Originally posted 29 May, 2020
I had originally posted this when the current blog was in it’s infancy and I had maybe five followers total. I was thinking about doing some writing in a vein similar to the story that follows, but and this came to mind while I was pondering various plot ideas to start writing about (nothing so cheery as Stevie’s story, I’m afraid — I’m feeling dark to match the solstice). Know that people who start following a blog will rarely delve into the necropolis of past posts beyond a few weeks (guilty, unless the writing triggers something in me; then, I might hop on the wayback machine and visit early posts), I doubt any of my current followers have seen this. I haven’t done much more than fix the formatting that got bugged out because of a lack of familiarity with the new editor on WP. I definitely didn’t read it again, so it might be a bigger slab of shite than I remember. When I wrote this, I was still a relatively novice writer of fiction (having done it for only 10 years at the time, although I currently have about 40+ years of poetry under my belt) and I had some bad writing habits still. Enter at your own risk.
PS: It is not one of my monster stories, though there is a troll inside.
This is a piece I submitted a decade or so ago to be considered for a writing fellowship. The fellowship didn’t pan out, but this is one of the pieces I am more proud of having written. There are flaws and areas I’d change now, of course. But for the time period it was written, I felt it was a solid effort. Hope you enjoy it.
It was one of those late spring days in which the birds from the area joined together in chorus; from the hummingbird with the white-noise thrum of its wings to the chickadees with their “fee-bee” song sang over and over. The deer-flies had just awoken to the warmth of the late spring and hummed in the air above Julie’s hair, never quite alighting, but nipping at the skin on the back of her neck whenever they took a moment away from their buzzing about to hover and taste a bit of her flesh. Her hand absently waved the flies away.
Julie could smell the evergreens and their perfume, but her destination was in an opposite direction of the pine trees which lined the wetlands along the lake. She knew exactly where she’d find Stevie –- between the branches of the silver aspen and the parchment-pale bark of the birch on the opposite side of the road. She knew his favorite hideaway was within a makeshift tree-house just out of sight of the gravel access road leading towards the thirty or so cabins that lined Round Lake.
Julie recalled how Stevie had spent the previous summer at the cabin building his tree-house. His father had humored Stevie that first year, somewhat patronizingly, allowing him the use of a spare hammer, some galvanized nails and pieces of scrap plywood and two-by-fours. Stevie had immediately taken to hauling the building materials left behind by the previous tenants on the property to build his future fortress. While his adults had slaved away, making the existing cabin more spacious and civilized, Stevie had done his own bit of construction using the materials they had otherwise found to be useless.
In the “Y” created by two aspen trees and supported by an adjacent birch leaning away from the other two trees, Stevie had built a clubhouse of admirable construction, considering his age and lack of guidance. Stevie had just eclipsed the age of seven when he’d arranged the support beams for the floors of his “tree-house” and placed the thin plywood down to create a place to sit upon, nearly six feet above the forest floor. The ladder consisted of scrap pieces of wood nailed to the trunk of one of the requisitioned aspens, the planks leading to a small trap-door just above the eye level of an average adult.
Following the path beaten into the undergrowth by any number of deer or other forest-dwelling creatures, Julie approached the three trees that formed the support base of Stevie’s tree-house. Julie was wearing a pale yellow sundress wholly impractical for the purposes of blazing a trail through the woods. She was grateful that the poison ivy had yet to cover the path to her son’s hideaway and that the undergrowth was still tender green shoots trying to establish a place in the forest wherever growth had not already consumed the limited available free space.
Masking her approach as she stepped over the dead-fall, Julie could hear a terribly sad sound coming from the already weathered walls of the tree-house her son had built. She took note of the mournful noises coming from the makeshift structure and reminded herself not to mention their presence later as her path eventually placed under her son’s little fortress. She’d noticed that Stevie had matured past the stage of being comfortable with having his anguish noticed by other people. Julie’s husband had, of no fault of his own, done a stellar job of handing the torch of masculine insecurity regarding expressed emotions to their son. The unwritten law proclaimed that men, both young and old, were forbidden to cry in public. Her son had already learned that lesson at his very young age of eight.
She stood under the tree-house for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Then Julie uttered a heavy sigh which she intended to be heard. The quiet sobbing above her head hitched to an abrupt stop and, for a few moments, only the sounds of the birds and the swarming deer-flies could be heard.
Eventually, there was a sniffling noise and an impetuous voice called out from within the tree-house. “Who goes there?” the voice demanded to know.
“If you must know,” replied Julie, “it is only I, an innocent maiden, wandering the dark wood all alone.” She paused and waited for a response she didn’t expect to receive. “I hope there isn’t a dragon or an ogre nearby,” she mused aloud, “as I am nothing more than a defenseless young princess.”
A noise of exasperation emanated from the walls of the tree-house in the trees. “Go a-way…. Leave me alone,” Stevie said. As an afterthought, he added, “I’m sleeping.”
Unperturbed, Julie waited a few seconds before responding. “Sir Knight! Can you help me? I think I’ve become lost in the Tulgey Wood and I haven’t a clue which way I should go to get home. O’ help me, Sir Knight – my parents, the King and Queen must be terribly worried by now… It’s well past lunchtime and they were expecting me to return hours ago.” She waited a few moments and let out a very melodramatic sob assured to put even the most unhelpful of vigilante swordsmen into a mood to assist a fair maiden in distress.
She saw two eyes as they peered over the plywood walls of the tree-house and looked down at her. Stevie’s mousey brown hair captured the sun and glistened in the light. Then, the eyes disappeared, retreating to the confines of the tree-bound fortress.
There was a long silence before his stilted voice answered her pleas.
“I’m not a knight,” he informed her. “I’m a troll… a mean, nasty troll that eats lost princesses whenever they are stupid enough to come near his cave.” Other than the forest noises of small animals, birds and insects, the area grew quiet again.
“Well,” Julie finally said, breaking the silence. “It is after lunch and I’ll just have to take my chances and hope that you’re not too terribly hungry, O’ Troll.” She brushed away a small albino spider climbing the pleats of her sundress. “Pray tell, can you direct me towards the proper path that will lead this fair maiden into the loving arms of her royal parents?”
Julie watched as a pair of eyes peeked over the top of the walls once again, disappeared, and finger connected to Stevie’s very grubby hand and arm shot out, pointed back the way Julie had come. “Your home lay that-a-way,” he said, almost sounding bored with giving directions. “Now, fair maiden… Go away before it gets too close to dinner and I decide to eat you.”
Not swayed from her mission, Julie stayed put and patiently waited an appropriate amount of time in silence. She was rewarded with a third peek of the eyes over the wall of the tree-house; eyes which quickly disappeared.
“I said ‘go away!’” Stevie repeated. “Go away or I’ll eat you up and you’ll never see your mama or papa again.”
“That would not be a very happy thing,” Julie noted. “My mama and papa love me and it would make them cry for a very long time if something were to happen to their daughter in the Tulgey Wood.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s not very nice to eat people, I’ll have you know… My family might take offense at having a loved one devoured by trolls – or any other beast.”
“So… don’t your parents love you as much as my parents love me?”
Stevie didn’t answer right away. Julie hadn’t expected him to.
“No,” was his belated response. “Nobody loves the Troll.”
Julie hesitated a moment, but desperately wanted to respond and ended up cutting the empty space shorter somewhat quicker than she might under any other circumstance. “I think I overheard a pair of trolls talking to one another a little while ago, just off the trail. The trolls didn’t notice me, of course, because I was sure to be quiet once I heard them talking to each another.”
“The troll that must have been the papa troll — I could tell he was the papa troll by his gruff, gruff voice — asked in a grumbly, gravelly way, ‘Where is our son, wife?’ After which, the mama troll — I could tell she was the mama troll because her voice was ever so slightly softer and less grumbly than the other voice — replied, ‘I think our troll son has run off into the woods and left us here to worry about him. I do hope he comes home soon.’”
Julie finally grew weary of one deer-fly’s latest attempt at puncturing her bare neck and winced as she killed it with a firm slap of her hand. She continued.
“I quietly got away in a hurry, hoping they wouldn’t hear me or smell the flesh of a defenseless princess before anything more was said, but it sounded like somebody loves a certain troll that might be hiding around here.”
“No,” said Stevie very quietly from behind the plywood walls. “Nobody loves this troll.”
“Why do you think that nobody loves you, O’ Troll?”
“Because people like to yell at the Troll, that’s how I know. People like to yell at him because he did only what he was told to do. Nobody loves the Troll.”
“What did they tell you to do that led the people to yell at you?”
Stevie peeked over the top of the tree-house walls and then quickly disappeared once again, but not before Julie was able to note the look of disbelief in the eyes, as if she was perhaps the dumbest princess anyone had ever met.
“The Troll wanted to go on a hike through the woods and he asked his papa to take a hike with him.” There was a snotty sniffle. “Every time the Troll asked his papa to go with him on a hike, his papa told him they would take a hike later. The Troll asked his papa again, later. His papa then turned around and yelled at the Troll, told him that if he wanted to hike so bad, he should go ahead and take a hike without his papa. So…” Another snotty sniff. “The Troll went on a hike.”
“Where did you hike to?”
“The Troll hiked all the way to the Crossroads Store, but the people there wouldn’t let him stay even though storms were coming. They didn’t like Trolls – or the dog he brought with him. They yelled at the Troll and told him to take his filthy dog out of their store.”
Julie had only been gone from the lakeside cabin for several hours, but it didn’t surprise her at all that her son had walked nearly five miles in the time she was away. Sean had told her what he’d heard after Stevie had been brought home. He’d said that an older couple told him that they had noticed a young boy running along the gravel road, obviously crying, with Boston, Stevie’s cocker spaniel galumphing behind, occasionally barking. The elderly pair told Sean that they suspected that the boy might be lost or scared or both and they had pulled their sedan over to the edge of the road and offered to give Stevie a ride back to the cabin.
Sean admitted that he’d been absorbed in his work of upgrading the cabin’s amenities and hadn’t noticed Stevie’s disappearance until nearly two hours had passed since he’d last seen his son. As soon as he realized this, he had suspected the worst. The following half-hour or so was spent walking along the gravel roads closest to the cabin, with Sean hoping his son had just wandered somewhere nearby. When it was clear that Stevie wasn’t responding to Sean’s calls to come home right now, Sean told her that he’d started preparing to walk the labyrinth of trails that Stevie loved to hike along, some of those trails leading to wetlands and swamps. He confessed to Julie that he tried to block out all the horrible places he might find Stevie, and just hoped his son would be found examining a bird’s nest or observing how moss grew best on the north side of the trees.
It was about the time Sean was starting to enter the wooded area close to the place Stevie had built his tree-house, when the car carrying Stevie rolled down the road and turned into the long driveway leading to the cabin. He recognized his son in the back seat and, with a cry of relief, Sean had run back to the cabin, arriving just as Stevie was stepping out of the car. The kind people who had given Stevie a ride home briefly explained their version of the events to Sean before waving goodbye and backing their car down to the main gravel road in reverse. As soon as the sedan was out of sight, Sean admitted that he’d turned around to Stevie and read him the riot act. Her husband had made all kinds of promises those few minutes afterward — mostly regarding the lifetime imprisonment Stevie was to endure now that he was home safe and sound.
Sean told her that he had been scared that something worse had happened to Stevie, and he acknowledged that his emotions had gotten the better of him. He hadn’t really meant to yell at Stevie, but the boy’s father had lost control and all of his fears came pouring out in the form of anger. He’d accepted the fact that he’d handled the situation poorly and hadn’t stopped Stevie when he’d run off towards the tree-house. Not knowing how else to handle it, Sean had given his son some space to calm down and let both of their emotions cool, leaving it up to Julie to repair the rift that the incident had opened between the father and son.
“Well,” Julie said. “You have to admit that trolls have a pretty bad reputation around this neck of the forest –- what with gobbling up small children, smashing homes and lurking under bridges. Maybe the people at Crossroads thought you were one of the trolls that had been causing so many problems in the area.”
“They were mean and naughty,” added Stevie. “I hate them. They yelled at me.”
“That may be so, O’ Troll, but what about your papa? He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy from what I overheard.”
“I hate him too. He yelled at me. I went on a hike because he told me to, and then yelled at me after I got back.”
Julie winced. Her son was using the word “hate” more frequently these days. The frequency of use had increased since he’d started school and she had no doubt that he’d picked up the habit from his classmates.
“Maybe your papa didn’t mean to yell at you,” Julie suggested. “Maybe he was just worried and his worries came out in a yell.”
“I don’t care. I hate him.”
“What about your mama?”
Julie braced herself to hear something hurtful that she didn’t really want to hear, but she also knew that she’d have to listen to it if she was going to get Stevie to come home before dinnertime. She was relieved when Stevie responded.
“I don’t hate my mama. She hasn’t yelled at me for a long time. I love my mama.”
Julie sighed –- as much as she knew Stevie wouldn’t mean it when he said that he hated her sometime in the future, she still wasn’t quite ready to hear that kind of talk coming from her son. She knew that it would happen sooner or later, but she’d hoped it would be a few more years before her son would start telling her that he loathed her –- she wasn’t sure that she was all that emotionally prepared for those words just yet and was glad not to have to deal with hearing them as she stood in the forest.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I have to admit that I lied to you just now.” Julie confessed. “I spoke to your mama and papa on my way here and they asked if I wouldn’t mind talking to you a little, maybe see if you’d come home for a snack before dinner. They seemed like very nice trolls and I hear they have some peanut-butter cookies waiting for you.” Stevie’s favorite cookies were peanut-butter cookies and, by sheer chance, Julie had bought a package at the grocery store while she had been in town a few hours earlier, about the time that Stevie was probably running down the gravel road in tears just before the older couple had given him a ride home.
The gentle noises of the forest returned, consisting mostly of silence, with the far-off croaking of frogs in the swamp, the occasional song of one of the birds, the hum of flies or mosquitoes in the air. This time, Julie was gifted with not only a pair of eyes peeking over the plywood, but the smudged, tear-stained cheeks and sunburned nose of her son. “Peanut-butter cookies?” he asked.
Julie nodded with an exaggerated bobbing of her head. “Yes indeed. In fact, I was told that your mother has declared that no one may eat of the peanut-butter cookies except her son.”
“My papa will eat them too,” Stevie replied, not completely convinced that what he was hearing was true.
“No-no,” Julie quickly responded, anticipating her son’s skepticism. “There is a spell cast upon the cookies that will turn any troll other than her son into…” she gasped in horror, raising her hand to obscure her mouth, “… a human if they should touch those particular peanut-butter cookies. The threat caused your papa to cower in fear, shaking in a dark corner of the cave your family calls home. I saw it. I think he knows how powerful you mama’s spells can be.”
This time, Stevie’s eyes didn’t disappear behind the walls of the tree-house, but remained hovering within view. “Well…” his voice drifted off. “I don’t suppose it would hurt to come back for a little while if I could have a few peanut-butter cookies.”
He looked at Julie sternly. “But I’m coming back here if my papa starts to eat my cookies or begins to yell again.”
Julie made a mental note to mention Stevie’s ultimatum to Sean. While it wasn’t a common habit to spoil their son, this was one of those times that Julie thought indulgence on their part was appropriate. Lessons in sharing could wait until another day.
“I think the threat of becoming a human may keep your papa from eating any of the cookies. I really do.”
Stevie didn’t move, but just continued to look over the wall. “You’re not going to yell at me too, are you?” he asked.
“Oh My! No!” Julie said after a moment’s hesitation, her fingers placed on the upper part of her chest in a gesture of disbelief. “It would be very un-princess-like to begin yelling at someone, especially if that someone were a fierce troll.” She winked. “Trolls have a tendency to not take yelling all that well and I might find myself in a pot of princess soup if I started yelling at you.”
Stevie cautiously replied. “Okay… I guess…”
A few moments later he was scrambling through the trapdoor in the floor of the tree-house and climbing down the ladder. Within no time at all, Stevie was on the forest floor and walking towards his mother. When he got close, Julie pulled him close to her side, hugging him just enough that it wouldn’t bother his sensibilities as a young man, as he clung tightly to her yellow sundress.
“Are there really peanut-butter cookies back at the cab—erm, cave?” asked Stevie.
“And my papa won’t get to eat any of them?”
“Not unless you decide to forgive him for yelling earlier today and offer him one. Then the spell your mother had cast is broken.”
The two started walking towards the gravel road, just a few dozen yards away from the tree-house, Stevie lost in his thoughts and avoiding exposed roots by instinct alone as he clung to the thin fabric of Julie’s sundress. He stopped just before they exited the forest and they were about to step onto the gravel access road. He looked into his mother’s eyes.
“If my papa was really only worried,” he told her slowly. “Maybe I guess I don’t hate him for yelling at me.”
Julie smiled. Perhaps her son hadn’t quite learned to hate absolutely everything quite yet. She started walking once again and Stevie followed her, still clinging to her sundress.
The sunlight was brilliant as they left the edge of the “Tulgey Wood” and both had to squint against the mid-afternoon sun.
“You know…” Stevie began. “I might let my papa have one of my peanut-butter cookies.” Julie didn’t even try to mask her grin. “But he can only have one, mama. The rest are mine…”
Julie patted the top of Stevie’s tousled head of hair. Behind them, two sets of footprints were left behind in the soft sand as they walked down the road and turned into the driveway leading back to the family cabin.