Swing the axe.
And again. And again. One thousand cuts a day, every day for months on end. The woodcutter’s hands were rubbed raw by the constant pressure of the axe handle. The ever-widening clearing around his house was littered with untidy piles of felled trees, the ground slippery with rotting scraps of bark. He used to hear birdsong when he woke each morning, but the birds were gone now. Friends from the village didn’t come near him any more. It was for the best, he told himself. Safer for people to keep their distance from the axe.
It was Daniel, the clockmaker’s son, who worked it out. They had been friends since they climbed these trees together as boys. Trees in the forest now half-destroyed by the woodcutter’s axe. Daniel had always thought before speaking. Now, silently watching from a distance, he reached his own conclusions long before he uttered a word. When he did speak, it was the first voice the woodcutter had heard for weeks.
“You want to stop, don’t you?”
The woodcutter didn’t pause from his steady rhythm of chopping.
“You should go back to the village.”
“You want to stop but you can’t. I saw you chopping down the Hallowe’en Oak. We climbed that tree one Hallowe’en when we were … eight years old I think. We sat in the branches and watched the moon rise. You always loved that tree. I saw you destroy it last week.”
“Daniel, just go. You don’t understand.”
“Let me finish! You destroyed it with tears in your eyes. I could see your shoulders shaking as it fell. That’s when I knew for certain. You would only have chopped down that tree if you had no choice.”
Finally the woodcutter stopped. He turned to face Daniel and nodded. As he did, the sky seemed to darken and the air was filled with the sound of wind rushing through the branches of a thousand trees, even though there were precious few still standing in the clearing. The two men looked up at the storm clouds rolling in. Before either of them could speak a harsh laugh echoed all around them.
“Very good, you’ve worked it out! But don’t think you can break the curse, stupid boy! The axe will do for you all in the end!”
The clouds rolled away as quickly as they’d come, Daniel looked questioningly at his friend.
“A curse? So it’s true then, the old rumour about the witch?”
The woodcutter resumed his chopping. Slower now, allowing himself time to talk as he worked.
“It was a stupid mistake. All the rumours said, stay away from the circle of birch trees at the top of the hill. But I wanted a piece of birch wood, to make a wedding gift … to think, I was planning my wedding! As soon as I’d felled the tree, I saw the witch in all her fury. She cursed the axe. With or without me, it will strike a thousand blows a day for eternity. So I destroy the forest, to keep the villagers safe. I don’t know what else to do.”
Daniel was silent. The woodcutter chopped, counting below his breath.
“nine hundred and ninety eight, ninety nine, one thousand.” He stopped, and rubbed his hand across his forehead. Daniel crossed the clearing towards him, and picked up the axe. It lay motionless in his hand, but he could sense the energy running through it. He passed it from hand to hand, weighing it, considering.
“How long until the curse begins again?”
“Then we have the whole night. Come with me!”
The villagers going about their business in the market square stared, as they saw the clockmaker’s son charging down from the forest path into the village. He was carrying an axe, and close behind him raced the woodcutter. They didn’t stop running until they reached the clockmaker’s workshop. Daniel tore open the door and the two of them hurtled inside, slamming home the bolt behind them.
As hours passed, the watchers in the village square whispered and cast worried glances towards the workshop. Night fell and a lamp burned in the window. And then, at midnight, the door opened, and the two young men emerged, one holding a lantern, and carrying between them a bulky object, wrapped in sacks. Silently, they returned in the direction they’d come from, heading up the steep forest path into the mountains.
It took years, but eventually, the trees returned to the hillsides around the village. By the time that the woodcutter and the clockmaker’s son were grandfathers, few remembered the time when the hills were bare and the paths slippery with rotten bark. And the two old men sat in the village square, sharing a smoke and a glass of beer on sunny afternoons, regaling their grandchildren with tales of their youth – tales of tree climbing, and racing along the forest tracks. But when the moon was full, or the storm clouds rolled in – whenever the time was right for a yarn that sent a shiver down the listener’s spine – then the woodcutter and the clockmaker’s son told a different tale. Of a demon axe, enclosed for fifty years in the casing of a clock, beating out its cursed blows as a pendulum, and the clock buried at night in the witch’s garden, where she couldn’t release it without being the first to fall victim to the curse she herself had given. The tale was enough to keep the village youngsters well away from the hilltop ring of birches where the witch was rumoured to live. The tale always ended with a call for another glass of beer for the two old friends, and they would drink a toast, to the bravery of the one who worked tirelessly to protect his neighbours from the curse, and the other who used all his skill to set his old friend free.
This story was written for my weekly photo prompt. Every Monday I share a photo which I like, and taking it as a starting point, I’ll endeavour to come up with a piece of creative writing. This might be a 100 word story, a poem, haiku, limerick or longer piece – I’m not setting any rules apart from committing to a regular writing challenge to exercise my brain. If you like the image I’ve shared, please feel free to use it as a prompt for your own work, give me a pingback and I promise to read and give my feedback.
The photos I use will be either my own or taken by my snap happy husband, so you have our permission to use them for the purpose of this writing prompt. If they aren’t our own photos, I will only use them with permission and credit them to their source.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you’d like to share your own piece of writing in response to this photo prompt, I’d be delighted to read it!