Wil counted tomatoes instead of sheep.
Only forty-two tomatoes. Last year spawned sixty-one, the year before that eighty-five.
Despite the gnome’s attempts to immerse himself in the purity of laborious work, and in the visceral beauty of the world, the burden of numbers weighed on him. He had to be a better leader. This year the garden must stun with its color and abundance so he could hold his head high.
Wil gave up sleep, rose from his nest, and stretched. The beginnings of a spring sunrise filtered through the window. After removing his blanket and folding it into a perfect square, he laid it on the foot of his bed with the edges parallel to the bed frame. He rubbed his forehead and yawned.
Two squirrels tore through his space and across his bed, knocking his blanket into disarray.
"Have you no respect?" He lifted his blanket by two corners and examined it. Those dirty squirrels.
They scurried along the attic rafters and jumped out the window.
At least the squirrels ran from him. The insects would never respect him, and the birds continued to sate their appetites with worms. No matter how many charms he used to ward off Roddy, the insolent rabbit still devoured the plants, and the Big Ones trampled the garden with their cloddish feet. After the disasters last year, he needed a new approach. I must be stern.
He leaned out his window and savored the sweetness of the forsythia buds wafting upwards from his kingdom below. Underlying the fragrance lay the reeking sour secrets of the Far Woods.
From this vantage point, not a speck of green brightened the emptiness of the garden, and bits of broken mirror sparkled in the mud to scare away Rossos, the large, red, demonic birds. A city of nests in the large walnut tree loomed over the edge of the garden plot, an ugly reminder of his failures.
A cracked egg lay under the tree. The exposed Rosso’s pathetic little wings lay spread in an imitation of the flight it would never achieve. He couldn’t wait until its carcass crawled with ants.
In the distance beyond the woods, the hill peaked with bright yellowy rocks; on the other side of the garden lay the fenced-in cow field with the lone bull at watch. The whole farm topped a hill; streams rushed in torrents down to the river when it rained.
The cold gray day matched his mood. Thunder echoed in the far distance, and deep inside him, a hum started, first as a tickle, then a roar. The hum filled him from the top of his head down to his feet. It was time!
Wil jumped out the window and hurried down the trellis on the side of the house. The chill of the early spring air bit into his cheeks as he raced through new grass to the garden. Wil veered off the path to stomp on the egg. "Take that." He winced when the shell ground into his foot with a satisfying crunch. The thrumming was louder now, and rhythmic.
He stood at attention; his focus shifted inwards as he slowly stepped to an internal beat.
"The worms come," he declared, hands held high. Although only the size of a large raccoon, in the gloom he towered over the garden. Queen Coon would envy his magic if the spell succeeded this time. His soles tingled and grew numb in the cold mud. He spun until his vision fogged and the landscape blurred. Delirious, he collapsed to the ground and sat, breathless and eager for the rain offering. Expecting a drink, the trees turned their budding leaves upside down and outwards, painting the forest a pale green.
A cold drop of water splashed his bald head, so icy it shivered deep inside his mind.
He stiffened as another hit. "That’s two."
He counted until the numbers hit the hundreds. Water collected across his forehead and slid into his eyes, blinding him like the old befuddled scarecrow. He rejoiced at the taste of spring on his lips. Water dripped down his back, washing away his winter boredom and cleaning the haunting thoughts from his mind.
"Perfect day for a birthing." He gauged the interest of the Rossos lining the branches of the walnut tree as if ready for attack. Water glistened off their scaly bodies. Others mottled the sky in swooping, bloody circles. The garden waited. Animals breathed slowly in unison to avoid scaring off the rain. Rodents quieted, hunkering down under nearby bushes.
The sky would birth worms in the slow hiss of the morning drizzle. Wil’s gut clenched in a protective panic. He scanned for pale pink writhing in the muck. If only someone could help with the rescue.
A few feet away, a worm struggled in a small puddle. He ran to it and dropped to his knees, mindless of the immediate shock of cold spatter. Trembling, he whispered, "All is well."
He cupped the worm in his hands and folded the ends of his shirt to form a pouch to hold it against his warm stomach.
The sky darkened and the rain turned to sleet. He continued with his mission. To his left, another unprotected wormling wriggled in the mud.
Rossos stared from the branches like warrior troops, beaks malformed into continuous frowns. They outnumbered him. A chill zipped through Wil when one of the crow-like creatures landed in the middle of the garden.
He hurried to the walnut tree and hunched over the worms to protect them from the Rossos in the branches above. Exhilarated by his love for the worms, he carefully unwrapped his shirt at the roots. When a pale plump worm appeared, a familiar message ricocheted through him. The Sorcerer’s speech whispered of the powers of life and death and decay. Harmonies brushed at his ears, toyed with his mind, and made him wonder if he’d heard it at all. His vision went black, and he leaned against the rough bark of the tree. A message pounded from the worms:
The Gnome Council wants to talk after harvest.
He dropped to the ground with a gasp. What did they want to talk about? His poor gardening skills and years of failure? Humph. Not a pleasant talk. If only he hadn’t had to muddle through the magic on his own.
I’ll hold my head up high during the inquisition and ask where my parents are. Put the focus back on them. I’m not the only one to blame for this mess.
The ground below the tree started to glow. His heart beat slowed to its normal beat.
So finally the Gnome Council wanted to talk to him. Judgment Day. He would demand some answers, too. No, wait. Best to see what they had to say first. Maybe they wanted to offer help. He might learn some real spells. Oh, to learn the essence of knowledge as the worms lived it, truth stark as corn stripped bare of its husks! Secrets, like how to manufacture red, create the heavy aroma of the peony bushes, or bring rain down from the sky. Instead, he pretended he knew magic and secrets about the garden -- but he couldn’t maintain a facade forever. Would the other gnomes welcome him, or would his aura of failure warn them away like the stink of a skunk?
Between the roots, the pale torsos slithered into the ground with a sucking sound. No tunnel or visual reminder remained, not even a tidy pile of digested dirt. The earth appeared undisturbed, as if the event were a mirage. The worms were free to create the Life Force.
"Safe underground!" He shook his fist at the Rossos. "Ha!"
A bird sailed silently from the sky behind him. Wings flapped about his ears as it swooped down, grabbed his bald head with its claws, and ripped open his forehead.
"Ha. Yourself," the Rosso cackled.
Wil shoved at the beast, loathe to touch the hideous leathery wings. It squawked and lifted out of reach.
"Dang you!" Pain seared across his face and down his neck to his shoulder. He checked the wound; a small feather stuck to the blood on his finger.
The Rosso cut through the air to a worm on the far end of the garden plot, looked over his shoulder back at Wil, and hissed. The bird darted forward and grabbed the worm in his beak.
"Get away!" Wil’s heart punched his ribs. He waved his arms in a desperate gesture, his mind clouded with hatred. The Rosso flew off in a rush of red. He picked up a stick.
A different Rosso hurtled from the sky with a loud hoarse cry that resembled the dog barking before a kill. Wil thrashed his stick with mad fury, connecting a glancing blow to the bird’s leg. The Rosso swiveled in midair, laughing, and then flew off with a grunt.
"I’m sorry," he yelled to the worm, then gasped to take the words back. But it was too late. The wind picked up his apology and carried it away where other gnomes would hear news of his failure.
Why did he say sorry? What good was sorry?
Above him in the tree, another bird yelled, "Rabbit Lover."
"I hate that rabbit!" Wil screamed.
"Lover Lover," the bird repeated as it dropped down on top of Wil. Its claws gripped his shoulders, lifting him into the air.
Wil clenched his teeth to avoid crying out.
"You’re a Rabbit Lover. I’m going to tell," the bird cried.
The talons released and Wil fell, his legs buckled on impact. He stumbled. He glowered at the bird that had attacked him, his head near bursting with pressure. "I’ll kill you before you take another worm."
Nervous energy wracked him. He wasn’t a Rabbit Lover. He couldn’t help it if they came around. Still, he worried. What if the Rosso told? He froze at the thought.
Wil heard the front door of the farmhouse slam and turned to see who it was. He caught a glimpse of a huddled blob of a rabbit under a bush near the house shaking its head as if it disapproved. He stifled a twang of guilt. Rabbits were a nuisance.
A bloody scale dangled off the end of a feather floating to his feet. "Before the day is gone, I’ll have more of you than a feather." He frowned. Who was he kidding? His mission was futile.
Damn Gnome Council. The words triggered something deep inside him. A memory of his father.
Maybe his meeting with the Gnome Council wouldn’t be all bad. He’d helped the worms just now, hadn’t he, and even been injured in the process?
Desire for gnome companionship tickled his innards. Did he dare hope to talk to real gnomes who hid magical wisdom under their armpits? Would the Gnome Council’s faces light up like his mother’s did when she saw him? Or would they be like his father, demanding he speak to his failures, glaring at him until his stomach knotted with fear?
A random memory of his parents surfaced, a rhythmic knocking against his mind like water sloshing against the side of a boat.
"We made it." Rough textures surrounded him. Life Giver warmed his tender white skin. Larger hands supported him as he crawled out of the boat. He labored up a steep hill through endless tall prickly grass to shadowy figures. "We’ve escaped."
Freedom -- if only he could be liberated from his obligations without banishment. Fear and loneliness overwhelmed him.
He blinked back tears, grimaced a joyless grin, and his brain went cold. Before his recall reached his destiny at the top of the hill, the images slipped mercifully away.
He collapsed like the scarecrow without his wooden support. Sprawled in the plot of newly turned mud, he slept until the moon rose to the sky.