A Triptych Tale...

Esoteric Wildlife

A Triptych Tale

 

Kari had work to do. A mass of words stared at her from her monitor, waiting for an editor’s hand. She had been staring at it for fifteen minutes and she still hadn’t gotten past the title. Every time she tried, Mark started talking — and everything he said was so ridiculous that she had to listen.

“Yes, you heard correctly. The speech is called ‘What We Can Learn about Colony Collapse Disorder From the Fairy Extinction.’ More important, it was already accepted, and I’m already attending. I don’t know what you intend to accomplish by not letting me reserve an exhibit spot —”

Kari jammed in her earbuds and tried to drown him out with the fastest, loudest Euro-pop she could find. Work. She was supposed to work.

It was her second day on the job and she still didn’t know why she was here. Kari had been a contractor for four months, which was unusually lucky for someone who just graduated with a communications degree. She had been happy writing for the kinds of businesses you got in Portland — organic, locally-grown crops and craft beer — when her boss decided she should work on their contract for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was her second day on the job and she still didn’t know why she was here.

At first, Kari had been excited. Government work was real work, even if it was just a three month contract in The Dalles, a city so dull that it was hard to imagine Portland was only two hours away. Her family was proud. Her friends were jealous. They all wanted to know what she was doing.

I’m going to edit a paper about colony collapse disorder, she’d told them. I’ve heard this guy is brilliant, but he has a hard time writing his thoughts down. So I’m going to be part of the Esoteric Wildlife Division for a while.

The only part of the job description that she hadn’t understood was the esoteric wildlife. She thought it meant Mark studied something rare, like spotted owls.

Esoteric, it turned out, meant mythological.

Her phone moved to a new track with a low, tender intro. Mark’s voice boomed over the piano.

“It’s not ‘nonsense,’ it’s important. No one has ever considered fairies from this point of view before. And I think – what? Yes, of course I’m completely serious. Yes, I —”

Kari skipped through tracks until she found a guitar solo.

Esoteric wildlife. Had she known she would be writing fiction, she wouldn’t have taken the job. Kari had explained this to her manager, her contact at Fish and Wildlife, and even Mark himself, but no one thought this was insane except for her and, apparently, whoever Mark was talking to on the phone.

A sharp, aggressive rapping on the door broke through Kari’s music. She’d barely tugged out her earbuds before Mark burst out of his office, his phone still plastered to his ear.

Mark always looked like he was caught in a whirlwind. His shirt was untucked and his hair managed to be windblown even though he had been inside for hours. His beard was always just long enough that it was hard to tell if he forgot to shave or was trying to pull off the “absentminded professor” stereotype. He looked, despite his research, like every Ph.D. she had ever seen.

The mailman was waiting on the other side of the door. He cracked Mark a knowing smile and offered him a package.

“Yes, I know you might think that. But all I need you to do is — excuse me,” Mark continued rapidly, pausing just long enough to smile at the mailman and softly murmur, “I promise I am paying complete attention to you. Do I need to sign for this? In any case, what I really need you to do is book an exhibit space for — Oh,” he gasped. “She hung up.”

“Sign here, please,” the mailman said wryly.

Once Mark had the package in his hands, he kicked the door shut and swung his phone above his head. “I have a grant! I have funding! This woman didn’t have to believe me, she just had to book me! She wouldn’t even do that!”

“I have a grant! I have funding!"

“Well,” Kari said softly, “you can’t expect everyone to take you seriously.”

“That is absolutely no reason to be unprofessional. But!” Mark announced, “I have a package. And if it’s what I think it is, this is the very thing that started this paper and — this goes without saying — your contract. Doesn’t that sound thrilling?”

“If you say so,” Kari said politely. “What is it?”

“It’s a package from Ireland.”

He sounded so happy. So enthusiastic. It was an infectious enthusiasm, so wildly unwarranted that she almost smiled sympathetically. Then he peeled away the paper, pried open the box, and withdrew the most horrifying thing she had ever seen.

It was just shy of a foot tall, with hands and legs that ended in vicious claws. Its eyes were massive, multifaceted, and black as night. Its mouth was curled open, baring needlelike teeth that were stacked in rows like a shark’s. A pair of massive dragonfly wings bloomed out of its back, opaque with age and touched with mold. It was pinned by those wings to a huge slab of cork board, as if it were a giant butterfly on display.

“What is that?” she gaped. “It looks like it could eat a kid!”

“It may have,” Mark murmured appreciatively.

“What is it?”

He looked perplexed. “It’s a fairy. Very rare, too. Right from the end of the 1830s. I imagine someone noticed they were hard to find, and thought that it’d be wise to taxidermy one. That’s very good luck for us.”

Kari’s voice caught in her throat. Her stomach clenched. Her words came out papery, “Fairies aren’t real.”

“Oh?” he replied amicably. “But this is one.”

“You told the woman on the phone they were extinct.”

“That’s quite a different thing from being imaginary.”

“But it … it’s not …” Kari found herself grasping for words. “It’s not a bee! It has nothing to do with bees!” Now she was yelling. She gasped and clamped her hands over her mouth, horrified at herself. This was how you lost a job. You weren’t supposed to scream at the client, even if they were stark, raving mad.

“It’s not a bee! It has nothing to do with bees!”

But Kari couldn’t pull her eyes off the monstrosity on the cork board. It was like a taxidermist’s idea of a vicious joke. She managed, somehow, to pull her attention up to something a little less awful: the face of the client she had just screamed at.

Mark looked more confused than offended. “Why would it need to?”

“I was hired to help you write a paper about colony collapse disorder,” she repeated, so slowly and bluntly that it, too, should have cost her her job. “But you haven’t said a single thing about bees since I got here. You’ve talked about sasquatch and raven gods, and now you’re talking about fairies. And even if this thing was real, and it was extinct, how could it have anything to do with the bees?”

“Oh! That’s what you’re getting at,” Mark said. He laughed, sharply and awkwardly, as if her rudeness was somehow unintentional. “They don’t! But they inspired me to look at our bee problem from a unique angle. You see, based on our estimates, fairies died out sometime in the 1830s. And that is right before 1845, which was …”

He trailed off and shot her an encouraging grin. Kari sighed. Was she being quizzed? “That was … I don’t know. The Great Potato Famine?”

“Exactly!”

“That was caused by a blight. Like a fungus, maybe. Not fairies.”

“Yes, yes, but why then? What if the blight was caused by the extinction? If fairies were a keystone species, their loss could have ricocheted all the way down the food chain.”

He was talking about fairies the same way a proper ecologist would talk about elephant populations. It hurt Kari’s head. “I’m not sure how any of this is related.”

“It means that an esoteric species may have had a very direct, immediate effect on a human crisis.” He put his fairy on the table in the middle of the office and paced his way around the room. Kari wished she could throw a blanket over it.

“You see, I research the esoteric creatures of America — I study their populations, their effects on the environment, and their almost universal population declines. It is extremely difficult because, as you know, not everyone can see them.”

“Because they’re not real,” Kari offered.

“Because they — what? No.” He stopped abruptly, shook off her words, and continued pacing. “No, they are very much real. But not everyone can see them. You need a certain talent — a willingness to see them. A history of sightings. Something like that. Like you, for example.”

“I have never seen fairies.”

“Well, they’re extinct.”

“I’ve never seen any imaginary creatures!”

He stopped for a moment. He jutted a thumb at the fang-mouthed monstrosity. “But you see the fairy?”

“I’ve never seen any imaginary creatures!”

“Yes, but –”

“Good! Excellent. Then we don’t have a problem.”

Kari snapped her mouth shut.

“In any case,” he continued, “that’s all beside the point. The fairies only inspired this paper. Because if fairies can cause a nationwide crisis, then we must always look at esoteric creatures when crises occur. Anyone can research pesticides, mites, and bacteria. I brought you here to help me with my paper: the theory that the little people of North America are causing colony collapse disorder.”

“Little people,” Kari replied numbly. “You think little people cause colony collapse disorder.”

“Well, yes,” he said, with a grin. “Isn’t it obvious? They’re overhunting the bees.”

#

The little people were Mark’s specialty.

Little people appeared in the myths of tribes across all of North America, from the Inuit of the North down through the Great Lakes, the Carolinas, and the entirety of the American west. They were called the Ishigaq, the Mannegishi, the Yehasuri, or any other myriad names. They were sometimes good and sometimes wicked, but there was one thing that stayed the same: they always toyed with humans.

And Kari was going to write about them overhunting bees.

Kari was walking with Mark and a beekeeper through the middle of an apiary. It was late summer, but the wind was cool and the sun was barely peeking through a thin layer of clouds. Kari dutifully jotted down notes while Mark spoke with the beekeeper.

“We’ve been pretty lucky here, thankfully,” the beekeeper was saying. With the hood of his suit off, he looked like he was ready to wander into a radioactive wasteland. “It’s down in California that they’re having the most trouble. We’ve lost a few hives here, but nothing critical.”

“And where were most of the dead ones found?” Mark asked.

“Well, in the woods,” the man said, and tried to scratch, fruitlessly, at the back of his head. “Do you think the location is important? We already searched the area. All the hives we lost were on the south end. But there aren’t farms over there, so there aren’t pesticides, and we had the river tested. If there’s something in the woods, I can’t imagine what.”

“Can we see the hives?”

“Of course.”

The abandoned hives were on the edge of the woods, scattered between perfectly healthy and bustling ones. Mark seemed unafraid of the bees and the beekeeper insisted they would be fine as long as they didn’t mess with the hives, but Kari stayed just far enough away to comfortably follow their conversation.

She sat down on a toppled cedar at the edge of the woods and listened to them talk. No amount of fresh air or Oregon summer sunshine was going to brighten her mood. She couldn’t get past what she had been hired to do.

This contract was supposed to last three whole months. What should she do? She could quit, sure, but her agency probably wouldn’t keep her after she bailed on a government contract. But maybe that was for the best. She could move to Seattle, find a new job, and run a Freedom of Information Act request on the USWFS. Maybe, armed with her emails about this esoteric wildlife nonsense, she could call the media and put this tax-sink to an end, and then …

Something — a great many tiny somethings — grabbed her from behind. With a surprisingly strong heave, they hauled her backwards off the log. She let out a muted shriek before she landed hard enough to blow the air out of her.

They rushed onto her, around her, on top of her. They grabbed her by her shoulders, her hair, the skin of her neck, dragging her along the rough, branch-littered ground. A couple jumped on her chest.

She let out a muted shriek before she landed hard enough to blow the air out of her.

They were people. One-foot-tall people. They had two arms, two legs, and faces full of viciousness, with deep-set, beady little eyes, mammoth hands, and mouths that looked so big and wide that they might have been as full of fangs as the fairy’s. They wore no clothing, but some of them held needle-topped spears or sticks threaded with sinew.

Kari was being dragged off by a tiny war brigade.

She let out a shriek, rolled on her side, and hurled three of them off with one swipe of her arm. One of the creatures shouted something incomprehensible and jabbed its spear into her biceps. If it wanted to shut her up, it didn’t work. She screamed louder.

Mark and the beekeeper burst through the leaves. Mark was the first to speak. “What happened?”

The little men let out a communal grunt of surprise, released her, and fled. Their feet pattered off into the underbrush. Kari was left on her back, her breath ragged with fear.

“Oh,” Mark said knowingly.

The beekeeper looked perplexed. “What happened? Did you fall?

“It took her a moment to realize what he had said. It took her a moment more, through the haze of panic, to realize what it meant.

He hadn’t seen the little people. But she had.

#

They were real. The little people were real.

In a few short minutes, Mark had Kari dusted off and sorted out. She had scrapes up and down her body and her arm was sluggishly bleeding. Mark prodded it and determined that she would be fine. Before she could protest, he herded her into the forest. He wanted to find her assailants.

Kari didn’t want to go anywhere. She wanted to piece together the ruins of her world. She had seen little people, and little people were not supposed to exist. She had seen myths. Legends. They had grabbed her and waved their tiny weapons in her face, and they were real.

Mark didn’t have the decency to leave her alone with her thoughts.

“This is perfect!” he announced. “Those were Nimerigar.”

“What?” she managed to mouth.

“Nimerigar! A type of little person. They’re a little far west — I wouldn’t expect to find them much farther than Idaho — but finding them here is incredibly lucky. If they’re living by the apiary, then it is entirely possible that they’re hunting the bees.”

Kari’s arm felt numb. “Was that arrow poisoned?”

“There are legends about that, yes.”

“Shouldn’t I see a doctor?”

“Well, it’s not going to kill you. You’re much larger than what they normally hunt.”

“ ‘What they normally hunt.’ Because they have normal hunting patterns,” Kari murmured.

“Yes?”

Kari let out a sigh. “Fine. Poison arrows kill bees. Nimerigar overhunt bees, cause colony collapse. This is all extremely real. Let’s get enough to write your paper and go. I want a Band-Aid.”

The little men were surprisingly fast. It had only taken a few minutes for Kari and Mark to follow after them, but they couldn’t guess which direction the Nimerigar had fled in. Neither of them were good trackers, and the Nimerigar had left nothing at all on the forest floor, not even footprints.

“Let’s get enough to write your paper and go. I want a Band-Aid.”

Kari and Mark looked for hours, poking around the trees and peeking into the underbrush. They stopped by the river — the one the beekeeper said was clean — but found nothing in the shoals. They wandered in circles around the edge of the apiary, following nothing more damning than deer tracks.

Hours later, Kari’s arm was tingling down to her fingertips, her feet were aching, and she was desperately thirsty. The sun had dipped low enough that the light was filtered through the trees. She was starting to trip over her own feet.

“It’s getting dark,” she said, finally. “Can we go? We know Nimerigar were here. That counts for something, right?”

Mark was starting up a small hill that Kari was sure they had been up several times. “It does, but not very much. Their presence doesn’t necessarily mean anything. If I could just …”

He froze at the top of the hill. His voice was faint. “Oh.”

It was a soft, chilling sound. Kari followed him and stopped by his side.

They had found the Nimerigar. Dozens of miniature naked men and women were lying dead at the bottom of the hill. They were strewn about randomly, haphazardly, as if they had died mid-step. Kari felt her stomach lurch, and she turned away, burying her face in her notebook.

“Oh,” Mark said. His voice ached with pain. “Oh. I was wrong.”

Kari had never heard him so depressed. The sorrow in his breath was heartbreaking.

She managed to murmur, “It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“It’s the same thing,” she repeated weakly. “It’s just like the bees. They wandered away from their homes, never went back, and died from exhaustion.”

“Because they aren’t causing colony collapse,” he prompted.

“They’re victims of it, too.”

It was the strangest thing she had ever said. Mark let out a huge, heaving sigh and settled himself onto the ground. He stared down over the clearing and murmured, “And that’s why. That’s why they attacked a young woman in the middle of the day, near a reasonably populated area. If they were addled by exhaustion and weak with hunger, then …” he trailed off. “So much for my paper. All that work, all that research, and now …”

He was well and truly miserable. Kari really should have comforted him. But she couldn’t, in that moment, find anything to say. She was too dazzled by a feeling that had crept up on her unexpectedly, strangely, and powerfully.

This was real. All of it.

The little people were real. The fairies were real. All of them — the mythological creatures, the imaginary creatures, the esoterics — were real. That was dizzying enough. And that meant this, this pile of dead beings, was real, too.

She felt her knees wobble. She lowered herself, inch by inch, until she sat on the grass beside Mark. He was mumbling a half-audible stream of misery to himself about years of work.

She felt like she had after she watched a documentary on poaching: empty, horrified by the scale, overwhelmed by the awfulness. Dozens of dead bodies lay at the bottom of the hill. They had lived and struggled and suffered and died. They might have been myths and legends, and not everyone could see them. But they were real. And they needed help.

She felt like she had after she watched a documentary on poaching.

“It’ll be all right,” she murmured. Her words were so soft she didn’t expect them to carry. She didn’t expect Mark to stop talking, to fall silent at them. “We’ll work this into the paper. We’ll put in the extra hours. We’ll make it work.”

He made a small noise. It might have been agreement.

“That’s why you’re here, right? To study them. To find a solution. To help them,” she said. A nugget of determination crept into her voice, even as her voice shook. “You’re going to find out what’s wrong, and we’re going to write about it.”

“Of course,” he murmured. “What else is there to do?”

“Right. So we’ll do our best.”

They were brave words, at least. She knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. This was science — esoteric, but still science, even though her mind still whirled to think that — and there were no quick fixes. This was not something that would be resolved in the three months her contract was supposed to last, or even a year. But it buoyed her. It gave her a purpose.

She wasn’t going to quit this job after all. She had something important to do.

 

Elizabeth Spencer is a fantasy and steampunk author whose first experience with a New England winter has her longing for the Oregon she just left. (Even Nimerigar attacks don’t sound so bad. Do you know how much it snows here?) By day, she’s some combination of project manager, writer, and editor. You can find more of her short fiction in Spellbound and the Triangulation: Parch anthology, or flag her down on @EF_Spencer or elizabeth-spencer.net.