Alfie was never the same after he came back from the hills. There were those as said the hills were no place for a man of his age, he’d be better to let the young fellas do the shepherding and stay by the fire, shelling peas and smoking his pipe. Alfie said that was women’s work and strode into the gloaming with a clean handkerchief wrapped around two of Marjorie’s green tomato jam sandwiches.

He was gone for three days, and when he came back, he was never the same. People would ask him where he’d been, what had happened to him out on the wild hilltops. They would ask how he came to stride back into town, as dry as the day he left, when the rain had lashed down like a punishment for full two days and two nights while he was away. They would ask and he would frown, purse his lips and look over his shoulder as though checking no one would overhear, and then he would say nothing at all.

He moved his rocking chair from the fireplace out onto the porch. Despite the encroaching chill of the late September evenings, he would sit there long after the rest of the townsfolk had retired to their beds, staring up at the black hills standing crisp against the dark blue sky. They gave him peas to shell and a pipe to smoke, but he would not touch either. Often during the day when the town bustled around him one person or another would stop to pass the time and find him staring at nothing as though listening to voices they could not hear. Try as they might, they could not rouse him; he would not hear them.

“He says he saw the fairies up there,” Marjorie confided in the womenfolk in the town store. “They took him in and kept him safe from the storm. He says they fed him milk and honey and that when it come time to leave, they didn’t want to let him go. Said he belonged to them, and if he wouldn’t stay, they would come and take the children in his place. That’s why he sits on the porch at night, to make sure he sees ’em coming.”

The women laughed, but Marjorie’s smile did not touch her eyes. Through the grimy windowpane she could see Alfie, a bowl of peas that needed shucking forgotten in his lap as his eyes wandered the distant hilltops. Occasionally he nodded, his mouth moving as though he were answering someone.

They laughed, but they went home and told their menfolk. And on the morning the first empty cradle was discovered, the laughter turned to venom. The menfolk dragged him from the rocking chair on the porch and strung him up from the pear tree in the town square. They said he danced for an hour before he died.

And in the morning, the body was gone, and the rope they’d used to hang him.

In their place was a garland of flowers.

Stef Hall is a country girl at heart. Born and raised in Norwich, England, she now resides in London with her musician partner, Paul, and their three bonkers cats. She tries to make up for the bustle of city life by procrastinating, walking slowly, and drinking far too much tea. Since early 2007, Stef has enjoyed publication of many of her short stories in anthologies and magazines, including Twisted Tongue and La Fenetre. Her current focus is to find a home for her first completed novel while trying to write the second before the characters take over her head entirely.

This story was sponsored by
Naked Metamorphosis — All the world’s a stage… and Franz Kafka wants to direct. An absurdist’s version of Hamlet complete with heretofore unexplored heights of depravity, cockroach transformation, Shakespearean bawdiness, and split infinitives!

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