The hedgerow rustled with life as the man walked alongside. Insects droned in the warm evening air, dancing in zigzag patterns that perhaps formed a secret communication, but he had never worked it out. A blackbird warbled it’s throaty and melodious song from somewhere nearby, and was answered by a companion in the distance. He could hear a small creature, probably a mouse, scampering in the undergrowth to his left. It emerged, scuttling across his path before diving into the other hedgerow on the opposite side. Everything should be right with the world, except it wasn’t. He had felt it for some time now, and he still couldn’t put his finger on it. It could be the weather, perhaps; that had been acting strangely recently. He looked up at the sky, and saw the dark clouds brewing. It should rain soon, except it wouldn’t. The sky had been promising rain for days, but it never came, the clouds somehow dissipating as they came closer to the village. The ground beneath his feet was dry and hard; the stream that flowed at the back of his fields had been reduced to a small trickle, and that would also disappear if the rain didn’t come soon. But that wasn’t the real reason for his unease, and he wished he could define it more clearly.
He reached the end of the hedgerow now, the path opening out onto the small cultivated field. This crop was parsnip; he had planted it in spring, and it should be ready to harvest soon. He walked along the edge of the field, surveying the orderly rows. Stopping at a row at random, he squatted down and examined the leaves, then tugged gently to pull out the root vegetable. He stared aghast at the small white slug-like thing which now lay in the palm of his hand. It should have been full and fat, as long as his outstretched fingers and as wide as his fist. Instead he saw a shrivelled white growth no longer than his thumb. He quickly pulled another, and then another, only to find each time a strange malformation. He stood up, shaking his head. He couldn’t understand it. He had been farming this land for years, and his father before him, but he had never seen the like before. But it somehow fitted the pattern of strangeness that he felt, as though nature was somehow standing upside down.
A flurry of noise made him look up. Crows had risen up in unison from a tree in the distance and were now circling the crown, shrieking to each other in agitation. Something must have disturbed them. He narrowed his eyes and looked more closely, and then saw the man walking slowly across the field. He carried a pack on his shoulders, and even though he moved at a leisurely pace, there seemed to be a purpose to his gait. He carried a staff too, the sort that a traveller might use. Gustav knew everyone one in the village, and this was a stranger. He had heard reports of a newcomer skulking around these parts for a couple of weeks now, and now that he thought about it, the reports had started about the same time as his strange feelings had started, the feeling that something was wrong. Could there be a connection? And what about his failed crops? There had to be an explanation. He would discuss it with the others over a pint of beer in the public house tonight, thrash it out, and perhaps form a plan of action.
Martha bent over to observe the rose, her keen blue eyes magnified by the large round glasses perched delicately on her wizened face. She tutted to herself as she went from flower to flower. They should be in full bloom now, their scent should be intoxicating, and yet her beloved plants were fading, and she had no explanation. She straightened up, wiping her hands on her apron, then stretched, arching her spine backwards to relieve the stiffness. She took her cane and walked with short steps to the bottom of her garden, the stick tapping loudly against the rocky path as she went. She stopped at the small wooden gate, and observed the lane, and beyond it the village. She tilted her head and sniffed the air. There was definitely something strange there, something she hadn’t felt in a long time.
She was brought out of her reverie by the sound of footsteps shuffling up the lane, and presently a short fat man with a ruddy complexion came into view. She observed his slow progress with mild amusement, and waited patiently for him to come level to her gate before greeting him politely.
“Good evening, Archibald.”
“Evening, Martha.” The man stopped to wipe the sweat from his forehead, then glanced up at the sky. “Strange weather we’re having, don’t you think?”
“I’ve seen stranger,” she replied, looking down at him over the top of her glasses.
“There’s a tension in the air.” He looked left and right before continuing. “There’s been talk of a stranger, he’s been seen hanging around these past few days. I’ve just seen Gustav. He told me his crops are failing.”
“Bah, Gustav should spend less time in the public house and more time in his fields. His father was a good farmer, but he’s just a useless lump.”
“Nevertheless,” Archibald pressed on, “something has to be done.” He scratched at his scruffy beard. “I shall bring it up this evening in the pub. I shall listen to what everyone has to say, and I will come to a decision. People are counting on me to protect this village.”
“You are mayor of this village, and that is of course your prerogative,” she said crisply, “but you cannot expect me to believe that some poor traveller is the cause of our current woes. Bigoted opinion and dangerous hearsay cannot replace reasoned argument and common sense.”
“Nevertheless,” he reiterated, “something has to be done.”
He nodded once, then carried on in his shuffling gait up the lane and into the village. Martha stood at the end of her garden, and observed him thoughtfully till he rounded the bend, and was obscured from view.
The stranger sat on the tree stump, and waited patiently whilst the meat roasted over the small fire. He had caught a rabbit earlier, and now his stomach was grumbling in anticipation of the hot meal. From his slightly raised vantage point on the edge of the forest he had a good view of the village. He had watched the comings and goings for a few days now, getting the lie of the land. He had observed that fat oaf of a mayor, and he chuckled to himself now. He would have to speak to them all soon, maybe even tonight, before the situation got out of hand. He took a swig of water from his flask, then rummaged in his backpack for a while, before pulling out a small telescope-like instrument. He turned the two ends slightly in opposing directions, and the instrument clicked open, emitting a faint blue light. He pushed the brim of his fedora up slightly and brought the lens up to his eye, scanning the village and the surroundings methodically, left to right, top to bottom. Satisfied, he returned the instrument to his backpack, and absentmindedly stroked his stubbled chin. His face was lean and angular, still possessing a youthfulness which one would view as remarkable if they knew his true age. He returned his attention to his dinner; the meat was done now, so he removed it from the makeshift spit. He chewed slowly and thoughtfully, enjoying both the taste of the cooked meat and the soft warmth from the last rays of the evening sun. He stood up after he had finished his meal, and stamped out the fire with his worn boot. Shouldering his backpack, he took up his staff and made his ways towards the village. He had work to do.
The pub was in uproar. Voices were raised, and everyone was shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else.
“Well, of course it’s his fault!”, the mayor was shouting loudly to anyone who would listen. “How else would you explain the fact that things started going wrong when he showed up!”
“There have been other strange things happening too” another voice chipped in.
“Aye, that’s true,” confirmed a third man. “Bert lost a cow last week, gone, just like that!” He snipped his fingers as if to reinforce the suddenness of this disappearance.
“Bert’s always losing cows!” laughed another. “We found one a week later stuck up in a tree!”
“Ah, but how did it get up there?” countered his companion, sloshing his drink by gesticulating too wildly. “That’s just what I mean! Strange things are happening round here.”
Martha caught the barman’s gaze, who returned her look with a helpless shrug.
“So, what I’m saying is, is that we have to act now!” the mayor was shouting. More people were starting to pay attention now; the people playing billiards had stopped their game and were watching the proceedings with interest. Encouraged by this, the mayor clambered up unto the table with the help of his chair, grabbing one of the spare billiard cues which he now waved in front of him like a scimitar.
“We have to stamp it out before it starts!” he continued, “because it may be your children next!” This got more attention, and some men started shouting their agreement, even though most of them really had little clue what he was talking about.
“He ruined my crops!” shouted Gustav into the general melee, and the mayor picked up on this.
“Yes, the crops, think of the crops! Without the crops we could all starve!”
“I know where he is!” shouted Gustav, joining the mayor on the table. “I saw him this evening. If we go there now, we can hound him out!” This got a general roar of approval, and several men started to rise, swaying slightly and still holding on to their beer. The mayor held the billiard cue in both hands aloft over his head, and was shaking it like a gladiator, when at that moment the door to the pub opened, and the stranger walked in.
Everyone froze. The mayor stopped shaking the billiard cue, and suddenly felt rather foolish, so he slowly lowered the cue and pretended instead to be studying the ceiling with great interest. The stranger nodded to the gathered people in the deathly silence, and wandered over to the bartender to order a beer. The bartender shook himself slightly, then busied himself getting the drink ready. The stranger turned now to the assembled company, leaning on the bar behind him.
Martha broke the silence. “Well, it’s about time you showed up!” she said, emphasizing the syllable, looking the stranger squarely in the face.
He grinned lopsidedly, and tipped his hat in her direction. “’lright Martha,” he said, “it’s been a long time.”
“It’s been thirty-two years, young man”, she said, standing up now and leaning on her cane. “And from the looks of you, you haven’t aged a day. I expect you wouldn’t let me into the secret of that little trick, would you?” she added huffily. “Well, what have you got for us?”
“Bodenschnarfler” said the stranger simply, to which Martha gave a little exclamation of triumph.
“Ha! I knew it!” she cried. The company had been watching this strange exchange in silence, but Martha ignored them now. “Well, I guess we’d better get on with it. I assume you have your equipment?” She nodded with satisfaction when the stranger answered in the affirmative. She straightened up now, and held her cane in one hand. With the other she unscrewed the top, which now emitted a strange blue light. The stranger paid the barman without finishing his drink, and followed Martha as she marched out of the pub.
“The effect is centred around Gustav’s field,” he explained, as he walked out of the village with her. Most of the villagers had followed them out of the pub, agog with this new development, but too uncertain about the unusual turn of events to offer any resistance. One or two, the mayor included, still held tightly onto billiard cues, but the majority simply held onto their drinks and followed the crowd down the road, curious as to how this would all turn out.
“I think we still have time to capture them all,” he continued. “You know what to do?” Martha nodded, and so they continued the short journey out of the village in silence, until they reached the boundary of Gustav’s field. Once there, the stranger ignited his staff with the same eerie blue light as Martha’s cane. Starting in opposite corners of the field, Martha and the stranger walked clockwise slowly around the perimeter. A line of blue light was left hanging in the air where they went, so that when both had completed a half circuit, a shimmering line of blue encircled the whole field. Blue light now extended out of Martha’s cane and the stranger’s staff, heading in an arc towards the centre of the field. When the two beams met, a circle of blue light formed, and then widened to hang shimmering over the field, lighting the faces of the astonished onlookers.
Suddenly the ground began to shake. Topsoil began jiggle on the surface of the field, and the air was filled with a strange humming noise, which seemed to originate from deep within the earth itself. Slowly, one by one, strange creatures began to emerge from the earth. They were mole-like, with large front hands for shovelling earth, large dark eyes and long whiskered snouts. They started to float now, gyrating in circles, falling head over heels as they moved up towards the circle of light. Once they reached the circle, they disappeared inside with a quiet pop. More and more of the strange creatures were circling upwards around the field now, spinning round and round with bemused expressions on their furry faces.
“What the devil are those things?” cried the mayor, the billiard cue standing forgotten at his side.
“Bodenschnarfler,” repeated the stranger, shouting to make himself heard over the loud humming. “They live underground and drain all the energy out of the surroundings. You’re lucky I found them so quickly. Another few days and they would have overrun the village, then you would have had nothing left!”
“But, but, this is preposterous!” exclaimed the mayor. “Where on earth did they come from, and where on earth are they going now?” he cried, as the last few stragglers disappeared into the circle with a faint plop.
The man lowered his staff, and the blue light slowly faded from view. “Now, that I can’t tell you,” he said, as Martha slowly walked round the side of the field to join him, her light also now extinguished. “And anyhow, you wouldn’t believe me if I did.” He winked at the mayor, and Martha gave him a friendly punch on the arm.
“Don’t be a stranger, Johansson”, she said affectionately. “I don’t want to wait another thirty years before I see you again.”
“No ma’am,” he replied, “I think you’ll see me again sooner than you think.” He tipped his hat, then turned to the mayor. “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome.” He shouldered his backpack and strode away, and was quickly swallowed up by the cool night air.