The Woods Were Alive With … Something
Hansel woke the next morning to the sound of thousands of cheerily annoying birds. They tweeted and twittered and toodley-ooed from all around them. It was bright and sunny, well past dawn, and Hansel was surprised he’d slept so long. Maybe the last few days were catching up with him. He checked his pocket for his beans and found them safe and unleaky. He sat up.
“Morning, sleeping beauty,” Grendel boomed. The monster had rekindled the fire and was cooking something in a pan. Hansel thought it might be eggs.
“Morning. Are the birds always like this?” Hansel hadn’t ever camped out in the woods before, and it was turning out to be louder and more personally smelly than he’d realized. He could smell his own armpits without whiffing them on purpose. The sun and the birds and the smell of the campfire and his armpits made him homesick for a hot second, until he remembered the home he had to go back to, which wasn’t a home at all.
He trekked into the woods for a tree, noticing the birdsong following him. The aggressively happy chirping had an edge on it that became sharper the further he went. He felt tiny beady eyes on him as he watered the tree. The woods were like one of those princess movies this morning, except the birds were planning his death instead of helping him deceive a prince or mop the floor.
He felt a little better after eating scrambled eggs.
“So, how long do you think it will take to get to Aunt Linda’s?”
“Well, if we get started in the next few minutes, probably three or four weeks.”
“What?!?” Hansel couldn’t imagine how ripe he’d smell after four weeks in the same clothes.
“You’re not real fast, kid, and I have a significant toe injury, or did you forget?” Hansel had forgotten, and he wasn’t sure it was significant, but he didn’t think questioning the manliness of a 7-foot monster was wise.
“But we drove there in a day! How can it take three weeks to navigate through a forest on foot over a mountain range and around a canyon with a river at the bottom without a path or a compass?”
Grendel looked at him in silence. Even the birds were stunned into a quieter cacophony.
Hansel helped stomp out the fire.
The birds would not leave them alone. As they limped along on the next leg of the map, they were surrounded by the loud calls of every kind of bird. Seagulls, eagles, wrens, owls, flamingos, and more. Hansel couldn’t see a bird in the trees or bushes, though, no matter how quietly he walked and hard he looked. After a while, he realized what the weirdest thing about it was. The birds were all shouting at the top of their lungs at ground level. No matter what kind of bird it sounded like, the calls came across the ground, not down from the trees.
“Grendel, are the birds acting weird?” he asked.
“Yeah, they are. Makes me think they aren’t really birds, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean.” Hansel imagined a huge flock of birds that couldn’t fly. Maybe they were zombie birds. Zombie birds with rotting flesh and hungry for brains, or eyeballs, or whatever zombie birds ate. “Are they zombie birds?”
Grendel laughed, surprising Hansel. He also surprised a few of the “birds,” who squeaked very unbirdlike words and were instantly shushed by other “birds.”
“Come here,” Grendel said, motioning for Hansel to get closer to him. The boy did, feeling better in the monster’s reach. “Alright, you pointy-headed little frauds, come out where he can see you,” he said.
All squawking, quacking, and cawing ceased.
“I thought you’d never ask.” The voice was feminine and so heavily laced with the South that Hansel smelled peaches and molasses. It belonged to a person about a foot tall, dressed in a simple cream-colored dress with strawberries embroidered on the front, and a tall, pointed, red felt hat. She was a little on the pudgy side, which made her look sweet, with bright blue eyes and blond braids with red bows on the ends.
Hansel looked at Grendel to see if this was something that needed stomping or not and saw him grinning like a fool. This was somehow not reassuring.
“Well, hello,” the monster said in his suavest voice. “If I’d gnome who I was listening to, I’d have asked sooner.”
“Gnomes?” Hansel asked. The trail was filling up with more of the small creatures, dressed very similarly to the first. Dozens of them. The little blond giggled a snorty laugh.
“Yes suh, we’re gnomes. You’re a human, and this tall glass of sweet tea must be Adonis.” She gave Grendel an industrial strength eyelash bat. He giggled, making himself sound very, very simple.
“Uh, he’s Grendel and I’m Hansel. He’s a monster, actually,” Hansel said, since the monster was too starry-eyed to answer.
“Welcome, Hansel and Grendel, to Gnome Country. I’m GnaGna, and I suppose I’m in charge of this little old place.”
“NaNa?” Hansel asked.
“No, GnaGna, but the Gs are silent. You’ll get the hang of it. Grendel, is it?” She pronounced it “Rendel,” as if his Gs were also silent here. Grendel nodded, still grinning like a fool. “Why don’t you two come with us and enjoy some of our famous gnomish hospitality? I saw you were favoring one foot and I’m just dying to know what happened.”
“Oh, that,” Grendel said, waving one clawed hand. “That’s where I was shot saving Hansel’s life yesterday.” He didn’t elaborate, enjoying the look of flushed excitement on GnaGna’s face, waiting.
“My dear, you had better come sit down and tell me every single tiny detail, Grendel,” she cooed, and held out her hand. Grendel limped to her and bent down, letting her grasp one of his large fingers and lead him away.
Hansel had no choice but to follow. A male gnome in a dark green hat fell into step beside him.
“Hey. I’m Hansel.”
“I heard. I’m Gnash.”
“Where is she taking him, Nash?” Hansel asked, feeling very outnumbered and out of his depth.
“It’s Gnash. You’ll get used to it.” He chucked Hansel on the calf with a little fist. “She’s taking him to the Heart of Gnome Country. It’s where she takes all her stupid love interests.”
The bird noises started again, first a raven and then a very loud parrot yelling “PRETTY BIRD,” each gnome making contorted, gruesome faces to recreate the sounds. Hansel had never heard anything so cawful.