Dedicated to Graham Joyce, Clarion West 2010 Instructor
A Troll’s Trade
by Sandra M. Odell
Maybe I should have listened to me mudder, been a mason or a carpenter, but I was young, hornstrong, determined to make me own way.
“A what?” she said, and stirred the stew so hard the pot tumbled right off the fire and spilled into the river.
I picked me nose and spread it on a cracker with a bit of brie. “A florist.”
Me mudder scooped what she could of the stew back into the pot and set it back on the fire. “What would your da say? He built our bridge with -”
“With the sweat off his nose before he got tricked by the Maiden of Merriwether and turned to cheese, yah, yah, I know. Chisels and mortar and nails aren’t me thing, is all.”
“You’re a troll! Where are you going to live if’n you can’t find a bridge?”
I tossed a bit more gravel into the stewpot for a proper crunch. “I’ll find something, easy peas porridge.”
Yeah. Me mudder threw me out on both ears and without even the porridge. Too bad, because there weren’t no bridges neither. I looked long and hard. Looked so hard, me eyes bugged even more. Even went as far north as the Pigling Lakes, thinking plenty of water made for plenty of bridges. Did you know some folks think a fairy is a boat?
I figured maybe I could live someplace else, become a trendsetter. I mean, trolls don’t always got to be masons so it don’t always got to be bridge, right? I tried a vine trellis, even a vineyard row, but neither had that special hidey something that makes a place livable. Haylofts were awful high up, and root cellars offered no privacy. Chicken coops? No thank you; I have me pride.
So, I did the only thing I could. I went to live under a porch. It wasn’t proper or even fancy, but it was a roof over me head. The folk family kept goats and chickens, had a garden with lovely sweet peas in the spring and winter squash blossoms in autumn. There was even a field a good skulk away with red and orange poppies, and rose mallow. I grabbed the kids’ ankles at least twice a week to keep in shape. I could have wished the folk mum didn’t always hold the most tender, but, well, florists can’t be choosers.
Though it does make a mouth drool just thinking about it.
Thing is, there isn’t much room under a porch, not like there is under a proper bridge. Always dirty and spidery, no room for flowers or pots let alone a nice vase, and I could never stand up. Made for a nasty belly rash, that. Not even a place to set up a spit or me smallest cook pot.
No, life under a porch was not for me. The local bridges were all taken, all except for the comfy stone bridge south of the city proper with the not so comfy ghosts. I heard tell of a gray beard who lived under a city bridge and was maybe looking for something less busier, so I went to see what we could work out. Well, he worked me out alrighty, right out from under his bridge with a roar and a tumble. Him and his silver coins woven into his back hair sos the trollops might find him fancy. Fah!
And it was such a nice bridge, a right full overpass. Worked stone arches, strong pylons, no ghosts.
Fuddleswort up north said I would be better off going over the Old Bones Range and find me a gulley bridge. Edfart said Fuddleswort was full of stinky soup, and I should get me a big pot, cook up a folk stew with peppers and baby fern, and make meself at folk home. Fuddleswort said baby fern didn’t hold up, and to use kale.
They locked horns, and I left them to make out for themselves.
I almost crawled back home, but what with the rash and all I couldn’t take the pain. There was nothing to it but to braid buttercup crowns and thunk trollish thoughts.
The answer? Money. And for money, I needed folks.
The folk pa seemed a decent sort as far as folk go. He did have the heaviest step, but he didn’t tromp over me just because he could. A regular folk with no charms or trickery about him, which is good; cheese is for eating, not being. As I understood it, he worked the market selling fresh eggs and his wife’s bakings, more like burnings, actually, which was perfect for me.
I thunk me thoughts all the way through, and when he came down the two short steps early one morning to gather eggs I was ready for him.
I grabbed his ankle at the bottom step. The folk pa whooped and took a tumble, basket one way, hat another, and me holding on. He tried to jerk his foot away, and I jerked back. “I want to talk to you,” I said. I glowied me eyes so he could see me. I must have glowied them too well because he fainted dead away. Folks. Never scare when you want them to.
A few seconds later he came to and tried to get his feet, but I still had one. “I just want to talk.”
His eyes bugged and his face turned all sorts of colors before he settled down. There was enough of me hand and arm showing that he could follow it under the porch to me not so glowy eyes. “You’re real,” he said, rather, squeaked.
“The children. They said you – ”
“I’m a troll. That’s what I do.”
He gulped. “Are you. . .Are you going to eat me?”
Not without cooking him first. What does Edfart know. Grown folk are best braised. “No.”
He managed a sit and then bent low for a closer look. “What are you doing under my porch?”
“It’s me summer home. I need to use your fireplace.”
He moved his leg. I didn’t let go.
“Fireplace. Your fireplace.”
This wasn’t going like I thunk it would. “That’s what I said.”
“All right. Why? And how did you get under there? I thought you trolls are, you know, big.”
Like that, I pulled his leg all the way under the porch.
The folk pa squealed. “Okay, okay! You’re a troll. Big troll, huge troll, massive, ginormous.”
“Better.” He smelled ripe with sweat, nothing a little oregano couldn’t fix. I gave him his leg back.
To his credit, he didn’t run. He got to his hands and knees, still peering under the porch. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you need my fireplace?”
“I want to cook.”
His eyes bugged again. “Not the children, I hope.”
Kid pie with potatoes and pearl onions. Me drool made the ground all muddy. “No.”
I could have wanted for flowers, but food would do. I set out what I needed from market. He listened, nodding his head with all that floppy red hair. “I’ll, um, I’ll have to tell my wife. Midge. She’s my wife.”
He squinted his eyes for a better look. I glowied mine, and he decided he’s seen enough.
“Right,” he said, and mopped his brow with a muddy hand. “You’ll do your cooking, and then you’ll crawl back under the porch to eat. I hope.”
“No, then you take it to market.”
That’s when he figured it was best to get on gathering eggs. I liked him more already.
That night, when the candles were guttered and the dark everywhere, I crept inside and found me fixings on the plank table. Houses give me the willies with their shuttered eyes and walls and doors; they’re too housey. I put it out of me mind and set to work. True to our agreement, the grown folks stayed in their beds and left me good and alone. Good thing, too. I eat when I get nervous.
Before the first of them made a noise the next morning, a baker’s make of cherry clafoutis wrapped in checked muslin waited on the table. I snuck out of the house just as the most tender set up a hungry squall. Lucky for him I’d made extra.
With the eggs gathered and whatever folk do in the mornings done, the folk pa set off to market with the eggs, me luscious clafoutis, and two of his wife’s custard pies. “Have a good day,” I said around me last mouthful.
He nodded, and stepped a little faster on his way.
As usual, he was home after sunset, baskets swinging from his arms and a frown on his face. He settled himself on the first step and sat without a word. I heard a muted tinkle, muffled metal on metal.
What was he waiting for? I cleared me throat and he nearly fell off the step.
“Oh, you are there,” he said.
“Sit on the ground,” I said.
He did. I couldn’t see his face, but he worked the cap in his hands like a folk mum on wash day. “You sold them all?”
“I did.” He opened his cap, pulled out a few coins, held them low so I could see. “Five silver and three half-coppers. Your share.”
“What about your wife’s pies?”
His hands drooped, but he didn’t let go of the coins. “Still have them both. Everyone wanted more of your tart things.” He lifted the corner of the cloth over one basket. “I don’t even think I can get the goats to eat these.”
I wouldn’t want to eat the goat that ate her pies. “Too bad.”
He presented the coins a second time.
“Keep them for now,” I said. “You’ll be needing them for market tomorrow.”
“All of them?”
He sounded somehow wistful, and that’s when I was certain.
“We’ll work something out,” I said.
We started small, a few popovers here, a pile of raisin tarts there, on the folk holidays sugar buns stuffed with goat cheese and apricots. I added slugs and potash to me sugar buns, an acquired taste, I know. On the days he came home with empty baskets, I let him keep two silver coins and I buried the rest in a hole at the back of the porch. The kids soon had new shoes, and the oldest kid a red ribbon for her hair.
A baby goat went missing the night the folk pa counted out me hundredth piece of silver. No idea how that happened. Quite tasty with a toe jam glaze, though.
Like a good bridge, good business needed a strong foundation; the folk pa bought the fixings at market, and I did the cooking.
“We’re bringing in enough that I put silver down on Ha’penny Jack’s old stall today,” he said one evening from his place at the front step. “I’m moving over tomorrow. It’s big enough for a stool if I want, maybe even a second body if business keeps up. Midge thinks it’s a good idea.”
I wasn’t in the mood to be happy for his larger stall. The rash was bad enough I had taken to staying on me back, and now the tip of me nose was sunburned from poking up through the porch slats. “Fine.”
“You all right?”
“No harm. Just asking.”
I thunk about ways to rub me belly against the porch without catching me pelt in the cracks. What he thunk about, I hadn’t a clue or care.
The sun was an orange memory when the folk pa said, “There is one thing, um. . .Heh, I don’t even know your name.”
“Of course you don’t,” I said as testy as I pleased. “Trolls don’t tell folks their names because folks with magic can do nasty things with them.”
“Oh. I didn’t know. What, um, what do I call you? ‘Ginormous troll under the porch’ is a bit awkward.”
I huffed. “Call me Troll.”
“Troll. Makes sense. I’m Sando Loggerson.” He waited, shifted his feet, kicked up dust when I didn’t want to sneeze. I let him wait.
“So, Troll. Midge and I were talking last night before you came in, and she wondered.”
“Well, if you could maybe share a few of your recipes.”
There wasn’t room to roll me eyes, either.
One late summer evening while I sat under the moon scratching and fretting on how me plans were taking longer than I thunk they should, Edfart and Fuddleswort surprised me with a visit. I don’t get many visitors; don’t really have a place for entertaining. Still, I set out some field greens with scabby bits and a light vinaigrette. Only the best for friends, I say.
I couldn’t make tails or nosehairs of me troubles, so I settled those two down and told the whole story.
Fuddleswort nodded, and picked his nose to garnish his salad. “Told you you should have looked for a gulley bridge.”
“I don’t want a gulley bridge,” I said back.
“Says the troll with porch rash.” He sniffed and went on eating.
“Why not’s just eats the folk and make a bridge of their house?” Edfart said, picking scabby bits from between his teeth and sucking his finger clean.
Even the thought made me shiver. “Don’t like houses, not at all.”
“Don’t got to keep it a house. Knock out the walls, leave the roof, and you gots yourself a bridge. Easy as mud pie.”
Now, there was a thunk. I rolled it over between me horns. “No, still too housey. It’s a bridge or nothin’ for me.”
Edfart gobbled up the rest of his greens. “Suit yourself.” He stood and headed for the house.
Just like Edfart to not listen. “I said I wouldn’t be knocking out the walls.”
He waved at me over his shoulder. “I heard you. I’m still hungry is all.”
Fuddleswort stood – “Now there’s an idea.” – and followed after.
“Hold on now.” I came up and hurried right behind. “You can’t be doin’ that.”
Edfart rubbed his belly. “The salad was nice, but no ways a meal for a growing troll.”
Fuddleswort smacked his dead-fish lips. “Yeah. You said they gots an oven. We could whip up a crust and make pasties.”
Human pasties with capers and fennel. Yeah. Almost as good as a braise.
Quick like, I got ahead put out me arms. “There’ll be no eatin’ of the folks, understand?”
“No worries, there’s plenty for us all.” Edfart made to step around me, and I stepped with him. He frowned, and glowied his eyes. “Come on.”
I stood up straight, head and horns above either of them. “They’re my folks, and I says no eatin.”
“Like he said, there’s plenty to go around.” Fuddleswort wiped the drool off his chin. “Seeing’s as you’re the host, you get the first pick.”
They made to go around on both sides. I grabbed a horn on each and shook them up good. “When I says no eatin’, I mean NO E – eatin’.”
I couldn’t give a proper roar or I’d wake the folk, so I choked it off quick.
“Oi!” Edfart grabbed my wrist and tried to pull free. I held on troll tight. “Didn’t your mother teach you no manners? It’s rude not to share.”
“Yeah.” Fuddleswort waggled his head, but didn’t do no better. “What’s all this?”
Yeah. What was all this? It wasn’t like I didn’t have a taste for the most tender, or even the older folk sometimes. So why wasn’t I letting them have a sit down with me?
Maybe because I wanted the folk all to meself. Or could be I’d come to like having the folk around. Possibly. Sort of. A little.
I shook those two until their eyes rattled in their sockets. “They’re my folk and I can do with them what I please, and what I please is no eatin’. Got that?”
I slammed their heads together like pig iron bells and dragged them back to the stream.
I dropped them down, and settled myself between them and the folk’s house. Now and again Fuddleswort would look to the house, or Edfart would make to stand, and I’d glowy me eyes at them until they settled back down.
Finally, Edfart pulled up more greens and rubbed them around the inside of the salad bowl. He stuffed the whole scabby wad in his mouth and muttered around the stems.
I made like to reach for one of his horns. “What was that again?”
He swallowed the mouthful and hunched his head to his shoulders. “I said leave it to a florist to get all flowery soft.”
“That’s ri – ” Me thinking came back and dropped the last piece into place light as a rose petal. Flowers? Flowers!
I grabbed Edfart by both horns and kissed the end of his warty nose. “Edfart, you’re a genius!”
He wiped off the slobber. “Wait. What?”
“Flowers! Don’t you sees? I got so tangled up in thinking folks would pay for good food, I never thought they might pay for good flowers.”
Fuddleswort scratched the side of his head. “Do they pay before or after they wipe?” He covered his face with his hands. “Don’t kiss me!”
Straight away I had Sando bring me flowers whenever he could. I used up the folks’ pitchers and jars until he could bring home proper vases. While sweet and savory memories of me mudder filled the creepy house, I used dried moss and earwax as a base for me arrangements. Balance, proportion, color, and earwax. Lots of earwax.
Sando took me creations to market, and most often they sold better than me bakings. Business was good, as much as nine silver some days. The grown folk talked of finding a house in the city for the family, and a proper bridge for me. I sent me mudder a scroll with the good news. She sent me back a phbtbtbtbtbt, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Fuddleswort and Edfart were dumbfounded.
“What’s all this about?” Fuddleswort said one mid-winter night as I handed him an arrangement of holly berry and ivy. The snow made his bridge look less rickety, more bridgety.
“I made it meself,” I said, proud and a bit self-conscious. I was going places but still lived under the porch.
Edfart gave me a long sniff. “You smell like. . .pansies!”
“Hothouse sweet peas, actually.”
Fuddleswort held up the basket and looked it over. “What do I do with it?”
Edfart picked at a leaf. “I think it’s a salad.”
I slapped him upside the horns. “No, it’s not a salad. You put it somewhere nice to look at it. Here.” I took the arrangement from Fuddleswort and looked for a place where it wouldn’t get stepped on or lost in the snow. No good. I looked at the soffits under the bridge, and then to Edfart. “Behind you! A dragon!”
Edfart whirled around. “Where?”
I yanked out one of his back hairs, and wrapped one end around the basket handle. I bent the other end into a hook, considered me options, and hung it as close to the middle of the stretch as I could. I stepped back. “There.”
Edfart rubbed his back. “I still say salad.”
Fuddleswort stared at the bit of color hanging in the middle of the snow and dark. “I dunno. Brightens the place up a bit, don’cha think?”
During spring and such, extra flowers and greenery were kept fresh in a bucket wedged between two rocks in the stream. At the end of every market six-day, I made an arrangement out of what was left for the plank table to make the folk house seem less housey. I didn’t give the arrangements much thought after the fact until the night Sando and Midge came into the kitchen.
Mulberries are a favorite summer treat, me mudder’s mulberry and frog kidney pie in particular. Fresh out of frog kidneys, I can’t eat just one, I’d decided on mulberry pasties for market. In the middle of spooning out the next bit of filling, I heard a step and a low gasp behind me. I whirled around in a splatter of mulberry syrup.
Sando and Midge stood at the door to the loft stair, he shamefaced, she wide-eyed. “She said she would come down with or without me, so. . .” Sando hitched a shoulder and smiled as best he could.
A hand on her elbow, he led her to the plank table where I worked.
The spoon dripped in time with their steps. I licked it, and stuck it behind me ear. “Mind the mess,” I said. Some part of me noticed that she didn’t have the most tender with her, the rest of me was too surprised to care. Sando went to market, but he never did anything without her approval. She could end it all right here and I’d have to live under a porch foreverer. I’d be nothing but rash and stinky soup.
They stopped at the corner of the table. “Troll, this is my wife Midge,” Sando said, gesturing to us both. “Midge, this is Troll.”
Such a small woman; no wonder her step was so light.
Midge looked up, up, up at me. “You really are big, aren’t you?”
I shook me head, the spoon knocking against a horn not as loud as me knocking knees. “Not so much. You’re just short.”
I smiled. She paled. I stopped smiling.
Sando put his arm around her. “What he means is -”
Midge shushed him with a look and a wave of her hand. She pushed the bowl of mulberries and trays of dough circles aside, and climbed onto the table. Her robe and shift bunched up around her twig legs, not that she seemed to notice but Sando did. As he pulled her clothes stuff back down, he flushed and gave me a sidelong look. Folks is the craziest people sometimes.
Midge brushed Sando’s hands away, took two steps towards me, and looked me right in the throat. In fits and starts, she reached up and took me horns in her tiny folk hands. I let her pull me head down until we were eye-to-eye. Right to say that at that moment I’d have rather gone to live with the ghosts.
“Thank you for the lovely flowers,” she said, and kissed me on the peeling tip of me nose. “Tomorrow I’ll mix-up an oatmeal rub for that rash.”
I’m a troll. I don’t believe in happy endings, but comfortable ones aren’t so bad.
The city council approved Sando’s petition for a house, and he set to building. The family moved before the autumn rains. This new house has a room specifically for cooking. Another room; I’m not certain I like it.
Sando did something he calls hired to a kid, and now the kid minds the shop when Sando has other business. Sando’s oldest kid seems quite taken with him. No idea what she sees in him, though; folks aren’t much for looks. Midge helps me with bakings, and almost never burns things anymore. The younger kids love to take their friends across town to feed the ducks, particularly if they know I’m home.
Home. I’m a city troll now, and I have a city troll bridge. I’d paid another visit to the gray beard. He reached for me to show me what for, and I hit him over the head with me bag of silver. All them coins scattered out, and his eyes glowied right up. Said he wanted something smaller, less cluttered. I directed him to Sando’s porch.
The overpass is more than enough for one troll, and comfortable for three. I call the main arch me own, and Fuddleswort has the east arch near the stables. Edfart likes his span bridge over Lockjaw Gorge too much to move. Me mudder is coming to visit this summer, and I wonder if she wouldn’t fancy a place in the city, with rabbits and kids and squirrels fresh for the pot.
Yeah, maybe I should have listened to me mudder, but if I had I wouldn’t have such splendid flowerboxes under a bridge I can call me own.
About the Author
Xander M. Odell lives in Washington state with their husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Cast of Wonders, and PodCastle. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.
Their collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, THE TWELVE WAYS OF CHRISTMAS, and debut short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES are available from Hydra House Books.
Support them on Patreon at: http://patreon.com/writerodell