A short story by Anna Ilona Mussmann
This is something that I wrote two years ago and have recently edited. It's a bit of light fun, and no babies were harmed in the making of it. Merry Christmas to all my readers!
Despite the cold, the dwarf unfastened the second to last button on his waistcoat before he selected assistance.
“I beg your pardon,” he declared, barring their path. “Can you gentleman direct me to the location of the royal birth?”
Two bewhiskered faces stared down at him. One guffawed, baring tobacco stained teeth. “What have we here? A circus midget? Better get back to your keepers, little fellow, or you’re liable to be mistaken for an organ-grinder’s monkey.”
“Look at him!” exclaimed the plump one. “Gold embroidery, red cap, the lot.”
Stepping backward, the small traveler cracked his hairy knuckles. “I beg your pardon,” he repeated grimly. “Do you intend to answer my question?”
“Loopy,” the tobacco-lover observed.
The plump one added more kindly, “This is a democracy, my small friend. We don’t hold much with royalty here.”
The two men walked on.
Had he stepped out of the void in the wrong place? The dwarf hesitated and almost buttoned up his waistcoat, but he let them pass. He shouted after them, “Isn’t this Christmas?”
The more helpful of the men turned to look over his shoulder, tipping his hat with a flourish. “Tonight is the Eve of Christmas.”
“Then where is the baby?” The dwarf had heard dozens of rumors of the baby born in the place called Christmas, and he had come to Christmas. His fingers itched to grip that baby—if he was quick enough, he might fill his quota ahead of Firebeard. A royal child, far more valuable than any sniveling, infant commoner, would cover the dwarf’s obligations for years.
“That, my friend, is a metaphysical question which has troubled theologians and heretics throughout the centuries!” the plump man proclaimed, turning around and orating to the street at large. “Where is the baby? Exactly! Where is the baby? A baby is a thing of peace, and sweetness, and general beatitude! Throughout all the vicious bloodshed of church reform, has enough notice been paid to that?”
The tobacco lover growled and shoved his friend around. “Try the damned church,” came his suggestion, and then the men were gone.
Directed by a goggle-eyed woman with a shopping basket, the dwarf managed to find his way. The towering building’s iron-bound doors both reassured and unnerved him. This was the sort of place he had expected, yet it was eerily deserted—no guards, no banners, no beggars hoping for that extra beneficence that follows a royal birth. He tried each door in turn and found the smallest unfastened. Inside the building, the chill of silent loneliness emanated outward, untouched by the afternoon light that shone through colored glass and illuminated arrays of empty benches. Shrugging his broad shoulders, he crept silently forward through the eerie space.
At one end of the building, half a dozen silent figures clustered around a wooden cradle. A small woman draped in blue, an aged man leaning on his staff— no need to fear them, they would barely glimpse the color of his jacket before both he and the child vanished into the void. Yet the figures unnerved him with their absolute stillness. He stared harder and felt a shiver run through his torso. They were not real. The pious eyes and solemn mouths were painted. For a moment he was afraid. Surely some strange magic, some fearsome band of demonic statuary, had been set about the child.
Then, suddenly, the figure nearest him moved. He almost jumped out of his summer clothing before he realized that this figure was not a statue—only an ordinary woman in a full-skirted gray wool overcoat. She knelt at the feet of the wooden mother, hemming the blue robe. A sewing kit was spread out on the floor beside her. As she worked, she occasionally reached out to stroke the cheek of the child in the cradle. Her voice was high-pitched as she began a lullaby.
Time was passing, and the void would not stay open forever. The dwarf knew that he must act. He had been in worse places than this, and he need not fear the statues if she did not. He waited until she turned away to thread a needle. Then, moving like a spirit himself, he reached her side. He should have snatched. He had learned through bitter experience that it was a mistake to look too long at a child’s nursemaid or mother. Yet once again, the old compulsion surged through his soul, and he paused.
Suddenly the world was a jumble of hard stone and clawing hands. She had attacked him. She was trying to beat his head against the floor, her banshee shrieks reverberating in his ears.
“Where is he? You shall give him back, you shall, you devil! My baby, you devil, my baby.”
“I haven’t—stop!” He flung her body off his chest, but she clung to his beard with one fist. He knocked aside the fingers with which she tried to gauge his eyes. He should brain her, he thought, but somehow he didn’t like to do that. Not when he was going to take her child.
Suddenly, with the same intensity of its beginning, the attack ceased. She withdrew into a huddle of overcoat, petticoats, and disheveled hair, her eyes overflowing. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I thought that you were him. But I see now that you are not. Your beard is brown, but his is red as a picture-postcard Irishman’s.”
Astonished, the dwarf rose. “Do you mean to say, woman, that some other dwarf took your baby? Whose child is this?” He stepped over to the cradle and looked down. A muslin-wrapped doll looked back. A decoy, he thought. This was indeed a strange world.
“Why were you singing to this?” He demanded.
The woman asked quietly, “Are you a phantasm, come to haunt me?” She was young, with a milky face lightly dotted with freckles and shadowed under her eyes. Dark hair curled around her cheeks and tumbled down her back, only a few strands still pinned into the knot that had existed before her attack. She looked down at her hands and seemed surprised to see broken nails. She sighed. “No one believes me that a little man with a blue jacket and a red beard took my child. I begin to doubt it myself. I suppose I really am losing my senses, and you are the evidence of that.”
“No,” the dwarf told her. “I’m real enough. Is this your child’s cradle?”
She laughed. “That’s the Christ-child in the manger. It’s a rather papist custom, but our minister took an enthusiasm for the idea after his trip to the Continent. I thought that perhaps seeing the Christ-child would be a comfort, and I wanted to tidy Mary’s robe before the services. The doctor says I have nervous hysteria. Or perhaps it’s hysterical nervousness. I wouldn’t be so hysterical if someone would believe me.”
She was studying him from head to toe. “If you are real, you must know who took my baby. Don’t you?”
“What is your name?”
The dwarf rocked back on his heels, hands tucked into his jacket pockets, and demanded, “Would you like to get your child back?”
Instead of the loud exclamations and stream of questions that he expected, she narrowed her eyes. “What do you want in return?”
“Me?” He blinked, wide-eyed and smiling. “Let us say that I have taken pity on your, er, pitiful condition. Also, I dislike the dwarf who took your offspring. He and I are what you might call rivals.”
“All right,” she nodded. “Tell me what to do.”
The dwarf grinned. “You are the most business-like deprived mother I have ever met. Very well. Did you give this other dwarf consent to take your child?
“Nonsense,” she snapped. “What mother would do that?”
“It’s easier before the mother gives birth. Have you ever heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin?”
“Oh,” she said. “I see. But of course I did not offer my child to anyone. And besides, Rumpelstiltskin never got a baby.”
“The fool gave the lady a second chance. He should have insisted on sticking to the first bargain. However, my point is that if your child was not taken through an agreed bargain, it is possible to summon it back through use of its name.”
“How many children have you stolen?” She rubbed her palms on the skirt of her dress as if sorry she had touched him. “Never mind, just tell me what to do. How do I get my little William back?”
“By doing exactly what I say. Listen carefully.”
“Wait a moment. Why do you want babies?”
“Do you think dwarves live forever?” He raised his eyebrows. “We must replace ourselves, of course. Raise up the next generation.”
“But how—” A look of horror flashed across her milky face.
The dwarf patted her on the hand. “We are kind enough to the children. In the end, after forty or fifty years, they are of our kind. Dwarves.”
She jerked away from his touch. “You would do much better to find a lady dwarf.”
“There aren’t any. We don’t take girl babies.”
“Why?” She demanded.
The dwarf laughed. “Have you ever seen a dwarf without a beard? Imagine the hideousness! Enough! Close your eyes. I am going to take your hand.”
“Yes,” he snapped. “It allows us to share power. How long ago was the child taken?”
“Two months. Perhaps it’s been too long.” She looked down at him anxiously. Gripping her fist, he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Firebeard went into the void at the same time I did, and simply hopped out at a different place—to him, it was today. Keep your eyes closed.” He reached down to fasten the second to last button of his waistcoat. Taking a deep breath, he expanded his body, straining outward as he concentrated all of his power. The air in front of him shimmered and contorted. For a moment light glowed from nowhere, casting shadows in the corners of the great stone room. He could see a wisp of blue, and a few strands of coarse red hair. “Now,” he gasped, squeezing her hand. “Say the name!” He could barely breathe.
She cried, “Willie! Dear, dear Willie!”
The dwarf writhed underneath a coating of sweating. Pain darted through the tendons in his knees and elbows as he strained against the void, and he gasped, “Whole name.”
“William Robert Cole Miller! My baby, come back!”
Firebeard, still barely visible, roared furiously, but the child in his grasp had solidified. The dwarf leaped forward. He scarcely noticed the feeling of the women’s body as it collapsed against his—she must have fainted. He was busy struggling with Firebeard, who was handicapped
by his virtually bodiless state, as they both grappled for the child. The scuffle was short. Soon the rippling waves vanished, taking with them all traces of Firebeard.
Chuckling, the dwarf looked down at the plump little body of William Miller. The child looked about four months old. A good age. A perfect age. Its hair had not even begun to redden yet, as it would have if Firebeard had completed his adoption. Good. The child was not yet counted under anyone else’s quota. Soon it would look like himself.
“Oh, darling Willie,” breathed the woman.
The dwarf glanced at her. She crouched where she had fallen, her sewing kit scattered, the handles of her little gold scissors in her hand.
For one spare moment of time he hesitated. She was pretty, in her way, and she was going to be very sad when he leaped into the void.
Then he leaped.
Yet nothing happened. The whirlwind of power that should have seized and spun him was gone. He landed, awkwardly, on his feet, and whirled to look at the woman.
She held out her arms. “Give me my son.”
“What did you— ” Horror pulsed through his stomach. Instinctively he reached down, feeling for the button. It was missing.
The woman’s eyes were large in her pale, milky face, but they were also determined. “Look,” she said, and she held up the button, still trailing a little tail of gold thread.
He strode toward her. He need only snatch it back, breaking her wrist if necessary.
Quick as lightning, she popped the button into her mouth, and shouted through clenched teeth, “Stop, or I swallow!”
He stopped. A bare four feet away, holding the child firmly with one muscular arm, he stared at her. How dare she do this to him? His body burned with rage, and the child began to wail and thrash.
“Listen closely,” she said, still through her teeth. “Put my baby down. Gently. Then walk to the front of the nave and stand on the first pew so that I can see you. I will call when you may come to get your button. Do you understand?”
He lifted the baby above his head and growled “Spit it out now, girl, or I will bash its head against the floor.”
Her skin turned even whiter, each freckle standing out like a black spot. “No you won’t,” she breathed, “because you’d never get the button back. You would never get back home. Stuck here forever. Probably put into a circus. Or an asylum.”
He shrieked, “You really do have nervous hysteria! What makes you think that button is worth anything at all? Do you think I care about fashion?”
“It’s sewn on with gold thread. I noticed that. The others are sewn on with black cotton. This one has gold. Real gold.” Her body was trembling.
“Nonsense! Besides, what would happen if you were to appear with a baby who hasn’t aged in two months? Who would believe that this is really Willie? Perhaps you’ll be taken up as a kidnapper yourself!”
“I’m not afraid,” she told him. She reached a finger into her mouth and pulled out a strand of thread. As she untwisted the fibers, they thickened into a wisp of straw. She looked from the straw to him. “You can’t tell me it isn’t a magic button.”
Suppose, he thought, he let the woman swallow it. He could cut it out of her with his dagger. The thought was unappealing—even in his fury, he disliked murder. Besides, this baby wasn’t the royalty he had come to find. His time here would run out soon. It was not worthwhile to risk entrapment forever for the sake of a sniveling common infant.
He glared at the child. Slowly he laid it down. It shrieked, protesting the cold floor. As he straightened he demanded, “How do I know that you won’t try to steal both?”
“I am not like you. I’m no thief.” She was a wild picture, but he believed her.
As he clambered up, the woman was already exiting a small door across from the Nativity set. She shouted, “Look in the manger!” and was gone.
His button lay in the swaddled lap of the fake baby. For a moment, he paused, remembering the prettiness of the milky-faced girl and her question about lady dwarves. Perhaps there ought to be lady dwarves.
He took a bit of hay from underneath the decoy child, twisted it quickly into thread, and sewed his button back on. The only good thing was that Firebeard wouldn’t make his quota, either.
The dwarf took a deep breath, cracked his knuckles, and leaped into the void.