Geese flew overhead, and I looked up. Their cries filled the air. Moe jumped about, then spotting a squirrel chased after it.

“Lively one, that dog of yours.”

“She is that. Her name's Moe.”

“What, for Maureen?”

“No, just Moe. M O E.”

“She likes the woods, eh?”

I nodded. “She does.” There was still no sign of his wife. “Moe loves most places I take her,” I told the man.

He looked over his shoulder, then turning back opened a pocket watch that appeared in his hand. Gazing at the watch face, he shrugged. The watch looked old but well kept, the kind I wouldn’t mind owning one day. He lifted his face and spoke. “We loved going to town market. It always seemed an adventure. The market sellers was always smiling at us. It was as if we were rich and they wanted us to spend all our money on them. But they knew we weren't. We had fun tasting the wares, though, especially if they had chocolates. It was rare they ‘ad chocolates, though. If the old bookseller was at the market, we would sit and read bits of books and stories to each other, buying our favourite to read at home together later.

“My favourite was when one of townspeople would visit and play the fiddle for us. I was getting on then.  We would slowly dance in each other's arms, eventually collapsing on the sofa and we'd fall asleep still wrapped in an embrace.” The man smiled and gazed off, as if remembering something from a long time ago.

“One o’ me friends said our kisses could light the skies, that fireflies glowed more brightly when me and the missus kissed, the crickets would chirp louder, and birds sing more sweetly! At least that's what he said.”

The old man looked about again. He sighed. “Seems she’s not coming today. Maybe tomorrow.” He sat gently tapping his pipe on the rock, watching the tobacco fall to the forest floor. Lifting a foot, he stamped the tobacco out in the damp earth. “Oh well. I hope I didn’t bore ya. I don’t get to meet too many folks who notice me out here in the woods. Folk are funny these days it seems. Won’t even look ya in the eye.”

“You didn’t bother me at all. It’s nice to meet you. A pleasure. I should get on though. Work and all that.” I turned and called for Moe, who came bounding towards me and leaped up on the rock the old man and been sitting on. The old man had vanished. I stared at Moe.

It was then I realized that the man had only talked in the past tense. I looked at where the burned tobacco had fallen, and sniffed the air, but could see no sign of it nor smell the tobacco. It occurred to me that he had never told me his name, nor how his wife had rescued him from the dragon.

© Simon Brooks, 27th September, 2018

RED! a retelling (PG-13 for fantasy violence)

Originally posted October 10, 2017

Red! A retelling, starting the story in the middle, by Simon Brooks, © 2017

It was dark, damp and hot. The air was filled with rancidity. The old woman felt around the slime covered walls which gave and moved to her touch. She felt a jolt and was bounced around and for a short while was not sure which way was up and which was down. Then all was still. Sitting up she felt the walls press against her. She heard gentle rumblings, was jolted again and felt it become slightly and slowly more damp. There was an acidic smell to the new dampness, not unlike wine. At least it was warm. Silence and stillness and what seemed like eternal darkness ruled for a while. Then the old lady could hear murmurings, mumbles, but could not really make anything out. The woman was glad to try to hear what the noise was; it was a distraction from the claustrophobia she was beginning to feel. Then another sudden jolt, a roar, and she was bounced and jostled around and felt something land and press against her. There was barely room to move before; now she was crushed almost beyond endurance against the stinking, slimy wall. The old woman did not move and then muttered to herself: “It’s dark in here, but at least I am still alive.”

“Who’s there?” said a tiny voice.

“Is that you, Little Red?”

“Grandma! Did the wolf eat you too?”

“Well, I suppose he did, my little one.”

“I’m sorry Granny, it’s all my fault.” The small voice began to tremble, so Granny pulled her grandchild in close and hugged her.

“Don’t be silly. How can it be your fault?”

“Well. Me and Mama, we made some bread for you ‘cause you were poorly and I was supposed to bring it to you with the wine. And I was s’posed to come straight here, but I never did,” said the girl. “It’s so hot, I can barely breathe.”

Granny spoke softly. “There, there.”

There was a sudden movement and they heard the sound of liquid rushing towards them. It poured over them both. Red cried out and Granny held the girl tighter. There was that acidic smell again. In another place it might have smelled good. Maybe. Granny said, “Well, what happened?” She tried to clear the warm liquid from Red’s face.

“Mama told me to come straight here, but I didn’t,” said Red.

“Well, what happened?” Granny asked again.

The girl sniffed and said, “I met a wolf on the path, Granny.”

Granny’s voice was patient and soft. “What happened, Red?”

“He asked if he could walk with me as it was such a nice day and I said ‘yes’. He was big, but really thin, Granny.”

“There, there. What happened?” There was more noise and some moving, then nothing.

“He asked where I was going and I told him. That I was coming to your house ‘cause you was poorly and I had bread me and Mama made and some wine for you. The wolf, the wolf, he said maybe I should pick some flowers, too. That if you was poorly, flowers would make you happy and feel better.”

“Yes, they would, my dear. Yes they would. So you strayed off the path?”

“I did Granny. I strayed off the path, and then he was gone. And I came straight here.”

Granny was quiet for a while. “That wolf, the old sinner. I bet he thought he’d come here and make a meal of us both.” She sniffed the air and her clothes. “And wash us down with the wine, of course.” She sighed and thought. “I’m sure there’s a way out of this, if I could think of it,” she said.

“It smells in here, Granny.”

“That is does, dear. That it does. It’s dark and hot too, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Although Red could not see her grandmother, she knew she was smiling. Red could hear it in her grandmother’s voice.

The humidity rose and rose. Granny tried to take deep breaths, but found it hard. The fetid air grew heavier until there was a great rumbling roar and release. For a while Granny and Red could breathe a little easier.

There was a slight movement and it felt like something was pushing in against one of the walls of the wolf’s stomach. A shining point came through the wall and with it, a thin sliver of light. The sudden brightness grew as the slit grew. After the complete darkness, the light made Granny cover both her own eyes and those of Little Red. More light poured in and a pair of hands followed. Little Red was pulled from Grandma’s grasp and lifted out of the belly of the beast. Granny cried out. The hands reached down again and carefully lifted Granny. They both blinked in the bright light and saw before them a tall, strong, kind-faced huntsman. Although he smiled at them, there was something about his face that told Granny how both she and her granddaughter looked and smelled.

“Are you two ladies alright?” he asked. He looked about and got a cloth. After dampening it he handed it to Granny who wiped her face and hands clean. A basket lay on the floor, and flowers were strewn about. An empty bottle lay on the floor next to an untouched loaf of bread still wrapped in a cloth. The table had been pushed across the floor and a chair tipped over. The old lady stood still shaking a little, wetted the cloth once more and began to wipe off Red. The young girl clung to her grandmother looking between the huntsman and the wolf.

The huntsman began to pick up things which had been knocked onto the floor and straighten the house up a little. He said: “I’ve been tracking this old sinner for a while now. Sorry I didn’t find him sooner.”

Granny looked at the huntsman. He was handsome and made Granny’s heart skip a beat. She smiled at the man. “Thank you. For saving us and for picking up the mess.” Granny looked over at her bed and saw the wolf with his head flopped back and belly opened up. “Please take it away.”

The huntsman pulled the sheets around the wolf, took the body outside. Granny washed Red’s hair at the water pump in the kitchen.

When the hunter came back in he told them he had skinned the wolf and butchered the meat. “No point in letting it all go to waste.” His clothes were rough but well made. The boots heavy and worn, but looked comfortable.

Granny remembered her husband, when he had been alive, had a pair just like them and he used to say they were as comfortable as slippers. She smiled at the memory, but then shuddered again, thinking of the wolf.

The man looked around the house and then at Granny. “Well, there is a reward for a wolf’s pelt. It doesn’t seem right to me that I keep it all. After all, I found the sinner in your house.” He moved from one foot to another, slightly embarrassed. I’ll bring you the money, or we could split it” said the man.

“No need to do that.” Granny stroked Red’s hair with lavender oil trying to get the rid of the smell. “If you had not been tracking him, I don’t know when we would have got out. You keep the money.”

“If you say so. Thank you. Can I help out here? Should I send word to anyone?”

“No. We will be fine now. If you could burn the bed covers and sheets, I would appreciate that.”

“Of course.”

So, the house was put right again. The great pot was boiled and the water poured into a small tin tub into which Little Red was thoroughly scrubbed. The pot was boiled again and Granny washed herself. She picked some lavender and rubbed the leaves over both of them. Granny dressed her granddaughter in some of her own clothes, and the two laughed at such a small girl dressed in such roomy clothing.

 While the washed clothes dried in the sun, the girl’s hooded red cloak flapping in the warm breeze. Together they made some soup which went very nicely with the bread Red had brought.

Before dusk, they went out together and picked some new flowers and put them in a vase. The flowers Red had arrived with were broken and trampled. Red’s mother and father visited a couple of days later to check on them both. The hunter had told them that the wolf had been found and killed and Granny and Red were fine.

Although it needs not to be mentioned, I will say that Little Red never strayed from the path again; unless it was with her grandmother to pick flowers.

 

Copyright Simon Brooks, ©2017