Authors: Brian Staveley
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I was a little sad to take down the huge old beech, a wolf tree three times as large as anything else around. Most likely, it stood there when the woods were fieldsâa marker between properties or just a spot for the cows to graze out of the sunâand it had remained after the farmers left and the fields gave way to forest once again. It seemed a shame, somehow, to cut it down, but it was dying, and besides, a tree that size was worth more than a cord of firewood.
By the next winter I had it cut, stacked, and dried inside my shed, but it was buried near back, behind three other rows, and it wasn't until January that I'd burned enough of the other wood to actually get at it. That's when a strange thing started happening.
At first, I thought I was imagining it. I'd go out to the shed in the morning, and the stack of wood would look lower, as though someone had come in the night to steal the logs. It seemed crazy: Who would drive a mile down my rutted driveway in the middle of the night just to make off with an armload of firewood? I told myself I was imagining it. But when you rely on wood to cook your food, to keep you warm, to stop the pipes from freezing, you
how high your pile is, almost down to the last log, and
, I decided after three more days of this, was taking my wood.
I caught him the next night. I stayed up late, waiting inside until full dark, then pulling on my coat and boots to go stand guard. It was cold enough that the snow squeaked. The stars were knife-sharp. I waited with my hands stuffed in my pockets, shivering and feeling foolish. I was about to head inside when I heard him coming, huffing and cursing and muttering as he made his way up out of the woods, struggling through the deep drifts toward my shed.
It was obvious at once that he was a goblin. I'd never seen one, of course. They weren't supposed to be real, but what other creature is greeny-brown, pointy-eared and knobbly-fingered, barely taller than my knee? I watched, amazed, as he hopped up on the stack of wood, dragged a single log off the top, and headed off back into the snow, dragging his spoils behind him. I'd never noticed his tracks, but then, it had been snowing off and on for days, and the wind had been blowing to beat the band.
I'd planned to confront the thief, but instead I found myself following him out into the woods. The moonlight through the pines was bright enough to see by, and it was easy to follow the goblin. The logâalmost as big as he wasâslowed him down. He carried it on his humped little shoulder, mostly. Sometimes it would slip off and drop into the snow. He'd dig it out, kick at it irritably for a while, then pick it up again, forcing his way deeper into the forest.
The slashes of shadow and moonlight made everything look strange. I lost my bearings for a while, but when we finally started climbing up a gradual hill, all at once I knew exactly where we were. And I knew where we were going.
There, at the crest of the rise, like a round wooden table poking through the snow, was the stump of the great old beech tree. And there, piled in front of it, was my firewood, dozens of split logs arranged in some sort of insane scaffolding. I watched from the woods as the goblin entered the small clearing, approached his hoard of firewood, and, with surprising care, placed the fruits of his latest thievery on top. It was an oddly reverential gesture, after all the kicking and the cursing.
Another night I might have waited longer, watched more, tried to understand what was happening. Despite the long walk, however, I was cold, and tired, and as the goblin turned away from his pile, heading back for another log, I stepped from the shadows.
“Why are you taking my wood?” I asked, somewhat mildly, given that I was the one who had been wronged.
He jumped into the air, then bared his crooked little teeth and glared at me.
“My wood,” I said. “I own this land. I cut down the tree. I bucked it. I hauled it out and split it for the winter. My wood.” It was, I thought, an argument that would stand up well in any court of law, but the only judge or jury in the clearing that night was the bright, silent moon, and the goblin just made a sound like a growl in his scrawny throat.
“Killin' a thing,” he declared, “don't make it yours.”
“It was dying already,” I protested.
!” he said, stabbing a finger at me. “Doesn't mean I come in yer house at night to chop
I frowned, suddenly all turned around by the strange conversation. “Are you claiming that the tree is yours?”
“What I'm claimin' is that the tree matters more to them that's buried beneath it than it ever did ta you.”
I blinked. “There's a bodyâ¦”
“Two of 'em,” he snapped impatiently. “They courted beneath the beech as kids, made half their babies here, said everything that needed sayin' to each other under the old branches, and they're buriedâ¦” he stabbed a stick straight down, gouging at the frozen ground, “â¦ right here. The tree is
, even if it's dead. Even if it's all chopped up. And it ain't your place to go stealin' the fire.”
“But they're dead, too,” I said, unsettled to discover these unmarked graves in the middle of my land.
“And ya think the dead don't wanna be warm?” He raised the thicket of his brows in disbelief.
I stared at him, then shook my head. “Why do you care?”
He looked at me a while, then back to the pile of wood he'd made. “I liked the way she sang,” he muttered, “when she was in the fields. She sang even when she was alone, like she knew I was there. And him.” He nodded at the memory. “When he went out with a bucket for berries, he always left a bush unpicked.
For the birds
, he said, but I figured he meant me.”
Then he was quiet for a long time. We both were, just sitting there like we'd known each other all our lives, like I hadn't just caught him stealing from my pile. The ground looked so cold.
“All right,” I said finally. “I'll help you haul the rest of the wood.”
It took most of the night, and both of us were wiped when we finished. The pile was pretty haphazard, but it was good wood, that old beech, and it was dry. I only had to light one match and it went up like kindling. We sat on the stumpâit was wide enough to hold the both of usâand watched the sparks fly up, small as the stars, but hot enough to burn.
“What were their names?” I asked, gazing into the fire.
“Leave the names alone,” the goblin snapped.
I turned to him, taken aback. “I thought I might place a gravestone here, now that the tree is gone.”
“Whadda they need a gravestone for?” He gestured with a gnarled hand. “They got a fire.”
“But a fireâ¦” I said, shaking my head. “It's so short.”
He looked at me, then held his twiggy hands out to the flame. “But it's warm.”
has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He is the author of
The Emperor's Blades
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