On the day one thousand people were killed when a bridge collapsed in Baghdad and Hurricane Katrina caused the word refugee to be invoked when referring to American citizens who lived in its path on the Gulf of Mexico, Elyse became a high elf. She hadn’t intended to enter the world of elves and didn’t even know some of that breed were girls.
She brought her son, Jordan, to a Games Workshop to play War Hammer. He had been given the box of high elves as a birthday present, and it was a source of tremendous delight for Jordan and for Elyse, too, because it was something she couldn’t have bought for Jordan herself. He meticulously punched out the tiny arms and legs, heads, flags, and weaponry and glued them together leaving the fragile figures to dry by leaning them against a snow paperweight with the Empire State Building trapped inside. Bottles of paint with names like Enchanted Blue, Bleached Bone, and Chainmail littered the kitchen table. Once glued, the figures were painted, then he, she, or it was ready for battle.
The small Games Workshop establishment was a spotless world where boys and a few girls went, as far as she could tell, to wage battles by planning complex strategies, moving tiny figures around on fixed landscape tables and imagining it’s either 1436 or 3614. While they imagined some way back past or into a future where cloning and genetic engineering had totally mutated species, and the boundaries between man, animal, and machine were annihilated, Elyse went out onto the sidewalk, looked at job listings in the paper, circled a few, made phone calls, watched people smoke in furtive pairs or clusters.
The day she turned into a high elf, she had stayed inside and watched the boys play. The tables in the shop were higher than ordinary tables, about three–and–a–half feet from the floor. Their surfaces weren’t flat, but rather rolling hills, covered by fuzzy green plastic grass, rocky outcroppings, and tiny trees. She bent down to look at the landscape, and the next thing she knew she was in that landscape, dressed in white and blue robes with a quiver full of arrows on her back. There was a bow in her hand where a few seconds ago she had held a cell phone. She hadn’t shot arrows since she was ten years old at camp, and even then she stunk at archery. Arrows went every which way but on to the target, and other campers viewed her with contempt as if they themselves were veterans of Sherwood fucking Forest. Years later she didn’t know how to shoot even a toy bow and arrow, especially when her arms and legs were frozen in place.
The boys loomed over her like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats. One moved an Orc towards her, and she guessed enough about the game to know that a hulking Orc presented a danger, not unlike being faced by a saber–toothed tiger should one come to life and stroll down Flatbush Avenue looking for a steak.
“Hey watch out with that thing,” she yelled. She was not sure if the boy heard her at all.
Elves are supposed to be good marksmen or markswomen, but if you’re confronted with an army of Lizardmen or Goblin hoards their sheer numbers are overpowering. Puny bows and arrows are ineffective against such a force. Above her head she heard the words skirmish and siege, a sign that storm clouds were brewing. Some of the boys, she knew, had every toy known to mankind, and if one of them were to marshal a large army of figures there was no plastic bonsai greenery she could hope to hide behind even if she could reach that table oasis.
Elyse cast a sideways glance at the column of elves with whom she was clustered. Underneath their meticulously painted plastic shells she wondered if any of her fellow elves or adversaries also happened to be adults trapped in roles they barely knew how to play?
Although their countenances were undeniably on the fierce side, at least her fellow elves were not bad looking. Some appeared kind of androgynous. OK, they could just as easily been elvesses.
“Hey,” she said to a blond almond–eyed warrior, “any place you can get a cup of coffee around here? That’s what I usually do while my son is playing: go hang out somewhere until the games are over.”
He didn’t respond, so throwing caution to the winds, she tried another approach.
“Hey, doll, I mean that with all respect, really I do, but how did a fellow who looks like Orlando Bloom get here?”
The elf still looked completely poker–faced. Perhaps he was trying to talk to her in his own frozen way, and she couldn’t hear him either. After all there was a futuristic aspect to the game. Maybe their words hurtled through space with such exquisite slowness that it would be years before requests, queries, or demands reached pointed ears.
“You’re my evil Nemesis,” said a gimlet–eyed boy in a Great Adventure T–shirt.
“No, Skaven Slaves don’t have that kind of power.” Another boy answered. It wasn’t so much that figures fought one another, but the game presented a case of gigantomachy, a war between the giants and the gods. The children were giants, and they gave the figures godlike powers, but somehow the figures disappointed, didn’t do exactly as they were supposed to. For all the directions given to them, they remained paralyzed until moved by human hands.
With the gust created by a gesture of dismissal Elyse toppled backward into the plastic grass. It was worse that being a turtle or a beetle stuck on its back. She couldn’t even wave her arms and legs. While fluorescent lights blinked above she stared glassy–eyed at the vermiculite patterns in the ceiling tile. A boy righted her, the whorl of his massive fingerprint flooded her vision like a blanket of Op Art while the sweat from his fingers stung no end. She was unable to shut or rub her eyes, but after a few minutes the sensation abated.
All around her, pinned to the walls, were bags and boxes of plastic figures and pictures of battles scenes. Here were panoramas of Tomb Kings, Talking Zombies, clans of Space Marine, and tiny Snotlings, the fire ants of War Hammer. Elyse strained her now almond eyes in hopes of catching a glimpse of her son’s face, but he must have been gaming at a different table and hadn’t noticed that she’d disappeared.
She yelled Jordan’s name, or thought she did.
There were parents who knew dangers ahead of time, who knew which fruit skins contained unwashable pesticides (raspberries, peaches, nectarines), which car seats could strangle, which vaccines contained stupefying amounts of toxins. Elyse envisioned an article in the paper, something she missed because she had no time to read the paper anyway. A virus, lilliputius reducto, spread throughout the Metropolitan area, infecting scores of unsuspecting adults. It was hard to detect because how would you know which of your supeheroes or War Hammer figures or other individuals was actually a sentient being and not a twisted bit of totemic plastic with enormous but totally artificial powers? Could there be an antidote to the redundantly named lilliputius reducto? The cure came in competing vials, philters, and pills labeled gigantivex or enormoral. Maybe all it took to return to ordinary walking around humanity was generous amounts of ginkgo biloba.
Elyse remembered reading about an email that had circulated in England, if not around the globe. It was written by a woman employed as a secretary for a presumably wealthy and powerful lawyer. She had accidentally spilled ketchup on his trousers and he asked her, a person who in contrast earned very little, to reimburse him for the damage caused by her spillage. She hadn’t gotten around to it straightaway, so he asked again. In her letter to him she stated that she had more pressing things to think about: her mother’s sudden illness, death, and funeral, but if he wanted his four pounds it would be on her desk. What struck Elyse was the utter immunity of the unknown boss. His hard and fast reality was in his pants; others were invisible. As she looked up at the boys, she knew they would never notice her, however much they valued the figure of a high elf so neatly painted.
Elyse was an unemployed librarian. There had been warning signs that her job was in danger of disappearing: the library hours were cut back and then cut back again, large numbers of books were removed from the shelves until whole sections were bare, and no new books were ordered. A man she worked with predicted that soon libraries would be eliminated altogether, and the buildings converted into luxury condos. He had a tattoo around his neck which said cut here in Russian, and he was going to school to learn how to build web sites so he could work from home and never, or at least rarely, have to talk to anyone live, face to face.
Before that could happen both their jobs were eliminated. Unemployment wasn’t enough to live on, especially with a child, and it was running out. Getting the benefit of unemployment insurance required not just receiving weekly checks but having to meet with an unemployment counselor who would look up jobs in your field and send you out on interviews. Elyse met with her counselor as demanded, but there were never any jobs for librarians. Her field was drought–stricken, and the dust blew in eddies around empty book stacks. Her counselor, Mr. Stubbs, grew annoyed with her as if it were her fault that being a librarian was less useful in the twenty–first century than being a typewriter salesman or a blacksmith.
“You got a dependent, a kid,” he said as if she didn’t know. “Maybe you should think about retraining in some other profession.”
This was not completely bad advice, but for Elyse the actual pressing question took a more precise form: what to retrain as? Her suggestions the following week proved unacceptable to Mr. Stubbs. For example, on the day with free admission she took Jordan to the zoo. She had won a contest by guessing the weight of a small cow and the accent of the keeper. 575 pounds and Oklahoma on the nose. This was a useless skill. They walked to the arctic wildlife area. At three hour intervals the young men and women who fed the sea lions spoke into microphones explaining sea lion behavior to the crowd. The sea lions performed a variety of tricks: clapping their flippers, saluting, standing on their front flippers which looked something like a handstand, all in exchange for fish and the applause of the throng. This did not seem to be a bad job. There was the novelty of working outdoors in the middle of the city, interesting subject of animal training and survival, and the gratification of both the animals and the vocally appreciative audience. When she mentioned this career choice to Mr. Stubbs, he looked at her as if she was completely insane.
“Throwing fish to sea lions and telling kids about their eating habits. You call that a job?”
“The trainers also have to know about their migration and breeding patterns.” The keepers’ narrative made reference to the way certain survival instincts of the sea lions evolved in difficult polar conditions, but Elyse was careful not to use the word evolution when speaking to her employment counselor. The word evolution, she knew from her experience as a librarian, was a red flag for some people, even more so when spoken in connection with children. Once she recommended a biography of Darwin to a man who asked for a science picture book.
“The Tree of Life,” Elyse said as she took it from a shelf, “has mysterious foldout illustrations, maps of his trip to the Galapagos, imagined pages from Darwin’s notes and letters about adaptation to environment and natural selection.” Elyse was almost breathless. This was one of her favorite children’s books. “Look, here’s a picture of a marine lizard he called the imp of darkness.” She showed the picture to an eight year old girl. The girl’s father, a man with a ski–jump nose and holes in his ears where earrings used to hang, turned red.
“You’re the imp of darkness.” He snarled at Elyse. Before the man stormed out, he vowed to complain, to never to set foot in the building again. Perhaps his curses were what caused the library to ultimately shut down.
“Those people have powerful damnations. They have ways of getting what they want, so adios Darwin.” Her co–worker with the cut here tattoo theorized.
Her self–censorship, as far as Mr. Stubbs was concerned, turned out to be an unnecessary precaution. She had picked a red flag anyway.
“Breeding patterns? You would talk about sea lion copulation to children?”
Despite her best efforts she hadn’t meant the conversation to go in this direction but once it did, there was no pulling it back. Mr. Stubbs’ working days consisted of spinning a long raw skein of unemployed people who waited at his door for hours until their number was called into workable strands ready to be woven into the job market. Mostly he failed, and he was always pissed. Frankly, it was hard to know what to say that wouldn’t set him off. Mr. Stubbs did not believe, as a past United States President had, that single mothers were the ruination of the economy, if not the moral fiber of the nation. He knew women like Elyse didn’t drive around in pink Cadillacs, but he was an angry man determined to rid the system of slackers and lazy hangers–on that give honest people a bad name.
“I’m going to send you on an interview today. I’m sending you to Queens.”
“What do I do with my son? I can’t take him with me, and I can’t afford a babysitter.” Elyse knew there was no job in Queens for her.
“You don’t have many weeks left, miss.”
The phone would be the first thing to be cut off. She could manage to pay the electric bill for a little longer.
A mass of dwarves were assembled on a knoll nearby. Elyse remembered that dwarves were good, allies of elves.
Did elves have an income? Would it be possible to marry a rich elf and live happily ever after? She never cared for weddings, a small civil ceremony would do. Elf resources or occupations were a mystery, perhaps they had trust funds, but then they didn’t need much to survive. It looked as if all they ever did was fight. These elves wore white and blue robes, and jeweled belts. Silver crowns circled their heads, feathers stuck into them. They were all blond, and the pointy Spock–like ears were to be expected. She assumed her ears had similar points and her hair was now blonde and straight.
“Jordan,” she called out again. “Can you be so absorbed in your battles you don’t realize I’m about to be knocked senseless by a bloodthirsty Skaven Slave maniac, drooling, jagged teeth, short on brain cells but vicious to the end?”
Looking on the bright side, no matter what their theoretical battle wounds, elves never really died. They just collected dust, went through the wash, lost their paint, and ended up under the bed, abandoned for the pleasures of IMing friends, forbidden internet chatrooms, and online poker games.
“Jordan! Come on, let’s go home already.”
What was home supposed to be? Home was a precarious notion. They kept their apartment on a month–to–month basis, and rent was far from a secure thing. Home would now be one of Jordan’s pockets lined with odd coins, real and fake, Bazooka bubblegum cartoons, fortunes from fortune cookies, interesting extra–long nails and wingnuts he found in the street. Her companions would be green and black Ninjas the size of a quarter that came out of a candy machine at Pino’s Pizza.
There was the possibility a high elf was now walking around trapped in her body, frustrated that a cell phone whose ringtone could not be changed from the Godfather theme had replaced a bow set tensed ready to shoot. The two of them, Elyse and the elf, were like exchange students who ended up in the wrong place. Elyse strained her stiff neck, desperate to see or hear a large wild–eyed version of herself struggle with the novel power of speech. Panic turned to a sense of doom. What if the high elf version of Elyse dutifully reported to the Unemployment office for her next appointment with Mr. Stubbs?
Stubbs: Have you looked for work this week?
Elyse’s body: I’m a High Elf.
Stubbs: Don’t make me laugh. That’s not a real job; it’s a dead end like being a librarian or throwing sardines to a sea lion. What are your skills, then?
Elyse’s body: Archery.
Stubbs (writing all this down on a form): You might have said something before this, not that shooting arrows is going to get you anywhere. You know firearms, bombs, chemical weapons, copper jacket bullets filled with beads that enter the body like miniature grenades, and so on have all been invented. OK, you prefer to play Pocahontas in a green suit, so you got a job as an elf. You should have reported that you’re now employed. Congratulations. How long have you been working as an elf?
Elyse’s body: All my life.
Stubbs (a series of cartoon expletives appear in a balloon above his head): Who do you think you been jerking off? You’re going to have to pay back all your benefits.
Elyse’s body: I beg your pardon?
Stubbs: You’ll hear from the state about this. You know you’ve committed larceny here, young lady. You might think it’s a joke, but defrauding the state is a serious criminal offence. Get the hell out of my office, and don’t look so surprised. Go back to Middle Earth or Macy’s or wherever.
The checks were going to stop soon anyway.
A large rubbery hand picked Elyse up and held her close to the face to which the hand belonged. His fingers pinched, and she struggled, if only inwardly. The man wore glasses. For the first time since the morning Elyse could see her reflection. It was as she feared. She was a High Elf, part of a tribe whose habits and culture were pretty much unknown to her.
“Nicely painted. Good detail work on the feather.”
“Thanks,” Elyse said, though by now she’d figured speech with humans was useless.
“Whose elf is this?” The adult who held her aloft was one of the men who worked in the shop. “We’re closing up soon. Don’t forget to gather up all your pieces.”
“It’s mine,” said the boy in the Great Adventure T– shirt. Another giant hand extended itself in her direction, approaching like a white thunderhead.
“No, that’s my elf.” Elyse recognized Jordan’s voice and saw him reach for her.
“Hey, no, that’s MY elf.” Gimlet Eyes looked fierce.
“You don’t collect High Elves. You only have Lizardmen.” Jordan stood his ground.
“That’s not true. I got a couple.”
“But I painted this one.” Jordan looked panicky, “That’s one of my best figures. I’d never forget it or confuse it with any other. Look, it has a big nose. Elves don’t ordinarily have big noses.”
The adult, King Solomon, tossed her up in the air and caught her. The array of battle panoramas and bags of warriors spun around in a dizzying blur even after Elyse landed back in his hand.
“Mine had a chipped sword.” Great Adventure claimed.
King Solomon brought her close to his eyes again.
Elyse felt like the sky was falling, but it really was falling. If she went home with this unknown boy she might never see her son again.
“Unclaimed figures remain property of the store,” the man said.
Jordan looked distraught. The other boy said that was an unfair policy. His parents paid good money for those figures.
“OK,” the man had an idea. “We’ll toss for it.”
“Tails,” said Great Adventure.
“Heads,” said Jordan.
A quarter spun in the air and landed in one of the miniature plastic trees. Caught there it was perpendicular to the table. It was neither heads nor tails.
King Solomon tossed the quarter again. It looked like a silver globe as it spun reminding Elyse of a day earlier in the summer when the white hot sun had seemed omnipresent and just as close. It was too hot to sit sweltering in their unairconditioned apartment where there was only a fan to stir the air, so Elyse had taken Jordan to a public pool. The pool was huge, enchantingly blue, and almost empty. The chlorine stuck to their skin. It didn’t matter. They had a sense of stepping out of the city, of being somewhere too quiet and far on the edge of things where you could pretend no wars were as diabolical as those enacted in the imaginary kingdom of Reptiliapods and Snotlers. As they sat on the edge still dangling their feet in the water, Jordan decided to jump back in a few minutes before the lifeguards shouted, end of swim time! Everybody out! Afterwards they stopped to buy slices of coconut and mango sprinkled with chili from a street vendor. The mango melted in their mouths while the chili stung and lingered on their tongues. Dusty playing fields stretched from the housing projects almost to the crumbling docks to the west. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway buzzed overhead, an impervious highway beetled with cars, slicing through a bit of Central America that had come unmoored and drifted northward.
“Tails!” Jordan changed his bid.
The quarter hit a model grove, treetops huddled together in hard lumps of foliage, and bounced onto the floor. No one could find it. Great Adventure’s father poked his head into the store and yelled that he was double–parked, come already, lets’ go, and Great Adventure sheepishly grabbed his case of figures and departed. Cash registers were locked. Workshop employees were thinking about what they would do after work when they’d changed out of their red You Got Game T–shirts. Elyse was in Jordan’s pocket, and somewhere out there was a spell that would turn her back into an unemployed human. She was convinced in a few minutes Jordan would raise the long lost high elf to his lips, kiss her helmet, and who knows what she would turn or evolve into next.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.