by Rob Francis
Rupert bumbles into the sodden garden, yellow boots and jacket bright against the dripping plants. As usual, he is drawn to the messy patch at the bottom of the lawn, where the cherry trees stand amid long grass. He stares at the new ring of twisted brown and black toadstools under the tallest tree.
“Where have you come from?” he wonders aloud. A reply startles him.
“We come after the rains, child.” A quiet voice, but sharp. “When the season is right.”
Rupert scans the grass and trees for the mystery speaker, but sees nothing. When his gaze returns to the toadstools, a tiny man is standing within the ring. His skin resembles tree bark, cracked and patched with moss, his hair long and wiry like dead grass. He is naked and has sharp, pointed fingers and toes.
The little man regards Rupert with small black eyes, and then answers his unasked question.
“We are woodlings, child. Kin to the trees, we live among them.”
Rupert nods, but doesn’t understand. He’s never seen a woodling before, and wonders why his parents have never talked about them.
“You are sad, child. Why is this? You have a little sister now. That must be nice.”
Rupert is surprised that the little man knows about baby Sylvia. “How do you know that?”
The woodling’s face splits into a smile. “We can hear her crying at night. We can smell her new skin.”
“I hate her.” Rupert’s face flushes scarlet at the shame he feels, but he rejoices in the admission too. “Mum and Dad played with me before. We went to the park almost every day. Now they are just busy, and tired, because baby Sylvia is small and always cries. Last night I was frightened because of the storm, but they said I had to sleep by myself. In case I woke Sylvia.”
“Yes, child.” The little man nods, his expression all sadness at the boy’s story. “Parents always love their newer children more.” He stands for a long moment watching Rupert, while tears well in the boy’s eyes.
Then, gently: “Would you like it if baby Sylvia went away? Perhaps someone else could look after her? Some people ache for children that will never come, and they suffer terribly.”
Rupert is unsure. He remembers that his parents were happy when Sylvia was born, but are so tired and miserable now. He thinks of the fun they all had before she came.
“Yes,” he says after a long moment. “If someone else wants her and will be nice to her, they can have her.”
The woodling nods sympathetically. “I’m hungry now. Could you fetch me some bread and milk please?”
Rupert dashes to the kitchen to oblige. But when he returns, the woodling is gone. The ring of toadstools stands empty.
* * *
Rupert sits in his bedroom and listens to the muffled shouting from downstairs. Then the awful near-silence of his mother weeping. The policemen have gone. He thinks about the questions they had asked again and again. About why Sylvia’s bedroom window had been left open on such a cold night. He thinks of his mother telling them, over and over, that it wasn’t left open, it couldn’t have been. He remembers her shouting at the policemen, and his father hugging her tight to make her stop.
He wonders where baby Sylvia is, and if her new parents are pleased to have her. Wonders how long it will take before his parents are happy again.
* * *
Rupert runs into his mother’s bedroom, where she is lying on the bed and staring at nothing. His father doesn’t sleep here anymore. He stays late at work.
“Mum, I can see Sylvia’s yellow blanket in the cherry tree, in the garden. From the window, I saw it!”
For the first time in weeks his mother acts with purpose, rising from the mattress and running to his bedroom window. He sees hope bloom in her face.
The blanket is gone. His mother turns to stone, and the contrast with the wary excitement she held a moment ago makes her look so empty. The way she looks at him makes him feel cold inside. Her anger burns just below the surface.
“I saw it,” he whispers.
* * *
Rupert looks for toadstools in the garden, but he hasn’t seen any since the day the woodling man came, almost a year ago now. He hasn’t seen his father much since that day either.
Inside the house, his mother has almost finished packing for their move to a small apartment in the city. A removal truck idles on the driveway while sweating men carry cardboard boxes to it.
Rupert wanders through the house and into his empty bedroom. He takes an envelope from the window-sill and goes to the kitchen, where his mother has placed another envelope on the counter. She has written a welcome card to the family that are coming, wishing them well in their new home.
Rupert saw the new family when they came to look at the house. A father, a mother, an angry little girl and a newborn baby boy. Rupert’s envelope contains a carefully crayoned picture of a small man with cracked, mossy skin, black eyes and sharp fingers. Underneath he has written in large black letters: KEEP YOUR BABY.
He places the envelope with his mother’s, and holds her hand as they leave home for the last time.
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Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. He has published numerous scientific articles and books, and started writing short fiction in 2014. His stories have appeared in various magazines, including SQ Mag, SpeckLit, Swords & Sorcery Magazine, The Lorelei Signal, The Fable Online and Every Day Fiction.