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Myself, a bottle of SoCo, and my flashlight were in the woods, heading towards the trestle. At that point, I was planning on drinking the SoCo, sitting on the trestle, and maybe calling an ex-girlfriend’s voice mail. The flashlight was because it was dark out by the trestle at night. The only light out there is the moon and the train that comes every few hours, and neither of those were useful for walking around. I’m not a big flashlight person, and even less of a drinking by myself in the woods person — so I wasn’t exactly using the flashlight in the most effective ways. I’d say about 90% of the time I was using it for scoping out the trail, and about 10% of the time I was pretending it was a lightsaber. It is during that 10% time that I first spotted the troll.
[private]“Zhummmmmm” I said, executing a rather complicated backwards stab, when I noticed that my flashlight beam was squarely focused on a gnarled grey foot-thing. To my credit, I didn’t really yell; it was more of a grunt. I carefully panned my light up from the foot, raising the bottle in the other hand for bonking purposes or whatever. It looked sort of like if a tree, a mountain, and an alligator were all mixed together, giving the impression of massivity, plantishness, and horrifying toothosity. It was wearing a red track suit that didn’t even begin to fit its body, revealing grey and mossy flesh. “Oh,” it said. “You weren’t supposed to see me.”
We had a moment or two of silent detente. It took me about half of that time to place a name to the thing: it just bubbled up into my consciousness, the way deja vu does and the birthdays of friends never do. “Troll?” I said. “Are you a troll?” It scratched its craggy face with one large claw, releasing a stream of sparks like fireflies into the dark night. “Well, yeah,” it said. “Isn’t it obvious?” It had a point. “I didn’t know there were you.” I said.
“There are mes. Not too many.” The troll shifted out of what I realized was an almost comically exaggerated crouch. “I’ve never been caught before,” it said, a little regretfully. Its voice sounded like tectonic plates dancing, and each syllable seemed to reveal more teeth. “Whiskey?” it said, smiling, which was terrifying. “Unless you were planning on hitting me with it?”
“Sure, I was just heading —”
“To the trestle. So was I. I live there.”
“Around it. Let’s walk together.”
So we walked up to the trestle. After a few steps, I stopped being so wary. It was pretty clear that if the troll was planning anything, I didn’t stand much of a chance, and it seemed to be excited for a drink. “Me, I like whiskey,” it rumbled as we walked down the path. “I like it a lot.”
It was late summer and all of the world felt like it was balanced on a knife edge, teetering over oblivion. When we finally walked out of the thick woods towards the grassy hillock the trestle perched on, the late summer noises reached a crescendo. Behind us, the thick green leaves of the forest shook in the warm winds that would soon give way to the crueler ones of fall, while in front of us, the crickets sang love songs and hopped and copulated all over the meadow. “Smells like winter,” said the troll, and I nodded. “It’s going to be cold this year.” I shivered.
You had to climb a little ladder to get to the top of the trestle — nothing scary, but the weight of the troll made it sway uneasily, and I marveled at how quiet it had kept itself. The top was all wooden boards and iron, dark with soot and oil and gravel and it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to sit on unless you were planning on getting drunk, so I opened the bottle as soon as we sat down. I dangled my legs down into the night and threw away the cap. The troll winked at me, slow and deliberate, and I could hear its stony eyelids creaking. It was such a beautiful night.
We drank in silence for a while, letting the whiskey and the summer night sink into our bones and bubble up into the base of our skulls. The troll, out of deference to its size or glandular composition drank longer gulps than me, but other than that, we just paced each other and passed the bottle, wiping the neck carefully before drinking.
“So,” I said, when I was feeling subtly shadrocked, “what do trolls —“ I took a swig. “What do you guys eat?” We were pretty comfortable up there, but I couldn’t forget the long claws, the wicked teeth, or the geologic muscles. It laughed for a long time, sounding like putting a basket of stones in the laundry machine, only oddly comforting. “Little bit o’ this, little bit o’ that. You know, rocks, kids, grass; whatever smells good. I’m patient.”
“Oh,” I said, “so an omnivore.” It smiled at me, took a long swig, and smiled again, “You said it.” I wasn’t sure if I believed the troll, and was relieved when it changed the subject. It pointed a long claw at the moon and told me that was its home. “My people came from there.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Course not,” it chortled. “You should have seen your face. No one comes from the moon.”
“C’mon,” I protested, “How was I supposed to know?” The troll looked at me sadly and said, “I know everything about you. ’S the smell.” It tapped its massive nose. I raised an eyebrow and the troll just shook its head. “Past, now, future, you all just stink with it.”
The moon seemed to dim and the noises faded as the troll inhaled, its abdomen swelling up like a puffer fish. It felt like the whole word was tumbling into its nostrils, and I dug my nails into the tarry board of the trestle. When it exhaled, everything felt normal again with a woosh. “You lost your virginity the week your grandfather died. You left your family after the funeral, went home to an empty house, and did it while watching Mean Girls. You said, “ it sniffed again, desultorily, as if it needed to make sure, “you just ‘couldn’t be alone right now.’”
I skulled the bottle and tried to not ask what I was going to ask. “How about —“ the troll shook its head wearily, “— how about my future?”
It looked up at the moon and said it was getting late. “What,” I asked, “do I die? I mean, soon?”
“You don’t want –”
“I do. How do I…?” I let my voice trail off. Underneath the trestle, in my longcast shadow, the crickets still chirped and screwed, and I was cold.
“Troll.” It said, looking carefully away from me.
I dropped the bottle. It was basically empty and I heard it shatter but didn’t see it. “Troll?” I repeated. The trestle began to vibrate. I believed what the troll said.
“Yeah.” The troll sounded hollow.
“Soon?” The vibration increased, and I could see a pinprick of electric light to the north.
“Not yet. ” And then, “you weren’t supposed to see me.”
We needed to get off the trestle. I grabbed the troll’s arm and looked up at its rough face. “When?”
“When it smells right. I’m patient — I told you.”
It got up and brushed off the seat of its red pants. “I’ll be seeing you. Thanks for the drink, sorry about the news.” It disappeared into the night, silently and completely, and I stepped off the track to the little platform by the ladder. Sooner than later, the train charged by, screaming with steel and coal and the scree of the wheels on track. I stood as close as I could and let the clangor wash me away, filling my ears with heavy white noise.
It’s almost spring now, and I know the troll is out there still. Sometimes, in crowds, or before I go to sleep, or when I turn around in the snow, I can almost see it, loping next to me, sniffing quizzically and biding its time. Sometimes I wonder what it’ll smell like, when it smells right. I want to know if it smells old, or if it smells sad, or heroic, or painful. I open my nose to the wind, I inhale, and I just want to know if it smells like now.[/private]
About John McCarroll
J. A. McCarroll is an footloose American writer and amateur bread baker from New York. Fresh from a three year stint in the Mediterranean, he's currently studying for an MSc in social anthropology and losing his tan in London.
WOW. I love it, John. xo, Sharky