There’s a trailer on the edge of a cotton field. Or rather, a field that had held cotton until a few days ago. Now there are just empty stalks, writhing dismally in the red glow of a magnificent sunset. The trailer sits atop cinder blocks and has the settled look of a mobile home that was never meant to be mobile. Scattered about the sparse, brown yard are signs of human inhabitation: bits of old furniture, rusted car parts, a few toys faded from their bright, happy hues into ghosts of long-dead childhood. An air of neglect sits about the dwelling very like the grisly, old boxer chained in the yard. The brindle beast stares morosely at the county road mere meters away, barely twitching at the occasional cars that barrel passed with no regard for unenforced speed limits.
It’s only when the glimmer of a massive harvest moon breaks the horizon that his interest is piqued. The inveterate dog’s floppy ears twitch, his nose quivering as the blood-red orb creeps stealthily into the sky. Tonight is the night and he must be on guard as he has since the duty was passed to him by his bitch. He fixes doleful brown eyes on a stanza of trees just across the road. Though it is autumn and further north trees are bare and skeletal, these trees still bear their vibrantly green kudzu cloaks. They look like rolling hills of leaves rather than deciduous giants.
As night falls, the wild sounds change. Birdsong is replaced by the soundless cry of bats as they hunt the insidious and insatiable mosquito. Crickets, beetles, spiders and other night creatures greet the world with songs of their own, be they audible or not. The naked stalks of cotton rattle to each other in anticipation of the night’s events, wondering what gifts will be given, what songs sung. Tonight is the night, they whisper, when the trolls sing the Earth to sleep.
In the trailer, the humans make their own nightly noises. The boxer listens passively, attending to his pack as he should. They speak nonsensically, their words fighting their bodies so that the dog understands little of what they say. When they speak to him, their body and words work together. “Bad dog” is always said with a frown while “Good dog” is accompanied with a smile and a friendly pat on the head. But when they speak to each other, the two don’t line up unless they are really angry. It is why he has to guard them, he thinks. They don’t even know how to speak properly. They are blind to the world and deaf to its songs.
Presently, he notices that the humans are getting louder and familiar words are starting to surface. He cocks a floppy ear toward the trailer, concern building with each angry phrase. He knows this fight. It happens a lot. He does not understand the argument but he knows how it ends. And the stupid, blind humans won’t understand why they can’t have this fight tonight. They don’t listen. They don’t see. They don’t feel the moon calling to the trolls to awaken for their task.
The boxer’s attention is brought away from the fight by the gentle rustling of thousands of kudzu leaves, their whispering like the ovations of a ghost story. The trees are shivering without a breath of a breeze. It is almost time. He starts to his feet when the trailer door bursts open against the cheap vinyl siding and a slight figure stomps down the homemade metal steps. The boy, with bare feet and threadbare clothes yells, “Fine! I hate you! I wish I’d never been born!”
The response from inside is shrill and filled with spite, “So do I, you little bastard! You ruined everything!” The boy slams the rickety door closed with an angry sob and storms toward the field. The dog tugs at his chain and whines plaintively. Don’t go that way! But he is ignored as the boy deftly vaults over the sagging barbed wire fence and plods across the field, deaf to the thousands of voices warning him away. The bright moon, now glowing white, glints off of his dirt brown hair, marking him slyly as he trudges between the thorny plants. The boxer tries again to call the boy back, howling a plea and getting paid for his concern with an old boot being chucked at him from the trailer door. There’s nothing he can do now. The boy is beyond his territory and out of his power. All he can do now is wait.
The night passes, the moon rides higher, and gradually a tense quiet descends. The boxer settles down, eyes again fixed on the trees, his weary body trembling in expectation. No more cars pass by, no more sound from the trailer except the murmur of a television filling uncomfortable and accusing silence. The air cools gradually from the balmy heat of the day. At last, the moon hits its apex and is pinned to the sky, refusing to continue or recede until the duty is fulfilled. The old boxer gains his feet and faces the trees. It’s time. The shivering has stopped, the kudzu unnaturally still. Then one of the trees shrugs its mighty boughs and shakes its trunk. The others in the line follow suit, drawing life from their roots again and wrapping their kudzu cloaks tightly about their massive bodies. The trolls are awake. Their hoary faces turn to the moon to acknowledge the summons. Then, one at a time, they pull their massive feet from the earth and begin their journey.
The eldest, bent and grey with age, leads the way across the road and over the fence, walking in a perfectly straight route across the field. Great gouges in the earth mark their passing and their cloaks trail behind them, now absolutely silent. The youngest troll pauses before the trailer, its black eyes staring with interest at the broken down abode. The boxer lets out a low and menacing growl. Mine. He is not afraid of the trolls here, not on his land, and he hasn’t been afraid of them since he had been a pup that first spring he heard them sing the Earth to life. His bitch had growled at them when they came too close, just a reminder for the younger ones. No one is abandoned here. They are mine. The troll doesn’t linger, but soon follows its brethren across the field. The boxer watches them until they are out of sight, then lays back down, his duty complete.
The trolls walk in a file, trudging along as a silent retinue, the moon gazing down on them and waiting patiently. Presently, the trolls meet others, other tree-like giants. The meeting place is not marked with any kind of device but they all know where to gather. The northern trolls are slender and tall, their hair sharp and needle-like. When they slumber, they are just tall pine trees, indistinguishable from any other. The trolls of the east are similarly disguised as pecan trees. When they awaken, the many spidery limbs protrude from their backs making them resemble the Hindu Goddess Kali. The trolls from the south hide their forms with great draping lichen over their many heavy limbs. Gathered now as they have since before living memory, they join in a circle and the singing begins.
It is low and vibrates down through their bodies and into the ground. There are no rhythms or melodies, no words as humans would understand them, just a susurration that seems to shimmer in the air and rumble to the core of the Earth. As they sing, swaying gently together, the elder of the north steps forward to offer her gift. She places a bird’s nest in the center of the circle. Just above the song can be heard the cheeping of the baby birds that had been abandoned just hours before. The intensity of the song increases as the troll rejoins the circle and slowly, the earth swallows the gift. The elder troll of the east then steps forward and kneels in the center. He has fulfilled his duties to the Earth and is ready to rejoin after many cycles. The song feels sad and joyful now and a grateful Earth reclaims her child. The elder troll of the south steps forward next, lichen obscuring her many great limbs like the scarves of an exotic dancer. A broken and bleeding cat is placed in the center of the circle, its eyes wide with pain and terror. It had been left to die on the edge of the field and was soon accepted as a gift by the hungry earth, finally finding peace.
By this time you think you know how this is going to end.
The western troll elder steps into the circle and places his gift in the dirt. It is a naked doll with tangled blonde hair and one eye. It has been drawn on with markers and repaired many times. Its hair has the symptoms of a child getting ahold of scissors and its finger tips have been painted with real nail polish. It is a doll that has been loved in the brutal way that only children can, and then been abandoned when the child was distracted with something else shiny. But it was alive, in a sense, so the earth takes it with the song and then curls up to sleep until the spring, when the trolls will sing it awake. The whole land seems to vibrate with the lullabies of thousands of guardians, their mighty limbs extended to the sky in praise and worship to the Creator.
Gradually, the song fades to true silence. With no more exchange, the trolls depart for their nests, returning the earth to its place as they go so that no trace is seen of their journey. The kudzu elder nods at the old boxer when they pass, respect given to the ruler of the land. They turn around to face the moon one last time, sure of his approval, and then return to their slumber, their kudzu cloaks, now beginning to wilt, rustling ever so softly in the breeze.
Because you don’t want to know what happened to the boy.