He had hardly noticed it before, or could it be that there was something about the tree that had always deterred him from approaching it?
But now he lifted his axe to finally cut down the old oak tree. As he swung his axe the earth beneath his feet trembled, and for a moment he lost his balance. Frowning, he wiped his neck and forehead with the red scarf that he had taken off, before winding it tightly round his right wrist. Then he prepared once more to hack at the tree.
As his axe was poised ready, the earth trembled again, more violently this time, and the woodman heard a deep, grumbling murmur that seemed to rise up from the roots of the old tree.
"Woodman, I am older than fifty generations of your miserable family," came the deep murmur from the roots, "but I am by no means powerless."
"Allow me to live out my life in peace, and I shall grant you three wishes that will change your life. Try to hew me down and I promise you as I hold the earth in my roots, that you will soon regret it."
The woodman was so alarmed that he dropped his axe bruising his foot. The earth still grumbled like distant thunder, then there was silence.
He was so sure of what he had heard that he timidly approached the old tree, and then with what he thought was a suitably humble tone of voice, he asked the tree what he should do.
Once more the earth stirred, and the murmur, although more distant, returned.
"Go to your home woodman, and think well," rumbled the voice. "Tomorrow when the sun appears above this hill, the wishes that you must by then have chosen, will be granted."
When the tremors ceased, the late summer leaves of the old tree seemed to rustle as if with laughter. The woodman bowed servilely, picked up his axe and limped off down the hill.
Never had the woodman spent so much time thinking as he did that night. He wasn't used to thinking. Each time the dog barked to remind him that it hadn't eaten, he swore and kicked it to be quiet so that he could continue to concentrate on what to wish for.
He finally decided that he could do no better than wish for a fine palace to replace his miserable shack, a beautiful wife to replace his ungrateful cur, and great wealth to replace the meagre pittance he earned from selling pelts and firewood to the townsfolk.
Fully satisfied with his wishes and proud of them, the woodman was too excited to sleep. At the break of dawn he decided to go up the hill to find the old tree again, just to make sure that it wasn't all a dream.
The oak tree was still there sure enough. The woodman didn't approach it fearing that it might have a change of heart about the wishes. He waited for the sun to begin peeping above the hill, then he ambled back down the woodland slope.
As the sun shone more brightly over the hilltop, the woodman stopped, wiped his nose and sniffed. He began to think he had been tricked and that he would see his old shack again.
But there, in the clearing where his little home had been, appeared a fabulous, golden domed palace. It had ornate, arabesque windows and its walls were inlaid with rare marble. The palace seemed to outshine the rising sun with a thousand glorious colours.
He entered the richly carved portal, ran up the majestic steps, pushed through the arched, ebony doors and glanced through each room ignoring the beauty of the architecture and all the exquisite interior decorations, the rich oriental carpets and fine tapestries. The woodman was intent on finding the wife he had also wished for.
Finally, in a spacious, second floor bedroom, brushing her long, amber hair, he discovered the most beautiful woman. She was dressed in a long silk gown of pearl-rose damask. They looked at each other's reflection in the enormous, gilt mirror before her. Her green eyes flashed with anger as the woodman simply stared gaping like a stunned cod. Gradually her regard became more poised and calm, but there was no warmth in her voice.
She asked him to leave her suite and to kindly knock in future. She added that he should improve his appearance if he wished to share her company.
The woodman was so taken aback by this unexpected reprimand that he immediately obeyed her command. But as he paced about outside her room, he was soon overcome by an immense desire to possess her.
He knocked on her bedroom door loudly, but his new wife didn't respond. Naturally this made his anger worse. Blindly he burst into her room determined to ravish her. Terrified she tried to ward him off, but he was far too strong and oblivious to everything but his own frustration and lustful intent.
When he was finally satisfied he looked at her face, but it was expressionless. She was still. Her eyes were open but she saw nothing. He realised that in his wanton fury he had killed her.
The woodman was neither shocked nor sad. He dismissed her with a shrug. After all, she had been his possession, his wish, and he had used her as he had thought fit. She hadn't been a good wife to have struggled so disobediently.
In any case he felt quite out of place in this grand palace, as if he were a thief. And like a thief he filled his pockets with as much money as he could. The rest that he found he tied in bundles ripped from the fine curtains and bed linen. When he thought that he had taken all that there was in the fine palace, he left for the town in the valley carrying his heavy load.
Of course the townsfolk soon learnt of the woodman's great fortune. Almost just as soon he discovered how popular he had become. Even the lord mayor intended to invite the woodman to dinner. His rotund wife had persuaded him how opportune it would be.
The woodman bought new, expensive clothes that were nonetheless loud and ill-fitting. He purchased a fine, white horse that cost him much and hated him in return. He spent his money recklessly, and had little to show for this apart from his new friends.
When they learnt of his plans to continue his voyage, they were disappointed. Some offered to join him, but he firmly refused although he was truly flattered. He was a 'lone wolf', he explained. Besides, he felt insecure and wished to put as many leagues as possible between himself and his woodland hill, before he thought he could really begin to enjoy his new life, wealth and popularity.
And this he did excessively. His poor horse suffered from his cruelty. Yet despite the great distances they travelled, the woodman never really felt that they had gone far enough. He was tired however, and his rump and legs were sorely blistered from too much riding.
At each inn the woodman stayed longer and drank more than he should. His money ran through his fingers as if it were fine sand. When he was drunk he was often covertly robbed, but of this he never seemed to know or greatly care. Sometimes he would be coaxed into gambling and would play foolishly, but this he seldom remembered.
The woodman's fine horse had become thin, almost lame and exhausted. On the open road he eventually had to abandon it. He would have killed it too had it not managed to get away. The woodman still had his flask of aqua vitae, and enough of his remaining gold tied to his waste and in his pockets. But there was more to reward whoever should find and care for the neglected horse, still tied to its back in two saddle bags.
Fortunately for the woodman, he found that he was not far from a large town enclosed within a fortified wall.
By the time he arrived at the town gates it was almost evening. A sentinel refused him admittance unless he had business there. As the woodman was unable to invent anything, he bribed the sentinel to allow him to pass.
The woodman persuaded himself that he had finally arrived in a town large enough for him to enjoy himself in the way he wished.
First he would find an inn and wash the dust from his throat with drink. Later he would see what amusement the town could offer. He found a tavern where he ordered their best ale. There were many people there, talking and making merry. He began to feel ignored and despondent.
The more he drunk the more neglected he felt, and this grew into anger. He began to shout for attention. Many people stopped talking to turn with raised eye-brows before continuing their conversations.
The woodman then jumped to his feet, opened his shirt and slammed down his two remaining sacks of gold coins on the wooden table. This caused more interest, but it was a respectable house. The innkeeper approached him and discreetly advised him that if he wished to gamble he must go elsewhere.
The woodman spat, then disdainfully tossed some coins on the table. Heaving himself to his feet, he clumsily upset his chair before he lurched out into the night.
Many eyes followed him with expressions of distaste, others with pity. There were some however, who appeared to be more cool and thoughtful.
In a dark lane soon afterwards, the woodman was waylaid. Three men armed with clubs succeeded in robbing him of one of the bags of gold before they ran off. The woodman had fought well despite the odds and his drunkenness, but he had suffered for it.
What was left of his wealth lay all about him. The last bag had burst open during the attack. He wearily and painfully picked up each piece and repaired the bag as best he could. Then he managed to raise himself and limp away.
The night was long for the woodman, but he eventually found lodgings, even though he wasn't a welcome sight. Alone in his rented room he tried to nurse his wounds, then exhausted, he slept.
He dreamt of his little shack amongst the pines and stunted oaks. In his dream he dragged himself towards it but despite all his painful efforts he was never able to reach it. His home had been simple. He had made it himself and was proud of this.
Most of the next day the woodman spent resting his aching body in his room. In the late afternoon he asked the landlord to bring him some bread, salted-pork and wine. After he had bolted down his meal, he tried to think what he should do next.
He was no longer a rich man, but this never occurred to him. What sense of judgement he had was overcome by feelings of loneliness and dejection.
When darkness fell, he sought and found a woman whose tolerance was subjugate to her needs. The woodman's illusion to be able to buy love and compassion was completely destroyed when he finally awoke alone, to find that the last half-full, knotted bag of gold that he had previously hidden had gone.
He was too weary for anger, but hate rose in him like seething bile. He lay on the grimy bed in the seedy room, his soul as empty as the eyes of the woman he had killed. He stared blindly at nothing until the first light of dawn. His mind groped for something on which to vent his hatred.
He would return to find that old tree. The hoary, husk of life that had made such a mockery of his. He would destroy it. He would relish severing each branch from its trunk. He would slowly and methodically hack the trunk into small pieces, dig out every root and chop them all up. He would burn the cruel heart of the oak and grind the cinders into fine powder for the rain to make mud of.
With the last of the coins he found deep in one of his pockets, he had enough to buy an old grey mule. A sorry sight compared to his fine white horse, but humble enough to support him. He was also able to buy a minimum of provisions, then he left the town vowing never to return there again.
As he passed the gates the sentinel hardly noticed him.
From then on the woodman had only one thought in his mind, and let nothing else distract him from it. Throughout his return voyage he never wavered from his objective. He no longer had the means to do so in any case. He made his way steadily, nursing his hate, and in this way continued until he finally arrived in the small town in the valley, below the woodland hills not far from where he was born.
The returned woodman was insensitive to the cynicism, the cold distrust and vague curiosity shown by the townsfolk. He passed on towards the woodland slopes that still glowed with their late autumn colours. He left the exhausted mule loosely tethered at the foot of the hills, and climbed deliberately, his eyes glazed as he stared ahead.
The palace had gone. He already knew that this would be so, and was glad of it.
He was comforted to see his little shack once more in the clearing. Fungus grew on the pinewood and there was an acrid smell of decay.
His axe lay nearby, its head rusted. Inside the shack was a curious disorder and a musty smell of death. He saw the dried carcass of an animal under the table and remembered his dog.
The old sandstone wheel was behind the shack. He wet the stone and took time, almost lovingly, to sharpen his axe. Then he left to find the tree he was determined to destroy.
As the sun set that same day the townsfolk in the valley heard a strange thunder. Then they felt an earth tremor or what was also thought to have been an important landslide in the hills above them. There was some concern and various, knowing theories about it, but the interest it caused didn't last very long.
The old mule was found by a grateful wanderer.
The woodman was never heard of again, nor was he ever missed, but the old mule lived out the rest of its life very happily indeed.
Tale and illustrations © Mirino. January, 2013