the Troll Child

by Edward Ahern

“Hate toasted cheese! Hate French fries! Hate you!”

Her parents cringed from across the restaurant table as Charlene grabbed her full plate and started to throw it. Charlie grabbed his daughter’s plate just as it went airborne, French fries sprayed out onto the adjacent table where a tall, fat man sat.

“Charlene don’t do this again, please!” Charlie’s wife Charlize (they thought the similar names were cute) blushed in embarrassment. “You’re eight years old, darling. You need to behave.”

“Hate you. You’re a bad mommy!”

“Charlene you can’t say that, she’s your mother.”

“Hate you too. Hate! Hate!” Charlene started pounding the table with her fork and spoon, then whacked her glass of chocolate milk, cracking it open. Brown milk spilled off the table and into Charlize’s lap.

Charlie bellowed, “You’re no child of mine. If you can’t behave I’ll get a different daughter!”

“I don’t care!”

“Do you really mean that?” The question came from the next table. Charlie felt the veins pressing out from his forehead as he turned to look at the man. What he’d glimpsed as fat was muscular bulk, perhaps 300 pounds worth. Charlie hated that the man was teasing him, and almost yelled. “Yes I mean it!”

“Good. You can call me Brumbulbarch if you wish. And you, maam, would you like a replacement?”

Charlize sat without speaking, chocolate milk dripping from her slacks. An abortive smile wrinkled her lips, as if she wasn’t getting the joke. “Sometimes I feel that way,” she said, and then lowered her eyelids.

“Okay, it’s done. Look at your new child.”

The sudden silence pulled their attention over to their daughter. But their red faced screamer was gone. The swarthy child across the table from them holding a fork and spoon was sturdily constructed, with coarse black hair that seemed to be growing down her cheeks.

“What- where’s our daughter?” Charlie yelped.

“Oh, she’s good and gone, but you’ll get her back in a month. Meanwhile you can enjoy my daughter’s company: she’s always obedient and usually terse.”

Charlize was crying. “Charlie, get her back!”

Charlie jumped up and leaned over the table into the man’s face. “Give me our Charlene back!” Or else!”

The large man idly picked up French fires with fingers thick as hot dogs. “Choke off that testosterone, Charlie, you’re not built for a fight. And if you call the cops they’ll discover that the kid across from you has your blood type and DNA, and put you in an observation ward. Here, give these napkins to your wife, she needs them. Good that chocolate milk washes out in cold water.”

“How? …What’s happening here?”

About thirty restaurant patrons were staring at them.  Charlie and Charlize quieted down as Brumbulbarch continued. “Listen up, both of you. You get a month’s sabbatical from a brat. Have you heard of changelings? No matter, you’ve got one now.

“Your new Charlene eats meat, lots of it, preferably raw. Doesn’t really matter what species, but I wouldn’t give her a taste for human flesh. She’ll want to chew and crack bones to suck the marrow out, preferably uncooked.  She’s apt to regurgitate her food, but don’t worry, she’ll reswallow it and you can clean up the carpet with a little vinegar.

“Your task is to acclimate her to the human niceties–fast food, cable television, scheduled play time with kids she doesn’t like-just screw her up like you have your own child.”

“You’re crazy. If you don’t give me back our child right now I will call the police!”

“Call your mistress for all I care. Once you’ve annoyed the cops you’ll still have my child, and I’ll have yours. Speaking of telephone calls. I’m a troll, not some unfeeling ogre. You can reach me at this number. It’s an untraceable burner phone.. You can call me three times and only three times during the coming month, so save you anguished questions until you’re desperate. I’m disappearing now.”

“Wait! Wait. It–can she speak, is she toilet trained?”

“She’s quite intelligent but laconic. We don’t have toilets, but she squats nimbly and should learn to porcelain poop in one try. Oh, and I’d avoid physical punishment. She’s considerably stronger than you are. Goodbye.”

Without a rustle or puff of wind the large man was gone, leaving behind a table-top construction of French fries that looked much like a bridge.

Charlize studied her husband through her tears.. “Charlie, sweetie, what did he mean by mistress?”

“Ah, just gibberish dear.” He turned to the motionless toddler. “What’s your name, child?”

“Charlene of course. Hungry. Smell burnt meat. Raw better. Burnt okay. Need now, please.”

It was the never-heard “please” that twisted open their sympathy. “Of course dear,” Charlize muttered, and walked over to convince the waitress to give her two raw hamburger patties and two uncooked eggs. While she was gone Charlie studied the child.  Her eyes were slate gray, her thick forearms and legs covered with a light brown down. She wore Charlene’s dress, opened up in various places to accommodate her thicker torso. Her face in a coarser way resembled his.

“Do you know your ABC’s?”

“Charlene reads well, especially like noir.”

“Um, You need to use articles when you talk- “the” and “a.”

“Why? Useless.”

Charlie laughed despite himself. “Being human is about being useless adeptly.”

****

Brumbulbarch carried Charlene into his summer cave, hidden under the base of an abandoned railway trestle. Her bottom rested on his platter sized palm as he carried her through the cave, proudly pointing out the ornate stagnant water pool, the beds of rotting vegetation, and the multi–colored slime molds adorning the walls. “Took me years to get that purple-violet patch to grow right.”

Charlene meanwhile continued to scream, hitting and biting his fingers.  Brumbulbarch smiled. “How I’ve missed the screams of a petulant urchin! Charlene, I don’t want you to hurt your vocal cords, but could you keep up the screeching for another twenty minutes? It brings back such memories.”

“Hate you, mean, ugly man. Ugly! Put me down! Let me go! Ow!” This last because she’d bruised her fist on one of his finger knuckles.

“Ah, yes, nothing like afternoon caterwauling. Could you go up just a few decibels, dear? It would echo more resonantly in the cave.”

“Need to go pee-pee.”

“Sure. The door is barred, so don’t bother to run away. You can squat anywhere other than the stagnant pond- some things in there would try and tear off chunks if you get too close.”

Brumbulbarch tipped his hand, letting Charlene’s feet touch the ground. She screamed even more loudly and ran toward the heavy oaken door. Brumbulbarch smiled, brats were always so predictable. He settled onto his most comfortable flat rock and waited.

Charlene sidled into view an hour and a half later, legs bent to run away again. “I’m hungry,” she muttered.

“And no wonder, you threw away your last meal. My cave is full of gourmet toads and centipedes, not to mention moss and algae.”

“Yuck!  I want a toasted cheese and French fries.”

“Ah, no dear, but there’s well aged hung game in the back corner over there. It’ll smell a bit off, but don’t worry, it’s edible. Just use the carving knife to slice off what you need, and trim away anything green.”

The shrill siren resumed wailing. “I want real food. Give me real food!”

Brumbulbarch smiled dotingly. “How nice it is to have selfish tantrums back in the cave. Pity it doesn’t last long. Nothing here can poison or kill you, although you’ll probably get sick and injured every so often. You’re going to live like a troll for the next month, no better–no worse. We’re big into dark places, ground sleeping, rocks and raw food. I want you to feel free to cry, scream and complain as much as possible. In fact, I encourage it.”

“You fat, ugly man, take me home!”

“You delightfully repugnant child, this is your home. In a week or two I’ll let you out and we can shake down travelers and kill animals for food. Won’t that be fun?”

****

“We have to turn her in to the police, Charlie, and report Charlene’s kidnapping.” Charlize watched the stocky girl fumble with her fork, finally grabbing the raw beef patty with her fingers.

“No, no dear. We have to use utensils when we eat.” To her surprise Charlene obeyed, dropping the patty back on the plate and picking up the fork. “Here, honey, hold the fork like this- and then just cut and stab the meat like this.” Charlene smiled at her as the patty chunk moved into her mouth, her teeth clicking loudly on the tines of the fork. Charlize turned to Charlie. “But maybe we should take her home first so we don’t cause an uproar here in the restaurant?”

On the way home, Charlie snorted,. “I don’t know what the hell happened, but there’s something I need to check before we call the cops.”

Once they’d arrived Charlie rummaged through a desk drawer until he came up with a brown manila envelope that the hospital had given him after his daughter’s birth.

“Ah, Charlene, we’re going to play a game.”

“Like games, but you too weak to play Hurl the Boulder, and too slow for Count the Ants.”

“No, no, not that kind of game. I’m going to put ink on your fingers and toes and we’re going to play Comparison. Take off your shoes and socks, please”

Charlie and Charlize spent ten minutes studying the two sets of finger and foot prints. “Jeez, Charlie, they look to me like they’re the same. How can that be?”

Charlene was looking over their shoulders. “Is me of course. Dad said it would be for the next month. Should I kill something for dinner?’

Charlize sputtered. “Ah no, sweetie we arrange for the food killings outside the house. Your, ah, foster father and I need to talk for about a half hour. I’m going to turn on the television for you. Listen to the way the grownups talk and try and say things the way they do.” She clicked onto channel 13 and huddled with Charlie in the next room .

Charlize came back twenty minutes later. “Mahthah, when are we ssheduled to dine?”

“What! O hell, it’s the BBC news on PBS. Don’t talk with that pommy accent. Here, try this. Letters filled the screen.  ‘IT’S THE PRIZE OF YOUR LIFE!’ Come see us when you think you’ve got it.”

Charlene came out ten minutes later. “WOW! GEE! I’M SO EXCITED TO BE HERE. WHEN DO WE EAT THE ALREADY DEAD STUFF?!”

Charlize sighed. “Okay, that was a mistake as well. Charlene, just use the same words and phrases as Charlie and I do. Can you do that?”

“Of course, mom, I’ve listened to your pronunciation and syntax for over an hour. If you make a mistake, should I correct it?”

****

Brumbulbarch watched Charlene choking on aged pheasant breast. “It’s okay, Charlene, you don’t have to eat the meat off the ground if you vomit. Something will slither in before dawn and gobble it down.”

Charlene sobbed between bites. “I want to go home.”

“And you will, in twenty nine more days. Very, very few young girls get to experience what you have now. For the rest of your life, you’ll be at ease with untamed animals, precarious ravines, wilderness living at its best. And just maybe something else.”

“It’s nasty and dirty. You’re an ugly monster.”

Brumbulbarch smiled. “That’s my girl. Don’t give in to your better instincts too soon. Don’t you feel like screaming some more?”

“You won’t hurt me, will you?” It was almost a statement. Charlene had seen enough of Brumbulbarch’s behavior to sense his gentleness..

“Of course not. Now let’s teach you a few things that will keep you from being bruised or sick. Your kind call these sulphur shelf or chicken fungus, and they’re good to eat.”

Charlene waved her hand as if she were shooing flies. “They’re just mushrooms.”

“Yes they are, but this kind- notice the red veining on the underside- is extraordinarily good for mind and body. You need to memorize how this fungus looks. Tomorrow we’re going into the woods to find more of them for dinner, and if you don’t find them, or find the wrong ones, you won’t find dinner.”

“That’s not fair.”

He smiled again. “Fair isn’t a word we use here. Needed, dangerous, useful, those are our kinds of words.” Brumbulbarch’s disposable phone rang. He keyed it on. “Couldn’t wait even one day, eh?”

“I want to speak to my daughter!”

“Sure, but I’ll be holding the phone. Charlene, it’s your human father.” He keyed the phone into speaker mode.

“Daddy, how could you let this happen to me!?” She started yelling and screaming. “You don’t love me. I hate you! Come get me!…”

Brumbulbarch grinned. “That’s more like it, Charlie. I was afraid she’d wimped out. I’m guessing my daughter is fine, Charlie, and your child is fine too. What else do we need to talk about?”

“Give me my daughter back.”

“She’s nowhere near ready yet.” The phone was switched off speaker, but Charlie could hear the ongoing tantrum in the background.

“If you hurt her…”

“Why would I do that? How is my daughter progressing?’

“She just killed and tore apart two crows in the back yard.”

“That’s my girl. She didn’t tear them apart, she dressed them so you could eat them more easily. Although, she should have found something tastier than crow. Goodbye Charlie. You only have two calls left, use them wisely.”

Brumbulbarch turned to Charlene, who’d gone silent as soon as the phone was switched off. “Molds and fungi have other uses as well. Look closely at the multi-colored cave wall. See how the shimmering quickens in one spot, then another, one shade, then another? Sit on the round rock in front of the wall for the next half hour. Keep your eyes on it, it talks to a part of your brain you’re not yet using.”

“Boring. I won’t do it.”

“Then you sleep next to the pool and fight off the critters.”

“It’s not fair!”

“There you go with that word again.”

****

Days passed quickly. One afternoon Charlie watched as Charlene grabbed the trunk of a large bush with both hands and tore it out of the ground. She knocked the dirt off the plant and tossed it across the back yard onto the compost pile. “Charlene, there’s poison ivy there, use the pitchfork I gave you.

“It’s okay, human dad, I don’t need your weakness-compensating tool. Brute force is often more efficient. I smell several rodents with burrows here. I can trap them, then skin them and hang them in the garage for aging. They would taste much better than your factory produced chicken.”

“Ah, no thanks Charlene. I’m afraid we’re conditioned to like chemically adulterated food. How was school today?”

“The seven hour daily confinement? It’s an illogical process. The students learn to hate learning and the teachers are confined to biased textbooks, often teaching wrong opinions. But you believe it to be necessary, so I’ll abide it.”

“I need to call your father now, and you can reassure him that you’re okay.”

“We’re pretty much indestructible, but I would like to say hello.”

“Brumbulbarch?  Charlene has allergies and sensitivities that can be dangerous. Has she developed any bad symptoms?”

“Yeah, she did get a bit hivey, but she’s over all that now. I spiked her water with termite juices.”

“I’d like to speak to Charlene, please. Charlene? Are you all right?”

“Hello dad. I’m okay. There’s no soap or shampoo here, so I’m pretty grimy, but step-dad tells me it’s healthy. I’ve been eating a lot. Brumbulbarch wants to talk to you again–here he is.”

“Charlie? It’s been three weeks now. Before you put my Charlene on, I just wanted to schedule the exchange of our changelings. A week from today, same diner, same time be okay?”

“Ah. That would be great. Charlene sounds different.”

“She’s coming along. Girl actually ate raw slugs last night. May I speak to my Charlene?”

“Hi dad, did the chartreuse slime mold spore properly?”

“Just fine, sweetie. You’ll be coming back to the cave next Saturday. I hope this hasn’t been too awful for you?”

“Not too bad. Their customs are ridiculous and occasionally despicable, but they’ve been conditioned that way.”

“I know, and it’s good that you do too. Could you put your step-dad back on? Hi Charlie.”

“Brumbulbarch, listen. I’ve been thinking. Our girls will be growing into their awkward years soon. Would it make sense for us to do this again when they become teenagers?”

end

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One Response to “the Troll Child”

  1. The Bath Barn Says:

    I was very pleased to find this blog. I just wanted to say thanks for your time for this awesome article. I enjoyed reading it and I have bookmarked you to check out new stuff you post.

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