Once upon a time there was a discontented wife. She thought her husband limited and boorish, and her two young children drove her nearly mad with their moods and demands. She yearned for something nameless, and her heart was a panicked bird.
She dreamed of escape day and night until she figured out how to slip away unnoticed. She resolved to construct a substitute who would be like her in every respect, who would cook the meals and wash the children and do every thing a good wife should. Then no one would notice her absence and no one would ever look for her. She gathered branches from the forest, shells from the beach, flowers from the meadow, and moss from the well. The branches became limbs, shells became eyes, flowers were lips, and moss was hair. The discontented wife then gathered whatever love she had left for her family and breathed it softly into a perfect silver bell. She tied the bell where the wood wife’s heart should be and left the wood wife at home watching the children while she fled into the forest like a wild thing. No one was the wiser. The discontented wife eventually grew so wild that she lost her human shape and frayed into the forms of the animals and forgot that she had a name.
Years passed and still no one noticed the wood wife living in their midst. The affection that animated her was true and sweet, and she was a good companion to her husband and a loving mother to the two children. She loved her family tenderly and counted herself blessed. Her only unhappiness lay in the fear that one day the discontented wife would come back, that she would be turned again to a loveless pile of sticks and shells and moss.
As the children grew older, they were allowed to play farther and farther from the house, though the wood wife admonished them not to stray too deeply into the forest. One day the children wandered deeper into the woods than they had ever gone before. They played happily by the babbling brook, their laughter and conversation ringing through the trees like the bell of their mother’s heart. When they looked up from playing, they were terrified to discover a she-wolf crouched next to a tree, watching them intently. The children knew better than to run. They slowly backed away, taking care to make no motions that would mark them as prey. The wolf only watched with her great, golden eyes until they were out of sight, then turned and disappeared into the forest again.
From that day forward, the wolf came to them wherever they were in the forest. They slowly lost their fear of her, and as time passed they came to consider her their friend. They brought her scraps from the table and scratched her ears when she came to eat. They took naps nestled in her fur and she guarded them as she would her own cubs.
One day they were chattering happily to the wood wife about their forest games and told her about the she-wolf. A cold finger of jealousy snaked through the wood wife, for she knew who lay forgotten behind the she-wolf’s golden eyes. The night as she lay in bed with her husband, she told him that the children were being seduced by an evil spirit disguised as a wolf, and that he should follow the children into the forest tomorrow and kill the beast.
He did as she asked. He followed stealthily behind the children, and hid himself to spy on them as they played all day with their mysterious companion. When the children ran home, he raised his gun and shot the wolf through the heart. As soon as the shot struck home, the wolf transformed into the shape of his beloved wife. Horrified, he ran forward and gathered her in his arms, begging her to explain what was happening. She could only answer, “To restore me, bring me the bell from the wood wife’s chest and tie it where my heart was.”
Deeply shaken, he returned home and told the wood wife all that had happened. “See, it is as I said, husband. An evil spirit dogs our family and will not let us be. We should go now to collect the body and burn it. Then we will truly be free.” He led her out to the spot where he’d left the body, but there was nothing to be found.
The animals of the forest were witness to the murder of the discontented wife. When they heard her tell her husband how to revive her, they resolved to hide her body and watch to see if he would return with the bell. When he returned instead with the wood wife and a resolve to burn the body, they knew they would have to retrieve the bell themselves. They watched the wood wife from the trees and marked the spot in her chest where the silver bell rang.
That night, the mice set off to get the bell. But the wood wife was canny and had locked the big, fierce tomcat into the bedroom with them. When they awoke in the morning, the tomcat lay fat and full on a bed of mouse carcasses. The wood wife smiled to herself as she made the family breakfast.
The next night, a swarm of bees came down the chimney to retrieve the bell from the wood wife’s chest. But the wood wife was canny and had built a smoky fire in the fireplace. When they awoke in the morning, dead bees littered the hearth. The wood wife sang a little song to herself as she sat and did the mending that day.
The crows, meanwhile, had been watching with their clever eyes. They knew things the mice and the bees did not. While the wood wife and her husband were still awake, the crows flew over the chimney and dropped rotten eggs onto the hearth below. By bedtime, the entire room stank of sulfur and rot. Though the wood wife pleaded with him not to open the windows, the husband threw them open to clear out the smell. Though she tried to stay awake, the wood wife soon dropped off to sleep beside her husband. Once she was truly sleeping, a crow landed on the window-sill and pretended to be hurt until the cat leapt madly after it and out the window. Then a flock of crows flew in through the window and picked the wood wife to pieces. Once they found the silver bell, they carried it back to the forest and placed it tenderly into the hole where the discontented wife’s heart used to be.
The husband awoke the next morning to a bed full of sticks and shells and black crows’ feathers. Panicked for the safety of his wife, he ran downstairs to find her laughing and playing with their two children. She cuddled them close and nuzzled them for all the world like a wild thing. He breathed a sigh of relief to find her safe, and they all lived happily ever after.