Vanessa pushed her long brown hair back over her ears and frowned, trying to focus on the task at hand rather than the yelling from the house. At one time, when she was younger, she had interposed herself between them, bracing between them in doorways as they spat and cursed, threw things, and tried to get at each other. But they had pushed her aside and ignored her screams, except sometimes to tell her to “quit bawling,” which she found impossible. When she grew older, she had tried to figure out who was to blame, thinking there was perhaps something she could say, some magic word that, murmured in a private moment to each parent, might fix everything for good. She even threatened to call the police once, after she learned that not every family was like hers. This made them pause, but only long enough to paint her a picture of her father in jail and the scandal and destitution that would ensue.
Finally, with a boldness that came from desperation and being eight, she had bitten her father’s arm while he was hitting her mother. But this had at best slowed him, which made her feel useless, and later, when he was crawling, begging for forgiveness, Vanessa’s mother had pointed to the little circle of teeth marks on his arm. “I can see what your daughter thinks of you,” she had said, and she gave a nasty laugh that made Vanessa feel unclean and led her to suspect (not for the first time) that her mother gave as good as she got.
After that, Vanessa became a barometer. She could sense a storm brewing from the severity of the crease between her mother’s eyes, the tiniest hint of an edge in her voice, the staccato rhythm of her heels as she crossed the kitchen. With a sinking feeling, Vanessa would will it to blow over, but when the cursing became ugly and personal, when her mother began throwing things or deliberately, hurtfully breaking them, when her father got up to fight and eventually batter his way toward a night in his office, Vanessa left them to it, as much as she could.
Whenever possible, she came out to the old oak tree at the back of their yard and worked on her elf houses, as she was trying to do now. The object was to create complete little houses for people about two inches high; the only rule was that all materials must be found outside. Vanessa had been constructing, repairing, and elaborating for two years now, so that there was a little community all round the tree. From a distance, and to grown-up eyes, it might look like a rubble of bark and rocks, but anyone who took the time and effort to get down on the ground and look with a child’s eyes could see that the houses were little masterpieces of domestic comfort.
Taking the bark roof off its supports of two humpy roots and two sticks implanted in the soft ground, Vanessa could look down with satisfaction on a mossy carpet and bed, a bark trestle table balanced on two pebbles, a smooth, round stick rolled up to the table like a log bench, and, at the back, where the roots met the trunk of the tree, a hearth of pebbles, with kindling in it and a buckeye-shell cradle in front of it. Ignoring the fight behind her, which was growing louder, Vanessa now carefully dropped two “books” on the table, so that the elves would have something to read after what she imagined as their difficult pioneer labours. The books were bark, stripped of its rough outer covering and filed on concrete to rectangular regularity, the inner layers resembling pages. Vanessa was proud of them.
Next she planted acorn cups filled with attractive, though probably poisonous berries, near the hearth, replaced the roof, and searched in the grass beside her for the finishing touch, found on the way home from school that afternoon, a puffball. From a small pile of the fungi, she selected the one most likely to fit the space between the bark roof and the trunk, directly above the elves’ hearth, and gently wedged it in. It stayed! She gave it a little squeeze, and a most lifelike, smoky puff of spores wafted up. She imagined the little family inside, quietly preparing dinner, rocking the spiky buckeye-shell cradle, and reading to each other, safe and warm by their fire.
It was beginning to get dark, but Vanessa knew she would not be called in for dinner tonight. Suddenly, though, she did hear her name. Turning, she could see her father storming out of the house, crossing the breezeway to the garage. Her mother was staggering out after him, screaming. “Vanessa! Vanessa! Come here quickly! Your father’s leaving. I need you to stand behind the car so he can’t pull out!”
Her father turned with a sarcastic laugh. “She better get out of the way!” he shouted, and hurried on. Vanessa quickly moved with her puffballs behind her tree, but she peered round the trunk enough to see her mother, clutching her dress where it was torn from her shoulder, peering through the dusk. The car door slammed.
“Vanessa! I know you’re out there! If you let your father leave us I’ll never forgive you.”
Vanessa heard the engine revving as she fought down her desire to go, to help her mother and save her family. Instead she wedged another puffball between the cement roof of the chief’s house and the tree trunk.
The chief’s house was very grand. The roof was a slab of cement Vanessa had lugged home in her old red wagon when they were repairing the sidewalk up the street. It was supported by a single large root and three big rocks. In the trunk of the tree, at the back of the chief’s cavernous hall, was a mysterious hollow. Vanessa liked to imagine that it led to subterranean caves filled with treasure. She had placed the hearth to one side so as not to block the opening.
As she wedged the puffball into the little corner where the root met the trunk, her mother’s screams crescendoed. Vanessa could picture her grabbing at the locked car door, pounding on the window, desperate not to be abandoned. “I have to go,” she thought, but before she went she squeezed the puffball. “That’s a lot of smoke,” she thought, as a grey pall, quite different from the usual faint trail of spores, oozed from the opening.
Before she could get up, a new voice cut into her consciousness, a small but authoritative voice, with something gravelly and inhuman about it. “Don’t,” it said, quite clearly.
Vanessa hesitated, watching the smoke, which was still pouring from the puffball chimney. Stretching out full length in the damp grass, Vanessa put her eye to the opening between the two pieces of bark that made the chief’s front wall. Sure enough, there was a real fire, flickering in the hearth at the rear corner of the hall. And in front of it was a small, man-, or rather elf-shaped, black shadow.
“You’d be a fool to go,” the elf said, turning to face her. There was a sharp sound, and Vanessa, her eyes adjusting to the firelight, saw that he was holding one of her bark books and had snapped it closed, though those books couldn’t really be opened, she knew. “It’s all here,” he said, reprovingly. “You should read your own books.”
Vanessa was too excited to be afraid. She had literally dreamed about something like this for years, and now here it was, before her eyes, real and alive—though she had not pictured elves like this one, so black and angular and with such a disturbing smile on his paper-white face. Vanessa felt glad she had not put any buckeye-shell cradles in his residence.
Suddenly the elf bent low, like a twig snapped in two. “Soon you will take your rightful place, O Queen,” he said, straightening. “This very night we will conquer the castle.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of Vanessa’s house.
“What do you—?” Vanessa began, but the elf chieftain held up a long, twiggy finger. Stooping, he picked up a particularly red berry from one of his acorn storage cups and held it over the fire. Vanessa thought she could see him squeeze three red drops from it, but before she could ask what it was all about, she heard a strange cracking and popping, and more elves began to boil out from the mysterious opening at the back of the hall.
In no time the hall filled with the little black men, their stern white faces glowing red in the light from the fire. The chief leapt up on his table to survey them, and most saluted him, though they seemed more a mob than an army.
Vanessa sat back up, thinking she would go see what was going on in her other houses, but there was no need. The puffball was giving off bright red sparks—that was the cracking noise she had heard—and elves were pouring out from the houses, but also from other nooks and crannies in the yard. Vanessa even thought she saw a small black cloud of them drift across the breezeway from the garage and fade into the house. All the mature elves looked the same to Vanessa, but evidently the women were to fight alongside the men, because here and there she saw children saying tearful goodbyes or taking charge of a neighbour’s baby. Vanessa wanted to go around to the other side of the tree and check on the family in her newest house, but she was afraid of crushing the creatures, and afraid of what they might do to her if she did. Although several of them bowed to her in passing and called her “Queen,” Vanessa felt she had no control over them whatsoever.
Soon the sparks died down to a steady red smoke. It had a pleasant, sweet odor that made Vanessa sleepy. When the chief led his troop of elves out, all the elves gathered around the tree and hanging on like spiders to the bark of its trunk cheered, but their tiny voices already sounded far away to Vanessa. The last thing she remembered was the black shadow of the elf army stretching and stretching away from the tree toward the house.
When Vanessa woke, just before dawn, she was stiff, cold, and wet. She placed her eye to the opening of the chief’s house, but it was too dark to see anything. Certainly there was no fire.
Quickly, Vanessa went around the tree to the new house and lifted its bark roof, letting the puffball fall into the fireplace below. Nothing to see there either—but no, the buckeye-shell cradle was gone. So she couldn’t have dreamed it all.
With a dreadful foreboding, Vanessa ran to the breezeway and up the steps to the back door, which was open. But inside all was lonely and still. Not a single twiggy black elf to be seen, even when she turned on all the downstairs lights.
For an instant, Vanessa felt a wild flicker of hope. Of course it had all been a dream, she thought. She would go upstairs to sleep for a little, and then her father would come home, and they would make it up again, and everything would be all right—for a while.
But as she turned to go upstairs there was a loud knocking on the door, and then the bell rang. Vanessa knew then that she was wrong, and she opened it without checking who it was because she knew beforehand that it would be the police, that there had been an accident, that Sergeant Zielinski would want to give her mother the bad news first because Vanessa was just a child. Could he speak with her please?
“I don’t think so,” Vanessa said dreamily, because she had a feeling she would not be able to wake her mother, but she went upstairs anyway because what else could she do, and the officer was so nice and so sorry about it all.
As she climbed the stairs she remembered the black cloud of elves crossing the breezeway from the garage and wondered how long they had been in there, what they had done to the car, and where all the elves had gotten to. “No,” she said aloud. “It’s not my fault.” But they had called her Queen.
Vanessa opened the door to her parents’ room. Her mother was lying pale and still in the bed, her eyes open and terrified. There was a vile smell of vomit. As she approached, Vanessa felt something crunch under her shoe. Bending down, she saw it was an acorn cup, one of many strewn over the carpet. Standing over her mother, Vanessa saw, clenched between her lips, a single scarlet berry.