This story is by Kerr Pelto and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Whether legend or myth, my tale be true, for I have returned to tell it.
Twenty-two years ago, in the year 1892, the day was unassuming in every way. That is, until the family solicitor, Gerald Pendergraft, entered the great hall of the ancestral manor I’d inherited upon my father’s disappearance. He laid his cane aside and handed me a box wrapped in oilcloth. It pulsated with heat. Maybe from his hands, maybe from something entirely different. He did not let go until I looked him in the eye.
He said, “Before your grandfather died, he gave me explicit instructions. If your father were to disappear unexpectedly, I was instructed to wait twenty-two years, then bestow upon you this box. Guard it with your life. Follow its decrees. Do you accept this gift on these terms?”
I flicked the ash, dangling on the end of my cigarette, onto the Persian carpet and groaned with boredom. “I’m not convinced I should.”
Color drained from Gerald’s face. He bowed his head, mumbling to the floor. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried.”
“For heaven’s sake, man, what are you babbling on about?”
Gerald, hunched over, eyes rimmed in red, looked into my combative eyes. “I implore you to reconsider. This will be your only chance to find your father and to change into the man you should become.”
I was offended by those words; I’d no cause to change. I felt I was perfect in every way. I was the spitting image of my father in face and physique. We’d both lived selfishly, narcissistic in every way, oblivious to the needs of others, but what did that matter? Nevertheless, I was curious to find my father and dispel the myths surrounding his disappearance. I yanked the box from his hand and said, “I accept the box on those terms.”
Gerald loosened his tie, unbuttoned the top button of his Oxford shirt, and pulled a chain from around his neck and over his head. He sighed with the release of its constant pressure and the responsibilities it held. “Wear this, always. The key will open the box.”
Gerald noticed my questioning gaze. “All will be made clear once you open the box.” He buttoned up, straightened his tie, nodded briefly, and left.
I draped the chain around my neck, instantly feeling its power.
The cavern, cloistered from the outside world for twenty-two years, warmed with sunlight. A thunderous waterfall veiled its now-opened entrance. Its inhabitant stretched his stiff, slumberous limbs and welcomed the beginnings of his long-awaited release. The time had come.
After swallowing a healthy pouring of merlot to calm my nerves, I sat on the sofa, the box in my lap. Taking a deep breath, I inserted the key. The hinges creaked, reluctant to let go. I dug my nails under the lid and, with pressure, released it.
A puffing noise escaped the box as if it had been holding its breath. A beam of sunlight pierced the window overlooking the estate and landed on the contents: a ragged-edged, little black book, a map underneath it, and a scroll.
Taking the book in hand, I recognized my grandfather’s flawless cursive handwriting. The diary chronicled an odd story about his journey to the forests of Sushildte, the village of his Irish ancestors. He didn’t say what happened once there but writes he returned a different man. The last page of the book urged me to follow every detail of the map. Doing so would secure my future.
The troll blinked and rubbed his eyes. The bright rays of the sun were welcomed, but they would take getting used to again. The mist from the waterfall drifted into his cavern, skating along the bottom and creeping up the dirt walls festooned with runes. He breathed in, long and deeply, wetting his lungs with the thrill of returning to the life he’d left behind. At last, he’d earned the change.
Laying the book down, I unrolled the deerskin scroll. The black lettering was no language I recognized. How was I to read it? The journal stipulated I was to follow the map, and at the end of the journey, I would find the one man who could decipher the markings on the scroll. Setting my rebellious nature aside, I determined to go to Sushildte, find this man, whoever he was, get the charade over with, and come straight home. After packing lightly, I left my neglected wife and young son, shutting the door on my former life.
On the steamer ship to Ireland, the key around my neck vibrated with anticipation as I watched the evening sky darken ominously with the setting sun.
The troll made ready the cavern, cleaning it, hunting for and storing much-needed food, then cleansed himself in the magical flow of the waterfall, divesting himself of confined introspection.
Sushildte was a tiny village surrounded by verdant hills and a dense forest beyond. I rented a small room at the local inn and promptly fell asleep under an eiderdown.
The following morning, the hill behind the inn proved harder to traverse than expected. After a strenuous hike, I stood at the edge of the forest and pulled out the map.
Two hours later, I came upon a glorious waterfall, its beauty far beyond anything I’d ever witnessed. It was seductive, and like the curves of a woman’s body, I was irresistibly pulled toward it. I knelt down, cupped my hands in the sparkling water, and drank till satiated.
The troll, bones tingling, blended into the stones flanking the pool of water.
I choked on a scream; my body jerked at the sight of the ugly, misshapen, hairy man. I inadvertently dropped the box, which sunk into the waters of the pool.
The troll dove in, then stood, dripping before me, and held out the box. “This is not mine. Not yet. It must be given to me, from your hand. Otherwise, I cannot decipher the scroll.”
“What are you? My grandfather said nothing of your kind in his little book.”
“I’m sure he left out quite a lot of things.”
“What? Who are …?
“You will get used to being this way. Come, the exchange must take place in the cavern, in the Sanctuary of the Fathachs.”
Despite my misgivings, I followed. Walking through the waterfall, I felt cleansed, akin to a baptism, if you will, into a higher state of being.
The troll bid me sit on the Throne of Stone in the midst of the cavern.
I obeyed, as in a mystical trance.
“It is time. Give me the box and its key.”
A chilling wind entered the cave and swirled around me. As if puppeted by it, I handed over my grandfather’s gifts.
He inserted the key. A grin, whether bad or good, I could not tell, spread across the troll’s face. His long, thick nails clutched the scroll and unrolled it.
He read, “By giving this scroll of your own free will, you have released the recipient of his state and his long confinement. He is now permitted to follow in your footsteps, as you. In exchange, you have accepted his state and internment.”
I noticed the runes on the walls. They danced, emitting shafts of light that entered both the horrid-looking little man and me. My bones ached, changing shape. He howled, and my screams of agony echoed throughout the cavern. The wind carried our pain through the waters and into the deep to sleep until the next transformations.
Confusion assailed me. I’d morphed into a troll! Glued to the Throne of Stone, I shouted, “What have you done to me? And why do you look like me?”
“I have done nothing. Has too much time passed that you do not recognize me, son? I’m a better man. I have earned this change.”
My father embraced me and said, “I will go on, as you, to do good deeds and make our fortune. Don’t worry; the years will pass quickly enough. So, think on how you will amend your sanctimonious behaviors until one of your descendants comes for you. If you have changed, if you have earned your release, you can be reborn to live a better life, be a better man, serving others.”
My father, miraculously my age, picked up the box and left the cavern. A massive stone closed the entrance, the waterfall dried up, and I slumped over, stupified.
After many hours, wrestling my chaotic thoughts, I lay defeated, exhausted on the dirt floor, and succumbed to a deep sleep.
Twenty-two years did indeed pass quickly, and thankfully I’d changed. At last, the stone rolled away. I sat up, stretched my stiff joints, and saw my son, now a young man, the spitting image of my former self, standing at the waterfall’s edge, holding an oilskin-covered box, a gold key dangling from his neck.
My tale, be it legend or myth, you must decide. But beware an oilskin-covered box if discovered unexpectedly at your door.