“Mommy! Mommy!” the young boy’s shrill cries ran down the hall and tapped in a whisper at the mother’s door, until at last their slow persistence sank into her dreams and opened her eyes to the dark night. Rising out of bed, the pleas still murmuring periodically from the farther room, she opened the door and walked out into the shadows of the hall. The two lived alone in an American Foursquare, erected over a hundred years ago on an isolated road that twisted through the dense firs and birches of the Catskill mountains. During the summer she made a living renting her spare rooms out to lodgers, though now in the early days of autumn, after summer had died away but before the leaves had quite adorned their golden hues, an emptiness prevailed throughout the home that made her nervous after dark.
Her bare feet creaked beneath the floorboards and when she turned the knob of her son’s bedroom door she was relieved to find him lying in his bed in a gentle bar of moonlight, his blanket tucked up under his arms. As she entered the room a gust of cold air brushed against her cheek and she was alarmed to see the casement window standing open to the midnight sky, its pale curtains drifting in the breeze like languid specters. In an instant she had strode across the room and shut the window with a sharp clap, and the decisiveness of the action did a great deal to calm her superstitions.
“I’m scared,” the boy whined from the bed.
“Scared of what, dear?” For a moment she lingered at the window, scanning the moonlit yard, the empty road, and the deep and whispering wood, whose secret trails crept for endless miles into the black hills beyond. She always felt misgivings at the sight of that ancient, cryptic forest, but the world outside was safe and quiet and the next moment she had turned back to her whimpering son.
“I’m scared of Prittelwort,” the boy had answered.
“You mean the Watcher?” she’d asked.
The child nodded and the young mother sighed in resigned exasperation, sat herself on the bedside and reached out her thin fingers to smooth back his hair.
“There’s no reason to be scared of him,” she said. “He protects all the good little boys and girls.”
“But why do they call him the Watcher?”
“Don’t be so silly, you should know by now. It’s because he watches you when you sleep and wards away the goblins and evil spirits of the wood. He’s nothing for a good boy like you to be afraid of.”
The child seemed slightly reassured and adjusted his covers with two little hands. “You said he looks a bit like a goat, right?”
“Well, you know, no one’s ever seen Prittelwort, because he only guards the good children who go directly to bed and fall asleep — never the bad ones who sneak out after bedtime or try to stay up. So of course you can’t see him because you’re always asleep when he comes. But yes, they say he looks like a goat, but a little less hairy, with a shorter snout and a longer face. And of course he walks on two legs just like you or me.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “That’s why I was scared of him.”
“Oh, I know Prittelwort looks scary, but you never have to see him really, and he’s only there to protect you.”
“But what about the bad children?” he asked.
“Well, what about them?” she said dismissively. She was tired and feeling she had indulged him long enough — it was time to get back to sleep.
“He doesn’t protect the bad ones?”
“Well, I suppose he doesn’t,” she laughed, rocking on the bedside, “so you had better be extra good and mind your bedtime!” And with the last few words she bent forward and poked the boy teasingly on the nose.
It was then that she noticed the package of half-eaten cookies, lying on the lamp stand amidst a pile of crumbs. He must have snuck them from the kitchen after she had gone to bed. With trembling fingers she picked up the plastic package and turned back to her son, who had obstinately returned to his original line of inquiry.
“But why do they call him the watcher?” he asked again.
“I’ve already told you,” she hissed, and a tremor raised in her voice. “Now when did you get these cookies?”
But the boy only persisted in the undulating tones of childish curiosity. “But they shouldn’t call him the Watcher, Mommy.”
“Honey, I need to know, when did you get these cookies?”
But the child’s gaze was distracted, fixed to a point just beyond her shoulder.
“But Mommy, I can see Prittelwort behind you, and he has no eyes.”
Eliot Grimsby reads better than he writes, and does nothing better than he does either.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.