Bourbon Penn 32

Shepherd Not Sheep

by Simon Strantzas

Our tiny village, Drei Fluss, has three rivers and seven bridges. Under each bridge is a troll.

The trolls arrived the summer before last and no one in the village knows what to do about them so the council called a meeting. It’s so well-attended people are jostling in the aisles. Everyone has an opinion about the trolls—why they moved in and why they won’t leave.

Frau Knut sternly says they came because our new concrete bridges are more hospitable to them. But Herr Dirge asks then about Gusen Bridge, our wooden footbridge, and Frau Knut quietly sits down.

Her cousin, Frau Ulrich, snickers and says it has nothing to do with the bridges. It’s the people. Trolls like being close to people for obvious reasons. She doesn’t say what those reasons are, but I think I can guess.

And Herr Buag? He trembles and says they’re an act of God. A punishment for our heathen ways. Only his son, Egon, applauds. The rest, judging by their reaction, don’t know what the word “heathen” means.

Councillor Holler, a small, nervous man, bangs his tiny gavel. The reason the trolls are here doesn’t matter. They’re here, so what are we going to do about it?

Herr Oskar, our shopkeeper, has a suggestion: why don’t we hire someone to kill them? Everyone nods or claps when he says this, and his face fights off a wave of smugness. But Jutta doesn’t nod or clap. That’s because Jutta believes there aren’t any trolls in Drei Fluss, and there never have been.

She whispers to me that this lie about trolls infuriates her. She says the Council wants to scare us because it makes it easier for them to control us.

I whisper back and ask what it is, exactly, that they want to make us do. I try to sound curious, but it’s hard when inside I’m pleading she’ll just go back to how she was before.

She says they want Drei Fluss to become a tourist village. Tourist villages are rich villages, and the best way to become one is to be interesting. A village with seven bridges sounds quaint and boring. A village with make-believe trolls under those seven bridges doesn’t. It doesn’t sound safe, no matter how safe it actually is. She says that’s what makes it interesting.

I ask her if she thinks Drei Fluss is safe in the same whisper, but I’m straining against my agitation. I can’t understand what’s happened to her. I’m not even sure it’s still Jutta. Maybe the trolls got to her. Maybe they replaced her. Can trolls do that?

She smiles. It’s the kind of smile that barely curls her lips; instead, it rolls them back over her teeth like a window blind. I don’t like it. I’m about to tell her how unsafe Drei Fluss really is, but Councillor Holler does it for me by summoning Frau Miran to the front of the room.

She steps to the front of the room carrying a photograph of her missing daughter, Fiona. We all knew Fiona, and we’ve all seen the photograph—it’s been in the local newspaper every week, plastered to every posterboard throughout Drei Fluss. We all know something happened to her, which is why it’s so hard to look at Frau Miran. But she looks at every one of us. Up there, from the lectern, she stares with a scorching anger. I want to believe that’s all it takes to prove the trolls to Jutta, but she’s unmoved. Worse than break my heart, it disappoints me.

Frau Miran’s voice cracks as she starts speaking. That crack never really goes away.

You all know what happened to my Fiona, her mother says with a timbre so sharp I feel its cut. It was those trolls. Those vile, putrid trolls. They took my little Fiona and that was it. We never found her afterward. Never found even a trace of her. My Fiona was only twelve years old and had barely started life. Did you know she spoke to fairies? She liked to go out in thunderstorms because that’s when they heard her best. She loved bad weather outside more than she loved the inside. She was strange and darling and I never wanted to live without her. And now I have to. Because of those trolls. You know what they are, and you don’t do anything about them. Even after what they did. To my poor Fiona …

Her face contorts as she trails off, the lines of her face becoming a scribble. Jutta whispers out the side of her mouth, asking if Frau Miran is about to cry. But she doesn’t and Jutta scoffs. You don’t believe this, do you? she asks me. So I ask her back, a bit too loud, what she thinks happened to Fiona. Jutta shrugs, doesn’t know; she isn’t Fiona’s mother. Frau Miran must hear us because her face turns a color that doesn’t look good or right on a person.

Before she can speak, Councillor Holler rushes to applaud. The rest of us follow. Even Jutta claps but I can tell it’s insincere. Frau Miran’s grimace is wounded as she glances at us while stepping from the front of the room. Jutta continues clapping. She doesn’t care if she’s the last one making noise.

• • •

Jutta and I met in the before-times, when Drei Fluss was troll-free and all the bridges were wooden and boring. I went to Hiachst Park, just on the other side of Schwecat Bridge, because I’d run out of places to hide at home, and because there was nobody around who wanted to seek. I found Jutta seated on the swings, wearing a pair of heavy black shoes and a dirty dress whose latticed hem was torn above the knee. She rested as limp as a rag doll against the chains as she swayed. I stood back on the edge of grass, not knowing what to do. After a moment she seemed to come alive, bolting upright, and the way she looked at me … I knew right then she didn’t need to speak because I could see my thoughts on her face. I walked over and announced my name was Maud, then gave her my strongest push. She screamed with delight as her feet left the ground. From that moment, we were inseparable, and I never had to worry about being alone again.

But the trolls changed everything. That Jutta is gone now. This Jutta wouldn’t be delighted. She’d narrow her eyes and ask why I was at Hiachst Park and what I wanted with her. This Jutta wouldn’t let me anywhere near her, or if she did, she’d test me first to be sure I was real. She would never try to make me feel welcome. She’d be just like everyone else—trying to make me believe I don’t belong.

It would bother me except it doesn’t matter anymore. No one goes to Hiachst Park now, anyway. Or any park. I definitely don’t. Not since Fiona vanished. It ruined Frau Miran’s life and it’s ruined the lives of everyone in Drei Fluss, too. With the exception of maybe Jutta’s.

The roads are empty when we walk home from the village meeting. Jutta is up on the curb, one foot in front of the other, bony arms outstretched like she’s on the highwire. I don’t look at her. I just want to be alone, but I’m also terrified she’ll go. There’s a troll nearby. I can smell it.

Not that I’ve ever seen one. Not really. I know other people say they have, but not me, though I’ve come close. Once, I glimpsed a shadow rise up from behind an old pushcart on the side of Lonnie Road, and my whole body froze up. But it wasn’t because of the shadow. It was the smell. Trolls have a particular odor—like clothes that haven’t been washed in a long time. Sour and greasy. It lingers in your head for so long you still smell it even after you shouldn’t. I knew as soon as I smelled it what it was. And I ran home like I’d never run before.

Jutta hates this story. She asks me if I’ve ever smelled a river before, then reminds me we have three of them and they all smell bad. It’s the algae and the scum. She says all I was smelling was river water and calls me stupid. Even though I know she’s wrong, she’s so certain that for a moment I doubt myself. Could she be right? Then Jutta opens her mouth and my questions vanish.

She tells me the village has got me so worked up over the troll conspiracies that I’ll believe anything now. Then she laughs and asks in a snarky voice if I think the wind is caused by trolls breathing, and if I think it gets dark because the trolls switch the sun with the moon every night. Trolls are all anyone ever talks about, she says, and it’s not funny anymore.

Jutta doesn’t listen when I tell her for a fact what I overheard my mother discussing with her friends. The Bauer boy, Chime, had been on Fuscher Bridge and narrowly avoided being taken by the troll that lived under it. Chime said the thing had hands as big as his head, but the strangest thing was its eyes. My mother’s friend asked what they looked like, but if there was an answer I couldn’t overhear it, no matter how hard I pressed my ear to the wall. I still shivered, though. And I shiver now as I tell Jutta. She just snickers and picks up a rock from the ground to hurl as far as she can into Köhler River. It’s a bunch of bullshit, she says. Chime is always making up stories. She asks if I remember when he pretended he didn’t believe in ghosts until he was dared to go into the cellar of St. Alphege Church and the upperclassmen locked him in? They only held the door for five minutes, but Chime still wet himself. Jutta guffaws and picks up another rock to throw. I don’t think it’s as funny as she does, but I don’t laugh as much as Jutta anyway.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like without her. What if tomorrow my parents sat me down and told me that it was Jutta that had gone missing; that everyone thought a troll had got her instead of Fiona. What would I feel? I don’t think I’d be surprised. And I don’t think I’d cry. I think I might be relieved. Just a little. But I don’t know. Nobody knows how they’ll feel before they feel it. The only thing I’m sure of is Fiona would not have sat with me at a council meeting about Jutta. Not that there would have been a meeting.

Jutta jumps down from the curb. As she lands on the cobblestones she wants to know, if nobody has ever seen a troll, how is everyone so sure they know what one looks like. And why am I so sure they’re the ones telling the truth.

The smell, I start to say, but she interrupts me.

Not the smell again.

I tell her a good friend would believe me.

She tells me a good friend wouldn’t believe such stupid things.

I pick up my stride to get ahead of her. But Jutta doesn’t like being left behind, and she doesn’t like it when I stop speaking to her, so she hurries to keep pace.

I’m sorry, Maud, she says. I don’t acknowledge her. I don’t slow down. I wait to see if she’ll tell me why she’s sorry, but she doesn’t. We just walk in silence—me staring straight ahead, her staring at her feet. I don’t know how long we go without speaking to each other, but it might be a record.

We need to cross Krottenback Bridge to get home, but Krottenback is probably the bridge I’m most afraid of. The other six bridges have trolls, everybody knows this, but Krottenback is our biggest bridge which means the biggest troll must live there. It smells nearly every time I run over it. I should run this time, too, but I know Jutta will refuse to follow and I don’t want to run with her watching. I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed but I am.

Jutta must know this. She’s probably counting on it.

Jutta nods at the bridge and says: Well, that’s worrying, isn’t it?

I ask her what she means.

She points as we get closer—not so close that something could snatch us, but not so far that something couldn’t. I look and I see the bridge I’ve always seen. Then I see more.

It’s crooked, she says. Twisted like cherry licorice.

It’s not that bad, I tell myself. It’s only just a hump midway across. The concrete is buckled, lowered on one side just enough to be noticeable. There’s nothing interesting or unique about it.

But maybe that’s why it bothers me. It’s the mundanity. After so long living with the fear of the trolls, of their mysterious habits and behaviors, something as ordinary as twisted concrete fills me with a kind of unshakeable dread. Or maybe it’s the flavor of the air that has changed. It’s become sour and just a little bitter. As I notice this, I also notice one other thing: it’s become quiet. I can’t hear anything, not even my own breathing.

I don’t like this, I say. Something isn’t right.

Jutta sniffs the air. Laughs in a way that doesn’t reassure me.

I suggest we take the long way home tonight.

The two of us retreat from Krottenback Bridge, back down Wassa Road, past Monad’s Butchers. We turn the corner at Perrera Lane and sneak through a few back alleys as a shortcut until we find ourselves at Piesting Bridge. This bridge is flat, and we can hear the crickets along the riverbanks which I think means it’s safe. As a precaution, though, I remove my shoes and walk across the bridge barefoot. I hope my feet are as quiet under the bridge as they are on top of it. About halfway across Jutta shouts: Hey! Do you hear snoring? and I’m suddenly running so fast my bare feet go numb. I don’t hear Jutta’s cackles until I’m already bent over and panting on the other side.

It’s an hour later than usual when I reach my house but at least I reach it. My mother’s face is white as a paper when she sees me, her eyes glossy and bloodshot. She hugs me so hard I worry she’ll split me like a ball of dough. My father doesn’t say a thing, but he looks relieved. They don’t ask how the meeting went. And the next morning is the same as any other morning.

But it doesn’t stay that way.

Herr Buag knocks erratically at our door during breakfast. My father makes a noise with his nose and wipes his mouth before standing. My mother’s eyes stay glued to her porridge. Her spoon trembles. I can’t hear what Herr Buag is saying but I hear enough to know it’s a prayer. And I only hear that because my father prays with him.

Egon Buag is missing, I tell Jutta, later, while we sift through gravel along the edge of the road. I tell her everything I know: that after the village meeting they think Egon crossed over Krottenback Bridge to get home. A torn sleeve from his jacket was found on the Vakea Road side.

Did he run away with Fiona? she asks.

Of course not!

I never liked Egon. He was never nice to us.


I suppose you’re going to tell me a troll took him.

How can Jutta say this? Egon’s gone, I repeat. He’s missing. He’s probably dead.

Maud, don’t be the sheep; be the shepherd.

What does that even mean?

It means you’re choosing to believe these stories. Open your eyes.

I can’t hide my irritation anymore. Jutta smiles.

Egon’s body is found a few days later. Or, at least, parts of his body are found. Three of his limbs are found in a pile near Fischa Bridge. This surprises everyone as we all considered it the safest bridge. Egon’s torso, though, is over by Krottenback Bridge, and when I tell Jutta she shakes her head with disgust. What I overheard from my father was it looked the way an animal does after a pack of wild dogs gets at it. The ribs were cracked open and there were ropes of intestines spread through the rushes alongside Miran River. I once got an accidental glimpse behind the curtain of Monad’s Butchers and I still have nightmares about it. I can see it like a ghost in the room with me. I can’t imagine how much worse Egon’s remains must have been.

Jutta tells me she heard his liver was gone. She’s probably trying to make me sick for fun.

I ask why his liver.

She shakes her head. Tells me the liver is the best part of the body. It’s filled with all the delicious fats. It’s like eating a stick of butter. If you’re only going to eat one part of something, she tells me, it’s the liver, hands down.

I didn’t know that.

Her laugh is more like a derisive snort. Of course you don’t, she says. Nobody wants us to know. Believe me.

Jutta sweeps up a rock and holds it out for me to inspect. It’s a good one; a little green, but also gold, too, and the striations are all even. It could probably knock someone down if you hit them with it right, and I bet it could do almost the same to a troll. I’m mad she found it, to be honest, but I keep that to myself. Just because I don’t think she deserves it doesn’t mean she doesn’t. What I believe and what’s the truth are two different things. It’s something I’m working on remembering because Jutta won’t.

After the discovery of Egon, an emergency Council meeting is called. There’s a different feeling in the air. As though all the anger of the village has finally metastasized, and real change is coming. We all feel it: Egon Buag’s death has catalyzed us into finally doing something.

Herr Oskar can’t help himself. He reminds everyone that he had first suggested hunting the trolls down after Fiona disappeared. If we had, he says, Egon might still be alive. Frau Buag immediately sobs and the look Herr Oskar gives her gets imprinted on my mind. It’s terrible. And makes me feel bad even though I didn’t say a word.

Frau Knut asks if something so violent is necessary and it seems to split the crowd in half. After an hour a compromise is reached: the men of the town will try to secure the bridges and only if the trolls return will they try something more drastic.

They turn proudly to Frau Miran, but she surprises them with her hesitance. Even Jutta can’t believe it. They ask does she not want to find the troll that ate Fiona and Frau Miran’s face turns a color I’ve never seen before. She lowers her head as though she’s embarrassed. Or maybe she’s holding something back. When she looks up again, I don’t understand the expression on her face but it makes me sad.

I don’t know, she finally says, and if there’s not a gasp my mind inserts one.

How can you say that? Councillor Holler asks.

Frau Miran seems lost to me. She admits she doesn’t know what happened to Fiona, but that none of us do. No one has shown her a single piece evidence that a troll took her daughter. With the Buag boy there were at least remains and blood. There was something that said maybe a troll ate him—though even that isn’t for certain. But Fiona? Her sweet Fiona? She’s seen nothing. And if Fiona wasn’t eaten by a troll, then maybe Egon wasn’t either? How do any of us know?

All the adults in the room talk hurriedly among themselves, one shouting over the other. All the while Frau Miran ducks her head and stares are her feet. I’m too stunned to say much, and even if I weren’t I don’t think I’d want to. Not after turning to look at Jutta’s smug and elated expression. Told you, she mouths.

Councillor Holler bangs his gavel and wrestles the crowd eventually. Frau Miran has not moved. When people calm enough for him to be heard he reminds us all—reluctantly, I think—that Frau Miran is grieving and we have to give her space. She isn’t thinking right. But he also says we cannot wait on dealing with the trolls once and for all. If not for Egon and Fiona, then for all the other children who will most certainly follow. He says more but I can’t concentrate over Jutta’s muttered snickers. I try to remind myself the old Jutta must still be in there, somewhere. But it’s increasingly harder to believe.

No one seems surprised to see the men on Krottenback Bridge early the next day. They have rope coils slung over their shoulders and tools hanging from their belts. Their faces are pale, which I know because Jutta says she saw them firsthand. She tells me she was on the bridge when they all marched across in a row. I want to know why she was there without me, and she says we don’t need to be together all the time. She’s never spoken to me like that before. She continues to describe what she saw: the way the men rappelled down ropes thrown over the side of the bridge; how some watched while the others worked. I ask her questions about what happened afterward, and she shrugs. It was a waste of time, she says, and there was no point to waiting around. Either the men declared they found no trolls after all, or they pretended they had because that’s what the Council ordered.

When my parents think I’m asleep I overhear them discussing what happened afterward. Jutta was kind of right, I guess. The men admitted to not finding a troll under Krottenback Bridge. But they did find what a troll left behind. A hole, maybe ten feet tall, carved by hand into the rocky earth beneath the bridge and which went further into the darkness than any of them could throw a lit torch. They said the air spilling out of the hole smelled worse than the air above it, and three of the men had their legs turn wobbly before it occurred to any of them to cover their faces. I can suddenly smell it myself, even though we’re nowhere near a bridge.

Something about the stench made the men angry enough to snap. My father whispers to my mother that he heard the men found a small table and chairs and smashed them, then made water over the debris before leaving so as to send a message. My mother is aghast, but my father’s voice just gets this sound I’ve never heard before. It’s hard and maybe distant. He says afterward that the men forgot who they were for a time and became animals. They tried to destroy everything they saw that might belong to the troll, and when they were done, they gathered up their equipment and went to the next bridge to do the same. Then, the next. They continued until they visited all seven bridges over our three rivers and left a warning under each: no troll is safe. After that my father doesn’t say much so I sneak back to bed and wonder if I can believe it’s finally over.

The next day, school has been canceled since we’re not allowed to go near any of the bridges. Jutta doesn’t care what people say she’s allowed to do, though. She does what she wants even when I tell her not to, so I’m not surprised when I find her standing outside my window. I go down to meet her before my parents notice.

I ask her what’s wrong as I toe the dirt, looking for rocks. Any rock will do at this point. I just need something to focus on.

She brushes my question away.

That’s not important, she says. What’s important is why is the Council continuing to pretend. They say it’s about Egon but it’s not. They say it’s about trolls but it’s not. It’s not even about Fiona because nothing happened to her. It’s all lies. It’s all bunk. They just want us to be afraid. Just watch: soon they’ll tell us they need to do more to protect us from the trolls so our taxes will increase to pay for it. It’s just like what happens in the cities, except it’s harder to get away with it in the cities because the people there aren’t all sheep.

I wonder if Jutta has any idea what she’s talking about, or is she just parroting words to sound smart. Either way, she sounds dumb and it makes me angry. Egon died. Fiona, too, probably. And for Jutta to say these things, even if she really believes them, is dangerous. People will start to listen to her stories because they don’t know what else to do. The lies become like those rubber life preservers on the side of the bridges, and people will hold onto them past the point of knowing better.

I realize right then that telling her she’s wrong isn’t enough. I need to prove it to her. Prove to her that Fiona is missing. Prove to her that Frau Miran doesn’t know where she is. I bend down and pick up the rock my foot has uncovered, one that’s just the right size for my pocket, which means it’s just the right size for my hand. It’s covered in crystals that reflect the sun like tiny diamonds. But in the centre of the rock there’s a crack that runs deep. Maybe if I can show Jutta the truth, really show her, then I’ll be able to put the same kind of crack in her disbelief. And maybe that crack will spread and the rock in her will collapse and behind it will be the Jutta I used to know. The one I’d met on those swings in Hiachst Park, the one who’s been with me every day for as long as I can remember. I miss that Jutta so much it hurts to think about her. All I need is one crack, just one. Because maybe Jutta is my life preserver. And without her to hang onto, I’m going to drown.

• • •

I immediately regret us knocking on Frau Miran’s door. I feel Jutta’s breath on my neck, hear her trying to bury her smirk, and I resist turning around and leaving. But only because the door has already swung open and Frau Miran is standing there in her plain frock, swollen eyes circled red and purple. Her hair is tied on top of her head in a loose knot. She looks more haggard than I’ve seen anyone ever. I catch only a glimpse of the house behind her, but it’s enough to tell me she’s given up.

She doesn’t say anything, and neither does Jutta behind me. I hate this—playing middle monkey—but that’s the game with Jutta. I need to say something to Frau Miran since us being there was my idea, but the voice in my head stammers and everything is harder than it should be. It’s like my thoughts don’t want to sit still, and as I struggle, I feel Frau Miran’s nervousness radiate.

I knot my fingers as I screw up my courage. When I open my mouth, though, only jumbled nonsense comes out. Frau Miran impatiently tells us she’s busy, but I think she sounds more scared. Waves of something else wash over me, too— a cocktail of sorrow and despair.

Jutta says we should run. But a noise from inside the house stops me. It’s like a small throaty cough, maybe. But I must be imagining it. It can’t be real. None of this can be. I glance at Frau Miran and her eyes look as though they’re on the verge of crying again. It must be awful to have us here, confronting her. Reminding her of Fiona. And I’m ashamed of myself for letting Jutta manipulate me. I wish a troll would spring up and swallow me whole.

I give it a moment but no luck.

Then that cough again. Louder. And this time Frau Miran’s head turns.

She’s heard it, too.

Jutta tugs on the back of my coat. I don’t look at her. I already know what she’s going to say. But I don’t want to believe it. Jutta doesn’t hesitate. She screams out Fiona’s name then bolts out from behind me and pushes past Frau Miran into the house. Without thinking, I sprint after her. Frau Miran is too startled to catch me in time.

The house is cluttered and in disarray. I trip over the boxes and dishes and garbage that blanket the floor in thick litter. I lose balance, stumble, and it’s too late to right myself before I narrowly miss knocking Jutta down. Instead, I spin and tumble to the floor in the middle of the sitting room, my knees taking the worst of it. That skinning pain distracts me momentarily from who is standing before me. From who Jutta is staring at. I get to my feet but lose my voice.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a troll. It’s too big for the room, its head nearly brushing the ceiling, and it’s dressed in a torn yellow-stained undershirt and a pair of long thermal pants. In its giant hand is a teacup, so dwarfed it might as well not be there at all. The troll looks at me with frog eyes, as pale and cloudy as chunks of ice. Its bulbous nose sniffs the air. As though it can smell me. Whereas all I smell is it. The stench is so bad my eyes cry.

I can explain, Frau Miran hurries. I don’t want her to explain. There’s nothing I want less than her explanation.

It ate Fiona! I can’t believe I have to say it.

Frau Miran’s face splits like an overripe red tomato and she sobs. No, he didn’t, she pleads. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

We didn’t eat the girl. Didn’t happen, the troll wheezes, giant hand placing the teacup down on the table between us. It keeps looking at me with those frog eyes.

Jutta tells me to ask it what it’s doing here then. So I do.

It licks its lips with a purple tongue. Frau Miran is a beautiful woman. Beautiful. Said she’d let us stay. We can’t go back to Krottenback Bridge any more. They want to get rid of us. Can you believe it? So jealous.

Frau Miran whimpers. It’s like the groan of something straining under too much weight.

I back up. Jutta is smugly muttering I told you sos. I feel so sick I can barely remain standing. My insides squirm over themselves.

Don’t, Frau Miran blubbers. Don’t hurt him.

Hurt him? I think

The troll scratches the inside of its thigh through its thermal pants. It pulls a twisted face as half its mouth lifts.

Your council doesn’t like us. They keep making up things. All lies.


They hate that we’re too strong, too smart. So they have to lie. Don’t listen to them. Think for yourself.

But … Egon …

Did you see anything? No. Didn’t happen. Why would we eat him? Not true. False information.

They found him, I say. Found what was left of him.

We know what they found. Wasn’t that bad, actually. He wasn’t completely eaten. Still mostly there. Anyway, wasn’t us. We heard some people say the councillors killed Egon. We don’t know if it’s true. But someone should ask them. It would be interesting to know if they tell the truth. Not that it’s a big deal, even if someone did eat him a little.

The crashing noise makes Jutta and me leap and scream. But it’s not the troll. It’s Frau Miran. She’s collapsed to her knees. Wheezing, sobbing. Muttering. See? It’s not him, she says. It’s not. Fiona must still be alive.

Sure she is, the troll says. We’re going to help find her. Troll’s promise.

It puts an enormous finger aside its nose and taps.

I don’t know who’s worse: Frau Miran for believing the troll didn’t eat Fiona, Jutta for still believing the troll isn’t real, or the troll for believing I can’t see through its lies. They’re all too fogged up, unable or unwilling to see their truths.

Then I suddenly wonder if I’m the same. What do I believe that’s not true? Thoughts race through my head too fast to litigate. I reach into my pocket and wrap my fingers around the rock Jutta and I found. It reassures and calms me. There’s no way I’m as deluded.

You don’t think? Jutta says, as though inside my mind.

I turn and look at her, surprised. She’s standing a few feet away, arms crossed and smirking.

The troll picks up a pile of clothing from the floor. It’s a number of shirts torn and stitched together into one larger shirt. The troll slips its arms into the half-made sleeves. Then helps Frau Miran to her feet.

I tell Jutta that none this makes sense, and she just nods her head like what I’m saying is obvious. Then she asks me why everything needs to make sense all the time.

Because, I tell her, it’s the only way I know what’s real.

This is when Jutta laughs, and it sounds like the world coming undone

What’s real? she chuckles. Nothing is real but what we’ve been told to believe. We spend our tiny lives in these tiny houses, and everyone says they’ll only believe their own eyes. But they’re all blind, so they listen to anyone who tells them something is there, even if it isn’t. You tell me, how can anyone know what real even means anymore.

I feel something in the pit of my stomach. Like there’s something important I should see but I can’t. Jutta is grinning, but that grin is starting to falter. I squeeze the stone in my pocket harder than ever before. It feels like something is about to break. I look at the troll holding Frau Miran in its giant arms; but it’s Jutta who’s trembling.

You’re lying, I finally say, but when I do the troll just looks at me queerly.

Who are you talking to? it asks.

But honestly, I don’t even know anymore.

Simon Strantzas is the author of six collections of short fiction, including Only the Living Are Lost (Hippocampus Press, 2023), and editor of several anthologies such as Aickman’s Heirs (Undertow Publications, 2015). He is also co-founder and Associate Editor of the irregular non-fiction journal, Thinking Horror, and columnist for Weird Horror magazine. Collectively, he’s been a finalist for four Shirley Jackson Awards, two British Fantasy Awards, and the World Fantasy Award. His stories have been reprinted in Best New Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, as well as published in Nightmare, Cemetery Dance, Postscripts, The Dark, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Toronto, Canada.