by Russ Bickerstaff
It was the dawn of the last century, a cold night in the middle of the woods. No idea why a kid would be wandering around beyond the cornfield. This kid was lost out there.
An albino kid. Didn’t know any better. He just ran off, exploring the woods. No telling why. Some kids get it in their heads to go. They hear the call of the wild or some goddamned thing.
The boy’s parents didn’t help matters. The father of some weak albino boy in the early 20th century might’ve been particularly hard on him. Maybe he preferred the wilderness to home. Truth be told, the old man that little boy turned into doesn’t know why he left. He only remembers being cold. It was late fall in Southern Wisconsin.
The boy followed sounds he’d been hearing for some time and was getting hungry. He didn’t know how to hunt or fish, or anything like that. He wandered around in the woods in Muskego, hearing whispers that melted into his thoughts. Kid must’ve been half-dead when he felt little hands drawing him in. Half sick and on the edge of death from the cold when all those little hands and arms and backs took him into a cozy, civilized warmth deep within the woods.
They later told the albino kid they’d served him bowl after bowl of gruel for days straight before he finally started to move around in a hazy daze. The people who had taken him in were different from the adults who looked down at his frail albino form. They could all look him straight in the eye. They all seemed to have a cautious respect for him. Sure, they had argued about whether or not they were going to take the kid in to begin with, and their reluctance nearly cost him his life, but they were under no obligation to help him.
The group were all as tall as the little albino kid. Every single last one of them. And they were all adults, too. Hard to believe now, but back then there wasn’t any TV or Internet and you didn’t ever go to the movies unless you had the kind of money the little albino boy’s family didn’t have. So he’d never seen full-grown adults that were as tall as him. They didn’t look down on him. They didn’t pity him because of his frailty. They didn’t hate him because of his weakness either. The little albino boy had met a group of adults who looked him in the eye and respected him as some kind of equal. The little albino boy had found this magical place where everyone was more or less equal. He knew he had parents. He knew he could find them. But he didn’t want to.
The people of the village deep in the woods in Muskego were very reclusive. The nearest major road is a tiny, little forgotten thing called Mystic Drive which ends in a gravel path. Back then Mystic Drive went from nowhere to nowhere. The people of the little village loved it that way. They were reluctant to bring the little boy back and they were sure as hell reluctant to let him stay once he’d been brought back to health. There was a pretty large minority of the village who wanted to simply escort the little albino boy back to Mystic Drive and let him find his way back home. A minority is a minority, however. The decision was to let the kid stay for as long as he liked as long as he pulled his weight and as long as he kept respectful of the villager’s decision to keep away from the outside world.
The little albino boy would come to know the villagers as dwarves. They taught him about them. He kept thinking of himself as a dwarf. His teacher kept telling him that he was an albino, but he was no albino dwarf. One day he had come back from chopping firewood and he asked his teacher what it meant to be an albino and not be a dwarf. The teacher got a far away look in his eye and he told him that it meant that he would grow to be taller than the rest of them but that his skin would always be the color of fresh snow in the dead of winter. By this time the boy was old enough to see that he was getting taller than everyone else in the village.
His teacher was a wise, old dwarf who told him that the time would come when the albino boy would have to decide if he truly fit in with a group of people who were every bit as different from him as those in the world outside. The teacher told him about a group of circus dwarves who had come to inhabit this section of the woods on account of mistreatment by a wicked ring leader. They’d killed him and hung him in the same clearing that the albino boy had always gone to for firewood. It was a dark time in their past. Like so many communities, their village had been built on blood. They didn’t want to face more of it, but they would if they had to. The world was getting smaller out beyond the village. There would come a time he would have to choose if he was a villager or someone from outside.
The boy had come to see a dozen summers in the village. He had come to be full height. He was at least twice as tall as any of the dwarves in the community. Some of them had started to mistrust him. He felt uneasy. He knew that he couldn’t go back to the world outside. He’d found his home and it was where he wanted to stay for the rest of his life. Why did some of them have to mar it by mistrusting him because of his height?
Fate had given the albino boy a rite of passage one deer hunting season. A couple of drunken hunters of the lowest caliber happened into the village and started shooting up the place. Lucky they were blind drunk and couldn’t hit worth a damned. Didn’t make it any easier rushing them and clobbering the hell out of them, but the albino did it. In so doing, somewhere in the process of that confrontation, he had become an albino man. There was no mistrust of him in the village anymore. The albino had proven his loyalty. More than that, he had proven his worth. The villagers unanimously decided to make the albino their protector.
The albino man picked up the shotguns and rifles of the fallen hunters and built himself a shack on the edge of Mystic Drive to scare off any unwanted visitors. They all come around here looking for what all the outsiders call “Hanunchyville”. Most ridiculous name I’ve ever heard. Around here we all just call it “the village”.
Russ Bickerstaff is a professional theatre critic and author living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters. His short fictions have appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Sein und Werden, and Beyond Imagination, among other places. He is the commander of The Internarrational Where Port.
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