At sunrise, I spy on the humans as they arrive. They mill around on the black sand beach; their children splash in the pea-green waves. So many children, born of their brief lives, shorter than those of the elves, shorter by far than mine.
The humans clutch their schematics rolled in their fists. They await the elvish shipwrights, who arrive late in their tattered finery, patched velvets and scuffed leather boots, and usher the humans, bowing, through the filigree gate to the shipyard.
They cannot see me in my house on the hill, which the elves call a cave, ignoring the unsupported dome, the graceful archway entrance. I built my house to wall off a place for myself in this world with no other trolls in it. And in a clever nook in the back wall, behind the hearth, I hide my secret treasure: a schematic for a ship. If I could build it, then the elves would understand: we are not as different as they think. If I could build it, could speak to them with my hands in a language that they understand, then they would remember: the trolls were artists, before we were soldiers.
I stand well back from the morning sunlight, so buttery and so thick that I want to spread it on the toast I have made over my small fire. But I cannot touch the light, cannot even approach it. This is one of the things that people know about trolls. They cannot abide the light of day.
A human woman steps onto the raised platform of marble traced with copper. The elves take the schematic from her. She doesn’t know what to do with her empty hands. Her children dance in excitement; soon they will have a pleasure craft of the finest elvish craftsmanship. The wagons are drawn up all around, a breeze off the sea snapping the tarps that cover them. I smell salt, a mineral like the ones of which I am made. This is another thing that people know about trolls. They are made of stone.
Anyone who has tasted the iron in blood can tell you that elves have some stone in them as well.
The artisans raise their hands while their assistants whip off the tarps. The schematic is tacked in front of the artisans, but they do not need it. The truth is that most customers are not inventive. I have read their discarded dreams after they sail away.
Stonework floats up from the wagons, magically light. I recognize each of the pieces, the beakhead and the figurehead, the tiller and the keel, because I built them all. Every piece used in this shipyard was crafted by me, alone and unknown. I am proud of them. Each fits in its assigned place, no matter which other pieces are chosen to surround it. Every time I watch, I hope that the customers will notice this. But that is not what they came to see. The pieces do not matter. It is the assembly that is the performance. It is the performance that justifies the price.
I never tire of watching the elves build a ship from my stone. It could be done a piece at a time—I could do that, but I am not permitted—but instead the artisans flourish and the stones fly, and at the end, all at once, the pieces become one. In this ritual there are traces of what we and the elves once were, before war ruined us both.
A shadow darkens my door and Florin calls in to me. I do not hear his approach in time to hide. Though it would do me little good anyway.
“Troll,” he says—I have given them an approximation of my name that lays easy on their tongues, but they do not use it—“troll, are you in there?”
A small joke for a small man. They are all so small, with pinched, narrow features, hair that they trim and tousle and pile up atop their fragile heads. The height of children, and alike in cruelty.
Florin is joking because he knows that I could not be anywhere else. The stoning is triggered by threat, of which the sun is but a part. This is how they, soft as they are, defeated us: my peoplewent to stone when injured and the elves smashedthem when they thought thembut statues. Not one troll was killed soft, and only I, who refused to go to stone, I, born with a flaw, a darkness in me that disdained surrender, I survived.
I could kill Florin, and many others, before they brought me down, but there are better ways to die. There is still a chance to write my people’s history in some other ink than blood. If only they will let me build my ship.
Florin is a shipwright—he could speak for me with the others—and so I answer him. “What do you want, Florin?”
They have long since decided that my directness is rudeness. They ignore it. They do not wish to understand that among my people—before the war, when there was such a thing as my people—circumlocution was a sign of disrespect.
Florin’s face edges around the hand-smoothed post of my door. He was too young for the war but he still carries the reflexes of prey. “I felt the heat of the day and thought you might like a cool drink.”
So it is to be this game. The hardening begins at my edges. I was told that this is how human skin reacts to cold by my friend Gunter, who was lost in the war. A traitor, his people called him. He was my friend.
“Thank you, Florin. Please leave it outside.”
“I want to see you enjoy it,” he says, his hand trembling as if I might snap it off. As if flesh is worth eating. In his hand there is a cup, and in the cup there is, of course, milk.
A third thing that people know about trolls, and that Florin knows also: milk is poison to our people. Not as useful a weapon as some think—it will not kill me—but a wonderful joke.
My knuckles are stiff now, as are my toes. If I cannot work, I will lose what worth I have to them. “Please leave me be, Florin.” My tongue is thick, tumbling their slick speech end over end. “I only want to work.”
“That’s not all you want, troll,” Florin says. “The foreman has told me of your desires.”
“One ship,” I say. “That’s all.”
“What beauty do you think a thing like you could create? All you know is slaughter.”
I do not argue. That is all he knows of us. Eventually he goes away.
I am to report to the foreman every evening after sunset. It is his rule, and yet he is always angry to be late for dinner. The rule serves no purpose but to remind me that I obey.
His office is a tarpaper shack set on a slight ridge overlooking the docks. It reeks of asafoetida, which the elves know as “food of the gods” but which we call “stinkgum.” It is a good spice, when used with discretion.
My knock rattles the door in its frame. Cheap wood, which will not last even one of their short generations. I could fashion one that would be a better fit.
“Finally,” the foreman says, already half up, a satchel dangling from one shoulder. He is pale as milk and as pleasant, a wispy elf who would not have lasted to adulthood in the heat of the war.
“I know about your damned sun problem,” the foreman says. “That doesn’t mean I want to wait on you all night.”
He thinks that the stoning would rid him of me. This is a thing that people know about trolls, but it is wrong. I would return to life, one day when their children had grown old. We all would have.
I plead my case. I have been pleading it for years. Stone is patient. But even it can be crumbled by the wind, given time enough. “I wish to apply again—“
The foreman looses a fluid stream of borrowed human cursing. It is not a tongue I have been able to master. Gunter spoke Trollish.
“Listen to me, troll. Listen, because I am trying to help. You do one thing, and you do it well, I’ll grant you that. It serves a purpose. It pleases the humans and it keeps you alive. Do not draw attention to yourself by trying to reach above your station!”
I know that to the humans, I am a token. My survival helps them feel better about tipping the scales for the elves during the war. As if I represent my people. As if I can fill the void that was left when they were shattered.
“I understand, and yet—“
I do not have words to tell him that art is the only hope my people have left. Such words would only wound the part of him that is shamed at what the elves were forced to become. It is one thing to think that you would murder to survive, and another to do it. They say that they did not, that the stoning is what doomed us, but they still smashed us, they did not let us stay statues. Some of them knew. Some of them still know, and my survival is a reminder that all righteousness is conditional. I understand this, but it cannot be spoken.
“This is the last time,” the foreman says. “I will explain it to you once more and then that’s it. You cannot build the ships. You do not have the sense for it, and even if you did, you cannot make them light. They would sink without the magic.”
He is wrong. He does not understand stone. But still, he speaks as if to a child. I wonder what would happen if I rooted to the floor here, if my stone feet sank into the dirt. It seems impossible that I will ever leave this place, this very moment. The stoning is coming for me and I welcome it.
The foreman tires of waiting and leaves with a warning not to touch anything.
An hour after moonrise, I have loosened enough to go to the shipyard. The tide is coming in, lapping at the green-slimed struts of the pier. The stars have something of the paradox of mountains, their seeming permanence and creeping change. When I am alone with them, I do not feel so alone.
I have seen how favors work among the elves and humans. They are similar peoples, and I do not blame them for finding common cause against us. One way that favors work is that one of them will owe another, but I have nothing to trade. Another way is that one of them will be fond of another, and will help him without expecting anything in return.
I could be liked.
I work harder than I have in centuries. Cutting, polishing, stacking. Despite the time I spent frozen, I finish all of tonight’s work and half of tomorrow’s before day drives me home. I see the sun boil up over the surface of the water, far out over the ocean. Though the wind blows always from the west, and the elvish ships will sail without a hand to guide them, no one has ever found the other side. It is too far, and there were wars to fight.
The next night, I finish my work not long after moonrise. By now, the revel will be in full bloom. I ornament my body with thick paints that I have compounded myself, in vivid oranges and greens, the colors that my mother loved best. I would look absurd in the flowers that the elves favor. I will do this as myself or not at all.
They stare when I enter the field, my heavy feet in the thick grass leaving mats that seep mud. The music does not falter, because music is the one shining survivor of their heritage. The dance does. Perhaps this is good. I am not much of a prancer.
This is one of the things that people do not know about trolls: that we have music, too. We were forming orchestras when the ancestors of the elves were banging sticks on rocks, but each of us can sing but one note of our own, like the wind moaning through a cavern; we cannot make music alone.
I have never been to the revel before. It is not as bad as I imagined. The stares are more puzzled than accusatory and no one throws anything. Now that I am here, I wonder why it is that it seemed so impossible before. I have not been forbidden the revel. The war is centuries gone and my people are too. If there are friends to be found, they are to be found here.
I could have a friend.
Nothing that they know about trolls has prepared the revelers for this moment. I slog through the soft field, flowers painting pollen on my legs, looking about for someone who will meet my gaze. My neck is stiff. Wouldn’t that be a joke, wouldn’t it be an appropriate end, if I became a statue in the midst of their joy? The last troll, pouring milk in the grog one last time.
I find a group that appears more jolly than the rest, though it is hard to tell; I do not often see elves anymore who are not afraid of me. These are young, and falling over each other with laughter. I try to approach them casually. My foot gets stuck in the mud and I almost fall. If I had crushed them beneath me, that would have been the end, that would have turned me to stone right there.
“Look at this big fellow!” one of them says. Her gown, little more than a few haphazard wreaths of flowers, is wilting. Her eyes are filled with stars and, seeing them, I feel something stir, something for which this soft language has no word. Something deeper than it can encompass. The fellow-feeling that gave us strength. I thought it died with my people. She says, “Where did you come from, big fellow?”
“He’s the troll from the shipyards, Delilah,” another says. His top hat is slightly crushed. He doffs it to me. “The last troll. How rare! I am ever so pleased to make your acquaintance. We couldn’t do it without you.”
There is an edge to his words. Intoxicated by stars, I am unable to comprehend it. And now they are talking over each other. “Would you like a drink, troll?” “Are you enjoying yourself, troll?” “Is it true what they say, troll?”
I roll my name around in my mouth. They could pronounce it if they tried. They might wish to know it.
“Do you see the irony here?” It is the top hat again. His face is flushed with the distinctive pink of flesh. He is not addressing me but the entire group, in which I am not included. “We have been dependent on humans ever since the trolls’ war made beggars of us.. And yet, because of this troll, our shipyard is the most profitable in elfdom! Doesn’t it disgust you? Isn’t it all so delicious?”
“Get out of here, troll.” Like magic—and perhaps it is—Florin is here. “Go back to your cave. Leave the light. This is no place for rock-biting cretins like you.”
Is the voice truly Florin’s, or is it my own? The stoning can cause dreams. Rainbows coat all I see, warning me that my eyes are becoming prismatic. I feel sick. That is one feeling trolls have in common with elves. I rockslide away, their words no more than buzzing in my hardening ears. I have lost command of the language. I cannot speak to them anymore.
There are many productive hours remaining to me when I return to my workshop. I put them to use, pouring myself into precision, stacking bits of ship as high as I can. And then, when I can do no more and there is little time left, I go to the docks and I hide the extra parts beneath the waves. The sea will not harm them. Not for a long time. As it cannot harm me.
A year passes and I do not try again. I no longer watch the ships being assembled and I no longer trouble the foreman or the revelers. I am silent and I work. That is all they have ever wished of me, to disappear. I am the dregs of a nightmare. I am the price they pay for what they have done. Once, that was enough for me. No longer..
I do not care what is permitted. I do not care if they see, or know, or remember who we were before we were slain. What I do now, I do for me. For my people. There is no longer a place for us in the world they have made? Then I will find another.
Evening of the last day comes and I begin. It is slow, working piece by piece, alone and unknown. But I know and I love stone. I revel in the perfection of each piece as I fit it to the next, sealing them with spittle and secret arts that I alone remember. What I am creating is not the beauty of the elves, ethereal and delicate. It is the beauty of the mountains and of the stars, a solid and slow beauty that is ever-changing for those with eyes to see and time to spend. It is the beauty of my people, and like me it is the last.
Elvish writing is ink-scarred paper or finger-trails in wax. Trolls record their speech in stone. I write my name with my ship.
I am done well before dawn. The work goes more quickly than I expected. So I wait. I have time. The ocean is wide and it will be a long sleep.
When the gray begins to leach out of the sky, light waking in the black sand beach and on the tips of the pea-green waves, when the first of the customers have arrived and marvel to see me, daring the sun, proud and alone, when the shipwrights are still stumbling from their beds, and the stars overhead are sleeping, and my people are all dead but I yet live, I launch my ship.
© 2021 by Jason Gruber
Jason Gruber lives in Birmingham, Alabama and if you spot him in the wild, talk to him about cooking or show him pictures of your dogs, he’ll like that.