For Steph, who made me write this story long ago, and for who I finish it now.
This is a fairytale. There are no fairies or tales in it, but nonetheless it is, undoubtedly, a fairytale. One thing it does have is magic. Nobody casts any spells or concocts deadly potions simply because there are no wizards or witches to do either. What we do have, you might argue, is real magic. The kind that makes flowers bloom, rivers run backwards and mockingbirds sing with a thousand voices. You might not be terribly excited about such magic, but it really is better than wizard’s fire and talking dragons. But it’s not my job to convince you that—let the fairy-less tale do that.
It isn’t a clear sunny day. There are no chirping birds or buzzing bees. Not a single butterfly dances across the summer blooms. No, not a good day at all. It’s quite a miserable day, in fact. There is no color to things, even the shades of gray still left are themselves faded and dreary. In the middle of this miserable day among the forests to the north and the swamps to the south, is a small house with a patched roof and a once bright blue door. The house is small and has only three rooms. In the kitchen, Mother bakes a chicken pot pie for dinner. We see a small table with three seats, but only two plates out. Mother likes to whistle while she cooks. Right now, she joyfully whistles London Bridge is Falling Down. Either that or Mary Had a Little Lamb; quite the mystery.
The other two rooms of the house are bedrooms. The larger holds a large bed with bumbling brass poles. The bed linen is faded, its floral pattern long since unrecognizable. The walls are covered in framed photographs, all of them of smiling faces and better times. Centered and offset by its huge ornate frame, is the portrait of a man. He’s dressed in dark brown canvas. He is a large man, yet his clothes hang loosely on him. He holds a shotgun across his chest, confident, and wears a broad bearded grin—his teeth are stained yellow, his skin burnt by the sun. Only his hair, a dark yellow—almost gold—is well kempt. The jolly glint in his eyes reminds of Saint Nick, though this man seems apt to hunt reindeer rather than hire them. There is no indication of who this man is, though our readers surely have their guesses.
The smaller room is, well, rather small. Near a tiny window, crushed against the wall, is a tiny wooden bed. There are no stuffed animals or clowned patterned linen—rather there are books and gray sheets. There is such little precious space that the many books are stacked by the several dozen, perilously balanced—but who is it that would sacrifice her bed to have a makeshift bookshelf?
Cynthia Helena Wurmwood is not a happy girl. She is sitting against the edge of the bed, reading a book much too heavy for her skinny arms. She lets it rest on her bent knees and peers at it intently. If we peek at the binding, written in large block letters, the title, Fire’s Garden. It has wizards and dragons in it. Cynthia hates wizards and dragons. As we shall soon find out, Cynthia hates a lot of things. At least, for hating wizards and dragons, she has a reason: no wizard or dragon has ever visited Cynthia—she considers this very rude.
She once, not long ago, put out a sign—neatly colored with crayons—saying “ALL WIZARDS, WITCHES, FAIRIES, DRAGONS, UNICORNS, AND ETC. ARE INVITED TO DINNER. WE HAVE SPAGHETTI (MOTHER SAYS IT’S OKAY).”
She waited all day, but when dinner came nobody showed up—the extra plate had to be put away, the spaghetti put into the fridge. Cynthia didn’t cry. She went to her room and put all the books that had wizards and other such nonsense in a blanket and had mother put them into the attic.
Sometimes, dragons and fairies would show up unannounced, frolicking through the pages, despite the books having titles like Being a Green Mother or Darkness Descending. Cynthia would grit her teeth and fume, but she never stopped reading. Maybe the wizard would die. A dragon could eat him. Then the dragon would have an upset tummy. Wizards must make disagreeable meals with all that magic in them. Most of the time, this didn’t happen, but sometimes, sometimes, fairies would lose their wings—this would always cause Cynthia to smile.
Like we mentioned before, today was a miserable day. Cynthia hated a lot of things but she did not hate miserable days. We watch as she sets her bookmark and puts the book aside. First, she slips on the big black rubber boots she found in the attic. Then she grabs the yellow raincoat from behind the door—she’s hoping it might rain. Out the door, into the kitchen, two cookies into her pocket, and she’s ready.
“Mama, I’m going out to the pond. Bye.”
“Not today honey—look at that sky,” Mother said, staring out the window, “it could rain any minute.”
“I’ve got it covered, mama. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“No, I don’t think so, Cynthia. Maybe tomorrow, okay? I can make you a little picnic.”
“Mama! I wanna go today, pleeease?”
“Not today, honey,” Mother said, rather gravely, “don’t you keep insisting either. I’m too busy to worry about you out in the rain.”
“Please mama, I have to go today,” Cynthia said, and her eyes welled up with tears.
“No, Cynthia, not today.”
Cynthia looked at her feet, determined not to cry, and simply—as always—got angry.
“I hate you,” Cynthia said, and ran out of the room.
In her room, Cynthia did start crying—she cried in frustration. We’re going to tell you a secret now, but you mustn’t tell Cynthia because it’s something she must find out for herself. Cynthia doesn’t hate her mother, nor does she hate wizards and dragons and things. We’ve said that she hates many things, but that was only a half-truth. Cynthia only thinks she hates most things. She expects so much of others—and even more of herself—and she suffers constant disappointment for it. Sometimes, the words “I hate…” slip out of her mouth before she knows it. For Cynthia, there is no going back on her word. If she’s says something she sticks to it. It is honor she has learned from the heroes and heroines she visits cuddled against her bed. King Arthur would not betray his promises, nor would Odysseus fail to deliver upon a pledge. This is both Cynthia’s greatest asset and greatest hurdle. For Cynthia, the heroes, the monsters, and the magic spells are all too real. With them, she measures the world and finds it lacking—no dragons ever visit her, no wizards stroll by on their evening walks, not a fairy has ever tickled her nose and granted a girlish wish. So, frustrated, she confuses disappointment with hate.
So Cynthia went back to her room, careful to slam the door in protest. Still teary, she picks up Fire’s Garden and gently lifts her bookmark—a photograph of her mother as a young lady. Suddenly she’s sobbing quietly, swallowing her tears as best she can. She slams the book on the ground, climbs onto her bookshelf-of- a-bed and opens the tiny window. She’s calm now, looking out into the unbroken woods. With a quick swipe, she wipes the tears off her face, and climbs into and out the window.
The pond was just a skip and a hop from the house. It was surrounded by tall grass, only occasionally broken by the deserted path of a deer or a hare that had stopped to take a drink. There were always a variety of bugs buzzing about. Their collective cacophony was musical. The pond itself was a healthy dark green, full of life. It was relatively shallow, maybe six feet at its deepest but very wide and long by a pond’s standards. What really attracted our particular little lady to the pond was the resident population of bullfrogs, who were always found lazily awaiting that evening’s flying meal. She found them to be good company, never too chatty like the kids at school, but never completely silent like Mother.
“Well, good evening to you, sir,” she said, and curtsied politely.
“Ribbit,” said the frog she addressed. Cynthia giggled.
“Thank you. You look very healthy yourself.”
She sat down, setting her raincoat neatly down first—so as to avoid a muddy bottom.
“You know, Mother wouldn’t let me come. I had to sneak out,” she said, whispering the latter, afraid it might somehow get to Mother.
“Ribbit ribbit,” said the frog.
“Yes, Mother is very mean. She never lets me do anything.”
“Ribbit,” said the frog in agreement.
“When I grow up, I’m gonna be much nicer; I’ll let my daughter do whatever she wants. I’ll be the greatest.”
“Riiiibbit,” said the frog.
“It’s time for supper now, what do you think?” she asked.
“Ribbit,” said the frog.
Cynthia reached into her dress pocket for a cookie. She carefully broke it in half and placed a piece where the frog could reach it.
“Ribbit ribbit,” said the frog, advancing on the cookie.
“You’re welcome,” Cynthia said, “It’s a very good cookie. I helped my mom make them—we put in extra chocolate chips.”
The frog flipped its tongue at the cookie.
They both picked at the cookie for a minute, though Cynthia made a bit more headway.
“Here we are having supper together and I don’t even know your name,” she said.
“I’m Cynthia, Cynthia Helena Wurmwood; pleased to meet you.”
“Ribbit,” said the frog and hopped closer to Cynthia.
“Oh. Hi, hmm, Mr. Ribbitribbit,” she said, giggling softly at her poor imitation.
“Ribbit,” said the frog.
The sky, already a squalid gray, was growing black. The wind blew harder every minute—bringing with it a sneaky cold that nipped at your toes and nose. Cynthia, entranced with her new friend, had not noticed. The frog, however, had a particular gift for these things—a bad storm was coming. It wasn’t much of a worry to him, though it would be hard to catch dinner in the rain. The frog did, however, worry about Cynthia.
“Ribbit ribbit,” he said and hopped up and down excitedly.
“Oh, another cookie? But you haven’t even finished the first one,” Cynthia said, “We mustn’t waste food, especially cookies.”
“Ribbit,” he said, “ribbit ribbit.”
He hopped onto her lap.
“Oh, my! You’re very friendly today,” she said.
The frog hopped up and down in her lap and then made a good-sized leap to land on Cynthia’s head.
Cynthia was very brave, but she was after all, a little girl. So, realizing she had a wet frog on her head, she screamed. The frog jumped down and began hopping away. Cynthia stood up to chase him.
“I’m sorry Mr. Frog. I didn’t mean to. You’re very nice. Please don’t go,” she said, feeling miserable.
The frog paused, turned, and gave her his rudest croak, then began hopping away again.
“Now, that wasn’t very nice. I thought you were a gentleman,” she said, “come back here and apologize!”
She only stood there pouting for a second before running after the frog, which was a good deals away by then.
She chased him silently for a bit, her socks getting soaked from the forming puddles. Cynthia hardly noticed that it had begun to rain. She and the frog were running along the road, somewhat sheltered by the dense forest growth. Soon enough, however, she was entirely soaked.
This is about the time that any normal kid would have thought about going home, and in fact, the thought quickly crossed Cynthia’s mind, but it was quickly discarded as silly.
Silly was exactly what the frog thought Cynthia’s mother would be when she couldn’t find her. He wasn’t sure which of the houses was hers—though there were only a handful near the pond—but he’d figure it out when they got near some shelter.
“Mr. Frog, where are we going?”
Cynthia was no longer chasing the frog. She was merely following him because she was apprehensive about wandering on her own.
The frost stopped when he saw a small cubby hole formed by a fallen log leaning against a giant sycamore. Cynthia followed him inside.
“Ribbit,” he said.
“Okay, just for a bit, I guess,” Cynthia said, sitting down.
The rain and wind against the canopy comforted Cynthia—it was sound she relished, a symphony of splatters and drips and rustles. She was tired and sleepy. She’d only meant to be out for a little bit. Maybe she’d just take a little nap before heading home. As soon as she closed her eyes, the lightning started.
The storm—as storms are apt to do—grew worse. What had been a cool breeze was now a bone-chilling wind; it whipped the rain under the log. Cynthia shivered, wrapping herself tighter in the yellow raincoat. She wasn’t afraid of thunder, it was just a big bunch of sound. She was afraid of lightning.
“Mr. Frog, I think I better go now. My mom doesn’t like being all by herself when it’s raining like this.”
The frog stood silent. Cynthia began to stand up, wringing water from her hair. She took a step tentatively. The frog leaped in front of her, seemingly impeding her pass.
“Mr. Frog, I need to go home.”
Cynthia tried to step around the frog, but he was faster than her and simply hopped in front of her again.
“Ribbit!” he said.
“I have to go home.”
“Please, Mr. Frog, let me go!”
“Ribbit,” he said.
“Oh, why did I leave?” she said and began crying quietly.
The rain continued. The frog began to worry; the girl was shivering noticeably. An idea he’d dismissed before he was forced to consider now. He’d take her to cabin just north of here. He hoped the old man who lived there would help but he was hesitant of entrusting the girl to a stranger.
They walked north through the rain. Cynthia avoided the deepening puddles as best she could but her shoes progressively grew thicker with mud. She pretended not to notice the increasingly closer lightning. The frog leaped to and fro, trying to go slow enough for Cynthia to follow but urging her on as best he could.
They arrived not that much worse for wear. The brisk walk had helped to keep Cynthia from getting too cold, though she did feel tired. She’d refused to panic, deciding to trust the feeling—though she knew it was a little loony—that the frog knew where he was going and that he wanted her to follow. When she saw the cabin she looked at the frog in disbelief.
“Oh, Mr. Frog, you’re wonderful!”
She began running to the cabin excitedly only to stop in front it suddenly. She looked at it sideways with a puzzled look in her eyes. Somewhere deep in place of her mind she didn’t visit often, she recognized it.
The cabin stood tall, the wood black and brittle with age, blending into the black night behind it. The wood siding was cracked and dilapidated and hanging by a thread. Cynthia could smell the freshly cut wood pile sitting near the cabin. Despite the abandoned look this place had somebody did live there. Cynthia hesitated, uncertain whether she actually wanted to meet that someone. Yet something drew her to it. Something she couldn’t resist. She walked to toward the front door. Wood chips cracked under her feet despite her measured steps.
The frog ruined her careful approach with a loud croak and then another and another. The door creaked open and the old man poked his head out.
“Stop that racket, boy. Go back to the pond, there ain’t no dinner here,” he shouted. He looked steadily at Cynthia for a moment, puzzled, and finally scrambled for his eyeglasses.
“You ain’t no frog! What in God’s blue earth are you doing here, child? And look at you, soaked to the bone and cold no doubt.”
Cynthia held her breath, slightly frightened by this tall stranger. His hair was a neatly trimmed salt and pepper. He wore an impeccably clean white shirt and creased brown slacks.
“Are you lost?”
“Well, come on in. No need to be afraid of me. I’m too old to waste time doing anything less than kind.”
Cynthia looked past him, into the cabin. Surprisingly it was brightly lit—the firewood was being put to use.
“You promise to be nice, mister?”
“I’ll promise no such thing, young lady. Nice is something people do but don’t mean. That said, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of, like I told ya. I’m about as harmless as they come. Please come in. We’ll get you dry and on your way home as soon as possible.”
Cynthia walked past him into the cabin, still apprehensive. She pulled the warm air into her lungs and nearly collapsed.
“You too, frog. I suppose I owe you dinner for the deed.”
The frog hopped into the cabin as well.
“Here, let me find something you can dry yourself with,” the old man said, looking through an old armoire that opposite the door. He pulled out an clean brown towel and handed it to her.
“Take a seat near the fire, young lady. I will set some water to boil.”
Cynthia did as she was told, drying herself as best she could before sitting in a unexpectedly comfortable rocking chair. The old man hung a kettle above the fire and sat on a small stool opposite her.
“Now what is a little woman like you doing out in a storm like this? And what are you doing way out here?
“Well, I suppose the frog is responsible for the latter. Clever frogs ‘round these parts, aren’t they miss?” he said, smiling.
Cynthia nodded, smiling back.
“I got lost on my way back home. I was just visiting the pond for a bit. It started to rain and I got confused. Mother is going to very mad at me.”
“I’m surprised she let you out on a day like this; the clouds have been black since morning.”
“Oh, Mother must be worried sick. Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m always doing things I oughtn’t.”
“It’ll be fine, miss. We’ll get you home soon as the storm settles.”
“She doesn’t even know I’m gone! I snuck out but I didn’t meant to stay out so long. Now she’s gonna be worried and it’s all my fault. It’s always my fault.”
Cynthia started to cry again.
“Don’t cry, young lady. Your Mother will be glad to know you’re well. Besides, harm’s done as they say. Crying doesn’t do much towards fixing that.
“Now, I figure you haven’t much to eat and I know I haven’t. So, how does some hare stew sound?”
“Pop’s use to say I made the best he’d ever tasted.”
“Yes, thank you,” Cynthia said, realizing how hungry she was now that she wasn’t freezing.
The old man stood up and unearthed a pot under a pile of coals. He pulled bowls out from a small cabinet and began scooping the steaming stew onto them.
“Time for proper introductions: I’m Yuri. I’ve lived in this cabin probably longer then even you’re mother has walked on this green earth. When I wore a younger man’s clothes I was a lumberjack, like my father and my brother. More people came this way then. You’re probably the first person to visit me here in ten years.”
He set the bowls on the tree stump that acted as his table.
“Grab a stool and tell me your name.”
Cynthia did so and eyed the stew hungrily.
“I’m Cynthia Helana Wurmwood. I live in a house right near the road. I’ve lived there all my life,” she said quickly and began hurriedly drinking the stew.
Cynthia didn’t see Yuri’s eyes widen. Nor did she see on the wall behind her a large portrait—the same portrait that hung in mother’s bedroom.
Yuri looked at her, only now realizing how foolish he had been not to see the similarities.
“What does your father do, Ms. Wurmwood?”
Cynthia mumbled something, her mouth still full of stew.
“Sorry. This stew is delicious,” she said, “really must have been the best your pa tasted.”
“I never met my dad. He died when I was a baby. Mom doesn’t like to talk about him.”
“You know his name?”
“Yep, it’s on the inside front cover of lots of the books he left: Sergei Wurmwood.”
“What did he do before he died?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like to make Mother cry by asking questions.”
“I see. Well, finish your stew, young lady. I will tell you a story before we go. I’m sure you’ll be interested.”
“I love stories. I read lots of books. I have an attic full of them.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.”
Yuri stood up and grabbed a jar from the window sill.
“I own you much today, frog,” he said addressing the frog, who was sitting on the counter. He opened the lid of the jar and several flies flew out angrily—the frog immediately ate them.
“You’re welcome to more anytime, friend.”
“Ribbit,” said the frog.
Cynthia was done with her stew. Yuri took both their dishes and set them in the washbin.
“Take a seat near the fire.”
Yuri began preparing the tea, nodding his head in quiet disbelief.
“Tell my Cynthia, you see that photograph I have hanging near the door. Do you recognize it?”
Cynthia looked around for a bit before seeing the small picture frame. The bright light from the fire reflected off the glass and made it hard for her to see. She squinted for a few moments before finally getting up to take a closer look.
It was her eyes that widened now.
“This is the same photo that Mother has in her room. Why do you have one?”
“Oh, I will tell you, Cynthia. Did your mother ever tell you who was in it?”
“She said that he was her best friend a long time ago. She always smiles when she looks at his picture.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me one bit—they were indeed good friends. Now sit here and let me tell you about this man.”
“Winter’s can be harsh here in this part of the country. Well I bet you’ve seen enough snowfall in one day to cover you from head to toe. Country folk get by nonetheless, through sheer will sometimes I’d say. There is one thing all of’us need though and that’s firewood. Keep the fire burning and it doesn’t matter if the world outside freezes, you just ride it out—but somebody’s got to cut down the firewood and get it ready for the burning.
“That’s what my family’s done for as long as men have seen the sun rise in this part of the world. We’re lumberjacks: cutting trees down and making them into something people can use. In the summer people use the lumber to build and in the winter they burn it and it keeps them moving even when all you can see outside is white.
“My father and his brother’s were lumberjacks ‘till they could no longer lift an axe high enough to split the wood and even then they could pick out the trees that were ready for cutting from two hundred feet. My parents had three children, two boys and a girl. My sister’s name was Petra and she lived to be 42 before she died of consumption long away from here. She could split wood with the best of them despite mother’s repeated objections. I was always a decent hand with an axe and ‘ave never been outa work thanks to it but I was always a better spotter. I learned the forests like the back of my hand, knowing what trees were ready for cutting and how to cut just enough so our grandson’s would still have a forest to cut from.
“Father said that he must have eaten extremely well the night he made Sergei because he grew up big as a bear and stronger too. He could cut down a tree before another man would have gotten through the bark and he’d tell you a joke while doing it. Him and I could go out and bring home enough wood for a fortnight in a single day. While Sergei was around nobody was ever in need of wood. He was much too jolly and good-spirited for his own good, giving wood out on credit over credit. Truth is, that might have been a stroke of genius. Sergei was always welcome for dinner at any home and if it was a favor he needed then it would be gladly done. He was loud, brash, and he liked to tell dirty jokes and tease the girls but nobody faulted him because he’d take the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it more than him. He married the only girl in town who always laughed at his jokes. She’d tease him right back, Rose, and he’d turn red as a beet.
“Ten years ago we had the worse winter I’ve lived to see. By then, Sergei and I didn’t see much of each other, he being settled down and I still single. I lived further north of here, near town, working splitting wood for the locals and occasionally doing some construction work. Sergei did what he always did, cutting wood like a machine. He’d built a house near the pond and made it clear he didn’t approve of me living in town, abandoning the old work.
“I acted like a fool for years, refusing to buy my firewood for Sergei and going out to buy my own. But I was so busy that winter, patching up cabins and splitting firewood that I let my woodpile dwindle ‘till I found myself out of wood with a bad storm coming.
“I tried to buy a cartful from the local’s but they wouldn’t sell me any, afraid they’d have need and knowing it’d be too dangerous a trip to get more. So I went home and sharpened my axe as best I could. I headed into the forest, hoping to strip a tree before nightfall so I could split it in the morning.
“I miscalculated the storm and it came at me like an angry bull. I marked the nearest tree and started back home. The storm poured snow and hail on forest making it impossible to see. I got lost in the forest for the first time in my life and I did the worst thing I could have—I kept walking.
“Night came and went and I was still lost. The storm didn’t give in an inch, constantly snowing me in when I stopped to take a rest. Finally, I decided to find the safest spot I could and try to ride the storm out. I made small cubby between a fallen log and a tree and I slept for what seemed like days, but I lived.
“When I woke the storm had passed. I climbed the nearest tree and got my bearing. I was west, near the pond, and I cursed at the thought of asking Brother for help but I was starving and half-dead and he was nearest.
“I trekked my way to his front door and resignedly knocked on the door, your door, and Rose opened up, looking like she hadn’t slept in days.
“You can guess the rest, Cynthia, having read all those stories of yours. Your Father was a good man and he did what good men do: he went out to find me as soon as he found out I was missing. They found his mark on every tree from coast to town but he never found me. On his way back home, when the storm was finally over, he started crossing the river that runs not three hundred feet from here. The embankment broke under him and buried him under a ton of snow and rocks.
“He was my brother and I loved him despite my clueless rebellion. My stupidity left you without a father and Rose without her husband. She never forgave me and maybe she never forgave him. She had you a few months later and she never spoke another word to a Wurmwood since then.
“I’m glad to have met you, young lady. I’ve spent ten years regretting the death of my brother and blaming myself every minute of my waking hours. Despite that I’ve grown more like him every day, always thinking of a joke to tell the town folk, and trying my best to keep them stocked with wood. I hope I’ve paid back part of what I took.
“He read me stories, Sergei. He had a thousand books despite my Father always objecting to him wasting his pennies on them. Sergei liked to say that making books was a better use of wood than making fires but unfortunately books didn’t keep you warm before he laughed that contagious laugh of his.
“He left them to you and you’ve put them to good use I see—following frogs around and such.
“Well, now I’ve told you my story and it’s time for me to take you home.”
Cynthia cried silently.
“Thank you for telling me about my Father, mister. I wanted to know so bad but didn’t dare ask.”
“Come on, I best take you home.”
The storm had passed, leaving the clean scent in the air. The sun fought its way through the still slightly hazy sky. Yuri and Cynthia walked down the road toward her house.
“You best be along from here, Cynthia. I don’t think your Mother should see me.”
“Perhaps, Uncle Yuri, I can change her mind.”
“Perhaps—but not today. Today, just head on home and get some rest.”
She hugged him and waved goodbye to frog. She started running home but stopped a few feet later.
“You know, Uncle Yuri, I know you feel bad about my father but it wasn’t really your fault you know. I’ve read his books, every single one of them. You didn’t make him go into the forest after you. He did it because he had to. I know because I would have gone too. And I know one more thing—he would have been happy that you’re okay; yes, he would have.
“Bye, Uncle Yuri, and Mr. Frog, I’ll see you soon.”
Cynthia ran to her house and climbed into her window again. Her mother was leaning against the bed, her face wet with tears. She had fallen asleep.
Cynthia wrapped her arms around her and cried.