Edition 9: Cattails by A. P. Sessler
The speculative fiction market, including SQ Mag, doesn’t publish enough pieces that have humorous bents, or are light but twisted. Not easy to execute well in my estimation. A P Sessler’s ‘Cattails’ fits the bill perfectly. We have a story that opens almost like a Stephen King meets Brothers Grimm, but read on, and it becomes something so much more… GH
The stiff, wide-eyed opossum traversed the rugged rows of severed wheat stalks that remained of the early September harvest. With flashing teeth and swiping claws frozen in time, the critter’s gray body glided across the harsh grooves of furrowed earth much like a snake would, only one without a limber bone in its body.
Its dead weight was carried by a makeshift leash tied around its neck, the leash’s other end held firmly in Ben’s hand.
Accompanied by his brother Lincoln, the two boys walked across the long, open field that was their father’s land. Though their secluded farmhouse grew smaller and farther away, its comforting shadow remained only a few steps behind, growing longer and longer as the afternoon sun made its westward descent.
Lincoln glanced over his shoulder at the white clapboard house, now a warm purple.
“It’s not fair!” the sandy-haired seven-year-old complained. “Everyone we know has a pet but us!”
“And Mom and Dad wonder why we keep bringing home animals,” said Ben, the 11-year-old elder with chestnut brown hair. “If they’d just get us a dog or a cat we wouldn’t have to!”
“How were we supposed to know it would just die all the sudden?”
“Dad said it’s not dead,” reminded Ben.
“I think it had a heart attack when Mom screamed.”
“It’s not dead.”
When the boys came to the place they found the once feisty critter, Lincoln stood still as Ben walked on.
“Ben, can’t we just leave it here?” asked Lincoln.
“Don’t be such a baby, Linc,” said Ben. “It’s only a little farther. Besides, if it was dead and we left it here it’d stink up the yard for a month.”
“How can it not be dead?”
Ben stopped and turned around. “They play possum, stupid.”
“How can it play possum if it is a possum?”
“Just be quiet,” said Ben, as he turned and continued walking.
Lincoln caught up with Ben just as they came to the split-rail fence that marked the end of their property and the start of their neighbor’s field. To the right their property continued into a near-acre of forest that merged into wetland.
They walked beside the length of fence until it came to an end then they entered the forest. Rays of light broke through the crack in the wall of trees and set the ground ablaze in red and yellow. The smell of sulfur met the chromatic fire on the wind, declaring the stinking marsh was just on the other side of the forest. It would make a fitting grave for a rotten carcass.
As they approached the marsh they heard the voice of a grownup muttering unintelligible words in rhythmic meter. Ben’s arm extended like an automated cross guard to hinder his brother’s steps.
“Someone’s there,” whispered Lincoln.
“No kidding. Everybody knows no one’s allowed to hunt on our property,” Ben whispered back.
“Maybe we should let them know we’re here.”
“No way. They might shoot us.”
“But if they don’t know we’re here they might shoot us, too.”
“Let’s see who it is, then we’ll go tell Dad.”
The boys paused to hide behind every bush and stump as they slowly crept to the end of the tree line. When they reached the edge of the forest they saw a figure with its back to them stooped beside the marsh. He was small for a grownup. The pointed green hat he wore was nearly as tall as him and his leather jacket was completely covered in patches of yellow-brown and blue-green fungus.
“Who is that?” whispered Lincoln.
“I don’t know. Do Mom and Dad know any midgets?”
When the figure turned around the boys saw it wasn’t any friend of their parents. It wasn’t a person at all. The little ‘man’ had a droopy nose that hung over his wide frowning mouth, and gray skin with deep, dark wrinkles. He had sympathetic eyes and fat, flabby ears.
In his husky arms he carried several cattails, freshly cut from the marsh with an irregular-shaped blade he held in his right hand.
As the thing walked along the edge of the forest away from the marsh he kept speaking in singsong:
Cattails grown in miry marsh.
Cut them down in dew of dusk.
Cattails buried up to their arse.
Dig them out before they fuss.
“Let’s get outta here,” whispered Lincoln.
“No. I wanna see what it’s doing,” said Ben, as he laid the leashed and lifeless opossum down on the forest floor.
The boys followed from a distance, continuing to use the environment to conceal their presence. They were only a few yards behind the thing when he suddenly turned into the forest. Ben quickly took cover behind a bush while Lincoln dropped down flat beside a fallen tree.
In the clearing just ahead of them was a garden. The left half consisted of empty broken earth while on the right were planted foot-tall cattails with only their black, flowering heads above ground.
The thing approached the garden and gently laid the armful of cattails down. He put the knife in the sheath attached to the back of his belt. Nearby were terracotta flower pots of varying sizes, a large wicker basket, and a collection of gardening tools. He reached for a dibble and started to punch holes in the ground.
While the boys sat completely undetected, the Oscar-worthy opossum who had played dead so well suddenly broke character. As it slowly scurried through the leaves, the end of the leash collected a small pile of woodland debris behind it.
Lincoln tried to grab the leash before the opossum walked out of reach, but a clicking sound and angry face from Ben made him quickly retrieve his hand.
The thing looked toward the source of the vocalization.
“Ha! I see you there,” growled the thing in a gravelly voice.
In an invisibility ritual known only to children, the brothers closed their eyes and held their breath as the sound of feet dragging though leaves grew closer.
“Don’t just lay there. Come here,” insisted the thing.
The boys’ eyes shot wide open and stared over at the still opossum with the leash firmly around its neck. The boys looked to each other for any signal how to react.
“I won’t hurt you,” said the thing.
The animal fearfully approached the thing, who held the hilt of his knife behind his back. When the opossum was within reach the thing put his free hand on the animal’s neck to restrain it then slowly revealed the knife.
When the same beam of sunlight that glided across the moving blade shone on the scared boys’ faces, Lincoln involuntarily exhaled the breath he had held. He quickly placed both hands over his mouth to nullify the sound that had already escaped. When Ben was sure the thing hadn’t noticed, he too exhaled, but much slower.
“Who put that around your neck?” the thing asked. “Hmm?”
The humble opossum bowed its head before the thing, who carefully placed the blade between the animal’s neck and the leash. With a slow sawing motion the thing cut through the leash and released the animal.
“There you go,” he said. “You can go now.”
The opossum waited until the thing returned to his garden before crawling toward the field.
When the thing finished planting the cattails on the left half of the garden, he grabbed a hand-spade and dug around a black cattail on the garden’s right. After a small mound of earth was piled next to the cattail, the thing reached into the ground and removed the large clod of earth that clung to the cattail’s stalk.
He laid the clod on the ground and gently broke the dirt off his harvest, until a weak meow was heard. The cat began to lick the dirt from its shoulders and paws, exposing slick, black fur. The thing placed the black cat inside the wicker basket, closed the lid, and began digging up another cattail.
From their hiding places the boys stared at each other in wide-eyed awe as their gaping mouths turned into toothy ear-to-ear smiles.
When the thing filled the basket with his squirming, black harvest he exited the forest toward the marsh repeating his singsong rhyme:
Cattails grown in miry marsh.
Cut them down in dew of dusk.
Cattails buried up to their arse—
He chuckled when the word came out of his mouth. “Arse arse arse arse arse!” he bellowed out, and laughed some more.
When the boys no longer heard his voice or shuffling feet, they carefully emerged from their shelters. They brushed the leaves and twigs from their clothes and ran their fingers through their hair to remove the rest. They approached the garden half-full of cattails (now of the vegetable kingdom) which the thing had just planted.
Ben took one of the larger flower pots and Lincoln a smaller. They both dug with their hands as quick as they could, until they had transferred two cattails into Ben’s pot and one into Lincoln’s. They took their magical merchandise and hurried out of the forest without speaking a word to each other.
Lincoln emerged from the forest first. The two continued but Lincoln’s considerably smaller pot allowed him to gain several feet on his big brother. Though the sound of crunching stalks beneath tennis shoes reminded Lincoln that Ben was still behind him, he occasionally glanced back to make sure it was Ben and not the thing.
“What do you think he was?” asked Lincoln.
“A goblin or a troll,” guessed Ben. “How should I know?”
“He looked kinda like those statues the neighbors have on their lawn.”
“Yeah. Kinda,” Ben agreed. “But those sure look a whole lot more nicer than he did.”
“He was nice to the possum.”
“Yeah, but did you see his knife?”
“He didn’t hurt the possum.”
“But he could have.”
“What are you gonna tell Mom and Dad when they ask about the possum?”
“The truth. When we put him down he got up and walked away.”
“Should we tell them about the little man?”
“They wouldn’t believe us,” Ben assured him.
“How do you know?”
“They never believe us. How many times have you cried about monsters in your closet or under your bed? They always tell you it was just a nightmare then say ‘go back to sleep’.”
Lincoln tried to remember all the times he had cried out for his parents to rescue him from the shadows in his room. A moment later he realized he no longer heard his brother’s footsteps behind him. He quickly turned around.
Ben stood several feet behind him. “Were they just nightmares?” he inquired.
Lincoln thought some more about it while they both stood still. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
Ben walked past his little brother. “Man, you’re stupid.”
Lincoln looked behind to make sure it was safe. When he turned back around the creature stood before him. Lincoln screamed as it hissed at him.
“What is it?” yelled Ben, as he came racing to his little brother’s aid.
“It’s the possum!” whimpered Lincoln.
Ben rolled his eyes. He placed the flower pot on the ground. “You scared me to death!” he yelled. “I thought it was the little man.”
Ben approached the opossum, scooping up a handful of earth to throw at it. When the shower of earth covered the opossum it quickly scampered away, still hissing.
As Ben turned to retrieve his pot, Lincoln yelled “Wait up for me!” and hurried to catch up with him.
When the boys got home they looked for a safe place to leave their plants. The forest that ran alongside their field continued past their house and curved around their back yard. A clearing in the woods was located there, where the stump of a large, black oak tree lay.
The clearing was just far enough out of parental view and earshot to get away with their tomfoolery, yet close enough to home that their parents didn’t object to them staying out for hours on end. They laid the pots by the oak stump and returned to their house for the evening.
Over the following few weeks the boys watered the cattails generously every day, and every day following the cattails looked exactly the same. The boys decided it was time to harvest one of their cattails to see just what lay hidden under the surface.
They didn’t have high expectations, since the cattail looked no different than any other cattail, and rightfully so. When they removed it there was nothing resembling a cat or any other animal on the stalk beneath the flower.
“How do you think he made his turn into cats?” asked Lincoln, as he held the quite normal cattail in his hands.
“Duh—magic,” answered Ben sarcastically.
“I know that! But how?”
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna find out. But first, let’s put it back in the dirt just to be safe.”
The boys helped each other replant the cattail and went to their house.
“Mom,” Ben addressed his mother, as he reached for a biscuit.
“Yes, Ben?” she asked, before taking a bite of chicken fried steak covered in gravy.
“Is it all right if Linc and I camp out this weekend?” he asked, as he buttered the biscuit and drowned it in homemade strawberry jam.
“You’ll have to ask your father,” she said, with a glance across the dinner table.
The boys were never sure if this peculiar practice was a game between their parents or an actual chain of command, composed of requests filled out on invisible paperwork that required a verbal but equally invisible signature and stamp of authorization.
Their father smiled, as if it was indeed a game. He took a sip of sweet iced tea and gave his answer, “Sure, you can camp out—but no wandering around after dark,” he said, as the smile disappeared from his face. The sober look indicated this particular process was not part of the game.
All the while Lincoln was silently occupied with his own game.
“Quit playing with your food, Linc,” his mother scolded.
That Friday after school the boys dragged the old tent out of the garage and pitched it next to the oak stump.
Their parents checked on them periodically in the evening before bed time to make sure they were all right. When Ben and Lincoln saw the light in their parents’ window finally go out, they emerged from their sleeping bags and headed back to the magical garden armed only with a flashlight and glow sticks.
When they reached the spot where they exited the woods, Ben turned off the flashlight so as not to announce their arrival. He removed two glow sticks from his jacket’s inside pocket and put the flashlight in their place. After handing one glow stick to Lincoln they both gave their sticks a good crack to activate the luminescent chemical inside before entering the forest.
With one hand each they felt their way in the dark, using the glow sticks to illuminate their path. They occasionally stopped to listen for the telltale singsong of the thing with the pointy hat.
When Lincoln took his next step, the silence was broken, as was the pottery beneath his feet. He held the glow stick low and saw a pile of terracotta shards laying on the ground. When he looked to his left he saw Ben’s angry expression tinted in green.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going!” scolded Ben in a loud whisper.
“It’s too dark to see where I’m going,” explained Lincoln.
“Why do you think we brought these?” asked Ben, as he shook the glow stick in Lincoln’s face. “Just hold it lower, dummy!” he huffed, as he demonstrated the glow stick’s proper use. Just in front of him lay a hoe flat on the ground with its head only a footstep away.
“You should watch where you’re going, Ben—you could’ve stepped on that,” warned Lincoln sincerely.
Ben hushed Lincoln and waved the glow stick in front of them. He could see the flower pots and other garden tools in the green swath of light, but nothing more. He took several steps in each direction as he tried to piece together the impossible puzzle of emerald images before he grew so frustrated he threw the glow stick as hard as he could. The glowing green missile sunk deep into the dark flesh of night.
He retrieved the flashlight from his jacket and turned it on. The beam of light illuminated the trees around them as the boys spun in a circle. As he lowered the flashlight the beam fell across the garden of cattails. They were not quite as black as the ones the thing pulled from the ground, but they were definitely not as brown as the cattails the boys planted.
In the distance they heard the thing’s singsong talking accompanied by the rising crescendo of an amphibious choir.
Cattails grow in full moonlight.
Watered with a croaking toad.
Black tails twitch and then they fight.
Barter for the magic owed.
He was coming their way. Ben scanned the garden with his flashlight until he found the fallen tree Lincoln hid behind in their first close encounter with the thing. Ben took cover and waved for Lincoln to follow, then extinguished the flashlight.
In the pitch black that resumed its place a pulsating light passed through the trees. It swelled and abated in a synchronous cycle along with the croaking of toads and the thing’s bewitched singsong.
In an instant the garden was bathed in the pulsating light, which emanated from a swarm of fireflies attending the thing. The cloud of light was so large and so bright the boys quickly back-stepped to avoid being exposed. The luminous bugs lighted on every limb overlooking the garden, serving as lantern and witness to the magic ritual the thing was to perform.
He carried a watering can. With each step he took there was a tinny sound of sloshing water and the croak of caged toads. He stooped next to the cattails and watered them until a toad leaped out of the watering can.
“No, you don’t,” he said, as he reached for the toad and returned it to the can. “Now behave like the rest of your friends.”
When he finished watering the garden he put the can down. With a loud, long yawn he stretched his arms and left the garden escorted by the illuminated insects and his singsong verse:
Cattails grow in full moonlight.
Watered with a croaking toad.
Black tails twitch and then they fight…
Arse arse arse arse arse!
The boys waited until the glow of the firefly cloud dimmed to black. Ben turned the flashlight on and returned to the garden with Lincoln.
“Hurry!” whispered Ben. “Let’s dig it up and get out of here!”
“Should we put them in the flower pots again?” asked Lincoln.
“No. We can’t be lugging those around in the dark. Besides, we’re just taking one this time.”
The watered cattails already appeared different than they did before the thing arrived. Lincoln put both hands around a cattail and tried to lift it out of the soil.
“Don’t pull it by the tail—you might break it,” rebuked Ben. “Just start digging.”
They dug with both hands until they felt the cat’s rump.
Ben tried to pull the cat out but there was not enough leverage against the weight of the soil to do so. He held on to the cat’s rump while Lincoln continued to dig. When the cat’s back legs were exposed Ben was able to reach under them and around the cat’s waist. He pulled a little harder than he should have, but he managed to break the feline free from its earthen womb.
He turned the cat right side up, facing him, while Lincoln brushed the dirt from its still body. The cat was full grown, and other than the sparse bit on its tail, was completely hairless and lifeless.
“It’s not breathing,” said Lincoln.
“Hit him on the butt,” ordered Ben, as he turned the cat back upside down.
“Why?” asked Lincoln.
“That’s what the doctors do when a baby is born to help it breathe.”
Lincoln slapped the cat on the rump. The boys waited a moment but there was no sign of life.
“Here,” said Ben, as he handed the cat to Lincoln. “Hold him good.”
As Lincoln held the cat Ben gave it a second, harder whack just to make sure. The cat didn’t make a peep.
“Is it dead?” asked Lincoln.
“I don’t know.”
“Are they supposed to look like that? His didn’t look like that.”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we put it back in the ground then?”
“I don’t know, Linc. Quit asking so many questions.”
“Do you want him to hear us?”
“Then shut up.”
While the boys spoke back and forth, two eyes appeared on the trunk of the tree behind—watching them—and only visible when a break in the gray night clouds allowed the light of the full moon to flash across their glassy, convex surfaces.
“It’s all bald,” stated Ben.
“How come they don’t have any hair?” asked Lincoln.
“Maybe they’re not ripe.”
“You’re damn right they’re not ripe, you smelly little thieves!” said the thing, as he transformed from the small evergreen into his truly hideous form.
Before they could take a single step the thing grabbed one boy in each hand by the back of their necks.
“Thought you could sneak up when I wasn’t around and steal my cats, did you? I’m going to bury you up to your necks and make mushrooms out of you! Then I’ll cut off your heads and throw them in a stew!”
“No, you won’t!” shouted Ben, as he kicked the thing in the belly.
The thing let go of the boys and held his aching abdomen. While he was still hunched over, Lincoln spit in his face.
“Come on, Linc!” yelled Ben, as he dragged his brother away from the thing.
There was a sound of breaking bones as the boys ran across the garden and inadvertently trampled upon the cattails before fleeing through the woods.
“Now you’ve done it!” echoed the thing’s voice through the forest. “You’ve ruined my cats! When I find you two you’ll wish you were dead!”
The flashlight beam jumped up and down across the wall of trees. After running into several small branches Ben let go of Lincoln’s arm so he could hold the flashlight as steady as possible.
“Don’t leave me, Ben!” yelled Lincoln.
“Just keep running!” Ben shouted.
Lincoln glanced back to see how close the thing was, but there was only darkness behind him. When he turned his head back around he couldn’t see his big brother.
“Ben!” he shouted, as he ran with both hands forward to endure the vicious gauntlet of the forest. Branches slapped him, thorns pierced him, and vines clung to him with each step.
“You’re almost there!” came Ben’s voice from somewhere. “Just a little farther!”
Lincoln could see the flashlight peering back at him through the wooden bars of the forest prison. Then a brighter light shone and illuminated the trees around him. As the light flashed on and off, the flashlight’s beam before him also appeared to flash as his eyes counter-adjusted to varying light and dark.
Lincoln looked back again to see the approaching cloud of fireflies. He couldn’t see the thing but it was certain the thing could see him. Lincoln had already grown numb to the swift sting of the forest’s cruel punishment, which unceasingly lashed at him with its switches.
Before his next step landed, two arms clutched him tight and stopped him in mid-flight.
Lincoln screamed as he looked up into the face of his captor.
“Gotcha!” yelled Ben. “Let’s get out of here!”
As the two boys raced through the open field to their house, the swarm of fireflies kept pace just past the trees.
When the boys reached their home they ran inside and locked the door. Through the small window on the front door they watched the firefly light flash through the trees. The boys ran to their room and jumped in their beds. As they lay in the dark, the night sky outside became eclipsed by the mass of fireflies crawling on the bedroom windows.
Their throbbing light cast moving shadows around the room like a macabre mirror ball as the weight of a million insect feet tried the glass’ temper. Their deafening patter drowned out the irregular breathing and pounding hearts of the terrified boys.
They were so afraid of their own animated shadows they pulled the covers over their heads and begged God for deliverance until they lost consciousness.
While the boys softly slept away their fears, the morning sunlight penetrated their bedroom windows, saturated their blankets and sunk deep into their eyelids. When their eyes had their fill of light they awoke and carefully peeled back their covers to peer over the edge of their beds for any sign of the unnatural. When all seemed well they crept downstairs for breakfast.
“Morning boys,” said their father, as he sipped a cup of coffee at the round table in a corner of the kitchen.
“Morning, Dad, Mom,” the boys said, as they divided breakfast duty into removing the box of cereal from the overhead cabinet and the carton of milk from the fridge.
“I see you slept in your room,” said their mother, as she poured herself a cup of coffee. “Did the bugs eat you boys alive?”
Lincoln swallowed a mouthful of fear.
“They were pretty bad,” Ben answered, so Lincoln wouldn’t speak.
“That so?” asked their father. “Think we should have some bug spray in the garage or the shed.”
“Okay,” replied Ben. “We’ll get some.”
“That’s smart,” said their mother. “After you finish breakfast and chores you can watch cartoons.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boys replied.
While their father continued to mow the lawn and mother tended the flowerbed in front of the house the boys knocked out their chores in record time. As soon as they finished they returned to the kitchen to investigate the calendar on the wall.
“Remember what the little man said about the full moon? Look,” said Ben as he pointed at the image of the moon on Friday’s square. “Last night was a full moon.”
He pulled the thumbtack out of the calendar that pinned it to the wall. He laid the calendar on the kitchen counter; both boys pulled up a barstool. Ben flipped the calendar from October to September and pointed at the full moon images.
“It was the same time last month when we first got the cattails. It was a full-moon then, too,” explained Ben.
“And what about the toads?” asked Lincoln. “He said something about croaking toads?”
“I think that’s what makes the water magic,” answered Ben, as he flipped the calendar back to October.
“One, two, three, four,” counted Lincoln, as he pointed at the squares with full moons. “We got three days left.”
“Good. We can start tonight.”
The boys retrieved their watering can from the black oak stump and wandered the back yard in search of anything amphibian. Not knowing the difference between a toad or a frog, they managed to find a few of each before their dad finished the front yard and came around back on the riding mower.
“Should we fill it with water now?” asked Lincoln.
“No, dummy. They’ll drown,” said Ben as he put the watering can in their tent. “We’ll fill it tonight then we’ll water the cattails right away.”
“What are you boys up to?” asked their mother, as she went to the shed to return the garden tools.
Lincoln looked at Ben for a good answer, which their mother noticed.
“Catching frogs,” said Ben.
“Is that so?” she asked, as she looked at Lincoln.
“Yes, ma’am,” Lincoln answered.
“Don’t either of you harm a hair on their heads, you hear me?” she said. “They’re completely harmless.”
“We won’t,” promised Ben.
“Mom, can Ben and I sleep out in the tent again?” he asked.
“That depends,” she said. “First let me see that watering can.”
Ben handed the watering can to her.
She looked inside and counted out loud. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven frogs. Either you let these frogs go right now or show me these same seven frogs tomorrow morning.”
“Ma!” whined Ben.
“Do you have a problem with that or do you want to sleep in your room tonight?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” Ben frowned.
“Seven frogs. If there’s just one missing I’ll take that tent to Goodwill. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” both boys answered.
“Good. Just make sure you two are ready for church in the morning.”
The boys nodded their heads. When their mother disappeared into the shed they gave each other a high-five.
That night under the light of the full moon they anxiously watered the cattails. Within seconds the brown cattails turned dark and looked more like fur than flower.
“It really worked!” said Ben.
“Like magic!” said Lincoln.
“It is magic.”
The next day when the family returned from church, and the boys proved to their mom the frogs were safe and sound, they were told to break down the tent and return it to the garage.
“How are we gonna water the cattails?” asked Lincoln, as he rolled up the sleeping bags.
“We’ll just have to sneak out tonight and tomorrow,” answered Ben.
At 3 am that night and on Monday the boys did just so. By Tuesday morning the full moon was finished. If there was any magic left to work during its hours it would have to wait until November.
After school and homework, the boys returned to their secret garden by the black oak stump, where the watering can full of amphibians lay.
“Wow! Look at ‘em,” said Lincoln.
The cattails were black and slick. They even seemed to twitch in the breeze.
“Mom and Dad will have to let us keep a cat,” said Ben.
“But we got three,” noted Lincoln. “We only need one. Mom and Dad might not even let us keep it. What do we do with them if they say no?”
“Give them away,” answered Ben without hesitation, and after a moment of contemplation, his face lit up. “Or sell them!”
The boys each placed a flower pot between their knees and started to harvest their living crop. The soil was alive with movement. When the boys paused every 10 or so handfuls to let the feeling return to their fingers before digging again, they felt something stir inside and even heard claws scratching the bottom of the pots.
“Beat ya!” said Lincoln, as he pulled his cat from the pot. It writhed in his hand as it shook off the dirt and tried to turn itself upright and free. Lincoln stood up with the cat in his arms and pushed the pot away with his foot. He sat back down with the cat in his lap and brushed the dirt from its fur with one hand.
“That’s ‘cause you only had one cat. I got two,” objected Ben. A moment later he had freed both cats from the pot. The affectionate felines brushed against Ben as they circled him. “Which one should we keep, Linc?”
“I wanna keep them all!” answered Lincoln.
“I know, but Mom and Dad won’t allow that.”
“How do you know? We’ll tell them we found all three. They’ll tell us if we can keep them or not.”
“Guess you’re right. The worst they can say is no,” said Ben.
The boys and their new-found friends filled the hours before dinnertime with play. Lincoln dragged a long blade of grass across the ground as a cat chased it, while Ben tickled a cat’s ear with a dandelion. All the while an alternating cat happily played third wheel in their games. Finally play turned to wrestling—the boys didn’t mind at all the occasional scratch or bite from the fickle felines.
As night began to fall, the nocturnal choir of creatures started their concerto. Crickets chirped in soprano, owls hooted in alto, and the toads bellowed in baritone within their metallic concert hall.
Soon fireflies appeared, one by one, flashing all around the clearing in the forest around the black oak stump.
“We better get going,” said Lincoln, as he picked up a cat. “Mom and Dad are gonna be mad if we’re not in by dark.”
“I think I got both of mine if you got your cat,” said Ben, as he picked up the other two cats and placed one under each arm.
“Your cats?” spoke a voice from behind.
The boys turned to face the thing standing among the trees. He had his wicker basket in one hand and a bag slung over his other shoulder. The cats hissed at him.
“Put them down,” ordered the thing, as he stepped into the clearing.
Ben glanced back at the house.
“Go ahead,” mocked the thing. “Run to your house. You think I can’t get inside?”
Ben let the two cats down on the ground.
“You too, boy,” insisted the thing, as he nodded his head toward Lincoln.
Lincoln held the third cat tightly in his cross-armed embrace.
“Let him have the cat, Linc,” said Ben.
“No,” defied Lincoln. “We grew them. They’re our cats.”
“Get the little one,” said the thing.
The dead leaves at Lincoln’s feet began to undulate toward him as something underneath approached. Within seconds there were spiders of every size and variety, hopping insects, crawling segmented things with a multitude of legs, all emerging from under the leaves and climbing up Lincoln’s shoes.
With a yelp Lincoln threw the cat, which turned around mid-air and landed on all fours.
“That’s enough,” said the thing.
The creeping black mass descended from Lincoln’s quivering legs back to their home of holes beneath the leaves.
“You, boy. The other one,” said the thing, as he pointed at Ben. “Bring me the watering can.”
Ben retrieved the can from the black oak stump. His fearful trembling agitated the contents of the can so much it practically leaped out of his hand.
“Now empty it,” said the thing.
Ben held the can upside down and shook out the creatures within. The grateful frogs quickly vacated the premises while the three toads remained still, awaiting their master’s command.
“Do what thou will,” said the thing.
As the cats hissed the toads hopped toward them in staggered order. The toads each made an initial attempt to hop into the mouths of the cats but failed.
“Play nicely with your masters,” ordered the thing.
The cats shook their heads and fought to close their mouths but their jaws were pried open by an unseen force. Each toad leaped into the mouth of a host and forced its way down their throat. The cats convulsed and tried to vomit out the toads, but as soon as the spindly webbed toes disappeared from view the cats seemed suddenly content.
The thing proceeded to collect the cats into his wicker basket, but when the last cat saw its comrades caged it fled.
“Run, you renegade!” yelled the thing. “I hope you end up beneath someone’s tires!”
“Now that you have your cats, can we go?” asked Ben timidly.
“Why should I let you go?” asked the thing. “I swear you two have caused me more trouble than you care to know or I care to tell, but know you will and tell I will. I’m the coven’s private gardener.”
“What’s a coven?” asked Lincoln.
“That’s the place where nuns live,” answered Ben.
The thing spit on the ground. “No, fool! A coven is a group of witches.”
“Witches?!” exclaimed the boys in unison.
“Yes, witches. It’s my job to grow mediums for the coven,” said the thing.
“What’s a medium?” asked Ben.
“That’s the part of the street you’re not supposed to drive your car over,” answered Lincoln.
“Who are you two? The Brothers Dim?” growled the thing. “Mediums are the creatures the coven uses to communicate with the spirit world.”
“You mean like—the devil and stuff?” asked Ben.
“Now you’re starting to get it,” said the thing. “Let me tell you, it takes time to grow mediums and it’s not exactly easy. You took some of my magic cattails and you trampled on some more so when it came time to give the coven their mediums I came up short. They nearly had my hide. At least I can take these two back but I doubt they’ll be pleased. I’m going to tell them it was you two who stole my cattails. Then they’ll turn you into trolls so you’ll have to grow mediums, too. Then I won’t have to work so hard.”
“Turn us into trolls?” asked Ben.
“Yes!” snapped the thing. “What do you think happens to nasty little thieves?”
“I don’t wanna be a troll!” whined Lincoln.
“You don’t? Why not?” the thing demanded to know.
“Because they’re ugly and nasty and smelly,” said Lincoln.
“Ugly, nasty and smelly?” scowled the thing in Lincoln’s face. “Are you calling me ugly, nasty and smelly?”
“No,” cried Lincoln.
“Why not? I am ugly, nasty and smelly! That’s what trolls are!”
“I’m sorry,” he apologized.
“That’s right, you are sorry! You sound like a little girl!” ridiculed the thing.
Lincoln started to cry. Ben couldn’t pretend to be any stronger—he was just as scared as his little brother. Soon he joined Lincoln in tears and pleading to be released.
The thing paced back and forth. “So neither of you wants to end up an ugly, old troll like me?” he asked.
Ben shook his head no while Lincoln nodded yes.
“One says no, the other says yes, well which is it?”
Lincoln looked at his big brother and shook his head no as Ben nodded yes.
“You both really are stupid,” insulted the thing. “I’ll tell you what, Brothers Dim. I’ll strike up a bargain with you. You see these thumbs?” asked the thing, as he gave a thumbs up with each hand.
“These are my green thumbs,” he explained, as he wiggled them. “I’m really a duende, not a troll, but since you boys are so stupid I’ll keep it simple. Like some duendes I too lacked thumbs until I struck up a bargain with the coven. You see, we have a natural ability to make things grow—a magic ability even. When the coven saw my garden, they said if I tended their garden they would pay me well, and give me the ability to grow things well beyond my power.
“But to give me that ability, somebody had to give up their thumbs—not that they had much of a choice in the matter,” he laughed nervously. “Oh, those poor children. You should have heard them screaming, and all for nothing. Had they known what really waited for them afterwards they would have saved all those tears ‘til then.”
The duende walked to where the two terracotta pots lay. He crouched down and placed his plump palms flat on the soil. He closed his eyes as his lips mouthed a silent incantation. When he was finished he reached into his bag of tools and retrieved a hand-spade, which he used to shovel the magic earth into the two pots.
“Since thumbs hold especially magic powers for duendes, I could really use two more. I would be able to grow twice as much, twice as fast. So that’s what I want from you. I don’t want your indexes or your middle fingers or your pinkies—I want your thumbs. That’s the offer. What will it be? Do you give me your thumbs or do I give you to the coven?”
The scared boys discussed their options in a silent convention. Ben’s sideways glance toward their home suggested they should run. The shake of Lincoln’s head signaled he would certainly be outran and left behind defenseless, beside the fact the duende said they wouldn’t be safe at home anyhow. Another sideways glance with a lowered brow and stiff upper lip toward the grim gardener from Ben suggested they try to take him. A stronger shake of the head from Lincoln answered no way could both of them beat that thing together. Though it rivaled their height, it was certainly stronger than a grown man.
The two boys looked at their hands and thought of all the things they would no longer be able to do. Once they resigned the fate of their fingers they consented. “You can have our thumbs,” said Ben. “But you’re only taking one, right?”
“Of course,” answered the duende. “What do you think I want to be, all thumbs?”
The boys both shook their heads no.
“Then it’s settled,” said the duende, with a single nod of his head. “In exchange for your humanity I get one thumb from each of you.”
The black oak stump just feet away was roughly waist high to the duende and the two boys. The duende placed the two flower pots on top of the stump.
“First you,” he said, as he nodded toward Ben with his hands on the smaller pot. “Put your hand in.”
“Which hand?” Ben asked.
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?”
“Right-handed,” answered Ben.
“Then put your right hand in.”
“Does it have to be my right hand?”
“If that’s the one you use the most, then yes,” answered the duende.
“Is it going to hurt?”
“I guess you’re going to find out. That or I’ll give you to the coven.”
Ben shoved his right hand into the pot until it was wrist-deep in the soil. Likewise the duende placed his right hand into the soil of the larger pot.
“Now pull your hand out,” ordered the duende.
Ben started to pull his hand out.
“I don’t think it worked,” answered Ben, but as soon as his hand was completely out of the soil he saw the smooth stub where his thumb was just a moment before. “My thumb!” he shouted. “He took my thumb!”
“Did it hurt?” asked Lincoln.
“I didn’t even feel it,” whimpered Ben, as he held up his hand.
The duende laughed as he pulled his right hand out of the soil with the new thumb seamlessly attached beneath his pinky.
“Now you,” said the duende, as he looked at Lincoln. “You’re the little bugger who spit in my face, aren’t you?”
Lincoln shook his head no.
“Don’t pretend. I remember,” said the duende. “Now it’s your turn.”
Lincoln started to put his left hand into the smaller pot.
“You’re left-handed?” the duende asked.
“Yes,” Lincoln answered.
“No he’s not!” said Ben. “He’s lying!”
“Am not!” insisted Lincoln.
“Are you left-handed?” the duende asked again.
“Yes,” answered Lincoln.
“No he’s not!” argued Ben.
“You wouldn’t be lying to me, would you?” the duende asked.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” said Lincoln, with his head faced down.
“You know what happens to you if you lie, don’t you?”
“Nothing,” the duende smiled.
Lincoln smiled back nervously and placed his left hand in the soil until it was wrist-deep.
“But he’s not left-handed, I swear!” whined Ben.
“What does it matter to you?” asked the duende. “Aren’t you his brother?”
“Yeah, but if he gets to put his left hand in when I had to put my right hand in, that’s not fair!”
Lincoln wasn’t sure what to do. He started to pull his hand out of the soil to avoid the duende’s anger.
“But if he wants to put his left hand in, it’s his choice,” defended the duende.
Lincoln put his left hand back into the soil.
“But that’s not fair!” Ben cried.
“How ‘bout I make you put your left hand in and I take all your fingers instead of his thumb? Would you like that?” asked the annoyed duende.
“No,” Ben mumbled, as he hid his left hand behind his back. “You can’t do that!”
“I can if I want to, so be quiet!”
“It’s not fair. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Shh!” hushed the duende.
As he placed his left hand in the pot, Lincoln started to pull his hand out.
“Don’t do that!” chided the duende.
“Why?” asked Lincoln. “I thought—“
“Never mind why,” the duende interrupted. “Just do as you’re told!”
Lincoln pushed his hand back into the soil.
“Now you can remove your hand,” said the relieved duende a moment later.
Lincoln pulled his hand from the soil. It, too, now had a smooth stub where his thumb once was.
The duende removed his left hand, revealing the new thumb as it was on his right, beneath the pinky.
“You’re right. It doesn’t hurt at all,” said Lincoln. “Why doesn’t it hurt?”
“It’s magic,” said the duende impatiently. “Geesh!”
“You promise not to tell the witches on us, right?” asked Ben.
“Why should I?” asked the duende, as he poured the soil out of the two pots onto the ground and stamped it flat. “The two of you tricksters might try to put me out of business. Besides, now that I have two more thumbs, I’ll be able to do twice the work I used to do. I’ll be rich!”
He took the two terracotta pots and smashed them against the oak stump.
“That’s so you boys don’t get any bright ideas about using that dirt,” he said, as he glanced at the flat mound of magic soil. “Brothers Dim, it’s been nice doing business with you, but don’t let it happen again. I would hate for you boys to end up like the last two. Poor children.”
The duende took up the wicker basket full of black cats and hobbled back toward the trees.
“What do we tell our parents when they ask about our thumbs?” yelled Ben.
“Tell them to leave my garden alone!” answered the duende, with his back turned to the boys. He walked to the edge of the clearing and stood still.
“Why is he stopping?” asked Lincoln.
“Mr. Troll?” called Ben.
There was no answer.
The boys cautiously approached the duende with its back turned, but the closer they got the more the duende was no longer the thing. There were only evergreens, every one like the other, circling the clearing.
Ben and Lincoln scanned the panorama of trees. Which one was the callous duende? Or was every tree in every forest just another vengeful thing in disguise waiting for some careless trespasser foolish enough to take what wasn’t theirs?
A resident of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Sessler searches for that unique element that twists the everyday commonplace into the weird.
When he’s not writing fiction he composes music, dabbles in animation, and muses about theology and mind-hacking, all while watching way too many online movies.