In a town called Rushing Water, there lived a woodcarver with no face.
When we were small, my brothers and I, Daddy would sometimes take us to visit her. We would sit there at her kitchen table, amazed, as this woman with no eyes – and indeed no nose or mouth – would pour out our tea without spilling a drop.
I was frightened of her because she looked so strange, so grotesque. All the other days of my life, I encountered people with faces – square faces, oval faces, faces round and smiling like the moon with slanted eyes or big dark ones or little beady bird eyes. Snub noses, Romans or long, thin, birdlike ones like mine. Yet here was a woman with none of that or any of the faculties that come with those organs.
As a little girl, I dreaded our visits to the faceless woodcarver. But now that I've grown up I miss most all the memories of my childhood, even the somewhat unpleasant ones, so I sometimes let them wander through my mind even when they aren't invited. So I remember the woodcarver and what Daddy told us once as to why she had no face.
It came from crossing the Stick People.
You've probably seen the Stick People, though you might have heard them called by different names. They are the short knobby stumps of cypress wood found around the river bottoms where the Spanish moss hangs thick from their parent trees and raccoon and pig tracks are stamped in the sticky mud around them. As you skim lightly down the river in your canoe, you'll see them watching you from the muddy banks. They look as docile and harmless as the next piece of wood, but at night they'll pull their feet up out of the muck and run about the riverbank like little people.
The Stick People are mischievous, but not malicious by nature. True, they enjoy frightening off flights of ducks before the hunters can lure them down to the water and tipping over canoes full of picnickers. But everyone knew the Stick People saved little Zoe Mitchell when she was lost in the woods by imitating her mother's voice and coaxing the tot out of the swamp toward the German shepherds and sheriff's deputies searching for her.
But the Stick People are spirits, same as the mist tendrils hanging low and white over the lake on fall mornings and the little rainbow-colored water dogs which appear after a summer shower. Spirits aren't to be crossed. They're to be appeased, so the wise ones venturing into the river bottoms leave the Stick People the little gifts they love: rose hips, sprigs of lavender or bright-blue jay feathers.
The woodcarver was foolish. She cut down the cypress knees and took them to her workshop in the town. There, she'd carve the faces of rabbits, foxes and raccoons onto the Stick People. When night fell, she'd lock up her shop and the Stick People inside. The other Stick People would come running up from the river bottoms into the town of Rushing Water, looking for their missing mothers and sisters and brothers and cousins. They'd find them inside the workshop, weeping and ashamed, trying to cover up their mutilated faces.
One muggy night, the Stick People called a council. They'd had enough of the woodcarver kidnapping their relatives and giving them the faces of animals. The Stick People sat around a fire on the riverbank as the mosquitoes hummed and whined thick through the air.
"Let's teach the woodcarver mortal a lesson!" shouted one fierce Stick Person whose son had been taken to the workshop that very evening and given the face of a dog.
There were lusty calls of approval from his heartsick fellows.
"No," another Stick Person said more softly and slowly. "Let's warn the woodcarver to stay away from our people. Perhaps she'll listen."
The Stick People voted. The ones in favor of teaching the woodcarver her lesson dipped sticks in the fire until the branches grew red hot. The ones in favor of warning her stubbed out their hot sticks in the dirt until the tips were black. The Black sticks beat out the Red sticks, so that night the Stick People slipped into the town of Rushing Water as unbeknownst to the people there as the raccoons raiding their garbage cans.
The next morning, when the woodcarver arrived at her shop, she found little black smoldering sticks stabbed in the ground all around the building. Now the woodcarver had been raised in Rushing Water. She knew all about the Stick People and the spirits of the forest, but she deceived herself by saying the Stick People were a silly superstition.
"Kids and their pranks," she muttered as she pulled the sticks up out of the ground.
That night, three more Stick People went missing from the swamps. They were found locked inside the woodcarver's shop with the faces of cats. This time, the Red Sticks were intent on punishing the whole town of Rushing Water.
"No more town, no more woodcarver, no more problem," they said.
But the Black Sticks begged they give the woodcarver another warning. Again, the Black Sticks' decision won over the Red Sticks.' The next morning, smoldering black sticks appeared all around the town of Rushing Water. The townspeople knew what they meant – they knew what the woodcarver was doing – so they, led by the mayor, marched right up to the woodcarver's shop.
"Stop carving the cypress knees. Let the ones in your workshop go," the mayor pleaded with the woodcarver. "Carve oak. Carve cedar, but leave the Stick People alone."
But the woodcarver wouldn't listen. "The Stick People are nothing but a wives' tale," she lied. "How could they hurt me?"
That evening, several more Stick People were found in the workshop with the faces of men. At the council fire later that night, there were no Black Sticks.
And the next morning, when the woodcarver got out of bed to wash her face, she found she hadn't one to wash. That, the good people of Rushing Water would whisper to one another with bowed heads, is what came of crossing the Stick People.
The faceless woodcarver still lives in Rushing Water, the last I heard anyway, and she stills carves as she can still feel the grain of the wood with her hands. But she carves cedar or oak. She says she never wants to see another Stick Person – even if she could.