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Chapter Three

“So what do you do in the meantime?” Holl asked over his shoulder, as he stumped down the narrow, sloping path toward the dull red-painted barn. “I can’t imagine you with only one activity to siphon off all your energies.”

“Oh, pursuing my old interests,” Keith said casually. “Remember my theory? Air sprites?”

Holl sighed. “And how could I not?”

“The guy who flew me here is training for an around-the-world balloon marathon. He said he’d take me up whenever he’s around,” Keith said, ignoring his friend’s humorous expression. “If there’s anyone to be found in the upper atmosphere, I’ll find them.”

“If anyone will,” Holl agreed, “you will.”

From the outside, it looked like any barn Keith might have passed on the county highways. Inside, it had been transformed into a combination school, workshop, and living quarters. Little Folk hurried around like so many of Santa’s elves, carrying from here to there wooden handcrafts in varying stages of completion.

The old barn had been converted nearly as much as the house had. Between the rafters its high ceiling was lined with the same fuzzy rows of light that had illuminated the Little Folks’ home beneath Gillington Library. The tiniest children dashed in and out of the old stalls, where their elders worked, each on his or her own particular task. The building still smelled pleasantly of hay, though its concrete floor was swept clean. Added to that scent was the spicy blended aroma of fresh sawdust, oil, and paint. Under a window with its shutters thrown fully back to let in the morning’s light, Enoch threw them a salute with his wood plane, then went back to smoothing the board he had propped on two saw horses. Keith thought it looked like he was building a new door. When Enoch upended his work on the sawhorses, Keith noticed that the door was constructed, as usual for the Little Folks’ woodcrafts, of assorted scrap culled from other projects. They wasted nothing, lending the dignity of utility to even the most hopeless leftovers, even bits of rubber or cloth scrap. Some of the wooden jewelry he’d been selling to the boutiques on behalf of Hollow Tree Industries featured beads laminated with ancient bits of calico and gingham. They had a neat antique-y look that went well with the natural luster of wood. Ms. Voordman, their most faithful customer, had been pleased by the hit the necklaces had made.

It was the proudest accomplishment of his life that he had been able to be of service to the Little Folk in helping them to get on their feet. He wasn’t vain enough to think that he’d been responsible for their success, but if he hadn’t come along and helped to find them a home, they might have been discovered. It frightened him to think of his friends swept helplessly away to one of those secret government facilities that the tabloids liked to crow about, for potentially fatal testing or whatever it was they did there. Or that they might have ended up homeless after the library’s destruction. A chilling picture crept into his mind of the Folk scattered along the roadway, terrified and starving, ducking into the nearly bare fields during the cold Illinois winters whenever cars passed to escape notice. The dream passed, and Keith laughed, only a little uncomfortably. The day was a warm September afternoon, and this house and barn, though it was in his name, belonged most definitely to them.

He was willing only to take credit for facilitating matters. Kudos for their overwhelming success belonged strictly to them. Their skills had been passed down for centuries and honed with love, and they learned quickly what else they needed to know.

He was warmed by the fact of their existence and their regard for him. He treasured their friendship. It gave him great satisfaction to glance into their lives, as much as they’d let him. It pleased him down to his bones that they existed at all. Sometimes he felt like he was protecting an endangered species.

As Holl and Keith approached, a handful of children sprang off their benches, and ran toward them, shouting. They had interrupted the junior alphabet class. The Master in shirtsleeves, standing before a chalkboard on an easel, peered over his glasses disapprovingly until his gaze came to rest on Keith. He nodded austerely. Keith shot him an apologetic smile and a “what can I do?” expression.

“You came from the sky,” Borget cried. He was nine, a pudgy-cheeked imp with bronze curls. “Didn’t you? You flew in the rainbow balloon! We saw you.”

“I sure did,” Keith said, crouching down to Borget’s level, where he was surrounded by the crowd of children. The boy immediately turned on his smaller companions.

“I told you he came from the sky,” he said, with an air of one-upmanship. “I told you!”

“Can we try it?” Moira asked. She had striking dark blue eyes that contrasted richly with her magnolia-blossom skin. “Mother might say yes since it’s you.”

Keith thought of Moira’s mother, an arch-ultra-Conservative, and privately doubted the girl’s optimism. “I’ll ask,” he promised.

“Will you take us to the amusement park?” Anet begged. She had flaming carrot-colored hair and brilliant green eyes. “I read an article about the great wooden roller coaster. I would love to ride it! The writer said the slope was a hundred and sixty feet at a 55 degree incline!”

“Uh,” Keith said, picturing a park full of Little People. He thought quickly. “Well, you know, coasters like that have a sign that say you can’t ride if you’re under this tall,” he swung an arm out to one side at about the level of his chest. “See? Even Holl couldn’t get on. The safety harnesses wouldn’t hold him because they’re made for really big people, and they’re made of steel. You could get hurt.”

“Aw,” Anet said sadly. “Is there nothing in the rest of the world made for children our size?”

“Not a lot,” Keith admitted. “But you have a lot of advantages Big kids don’t. None of them have magic lanterns and toys that run by themselves without batteries.”

Since those were things the Little children saw every day, it was small consolation. With difficulty, he extracted himself and went to meet his former teacher.

“You are doing vell enough on your assignments,” the Master acknowledged, when Keith asked about the subject troubling him, “though you might be spending more thought on them.”

“I’ve been busy,” Keith said shamefacedly. Neither time nor distance had dimmed the small, red-haired professor’s ability to make Keith feel like a little child called on the carpet. Whenever he was fixed by a bright blue eye behind the gold frame of the Master’s spectacles, he felt like digging his toe through the floor with his tongue caught in the corner of his mouth while he thought up an excuse why his homework wasn’t done. “I’ll do better on the next one. But what are you doing here? It’s Tuesday. Aren’t you teaching?”

“I do no longer go in every day to the classroom,” the Master said, laying down his pointer. “It is too much of an imposition on my kind volunteers. I vould rather they make only one trip to come here to me, vhere there is less difficulty and,” an ironic glint flashed in the glass lenses, “less chance of a charge of illicit entry. Gradually but vith many regrets, ve leaf Gillington Library behind for gut. It is a wrench to many of us, but much safer.”

“You stand less a chance of being detected if you don’t keep going in and out,” Keith said, nodding.

“It is true. Ve are already imposing enough upon our good friends that they must supply the book needs of such a large group as we,” the Master said, smiling slightly. “Diane’s good friend Dunn has shown much talent for extracting efen restricted volumes for our perusal.”

“Well, he works in the library,” Keith pointed out.

“He maintains a legitimate entry for us,” the Master said. “And though, like you, he professes to owe us a debt of gratitude for his instruction, the debt is many times repaid by his services as our …” the sapphire eyes glinted again, “bookvagon.” Keith suspected that the term was Dunn’s.

The Master stopped, as if a thought had come to him, and rummaged in his pocket. “One of the benefits of staying in vun place and hafing vun’s own mailing address is to be able to maintain personal correspondence vith professional colleagues. I haf had a letter from Professor Parker,” he said, extending a much-creased envelope to Keith.

“Hey, great!” Keith said, running an eye down the page. The archaeologist was traveling in the United States with exhibits from his dig in the Hebrides. He invited the Master, in his guise as the noted researcher, Dr. Friedrich Alfheim, to come and visit the display when it came to the Field Museum in Chicago. “Well, you ought to go. Are you interested? I’ll come and get you. He’d really enjoy seeing you.”

“And I him,” the Master said. “He has a fine mind.” From the Master, that was the height of compliment. Keith retained considerable respect for Professor Parker. It took brains and imagination to see a thriving civilization in burned-off stumps and buried heaps of animal bones. “If it is possible to go, I vould be grateful for the opportunity.”

“Consider it done!” Keith said cheerfully. He sketched a bow to the Master. Holl, rolling his eyes skyward, nudged him in the kidneys with an elbow.

“Come, then,” he said. “We can’t interrupt the class forever, for all the children would like it, and there’re others waiting to see you.”

Marcy Collier was among them. Keith greeted her as she came over from the sawyer’s table, where Enoch was working over a miter box with a hand saw.

“So how’s the romance going?” Keith asked playfully.

“All right,” Marcy said, sighing. “I tried to talk to my mother about Enoch. You know what she said? ‘Tell me again, Marcy. I want to hear it from your own lips. Your fiancé is an elf, and he makes toys. Have you told your father yet?’”

Keith laughed, but immediately composed his face to rueful. “Gee, I’m sorry.”

Marcy gave him a tiny smile. “Yeah, it’s funny. I just don’t know how I’ll get past that.”

“Not to mention your fiancé’s family connection with the supernatural,” Keith said, glancing quickly over his shoulder to make sure none of the Folk were listening to him. To them, all the wonders that they worked were strictly natural. “I know! We’ll fix you up with a big biker guy who spits on furniture. Tattoos that say ‘I love torture’ and ‘Blow up the world, starting with … what suburb do you live in?’” Keith drew an imaginary picture on the air.

“You should be in advertising, Keith,” Marcy said, shaking her head.

“I’m working on it,” Keith said cheerfully.

“And there you are, Keith Doyle!” Tiron called to him from the corner. The Irish elf came over to drag him back to the corner. “Behold,” he said, gesturing at the loom, his pride and joy. “And now do you think it was worth the time and trouble to bring me to America?” He handed Keith a length of cloth. The fabric was like the beautiful Scottish tweeds he had seen overseas, but this had a life and a magic which reflected the nature of its weavers.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. Holl, hanging back out of Tiron’s way, nodded his approval, too.

“Keith Doyle, there you are!” Catra called, waving a handful of papers at him from a purpose-built carrel against the shadiest wall. “Come and see!”

“I’m in demand today,” Keith said.

As nearly as possible, the Archivist had recreated her favorite perch from Gillington Library. From somewhere, the Little Folk had come up with shining walnut rails that surrounded a neat little area filled with polished wood bookshelves and drawers. The only untidiness in the office was the top of Catra’s desk. It was scattered with daily newspapers, letters, scraps of paper, books, and scrapbooks. One vast specimen nearly the height of the elf woman was open across the top of it all. They had caught her in the act of pasting a clipping onto one of the pages.

“Here, read it, do,” she said, offering Keith a letter she snatched half-hidden from underneath the big book’s spine. “Here’s the latest sally we’ve composed to do public battle against the polluters.”

Grinning, Keith took the letter. “So you’re really writing letters to the editor. How’s it going?”

Catra’s eyes gleamed. “We’re doing well enough, to be sure. We have joined the lobbyists for a cleaner environment. Now that we’re part of a community, however covertly, we want to aid in improving it.”

Keith knew about some of their good works. Over the last year, they had been using their talents to fix things around town, repairing pipes and ductwork so leakage lessened, just like they had in the library.

On half of the table, her sister Candlepat was paying the farm’s bills. Using her talent, she was lifting Keith’s signature from a sheet filled with examples that he had provided for them up onto a blank check. That way he didn’t have to be present every time the Little Folk needed to endorse a check. There were also two examples of “For Deposit Only, Hollow Tree Industries, account 2X-3B-3485” in his script.

“Nice,” Keith complimented her. “Couldn’t tell the difference myself. You’re not thinking of taking up a life of crime, I hope?”

The blond girl pursed her lips playfully. “Catra wanted to use these to sign the letters to the editor as well,” she explained, “but Holl said he’d rather not have you have to explain words you hadn’t written. I write the text out myself. Tell me why, Keith Doyle, that the letters on a keyboard do not go in the order of the alphabet?”

“I’m not sure,” Keith said. “I bet Catra can find out faster than I can.”

“Oh, she! She’s all taken up in this environment issue,” the girl pouted. “She’s nearly no time for anything else.”

“Okay. I’ll look it up for you myself,” Keith said placatingly. “What’s the latest?”

“I’m sure it’s around,” Catra said when consulted. “It was read aloud with great glee at breakfast time.”

They tracked down the text of the letter to Marm, who had spread out blueprints and tools over it, spotting the stationery by a characteristic corner. Holl yanked it free.

“There you are.” The letter suggested that Gilbreth had no real regard for future generations, since it wouldn’t take care to evolve a waste-disposal program that could solve tomorrow’s problems today.

“Wow,” Keith said. “Inflammatory. That ought to curl someone’s hair.”

“We’re not doing it for tonsorial reasons, Keith Doyle. There’s a higher purpose to it as well. If the land is to remain habitable for long, all this must be brought out into the open and resolved as to what is to be done with waste, and whether the process justifies the end product. At present, I do not think you trust your leaders, nor do I think you can. We all read newspapers. The special interests whose matters are taken before yours remind me of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which some animals are more equal than others.”

“Quiet,” Keith said, “or the Master will hear you. You don’t think becoming a father makes you exempt from those surprise essays.”

“Would that it did, at least for a time,” Holl sighed. “The little one spat up across my geology text two nights back. I cannot think what the university bookstore will assume has happened when we return it quietly to their stock.”

Keith laughed. “Ever been in a frat house? Considering what else happens to those books, baby drool won’t stand out much. This mudslinging in print will stand out a lot more.”

Holl nodded. “That’s good to know. We’re grateful for the loans, authorized or not, and try to be good stewards for that which we borrow. It’s different, doing all this at long distance. We’re relying heavily upon the good will of the Master’s Big students. So far, they’ve been most helpful.”

“I’m sorry I’m not here to help,” said Keith. “You sure you don’t miss me?”

“Haven’t we had enough excitement in the last year?” Holl asked. Keith raised his hands in helpless agreement.

“Can Hollow Tree Industries manage without me?”

“What do you think? Our work gets done. Deliveries go out. Our income matches well with our expenses. Our goods continue popular. I’ve a new line of jewelry that your Ms. Voordman wants to see offered to the department stores. We’re surviving. Why do you ask?” Holl inquired.

“Well,” Keith said lamely, “I like to feel needed.”

“Then feel needed, you widdy, but go ahead and have your job. I’m sure it’ll be more interesting than hanging about watching me change diapers.”

“Oh, no,” Keith said. “That’d be very interesting. In fact, I ought to make a complete photo record. That way, you’ll remember this time of her life long after she’s grown up and has boyfriends.”

Holl gaped at him openmouthed, knocked speechless. Keith was delighted.

“Quoth the Maven, nevermore,” Keith said with glee.

“Will you let me worry about one year at a time without raising the spectre of times to come?” Holl demanded, when he had recovered his voice. “Isn’t it enough …”

Holl’s reply was cut off by staccato tooting. The Little Folk looked around curiously for its source. Keith stood up hastily.

“Thanks for the hospitality, Holl. I’ve got to go. That’s my ride!”


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