Published on 2013/02/03


Ashley Parker Owens

No one ever talks about the elders leaving. It is a taboo subject even though every gnome I’ve ever met has a missing part of their soul. A few days ago, a boy’s father left the camp, and the boy went about as usual, pretending he never had a father. I will never forget the pain, the pressure in my chest when my parents dropped me over the garden fence to the boy’s school and left. Being a small gnome, I could barely breathe and cried for days, even though I had requested to go to school. The school put me on bug duty right away, the most basic skill. They gave me a sack and let me collect every bug I came across. I didn’t have time or energy to fuss. The bugs were the only ears that might hear my sad story. Finn, the master, told me he learned from the worms that my parents were useless and incompetent gardeners. I was told they left me at the garden so they could go off and die. I never believed Finn since my parents were wandering musicians and not gardeners. His explanation contained the elements of a good story lesson, and the remaining gnomes worked hard to illustrate their usefulness. But the slight rise on one side of Finn’s lip sent a message through the pit of my stomach. I knew he was lying, but could find no way to determine his dishonesty.

I was angry from the first day because my parents left me to a summer of drudgery. I hoped one day soon they would come and take me away from there.

The worms have never spoken to me. I guess I am not up to their standards, or they worry I would misinterpret their messages. No one else likes me much except maybe Gregor, but that’s because he’s a meek little baby. Gregor was left a few weeks after I was. He had been bullied by other gnomes, and his parents didn’t want him anymore.

The older boys worked with me early on, explaining how a hum comes up through the soil through their feet and invigorates their soul. Their hands know what to do, and their heart becomes pure and helpful. I wish I could feel it too, but that part of me is defective.

Gregor and I became Finn’s students in the new growing season. Every day after lunch, we were excused from afternoon garden work. The masters sat us down for exercises to learn the beginnings of magics.

On the first day, we gathered for classes where the ground spanned flat and cool. The three masters captured my attention as much as the other boys. Albrecht was old and plump, with robin-egg blue eyes, and laugh lines extending like roots across the sides of his face.

Peter, the youngest master, was fidgety and his face was set into a perpetual frown. One of the older boys whispered to another, “Watch out for Peter, his hearing is good and he tells everything he knows.”

Finn was the head master. He was the tallest of the three, muscular and determined to make us learn what he told us with repetition, rigorous testing, punishment, and ridicule.

“But why do we bother to talk to the plants?” I asked.

“To let them know we strive for them to achieve their potential,” Albrecht said.

“Shouldn’t we be truthful? They will eventually be eaten.”

“Hush,” Finn said, taking a menacing step in my direction. “You ask too many questions. The worms gave you one mouth and two legs for a reason.”

“You think too much,” Peter said.

Albrecht walked over and squatted by me, his eyes on my same level. “Watch the other boys. They don’t delay their learning by asking stupid questions. Do your assignments and you will succeed.”

The other boys seemed simple minded. Growing one plant was enough for them. There were no instructions to develop their skill sets. I wondered sometimes if intelligence was inversely proportionate to magic. Magic required blind faith which the other boys had in abundance.

I always wanted to know the reasons why the plants grew. As a class experiment I spoke to a flower gently and without coercion. My fingertip caressed the stem, but the plant shrank from my touch and refused to grow. I couldn’t feel a connection.

“Hmmm,” Finn said. “Better try again.” He turned and went to examine the other students’ projects.

Of course, Finn wouldn’t offer any suggestions; I was to figure it out on my own. And I couldn’t. I tried everything. I even asked Albrecht, the old fat master. Albrecht’s ugly face was pocked and wrinkled, but he was occasionally kind. “Don’t try so hard,” he whispered to me so Finn wouldn’t know I’d asked for help.

Finn circled around to check my progress. “You’re a lazy one. The magic doesn’t work for you.” The older students giggled. Gregor, who was sitting right next to me, started to shake. Finn shook his head and frowned. “The evil seed is ever near.” Finn whacked me hard with a vine, leaving a long gash on my arm that festered over the next few days.

During class time I would examine the shoot and coo to it, but I never felt the surge of mediocre happiness I anticipated. I suspected the others didn't feel that either but claimed they did. I was the odd one out, stuck on the first lesson. I watched Gregor. Even though he shook with nervousness and could barely eke out the words of encouragement to his plant, the tendril straightened, and I could tell by his glow that Gregor felt it, whatever “it” was.

I didn’t want to be friends with Gregor anymore. I wondered how the grass and trees outside the garden grew–maybe the worms had nothing to do with growth. I asked Albrecht, the only master receptive to my questions, and he said, “Coincidence does not equal causality.” I didn’t understand him. In fact, I don’t think he understood my question. He patted me on the head and left.

I would make my own inquiries with the plants.

Each day, as the heat expanded, garden work became tedious. Midmorning, my thoughts drifted while I drew pictures and made calculations with a stick in the dirt. However, the others did not lose enthusiasm for gardening. At night when they had a chance to rest I could hear them count vegetables, rows, and seeds in the murmurs of sleep. When I finally slumbered, I flew out of the garden high above the fields— enjoying the aroma of faraway flowers, freed from the earth and responsibility.

Some anti-experiments were in order. I uprooted a few small shoots, and switched a tomato with a tiny pale green pea plant, and a green pepper for a squash. I wanted to test theories on alternative techniques. I wanted to know if the garden would survive if I tinkered with rules and order.

I thought I might have my own information to contribute. I found myself wanting to sing poetic verses to my plants. I was the odd one.

On discovery of the mixed up plants, the gnomes grouped, clearly puzzled, contemplating the rift in the cosmic braid. When whispers from the worms rose from the dirt, the gnomes sought my gaze, their eyes wide and frightened. Their faces paled from a mystery that chilled me deep.

My chest was tight, my limbs cold. I had to get away from the others. I ran down the row, over the fence, across part of the field, and jumped onto a cow, purely on impulse. With my feet above the soil, I didn't feel compelled to fit in, and I sat on the cow defiantly until bedtime.

While sitting on the cow, no plants in my hands, I could think about whatever I wanted. Ciphers in the clouds, patterns in the grass from wind or deer trails— what did it all signify? For whatever reason, the hum and vibration coming through my feet in the fields felt like music. I couldn’t interpret it any other way. On top of the cow it all stopped. The sound stopped in my ears and vibrations through my feet stilled. My complex reasoning kicked in.

I had no need for food, but my throat became dry. I thought about water and my body, water and the plants. I wondered if water grew the plants, and not the worms. Also, remembering what happened to the plants at the end of summer, how they turned yellow and died, made me think the sun’s warmth might make them grow as well.

As much as I wanted to believe the worms were responsible, their presence could only be expressed to me through the voices of other gnomes.

The cow arched her back and the cowbell clunked. It reminded me of striking a cowbell when I was young, my only contribution to my parent’s musical group. Back then I grumbled, wishing to go to school and learn about science and math. My parents sang of summer camp, singing their stupid song, “Once you tire of work, you’ll be happy to tink a bell.”

I slinked away from the music into a nearby corn field, marveling at the leaves, floppy as puppy ears. I sat in awe of the mud, the green, and the insects. Marveling at the silence. I could hear my own thoughts without a tune going over and over inside my head. I tired of music and didn’t want every moment spent in song. I wanted to talk to someone about the heavens, science, and learn to record words and thoughts instead of notes.

“We can send you off to school,” my mother said. “You won’t like it.”

Tender, fat and laughing, my dad said, “He’s different. It’s okay. Let him get some schooling.”

“They teach the boys magic.” Uncle Fritz winked at me. “All boys like magic.”

“Let him decide if the old ways are best,” Dad said.

“Come find us when you’re ready,” Mother whispered when she dropped me over the fence line into the confines of the garden camp.

“How?” I asked.

“You’ll discover it. Like magic.” And with that, the troop of musicians bustled on, bumping into each other as they chattered in song like a bunch of errant jay birds.

They were irresponsible. They didn’t understand my need for learning about esoteric topics. But I knew my family was still out there, singing and dancing for food. As it became nighttime, I slipped off the cow and went to sleep by myself by a nearby tree.

Now each day when the sun moved miraculously high in the sky, I ran down the row and across the grass and slipped through the fence into the open field. No one followed or stopped me. Joy washed over me when I jumped on my cow, my thoughts at once liberated from the drudgery of garden work.

Weeks went by. Spiritual presence hovered about those cows like the meandering of bees over flowers. The cow’s profound silence shocked me. Bulbous eyes, shiny as tomatoes, radiated wisdom. Standing on the cow, my feet dug into the coarse hair on the hide. No instructions from the worms came through the cow to me. The cow didn’t require my servitude, didn’t even ask. I wondered if the cow suppressed the orders, preferring instead to chew and perform deep cleansing breaths.

“The beauty of that,” I whispered to a bird in a nearby nest. The bird did not answer but continued to watch my antics.

With my mind freed from responsibility, I could enjoy the sun on my skin and the sweetness of the air. I didn’t mind the heavy odor of cows; they were animals, weren’t they? Cows should smell of dirt when dry, and mud when wet. I considered briefly the role of odors in my life. My heart wanted to burst with the wonder of the universe. How did it all fit together so randomly? How did it rain, and why did the wind blow?

As the days progressed, the other gnomes noticed my absence from the fields and started to look for me. Gregor came running up to the cow. “They sent me to ask – why aren’t you working?”

Giddy with freedom, I considered sharing my experience with Gregor. Would he become light enough in his heart that I could convince him to leave the garden and join me on the cow? I smiled at Gregor. “I don’t want to. You should join me.”

I reached my hand out to grab his, intending to help him up on the cow. Stunned, Gregor started to cry. “Please, please come back to the garden.” I wouldn't do it, and off Gregor went to tell Peter.

Peter took a few minutes to stomp out to the cow before lunch. “Get down from there right now!”

He stood beside the cow and tried to remove me. I hugged the cow’s neck as tight as I could while Peter tugged at my legs. Finally, after I gave him a sturdy kick to the face, he turned with a grunt and left.

“You’ll be sorry,” Peter mumbled as he returned to the garden. “It’s almost class time.”

Finn came next with a long plank, and hit me until I fell sideways. He yanked me off the cow, dragged me by my feet back to the garden, and tied me with a rope to a fence post. Enough slack was in the rope so I could work. I was returned to bug catching duty. Without freedom to visit the water, my mouth became dry and I could hardly swallow. The cow shuffled forward a few feet after I left, unconcerned about Finn and his plank.

I wasn't welcome when they untied me for dinner. They closed the soup pot before I got my meal, and when I tried to sit down by Gregor the boys turned their backs to me. After a couple of missed meals, I didn't know what to do.

After a few days of trying to convince some of the boys to untie me and join me in my run to the cow, the rumors started. When it was clear the gnomes only wanted me to get off the cow and get back to work, I stopped trying to convince them of another way. I was hungry and confused.

The clan whispered about me. According to the boys, I didn't fit in. I heard from Gregor that I was afraid of bugs and snakes, and I was lazy. Albrecht came to talk to me. “We’re only worried you’re not having any fun.”

The garden winds shifted. The exclusion hurt me deep in my chest, like the hole of my parents’ absence. It seemed an unspoken agreement that none of them would speak to me. Maybe the worms forbade it.

Even though I was unwelcomed by the rest of the boys, their silence hurt my heart. The opposition of the group left a bruise as deep as cow tracks.

Now I slept away from the rest, hidden in a depression of a large tree. The worms’ betrayal crunched in my teeth and sat hiding under my tongue like a canker. However, now that Finn roped me to the garden area, I was allowed to eat. At the afternoon meal, I plopped down alongside the boys and they got up and left. My gruel became gray and tasteless, my stomach sour.

One morning, after breathing in pastels from the day rise, I decided to go right to the cow to avoid the rope. I knew they would come and get me, but I wanted a few fleeting minutes with my cow and my thoughts.

Finn walked over to me with a large grin on his face. He had information. My parents, informed of my problems, had come to get me. Elated, I jumped off the cow and walked with my chin high and chest out back to the garden with Finn.

Albrecht stood at the end of the garden fence. He sighed deeply, and Peter appeared at my side. The two masters grabbed me and held me above the ground by my armpits. They hauled me off to the old chicken coop up by the dilapidated barn. The boys working in the field stared. I kept my face frozen, like I didn’t care.

They threw me in and locked the door. Finn said, “Stay in here for a few days and think about what you’ve done.”

The coop hadn’t been used or cleaned in years. It still stunk, with bits of white chicken feces stuck to the floor. The old wood gave me splinters when I sat on it. Without regular meals, I felt shaky. I felt perverse, intentionally kept away from the others so I couldn’t influence anyone else. My armpits were sore from where they had lifted me. Finn had lied about my parents. It hit me all at once and made me feel stupid and humiliated. My cheeks burned, but I was determined to hold back the tears gathering inside. When the sky turned cloudy and gray, I knew they would not be letting me out for the night. I shivered as a hard rain began to fall.

In the cage, song came to me as I became scared. Remembering the goodnight song my mother sang to me was a comfort. My mom had insisted it also kept ogres away, but I didn’t see how a song could carry magic that powerful. By focusing on the lyrics, I forgot about the cage.

The use for songs came to me in a flash. They are a universal calling out to worms, to family and I struggled to find the words. How did that song go? The lyrics were related to my trip to the camp, a map delivered in the tune. Hums and music became useful, its own language. Was it all related? Could I learn magic after all?

Like a snake sitting on the earth

but made shiny and loud.

Follow the stream, to the tree line.

And count to the third line in the fence

My mind drafted a map in my head. I could retrace my steps and find my parents.

Where in the crypt…

I kicked at the cage.

Big Ones go to die

I slammed my shoulder into the side.

Starve unseen by others

Down by the river, the worm does pass

Even though I was weak, I continued to kick the metal cage to make a hole. Sweat flew off my face and my skin started to burn. In the end, the metal didn’t budge, but I dislodged planks of wood from the back of the cage.

I waited until the sky darkened and the rain stopped. I slipped out the small hole I had created. As I left, I made a trip through the garden. I ripped up plants and threw them cold and naked between the rows as a final token of rebellion to punish the worms.

I walked through the forest all the way to the other side. I continued along the ditch between the forest and a high row of corn. I don’t know if the worms somehow woke the gnomes, or if the plants screamed a distress signal that only they could hear, but cries of anger now filled the wind. “This way!” one of them shouted, and they began to chase me. Boots heavy with mud, I shed them and ran, soles slapping the puddles. My heart beat tight in my chest.

I could tell the gnomes were nearing by their voices. Even though the moon was full, it was hard to see and I heard one of them fall, the others tumbling on top. Capture was a possibility. The gravel along the path hurt my feet. On one side of me loomed the silhouette of trees, and beyond the row to the right an open field waited.

“Foy come back! There’s ogres out there, it isn’t safe!”

“Please come back!”

They chased me to the railroad tracks and my escape materialized out of the fog. The rumble of a train was to my right. I ran and jumped onto the metal step jutting off the caboose, as if it were a giant cow. A nervous quiver in my stomach, I held on tight as the locomotive slid down the track like a snake on the earth. The frigid night air bit my knuckles, and the metal froze my grip, but I pulled myself up even though the motion of the train didn't agree with me.

My pursuers simply stared after me, becoming smaller by the second. Their heads looked disembodied as the moon glow illuminated their faces but not their clothing.

I held on as if my life depended on it, breaking contact with the worms and my clan forever. I should have stayed with my parents, I knew that now. The precise moment I realized I had escaped, the rush of wind took everything bad out of me. Atmospheric rapture bit at my face, and molecular particles blew through the surface of my skin into my core.

Despite the rain, my mouth dropped open, breathing the astonished air. My cold gums collected aromas of soybeans, followed by wheat. I drank it in through my skin until I couldn’t tolerate any more. I finally felt it! The vibrations the workers used for communication, the hum singing my purpose. When my teeth started to vibrate, I closed my mouth, now full of the potential to sing. I struggled against the impulse to let the magic seep out.

As the train got further away, my breath slowed and my shoulders relaxed. I liked the rush of air and roar in my ears. I added my voice to the cacophony of feelings around me; I began to sing.

Ashley Parker Owens lives in the hills of Kentucky, where the gnomes are. She has lived in San Francisco in an ashram, and in Chicago where she helped with the Second Underground Press Conference and was the editor of Global Mail. After the successful publication of Gnome Harvest by Double Dragon Publishing, Ashley is currently writing the next novels in the series.