Shanley & Faith McConnell
Back, far back, when the world was very young and sometimes walked the Earth, the Shadow Witch made the dark wood her home. Bewildered and greatly affected by human fragility, the Shadow Witch watched the humans living in the neighbouring village. She was a wondrous creature, the Shadow Witch. So little was known about her that she was neither be mocked nor feared. Her magic was mere nuisance; her artistry limited to re-sculpting the face.
She had the power to remake one's face until he or she no longer looked like him or herself. Where one man once have looked upon his wife with deep-set eyes and a vacant forehead, under the Shadow Witch's sleight, might wake to find his featured modified; his proportions slightly ajar as though opened to reveal a wrinkled, lesser version of the man he was.
The townfolks grew accustomed to finding themselves reworked. They woke and said to one another: 'Do you see the woman beside the plum tree? Hers was such a splendidly low brow.' Or, 'Before reconstruction, the child had such a soft jaw. Now it juts out from his chin like the burl that grows over bark.'
The villagers grew so accustomed to cosmetic change that they no longer pitied one another or bothered with appearances. Apathy imbued them with an odd sort of complicitness. Instead of resisting the Shadow Witch, the townsfolk focused their attention on work and became exceptional craftsmen and women.
It was in this way that the Shadow Witch came upon the three children in the wood. She altered the children irreparably. All their features disappeared. The iris of their eyes. The girl's soft epidermal lip. The boy's nose bridge and cleft of chin. With some curiosity, she slowly removed their faces and wondered how they would respond. She watched them closely.
One day the children came upon a mother fox curled upon the snow.
'Ma'am,' why do you keep crying?' the Masked Boy asked.
The Mother Fox's sadness was so great that she could no longer move. She lay on the ground trembling. Grief consumed her great tears until none were left to fall. The Masked Boy crouched down. The barren sockets where his eyes had once been opened and warm tears slipped down his cheeks. The Masked Boy's compassion melted the snow within minutes, and the baby fox, who had been lost, was found beneath the water drift.
Resuming their journey the children came upon a boy dancing naked in a field of thorny flowers.
'Why are you dancing barefoot?' asked the Girl with a Tin Can Head. 'Don't you know that you'll be pricked by thorns?'
The boy looked at her sheepishly, with the shyness of one who wants very much to be seen, said: 'This is the only way to make people look at me.'
The Girl with the Tin Can Head walked to the edge of the barren field and took the boy's hand. Her barefoot feet began to move. Softly on the weeds, a little leap over the thorns. But she danced and danced, and her dance, too, drew a wondrous crowd.
After a time, little moon-like creatures guided the children further into the dark and foreboding wood. Soon they came upon a wizard. He had become like an ancient oak whose branches are withered, and so, the children believed the wizard to be wizened and old.
The Box Child approached the wizard. 'Sir,' he asked. 'How long have you been an oak?'
The question was not especially astute, but it was sincere, and this gave the wizard an extreme amount of pleasure. He marvelled at the boy's fortitude. While many had sought the wizard with questions of utmost relevance, few had noticed his wreathed nature.
'Six thousand, four hundred and sixty-eight years,' answered the wizard.
'Oh,' said the boy. 'And what were you before?'
'I am as I have always been,' said the wizard.
'I see,' said the boy. For he really did see. The wizard's stature had adapted to endure the wood, but his body was still as fleshly, leaf-branchy, as it was ethereal. Though the wizard shared the oak's mould, the oak body had its own selfness too.
'Do you wish you were your own?' asked the Box Boy.
The question evoked a curious sort of look on the wizard. He bent his arms and lifted the boy into them. 'Marvel at the world's resilience, and you will find an ecosystem bridged between self-reliance and codependency. No. Child, no one belongs to themself. We belong to one another.'
The Box Boy thought about the oak's words for a long time. He climbed down from the oak. Gently, he wrapped an arm around his brother, held the neighbour's little daughter with the other, and then, with the resolve of one who knew much more than a face could be lost, the Box Boy began the long journey home.