To kill time (from my perspective) or to entertain (anyone else), my daughter would often ask for extemporaneous stories, which I’d have to make up during whatever chore, task, or other obligation was at play. At some point, I decided to record these to write the stories down, either as is or as inspiration for whatever off-center ideas swirling around in my head. The following is one such session that happened while I was giving my youngest a bath. She was probably about 5 years old at this point. One of her favorite subjects was stories about fairies, and from that was the genesis of my Princess Rachel tales. Most of these stories have been captured in some fashion or the other, although one will forever remain with just my daughter and me. Never ask a tired father whose driving at night to tell you a story about a princess. Otherwise, he might regale you with Corkerella, probably the most inappropriate children’s story. But I digress…
The Dark Places
Reynard wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Even in the cool air of early autumn, bringing down these trees was no easy feat and made for a long day’s work. These old hardwood trees took forever to fall, but the wood they provided would burn long into a cold winter’s night. It was good honest work but far removed from his village, deep in the dark forested lowlands of the Tessian River.
The old oaks and elms loomed over him, their still dense foliage warding off sunlight, enveloping him with shadows. The stand surrounded them, muffling the sounds of his exertion and the presence of the other two work party members. It made him feel alone when he stopped and looked at the tall sentinels surrounding him. Their faceless existence tolerated his company, not that they had a choice.
“Break time!” came a shout echoing amongst the trees. Reynard turned to see the leader of his group, Pytr Nilson, snake his tall, lanky form from between a pair of large trees.
Pytr brushed back his long sweat-matted gray-streaked black hair and gestured to Reynard. “You got any water left?”
Reynard tapped the water skin at his feet with a boot. “Yes, plenty.” He let the ax slip to the ground and grabbed it. With a grunt, he hurled the water skin toward Pytr, who snatched it out of the air.
The man yanked the stopper, tipped the skin, and guzzled water as it splashed and dripped down his matted beard and over his heavy cotton shirt. “Ah!” he sighed, wiping his lips with his forearm. “Have you seen the boy?”
Reynard shrugged, “Not since we arrived this morning.”
“He’s probably sleeping somewhere. Better call him in.”
Cupping his mouth, Reynard turned and bellowed into the forest, “SORKIN!” After the muffled echoes, silence greeted him. Drat, that boy, where was he?
After several more shouts and a few minutes, a beardless young man appeared, his heavy linen tunic stained with sweat, an ax resting on his shoulder.
“Where have you been?”
Sorkin blinked a few times before glancing at the dull, stained ax blade on his shoulder. “Cutting wood, apparently.”
Pytr laughed. “Well, what else would you be doing? Or maybe you were daydreaming about Gretta.” He nudged Reynard.
Gretta Lenzil, clearly the prettiest girl in the village, had all the hearts of the young men and perhaps some of the lusty hearts of the older ones.
“Oh, not Gretta, I’ll bet,” Reynard chimed in. “Perhaps the widow Danby then,” he said with a smile.
Pytr roared. Danby looked like the wrong end of a horse and smelled like one too.
Sorkin blinked and looked between the two men. Pytr clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly causing him to stumble.
“Relax, boy, we were just kidding.”
With a poisonous glance, Sorkin glared at Pytr.
Reynard grabbed his satchel and looked inside. “You hungry, boy?”
Sorkin looked at him. “Oh, yes, I guess I am.”
“Here!” Reynard whipped his arm toward Sorkin, who awkwardly dropped the ax and caught a small sack.
Reynard pulled out a hunk of bread and cheese from his satchel and sat heavily on a nearby stump. He looked up to see Sorkin staring into the sack. “Is there a problem?”
Sorkin looked up at him. “No.” He dug out some cheese, eyed it carefully, and sniffed it.
Reynard ripped off a chunk of bread and nipped off some cheese to go with it. Danby might look like a horse, but she baked like an angel. He looked up to see Sorkin chewing some cheese with his eyes closed.
“This is fantastic,” he said as crumbs dribbled down his chin. He stuffed most of the cheese into his mouth.
“Whoa, take it easy,” Pytr said. “You’ll choke on it if you aren’t careful.”
Sorkin looked at him but chewed rapidly and swallowed, though not without some obvious discomfort. “You got anything to drink?”
Pytr proffered the waterskin. Sorkin took it and swallowed several large gulps.
Reynard tasted bile in his throat and put his food back in the satchel. His stomach was hungry but unsettled. He didn’t know why, but these woods gave him the creeps. He looked up at Pytr.
“You suppose we’re the first ones in here?”
“No,” Sorkin said with a pinch of bread between his thumb and forefinger. He gave it a sniff and popped it into his mouth.
“How would you know?” Pytr shot back.
Sorkin’s eyes flicked in his direction. “Ah, well, that’s my guess anyway.”
Pytr rolled his eyes. “These woods are virgin stands, good solid and thick,” he said, slapping a nearby tree trunk. “No one has been in here. Not for a long time anyway.”
Reynard looked at the trees grimly. “No matter, I don’t like the feel of this stand. They feel almost alive. Nothing like the trees near the village.”
“You sound like an old woman,” Pytr scolded.
Reynard growled back, “I do not take rumors lightly. Some say these woods are haunted by evil spirits that devour the minds of those they enter and who never see their homes again.”
Pytr blew out a loud breath, “Nonsense. Nothing lives in here except squirrels and snakes.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Sorkin said, his eyes flicking between the two men.
“Oh, this should be entertaining,” Pytr laughed. “How about you tell us about it? I could stand to hear a good story.”
Sorkin blinked. “All right. I will then.” He sat down on a stump and cleared his throat.
“What do you know of the Shadowless?”
Pytr waved the question away. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. My mother used to tell us stories about them, so we wouldn’t play in the forest after dark. So, you’re going to tell us a ghost story?”
Reynar rubbed his chin. He, too, had heard the stories. But unlike Pytr, he still harbored a fear of the formless creatures who devoured the souls of those they possess, but there was no way he’d let either man know that. “Oh, let him tell the story.”
“In the beginning, not even the Shadowless knew they were different than the wild creatures they lived among. But they soon realized they could leap into the bodies of creatures around them and maintain that existence until the forms they occupied no longer suited them. Then they would move on to other animals, accumulating skills and experience and achieving self-awareness. In the old forests of the piedmont, they lived a lean and meager existence during bitter, long winters and short temperate summers. Rains fell each spring, bringing forth new life and opportunities to grow. And grow they did, from a select few, into hundreds of creatures, spreading beyond the ancient uplands into the more fertile and temperate forests and primeval swamps.
Life, such as it was, was good solid, definable, and predictable. But that changed when the newcomers arrived, first in small numbers. Their fitful and pitiful attempts often ending in disaster – whole families finding their way into the soil, only to fertilize it for the next group to arrive. But the newcomers were resilient, relentlessly scratching and clawing an existence out of the earth, chopping down the trees, hunting the animals the Shadowless relied on. The invaders reshaped the land to meet their needs, not the Shadowless. As the cancer of the invaders’ existence grew, the Shadowless watched. Some wanted to fight back, but most did not – so they retreated further up the slopes to the foot-hills from whence they came, into the thinner forests of the uplands.”
Suddenly Pytr shivered. Reynard noticed. “You okay?”
Pytr glared at him briefly. “Yeah, fine.” He looked away. “Just caught a chill.”
“Okay, Sorkin,” Reynard said, looking at the younger man. “Go on.”
“A lean existence became a meager one. They left the elk, deer, and fox for the goat, eagle, and snake. But the invaders followed, picking and hacking their way over precipices and passes, relentlessly taking away places of refuge, closing off paths of escape. In desperation, some dove deep into the caves – scraping out an existence amongst the bats, snakes, and lowly spiders. The rest scattered to even more remote areas.
As sanctuaries disappeared, so did their community. They lost touch with the other clans – and their numbers declined steadily until only a handful were left – a small pitiful remnant of a sizeable and glorious clan. So they decided to risk everything and head back to the lowlands, and the wild forested lands near the river, where some Shadowless were rumored to have taken refuge. They took courage from the fact that the invaders had not penetrated there and hoped that they could survive, perhaps even regain some of the vigor they once had.
For some time, they did find safety until the sounds of axes echoed among the trees, and the destruction began anew. There was no consideration of escape this time, only a desire to strike back.”
Sorkin paused and slowly drank from the waterskin, never taking his eyes off Reynard.
Reynard grinned, “So what happened?”
Pytr visibly tensed, staring him down. “That is up to you.”
Reynard’s curiosity wavered; he was beginning to feel uneasy. “Me? What do you mean?”
Sorkin straightened and picked up his ax. “Do you want to be a messenger or an example?”
A shiver ran down Reynard’s spine as he helplessly scoured the menacing faces of Sorkin and Pytr. He couldn’t fathom their motives but knew he had no choice. He nervously replied, “Your home?”
Sorkin glanced up at the looming trees and spoke softly yet firmly, “This is ours now. Tell your people what happens to those who dare to step here again. Leave us alone, and we will leave you in peace.”
Dread filled Reynard as he stumbled backward, away from these two imposing figures. His thoughts circled from his family’s fear-stricken faces to the repercussions that would soon follow this encounter. They wouldn’t believe him about these men, so more would come in search of them. But it would not be him who led them here. His life meant far more than risking it in the dark places.
Elmeara sat up as a scratching noise reached her ears. What could that be? She leaned forward and peered through the taffy curtains. Two hunched forms lurked near the porch.
Rotten little vandals are ruining my beautiful sweet home! Her blood pressure peaked, and a swift rush of inspiration ran through her. Sadly, the feeling quickly drained away. The ax was dull, in the basement, and her knees weren’t what they used to be. Oh, to be young!
She heard them again, the uninvited shin kickers. From the sounds of it, they might be pulling the gutters off.
Blast it all! The holy terrors would damage all her hard work if she didn’t stop them. With a thud, she dropped her carving knife and whetstone, slipped through the back door and around to the front yard. There they were – a boy and a girl, sitting on the stoop, gnawing like a pair of demented beavers.
The boy squatted in baggy, low-riding pants as black as his Metallica T-shirt and greasy hair. She wasn’t sure what was more revolting, his underwear leering at her from his droopy drawers or his arms and clothes glistening with chocolate stains. He was positively drooling on himself.
Elmeara rolled her eyes. Bah! No surprise, teenage boys do that naturally.
The girl was marginally better, dressed in short shorts and a mid-riff baring shirt. Then she spied the Christmas tree collection bits and bobs that flashed and glittered from the girl’s navel, ears, eyebrows, and lips.
Egads! The King of the trailer park must be missing a princess! A steady clicking noise came from the girl as she licked the candy cane downspouts.
Newt eyeballs! This one had a tongue piercing. She was going to take forever to prepare.
They looked up at her, eye’s widening. No doubt they are more embarrassed at being caught than ashamed of the damage they’re causing. But, as her mum used to say, “When life hands you a stray chicken, get out the gravy.”
So, with as much saccharine as she could muster, she asked, “What are you doing to my house?” As if they don’t know, but I might let them explain themselves. No need to appear too vindictive, yet.
“I’m hungry,” the girl whined. The slack-eyed boy stared while chewing with an open mouth. More chocolate dripped off his chin.
Elmeara shivered. Disgusting! “Why didn’t you just ring the bell,” she said, pointing toward the door, but blanched at the hole in her door frame. The teenage termites apparently ate that too.
She struggled to keep her voice controlled. “Ahem, well, if you had bothered to ask, I would have given you something.” Seriously, you little pests! It takes real skill and time to bake a gingerbread two-by-four.
“We’re sorry,” they chimed, giving her puppy dog eyes. Nice try, you little manipulators, but I have jars of those in my basement.
She resisted a grimace. Phooey, they are baiting me. Still, I need to take the high road. “What are two beautiful, scrumptious children doing alone in the forest? Did you get lost?”
The girl answered with a flip of her long blond hair. “Like, our stepmother totally frizzed out when I asked for a ride to the mall. She told us to WALK! I couldn’t believe it. It’s like forever a mile away. So I said, like, you gots a minivan, sista, so why don’t you just take me there already! But the hag went all Tom Cruise and pushed me out the door.”
Ah yes, the old tired and overused “mean step-mom” routine. Elmeara shook her head. Some animals eat their young or should at least consider it. She studied the boy, and he stared back with one eye, the other hidden behind a clump of long hair. “Have you been victimized for the same reason?”
“Huh,” he said, dullness disappearing from his eyes. “Sort of – the step-witch pulled the plug on my X-box, and right in the middle of a wicked round of Grand Theft Auto, I’d just iced a cop and … “
“Poor thing,” Elmeara interjected. That unfortunate stepmother ought to be given a medal or at least a shovel and a shaded backyard.
“Well, my sweet things, why don’t you come in and make yourself comfortable.”
The boy perked up. “You got wifi?”
He stared sullenly at the ground as another bit of railing dribbled down his chin.
“Oh no,” the girl whined, looking at the strange rectangular device in her hand. “I’ve got no bars.”
A smile crept across Elmeara’s face. Heh, heh. I do – in my basement. The girl noticed her staring. Uh oh, better play along. “Little young to be hanging out in bars, aren’t you?”
With a shake of her head, the girl rolled her eyes, “No, duh! I’m talking cell signal.” She held out the box and waved it at her.
Like that is going to help you, hehe. “Sorry, no signal here. I receive a letter every now and then, but no phone calls.”
“Wow, how prehistoric!” the girl said incredulously.
Prehistoric, eh? I’ll outlast you, dearie. “How quaint, my dear. I’ve got some tasty lemonade inside. We can talk more there.”
“Okay. Come on, Hans, we’re going to chill with granny in her crib.” With a bang, she threw open the front door with such force a couple hard candies popped out of the door frame.
“Mmmmmppfhh,” Hans drooled, dropping the masticated porch railing with a plop on the ground.
Elmeara darted for the door. Phooey! Drooling Dudley beat me to it. She hesitated before grabbing the glistening doorknob.
Ack! It would have been cleaner if he had licked the thing. So she dug into her robes, searching. Let’s see: ice pick, scalpel, a bottle of ether, gauze, bone separator – nope, no salad tongs. Guess I’ll risk it. With a grimace, she grabbed the knob, rotated the candy-coated mess enough to swing the door open, and followed her meals on heels to the kitchen.
When she caught up with her dumplings, they were already poking around the kitchen. The boy stuck his head into the refrigerator. “Wow, you don’t eat much, do you?”
“Well, I haven’t had victims … um … made a trip to the store in quite a while.”
The girl pawed at the giant meat cleaver on the butcher’s block. “I take it you’re not a vegan?”
Elmeara managed a weak grin. “No, not exactly.”
The girl scrunched her face up in disgust. “I could never eat meat; it is so disgusting.”
How disappointing. Vegans are always bony and tasteless – I’ll save her for last.
The boy gave her a smirk. “Not me. I love a good steak, but not too raw; it can’t be mooing.”
Elmeara gave him a congratulatory grin. “Me too,” she said, resisting the urge to pinch his arm. “Pink and juicy for me.”
“OMG!” the girl shrieked. Elmeara’s heart skipped a beat. With concern, she followed where the girl pointed at an oven in the corner. The youngster exclaimed, “That is huge! You could cook a horse in there.”
Not a horse, my little dumpling, believe me. They tend to run off before you can properly season them. “I like to cook large animals. They tend to last longer.”
“Bleh,” the girl said with an exaggerated expression.
“Before we do anything else, could I have your names?” Not that it mattered, but it sure made labeling leftovers easier.
“My name is Gretel, and this is my brother Hans. What’s your name?”
“That’s odd. How about we call you Elly?”
How about I call you dinner? Stupid children. These two were definitely not grade-A material. Let’s see, are the bitter ones sweet or the sweet ones bitter? Oh well, it didn’t matter. That’s what condiments are for, so on to business.
“How about some lemonade, my sweeties?”
Hans perked up. “You got any Red Bull? I need to get jazzed.”
That’s all I need; my dinner full of caffeine. “No honey, but the lemonade is sweet. Will that do?”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, I suppose so.”
She pushed a glass toward him. That should make him drowsy. I just need to deal with the broccoli eater now.
“What can I do for you, my dear?”
Gretel stared at the floor, hair shrouding her face. Slowly she started swaying, her hands clenched and her arms flaying.
Elmeara scratched her head. Is the girl having a seizure?
“YEAH! Put a ring on it, uh-huh, put a ring on it,” the girl shrieked to the floor.
A ring? What is she talking about? Elmeara jumped back to avoid Gretel’s dry heave dance moves. Thin white cords trailed up the girl’s sides and into her ears. That, combined with the glazed expression, made her look like she’d been freshly lobotomized.
Elmeara waved a hand in front of Gretel’s face and yelled, “DO YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?”
“Yeah, I’ll have a seat,” she answered, sashaying on a stool next to the butcher’s block.
Elmeara’s eyes widened. At this rate, I won’t be able to eat until after sundown, which always gives me indigestion. Plus, children seldom taste better the second time around.
She grabbed the girl by the shoulders and shoved her through the pantry door. “Search the top shelf. There should be a delicious can of peaches in there.” THUMP. The lock clicked into place.
Gretel’s voice drifted through the door. “Hey! There’s no light in here!”
“There’s a switch on the wall; keep looking for it.” Turning around, she found the boy, his head bopping and swaying, eyes glazed over. Ah, the lemonade was working. Now to the oven. She danced all around to him. “Come, my dear, you must be tired. Time for a nap.”
“Wwwwha ….” he stammered, spittle dripping on his shirt front.
She grabbed his collar and pulled him toward the oven. With her other hand, she tugged open the heavy iron door.
“Uh oh,” he said.
Elmeara tensed. Had she made a mistake? Had the lemonade not taken effect?
“I’m gonna …”
Suddenly he bent double and sprayed the butcher’s block with predigested porch railing. Elmeara cringed. Blasted child! It took me weeks to clean from my last meal. His jerky movements threw her off balance, and she teetered too. His head thumped off the surface of the butcher’s block and recoiled toward her face.
Oh no! Too late. Stars filled her eyes as his knobby noggin dented her forehead. She rocketed backward as the world quickly faded to black. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the loud thump of the oven door slamming shut.
* * *
Hans woke up a few minutes later, only to find himself staring at the kitchen ceiling. As he sat up, pain pounded at his temples. “Oh man, I ain’t felt like this since … uh … last weekend.”
Thumps erupted from the pantry door. “Hey, let me out of here!”
He rolled his eyes and shambled to his feet. “Keep your panties on.”
Pulling the door open, Gretel glowered at him, a glowing iPhone in her hand. “Granny told me there was a light switch in here, but I couldn’t find it.”
“She probably forgot. You know how they always forget their teeth and pills.”
She attempted to brush past him. “Ewwww, you reek. What did you do?”
A quick sniff of his glass confirmed it. “I think granny gave me some loaded lemonade. You know how I can’t hold my Jack.”
“Why would she keep that in her fridge?”
“Maybe she’s a booze hag or uses it for arthritis. You know oldies can’t walk anywhere without screaming in pain.” His face lit up. “Oh man, I had a killer idea!”
“You know how old people are always popping pain pills? I’ll bet she’s got some Vicodin or Percocet around here.”
“Sweet!” Gretel’s brow furrowed. “Wait, where is she? We don’t want her catching us.”
“Beats me. She probably fell asleep on the crapper.”
Gretel looked at the mess on the butcher’s block. “Then again, she probably went to find a mop, puke boy.”
So, they searched, but not finding Granny, they quickly crushed and huffed her prescription meds and emptied her liquor cabinet.
* * *
Elmeara woke up in complete darkness. Where am I? Her fingertips brushed against cool metal with raised ridges. She tried to stand but bumped her head on the ceiling. Tracing the boundaries, she quickly tallied up the dimensions. If this is a closet, why isn’t there a door hand handle?
* * *
Hans sat on the kitchen counter. “We should head home before the step-witch sends the five-oh after us.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t do that.”
“Sure she would; she’d like nothing more than to put us in juvie.”
Gretel nodded. “Okay, let’s go. Strange we didn’t find granny.”
“Yeah,” Hans said, wiping pill dust off his upper lip. “I kinda feel bad about taking her stuff. Maybe we should do something nice for her.”
Gretel pointed at the butcher block. “How about cleaning up that mess you made?”
“Nah, too much work,” he said, yawning. His eyes drifted around the kitchen before settling on the oven. “I know what to do. Let’s go!”
With a shrug, Gretel whipped out her iPhone. “Hey, I got GPS,” she shouted, walking out the front door.
“Cool.” Hans stepped in front of the oven and searched the display. “Thanks, granny,” he said, punching the button marked “Auto-Clean.”
* * *
Light erupted from the walls, quickly turning from brown to red. As it increased, so did the heat. The realization came to Elmeara, like the sweat on her forehead.
Oh, how I hate children!