In the village where they lived everyone knew there was only one way for whomever went to meet the beast in the woods to stay safe. Wear an amulet around your neck, and when he comes upon you he will know you are protected, for a spell will be broken and you will speak his language and he will understand yours. But there was more. You must be brave. A map was placed in the center of town that would lead to the home of the beast. All of the men turned away. They had families to look after. None of the boys stepped forward. They had their lessons to think of.
So they stayed behind the walls of their village. This was the season when people shut themselves into their houses, had only soup to eat, and trembled when they heard howling. When the beast came to circle the walls they tossed out what little they had. Crusts of bread, onion skins, a pot of beans. Still, they shivered and lived in fear. They could not go past the village gate to go into the fields to gather more potatoes and onions. Children had nightmares about teeth and claws. Girls saw no future and refused to fall in love. Young men cursed themselves for having so little courage.
They wrote their names on stones and rolled them out on a tabletop to choose their hero. Her name came up. Ada. She was the bravest among them, and the strongest. When
she shot an arrow she always met her mark. When she came upon a mountain, she would swing a rope and climb to the top. Everyone knew she was the only one who could save them. The truth was, her name had been written on every stone.
Her grandmother gave her a meager packet of food, mostly crusts of bread. She dressed Ada in layer after layer of clothing, sweaters, jackets, coats, hats, gloves, mittens. Then she slipped a ribbon around Ada’s neck. It was the amulet that would allow her to speak the beast’s language and enable him to understand her.
Wearing it, Ada felt no different.
You will, her grandmother told her. When peril is near you will hear what you have never heard before, and you will be heard, even by those who have no ears.
Ada left when the snow was patchy. The farther she went into the woods, the deeper the snow became. It was rough going, even for a girl who climbed mountains. She grew exhausted. She was a girl who rarely cried, but she was nearly defeated.
How do I go on? she said. The amulet allowed the oak tree she stood beneath to understand her language. Take my branches and strap them to your feet. Ada quickly did so. With her snowshoes she could go forward. To thank the oak, she removed the axe a woodsman had left in its bark, carrying it with her so the tree couldn’t be chopped down.
In the forest, night fell like a curtain. Ada slept beneath some hedges until she heard an owl. She understood its language when it called for her to wake. She could see paw prints as large as a man’s hand circled all around her. The prints made a path that had tamped down the snow. To thank the owl, she left the snowshoes she no longer needed so that the branches could be of use for the owl’s nest. She went on through what she thought was a field of ice, not realizing that she was crossing a pond. She fell through the ice and might have drowned, had a huge fish not come to her. Because Ada could understand its language, she followed beneath the ice, swimming through the cold water until she reached the shallows; she used the axe to break through the ice. Before she went on she reached into her pockets for the crusts her grandmother had given her so she could thank the fish.
At last she came to the deepest part of the forest. She heard the beast that so terrified the village. But when he howled she understood his language. All at once she knew how lonely it was to be a beast. Save me from myself, he said. She followed the path and there was the beast, a huge wolf.
I’ve come for you, Ada said.
You? the beast snarled. Your kind wants to destroy me.
Ada placed her bow and arrow on the ground.
The beast laughed. Leave me be, he said. Leave me to the misery of being a beast.
From the east came a group of hunters who began to fire their weapons. The beast was fearsome when he defended himself, even though he was surrounded. Ada grabbed her bow. When arrows flew, the men scattered, back to where they’d come from.
This is what hatred is like, the beast said. It never stops.
He led her to the edge of the forest, past the icy pond where the fish had shown her the way out of the ice, past the hedges where the owl had spoken to her, past the oak tree where they now slept sheltered from a storm. When they reached the outskirts of the town, the beast began to cry. Ada sat down beside him. She thought about her grandmother’s advice, how the amulet would make a difference to someone in peril. She slipped it off and strung it around the beast’s neck, and from then on they understood each other perfectly, for he was a man who’d been under a spell, ruined by hatred but restored by her love.
Photography by Steve Parke Model: Crystal Chandler
Article from #38 Print