“You are not really here, are you?”
“Well,” he said, pulling at his long beard with a gnarled little hand, small booted feet barely reaching the edge of the seat and showing dark leather soles scratched and patterned by years and miles, “that depends on who’s looking.”
He didn’t exist, of course.
“That would be me,” I told the little mirage.
“Then I’m here,” he said.
No, could not be. Still, as if to humor my hallucination, I said, “Do you mind if I touch you? Just to verify.”
He hesitated, but after a heartbeat or two answered as if he had not, “Of course.”
So, surprised and not a little fascinated that this illusion insisted on being real, I walked across to where he sat in my reading chair. What was it we called the gnomes back home in Sweden? Tomte. Yeah, that’s right. Tomte. This one looked exactly like one. And so lifelike.
I’ve had them before, these gnome hallucinations, but not for a while, and never this vividly.
And now to make him vanish.
The detail, though. I marveled at it as I approached him. His long, gray beard slithered down his chest like a frosty river all the way to his knees where it came to curly rest. He was probably all of three feet, if that.
And look at those little hands, back in his lap now, keeping each other company. They struck me as miniature cabinet maker hands, tawny, knotted, strong, able. I’ve seen fully grown ones. The old cabinet maker I’m thinking of had been in his early nineties then. Amazing hands, capable, proud. And they had looked just like this, though in 1:1 scale.
I should have been terrified, and would have been had I been new to this, but I had seen them (or him) before, and I knew that this one would, just like the others, vanish before I could reach him. Just like the one atop the boulder, back in Sweden. The first one. All those years ago.
Sitting on top of the large boulder near the marsh.
The spring sunshine made the gray of stone and the white and gray and black of lichen blend and shimmer. And there he was, sitting on the boulder, still as anything. Just like this one right now, in my apartment, sat there watching me approach. Not friendly, not unfriendly, just an old gnome: pointed cap, white hair, and so very small. The wind played with his long, gray beard and tried to rob him of his cap. At one point he grabbed it with one hand to make sure the wind didn’t get away with it, all the while watching me. Amazingly real.
This first time I was too young (or too dumb) to be scared and instead made straight for the boulder to take a closer look. What I actually meant to do was to talk to him (to hear my mother tell it, I would talk to anyone and, apparently, anything). I waded through the marshy grass and soon reached the foot of boulder where the gnome still sat, watching me.
I glanced down at the lower part of the boulder to locate a crevice I had used many times for foothold in order to scale the big rock. I found it easily enough and then looked up for the usual hand-hold to grasp and now there was only air where the gnome had been. A fast and bright April cloud shot out over the edge of the rock—so very white against so very blue that gnomes couldn’t possibly exist.
I’ve always been told that I had fantasy to spare—a vivid imagination, that’s what I had, and that’s how my parents explained me and my many tales to others (especially teachers).
Just imagination. And the air was so fresh and the trees were just budding and you could smell the entire world as the wood rustled and sighed and the last of the snow, gray now instead of white, lingered in the shadows.
It was a wonderful, gnome-less spring-world.
I then scaled the boulder and took my seat on top of it. From there, as a king views his lands, I viewed the marsh benevolently.
I was the ruler of marshes and forests.
I’ve thought about that morning on and off over the years, and there are times I’m certain the little guy had actually been there, on top of that stone, looking down at me. Impossible of course, but you have to go with your senses. I know what I saw, and I don’t think the wind knows how to play with hallucinations’ caps, does it? Those memories told me he had been as real as the trees, just as there and just as alive. At other times, of course, I shake my head at the sheer power of my overactive imagination.
That was forty years ago now, and half a world away.
Ten years later. This was in New York City, two days in a row. Same gnome as on the boulder (or a brother or other close relative) hiding behind a tree (same tree both days) in Central Park, peeking out at me as I jogged by at about six in the morning. The cap, the face, the beard, tilted to take a look at me (or, as I’ve come to believe later—when I believe at all—to give me a good look at him). Other joggers—and there were quite a few out and about the Park at this hour—saw nothing.
The second morning I approached the tree to make sure, and sure enough, nothing there. My imagination.
I almost went to a shrink about this. So real. So reminiscent of the boulder. How crazy was I? Really?
Then nothing for another ten years. Until one also early morning in the back yard of my Los Angeles house. There he was scratching Casey, our dog (who hadn’t made as much as a peep—great guard dog that), behind her ears. The earlier appearances came crashing to mind, and yes, this could easily be the same gnome.
“What the hell?” (or words to that effect), was all I managed.
He did not answer, but Casey looked up at me, worried. What had she done wrong? Apparently nothing, for she soon relaxed and enjoyed the scratching gnome some more.
I stood very still for a minute or so, then I began walking toward them. At that, Casey took off in a hurry and I, more by reflex than anything, looked to see where she was going and by the time I looked back at the gnome there was no gnome. Again.
Twice more in Los Angeles. Same back yard, different scenarios, but always early in the morning.
Again I considered some professional help, but it never quite came to that.
Then no more gnomes for years. Imagination, then. Obviously.
Dark eyes, big nose, small ears with gold earrings, white hair, and rather thick little lips.
And now to make him vanish.
He had not moved, had not taken his eyes off mine during my short journey across the floor. I arrived and looked down. He now had to bend his head back to maintain eye contact—what apparition does that?
Then, to make him vanish, I slowly kneeled by the armchair and placed my right hand on his left knee, expecting—no, knowing—that all I would feel would be: first air, and then, beneath it the smooth fabric of the chair cushion.
Not so. What I touched was coarse cloth covering a sharp little knee tensing under my touch, otherwise still. He kept looked straight at me.
“Satisfied?” he said.
My hand jerked back of its own accord—independently afraid.
Somehow I wrestled it back under my control and made to touch him again.
“Hey, once is enough.”
With that he squirmed aside and over onto his stomach, then slid down from the chair. He retrieved his hat, which fell off during this operation, and put it back on. “We don’t have much time,” he said.
“What the hell? Are you actually…”
“Come on,” he interrupted. “Get your car keys, we have a long drive.”
“We can talk in the car.”
From above—yes, it was as if somebody had kicked me right out of my skull and now I was floating midair, taking things in—from above, I watched myself collect my key ring from its hook by the door, grab my jacked, wait a second while the little one reached up to open the door, and finally head out of my apartment after my three-foot (barely) guide. The door slammed shut behind me, echoing down the stairwell. I turned and locked it while my apparition ran down the stairs ahead of me.
“Hey, wait up,” I heard myself say.
He neither turned nor slowed down, he just kept running—no, jumping is more the word—down each stair, cap bopping and bouncing and threatening to fall off again at any moment. Me, I had to take the stairs two at a time to catch up.
At the bottom, by the front gate, he stopped, looked up, expecting to be let out. Just like a dog, I thought, an intelligent, determined, and not exactly friendly dog, unable to open the locked gate but expecting you to get on with it, and to get on with it now.
I did, and now we’re out on the street, three feet of green and gray and red ahead of me darting for my car by the curb farther down. Does he actually know which car is mine? I wondered, and sure enough, he was heading for the right one.
There are a few people around, but none of them can see him, that’s obvious. Even the old lady he collides with doesn’t see him. She slows, looks down, confused, looks behind her, then sets off again with a frown. Clearly, I’m dreaming some crazy three-dimensional dream here with amazing clarity, tactile, everything.
But the dog sees him though. He’s a big gray thing, all hair and teeth, and maybe twenty feet away, barking up a storm. On a leash, luckily—taut.
Shut up says the owner, a trim looking guy in a sweat suit, straining to keep the dog in check, barking like something from dog hell. Be quiet, says the guy, louder now. He yanks the leash and the dog yelps—a little pathetically for his size—then immediately resumes his barking. He barks like Can’t you see him? Look, look, there he is, look, look. See? He strains the leash again as he lunges for the gnome.
At this point my guide turned to the dog and apparently said something to him, something the dog must have understood, for it stopped mid-bark and just stared at him (who had now reached my car) with its mouth open, pink tongue to one side. The by now not only annoyed but perplexed owner yanked the leash again and the dog yelped correspondingly. The apparition looked back at me. Hurry up, is what that face said.
I did. I unlocked and opened the passenger side door for him and he jumped in, removed his cap, and made himself comfortable. All set to go.
Clearly, reality had yet to catch up with my imagination for I was still playing along. And by that I mean: following a mirage, opening doors for him, both gate and car, and now I was going for a ride with this dog-shutting-up gnome in a hurry. But as I walked around the back of the car to the driver’s side I lost sight of him and then, as if some unworldly connection had finally been severed, I knew, I just knew that when I opened the driver’s side door I would look in and see nothing but a gnome-less passenger seat.
That certainty flooded me with relief.
Not so. The three-foot bundle of impatience was firmly settled in the passenger seat, arms akimbo. Waiting.
“We don’t have all day,” he said the moment I opened the door.
I climbed in and shut the door behind me. I looked over and down at him. Would he need the seat belt? I wondered. And then reality finally caught up. I could feel the hair stand on my arms, my mouth went dry: I returned to my head;
This was. In fact. Happening.
“What are you waiting for, start the car,” he said.
“Start the car, take the five north.”
I must have looked at him with eyes wider by far than normal for he tilted his head a bit, sympathetically almost, patted me softly on the thigh and said, “It’s okay, don’t worry.”
But I was worried.
I had a very hard time finding neutral. Then I remembered the clutch. Much better. I turned the ignition key. Then again. The engine sprung to life, if a little bit tentatively at first, as if out of practice.
That’s right, I told myself, do the normal, what you always do. Find first gear, there it is, turn the blinker on, check the rear view, look over your shoulder. The routine was actually soothing, a cool glass of mental water: awake and alive, I could feel myself doing these things.
Make sure all is clear, then pull away from the curb. Now what?
The little guy couldn’t see out the window where he sat, so he clambered onto his feet and stood upright in the seat.
“Careful,” I said.
He cast me a glance, what did I mean?
I reached over and strapped the seat belt across him.
Suddenly, I was back again, forty years earlier at the boulder by the marsh. He had sat so clearly atop the big stone, watching me approach. Now I knew that had not been my imagination. He had been there, but must have slipped away (or evaporated—can they do that?) as I looked down for footing.
And what about Central Park? Or my LA back yard? Had they been real, too? Something very unsettling said yes, and was quite certain about that.
I braked suddenly for a pedestrian. I honked at her and she gave me the finger. She should not be crossing here. Christ.
Luckily, the seatbelt caught the gnome before the windscreen did. He gave the heedless pedestrian a long, dark look. Then said, “Take the five north.”
I looked over at him. He was intent on the street in front of us, a bearded thing willing me on. Two blocks farther down I stopped at the light. I looked over at him again, and again he didn’t seem to notice. The light turned green and I swung left toward the on-ramp.
Once on the five going north, “Ansgar,” he said.
“Ansgar. That’s my name.”
“Ah.” Then, “Thomas. Mine.”
He remained standing, strapped tightly against the back of the seat, looking more like an ancient child on a wild amusement park ride than something out of my past. He would not reconcile. Not in the least. My only grip on reality was the wheel in front of me and I hung on to it, knuckles turning white. I was sweating.
Seventy miles per hour, then seventy-five, flirting with eighty. North through Burbank, through San Fernando.
“We have about two hours,” he said.
“Two hours for what?” I said, not looking at him.
“You need to help us do something. In two hours, a bit less than. At seven o’clock, precisely.”
Us? But instead I asked, “What? What do I need to do?”
“I’ll explain when we get there.”
“Explain now, please.”
“It’s not hard,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”
“Yes, but what is it you need help with?” I said.
“A signal,” he said, but did not elaborate.
“A signal,” I said.
“Yes.” There was a finality to that word.
I looked over at him again, “A signal,” I said.
But he did not elaborate.
Approaching the fourteen north I wondered, do we stay on the five?
As if reading my mind (which I would not put past him) he said, “Head for Palmdale.”
I eased over to the right hand lane and merged onto the fourteen. We were heading up and for the high desert.
“What kind of signal?” I said.
His eyes were on mine as I turned to him. They struck me as, if not sinister, then at least calculating, though I’m not sure.
Then he said, “A very important signal,” as if that was the answer I was looking for. Then he faced forward again, taking in the road ahead.
“Very important,” he added, more to himself.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Very important,” he said again, heavy emphasis on very.
It was clear to me that he would not elaborate, so I let the question go for now.
After a long silence (awkward for me, but not for him would be my guess): “Next exit,” he said.
“I thought you said we were going to Palmdale.”
“I didn’t say to Palmdale, I said heading for Palmdale.”
“Okay. True enough.” So I got off at the next exit. It led to a stop sign by a tarmacked road. “Right,” he said. “Turn right.” He even pointed.
I did. Then we drove through more awkward (on my part) silence.
Okay, I had to know. “Have you ever been to Sweden?” I said.
I could sense him looking over at me. Me, I kept my eyes on the now narrowing and winding road, climbing still. “Yes,” he said. “That’s where I come from.”
“So, what are you doing here?”
“You were supposed to stay put,” he said.
“What do you mean, stay put?” I said.
“Just that. Stay put. Remain in Sweden.” Then silence. He obviously was not about the elaborate on that either.
I had had enough of this. I stopped the car, pulled the hand brake, killed the engine, and turned to him. “What do you mean, stay put?”
Now I had his attention. He looked uncomfortable, but seemed like he was debating how best to tell me something.
“We have met, haven’t we?” I said.
He looked up at me. “Yes,” he said. “We have.”
“The boulder by the marsh.”
“And Central Park. Twice.”
“My Los Angeles back yard.”
“Thrice,” he confirmed.
“Ansgar,” I said. “Would you mind very much telling me what the hell is going on?”
“I’m not sure you want to know,” he said.
“Trust me, I want to know.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“You’re not going to believe me.”
Here he drew a deep breath and sighed like how you might imagine a very troubled gnome might sigh: how to put this to me?
“Your grandmother Olga. You used to call her Mommi.”
I looked at him long and hard. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I did.”
“You lived with her when you were very little,” he said. “Your parents were working in Stockholm.”
“They told me.”
“We met a few times then as well, but I’m sure you don’t remember.”
“You’re right, I don’t remember.”
He sighed another how-best-to-put-this-to-me sigh. “We made a deal with Mommi.”
Two words caught my full attention: we and deal.
“Who are we?”
“Yes, if you wish.”
“And what sort of deal?”
“Well, we bought you.”
“We bought you.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“We paid Mommi a very good price for the rights to you.”
And there’s another word that screamed for an explanation: rights.
“She allowed us to prepare you, just in case.”
Every answer sprouted two more questions.
At this point Ansgar looked at his watch (odd, I thought, a gnome with a watch). “We’re running out of time,” he said.
“So you’d better speak fast,” I suggested. “What preparation and just in case of what?”
“In case we had to signal.”
I shook my head.
“Can we please get going,” he said. “I will explain as we drive.”
He sounded sincere enough, and very worried, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, started up the car again, and continued to ease our way up along the narrow road. “Explain,” I said.
“We are caretakers,” he said.
“Of the earth.”
“The earth? Do you mean earth as in dirt, or earth as in third planet from the sun?”
He looked at me as if this question had never occurred to him before. Either that or he thought I must come from the Land of Stupid. “The Earth,” he said. “The Mother.”
He did not waste breath on an answer. He was obviously talking about the planet.
I took in the oncoming pavement and drove on carefully.
“Caretaker?” I said.
He said, “A left turn’s coming up.”
Yes, I could see it up ahead, a dirt road. No sign. I slowed, then reached and turned onto it. It looked barely serviceable to me. Frankly, I worried a little about my car. I stopped. “I’m not sure about this one,” I said. “My car is not in the best shape.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
“How do you know?”
He sounded very certain, so I started up again and after a while (he was right) the road smoothed out a bit and my car grew less anxious.
“What does a caretaker do?” I said.
“We keep the Earth alive.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Our job is to keep you from destroying the Earth.”
“You mean us humans?”
“Yes. Who else?”
“So, how do you actually do this caretaking?”
“We keep her strong. We help her endure you.”
I had to negotiate a few rocks in the road. And another. Still, not too bad. “Mommi sold me?” I said.
“Sold the rights to you,” he clarified.
“How much did she get for me?”
“Money was not involved,” he said. “We taught her how to grow anything she wanted, anywhere, anytime.”
Here a long missing piece dropped into place in an old puzzle: Mommi had the greenest thumb in her village, some say in her county, some said in all of Sweden. She literally could grow anything, anywhere, whether in or out of season. Some newspaper articles were even written about her. Magic Thumb of the North.
“She was unbelievably good at strawberries,” I said.
“That was the price we paid.”
“And you earned the rights to me?”
“Look out,” he said. “Eyes on the road.”
I stood on the brakes and flung him forward into his seatbelt again. “Sorry,” I said as I maneuvered around another rock, this one sizeable. Would have done serious damage to the car. “Thanks,” I added.
After a short silence, “Prepare me, how?”
“In case we would have to signal.”
“Yes, you said that already. Signal whom?”
Another internal debate was taking place to my right. Instead of answering, though, he asked a question of his own: “Do you believe in magic?”
“Do I believe in gnomes?” I answered. “I didn’t until today.”
“The skill to grown anything, anywhere, at any time might appear like magic, but it is not,” he said.
At which point I saw fit to quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“That is true,” said Ansgar. “Talking to plants, and convincing them to grow, is not magic, it’s a communication skill.”
“And that’s what you taught Mommi?”
“Yes, that’s what we taught her.”
Then I repeated the original question: “Signal whom?”
“We are not from here,” he said.
“You mean this planet?”
“That’s what I mean,” he said. “We are caretakers, but were sent here from elsewhere.”
“Far away,” he said.
“So you’re aliens.”
“I guess. So, signal whom? You keep avoiding the question.”
“I’m getting to that. The Earth is not so conducive to our health. We knew that going in. So only a small contingent was landed here. Most of us who traveled from, well, elsewhere, are still on the ship.”
I was waiting for more.
“Many of that contingent have perished and we are now too few to continue the mission.”
A light went on for me. “You need reinforcements.”
He nodded. “Yes, we do.”
“And you need to signal them to let them know.”
“Yes, we do.”
“And where on earth do I fit in?”
“Your heart,” said Ansgar. “It’s another thing that’s not really magic. A human heart, properly conditioned at a young age, can send a signal strong enough to reach the moon.”
“They’re on the moon?”
“The ship is anchored behind the moon,” said Ansgar.
“Hiding,” I said.
“Hiding,” he confirmed. “But at seven o’clock it will come out from behind the moon for exactly sixty seconds. We need to signal them then.”
That didn’t make much sense to me. “Don’t you have radio or lasers or some more regular means of communication?”
“None that would not be detected immediately by the authorities.”
“I see.” Then, “And you have prepared my heart to signal?”
“That’s the deal we made with Mommi, yes.”
Oh, man. Had I not been driving, and had this narrow road not demanded that I stay very alert or damage the car, I would have concluded that I must, after all, be hallucinating. But things were too damn real. This was taking place.
“How does it work?” I asked. “I mean, my heart signaling.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“No, honestly, it’s impossible to explain. It is something I have to show you and I will do that as soon as we arrive.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.
Then he said, “Turn here.” Pointing at an even narrower and in-worse-shape dirt road (more like a path) heading off to the right, up and into the higher hills. Then he adds, as if he just read my mind again, “It’ll be fine.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Again, he sounds certain. So, again, I follow his directions and turn onto this even narrower road.
It hasn’t rained for months and we’re stirring up a cloud of dust behind us. This road, not much traveled by the looks of it, is very uneven and it sounds like my worn suspension is about to give up. Ansgar, caretaker of the Earth and passenger mine, has grabbed hold of the seat belt to keep himself upright. He is intent on the road ahead.
“You’ll be fine,” he says again. Whether to assure me or himself is not clear.
After another reckless bounce (I am now worried about my exhaust as well), “Where, exactly, are we going?”
“Follow this road till it ends.”
“I don’t think my car will make it.”
“Drive as high up as you can,” he says. “And we don’t have much time.”
I checked the car clock. It says 6:28.
“We have thirty-two minutes until seven o’clock,” I say.
We drive on. This so-called road demands more and more of my focus. The old strangeness to my right is intent on the road as well.
“Left here.” He points.
It’s another path-like road, rising. It’s not worse than the road we’re on, not that I can tell anyway.
My car begs to differ. It doesn’t like this at all. I scrape the bottom twice with a sickening sound that I fear must have drawn blood. Then we hit what sounded like a rock. And again. I can tell my car is hurting.
We’re rising steeply now. The engine works hard in low gear. The road seems a little bit better, though, no major obstacles for a while. But it’s getting darker. I’m about to turn on the headlights but his hand on my arm stops me. “No,” he says.
He says nothing but shakes his head.
6:39. The road winds steeply upward. Then, to my left, in the half-light I think I see a face. That of another ancient one, brother of my passenger, perhaps. Then it’s gone, we’re past it or it was never there in the first place.
6:41. The path is cresting up ahead among boulders and small pines.
“That’s it,” he says, pointing again. “Up there.”
But at this point the path and my car agree: no farther. For suddenly, my poor car is caught on what I assume is a large stone. Whatever it is, I didn’t see it coming and this time, I’m sure, we’re going nowhere. Even so, I try to accelerate past this but the engine only moans and spins the wheels. No purchase. We’re resting on whatever it is, like on a pivot. We are going no farther.
Ansgar can also read writings on walls and is already scrambling out of the seatbelt and pushing his door open. Without a word he is outside, heading up the path on small quick legs, stirring up dust. He turns and says something to me which I can’t hear but which means that I’m to hurry up and follow.
I see another face, another set of eyes. At least I think I do, but it’s hard to tell in the duskier by the minute.
I step out of the car. The sky, orange and red to the west and streaked with high clouds casts deep shadows to the east of stones and rocks and trees, and I sense movement in those shadows, but I can’t be sure.
I catch up with him at the summit, where he stands, waiting, not even breathing hard. I am, however, and my heart is in my ears. I’m not used to exercise like this, besides we’ve reached quite an altitude.
The sun has set now. Orange is fading into brown into black and you can see the first stars out east.
“All right,” I say. “Show me.”
“Just a second,” he says.
“Show me now.”
At that there are more movements among the shadows then some of those shadows materialize and several Ansgars appear.
Someone says, “We have two minutes,” quite clearly, and Ansgar, my Ansgar, nods.
Then my Ansgar looks up at me with eyes that for the first time appear a little friendly—if I read them right in the falling light—and says, “I’m sorry.”
I mean to ask, Sorry about what? but I never get the chance, because next I know I’m fighting for my life.
Ansgar is not taking part in this, but he looks on as five, seven, eight, I don’t know how many gnomes jump me. For their size they are incredibly strong, and unaccountably heavy.
The two that hold my legs in their vice grips are impossible to kick off—it’s like having a pair of lead boots, and after four or five attempts my legs give up, fatigued. I fall onto my knees and then they bring me on my back by pulling my arms and hair.
At this point I’m no match for them, if I ever were. The ground is hard and rocky against my back and someone says, “One minute now.”
Ansgar looks down on me, a dark giant now against the fading sky. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “But, you see, this is what you’ve been prepared for. It is for this we conditioned your heart as a child. You are our signal. It’s your pattern, your light, that’s what we must send.”
If I answer anything at this point I am not aware of it. I’m pinned to the ground and I know that something terrible is about to happen. That’s all I’m really aware of.
Someone else says, “We have thirty seconds.” It’s a deep voice from somewhere behind me.
Ansgar says, “Your heart is both signal and message. It will tell them what they need to know.”
“Shine,” says a voice to my left.
Then I know that I have less than thirty seconds to live.
“Shine,” says another voice.
“Shine,” several additional deep voices.
Their grips on my limbs tighten as Ansgar reaches down for my heart.
“Shine,” he says as steel fingers enter my chest, separate my ribs and seize the beating light.
Strangely, there was no pain as I floated up and over the little scene below, over the little person holding up my surprised heart to the heavens. And as it ceased to beat it turned to light, the brightest light I have ever seen. It was day again, a small brilliant sun drowning the darkness for miles around.
Had I had hands I would have shielded my eyes, had I had eyes.
Moving out briefly from the cover of the moon, and exactly on time, the ship saw the signal and read the message. It was as they had feared. The caretakers urgently needed reinforcements.
Three days later a ship landed in a remote area of the Utah desert.