“Trollbooth” by Maureen Tanafon
When the little ones went missing in the woods, my invalid stepmother did not know what to do. She tottered out there in her bedroom slippers and wept, and pounded against a tree with her pale fists as she pleaded brokenly, in human language, for her children to be returned.
I was wiser about fairies. I took her into the house and managed to put her to bed, with a spoonful of laudanum to quiet her nerves. Her brother was talking loudly to his friends about search-parties, with the same flush of excitement as he got when discussing the hunt. I would have spoken up to warn them, but I knew what I said about the woods would be dismissed. I was fifteen, mute, hysterical, in want of a man to guide me, of absolutely no consequence to my uncle and his friends.
Instead, I went out to the woods to begin bargaining. I did not entreat the fairies, or speak a word in the human tongue; I did not pound the trees, or so much as crush a fern beneath my foot. I knelt by the standing stone near the edge of the woods, breathing slow and deep to gather my courage, and used a polished rock from my collection to knock out one of my teeth.
Rainwater had collected in a little pool at the top of the standing stone. I placed my tooth in it, free hand pressed tightly over my mouth to ensure not a whimper of pain or a drop of blood escaped, and walked backwards away until my heels knocked the kitchen door of our house. Process completed, I fled inside to drink a spoonful of laudanum myself.
The fairies would not reply before nightfall, I knew. When they had thought over what they wanted in return for little Mary and James. The tooth signified desperation, after all, that I was willing to give anything in return for the safety of my kin.
My uncle returned late that night, just as I was going out to check the stone. I was forced back inside by the press of ten tall male bodies, impatient to enter and stinking of horse-sweat and man-sweat. I retreated to the hearth, and when my uncle got inside his eyes lighted on me and he frowned.
“Don’t just stand there,” he barked. “Get us something warm to drink.”
I served them, staying quiet. They were shaken, hiding it under bluster and brag; they had seen things in the woods, and one by one these came out under the influence of wine. A hall, far away, that vanished around the turn of the road. A wild-eyed stag springing up from a copse where a wild-eyed man stood a moment ago. Light in the darkness, wet hands in the stream.
No children, no little footprints, not a sign or whisper of them.
My uncle did not seem particularly upset. There was a strange light in his eyes when he spoke of the strange things he had witnessed, and he added a resolve to the end of his tale – tomorrow, he was going into town to see if he couldn’t have some silver bullets made for his old Winchester rifle. He smiled as he said it, but I nearly shattered the fragile wineglass I was drying from the convulsive clench of my hands.
It was no joke to speak of killing fairies. To fail is to die; to succeed is to become addicted, until you eventually fail.
By the light in my uncle’s eyes I wondered if he had already killed a fairy, sometime in his past.
When all had gone to bed I slipped from mine and went to the edge of the woods, heart pounding with the knowledge I must be done soon, before my uncle began a blood-feud I had no power to finish. The fairies had left a reply, growing soggy in the remnants of rainwater; little Mary’s hair ribbon, frayed and stained with dirt, and weighted with a rock that did not come from the woods. I turned it over in my hands, trying to remember where I had seen its smooth, dark shape before, and when I remembered blood surged as hot in me as a furnace.
I almost wanted my uncle to kill all the fairies in the wood. I wanted, in fact, to take every young sapling in the woods and wrench it over until it snapped, sap oozing out green and viscous as fairy blood. I wanted my tooth back, and I wanted to set fire to the woods that I thought I could bargain with.
The fairies didn’t have them. The rock was from the bridge; the bridge beyond the wood. I had thought the fairies would have stopped them before they got there, that they would have that much care.
But no. Now I had to deal with the Troll.
The next morning, I cooked poached eggs for my stepmother and promised her that I would find some trace of Mary and James today. My uncle scoffed when she told him what I’d said, but conceded defeat when my stepmother began to wail at him. He even acted friendly all the way out the door, but when we reached the edge of the woods he gave me and the bulky bag I was carrying a scornful look and turned away.
“Have your picnic lunch somewhere out of the way,” he said, tucking his rifle beneath his arm. “Wouldn’t want to meet you in the woods while we’re busy. You might end up on the wrong end of a bullet.”
I kept my hands quiet against my sides.
Once or twice I heard them, while I walked through the woods – a far-away shout or gunshot, a crashing of underbrush. The displeasure of the fairies hummed in the air, making the hair on my neck stand up and my skin prickle, and all I could do was bite my lip and sidestep, not treading on any plants – saying I am sorry, I am sorry as best I could. Still, the woods that once were so reluctant to let me go almost spat me out when I reached the clearing of the bridge.
It was an old bridge, humpbacked over a slow-running stream, with moss growing between every stone. I had not crossed it in many years, and it took all my nerve to set foot on it now. But when I had reached the center, and fear was almost swallowing my resolve whole, something gave me strength; a scrap of James’ coat, caught between the joinings of one stone and another. They had been here. With that knowledge in me I picked up my foot and stamped as hard as I could.
When the bridge began to move I ran back to the bank, and turned to watch as the bridge became the Troll. Stone muscles rolled and bunched, stone hands lifted from one bank as stone feet shifted on the other; old, wet green eyes looked at me from the shadows, and with a mighty heave the Troll turned itself around and sat down, shaking the ground, in the streambed.
Back to cross me so soon, little maid?
I shook my head. I had learned my lesson when I was five, and crossing the bridge had lost me all my friends. Then, the Troll had not taken; it had given: sight to see the fairies with, and knowledge that gifts could be as deadly as a curse.
Then what are you here for? The Troll’s moss eyes bored into me. Up at its rocky right thigh, the stream began to swell and pool. The streambed to its left was already reduced to mud, and I could see that there were no new skeletons. That much was a relief.
I showed my locket, the little pictures of Mary and James.
The Troll laughed. They were stupid enough to cross me, even when warned not to. They are gone, little lambkin. It made a show of rubbing its bulging stomach.
I began to empty my bag. The Troll watched, its craggy face unreadable.
The only keepsake I had of my mother was a long feather from an old hat, imbued with her perfume. I planted it in the muddy streambank at the edge of the rising water. Next to it I laid my father’s collection of silver coins from all the countries of the world, the only thing of his that he had left to me.
You offer old memories, the Troll said drowsily. I have plenty of those.
I held out a little red box that held my baby teeth in silent plea.
And I already stole the sweetness of your childhood when you were younger. What’s left now is bitter and boring.
It began to turn, to hunch itself back into the shape of a bridge. Frantic, I waved my hand at it. Mercifully, it paused, and I found myself with only a moment to consider, a moment to make a final offer.
Heart in mouth, I took out my penknife and cut the tip of my finger.
The Troll shook with laughter. You offer a sacrifice in return for the brats? It considered, then sank back into a sitting position, sending a wave of water up onto the bank. Agreed, if only for the novelty of the thing. I won’t be so lenient again.
From the mirth in its voice I could tell it thought I would volunteer myself. I was not so brave, however, or so foolish as to think that my family could survive without my knowledge of the fairy speech; I wrote my uncle’s name upon the stone.
The Troll’s expression soured, but it had already agreed to the deal. It hunched itself back into a bridge, spraying my face with dirt and sweeping away my offerings, and Mary and James stood dazed upon its back.
I did not need to say anything to remind them of how foolish their decision had been; they ran to me and clung, James sobbing softly and Mary’s eyes as round as dinner-plates, and we began the walk home in silence. The wood, mollified now that my uncle’s hunt seemed to have ceased, spread open a wide green path for us, and for once it actually led straight home.
My stepmother was standing in the doorway, talking with my uncle; she screamed in joy when she saw her children and they fled me – their rescuer, but still a creature too close to the dark woods and deep streams for their liking – for her arms. My uncle strode over to me, face dark with anger.
“Where did you find them?” he snapped. “What’s been happening?” Where have you been hiding them? echoed, unspoken, behind his words.
The bridge, I signed, and for once he understood me without my stepmother translating. He snatched up his gun, and went into the woods alone. His friends, it seemed, had already gone home, and my stepmother was too busy cooing over the little ones to notice her brother’s departure. It was just me looking after him as the woods swallowed him whole; just me to close my eyes and say a prayer for him. He was my kin, after all.
Truth be told, I would shed no tears if the Troll got the bad end of this deal. That’s why I didn’t mention the silver bullets, after all.
About the Author
Maureen Tanafon lives in New England, with the ghosts and monsters. When she was younger she always called the many tollbooths in the area ‘trolls’. Her work has appeared in Vitality Magazine and Daily Science Fiction, and she blogs sporadically at https://gloriousmonsters.wordpress.com.