Gnarla awoke before dawn, went out the small door near the top of her oak tree, sat down on her favorite branch and looked to the east with great anticipation. It was her fifteenth birthday. When the sun rose her wings would finally appear and she would leave her tree for the first time.
“Happy birthday,” said the tree, who was also Gnarla’s mother. “How are you feeling?”
“I have been dreaming of the village all night,” said the young fairy. “What is taking the sun so long?”
“Be patient, my child. It is good we have a little more time together. I still have one more thing to teach you.”
Gnarla wondered what this could possibly be after being schooled by her mother for the past fifteen years. It seemed there was nothing left for her to learn.
“There is a valley far to the west,” said the oak mother. “A place of ancient trees and high waterfalls. It is called the Old Forest.”
“I should like to hear about it,” said Gnarla, but she was only being polite. Instead, she was watching the stars slowly fade from the eastern sky and imagining her new life in the village. She was wondering what her first fairy trick would be. Would she sweeten a mother’s milk to calm a fussy child? Or make the milk taste like garlic instead? Would she lend an invisible hand in the making of a good beer? Or let the rats find the brewer’s barley? Little charms and little bits of mischief — the work of a village fairy was never done.
Meanwhile, the oak mother was telling Gnarla about the far off place called the Old Forest.
“You may hear the other fairies speaking of it,” she said. “They love to tell stories about it, for it is not anything like our village. In the Old Forest the fairies do not bother with meddling in human affairs. They spend their days hunting, or competing in contests, or writing poetry. And at night they feast, and drink wine, and sing songs. The young ones pursue love while the old ones sit up in the trees and smoke long-stemmed pipes. And when they die there is no lamenting, for they become water and are sucked up by the roots of the great Gnarled Oak.”
“The great Gnarled Oak?” said Gnarla, suddenly paying close attention.
“Yes, my child. She stands at the center of the forest and is over one thousand years old and more than five hundred feet tall. She is Queen of the Old Forest. And . . . she is also my mother.”
“My mother. I was born from one of her acorns.”
“But that . . . that would mean you are princess.”
“Indeed. And so are you, my child. You are even named after the Gnarled Oak.”
A shiver shot though Gnarla’s body. A princess?! She had never thought of herself as anything but a provincial fairy.
“But,” continued the oak mother solemnly, “with this knowledge comes a hard truth. My child, you can never go to the Old Forest.”
A strong breeze rustled the oak mother’s leaves and Gnarla asked her what she meant by this.
“An acorn lies dormant for more than a year,” replied the tree, “and so it was with me. I was laying in the shade of the Gnarled Oak, waiting to be born, when a raven came and snatched me up. It carried me to the east and dropped me here, in the yard of this shoemaker, in the village of Ordin. I should have grown up in the hallowed ground of the Old Forest but instead I grew up here. I may be descended from royalty but I am made from the soil of Ordin. I am a common oak and you are a common fairy, and so you cannot enter the Old Forest.”
“But I am a princess!”
“It does not matter. You were borne of this village and are bound to serve it. You cannot break that bond anymore than I can leave this yard.”
Gnarla chewed a fingernail and thought for a long moment.
“Why did you tell me this now? It would have been better for me to never have known!”
“You would have discovered it eventually, my child, and it is better to have heard it from your own mother. Please do not be so discontented. You are still young and there is much to be enjoyed here in Ordin.”
But all Gnarla could think of was the glory of being a princess and of spending her days frolicking among the fairies in the Old Forest. She seethed at the injustice of her circumstance and, when the first rays of sunlight struck her body, her dark mood colored her transformation into adulthood. Her delicate and pale arms became covered in tattoos and her fingernails turned black. A nose ring appeared in her left nostril. Her long blond hair receded into a boyish cut and turned orange. Her tunic changed from lavender to drab green. A pipe, a strong tobacco, and a flask of whisky materialized inside her satchel. Only her new wings were unaffected by her anger. They unfolded outward from her scapulas, magnificent and glistening with color, strong and full of youthful vigor, more beautiful than those of any butterfly. The wings of a fairy princess.
Gnarla left her oak mother and, in the days that followed, she travelled the streets of Ordin to start her life as a village fairy. She made the necessary acquaintances with other fairies but became friends with none. She spoke little. She performed her duties, her petty charms and petty mischiefs, but derived no joy from them. It all seemed like drudgery, and in her quiet moments she dreamt of the Old Forest, and of marrying a prince, and of days filled with song and gaiety.
One day she conjured up a hopeful thought: Perhaps my mother was wrong? How can she be so sure there is no way to enter the Old Forest? I have not even tried!
Suddenly possessed by this idea, she flew up and over the rooftops of Ordin and made straightaway for the Old Forest. She flew past the fields of grain surrounding the village, and over the gentle hills of the countryside until she saw the forest set within a deep river valley amidst towering mountains. As she approached the border a headwind began to blow, and as she came closer it blew more strongly until she could fly forward no longer. I shall try on foot instead, she thought, and so she circled down to the ground.
At the edge of the forest stood giant trees whose roots had woven together over many centuries and formed a twisting wall of wood and moss. Yet, for a little fairy, there were plenty of places to slip through and so she stepped forward.
“Stop right there!” said two voices in unison.
From the shadows appeared a pair of bright yellow eyes. And then a second pair. The four eyes began to move toward her and, as they came into the daylight, she saw they belonged to an enormous, two-headed snake. One head was black and the other red. Each was the size of a watermelon, and they came within inches of Gnarla and sniffed her with their tongues.
“Have you lost your way, little fairy?” said the black head.
“Not at all,” replied Gnarla, trying her best to sound authoritative. “This is my home.”
The two heads looked at one another and burst out laughing.
“Do you take us for fools?” said the black head.
“We can smell the dirt of Ordin on you,” said the red head.
“Yes, I have passed through that village. I travel often. But this is my home. Indeed, my kingdom! I am Princess Gnarla. Now move aside and let me pass.”
The two heads looked at one another again and this time they laughed so hard their yellow eyes became wet with tears.
“Indeeeed, this is her kingdom,” said the black head.
“Indeeeed,” said the red head.
The snake brought its tail forward and wrapped it around the fairy.
“You are a foolish village fairy!” said both heads at once.
The tail reared high into the air and cracked like a whip, and Gnarla was flung with such force that she was soon tumbling through the fields outside of Ordin. She came to an abrupt stop against the stone wall of a well. At length she sat up, cursed her fate, and filled her pipe.
From around the corner an old frog appeared.
“You look glum,” he said in a croaky voice.
Gnarla lit her pipe and blew a large puff of smoke into his face. He blinked, and wrinkled his nose and said: “You are Princess Gnarla of the Old Forest, are you not?”
“How do you know that?”
“Frogs know a great deal. Your oak mother told you everything about the world, did she not? But she never mentioned the magic of frogs, did she?”
“Stupid old tree! We have great power!” The frog inched closer. “Now listen to me. I know all about you. And I know about that raven who carried your mother’s acorn out of the forest. Why should you be punished for a raven’s crime? You deserve to live in the Old Forest! You are a princess, are you not?”
Gnarla lowered her pipe.
“You are. But the snake will never believe you. All it smells is a dirty village fairy. And I must say — you do reek of this village. But no matter. There are ways to get past a two-headed snake.”
“Ah,” he said smugly. “I have your attention.”
His nostrils flared, his gray eyes glistened, and Gnarla didn’t know whether to trust him or not.
“Snakes,” continued the frog, “can be charmed by a song. So long as you have a large and beautiful voice.”
“But my voice is small. And I do not know how to sing.”
“Ah, but I do!”
The frog opened his hideous mouth and began to sing in the most sumptuous baritone ever heard on earth. It echoed through the hills and the melody was so joyful that all who heard it paused from their labors to listen. Songbirds of all sizes and colors came and gathered in the field near the frog, hoping to learn something. Even a woodpecker, who is ordinarily immune to such sentimentality, paused from his woodpecking to listen.
“This is wonderful!” said Gnarla, when the song was over. “Let us go at once!”
She stood up and hurriedly tapped out her pipe against the wall of the well.
“Oh, I cannot do that,” said the frog. “I have business in the village and I am already running late. And besides, the charm only works with a female voice.”
“But then . . . how . . . ?”
The old frog came up so close to Gnarla that he was almost touching her.
“I propose we make a simple exchange,” he whispered, and his breath smelled like rotting fish.
“An exchange?” replied Gnarla, backing away. “Exchange of what?”
“Your youth for my talent. A few years added to your age; a few years subtracted from mine. In return, I will give you my talent. And then you will be able to sing as beautifully as I just did. And of course, you will able to charm the snake and enter the Old Forest.”
“It is a deal,” said Gnarla, without giving the matter more than one second of thought. “Now let me see if you are as powerful as you say.”
The frog’s eyes bulged outward and a grin formed along his fat face. He opened his huge mouth and a stench tumbled forth that made Gnarla gag. In the blink of an eye, his tongue shot out and struck the fairy on her throat and returned to his mouth. In that same instant the fairy was aged eighty years and the frog was made younger by the same quantity. Gnarla’s thick orange hair became thin and gray, her cheeks sagged and deep wrinkles formed over her face, her eyes sunk into their sockets, her teeth fell out, and her once gorgeous wings turned brown and withered. Meanwhile, the frog’s bumpy skin became taught and smooth, his gray eyes turned black and handsome, and his flabby legs grew lean and strong. For a moment, he marveled at his newfound youth and then he made a mighty leap and was gone from the old fairy’s sight.
Gnarla looked at the blue veins in her age-spotted hands and wondered if perhaps she had heard the frog correctly. The price in years seemed awfully high. Did he not say only “a few” years would be exchanged?
She held her hand to her throat. What if he has swindled me completely?! She tried to sing and, to her great relief, a beautiful sound echoed forth. She sighed. At least he has kept his word, she thought.
Gnarla tried to forget about the high price she had paid and flew again to the Old Forest. The journey took much longer now that she was ninety-five years old but, in time, she arrived once again at the edge of the giant trees. Once again she was stopped by the two-headed snake with shining yellow eyes and, once again, each head sniffed her with its tongue.
“Have you lost your way, old fairy?” said the black head.
“Do you not recognize me?” cried Gnarla, brimming with confidence. “I am Princess Gnarla! Now move aside! Or I will have you butchered and roasted and served at the next feast!”
The two heads looked at one another while Gnarla opened her toothless mouth and began to sing in the most angelic soprano ever heard on earth. The sound was so lovely that gnomes and raccoons peered out from the underbrush, dryads and squirrels gathered on the branches, fairies and sparrows circled overhead, and dozens of other creatures of the Old Forest came to listen in amazement. When the song was finished, and when the applause had died down, Gnarla took a good look at the snake. It was as frozen as a statue and a dull white glaze covered its four eyes. The charm had worked!
The old fairy took a step forward.
“Stop right there!” said the two heads as their eyes turned blazing yellow.
“Do you take us for fools?” said the black head.
“We can smell the dirt of Ordin on you,” said the red head.
Gnarla’s eyes widened with terror. Her lips quivered and she stammered: “B-but the frog said you would…the frog said…the frog said…”
The two heads looked at one another and then turned back to Gnarla.
“You listened to a frog?” cried the black head.
“And you call yourself a princess?” hissed the red head.
“The only one who would trust a frog…” said the black head.
“…is a foolish village fairy!” cried the red head.
The large audience that had gathered round burst into laughter and raucous chants of “Foolish village fairy! Foolish village fairy!” Then the snake brought its tail forward, coiled it around Gnarla, lifted her high into the air, and cracked the tail like a whip. The force was even greater this time and Gnarla flew past the grain fields, tumbled through the village, and came to a stop in the yard of the shoemaker. Her elderly body was so bruised and broken she could hardly move. She closed her eyes and prayed for death. And then she heard the soothing voice of her mother say, “What has happened to you, my child? You do not look well.”
Gnarla opened her eyes and saw a canopy of leaves arching far above her head. She dragged herself toward her oak mother’s trunk and crawled into the space between two large roots. As she lay there, curled up like a babe, she wept softly and told her mother all that had happened. The tree listened patiently and then sang her to sleep with a lullaby. She didn’t wake until a gentle rain was falling in the evening.
“Did you sleep well, my child?”
“I did. I slept deeply. Without dreaming.”
“It is a good thing. Your dreams have not served you well. Will you now stay in the village for the time you have left? There is much to be enjoyed here in Ordin.”
Gnarla sat up. She felt a bit of strength return as she listened to the raindrops hitting the leaves and smelled the moist earth. She pulled the flask of whisky out of her satchel and took a large gulp. And then she took another drink and said: “No. I am not going to stay. The frog tricked me – but I learned something. There is powerful magic in this world. More powerful than I ever imagined. Perhaps not all of it is wicked.”
She stood up slowly, gave her mother’s rough bark a kiss, and walked off into the night. For many days she wandered through the kingdom, stopping in every town and village and asking everyone she met where she might find magic as powerful as the frog’s. One day she asked this question to a young peasant girl who was tending a garden. The girl pointed with her rake and said plainly: “Beyond yonder waterfall there’s a cave where a sorc’rer lives. His magic’s real strong, so I hear. But I ain’t never tried it.” Gnarla thanked her and flew off in the direction she pointed. The girl returned to her work and then thought to add: “His price is real high, though, so I hear.” But Gnrala was already out of earshot.
She found the cave partly hidden by a thicket of vines and brambles. She called into it but received no answer. Perhaps he lives deep inside, she thought. She took just one step forward when a small mouth opened in the gray rock next to her.
“Wait here,” said the mouth. “The master is coming for you.” And then the mouth disappeared without a trace.
A good sign, thought Gnarla. This sorcerer may indeed know strong magic.
A tiny blue light appeared in the deepest recesses of the cave. It grew larger and brighter and turned out to be a young fairy flying toward the entrance. His body was radiating a blue glow, but as he emerged into the daylight the glow faded. By the time he landed in front of Gnarla the only light that remained was in his blue eyes. Gnarla was momentarily entranced by his angular face, his beautiful lips, and his thick mane of black hair. He was quite handsome, and for a moment she thought of romance. But then she glanced down and saw how her tattooed arms were shriveled and looked like prunes, and she was reminded of her advanced age and felt a pang of bitterness.
“Let us talk by the waterfall,” said the fairy sorcerer.
Gnarla told him her tale while the two of them sat on wide rock surrounded by ferns. A few yards away a long, thin plume of water was plunging past them.
“Indeed, that is a sad story,” said the sorcerer when Gnarla was finished.
“Can you help me?”
“That depends. If you seek retribution against the frog, I cannot help you. His magic is much too strong. And if you want your youth back, I cannot help you either, for the same reason. I cannot undo what a frog has done. But if you are asking only to enter the Old Forest, that I can do.”
Gnarla was about to throw her arms around the blue-eyed sorcerer and kiss him but then she recalled all she had learned about the ways of the world, and that one ought to be careful in dealing with things like magic and promises. And so she drew a deep breath and said coolly: “I must have a guarantee.”
The sorcerer stroked his chin. “Here is your guarantee. You need not pay me anything until after you have entered the Old Forest.”
Gnarla turned away and thought for a moment. The waterfall was crashing into a dark pool below and a thin cloud of mist was rolling upward from it.
“But entering is not enough,” she said finally. “Suppose the snake finds me and hurls me from the forest again? No, I cannot just enter. I must be able to live there. For the rest of my life.”
The sorcerer nodded his head. “So be it.”
And then Gnarla did throw her arms around him and kissed him, and so the agreement was consummated.
“Here is how it will happen,” said the sorcerer. “You must go before the double-headed snake once more, but this time you must humble yourself. You must give up your claim as a princess. You must lie down flat, kiss the ground, and say you are a lowly village fairy who wishes to sing in the Old Forest while sunlight sparkles through the trees. Say exactly that — and I will take care of the rest.”
Yet again, Gnarla flew straightaway to the edge of the Old Forest and, when the snake appeared, she did exactly as the fairy sorcerer had said. With her face still in the dirt she awaited the snake’s reply, but she heard nothing. Slowly, she lifted her head and saw that the snake was nowhere to be found. Instead, before her was a path leading deep into the Old Forest. She stood up. By now her old wings were so decrepit they fell from her body, and so she entered the forest on foot. She walked down the path while tall trees arched overhead and sunbeams radiated through their branches, making little pools of light on the forest floor. Everything was just as the sorcerer had promised! She began to sing and a multitude of forest creatures descended from the sky, appeared among the leaves, and popped out of the ground to hear her beautiful voice once again. At last she arrived at the Gnarled Oak and her singing faded to silence as she gazed up and saw how the great tree’s canopy was like an umbrella covering the whole center of the forest. And then she looked down, down, down the trunk until she saw gigantic roots, so large and twisted that the nooks between them were like caves. Out from one of these dark places walked a wolf.
“Greetings,” said the wolf. “I am here to collect the sorcerer’s payment.”
“Oh, I will gladly pay him,” replied Gnarla, looking curiously at the wolf’s eyes, for they were blue, and glowing, and seemed oddly familiar. “Since leaving my mother I have known nothing but misery. But now! Oh, I am happy at last.”
“So am I,” said the wolf.
“What is the price?” asked Gnarla.
The wolf leapt at her and tore out her throat, and the old fairy crumpled to the ground, became water, and was sucked up by the roots of the great Gnarled Oak. Meanwhile, the wolf swallowed the lump of flesh and in a croaky voice said: “Ah, I can sing once again!” And then he turned into a raven and flew off in search of a new acorn.
Tom Hutt is a Master of Liberal Arts student at the University of Pennsylvania. His poetry has recently appeared in the Orange Room Review and his short fiction will appear in the May issue of Jersey Devil Press. He lives happily ever after in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and Cocker Spaniel.
Stella Rothe is 26 and currently studying English and philosophy in Rochester, Michigan. Her photography and writing has most recently been published in Ceremony, Pink Panther Magazine, Nain Rouge, and BAC Street Journal.