An account by Hunter, as provided by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
Art by Leigh Legler
The following account was provided to me by an individual identifying himself only as Hunter, and “problem solver of a more cryptic nature, if you catch my meaning.” I approached him in a tavern and presented myself as representing a town in need of his services. This is a faithful recording of what he relayed about the ecological disaster of recent memory that affected the so-called “Troll River Bridge” community.
To begin with, there was no billy goat. That would be absurd. There were three of them, though–there always are. The thing to understand is that anything we don’t like, anything we find distasteful, or anything that has overstayed its use, we tend to redefine as something unwholesome. That isn’t what those things begin as though. They begin as useful and wanted and even necessary. Left unchecked, even good things can become dangerous.
So this bridge was built to cross the waterway. It was intended so those who sought wisdom could go to the banks and make their requests, while those who just wanted to get to the market could cross over without bother to themselves or to the old ones. For a long time, this worked very well. People would come to seek wisdom in all manner of circumstances, as they always had. They would approach with the appropriate deference and offerings and would depart, oftentimes confused, but if they were open-hearted and thoughtful, in time the thing would unravel itself. Sacred mysteries aren’t just going to be spoon-fed out to you. But the less clever and less thoughtful people just tromped over the bridge again and again, and grew fat on the success of the market, which was in no small part the success of the bridge. In time it was only the very old, and the seekers, and the desperate who came to the water’s edge. In time, the bridge fell into disrepair, but no one wanted to pay to fix it. And eventually, predictably, someone was crossing the bridge, fell into the water below, and didn’t come out again.
The villagers grew angry and resentful. They were being prevented from crossing the river, they said. Why should they be forced to maintain a bridge to avoid these old ones, these monsters, these trolls? It was better to do away with the trolls.
This is where I come in. I saw the notice posted among wanted posters and ordinance declarations on the wall in the tavern: “Troll Hunter Wanted.” They never understand what they are asking for. I went to the village leaders and they wanted me to just kill it, or make it go away.
What about living with it? What about finding out what it wants and living together in harmony?
No, harmony was not for these sturdy folk.
Why not repair the bridge? No, they said, if the bridge was to be repaired, the trolls would pay for it.
After this productive visit with the village leadership, I went to the water’s edge and made my obeisance. In time, the babbling of the water turned to voices carried downstream. I waited. There was a rustling in the reeds, and a flock of birds took flight, and then there was a long moment of stillness. Finally, a young woman approached through the reeds and sat beside me.
“They want you to fix the bridge,” I said.
She sighed. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
“Thanks,” I rose and walked back up the embankment. When I turned to look back, she was gone.
The next day, thick vines had twined themselves around the supports, lashing loose beams in place, and growing over the gaps.
“Give it another week to be complete,” I told the villagers, but they were outraged. Their modern bridge was grown over with vines now, and might be dragged down at any moment. They wouldn’t trust it, they wouldn’t accept it, and they wouldn’t pay me.
I went back to the river. A second woman came out to meet me, older than the first. “They want us to hire local craftsmen,” she stated, before I could open my mouth.
“Yes, it would seem so,” I agreed.
She nodded. “Very well then.” Then she was gone.
The following day nothing seemed to have changed. It wasn’t until evening, when the villagers began to return from the market, that I heard the latest outrage. A toll booth had been set on the far side of the bridge, for any travelers coming into the village. Every villager who had crossed the bridge to go to the market had needed to pay a toll to return home that evening. They were looking to me to reclaim their money.
Fearing for my safety, I ran down to the water’s edge. The third woman arrived, mature yet strong in bearing, not weighed down by her years.
“They want you to leave,” I said.
“They don’t know what they’re asking for,” she said.
“I don’t think that matters much.”
She pulled at a piece of grass and split it with her fingernails. “Impatient things,” she muttered, and I shrugged.
“Fine,” she said, and stood and walked back into the reeds.
I returned to the villagers and explained what they would need to do. There were complaints of course, there always are, but eventually they decided it was worth a little effort to be rid of the trolls. The women baked cakes and the men crafted little boats, and on the appointed day, all the objects were all set to float down the river. Reeds were collected and beaten and weaved and bound into a mat, and more gifts of symbolic value were placed on it, and then that too was set afloat. At last, with great ceremony and the old words, I waded into the water and set it alight. We watched as the small floating pyre disappeared downstream. Finally, I collected water in an urn. The village elders announced solemnly that they were grateful for the services done for their people through the years, but that the creatures inhabiting this waterscape were no longer needed, nor wanted, in the vicinity of the village. Then I carried the water away. Several villagers actually followed me down the street, and it made something of a fine procession, and added a certain solemnity to the whole affair. They didn’t know what they were asking for.
The youngest of the three old ones followed the urn I carried, and it wasn’t long before her odd look drew attention. Her skin was white like a fish’s belly, and her eyes had the same unblinking, eternal quality. She moved slowly, awkward like a frog trying to move on two legs.
I heard the cries behind me. “There it is! The troll! It’s the troll!”
She was surrounded by cruel and sneering gazes of the ignorant and fearful. I wanted to help her.
“Wait! Please!” Her own voice was clear above the din. “I am but a sorry offering for your plight. My power is small, and I mean no harm. Only let me pass, and tomorrow my sister will come through. She is the one who may right what has been done here. Yet if you harm me now, she will not come, and your justice will remain unserved.”
This seemed reasonable to them, and I was shocked that they let her pass. She followed the path I had taken through the village and around to rejoin the river farther downstream.
They next day, we repeated the same rituals, made the same offerings, and I took a larger urn filled with water through the town. This time more villagers followed me, then all raced back to see what would come.
A heady wind picked up and the dust blew in our eyes and our hair whipped around. It continued for some moments, ebbing then surging once more.
It was the second of the three sisters, her hair green like water grasses and eyes a flat, sightless white. A larger mob surrounded her, and hands gripped staves and rocks.
“You must let me pass,” she said without preamble. “My power is greater than she who came before me, but small as to what is to come. Only let me pass, and tomorrow my sister will come through. She is the one who may right what has been done here. Yet if you harm me now, she will not come, and your justice will remain unserved.”
Again, the villagers stood aside.
She moved through the village, and the wind left with her.
The third day, all the village was at the water’s edge with me. Some joined the recitations, murmuring quietly as I spoke. They laid out their offerings with great ceremony. Some fingered the knives they had tucked into their belts. I had another help me in carrying a still larger vessel of water in procession through the village and out to the riverbank farther downstream. The whole village followed. Some began to gather up large sticks and rocks. Let there be no doubt of what they intended.
When the water was deposited in its new place, they returned to the bridge. For several moments, nothing came. There were butterflies and insects that flew by, beetles making their slow passage. Then squirrels. A large flock of birds passed overhead. They kept coming. There was a sound like thunder, and the animals kept coming. The rats and raccoons and rabbits, the deer, and bear, foxes, wolves. The satyrs came among them, and the winged fae, and then the fauns and centaur. They came and came, like a new river, and stampeded through the village. The villagers scattered. Some fell and were trampled. I stayed still, and the animals parted around me. The wind picked up and began a low moan. I covered my eyes. The wind yelled, it howled, it screamed. I heard a rushing like falling water. I felt a safe, dry, warmth surround me. I heard the villagers’ screams. I felt the spray of water on my cheek. It went on until the task was done. I did not feel that she lifted me, yet she carried and deposited me at a new, muddy bank. I was dry but for a few drops of water.
She was dark like the muddy river bottom, strong like the force of the flood, gentle like bathing in a stream on a warm day. She was beauty and terror. Life and destruction. She said nothing and returned to the water in its new path. Two or three structures stuck out above the waterline. The rest were gone.
Not fair, you say? These are old things. What do we know of their ways? The true ways of the earth, I say. And who can say that the wicked things weren’t done away with in the end? They were going to kill them–those villagers had murder in mind. So that is the, let me see, the third village that I have rid of trolls. I tell you this to say that, yes, I can take care of your rat problem. Are you certain that is what you want?
Hunter is a naturalist and explorer, a citizen of the world, who specializes in non-empirical creature/human interspecies conflict resolution. He currently resides at the edge of The Great Forest. Those in need of his services may rest confident that “a little bird” will tell him, and he will be in touch soon.
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines is a writer of fairy tales and other fantastical things. She lives in New Orleans with her husband, a one-eyed cat, and a snake.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“The Fae Catcher’s Tale” is © 2019 Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler