Why do people commit to one another, for life, I mean? There can be all kinds of reasons – love, companionship, sharing…starting a family even . I remember hearing once about a not so young couple. They lived in a cottage, part of a village, on the edge of an old wood. The pair lived happily enough together. He earned a living working in the wood, managing the planting of new trees, then felling and selling the older ones, when they were ready. He enjoyed a beer too with his mates in the pub after a day’s work. His wife was busy too with her friends often calling round and enjoying catching up with what was happening in the village and around. They often did this while she worked, putting the world to rights. She was a skilled seamstress. The quality of her work was well known in the area. Yet, the one thing she really wanted, the one thing they didn’t have, couldn’t have, seemingly, no matter how hard they tried was a baby. And they did try, doing all the things that couples do to make babies, not all of it as serious as it sounds but, so far, zilch, nul, nicht, nada, nothing… How much longer could they keep trying?
Late one winter’s evening, they were sitting in front of the fire after their meal; the only sound in the room coming from the ticking clock on the mantelpiece. The silence bore down heavily on them, as it so often did these days. The woman dearly wished for a child to talk to during the day. She wanted company, someone to pass her knowledge on to, as she made things – cakes and pies or lovely hand stitched clothes. She loved her husband but he was just not a great talker.
He found it difficult to talk about this stuff. Somehow, the words just wouldn’t sit up right. He’d go to say something only for it to irritate his wife. He couldn’t figure it out. And inside, he was hurting too. Wouldn’t it be lovely to take his child out with him when he went to work, sharing everything he knew about the trees, the wildlife..? Collecting mushroom together and watching him or her as they played and discovered more and more; well, the thought made him light up inside. But he didn’t tell his wife. She never knew. He just didn’t have the words.
His wife let out a long sigh. ‘Ohhh, why can’t we make a baby? Everybody else is. All my friends are. Do you hear me? I really want a baby.’ And she stared at her husband. He fidgeted awkwardly, knowing exactly what she meant, avoiding her eyes. ‘I want one as well.’ He spoke softly. ‘What?! You do? Even if it’s no bigger than your thumb? Would you still want one?’ ‘Yes, I would.’ He looked back at her now. ‘That would do for me.’ They had used up all their words and fell into their silent thoughts again with only the ticking of the clock for company.
And nine month’s later, surprise, surprise, the wife gave birth to a baby boy. He was perfectly healthy in every way, save for one thing. He was tiny. Only the size of the man’s thumb. But it didn’t matter. The beautiful, smiling baby made them so happy. They carried on trying for more, having lots of fun, but Tom was all they had. He was enough.
He was everything his mother wanted. He helped her with the cooking and sewing, keeping her company throughout the dark winter evenings. Tommy, that was the name they gave him, was as bright as a button, laughing and dancing and telling tall tales of his great adventures out playing in the garden among the cabbage leaves. His dad loved him too and it pleased him so much to see his wife happy.
Life moves on, doesn’t it and time passes. All the children who were born in the village around the same time as Tom were growing up fast. Running off into the forest, playing, getting lost, having their own adventures. In time, they would grow up, make new friends, find work, marry and have children of their own. But Tommy wouldn’t. He had his mum and his dad and they had him. He knew he was well-loved but he dreamed of doing what the other children were. At night, sometimes, Tom felt keenly sad that he would never fall in love, utterly and hopelessly, and do all the silly things lovers do, like sharing a bag of chips, sitting on a bench on the village green, as the moon rose. His tears were silent. ‘Least he thought they were but not to his mum. She heard them. And so did his dad, though they never talked about it.
One evening after tea, they were all sitting round the table, catching up on the day’s stories, when the husband scratched his stubbly chin and said, ‘Don’t know what I’m going to do about tomorrow? I need to do some logging at the far side of the forest but if I take the horse and wagon with me, I’ll have to watch the horse all day. And if leave it here and come back for it at lunchtime, I’ll lose half a day’s work…’
You can probably think of many different ways of helping the woodsman but, maybe, not what actually happened. Tom sat up straight and said, ‘I’ll do it, dad. I’ll do it. , Let me do it, Dad. I’ll bring the horse up to you.’ ’You, Tommy..?’ and he was just about to say what a daft idea that was when his wife said, ‘I think that’s a great idea, Tommy! What were you thinking of?’ ‘Well, if dad tells me where he’ll be and how to get there and you pop me into the horse’s ear when it’s time to go, I’ll just sit in its ear and and tell it which way to go. Sorted, dad, don’t you reckon?’
And that’s what they did. The next day, she watched as the horse left out through the gate, turning right over the bridge. She watched as they made their steady way up the track as long as she could until they disappeared round the curve into the brashes of oak and hazel. She waited till all she could feel was the echo of her breath and each beat of her heart.
It felt like a long time till tea. Every time a rock crunched under a wheel, she thought it might be her husband returning with Tommy. After many hours, she heard him driving over the bridge and pulling into the yard and ran out to meet him. She could tell straight away that something was wrong by the way he looked. His shoulders were shrunken. ‘Where’s Tommy?’ she shouted at him. ‘Tommy?’ the husband said, as he climbed down. Silently, he tendered his horse and settled it in the barn for the night, all the time feeling his wife’s eyes ripping through him. Only then did she notice he was holding a sack. ‘What’s happened? Where’s my Tommy? What have you done with him?’ He turned his head to look at her, ‘I’ve sold him’ he said. ‘…I had to.’
It was some time before his wife could bring herself to speak, never mind listen. She looked at the gold coins spilling out of the hessian sack on the table. ‘Tell me what happened.’ ‘Well, it all happened so quickly. Tommy was mucking about with the horse, making it do tricks this way and that, doing little hops and skips, you know what he’s like. He was having a great time, showing off when two strangers came out of the trees. When they saw Tommy, they offered me gold. How much will you take for him, they said. And when I said no, they offered me more. We’ll make his fortune in the city, if you let him come with us. Come on, what’s your price? No amount of gold would make me sell my son I was about to tell them when Tom spoke up, ‘Dad, dad, let me go, dad, let me go. I want to go with them. Take their gold and we’ll be rich and I’ll escape and be back home for supper inside three days, you’ll see, don’t worry!’ ‘Well, I just couldn’t say ‘no’ to him, love. I had to …’ And she, wringing her hands and tears rolling down her cheeks, shook more with fear than anger this time, ‘I know, yes, I know…’
They waited anxiously for three days, not sleeping, barely eating, looking all the time out of the window up over the bridge for any sign, any sign that he was returning. Nothing.
On the third night, they were suddenly woken by a loud banging down the hallway, pots and pans crashing to the kitchen floor. The pair jumped out of bed and, in the hallway, picked up a large spade and a scythe. They could just make out through the thinnest gap in the door dark shadows of something on the other side. There was a terrible commotion. All the plates were falling off the shelves, breaking on the hard floor. They leant against the door and threw it open. There, right in front of them, was a wolf, full grown with teethe bared, saliva dribbling from its jaw. It was too big to escape back through the drainpipe. In one movement, the man brought the back of the spade hard down on the wolf’s head, killing it with one blow. They heard a voice familiar to them since birth. ‘Get me out quick. The stomach, I’m in the stomach.’ Quickly, the wife reached for a pair of kitchen scissors and cut open the belly of the wolf. Out spilled a heap of bloody intestines over the floor. Amongst them, slipping and struggling to stand up, was Tommy. He was filthy and smiling up at them.
‘Don’t you ever do that to me again, young man! If you ever, ever run off like that …well, don’t you ever come home, I’m telling you… His mum fed him, bathed him, scrubbed him, looked for nits in his hair. She found two, so she inspected his head with the nit comb. It hurt.
Eventually, he got to bed. His mum was kneeling by his bedside. His dad stood watching on by the door. ‘You wouldn’t believe it, mum, the adventures I’ve had. They were fantastic. First, I escaped from the two strangers by hiding in a mouse hole. Then, I joined up with a gang of thieves. They took me to a parson’s house and my shouting woke the maid up. The thieves ran away and I hid in the hay in the barn. I thought I was safe but then a cow ate me. I called for the maid to let me out but they thought it was the cow shouting and killed it. Lucky for me, they threw the third stomach on the midden where the wolf made a meal of me. I told the wolf about all the pies and cakes in our kitchen and how I could take him there and show him the way in and he could eat the lot, if he wanted to go. By the time we got here, mum, dad, the wolf was so scrawny, it just slipped up the pipe…,’ his eyes closing. Mum and dad exchanged looks. ‘It was great,’ he said yawning, ‘but you know what, mum..?’ ‘What, son?’ she waited. He was yawning and struggling to keep his eyes open. ‘I think my travelling days are over now, mum. It was good, really exciting at times but not all of it. Sometimes, I wanted to be back home. It felt…I felt…a little…scared…think I’ll stay here from now on, mum, ohhh.’
His eyes closed and his breathing grew deeper. She waited by his bed for a few moments more to see. He was definitely asleep. She kissed the top of her little finger and gently swept his hair, brushing away a tiny curl from his eyes.
As she tried to stand up, she felt her knees crack and then a supporting hand under her, lifting her up. He turned her round to face him and took both her hands. looking deeply into her eyes; his face still. She looked back at him but turned away. She tried again, smiling but she was too tired. At last, she met his eyes and they held each other for a long time. They turned their heads and looked down at their son before looking again at each other. And they smiled.’Did the wolf finish off all the cake?’, he asked her. ‘Come on, let’s put the kettle on.’
Further reading and information
Gossip of the Forest by Sarah Maitland, Granta (2012)
Grim Tales by Philip Pullman, Penguin (2012)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jakob & Wilhelm Grimm, as close to the original 52 tales published in 1812 as possible
One hundred Wisdom Stories from around the world by Margaret Silf, Lion, (2003)
The monthly storytelling newsletter from the Society for Storytelling. Contact Martin Manasse at email@example.com for more information.