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Excerpt from Monsters

Troll Part I


Illustration by Geoffrey Smith

He said, “There used to be many more of us. And we didn’t used to live under bridges. We lived under fallen trees near streams. But how many of those do you see anymore? We—those of us still around—make do. And don’t get me wrong, I love this stream. But this stream is just making do, too.”

He began to sing. I didn’t understand the words, of course. Honestly, for the most part I couldn’t even tell one word from another. And at first the tune sounded jarring, like monkeys or coyotes or a bunch of birds, but soon I got used to it, and then with no discernible transition I ceased to be aware of it entirely. Words and tune enfolded me until they became the air I breathed, the sights and sounds and smells I took in.

And then the strangest thing happened. No longer was I sitting under this concrete bridge, listening to cars whizzing overhead. No longer was the stream dirty. The shopping cart was gone, as were the brownish bubbles from God-knows-where and the oily-sheen that came with them. The stream was . . . young. It was healthy. It was alive. I don’t know how else to describe it.

And there were trees everywhere, tall, round trees whose branches intertwined and broke the sunlight into slanted rays. Muted sunlight textured the forest’s browns and greens and yellows. More birds than I had ever imagined—orange and brown and white and red and blue—flitted from branch to branch, gossiping and chattering and preening and loving. The ground was covered with the parents of these trees, and their parents, too, slowly returning to where they came from, to the soil, to the earth.

I saw mammals, too, voles and shrews and bears and humans.

And when I looked closer I saw trolls. I saw them sitting—as this troll had said—beneath downed trees, by this same stream, this stream so full of fish I could see fins above the water, and I could see that the trolls, too, like the birds, like all these others, were gossiping and chattering and preening and loving.

The song filled me with joy and a longing so deep and profound that I almost wished the song had never begun. Is it better to simply feel empty, or to know what you have lost and to know the source of this emptiness, in full knowledge that what has been lost can never in your lifetime be returned to you? I did not know in this moment whether to love or hate this troll, or to simply feel his pain and my own.

The song continued, for how long I cannot say, and when it ended I learned my cheeks were wet.

I said, “I am sorry.”

He said, “That’s why I asked you to come closer. That’s why I asked you to come closer. You don’t hate me for showing you that. Or at least you don’t only hate me. And you don’t lie to me or to yourself by saying it was never like that. You were cleaning the stream. That’s why I asked you.”