All the Little People
I don’t know why I keep trying to make friends. I guess I’m lonely. That’s really the smallest part of it though. I can be perfectly happy by myself most of the time, in fact that’s usually when I’m happiest. I guess my reasoning is that if I can’t make friends with this group, I won’t be able to with anybody.
So day after day I approach them at lunch or on the playground, try to ingratiate myself, tell some jokes. Only to wind up where I always do, face down in the mud behind the gym, blood streaming from my nose, as one of them force feeds me dead leaves and dirt.
I don’t understand it. I’m afraid I never will. Mom says I’ll grow into it, and fit in better by the time I’m in highschool or college. Does that mean I’ll become like them? Even if it means that the relentless pain, fear and humiliation finally end, I don’t want that. I like who I am now.
I’ve been spending more and more time in the principal’s office lately. This too is baffling. I don’t start the fights but I’m always the one who gets punished. How does that happen? It seems like the kids who beat on me are a lot better than I am at summoning crocodile tears and concocting a convincing narrative where I ran into their fist or something.
There’s little refuge at home, either. Mom always dotes on me when I’m bruised up, but when they took something expensive from my backpack like gameboy games or my pills, she scolds me as if I had the power to stop it. I don’t think she remembers being this small.
By the time I figured out not to bring anything with me to school besides the basics, all of my favorite comic books and games were already gone. School officials don’t care. Mom cares because she paid for them. My condition doesn’t seem to enter into anybody’s consideration but my own.
Dad tells me to toughen up. He wants me to turn into one of those sadistic ogres too. I tell him I don’t ever want to hurt anybody. That they shouldn’t hurt me to begin with. It’s madness. Was the world always like this? Is it supposed to be this bleak? Other kids look happy. But then, they’re part of it. Hornets are happy as can be in a hornet’s nest.
I call it “monster world”. Used to draw pictures of how I saw Earth and the sadistic ogres who inhabit it, which earned me some trips to a therapist. Mom and Dad resented the cost. It’s not like I wanted to be there either. I cooperated and spilled my guts.
He just told me more of the same. That to live here I would have to become one of the ogres. To casually inflict suffering here and there, to absorb it from others without flinching, like some perverse invisible economy. That’s what’s expected, and how human social dynamics seem to work. I don’t want any part of it but I can’t escape what I am, nor can I escape this world.
One of our exercises was to develop a dream. He told me if I had a dream to work towards, I could focus on that, and the slings and arrows of life would not wound me as much. My dream is to get as far away from other people as possible. A space station at first. He said that was a good start, but to boil it down to something I could realistically achieve. When I said I’d like to live in a cave he laughed and said to aim a bit higher than that.
We settled on a live-aboard sailboat. That’s certainly better. A cave is preferable to people, but truthfully, I am afraid of being underground. I know that’s where I’m headed when I’m very old, so I don’t want to spend any more time there than I have to until then.
I often lay awake at night picturing my withered old body in a casket, worms eating me up. Fair’s fair. I’ve been forced to eat plenty of them by now, they should have a turn at me. Maybe life would be better as a worm. Can worms hurt each other? I don’t see how. They don’t talk and haven’t got any teeth.
Today, they went further than usual. There are thick woods on the edge of the playground. The rumor, passed down from one generation of students to the next, is that a witch lives there. Or a gypsy? The details vary depending on who tells it. They say if you go deep enough into the woods, you don’t come out.
What she does with you also varies by who’s telling it. Some of them say she skins you, then roasts you over a fire for dinner. Others say she hypnotizes you and adds you to her army of servants, who feed her grapes and kiss her wrinkled, dirty feet. I didn’t know how much stock to put in any of this and didn’t care to find out.
My error was assuming I’d have any say in it. How foolish of me. I should’ve known this was coming. The time to plan a way out of it was days or weeks ago. Not while being lugged into the woods by the hands and feet. I don’t cry anymore, it’s just blood in the water. The more I cry, the more pleasure they get out of it.
I was mostly upset they’d taken my latest set of school supplies. I’d be scolded when I got home, I thought. That’s when I was still under the misapprehension that I’d be going home that night. They left me tied to a tree and made off with my backpack. Could they get away with something like this? Then again, they’d gotten away with everything else.
Once they were long gone I set about shouting for help until my voice was hoarse. I was warm from struggling until then, but as I sat there the cold began to work its way through me. The colors of Fall had come and gone. The leaves coating the ground were now simply brown and brittle.
Slowly decomposing. Everything seems to do that as winter approaches. Every time I thought I couldn’t be more miserable, something got worse. A light rain. The wind picked up. Then the sun began to go down. Now that the other boys were gone I let myself have a long, deep cry. Nobody to hide it from.
I’m supposed to hide it from myself. That’s the core idea mom, dad and the therapist tried to drill into me. Lie to myself about what I’m feeling until I am numb on the inside and thorny on the outside. If we only have to be that way because others are, what if nobody was? “The naive dreams of a child”. I closed my eyes and thought of the sailboat.
That’s when I felt something on my hand. I twitched and cried out. It stopped briefly but then resumed. I couldn’t work out what it was or what it was doing until my bonds came untied. When I got up and circled around the tree to see what it was, there was simply nothing there.
Light was fast running out. If I had any hope of finding the edge of the woods and making it to the school I’d have to run. But the twilight disoriented me. More than once I nearly ran face first into a tree that I didn’t see until I was just about on top of it. So when I came upon the village, at first I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at.
Who would build such a thing? Why out here, in the woods? It was by all appearances a fully apportioned scale model of a village in a very old fashioned style. Little houses made from twigs, streets paved with little bits of crushed pebble. And lanterns! Tiny glass lanterns with what I determined were bits of foxfire inside supplying a steady green light.
It was the damndest thing I’d ever seen. By the dim glow, for just a moment I thought I saw movement. What might’ve been a little face peering from one of the windows which disappeared into shadow when I looked at it directly. The scene so captivated me that I forgot where I was and the urgency of getting back to the school.
“Such skill they have to make this, no?” A raspy voice just behind me set me up and running, only to trip and fall on my face. I reached for my shoes. Sure enough, somehow the laces had been tied together while I was gawking at the little town. “Don’t eat me!” I blubbered. “Don’t eat me, witch! Don’t hypnotize me! I’m sorry, I just wanted-”
The cloaked figure laughed. “Oh child. Why I eat you? Skinny little thing. Come with me.” I tried to get up but found myself carried along behind her on what felt like a moving carpet beneath me. I struggled and shouted but some small creature climbed onto my face and gagged me. Terror and confusion took hold.
It’s one thing to be in a new place, or to encounter a stranger. But I truly had no idea what was happening or how it was possible. Only when we reached her odd round cabin was I able to begin making sense of things. Cabin, or tent? It was round, with a pitched ceiling held up by a central ornately carved wooden pole. The covering was made from deer skins, tanned and stitched together.
Cabinets and display cases of polished oak lined the outer wall. All manner of unfamiliar trinkets sat inside. Work spaces with rusting antique chemistry sets. Several bookshelves packed with thick, dusty old tomes. The ground was a wooden platform with bearskin rug. Light was supplied by lantern, containing not fire but some cool white light which did not flicker as a flame would.
“My parents will be looking for me. Teachers too. If you mean to eat me or make me kiss your wrinkled old feet, you’d better-” she again interrupted by breaking into hysterics. “Such stories they must tell! Kiss my feet you say? That’s rich. Relax, I will make soup.”
I thought to glance about for whatever had carried me in, but it was nowhere to be seen. Mysteries upon mysteries. I set about hurriedly untying my laces but before I could finish, she returned with two steaming bowls of what turned out to be astonishingly tasty soup. Beef barley but doctored with most of what you’d find in a stew.
My fear began to subside as I got a better look at her. She’d hung her cloak by the entry flap and I could see now that she was very old. Much older than I would have guessed by how energetically she moved about. The light in her eyes hinted at youth which was not so visible in her face. But she did not frighten me. I saw kindness there.
And kind she was. After the soup, I washed up in her great brass basin with water she boiled in the fireplace while she dried my clothes. “Boy, how did you get here? My little ones tell me they found you tied to a tree.” I began to recount it but stumbled over the words. To say it so frankly was embarrassing.
“Do not push yourself. I have eyes in these woods. I see all that goes on in them. Such cruel boys. Nothing changes, does it? Such shame that they behave in that way. Girls are no better! Oh, but is true. When I was your age, such cruelty. Sugar and spice, they say! Hah! A failure of their mothers and fathers to discipline them I think.”
I was astounded. Not by her dwelling. Or her cloak, belongings or the “little ones” she mentioned in passing. But because this was the first person I’d encountered in my life who did not blame me. “Why didn’t you fight back?” had been the reliable refrain from every adult I’d ever sought help from. Of course if I fought back I only got into worse trouble, and those same adults then scolded me for it. But not this one.
I eagerly finished the soup only to discover that cocoa was next. Rich, spiced cocoa with cinnamon, mint and those little marshmallows that aren’t good for much else. “Have you got more of these? They’re my favorite.” She smiled warmly and snapped her fingers. What happened next was unlike anything I’d yet witnessed.
A little hatch in the center of the table opened. As I gaped, tiny little people climbed out, each carrying one of the little marshmallows. None were any bigger than my thumb. The mallow was to them as a large pillow. When they reached my cup I recoiled slightly and looked at the old woman for reassurance. She did not look alarmed.
The little people climbed onto one anothers’ shoulders and began to dump the mallows into my cocoa. When they’d done this with all of them, they climbed back down, retreated through the hatch in the center of the table, and closed it.
I stared at the crone, waiting for an explanation. As is often the case with people her age, it came in the form of a long winded story. “Boy”, she said, “when I was not much older than you, I came here from the old country. With my aunt. My mother and father gave everything to deliver me safely here. A kind of special police stopped them from coming too, as they planned.”
None of it meant anything to me, but I was nonetheless enraptured. “Things were bad. We could not stay. It started out so well. A revolution, to see that every man, woman and child has a roof over their head and food to eat. Those were the good intentions which paved the road to Hell, at the end of which was a set of forged passports for myself and my aunt, and a trip to the labor camp for my mother and father. I do not clearly remember their faces, however I try.”
All fear was now gone. I could see tears forming in her cloudy eyes, which then collected in the bags beneath them. “It was my dear aunt who taught me these hidden arts. I immerse myself in their study. Much as you, I could not bear poisonous nature of those I grew up surrounded by. Only my aunt showed me kindness. And how to make my own little world, as I knew it should be.”
I’d now spotted the little people here and there about her home. Dusting, moving glass containers about. Subtly, as if by habit. When you’re that size, no doubt survival hinges on not being seen. “I come out to live in these woods for to get as far away from the teeming masses of humanity as I could.” I exclaimed that I had the same idea, but with a sailboat.
She grinned, a set of well polished wooden teeth on display. “Boy, that is beautiful dream. I tell you, if I thought of it back then I would be at sea now. But I cannot leave. The homunculi depend on me.” I furrowed my brow and tried to pronounce the strange word. She clarified, to spare me the trouble. “Little men. Fashioned by arcane means.”
She got up and strode to one of the work surfaces. When I stood beside her on my toes I could see the most bizarre spectacle, even on top of what I’d witnessed earlier. It looked like an assembly line. Starting with wire, which was twisted into the shape of a person. The next few had red clay layered on, finely sculpted into organs, veins and muscle. Then came pink clay for the skin. One of them lay in the center of an elaborate drawing. Geometric patterns etched in charcoal, faintly glowing.
It wasn’t finished. That much was clear. It looked mostly human but had a waxy, doll-like quality to it. It writhed about it a stilted manner, like stop motion animation and both the mouth and eyes opened and shut at random like a fish out of water. “Is he in pain?” I plied. She shook her head. “He is in that liminal space between life and death. I infuse him with elan vital. Yet, without drop of blood he cannot complete his passage.”
She withdrew a needle, pricked her finger and allowed a single drop of blood to fall on the awkward little figure. It soaked into it as if it were a sponge. The features sharpened. The motion grew smoother. A look of awareness came over its face, and it stood. “Welcome to the world, little one. Go join the others.” She beamed at it. Dozens of the little creatures surrounded it, excitedly poking and prodding, welcoming their new sibling.
She backed away from her work and her voice took a morose turn. “I thought I could do what they all failed to before. A perfect society. No violence, no pain or death. No theft, no selfishness or cruelty. I release my little ones to settle the woods around us. They built towns, farms, mines. With myself as their giant protector and caretaker. When not busy with other things I would stop by to help move buildings, build a bridge across some stream or erect fences to keep out cats.”
It made sense of the little village I’d seen. Everything about it was too fine for human hands to have constructed. It looked lived in, too. She now stared wistfully as she recounted those early days. “It always starts out well. When there is plenty to go around, and not too many. At first, only men so that they could not expand their numbers. But the men grew lonely and heartsick. I caved and made them women in equal number.”
As she spoke I studied the immense book on the workshelf. It was open to illustrated instructions for making these little people, step by step in a language I’d never seen. “There were small problems even before that. Fights, stealing, petty matters. But with the introduction of women, it became so much worse. How they would bicker and brutalize each other over the prettiest few! The very first murder was due to infidelity. On that day, I realized they were too much like us to escape our problems.”
I now recognized some of the items lining the shelves as furniture they must have made. It was like very fine, expensive dollhouse furniture. Come to think of it they’d be right at home in one. “I try everything to make them behave. I wrote for them simple set of rules. I add punishments for those who disobeyed. How I regret it, to dole out those punishments. You must understand boy, these are my children. I love them so dearly, and only want for them not to hurt each other. That’s why I created the tyrant.”
That caught my attention. In part because I’d turned a page. The next one depicted a much larger “homunculus”, with strange proportions. A thick barrel like body, very little in the way of a neck between that and the head, and long thin limbs. The face was blacked out.
“How could I be so foolish, to repeat the mistakes which destroyed my motherland? It seems so simple, to create one irresistibly stronger than the rest who enforces the laws. One that cannot be fought or resisted in the least. Very much like the man who sent my mother and father away. I did not see it then. Only after the damage was done did I understand how I’d failed my children, and myself. They would only behave perfectly if punishment was immediate and severe. The tyrant would simply hunt down the offender and gobble him up in front of the rest. Terror kept them in line after that. A very effective way to ensure obedience. But what a monstrous thing for a mother to inflict on her children.”
I held onto her, hoping to provide comfort. She did not push me away but neither did she embrace me. “When it tried to kill me in my sleep, I knew something had to be done. If I were to die, my little ones would suffer beneath it forever. I couldn’t abide the thought. But, I prepared a failsafe. When I made him I included a spell which, if spoken aloud, would compel him to climb into an enchanted box I had the little ones build. It locks itself when the lid closes and can only be opened by twisting the four knobs on the lid.”
I didn’t remember a box. Just the little village. But I said nothing. “I buried this box myself deep in the woods, the little ones present to witness, then set about slowly regaining their trust. That long, brutal nightmare was like an illness which nearly kills you. Only having seen what striving for perfect order leads to could I give up on that fool’s errand and accept my children as they are. In turn, having seen how it wounded me, and what lengths I went to on their behalf, the little ones eventually forgave me and have achieved for themselves as much stability, peace and understanding as they ever will.”
When the sun came up, she sent me off with hug and a paper bag full of scones. I arrived at the school to find the parking lot full of police cars. My parents erupted from one of them upon spotting me and frantically ran to embrace me.
“WHEREWEREYOUWHYDIDN’TYOUCALLDOYOUKNOWHOWWORRIED” and so on, one long unintelligible wail. I hugged them both and after speaking with one of the policemen, climbed into the car and rode home. On the way I explained as best I could what happened. They both grew very silent. When we got home dad sat me down, told me this wasn’t the time for imaginative stories and that he expected a truthful account.
When I insisted it was truthful I could tell he was angry, but also too relieved that I’d come back unharmed to punish me. I returned to school the next week, somewhat of a celebrity. In the good “He braved the witch forest and survived” way, but also the bad “He’s secretly one of her hypnotized spies now” way. As ever, I just ignored that stuff and waited for it all to die down.
It might’ve ended there, except that next recess I saw my usual bullies heading into the woods. I thought of the feeble, kindly old woman and what they might do to her home if they found it. It was plenty light out, no harm in tailing them I thought. I don’t know what I expected to find. I came upon them trampling the little village to bits and laughing about it.
They finally did it. They found a way to get a rise out of me after all this time. “STOP IT!” I ran out from hiding and knocked one of them over, taking care not to step on the little houses most of which were already smashed. “Look who it is! I thought you’d follow us you little queer. Is this what you were doing out here all night? Building this weird little elf town? I’m impressed, it was really detailed. Until we flattened it.” He flashed a devious grin.
I punched his lights out. The rest balked. It was the first time I’d struck anybody in anger and I immediately regretted it. Not because of the beatdown that followed but because I’d sacrificed my favorite thing about myself. In a sense I was no longer separate from the world, no longer so different from the ogres which inhabit it. Even one drop of poison in the well ruins it. I certainly felt ruined. On the inside and out.
As they left me battered and bleeding on the forest floor, one of them called out “Oh and we found your gay treasure box, dipshit. Dug it up and opened it. Now you’re burying animals? That’s fucked up even for you. I didn’t get a close look at it but I did nail it with a rock as it ran away, hahaha! Probably your only friend huh. Later.”
As before, I waited until they were out of earshot to resume crying. It really wouldn’t stop, and only got worse as I surveyed the damage to the little village. Prying the roof and walls of what used to be a cottage from the mud, there was a sickly red splatter on the underside. I vomited, put it down and continued bawling.
When I told the crone, she had to see for herself. I knew it would destroy her. She hunched over the crushed remains of her fragile little children, huddled in their homes as the boys stomped them to death. Tears poured from her eyes, as from mine. I held onto her and this time she clung to me as well. Only I knew the depth of her pain, and was glad to share the burden.
“They opened the box too.” She grew quiet. “They what?” I followed the footprints in the mud with her until I spotted the excavation. In the hole sat a dirty wooden box with the lid hanging open. Inside was another geometric charcoal etching. She knelt before it, deadpan, and stared for a time. Then she spoke. “He is loose now. What follows cannot be stopped. So much death at the hands of so few is a grave crime. He will relentlessly do what I created him for.”
I didn’t put it together until I recalled what she said the other night. “He’s going to visit them, isn’t he. At night.” She silently nodded, then added “He’ll come for you as well. He was always too thorough. In his mind, you are complicit. You led the boys here. But I have something for you.”
She drew a book from her robe, opened it to a particular page, then began to transcribe a passage from it to a scrap of paper. Once finished she stashed the book, folded the paper and handed it to me. “Memorize that. Only by reciting it when he comes for you will you be spared, and only if you never look upon his face. Do not come to see me for a while. Too much pain. I must mourn, and bury the dead.” She wiped away my tears, hugged me one last time and sent me on my way.
Of course, I was punished for going into the woods. Severely, as when I’d done so before it was a big deal, what with the police presence and all. It rolled off my back like nothing. Images of the crushed little houses with their crushed little occupants kept flooding back into my mind. Nothing school officials could do to me would ever exceed that.
I knew the lecture and spanking was coming when I got home and endured it quietly. Dad seemed to pick up on my indifference and with a heavy sigh, just gave up on it halfway through. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore”, he muttered. That makes two of us. Did any survive, I wondered. Even if it was only a few. Or even one. That would reduce the impact somewhat. I felt I could go on as before, in time, if at least one made it. Simply no way to find out until the old crone was done making peace with it herself.
I closed the door to my room, sat on my bed and studied the paper. There was an odd little poem on it. I recited it over and over until I felt sure I could get all of it right off the top of my head. But he did not come that night. Sleep was fitful but otherwise normal. It was at school the next day that I discovered who he’d visited instead.
One of my bullies, more fondly regarded by the other students, had disappeared. Each of us were meant to speak to a school counselor about it. I resolved to channel memories of the trampled village when I needed to appear broken up. It did the trick. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The next day, I sensed a tense energy in the air. Gossip was relentless. It turned out another of the bullies had vanished. So it went, one day after the next. One by one the boys who destroyed that little village simply disappeared from their homes without a trace.
The last of them approached me at recess. I cringed, expecting violence. But he cowered before me, his voice trembling. “I don’t know how you’re doing it but I know it’s you. Please stop it. I went along with it because they were my friends but I didn’t want to.” I met his gaze without emotion. “I can’t stop it now. I don’t think I would if I were able to.” I left him as he was, panicked and quivering. That night, he was taken.
I was questioned about it but not taken seriously as a suspect. I was by now becoming more skilled as an actor. More skilled at cutting myself off from others, indifferent to what became of them. This is who they all meant for me to become, wasn’t it? My compassion was crushed with that village. Justice, as I now understood it, had been done.
I almost forgot he’d come for me next. Exactly as she predicted. I was in bed when he arrived. The dim moonlight cast in through the window outlined a figure sitting, faced away from me, at the foot of the bed. I felt the weight before I saw it, and mistook it for a cat at first. That quickly passed.
It was a little nude man with a stout, barrel shaped body and long bony limbs. His head was as wide as his torso and joined almost directly to it. I could see each individual vertebra poking out of his smooth, pale back. My body painfully rigid, I began to sweat as my mind fumbled trying to recall the poem. Feebly, I began to recite:
“Little man sitting at the foot of my bed.
Are you lost? Are you lonely? Are you waiting to be fed?
Go back to your home in the box underground.
Take whatever you please, just do not turn around.”
It sat there, unnaturally still. Then as if in slow motion, began to turn towards me. My skin crawled. No. No, no, no. Did I get it wrong? Couldn’t be. I remembered every word plain as day. So I tried again.
“Little man sitting at the foot of my bed.
Are you lost? Are you lonely? Are you waiting to be fed?
Go back to your home in the box underground!
Take whatever you please, just do not turn around!”
Still, it turned. I could see the malformed little ear now. Not much more than a flap of skin at the edge of the hole. And now, the edge of its bulbous black eye. Just then it struck me.
“Little man sitting on the end of my bed!” I cried out.
“Are you lost? Are you lonely? Are you waiting to be fed?
Go back to your home in the box underground!
Take whatever you please, just do not turn around!”
It froze. I scolded myself for the error, however small, and prayed that it would leave. It did. Hopping off the edge of my bed, I heard a thump as it landed. Then the pitter patter of its bare feet as it fled the room.
After a while I got up and searched the house to be sure, and found a window open. I shut it, searched some more, then went to bed. Unsurprisingly I didn’t get much sleep. In keeping with her wishes, I let a week pass before I went back to see the old woman to tell her what happened. I found her hut where I expected to, but when I called out for her she did not come to greet me. So I went in.
I found her strung up by the legs, skin as white as a sheet. A metal basin below her caught the blood trickling from a long incision in her neck. I screamed, fell backwards and fought to regain control of myself. That’s when I saw the workspace. With the big book, opened to a new page I’d not yet seen. And before it, a long line of new tyrants in various stages of assembly.
If you enjoyed this, continue on to part 2: Champion of the Little People.