Dan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his unexpected free afternoon hours. School was out at lunch because of a giant leak in the roof over the library. Cervantes Middle School was ancient and falling apart, at least as far as the building was concerned. The principal was forced to turn off the electricity to avoid electrocuting the librarian while she frantically moved and covered the books. Rumors about the gym becoming an aquarium with basketballs bobbing along the three-point line were probably at least partly true. Those were problems for adults, though, the 12-year-olds in sixth grade were more than happy to take the afternoon off.
The rain stopped when Dan walked in the door at home, throwing his green backpack and soggy yellow raincoat in a squishy pile next to the front door. His mom had questions about the situation. The texts from the school were not overly informative. She didn’t seem happy with “I don’t know” and “Wet, I guess,” but those were the answers he had. Since she was in the middle of a large butterfly decoupage project for the baby’s room, Dan decided to leave the house before he got roped into holding something still for an hour. He hoped the baby really was a girl like his mom thought, because the pink glitter on that was heavy-duty, and it looked like she was leaving room to write “Evelyn” in one corner. She even had it cut out in paper letters. A “Christopher” would create a lot of rework all over the baby’s room at this point.
“Mom, I’m going to the woods,” he yelled as he went back down the front hall.
“BE CAREFUL,” she answered, unable to say more before he flew through the front door. He ran up the hill to the cemetery and down into the woods, staying out of most of the mud puddles but not all of them. His blue t-shirt and shorts stayed mostly clean, but his sneakers squished by the time he stopped running at the entrance to the clearing. Zeeble was inside, and he knocked on the crooked wooden door in the big tree, wondering again how the tiny giant lived inside a tree trunk, even at only 18 inches tall.
“Who’s there?” the giant barked, startling Dan with his gruffness.
“Uh…it’s me! Dan!”
The boy heard something sliding on the other side of the door and stepped back, craning his neck to try and see around the door when it opened. Zeeble opened the door a few inches and slid out, shutting it quickly and foiling Dan’s attempts to snoop again. Dan’s imagination was scorching his brain case. There was no way the giant lived in the tree if you looked at it from the outside, unless it was something like a single-person submersible unit, where he laid down most of the time in an upright position? It was impossible.
“Lad, stop staring at my door before your eyes light it on fire.” Zeeble had slipped behind him. Dan turned with a shrug. You couldn’t blame him for wondering. All this magical stuff was still pretty new to him. A couple of months of being chased and attacked hadn’t really told him everything he wanted to know. His burning questions were numerous and multi-layered.
“Has Sturmund Drang been back? Have you talked to Myral again?” he asked. Zeeble was in trouble with the Elders of the tiny giants, and Sturmund Drang, the leader, seemed to have a particularly nasty grudge going. Myral was an Elder, too, but she seemed sympathetic.
“I have spoken at Myral, yes, but she hasn’t deigned to get back to me. I haven’t seen Drang about since the last time he tried to kill me.” Zeeble shook out his chest-length red and burgundy hair, clearly recently unbraided. He sighed and began quickly rebraiding it. His blue shirt had been hastily tucked into his tan cargo pants, and Dan realized he’d caught him in the middle of washing up or changing. His curiosity flamed again—was there a bathroom in the tree? Zeeble finished his hair and tied it off with a scrap of fabric from his pocket. His feet were bare, without the magic sandals he created to fit them exactly, and a little hairier than would be polite in a human. “Have a seat and quit peering at me as if I’m a lab specimen.”
Dan sat on a log in the clearing and instantly regretted it as the cold rainwater saturated the seat of his shorts. He leapt back up and brushed ineffectually at his damp rear. “Isn’t there some other governing body you could appeal to, like a higher authority? Get Drang in trouble that way?”
The little giant furrowed his already prominent brow. “Like who? I’ve no idea what you’re getting at, lad.”
“Like the Elves? They always seem to be like the magical Supreme Court whenever different races have issues. Why don’t you…” Dan’s words trailed off when he saw the scowl on Zeeble’s face, a look that nearly raised steam off the soaked surroundings.
“What is it with humans and Elves?” the giant exploded. Dan flinched.
Zeeble pointed one finger and wagged it in time with his words. “Listen very carefully because we are not going to have this conversation again. There are no bloody Elves.” The last sentence had been spoken one word at a time, with a sort of mincing emphasis on “Elves,” as if it were the most ridiculous idea in the world. “Under-the bed monsters, yes. Unicorns, as you know. Faeries are practically a worldwide infestation. Mountains, Molehills. Yes, and yes. Stay away from pixies, trolls, and ogres. But there has never been, will never be, an eternal, pointy-eared Elf!” Zeeble had to take a minute to recover his breath after his rant.
It never occurred to Dan that Elves did exist before meeting Zeeble, and now that his mind was open to the possibility, it appeared he’d better board that thought back over. Zeeble’s vehemence made it feel like there must be more to the story.
“But Zeeble,” he asked, “I see how some things have been overlooked, even with left-handed people still able to see sometimes, but the Elves are all over magical lore. Leaving something out is one thing, but how is it possible that basically everyone got the same thing wrong the same way? Like—what about The Hobbit? WAIT. Are hobbits really you?”
Zeeble sighed very deeply and let his shoulders relax a little, but he didn’t seem any less aggravated.
“No, I’m not a bloody hobbit. If I wrote a book about a purple creature with green spots that quacked like a duck, would that make it real?” That stung a little, but Dan thought his question was perfectly reasonable.
“Of course not. I’m not in kindergarten, you don’t have to tell me that some things are made up. It’s just that on the one hand you’re telling me to open my mind! Things exist! And on the other hand, you’re yelling at me for thinking something I’ve read WAY more about than tiny giants does exist. Sorry. I had no idea it was so dumb to believe in Elves.” Dan crossed his arms.
Zeeble closed his eyes. “No, lad. I should apologize. I have a bit of a sore spot about Elves. I have yet to meet a human who’s read or heard about Elves who doesn’t put them on a pedestal, and it’s aggravating to have someone ignore the magic in front of their face because they want to pursue some imaginary ideal. It also happens to be my fault, and I don’t much like to be reminded of it.”
“What do you mean, ‘It’s your fault’?” Dan was confused.
“I mean,” Zeeble explained, “the Elves as you know them came about because of something foolish I did. When you’re wondering why the tiny giants don’t take me seriously, you can start with that story.”
Dan replanted himself on the soggy log. “Let’s hear it. I have all afternoon.”
Zeeble opened his mouth to protest, but realized it was going to be easier just to get it over with when Dan gave him a narrow-eyed glare. “Alright, lad, I guess you’ve earned the real story, but it sounds a lot grander than it actually was.” Zeeble leaned against a tree a few feet away from Dan and told his tale.
During the 1800s, I spent my time with a left-handed human named Charles Dodgson, in a town in the south of England called Guildford. He’d become my human proxy as a young teenager, planting a navy bean to amuse the children who followed him around. “I’m growing a giant!” he told them, not realizing he actually would, or that I’d be considerably smaller than the version in Jack and the Beanstalk. He was quite shocked to find me, sprung from the magical stalk with bright white hair. He was a different sort of soul, Mr. Dodgson. He never grew out of wanting to see things the way children did, and he surrounded himself with children to enjoy their magic. He was in poor health most of his life, and he enjoyed having the company even if it tired him.
We had a long and whimsical friendship, playing small pranks on the children and making them believe in magic, even though they couldn’t see me. I wasn’t known as a troublemaker with my own kind yet, and I had freedom to do as I pleased. I also had all my magic, unlike this paltry stuff I’m allowed in exile.
Mr. Dodgson would tell stories that were half-truths, and the children fell all over themselves wanting to hear more, so he’d make up something even more preposterous. After he’d told the same story to them over and over again, that one about Alice and the rabbit, I told him maybe he should write it down so they could learn to read it for themselves. He did, and you’ve probably heard of it, “Alice in Wonderland” he called it. It was a foolish name for a foolish book, but at least it sold a few copies.
Dan couldn’t help interjecting here. “Wait a minute. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was one of the books the teacher read to us last year, but it was written by Lewis Carroll, not the guy you’re talking about.” Name dropping might be impressive, but not if the names weren’t even right.
“I see. Well, that was Mr. Dodgson’s pen name, lad. The kind of tales he was spinning were fantastic and some would think sacrilegious. Public personages also thought everything was a veiled jab at them, whether it was or not. His private prospects might have been harmed if people took something personally or believed him to be some soft-headed believer in magic and fairy tales, so he published under another name.”
Dan had a glimmer of memory, maybe the teacher had said something about that when he wasn’t paying attention. “So Lewis Carroll was left-handed?”
“Yes, and he was as hard to keep on track as you. May I continue?” Dan nodded.
We did all manner of things, hiding buttons, pulling hair, dropping things. One small girl had a different pebble show up under her pillow every night for a month because she’d been adamant about magic being “for babies.” It was frivolous, but Mr. Dodgson got great pleasure from their earnest recounting of whatever had happened overnight. The children could see me a little out of the corner of an eye at times, and they could sometimes even hear me.
As the turn of the century approached, Mr. Dodgson grew more and more frail, due to lung damage from childhood whooping cough. He was in his 60s, which used to be elderly even without health problems. He spent most days in bed, but his mind was still sharp. He was often bored. I continued to play tricks and do minor mischief for him, because it was the only thing that brought light back into his eyes.
One day, in 1897, he was going downhill, health-wise, and said he wanted to do one more big prank before he died. I didn’t want to admit that we were so close to the end, but I knew he was probably right. Every breath was becoming a chore. I tried to plan something big enough to be his swan song without requiring much from him.
Many of the children in the area were already wise to odd things happening around Mr. Dodgson and weren’t likely to be easy to fool. I had to have something big for a small gullible audience. Rather than playing at being a faerie or other real creature, I thought it would be funny to do something completely fictional. I asked Mr. Dodgson for a few small items and promised it would be worth it.
I had my target all picked out. There was a little boy who’d come to town on his way to a seaside vacation. He was about five or six, and especially prone to wandering away from his widowed mother whenever he could. He was still in short pants, barefoot whenever he could be, and the kind of blonde that ages into brown in adulthood. Mr. Dodgson had seen him out the window a few times, rambling around and swinging sticks at imaginary monsters. Since he was already halfway sure monsters existed, it wouldn’t take much to convince him he’d stumbled across a mystical being. Based on his appearances outside the window, he felt he had the run of the town at all hours, too. His mother had her hands full with a toddler and seemed to miss him at odd intervals, screeching up the lanes after him towing the whining brother behind her, only to lose him again an hour later.
I observed him for long enough to know for certain he wasn’t left-handed, but I thought his active imagination would allow him to hear me. I snuck up behind him on one of his expeditions and yelled, “Watch out, your mother is coming!” He looked around as if Satan Himself was on his tail and lit out for the other side of town. That he didn’t question the warning or who was giving it to him was a good sign.
I had to prepare quickly, to be sure I caught him before his mother moved on to the next leg of their holiday. I thought Mr. Dodgson’s time was running out as well. I set everything up at one end of a meadow I knew the boy was familiar with. I snuck up behind him that evening, and said in a very solemn, ceremonial voice, “O, small lord, if you desire to see something of great import, go thee to the wood behind the stable at the dawn of the morrow, in the meadow of three tall trees! Tell no one. Our legacy depends upon it!” Irresistible to a boy already playing at dragons and rangers.
I waited in my set-up most of the night, just in case he wasn’t much good at arriving somewhere at an appointed hour. He came right on time, though, so enthusiastically I heard him well down the path.
“Hello?” said the boy entering the meadow.
“Silence!” I replied. He saw me in my get-up and stopped. “Approach.”
What he approached was very theatrical. I’d rigged up a costume about four times my actual height, backlit by the rising sun. Mr. Dodgson had procured an ecclesiastical robe of white satin with gold embroidery, and it was simple with my powers whole to grow a sapling armature inside. I made a long wig of shining cornsilk. As a final touch, Mr. Dodgson added large pointed ears that stuck out of the wig on either side. His giggling fits were as much coughing as laughter, but it was good to hear.
Since I was invisible to the boy, I made sure to position myself in the figure where sunbeams from the dawn would shine through the wig and give the impression of a glowing figure inside the robe. While I was waiting, I wove a coronet from some ivy and holly berries, another distraction from the emptiness of the wig. What the young master saw was a six-foot-tall mystical being in rich robes, shining with magical light from within.
“Closer!” I commanded. He approached. “Kneel!” He knelt. Now that I had him at a disadvantage of angles, I really laid it on.
“I am the coming of the Morning Star, bringing you the knowledge of the Ancient Race of the Elves! Magic is fading from these lands, and with it, we go, but you, small lord, you may save some small part of us. I will give you a gift, and you shall be the Guardian. Will you accept this noble quest?” Anytime you tell children they’re in charge of a quest, you’re 100% sure they’ll take it up with enthusiasm. This boy was no exception.
“I accept,” he replied with great solemnity and only the trace of a small child’s lisp.
“You are hereby the Guardian of the ancient language of the Elves! Henceforth, Elvish resides in you, its sole inheritor!”
“So I can speak Elves?”
I hadn’t expected questions at this part of the program, so I stumbled a bit. “Erm…no! Like a hidden treasure, our language will reside in you until the time is right for you to call it forth. I, Hedera of the Morning Star, have bestowed this gift upon you in trust that you will know when that time approacheth.” I probably should have let him think he could speak “Elves” to add to the entertainment, but I was trying to avoid follow-up questions.
His little, sun-browned face scrunched up at that, clearly unhappy with a gift that couldn’t be opened right away. “How’m I s’posed to know when that is?” he challenged.
“There will be portents and things. You’ll just know,” I replied. “Anyway, it’s a very big honor and you should be grateful. Now…SILENCE!” I let my voice boom just a bit to make sure he knew I wasn’t taking any more questions.
I had to wrap this up before any trace of awe he had remaining evaporated. In my best congregation-addressing voice, I shouted some nonsense at him. “Mara mesta! Navaer!” I was pretty sure he’d no Welsh, so I shouted a few Welsh proverbs at him. Welsh always sounds made up.
The sun was moving to a position where my deception would be easier to see through. I realized he needed something tangible to take away in his pocket. I scampered down the saplings and picked up a smooth, cream-colored stone. As I climbed back up, I shook the sapling frame a bit more than necessary, and made the cornsilk hair lift around the empty place where the face should have been, the rising sun striking the strands to make a corona of shining light. The boy stood up in reflex, his mouth open wide in astonishment. Light tricks!
“Catch!” I tossed the stone at the boy, who, to his credit, actually did catch it. “Remember your inheritance, Young Master! To ensure your service and loyalty, I bequeath the Stone of Airedale, the keystone to our ancient language. Guard it well, and it will be a light for you in dark places!”
He looked at the very ordinary pebble, turning it over, and his little face turned skeptical again. “But this just looks like a rock.”
I realized I would need to make an impression. Projecting in my most terrible voice, I yelled, “BY THE RING OF THE ELDAR, YOU SHALL FEAR ME AND OBEY!” I made the grass around his feet shoot up a few inches, waving and lashing at his ankles, and shook the sapling hard enough to throw the ivy crown to the ground at his feet. That was an accident, but he bent down and snatched it. “You have given your word. Do not let us fade into the other lands unremembered. Now GO!” With that, I collapsed the figure into a heap on the ground, shriveling the cornsilk as if it were burning without fire.
The boy stood looking for a moment longer. “GO!” I boomed again, loud enough to hurt my own ears, and he fled from the meadow, clutching his bits of ivy and river rock. I watched until his short breech-clad legs had carried him out of sight, then I fell over into the long grass laughing. I really wish Mr. Dodgson had been able to see it himself. He enjoyed my retelling and re-enacting, but it wasn’t the same. He passed away shortly after that.
Zeeble looked pensive at the thought, and Dan had questions he wanted answered before the little giant decided he was done talking. “So…you chucked a rock at this little boy and told him some nonsense, and it caused all of us humans to believe in Elves?”
Zeeble raised an eyebrow. “It wasn’t what I said, lad, it was who I said it to. Young Jonny Tolkien turned out to be a better steward of Elvish than anyone could have dreamt.”
“Who?” Dan blurted. “Did you just say Tolkien?” His eyes were silver dollars.
“Yes, you heard me right,” Zeeble grumbled. “It turns out, I played a joke on the little Tolkien boy, who grew up to be the JRR Tolkien who made everyone think that the Elves were the pinnacle of magical creation. Mr. Dodgson had a good laugh out of it at the time, but trust me, the actual magical world doesn’t think it’s funny. It’s part of the problem—your kind is so fixated on things that don’t exist, it becomes harder and harder to see things that do.” The giant raised his hand. “And I’m the one to thank for that particular part of it, and everyone who matters knows it, because I thought it was funny to brag about my great success at foolish shenanigans.
“You actually knew Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkien.” Dan was looking a little starry-eyed at Zeeble.
“Oh, stop mooning at me. Just having brushed up against someone isn’t anything to be proud of. That’s like being puffed up because you managed to get lint on your coat. It’s what you do, what you create because of the people you admire. That’s what counts. Master Tolkien was a talented writer, and he took my stupidity and turned it into something I never foresaw, and something that has influenced more of humanity than anything I ever did, or ever will do. I just wish I didn’t have to be embarrassed about it.”
Dan raised his own eyebrows. “I don’t know whether I should feel good because this means some things really are fantasy, like monsters, or whether it just makes me feel even more overwhelmed. How am I supposed to know what’s real and what isn’t?”
“Lad, if you knew everything about the world, you wouldn’t want to go out the door in the morning. Summon up that irrational optimism and know that the mysteries of the universe will reveal themsElves exactly when they mean to.”
Copyright© 2020 by Rebecka Ratcliffe, All Rights Reserved.
The Story: I wrote the bones of this into the fourth draft of The Tiny Giant, and realized quickly that it had no place in a book with a plot and a story to keep moving. I found those bones recently and decided to give the skeleton a shake and let it stand on its own as a light-hearted interlude. Want more Dan and Zeeble? The Tiny Giant, the first novel in the series, is available here and wherever books are sold.