That the worst was over during our long journey through the forest I could only hope, but my hopes were dashed when I heard the voice. Soft, it was, and seemingly reasonable, yet a shiver rushed over me before I knew it’d begun. Hand to my breast, I heard the others retreat a step while I waited for my breaths to slow.
Shaking such that I feared my knees would bend as do the crops before a twister, I managed a step closer to the roadside where I was certain the voice and accompanying movement had originated. Squinting, I peered into the haze coating the dense forest beyond the brightly colored brick road, but could see nothing beyond the thicket. My nose detected a stench that incited a wince worse than any chicken coop back home could summon, but by then there was new movement further to the left. Again I peered and again I saw nothing.
“It certainly does shift about. I can’t tell if It’s the source of that horrid smell or not,” Scarecrow observed.
I nodded. “I know…”
Tin Man raised his ax and shook it at the unseen. “Please, come join us.”
A rustling in the bushes had us all looking everywhere at once and collectively seeing nothing. “I don’t believe It wishes to show itself.”
“That..that’s okay,” said Lion over trembling lips.
Again there was movement and the gentle voice that shared ugly words white washed with fool’s gold. The awful smell bit at my nose again from the right, but already there was movement to the left.
“Jeepers, It won’t stay still a moment!” I leaned forward to peer beyond the thick brush, but recoiled when the reassuring voice spewed vileness and denials.
“H’m, I suppose there might be statistical support for that position,” Scarecrow noted hesitantly.
“I…I should hate to falsely accuse It when It might be our fault that we don’t understand its views,” offered Tin Man.
“Please, no one speak harshly or It’ll turn on us,” admonished Lion.
My shaking grew worse. I wanted only to cower and look away, to hurry on to the city and not incite its ire further. Despite It’s reassuring tone and our own rationalizations, my apprehensions remained. Amidst my trembling my basket slipped away, nearly falling on dear Toto as he lunged forward barking. At the last, I scooped him up, but not before the disembodied voice unleashed its belittling, cruel humor and sarcastic humiliations against him, their intended hurt rising as if thorns protruding above the snow.
A spark deep within me surged like a prairie fire. I pulled my poor Toto closer and strode towards the road’s edge. The inner fire’s heat colored my face I’m sure, but I knew it was time for truth.
“You shift about and hide because you don’t want us to know the stench is you. You don’t want us to see your true self because it’s horrible. I know what love is, it’s close like a hug, but you keep your distance so we can’t see the truth of who you are. Well, I know the truth of who you are and I’m not afraid to call you by name. You’re a coward and Hatred is your name!”
A sharp hiss tore through the weeds and for an instant I saw true ugliness, a grotesque soul escaping the mask. Scarecrow’s hands pulled me back as Tin Man stepped in front of me protectively and Lion charged into the brush, but Hatred had fled, for its greatest fear was exposure in the light.