The girl on the burnt trunk
Mathieu was spending a few days with his friend Christine in the middle of the forest. What joy for the two children! Nothing but long walks, swimming in the lake and having fun.
Often however, especially in the mornings, they had to work with Christine's father. I remind you that Christine's father is a lumberjack. He works hard in the forest. They don't have much money and Christine often helps her father load the logs onto the trailer or lines up the logs carefully along the road, to help her father in his work. She likes helping him because she loves him and enjoys it when they are together in the woods.
Mathieu is ten years old, like Christine. But he lives in the town.
It was a very hot day. They had worked hard all morning. At around midday, Dad said they could go and play because they had made good progress with the work that morning. Rather than go back home, Christine suggested that they could go to the lake, about an hour's walk away, to take a swim in the clear green water. They set off, just the two of them, chatting peacefully along the way.
They arrived at a beautiful spot, a big lake with crystal water surrounded by pine trees and flowers. They went for a swim. The water wasn't very warm but they got used to it as they played and splashed with laughter.
They swam in the lake for a good hour and were famished when they climbed out. They walked over to the rucksack they had left on the river bank with their t-shirts and trainers. One had swum in overalls, the other in jeans.
They ate their food hungrily. Christine even offered one of her sandwiches to Mathieu who had already wolfed down his own supply and still seemed hungry. What a girl! He hesitated before accepting, but finally gave in to temptation. He thanked Christine for her generosity with a big smile and a tender kiss.
When they had finished, they decided to go and check out something strange they had seen on their way to the lake. There was a pine tree at the edge of the wood which had a strange marking on it, and they wanted to take a closer look to see if it was a sign or a message. When they arrived at the tree, they saw that a silhouette of a small child had been burnt onto its bark. The two friends could easily make out the shape of a face, the dress, arms, legs and feet. It was the shape of a young girl of about five years old.
Christine turned towards her friend:
"I've seen this picture in a book. It's the sign of a witch," she said. "Witches existed in the old days. They don't exist these days though. At least I don't think so."
"I'm not so sure," added Mathieu. "Once, my aunt Rosa told me that when she was a child, she saw a sign like this on a tree trunk, next to her village. She said even the strongest men of the village didn't dare enter the forest anywhere near the sign."
A tiny path, hardly visible, snaked into the pine forest where lots of the trees were dead, because their trunks had been overrun with mushrooms and ivy. Christine could not remember ever having come to this place.
Holding hands, and pushed by an insatiable curiosity, the two friends followed the tiny path, avoiding the brambles, the stinging nettles and the puddles. The grass had grown tall. From time to time, a crow or a magpie added their cry to the eerie atmosphere of this strange place.
Although they were only a few hundred yards from the lake where they had just been swimming, the silence of the wood was oppressive. Even the birds were quiet. They had been walking for a few minutes when they saw a wooden cabin with blackened walls to their right. The little lodge seemed abandoned.
They walked slowly towards it, feeling a little frightened. Their hearts were beating fast inside their chests. The roof of the cabin was covered with moss, withered leaves and weeds. It looked as though the hovel had been deserted for a long time.
They walked along the cabin wall. It had no windows. All the logs and beams were coated with a dark brown sticky substance that looked a bit like tar. It smelt strange and spicy. It must be a witch's cabin.
As they walked around the building, brambles scratched at their clothes. They noticed a window on the side wall. It was a dirty little window of 8 inches by 12 inches, covered with dust and cobwebs.
The weather was not on their side. The sky had slowly become covered with black clouds and the first drops of rain were beginning to fall. Mathieu wiped away the dust and cobwebs from the little window with his hand. They looked inside the cabin. The furniture was basic and scant—a warped old table, two chairs and a long bench. They could see a chimney on the wall opposite.
While they were looking through the window, a streak of lightening flashed across the sky. A clap of thunder exploded nearby and the rain poured down thick and fast. It poured over them in buckets.
Mathieu's jeans and Christine's overalls were still wet from their swim. But their t-shirts were soon drenched by the rain. Their hair stuck to their faces. It was getting colder and colder. They began to shiver. It was a shockingly strong storm, but the children were even more impressed by their discovery.
"We could take shelter inside the cabin," suggested Mathieu. "The door is locked with a flimsy-looking padlock. It would be easy to open it. A kick or two should do it. The padlock is rusty, it will easily break."
Three shoves of the shoulder and they were inside the cabin. They closed the door behind them.
There was dust everywhere and cobwebs and mould crowded the corners next to the ceiling. A stale odour tickled their nostrils. The rain, which was falling in torrents, drummed on the roof. Light entered through the dirty window now and then when lightning struck.
The children found some neatly stacked logs, some kindling, paper and matches. Christine, who had lived in the forest all her life, knew how to make a fire. She made a good one. The chimney worked well. They stretched out their hands towards the fire and sat next to the hearth. Soon they had warmed up. The flames felt warm and reassuring. Outside, the storm raged. They could hear the whistling of the wind and the creaking of branches, twisted by the storm.
By the light of the fire, they noticed a dark little recess which had three bunk beds one on top of the other. It was very narrow and the dirty sheets did nothing to brighten it up.
"We can sleep here tonight if we need to," said Mathieu.
"It would be without dinner then," signalled Christine. "Our rucksacks are empty."
On the bottom bunk bed was a little rag doll. What was she doing there all by herself?
Mathieu climbed up the wooden ladder. He didn't see anything on the second bunk, but he found a notebook on the dust covered pillow of the top bunk. He took it and went back to sit with his friend in front of the fire. Christine had the little rag doll on her lap.
Outside, the rain continued to pour, all be it a little less violent. The storm seemed to be abating. They could hear noises. Strange noises, like branches breaking under foot. As if someone was circling the cabin, stepping on dead twigs. It all added up to a worrying atmosphere.
Just then, the two children heard a quiet creaking sound behind the closed door. They stared at the door in silence. Their hearts were beating at the rhythm of their fear. Someone was there, behind the door, about to come inside.
Christine and Mathieu got up and looked out of the little window. Drops of rain were dripping from the trees. Then, they moved slowly towards the door. They opened it in one sudden movement. There was nothing there—just the puddles of rain between the brambles and withered leaves, dancing in the wind and rain.
All the same, they had the disagreeable feeling that they were being watched, yet they couldn't see who or what was watching them. They felt very uncomfortable. They closed the door and went back over to the fireplace.
They were about to open the notebook they had found on the top bed when Mathieu thought he heard a different kind of creaking sound from the two planks that served as front steps outside the front door.
Getting really scared now, the two friends lifted the long, heavy bench and pushed it against the front door. That way, the wind couldn't push the door open and if someone tried to get in, at least the bench would slow them down and give Christine and Mathieu time to react.
They went back over to the fireplace and sat down on the dusty floor boards.
They opened the notebook and read the first few lines:
«I'm hungry. Thibault is sleeping on the little bed. I'm frightened because I'm all alone with him. My name is Noemie. Thibault is my little brother. He's four years old.»
Mathieu interrupted his friend's reading.
"Christine. Listen. The planks in front of the door creaked again."
They were quiet a moment. They could feel their hearts beating fast inside their chests. Their hands were like ice. They both stared at the door as if it would open any second, but the creaking noise stopped.
"Perhaps you were mistaken," suggested Christine.
"I don't think so," whispered Mathieu. "But maybe it's the wood that's warping because of the rain."
They listened again in silence, and then, since they heard nothing except the rain, they continued reading Noemie's diary.
«We were going for a nice walk with Mummy and then there was a call on her mobile. She stopped to answer. We were tired, me and Thibault, especially since she had taken the wrong turning twice. She gestured for us to carry on walking while she spoke into her phone. I don't think it was very good news.
"Go on to that little house over there. I'll meet you there," said Mummy, waving us on...
I held Thibault's hand and we walked to this cabin. The door was half open and we came inside. We thought Mummy would soon join us. Since she didn't come, I put my little brother on a bed in this little bedroom. He fell asleep straight away. Then I felt very lonely.
I got frightened because you can hear strange creaking sounds in the woods, very close by.»
"That's strange," said Christine. "It's just like us. They heard strange sounds, and..."
"Let's hear the rest," cut in Mathieu.
«Then I heard a creaking noise behind the door. A creaking of the two planks outside that are used as stairs. I got so frightened. It couldn't have been Mummy because she would have walked right in without hesitating...
Suddenly, as I looked towards the dirty window, I saw a face. An ugly, disfigured and monstrous face...»
The text ended there.
"How awful," said Mathieu. "What can have happened to Noemie and her little brother Thibault? I hope their mother arrived in time."
Just then, our two friends heard a tapping noise at the window. They both turned their heads towards the noise. They saw a face. An ugly, terrifying, monstrous face. The vision only lasted a second, but during that second they had the time to notice his black eyes looking at them under red eyelids that were turned inside out. His twisted lip and his forehead covered with spots and puss. The terrifying face of a thing, which must have been watching them for a while from behind the dirty window pane.
They were both ready to run out of the cabin.
The door knocked a first time against the bench that they had pushed there to block it shut. The two friends quickly ran into the little bedroom and hid in the dust and shadows under the bottom bunk bed.
The door banged with several insistent blows. Each time, the bench pushed back an inch, grating against the floor. He wanted to get in. They could here an impatient growl. They held on to each other under the bed, barely daring to breath, trembling with fright.
The thing managed to get into the room after breaking the bench in pieces. He went towards the fireplace, then, turning his back on our friends he sat on a chair, put his hands on the table and suddenly started to talk.
"I know you are hiding under the bed."
His voice sounded strange, child-like. Strange for a young man who seemed to be fifteen or sixteen years old.
Mathieu and Christine came out of their hiding place. There was no point staying there. They were terrified. Was it a wizard? What was he going to do with them? They had to escape as quickly as possible. They would try to run out of the door.
Our two friends were now standing half way between the recess and the door. They looked at the thing for an instant.
Christine made a feeble excuse. Mathieu added:
"Let us go. We won't do anything to you. We didn't know it was your house."
"It's not our house. But Mother's coming," he said like a young child.
The two friends thought that the mother must be a witch and they wondered whether they should go back to hide under the bed.
"My name is Thomas."
"Thomas, please. Don't tell on us. We will hide under the bed. Don't tell your mummy we are here. We will leave as soon as we can."
Thomas gave a strange reply to Christine's request:
"Will you give me a kiss on the cheek? Mother never kisses me. Maybe it's because I'm so ugly."
Christine's heart was torn in two directions. She felt horror, disgust and fear—but she also felt pity. Pity for this poor thing that was sad because no one kissed him. Overcoming her revulsion, she came close to the young man's cheek and gave him a kiss. She also hoped that it might help him keep the secret and not reveal their hiding place to his mother.
Christine and Mathieu's compassion grew. Who was this poor, awkward, clumsy, horrible man that had come into the log cabin?
Suddenly, the door flung open a second time. A woman, rather pretty, came in. She seemed to be about forty years old.
The young man questioned his mother.
"Mother, why don't you ever kiss me on the cheek?"
"Who kissed you, Thomas?"
"The pretty girl, Mother."
"What pretty girl?"
"The pretty girl with braids, Mother."
"Where is she?"
"I won't tell you Mother. I promised I would not tell that she's hiding under the bed with her friend."
Thomas really was half-witted. Our friends got out of their hiding place and walked over to the table. They were both quite literally petrified. The mother turned towards Christine.
"Did you kiss this young man?"
"Yes madam, I did. He asked me to."
The woman was quiet. Christine and Mathieu were about to leave the cabin, when our curious friend asked another question.
"What is the picture of the little girl that we saw on the tree at the beginning of the path? The little girl on the burnt tree bark?"
Christine hoped that this way, she would find out if the woman was a witch.
"It's the sign of a witch. I can tell you about it if you like. Sit down with your friend next to the fire. That sign has been there for years. I didn't put it there, but I know who did."
The woman turned towards the fireplace. Christine and Mathieu sat down next to each other, not far from her. Thomas rested his head against his arm on the table. His back was turned to them. He seemed to be asleep.
"I was ten years old," explained the lady. "I was at home, taking care of my two little brothers. My parents were working in the fields. In those days, beggars would sometimes pass through the villages. Real beggars. They didn't ask for much: a bowl of soup, a piece of bread. You gave them something or you didn't. Often they would give the children a small holy picture or a religious medal. Sometimes, they would offer advice or remedies for ailments, made from roots and plants."
"An old woman passed through the village that day. I saw her through my window. I chased her away. I said she was too dirty, too ugly and looked like a witch. I didn't want to open the door to her. I shouldn't have mocked her like that. Her face was marked with the imprint of sorrow and suffering. It wasn't her fault that she was ugly and dirty. As she was leaving, the woman turned back. She pointed her finger at me shouting:
«I curse you, little girl. I curse you. You could have just chased me away, refusing to give me soup or bread. But you mocked me and said I was ugly and dirty. Yes I am dirty—it's because I'm poor. I don't have a house like you, or anywhere to wash myself or my clothes. Yes, I'm ugly. I was born that way and life has not been kind to me. All this shows on my face.»
"I stayed quiet, feeling ill at ease. She continued:
«You are pretty because you live in a nice house; you are well fed and kept nice and warm. I curse you, naughty little girl with a heart of stone, and here is my curse. You will forget about me. Then, one day, you will find your true love. You will get married. When your first child is born, he will look like me. Then you will remember me. This curse will last as long as you remain hard-hearted.
Each night of Saint John—the shortest night of the year at the end of June—, you will go to my cabin in the forest with your child. You will find it easily, it's a hovel made of wooden planks. You'll find it at the end of a small path that starts in the corner of the pine forest, after the river. I've engraved a witch's sign on the first tree trunk: a green and grey outline of a little girl. The bark is blackened because I burnt it so that the sign would last.
Every night of Saint John, you will come with your child to my cabin, and perhaps, if your heart of stone cracks one day, if the cruelty and meanness that are anchored inside you melt, the curse will be lifted. But not before.»
Christine and Mathieu listened in silence, impressed by the recital.
"The witch, the beggar," continued Thomas' mother, "went away to another farm in the village. I had a friend who was very ill at that time. She had an illness which is very rare these days and is called Scarlet fever. Suffering from a very high fever, her skin was all red and peeling. Long pieces of grey skin peeled off her body. She nearly died.
Her parents received the beggar woman and gave her some bread and soup. While she was eating, she told them to take their daughter to the pine forest. It would be good for her to breath in the sap-filled air from the pine trees. She explained that they should stick some of the peeled skin from their child onto the tree, right where the bark had been burnt with the silhouette of a child—the sign of a witch. She said that the tree would absorb their daughter's illness, and perhaps she would be healed.
The parents did as she said. My friend was healed, and then... I forgot about it all," said the lady. "The years passed. I met a man. We got married. I quickly became pregnant and when my baby was born, he had the horrible face of a monster. His forehead deformed by a bump, cross-eyed, green skin. He had... well, you have seen Thomas. You understand what I mean... He really is a repulsive monster."
"And ever since then, I come here, every night of Saint John. I don't know why, nothing ever happens. I have never seen anyone. I came with my baby, with my child, and now with this big abominable lump that follows behind me, which repulses me and repels me."
Thomas was not sleeping. He lifted his head. He had listened to his mother's story. He felt the deep stab of rejection through his heart. He finally understood the repulsion he inspired in his mother, the disgust that chased away others.
"Mother, you call me a monster. Can a mother really say that about her own son?"
Thomas' mother remained quiet.
"You have never kissed me, mother. The pretty girl with braids, she gave me a kiss on the cheek. But you never kiss me. You are the monster mother. A mother who rejects her own child just because he is ugly, who refuses to kiss him out of disgust—is a monster."
The mother turned towards Christine. Tears were welling up in her eyes.
"The only feelings I have ever had for Thomas were revulsion, disgust, horror... Did you really kiss him?"
"Yes, I did," replied Christine.
"Because he asked me to."
"He asked you to, so you did," added the mother.
"Yes. I felt sorry for him. I feel sad when I look at Thomas. It hurts me much more than fear or disgust."
"You are the monster, Mother," repeated the young man.
Thomas' mother broke down in tears. She opened wide her arms, inspired by Christine's generosity.
"Come over here my big boy," she said. "Come in to your mother's arms."
She held her son against her bosom. She hugged him tightly and kissed him lovingly.
Christine and Mathieu moved towards the cabin door, about to leave. They turned before they left and saw Thomas' face. He was handsome now. He was smiling. The curse had been broken.
When we are loved, we are always beautiful.