The Thin Place
It started as just a buzz in Jesse Prescott’s ear while he lounged in the hollow tree stump at the edge of the cliff. Just a simple, annoying little buzz that caused his long mustache to twitch and the heat to flare in his cheeks. It was probably just a bug, angry about being rousted from the dead bark when Jesse plopped down.
Well too bad, he thought, adjusting the skin of wine on his lap. He loved reclining in that stump, his arms thrown over the sides, relaxing, drinking a little, and watching the storms swirl on the far horizon just as they did then. He loved gazing across the pine valley below and knowing he was the only man in those parts.
The valley, legends claimed, belonged to wandering spirits and forlorn ghosts, to sprites and fairy-folk, but Jesse never bought into that nonsense. At night, asleep in his house he would occasionally hear a knock or a bang or what some simpleton from the distant village might consider a footstep. But not Jesse. He knew it was just a knock or a bang, so he would merely snort at the disturbance, fart, roll over, and go back to bed.
But the buzzing sound--that was new.
Maybe it wasn’t an insect, he thought. But it probably was.
He smacked at his ear and the noise ceased mid-buzz.
Then all fell quiet, save the breeze and the distant rumble of thunder.
For a moment his mind flashed back to his old village with its thatched cottages. He recalled the clack of shutters closing over windows, the warmth from hearth fires, and the aroma of freshly baking bread and of women in flour dusted smocks.
He thought a little more, then drank deeply from the wineskin. He wiped his mouth with this forearm when he was finished.
He set the skin down just a moment before something--a rock? A chunk of wood?--cracked him upside the head and knocked him sideways out of the stump.
“How do you like it, asshole?” something whispered in his ear.
* * *
Jesse remained seated in the dirt, legs outstretched, arms straight down between his legs, head bowed, the ends of his mustache swaying in the breeze.
It wasn’t so much the hurled insult but rather the way in which he had ended up flat on his ass that bothered him. Something solid--a log, a wash board, a boat oar--had smacked him upside the head. In his past life, before his move to the wilderness, the sides of his head had met many a wash board and boat oar. As a result, sparks would flash in his eyes, he would drool a bit, and his thoughts would feel three-sizes too big for his head. But this was different.
He did drool a bit, sure, but he saw no lights and his head felt fine. It was as if he just thought he felt something almost bust his skull.
With his chin to his chest, he turned his head and found his wine skin lying in the dust. He snatched it, opened it, and sniffed at the spigot.
It smelled okay.
He took a gulp, actually what would have counted as two gulps. That third gulp however, couldn’t rightly be counted as a drink at all.
It tasted okay.
He put the skin back in his lap. Maybe it had been all in his mind.
“Or maybe it was a fairy.”
“Doubtful,” he answered.
“Why is that?”
“Because fairies don’t exist,” he said.
He thought about it for a second. “Yep.”
“What about a ghost?”
He felt a little pull across his chest. “Not likely.”
“Then who are you talking to?”
“That’s a damn fine point,” he said before realizing just how damn fine of a point it was.
Suddenly bothered, startled and scared shitless, he yelped and hopped to his feet. The wine skin flew through the air and tumbled over the cliff. Jesse spun in quick circles, fists up, searching for the origin of that voice.
He saw no one. Nothing, save tall grass at the edge of the cliff that swayed in the breeze.
He stopped spinning and cursed the loss of his wineskin. He rubbed his hand down his long mustache and started to think.
More thunder rumbled in the distance and Jesse had an idea.
* * *
The rain fell softly as he came upon the house. He liked to call it a ‘lodge’ more specifically and he had cut and planed the logs that made up the walls himself. He had hauled the stone for the hearth down from the mountain and he had done it alone.
He looked at the dust on his boots.
“I’m getting wet here,” he heard in his ear, the voice soft and small like before.
The rain had indeed begun to fall harder. Droplets pinged off the hard ground and dripped from the tips of his mustache.
“So can we go in now?”
He regarded the heavy wooden door. “Not yet,” he said finally. “I like the feel of the rain.”
He heard a diminutive snort. “You must also like a wracking cough and sludge-like mucus.”
“Why do I feel like there’s another reason you don’t want to go inside?” the voice said.
Jesse didn’t answer.
* * *
Jesse peed near the side bushes and did a little more thinking while the rain dotted his shoulders. When he finished, he shook, adjusted his britches, and closed his eyes until another boom of thunder sounded. Then he headed back towards the inevitable.
“Maybe now we can go inside?”
Doubt flickered across Jesse’s eyes, but he banished it, reached for the handle, and eased the door open.
The scent of the herbs he had hanging, waiting to season his next meal, welcomed him. So too did the aroma of his books and the faint scent of wine. The fire he left in the hearth had burnt to embers. He would need to add wood. He would also need to light the candles placed strategically around the room so the shadows fell just right.
“It’s nice,” he heard in his ear.
“I made it as nice as I could,” he answered.
A snort broke the silence. Although quite similar, uncannily similar in fact Jesse thought, to the snort he heard earlier, this one came not from the voice, but from his old dog Sauvi, who lay sleeping and snoring on his belly, his legs splayed like a spatch-cocked chicken in front of the fire.
“Vicious,” the voice said.
Jesse barely heard. His attention was locked on the two, high backed chairs, covered with furs, also in front of the fireplace.
“Oh,” the voice whispered.
The heat returned to Jesse’s cheeks.
“So,” the voice said. “You didn’t want to come in from
the rain because of the dog.”
He nodded and looked down at a splash of mud on his boot. He should have taken them off.
“Wow, okay,” the voice said. “I’m kind of flattered.”
For awhile, they listened to the patter of the rain, the breath of the dog, and the creak of a ceiling beam.
“I have to be honest,” the voice said.
“I’d appreciate it.”
“I’m not really sure what I am.”
“Really. It’s like one minute I wasn’t here and the next I was.”
Jesse wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
“So your dog,” the voice whispered. “Your dog will know if I’m a fairy, or a ghost, or just a figment, right? Dog’s have heightened senses. They can detect other-worldly sorts of things. If he barks, I’m real. If he doesn’t...”
Jesse lowered his head. He really wished he wouldn’t have lost his wineskin. It had been dear to him, almost as dear to him as one or two other things in his life.
“You know,” the voice said. “The sound of the rain really is nice.”
“It always is.”
“But we should probably wake the dog, huh? Get this over
Jesse stared into the embers shimmering in the hearth. “Not yet,” he said. “He’s old. Let him sleep.”
For a moment, silence.
“Okay,” the voice said finally.
They said no more. Jesse lifted his feet carefully and, despite the mud crusted onto his heel, tiptoed to his chair. He sat in front of the dying fire, his dog, still snoring, at his feet.
Jesse sat and rested for a bit and listened to the patter of the rain and to the distant rumble of thunder.