Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Curl round the fire, dears, its too cold not to for you tiny ones." Great-ol-Gran smiled in the wispy light of the fire. The hairy mole covering her right cheek had a topography not unlike the moon, weird and soothing, in the warm orange living room. "Grandmother Huff is in bed already, so you two are to settle for me this evening. Toffee? Tea?"

Emma giggled, "Gran! It is past our bedtime and we haven't tooth brushes." Emma looked sidelong at Cliff. "We don't, do we?" she asked.

Cliff replied, sullenly, with a far away voice that they did not, in fact, have tooth brushes. His voice was quiet. He hugged his knees. The fire's reflection danced clear and nimble in his eyes.

Their clothes hung close to the fireplace, strung from a clothes line tied to the curtain rod and a nail hammered into the center of the door frame. Also hanging from the nail in the doorframe was something that looked like a poorly flattened blue shooter marble.

The curtains were velvet, and layered gold then green and covered the whole wall with the window. Even if it were noon, even if the winter storm were letting any light unto earth, the curtains wouldn't let it into this room. Thunder rattled the rack of tea cups.

"Think you two are staying here this evening, then," Great-ol-Gran sighed. "I'll put the kettle on."

"I'll do it, Gran." Cliff said.

"Aren't you a dear! Can you reach?"



Cliff got up, crossed and rubbed his arms. "Yes, Gran." He said, and stepped lightly out the room.

Gran sat quietly, her head cocked. When the sound of the kitchen door opening and closing faintly reached her she drew herself up under the purple and green, hand sewn blanket. "Emma." She began. Thunder rolled. "How is Cliff doing?"


"Yes. In school." Gran said.

"Fine, I think."

"Any friends?"

"Not really. Not that he talks about." It was Emma's turn to let the fire's reflection dance in her eyes.

Great-ol-Gran sighed. Thunder rolled in off the moors --its tail seemed to catch on the roof-- and rocked the house. The wind picked up, knocking the sleet and snow more bodily --audibly, loudly now-- against the house.

"I think he's in trouble with some bullies." Emma said just as the silence was about to settle. "He wouldn't tell me anything, but he's got bruises on his arms and back again --not from John and Jason, they've been busy with who-knows-what lately. There's this one boy, he's not in his class, but he shouted at Cliff as we were leaving the yard yesterday. He had a really London tone about him. Not in a good way."

Great-ol-Gran nodded. They let the silence settle, this time, and it settled tired in the carpet and the blankets such that when Cliff returned with goose flesh, a timid smile, and a tray with the steaming teapot and three mugs, no one managed to say anything. He set the tray, a simple oak thing with brass handles, on the (similar) table by Great-ol-Gran's chair.

Great-ol-Gran reached down, and handed Cliff a small, crocheted, lap blanket. Cliff huddled by her feet, snuggling like a cat, staring at the fire, as Great-ol-Gran poured them all tea. She slipped a toffee into hers, and stirred it with one of her lacquered wooden sticks. She handed the children their own steaming cups, and they held them gingerly, quietly, as the sleet whipped against the house.

They all stared quietly at the warm fire. The fire danced softly in the children's eyes. Great-ol-Gran closed her eyes. There was a boom of thunder, the sound crashing through the house, from the chimney, out through the door.

"When I was your age, Emma, we didn't have electricity." Great-ol-Gran said. "Trains were the best way to travel, but they scared the horses and blackened cities." She sighed. "We ate Hawthorne jelly and I collected eggs for the Bakers --that was their name-- down the hill. One morning, though I suppose you could have just as easily called it night time. I couldn't sleep, anyhow. It was a wet, late night, and our windows were drafty, but this was summer, so the voice of the wind was still loving. It woke me, the wind, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I dressed and I walked down the road in the dark. Just when I started to scare, the wind would come and push me forward, reassuring me, urging me on. When I came to the hen house, things turned sour."

Cliff and Emma turned to face Great-ol-Gran, and the fire caressed their shoulders, through their covers.

"I took the lantern from its hook, and lit it with a match. I'd saved up and saved up and I had my own match box. There was the a fox! It stared at me, cornered in the back of the hen house, brown muzzle and orange fur and black eyes. And do you know? I thought to myself: that poor fox. First night out and it got itself caught by me. Out loud, I asked: What are the odds? I swear, that fox shrugged. I shrieked and shrieked  until Mr. Baker --I never knew his first name-- he came, then left to get his gun. I helped patch up the side of hutch later."

Cliff nodded. "That's what you do to things like that." He said to the fire.

Great-ol-Gran frowned, unseen. "Cliff, what do you mean?"

"The fox was bad, so it got killed."

"The fox was hungry."

"It was stealing."

"It was taking what it needed."

"It was stealing. It was bad."

"It wasn't bad because it was stealing. It was bad because it didn't know when to stop. It would've eaten all the chickens and then everyone would've been eggless and it would've starved anyway."

Emma interrupted, "How do you know it wouldn't have just taken one chicken?" She sniffed. "Maybe it was a clever fox who would've raised a family of chickens for its own."

Everyone was silent for a moment, then, everyone laughed, even the wind: Whooping, whopping banging against the walls and the fat shutters that guarded the windows, far beyond the curtains.

Cliff was the first one to stop laughing. He watched the other two, a smile held on his mouth, but not in his eyes, as they sighed and wiped at happy tears. Cliff said, "

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bullet Before the Boom

The thorns drew blood in the darkness. The mist clung to their torn clothes and darkened everything. Cliff shuddered in their hiding place while Emma tried to warm them both.

Her voice was all aspiration while she fiddled with the torch switch."Cliff?" Emma asked, her mouth small, her eyes gleaming, "Cliff! Can you see?"

Cliff wiped his nose on his sleeve and looked past the electric torch. He nodded, squinting at shadows.

Emma held up her left hand --three fingers up. She asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Cliff turned his head, just a little. "Three." He said.

Emma nodded. "Close your left eye and tell me again." She asked, her voice trembling.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cliff and the Troll Part 1

Cliff was a lithe boy, mentally and physically.

He was the eleventh of ten planned children --his mother barely noticed his entrance worldly entrance, but his sister, Emma, took special note. She was the seventh and, luckily or not, was born with a debilitating club foot; its attendant cane, gifted to Emma by their maternal great-grandmother, who only had the one daughter, who had only one daughter herself, and veteran's widows were far better cared for, back when this all happened.

The other children had their own adventures and tragedies so full they filled any space that Grandmother Huff and their Great-Grandmother (Great-ol-Gran) might have nestled in.

Grandmother Huff and Great-ol-Gan lived together in a low cottage hanging off the bank of the South Pennines moors. They always had candy, though they called them toffees, and they read galloping romances and ponderous tomes alike, and mailed them endlessly through a circle of avidly literate, spidery, spinsters all around the country. "Our poor postman Pat," they'd say, and pour a cup of tea into a cup, and drop in a toffee and stir for a while with thin, endlessly lacquered wooden sticks that baffled Emma and Cliff.

By the time Cliff was six, (is it obvious?), Emma was twelve and walked with a wince and her cane and a stiff, straight back. She had brown, wispy hair, and eyes just like her youngest brother. Cliff and Emma had blue eyes. Their brothers John and Jason claimed Emma and Cliff matched the milkman more than their Dad. John and Jason, being the oldest two, laughed and swatted away or beat down Emma and Cliff's angry rebukes. John and Jason laughed and sling-shotted Emma and Cliff with their hardest hawthorn berries, calling after them, "One eye, one foot, tut tut tut tut!"

You see (haha) Cliff

. . . before we go any further, it is important to mention, I think, this: The Philips are not a family of eleven magical children, just like the Grandmother Huff isn't a witch. These things are not passed down willy-nilly just because someone managed to boff someone else in the back of a VW Beetle, somehow, under a plate moon once or thrice. 

Cliff doesn't grow up, just because he's lithe of body and mind, to be the world's greatest raconteur, gambler, or thief. Emma is not, and does not become some all powerful wizard who overcomes her club foot by learning to float, or by enchanting murders of crows to carry her around. She never flies once in this story, magically or otherwise. This is not that kind of story. It is quieter, and in places, meaner than all that.

I just wanted to lay out, dampen down, these expectations that might, at this point, be running amuck at the mention of a Troll. 

Now! Where were we?

You see, when they were together, Cliff never left Emma's side. He certainly could have run away from Jason and John's slingshots, but he didn't. He could have staved off frostbite, but he didn't. When lightning came from the blue and torrents nipped at their siblings' laughing heels, Cliff draped his coat over Emma's head and they slowly clomped up the hill to their tall, anorexic [government house]. They clomped through the rain slowly, with straight backs and stiff lips and twinkling, wispy eyes.

This time, the summer rain let up before Emma and Cliff made it anywhere dry or sheltered and the sun set to drying the dripping duo. It was the languid middle of summer, when even the bees seemed unconcerned with work --lingering on flowers and seeming to tilt their heads and smile.

The moors fluttered like a shallow ocean: waves and eddies sweeping through the grass, and flowers rippling from yellow to green to yellow and back as the wind swept by.

Emma stopped, and motioned to Cliff, who helped her unto the wall next to the road. She said, "Did you know they're building a bridge, over by the bed and breakfast?"

Cliff shook his head.

Emma continued, "Yeah. They're going to make it wide enough for two carts to pass over. The Millers are paying for it, but its been bad luck so far." A cloud passed in front of the sun and Cliff stopped shielding his eyes while looking at Emma. "The spot they chose is cursed, says Gemma Ranger. She says her Da says the tree spirits don't like such things and that the Millers will have to sacrifice to make the bridge come be."

"That doesn't make any sense." Cliff said. The cloud passed and he went back to shielding his eyes. "Spirits aren't real anyway, Ma and Gran say so." He squinted at Emma, rubbing his arms. "And Great-Gran says she chased the last of the spirits out of those woods when she was Paul's age. So there."

Emma stared at Cliff for so long he shuffled and made to hop off the wall, but he didn't. "Who said anything about spirits?" She finally said, calmly. They stared at each other while the sun fought off another cloud. Finally, Emma's resolve broke and she laughed and looked away. She tried to hop off the wall by herself. As she was spinning, her foot caught and she fell backwards, arms windmilling and grasping at Cliff, who was too surprised to catch her hand. She somersaulted down the wall with a thin bounce, and landed badly. Emma's club foot twisted with a pop as she crumpled to the ground. She cried out, just once, before Cliff was at her side, helping her up.

Cliff could not meet her eyes as he handed Emma her walking stick. Quietly, they started on again, Emma hobbling along in front of Cliff. Cliff ran his fingers gently across the rock wall; he pretended they were magical, flying foxes, or a startled fawn or a magic horse.

"We're on the wrong side of the wall." Emma said after some time. She slowed her gait and turned to face Cliff, who stood quietly looking at his feet. "Look," she said. "We're in trouble. It'll be dark soon."

"I know." Cliff mumbled, still staring at his shoes.

Emma said, "I'll protect you, okay? We will be fine."

Cliff said, "I know." He sniffed. He started to ask a question, but stopped himself. He looked up. Emma waited for him to say something. He said, "Is this the way to Gran's Garden?"

Emma answered with: "It will be, but we have to cross the river."

"It's cold in the shade." Cliff said.

"Well, let's walk in the sun again then! Just don't go to far away from the wall and don't get too far behind."

Cliff grinned, "I won't if you won't." He said.

They walked very, very slowly, along the edge of the moors. The wall varied in thickness and height but it was always at least one child thick and taller than the tallest man in the village. If ever this wasn't the case, Halifax held a wall festival and children ran along the top, dropping stones and pulleying stones until it was higher.

You can trace the history of the moors, and the boom and bust of the town of Halifax through the thick and thin sections of wall. The wall started out knee high, but after the first bad winter, the town built it up and up to a man's shoulder height.

The sun was red, bruising the sky when they came to the river. Cliff bent and stuck a few fingers into the rushing water. He pulled them out quickly.

"It's cold, then." Emma said, dully.

Cliff shook his hand, and didn't say anything.

The water rushed, and rushed and the red sun slid below the grey horizon. Emma sighed. She said, "Listen." And Cliff did. "If we're approached by anyone, let me do the talking. We won't be. We'll cross the river quick as we can, and you'll help me and we won't be too cold and I promise I'll make this up to you, but, just in case anyone comes up to us, let me do the talking, yes?"

Cliff nodded.

Emma asked, "Are you ready?" And in response Cliff took his shoes and socks off.

He gasped despite himself as his feet plunged into the rushing water. Emma asked after him and he nodded, grim and quiet and feeling for the edges of slick rocks with his toes. He found the edge of the first rock and looked into the water, carefully. His shadow was long and the water rippled, red, distending the appearance of his legs, making his toes look finger-like.

The river tugged maliciously at the bottoms of his rolled up trousers.

Somewhere, a bat screeched.

In the middle of the river, the rocks gave way to sand, and Cliff couldn't find anything to stand on. "It gets deep here." He called back.

"Try by the wall?" Emma suggested.

"It's too fast up there!" He called back, looking nervously at the wall whence water wooshed. "I'm going to try the sand!" Cliff called out. Tentatively, he poked a toe into the sand, but it was surprisingly hard. He looked back over his shoulder, gave a thumbs up and fell completely in.

Emma cried out and dropped to her belly, pushing her cane toward where Cliff had gone under, but the water already had him --greedy currents sloshing him against the bottom, the rocks.

Spluttering, Cliff came up, arms flailing to keep his mouth empty. He failed after a moment, already disappearing down the river.

Emma shouted after him, stood up and shouted out in pain, falling to her knees. "I'll find you!" She shouted, "Don't talk to anyone!"

And then Cliff was gone and the siblings were separated.

Managed to pull himself onto a river bank. He swore --a foreign word he'd heard Jason use once, just once: Pa smacked him bloody at the utterance.

The sun was down; he'd been nearly drowned. He had tumbled through depths that made him go googley eyed and shout out and (almost) drown himself at least twice. Strange things with too many legs crawling around, otherwise hidden in the silt and gloaming but disturbed by his trespasses.

He flopped like a fish onto his back and  wretched out the last of the water roiling in his lungs. The forest was on both sides of the river, but it was flowing to his left when he faced it, which meant he'd managed to come out on the far side --the side with Emma. Ash trees loomed close to the river a short way down jutting like bone splinters from an unimaginably large giant. Cliff smelled pine smoke and cooking fish.

The wind gusted, tugging at his sopping clothes. The scent was thicker. The wind came from the south. His sister was to the north. Cliff set his teeth and began to trudge north along the riverbank. Eventually, he had to slow: the darkness was total.

Cliff imagined he was a ghost, and made "woooooooo" noises each time the wind stiffened his clothes. He kept the roar of the river on his left and nodded to himself now and then.

It seemed to him there was a bat following him along the river. Its chirp-chee-chi were like hiccups.

No matter how far Cliff walked, the copse of Ash trees always seemed too near, too pale.

Cliff almost fell over the edge of an embankment --he flailed his arms and hopped back. A minor, sandy, dirt avalanche made the two people below cough and swat the air. He went pale, his stomach dropping past his hunger, into terror. Cliff fell to his belly, arms cradling his chin, and peaked over the top of the ridge. He'd been staring at the stars and somehow missed the riverside spit and its occupants.

"Cliff!" Emma shouted and waved. "Cliff, we're saved!" She planted her cane and ratcheted herself to standing. "Cliff! This is Fallion Hargrove." She gestured to a hunched man, wrapped in a long military coat, with a wide brimmed hat that seemed to wave and undulate against the firelight.

"Fellion hard-grave act you ally." Came a pointedly neutral voice from the hat's shadows.

"Mr. Hagrave, pleased to meet you." Said Cliff, shooting his sister with wide eyed, frantic, eyes. "And what, Mr. Hagrave, do you have in your pot?" No answer came, so Cliff asked, "On your spit?"

Fellion growled and snarled and shook under his coat. He seized up, a few times, before slumping to a motionless standstill. "Its meat." He said, finally. "Are you not hungry?"

"We aren't supposed to talk to strangers," Cliff said, quietly, staring at his bare feet. "We aren't supposed to talk to strangers and we aren't supposed to go on the other side of the wall. On this side of the wall." He grimaced. "Sorry Mister Fellion."

Emma turned her eyes to him; they were glassy. "Cliff!" She hissed. "Sit down and be polite and eat some meat!" Emma held up a smaller skewer, waved it toward him. "Mister Hagrave said he worked very hard to catch this meat not three days ago. We would be rude to decline his offer."

"Emma!" Cliff shouted, "Why would you eat that? Can't you smell it!" And he stepped into the circle of the fire. Like a diving owl, Fellion grabbed him, wrapped him in a bear hug.

Cliff screamed at the top of his lungs, "GRAAAAAN!" wiggling furiously while he screamed; thrashing his head to and fro, keeping Fellion's hands off his mouth, screaming all the while. "Emma! Run!" He gasped, before screaming again for his Gran  For a moment, there were greasy, bile-ish fingers on his mouth, but Cliff bit down with his eyes and his whole jaw until there was a wet pop and a spurt and his teeth jumped together. Fellion howled and shoved him away. Cliff kept screaming as he tumbled to the edge of the fire pit.

Cliff very clearly heard the crackle of fat dripping onto coals. He realized he was crying. He kept screaming, twisted around and saw Fellion advancing on him. Cliff crab crawled around the fire, scrabbling in the sand. "GRAN GRAN GRAN!" He shouted, eyes locked with Fellion's.

Fellion dove to his knees, fingers grasping, eyes burning with such anger that Cliff's voice failed him. "Bastard." Fellion spat. Drool flecked across Cliff. Fellion reared, lunged, hands extended. Fellion's eyes went wide  and he fell on Cliff with a double thud.

Eyes scrunched closed, Cliff hoped Emma had managed to escape. He waited for the inevitable ripping and tearing to start. After a few moments of tensed anticipation, he peeked an eye open.

Panting, leaning with both hands on the wrong end of her cane, its ornate head buried out of sight by Fellion's limpness, stood Emma. "Hah." Cliff said, hoarsely.

"Should've been a cricketer." Emma huffed. Carefully she re-steadied herself against her cane, then, with her club foot, shoved Fellion off Cliff. "Let's take some fire and get going, hey?" She said, holding out a hand to Cliff, who smiled and nodded.

"We don't have a wick." Cliff said.

Emma looked around the camp site.

Fellion grunted, a shiver rolled through his body. Instantly, Emma whacked him so hard on the back of his head she fell over, almost somersaulting and landed with a giggle on her back, in a puff of surprised sand. Fellion twitched, then was still while Emma laughed and laughed.

Cliff shuffled, then busied himself looking through Fellion's pack and travel kit. "Emma!" He shouted, "Emma look!" He thrust a small can of kerosine into the air. Emma gained control of her giggles and rolled, looked at the can and lunged, dragging her club foot, at Cliff.

She sang, "We're saved! We're saved!" They dragged each other up, and danced hands in hands around the fire for a moment.

"We can burn my shirt!" Cliff smiled.

"Nonsense. We can burn his shirt" And Emma spat in the direction of Fellion's motionless body. "Help me get it off him."

They stripped his shirt and jacket, then split the shirt in half. They wrapped the shirt halves around thick sticks, and doused them.

"We still need to hurry." Cliff said, somewhat timorously, but he hesitated to light his torch. "Or we could wait until day light. . . "

"We'll go. Just need to roll him into the river and we'll be all done here, won't we?" Emma said, rummaging through Fellion's pockets.


Emma turned and the fire caught her full in her eyes; seemed to leap into them and rolled around, as if setting her insides on fire, her eyes blown out window frames unable to contain the full blaze. "Mister Fellion here needs to go far away. That's where the river goes. In he goes." She said.

Cliff Shivered.

Emma tapped her cane impatiently in the sand.

Cliff sighed and, quietly, they rolled Fellion into the river, which gulped him down and away.

Emma said, "We'll find a shallow spot and we'll wade across together, okay? But first we need to at least see the wall."

Cliff stood, looking at her, frowning and biting his lower lip. "Come on then! We'll be okay!" Emma said, giving him a sideways hug. "Off we go!" And she lit her torch and, carefully, carefully started along the river edge.

Cliff hesitated. He wiped at his eyes. He stood motionless, looking at the sandy campsite for a minute while Emma and her torch teetered, shrank in the darkness. Finally, Cliff nodded to himself and caught up to Emma, his timid smile hiding in the torch's shadows.

"We should save up and buy a torch."

"An electric torch?"

"Yeah." Emma said. "I think so!"

"Why?" Cliff asked. "Why would we ever need another electric torch?" He laughed, "I don't ever want to come here again.

Emma's face was a jangle of shadows. She said, "You don't think its pretty, now?"

"I think its pretty." Came a third voice, from somewhere in the darkness. It was a gruff, husky, man's voice. "I think it's prettier what with you pretty little things in it."

Cliff felt the blood drop from his face, neck, arms; he felt the blood pooling, frozen, cooling him, in his tummy. "Who's there?" He shouted, waving his torch around frantically --the torch started to sputter. They still couldn't see the speaker.

"I think," It said, sounding closer, "That you little things are lost, and your torches are running low. Its a dangerous night to be so far from the wall without a light."

For a moment there was only the rush of the water, then, almost washed away by the burbling, there was a click, and a cone of light appeared behind them. It pooled on the largest, sinewy-est, set of calves either child had ever seen. The thighs they supported were like ancient ash tree trunks. the knuckles were like great tree knots: wild, knobby things with deep gashes and weather pocks all around. From the darkness above the light, the voice spoke again, "I think I should help you back to the wall."

"Why should we trust you?" Cliff asked. He put himself between his sister and the knuckles and the thick, pale legs. "We were almost," he stopped, "We were almost eaten by a man much smaller than you."

"Oh really?" The question followed a chuckle like static storm thunder.

Cliff puffed his meager chest out, "Yes! And we beat him up and kicked him into the river. So."

The voice laughed --a sharp, cutting thing. It asked, "Did ya loose a bet with a sparrow, boy? You two wouldn't feed anything but a scavenger."

"Maybe that's what he was," Emma stepped up, next to Cliff, holding her torch toward the legs and knuckles. "Maybe we killed us a scavenger, hey? And what are you?" She tossed her torch at the cone of light. The man was a bear of a beast. He wore a kilt and no shoes, and no shirt. It would have been hard for him to find a store that carried shirts wide enough or width-y enough to fit. The mass of brown hair seemed like a patchy undershirt that wrapped around the man's --for a man, it was-- neck and tried to suffocate him, covering his cheeks, drooping into his eyes from the top of his head.

"Hey! Hey Hey!" The man stomped on the torch with a staccato dance. "Hey hey hey now!" He said again. "Why'd you do that?"

"Who are you?"

"Don't matter."

"To us it does."


"Yes." The children said it together.

"Fine. Yer gran sent me." The man tilted his electric torch up onto his face; he was grinning. "Didn't expect that one, did you?" he said through the smile.

The children were quiet. The widest man smiled.

He said, "Listen, Great ol Gran," And he said her full, real name, which they had only heard twice, but had never forgotten, and which it would not do to repeat here. "She sent me. She's expecting you, but its a long walk from here. So she summoned me. And I'm here to take you to her."

"Swear on your blood?" Emma asked, flatly.

The widest man's eyes narrowed even as she was asking the question. "Aye I do." He said, his teeth clenched.

"Here then." Emma held out a knitting needle, its point crooked and hair thin. "Prick yourself, giant, and tell me again you're from our great-ol-gran."

"Emma!" Cliff shouted. They both looked at him, and he shrank, but only a little. "What you think you're doing? Where did you even get that thing? It looks like something Fellion would've carried!"

"The young boy speaks the truth: that's a dirty looking thing you've got there." The widest man said.

Emma said flatly, "You're just a liar, then."

With a huff, the widest man snatched the needle and pricked the back of his left hand with it. "There then, ya burgeoning witch." He said quickly. "I come from your great-ol-gran, to collect and carry the two of you to her house, that you might live to see the dawn." He bowed, hair flowing around his face, all the way to the ground despite the great distance. "Though coy and craven as you, I'm not sure gran should've wasted a favor on you."

"If you're friends, why would great ol gran need to call in a favor?" Cliff asked.

The widest man squatted down, pushing his kilt modestly as he did so. "Who said anything about being friends with her, boy?" He asked, and flicked his electric torch up --his face was wide (you know how wide) but hollow and wrinkled and wildly incongruous with his tree trunk limbs. He smiled and his teeth were the same color as his skin, but veiny with what looked like moss. "I owe your great-ol-gran, that's all. This night goes a ways toward paying back that debt, and will go further before the sun sets again, I'll bet. If I didn't know better