A Tree Falls in Needwood Forest
A buckboard wagon bearing two men in tattered jackets rolled slowly toward the tidy homestead of Lars and Elsie Thomond. The older man, named Joshua Alder, sat on the driver’s bench alongside his son, Jacob, whom he had brought along to help Lars take down a tree in Needwood Forest. Lars intended to use the wood as building material for his new barn, an innocent enough task. Joshua and Jacob, however, approached their work with a keen sense of foreboding, for logging in Needwood Forest had long been proscribed. In fact, twenty years had passed since the last logging party from Needwood Village had entered the forest and while there it had encountered horrors of which the local populace still spoke. Now Lars sought to break the timber ban and take a forbidden tree, an act that made Joshua and Jacob distinctly uncomfortable.
Arriving in the yard by Lars’s house, Joshua called the horses to a stop and set the handbrake.
“Hello, Lars!” he called to announce their arrival, and climbed down to the ground. Jacob did the same and waited beside the horses for Lars to appear.
Recent immigrants from Scandinavia, Lars and Elsie Thomond had arrived in Needwood Village via Baltimore, where they had earned sufficient money over a decade to buy land and a small house near Needwood Forest. Both Lars and Elsie stood taller than most of the locals, but at six-foot-two with thick arms, ginger hair, and a heavy beard, Lars in particular cut an imposing figure. His Norwegian ancestors had once sailed the mighty North Atlantic in dragon ships, conquering the coasts of England and Scotland with fire and sharpened steel. For all of his imposing size, however, Lars Thomond possessed a moderate temperament and in his day he subdued naught but disobedient sheep.
Striding from his house into the yard, Lars propped his wide-brimmed hat atop his head and went to greet his guests.
“Greetings, Joshua,” he said, shaking the older man’s hand. “I see you have your son with you. Where are the others?”
“Good morning, Mister Thomond,” said Joshua, respectfully removing his hat. “We met them in town at daybreak to make the journey, but they all begged off. Only Jacob here agreed to come and that’s because his mother told him to keep an eye on me.”
“We’re not keen on heading into Needwood Forest, Mister Thomond,” added the youth.
Lars cast a befuddled glance at Jacob and scratched his head. “I don’t understand. I paid good money, and in gold too. Why do none of Needwood’s men want to work?”
Joshua drew a small leather pouch from his work jacket and held it out to Lars. “Here is your coin, Mister Thomond. It’s all there. Every penny.”
Lars reached for the pouch and sighed as the coins clinked in his palm. Looking up at the mountainside beyond his land, he gazed at the miles of prime timber that covered the length of Long Mountain. Just one of the gnarled giants in Needwood Forest could provide enough wood to build his barn. Yet as strong as Lars was he could not do the work of cutting and hauling it himself. He needed as many men as he could find to complete the job properly.
Running his hand down his face, Lars peered back at the older man. “Joshua, tell me true, why do the people here fear Needwood Forest? No one will explain it to me.”
A shadow passed over Joshua’s face. “Maybe we could go inside and talk, Mister Thomond. I’d prefer not speak of Needwood outside.”
“Why, what’s wrong with outside?” asked Lars, now thoroughly puzzled. “There’s no one here but us.”
“Please, Mister Thomond. Do me this kindness.”
“Very well,” shrugged Lars. “I’d like some coffee anyhow before we get started.”
Leading Joshua and his son into the kitchen, Lars found Elsie stoking coals in the iron stove. A modest kitchen table stood in the middle of the room and on it sat a wedge of cheese, blackberry jam, and a loaf of brown bread.
“Elsie, this is Joshua Alder and his son Jacob,” said Lars, shutting the door behind them.
The strawberry-blonde Elsie rose from her crouch to greet them.
“Hello, gentlemen, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” she said. “Do take a seat and I will bring you some hot coffee.”
“We’re much obliged, ma’am,” nodded Joshua. “You sit over there, Jacob. I’ll take this one here.”
Lars lowered himself onto a chair opposite the men and tore off a chunk of the heavy bread. “Alright, Joshua,” he said as he chewed, “now we are inside. Tell me about Needwood Forest. I can see from my yard the quality of the wood there. Why will no one use it?”
Joshua sighed heavily, the lines of worry plain on his face. “As you wish, Mister Thomond. The tale’s not a happy one, though, so I’ll beg your pardon in advance. Some years ago, a lumber party entered Needwood Forest to cut trees for a new church in town. Mind you, timber cutting had been going on for some time back then, so men haven’t always been afraid to go there. They entered the eastern part of the forest where a thick belt of pine trees once stood. Those trees though had been taken by this time so the lumbermen started cutting down hardwood trees.”
Joshua paused to pull out a pocket square and dab perspiration from his forehead. “Forgive me, Mister Thomond. It’s mighty warm in here with the stove and all.”
“That’s fine, Joshua. Please, go on.”
“Yes, sir. As I was saying, to get the best trees the timbermen found themselves travelling deeper into the woods than they’d planned. By nightfall they still hadn’t come home and this was right unusual. Lumber parties before this had always come back by sunset so this time people got worried. I still remember that night. You could hear the women in town calling for their menfolk in the darkness. First one would cry out and then another. They sounded like a pack of howling wolves.”
Elsie came to the table with cups and a pot of coffee. “Did the men ever return?” she asked as she set them down.
“Yes, ma’am,” nodded Joshua. “They came back over the next several days, but not as a group. One man would appear, then another, then two more. It was like they’d been scattered. Soon all of them had come home. All except one.”
“Who failed to return?” asked Lars.
“Connor Bain. He was the leader of the party.”
“What happened to him?”
Joshua fiddled nervously with a fork and peered across the table at Jacob. “Connor was killed, but no one can explain how he met his end.”
Perplexed by this, Lars looked up at Elsie, who stood beside him with a quizzical expression on her face.
“Why, Mister Alder, what do you mean?” she asked Joshua.
“I mean no one can explain what it was they saw. When the men came home they told stories of strange things happening in the trees. The deeper into the forest they went the darker it became until the canopy of leaves above them had blotted out the sun. They began to hear voices cursing them in the gloom and men swore on the graves of their mothers that the whispers came from the trees themselves. Thick vines rose from the ground to catch their legs and curl around their axes. The lumbermen chopped at the vines to free themselves, but the vines, they—”
Choking on the words, Joshua fell silent and stared down into his coffee. Lars again turned to Elsie, asking silently with his gaze what she made of the man, but Elsie merely shrugged.
“Tell us, Mister Alder. What did the vines do?” she asked in a gentle voice.
“The vines screamed, ma’am. With every blow from an axe they shrieked in pain and writhed on the ground. It was an awful, terrifying sight and it struck fear into the men’s hearts.”
“My word!” Elsie gasped. “Did the men run?”
“They tried, but the weeds grabbed at their feet and tripped them up. The survivors swore the vines moved as if on purpose. Men stumbled around in the darkness and lost sight of each other. Only Connor Bain remained standing in a shaft of sunlight that poured through an opening in the leaves above. Swinging his axe, Connor hacked at the vines as they wrapped around his legs. Then one vine came up behind him and grabbed his hand. He dropped the axe and fell to his knees during the struggle. More vines slithered around his chest and wrists, holding him fast. They tightened and pulled him high into the air. There he hung until a final vine wound around his throat and choked the life out of him. The last time anyone saw Connor alive he was dangling there in the clearing with his arms and legs stretched out and his eyes bulging from his head.”
“Oh, Mister Alder, that’s a terrible story,” Elsie whimpered as Lars gently grasped her hand.
“That it is, Missus Thomond. It’s true, too,” said Jacob, seeking to reassure his father by seconding the veracity of the tale.
Now, though, Lars wrinkled his brow. Not a superstitious man, he had never easily accepted outlandish stories of strange goings-on.
“This is why no one will enter Needwood Forest?” he asked.
“It is,” nodded Joshua.
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Must be going on twenty years now. They found Connor’s body at the edge of the forest some time later marked by bruises where the vines had bound him. There hasn’t been a logging party in Needwood Forest since.”
Worry clouded Elsie’s face and she placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Lars, you shouldn’t go into the forest. We will find another way to get the wood for the barn, or perhaps we can use stone. Yes, that’s it! We will use stone instead and buy the wood for the roof.”
“Calm yourself, Elsie,” rumbled Lars. “Joshua, where in Needwood Forest did this happen?”
“About five miles west of here and a few miles north—close to where Lilith dwells.”
“Lilith? Who is she?”
“It’s more like what is she, Mister Thomond. Lilith is a witch. She’s been in Needwood Forest longer than my family’s lived in these parts. Needwooders have always steered clear of her. In fact, it’s been so long since anyone’s set eyes on Lilith that no one’s sure she’s still alive.”
“A witch?” sniffed Lars, now thoroughly in doubt. “Why, that is hogwash, Joshua. There is no such thing as witchcraft.”
“You know that for sure, do you, Mister Thomond?”
“I do, Joshua. Men have long called women witches when it is convenient for them to do so. We, however, live in an enlightened age and must be clear-headed about these things. There are no witches.”
“Mister Alder, why has no one gone to find out if Lilith still lives?” asked Elsie who, unlike her husband, believed that witches and the supernatural were as real as the table around which they huddled.
“Lilith doesn’t take kindly to trespassers, ma’am, and none of us wants to cross her path,” said Joshua. “You may not believe she’s a witch, Mister Thomond, but those of us who believe in magical folk keep our distance. Lilith stays away from Needwood Village and we leave her be. That’s the way it’s always been.”
“Bah! So you think it was Lilith who killed Connor Bain and the others?” asked Lars.
“No one can say for sure,” shrugged Joshua. “Needwood Forest’s a dark place and the Indians who used to live in these parts told tales of wee people and forest spirits.”
This testimony brought yet another dismissive wave from Lars. “Savages,” he scoffed.
“So it was this man Bain who formed the lumber party?” asked Elsie.
“It was, Missus Thomond. Old Albert Bain, Connor’s father, didn’t want him to go, but Connor insisted. He said witches and faeries were all wild tales meant to frighten children.”
“At last you tell me of someone with sense,” chuckled Lars. “But what I believe gets me no closer to building a barn. I need to take a tree from the forest. What do you think I should do?”
Joshua peered across the table at Jacob, who nodded his head solemnly. “Tell him, Pa,” he said.
“Alright, Mister Thomond, I’ll tell you what I think. I believe that if Lilith didn’t get Connor Bain and the others it was the faeries. One way or another Needwood Forest is an evil place and we ought not to go there. I’ve taken your coin out of need and we’ll do the work you’ve asked of us, but if it was up to me we wouldn’t set foot there.”
“I see,” said Lars and sitting back in his chair he glumly stroked his ginger whiskers.
“Lars, I beg you not to enter the woods,” implored his wife.
Making no reply, Lars sat quietly for a time. Then he pushed away from the table and cleared his throat. “I have made a decision,” he said. “I do not fear the witch or the faeries, as you call them. I want to take only one tree of the many thousands that stand in Needwood. Surely no one will miss a single tree, but I know you men are fearful. Therefore, I will not ask you and Jacob to go anywhere near Lilith. We will go south some distance and avoid the area entirely. Would that suit you?”
“I’d agree to that,” nodded Joshua. “Working as far away from Lilith as possible would make me feel better.”
“And you, Jacob, do you agree?” asked Lars.
“I do, sir. It sounds reasonable.”
“Good,” nodded Lars. “What about you, Elsie? Are you reassured?”
Scowling at Lars, Elsie shook her head. “No, husband, I am not. I don’t want you to go into the forest at all. I want to use stone or buy the wood elsewhere.”
Lars rubbed his forehead in frustration. “I have explained this before, Elsie. It is too expensive to use stone. Masons command a stiff fee and wood from afar can cost four times what it costs to harvest it ourselves. We do not have a choice if we are to build this barn.”
Elsie’s shoulders slumped. Clearly her husband would not be deterred.
“Alas, you are a stubborn man, Lars Thomond,” she said. “I cannot stop you, but you must promise me you will stay as far from that Lilith person as you can.”
Lars approached his wife and grasped her hands in his. “I swear we will go nowhere near the witch,” he said while peering into her eyes. “She will never know we were there.”
The sun stood high above when Lars and his workmen arrived before a towering wall of trees several miles south of the Thomond farm.
“This is where we’ll go in,” said Lars, pointing to an opening between the trunks. “The wide path will make it easier for the team to drag out the tree. Jacob, secure the axes and whetstone atop one of the horses. Joshua, you get that coil of rope. We will leave the wagon here and bring the team with us into the forest. I will get them unhitched.”
Going about their tasks, the three men were soon ready. They grabbed the bag containing their provisions and started for the dark opening as a crow circled unnoticed in the sky above them. Lars walked into the tree line first, leading one of the horses by a leather strap. Coming second, Joshua paused to cross himself. When he had finished he turned to Jacob and commanded him to do the same. Jacob obeyed his father and crossed himself as well before following Joshua into the shadows.
Lars’s sight dimmed in the low light of the trees, but when it cleared he could see a faint trail winding ahead of them.
“This looks like an old wagon track,” he commented. “It’s too wide for a deer path.”
“I think you’re right,” said Joshua. “It might be an old path for logging.”
Chirping birds and other familiar forest noises surrounded the three men as they made their way deeper into the woods. The party advanced in silence for a time, the sound of their footsteps and the occasional snort of a pack horse being the only indication of their presence. Meanwhile, above them the crow slipped silently through the air, landing occasionally atop high branches to watch the three men below.
Throughout the hike, Lars peered around him for a tree that would suit his purpose. Yet he saw nothing useful until they spied a thick oak some eighty feet tall in the middle of a wide clearing.
“Here it is!” exulted Lars. “This is the tree we will take.”
“Whew! That’s some tree,” said Jacob. “We’ll be here all day taking that one down.”
“We had best get to it, then,” nodded Lars.
Unsheathing their axes, the men approached the colossal arbor, whose leaves rustled in the light breeze. Lars set the head of his axe in the grass and propped the long handle against his thigh to roll up his sleeves. Then he spat into his hands and rubbed them together to firm his grip before taking aim at a spot level with his waist. Drawing back the axe, Lars swung it with all his might. The blade bit deep into the bark and leaves loosened by the blow floated down around them. Lars wrenched the axe-head free and swung again, lopping off a chunk of wood. The vigilant crow, now perched in a tree overlooking the clearing, cocked its head curiously, a red tongue flicking inside its open beak.
“Muhhhhh,” came a deep vibration from the oak.
“Wait, Lars! Did you hear that?” asked Joshua.
Lars rested the axe on his shoulder. “Hear what? I heard nothing.”
“Something moaned. I’d swear it came from the tree.”
“This superstition again, Joshua? Trees cannot moan or talk or shriek. Now get on the other side and start cutting!”
Sullenly, Joshua circled around the trunk and after casting a troubled glance at Jacob he took a deep breath and drove his axe deep into the bark. Lars continued chopping on his side of the tree as well, the blows from his axe throwing enormous chips into the air. The oak trembled above them and small branches tumbled to the ground as the trunk of the mighty tree thinned. They took turns at the axes for more than three hours until at last the tree gave a loud crack. The wood split and Lars called for everyone to stand back while he delivered the final blows. Aiming carefully, he struck once, then twice, and then a third time before the creaking tree toppled to the ground with a thunderous crash.
“You see, Joshua!” gloated Lars as the dust and leaves settled around them. “No vines or faeries stopped us. It is only we and the horses here.”
“We’re not done yet,” muttered Joshua ruefully. “Let’s just get out of here as fast as we can.”
Lars chuckled at Joshua’s apprehension and directed the men to begin cutting branches from the fallen tree’s massive trunk.
“We will have the horses drag them to the tree line,” he said, pointing back in the direction they had come. “The work will not be finished today, but we will have made a good start.”
Jacob and Joshua made their way through the tangle of grounded limbs until they had located branches to cut. Then Jacob paused with his axe on his shoulder.
“Pa, listen,” he said. “It’s gone quiet.”
Joshua set down his axe and cocked an ear. Not a bird chirped nor a rustle of leaves stirred the silence. Gazing first at his father and then back at the trees, Jacob could not shake the eerie sense that something watched them. Yet he saw nothing, so with a shrug he raised his axe. Joshua returned to work as well and for the hours of daylight that remained the three men hewed branches from the fallen giant, unaware that above them the crow had taken flight, its black wings flapping toward the ancient tower wherein Lilith dwelt.