In the belly of the beast I sat, being digested slowly. Every day I am here, I am rotting, rotting, and the calluses on my hands are losing the touch of a woodsman’s labor. I’m surrounded by soft flesh while above me every beautiful sound outside is muted by layers of fat and muscle. My ax is still beside me; the blade is growing dull from all the times I’ve swung into my meaty prison since I was swallowed. All it did was exhaust me and annoy this great wolf. Without daylight to measure, nor the need for rest, I’ve lost track of time. There is nothing to do except be patient for an escape that may never come. I simply pace and look up to where I imagine the stars would be. I miss nights spent counting and looking to them for guidance.
I pass time counting my scars, seeing where fate’s hand marred me, and relive my own tales. With one hand on my chest, I close my eyes and focus.
Scar 1: Deep punctures on my chest from heavy claws pressing down to crush my ribs into my heart. The skin is still healing, still red and angry.
Years of being a huntsman and I could have traversed the woods blindfolded. I knew where every devil’s club hid, every patch of monkshood, every dangerous secret. I knew the Forest, she had nothing to hide from me. For all the stories I had heard, the magic of the forest was contained. I just had to pay attention to the scent of orange blossom as the precursor to any of the sprites or more dangerous magic. Memory has that funny way of dulling the dangers in my past because, after all, I had survived.
I picked out a mossy spot for sleeping that night. Somewhere that I could see the stars, and be comforted by the vast endless wonders. I was watching the dusk fade when a ghostly figure came to my camp. She was almost translucent with broad shoulders, and her hair in loose silver waves. A great ax was strapped to her back as she kneeled down. She reached out a hand to touch me and shuddered as her fingers passed through mine. When she went to speak I saw the great slash of claw marks across her torn throat.
“I am rotting rotting rotted. I am fading fading faded. I seek to see the sky again. I seek to follow to my final home. Come for me, and find me in the belly of the beast. Your hand in my hand, you can buy me my release. Come, come find me in the belly of the beast.”
“Easy, woodsman. Take a breath.” I held up my hands to show I meant no harm.
She blinked and fell backwards. No one had spoken to her in a long time.
“I am hearing hearing heard? You are listening listening listening?”
I nodded. She seemed on the verge of tears.
“I am...I am... you.. You can hear me. I can have a voice again. You don't know how long it’s been... “
“Tell me.” I leaned in towards her, assuring her that she had my full attention.
“I am...I am.. I am trapped, still rotting. I need help. You can help. Once, I thought I knew these woods and all their dangers. But I was wrong. There was a day when I was out and I came across a cottage in the woods. I knew from the villagers’ this was Gwen’s grandmother’s house. The door was already off its hinges when I arrived. I could hear slamming and screaming inside. I had my ax with me and I feared nothing. I should have though, I should have feared many things. The beast inside- I had never seen a creature like that. It’s not just a wolf, it’s fur is deep black, and it is so much bigger than I had ever seen.”
Something tugged at my memory when she said that but I couldn’t place it.
“It had Gwen’s grandmother’s arm in its mouth and... it was horrible. That snap of bone is the most awful thing I’ve heard. I remember the Wolf looked right at me. It snarled and I understood. You’re next, it was saying, I’m going to make a meal of you.”
“Is that what you meant by rotting? Is that what happened-“ I gestured to my throat. She nodded.
“I don’t know how long I’ve been trapped. I swung my ax as it swallowed me but I was taken all the same. I just want to find rest. Somewhere safe out of the belly of the beast.”
“I can find you.” I was confident, so damn confident. “I can take the Wolf.”
She smiled at me and nodded. When she walked away, she seemed lighter. Hopeful. I admired the ax on her back and the twisting carvings on the handle. I’m sure she was a great woodsman once. I did not break my promise. She was right though, I should’ve been afraid.
When I met the wolf, I met my end.
I turn to the decorated ax beside me, sunk into the fleshy wall. The design on the handle was recognizable even as it was worn away with age. I asked her if she found her freedom. There was only the sound of dripping acid. I should have known better than to follow a ghost. Somewhere above, I heard the Wolf’s raspy howl echoing out of its scarred throat. It sounded like laughter. I focused next on the tense muscles of my legs.
Scar 2: Criss crossing scars on my calves. They are white with age, nearly faded. They only itch sometimes.
It was late afternoon when I went out to gather wood for the villagers. I had taken my time getting out today because I was talking to Gwen who lived by the village square. I had been the town’s woodsman for almost two years. The villager’s were adjusting to me as I became a part of their routine. Aside from that first month, things were uneventful.
That day I didn’t go too far. I swung down with my ax on the first suitable tree I found.The tree shuddered and cracked. In addition to the scent of sap and pine, I began to smell orange blossoms. That made me pause, knowing there was something magical afoot. I was looking for the whimsy but instead I saw a shadow dart between the trees.
Then there was a howl. I had heard most of the animals here, and could recognize a fox cackle or crow’s cry. This sounded strange, it seemed harsh and it echoed as if it came from multiple places. I grasped my ax tighter. There was the padding of footsteps. It occurred to me that the greatest predators knew how to keep themselves quiet. The beast wanted me to know it was on the periphery.
The howl rang again, and it sounded a little scratchy. I wondered if someone had tried to cut it’s terrible voice once. Then worst of all, dead silence. Gwen’s warning came back to me. She had been polite but firm in her warnings of the forest: be cautious when you smell orange blossom, be wary of the dead silence, and run. I always reassured her with a yes ma’am because she was sweet. But today she held my hand and urged me to have tea with her. She insisted, and who was I to deny a little old lady some company.
“It is time,” she said, “you really need to understand the danger of the forest. I know you’re being polite when you say yes ma’am but I’ve grown a soft spot for you. If you’re going to stick around, you have to be prepared. You have to know, understand why I don’t go near the forest’s edge anymore. I think you started to understand after what happened to Peter. But this is my story now.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. “My grandmother loved wild flowers. She adored every mushroom that sprouted. She had Grandfather build her a cabin just a few paces deep into the woods. Even after he died, she stayed, because she said she could feel his love around her. So it fell on me to bring her fresh goods when she had trouble walking. She even made me a mushroom cape; bright red and white spots.”
The teacup she was holding started to rattle as a tremor ran through her hand. “Which means I was the one to find her. I was walking towards her house, and before I realized, the bird song had ceased. Grandmother’s door was upright, only a little bit ajar. I wonder now if I would have noticed claw marks on it…who’s to say. All the furniture inside was just slightly off, enough to make me nervous. The smell of orange blossoms was so strong.”
I had stopped sipping my tea to stare. I had been holding my breath without even realizing it.
“Oh, the wolf must have thought it was so clever. But there was a bloody handprint on the door frame just before I entered the bedroom. I went back to her fireplace and grabbed a poker. I was afraid, but just curious enough that I had to look. When I came back into the room, the wolf was tucked into her bed. It stared at me and started to smile. It began to speak in a high pitched sort of voice. A voice it had swallowed and stolen. I did not wait to find out what it wanted. My curiosity was a mistake. I ran.” She took a deep, steading breath. “And do you know why it went to all that effort? To lure me close instead of just pouncing?”
“No,” I said quietly.
“When the wolf swallows a person whole,” she said gravely, “they stay that way in the belly of the beast. A person can rot to nothing, but they’ll still be trapped. Alone until someone else is taken.” She looked me dead in the eye. “Young man, if you see the wolf, you must run. Run like I did. Sometimes thinking back, I wonder if the wolf had been too full to run at its fastest. Whatever magic or fate it was that gave me speed, I made it back to the village.”
Run like I did, she had said. Run. I stopped second guessing the shadows and trying to guess which direction the howl was coming from. I held onto my ax and ran. I heard the howl again, and scrambled wildly, heading directly into a thorny patch. Before I could get to the other side it seemed the wolf had beaten me to it. For an hour I could hear the great wolf loping around the edges of the field as I ran from one end to the other trying to find a way to escape. I’m certain it was toying with me, because it eventually left. When the first blue jay sang, I knew it had moved on to new entertainment.
I reached home at dusk. There was blood trickling down my legs and my boots were a mess. I went to work cleaning out the cuts before the adrenaline fully wore off. Gwen had said it was the change in the noise that was her warning. I would make it my goal then, to know every sound the wild made. I would know the forest's song and I would not be fearful of a howl again.
The howl doesn’t frighten me anymore now that I’m down here fading away in the Wolf’s terrible belly. It’s the only clear sound I have from the outside. The Forest is so far away I have to strain to hear her. The Wolf runs around like a King and this is its kingdom of green, savoring every living moment. I wish so badly to hear another voice. Anything other than the beast’s timbre.
My focus turns to my hand.
Scar 3: A perfect bite- hard enough to tear down to the muscle without fully breaking the bones of my hand. It’s barely more than a memory now; a visual reminder more than an old pain.
The Lord of this land had given me a title and a place to be. I did not question why the job would go to someone as low as me, or why the job had been vacated so quickly. I heard the last woodsman had been a more experienced man but he ran away in the night. That was fine by me. I wanted to be a true woodsman, a stoic part of the old tales that my bubbe had told me. I looked forward to my duties; to bring the villager’s wood, to keep bandits and creatures away from the village, and maintain the balance between the two. I could do anything as long as I had my ax. It was a gift from my parents to give me luck. Bubbe told me the handle was made from a tree twice struck by lightning and in the blade there was a bronze charm melted with the iron.
The first day on the job was, admittedly, not great. I had gotten a little lost. At the end of the first week, I was able to navigate better. Near the end of the first month, the villagers started talking to me more beyond ‘hello, woodsman’ and ‘thank you.’
Then there came the day that the baker’s son went missing. He was high spirited and dreamed of adventure. I went out into the woods to find him. In my search, I caught the scent of orange blossoms that I followed to a clear meadow. As soon as I stepped into the open space, silence fell. In the center was a gorgeous orange blossom tree with vibrant colors that could not have been there naturally. There was a snare trap close to it with a small rabbit struggling. The rabbit was a muddled mix of browns except its left ear was black as the deepest night. As I came close to it, the rabbit trembled.
“Please!” The small creature begged. “Don’t hurt me!”
“I won’t,” I said gently, leaning down. I laid my ax by my foot and held up my hands. “I’m here to protect the Forest, to balance between her and the village.”
The rabbit eyed me nervously. “You’re not... you’re not with the one who trapped me?”
“No,” I said earnestly. “Would you like me to help you out?” The rabbit bobbed its head. I thought for a moment there was a glimpse of cold, hungry sparks in its eyes.
As I began to work on undoing the trap, the rabbit spoke, “I’m so glad you’re here to help me. Thank you, thank you. The boy who set this trap said he was looking for a wolf.” The rabbit shook with fear. “Said something about being the hero who would catch a wolf.”
“That sounds like our Peter. Only the old timers talk about a wolf, there hasn’t been any spotted in ages. But he claims he saw it anyway. What did Peter do after he saw it was just you in the trap?”
The rabbit thumped its back leg impatiently. “He said he needed a bigger trap and I could be the bait. I don’t want to be bait!”
“You won’t be. Can you point the direction you saw him leave?” With that, I was able to snap the noose at last.
The rabbit froze, then turned its head to look at me. Its solid black ear twitched twice. It’s voice started to deepen. “He left without his fool head. Gone in three bites.” The rabbit’s head snapped backwards. Its whole body rolled and shook on the ground. Ripples went through its fur, turning jet black, as the creature grew to monstrous size. I stared, frozen in horror. The wolf rose up and shook itself. Then it snarled at me. “Such a clever boy to catch me, but not clever enough to keep a safe distance from the snare,” the wolf said, snapping its teeth before lunging at me.
I raised my hand in self-defense, the other grasping for the ax. The wolf bit down at the same time I slammed the butt of my ax onto its head. With a yelp, it let go, smoke seeming to rise from where it was struck. The wolf ran off into the forest. I looked up at the orange tree to see some of the fruit falling down rotted.
With my hand bleeding freely, I hurried back through the winding paths to home, praying I would not have to see this beast again. I have never found that tree since. I suspect the Forest only shared it with me once. A test of trust with her secrets that I failed.
I looked up towards the maw. All it took was that bite, so long ago, and I suppose the wolf had tasted my future. I had forgotten some of those details, I realized as I looked down at my ax. The plain, undecorated handle was nothing to look at, but Bubbe had promised me it would save me one day. There was an old tale she told about the heart of the forest- a tree that could stand tall even when struck twice by lightning had a heart of courage in its core. She told me that whatever shadows hissed and scratched, the heart of the forest would be my defense. “May her memory be for a blessing,” I said softly. Patience be damned, I felt hope rising in me. I began my work to break the ax’s handle into stakes. It was time to make new scars.