July 13, 2014

The Goblin Players, By Ross Smeltzer

Editor's note: The creeping wildness and horror of this story are so delightfully at odds with the academic tone of the writing, I knew there was a winning story here.

The sandy, bog-girded region of Saterland—in Lower Saxony very near the city of Leer—has mothered a glut of ingenious and improbable tales, many of which I have carefully documented in my previous folkloristik publications, including “Winter’s Deific Cavalcade: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures in the Folk Beliefs of Schleswig-Holstein,” and “Trials of the Moon: Witchery in the Folkways of Lower Saxony.” These and other publications were met with acclamation by my estimable colleagues, and it seems they have aroused their insatiable curiosity. It is to appease them that I submit this tale, which I chanced to collect from a stooped and antique woman in the village of Hemeln. She assured me of the tale’s veracity, as she spat it out from a mouth barren of teeth. It is a curious tale, lacking identifiable antecedents. It is likely a very old tale indeed.

The folklorist aims for a true rendering of his subject’s narrative, though it is not wholly possible for him to suppress his editorial instinct. I submit that I have faithfully transcribed the old Hemeln woman’s mutterings, though her tale has been—necessarily—shaped, in the interest of clarity and style.

***

A long time—but not so long ago that men still remembered the olden gods—there was a town near here. It is gone now, but you can find its crumbled foundations hidden under orange and brown leaves if you look in the right places. It is a lonely place now, and is rarely visited. It can only be arrived at by following a narrow cleft in the gangly trees and tangled thorns that have swallowed it. Shrubs and saplings grow oddly there, cropping up among bursts of yellow gorse and tufts of grey lichen, and the knots of the oaks grin wickedly like elfish things were bound fast in their insides. If you go there at night (which you should never do) you will find it blue beneath the crescent, and alive with the furtive stir of hidden things.


The town that used to stand in the woods was prosperous, and it was not erased by war, plague, or poverty as other towns sometimes are.

On a holy day—which one I don’t remember—the folk of the abandoned town erected a maibaum in its square, decorating it with green wreaths and streaming ribbons. Their fellows forgot their toils for a while and left their fields and animals. They streamed into the town. There, they danced around the colorful maibaum. Their feet obeyed the thumping of a little boy’s drum and their ears were cheered by the blended skirls of shagbuts, shawms, and other instruments going with wind. Some drank syrup-sweet wine and ate gold-skinned meat pies in the town square, giving the orts and leavings to hungry dogs.

The townsfolk suspended these revelries when they saw a roofed cart emerge from a nearby grove of trees. They had not felled the grove, though they knew not why they had stayed their sharp axes. They knew only that moonlight shimmered strangely on the trees that grew there, and that the beasts from their farms grew restless and mad-eyed when they neared it. In truth, the grove had been hallowed by the auguries of the old fathers a long time ago. Even the oldest townsfolk did not know this.

The townsfolk watched the squat, heavy cart—its surface smeared with bands of soft pink and deep green paint—as it rolled into their town. It halted its progress when it was adjacent to the tall maibaum. Its wheels churned the earthen streets, leaving deep gashes in them. The dogs were dispersed by the commotion the cart made as it clattered into the town. They slunk into the trees, but they did not go far; you could still hear them whimpering and yipping, conversing among themselves nervously. The townsfolk were intrigued by the queer cart and they began to throng it, pawing the old wood and petting the sturdy but rumpled he-goats that drew it. They were unaccustomed to visitors and their earlier amusements made them hospitable.

The cart ejected a patchwork carpet from a small door at its stern. This cascaded down onto the ground, delighting the expectant and cheery townsfolk. The opened door revealed the cart’s murky interior and the multitude of eyes that gazed out from within it, all sparkling like faraway stars. To the surprise of the townsfolk, a cavalcade of little beings exited the cart. Dressed in the colorful finery of traveling players, the little beings—kobolds of old legend—paraded down the carpet. Some had wide watery eyes like toads, and some had long snouts like lizards, and some had thin, wispy ears like bats. They were all small, smiling, and lipless as fish.

The band of merry kobolds assembled around their cart, and swiftly began to reconfigure it, crafting a makeshift stage from one of its sides. The industry of the kobolds thrilled the townsfolk. They laughed to see the little beings grasping tools in their spindly salamander-fingers, wielding them with the purpose of practiced craftsmen. The whimsy-begotten garments of the creatures amused the townsfolk further. One wore a floppy jester’s cap, which ended in dried and splintered acorns that rattled against one another. Another wore an elaborate mask made of bark, which was fashioned in the shape of a scowling moon.

The kobold players speedily erected their little stage, and the townsfolk formed a press of bodies around it. Excitable, they were eager for songs and sonnets and fantastic tales. They were greedy for amusement. 

The players mounted their stage, took a bow, and began to perform. Their tales were lewd and bloodthirsty, and so proved charming to the townsfolk. Regicides and killings were mixed with tales of cuckolded husbands and ribald animals. There were odder plays, too. Rituals replete with mock solemnity, which the townsfolk took to be jests at the Church and at the sacraments they did not understand. The townsfolk liked these best of all, even though the kobolds performed them in a language they could not recognize: it was all riddled hexes and scrambled hisses. The kobolds’ tales were new to the townsfolk, though they had been visited by traveling players many times before and were familiar with their stock productions. They quaked with laughter, regardless, knowing that it was the way of kobolds and their uncanny kin to find delight in perplexing men.

As the main body of the troupe performed tirelessly on the stage, other members of the kobold band wandered among the crowd, transfixing children with their gleaming eyes and juggling balls, knives, and hammers. The burliest of the little beings performed feats of physical prowess, to the surprise and enjoyment of those assembled. And one of the kobolds, clad in the garish raiment of a jester and bearing a swollen pig’s bladder on a sharpened stick, leapt from one rapt spectator to the next, poking at each gingerly and cackling at his or her expense. His laugh sounded like metal scraping against a rough stone.

It was growing late. The red sun had begun to set, and the wine in the townsfolks’ full bellies made them sleepy. The kobolds, unmindful of their dozy audience, carried on, mounting more of their vulgar plays and singing more of their madcap songs, punctuating these performances with more of their eccentric rites. The townsfolk laughed as before, but tiredness was impinging on their merrymaking. One by one, they began to fall asleep. They sank into the churned mud of the town square. The sky was like ink when the last townsfolk succumbed to their weariness. The sleeping townsfolk bore wide, contented grins on their ruddy faces. They had been much amused.

Only one of their number was not slumbering, a young lad who was not interested in plays and songs. He had wandered into the woods when the other townsfolk had rushed towards the covered cart of the roaming kobolds. He had amused himself by gathering nuts, chasing rabbits and butterflies, and picking bunches of colorful flowers from under the tall trees. He had returned to the village when it was growing dark, for he knew it was not wise to linger in the preserve of skulking wolves. He was greeted with a queer sight when he reached the village: his fellow townsfolk were all asleep together in the street, piled atop one another. Perplexed, he remained in the trees, surrounded and warded by the town’s many dogs. It is from this lad that we know what became of the town in the unvisited hollow.

The kobolds, considerate creatures that they were, had ceased their performing. But they did not pack away their little stage and return to the cart from which they had come. Instead, they seated themselves around the mass of drowsing men, women, and children. Some chortled at the snores coming from the jumbled townsfolk. Others were sober and expectant. Having fatigued themselves in their performances, they were eager to be amused by a show made just for them.

The cart convulsed, shaking from side to side, and another being issued from it. This second creature was unlike the kobolds that had preceded it. Hunched and skeletal, with dangling udders and a mangy hide that sprouted mushrooms and grey mosses, she had two horns like a lamb. Her long snout very nearly touched the ground. The kobolds laughed and clapped their bony hands together upon seeing the monstrous frau their stealthy rites had succeeded in awakening.

The great and terrible frau examined the heap of men, women, and children before her with wide, red-flecked eyes. Drool collected around her mouth and fell from it in thick ropes. She had gone long without the sacrifices upon which she had formerly subsisted. She remembered when men had brought her nine heads yearly, and spilled blood to appease her and her kindred; when wandering clans of men convened in woods hallowed by the auguries of their ancestors and the awe of ages and offered some of their number to her. That was a time when men were respectful. She had not hungered in the days when bodies were suspended from the stout trees that grew in the groves she governed, their still frames all mixed-up and swaying with the wind.

She sank among the townsfolk, and began to glory in a sacrifice that had not been freely given. It satisfied her anyway. No noises—not the nibbling on bits of finger and not the clattering of big teeth on now-naked bones—disturbed the agreeable dreams meandering through the townsfolks’ heads. The goblin-prattle grew loud and joyous. They were much pleased by the flouted, dejected deity they had found among the moldy leaves. They would tend to her now, as men once did, for they enjoyed her performances.

And this is how the town in the noiseless woods came to disappear.

***

I submit to my colleagues the following interpretation: from this tale, one is to learn of the perils of refinement. The peasant intellect, accustomed to paucity and deprivation, perceives the arts as fundamentally irreconcilable with itself: a sign of profligacy. It is quite amusing to see that, in this tale, the ennoblement of culture is dispensed only by wicked goblin-men intent on feeding their audience to an abhorrent troll. This tale, like all folkloric fragments, functions as a window into the Weltanschauung of a culture whose extinction is imminent. Had I not spoken with the Hemeln crone who supplied me with the amusing tale I have related above, it would most surely have been lost and irretrievable!

As a postscript to this tale, I must note that I requested the Hemeln woman interpret the tale she had laboriously spun for me—an unorthodox practice, I know, but one that can be of value to the practiced folklorist. I expected her to meet my inquiry with a dull-eyed, cowish look; the peasant can rarely be compelled to exit his or her daily anxieties and enter the loftier realms of thought, where erudition and contemplation hold sway. She eyed me fiercely and replied, “Doktor, we may have forgotten the old gods but they have not forgotten us.”

I must confess: it was only by great exertions that I stifled a chuckle. The peasant consciousness remains a cold, spirit-glutted place indeed. Untouched by the warm light of reason, it is obstinately bereft of understanding.

Born and reared in the forests of the Berkshires, Ross Smeltzer now lives in Dallas, Texas with his understanding and endlessly patient wife, his brainless terrier, and his unhinged cat. He currently works as a freelance writer. He has seen four short stories published in Bewildering Stories magazine and will see a fifth published there in the coming months.


6 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this fairy tale. The setting was beautifully portrayed and recalled to me the look and feel of a classic fairy tale forest. Perfect. The goblins were fascinating and of course duly wicked. This story deserves a painting. Really enjoyed it and I am sure that other readers will agree that it is fantastically special.

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  2. What a haunting story! I love the characterization of the wicked goblins, especially the monstrous frau. It was also interesting to see such a creepy tale told in a very clinical style. The distance the folklorist had from the story added an extra element of horror.

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  3. Oh yes! Loved the tone, and the wonderful descriptions! I especially love how the creepy surprise sneaks up at the end. Wonderfully done! Thank you!

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  4. I loved the scholarly tone of the bookends!

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  5. A lovely dark tale! I really enjoyed it.

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