The Yellow Wood

There was an old grumpkin who lived by a seldom used path in the woods. He had grown tired and lonely from his days grabbing people by the neck, twisting their heads off, and drinking their blood that comes steaming out of the stump that is left between their shoulders. One day when he was more lonely than hungry, he sat in the pile of bones and bits of rotting flesh near the mouth of his cave and heard the voice of a young woman walking the path that draws near. The grumpkin stalked quietly and hid behind the bushes where he could get a better look. He had seldom known the folk, who sometimes walked this path, to speak in any more than mere whispers, so he simply waited and watched as the two figures came into range as his eyes slowly adjusted to the blinding light of day. A young mother was, who was little more than a child herself, was coaxing her daughter down the overgrown path with one arm around her shoulder. The way she darted her head back and forth as they proceeded down the trail, it was clear that the mother was herself afraid. She was telling stories in a confidant voice to clear the tears from her frightened daughter’s eyes. The grumpkin shifted as he listened to the young mother’s tales. She must have heard the rustle of leaves as he raised his ears to listen. The mother pulled her daughter closer to her and tried to shield her daughter from seeing whatever may pop out of the bushes at any moment.

He had never understood why any of the people he encountered would be scared. The grumpkin had never known anything to fear in these woods. He had been to the edge of the woods. He had seen horrible wide open which they lived. In the day, there were so few places to hide from the burning sun except for their houses which they kept lit at night. And all of the brush had been all cleared away leaving nothing but wide open streets and bare grassy fields where they could be seen directly at any given time. He didn’t know how these horrible creatures could bare to be seen with such naked glances, the eyes not shielded by the glamour of the leaves. He shivered at the thought, but this time, she did not hear the bushes move.

He followed them the whole day being careful to stay out of direct sight. They must all believe these strange tales that the mother told her child, and so he must too.  If he couldn’t see the duty that the mother felt for her child, he could hear it from her stories and could see their happiness as they reached the men who held the pointed sticks at the gates to this much larger city. He sat most of the night watching the men from the bushes thinking about one story in particular. He sat so still that several toads had hopped up next to him in the cool dampness of the night. He would grab each one twist off its head and drink its blood as he pondered one story in particular: the one about the fairy godmother. If a thing could exist, this fairy godmother. If he could be changed into one of these people, maybe he could be happy. Maybe he could be loved like that mother loved her child. But he knew this was not possible, and he went back to his cave to forget about the horrible discomfort that this mother’s stories had given him.

He had spent the next several days and nights in his cave not venturing out to find food. Even when the small creatures wandered into his cave, he would shoo them out with a quick flick of his long fingers. One particularly pesky insect had lit directly on his snout. The grumpkin was not in the mood to move, so he pushed out his protruding bottom lip and let out a puff of wind. The bug balanced itself with its wings, twitched a leg or two, but stayed sitting on the top of his nose. The grumpkin sat there until it hopped away. The next day he even heard an uncharacteristically large group of what sounded to be armed men. He heard the clank of what was likely to be armor and the grumph and harrumph of serious men who were disinclined to talk.

Normally, this was his favorite prey. And even if he wasn’t hungry, he would come out of his to play with such a lively meal. He would smash one or two of them over their metal hats until they stumbled in circles of fell flat on their faces. Then as the others pulled out their pointy sticks, he would slink back into the bushes and throw large rocks at them that he had ripped up from the ground. He wouldn’t be trying to kill them. Not yet. He only wanted to keep them screaming until their friends had time to get back off the ground, if they were going to. Sometimes, they were just dead.

Then, when the men had gathered back into a group, he would draw them into the bushes where he would sneak up to them, grab one of the men by the ankles and drag him off into the shadows of the yellow leaves, out of sight of the other men. He would twist off his head then go back for the next. Sometimes he would let the last man go. He would follow until the man got too tired to run. Then, the grumpkin would come into the open tear a tree out of the ground by its roots and let out his mightiest roar. He loved to see the men’s skin go pale whether it be from draining their bodies of blood or just scaring the life out of them. He didn’t care which. If they were close enough to the nearest village for the men there to hear his roar, he would hide at the edge of the woods and watch the men run around pointy sticks in hand. But today, he just sat in his cave and did not move. He knew the men would have loved to be chased, or at least, have stones thrown at them from the distance. But this day, he was just not in the mood.

Several days later, when the hunger began to match the pain of the loneliness he felt, a rattlesnake curled up next to him trying to absorb some of his body heat. This time he did move. Quick as a flash, he grabbed the rattlesnake. Just as quickly, the snake turned to bite him on the wrist. The snake’s fangs couldn’t quite break through the leathery skin of his arms. He lifted the snake to eye level, but he didn’t twist off its head. Not this time. This time, he lifted the leathery folds of goiter to reveal the soft skin below and pushed the snake up to his neck. The snake had enough time to decide that it was not going to be eaten, so it was only trying to escape the grumpkin’s grip.

He shook the snake and slapped it lightly up against his neck. This time, the snake bit him on the neck, and the fangs did sink in. The grumpkin took a kind of pleasure in the sting of the snake’s venom, and every time the snake let go, he would shake it again to get another dose of the snake’s venom. When he was too delirious to remember what he was holding and why, he loosened his grip. The snake slithered away, never understanding what had held it or why it had wasted all of its venom on something too big for it to eat. It just slinked away to try to recover enough venom to feed again before it starved to death.

In his delirium, the grumpkin dreamed of fabulous things from the woman’s stories. He could never focus on one thing for long. His dreams writhed in the same swelling pain that made his neck and face feel like it was going to burst like a sausage tossed into an open fire. The only image that stuck to him—and even this one, not very long—was that of an old woman in blue looking down upon him with sadness in her eyes. He had dreamed for what seemed like weeks when he heard the words, “Get up,” as if they had been shouted by and old woman standing next to where his head lay among the pile of bones on the floor.

He woke up and felt better than he had ever remembered that he could. It was early daylight outside of his cave and he didn’t even feel the need to squint. And he smelled something delicious. Something tender and innocent. He remembered that last bit from his dream. The voice, “Get up.” But there was something more that he couldn’t quite remember. He sat up and looked to the mouth of his cave. There was a basket sitting there in the sun and early morning mist that shone down through a gap in the tree cover. It was a basket with a pink blanket and something moving around inside. It was in the light as if it was presented as a gift from an angel. A human child. The youngest he had ever seen. A baby girl. The grumpkin was so hungry, but when he saw the baby, he began to remember the words that had woken him: The words were: “Get up. Get up and be loved.” That is what they had been, he thought. That is what they had to be. And despite his raging hunger his mouth didn’t even begin to water.

He went to the front of the cave and sat next to the baby in the golden light, and he was not afraid to be seen. The baby’s eyes were so beautiful to him. The softest sky blue. He lifted it from the basket in his pale white hands, filth and dried blood still under his nails. The baby locked eyes with him for a second and smiled making a cooing sound. He held the innocent child to his chest and loved it. And it loved him. He had never held a child before, and he felt weird with his hands under its arms and its body dangling. He didn’t want to hurt it, and he was afraid that he might. Eventually, he learned he could cradle the child with both arms. One to lay the child on and the other to keep it from tumbling to the ground. He saw the child’s head would flop if he moved and he slid his hand up to hold its small head steady. He sat at the mouth of the cave and held the child, his child, until the light had slid up and off of them, up the moss covered hillock that held the cave that served as his home, and into the canopy of yellow leaves.

He stayed there holding his child in the dim light of the woods until he heard a sound that might have been a human footstep on the trail not far from there. But it was not a footstep. It had just been a twig that had fallen when the light wind shook the branches in the trees. Just the same being near the path was not a safe place for him to be with his child. The child he would protect with his life. He felt that. He felt the duty to protect this innocent child. He this felt duty for the first time in his life. And he got up with his little girl and moved deeper into the woods away from the danger of humans and the path.

He knew if he were to protect his baby he would need to regain his lost strength, so he crept through the woods stopping to shush the child if she cried. He stayed low and quiet and moved slowly when he smelled the musk of a large buck, and followed the scent until his eyes could focus on the animal in the blinding light that filtered down through the leaves and dappled the area with small spots of light. He tucked the child between his chest and his cradling arm so she would not fall when he grabbed the deer with his other hand.

He snuck up behind the animal and reached out to grab the buck by the head. At that moment, the baby let out a delighted cry that spooked the animal. The grumpkin lurched forward and grabbed the running animal by one antler and yanked it to the ground. The antler broke off with a snap. He grabbed the animal firmly by the head and twisted. The buck whirled about from the power in the grumpkin’s hands and kicked, his hooves coming dangerously close to the child in his arms.

The grumpkin cursed and spat. If he had use of both of his arms he would have twisted the buck’s head right off. He lifted the flailing animal over his and slammed it to the ground. Now, the animal’s legs did little more than twitch. Fearing putting the baby down for even a second, he sunk his teeth into the bucks neck and tore out the side of his neck. The grumpkin hated the feeling of flesh in his mouth and spit the hunk on the ground before he sucked the creature dry of his blood.

He looked down at the baby in his arms and saw that she was covered in blood that had dripped from his face and down his chest. Even worse was the smell. He didn’t know how it had happened but it was coming from the child. He lifted the child into the air with his hands under her arms and sniffed. Whatever the smell was, it was coming from inside her diaper. Could it happen? Could a child as precious as this actually poop? He didn’t think so. But there it was in her diaper just the same. He could hear the babbling of a small stream not far from them where he could get her cleaned of the blood and that other mess. He kept her out in front of him, trying to have his nose in the wind, so he could avoid the worst of the smell.

When he reached the water, there was a large rock in the middle of the stream shaded by a large oak. He laid the child on the driest spot of moss on that large rock and worked on removing the stinking article of clothing. The wool pants came off easy enough, but the diaper was held on by some kind of absurd folding pin. His fingers were just too big and clumsy to undo the hasp. In the end, all the fussing and fumbling with the pin had worked the diaper low enough that he was able to pull it down her legs and off her feet. He could see no possible way of reapplying the diaper after he cleaned it, so he dropped it into the water and watched it wash away bumping and tumbling off the rocks on the bottom of the stream. The wool pants will catch what needs catching, and he can get them on and off easily enough. He took up the pants and waved them in the running water. He wrung the pants in both hands. They were such a small scrap of cloth in his hands. He hung them to dry on a low branch of the oak tree.

He picked the child up, one hand under each arm, to dip her in the water to shake her around to remove the foul smelling excrement. But when he dipped her lower half in the icy water the child began to scream uncontrollably. He yanked her back out of the stream. He thought, I am such an idiot. What do I know about human children? I have broken her. Water must be bad for babies. He tucked her back between his arm and his chest and lashed out with his free arm. He felt real tears welling up in his eyes for the only time he could remember. The burning tears caused him to stand bolt upright, and he tripped over his own feet. He stumbled back crashing against the oak tree knocking it down with the weight of his immense form. He caught his balance again crouching as low as he could to the ground. He slammed his fist again and again against the rocks in the stream that helped him injure his child. The rocks had shattered and the section of stream had become a swirling pool of sand and silt that refilled with water every time he raised his fist before he realized the child had gone silent.

He looked down to see her smiling and  sucking her fingers. The warmth of his body had taken away her chill and she was just as happy as ever. He looked all over for her wool pants, but in the wake of his awesome tantrum they must have been washed downstream or trampled into the dirt. After some time deliberating with himself, he decided that it would not hurt the child to keep her naked if he could keep her warm against his skin. He could accept the possibility of coming in contact with the child’s excrement if it meant he would be able to care for her.

It was only after the revelation with the water that he began to wonder what else there was about human children that he didn’t know. He needed warmth. He needed shelter. And he needed food. He thought the baby might need the same. He could give her warmth. In fact, he had been doing that all along whether he had realized it or not. He could give her shelter, but not in the cave near the road that would never do. He would find another, or he would rip down trees and lean them against each other. That would hold for a while. He wasn’t sure what human children ate, and it had been several hours. He knew she must be getting hungry. He had seen her chewing on her fingers. Maybe she ate flesh. He shuddered at the thought. He saw she had no teeth. But he did have teeth and didn’t eat flesh. So, he thought, it might be possible that she was the other way around.

He searched the stream for fish, but the only ones that had not been scared off by his earlier attack had been beaten into jelly and mixed inextricably with the sand and silt. But he had time to think, and he remembered something from some long lost memory about babies and milk. And he was pretty sure milk came from cows. This was a problem. The only cows he knew of were kept by the humans. And since he had begun stealing their cows so many years ago, they had been kept in their barns at night. He was not afraid of the men’s pointy sticks, but it was their stares that he could not bare for longer than a second or two to give them a fright.

He carried the baby with him to the edge of the woods. Now, she was crying more often than she wasn’t. He had learned, by accident really, that she would calm down if he stopped and rocked her. But this was helping less and less.

They hid at the edge of the woods staring at the men and their cows. Well, he stared. The child was unaware of anything but the pinch in her stomach. Her crying had made the cows nervous, and the men tending them had noticed. The men had probably heard her cries themselves. Someone had been sent to alert the town guard. If he didn’t act now, the accusing eyes were simply going to increase, and his child might get hurt if he was forced to fight.

The grumpkin stepped out of the woods, and he felt their eyes upon him. He was frozen in fear even before the first man had seen him there. He stood up and roared to steel himself from their stares. This was the exact wrong thing to do because the cows bolted away from him, and everyone in the town was made aware of his presence. He closed his eyes and took two lumbering steps forward. He guarded the baby with his arms as best as he could. He did not want her to feel the pain of their stares burning against her skin the way it burned his. And out in the direct sunlight unprotected by the magic of the forest, he felt like he might burst into flames at any moment, but he did not.

When he felt the first of their spear points bounce off of his hide, his better instincts took over and he crouched down where he was balanced and charged into the rain of their spears. He could have moved faster but he kept the baby in his left arm and tilted away from the men and their spears. The men were now streaming from the gates. Some of them wearing armor, some of them not, but they all had their spears. And none of them would come into range of the grumpkin’s fists. They would stand as far as they thought they could throw, and many of the spears came up short. Many did not.

Some of the men ran up to retrieve their spears, but the grumpkin sent them sprawling with a swing of his long arm. One man was able to avoid the sweep of the grumpkin’s arm and pulled his old spear from the spot it had stuck into the ground. The grumpkin lifted his arm straight up into the air and tried to hammer the man into the ground with his fist. The man brought up his wooden shield to block the first strike. The shield shattered as the grumpkin’s arm glanced off of it and hit the ground. The man was driven to his knees by the power of the blow. The grumpkin raised his hand and brought it down on the man two more times knocking him to his back then smashing the breastplate of the man’s armor until it caved in and the man no longer twitched.

After this, many of the men took a step back and fewer spears reached the grumpkin. No more men would dare to come within his reach. He made his way to the nearest cow grabbed it by the head and dragged it along with him and the baby back to the woods. The men cheered the grumpkin’s retreat and went to gather the spears they had thrown. None of the men would enter the Yellow Wood that day. But some brought dried sticks and pitch to the edge of the trees and set it alight. But the magic of the forest was too strong and the fires burned themselves out.

At some point, the cow had stopped resisting being dragged along behind the grumpkin. This was fine to him because he was having trouble putting up with the child’s now constant squalling. He knew the battle would shake her up, but he also knew she was hungry. He knew the pain of hunger, and when they reached a safe enough place, he would give her the cow’s milk. But for now, no amount of rocking, or humming, or silly mumbling could get her to calm down.

When they reached a small clearing, the grumpkin placed the cow in front of him and sat down with the baby. The cow had been pierced by four spears in their escape and bled out. All of the spears had fallen out on their way to the clearing except for one that had been pretty well lodged in the cow’s chest. With the blood already gone the grumpkin would get no sustenance from this particular beast, but the baby might if he could remember where cows kept their milk. He rocked the child and thought about cows. In the deepest recesses of his brain, it seemed, there was an image of bonneted young women and pails. There was one woman in particular. A woman in blue. She was on a stool and working at a cow’s utter. She would squeeze down and a thin stream of milk would squirt out of the teat and run down the side of the pail.

The grumpkin didn’t have a pail, but he had seen water pooling in the center of leaves after a rain. He looked around the clearing and found a bush with long wide leaves. He plucked one off, pushed the cow onto its side, and laid the leave under the udder. He laid the child on the ground next to the udder, so he could still see her while he worked the cow’s teats with both hands. He worked and worked but found only one small drop of milk on the tip of one teat. He tried the other set of teats to no avail. It seemed that a dead cow would give no milk.

He could try for another cow, but the villagers would be expecting him and have all their cows in the barns. He would never be able to get another. Not while this child still lived. She was so small. There was no telling how long she could live without being fed. He cursed the Gods who had gifted him with this child just so he could watch her suffer and die. Then, he knew what he must do. He would swallow her. He had to. He could not watch her linger in the hunger and pain of starvation. If he ate her she wouldn’t feel that much pain. In his stomach it would be warm and dark like a womb. There he could hold her, and they would be together forever.

He brought the child up to his mouth and opened wide. The child had stopped crying and cooed happily for a moment as he fit her in his mouth and laid her back upon his tongue. He had expected to gag at the feeling of flesh in his mouth, but he did not. All he felt was love and duty. And he swallowed hard before he had realized what he had done.

His certainty that he had done the right thing wore off right away. And he began to wail. He knew he was cursed. And by his own hands. He had been given a test. And he had failed. This child. This precious thing. The only thing he had ever loved. She had loved him back. And he had killed her. But not without help. The Gods and the humans both held their share of the blame. The Gods had put her in his charge knowing there was no way he could care for her. And the humans had heard the child’s cries and seen him holding the child. And they threw their spears just the same. They hadn’t hurt her, but they would have her hurt. They would have had her dead.  And now she was.

He wailed. He sat there in that clearing, staring at the dead cow. There was nothing he could do to hurt the Gods. But the humans. He could hurt them. He could squash every one of them. Pound them into jelly.

He mourned his lost child, and he wailed until nightfall. In the darkness, he was not afraid. In the dark their stares only carried so far. In the darkness, they would all die.

At the human city, every torch was lit along the wall, and every watch tower was maned and dark. Every man was armed and armored. They had moved their two ballistas to their position on the wall facing the woods. There were bowmen on the wall and spearmen in the field. They were put on guard by the earlier attack and the constant wailing that had come from the woods that day. But it was the sudden silence that had them really spooked. When they could hear his cries, they knew he was far away. But now, they knew nothing.

The grumpkin was able to see their lights long before he was out of the woods, and he began to sprint. He knocked down trees as he went. Even still, he was out of the woods before any of the watches had spotted him and bugled for the attack. He was half way across the field before the bowmen had their arrows nocked. He ran straight up the middle of their defenses, straight for the strongest part of the wall and ignored the rows of spearmen that had been stationed in the field as the first line of defense. The three spearmen in the middle didn’t even react before he plowed right over them and threw himself into the wall. The wall shuddered and the bowmen shot wild and more than one spearman was victim of friendly fire. The remaining spearmen moved to flank the grumpkin. He took two steps back, swept his arms out knocked them to the ground, smashed two of them into the ground with downward strikes, and grabbed a third whom he threw him at the bugler issuing bugle calls from the guard tower. The men manning the ballistas had not had time for fire their weapons and were pushing their ballistas to aim at the creature despite the fact that he was far too close and they would never be able to get him in their sights.

The grumpkin threw himself at the wall again. It still didn’t fall. He grabbed the top of the wall and shook it back and forth, and several of the bowmen fell from the wall. The stones began to fall from the top of the wall bounce off the grumpkin and land on the spearmen. A falling stone hit one of the men atop his helmet, and he was killed outright. Another stone fell next to a spearman and rolled snapping his leg in half exposing the bone. The other spearmen stayed on him. Each group of spearmen had their commander and every time the grumpkin killed a group of spearmen they were replaced by another. And still more spearmen were coming out of the front gate.

The grumpkin pulled more stones down and threw them at the gate to stop the flow of men. The first stone crashed into the iron gate and swung it closed knocking several spearmen to the ground. The other stone hit the gate and knocked it off its hinges. The men lifted the gate and shoved it out of the way. The grumpkin pulled down two more stones then climbed through the opening he had created. Inside of the wall the buildings were made mostly of mud, and sticks and groups of spearmen were staged here and there in the cobblestone streets. The commanders were shouting orders and directing their men to attack.

Two of the spearmen had made their attacks count it seemed. There was a spear wedged under his right arm its haft was dripping blood, and there was another that gurgled and wheezed every time he took a breath. With most of the spearmen on the outside of the wall, he could slow down and catch some breath. He pulled the spear out from under his arm and tossed it to the side, but the one in his back hurt too much to remove. He snapped it off at the haft so it didn’t get caught on anything. The wooden buildings came down with a swift flick of his arm, but there was no one in them, so he headed to the well-lit hall at the center or town.

There was only one group of spearmen between him and the hall he simply brushed them out of the way with one arm. He knew the children would be tucked away in the hall with the old men and the women, and he wanted to take away what they had taken from him. He would smash the life out of every young one he saw.

The spearmen he had knocked away had gotten back to their feet and were sprinting to keep up with him but losing ground fast. The few spears that they threw went wide and clattered off the cobblestone street. Their commander shouted for them to hold their weapons and maintain the charge. But the grumpkin had already reached the hall and the spearmen would be on him again soon. And there were groups of spearmen stationed on the ends of the street both to the left and right, and they were charging toward him as well.

The grumpkin pushed against the large wooden doors of the town hall. The oak timbers sputtered and cracked against his immense strength but held until the iron hinges ripped away from the wall. The doors slammed against the floor, and there was a clattering of screams as the women, children, and ancient old men rushed to the far wall to huddle in fear. With a swipe of his arms the grumpkin smashed down the walls toppling the support timbers of the roof. The roof fell showering the people inside with wooden roof shingles. Against the back wall and among the fallen shingles, two of the old men stood facing the grumpkin holding their arms out to the sides to keep the women and children behind them. They stood in his way as if they would keep him from his revenge.

The grumpkin grabbed the first old man by his head and slammed it into the ground. The old man was immediately struck dead by the first blow of his head against the floor, but the grumpkin smashed his head into the ground over and over because he liked the way the frightened people recoiled. He grabbed the second old man with both hands and tore him in half at the waist. He lifted the dead man over his head, top half in one hand and lower half in the other, and the blood and guts rained down on the women and children. The people gasped in fear, but he only heard the wavering voice of a young woman who tried to sound confidant in the face of this attack. Tears streamed down her face. She knelt with her arms around her young daughter. Her head atop her daughter’s crying head. She was telling her daughter stories to keep her calm. The grumpkin’s anger subsided. He felt weary and alone, and he decided to sit and listen to the young woman’s stories. He put his head in his hands and watched the young woman comforting her child. He barely felt the attacks of the spearmen, and when a man found the tender spot on his neck where the snake had delivered his venom, he didn’t even bother brushing the man away with his long bony fingers. Instead, he just submitted to the cold darkness that creeped in at the edges of his vision. And slowly he began to dream. He dreamed again of the old woman in blue. She was with him in the ruin of the town hall. The old men, women, and children were still huddled against the back wall. The spearmen dropped their weapons and began to cry. Then, he heard the cry of his baby girl, and the voice of the young mother. She rocked the baby girl and soothed her with the stories of the human world. Then, the darkness took over and the grumpkin was dead.

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