Once there was a village had no name. It was high on the dark side of the Far Mountain, deep in the farthest forest. The village was very small with few houses. There had been more, but most had moved to the big town in the valley where there were many wonderful things to do and say. So, it wasn’t the village’s fault that it had no name, its people thought and thought but the name never came, and the people in the big town with a hundred houses, just never thought about it at all.
Deep in the farthest forest of the village that had no name, there lived a poor woodcutter and his wife. They lived in a cottage that the woodcutter had built from old trees that still remembered things, and a huge fireplace of river stone that had the color of rain and the quiet of flowing streams.
No one in the village ever spoke to the woodcutter or his wife. Surely, they were good people, but there was something, something of the deep forest that seemed to follow them wherever they went. And even though no one would ever say it, they knew it was the Wolf.
For deep in the farthest forest, there lived a great Wolf. He was as old as the village’s oldest memory, fearsome, black as night, and blind in one eye from an ancient battle. He seemed to appear and disappear, suddenly standing before you with his sharp, frightful teeth, and then, just as suddenly vanishing into the forest’s dark shadows without a trace. All feared the Wolf, and tales of its fearsome deeds were discussed around night-time hearths and whispered by frightened children on their way to bed.
One winter, the snow was heavier than usual, the frost glistened and cracked in the trees, and birds sought shelter in the eaves of the woodcutter’s cottage. And it happened, that in the early winter dusk on the first day of Advent, when the world began to long for the Light of all light, the woodcutter had to journey far into the forest to find food.
The snow lay deep on the ground and dark clouds swirled with freezing flakes that drifted in gusts of white wind. The woodcutter struggled forward, deeper and deeper into the forest looking for signs. Then, through the moaning of the trees, he heard a muffled snarling that made him shiver with fear. He stopped, lifted his axe, and strained to hear. Suddenly he came upon the Wolf. Its foot was caught in a trap, and he was struggling with helpless desperation to free himself. His sharp teeth glistened, and his blind eye stared in frozen hatred at the trap’s metal jaws. Then he looked up and saw the woodcutter. For a moment, he stood panting and glaring, then he slowly lay down and put his head on his paw.
The woodcutter raised his axe to strike but felt a strange stirring within him that stayed his hand. The wolf looked up at him, and made no sound, but lay perfectly still and lowered his eyes. Minute after minute, the two just looked at each other. Then the woodcutter lowered his axe, and moved closer, coming nearer and nearer until he was standing over the wolf. Slowly he knelt down. The wolf looked up again, then closed his eyes. Carefully the woodcutter opened the jaws of the trap and freed the wolf’s paw. Then, axe still at the ready, he rose and backed slowly away, out unto the path that led home. When he looked back, the wolf was gone.
The heavy dark clouds had moved on, spilling down towards the big town in the valley below. The moon crested into a still, violet sky, making the path glow faintly in the blue nightfall. The woodcutter shaken by meeting the wolf kept stopping to listen, peering back into the deep forest shadows. Each time, he was sure that something was following him, he feared the wolf, and knew his nature was unforgiving and wrathful, driven by evils that all knew and all dreaded.
Soon however, he recognized stands of trees and the familiar rocky outcrops that guarded his home. With great relief, he entered the cottage, and embraced his wife as always when returning from the forest. She sat him down in his favorite chair near the fire, removed his boots and listened to the tale of his meeting with the Wolf. ‘May the Lord be thanked’ she said, ‘for preserving your life, and letting you help a creature in need’. Though secretly, she felt the same shiver of fear that he had felt.
Then the meager dinner was laid, but this was a special Sabbath night, the beginning of hope’s long Waiting. The Advent wreath, woven of sweet pine, birch, and rowan from the secrets of the forest, was brought in. The woodcutter’s wife tenderly lit the first candle from the heart of Light and prayed to the Good Lord who was to come as a child and save mankind from darkness. In the silence, as the candle sputtered into life, they heard a scratching at the door. Soft at first, but then louder, starting and stopping, insistent and patient.
Finally, the woodcutter went to the door and opened it, just enough to see out onto the step. It was the wolf. Quickly he slammed the door shut, but the scratching started again, softly and patiently. His wife came running to see what was happening, and again, following that same stirring as before, he opened the door a crack. The wolf laid down on the step, put his head on his paws, and looked up at them.
For a long moment, they stared at one another through the silence as the stars burned in the night. Then without a word, the woodcutter’s wife went to the table and cut their only piece of meat into two halves. Returning, she reached through the opening in the door and gave the wolf the bigger half. The wolf slowly rose, took the meat and silently disappeared into the dark night of the forest’s shadows. Every day, the woodcutter and his wife prayed prayers for the coming of the Light, and secretly wondered about the wolf.
The next Advent Sabbath, and those that followed were the same. After dinner had been laid, and the Advent candle burned for the coming Light, there was be a scratching at the door, quiet and patient. The woodcutter and his wife would go to the door and find the wolf lying on the step, looking up at them. Again, he was given half of the Advent dinner, then disappear into the forest so quickly and silently that he seemed to simply vanish.
Finally, in a hushed silence that filled the heavens and gathered the blazing star, the Night of Nights fell upon the darkness and brought hope to a longing world. The table was laid, and the four Advent candles were lit with prayers of hope and thankfulness. Again, there was the sound of quiet, patient scratching at the door but the stirrings were much closer. This time, the wolf was standing, quiet and still, gazing at them, black as night, a fearful visage, the unseeing blind eye reflecting dark in the One Star’s light.
They gazed at one another other, watching and waiting. Then the door was opened, and the wolf, limping from old pain, went to the hearthside and lay down before the fire. That night, he received his own portion from the Christmas table. After they had eaten, the wolf laid down again before the fire, and the woodcutter and his wife read the story of the Child’s birth from the Good Book. After the last candle had burned out, with starlight flickering through the windows, the woodcutter and his wife retired to bed, careful not to wake the sleeping wolf.
The morning broke cloudless and beautiful over the snow-covered peaks of the Far Mountain, sending shafts of bright winter light into the sleeping cottage. The woodcutter and his wife rose and went to stir the embers of the hearth for the morning meal. The wolf was gone. Vanished into the forest, to watch over its darkness and be its strength. Vanished into the darkness of men’s hearts to be their victim and claim their misery. And often, throughout the round of seasons, the tracks of a great wolf could be seen around the little cottage as he watched over the goodness of the woodcutter and his wife.
And every Christmas until now, the wolf would scratch at the door, receive his portion from the table, and sleep at the hearth waiting for the Child to be born. Then he would awake, and under a heavenly star, bring the Child’s Promise to every creature in the Far forest.
David Russell OFS, Fyn