The Old Man in the Forest; or, Remember to Get Your Dog Fixed; or, Always Keep Your Promises
Jessica knew the stories of the old man in the forest. So don’t you go thinking she was hanging around in the woods that night on purpose. She was eleven years old after all, and a young woman of eleven years knows how to take care of herself, thank you very much.
It was Ruby’s fault, really. Jessica had told and told her mother it was time to get that little beagle pup fixed, but did she listen? No. Because of course she didn’t. Probably what happened was that Ruby had gone into heat — again — and had managed to get past the fence this time, or at least that’s what Jessica thought when she went out looking for her. As usual, mother was still at the office when Jessica got home from school to see Ruby was nowhere to be found, so since the two of them lived alone there was no one for Jessica to tell where she was going.
Jessica was well into the forest when she realized she should have given her mother a call before leaving the house. She must not have been thinking clearly. Ugh, this was exactly the kind of situation Jessica had in mind whenever she told her mother she was old enough to have her own cell phone!
Jessica didn’t believe the stories about the old man in the forest, by the way. They said he was a kooky vagrant who settled down in the woods after too much time riding the rails. They said he dated back to pilgrim times and had haunted the woods ever since narrowly escaping execution for something to do with either witchcraft or drunkenness. The said he was a werewolf who was cursed to never be free from a maddening hunger. Jessica figured he was about as real as Santa Claus. Just a boogeyman they made up to keep dumb kids out of the woods at night.
Those were her daylight thoughts, at least. But after a quick October sunset?
The sky passed from full sunlight to ruddy twilight to black night with alarming speed, with still no sign of Ruby. While just a few minutes before Jessica had been loping among the trees, shouting, “Ruby! Ruby!” with all her breath, it now made her neck tingle to think of so much as breathing too loudly. Were the trees somehow closer together now? Eeek! What had she just stepped on? Why did the outlines of the bare trees look so much like human hands twisted with agony?
Crickets menacing with their chirps. Why had she come out here all alone? The foreboding hoot of an owl. What had made her so sure she would find Ruby in the forest? The indefinable slink of something… large. Even if she ever got home, how would she live with never seeing her little puppy again?
Yip! Yip! Yip!
Jessica heard those three unmistakable little barks and darted toward the sound, whipping between the trees with her voice swelling, “Ruby! Ruby!” Thank God, she’d been right to come out here after all! Sure, mother might chew her out over this when she got back home, but what did it matter now that she’d found her sweet little Ruby? Jessica could hear her rushing toward her, it would only be a moment now, she could almost —
She cried out, and before she could react she was splayed across the ground, her hands and arms scraped and raw. Raising herself with her arms, she felt a pain in her leg, growing more intense by the moment. Turning back, she saw she must have tripped over a raised tree root, and from the way her right leg was bent she could tell it was most definitely broken.
Out of the darkness Ruby came panting up to Jessica, squealing happily and licking her face. “Good girl, good girl, I’ll get us out of here somehow, don’t you worry.”
“I like your dog,” said a man’s voice.
Jessica started, bringing a twinge of pain to the broken leg.
The man was dressed in what appeared to be some type of skins and had a full white beard. In the darkness Jessica couldn’t read his expression.
“This is my forest. You shouldn’t be here,” he said smilingly.
“Who are you?” Jessica asked.
He shrugged. “Santa Claus, probably. Now beat it, kid.”
“But my leg’s broken.”
The man snapped his fingers and said, “No it’s not.”
And it wasn’t.
“How did you do that?”
The man waved a hand. “It’s complicated, you wouldn’t understand. Now I’m in a good mood today, so I’m gonna let you go home. But if you ever come into my forest again I’ll… uh…”
“Eh, I dunno, bake you into a cake or some fairy tale shit like that. Put coal in your stocking, maybe. No, that’s no good… yeah, bake you into a cake, that’s what I’ll do.”
“It’s my forest. And don’t tell anybody about this or I’ll… I’ll turn you into a frog.”
Jessica promised she wouldn’t tell. Then she went home and her mother chewed her out and grounded her for a week, but that didn’t matter because she had her little Ruby.
And Jessica lived happily ever — until many years later, when she was chatting on the phone with an old friend from the time she served on a US Navy destroyer in World War Five. She said, “Oh and that reminds me of when I was eleven years old and I broke my leg in the forest but a mysterious old man came and healed — ”
And she turned into a frog.