Laughing at Butterflies
by Donna Hole
We found the boy in the old Whistler place. His long, sandy hair hung around his shoulders and harbored all manner of twigs, grasses, and flowers. On closer inspection the matting revealed itself a deliberate construct, not a product of neglect or poor hygiene. My first thought was that he was a transient; the house being so close to the Merrimack, it had served as temporary home to many a wandering spirit.
The house had been abandoned to weather and worse for years. Longer than I’d been around at least, and my parents never spoke of a time when there was a family in residence. It was referred to as the Whistler place, but of course that wasn’t its true name. Albrecht Wiltshyre was the name on the deed at the Assayers Office, filed on February 29, 1892. Sixteen days ago, on February 29, 1992, I legitimately acquired the property. A captivating anomaly if only to myself.
“What an ugly little goblin,” Edwin Caldwell announced after we had all circled up and had a long look at him. Edwin is Essex County’s most notorious gossip. He fancied himself a reporter, even had a newsletter type publication he put out every three to six months. Depending on events he considered newsworthy. No legitimate paper would hire him.
I leaned closer to get a better look at the kid’s half-hidden face. He hadn’t moved since Jasper and I arrived half hour ago. The others — Sheriff Rupert Hayes, Deputy Scott Tavers, Edwin, Kattie and her teenaged son Claud — had arrived a few minutes later. I assumed Kattie called Edwin after she called me and the Sheriff.
“Kinda looks like that little boy that got kidnapped over in Haverhill about ten years ago,” Edwin continued. He snapped a picture of the boy.
Jasper laughed at the notion, pointing at the little guy with his pipe. “Nah, kid would be near twenty by now.” Jasper is a good-natured giant standing over seven feet tall. He was in my kitchen when Kattie called and insisted on tagging along. We grew up together, and it just seemed right to hire him for all the carpentry work. I don’t remember when he first started smoking the pipe.
“Way I hear it, Winona Keene killed her boy and hid his body. She made up the kidnapping story out of guilt,” Deputy Tavers said. He was a young man, didn’t look old enough to have finished high school, let alone the police academy. He wasn’t from here, but he had a practical nature that people respected.
Jasper replaced his pipe at the corner of his mouth and tucked his hands in the bib of his overalls. “What she said was that a Pukwudgie stole him.”
“Winona Keene’s boy was only four years old when he disappeared.” Sheriff Hayes crouched to his knees, pushed up his hat, then touched his fingers to the boy’s neck.
I held my breath. A dead boy, no matter who he was, could only add to the bad luck I’d had since acquiring this property. Everything from bad weather, lost permits, and extended budgets had conspired against me to delay construction.
The boy on the floor opened his eyes, unrolled himself from his bed of rags and leaves, and smiled at the Sheriff.
Jasper drew too long on his pipe and started coughing. Kattie delicately covered her mouth. Her oldest son Claud took a step forward, sneering at young Deputy Tavers when the Deputy placed a hand on his shoulder. The two made a severe contrast; Claud red-headed and wiry, Tavers dark and muscular.
“Lord alive,” Kattie exclaimed.
“Ayup,” Sheriff Hayes agreed.
Edwin’s camera flashed several times.
The kid spread his arms like a toddler wanting to be picked up. Sheriff Hayes reeled back, an “umph” of pain escaping his lips as he landed hard on his rear, one foot tangling under the other.
I felt like running, myself, at the sight of the child’s short, sharp-looking teeth, large dark eyes, and raisin like, wrinkly face. A raspy giggle from him sent chills up my spine as he bounded to his feet and launched himself at Edwin. The camera hit the floor, spilling out the film canister as it broke open.
“Shoot it Rupert,” Jasper yelled as he backed towards the door. “It’s an evil Changeling, just like the one that tormented me when I was a kid.”
Edwin tried to rescue his film, but the boy scooped it up and scurried back to his bed of rags.
“Is he really a goblin? Or a changeling?” Claud brushed off Deputy Tavers’ grip and strode up behind the Sheriff, who was now sitting on the floor and staring intently at the object of discussion.
“There’s no such thing, Claud,” Kattie said, her voice full of terror. “Is there, Gavin?”
“How should I know?” I answered.
Goose pimples were sprouting on my arms, though, as I thought of all the local legends I’d read about the Pukwudgies. They were natural forest creatures, with magical powers which include shape-shifting and turning invisible, healing, and growing things. They could be helpful or malicious tricksters. And according to the Wampanoag: child-stealers, fire-setters, and evil sprites that lure their victims to their death by falling off cliffs or drowning in the Merrimack.
I’d purchased this property because it was rumored to belong originally to Tristram Coffin, to whom my mother believed she was related. Everyone in the Haverhill area claimed ancestry to the 16th-century Magistrate. I hoped to restore the house and farmlands to the original design as he’d built it. I was even considering putting up a 16th-century inn, much like the one he ran in Salisbury. Provided my funds did not run out, or I could get some assistance from the historical society. The faerie legends would only add to the historical allure.
“Is he glowing?” Kattie asked, disrupting the silence and bringing me out of my visions of wealth and notoriety.
“He is,” Claude affirmed.
I wasn’t sure he was glowing; the sun through the window seemed to make a rainbow effect in the air and reflect off a multitude of dust particles. But I was distracted by an overwhelming aroma of potpourri that started a sneezing fit. When my eyes cleared the child was gone, the Sheriff back on his feet, and the others looked confused.
“Where’d he go?”
Sheriff Hayes shook his head then pointed to the open door.
Childish laughter answered the question of where the boy was, but not the dazed looks on the others, except for Deputy Tavers, who looked as alert as the Sheriff and I. I nudged Jasper, spoke his name several times before my big friend came back to us.
“Did you see that?” Jasper whispered.
“See what?” I asked, pinching my nose to keep another sneeze away.
Claud and Kattie were coming back to life, and I took my lead from the Sheriff and headed out the door.
The boy was happy enough out in a clump of wildflowers. I held a hand over my eyes to cut the glare from a lone dark cloud and noted three butterflies floating just out of the boy’s reach. The kid looked like a normal four-year old in dirty jeans, worn sneakers and Garanimals t-shirt.
“Do you think he’s Winona Keene’s boy, Rupert? Or a Pukwudgie?”
Sheriff Hayes and I had gone to school together. He was always a practical person. He had few friends growing up, because he could logic the fun out of any situation. I’ve always liked him well enough but never counted him as a friend. This situation was odd enough that I was counting on his practical nature to explain all this away.
He kept his eyes on the laughing boy as he answered. “When Kattie phoned and described the boy, his clothing and long blond hair, I thumbed through the old missing persons fliers. Winona still comes into the office to ask for updates. She says she sees the boy — Mato — running through the woods near their home.” He looked back at the goblin boy who might be Mato. “I remember the boy. She brought him with her when she’d come by to clean the office. Sweet kid, curious. Autistic, if I remember. Always knocking over the bamboo plant and playing in the dirt. And of course that blond hair; who can forget an Indian child with blond hair?”
“That’s impossible,” I said, watching the shrunken thing laugh and dance in circles. There were several more colorful butterflies floating around him.
The others were filing out of the house now. Claud had regained his animation, his eyes darting around as he looked in every direction. He spotted the child and pointed, drawing Kattie’s attention. His mother tried to pull him back as he shouted with delight and dashed through the weeds and flowers to the boy.
Deputy Tavers and Edwin were the last to leave the house. Edwin headed to his beat-up Mustang, occasionally stopping to say something to Tavers, who seemed to be herding the reporter off the property.
“Good riddance,” I mumbled, glad to see Edwin’s dust trail.
The Deputy had his thumbs tucked into his utility belt as he came back to us, Jasper at his heels. “Got any ideas who or what that is, Sheriff?”
“Looks like Mato Keene, just as Edwin said.”
“Pukwudgies stole him and turned him into one of them,” Jasper informed us. As a child, he’d claimed to have a Pukwudgie playmate that frequently did bad things that Jasper got blamed for. But something frightened him one night just before his twelfth birthday. He says he doesn’t remember what, but he’s afraid of the woods, and he leaves gifts and treats out around his home to keep Pukwudgies from taking an interest in his children.
“Gotta be a more recent missing kid,” I disagreed, doubting the evidence before me.
The butterflies scattered and winged away as Claud approached. The child screeched something nonsensical at Claud and ran after them, no longer laughing.
“Wait up,” Claud yelled.
Growling, now looking like the goblin we saw in the cabin, the creature turned back to Claud, bouncing and twisting in the air like an acrobat at the Olympics. They both hit the ground rolling; Claud screaming and tugging at long, knobby fingers that clutched his shoulders. Red splotches bloomed on Claud’s blue t-shirt where claw-like nails dug into his flesh. Claud was putting up a good fight, keeping those gnashing teeth away from his face and neck.
Kattie screamed her son’s name as she ran towards the boys. Deputy Tavers was close on her heels when she slipped, catching her before she could hit the ground. The Sheriff and I kept running. It was only a couple hundred yards, but time seemed to slow, my feet tangling in the tall grass and weeds. Even the air seemed pressurized to hold me back.
I pushed through all the invisible barriers, determined to rescue Claud from those teeth and claws, and reached the boys seconds before Sheriff Hays. I grabbed at the creature, only to encounter empty air as the dark cloud released huge drops of rain. Unable to stop, I tripped over Claud, landing hard on my hands and right knee. Grumbling and in pain, I stayed on the ground, shivering as the cold rain doused my clothing.
Sheriff Hayes, Tavers and Kattie had all reached Claud; his mother fussing and crying over the blood and slashed clothing while the Sheriff assured her the wounds did not look deep. Jasper hadn’t left his spot just outside the front door, but he didn’t look as if he’d stick around long.
Brushing mud and wet grass from my stinging hand, I looked around the clearing for the strange child. He had disappeared as mysteriously as he had from the house earlier. I listened hard, trying to hear him above the buzz of conversation surrounding Claude. Deputy Tavers and Kattie were helping him up, and Sheriff Hayes suggested they return to the house to clean up his wounds.
“You got a first aid kit in your squad car?” the Sheriff asked his Deputy.
“I’m taking him to the hospital immediately,” Kattie said pulling the sleeve up to expose a long, bloody gash on Claude’s right bicep. Bloody rain water dripped from his elbow.
“Let’s just sort this out first, Kattie. He ain’t gonna bleed to death here.”
Claude protested as Deputy Tavers continued to lead them back to the house. I could imagine Claud already working up a story to tell his teenage buddies, and I felt sure he didn’t want to leave before all the action was settled. Jasper followed the three into the house and slammed the door. I couldn’t hear the lock turn, but I was confident he threw the deadbolt.
“All right, Gavin? What do you make of all this?”
I took the Sheriff’s outstretched hand and let him help me to my feet. The knee throbbed a little, not enough to create a limp. “Why are you asking me, Rupert? I’m no expert on... whatever this is.”
He smiled and nodded in the direction of the town. “All that research you been doing at the library and city hall, talking to the Wampanoag locals. Word gets around.”
“Just research to make this place as authentic as I can. You’ve heard and read all the same folklore as I have.” I rubbed damp arms. The rain had become a light drizzle.
“I’ve believed a story or two. Never seen anything like this though. Makes Jasper’s stories of seeing the Little People seem true.” He seemed to be testing my superstitions.
Like all kids growing up near the tribal lands, I spent a fair amount of summers hunting for the Pukwudgies. I wanted to believe, but I never saw a single sign they could be real.
“Do you think that could be Mato? You gonna call in a search party?”
Copyright © 2017 by Donna Hole