THE WOODEN FRAME by Alexander Gifford Howard

THEY TELL THIS STORY too often in our town. They told it the winter Knox lost his foot under his plow. They told it the winter Mrs. Jacobs lost her little girl before she was even born. They told it the winter they found the Postman had hanged himself in his basement, no note. They tell it those winters when you hear the wolves howling out in the part of the forest we don’t ever go to. The dark core of the thing. That’s the place this story was born.

No one even remembers the story right anymore. Knox used to tell it the best. He used to be something of an authority on it, in fact, being as his grandfather was there when it happened, though only about six or so. But then Knox lost his foot to diabetes and his memory started going for strolls. He changes it a little more every year now. Used to be the Neighbor’s daughter’s name was always Angie, but you hear it from him these days and it’s Janie, or sometimes Beth. I doubt if it was even Angie to begin with. Still, you’ve got to humor a man like Knox. A widower, wife hit by a car, son killed in the war, and his daughters abandoned him for husbands in far off places. His grandchildren are grown and scattered to the wind, they barely know he’s alive. And now he’s got nothing but one foot and an old story everyone in town knows. You have got to humor a man like that.

You could come to our village and listen to this story told a thousand different ways, now that Knox’s version doesn’t hold water. Four people can share seven different versions between them. That’s just the way things seem to happen these days.

I know it may seem strange I’m talking to you here like this. You asked me to come, to help bury your daughter, your little girl, nine years old and dead by some gunman’s bullet. An innocent in a guilty world. You didn’t ask me for this story, just a reason. Well, I don’t have a reason, but I do have this story, from the way back days when my town was just a village. I’ve only got the one way to tell it, goes like this:
 
 
You need to know two things before I can really begin. The first is the forest. How it was. You have to understand that in those days, the forest was not a collection of trees, bushes, and animals. It was its own thing, with its own life, own heart, own mind. And it was a lie. You could spend a day wandering its outer reaches, discovering all the abundance the place had to offer. You could come across a stream with the clearest water imaginable. And in the outer forest, this was as it was supposed to be. But tread too deep into the forest, towards the center, into the soul of the forest’s being, and it would destroy you. People got lost that far in. The forest would turn them around, trip them up, knock them down, and lead them to the wolves. The wolves were the only things that forest cherished.

Forests aren’t like that anymore. They don’t send wolves to eat a man, like they did back then. Some people like to point out that times change, but I don’t think they do. Only people change. Some people like to claim man conquered the forest, but I think the forest conquered man. I don’t think the forest stopped sending wolves because we can burn all the trees and kill all the wolves. I think the forest stopped sending wolves because it just didn’t have to anymore.

The second thing you need to know is the Hunter. This might be even more important than the forest. The Hunter was a good man. Ignore whatever else others may tell you, he was honest and principled. Some people like to believe the world despises men like that, that they can’t last long before they either get destroyed or corrupted. I don’t think so. Good men are still just men, though. Some of them won’t stay good, sure. But then most of us don’t stay young. The Hunter was a man with honor. He loved the village, he loved what he did, he even loved the forest, for all its wolves. How could he not? It was his job, his profession, to love those woods, after all.

And he wasn’t the Hunter for the village just because he knew the woods, could handle a gun, and fetched game for his table. He was the Hunter because he fetched game for everyone’s table.

Now, on the day our story is most concerned with, the Hunter wandered into a clearing he did not know in the outer woods. The forest liked to do this sometimes, rearranging its surface to make its center seem more appealing. But the Hunter was wary of such tricks. Never seemed to matter to him for long.

At the edge of the clearing, he paused, observing that in its center stood a red hind. And though he was sure she had not seen or heard him approach, the animal looked up and fixed him with a human stare. He raised his rifle, placing the sights clean on her head. The gun bit his shoulder as it fired. The shot struck a pine behind her, bits of bark and splinters of wood spewing into the air.

The Hunter knelt to reload before she could escape, but when he looked up, she had not moved, had not even looked away. He met her eyes, and it seemed to him that she was unmoved by his attempt to kill her, as if it was of no concern to her, perhaps even extraneous in the effort. Her eyes stared through him, 2,000 yards at least. And then she turned and walked towards the center of the woods, disappearing into the brush.

The Hunter examined the forest where she’d disappeared. She’d stepped into a rose brier, dry with age, and in her passing the vines and branches had shattered, and the Hunter could see some of her red coat had been torn off on the thorns. Beyond lay the heart of the forest, and the Hunter knew not to place a foot there. But he had never encountered something like the hind. She’d be easy to follow in, he reasoned, and he could use the same trail out. Later, he could not articulate the need to follow her he’d felt in words. It was, he said, the same bare instinct that might draw a bystander to the scene of nearby fatal accident, an ambiguous desire to know what had happened, and if there was anything to do.

The thorns of the brier nipped and chewed at his skin as he followed the hind’s trail. Scratches appeared on his hands and wrists and face, but he pushed on. The brier crumpled underfoot and gave way. And then he was through it all, and the hind was standing before him at the base of a great oak.

The hind jerked, as if caught in an illicit act. Her eyes were no longer dead living, but instead stared at him with a parting remorse. Then she darted around the oak and was gone. The Hunter did not follow; his desire to pursue had vanished once he’d seen the oak.

It was an old tree, dust-colored, its low hanging branches devoid of leaves. Still it held to its desperate position there below the canopy of the pines in the central forest. Its trunk was wider than three people walking hand-in-hand and gnarled, knotted roots covered with moss clung to the ground. And cradled by a pair of the low branches lay a girl.

She was nude and her clothes, if she had any, were nowhere to be seen. She was young, yet on the cusp of womanhood. Her hair was matted across her face. Blood trickled from a dark hole in her waist, across her belly, and fell, collecting in a knothole in the roots below her.

The Hunter stepped up to her, pushing her hair away from her features. He was startled to find it was his Neighbor’s daughter, the only woman left in the poor man’s life since his wife had died three years prior.

The wound in her stomach was a puckered circle, about as thick as the Hunter’s index finger. It was the type of wound he knew well, the type of wound his rifle created in the animals he hunted. He knelt below her and looked to see if the bullet had found its way out of her after passing in. But the light was too poor. He placed his hands on her back, lifting her slightly, as gently as he could.

She groaned then, a soft sound, as though she had long since come to terms with the pain, and protested out of mere politeness than any real belief that it might subside in response to her complaints. Shame made the Hunter’s heart stumble in his chest. He withdrew his hands, unable to find the wound’s mirror. The bullet must still have been inside her.

A low growl menaced him from beyond the oak, and the rifle leapt into his hands. He had gone too far in. The wolves had come for him, or come for the girl and found him with her.

It would have been easy to run, to leave her to them, but his heart would not let him. He slung his rifle over his shoulder, and lifted her out of the clinging branches. Her weight was dead in his arms. He ran then, or tried to, pushing into the brier. Thorns raked at the girl, and now they bit at his clothes, trying to hold him back. He struggled. He was not sure if he had come back the right way, or if his haste blazed a new trail back. He could hear the wolves giving chase. A howl broke the silence of the forest. And every now and then, he heard a hateful snarl just behind.

Once again the brier gave way and he stumbled into the outer forest, where the color bled back into the world. A root reached up and tucked his foot under him, knocking him to the ground. The girl fell, rolling along the grass. Howls erupted out of the forest behind him, and were answered by one not yards away.

The Hunter rose to his knees, his ankle burning, and turned to face the forest’s heart. A wolf padded out of the brier. Its yellow eyes viewed him without passion, without anger, without remorse. It would kill him. It knew that. The Hunter knew that, too.

A long, continuous growl emanated from the wolf’s throat. The Hunter’s rifle kicked. Blood boiled from a hole in the wolf’s shoulder. The growl had barely enough time to shift into a pained yelp before the noise died completely. Fear shook the Hunter’s hands as he reloaded his rifle. He dropped a cartridge. But he needn’t have bothered. Only silence advanced from the forest.

He might have waited longer, but the Neighbor’s daughter could not afford it. Already her breathing came shallow and slow, far more so than when she had hung in the oak. Perhaps it had been wrong to move her. Perhaps he should have found help and brought it to her. Perhaps she would have already been dead, eaten by the wolves. He picked her up and carried her on.

The sight of the Hunter rushing to the village, carrying the bleeding girl, attracted attention from its other inhabitants, who rushed to meet him. Some drew away in horror, the girl now so pale from the loss of blood that the Hunter appeared to be bearing a corpse through their streets. Some tried to help, to take the burden from him, but the Hunter shook them off. He pushed through them all as he had pushed through the brier, bearing her to the door of the village Doctor and through it.

The Doctor, a man who primarily performed procedures on livestock though he had studied humanity’s ailments, looked up in surprise from his dinner at the Hunter and the dying girl. He leapt to his feet and swept his plate to the floor, and had the Hunter place her on the dinner table in its stead.

But there was little to be done. She was too far gone, well beyond even any more pain.

The Doctor could not remove the bullet. It had danced inside her, tearing her up from within, and he was unable to find the thing. The most the Doctor could do was try and make her comfortable in her passing, placing a pillow under her head and a blanket over her to cover her nudity. The Hunter held her hand as her life poured off the table and onto the floor. Her eyes were closed, just as they had been in the forest, and he realized he could not remember their color.

The Neighbor himself arrived moments after she died. When he saw his daughter’s corpse, his only daughter’s corpse, his knees turned to straw and he fell. The Hunter wrapped an arm around the man’s shoulders, steadying him as he sobbed at his daughter’s bare feet.

When no more tears would come, the Neighbor rubbed his eyes to a raw red and stood up. “How?” was all he asked. All he could think to ask.

And then came the story, starting with the hind, and then to the oak, and then the wolves, the Hunter apologizing the whole way through for being unable to do more to save the girl, for falling over a root, for being the harbinger of his Neighbor’s misfortune.

His Neighbor listened without interruption the whole way through. He asked a single question, his eyes rising from his daughter to find the Hunter, his voice soft and low.

“Where are her clothes?”

The Hunter was silent for a moment, surprised at the nature of the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “Somewhere in the forest, perhaps?”

The Neighbor stared at the Hunter for a long time, his eyes searching for something else to be his truth. The Hunter tried to give him only the honest reality, but the Neighbor stood up.

“I am going to tell the Sheriff,” he said. “I think you should both come with me.”

The three men filed out of the house, Neighbor, Hunter, and Doctor, and crossed over the common to the Sheriff’s. As they passed the old wooden frame, which had sat in the center of the common for decades, before any of them had even been born, a chill ran down the Hunter’s spine and out into his fingertips. He recoiled from the frame. The Neighbor did not see, but the Doctor, following behind the Hunter, noticed, though he did not know what to make of it.

The Sheriff was caught off-guard by the arrival of the three men, all respected members of his community. When he heard the story, and the allegations the Neighbor raised against the Hunter, his soul quaked. He had little experience in these matters. Rape. Murder. These things were not supposed to happen here. If people died unnaturally, it was because they wandered into the forest and were never found. But the bodies never came back out. There were never suspects. The Sheriff never made arrests. What was he supposed to do? Detain the trees?

“I think you’d better stay the night here,” he told the Hunter, gesturing to a cell that had stayed empty for as long as he had known. The Hunter nodded. His Neighbor was distraught, looking for anything he could find to explain the horror he’d found lying on the Doctor’s dinner table. The last thing the Hunter wanted to do was give the man more grief. Besides, the Hunter believed the axe of justice could not fall upon the wrong neck.

When he went to lock the Hunter in that night, the Sheriff spent half an hour looking for the key to the cell door. The Hunter found it for him, tucked away in an ancient set of drawers in the recesses of the jail.

The Hunter’s sleep was fitful, and his dreams troubled by a vision of himself, standing in the forest at the base of the great oak. In the vision, he was surrounded by wolves, who circled around him. His fingertips bled and when he looked down, he saw his nails had been plucked off them. The wolves snarled at him, and one, a wound in its shoulder, the fur around the wound matted by dried blood, leapt for his throat.

The Hunter awoke, a fire burning under his fingernails, though it quickly subsided. It was still night outside. He thought he had heard a scream, but it could have been himself. The door flew open and the Sheriff appeared, holding before him a light. He unlocked the cell.

“Come with me,” he told the Hunter, and then turned away. Together, they took off across the common, to the Doctor’s house, the Sheriff’s light leading the way. A few neighbors had gathered in front of it, and the Sheriff pushed them away. The front door had been smashed open, bits of wood from the frame lay scattered on the floor inside.

The Neighbor had not removed his daughter from the Doctor’s house yet, and she still lay on the table, but the blanket had been pulled away. It was not the girl that drew the Hunter’s attention, though. It was the blood that was smeared across the floor and the fresh scratches in the wood.

“What’s happened here?” he asked the Sheriff.

“Neighbors say they heard the door crack open, then the Doctor’s screams,” said the Sheriff. “Some of claim they saw him get dragged down the street by wolves, but he was gone before they could do anything. So I came and got you.”

“What would you like me to do?” asked the Hunter.

“Track them.”

Outside, the winter night had turned the dirt of the road hard, and it cracked under their feet. But there were no prints, no marks left by the passage of the wolves’ claws. The only thing to follow was the blood. The Sheriff gave the Hunter back his rifle, taken when he’d been arrested, and the two men set off after the blood. They followed it through the streets, across the fields, and into the forest. They followed as it wove its way through the trees of the outer forest, until it reached the clearing where the Hunter had shot at the hind. And there, the blood came to a grisly halt. The Hunter, when he saw what the wolves had done, looked away. The Sheriff shuddered and looked pale. He had once brought a man to the Doctor who had been badly shot and held the fellow down while the Doctor had amputated the man’s arm, and the process had unnerved him. But that was nothing in comparison to the sight in the clearing. There was no sign of the wolves. The Hunter led them back the way they had come.

When they returned to the village, the Hunter thought he might be able to go home, but the Sheriff shook his head. The evil done to the Doctor was the forest’s fault, that was for sure. But the evil done to the girl, that was another thing entire. And she had a father who demanded retribution. The Hunter surrendered his rifle and returned to his cell, and was left alone with the image of the clearing.

The sun rose, the day was born, then died, and night fell. The Hunter dreamed the same dream as the night before, but this time, the wolves circled closer, pushing him against the oak. The same wolf snarled and leapt for him. The Hunter turned and grabbed for a branch, lifting himself into the air. He could feel the animal’s claws dig into his back. His missing fingernails burned.

He woke with a start, just as the Sheriff entered and unlocked his cell. “You’re needed again,” said the Sheriff.

Their path across the commons made the Hunter think, for a moment, that perhaps he was to be released, that he was being taken back to his own home. But the Sheriff passed the Hunter’s house by, instead walking up to the Neighbor’s house. The Neighbor had five grown sons, and they stood guard in front of the door, protecting the house from the villagers who had gathered to once again see a gruesome scene. The sons frowned when they saw the Hunter, but acquiesced at the Sheriff’s insistence.

Inside the house, the only thing left behind was the blood and even that didn’t want to stay. The Neighbor’s sheets were stained with it, and it trailed off the bed, slithered across the floor, and escaped out the door. The Hunter looked at the Sheriff.

“Will it be the same as last night?” asked the Sheriff.

The Hunter looked at the blood on the floor. “Yes,” he said.

“I can’t do that to those boys out there,” said the Sheriff. “This family has suffered too much.”

But when the Sheriff and the Hunter left the house to return to the jail, they saw the sons had gathered with the villagers in street, everyone circled around the Eldest Son. The Eldest Son turned towards them, and the crowd parted.

The Eldest Son held a single bloody wrinkled hand. “This is what’s left of my father,” he said. Bitterness trailed in his voice, the accusation of fault unspoken, but declared all the same. “They ate him in the fields,” said one villager. “That’s all we could find.”

The Sheriff nodded. He said nothing, only turned and took the Hunter back to the cell, leaving the sons with their hate and their grief.

The next day, as the Hunter pondered his fate in the cell, the Old Men of the village met by the old wooden frame to discuss the wolves, as well as what should be done with their jailed Hunter. Few of them believed the Hunter capable of the acts his Neighbor had charged him with, but now the forest sent wolves into the village. The Old Men interpreted this to mean some unspeakable act had occurred there, and the forest demanded blood in revenge. They did not discuss what this might mean, though every once in awhile one would begin to speak then stop and stare at the frame for a long time, silence saying what he was unable to. Something would have to be done, and soon. But for that night, the Old Men had the Sheriff establish a guard armed with lights and guns, so that the wolves could not seize anyone else in their sleep.

The Hunter stayed confined to his cell, though the lights of the guards would flash through the windows into the jail as they made their patrols. Again, he had the same vision in his dreams. This time, the wolves had forced him up into the oak, and they leapt at him from the ground, forcing him to climb higher, the blood from his burning fingernails staining the trunk, though it quickly recessed into the bark. They could not reach him. He was safe. But then he put his weight on a branch that was rotten and hollow, and it broke. He fell, down past the other branches, landing on his back on the ground. The wolves snarled and growled. The one with the bloodied shoulder leapt on his chest, and he felt the heat of its breath on his skin as it closed its jaw around his neck.

But when he woke, the Sheriff was not there. No one was. Except for himself and the dark, there was no one in the jail. He waited for the Sheriff to come, but the man never did. The Hunter tried to sleep again, but the dream had left him shaken. He watched the window as the night gave way to dawn, and the dawn gave way to day, and the day gave way to evening.

Before the light had faded from the sky, the door of the jail was opened, and the Neighbor’s five sons came in. They unlocked the cell.

“Get up,” the Eldest Son said.

“Come with us,” said another.

“Where’s the Sheriff?” asked the Hunter.

“You’ll see,” said another.

The Hunter followed the five sons out of the jail. He paused when he saw the common.

The grass in front of the frame was stained red with blood. Near it was gathered the whole village, and by the frame stood the Old Men.

“They took him as he stood guard last night,” said the Eldest Son. “And they ate him here.”

The sons lead the Hunter to the Crowd, down to the frame. When the Old Men saw the Hunter, they traded austere glances amongst themselves. The sons pushed through the Crowd, and as the Hunter drew near to the frame, he saw fresh lengths of rope had been placed on it. He stopped in front of the Old Men and would not go any further.

“The forest has sent wolves to kill us before,” said the Oldest of the Old Men. “And each time, one man of our village has had to spend a night upon this frame. And each time, the wolves have gone away. The forest has sent the wolves to kill us these past three nights. And so we must put a man upon the frame.” The other Old Men nodded. The Crowd nodded. The Eldest Son nodded.

But not the Hunter. “No,” he said. “No. I didn’t do this. I’m not responsible for this.”

“Then who is?” asked the Oldest.

“I don’t know,” said the Hunter. “Nobody. Everybody.”

“That’s not the answer,” said the Oldest. “So this is how it will have to be.”

The Hunter tried to run then. But the Crowd would not let him. They seized him, and forced him up against the frame. The Neighbor’s sons came forward, and each tied a wrist or an ankle to the frame, except the Eldest Son, who tied his rope tight across the Hunter’s neck, where it bit into his throat. Though no one saw, wolves began to slip from the edge of the forest into the fields. Every now and then, they would sit back on their haunches, and watch the events on the common.

When they were sure the Hunter was tied securely to the frame, the Old Men sent everyone back to their houses. They stayed with him, promising to wait until they were sure the wolves were inside the village.

“Cut me free,” the Hunter pleaded with them. “I’m not responsible. I don’t deserve this.”

“That doesn’t matter much, anymore,” said the Oldest. He looked out towards the fields, then started and pointed. The Hunter and the Old Men stared in the direction he’d indicated. A pair of yellow eyes glanced out from the darkness of a nearby alley. Another pair materialized further up the road. Then another. The wolves moved silently through the village, heading toward the bound Hunter.

“Please, please,” said the Hunter. He struggled with the ropes, to no effect.

“I’m sorry,” said the Oldest. “There’s nothing to do.” And then the Old Men departed, leaving him behind on the frame with the patch of Sheriff’s blood, the setting sun, and the wolves.

In the morning, there was nothing left of the Hunter save for ten pristine fingernails, lying in the grass at the base of the frame, licked clean like dinner plates.

And we never had a problem with wolves again.
 
 
It seems wrong, doesn’t it? It seems like I shouldn’t have told you this story, not now. It’s meaningless. A man is devoured by wolves. Besides the death, what does that have to do with you and your daughter?

When I was younger, I wanted the story to mean something. I didn’t understand its purpose. The story made it sound like my town was full of pretty poor folk indeed, that they would leave a man to die upon a frame, leave one of their own to the wolves. Who could do something like that? My town wouldn’t do that. To what end? I didn’t like the ending, either, come to think of it. I thought that was supposed to be the moral. You put a man who doesn’t deserve it up on the frame, and you never get troubled by wolves again. But that’s not the moral. That’s just a statement of truth. We never have had a problem with wolves again. If we ever had a problem with wolves. If the story really did happen. Sometimes people will say that the ten chips of quartz in that case under glass in the town hall are the Hunter’s petrified fingernails. I’ve seen the chips, and yes, they do look like fingernails. But they’re still quartz. And I don’t know that I believe Knox’s grandfather all that much. To tell you the truth, that family is full of liars.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was standing in a place like this, a cemetery. It was back in town, though. We were burying my brother. He wasn’t nine, like your daughter here, he’d lived to be forty. He’d left the town, moved to the city, was about to start a family. Then they found cancer in his brain and he was dead by the end of the year.

I tried to make some sort of grand sense out of it. Everything happens for a reason, I told myself. His death had to mean something, something more than his absence, and what that made me feel. We brought his body back to the town to be buried in the family plot we’ve got there. We had a little service, and I stood with his wife and kids, and listened to them cry. The whole town showed up, it seemed like. I didn’t realize how loved he’d been. A prodigal son, I suppose, though he came home in a box. After the service, I just stood before his gravestone, just like you’re standing here before your daughter’s, and I just stared at it, as though the name and two dates in there would do something, would say something about his life in a way that I couldn’t.

And as I was standing there, everyone, I mean everyone, in the town came up to me. And each one told me the story. Of the Hunter and wolves. They told it over and over and over. Everyone had a different way of telling it, the way they liked it to be told. But they all end it the same. And I just stood there and let it wash over me, each time.

The version I just told you is the one I like best. It’s the fullest, in my opinion. Knox told it to me. He came up to me last, on his one foot and crutches, and just started into it, telling the whole thing, making sure to get every detail as right as he could. And when it was over, when he’d told that last line and hobbled off, I left my brother there, as he was, a name and two dates carved into stone. And I’ve never searched for an answer again.

Alexander Gifford Howard wrote up and down the East Coast until earning a degree in writing from Warren Wilson College in 2011. He now lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

“Favorite sharp thing? Vermont Cheddar.”

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