“My grandfather, Jacob, learned a traditional German fairy tale about giants [circa 1060] when he was a child in Ukraine. In 1898, at twelve years of age, he emigrated to America with his family.
“I grew up in eastern Montana in the 1950’s/60’s and clearly remember begging Grampa Jacob to tell me that tale over and over. I have never forgotten those boyhood experiences. Now that I am retired I have been inspired to expand his tale into three novels; a trilogy. Book I is set in a time—long, long ago—when horses were the only means of transportation, other than your feet.”
One autumn day a ten-year-old boy, named Jacob, is heading into the mountains by himself in his family’s big farm wagon pulled by a team of Belgian draft horses; Duke and Dok. His father had asked him to gather a load of firewood in an area known locally as the ‘Dark Forest’. Jacob’s plan is to work until nightfall, sleep under the wagon alongside his dog Baldur, and then finish by noon the next day, when he would return home. But something unexpected is about to happen that will delay things, not to mention change his life forever. Here follows a passage from my upcoming novel for young—and old—readers, alike. JPS
Better Left Unknown
Finally, Jacob was ready to cut some firewood. With steel saw in hand he set to work on the small end of the log. All other sounds receded behind the rhythmic, ‘whoo~haa . . . whoo~haa . . . whoo~haa’ of the shiny tool biting into the dry timber. Golden rows of sawdust marked the ground where each piece had fallen. The air took on the pungent aroma of fresh, fir resin.
In practically no time the first layer of firewood covered the floor of the wagon. Jacob enjoyed getting so much work done. He felt that his strength was enormous, that he could saw forever, and now attacked the thicker parts, 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, which tired him out. While stopping for a breather he noticed his hunger nagging so he slipped his hand into a coat pocket for the packet of kiss-nip (a triangle of pasta filled with cottage cheese) but did not get the 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 animal 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 his 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.”
Duke and Dok started fidgeting. Most noticeably they were staring in the exact same direction as Jacob and his dog. They had stopped eating, their heads were held high, their eyes opened wide, their pointy ears were standing straight up. It is always smart to pay attention to a horse’s warning. They generally sense that something is amiss before people do.
“What is it boys?” he asked the fidgeting horses. “A wild boar under the roots? I might have woken him up when I was breaking off the Foxfire. That’s probably 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 was that sound 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 eyes and craned his neck. Focusing as intently as he could past the Foxfire roots he whispered, “Oh my gosh!” Strength failed him at the sight, and the forgotten saw slipped from his hand to the ground. “Clunk ~ Sproiinnng!”
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 above fifty stein (easily a thousand pounds).
An old saying, perhaps from his 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 was possible. To say he was stunned would be understating the depth of his surprise. This could not be happening! He was pretty sure giants were supposed to be extinct. It seemed the ‘Professor’—that was his grandfather’s nickname for him—did not quite know everything, not yet. Whether he wanted to or not, Jacob 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 the boy to make out the tattered, stained, animal hide it wore for clothes. Those rustic garments covered all but its head and a huge pair of muscular, hairy arms. He immediately thought of the scary ‘Belzenickl’ Yule-goblin that his grandfather described in his Christmas fireside tales. Only bigger. Way bigger!
Knotted around its barrel-sized waist, a frayed rope held up baggy 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 foulest, shabbiest-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. The only thing he knew for certain was: ‘thought’ would not solve this problem, ‘action’ offered the only solution. Fight, not being an option, left Flight. And it took hold. Pivoting on his right foot he tore off like a fox with a hound on its bushy 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 enormous 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 behind. 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, for now.
Baldur’s continual yapping and growling finally penetrated Jacob’s awareness, reminding him that he had completely forgotten about his dog, that he had tied his loyal companion to a wagon wheel, who, consequently, had no means of escape. Nothing could be done about that now. His instincts demanded that he save his own skin first.
At the far edge of the meadow the sprinter spotted a pine tree whose limbs looked aptly spaced for a speedy climb. Also in his favor, the trunk appeared thick enough that it could not be toppled over—he hoped. One major concern, however, was the spindly, dried-out branches near the ground. They were apt to scratch deeply enough to draw blood, or even poke an eye out.
Jacob knew this would hardly be a leisurely scale up an apple tree at home. He would have to climb quicker than quick. His misguided plan was to perch on the uppermost branches, branches too thin to support the weight of a giant. Hopefully it would not try to shake him out. If so, he would have to hang on for dear life. Maybe the monstrous creature would eventually grow bored and leave . . . wishful thinking: this giant would not easily become bored, nor would it leave—not without its prize.
Heavy footfalls thumped the earth directly behind . Harsh breathing, louder than his own, energized his pace even more. Regrettably, Jacob could not maintain a 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 Jacob 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 look at his face. While clamping Jacob’s arms against his chest it muttered, “Wah be this, hmmm?” Jacob had never heard a voice so course, so guttural. It sent a 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 could remember, 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 dangled flakes of tree bark and grayish-green lichen, shaded deep-set eyes that Jacob could not read into; eyes as large and dark 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 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 no use.
The giant squeezed its captive even tighter, forcing a high-pitched squeak from his throat. 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? Are you 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 be 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 dense forest. They dodged around trees but crashed right through clumps of bushes, as effortlessly as a child treads on a tuft of grass. Their destination; a faraway place whose location was unknown to this hostage.
Horrified at being captured by the giant, Jacob’s mind searched how it could have happened…
…Did it topple those two dead trees on the road to trap someone? If it did, it sure worked. It trapped me.
Brambles and hawthorns scratched and stabbed at him—sometimes deeply enough to draw blood—forcing him to grimace and utter, “Oooh . . . Ouch!” On top of that, the storm clouds 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. He recalled one of his favorite stories…
…Hansel and Gretel marked their path. Well, I can’t, but if I ever escape, somehow I’ll need to find my way back.
Unfortunately, the dense undergrowth provided nothing notable to remember. Totally frustrated, he gave up trying. Having no other choice, Jacob resigned himself to his 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 lively and 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—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.