Composed by David Sewall and myself during a day of mulching a friend's garden, Encounters won 9th place in the 2002 Writers' Digest Short Story Competition out of some 19,000 entries. As we began work that morning, I mentioned to David that I'd like to write a fairy tale "with a haunting ending." This is the result.

I fear them. Though I believe I was allowed to hear this tale for their purposes, I do not wish to call down upon myself the utter calamity which befell the man you are about to meet—he is gone now, poor soul. I had thought to adopt Lewis’ strategy and disguise this warning as a work of fiction, but no, I shall publish this story unedited to reinforce its credibility. This tale has burned to be told since it was first confided to me, and pained me when I held it back. I write now in the hopes that those who read will take its warnings to heart. We must stop searching. We must stop discussing them. Above all, we must leave them be—else they may not leave us be.

* * *

March 11, 1994

The pub was not well advertised—indeed, it was a wonder that I found it at all, with its entrance situated as it was down a flight of stone steps off a half-forgotten little alleyway. The sign was faded and weather-beaten, and the paint peeling on the green doorframe. Turning the handle, I entered.
The bartender set a mug of beer on the counter. Taking it, I turned and looked in vain for an empty table. There was only one vacant seat. Though I grimaced when I caught a whiff of his unwashed condition, I took the place across from a man wearing old clothes, noticing his chin covered with several days’ growth of beard. He appeared haggard and drawn, but seemed amiable enough and he wasn’t drunk, which was more than could be said of the other patrons.
As we talked I told him that I hoped to research myths of fairies and had finally decided to see some of the places where sightings had been reported. At this pronouncement a change came over my companion. His eyes kindled with a strange passion, and a distant smile softened his features.
“You will not find what you seek there. They have left those haunts, as they leave everywhere we discover them. Men change as the centuries pass, and they too have changed.”
“‘Everywhere we discover them’?” I repeated skeptically. “You speak as if you know them.”
He nodded, “Perhaps more than any mortal now living.”
I now began to wonder whether he had indeed been drinking too much. As if reading my thoughts, he said quietly, “No sir, I am not drunk; nor mad. May I tell you my tale? It will give you new material to research, though I do not recommend it.”
To this I consented, expecting that his tale would be an entertaining way to spend the next hour.

“When I was a boy of twelve summers, I obtained passage on a ship bound for Wales to seek a job in the coal mines,” the man began. “At that time the mines were still plentiful and I did not have difficulty finding work. Because of my small size, I was able to go places in the caves that others could not. Our mine crossed the paths of natural caverns, and the foreman used me to explore them to determine if it would be profitable to mine them. On one such expedition, I clambered through a crack in the rock into a flat, sandy cave. I had just set my lantern on the floor and begun looking for coal deposits when I heard a noise, like a large rat scurrying across the floor. When I turned, I saw a shadow on the wall beside mine—a small, human-shaped shadow moving quickly out of the light. Within moments it was gone.
“‘Hello?’ I called after it, but received no answer. I hunted for a second exit out of the cavern and found a crack, impossible for me to get through. A gleam on the floor caught my eye. There, half buried in the sand, lay a tiny golden medallion with curious symbols carved on it. I related my experience to the foreman, who examined the little coin without scoffing at my tale, for in those days men were more ready to believe in the existence of the supernatural. We agreed to keep what I had seen a secret, and the next day it was announced that we were to open up the new cave.
“For several days we dug coal in the new cave, but saw no further evidence of fairies. The foreman decided that we would dig into the small tunnel—the one I couldn’t fit through—‘on a hunch’, he said. I was not about to disagree; I wanted to see where the little man had gone as much as he did!
“Coming out of the mine that evening I brought up the rear, twice imagining that I saw shadows darting behind me. That night a nameless fear kept me awake until well past midnight. As I passed through the outer caverns the next morning, I heard the muffled ring of a pick on stone and knew the men had started digging out the small crack. A sound like the peal of a bell rose around me and, as if on signal, the whole mine rumbled. I wavered in my steps. The pick struck again, and again the bell’s peal filled the dusty air. The mine shook violently and chunks of rock fell from the ceiling and walls. I turned and ran for the mine’s entrance as the pick rang a third time: a death-knell. With a roar our careful shoring gave way and earth filled the tunnels. I was rendered unconscious by a falling rock.
“I awoke with a terrible headache and many painful bruises, but miraculously no serious injuries. A shoring timber had fallen over me, protecting me from the worst of the cave-in, and I wasn’t very far from the entrance to the mine. Even so, it took me over two hours of clambering, digging, crawling, and climbing to get out. I gathered my savings immediately and left on the first boat. I was seventeen years old.”

I mused over his tale. The actions of the fairies fit with what I knew about kobolds—a kind of malevolent fairy supposed to haunt mines; at least my companion had done some research before spinning his yarn. I had decided to bid him good day when he spoke again.
“There was a storm at sea, and I was swept overboard. I spent an evening and a morning in the sea and was rescued by a fisherman.”
Although I was not interested in listening until the tale became well and truly unbelievable, there was something about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—something compelling. So I settled back in my seat and listened.

“The fisherman brought me home and I helped him mend his nets, clean his fish, and repair his boat in gratitude for his compassion. He offered me a job as his apprentice that night over supper.
“Sir, I didn’t have anywhere better to go. So I stayed on at that little cottage by the sea, and worked and saved and fished. I built an addition onto the cottage and married his daughter. It was a hard and simple life but a good one, and as the years came and went I all but forgot about my encounter in the coalmines. But they hadn’t forgotten about it, no sir, as I was about to discover.”

“Who hadn’t forgotten about it?” I interrupted. “The fisherman’s family?”

The old man favored me with a stare. “The little people. One day I was out at sea on a beautiful calm day. I confess to have been a little drowsy and not paying much attention. Suddenly I started, snapped awake and looked over the side—I could have sworn I’d seen something large and green swim underneath the boat. But as I looked, I realized that my anchor had come loose and I had merely drifted over a large bed of green seaweed. Putting up the sail, I made for home and thought no more about it.
“That night we beached the boat to inspect the keel. Alf commented that my boat was a little scratched up. I thought that odd, since there were no shallow rocks in our normal fishing spots. But sure enough, there was a deep score on my boat’s starboard keel. The scratch didn’t look as though it had been inflicted by a rock, and I said as much to Alf. He agreed, saying it looked more like someone had taken a knife and tried to carve a name there.
“Well sir, we determined that my little craft was still seaworthy and let it be. The next morning my son came running into the breakfast room screaming that a giant snake had eaten his grandfather. My wife and I tried to put little Thomas at ease, but no amount of reasoning could calm him. Alf and my boat were nowhere in sight, and we assumed that Thomas had seen the boat disappear over the horizon line and explained to him that Alf would be back that afternoon.”
“Alf never came back. All evening we waited for his return, and then went to bed expecting we would hear him tramping up the wooden catwalk to the house early the next morning calling a loud ‘Hello!’, but he didn’t come.
“I reported his disappearance, and though we searched for two days, we found no trace of him or my boat. Nothing washed up on shore—no scrap of timber, no hat, nothing. Thomas greeted me the second night with, ‘Daddy, promise me you won’t go out fishing no more. The snake might come back and eat you too.’
“I took him in my arms and looked at the sea. The vast expanse sparkled under the warm sun, and for the first time I felt its hidden menace. The gentle lapping of the surf seemed to be trying to wash away the earth beneath my feet, to draw me in and swallow me up. I shivered.
“ ‘Go inside,’ I told Thomas. ‘Tell Mommy to pack our things. We’re leaving this place.’
“We left the sea and moved to the country. I purchased a house in the hills. I wanted to get as far away from the ocean as I could, and I wanted to throw them off my trail. As I pondered Alf’s disappearance and Thomas’ claim to have seen a giant snake, the scratch on my boat seemed more and more important. It had been too regular for anything but a knife cut, and the pattern was an oddly familiar one to me. Finally I remembered: I had seen the same style of lettering on the coin in the coal mine.”

“Are you saying that the fairies tracked you down and tried to kill you?” I asked. Tale-spinner though he was, my companion’s story had begun to intrigue me more and more. “But that doesn’t fit. Even in the old myths when a man penetrated one of their sacred haunts, he rarely died for it—normally he escaped and was not often pursued, unless he stayed too close.”
“Damn it, man!” my companion thundered, slamming his hand onto the tabletop. “Have you heard nothing I told you? They don’t work the same way anymore. Their lives depend on our disbelief in their existence. They can’t afford to let anyone discover them. Can you imagine what would happen if a few fairies were found in London?”
I had sudden visions of small creatures held in top-secret government research facilities; of media debates over fairies being more or less advanced in the evolutionary process; of Congress including them under the Endangered Species Act.

“I should have known better,” the man continued. “But instead of leaving well enough alone, I began to seek them out. I bought books written by fairy experts; I talked to everyone who claimed to have seen a fairy; I visited the haunts of folklore. I told myself that I wanted to apologize, to beg them to leave my family alone and to spare my life, and at first I believed that to be my purpose. But my good intent had been underscored by curiosity from the beginning, and curiosity quickly grew into obsession. I used most of our money to fund my research. I spent as much time away as I did at home. A madness overtook me: I wanted to be the one to prove the existence of the little people, and in my pursuit of the supernatural I neglected the natural.
“But, I found them. At least,” he corrected himself, “I found evidence of them. You see, sir, eventually I reached the conclusion that fairies are interested only in avoiding men. The time during which they took pleasure from meddling in our affairs has long since past—such sport is too dangerous for this scientific age. So they dwell among us hidden, creating for themselves a world parallel to ours. The times and places at which those separate existences intersect are rare, and the fairies take great caution against them. Of course, preventing them entirely is a difficult feat to accomplish. We do inhabit the same earth, after all.
“Sir, one week I was backpacking up in the hills of Scotland. I was alone, hiking along a trail which for some time had been running parallel to a small stream. My trail crossed it, and just as I got to the other side I heard the sound of a tiny falls somewhere. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard, like the plink, plink-plink of water droplets hitting a pool. It had a musical quality to it, and I decided to go and sit by that pool and rest.
“As I drew closer to the sound’s source, it began to sound more and more like music. Not music in the way we think of music, you understand; this was stranger, less tamed by rules and theories, less orderly but at the same time not random or chaotic. It was wild and soothing at the same time. I could not tell if the sound was coming from a wind or stringed instrument, but I felt sure I was listening to fairy-music. The sound of that song will haunt me forever. It was like listening to wind in pine trees, the gentle roar of ocean surf, and pipes in a nobleman’s audience chamber, mixed together with the lament of doves and seagulls. It mourned for an old world, mysterious and wonderful, its ancient glory lost forever.
“Sir, when I realized I was privy to a fairy’s solo performance, I stood stock-still, not daring to move one muscle. Eventually curiosity overcame my apprehensions and I made my way towards the mysterious player, treading on the wet bank sand so as to make no noise. But as I rounded a bend, my heel grated on some rocks. Instantly the music stopped and I heard a soft splash. My only glimpse was of something like a large frog swimming away underwater.
“After a quarter of an hour of fruitless looking and waiting, I returned to the path with a sigh. Already the details of the music were beginning to fade from my memory. I walked on for another half an hour without hearing anything. But once the path had turned away from the stream entirely and I had almost left the woods behind, the music began again. The faint notes were barely discernible but I stood still, recognizing a well-known funeral dirge. I shuddered and hurried on my way, and spent that night under the stars next to a well-fed fire.
“I returned home to find my house deserted. A strange illness had stricken my son and killed him while I had been away. My wife insisted on a quick funeral, and had left the village the following morning. No one knew where she had gone.
“I took the news very hard,” the storyteller continued quietly, burying his head in his hands. “My pursuit of the fairies had stripped me of my love for natural things, and I’d spent so little time with Thomas before his death that I could scarcely recall his features to my memory. I could not even remember when his last birthday had been or what we had done for him. I was so consumed with finding fairies that I had missed my child’s life, and I had not been there for my wife when she most needed me. Small wonder that she left. I went to visit my son’s grave. They had buried him in a cemetery that was walled and gated and even had its own keeper. I spent several hours by Thomas’ headstone, then wandered among the sepulchres. At some point I stopped in front of one small headstone. It was old and cracked, and with a sort of idle curiosity I pulled the moss from it and read the simple inscription: Born—1843, Disappeared—1886.
“The cemetery-keeper told me that the man supposed to be buried there had been a successful young potter. Everyone liked his work and wealthy folks would travel great distances to order urns and vases and such from him. The local villagers admired him, but thought him strange: He talked about fairies and sometimes claimed to have seen one. This potter married late and had hardly settled down with his bride when he gave instructions that if he was ever to disappear they should consider him dead, hold a funeral for him, and carve his fate on his headstone. He became nervous and jumpy and one day, he simply disappeared without a trace. After awhile, they held the funeral as he’d requested.”

“Interesting!” I said, almost involuntarily.

“Aye, so I thought,” he answered. “And I began looking for information about the man. I looked for his name in old town records, visited what might have been the site of his workshop, hunted and bought several of his pots and things from antique stores—in short, I spent many months learning about him. It didn’t take me long to realize that this poor potter had many of the same experiences that I had.” He shivered.

“Yes?” I prompted.

The storyteller began to speak again, slowly. “I took my papers and my few possessions and left for the city. I found the similarity of our two experiences uncanny, and it disturbed me. I wondered at the coincidence of my son’s untimely death and burial in the same cemetery as the potter’s memorial, and I began to be wary. I took care to disguise myself and my place of residence. I forsook my habits, took up new hobbies and found a new job. But one dreary afternoon I was walking to the subway after work and happened to notice a little antique shop. I entered with a sort of idle curiosity, and saw a little teacup made by my acquaintance, the potter. I was examining his signature when the hair on the back of my neck stood on end with the feeling that I was being watched. I glanced around. The shopkeeper was busy at his desk. Then I noticed a grotesque dog watching me through the window. It was small, covered in black hair, with eyes like pale blue jewels, but saucer-sized and terrible. These were fixed upon me with an expression of ravenous madness, empty yet filled with a cold-burning desire to pursue and devour. When it saw that I had noticed it, the dog bared its teeth in a snarl. This startled me so much that I nearly dropped the teacup. I looked back, but the dog had gone.
“I left the shop, carefully resuming my way to the subway. A deep gloom settled on the city, a gray drizzle fell, and the farther I walked the more deserted the streets became. All at once I noticed that I was quite alone and a feeling of panic began to well up inside me. My fear glued me to my spot in the middle of the road and gradually I became aware that some dark-colored creature was slinking towards me, sniffing the ground as it followed my trail. The black dog saw me and howled. I ran. At once the dog’s note changed to a bay like a bloodhound on the scent. It was worse than a nightmare. I did not need to look back to know that it was gaining on me.”
My companion sat back and passed an arm across his brow, as if sponging away the vividness of the memory. “If it hadn’t been for the timely arrival of several policemen who’d been attracted by the commotion, it would have caught me. That was three weeks ago. I quit my job and came here.” All at once he reached across the table and grabbed both my arms. “Forgive me,” he begged, a tear in his eyes. “Forgive me!”
“What for?” I asked, startled.
“For telling you what no mortal should know,” he whispered. “For three weeks now I have avoided them, but they are coming. They shall find me alone sometime and unprotected by the company of men. As long as there are witnesses, they cannot touch me because their lives depend on the ignorance of humankind. But now you know too. Beware! Do not let on that you know—lest they hunt you, as they have hunted my family, as they hunt me.” He broke off and buried his face in his hands.
I sat back and contemplated him for several long minutes. His tale was preposterous. What I had meant for an hour’s pleasant diversion had stretched into the early evening, but I resolved to buy my companion dinner in payment for his tale.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he asked, smiling that strange smile again. “It’s just as well. But I would be delighted to dine with you.” So we ordered, and my companion excused himself to use the restroom. I waited, musing over his story.
After a time I realized that he had not returned. I turned around so I could see the restroom door. A faint green light emanated from the cracks around the door, but it disappeared when I blinked, and I realized that it must have been the pub’s dim lighting. Another five minutes went by without a sign of my companion. A waiter brought our food, and I got up to knock on the restroom door. No answer. I knocked again, by this time beginning to worry. My companion was certainly not young—suppose he had suffered a heart attack or stroke? I mentioned my fear to the bartender. Together we tried to open the door but our efforts were in vain, for it had been securely locked. The bartender went to get the key while I called my companion’s name.
The room had no windows and no other doors. There were no holes in the wall, no sign of a fight—indeed, no indication that my companion had ever entered the restroom. It was empty.

* * *

For one wild moment I thought the fairies had taken him. Then a new thought struck me: perhaps my companion was a fairy himself. Perhaps he had thought up the story as a warning! But no, that couldn’t be. The truth of the matter was that I had wasted an afternoon with a good actor. He must have closed and locked the restroom door before exiting the pub through the kitchens. Annoyed at being taken in by such a far-fetched hoax, I muttered farewell to the bartender and left.
As I jogged up the steps I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. My throat constricted as I turned. A human-shaped shadow—one too small to belong to a child—skipped away down the alley into the deepening night.

1 comment:

  1. Be it known to those who are interested: David and I thought up a sequel, which is presently half-written. If you enjoyed Encounters and would like to read the next installment, bug me about finishing Encounters 2: The Gloaming