This is kind of a nasty little story. It floated around in the slush pile of several literary and horror publications who rejected it as just a bit too dark before it got picked up by a webzine called “Cherry Bleeds” in 2007. On a whim I threw it to a relatively new podcast called “Pseudopod” (maybe you’ve heard of them?) and they used it in 2008. I even got paid some cash dollars if I remember correctly. I don’t know that it’s that terribly dark, really — I mean, there’s the incest, I suppose, that might rub people the wrong way, and some gruesome heads on sticks, and an ignorant and fearful god, but you can get all of that and a lot more in the Bible, I’m not even playing in the same league as the Good Book on this tale.
The first time Wilson saw them was when he opened the medicine cabinet one groggy morning in search of aspirin and his toothbrush. Between the familiar can of shaving cream and the plastic tumbler that held his toothbrush, lying on his crushed and twisted tube of toothpaste as if it were a luxurious pillow, were two tiny people. They were no bigger than his thumb, and a little pinker, lounging in a tangle of spindly limbs. One of them lifted its head from the toothpaste and he slammed the door shut.
For a long time he faced his reflection in the mirror: stubbly chin, rheumy eyes, skin around his neck loose and pallid. The night before he had been out late at Johnson’s retirement happy hour, over-staying the party as it moved by stages from jubilant to pensive to melancholy, finally leaving just before it became morose and grim, old Johnson growing older drink by drink and the last hangers-on realizing that they could anticipate no higher pinnacle than this from a lifetime of toil. Wilson wasn’t young himself, though still two decades from any hope of retirement, and mornings after happy hours had long ago ceased to be happy at all. His mouth was a crackled dry sponge, and his brain had shriveled to a smoldering gray coal.
With a great surge of resolve he opened the cabinet again, desperate to scrape the grunge from his teeth and certain the tiny figments would be gone. They weren’t. One of them was huddled behind the tumbler, the distorting glass making it seem bulbous and soft. The other was standing now, hands on its narrow hips, staring up at him with hard eyes the size of pinheads.
Or, rather, on his hips, for the little figure’s tiny penis was clearly visible. And tiny though it was, in proportion to the finger-sized body the little man was impressively endowed. The little man continued to stare at him, defiant, his chest slowly rising and falling. Wilson couldn’t hold that gaze, so he looked away, mumbled “Sorry,” and pulled his toothbrush from the tumbler, careful not to jostle it. He brushed his teeth without paste, and was dissatisfied for the rest of the day.
By the middle of the next week Wilson had forgotten about the tiny people, pushing them into the drawer of his memory reserved for vivid dreams and shapes caught out of the corner of the eye. He ascribed them to his drink-addled state that morning, and chided himself for being intimidated by the little figments. That was what made their next appearance, when he was stone sober and wide awake, so startling.
He had just got home from work, a little later than he liked because Barber from accounting had lingered at his desk with questions about the Cremola invoices. He was sorting the mail onto the dining room table—bills, junk, bills, junk—when he heard dripping water in the kitchen. The faucet had been threatening to leak for almost a month now, taking longer than usual to shut off and letting a puddle pool around the handles, so he marched in with a heavy heart, resolved to spend the rest of the evening under the sink with a monkey wrench and bucket.
And in the sink, in the blue bowl from which he ate his cornflakes that very morning, were the two little naked people. The bowl was filled with water, and the faucet dripped into it with a slow, pinging rhythm, but the two little people were oblivious to the drops. They were locked in a passionate embrace, limbs wrapped around each other, and the water rippled around them as they churned and wiggled. Wilson watched for what seemed a long time, stunned by the urgent beauty of their lovemaking, the desperate writhing of the tiny woman and the intense, measured focus of the little man.
Then, quite suddenly, their gyrations stopped. This time it was the woman who looked at him with her hard black eyes, tiny breasts (though again, he noticed, proportionately large) floating on the water in the bowl. She smiled a little, though at him or in the afterglow of passion he couldn’t say, and made no motions to cover herself. The little man leaned back in the bowl, his head touching the water, and lazily stroked the woman’s flanks.
Wilson backed away, fumbling for the light switch, and went into the living room. He ordered General Tso’s Chicken from the chow mein shop a few blocks away, and didn’t return to the kitchen until the next morning. The water in the bowl was still and cloudy, and he made a point of running it twice through the dishwasher.
After that, the sightings became more frequent. He saw the little man walking along the windowsill in the kitchen, his tiny palm streaking prints on the glass. He saw the woman, her belly swollen as if she had swallowed a marble, luxuriating in a shaft of morning light that fell across the living room floor. He saw them walking together, hand in hand, across the bedroom floor, the little man helping the woman over the discarded underwear as if they were a craggy hillock in an Edenic field. Always they were naked, and oblivious to him. He began to think of them as Adam and Eve, and himself as Jehovah.
Then they disappeared for almost two weeks. He took to walking around his house in stocking feet and holding his breath, and sneaking into rooms in a stoop in hopes of catching a glimpse of his little tenants. He became worried about them, and moved his furniture away from the walls with trepidation, fearful of finding tiny corpses in the dust along the floorboards.
So it was with great joy that he saw the woman one morning, sitting beside the coffee maker. He crept around to the back of the kitchen where he would have a better view, and his heart raced when he saw that she was holding an infant to her breast, a pink ball no bigger than a toenail clipping. Suddenly the little man appeared, coming around from behind the coffee maker with a cracker in his hands, and he looked at Wilson with that hard stare again. But this time Wilson smiled at him, and a smile slid over the little man’s face.
From then on Wilson made a point of leaving little gifts for the family: crackers and cheese crumbled into a measuring cup, the cotton wads from aspirin bottles, bottle caps filled with milk. Each morning he put out an offering, and each evening he hurried home to see if it had been accepted. He learned in this way that they preferred whole wheat crackers to corn flakes, appreciated bits of silver foil and paper clips, and could consume all the cheddar cheese he left wrapped in tiny bundles of wax paper.
Over the next six months he watched that first tiny baby grow into an ant-sized toddler, then a child the size of a vitamin tablet, and then a young adult almost as tall (and equally as well-endowed) as his father. The first, because in those six months there would be many children: eight in all, including a pair of raisin-sized twins. On several occasions he caught the parents making love, on the cushions of the armchair and behind the mixing bowls in the kitchen. He knew now to linger for only a moment, marveling at the minute sinews that flexed and relaxed, the sheen of sweat that covered their tiny bodies, before slipping quietly away to let them finish in peace.
It was, perhaps, the incredible fecundity of these tiny people, coupled with his feeling of God-like status in their world, that emboldened Wilson to approach Natasha from human resources. Natasha was younger than Wilson, a black-haired beauty from Belarus who wore stylishly short skirts and spiked heels that clicked with authority when she walked down the halls at work. She had gray eyes bordering on blue that could drown a man, and though everyone Wilson worked with—some of the women included—watched longingly as she swished through the parking lot in the evening with her big purse tossed casually over her shoulder, no one dared to speak to her unless they had to change their tax withholding. Wilson had not changed his withholding for almost ten years, when his wife left him for her chiropractor, but he was Jehovah and didn’t need an excuse to talk to Natasha.
She gladly accepted his invitation to dinner, as no one had invited her since she came to America except her landlord, a sweaty little Russian who expected regional loyalty to be enough to coax her into his bed. And his invitation to after-dinner drinks at a wine bar near his house was accepted because Wilson was quiet and confident and generous, all qualities he had acquired in his months being God. Going back to his house for a nightcap and a snuggle on the couch and whatever might lead from that was a foregone conclusion after Natasha enjoyed the red wine he selected.
And Wilson thought he knew where things were leading, hoped they were leading to a place he hadn’t visited except in solitude for almost two years. Natasha offered no resistance when his lips were joined by his tongue and all three made their way together from her mouth to her chin to the hollow of her throat. When his fumbling hands found the clasp of her bra in the small of her back and suddenly discovered their nimbleness, she pushed her breasts against his chest to give him space to work. But when his palm found her bare belly under her cashmere sweater and started to work its way over her ribs, Natasha suddenly stiffened and drew away. Wilson slid his hand down and moved it toward her back, but she continued to push away from him. He followed, thinking that perhaps she was urging him into a prone position where he could more easily access her charms, but her hands slapping against his shoulders and her knee jammed up between his legs signaled otherwise.
Wilson sat up and looked at her, but she was looking past him in wide-eyed horror. He turned, slowly, and saw, standing on the arm of the couch, the first-born son of Adam and Eve, his tiny fist holding his little penis. Wilson fixed him with the hard stare he had learned from the youth’s parents, but it was too late; Natasha was gone, the front door wide open, her black spike-heeled shoes abandoned beside the coffee table.
It was not long after that Wilson noticed a second generation was being born. He turned on the bathroom light one morning to find the second-born child, a girl with brown hair like her mother and broad shoulders like her father, nursing an infant between the shampoo bottles. The first-born son, the little creature who had ruined his night with Natasha, appeared from behind a damp towel on the floor. He looked up at Wilson with his beady black eyes and smirked.
Wilson felt his stomach turn. Until then, he had thought of the little people as miniature humans. He had invested them with tiny souls of the kind he imagined he possessed himself, inward sparks that gravitated toward joy and goodness. Though they were a little wild and barbarous, he ascribed those qualities to their innocence; and though they were immodest and ungrateful, he had imagined they would mature over time.
But now he realized, looking down at the smirking, incestuous monster by his towel, that they were not human at all. They were animals, vermin, driven by the imperative to reproduce, not by love. He saw now that the vignettes he had stumbled on were episodes of rutting, not innocent passion. Wilson kicked at the little man, but he was too quick for the big clumsy foot and ducked behind the towel, still smirking.
First, Wilson cut off the gifts. He no longer put out toast smeared with peanut butter and warm piles of dryer lint. After a week he noticed that the boxes of wheat crackers in his cupboard had been ripped open, and sugar spilled off his shelves in gritty cataracts, so he bought toddler locks to hold his pantry shut. When a bowl of soup disappeared from the kitchen counter when he went to answer the phone one night, he fell into the habit of eating his meals in the bathroom with the door locked, after first poking the plunger under the sink and behind the toilet to make sure the vermin weren’t lying in wait.
That was when he started to notice the carcasses of mice, stripped down to bone and fur, behind the stove, and sometimes sparrow wings scattered on the back steps. He had not known the little creatures to be carnivorous, but now nothing surprised him. He locked his bedroom door at night, and stuffed towels around the cracks to keep them from coming inside.
When he came home one night to find his house filled with the smell of gas and the oven door wide open, he realized that coexistence was not an option. The vermin must be eradicated or evicted. He bought new locks for his bedroom door and windows and heavy boards to block the gaps under the door, and traps. The old-fashioned wire kind, with a heavy spring and a killing bar that could cut a mouse in two. After securing his room, Wilson baited the traps with little squares of cheddar cheese. He felt a tiny pang of guilt in his stomach while he locked the spring—was it only last month he was wrapping this cheese as little gifts for his guests?—but he remembered the smell of gas, the rapping sounds he heard sometimes at night, the eldest son’s voyeurism, and pushed the guilt down and out
He felt deceived—more, perhaps, by himself than by the vermin—and now he wanted revenge.
He lay awake in his fortified room, both dreading and praying for the snap of the killing wire. Several times he got up to make sure the door was secured, the windows locked, that he hadn’t missed a secret hole in the closet or behind the dresser. More than once he had to stop himself from running to the kitchen to spring the trap himself.
Finally, past midnight, he heard the gruesome spring uncoil with a noise like a gunshot. There was a loud clattering sound as the wooden trap fell from the counter, and then a terrible scraping sound as it dragged along the floor. Then silence, then a final convulsive smacking sound, then silence again. Wilson exhaled—he had not noticed that his lungs were screaming to be emptied—and felt consciousness floating away from him with his breath. He slept in dreamless dark, and almost slumbered through the alarm clock’s tinny ring.
When he went into the kitchen in the morning, he found the trap near the door. A long streak of pinkish-red blood stretched from a puddle near the counter to the upside-down trap. He used a broom handle to flip the trap over, and was relieved to find it empty except for a sticky blot beneath the wire bar. The little square of cheese was still stuck to the platform, and he swept it up with the trap into a dustpan and tossed it into the trash.
There was no trail leading from the trap, and he found only the usual grime and detritus when he swept out the corners. With no corpse there was no proof of his trap’s efficacy, but he was somehow glad not to have the evidence. Though he reminded himself that they weren’t human, he couldn’t help but imagine the terror of the thing that had sprung the trap, the horror of its family finding it bleeding and crushed after the awful clattering struggle, the tiny mourning party—how many were left? Ten now, or more, could a third generation be gestating?—carrying the body away.
Wilson called in sick to work and spent the day at the library, reading about methods of extermination: water traps and fumigation, poisons to cause hemorrhaging or dehydration of asphyxiation, live traps for carting vermin away to more appropriate environments and bear claw traps that snap limbs like brittle twigs. Then he read about the funeral practices of primitive tribes who smeared themselves with the ashes of the dead, burned offerings to fearsome and jealous ancestors, even ingested the hearts and livers of the deceased. He feared returning home to find a tiny corpse flayed and skinned like the wrecked mice, or a pile of damp ashes in the kitchen, or a circle of keening pygmies camped beside his bedroom door. At last he left with a book about cats, thinking a mouser might be a more respectful, if no more human, means to rid his home of vermin.
When he got home he found deep gouges carved into his bedroom door, some as high as his knees, and the bloody remains of a squirrel smeared on the floor, its pointy face frozen in an expression of surprise and pain. He checked the lock, found it still held firm, and slipped quickly inside. All night he sat up in bed, fully dressed, and dozed fitfully at dawn, waiting for the sounds of little barbarians massing at the gates. They never came.
For three weeks he set and baited the traps, the cruel wire traps, and every morning he found them undisturbed. He still had trouble sleeping at night, and now went to the library every evening to nap in the periodical stacks, finding the dusty green spines of bound economics journals especially soothing. He sprinkled flour in front of his door in hope of catching little footprints, but the white dust stayed smooth and slowly worked into the cracks between the floor boards.
At last Wilson began to reclaim his house, cleaning the kitchen he had abandoned after the first trap was sprung and eating his supper at the table again. One night he decided to rearrange the pots and pans in the bottom cupboard, and found a nest made of dryer lint and shredded newspaper; it was cold to the touch, and musty, and let off an odor like peanut butter and feces when he crumbled it into a plastic bag. He threw away the traps too, and the moldering block of cheese. When the garbage truck came the next morning and he heard his trash cans rattling into its maw, he suddenly felt his house to be spacious and bright.
It was in this expansive mood that, two days later, he invited Dorothy from legal home after Miller’s retirement happy hour. He made sure to leave when the mood was still congratulatory and comradely, while the toasts were still being made to the long afternoon naps and fishing trips in Miller’s future.
Dorothy was not Natasha. For one thing, she was Wilson’s age, maybe a little older, and she had been disappointed many times already. And Dorothy was no beauty, with her brittle colored hair and fleshy forearms. But then, Wilson was no longer Jehovah; he was merely a man with a clean house.
Dorothy required no coaxing, and she undressed herself, in the dark, and climbed into his bed. Wilson climbed in close behind, and dispensed of the preliminaries, since they both knew what they were doing and didn’t need to concoct an alibi.
He didn’t open his eyes until he had mounted her, and when he did he saw a row of tiny faces pressed against his window, the streetlights outside casting long shadows across his pillow. He caught their black-eyed stares, held their gazes, and let his smile curl into a smirk.