Wendy’s eyes flew open. Morning, and her birthday! She couldn’t wait to get started. She threw back the covers and hopped down from bed. Early light was seeping into the room; she raised the blinds to see what kind of day it was starting out to be.
No snow, but it did look nice and wintry, with a pearly gray sky showing through the bare branches. Anyway, it was her birthday, which made up for a lot.
Dressed and breakfasted, she went out for a walk, down the path by the river, under the trees. A cold breeze swept through the top branches with a sound like whispering. There was a little mist on the river, which might stay a while on such a wintry day. Wendy strolled along, hands in her coat pockets, whistling to herself.
As the path took her under the interstate overpass, she noticed a large troll sitting on the ground, his back against a concrete pylon. He was picking his teeth and scratching his enormous hairy stomach. Here was something she didn’t see every day!
“Are you my birthday troll?” she asked him, half joking.
He stood up on his bandy legs and scratched his big hairy butt. (Trolls don’t wear pants, or anything else except old hats that they find. Their stomachs and their butts both sag down almost to the ground, and when they walk, their butts and stomachs smack against each other.)
“Yes I am, and Happy Birthday, Wendy!” he told her. “There’s nothing that pleases me more than seeing a fresh young girl like yourself on her birthday. Yes indeedy.”
“Why, thank you, Troll. How did you know my name?” said Wendy, although she felt a little uneasy, because the troll looked at her so intently with his beautiful marbly blue eyes.
“It’s in here!” The troll reached into one big wrinkly droopy ear and pulled out a leather-bound notebook, which he waved at her with one hand while scratching the back of his bald head with the other. Then he sighed, looking very sad. The corners of his mouth drooped a good foot below his chin. “I do have a name, you know! But do people ever call me by it? It’s always, ‘get away, you awful troll!’ or ‘what enormous hairy warts you have, troll!’. Nobody ever asks me my name.”
Wendy, being a kind-hearted girl, patted the troll’s knobby, lopsided knee and asked, “Well, what is your name?”
He beamed down at her. His grey square teeth were as big as cigarette packs. “Why, it’s — Childgobbler!”
“Oh.” She didn’t know what else to say.
His face fell. “It’s not a good name? You don’t like it?”
“No, it’s fine. Say, I won’t forget that name in a hurry!” She laughed merrily. “So, Childgobbler, what a nice surprise meeting you on my birthday.” She thought, I’ll keep using his name so he’ll feel important. She was always considerate of other people’s feelings.
He looked very pleased. “Well, it’s not really a coincidence — more like a hobby of mine.”
“Really, Childgobbler?” This was interesting. “I’ve got a hobby too, it’s growing flowers in a pot!”
“Yeah. Well, what I do is, I make math easier for people when they visit the graveyard.”
“How do you do that, Childgobbler?”
“Did you ever go through a graveyard and try to figure out how old the dead people were when they died? You subtract the birth year from the death year, but then you’ve got to look at the day of the year and see whether she’d had her birthday yet, so half the time you take a year off her age, even though it’s really only part of a year. You see?”
“I suppose so, Childgobbler,” said Wendy uncertainly. Math was not her best subject.
“But suppose — well, let’s use you as an example. Suppose that second date on your tombstone was — today, your birthday! It would be a piece of cake, ha ha, to just subtract — ” he looked down at his book — “1996, when you were born, from 2004, which is now, and see that you’re eight — not nearly eight, or eight-and-a-quarter, but just exactly eight! Easy-peasy.” Wendy suddenly noticed that the book’s leather cover had freckles on it. “So, I come visit little girls on their eighth birthdays — that’s when they’re just right — and gobble them up! Ah, that’s sort of how I got my name,” he finished a little sheepishly.
Wendy felt a little nervous now, because Childgobbler was looking at her so strangely. Just a minute, though —
“Let me see that!” She took the book from him and opened it to the W’s. “Here I am, but the date’s a misprint. It should say 1956, not 1996. See, it’s smudged. Looks like barbecue sauce or something.”
“What?” He pulled a magnifying glass out of his ear and peered at the book. “So you’re not eight?” He looked her up and down and laughed uncertainly. “Why, you’re such a little thing, you can’t be all grown up!” He patted her on top of her head.
Now Wendy was a little annoyed. “Fine, I’m short. Why do people always pat me on the head?”
“Are you sure you’re grown up, little Wendy?”
“Yeah, I’m forty-eight today, asshole.” Wendy’s face was rather red now. “You’re a perv, Childgobbler.”
The troll stared at her. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” With that he turned and clomped off, scratching his armpit, and was soon out of sight.
“Jesus, he scratched himself the whole time!” exclaimed Wendy to herself. Then she went home.
The rest of Wendy’s birthday was chocolate cake and ice cream with her friends, and presents and music and booze, which was so much fun. But she never forgot Childgobbler, and often wished she had asked him how the little girls he gobbled up still got to have tombstones.
Manuel Royal lives in Atlanta. After a refreshing 28-year-hiatus, he is again attempting to write.