Somewhere in Russia, mid-19th century . . .

I trudge slowly through the dark forest, huddled deep in my coat in vain pursuit of its meager protection. The heavy rain and howling winds slam into me, threatening to toss me from the dirt path and worming the cold insidiously into my bones. I stumble on, squinting through the dark to see the dim path ahead of me, wishing I was home, wishing I was anywhere but here.

Here to visit the Monster of the Woods.I trudge slowly through the dark forest

As I near my destination, I become less and less aware of the rain and wind, their importance paling beside the fear bubbling inside me. I’ve grown up on tales of the Monster of the Woods, of his evilness, of the horrors that befall those who anger him. It’s madness to willingly go to him, but I have no choice. I need his help.

After what seems like an eternity, I reach a small clearing. A tiny hut stands in the middle of it, barely visible in the gloom. Soaked to the bone with rain and exhaustion, I walk to the hut, my legs propelling me forward. As I near, I start to hear the thump-thump-thumping of my heart, its steady beat carrying over the shriek of the winds. I can taste my dread, sick and acrid against my tongue, and my hands tremble with fright.

Then, almost without realizing it, I find myself by the door.

I take a breath—a shaking, shuddering breath—and raise my hand to knock.

I have to knock a few times, hard and loud, before I hear movement in the hut. There is the creak of a chair, the sound of something—a pot, maybe?—crashing to the ground, and then footsteps slowly approaching the door. With a dry groan, the door swings open.

The old Jew peers up at me, squinting against the rain that swirls around me. He is bent and grizzled, this Monster of the Woods, but I can see that his eyes are bright, cunning and shrewd, reflecting the evil of his race.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

I swallow. I need this Jew, need what he knows, but I am still afraid, and my words tumble over each other, coming out wrong and befuddled. “Medicine. I need medicine. I mean, my father does. He’s sick, you see, and the doctors don’t know how to help him. And you do. That is, I heard that you know medicines—herbs and such? And that I can describe the illness to you and you can cure it? I have money, too. To pay. For the medicine.”

The Jew nods. “Well. You’d better come in, then.” He turns around and enters his home.

I swallow. I don’t want to enter the Monster’s house—a thousand stories detail the folly in such an action—but what can I do? He's already walked into his house. Plus, I’m cold, so cold I’ve forgotten what warm feels like, and in the corner of the hut I can see a fire.

Sighing, I enter, shrugging out of my coat and laying it over a stool. I hurry over to the fire, crouching low and letting out a satisfied sigh as its heat spreads over me. The Jew walks over and hands me a cup of hot water, which I slowly sip.

He sits down on a stool across from me. “So. Start from the beginning. Describe your father’s illness.”

I do, having made sure to memorize every detail of it. When I’m done, the Jew cocks his head and looks at me inquisitively.

“You’re Boris, right? Igor’s son?”

I feel a stab of terror pierce my heart. “What of it?” I slowly bend my knees, so I can jump up if I have to run.

“What of it?” The Jew shrugs. “Nothing. I remember you, is all. I used to live in the town, years ago. Before they realized the gold mine in their midst—before they realized that they could blame any vices they have on the ‘evil Jews’ and avoid having to take responsibility for them. Anyway, back then, I used to see you around, sometimes. You’re taller now, but I recognize you.”

For the first time, my fear is overpowered by my anger. “Oh, that’s clever. Pretending that you’re the victim. I know what you are; everyone does. You’re the Monster of the Woods.”

The Jews smiles, an odd, sad smile, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of an immeasurable grief and pain in that smile. “Ah, yes. How could I forget? I am the terrible Monster, tricking his visitors and stealing their wealth.” He spreads his arms wide. “Can you not see it—the gold and silver lining my walls? This beautiful throne of diamonds I sit on? Look how majestically I live. Yes, I must be a terrible bandit—a monster, indeed.”

“Well, of course you don’t show it. If you lived in splendor, you wouldn’t be able to rob people. You need to appear poor to get them off their guard. When I leave, I'm sure you’ll revert to your true form.”

“Ah, yes. That is clearly the most logical explanation.” He applauds, slowly. “Well done, Boris, son of Igor. You have seen to the heart of my nature.”

I scowl, at him, angry at being mocked, and open my mouth to argue. Before I can speak, he wearily raises a hand. “No, don’t. I’m not interested in arguing with you.” He stands, walks to a trunk by the wall and starts pulling out herbs. As he sorts through them, he speaks over his shoulder. “Do you know why they call me a monster? It’s not because I’m dangerous or particularly frightening. No, I’m a monster because I’m something far worse. I’m different.”

He turns from the wall and walks towards me with a satchel. “Here—the medicine for your father. I’ve included instructions as to how he should take them. If he follows them, he should heal properly.”

I take them wordlessly and stand to leave. “Do you know why they call me a monster?”As I reach the door, I turn back to face him. “If it’s so hard for you, why don’t you be like everyone else?”

The odd Monster smiled. “How was the trek on the way here?”

“Difficult. I could barely see the path, and the winds kept trying to blow me off the path into the woods.”

He nodded. “You could have just walked off into the forest. Abandoned the path, stopped struggling through the winds and given up. The trees would have sheltered you; you would have had no need for light without a path. But you didn’t. Because you’d never have found your way here without the path to guide you.

“I could give it up. Live in the forest, be comfortable in this world. But then I’d have to give up my path, my difficult path through the forest. And what would be the point, then? What’s the point of entering the forest if you won’t walk the right path?”