Tulgey Wood

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

“Is that all she says?”

“Yes. Over and over. Same thing.”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

“What sort of rubbish is that? It doesn’t even sound like English.”

“Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s Jabberwocky. You know. The poem by Lewis Carroll?”

“That the guy who wrote about the magical wardrobe?”

“Not even close. What the hell kind of childhood did you have anyway? Didn’t you ever read Through the Looking Glass?”

“Irrelevant. Does she say anything else? Anything at all.”

“Well… not really.”

“You hesitated there. What is it?”

“Sometimes it’s as if she’s gotten stuck. She’ll repeat the same word over and over like she can’t remember the next line.”

“And then?”

“After a while she just kicks back in as if she’d never hit a glitch.”

“And what is this Jabberwocky…”

They think I can’t hear them, they think I don’t see what’s two feet away. Catatonic, they say. But I’m just ignoring them. They don’t know anything, and they’ll leave the room eventually. They always do.

I’m safe inside myself. No one can reach me here and there’s nothing that can hurt me. I don’t have to feel anything this way. I don’t have to fear anything. I’m disconnected from my body, and though I can’t exactly get around, that’s okay. I don’t need a change of scenery. I don’t need a change of pace. I like it just fine here inside myself where it’s safe.

“Beware! Beware! Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

They think I’m crazy. They think getting lost in the basement during a power outage was too much for me. They claim I freaked out; short-circuited, or something. Deep seated fear of the dark, they say. They’re so full of shit they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it showed up and bit their heads off in the middle of the night.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…”

There really is a Jabberwock. I’ve seen it. I’ve fought it. I thought my life was as good as over. But if I told them that, they’d still think I was crazy. So it’s better to hide inside myself, where it’s safe. Not even the Jabberwock can get me.

As a child I never had irrational fears of monsters or things that go bump in the night. Now I know better.

It was a stormy summer evening, and I’d tried to keep busy. There wasn’t much to do. The cable had been knocked out and the TV reception was crap without it. I couldn’t risk the computer to a power surge, it was too valuable. So I made myself productive. There was a lot of house to clean. I’d been sick all week and my husband was down with what he’d nursed me through. I let him rest on the couch with a book, occasionally bringing him something to drink.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I’m a klutz. The basement’s always been a bit creepy; but in a centipedes’ and spiders’ playhouse sense, not in a monsters’ feeding ground kind of way.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

I went down to check the laundry. I’ve always been obsessive about getting the clothes out while they were still hot. I avoid a lot of ironing that way. I’m not particularly good at ironing. Never was.

I folded the laundry in the basement, using the chest freezer as a table, and dropping the folded clothes into a basket for my husband to lug up the stairs. I’m also not particularly strong. You might call me a full-grown ninety pound weakling.

“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back…”

I was in the basement when our block lost power. I was more annoyed than scared. I knew my own house well enough to find my way out of it in the dark. And really, what’s to fear of the dark? If I didn’t come up soon enough, my husband would be down with a flashlight.

The basement in the dark is a terrible horrible place. It’s something all children seem to know. Parents dismiss it as a silly fear, but I think it’s an ancient instinct. Parents think they know best. Fools. They don’t like things that defy their neat and tidy logical world. In the dark, a basement becomes another realm; a maze populated with all the horrors of ancient epic, and a host of others never dreamed of. Ishtar’s wild bull can’t touch it. The Minotaur is a plaything. Grendel is nothing on the Jabberwock.

“Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came…”

I don’t know how long I stumbled around in the dark. My husband didn’t respond to my calls. My shouts. He blames himself for my condition. If I dared come out, for even a moment, I’d tell him it’s not his fault. He didn’t hear me because I wasn’t in our basement anymore. I was in the place where darkness was born. I was in the Tulgey Wood.

I stumbled into a hard wall, slick with the cool dampness of a limestone dungeon. The surface felt rough, nothing like the sheet rock we’d hung last spring. That should have warned me. But I told myself I was too dependent on my sight and didn’t know what I was feeling. I reminded myself of the old Halloween gag where peeled grapes pass for witches’ eyeballs. I tripped over obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. Instead of understanding, I cursed our tendency to let things go for too long before cleaning them up.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought…”

I eventually sat down on the damp and lumpy floor to wait. There was no point in continuing to bumble about in the dark, blindly walking into walls.

I felt a tickle as if light hairs were sweeping gently over my arm. I froze, hardly able to breathe. I was sure my heart would stop when the first spider was followed by others, all running across my bare skin. I tried to tell myself it was just my hair dangling down onto my arms, or brushing against my legs where I sat hunched up. But I knew better. It was the centipedes and other multi-legged creatures come to claim their domain. In the dark they have no fear. In the dark they can be as small as a broken pencil lead, or as big as a horse. They live with the Jabberwock. They share the spoils.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

It wasn’t until I heard the louder scuffles, the slithering noises and rustlings of larger things, that I realized something was wrong. That’s when I began to feel fear. You don’t really know what fear is until you’ve faced your basement in the dark.

The rough floor trembled slightly and I heard something approaching with great heavy steps. I called for my husband, thinking it was him. I saw the orange glow from around the corner and got up, virtually running to greet him.

No light burns quite like the fire in Jabberwock’s eyes. It’s red. It’s hot. It sears its imprint on your retina as you try to see. Never meet the eyes of a Jabberwock. In an instant you can know its mind, but it’s very like standing on the lip of an erupting volcano.

Jabberwock knows your fears; any and all of them. It’s been around longer than we have. It can’t come into our world except in the dark. It needs a basement, as a demon needs a gate.

“Long time the manxome foe he sought…”

Its mouth makes up a full two-thirds of its head and its eyes are the other third. Its nose seems to have been added as an afterthought, and I don’t think it relies on smell for much. For a beast the size of a hippo, it moves with the speed of a cheetah. Perhaps the laws of our world don’t apply to Jabberwock. Then again, the perfect conditions for it to come into our realm may align so rarely that it has to be fast if it wants time to toy with us. Jabberwock likes to play with its food.

It grabbed me in its two huge claws before my brain could even register surprise. I’ve never been a screamer. But I was that night. I shrieked until my throat was raw. I screamed until all that came out was a forced hoarse exhalation. It roared its triumph. It stomped its four great feet in celebration. I struggled. I kicked and squirmed. The logical part of my mind had been reduced to a quivering mass of incomprehension while I fought for my life.

“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

When it tried to put me in its mouth I must have triggered a long dormant berserker gene. My father hasn’t traced the family back to Norway yet, but I suspect he’ll find that link soon enough. I kicked and bit and scratched and howled in protest all at the same time. I somehow broke loose. The fight itself is still a blur. It grabbed me and I got away, again and again. It knocked me against a hard stone wall, but I refused to pass out. I refused to lay still and die. I ran behind it and grabbed its pathetic string of a tail and sank my teeth into it. Bit it right off.

“He took his vorpal sword, vorpal sword, vorpal sword in hand…”

Jabberwock’s blood is foul beyond the most noxious sewer sludge. It smells of a hundred rotting corpses sitting in the summer sun two weeks after they should have been buried. It burns like acid that peels the skin right off your body. But I had no vorpal sword. No magic blade to chop off its head and be done with it. I had to endure the sickening stench and wretched pain, and even seek it out if I wanted to survive.

Jabberwock howled in rage. It grew less interested in playing and more intent on killing me and eating me. Not necessarily in that order. It grabbed me by the hair. I bit its nose. We fought in a haze of teeth and feet and claws. I poked its fiery eyes. It slapped me across the room. I broke an arm. Jabberwock lost a tooth.

“Beware the Jabberwock…”

When the lights came back on, Jabberwock vanished with a screech of protest. It had not conquered me. It was sent home unwilling, but I knew it would be back, looking for me and the opportunity for revenge.

I collapsed in a daze; the adrenaline crash was phenomenal. There wasn’t a piece of me that didn’t scream out in pain. I hurt so much I wanted to die, but I hadn’t the means or the energy. I couldn’t move. My throat was too raw to cry for help. I lay there until my husband woke from his nap hours later and came looking. By then I’d retreated to the safest possible place. I’d followed that recessive berserker gene to its little hidey hole for safe keeping. Nothing can hurt me here.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?”

They think I’m crazy, but I’m not. They don’t know what lives in the dark. And they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. I’m not ready to face the Jabberwock again. Not just yet. So from my place of safety I whisper the charm that keeps the Jabberwock away. But I haven’t been idle. I’ve found the vorpal sword and can claim it as my own. Someday when I’m strong again, I’ll take up that sword and finish the job.



Inspired by my basement, irrational fear of the dark, and the poem Jabberwocky.

The Good Doctor

Dean let out a sigh as he settled himself in front of the old IBM Selectric. Completing death certificates could be tedious, yet there was something rewarding about getting every last detail correct. There were so many places to get hung up, but decades of small-town medical practice had refined his skills. He’d been working on this one for days, although he’d been anticipating it for some time. Some things were inevitable.

The state of Minnesota had moved to electronic death reporting, and many of the fields he’d been able to leave blank in his early days of practice were now required. The Office of Vital Statistics had streamlined and standardized the documentation of death, but the process wasn’t any easier. As county coroner, Dean had done enough of them, and no one was as familiar with the finer nuances as he. Things would not be the same with him leaving. So few physicians understood the importance of accuracy, and that included his well-intentioned successor. Proper death reporting was an under-appreciated art.

He looked up, glancing around the nearly empty room one last time. Everything but the table and chair had been packed away to be moved. He’d borrowed the typewriter from the clinic for this last duty. Content that he’d finally attended to everything else, and on schedule, he turned back to his immediate task.

He nudged the rocker switch, starting the old typewriter rattling. Once it had been on for a while, it gave off an oily electric smell reminiscent of the transformer for his old electric train set. He paused in thought, trying to remember what he’d done with the trains. He’d taken everything into account, carefully assembling piles of boxes for his children in the large living room. It was no easy undertaking to pack up a life’s worth of belongings, sorting and discarding as needed, and he was pleased to have done it all himself. Ah, yes, he recalled it now. Two medium sized cardboard boxes from the attic had been carefully labeled “for Audrey.” His granddaughter had delighted in playing engineer at Christmas the year before last. Since he no longer took them out for himself, it made sense for her to have them. Relieved, he looked down at the legal size piece of paper pulled a third of the way through the rollers.

His chipper administrative assistant usually gave him a photocopy of the death certificate worksheet to scribble on. From that, she typed the death certificates into the computer, sending them on their merry way through the vast complexities of the internet. All he was responsible for was filling out the bottom half of the worksheet by hand. But sometimes his handwriting was difficult to read, and he didn’t want there to be any ambiguities. Unclear answers lead to difficulty for the medical examiner and the clinic, and he didn’t want to cause anyone undue trouble. He knew best what to put in the numerous required fields.

He’d filled in questions one through ten, including 1a to 1e, as well as all the parts of question four, on the first day. Then he’d let form VRV2000 sit in the typewriter as he packed and worked himself up to the rest. He had a mock worksheet on the table next to him to make sure he didn’t leave anything out. The highlighted fields were labeled, “required” and “required up to 50 characters” and “required if #42 is yes.” Every day he’d gotten a little farther, adding place of death (specify one), and county of death (required). He had some trouble with 19a Informant’s name (first, middle, last) and 19b Informant’s relationship (required). A call to the sheriff had helped set that straight. And that reminded him of his schedule. Sheriff Richard Alexander Schmidt would be arriving around nine thirty, and everything needed to be in order by then. Dean couldn’t afford to get side-tracked. Timeliness was crucial. Delays held up insurance payments, cremation, and often burial.

His fingers hunted and found the five digits of his medical license number. He was in the home stretch, the section of the form he was typically responsible for. Very often funeral homes completed the top half, but under special circumstances he’d done that as well. He cautiously depressed the gently vibrating keys, adding his name, nicely spaced above the line physician’s name and title. “Dean Orwala.”

32 “Physician viewed the body after death.” He leaned over the typewriter with his ball point pen to check “No.” He never managed to get the typewriter’s X to land exactly the box, and it looked tacky to have it off center. Boxes could be marked by hand, and it was important that it look right. This one had to be perfect. It was his very last death certificate.

Immediate cause of death a. “blood loss.” Interval between onset and death “Minutes.” b. “laceration to right carotid artery, self inflicted.” He paused and traced his left index and middle fingers over the pulse point on his neck. It was a much faster bleed than a wrist slashing, and the injury ruled out homicide. The angle of the incision, and the location, would prove to even the most suspicious that it had been done by a left handed individual, the decedent himself. That was important. The medical examiner always got involved if the matter of death wasn’t natural, and some examiners tended to go a bit overboard with their theories during the investigation of an accident or suicide. It caused undue heartache to have family or friends blamed or even questioned unnecessarily.

The telephone rang, and it took Dean a moment to recall that he’d been unable to get the old rotary phone off the wall. He’d decided to leave it for the new owners. They might think it quaint. He debated whether or not to answer the call. He was nearly done, but a long conversation could upset his crucial balance of time.

With a sigh, he picked up the receiver. “Hello?” He heard the click of an automated calling system and immediately dropped the phone back on its cradle. A telemarketer. He should have expected it. He returned to his chair and briefly considered putting “harassment by telemarketers” under 34 part II other significant conditions contributing to death, but that would be absurd, rendering the rest of the form suspect. The process would have to be started all over, causing no end of difficulties. He’d had to restart this form twice because of errors and if he made any more at this point, he wouldn’t be ready when the sheriff stopped by. Instead, he typed, “major depression and recent diagnosis of non-small cell lung cancer.”

Time of death. “9:15 PM.” He gently pulled the form free of the typewriter’s grip, then compared it with his template. He completed the check boxes at the bottom just as the clock in the hall belted out the hour, nine chimes that echoed off the bare floors and walls. The clock in the entry was the only thing he hadn’t taken down, because keeping accurate time was more important than his other preparations. Everything else was boxed and labeled for its destination. The hardest had been his wife’s dresses, which she would never wear again. He’d kept them in her half of the closet since she’d died two years ago. He’d never quite let go, and folding them away had been almost more than he could bear.

They couldn’t stay here once he was gone and he wanted to make the move as easy as possible. He didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone. That reminded him of something else, and he tugged the business sized envelope out from under the edge of the typewriter. He opened it and leafed through the twenty dollar bills. Nodding, he sealed the flap and set it to the left of the old Selectric. Face up, the addressee could be seen. Mary’s Cleaning Service.

He unlocked the front door for the sheriff and put the clock in the box he’d set aside for it. He was done and the timepiece was no longer needed. He left form VRV2000, now signed, on the table beside the envelope and typewriter. In his big overcoat, draped over the back of the chair, he found a wooden box, long and thin. It had once held a pen with his name inscribed on the barrel, and it was the perfect size to hold his favorite surgical scalpel, smuggled out of the office this afternoon. The sharp and familiar steel had been his closest companion during innumerable procedures, both simple and complex. Together they had shared fear and relief.

Dean opened the box, and with the scalpel handle nestled comfortably in his left hand, he made his way to the upstairs bathtub where its fiberglass enclosure would not be stained by blood.



For several years one of my jobs involved helping new doctors complete death certificates. I also typed and submitted them for doctors who’d been doing this a while. This story came from some of the conversations we had.

Peony

Birth does not always call attention to itself. It is not necessarily a thing of beauty. There is not always screaming, although sometimes that simply comes later.

The stainless-steel kitchen sink was half full of water so cold the bare sides above were fogged and condensing. The shiny silver faucet was dotted with sweat, and droplets slid one by one into the pool of water below. Two recently clipped peonies floated on their petal heavy heads, their stems sticking straight up in the air like some sort of backward bouquet. Small groups of ants gathered in the green cup where the stem joined the blossom. Some had climbed the stem to hang precariously on upside-down leaves. Floating lifeless in the water were the casualties who had not made it from their places deep within the flower before the deadly flood reached them.

One of the flowers bobbed up-and-down a couple of times before tipping onto its side. The ants scattered. There was a rustling of petals at the center of the flower, so hesitant at first it was barely noticeable. Then it picked up a frantic pace. A slender black thing, like the leg of a spider, poked out from between the pale pink petals. It was followed by others, twelve in all, attached to a body that seemed much too small for such long limbs. The whole thing was probably no larger than a quarter, but it was growing. It dipped itself into the cold water and the legs elongated as though the process had been caught on film and speeded up.

Like its limbs, its oval body was black. At one end it had a short pointed tail, not even a tenth as long as its legs. At the other end, its tiny bird’s skull of a head was raised up on a spindly neck. The creature was now heavy enough that the peony could no longer support it, so it set itself free in the water. It sank below the surface for just a few seconds before its growth permitted it to stand with its head above the water.

It looked at the peony from which it had come. Mother, it thought. The petals were thickly crowded together, concealing anything that might be hiding inside. In clumps, small white hairs with pollen yellow tips peeked out from places near the center. The petals were light, almost pastel, although some near the edges bore darker streaks of magenta. It was beautiful; perfect. No flower had ever been so right. The creature leaned closer and inhaled the same heavy perfume that was so familiar. The soothing smell had been a constant throughout its whole existence. Its beaky face nuzzled against the petals, smearing its forehead and the ridges under its solid blue eyes with the comforting scent that spoke of home and safety and love.

It leaned back and admired the blossom one more time, then with great speed darted forward and snapped its maw. It got half the flower in one bite, and the other half in the next. It ducked its head under the water to snatch the stem from the bottom of the sink where it had settled. Delicious. Its legs were now sticking out all over, draped across the counter tops and in front of the cupboards beneath the sink. It owed the other flower no allegiance, and snapped it up without admiring it first. It was terribly hungry. It was growing so rapidly.

It reached up, extending its scrawny neck, and bit off the end of the faucet with a crunch. The metal was a little hard on its teeth, still soft from being so new. The faucet was not good. It swallowed it anyway, because it had to eat something, then it looked around the counters for something better. There were dishes, but they were as bad as the faucet. Some were worse.

It slurped some of the water and wriggled its long legs. They poked out of the sink at odd angles and dangled into free air. It peered down and realized it could reach the floor without a long drop. Ravenous and delighted, it pulled itself clumsily out of the sink, and slipped to the linoleum with a soft clicking of its pointed little feet. It sniffed at the air. There were more flowers nearby. But even better, there was something larger. It was making noise in another part of the house, humming like no bird or insect the creature had heard during its infancy. The flower picker, it thought. Surely it would provide enough of a meal to stop the painful churning of its stomach.

Giddy, it scampered through the house, following the humming.

The Beach

The west end of the beach was a picture of chaos framed by the orange of the sinking sun.

Donna watched, curiously detached, ignoring the sand that was creeping into her shorts.

The wind blew her hair into her face, and she reached for the purse she’d never wanted. Mothers’ purses were full of scraps of paper, crayons and trash. She dug through the folds of the imitation leather bag, pushing aside the comb. Her hair would only re-tangle in this wind. She was too much like her own mother, she thought, as she shoved the empty wrapper from a stick of gum into a corner. There it was. A tattered green ribbon lay twisted around a McDonald’s straw in the bottom of her purse. One never knew when they might need a straw. The ribbon was short, but it would hold her hair back for now.

She scooped up a handful of sand, plucking out the quartzite pebbles and precariously piling them on her knees. Once her collection was complete she wiggled her leg, dropping the carefully gathered stones to the sand. She felt stronger for destroying something she’d made.

The rescuers were still hard at work, their chains clanking together like so many little bells. With the sun as a backdrop, they were featureless profiles. The cry of triumph was quickly followed by one of dismay. Someone in the rescue boat held aloft a dripping empty baby stroller with seaweed dangling from the wheels.



“The Beach” appeared on Fearsmag.com in November 2001.

This was written as a challenge on the The Rumor Mill BBS, an early online gathering place for speculative fiction writers. The challenge was to write a 250-word story that included one of the following: a gum wrapper, a comb, a ribbon, a straw, or a baby stroller. As a smartass, I chose to include all five items, and then the story sold.

Der Erlkönig

Long ago the Earth was more wild, and the forest of the world held great power over humankind. The face of the world has changed, but some of this remains true.

In the shadows of Schwartzwald, the Black Forest, lived a powerful king known as Erlkönig, King of Alder. He stood over seven feet in height and was easily as majestic as any tree in his domain. His robe was the blue-gray color of mist. On his head he wore a crown of leaves, of a kind never found on any tree, perpetually held in the bright tints of autumn. He carried a staff as tall as himself, and although it could have been an imposing weapon, it was never needed. Erlkönig was one of the fair folk, and while human children saw a grand figure, their parents could see only an old gray willow, battered by the elements.

Alone in his vast forest, Erlkönig might have become quite lonely. Spotted woodpeckers, red deer, and badgers could participate in conversation on only a limited number of subjects, even such creatures as have been surrounded by magic. Foxes served him by choice rather than fear or obligation. Of humankind, the children were the most like him. They alone could laugh with abandon, and found pleasure in the simplest of things. Alas that human children grew up and took on the world’s troubles as responsibilities, extinguishing the spark within and blinding their eyes to his visage. It was the tragic fate of the human born. Their lives were short, and they lost all joy in the world so quickly. But he had a solution.

When a boy entered the forest with his father, Erlkönig knew. When a girl child traveled the narrow roadway, he was aware. He decreed that children trespassing within the bounds of Schwartzwald between dusk and dawn would never leave. The red fox carried the proclamation to all ends of the forest, but humans were ignorant of the true language of the wild.

When a child came under the shadow of the mighty trees, Erlkönig visited as soon as night fell. Perhaps it was unfair. No child could refuse him, and they rarely even considered it. Most quickly forgot to fear him as a stranger, ran into his arms without question, and never looked back. He was more handsome than anyone they had ever seen, and they could not turn away once he had caught their eyes. His gentle voice coaxed like the fairest music. Sometimes he sang, other times he lured them with promises of all the marvelous things they would do together. He did not lie.

In his forest, where he was strongest, around those he loved the most, his power enabled him to bind the vital essence of the child, forsaking his or her first form to become one of his own; fey children who would never have to understand the weeping of the world.


“Who rides through my forest so late this night?” Erlkönig asked as he stood at the edge of the well-traveled dirt road. He could hear the pounding of a single horse’s hooves, though it was still a great distance off.

“It is a father with his son,” the red fox whispered. “He holds the boy close to keep him warm.” He smiled up at the Lord of the Wood. “How considerate of him to pass through so close to winter, when few choose to travel with their kits.”

Erlkönig bent and caressed the fox behind the ear. “How right you are.” He straightened and stepped into the road, gathering his glamour about him like a cloak. The rider and his precious burden approached. Closer and closer they came. Erlkönig saw the travelers long before they could see him. To the father he was little more than a shadowy cloud of fog, haziness in a low spot under the trees. The horse slowed, then shied, keeping to the far edge of the path.

The boy let out a faint gasp of surprise, and turned his head to watch as they passed Erlkönig. His mouth was open, but no words came out. His round cheeks were pink from the wind and chill. His hat and scarf were free of threads and snags, suggesting that they could not be mere cast offs from an older sibling. In an age when most children went unshod, fine leather boots were visible under his blanket wrappings. He was a treasure, cradled in the arms of the man.

Erlkönig smiled. “You lovely child, come away with me,” he whispered. In Schwartzwald his voice carried to the ears of all children, be they near or far, if he wished it. “Many are the games I will play with you.”

The horse continued down the road, and the father forcefully turned the boy’s head to face front. The child became restless, squirming in his father’s grip. It was a common reaction when someone tried to hide Erlkönig from a child who had already seen him. Such young ones were already smitten, enthralled by the king who spoke so kindly and looked so beautiful.

On swift feet Erlkönig moved ahead of the horse and riders, and again waited for their approach. In his forest he could move wherever he wished as quickly as necessary. He was not bound by the rules that restricted humans. His eyes were keen, and he could see the boy thrashing, half-hidden beneath his father’s cloak.

“I will show you many colorful flowers, and dress you in golden raiment,” he said. The child saw him then, and stopped struggling. Erlkönig held his staff in his right hand and reached out with the left. It was important to him that the child came willingly, despite the fact that there was no choice. He did not intend to harm the boy with force, and fear was hurt enough to grieve Erlkönig. He worked his magic patiently, knowing he had all the time he needed.

Again, the horse spooked, sidling away as he came near. “Father?” the boy whispered in confusion as he leaned out to touch his hand to Erlkönig’s. The human child went limp in his blood father’s arms, his body quickly going cold. When the man checked, he would find his son dead. But standing in the middle of the road, holding the hand of Erlkönig was the same boy, turned fey. There was a healthy pale blue glow to his plump cheeks, and the light in his black eyes was brighter than it had been when they were hazel and he was yet a human child.

“Father?” the boy asked, reaching out with his free hand to grasp Erlkönig’s robe. “Were you calling me?”

“It’s late,” Erlkönig said gently. He raised the end of his staff to the sky. “The moon will soon take flight, and we’ve hardly had the chance to play.” Hand in hand they walked into the woods. “Let us leap to and fro, merry as we dance our way home.”

The boy laughed with delight and slipped loose to run ahead, free. Like a deer, he bounded over fallen trees and low-lying dips, spinning when he landed, and giggling when he fell into a pile of leaves and pine needles.

“Are you happy?” Erlkönig asked, easily keeping pace.

“Oh yes,” the child replied as his feet splashed through a puddle so small that it could scarcely bathe a star. He paused and stared at Erlkönig. “I love you, father.”

Erlkönig smiled. “And I love you, my stolen child.”


The mother was bereft. She knelt beside the body of her daughter and howled, an almost inhuman sound of unmeasurable suffering. Again, she grasped the prone child’s shoulders and shook her, begging her to wake. Her words were inarticulate and frantic, uttered in the desperation of one who knew it was too late. Holding the cold girl to her breast, the woman turned from despair to rage. She tipped her head back and shrieked her promises of revenge into the treetops.

Erlkönig was beyond her ability to curse.

He turned away from the road, following after the flighty child he had stolen. In sparing her the impoverished life she was destined to lead, he had done what was best for her, and that was what mattered. She would know no sorrow, and he would derive great joy from her happiness and freedom.


Over the decades and centuries, Erlkönig’s family grew. Visitors to Schwartzwald heard the echoing laughter of children high in the tops of the trees. The sound was faint, as if far away, yet the voices were clear and undistorted over the distance. Some said the forest was haunted, and others claimed it was bad luck. Others still, perhaps guided by some extra sense or exceptional wisdom, insisted it was a holy place not meant for the likes of humans.

Villages grew and expanded, cutting down more of the forest and splitting it, first in two, then four, shrinking woodlands, separate entities that were one in spirit. The roadways were widened and covered with gravel. A pungent black surface followed. Carriages were replaced with motor cars made with the death metal Erlkönig couldn’t penetrate or approach, even in his own domain. They spewed noxious fumes into the once pristine air. Many of the trees, his meek and defenseless children, grew sick. The animals became fewer. But Erlkönig refused to let his children suffer or worry because their playground had become smaller. He grew faery rings, allowing them to jump to the amputated portions of old Schwartzwald without nearing the dangerous roadways.

Over time, the tales of the haunted forest and the children who died there dropped into the realm of legend. Parents grew careless. Cars occasionally broke down, leaving the passengers stranded in the dark night. Boys and girls wandered off, looking for a convenient place to relieve their bladders, or simply meandering out of boredom. Away from the cold iron they could hear Erlkönig’s voice and see him in all his glory.

Then the forest stopped shrinking, and the air improved. It seemed that humans had discovered the folly in destroying everything that inconvenienced them, whether or not they understood it. While this made his home a safer place, Schwartzwald had been forever changed. Although some humans were more enlightened than those the Erlkönig first encountered, as a whole their progress was minimal. Many held little pleasure in the world or in their short lives. It seemed the world was a more tearful place than ever before. There were countless tragedies, crimes, and miseries, and upon reaching a certain maturity, humans were destined to accept guilt and responsibility for things they had no control over. They lost the spark that made life worth living. He would spare them all, if he could, but his power was bound to the forest and did not extend beyond the shadow of the trees.


The girl sat, unmoving, on a half-rotten log. Her father, a bare score paces away, was swearing from underneath the hood of his vile motor car. He offered periodic apologies and reassurances that they would soon be on their way, before turning back to the machinery that had failed him so completely.

She couldn’t have been more than ten, yet her expression was oddly adult. Exasperation mixed with the effort to control her temper. The fingers of one hand explored the cracks in the log. “It’s all right,” she called back to her father. “We’ll just have to be late.”

“I think she’s ready to cry,” the red fox said, then shook her head. “She’s all dressed up for a party. Look at those ribbons in her hair. And she’s accustomed to disappointment. You can see it.” She turned away. “I can’t stand it. I’m going home to my kits.”

Erlkönig brushed her tail with a finger as she fled. She’d become quite sensitive in their association, and understood his plight better than any of her predecessors. He watched the girl a little longer, puzzled by her ability to stay so still. She didn’t address her father again, although she occasionally turned her head, ever so slightly, pointing an ear in his direction. Then the Lord of the Wood realized her luminous gray eyes never moved, and he understood. He hoped it wasn’t too late; that she hadn’t already taken on too many burdens as a result of her blindness.

“Come away my child,” he whispered, relieved when her face turned in his direction. “Come to the wild.”

She looked both puzzled and awed, as she stared at him. Two small hands came up to cover her mouth.

She could see him.

He smiled, but took only the smallest step closer. “My fine girl, will you come away with me? My daughters await your arrival with great anticipation. Together, you will dance and sing.”

She turned toward her father, then back to Erlkönig. Because she saw him with pure sight, not human vision, he was the only thing she would see until she abandoned her imperfect physical form. Her beautiful face showed confusion. She frowned.

Never had one hesitated so. She was so near to losing her spark that she could consider her options and choose. “I love you, my child,” he whispered. He had to convince her, to save her from the fate her kind faced. While he knew he could use force, make her stay, the very idea repulsed him. “I wish for you to walk Schwartzwald at my side.”

As she gazed at him, her expression turned wistful. Finally, she stood and took clumsy steps in his direction. She held her arms out in front of her, as if expecting to run into something, as if disbelieving the one thing her eyes had ever shown her.

“Carefully, my dear,” he cautioned. She stepped in a hole and lurched forward. He caught her hands on the way down, pulling her gently from her human body.

She stared at him a moment longer before discovering she could now see everything around her. She flung her arms around his neck, burying her face in his silvery robe. She trembled and would not let go.

He carried her deeper into the forest, away from the road, and soon she calmed. They sat together on the damp earth of the forest floor, and she couldn’t stop looking about, running her fingers over the things she could now see. At last, her eyes settled on Erlkönig. “What have I done to deserve this gift?” she asked, her voice no more than a whisper.

“You came to me,” he said, patting her hand. “It is the only way I could have done it.”

The red fox and her four young kits scampered by, and the girl smiled. “Everything’s so beautiful. Especially you, father.” She looked at him again.

“Everything within my kingdom is wondrous fair,” he said as his long fingers tucked the black strands of hair behind her ears. “And you are in my kingdom.”

She blushed, her cheeks momentarily going a brighter blue, then her dark eyes went wide. “But I don’t even know what I look like.”

Erlkönig smiled and stood, holding one hand down to her. “We can find a pond for you to admire your reflection, and I assure you, you will be pleased.”

Together they walked through Schwartzwald, gathering his other children in a large entourage. “I love you, my father,” the girl said.

“And I love you,” he said. “I love all my stolen children.”

She looked straight at him. “Yes. But you will love me best.”


Humankind has dominion over much of the Earth, but the forest still has power over it. For Erlkönig of Schwartzwald is not unique to the forest of the world, and some of his kin have less kindly motives. The end of this story is unknown, and only time will determine who will live happily ever after.



“Der Erlkönig” appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated issue 29, edited by Eric M. Heideman and published by TOTU Ink in November 2008.  It has been reprinted in my 2015 collection Practice to Believe, available through 
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Influenced by the poems “Der Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (which I can still recite in German) and “The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats (which is performed beautifully by The Waterboys and Tomas Mac Eoin on the album Fisherman’s Blues).