The Forest was a place with many fantastic legends. Such a reputation was only fitting, with its towering trees and pervasive shadows. Despite its mystery, and perhaps because of it, the Forest was home to hundreds of sleepy villages, each with its own collection of tall tales and history. In these villages, the cycle of life was most precious. Professions were passed down from generation to generation, for otherwise knowledge and traditions would die.
Gendric was a small boy no older than a centimoon who had never been to any village but his own, so he had little reason to think about these matters. All the cottages and shops of his community were made with the same deep, dark-colored wood that surrounded them. The village was built in the depths of the forest so that the sun barely shown down on the flat, crude rooftops, even on the brightest of days.
On one such day, Gendric was outside surrounded by his toys strewn about his backyard amongst the grass. With him were two other boys, one much larger than Gendric and the other scrawnier and shorter. They were laughing and playing catch with a dark brown ball about the size of a fist when they heard the crunch of wood rolling on dirt. Gendric caught the ball thrown at him and pocketed it, peering around the side of the house to see whose wagon was working its way down their dirt road. The village never got many travelers, so whenever they did come no normal child could pass up the opportunity to investigate. Apparently annoyed about the abrupt halt to their game, Gendric’s friends joined him. The larger one scowled.
The wagon coming down the road was being pulled by two cream-colored horses with muddy hooves and prominent, proud necks. The wagon was of a similarly light color with dark-colored wheels, filthy with use yet still proudly carved. The wagon itself had thick, waist-high walls and comfortable cushions lining the sides. Slowly the horses pulled the wagon along the road, steered by a driver dressed in tan robes, heading toward the front of Gendric’s house.
“It’s that lousy light-wood again!” The scrawny boy groaned.
“I like him, actually!” Gendric crossed his arms defiantly. “He’s always really nice and he likes my toys!”
“You shouldn’t talk to ‘im,” the larger boy mumbled. “Soon you’ll see he’s taken yer toys and sold ‘em to some other light-woods.”
“He’s nice! I swear!” Gendric shook his head and trouped around the side of the cottage to greet a well-dressed boy clambering off the wagon, leaving his friends gawking behind him. Landing not-so-gracefully on his loafers, the boy brushed off his clothes as if he had just rolled around in the mud, grimacing as he searched for lingering particles. He looked about the same age as Gendric.
“Hi, Cad!” Gendric said shyly to the boy, looking up reluctantly.
“You know I hate it when you call me that, Gendric,” Cad said, exasperated already, although he couldn’t help but smile. He surveyed the house and took a big whiff of the air, still smiling although looking slightly anxious. “What have you been up to lately?”
“Just playing with my friends,” Gendric looked sheepishly back at his friends’ peering heads from the side of his cottage, and they retreated out of sight. “They’re weird sometimes.”
On the other side of the wagon emerged a pudgy man dressed in baby blue robes that almost reached his ankles. His hair was concealed by a bright yellow stocking cap with a white ball at the end, swishing from side-to-side as he waddled around the wagon, fanned by his driver.
“Ah, my friend. I love it when you come into town!” Gendric’s father boomed from inside the cottage as he burst through the door, arms outstretched. Covered in woodchips and sporting a massive, brown beard, he lumbered across the yard and hugged Cad’s father, ignoring the outstretched hand. Cad’s father let out a gasp and his eyes watered up. Finally letting go, Gendric’s father beamed down at his friend, gesturing him inside.
“Caducus, stay close to the hut, I’ll be inside. Hello, Gendric,” He waved his hand lazily without looking at Gendric and stepped inside the door followed closely by his driver, both attempting to brush away stray wood chips.
Before he followed, Gendric’s father cleared his throat and kneeled before Cad and pulled out a small, dark wooden figure. It was beautifully crafted, and it looked as smooth as stone rather than the wood that made it up. Cad’s eyes lit up and he grinned widely. “Wow, for me?” After a moment, the smile disappeared and he blinked, saying politely, “It would be most pleasing to receive this gift, um, sir.”
Gendric’s father gently took Cad’s hand in his own and folded his fingers around the figurine, his eyes twinkling. “It’s good to see you, as always, Cad.”
Cad’s eyes were filled with amazement. As he gazed at the intricately carved figure, he opened his mouth, looking tempted to ask a question, but he closed it again. With a knowing smile, Gendric’s father answered, “It’s all in the hand motion. Never chop, only cut with the grain.” He smiled, patted Cad’s outstretched hand again and stood up, roughing up Gendric’s hair and strutting inside.
Cad stared at his closed hand in silence before looking questioningly at Gendric. Gendric laughed and led Cad around the side of the house to where he had been earlier with his friends, both of whom now nowhere to be seen. Cad gazed across the yard at the dozens of miniature wooden figures, wagons, and weapons lying all over. Surrounding the backyard was the end of the village and the beginning of the Forest, which also marked an abrupt border to the minefield of toys. Looking back toward Gendric, he smiled widely and opened his hand to show Gendric his new gift.
“Tell me about him again,” Cad exclaimed breathlessly. Gendric grinned back and looked at the ground. Eyes scanning his possessions, he quickly scooped up a magnificent figure that was an exact replica of Cad’s. The figure had a bold yet solemn face with steely eyes and prominent cheekbones. His hair and his beard were cut short, groomed neatly, and he was dressed in a button-up with shiny shoes and tight pants. He was looking slightly upward and had one hand outstretched as if gingerly lifting a gift to a prince, with the other at his side by his sheathed short sword. Strapped across his back was a massive bow, and a quiver full of arrows. The figure was perfect, in every sense of the word.
“Well, I can’t really tell you who he is,” Gendric started, still grinning, dramatically dropping to a cross-legged sitting position in the grass. “No one knows who he was before he became who he is. Who knows? Maybe he began his legacy when he was our age!”
He paused. Cad sat down facing him with his legs stretched out and his arms behind him, watching Gendric and waiting raptly.
“Not many claim to have seen him, to the point where some wonder if he even exists. Maybe we’ll never know.”
Another pause, this one more elongated than the last. It almost seemed that Gendric had this story memorized, including the story’s cadence.
“But I can tell you what the legends say, what people hope. People whisper of his boldness and his justice, his nobility and his honor, his kindness and his glory…”
Cad squirmed around a bit, obviously annoyed at Gendric’s milking of his attention. He opened his mouth to interject – but Gendric continued once again.
“There was a thief in a faraway village much like this one. He was known by all in the village for his evil acts but could never be caught. Without proof, the elders were too scared to act. Then, one morning, the thief vanished without a trace. The only sign of his disappearance was a wooden card found on his bed with a symbol carved into it. A symbol of hope, strength, and sobberehnty.”
Gendric blinked and looked like he was concentrating, probably sensing something amiss but unsure of the cause. He shrugged and shook his head before moving on.
“Anyway, it was a bird. Word quickly spread. The villagers were stumped. Over time, people even claimed that their possessions had been returned to their homes. As much as the villagers tried, they could not find their savior. That villagers wouldn’t hear again from their hero for a long time. Another village on the other side of The Forest was home to a vicious murder that broke out between ruling families. One family organized an assassination that killed the head of the other, thus seizing control of the village and taking their rivals’ land and animals. The night following the coup, the now rulers’ servant went to their home with freshly baked bread where she found that their own head of household was nowhere to be found. Instead, there only lay-”
“-a card,” Cad breathed, eyes wide. He caressed the figure in his hands and gazed down at it, turning it over and over. “A symbol of hope, strength, and sovereignty.” Cad turned his own figure upside down to see if the arrows fell out of their quiver, delighted to see them stay in their places. He gently placed the figure to his side and leaned back on his arms, sighing dreamily.
“AND,” Gendric started again, startling Cad, “there were more events, too many to tell. All of them further explained the noble and gentle hero we have come to know. Rumor has it—” he paused, and Gendric’s eyes widened “—that he was seen in Helbuk!”
“But Father and I passed through there just today!” Cad whispered. “You haven’t told me that before!”
“It’s recent,” Gendric smiled, widely as ever. The boys sat there in silence, eyes glued to their respective figurines. “And… well… I don’t know why he was there, but I swear I heard it! Daddy was talking about it with another friend, and I heard him say it!”
Cad didn’t say anything, but his mouth hung open anyway. He looked around, almost expecting the legend himself to come out of the trees behind Gendric’s home. Never had the man been seen close to the village, never mind visiting it. And yet, it seemed as though either boy would kill the other for the chance to meet him.
“Do you think…” Cad started slowly. “I mean, it seems rather silly… but would he ever, you know… die? I just wonder… how long has he been going on like this? How do we even know he’s the same hero?”
Excited, Cad arose. “Maybe he needs an apprentice, someone to carry on his legacy! Or, maybe he already—”
BOOM! The boys snapped their attention from the woods to the back of the house, where they heard the slamming of the front door against the outside wall.
“How dare you? I expect a full apology for your proposal in the form of a formalized letter with tribute in exchange for our continued financial arrangement. And I will be sure to employ the services of the other carver in this horrid wasteland INSTEAD!” Cad’s father’s voice was unmistakable, but his anger beckoned for Cad to run to the front of the house with Gendric in toe. As they turned the corner to face the wagon, Cad’s father was trying to hoist himself into the wagon. The scene had attracted a group of onlookers from nearby homes.
“BACK! AWAY! I can… I can get up… MYSELF!” He hit his driver hard on the shoulder as he fell off the edge and threw himself at it again. Eventually he flopped inside and raised his head over the light wooden wagon edge, bright red in the face. “Caducus… come! AND LEAVE THAT FILTHY IDOL BEHIND!”
For a second, the world hung in the balance, and Gendric could feel the choice lingering on Cad’s shoulders, but that second was short-lived. Without even daring to say good-bye, Caducus hung his head and followed his father, dropping the legend in the grass. He leapt onto the wagon and disappeared from view. The driver took her position behind the horses and snapped the reins, taking the wagon past the house and further into the village.
Gendric watched the wagon turn a corner and leave his sight. His father joined his side, putting a hand on the opposite shoulder. He squeezed.
“I’m sorry, Gendric,” his father spoke softly. “I know you like playing with Cad.”
Gendric said nothing. He put an arm around his dad’s waist and drooped his head on his side.
After a while, his father said, “He’ll still be around. His dad threatened to buy from Gulwag, so naturally he will be back tomorrow for more business talk. They’ll stay at the inn.” His father gave him a wide smile, his surprisingly white teeth puncturing his thick beard, and patted him on the back before turning and heading back inside. Gendric tore his gaze away from the corner where the wagon had vanished and looked at the fallen hero. He carefully picked him off the ground and brushed off the fresh coat of dirt before drifting back to his toys, which were once again just toys. The two boys from before were there, waiting for him, and wanting to play some more catch. He placed Cad’s hero against the side of the cottage and obliged his friends by pulling out his wooden ball and tossing it high in the air.
The following morning, filling a bucket at the well in the village square, Gendric heard tumultuous shouting coming from the direction of the inn. Leaving the bucket, he wandered towards the noise and discovered a messy scene.
In front of the inn, Cad’s father was kneeling before the desecrated wagon, sobbing and screaming, next to an axe drenched in blood and wood shavings. There was no sign of where the wood grains stopped, started, or even existed. Instead, the splintered wood was all over the grass and the nearby road. In the sea of cream-colored wood and blood there were a few hooves visible. The only things left intact were the wheels, which appeared polished in contrast to the rest of the wagon. Cad stood in the doorway of the inn, eyes shielded by the wagon driver, who looked like she might faint. Villagers gathered around the mess, whispering to each other and glancing around. Soon, people began to point overwhelmingly in the direction of Gendric. He left the scene and ran back home, rushing through the front door and straight to his father’s workshop.
“Hey Gendric, did you get the water?” Gendric’s father seemed distracted, scanning his eyes up and down his cramped, crowded workspace, littered with shavings and wooden sculptures, many half-formed and crude. As messy as his father’s woodshop was, there was an odd artful arrangement of the mess. Shavings seemed to align with themselves like birds flying in formation, and the unfinished carvings seemed to be emerging from their creative cocoons.
Gendric spurted out what he saw, and his father’s eyes widened as he listened. When he finished, he got down on a knee and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, Gendric,” he smiled, once again, very handsome and sure. “Everything is going to be fine! I’ll come take a look, see if I can’t fix it.”
The two left the house and went up the road past the square and to the inn. The crowd had swelled to the size of the whole village. Gendric’s father spotted the heaving mound of blue, yellow, and red, still mourning over his losses, and slowly approached him. Gently, he placed a hand on his shoulder.
Instantly, the merchant straightened up, thrusting the hand off with a swish of yellow, and angrily glared at him through fresh tears. “HOW DARE YOU? ALL BECAUSE OF A PETTY DISAGREEMENT? I was just about to venture over to that rotten cabin you call a house to FIX what you destroyed yesterday, not that you would have guessed that, but before I could do ANYTHING you have destroyed EVEN MORE. Filthy, disgusting…” He broke into further sobs as another rugged-looking man put his hand on the opposite shoulder and looked down as if sharing in the mourning.
He snuck a grinning glance up at Gendric’s father, then murmured, “No need to fret, I’ll make you a new wagon, sir; it’ll be even better this one was, I can promise you that!” Thinking, he added, “Y’know, that chum likes to say it, but he’s not that only one who cuts with the grain. In fact, I’ve never cut against it in me whole life!”
Gendric’s father draped his arm on his son’s shoulder and steered them away. As Gendric followed, he looked over his shoulder. Cad was staring after them from the inn. Their eyes met, and they held each other’s gaze for a moment before Caducus looked down, retreating into the inn.
Gendric and his father made their way back to their house ignoring the whispers and stares. Gendric kept looking back at the inn with hopeful eyes, but his friend didn’t look out again. Upon reaching the front door, his father smiled at Gendric as he said quietly, “I guess I found my axe.”
For the rest of the day, Gendric played in his backyard alone. Sometimes the other village kids would appear at the edge of his view and point at him, but he never showed that he noticed. He just held to his own figurine of the legendary hero of the Forest, the everlasting symbol of justice, and twirled it around. Sometimes, he put his head down over it and closed his eyes, moving his mouth almost imperceptibly. His prayers would be answered soon enough.
The night came and went. Gendric awoke. He looked through his bedroom window into the dawn. He felt around in his woolen sheet and found the figurine, which he gripped tightly and prayed to again. Then, he arose. Quietly, he drifted out of his door and padded right up to his father’s. At first, he seemed too scared to open it. He was trembling so much that it was visible from the other side of the dark cottage. Closing his eyes, he took a breath in through his nose, and breathed out through his mouth. Once, twice, more. Finally, he turned the knob and pushed the creaking door open.
His father’s bed was empty, with the sole bedsheet neatly set out as if it had never been used. On top of the pillow lay a wooden card. The symbol of hope, strength, and sovereignty. Gendric collapsed and sobbed, pools of tears flowing from his eyes to the floor and into the wooden boards. He punched the floor until his right fist was swollen and bleeding. And he lay there until he started to rise. Then, I decided to begin my day.
I scooped the boy into my arms and carried him out of the house. We went through the backyard and into the Forest, away from the nosy villagers and their judgment. He didn’t say a word to me nor I to him. Together, we traveled deeper and deeper into the woods. Eventually, I laid the boy down next to a particularly comfortable-looking tree stump and I sat. I waited, prepared for the arduous process of conversion and rebirth.
“Y-y-you m-made the wrong ch-choice,” he managed between sobs. I pitied him. I shook my head solemnly in an attempt to sympathize with him. But I certainly did not make the wrong choice; that doesn’t happen often. I chose passion over fear; right over correct; dark over light.
“DADDY WAS INNOCENT!” He shouted, almost making me consider flinching to make him feel substantial. I began to dream of how he would use his convictions productively. How long would it be until he comes to understanding the necessity of the cycle of life? His sobs had not yet dwindled, with the tree stump serving as a handkerchief. Finally, I realized what needed to be said.
“Sometimes, in order to build something beautiful, you have to cut against the grain.”