Jack

My husband has been gone now for almost a year. It still hurts as much as it did that first day, when I realized I would never see him again. And the worst of it is that I know it’s all my fault. It’s all my fault. I begged him not to go…but I couldn’t stop him.

To make matters worse, I’m homeless now, relying on the charity of friends and relations. The loneliness and uncertainty from day to day are swiftly becoming unbearable. Some days, I just want to curl up in bed and never wake up again.

Morning. The light is grey. I can only make out dark, black shapes around the room. It’s a light that does not illuminate. I might as well get up now, but I’m still exhausted. My limbs feel like lead. My thoughts start whirling about like a cyclone. Should I bathe today? Did I bathe yesterday? What shall I eat? What have I eaten already? What do I need to do today to fulfill my end of Guest-Right and earn my keep? When I finally rise, it takes an hour or so to fully awaken. I am able to silence my mind enough to function, but the whispers of guilt and angst and fear still linger.

My husband had been a kind man, but he was uneducated and rough-mannered. I never minded, as I had more than enough education for the both of us, and he was never threatened by it. He was a big, strong, man, and he worked down in the mines owned by the Elves in the valley, not far from our farm. They yielded iliaster, aurichalcum, imperial gold, and phlogiston.

Those who didn’t know him were usually intimidated by the mere sight of him. Gery stood literally head and shoulders above practically everyone, and although he did have a bit of a temper, he was always sweet to me. He never once, in all our years together raised so much as his voice to me, let alone his hand. As quick to anger or frustration as he may have been, he was just as quick to calm down and forgive.

Our home was a small holding we had leased from the bank. I took care of the farm, doing most of the fieldwork myself. Vegetables, grain, goats, geese, and even a small milk cow. Geryon would leave early in the morning to travel to the mine to work. He’d usually be gone three days at a time; he worked very long shifts, and there was the travel time to and from his job.

It was a hard life, but we loved each other, and we were happy together.

But about eighteen months ago, our fortunes finally began to change for the better. There had been a small party and presentation at the offices for Gery marking his anniversary as the longest serving worker at the mine. Gery had received a magic lyre and some magic grain infused with iliastrum from the company as a reward for twenty-five centuries of faithful service. The grain, fed to one of our geese, made the goose lay eggs of solid gold! We were able to use the proceeds from the goose to put a down payment on our farm; instead of leasing, we would purchase it outright from the bank. Then, we laid in supplies. Gery continued working at the mine; he planned to retire in five hundred more years, and then he and I would work the farm together.

But what Fortune gives with one hand, she often takes with the other.

It began with a knock at our door. Gery was out working at the mine and wouldn’t be back until well after dark. I was startled, not expecting visitors today.

When I opened the door, I at first saw no one. But I heard a small voice saying “Good afternoon, Mistress. What is this place?”

I looked down to see the oddest little man, hardly bigger than a child. He barely came up to my waist.

“What place is this, Mistress?” the imp asked me.

“Why, this is my home,” I replied when I found my voice. “I live here with my husband.”

“Who is your husband, Mistress? I think he must be a great giant!” The little gnome peered up at me as if he’d never before seen anyone bigger than himself. He looked tired, and weary, and very gaunt.

“Are you hungry, Little One?” I asked.

“Yes, Mistress,” he replied.

“How about something to eat, then,” I offered.

“Oh, yes, please!”

I brought the small man into the kitchen and fixed him a meal. He wolfed it down as if he hadn’t eaten in a week. After he finished, I gave him a mug of hot milk, and when he finished that, he fell fast asleep.

When my husband arrived home that evening, he was in a poor mood. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “Those damned Elves! They’re forcing me to retire early!”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly fearful.

“They say that because of my age and length of service, they can’t afford to keep me on!”

“But—we’re immortal!” I protested.

“Aye,” Geryon said bitterly. “That’s the problem. They want to hire on younger giants and dwarves, that they don’t need to pay as much.”

“After that wonderful party and presentation they made for you?”

“Damned Elves! I’ll grind their bones to make my bread, alive or dead!”

Gery flung himself down into his chair.

“What’ll we do now?” he moaned. We’ve only just signed to purchase the farm and house!”

“We’ll be alright,” I consoled him. “It’ll just take longer, that’s all. After all, we still have the goose.”

That seemed to ease his mind a little, though not completely. “I suppose,” he considered. “But it still leaves us on less certain footing financially. He cocked his head then, puzzled. “What’s that sound?” he asked. I listened with him and realized it was the snoring of that tiny boy I took in. I explained to him about it. When the boy woke, I introduced him to Gery.

Geryon took a liking to the little fellow. As it turned out, he came from a world “Far Below.” He’d stumbled upon us while exploring for food. He told us that he lived with his mother, and that they were very poor; they’d even had to sell their only cow just a few days ago.

My husband was so touched by the boy’s story that he brought in our goose and had it lay three gold eggs, which he gave to the tiny creature. I looked questioningly at him. He smiled sheepishly and said, “We have the hen, which, Gods willing, will serve us for many years to come. But this poor boy has nothing, and a mother to support. So, our next purchases and payments will be late. We can afford to be charitable.” He cut the gold into slices, like coins, and filled a small sack, which he gave to the delighted boy. He then brought out his enchanted lyre after supper to play us to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke, startled, to a loud squawking. What could it be? Looking out the kitchen window, we saw the rapidly receding form of the little man, almost comical, as he clutched the goose, nearly as large as he himself, along with the bag of gold Gery had given him. He’d even slung the lyre across his back!

Gery cried out in rage and anguish at such appalling betrayal of guest rights. He at once ran out of the house, chasing the little thief, and I followed. We chased him for several minutes before coming to a place where the ground was soft with magic. The boy headed to what appeared to be a vine-wrapped tree growing from within a bottomless hole. I was at once afraid.

I clutched at Gery’s sleeve, begging him not to pursue any further into the unknown magical abyss. But Gery shook me off. He cried out that without work, and without the hen, we’d be destitute. He wouldn’t allow that to happen to me. And then he kissed me, and then he quickly followed the evil gnome down into the darkness on that tree.

I strained, listening as hard as I could, for what felt like hours. Suddenly, the tree-top in the center of the pit began to shiver, and then fell into the abyss and out of view. I screamed Geryon’s name as I flung myself at the rim of the hole and looked downward. I saw only swirling clouds, parted for only a moment, as the falling vines swept through the air downwards.

I don’t know how. But I will hunt down this murderer and thief. This evil betrayer who took my husband from me. This is how I will atone for my foolishness. I will find a way down the abyss. And I will have justice. I don’t know how I will find him. But I have a name–

Jack.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Fangshan district
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