For Fear of Little Men
by Sandra M. Odell
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Alton who longed to be a kobold and keep treasure in his stone shoes. . .
That is until one came to live under his bed and he learned what horrid little creatures they truly were. The wicked thing smelled of licorice and MaeMa’s kisses when she went too long without brushing her dentures. It hobbled around in its stone clogs in the dark of night, knocking over books,tumbling shoes off the rack.
“There is a kobold living under my bed, Mama,” he said when his mother came to see what the fuss was all about. “I saw it with my torch. He pinched me here, and here, and even here.”
“There will be none of that, young man,” Mama said as she tucked the brushed cotton quilt under his chin. “You go to sleep this instant, and in the morning you will pick up your room or else.”
That night Alton realized mamas did not know what it meant to have a kobold living under one’s bed.
The next night Alton asked for an aspirin for his headache, then curled on his side with the quilt tucked under his chin and his toes safe and warm in wool socks. He waited. Very still. Very quiet. The house settled to sleep with creaks and pops and groans, what Aunt Bethany called “night talk” before she left without saying good-bye.
No sooner had Papa begun to snore than Alton heard the clunk-thump of uneven steps under the bed, the sound an ice hammer cracking up his spine. The moment the kobold crawled from under the bed and reached up to give him a pinch on the backside, he whipped over quick as he could and grabbed the miserable thing around the throat with both hands.
The tiny hunchback was brittle leaves and chicken bones. Alton brought his thumbs together and squeezed until they met his fingers on the other side, a thrill of excitement shivering down his spine. The kobold’s eyes bulged, and its spindly neck snapped with a tinder crack. It twitched once, twice, and then sagged limp and still as a bag of rocks in Alton’s hands.
When he stopped shaking, Alton pulled up his socks and snuck downstairs for a knife to see if a kobold really was filled with rocks. It wasn’t, and Mama walloped him good the next morning for making a sticky mess on the sheets.
Only Alton knew where to look for the fae, some more fair than others but all gimlet-eyed and not to be trusted. Hook-nosed gnomes in the grocer’s bins, and pixies peeking around the corners of pews. Mulchins under girls’ skirts during school, tickling tender panty-bits with sticky feathers until the girls squirmed in their seats on long sunny days.
No one believed him, no one ever believed him, so Alton taught himself in secret late at night when no one was around. He read everything he could lay his hands on – paperbacks, encyclopedias, plays, TV listings. Leprechauns, phooka, the foul-humored fir darrig with their backwards hands and four-foot long beards. He compared the satyrs of Greece to the fauns of the British Isles, and wondered if the kilyakai of Papua New Guinea were more or less common than sprigash. No detail was too small to note in the pages of his ever-growing collection of carefully organized composition books.
The depth of his studies left Alton with little time for extracurricular activities, and the expectations of others were constant impositions. “A boy your age should be on the field, not behind the stacks reading poetry,” Papa said the day he signed Alton up for the local youth football league.
Alton set down his cup of juice. “But I don’t want to play football.”
“Listen to your father, dear,” Mama said, and set to organizing the league carpool.
The majority of Alton’s schoolmates were equally understanding.
“Dool-a-girl?” Brenton Panes said on the busy street corner, turning the composition book every which way. “What’s a dool-a-girl?”
Alton kept his voice as low and reasonable as he could, hands balled into fists at his sides. His head throbbed; sweat ran down his collar, every breath heavy in the muggy afternoon heat. They had caught him on his way home from the library. He was more annoyed than angry with the three upperclassmen; the redcaps leering from their jacket pockets were another matter entirely. “It’s pronounced doo-lah-garl and is from Australia. I would like my book back now, Brenton.”
The rugby captain ham-handed his way through the pages. “Is this what you’re doing with your time in the library, Waddlemouth?”
Brenton’s cohorts Peter Willich and pig-eyed Allan Hembridge snickered.
Alton took a slow breath. “I’m studying, that’s all. I can do what I want with my time. Now, if you don’t mind, I really do need my book. My parents are expecting me home in time for dinner.”
Brenton eyed Alton with the superiority of the popular. “Are you a fairy, Waddlemouth? You a poo pirate?”
“As much as you are,” said Alton, and as the color of truth rushed up the other boy’s cheeks Alton dashed forward, snatched the precious black and white book, and bolted down the street.
He made it halfway down the block before the others realized what was said and took off after him. He tore across the street and rounded a corner smoke shop, drivers standing on their horns and brakes. His heart pounded as he dashed around another a corner in search of sanctuary from the inevitable, the composition book clutched to his chest.
Then they were on him. Peter took him low and Brenton came in high, slamming him to the walk as they pummeled and kicked and called him a “miserable gay-boy” and “fuggin’ Paddy poof” and other things that hurt less than their fists. Three on one was a losing fight. Alton protected the book with his body and waited for the worst to be over.
When an East Indian shopkeep finally chased off the dirty crows, Alton made it to his feet and gave the man a fake name and phone number to ring his parents. He limped off before the ruse was discovered. The memory of the redcaps’ maniac laughter grated like fingers down the chalkboard of Alton’s soul.
At home, he complained of a sour stomach and went straight to his room. A grig was perched on his windowsill, twiggish and coy, singing to the coming night. Alton made it to the sill in two quick steps and slammed the window shut on the beastie’s eggshell head. Quivering with warm release, he wiped up the mess with a handful of tissues, and hid the refuse at the bottom of his waste can.
Mama let him stay home from school the rest of the week.
For all his devoted scholarship, a book could not adequately detail the care needed to peel away the smooth birch bark of a hamadryad’s face, or how it was best to pinch and give a sharp twist when tearing the wings from a sylph’s back. Alton took prodigious notes.
Upon completing his year thirteen, the young man collected his award from MaeMa’s meager estate and spent a heady ten months on the continent hunting and dissecting fae before settling to university.
He could have hoped the rush of exploration would survive the snobbery and intolerance of school, but hope, like nobility, shouldered a heavy burden.
“I wasn’t stalking her, I was trying to help her,” Alton said as he tromped down the library steps.
“By followin’ her home from the pub, an’ waitin’ in the bushes for an eyeful through her bedroom window?” Xavier gave back. “Face it, Alton, you’re not the type o’fella that has a girl sayin’ no an’ meanin’ yes. You’re lucky she didn’t press charges.”
Around the commons, the semester’s cliques lounged in shady fellowship beneath stout oaks and leafy elders while the slow spicy red of Bossa Nova music spilled from an open window like thick silk. Alton would have liked to find a bench in the sun where he could catch up on Nandor Pogány’s Magyar Fairytales From Old Hungarian Legends, but the inescapable fae presence curdled the moment and his mood. He hunched his shoulders and kept his head down. “Yeah.”
He realized after the fact that Xavier had asked a question. “Come again?”
“What’s this helping Megan, anyway? Hey, let’s get a quick nosh before class.”
They opted for curry noodles and a table in the sun. Alton sorted through varieties of the truth while he picked out the shredded carrots. “Have you ever had the feeling you’re being watched?”
Xavier glanced up from his plate. “You mean like watched, or watched watched?”
Alton sipped at his water. “The latter, I suppose. Something like that, anyway.”
“Not really. Why?”
Alton tipped his bottle in the direction of a hamadryad dozing in the comfortable embrace of her oaken self, the people around her none the wiser. “Take a look over there and tell me what you see.”
“A tree and some people.”
“Uh . . . Nina Dobson’s talking on her cell. There’s a Paki with a throwing disk. Is this multiple choice?”
“What about the tree?”
“What about it?”
“Is there anything different about it?” Alton said carefully.
Xavier took his time answering. “Not that I can tell. It’s an oak tree. Big, woody, got leaves.”
“What if I were to tell you that the tree is . . . alive?”
Xavier snorted. “I wouldn’t call the Times, that’s for certain.”
Alton leaned across the table. “I mean it. It’s alive.”
Xavier rolled his eyes. “So, it’s alive. What’s that have to do with being watched?”
“Because it’s the tree that’s watching, y’see? Something inside the tree. Part of the tree, actually.”
Xavier dropped his voice as he cut a look at the crowd once more. “You mean like a camera?”
Alton sat back. A familiar headache picked at the tender spot between his eyes with a thin, black claw. “No, not a camera. A hamadryad. It’s . . . a fae. Of a sort.”
Xavier shook his head and laughed. “You’re mental. We went from your skulkin’ after Megan, to being watched, to naffin’ faeries.”
“It all makes sense if you think about it. Hear me out, Xav, I’m not so mental as that. I wasn’t stalking Megan, I swear. I thought she was in trouble from a gancanagh.”
Xavier rubbed his teeth with a crumpled napkin. “Never heard of ‘im.”
Alton’s fork kept unconscious time with the black claw, tearing tiny holes in the waxed paper plate. “Not a him, not directly. A gancanagh is an it that looks like a him, a fae from Ireland. They’re known for taking a fancy to a woman, having a go with her, and then leaving her so desperate for more that she pines away until she dies.”
He looked for a glimmer of understanding in Xavier’s uneducated skepticism and continued, “I can’t really say how it managed its way to campus, but I knew that if the gancanagh got its leg over with Megan she was as good as dead.”
The memory of the slender, foppish fae was as vivid in daylight as the reality had been three nights ago outside Megan Holmes’ flat. Lucky for her, Alton had been nearby to scare the wretched thing away. He’d kept watch at Megan’s window the rest of the night in case it returned.
Xavier folded his empty plate around his fork. “What was the hamadryad-thingie doin’?”
“Nothing at all. It wasn’t there.”
“So, what’s with being watched? You’re saying that this gay fella-“
“Not gay, fae.”
“-had an eye for Megan, and that’s why you were following her after she turned you down?”
Alton gritted his teeth in frustration. “That has nothing to do with it, and I wasn’t following her. I saw the gancanagh and wanted to help, that’s all.”
Xavier shook his head and stood. “If you say so, but you sound off your chump and then some.”
Alton followed his former confidant to the waste bin. He should have known better than to expect Xavier would believe him. Alton looked at the hamadryad now watching him with wide, green eyes and slender leaf lashes. “I am not mental.”
“We’ll see who’s mental the next time Pitch catches you so much as lookin’ cross-eyed at Megan. Tell him about your faeries and see what happens. C’mon, let’s get on to class.”
Much later, under the righteous cover of darkness, Alton returned to the commons and hammered an iron spike between the hamadryad’s eyes, pounding the metal head flush with the soft inner-bark. It groaned and shuddered, sticky sap oozing from the wound. Smiling and shivering, he sat at the nearest table and listened with eyes closed until the screams died away.
Alton kept to his own company after that, and welcomed the white collar freedom of an interpreter position after graduation. Work was plentiful, allowing for numerous opportunities to travel and other benefits sublime.
One Tokyo summer was a celebration of contract negotiations finessed in a sushi bar over katsuo offered o-makase, and the subtle differences in the deaths of kami and kamui.
In Mexico City, he walked the half-lit autumn streets with his shirt inside out to confound the chaneques. Their blood splattered the whitewashed walls like currant jelly.
Alton furnished his leased one-bedroom flat on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with simple lines and filled the bookshelves with Keats, Shakespeare, Service, and Trumbull, hearing his mother’s disapproving whisper with every selection. New York City was no London, but it did have its own charms. And fae. During the work day at the office, Alton ignored the brownies in the storage cupboards when others were about. He choked them to death when no one was in sight, hiding the messy tissues in the waste paper basket after he cleaned up.
On the nights when the weather was reasonably fair, Alton donned a light jacket, pocketed an umbrella, and hunted proper. To do the deed, he usually carried a stubby iron dagger that relied more on force than an edge to penetrate, a pair of needle nose pliers, and a bundle of plastic sandwich bags. He was never happier than when he found what he sought, a pleasure reminiscent of a quilt tucked under the chin.
He cut out the eyes of what he was certain was a mazikeen on the Lower East Side. He never discovered why it was alone in Riverside Park. The memory of how it flowed and heaved lingered in his palms for months.
While waiting for a cab one evening, Alton realized the iridescent ripple in the direction of the reservoir was not a trick of the rain but a naga-sanniya slithering back to its watery home. The next night Alton lured the dreadful thing to the surface of the water with a bottle of wine and the smoke of a clove cigarette. The snake-woman savored the wine, breathed the essence of cloves, and barely made a sound as Alton skinned it alive. He rolled the tender ribbons of the remains into the black water for the honest bottom feeders. The skin he took home as a trophy, rolling and unrolling it with a slow hand in bed for many nights afterward.
He was not completely blind to the discarded gristle of the human condition during those sojourns. He would have preferred to avoid people all together, but cities defied reason and people were often inconvenient.
He was forced to take a brick to a drunk who refused to surrender a bottle of Thunderbird with a gleefully pickled cuchulain within. The affair left him queasy for days. The unfortunate events with the little Paki girl and the imun living in her pink sneakers left his bowels in nervous misery and kept him home from work for a week. He heard the girl’s mother calling her name, and the uneven clunk-thump of something running away in stone shoes, in his sleep.
What is the nature of God when innocents are made to suffer and die? he carefully scribed one cold December evening, while the desperation of someone’s daughter and a bloody two-by-four bruised his memory. Perhaps evil is nothing more than a collection of blind men blaming the fellow next to them every time they lift a cheek on the pew.
He lay shivering in bed all the next day, his hands filled with brittle leaves and chicken bones, a pile of messy tissues beside the empty electric kettle. Watery sunlight sliding between the drawn bedroom curtains hurt his eyes.
The voice was gruff with a distinct Brooklyn twang. “What? You not happy jerkin’ off like the rest of the kooks?”
Alton whirled around, knife in hand. The Elder Mother creaked and moaned piteously at his back. The headlamp around the brim of his hat clashed with the intruder’s torch, birthing strange shadows in the cold, March rain. “Pardon?”
It was the first thing that came to mind, a brittle, mumbled word.
The other took a step back, resting a free hand on a bulge at its waist beneath a red poncho. “What’s say you drop the knife and bring those hands up, ‘kay?”
That’s when Alton recognized the dark uniform under the red and the brim of the patrolman’s hat. This was a bad time to be interrupted. He probably looked quite the sight, soaked to the bone and covered in splinters and sap. “You startled me, Officer. I didn’t hear –”
“Yeah, I noticed. I said drop the knife.”
“No, no. Let me explain, just for a moment. This isn’t –”
The beat cop took a step to the left. He reached a hand under his poncho. “I ain’t gonna tell you again, drop the knife.”
The words drummed in Alton’s head in time with his pulse. The world swelled, distorted, the officer a twisted giant looming over him in the night. Alton tightened his grip on the sticky knife handle. He raised both hands to shield his eyes from the golden lance of the flashlight’s beam, the headache raging behind his eyes. “You don’t have to take that tone with me. This is no ordinary tree. I –”
The Elder Mother groaned; leaves rustled and whispered overhead as a branch drooped low. The officer pulled his nightstick, and Alton lunged forward. He struck high and sure, burying his knife in a meaty tree limb that sagged under the impact. A too-human scream gouged a jagged hole in Alton’s thoughts. Red flowed slick and wet in the headlamp’s light, poured over his hands, turned to rubies that collected in his galoshes.
The red fae swung at him, reaching for the signal horn on its shoulder. Afraid of what might answer the call, Alton brought the knife up and down with sharp insistence, over and over, until the red faerie slid off the blade to the cold, wet ground.
The policeman gurgled at his feet, red bubbling up from the jagged hole in his throat.
And then Alton’s legs were running, taking him along. He had to get away, far away. A fire built in his belly, cramping and twisting until he was hunched over and sobbing as he ran away, far away. Run, Alton, run!
He couldn’t escape. The noise, the colors, the blinding pain. Falling over a curb, suicidal raindrops cold against his face, the red hand of God flashing on a yellow post, commanding him to STOP. Fumbling with the metallic clatter of his keys in the lock. Icy porcelain against fevered cheeks. Knobby fingers pinching his bum.
The world swelled, a pustule of rage lodged between his shoulder blades. For days Alton huddled beneath a pile of blankets, sweating through the pain, screaming when there was nothing else he could do. “Mama! Mama, I’m sick! Mama!”
She didn’t answer.
Day in, day out, fae danced widdershins around the bed, laughing, pointing, red cap teeth slick with blood on a blade. What had he done to deserve this? He hadn’t meant to kill, but it was only a man, another innocent in the war. Unfortunate. Unavoidable. “Stop laughing at me! It’s not my fault! Mama, make them stop!”
She still didn’t answer.
Somewhen, he knocked the phone off the hook when the ringing became too much to bear. The monotone operator was his only friend until she left without saying good-bye. They all left without saying good-bye. Aunt Bethany, Maema, Mama, Megan. Bitches, all of them. No one loved him, understood him. He cursed MaeMa in the kitchen, and cried when Mama didn’t give him an extra biscuit with tea. Cursed Megan when she turned and found him at her window. Why didn’t she believe him? “Help me!”
White-hot pokers thrust through the meat of his legs and hatpins jabbed behind his knees. He drew his legs tight against his body, screaming without sound, trying to think beyond the threshold of pain that tumbled into loneliness and oblivion.
Alton screamed again and this time managed a grunt, phlegmy and shallow but a sound. Sound, yes, sound was good. Pain was pain, everywhere and all over, from his teeth to his bum to his toes, but sound meant he was alive.
Sound could not penetrate the dark of his own making. Alton opened his eyes. The world was a blur of gray and black lit by a feeble light somewhere overhead. He struggled to stand and bumped his head on a low beam that hadn’t been there when he lay down, a faerie trick he was certain.
Going forward on hands and pin-sore knees, Alton crawled through medicine ball sized wads of paper and massive plastic buckets until he passed under a thick curtain into a larger space. A cave? A hall? His eyes were weak and his swollen fingers lacked sensation that was not pain.
He hobbled in shadows, twisted with loathing, calling out, “I’ll find you! You can’t hide forever, you wretched imps!”All that came out were grunts and gibbered howls.
Alton staggered around the cavernous expanse, tumbling over stacks of this and piles of that. When it became too bright and his eyes swelled with miserable tears, he staggered back to the cubbyhole and dragged himself back inside, covering his shivering form with a plastic tarp like a degenerate on the street. “I hate you. I hate you.”
And every time he returned to his cubbyhole after that, the words became his anchor as he cried himself to sleep. “I hate you.”
He needed to find the red faerie who did this to him, cut it, skin it, crush it and hide the tissues. As Alton shambled around the larger chamber in search of an exit back to the world he knew, a spear of yellow light from the cliff above his cubbyhole struck him full in the face like the fires of Heaven. Cursing and snarling, he tottered over to the curtain and pulled himself up as far as he could. Surprise turned to anger when he realized something fleshy held the light and kept moving it out of reach. Alton pinched the massive beast as hard as he could until the light fell away with a clatter and comforting dark returned once more.
From outside the chamber came the thunder of giant feet taking massive steps. Alton dropped down the side of the cliff and squirmed into his cubbyhole, putting his back to the far wall and covering himself with the tarp. The steps came nearer and a sheet of light crossed over the curtain but did not penetrate. The ceiling creaked as whatever lurked at the top of the cliff shifted; voices rumbled low and threatening. Blind men mumbling prayers, lifting cheeks on the pew. Alton listened and fingered the bits of hate rattling about in his stone shoes.
About the Author
Sandra lives in Washington state with her husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Her work has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and Podcastle. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA. Her short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES is scheduled for release in April 2018 by Hydra House Books.
Support her at: http://patreon.com/writerodell
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart was briefly employed as a circus geek until an unfortunate mix-up involving a prize-winning fighting cock. Its owner had ties not only to the carnival, but also to the Russian mob, so now he writes supplements for role playing games, where he exercises his superpower to make you appreciate the Sixth Doctor. He has played for the national rugby team after defeating the monstrous four-horned sheep across his home island. He is the Supreme Mugwump, Keeper of the Big Red Button, a regular contributor to Tor.com, and he owns a bunch of awesome podcasts.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.