There was once a very old man who lived deep within the dense dark forest. He liked to eat morels, mushrooms, berries and the little rodents who had the misfortune of getting themselves caught in the very old man’s traps. But the most delectable meals for him were plump little boys and girls lost in the woods – a rare but finger-licking scrumptious delight.
Or so the legend goes.
One unseasonably warm and sunny day in late November many years ago, young Ethan Collingwood and his even younger sister Penelope were on a journey, an expedition of sorts. It was really just an assignment handed down by their mother – to gather the chestnuts that grew near the dark forest and bring them home for Thanksgiving dinner.
The woods were once abundant with huge chestnut trees which were greater than 100 feet tall and more than ten feet wide. The nuts they produced in late fall were small, about the size of an acorn, and sweet with a flavor almost like a carrot when eaten raw. After roasting, the flavor got nuttier and took on an almost candied sweetness. Besides Mrs. Collingwood’s perfectly cooked juicy and tender turkey, the roasted chestnuts were the highlight of their meal. Ethan and Penelope’s mouths watered at the thought of Thanksgiving dinner just one day away.
With strict orders from their mother not to go too deep into the dark forest, the siblings chatted happily on this warm November morning, baskets dangling from their hands for collecting lovely chestnuts. But when they arrived at their destination there were no chestnuts to be found. All the trees near the dirt road were barren.
“Let’s go into the forest just a tiny bit further” Ethan suggested.
Penelope protested. “But mother said…” and Ethan cut her off with a wink and a shrug.
“Just a tiny bit further. As long as we can see the road, we’ll be fine.” Ethan was, after all, one year older than his sister and big brothers always know best. And so Penelope agreed.
And Ethan was right, for only twenty steps deeper into the woods, chestnuts covered the ground. Brother and sister began collecting the delicious nuts; for each one they put in their baskets, they popped one into their mouths. They kept chattering away as they walked, collecting and eating chestnuts with every step they took. In no time they had gobbled up so many nuts, they grew tired and needed a rest. They propped themselves against the mighty trunk of a chestnut tree and quickly fell asleep.
Time went by as time is wont to do. Day had turned to night and the warmth of the sun had been replaced by a biting wind. When the young ones awoke, they were disoriented and cold and their baskets were only half full. Mother would be so very disappointed. But Ethan, being a bright lad, had an idea.
“Let’s return home and fill our baskets with chestnuts along the way! Mother will be delighted when she sees all the nuts we collected and will forgive our tardiness.”
Penelope sprang to her feet, cheered on by Ethan’s plan, but as she looked around, she realized she had no idea where they were. Penelope burst into tears and Ethan inquired why she was crying; surprised by her answer, the boy looked around and saw that they were indeed lost. Ethan felt like crying himself but refused to let his sister see his fear.
“Don’t cry, Penny. All we need to do is follow the trail of chestnut shells we discarded and we will find our way home.”
Encouraged by this brilliant idea, the siblings began retracing their steps but when they spotted a tiny ramshackle of a hut hidden among the trees, they knew they had walked in the wrong direction. The children realized this was the home of Caliban O’Doule, the very old man who liked to eat plump little boys and girls lost in the woods, and they were sorely frightened.
The moon began creeping out from behind a cloud, casting strange and horrifying shadows wherever the young ones looked. Low hanging branches took on the appearance of bony arms and fingers ready to snatch them away. As the crooked limbs inched closer, Ethan and Penelope turned to flee but were stopped dead in their tracks. Looming before them was Caliban O’Doule himself. He wore an ancient, threadbare cloak and his long, scraggly grey hair and beard reached his knees. His eyes were piercing blue and cold as a tomb. Brother and sister were too terrified to move.
Licking his lips, the very old man raised a gnarled hand and patted the top of Penelope’s blonde head. His stomach rumbled and he grinned. “Well, what have we here? Guests! And just in time for dinner.”
Ethan and Penelope screamed loudly, scaring off the hundreds of bats hiding among the branches. “Hush now or you’ll wake the dead” warned the very old man. “Why all the fuss, children? You are lost and far from home … so far that no one can hear your screams.” And grinning once again, the very old man placed a gnarled hand on each child’s shoulder and turned them around. “Please join me in my little hut. I’ve not had company in ages. Please. I insist.” And he gave them both a little shove.
Clutching their baskets and each other’s hands, Ethan and Penelope slowly walked to the hut. The very old man reached over their heads and pushed the door open. “After you” he said, chuckling. Ethan and Penelope cried silently as they entered the hut; they knew they never should have disobeyed their mother and now their fate was sealed. The very old man lit a stubby little candle and pointed to a wooden bench in the corner. Ethan and Penelope scrambled to the bench holding onto each other for dear life. Their round faces were flushed and stained with tears.
The very old man shuffled over to the bench and took their half-full baskets away. “Tsk, tsk! This paltry sum will never do! I prefer a large portion of chestnuts with my meal, don’t you?” he asked and laughed softly. Penelope and Ethan stared in petrified silence as the very old man walked to a large bushel and filled their baskets with chestnuts. Turning, he handed each one their basket and said “Now, up with you and come with me. Don’t try to flee; you’ll only end up deeper in the dark forest. And for pity’s sake, stop weeping like babies!”
Penelope and Ethan did as commanded and the trio walked for what seemed an eternity. “Keep walking, younglings, eyes forward. We’re almost there.”
They followed the moon-lit path which grew brighter with each step. They began walking a bit faster; the faster they walked, the brighter the path became. Then suddenly the very old man yelled “Now, run!” and the children bounded out of the woods holding their chestnut baskets tight.
Ethan and Penelope looked around in bewilderment; they were on the road leading to their house and the very old man was nowhere to be seen. They raced home as fast as their little feet could carry them and nearly fell through the door into their cozy, sun-filled kitchen. Mrs. Collingwood let out a startled squeal and dropped her cooking spoon onto the floor with a clatter.
“My heavens, children, you scared me half to death! You’re home so soon! Hardly an hour has passed! Were you racing each other again?” their mother asked a breathless Ethan and Penelope.
“Oh, mother!” cried Penelope. “You’ll never believe…”
“How many chestnuts we found!” interrupted Ethan, stepping in front of Penelope. He balled his hands into fists behind his back – their secret signal to stop talking. They proudly gave their overflowing baskets to their delighted mother who rewarded them with mugs of steaming cocoa and freshly baked sugar cookies.
Ethan and Penelope never again mentioned that day in the woods or their encounter with Caliban O’Doule; but every time they walked on the dirt road by the entrance to the forest, they paused for a moment and peered inside.
NAR © 2022
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
NB – In 1904, a gardener noticed that a chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park seemed to be suffering from a mysterious blight. The disease was ultimately traced back to a variety of Asian chestnut that had been imported to Long Island, but by then it was too late. The blight spread, and within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut was dead.