Forest Wisdom

 

Forest Wisdom

By Dan Moore

Copyright 2012

“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it,

the forest will still hear the sound it makes.”

 

No one could remember how long the village had stood, nestled in the deep wood. The elders said it had always been there: a collection of noble people whose time-honored traditions had kept them strong and true like the mighty oaks that surrounded them. It was a small village: a collection of rustic cabins arranged along earthen paths. A square stood in the center of the hamlet; an expansive patch of grass surrounded by the homes of the village elders and the meeting hall. A large pile of stones, the size of a man’s fist sat across from the hall.

Two great oaks stood side by side in the center of the square. Through the years, their trunks had merged until the two massive trees stood as an inseparable pair, their branches and roots inextricably woven together. Their branches spread like welcoming arms above the soft grass, offering shade to those who paused beneath them. The heat of summer had passed and the barren season was approaching. The oaks, along with the other deciduous trees of the forest were preparing to shed their leaves. The green canopy above the village was mutating into a blaze of color.

The villagers made their living from the forest. They thrived in lockstep with the seasons. They cut trees and stacked cords to fuel their winter fires. They harvested timber they would use to make fine furniture and exquisite carvings. They would work all winter in their shops, preparing their wares for the spring market. And when the ice melted away, the village elders would fill large wagons with the items they had made and take them to the open lands beyond the forest where the sinners lived. They would sell their wares and return with wagons filled with provisions. The cycle repeated itself through the late spring and summer, culminating in an autumnal trip beyond the safety of the deep wood.

The village never changed. Children were taught at home until the age of seven. Then their mothers sent them to the Preacher and his wife who taught them until they turned seventeen. The boys gathered in the stable where the Preacher admonished them in the ways of the village. The girls met in the rustic meeting hall and became proper ladies under the watchful tutelage of the Preacher’s wife.

There were many rules and customs in the village. The elders were never to be questioned. Modest clothing and head coverings were required. New ideas were discouraged. A good man was like a strong link in a chain that connected the past with the future. His job was to connect the two, by remaining true to the customs of the past and imparting them to his children. Good women were modest in their behavior and partnered with their husbands to create homes where the children would be filled with the time-honored wisdom of the village. Their sole purpose in life was to build the next strong link in the chain of history.

Boys and girls never mingled in the village. Brothers and sisters were separated at birth, to keep the purity of each household.  Boys were raised with boys, girls with girls. Courting wasn’t allowed. Marriages were arranged by the village elders and newlyweds were frequently paired into loveless unions. Sometimes affection came later, often it did not. Marriage wasn’t intended for friendship or passion. It existed to ensure the perpetuation of the species and guarantee continuity with the past.

* * *

The boy stood under the double oak in the village square. A low-hanging  branch arched over his head. He could smell the scent of burning pine and early-morning dew on the late-season leaves. He stood still, having caught a glimpse of the girl as she walked toward the meeting house. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Her windswept hair was caught in a shaft of early autumn light that filtered down through the tall trees. She turned, their eyes meeting for an instant. Her face burst easily into a precocious smile and then she was gone. He looked around to make sure no one had seen his sin. He had violated village law, and he didn’t want to face the elders.

He returned to the spot the next day and saw the girl again. She was in the exact same place but this time her shoulders tilted in his direction. Their eyes met and her smile bloomed for him. His heart skipped a beat. The boy held up a scrap of paper. He paused so she would see it, and then tucked it into a notch on the limb over his head. Her eyes narrowed. Then, with a subtle nod, she continued on her way.

Each day the boy and girl exchanged their notes. No one knew of their interchange: first a scribbled “hello” and a name, then an awkward expression of affection. They would read the notes, smile to themselves, and destroy them. Their secret dance of words and glances was strictly forbidden in the village; but they found such joy in it that caution was lost like a leaf carried by a breeze through a forest glade.

* * *

The elders had just returned from their semiannual journey to the open lands. The villagers watched their faces, trying to divine their success in the sinners’ marketplace. The elders were smiling. Their wagons were full. There would be an evening of celebration where everyone in the village would gather in the meeting hall to return thanks for their bounty and share in a sumptuous meal.

The boy families sat near the front of the meeting hall while the girl families gathered in the back. They ate in silence as the elders shared their experiences in the open lands. The boy sat with his parents at a rough plank table. His wooden plate was empty, his stomach full. He raised his hands over his head and stretched back in his chair, pretending to work an imaginary kink out of his back. His eyes wandered toward the back of the room. The girl was there with her parents. He sucked in a silent breath at the sight of her.

The Preacher was cleaning his plate when the boy’s upraised arms caught his attention. He saw the young man’s eyes shift toward the girls in the back of the room. Then he saw the look on his face. It was a dangerous look, a forbidden look. The Preacher stopped chewing.

The boy, oblivious to the watchful eye of the Preacher, excused himself from the table. His chores could not wait, he explained. His father nodded in understanding and the boy strode out of the meeting hall. He could hardly feel the ground beneath his feet as he hurried to the center of the village square, to the double oak and the low-hanging branch where he and the girl had agreed to meet. His heart danced at the promise of her voice, the possibility of her smile. He leaned against the tree, his knees suddenly weak with the expectation. He let out a long breath and ran a quick hand through his hair.

The boy sensed her presence before he saw her. The girl’s scent overwhelmed him: fresh soap and linen. He turned toward her and looking up; he was bathed in her smile. Her voice was like sweet butter, her eyes like stars on a crisp winter’s night. He stumbled over his words, and she laughed. His fear and awkwardness melted away like fog in the morning sun. She reached out her hand, and he took it.

The Preacher struck like a tiger. He stepped between the two young people and pulled their hands apart. He grasped their wrists in his strong hands and dragged the boy and girl back to the meeting hall. He pushed them headfirst through the door. The room grew silent as he stood between them, his face twisted with judgment and wrath.

The Preacher was filled with fear, though he dared not show it. The actions of these two children represented a great danger to his flock. Holding tight to village wisdom brought life. Any variation, any transgression threatened the fabric of the community. The ensuing chaos would break the chain linking the past to the future. All would be lost.

The young sinners had broken many rules, the Preacher explained. They had gazed upon each other with lust. They had conspired with each other to meet secretly. They had paired outside the guidance of the village elders, and they had touched each other. There was a gasp in the crowd. The Preacher held up their hands. Holding hands, he explained, was a prelude to obscenity.

The Preacher called their parents forward. He called upon the village elders to render immediate judgment.  Such behavior was a danger to the village, a pestilence that must be removed before other innocent lives were affected. The elders withdrew from the meeting hall and took counsel with the Preacher. Their faces were drawn when they returned.

There was silence in the meeting hall as the chief elder spoke their verdict. The parents of both children were to be shunned. They would be removed from their homes and forced to live on the outskirts of the village where no one would speak to them. They would be cut off from the community and forfeit their share of provisions for the barren season. They would not live to see the spring. The boy and girl would be stoned to death before nightfall. There was no cure for their prurience. They were a living plague that must be eradicated.

When the chief elder finished speaking, the people stood without a word and began clearing their tables. No one looked at the offenders. The Preacher and his wife took the boy and girl out to the village square and stood with them on the soft grass. They watched as the elders took their parents away. Then the boy families came out of the meeting hall, followed by the girl families. They snaked past the rock pile, each person taking a rock as they passed by it. The villagers formed a circle around the boy and girl.

The girl was stoned first. The boy screamed as the sharp rocks tore her flesh. She crumpled to the earth, her life slipping away like the passing warmth of summer. The boy stood defiantly when his turn came. He held the girl in his heart, embraced by her promise as his life was taken from him.

* * *

The shunning cabins were empty wooden shells. They stood on the outer fringe of the village where the north winds struck them with unobstructed fury. They were places of death, designed to house the forsaken during the last miserable days of their lives. The parents were left standing alone in front of one of the meager shelters. They could hear their children’s screams in the distance. 

* * *

The next day, the girl’s father cut down a tree that stood in the front yard of their shunning cabin. He cut it high, so there would be a five-foot stump. He removed the limbs from the fallen trunk and collected all the branches until nothing but the tall wooden column remained. He had been the village musician and was known for singing hymns while he worked. Now, he wept continuously. Nothing could mend his broken heart. The songs were lost in his grief.

The meeting hall was lined with chairs, like ranks of soldiers on some distant parade ground. The boy families were separated from the girl families by a curtain barrier that ran down the center aisle. The Preacher stood resolutely before his flock. His voice was filled with religious fervor as he admonished them to remember the events of the past evening. Temptation was a real danger. The path that led to destruction was broad and inviting. Right living demanded a seriousness of purpose and a tenaciousness of spirit. The boy and girl who had been stoned were dark angels of the Great Tempter. Their parents had obviously gone astray and their children, once innocent and pure, had lost their eternal lives.

At the same moment, the girl’s father began shaping the wood of the tall stump. Gradually, the form of a lithe young girl began to emerge. She was standing on one foot, as if balancing on a rock in a stream. Her head was cocked back; her long hair draped over her shoulders. He wept quietly as he carved the wood, willing his fallen daughter to spring back to life. He carved a sly smile into the statue’s face. The girl’s eyes were bright, her cheeks delicate. One of her hands gripped a walking stick while the other was outstretched as if welcoming the next grand adventure into her life.

Meanwhile, the Preacher warned his flock to avoid the sinners at all costs. The village traditions existed for a reason: to ensure the stability and longevity of their home. Any violation of custom represented a threat to their way of life. Parents must raise their children with fear and trembling. Children must follow the narrow path laid down by their parents and the village elders. There was no room for error and no mercy for those who did not conform to the village ways. As the Preacher spoke, everyone recalled the faces of the boy and girl as they were stoned.

Not far away, the girl’s father and mother held each other as they stood in the late-afternoon  sun. The long, horizontal shafts of light caressed the wooden statue of their daughter. It was the father’s greatest work, inspired by his love and christened by his tears. They lingered there until evening fell, and then they turned reluctantly toward the shunning cabin.

* * *

  The first child disappeared the following morning. Her mother watched her daughter as she stepped off the porch and headed straight for her lessons at the meeting hall, but she never arrived. They found her books at the edge of the forest. The ribbon from her hair hung from a tree branch perhaps two hundred feet into the woods. There was no other sign of her.

The mood of the village turned to panic when two children disappeared the following day. Two boys from different households failed to come home from school. They left no trace. The villagers searched the forest, but found no sign of them. An emergency meeting was called, and it was decided to keep the children home, for the time being. Then, the fourth child disappeared. Her mother had put her to bed, and tucked her in safely. In the morning, the bed was empty and the girl was gone.

If one listened hard enough, the murmurs of fathers and mothers could be heard throughout the village as they struggled to unravel the mystery. Why were the children disappearing? Where were they going? Were they alive? Who was the agent of this terrible scourge? They thought of the recent stonings and the parents who had been shunned. Could all of this be an act of revenge? Were the sinners lashing out for some perverted sense of justice, punishing the village for their own failings?

* * *

That night, there were violent sounds outside the shunning cabin. The girl’s parents rose from their beds, only to find the cabin door braced shut. They trembled in the darkness as the commotion of angry men split the silent night. They heard the sound of splintering wood, and then boots trampling the underbrush and receding into the forest. The shunned couple held each other for hours, afraid of what might greet them should they venture beyond the safety of the cabin.

As the first fingers of light reached across autumn’s leaden sky, the man dared to open the cabin door. The statue of his daughter lay in ruins, a snapped and splintered pile of wood. The man’s wound was torn open a second time. He knelt at the foot of her shattered likeness and wept. His wife dropped to his side, wrapping her arms around him. They couldn’t understand the meaningless destruction. What had they done wrong?

* * *

The Preacher gathered his flock again. He spoke about the evils of revenge. He could read the guilt on two men’s faces. Yes, they were the ones who had destroyed the wooden sculpture. Revenge was an evil that hurt the victim, but irrevocably scarred the perpetrator. He told his flock the shunned parents were obviously seeking revenge for the loss of their children. It was time for the village to become the deity’s axe: to chop the dead branch from the living tree and cast it into the fires of hell.

A group of fearful and angry men approached the shunning cabin. They came through the wood, allowing the forest to shield their approach. The girl’s parents were still kneeling before the shattered statue of their daughter. The men surrounded them, demanding the return of the lost children. They cursed the man and his wife when they denied any knowledge of it. The men pounced on them and tied them to the splintered stump. Then they set it ablaze. The man and woman pled for mercy, and cried out as the flames consumed them. Their screams mingled with the crackling wood, then faded away into death’s silence. The men, emboldened by their ignorant certainty, moved on to kill the boy’s parents in the other shunning cabin.

The villagers greeted the news of the deaths with a sense of relief. A page had been turned, ending a painful chapter in their collective lives. The Preacher spoke of purity and stability. He defended the customs and traditions of the village. His voice grew strident as he stressed the need for certainty above all things. Generations of their ancestors had forged the village’s way of life. It was the one true path through the forest that would lead them home. The deaths of the sinners were their own doing, he said. The past days were a cautionary tale for anyone who might stray from the norms and values of the community. No one thought to question his wisdom.

The next day, the villagers gladly sent their young people to learn of the village customs.  The Preacher met with the boys in the stable while the girls met with his wife in the meeting hall. There was no mention of the sinners or their transgressions, although some of the children seemed sadder than usual.

* * *

A week went by and the morning fog was just lifting from the sleepy village. One of the girls was on her way to the meeting hall for her lessons when she saw the statues in the village square. They were figures of the missing children. The statues couldn’t have been created by human hands. The wood was carved and polished until it was as smooth as glass. The statues depicted the children running and dancing with delight; their faces filled with joy. They were accurate in every detail, as if the children could emerge from them and come to life at any moment.

Everyone came to see the wooden simulacra. The parents of the missing ones stood under the statues of their children and wept. God had surely felt their pain and placed the statues as a sign of divine comfort. The Preacher and the elders stood on the meeting hall porch, pondering their meaning. They decided it was a miracle, an affirmation of their righteousness.

* * *

The following morning, five more children went missing from the village. The cool morning stillness was shattered by the distraught mothers and fathers calling for their boys and girls to return. Five more statues appeared in the village square. They were no miracle. They were a taunting: the sick and twisted joke of a monstrous pedophile.

The village elders vowed to destroy the statues and reclaim the village square. They brought their axes and saws, but could not cut them. They set fires around each sculpture, but they wouldn’t burn.  They tried to tear them out of the soil, but they were rooted deep into the forest floor. The harder they pulled, the stronger the statues became.

The villagers began to turn against each other. Arguments erupted in homes and shops. Parents began to blame each other. People lost sleep, sitting on their porches to guard their children against their neighbors. Eventually, all the children were gone, replaced by their statues standing silently in the village square. Some of the villagers went mad while others died from inconsolable grief.

* * *

The forest changed. As cabins and shops grew empty, the wood consumed them rapidly, rotting wall and roof like a voracious animal devouring its kill. The signs of death and decay were palpable throughout the village. Creativity vanished. Men and women put down their tools. They stopped making fine furniture and carvings to take to the open land. The elders stopped making their trips and there were no supplies to feed and maintain the village. The barren season came and many did not survive the harsh winter. The remaining handful of people left, forsaking the certainty of the village for the dangers of the open land beyond the wood. Then, the meeting hall collapsed in upon itself and the forest reclaimed it.

Remarkably, the square was left untouched by the mysterious pestilence that consumed the village. It was as if an unseen gardener tended the statuary. The grass remained as smooth as a carpet and the double oak stood proudly over the gleaming sculptures of the lost children.

Finally, the Preacher stood for the last time next to the pile of rocks in the center of the village. All the cabins were almost gone, the forest restoring its natural order. He had watched as his flock dwindled and his village died. He still held to the customs and truths that defined his life, but there was no one left to teach. No one left to sing. No one left to violate the customs and rules of the village.

He stood alone with all the statues of the children who had so mysteriously disappeared. The Preacher had nothing left to say.

                Time stood still. The Preacher blinked his eyes and a lifetime passed by. Something had changed in the heart of the village square. A new statue appeared where the mighty double oak had stood. Two figures rose up from their wooden pedestals. They were the children who had been stoned. The girl looked as if she was dancing through the wood, her chin raised up and her eyes radiant. Her hair was tossed back upon her shoulders as she glanced at her partner with a precocious grin. The boy danced by her side, his hopes and dreams written across his face as he looked at his beloved. The Preacher didn’t know what to think. It was a shock to see this statue where the great double oak had stood for generations. He looked disapprovingly at the sculpture, at the boy and the girl holding hands as they danced with joy.

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