Tiny Doors Of Columbia

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The Word Eaters


Janna McMahan

I am a lexophile. I gather words. Some might also call me a logophile or a lexiphile, but I prefer the more European approach. Lexophiles, at least human lexophiles, like word games, turns of phrase, puzzles, anagrams and the sort.

While I do appreciate a good palindrome, I really collect words because I’m hungry. You see, I eat words. Words are tasty. Some are spicy on my tongue like salsa and sizzle and solar. Others are comforting like cream and cotton and cool.

Ever pick up a book and a page is missing? Or maybe there are holes in a book where words used to be? That would be us, the lexophiles living among you. You don’t notice us as we go about gathering words from your world. We are sneaky little beings, stealth and secretive. Just when you think maybe something strange is going on in your house or place of business, we disappear.

Once a human gets suspicious we don’t hang around. We can’t. If a human discovers us, our home moves and we land somewhere else. That’s the worst part for us. We have no control over where we go. At times it can be very disconcerting.

Once our home ended up in a news kiosk in New York City in January. That was a cold, wet existence and the news can be pretty grim and hard to digest. I was glad when a rain-soaked poodle started digging at our door and we moved on.

Libraries are the best. We can easily hide our front door in a library and our word snatching isn’t nearly as obvious with a few hundred thousand volumes to eat. What can be difficult is ending up in somebody’s home. I like the houses of professors. Their books are filled with yummy, complicated, highbrow words that make me feel super smart. On those days, I usually set a table and dine by candlelight just to feel learned and cultured.

Sometimes we land in a child’s room. That’s an entirely different type of fun, but the word selection can get a little thin. And parents begin to notice the tattered condition of the books and start blaming their children. Of course, the kids are always flabbergasted. It can be funny. Oddly, there isn’t a word for being a word eater. That’s why I just go with lexophile. Human food lovers can be a gourmet, epicure, connoisseur, gastronome, gourmand or the ever-popular contemporary word, foodie. I’ve thought we could be called lexogastrognomes, but that’s just too hard to spell and pronounce. And we’re not really gnomes anyway. That’s an entirely different set of fairies.

So we don’t have a fun name like boggart or nixie. We’re just stuck with being plain ole word eaters, pocket-sized criminals whose larceny rarely proves more than a minor annoyance to the human race.

I suppose since I’ve explained our curious existence to you that I should tell you my name. I am Evince. My name means to manifest, attest, declare, demonstrate, display, reveal, show. I am aptly named since I am the storyteller of our group. So, now I’m going to tell you the story of a child named Sophie and the misfortune that befell her at the hands of word eaters.

Sophie was barely four when my companions Quiz and Trundle and I arrived at her home. We’d been in a crumbling, abandoned house for more than a year eating the moldy pages of an ancient library. With nobody to discover us, we were there for so long that we started to go stir crazy. Finally a couple of teenagers arrived and fell to kissing on the dusty sofa. I saw my chance. I ran into the middle of the room, yelled and jumped up and down. They were really into their lip lock, but finally the girl noticed me and screamed. My body tingled and suddenly we were on our way.

We ended up at Sophie’s house next. We weren’t in her room, but high up on bookshelves in the family room. Being high is great for avoiding dogs. Usually only cats find us in high places and scratch at our door. Our door is partially gnawed away, but that damage was done by rats. Rats plague our existence. Once they almost got inside, so over time we built a metal door behind our wooden door. Quiz the design engineer is quiet and Trundle is handy and can build anything. After they constructed our metal barrier with cogs and latches, we all felt much safer.

So, back to Sophie’s story. The word bookshelf was a misnomer for where we landed because there were no books to be found. Luckily, the shelves were dark paneled and our door was hidden in the shadows behind glass figurines and painted dinner plates.

We arrived in the middle of the night and not knowing what pets the house might contain, we stuck to picture frames, wall sconces and doorframes as we rappelled and jumped and climbed our way down the hall in search of books. The glow of a nightlight filtered into the hall from the first room and I knew before I looked inside that it belonged to a child.

Big block letters on the wall read Sophie. That was something we never did. We never ate names. Eating a person’s name would be like eating a soul. We were hanging along the doorframe, scoping out the room’s content when we heard a snotty sneeze.

We froze. It was an unwritten rule that word eaters never shared space. Two doors and two sets of word eaters made it twice as likely that humans would find us. It was possible that other types of fairies had invaded the same space, so we waited and watched. Our patience paid off. Three word eaters crawled out from under the child’s bed and began to climb the dust ruffle. I recognized them as some of my least favorite fellows. They were the troublemakers at our celebrations, the grouchy, disgruntled group.

The leader was Sludge. His minions were Stiletto and Loaf. Stiletto was thin and her nose was long and pointed. Loaf was slow and pudgy. He grunted and whined as he pulled himself up the dust ruffle and onto the bed behind the other two. I wondered why they would climb the bed where the child slept. She didn’t wake, but her heavy breathing blew back the sprigs of fur that sprouted from Sludge’s ears and Loaf’s nose.

She was a beautiful child with poufy baby lips and long eyelashes that twitched at her dreams. Sludge leaned into her slightly open mouth and began to breathe deeply. The child mumbled as if she were in the beginnings of a nightmare. The more Sludge inhaled, the more the child talked in her sleep. I had never seen another word eater get so close to a human on purpose and I puzzled and puzzled about what he was doing until Quiz said, “He’s eating her words.”

“How can that be? We can’t eat spoken words.”

“How do you know? Have you ever tried?”

“Well, no.”

“There are so few books in this house. Maybe they had to eat her words.”

We didn’t make our presence known to Sludge and his crew. The next morning, from our perch in the family room, we watched the family at their breakfast table. “Soph, sweetie, is there something else you’d like for breakfast?” the mother asked, hovering over her daughter. An old St. Bernard sat near by waiting for food. The mother dumped dog food into a bowl. “Here you go, Hercules.”

Sophie just stared at the plate in front of her. The dog sniffed his food and then lumbered over to the child’s chair. When her parents weren’t looking, Sophie slipped the dog a piece of bacon.

“Or would you prefer some scrambled eggs?” the mother continued.

Sophie shrugged.

“Sweetheart, answer your mother. Do you have a preference?” the father said.

But still there was no answer from the child. The mother ran her hand over her baby’s head to check for fever.

“Do you feel okay?” she asked.

Sophie nodded. She grabbed a banana off the table and headed back to her room.

“Well, that was strange,” the mother said. “She’s usually such a chatty little thing.”

“It’s just a mood swing. I wouldn’t worry about it,” the father said as he folded his newspaper over and went back to reading.

During the day, when the dog was asleep, we ate dozens of words from the newspaper that the father left. On a table in the family room we found a card that read, “Happy 4th Birthday! We love you! Love Grandma and Grandpa.” I couldn’t help it. I ate the word love and euphoria rushed me. We made sure to stay away from the girl’s bedroom, giving Sludge and his group their space.

“Hey,” I asked my companions when we had eaten our fill out of a cookbook. “Do you think the girl didn’t talk this morning because Sludge took her words last night?”

“That would be my assumption,” Quiz said.

Trundle didn’t answer. He was busy taking a part out of the toaster. He never talked much anyway.

“We have to stop them,” I said. “What if they ruin her speech?”

“How would we do that? We’re not much in the conflict department. Sludge and his crew could take us in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Let’s talk to them,” I said. “Reason with them. Ask them to expose themselves so they move on. There is so little here to eat that they would mostly likely welcome the chance to leave.”

“Don’t be daft. They could have exposed themselves to the child at any time. They’re here because they want to be here.”

That night, with the dog snoring in the kitchen and the father snoring from the bedroom, we crept back along the walls to Sophie’s room. We climbed down onto a small desk and crouched behind a stack of markers and paint pots waiting for Sludge and his crew to arrive. As soon as the child’s breathing fell into a rhythm there was a rustling of the covers and Sludge appeared from beneath a quilt near her feet. His rat-like eyes were fixed on her and it made me angry to think he was literally taking the words right out of her mouth.

If we rushed them and scuffled, the child would surely see us. Then my crew could be whisked off to another location, leaving the child vulnerable to Sludge if he didn’t disappear, too. As I waited and watched I formulated a plan.

We needed to find a way to have Sludge’s door discovered before we were discovered. Since they always came from underneath the bed, I figured their door was under there against the back wall. Our doors usually ended up on walls, but they really could be anywhere since each door was merely a portal into our living quarters.

Sophie coughed and ran a tiny hand over her face, but she continued to sleep. Sludge drew upon her breath, coaxing words from her tongue. Once he reeled backwards and I realized he was dizzy on her words. Maybe spoken language was more potent. Maybe they carried more emotion or were more difficult to digest.

Suddenly, Stiletto shoved Sludge aside and began to inhale Sophie’s breath. Sludge sat down and hung his head as if he had just eaten the biggest meal of his life. Loaf finally got into the act and both he and Stiletto were jostling for position to take in the child’s breath when she suddenly snorted and sat up in bed. Sophie looked around the room, rubbing sleep from her eyes. The three word eaters on her bed slowly slid down the dust ruffle and ducked under. She blinked and coughed and rubbed her throat. Then she settled back down and went to sleep.

The next morning, the mother came down the hall already talking to the father who sat at the table reading the morning news.

“She’s apparently got a sore throat. I knew she was getting sick,” the mother said. “She’s so raspy she can’t croak out a single word. I’m going have her gargle with some hot salt water. Hopefully, that will help.”

Sophie stayed in bed all day and when the mother wasn’t in her room, we tried to be. We might not be much in a battle, but we had to do something to protect her. By the afternoon, the old dog must have missed her because he came plodding into her room and jumped up on the bed. He put his muzzle on her little leg and gazed at her with sad, watery St. Bernard eyes. She scratched his ears, but didn’t say a word.

That was when I had an idea. Trundle had glued a metal birdcage outside our door that protected us from pets. For dogs, we use hot pepper flakes to repel their interest. For cats we use citrus peels. Unfortunately, nothing would repel a rodent, that’s the main reason for our second metal doors.

Knowing that Hercules liked bacon gave me an idea. The next morning, when the father finished frying bacon, Trundle, who had hidden among the canisters on the counter, grabbed a piece and dragged it out of sight. We crept down the hall toward Sophie’s bedroom. We are pros at fading into a scene, but I panicked when the mother walked out of the child’s bedroom and said, “Boy! That bacon smells good.”

I had a second panic when the dog padded into the hallway and looked up at us. We had broken the bacon into pieces and I pulled a shard of charred swine from my pocket and tossed it down to Hercules. He licked it off the floor and looked back up expecting more. That was what I wanted.

Sophie was still sleeping as I rappelled down to her desk. She seemed feverish, with damp curls stuck to her forehead. Trundle and Quiz followed me. There was an open marker on the desk and Quiz pulled a finger through the fibers and rubbed blue across both of his cheeks.

“Do I look ready for battle?” he asked. His green eyes sparkled with anticipation.

“Yes,” I said. “Do me.”

Quiz decorated my face and then Trundle’s.

“We should have eaten some words like brave and heroic,” Quiz said.

“Too late to go looking for a snack now,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We jumped to the headboard, which banged against the wall when we landed. The child stirred, but quickly settled back into her restless sleep. The dog just stared at us. I pitched another piece of bacon to the floor next to the bed and he came closer to gobble it down.

“Let’s do this,” I said.

Trundle and Quiz squeezed down between the mattress and the headboard.

“Okay, go,” I heard them say from below me. I leaned over the side of the bed and dropped another piece of bacon straight down by the dust ruffle. Hercules took the bait. After that he began to nose under the bed reaching for the bacon shards my companions were placing just out of his reach. Hercules nudged the bed, trying to get at the treats. The bed moved a couple of inches and I heard the dog’s sloppy chomping. He nudged some more and the bed moved a lot.

Suddenly, I felt a painful sting on the back of my neck and turned to see Sludge holding a long needle. I was prepared with my own sword, although mine was just one of the child’s barrettes. I could hear a scuffle under the bed and I knew another fight was going on beneath me. I jumped to the headboard, but Sludge was right behind me.

“What are you doing here?” Sludge hissed. “This is our house.”

“We saw what you are doing to this child. We won’t let you hurt her anymore.”

The dog rooted and the bed moved another foot.

Sludge thrust at me with his long needle and I dropped to the child’s pillow. Sludge was right behind me. The dog shoved the bed again and Sophie raised a hand to rub her eyes. I tumbled over the side of the bed, grabbed the dust ruffle and slid down right beside the dog. I looked up and Sludge was peering over the side the bed, but he was too afraid of the dog to come down.

I ducked under the bed and tossed another piece of bacon just out of the dog’s reach. His big black nose poked under the ruffle and sniffed a wet, eager sniff. My friends were embroiled in a battle with Sludge’s crew. Their door, an ugly, unkempt round entrance was nearly showing from under the bed. Another good nudge from the dog and their door would be exposed to the room.

The second sting of Sludge’s needle hit my side. He had appeared from the other side of the bed. I was trapped between Sludge and the dog’s slobbery mouth. Suddenly, I heard the mother’s voice.

“Hercules! What are you doing?”

We all froze. Out of time, I threw my remaining bacon bits at Sludge’s front door.

The woman’s feet came close. She began to pull at his collar.

No, no, no, I thought.

We all watched in horror as the woman struggled with the dog.

Sludge motioned to his crew and they all ran to one leg of the bed and shoved against it trying to hold it in place.

Hercules made one last lunge for the bacon. He shoved the bed aside and Sludge’s door moved out of the shadows into the morning light.

“What in the world?” the woman said.

“Curse you!” Sludge screamed as he and his crew dissolved.

I motioned to my own fellows and we scrambled to the other side of the bed and hung on the outside of the ruffle. The father came into the room.

“Is she okay?” he asked.

“There was something there. A little door behind the bed. Hercules was trying to get at it and then poof it just disappeared.”

The father let out a short laugh. “Are you sure you’re not the one with the fever?”

“I’m telling you I saw something,” she said.

“Okay. Okay,” he said. “But how’s our girl?”

We maneuvered around the bed, always staying just out of sight while they scooted the furniture back into place.

Sophie’s parents checked her temperature, made her drink some juice and tucked her back in. When she was dozing again we crawled back up on her bed and were ready to launch ourselves back over to her desk when she moved.

Sophie never opened her eyes. She sighed and shifted and when she had settled back down she whispered very softly.

“Thank you, little men.”

Trundle disappeared in mid-air on his way to the desk. Quiz turned to me, smiled and faded to nothingness. Then prickling electricity gripped by body and we were transported, conveyed, shifted, transferred, on our way.

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