There was once a little girl who lived with her mother in the middle of a forest of great old trees, far away from the nearest little town. The little girl’s mother was happy, though she worked hard to provide for herself and her little daughter. The little girl’s grandfather would help take care of her, and chop firewood for when the forest grew cold, and hunt in the forest when food became scarce. The grandfather would tell great stories around the fireplace, teach the little girl how to fish, and how to skip stones over the lake. He once carved a beautiful little wooden Cinderella doll for the girl and gave it to her as a Christmas gift. It had a lovely painted face, delicate hands made of whittled matchsticks, and shining blue eyes made of glass beads. It was instantly her favorite doll, for the story of Cinderella was her favorite story.
But one morning, the mother could not wake the grandfather. The little girl kissed his face, hoping he would wake up like sleeping beauty, but his eyes never opened. He was sent away into the forest, never to be seen again.
The little girl’s mother was unhappy for a long time, and so was the little girl. She missed skipping stones on the lake, and fishing, and the stories. All she had left was the little Cinderella doll, which she always kept by her side.
The mother hired a man from the nearest town to help her cut firewood, and bring her fish from the lake. She couldn’t stray far from the home in the forest, for she had to keep her daughter safe from the wolves and other dangerous creatures that roamed the woods. This went on for a while, until one day the man from town started courting the mother. He was pleasant to the mother, but he was unkind. While the mother’s back was turned, he would shove the child, making her fall, then say it was an accident.
Hate was planted in the child’s heart.
The man from town finally presented a shiny gold ring to the mother, promising her happiness and nice things. The mother was once again happy, but the little daughter was not. The mother assured the little girl that her new father would take care of them, and give them happiness. But the little girl knew better. She tried to tell her mother that he wasn’t really a nice man, but the mother did not believe her. The mother and the man from town were married, just before the air in the forest grew cold, and ice creeped over the windows of the little house.
One morning, while the mother was out in town, the man saw something scribbled on the mantle of the fireplace. He looked close and saw the word
crudely written in charcoal. He tried to wipe it off, but it could not be washed from the brick. Blaming the little girl for it, he took a birch tree branch and struck her with it. The little girl cried and hid under her bed with her Cinderella doll, wishing her grandfather was still there. When the mother got home, she asked why the little girl had a bruise. The man said she had fallen while writing on the mantle. Like a thorny vine, hate grew in the child’s heart.
One evening, the man struck the mother after she upbraided him for not chopping more firewood to keep the house warm. He then pried the little girl’s wooden Cinderella doll and threw it into the fire before storming outside to cut more wood. The mother tried to save the doll, but it was too late--it burned away too quickly. The mother carried the weeping little girl away and tucked her into bed. She sung her little daughter to sleep as she herself cried. Hate blossomed in the child’s heart.
A little while later, when the man from town came back with firewood, he saw
written on the mantle. He tried to smudge the stooty letters off the brick, but it would not be erased. He sat beside the fire, warming himself from the cold outside. He soon fell asleep. The mother snuck out of the house with her sleeping little girl and ran away to the only other safe place there was in the woods--the little hunting shack of the grandfather. It was cold there, but safe.
Much later, he awoke to a darkened house. The fire had died down to embers, and it was cold. He hear a scratching, crackling, creaking sound. Like burning firewood. Thinking it was perhaps mice, he lit a candle with a fireplace match to see.
From the dead fire, he saw a long, thin, charred arm branching out, out, out--up to the mantle, scraping its long, thin, skeletal fingers on the mantle. It was scraping the final letter of
on the brick. Another long, thin, charred arm reached out of the charred firewood, streaked with embers, placing its crackling hand on the stone hearth. The last thing the man saw before his scream put out the candlelight was the top of a charred bald head look up at him with burning eye sockets.
In the morning, when the mother and little girl returned to the house, cold, afraid, and weary, they found the house was empty. A fire in the fireplace burned brightly, though untended, and the house was pleasantly warm. As the mother prepared food for their journey to a new home, and while she cooked, she noticed ten black scratch marks on the stone hearth of the fireplace. She thought nothing of it, and poked the fire to stoke it.
A bit of wood stirred, curiously-shaped like a bone. She poked it with the iron, and it collapsed into cinders. She thought nothing of it, and when the food was ready, the mother and her little girl left their home in the forest, never to return.
The man from town was never to be seen again, and the little home remained empty. And above the fireplace full of cold ashes, scrawled in black charcoal, remained the words