This is what I’ve been reduced to: an alley between two streets, created by brick buildings only a hundred and fifty years old. The asphalt is worn to a tired gray, bent into ruts where supply trucks and city vehicles have pressed their wheels again and again, squeezing alongside green dumpsters scarred by reckless drivers and decrepit wooden stairs that lead up to loft apartments, but which, soothfully, are overpriced one-bedrooms with a mere three hundred square feet.
My alley is a long corridor and all the buildings are pressed together so that you can only continue to the far end once you’ve entered, or exit through the rear doors into any one of the variety of shops. There are five restaurants, smelling like grease, fish, grease, burning apples, and barbeque respectively, though they are interspersed along the row with antique shops, a New Age alchemist, a children’s novelty store, shops for pottery, jewelry, eyeglasses, and several clothing chains that have security lights beeping more quietly than sparrows.
My favorite shadow is tucked beside the green door that leads into a gourmet coffee shop. Someone has put a sticker on the door declaring FREE IRAQ, and across the alley is a smoke-stained wall with a single boarded-up window. The arch over the window has writing on it, too: THIS WAY TO CORBENIC. I am heartened by its presence, despite the closed and defeated atmosphere of the old portal itself.
It is easy to catch rats here at night, except for Thursdays when the downtown is inexplicably awake until the wee hours, and laughter echoes over the old buildings to ring in my ears. I can hear remnants of conversations, the air smells of oil and exhaust and alcohol, and the lights do not dim until the sun is near to rising. Then, I creep out and survey the dark display windows and watch the neon letters from the jazz club and faux Irish pub flicker in puddles of dew.
Or I go to the park and climb trees for squirrels and songbirds, dig for mice and occasionally feast on a raccoon or family of possums.
When I am lucky, a girl or boy with golden hair walks past my shadow, and I hiss for their attention. I look into their eyes and see their dreams. I am as a puppy to them, or a sweet, sinuous alley cat. They do not see my wicked eyes or the green tinge of my claws. They do not see the cracking brown of my tongue, so hungry for them.
When I finish, I give their skin to the beetle boys and their bones to the trolls who live along the concrete pilings that hold the river in its place.
I did not always hunt children. But the world has changed and it is more difficult to fight the iron burn. We adapt, or fade away into the will of the Shining Ones.
It was a cool morning at the beginning of autumn when my reduction led to my salvation. Led to all our salvations. I drank from a woman who had slept all night in her car, its four windows cracked to allow the wind to slink in. Her hair was thin and darker than I prefer but I closed my eyes. When I finished, I was able to pull open the door and drag her out. Her death was strong in the air, and I heard a mew like a tiny cat.
In the rear seat, beneath a blanket was a child – a babe no longer than my forearm. Regret is not something my kind are accustomed to feeling, but it wrapped itself around my heart. I left the mother on the cold asphalt and gathered the child up. I fled into the alley with her, purring an old melody low in my throat.
It was easier than it might have been to feed the babe. She drank milk from stray dogs and juice brought to me by the beetle boys; I swaddled her in a blanket of moss and petals and banana peels.
The trolls lumbered to my alley to see her, and the beetle boys told the church grims who told the hobs: they all came. We gathered in circles in the park, down on the rocks by the river, and we kept her warm, kept her in smiles, kept her soft and hale and sweet. And we called her Rose, because her first summer she crawled into a clusters of them, straining to scale a concrete wall, and grasped the vine with her naked hands. Thorns bit her palm and even as tears fell down her face, she offered the blood to me, and I licked it off her skin.
It was not until she was walking on her chubby, pink feet that the Fool heard of her and arrived where we played at the river. He crouched down, lean and white and half-Shining in torn jeans and a red leather jacket. “This, this will change many things,” he said, and laughed.
I pulled her curls with my gnarled fingers, gently and with the care that had grown to fill my stomach. “I have begun teaching her our ways. Our ways, not that of your Shining cousins and sisters and uncles.”
The Fool tapped his nail on his teeth, still grinning. “Oh, Goblin King, I will not be the one to tell them of your girl.”
Rose reached out and put her hand onto his cheek with a sticky slap. She’d been sucking nectar from fresh honeycomb, and when her skin affixed to the Fool’s, she squealed with delight. He pried her hand away, and snapped at it with his teeth, playfully. Rose clapped, and the Fool picked her up and stood. His hair fell in straight-edged sheets around his face. “Will you allow her to go with me to read her Word?”
I stretched to my full height, with my eyes even at his breast. I felt my shadows, my trolls, hobs, beetle boys, caps, grims, pucks, and bugbears shifting closer. “We shall accompany you, all of us. It is late and the city sleeps.”
We paraded from the river to the alley. I hunched beside the green door that smelled of coffee beans and chocolate. The waning moon hung in the narrow patch of sky between the tall buildings. A beetle boy curled beside me, hand on my toes, and one of the troll mothers hunkered down at my back, her grotesque shadow adding to the darkness around me.
Rose plopped down and began to trace invisible pictures on the asphalt, singing to herself as the Fool knelt and pulled from his jacket pocket a deck of crisp cards that should not have fit inside. He shuffled them with his long fingers, the elegant motions revealing more clearly than the angular lines of his face that he was of the Shining court. But his father had been one of mine, and that was all the Shining Ones saw when they looked at his sharp teeth, misshapen ears, brown tongue.
The Fool laid out the cards, three of them with their heads pointing toward Rose. Her picture-writing slowed, and she crawled to us.
“The Queen, the River, and – ”
Rose grabbed the third card and put the corner between her lips, chewing on it with her tiny, sharp teeth. I reached out to pry it away, clucking my tongue, but the Fool stopped my hand.
“And the Grail Knight. Which she prefers, so apparently.” He grinned, and laughter spilled out, spreading to my goblins.
I raised my eyes to the boarded-up window behind the Fool’s head. THIS WAY TO CORBENIC, the archway read. The Fool followed my gaze, as Rose clambered into my lap and began braiding my thick, root-like hair.