In a remote village on the outskirts of Etude Kingdom, there lived a little girl. She lives with her father, the baker. The tiny bakery he works in is also their house. Made up of coconut leaves and driftwood, the rickety structure long needed some improvements done but the baker’s age was fast catching up and his health was ailing with each day that passes. Even baking these days has been taking a big toll on him lately.
It didn’t used to be like that.
Their bakery was a thriving and flourishing business that was one of the more famous and sought after in Etude Kingdom but since the passing of his wife, the baker has lost all interest. These days, father and daughter are barely making enough to even put food on the table much less new clothes on their backs.
He had lost his wife to the dark woods. It is rumored that deep in the woods lies a special plant with magical ingredients that could make any food taste exceptionally good! So when Etude Kingdom announced a baking competition to find the best bakery in the country, the baker’s wife decided to head out into the woods to find the magical plant, hoping to create the best baked goodies and win the contest.
One day when her husband and their young daughter were taking their afternoon nap, she set out. She never came back. There were no rescue parties as no one dared to venture out into the woods and the baker couldn’t leave his daughter behind to look for his wife.
Till this day, he blames himself for sleeping and not preventing his wife from venturing out.
Sometimes late at night, after the bakery is closed and he is resting on the front porch, he could hear his wife’s voice coming from the woods. “사랑해 (Saranghae)” – which means I love you in Korean – the voice would echo and tears would roll down his sunken cheeks accompanying him in his sleep.
Now while the other children in the village went about their daily lives as normal children would; going to school, play time with friends and more, his daughter did not have any of that. Instead, she would be in the kitchen helping her father. His ailing health has been a cause of great concern lately and there was no one else around to help him.
Life was hard for both father and child. The years of baking had taken a toll on him and his back had become hunched from the pain and discomfort. He was nicknamed “The Tortoise” by the cruel villagers. The little girl wasn’t spared as well.
Everywhere she went, she received sneers and snide remarks from the other children in the village and adults alike as well. Her trips to the village market to get medicine for her father or staple food like rice, salt and sugar were an ordeal each time. The villagers would mock her tattered clothing and turn their noses away in disgust.
Many of the village shopkeepers and store owners even refuse to serve her as they were afraid her stench which reeked of fermented yeast and sour dough, would turn away other customers. The smell was likened to dirty socks and that’s what the villagers call her, “Dirty Socks.”
Both father and daughter have had to go to sleep hungry many a time as no one would sell them the basic necessities. Life was truly unkind to them.
To make matters worse, the children would splash water and throw stones at her each time while making fun of her disheveled appearance and her hunchback father, “Hey Dirty Socks, where’s The Tortoise?”…
Back at the bakery, it was no different. The villagers would rather travel miles away to other villages and towns instead of buying bread and cookies from their bakery. The bakeries in those towns are equipped with modern conveniences such as electric ovens and refrigerators. These together with fresher ingredients and beautiful shop decorations have made them successful and prosperous.
But for the girl and her father, they could not afford any of the new luxuries. They continue to struggle against the competition with their slow wood-burning ovens and wooden ice boxes in poorly ventilated conditions. Most of the time, they would be torn between baking and spending the time chasing fruit flies and other bugs away from their ingredients.
One morning, the village was greeted by an overcast grey sky. The winds were picking up and over yonder, a storm was brewing. On days like this, no one would dare venture out of the village. Instead, everyone would be stocking up their supplies from the shops to weather the impending storm, which can last for days. The baker and his daughter saw this as an opportunity but yet no one seems to be buying anything from the bakery.
Disappointed but not broken, the baker decided to close his shop and head into the woods to find the magical plant.
It was his only option.
Though hesitant, the baker was adamant. He strapped on 2 water bottles to his waist with a makeshift belt, carried his daughter on his back in a woven basket that was also filled with some bread in the event they get hungry and set out. The wind is now slowly turning into a gale as they made their way to the edge of the dark woods. It was going to be a long day.
The baker was getting exhausted but the thought of his ailing business and daughter having to go hungry again, gave him strength and he trudged on. His back hurts like never before. It got darker as they went deeper into the woods. The trees were so tall, they blocked out the sun’s rays and all they could hear was the eerie whistling of the wind as it slithered amongst the tree trunks and rustled in the leaves.
Then, the little girl heard strange footsteps as if there was someone or something following them.
She peeked from her basket and saw a pair of fiery red eyes staring at her from amongst the trees! She tried to turn around to warn her dad but was stuck amongst the bread loaves in the basket. Though they were in the dense wood surrounded by trees, the wind was still very strong! She stared up at the canopy of leaves and saw that the tree branches were swaying violently.
The pair of red eyes soon revealed an animal-like figure but it was too dark to see what it was exactly. All she knows, it was catching up with them and very quickly too! The baker must have felt something was wrong as he picked up his pace to running speed. In his haste, the basket on his back was dislodged and the little girl fell to the ground. Not realizing it, as he was struggling against a very strong headwind, the baker continued running!
The little girl called out for her father but he couldn’t hear her. All she could do was watching his figure getting further away and eventually disappearing into the dense darkness. Suddenly, she remembered the menacing pair of red eyes and turned around. It was getting closer! She struggled to free herself from the basket and managed to free her hands.
The animal figure was really close that she could hear its growl. She reached, picked up a stick and started to swing it around, hoping to ward off the creature. With one deep breath, she mustered a powerful swing but she started feeling light headed and dizzy. She fell backwards and the last thing she saw was a menacing dark figure of a beast towering over her weakened body.
She closed her eyes and then there was quiet…
Written for Etude House