“My grandfather, Jacob, learned an old fairy tale [circa 1060] when he was a child in the late 1800’s. He told it to me over and over when I was a young Montana boy in the 1960’s. I’ve expanded his story into three novels. Book I is set in a time—long, long ago—when horses were the only means of ground transportation, other than your feet.
“One autumn evening in the mountains a ten-year-old boy, all alone, is cutting firewood for his family in a place called the Dark Forest. He is loading it into his father’s big farm wagon pulled by a team of Belgian draft horses named Duke and Dok. His plan is to sleep under the wagon tonight with his dog, Baldur, finish by noon tomorrow, and then return home. Hopefully with a big load of firewood. But something unexpected is about to happen that will delay his plans, not to mention change his life forever. Here follows a passage from the upcoming novel for young—and old—readers, alike.” JPS
Better Left Unknown
Finally the woodcutter was ready to make firewood. He thought to get a good start on it this evening and then finish the job in the morning. With steel saw in hand he set to work cutting the small end of the first log. All other sounds receded behind the rhythmic, ‘whoo-haa . . . whoo-haa . . . whoo-haa’ of the shiny tool biting into the dry timber.
Resinous piles of sawdust, smelling wonderfully fresh, marked the ground where each piece had been sawed off. In practically no time the first layer of firewood covered the wagon’s floor. Jacob enjoyed getting so much work done. He felt that his strength was enormous, that he could saw forever, and now attacked the larger cuts, thinking…
…At this rate, I’ll be done and heading down the mountain before noon the morrow. Won’t Papa be impressed?
He soon discovered that cutting through each of these bigger rounds took a lot longer than the smaller ends, and it tired him out much faster. While stopping for a breather he noticed his hunger nagging so he slipped a hand into his coat pocket for the packet of kiss-nip, but did not get a chance to bring it out. For suddenly, a remarkably loud snapping noise shattered the evening’s quiet.
Jacob spun quickly to his left, staring into the trees near the Foxfire roots—from where he thought the sound had come. He expected to see a big stag or maybe a bear. No large animals though; only rank upon rank of tall, shadowy trees that reminded him of a disorganized army of gigantic soldiers marching off into the distance.
“That was odd,” he commented to the horses. “I’m sure I heard something.” He looked to his dog, who stood staring, bristling, and growling at the westward trees, straining at his short rope. “Looks like you heard it too, Baldur.”
While glancing at Duke and Dok he observed how alert they had become. Most noticeably they were staring in the exact same direction as he and his dog. They had stopped eating, their heads were held high, their eyes opened wide, their ears perked straight up. It is always smart to pay attention to horses’ warnings. They commonly sense that something is amiss before people do.
“What is it boys?” he asked the fidgeting horses. “A wild boar beneath the roots? I might have woken him up when I was looking at the Foxfire. Maybe that’s what the bad smell was.”
A sudden echoing peal of thunder startled him. He looked skyward at the storm clouds that had been brewing for the past hour, thinking he might need to find cover under the wagon if they let loose. Nervously he got back to the work at hand and lined up the tardy saw for another bite into the thick log. Just as he was about to push forward, ‘crack’, there it was again. And not thunder either. Now the horses started snorting; a sure caution. Baldur barked louder than ever.
Jacob’s pupils dilated as he stared in utter disbelief at what was revealed amidst the shadowy trees. He rubbed his eyelids and craned his neck forward. Focusing as intently as he could past the Foxfire roots, he whispered, “Oh my gosh!” Strength failed him at the sight. The forgotten saw slipped from his hand to the ground. “Clunk . . . Sproinnng! ”
There is no mistaking a giant. Even the largest human is dwarfed in comparison. This one was dreadfully near and staring directly at him, displaying a gap-toothed grin behind parted lips. It appeared to be at least twelve feet tall and must have weighed forty to fifty stein (easily a thousand pounds).
An old saying, perhaps from Grandpa Gregor’s horde of proverbs, slipped into Jacob’s mind…
…“Woe to the unfortunate one who strays into the realm of giants. Few have returned to share the tale.”
Here was mountain magic Jacob had never before witnessed, had never even dreamed possible. To say he was stunned would be understating the depth of his surprise. This could not be happening! He was pretty sure that giants were supposed to be extinct. It seemed the ‘Professor’—that was his grandfather’s nickname for him—it seemed the ‘Professor’ did not quite know everything, not just yet. Whether he wanted to or not, he was about to learn some things better left unknown.
The giant stepped away from the tree it had been hiding behind. It was close enough for Jacob to make out the tattered, stained, coarsely woven sackcloth it wore for clothes. Those rustic garments covered all but its head and a huge pair of muscular, hairy arms, which looked poised for anything. He immediately thought of the scary ‘Belzenickl’ Yule-goblin that his grandfather described in his fireside tales. Only bigger, much bigger!
Knotted around its barrel-sized waist, a frayed rope held up loosely-fitting trousers and a sheathed knife. Enormous, sandal-like boots—fashioned from some kind of tough plant fiber—were woven about its feet. The soles looked to be thick wooden slabs. A humongous rucksack, constructed of the same fiber, hung from a shoulder. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the shabbiest, foulest-dressed, two-legged creature he had ever seen.
The inconceivable situation forced Jacob to forget all about his dog, even though he barked nonstop. His mind was running furiously but getting him nowhere…
…Should I yell? There’s no one to hear me this far up in the mountains.
…I could grab the axe but it’s still in the back of the wagon. Besides, I don’t want to be close enough to take a swing at that horrid beast.
…Where can I hide? I’m out in the open and I’ve already been seen.
It seemed the day’s good luck had deserted the young woodcutter. For the boy who normally had an answer to every question, Jacob had none for this one. This he knew for certain; thought would not solve his problem, action offered the only solution. Fight, not being an option, left flight. And it took hold. Pivoting on his right foot he shot off like a rabbit with a hound on its fluffy tail, speeding straight into the chest-high stalks of the grassy meadow as fast as his pumping legs would take him. The trees on the far edge became his target.
But a twelve foot giant takes long strides, and a short-legged boy of ten cannot stay ahead very long. Jacob could hear the dreadful sounds of his pursuer crashing through the forest. Duke and Dok were trumpeting loudly, stomping in fear and panic, unable to run with hobbles fastened around their front legs and the wagon brake firmly set. Fortunately the beastly creature ignored them.
Baldur barked continually. His yaps and growls were nearly lost in the commotion, suddenly reminding Jacob that he had forgotten all about his dog; that he had tied his loyal companion to the wagon, who consequently had no means of escape. Nothing could be done about that now. Jacob’s instincts demanded that he save his own skin first.
At the far edge of the meadow the sprinter spotted what he hoped would be the perfect pine tree to climb. The only problem was the spindly, dried-out branches near the ground. They were apt to scratch deeply or even poke an eye out. The green-needled limbs higher up looked to be aptly spaced for climbing, and were much too thin to support the weight of a giant. Also in his favor, the trunk appeared to be thick enough that it could not easily be toppled over—he hoped.
Jacob’s misguided plan was to perch on the uppermost branches, then wait until the giant got bored and left. But this giant would not easily become bored, nor would it leave—not without its prize.
Monstrous footfalls thumped the earth directly behind him. Harsh breathing, louder than his own, energized his pace even more. Regrettably he could not maintain his lead, a lead that diminished with each stride. He was way too afraid to turn his head and look.
With any luck at all, in a few more seconds he would be eight feet up that tree. Then he could scramble to the top, quick as a black squirrel. But he did not quite have the time nor get the chance. Just as he was about to leap, a huge filthy hand grabbed from behind and lifted him off his feet. His legs were still running but pushing only air.
The giant stopped in its tracks and turned the boy to get a good look at his face. While clamping his arms tightly against his torso it muttered, “What be this, hmmm?” Jacob had never heard a voice so course, so guttural. It sent a strong shiver that tingled down his spine, from the back of his head to the very bottom of his heels.
The reek of its breath was as bad a stink as Jacob had ever smelled, yet he was unable to look away. Straight off he recognized the odor; the same foul stench he had noticed while standing alongside the Foxfire roots. It had to have come from this giant, who must have been near—alarmingly near.
In an instant its facial features were permanently etched into Jacob’s memory in vivid detail. Enormous, bushy eyebrows—one of which had flakes of tree bark and gray-green lichen ensnared within—shaded deep-set eyes that Jacob could not read into. Eyes as large as Duke’s or Dok’s. Long, mangy, charcoal-tinted hair framed its squat face. Bits of rubbish were matted in. Several dark skin spots—or was it filth?—dotted its forehead, barely visible beneath its tangled tresses.
A wart grew on the bridge of its beet-red nose. Cracked and scaly lips revealed jaggedly worn teeth of a yellowish hue, several with chipped corners. And how dirty! It could not have washed in months, if ever. Never had Jacob encountered such an unsightly brute. He twisted and squirmed but it was of little use.
The giant squeezed its captive tighter, forcing a high-pitched squeak from his lips. It rotated its head, focusing one shrouded eyeball on him, then its other. Mumbling indistinctly it looked off into the woods, perhaps debating what to do next.
Jacob stared back, wondering…
…Why is it hesitating? Is it trying to scare me to death? If you’re going to eat me, just do it! Get it over with!
When he could not stand another second of being ogled, he found his voice and forced out three stern words; “LET – ME – GO!”
“Haaarg. No!” gurgled his captor. “U’re comin’ wits me.” And at that, the giant seemed to have made up its mind.
Wedged in the crook of a smelly, bristly arm, Jacob was carried off at a brisk pace into the Dark Forest. They dodged around trees but crashed right through clumps of bushes, as effortlessly as a child treads on tufts of grass, destined for a faraway place whose location was unknown to this hostage.
Horrified at being captured by a giant, Jacob’s mind searched how this could have happened…
…Did it toppled those two dead trees on the road to trap someone? Well, if so, it sure worked. It trapped me!
He was getting scratched and stabbed by the brambles and hawthorns, sometimes deeply enough to draw blood, forcing him to grimace and utter, “Oooh . . . Ouch!” On top of that, the storm clouds had opened up and began delivering a downpour. Rainwater dripped off his nose, his chin, his ear lobes. Baldur’s protestations faded in the distance.
Feeling sorely pinched in the behemoth’s mighty hold, and being jerked up and down with every jarring stride, Jacob was aching, nearly in a swoon. He ceased struggling to free himself. It was useless to try and only pinched as hard somewhere else. Instead, he focused on memorizing landmarks as his tormentor bushwhacked through the forest. If ever he escaped he would need to find his way back. Unfortunately, the dense undergrowth provided nothing notable to remember. Completely frustrated, he gave up trying, thinking…
…Hansel and Gretel marked their path but I can’t.
Having no other choice, Jacob resigned himself to the present circumstance. Slowly, his mind began dismissing the pain. In due course it wandered back to his home and family…
…He pictured their moss-covered stone cottage, a wisp of wood smoke curling above the fireplace chimney.
…He smelled the scent of freshly tanned leather in his father’s cobbler’s shop, the sounds of a tapping hammer, the whetting of steel.
…There was the corral where Duke and Dok munched hay from the manger, swishing their long blond tails. Baldur came running up to greet him, his one good eye so bright.
…His younger brothers, Ambros and Josef, and his little sisters, Katrin and Baby Tresa, whom he loved to laugh and play with; all four appeared.
…His wise Grampa who teased him so often, and his sweet Gramma who cooked such delicious treats — especially at birthdays and Christmas and Easter—they were both motioning for him to come.
…And how he needed his strong Papa, and longed to hug his gentle Momma!
He loved them all so dearly and now, he would never see them again. A sob arose in his throat. Instantly he swallowed his self-pity, warning himself…
…Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Jacob! You’re not eaten yet. But you’re captured. You’ve got to think of a way to escape.
 Old weight measurement: One stein (stone) equals approx. 22 pounds.
 Unbleached burlap material; usually jute.