It's a cold day here in the Ozarks and as far as I can tell, cold and nasty for most of North America. That makes it a good day to read and so I'm putting up a story I wrote a few years back. This appeared in an anthology in the past but here it is, free to read. This is one of my speculative short stories.
On a November morning when rain drenched the bare tree limbs and dripped water onto the fallen leaves, Manuel followed the sound of hammers into the woods. The insistent tap-tap-tap had echoed in his mind for two days, a period in which he could not eat or even sleep because of the sound. Although he had blamed woodpeckers for the racket in the beginning, he had determined that it was something else that made the noise – trespassers on his land.
Buttoned into his red and black heavy flannel coat, he lifted his .410 shotgun from the rack above the door and went outside. Coffee burned in his stomach and he thought he was hungry but he did not stop for his usual breakfast of biscuits and bacon. Moving with stealth through the trees, he followed the sound that plagued him.
“They’re buildin’ on my land.” he muttered to himself as he walked with careful tread so that he would not alert
the interlopers of his approach. “Sons-a-bitches! Probably puttin’ up a trailer house or somethin’.”
Manuel lived on the land that his great-grandfather had homesteaded. He and Fern had raised four children on this ridge top but each had left in turn to seek a more stable life elsewhere. Billy – now William – taught History at the State University and his brother Jack was a Marine recruiter over to Springfield. Samantha married well and lived in a fine home that overlooked Table Rock Lake. His baby – Tabitha – had not been as fortunate as her siblings were. Tabby worked at Tyson Foods, her hands worn and scarred by cuts. He had not bought a Tyson chicken in five years and refused to even look at the bright boxes of deboned bird that lined the freezer case.
Hell, since Fern died he had not bought meat in town at all. He hunted and fished for his dinner, augmented only by the annual cow he butchered. Without a wife to cook for him, he had lost most of the interest he once had in food and his belt now cinched tighter about his waist. Those worn holes stretched from years of wear now marked past, not present.
Step by step, he marched deeper into the woods, moving between the trees with the silent stealth that came with
hunting since he was nine. He knew each tree, every rock, and how the land lay on his place. Until recent days, he would have sworn on a stack of black Bibles edged in gilt that there were no secrets here.
He had awakened Saturday morning to hear the sound of hammers at work. Cursing, he had tromped out to the road to glare at the neighbor’s but their homes lay silent in the sunlight. Manuel could recall when there had been no neighbors within sight of his home or his mailbox but those days were as gone as the American made shoes he used to wear. Three homes, ranch style houses that looked transplanted from town, were in view. He had made his peace with their presence long ago but it was the two trailers that made his ire burn.
Mobile homes were one thing, he had decided, and if kept up in a nice fashion, they might do well enough to house a family. Trailers – ancient wrecks of mobile homes made before satellite television dotted the Ozarks – were another story. He didn’t like the rusted metal roofs or the scattered toys bought at rummage sales in the front yards or the way they parked their vehicles at the door. Most of all he hated the blankets or sheets hung over the windows in lieu of curtains. Fern had been fond of curtains – she had owned more pairs of drapes than any woman he had known and changed them out several times each year.
The tapping was louder now and he slowed his pace, listening. He thought he could hear faint voices carried on the wind but they sounded strange to his ear, more like those of children than men building a house or tacking skirting around a trailer house.
“What the hell?” he muttered under his breath and shivered as a cold breeze raked his back. He turned; squaring his shoulders against the wind and waited.
Again, he heard the voices, tinny and small. There was no rumble of masculine timbre or rough words. Giggles now punctuated the hammering and he shook his head with confusion. It couldn’t be children building on his land or even kids putting up a playhouse. Not only was the weather too cold, school was in session. He had seen the bobbing hats of the kids who climbed aboard the school bus as he drank coffee and stared out the kitchen window.
The words were intelligible but something about the sound of them made him think of his grandmother, a tiny, wizened woman with face brown as the leaves over which he walked. Granny Kate had been proud to be three-fourths Cherokee, born not in Oklahoma but in Indian Territory. Now himself past seventy he seldom thought of those long dead to him but at her conjured image in his mind, he felt a chill that did not come from the wind.
As if the past encroached upon the present, he heard her voice again, the soft, husky tones scolding him when he brought no milk in from the cow. Manuel recalled how sore his fingers had felt after struggling to coax milk from the teats of the old milker and how tears had come into his eyes at the old woman’s tirade. He remembered too how she had stopped to inspect his hands and then paused.
“You tried, didn’t you, son?” she had said, her voice changed from anger to resignation. “Never mind, then, ain’t your fault. Nunnahee’s have done took the milk for their own.”
He remembered how his voice, just then changing from a boy’s to that of a man, had cracked at the question.
“The Little People.” She had whispered, eyes darting about the room as if she might have summoned one. “Bad luck to talk about them or say their name aloud but I reckoned you didn’t know, being mostly white. You don’t know ‘bout them being my kin, neither, but that’s the way it ought to be.”
As if that was his fault, he had thought. She had married a white man and came over into Missouri. He knew better than to fuss, however, and so he nodded. He had heard of the Little People, a tiny race that somehow predated the standard folks he knew and lived among. They were mischievous but not evil but no one wanted to provoke their wrath.
He groped in his pocket for a chew of tobacco to erase the memory. Thinking of Granny Kate made him uneasy and he didn’t know why. Pungent tobacco juice began to fill his mouth and he sighed with pleasure.
Something moved in the brush just ahead of him and he froze, using a tree as a shield to conceal his presence. He watched as something moved back into sight, hands clutching the smallest hammer that he had seen, minute nails tucked into its’ lip. It wasn’t a child and it sure the hell wasn’t a man. By the size, he judged it a Nunnahee.
“Christ Jesus. I will be damned.”
In his surprise, he made the mistake of speaking aloud. The creature turned to face him and squealed. He made a high-pitched sound himself and backed up. Small hands touched his back and he shrieked. Ten of them stood behind him, all armed with hammers. He inched forward and saw what they had been building.
It was not a house or skirting around a trailer but a coffin. Man-sized. His size. Understanding dawned as he fell forward and the last sound that he heard was the report of his gun as it fired on impact with the ground. Manuel never saw the tiny hands that bore him up, lay him into the box they built, and sealed it, all with the tap-tap-tap of their small hammers. Nor did he know about the empty grave that waited on the ridge for him, dug by the small fingers of the Nunnahee, his sole remaining elders.