by Philippe Arseneault
translated by Fred A. Reed & David Homel
As he drew nearer, Tero saw that the object in the centre – a vaguely spherical black mass – was moving. It shivered slowly toward the ground, rose, then sank once more, slowly, weakly, but with a steady rhythm. Tero drew closer. Beneath the sphere appeared a form: two tiny legs, arms as skinny as drinking straws at the end of which hands that could barely be distinguished held a small shovel … Yes, the creature – for it appeared to be something living – was shovelling, and this produced the oscillation he had observed. Beside the dwarf lay a tiny cradle. He would have sworn it was an infant’s cradle had it not been fashioned from a material of great brilliance that scintillated in the night. It appeared, in fact, to be made of gold.
Zora stopped three metres from the object. Tero came up beside her. Perhaps you can imagine the abomination he now cast his eyes on …
An elf with a minuscule body but an enormous head, as large as an elephant’s! The little stump of a being was wearing dark-blue trousers, a threadbare white shirt, and a red sailor’s sweater. The clothing would have suited a child; below the collar, the troll had the build of a boy of three. But that head … that gigantic head …
Tero would have given anything to know how a neck no thicker than a chicken’s could support such a huge head. He would have loved to know how long it took the gnome to shave that grey, spiky beard of his that must have been a good metre across, so broad were the cheeks it covered. He would have also loved to know how it was that he had never heard of this type of anomaly, why in none of the three hundred medical texts he had read, the “cup-and-ball syndrome” was ever mentioned.
As well, he wouldn’t have minded knowing how a living being could survive without a skull, for this one’s brain was completely exposed to the air.
Nausea overwhelmed the young man. He pressed the palm of his hands against the frozen grass, then brought them to his face and rubbed his cheeks and forehead. The surge of revulsion passed, he contrived not to vomit, but remained bent over, eyes trained on the ground, not daring to lift them. His mind was racing, words and images rushing through his head at a dizzying rate.
It was true: the creature’s cranial cap was missing. It had a face, a beard, hair, but the top of his noggin had been skillfully sliced off, and it had been a fine job. The cut was perfect.
Suddenly Tero felt intensely cold. He crossed his arms over his chest and hunched his shoulders, then went to Zora, who seemed caught up in deep conversation with the gnome.
“It was bitter cold,” she was saying. “I was just a little girl, five or six years old. You chased me with your hatchet, I think you wanted to chop my head off. I’d lost my little hare … As I was running from the small clearing, I found it sitting on a stump of scrub pine. Stuck in a block of ice, like the other animals there. He was dead, and for a long time I wondered how it was that he ended up like that, in ice, when only a few minutes before, he was bounding about. I wanted to free him, but you were coming at me, very fast …”
“I’d just as soon shit on that hare of yours! And on you too, you little slut!”
The gnome spat out the words in a bullying tone. He had a high falsetto voice and stared at Zora with an expression of indignation that might have been funny had it not been topped by a brain as desiccated as overbaked puff pastry.
Zora took a step toward the gnome, and it immediately froze. It stopped shovelling, thrust its shovel into the ground, and leaned on the handle. Its wide, dull-witted eyes turned toward her.
“I ran as fast as I could toward the woods,” Zora continued. “I looked behind me before crossing the clearing to see how far behind you were. I saw you pass by the hare and strike the block of ice with your axe. The block split open. You decapitated the hare. Do you remember that? Do you remember?”
“What a twerrible thing,” the gnome answered, displaying his speech defect.
“What?” said Zora, irritated.
Then the gnome returned to his shovelling, paying no heed to his two visitors. Just then Tero noticed that the creature, as if by some poetic magic, was shovelling not earth, but moonlight! With each movement of his spade, the tool sliced through the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and filled it with a powdery cloud made up of tiny whirlpools of light. Then, as it would have done with sand, the Fredavian dumped the light into the cradle, which was slowly filling up …
“Twerrible …” repeated the Fredavian. “Look at this moonlight, dwipping all over the forest, wunning all over the ground, I’ve got to pick it up. Our master, Gladd, he can’t stand it, you see. So we gather it up on nights when the moon is full, we gather up the moonlight and dump it into the Vandal Swamp … What a job! Oof! I’m stiff as a board.”
It was then that Zora erupted in fury, and so great was her cry of rage that Tero recoiled and nearly fell to the ground! She jumped on the Fredavian, and with a galactic drop kick, smashed it right in the face. The gnome, carried by the disproportionate mass of its head, flipped over, and its head rolled for a good three metres, carrying the tiny body along with it.
“DO YOU REMEMBER NOW, YOU LITTLE STINKPOT?”
Zora did not give her victim a chance to get up. She charged it instead. The evil leprechaun was lying on its back, which seemed to be the cause of immense distress, for its massive head was so heavy its minuscule body was unable, in one movement, to sit or stand upright.
Zora picked up the Fredavian’s shovel and pressed its blade against the creature’s throat. She hissed like a serpent.
“Gladd the Argus,” she said. “His house … is it far from here?”
The Fredavian seemed to be mired in suffering. His face was tense and red and he emitted a curious moan – “Oyoyoyoyo” – not unlike the cry of some tropical fowl. She pressed the shovel blade into the crepe-like flesh of his neck.
“Gladd the Argus,” said Zora, “lives here, farther down the road. What must we know before we appear before him? He knows many dangerous incantations. What does he do to strangers who disturb him in his dominion?”
“Zora …” said Tero in a low voice.
The young man was staring at the creature lying before him on the ground, its brain like an old, dried-out sponge exposed to the air. Having rolled on the ground, the organ was covered in spots with dry mud and pine needles. The Fredavian’s expression was one of mindless stupor and physical pain. Tero Sihvonen, kind-hearted and also a physician, was overcome with pity.
That was not how Zora saw it. At the sight of the inelegant gnome writhing on the ground, no longer listening to her, she became seriously angered – she delivered a violent shovel blow to its brain! Tero felt he would faint; he collapsed to his knees. Once punctured, the brain rapidly deflated pffffftttt! and grey powder issued from the cranial cavity.
The gnome was dead.
Zora kicked the cradle in fury. It toppled over, and moonlight poured out in a swirling flood. The brilliant dust formed a great spiral around Zora. The ascension was as magnificent as it was short-lived. When all the brilliance had dispersed through the heavens, the clearing, so brightly illuminated when Tero and Zora had first set foot there a few moments before, was suddenly plunged into the same deep darkness as the rest of the forest.
All the time she had been in the eye of the hurricane, Zora maintained her sullen expression. But once the light dissipated, she grabbed Tero by the sleeve of his greatcoat and pulled him along on the run toward the opposite side of the clearing from which they had arrived. There, the path through the trees lay open. Zora forced him to run for a distance, as though fleeing something. After some twenty metres she stopped and whistled for Yatagan, who was still in the clearing. Then she gripped Tero’s shirt with both hands and shook the young man vigorously.
“Don’t you see?” she cried. “Don’t you see who we are dealing with? Gladd the Argus is mad! All around him he has created a tiny, infernal world. He finds it beautiful, understand? Which we find disgusting, you and I, those perverse gnomes, those protruding brains, those … those disgusting people who live down below … Did you see the dead animals in the blocks of ice?”
“Dead animals?” muttered Tero, in surprise. “Just a minute, those weren’t animals, they were –”
“For him, it’s a museum, don’t you see? We can’t allow this degenerate to go on any longer!”
Zora’s eyes gleamed like burning coals. For the first time since the beginning of their night ride, Tero was convinced she was not altogether sane.
She set off down the path, with Tero close behind. Tiny slivers of light pierced the darkness on the horizon. It was already dawn …
Read our review of the novel before it was translated