It is a shelf, a bench, a level space roughly the size of a single bed, a bit more than halfway up the side of a hill. The mound upon which it appears is not by any means a mountain, being gentle-sloped and rounded and covered by greenery to its very peak, but it is quite the largest hill visible in any direction upon what is otherwise a region of lowlands, checkerboarded with hardwood and meadow, village and swamp.
It might have, long ago, when the rock beneath this land was still alive with fire and pressure, been the result of a random fissure, a brief side-story told while the hill had thrust itself into the prehistoric sky. Over the years the shelf has softened, as has the slope above and below it. It has captured eroding rock and water, built itself a soil that—warmed by the heat stored in the rise of black rock that forms the bench’s headboard—nurses a thick and springy cushion of moss. Thus through the alchemies of geology, hydrology, and photosynthesis, the place has become special. Rarity is what passes for magic in much of the world, and the uniqueness of the little hillside bench has drawn creatures to it as surely as a sweet aroma on the air.
Not the first of these was a cow. How she found it initially would seem a mystery, as she was not built for climbing, but the grey meander of the path she has worn into the green hillside testifies to the fact that she has returned often; to savor her cud on the bed of moss, to feel the reflected warmth soak into her sleek and spotted hide.
Lovers have shared it, as well, not a few of them over the years, and the soil beneath the moss has tasted their heat. Once a wolf rested there, sharp muzzle on its paws and green eyes alight, and spied upon the livestock of the lowlands before starting its stalk. On another occasion a man, a stranger to the region and no kinder than the wolf, peered from its platform before descending into the nearest settlement to kill its headman and take his wife and his village.
When the blueberries were in season, the hillside was busy with women and children. Most of these didn’t pause but, industrious as ants, worked back and forth across the slope, filling bark containers with fruit to dry for the winter. A few, however, discovered the shelf and, surrendering to their grasshopper nature, lounged there, found that they could fill their bellies with fat berries without moving, stuffing their blued mouths with fruit and leaf in languorous abandon. Some of these got more, or less, than they had bargained for.
It was during the gathering season that Alice first discovered the place and suspected its secret. She did not linger, though, but kept to her chores. She was only a stepchild, after all, and knew her place. She had also, however, become by necessity a girl who looks beyond surfaces, who knows things. Now, thirteen years old , she has returned. It is June, the berries are months from ripening, and she is the only human thing upon the hill.
Sitting, Alice doesn’t bother to check her pockets, she is sure that the things she needs are there. She simply leans against the black rock, letting her shoulders savor the sunlight it has captured, and turns her face to the perfect perfume of an early summer breeze. Patience is another thing that she has had to learn, and she has learned it well.
She hears the creature before she sees it, in the form of a little series of scrabbles and pauses that might signal the presence of a mouse or squirrel moving beneath the low brush. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a lump of stale honey cake, no bigger than a dollar coin, and a few inches of green wool thread. Alice feels the saliva start in her mouth as she studies the crumb; sweetness is rare in her family. Resolute, though, she places these things on the bed of moss near the fringe of brush that marks the ledge’s perimeter.
The thing that appears is green and gray, though this might be a chameleon coloring to match the slate and leaves around it. It is perhaps four inches tall, and humanoid only in the fact that its limbs and features are appropriate in number and all in approximately the correct places. It seems to wear no clothing, though what appears to be its skin is rough as bark, and it shows no sign of reproductive organ.
The creature approaches the cake first, quickly scanning the sky for jay or raven that might contest the treat. It takes a nibble and moves the crumb with its foot, sliding in into the shadow of the leaves. This accomplished, and its bright black eyes having only that once strayed from the girl, it picks up the yarn and wraps it around its neck, tossing the end over one shoulder in a strangely foppish gesture.
“It’s barely long enough to warm my neck, and nothing left to wrap my hands.” The creature’s voice is an abrasive squeak, as if the words were warped from a cricket’s chirp. Alice has shown no surprise since its arrival, and reveals none now.
“It would be poor manners to complain, I think, since what I’ve given is gift rather than toll,” she says reasonably, chiding only a bit.
The thing glances back at its cake crumb, as if to reassure itself of the treat’s continued safety.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt that you came here expecting a boon in return,” it squeals.
“No,” says Alice. “I can imagine the sort of gifts you’re willing to offer, and I have no interest in things of that nature.”
“There was a cow,” it says, “that I called to me, though she did not know it. She rested here and let me taste her milk. In return she has been made a happy cow for all of her days. What gift could be richer than that?”
“I’m not a cow,” says Alice, reasonably. “Such mindless happiness is likely beyond me, and holds no appeal in any case.”
“There was a wolf,” the creature continues, a hint of threat in its reedy voice. “It gave me no gift and snarled when I appeared. It stepped into a snare while stalking the cow, and was forced to buy its freedom with a leg.”
“But I have already gifted you generously, and I do not snarl,” Alice replies.
“There have been lovers,” it continues, as if caught in the chain of remembering. “They have for the most part had eyes only for each other, but they have spilled wine, and other things, which I was kind enough to count as gifts. Some of them are still together and some have grown apart. Can you guess which I was most generous with?”
“I very much doubt that I will be bothering with love,” Alice replies. “And my gifts were intentional, not carelessly dribbled onto the moss.”
“And there was a man,” the creature hurries along on the heels of her objection. “He gave me a silver coin. When he went down to the village below, he found its headman drunk with celebrating the birth of his daughter, and struck him down while the only weapon he held was a bottle. Now he rules them all. Surely you would not turn down such a boon!”
“I know that story well,” says Alice, “and I would prefer to overcome my enemies by might and wisdom, and not depend upon my treachery and their ill fortune.”
“But surely there is something you’d ask of me?” The creature takes a step back towards the cake crumb; suspicious, possessive.
“Yes,” says Alice. “Go away.” Her voice is suddenly hard, and as cruel as a young girl’s voice can be. Which is very cruel indeed.
“What?” The creature croaks. “You cannot ask that. I’ll return your gifts!”
“You’ve tasted the cake and worn the yarn. It’s too late to refuse them, as you well know. Now go away. Find another place. I order you.”
Oh it screams, it wheedles and promises, it kicks the cake and stomps on the scrap of yarn, but eventually it leaves (after picking up both of its treasures to be sure). Alice can hear its keening wail for a long time.
Only after it has faded away does she dip her hand into another pocket to remove a similar creature and dangle it, her fingers circling its waist, inches above the moss of the ledge.
“You see,” she says, “I am a girl of my word. This is a place of far greater power than the spot upon which I found you.”
Held, the little creature stretches its legs toward the ground, desperate for its feet to touch the earth below it, to taste the history that trembles within it.
“This place will be yours,” Alice continues, “if you keep your word.”
“I will,” her captive squeaks, “I swear so by the earth below me.”
She sets the thing free, and as soon as it touches the earth she feels herself taken in, surrounded. The rocks of the place are in her bones and the moss grows through her flesh; Alice tastes their age and their wisdom and their inhuman potency. It lasts only a moment, and when it is over she is alone on the pretty little shelf, and the June sun is hanging low and lazy in the sky.
The girl stands, and gingerly follows the shale-gray cow-path’s wander down the hillside. In the years to come some will call her Black Alice, and worse, but today she is just Alice; a young woman as newly full of magic as a sated tick, who walks down to the little village in the shadow of the mound, who goes to settle matters with her stepfather.
Bruce Woods is a professional writer/editor with more than 30 years in magazine publishing, having worked as editor of Mother Earth News and Alaska Magazine, among others, and have published both nonfiction and poetry books. Prairie Schooner magazine featured his work in its “Writing from Alaska” issue. His Birdhouse Book, brought out by Sterling/Lark, is still in print and has sold more than 100,000 copies.
IMAGE: The “Fairy Hill” at Aberfoyle, Scotland, where Rev. Kirk was said to be held eternal captive of the fairies.