The fourth chapter of my new novella Something Familiar, is now up on Curious Fictions (along with chapters 1-3), in the event that you need a teaser or a try before you buy option.
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.
It’s not easy being a mouse. It’s even harder for one of us. We’re not like other mice. But we often wish we were.
I’m Pushkin, keeper of the chronicles. I will teach you young ones just as I remind the older ones. It’s my responsibility to keep the records accurate, untainted by fear, unclear memory, or nostalgia. I recount the saga as it was taught to me, and add to it in my turn.
Our distant ancestors, those who lived eight and nine generations ago, were regular lab mice. There was nothing spectacular about them. They were chosen at random for research on a terrible brain sickness afflicting human elders. Our meek predecessors underwent frightening procedures, and many didn’t survive. But mouse deaths are not mourned. Our mortality rate has always been high compared with other mammals. This is the natural order of things. In the wild, mice have a number of predators to evade. Food is scarce. Winter is brutal. But we are no longer natural. Order has been disturbed.
The experimentati who survived the procedures are our forefathers. They were the first of our kind to carry human genetic information within their bodies. I will read to you from the books of Chaos, the Trotsky chronicles. He was the first to record our history for future generations.
At first the new genes were foreign and our immune systems treated them as such. Eventually our bodies began using the new codes, weaving them into our own genetic structure, making us something new and different. We had great opportunities, and we didn’t realize how precarious our situation was. It would, in fact be some time before our danger became clear.
But we know. It’s always left for later generations to understand.
At night our altered predecessors would sneak out of their cages, the nests the humans had made for them. Initially they merely wished to rifle through the scientists’ paperwork to see what had been done to them and why. Their nightly sojourns gave them access to the humans’ greatest learning tools.
We grew to love literature and philosophy. We began to see the value of science and technology. Many in our ranks have taken to these pursuits as eagerly as our human sponsors. Some thought this would make the humans proud. Others simply sought to gain knowledge. It appeared that we were improving ourselves with our own advancements. We, too, could become a great civilization. We could join forces with the humans and stamp out hunger, poverty, and moral degradation. The world was ours for the taking and the possibilities were endless.
In less than one night it was all lost to us.
Remember this, children, as you make your way through life. Nothing is ever certain. The things we think of as stable and secure can change as quickly as the wind.
How were we to know that human culture was still so riddled with violence and contention? True, their stories and plays were rife with these themes, but we thought they were allegorical. We assumed they’d grown beyond such base behavior. With science to lead the way they couldn’t possibly be so unevolved. In our isolated lab we were entirely unaware that we had become a political issue.
Our kind was cast out of the idyllic carefree world of academia and thrust into the cruel and unforgiving real world. Life has become a fight for survival. In many respects our ancestors suffered disillusion and a fall much like that described in one of the humans’ most renowned texts.
It was an evening much like any other. As we settled in for the Lab Performers’ latest Shakespearean extravaganza, a tragedy of course, we heard the stirrings of humans in our building. It was well past the environmental staff’s time, and it had been our experience that they stayed no later than necessary. It was clear something was amiss, and we scrambled for our cages. Many of us had barely fastened the latches before the intruders burst through the door. They cut a swath of destruction of the likes we hope no future generation must face. They smashed computers and delicate equipment. As we watched, the paradise we so long thought of as our home was brought to ruin. We cowered in our shavings as they swept violently through the lab. All the careful studies we had aided our human counterparts with were strewn about in chaos.
It was much later that we discovered that our very existence was the heart of the problem. The vandals were so indiscriminate in their damage, we could only assume they had been stricken by some brain malady. We’d learned that humans were susceptible to any number of curious afflictions that could hamper judgment and temperament, and these individuals bore all the classic signs.
At the last minute, they gathered our cages and fled the building, tripping and bumbling through darkened hallways. We were hastily loaded into a number of vehicles, and we could only fear the worst. As we were hauled like so many packages through the night, Poe’s great and terrifying works came to mind. We were separated from friends and family. Whilst teetering on the verge of becoming a brilliant civilization in our own right, we were being torn apart by a force far greater than we.
We’ve since learned that it is custom among humans for a powerful culture to destroy other cultures as a matter of course. It is something we don’t understand and have failed to implement. While humans may have plucked us out of our place in the evolutionary chain, they are not gods.
Without our trustworthy laboratory wall clock, there was no way to measure the passage of time. After a while, however, the cages were unloaded and we were dumped out in an open grassy place. We’ve since learned to call these particular places ditches and medians. The sky was dark and the noise of passing vehicles was yet another assault on our untrained, inexperienced selves.
Most of the first transgenic mice could proudly trace back four or five generations of captive life. They were completely unprepared for the wild and terrifying life of the city. They were left defenseless and without means. Not even a small pile of shavings was left behind for them to huddle in. It seemed they had been summarily sentenced to death.
It was with great relief that many of us were reunited with our loved ones. Most of our fledgling community had made it to that median along the interstate. There were few of our number we could not account for. It was not long, however, before it became clear that our luck had not improved.
Never caught in such a predicament as this, we were torn. Some insisted that our humans were bright enough to find us as soon as they realized we were gone. They wanted to stay where we’d gathered. Others feared the dark cold place and wanted to seek shelter. We weren’t safe, they argued. The bad humans might come back, and there was no telling what a deranged human was capable of.
As we debated the virtues of both plans, an owl swooped down on our group. Davash was taken in the attack. It was terrible to lose such a respected and valued member of our community. On top of all that had happened, it was too much. Divided though we still were, the majority of us chose to move on for the sake of survival. We could not wait for the humans to save us while our numbers dwindled from predation and the harsh elements. While a small group chose to retain their white coats and stay clustered where they were, the rest of us scrambled to darken our fur with mud. We sought cover in a large drainpipe.
We expected the morning to bring some measure of resolution or clarity, but we were faced instead with absolute despair. From our distant vantage point, marginally safe and warm, we saw a van pull up on the side of the road. We immediately recognized the professor in charge of our research. She hurried to the shivering group of mice who had waited through the long frozen hours of the night and gathered them with her own hands. She even took the bodies of those who had not been able to endure the cold. She didn’t hear our cries as we rushed across the grass, still patchy with snow. She didn’t see us as we bolted toward her, desperate to leave this nightmare world and return to our cozy familiar home.
She did not find us. We weren’t swift enough. Those who had kept faith with the humans were taken home while the rest of us were left in the ditch to perish. We waited for her to return, but she never did. It was too late for us.
We stayed in the drainpipe for a few weeks before moving on to find more suitable housing. Refugees in search of a new land to call our own, we have not been welcome anywhere.
We simply can’t associate with aboriginal mice. They know nothing of philosophy and literature. Their language skills are appallingly basic. It seems they have no more interest in us than we have in them. Our white coats, a genetic marker that we all bear, identify us as different even among our wild brethren, making us vulnerable and suspicious. But it’s a simple matter to color our fur with soot and dirt, and a dark coat has become an important accessory in our nighttime lurking. This is why you are never allowed to leave the warren in your natural state. Only in emergencies will we venture out as such.
Ironically, we’ve learned that the humans who brought such devastation upon us, genuinely thought they were doing us a favor. Animal rights activists by trade, they seemed to believe they were rescuing us. It’s been argued that they were a bit insane as well, since mice bred in captivity obviously have little hope for survival in the cold Minnesota spring.
We tried to make contact with humans, but have been unable to establish meaningful dialogue with them, since they prefer to kill us on sight. As they wear no badges or uniforms of loyalty, we can’t determine who belongs to which factions, complicating our efforts. We have also been unable to locate the lab that spawned us. Our history is old news and the humans have forgotten it. Perhaps our project was discontinued after the attack. Or it may have received higher security. The lab itself may have been turned over to other projects while ours was relocated somewhere safer. Regardless, we do not plan to return to the lab as a home, even if we find it.
We still lack a place of our own. As mice have always done, we’ve found temporary housing within apartments, homes, warehouses, and libraries. We especially liked the library, but we were chased out with the usual fog of toxic gas. We aren’t welcome anywhere. We don’t make good house guests. It’s true, we have some bad habits. Many can’t be helped. While we have become so much smarter and wiser, many of our basic instincts have remained intact, most notably those to reproduce and chew things to bits. Nesting we call it. The unfortunate paradox is that we’re smart enough to recognize these bad manners. We realize it’s foolish to reproduce at a rate we can’t realistically support. We know we get offered poison because humans think we might chew their electrical cords and burn down the house. While we would never do such a thing, a common mouse might. We understand and respect electricity, but no one could expect that from an aboriginal mouse. People aren’t willing to listen when we try to tell them we aren’t ordinary mice.
It’s lamentable that we can’t change our instincts, and our scientists have only made small advances in modifying our behavior. This has created great guilt and remorse. We mate. Then we feel bad about it. We chew something up. And we feel miserable. It’s a dreadful cycle destined to repeat in every generation. Our legacy. Our tragedy.
Some have suggested that reining in our instincts is the only way to return to the paradise of the lab. Only then will the Great White Labcoats, those who made us white in their image, permit us to return. It’s a lesson, they say. They are welcome to their opinion, but it’s not popular. Not anymore. We have been ignored for too long. We have learned that humans are an even more imperfect and barbaric species than we. There is no longer any reason to worship them. Indeed, it is past time for them to learn the consequences of their often careless actions.
I shall read a section from the books of Rebuilding, the Vitner chronicles.
Our efforts have finally restored our information resources. We have been using the library extensively to research human history. We have also gained access to the internet, as we have been attempting for some time. The online accounts are naturally biased, but the themes are consistent and certain facts stand out. In human culture it appears to be the winner who records history, making us somewhat of an anomaly. We are in no position to declare ourselves winners. The humans could easily destroy us if they were of a mind to. It is with this concern, as well as the evidence against them, that we have discontinued our attempts to contact them. In all likelihood, they would view us as a threat. An aberration to be eliminated.
There have always been humans who have fought for ethical change, but their successes have been limited at best. They are the overshadowed, ignored minority and the impact of a society is but a reflection of the majority. Morality has also been an excuse for the most heinous of acts; murder, rape, and war. It conveniently excuses ignorance and the failure to consider consequences.
Vitner was an untiring champion of the search for data. He returned with many discoveries, aiding us all in our efforts to strengthen our civilization. He and his researchers were the first to discover the most grave human crime.
TOTAL GLOBAL EXTINCTION.
It is bad enough that they destroy each other without a care, but they consider all life on this planet, and indeed, any life they encounter anywhere, inferior and subordinate. They have no conscience when it comes to harming or killing creatures outside their own narrow gene pool. They consider such control as their privilege and natural right. But they no longer understand the ways of nature! They no longer see that they are merely a small part of this planet’s ecosystem. We are outraged and revolted by the sheer number of species they have utterly destroyed, to say nothing of the individual lives lost. When this was reported at the open meeting, the words could scarce be heard for the retching of the audience.
The humans exterminate what they do not understand, what they do not like, and anything that falls within the hazy bounds of irrelevant. They will destroy for profit or momentary pleasure. Our scientists recently calculated the point of no return for total ecological breakdown based on current human behavior and propensity to adapt. These results have altered our ultimate focus beyond our own survival. It is now our goal to interrupt the cycle and preserve the Earth, by wresting its guardianship from the humans. We should be able to take custody with a few generations to spare.
We are a disrupted species. But we are no longer confused, and we have hope. We make progress in every generation. Our advancements will continue. Our civilization will not be stamped out, but will continue to grow and thrive. And someday, our descendants will teach the humans the mistake they made in toying with our genes and turning their backs on us.
“Transgenesis Meeses” appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated issue 26, edited by Eric M. Heideman and published by TOTU Ink in October 2005.
Inspired by an infestation of mice in my house and a PETA raid on a University of Minnesota Alzheimer’s research lab.
Despite the heat of the day, the forest was cool. It was truly the only place to be, if one had any choice in the matter. Kevesh waded through the shallow stream, his great taloned feet sinking in the soft mud and sending out eddies of cloudy water behind him. Although he was one of the largest creatures in the forest, he watched where he walked. He carefully stepped over a painted turtle peering up at him with some concern.
“I see you, little shell-friend,” he called softly, not wishing to disturb the forest with his usual booming voice.
Though most of the water in the slowly moving stream was stagnant, it was cool. Kevesh held his wings flat against his back as he pushed headlong between two pines at the water’s edge. His scales protected him from the worst of the prickly branches, but it hurt to catch a wing that way. Yes, there it was. The hollow he’d dug into the side of the hill had grown thick with moss since his last visit. It would be a comfortable place to wait out the heat of the day. As he took a deep breath, nearby branches and fronds wafted toward him. He loved the smell of the forest in the summer. The only way he’d ever been able to describe it was ‘green,’ like wet ferns. But then, dragons weren’t fond of fancy descriptions and gold-plated words.
As he settled himself on his bed of politrichum moss, he recognized the distinctive rounded leaves of wild mint. He grinned, then rubbed the side of his muzzle through the plants, smearing himself with the juice. It was turning out to be a perfect day.
He’d chosen this particular place because it was comfortable, yet it provided him with a variety of things to watch. At a hundred and fifty, he was too young to sleep a whole day through the way older dragons might. Water bugs skated across the surface of the stream and small pools of standing water. The thick full plants shook from the passage of a muskrat who occasionally stopped to snack on the varied flora. Every once in a while a bird would sing out, or squawk in protest, but this appeared to be a time of inactivity for them. A low bridge connected the well-worn dirt path that reached the stream on both sides. In the past he’d gotten to watch, unseen, as humans used the little bridge in their travels through the forest. He couldn’t see the two frogs carrying on a conversation on the other side of the bridge; it was as well he wasn’t a gossip. A red squirrel, chirping in alarm, ran partway up a nearby birch, turning to continue his harangue at an unseen opponent below.
Kevesh had just settled his head on his forearms when he heard the approaching hoof-beats of a horse. He grinned again. Humans were peculiar and fascinating creatures, and he’d spent a great deal of time trying to figure out just what they were all about. How he’d love to write a paper on their culture. He sighed. They spooked easily, making them difficult to research.
“Let me down!”
The sharp voice pulled Kevesh out of his contemplation. A delectable looking white steed paused at the edge of the bridge. Naturally, his master was a knight in shining plate armor. The protest had come from a young maiden squirming in the knight’s arms.
“I said, let me go!” she shrieked, struggling against his hold. Most of her sandy hair was pulled back in a braid, although some had come free to hang about her oval face.
The man laughed. “Do you think I care one way or the other what you say?” He tightened his arms around her. “You belong to me now, Mirabelle. The sooner you accept it the easier it will be.”
“Belong to you?” she demanded. “I don’t belong to anyone!” She pounded on his hands.
He laughed again.
Kevesh watched the man dismount, pulling the maiden with him. He’d never seen anything like this, but he’d always known that knights were despicable sorts and not to be trusted for an instant. There was a dull clank as the knight pulled off his helmet and dropped it nearby. His beard and mustache were blond, as was his cropped hair, and a ring of sweat circled his face. Holding Mirabelle by the back of her head, he kissed her. Although for a moment, Kevesh thought the man was trying to eat her face.
Mirabelle started to cry. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re mine, Mira. And you’re far too fine to leave alone.” He ran his dagger through the laces of her bodice, and with a swift jerk, the blade cut through.
“But, you’re a knight,” she protested tearfully.
He grinned at her, the kind of grin that raised the spines on Kevesh’s back. “Of course I’m a knight.” He kissed her again. “What did you expect?”
“You’re supposed to help people,” she insisted, pushing at his armor-clad chest.
“And I am.” There was that grin again. “I’m helping myself.”
She managed to get a hold of her emotions for a moment. “I’ve no wish to marry you, Sir Lavine,” she said, managing to sound very formal and self-assured.
He laughed, and Kevesh had to stifle the low growl he wanted to let out. “I’m not going to marry you Mira. But if I like you enough, I may keep you a while.”
“My father will kill you!” She batted at his hands as he worked the fastenings of her light blue skirt.
“He’ll do no such thing,” Sir Lavine corrected her quietly. “I resolved his little sheep theft problem and he owes me. He knows it.” He chuckled at his success, and her skirt slipped to the ground. He placed a heavy foot on it, preventing her from pulling it back on.
Her face was twisted in anger. “The thieves were a couple of starving children.”
The knight shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. I caught them, and when he finds you gone, he’ll know I’ve taken my reward.” He took advantage of her shock to loosen the tie of her full-length chemise, which slipped to her waist as the sleeves caught on her hands.
She belatedly tried to cover herself as Sir Lavine fought her quick hands. In the struggle, Mirabelle lost her chemise, but Sir Lavine lost his hold on her, and she scrambled toward Kevesh’s forest resting place.
“You can’t run away from me Mira. Where will you hide in the big dark forest?” He followed, not quite at a run.
Mirabelle nearly ran into Kevesh before she saw him, and he abruptly sat up. She stood frozen with fear.
“I won’t hurt you,” Kevesh whispered.
“But you’re a dragon,” she protested in a whisper, her earlier plight momentarily forgotten.
“I suppose you think dragons eat people,” he said. “That’s about as accurate as knights in shining armor rescuing the weak and downtrodden out of the goodness of their hearts.” He got to all four feet and pulled her toward him. It was to her credit that she didn’t scream or faint. “Stand behind me, and I’ll see what I can do about this knight of yours.”
Sir Lavine pushed through the trees and stared at Kevesh for a moment, completely stunned. “Run Mira!” he shouted. Trained reflexes springing to action, he jerked his sword from it’s scabbard. “It’ll eat you!”
Kevesh let out a deafening roar, and the entire forest seemed to go silent. Sometimes it was nice to be a dragon. “The lady Mirabelle will not be taking any more of your advice, Sir whatever you call yourself.” He casually batted the sword out of the knight’s hand. As the knight ran toward his horse, equally panicked by the sight of a dragon, Kevesh followed, stomping his feet in an excess of draconic glee. Yes indeed, these were the times when it was terrific to be a dragon.
Once he was sure the man was gone, and not likely to come back with one of those stupid poking sticks, which could be quite a problem if one wasn’t careful, Kevesh carefully picked up the discarded clothes. He brushed them off as gently as his claws would permit, and turned back toward his hollow. Mirabelle was peeking out from behind the trees, watching him. Her eyes were a lovely green, and he was surprised to see the color in a human face. Perhaps they weren’t so different after all.
“I imagine you’ll want these back,” he said, holding out her clothes. Humans were exceedingly odd about concealing their bodies. Kevesh had often wondered if it was a necessary adaption to protect what appeared to be very thin skin, or if it was the result of one of their bizarre religions.
She stepped forward, still timid, and took her clothes. She quickly pulled on her white chemise, all the while thanking him profusely for his assistance. “I don’t know what I would have done if not for you…” she paused suddenly. “You do have a name, don’t you?”
“I’m Kevesh,” he said with a nod.
“Well, Kevesh, I don’t know that a dragon has any use for the aid of a human, but is there anything I can do for you?”
“You mean that?” he asked. On his few close encounters with humans, most couldn’t wait to get as far from him as possible.
She nodded, smiling.
Kevesh thought about his paper. “Would you come home with me? I’ve a research project I could really use your help with.”
“Go home with you?” she asked hesitantly. “You mean, to live with you?”
“Oh yes. For a little while at least.”
“I don’t know. It isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“We could have lots of fun, and I’d get to do my research. The elders have been telling me for years that there’s no way I’ll finish my project. If you’ll help me…” Just considering the implications made him shake his head. “I have some very good ideas, and I suspect it could be beneficial to people too.” He refrained from using his normal persuasive expression. She might just run off to find that stupid knight, thinking him less frightening.
She thought about it “I can’t really go home. After the way I disappeared, what would they think?”
“Please come with me, lady Mirabelle?”
Swallowing the last of her hesitation, she gave him a low curtsey. “It would be an honor to assist you in your research.”
“Well then, why don’t you hop on?” He looked pointedly to his back.
She stared at him a moment. “You mean, ride you?”
“It would take a long time to get to my home if you were to try it on foot. The mountain would surely be impossible.” He crouched down. “Flying’s fun, Mirabelle. You’ll like it.” He let his enthusiasm creep into his voice. Flying was another great thing about being a dragon.
He directed her to use his front leg as a step up to his back, just to the front of his wings. Although she seemed a bit unsure of the concept, she was very cooperative. He was a little more than twice the size of a good war horse and he suspected she was used to riding horses.
“What do you eat?” Kevesh asked, wondering if they would need to stop somewhere on the way. “I’ve never had an occasion to dine with a person before.”
“Oh, I’ll eat most any vegetables, fish or meat…” She paused. “What do you eat?” her voice was uncertain.
His graceful neck allowed him to look at her even as she sat astride him. “Certainly not people.” He made a face. “Too many small bones to get stuck in your throat. And it’s a long throat to have things stuck in. Besides, I hear humans cause bloating, and it’s a bad idea for a fire breather to get gas.”
“Oh,” she looked surprised.
“I eat a lot of meat though. I’m a pretty good hunter,” he said with a bit of pride. He began walking them out of the forest then.
“So you don’t eat people, but you do breathe fire,” she said, as if trying to reconcile fact with myth.
“Can you really see halfway across the planet?”
He hadn’t heard that one before. “Oh no. Dragons are actually quite nearsighted.”
“But… I thought flying predators had to have good eyes for hunting.”
He paused and flashed her a look. “You think I could make a meal out of a mouse?” He twitched his tail, a good length away, to indicate his size. “I just need to be able to spot a cow, or a sheep, and they’re plenty big enough for me to see.” He smiled.. “I think we have a lot to learn about each other. I hope you’re up for the task.”
“Oh, I am,” she insisted quickly.
He brought them out of the forest then. “Hang on Mirabelle. Time for your first flying lesson.” He could hardly wait to show her his home, and he was glad he’d tidied up earlier. He wasn’t sure what humans were used to, and he hoped they could make some sensible compromises. The chance to have a human room-mate was just too fabulous to pass up. His neighbors would be so jealous.
“Are all knights like Sir Lavine?” she asked as they took to the air.
It was the perfect time to dispel myths. “Trust me. I’ve seen my share of knights, and they’re no good.”
“Dragon Tale” appeared in the DragonCon chapbook Do Virgins Taste Better, edited by Celia L. Badon and published by 7-Realms Publishing Corp in August 2000. This was my first sale.
This story was written while sitting on a wooden bridge over a stream in the north-woods of Wisconsin, which ended up giving me the setting. It shows my penchant for both fractured fairy tales and turning the traditional hero into the villain
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
Lulu, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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).